The Subject – An excerpt from Yaxue’s latest work

Today we have a sample from one of Yaxue’s excellent short stories that reflect on her childhood, and what it was like growing up in Northern China during Mao’s reign. It explores Revolutionary Education as well as the “Learn from Lei Feng movement”.

The Subject

…“A narrative has five elements,” Ms. Duan said, teaching us how to write a story. “Time, Location, Character, Event, and the Subject.” The first four elements were easy to understand, but it was hard for Ms. Duan to get her students to grasp the last one, and still harder for them to write with a subject in mind. The subject, or the main idea, said Ms. Duan, was the heart of a narrative, a point to be demonstrated. With every lesson in our Chinese textbook, Ms. Duan went through the five elements one by one, expounding upon the main idea in particular.

Take the story of “The Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland.” Long Mei and Yu Rong were two young sisters who lived in Inner Mongolia. One day they went out to graze a herd of sheep belonging to the people’s commune. It started out as a beautiful day and the girls took the flock far away from their encampment. Later that day, however, the weather changed suddenly with harsh wind and black clouds gathering force in the sky. Soon a blizzard swept through, and the sisters fought hard to drive the herd back home. An illustration in our textbook depicted the sisters—two slender, blurry figures—struggling under a darkening sky, the snow slashing down in a fierce wind. They lost their way and were in danger of freezing to death. At the bleakest moment, they reminded themselves that the flock belonged to the people’s commune, that, as the people’s livelihood, it was more important than their own lives, and that, if they had to, they would give their own lives to save it. Fortunately the sisters were rescued and safely brought home. And when they woke up later on from a stupor to a crowd of fellow herdsmen, the first thing they asked was “How is the flock?”

The main idea of the story, Ms. Duan explained, was that “the sisters cared about the property of the commune more than their own lives.”

The students caught on quickly. Soon they were able to “draw inferences about other stories from one demonstration” as Ms. Duan hoped. For example, in the story of how the 8th Company, which was quartered at Nanjing Avenue, the most luxurious part of Shanghai, patched their old uniforms and kept wearing them year after year, the main idea was: “The story exemplifies the revolutionary spirit of striving through hardship and warns us against bourgeois corruption.” The main idea of the story of soldier Huang Jiguang, who blocked fire from a machine gun with his own body, was: “The story extols the spirit of the hero sacrificing his own life for the revolutionary cause.”

Ms. Duan was so pleased by her students that she nodded and smiled, baring a row of very small teeth. But to get her fifth graders to write something around a main idea, she had to keep drilling them and yelling at them.

For every composition, Ms. Duan would designate a title, and it would be something like:

“A Good Person”, in which you were to portray someone with unfailing good thoughts and good character;

“A Good Deed”, in which you were to describe a good deed of yours or someone else’s that you had witnessed and the noble thoughts that inspired it;

“One Meaningful Labor Session”, in which you were to recount our latest labor session, be it planting trees on a hill, collecting wheat ears left in the field after harvest, sweeping the school yard, or the like, and find the deep meanings in what we did;

“My Dream”, in which we were to explain what we wanted to be when we grew up, and we all wanted to be workers, farmers or soldiers, the most glorious people.

Having written down the title on the blackboard and explained what she wanted from us, Ms. Duan would sit down behind her desk on the raised platform overlooking us. Amid the rustling of papers and the ensuing silence, the students set out to produce their work in the next 45 minutes…

This complete piece and more is available in Yaxue’s collection – The Subject and Two Other Stories of a Childhood in China (Amazon $2.99).

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7 Responses to The Subject – An excerpt from Yaxue’s latest work

  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    Your story reminds me of a couple of things, Yaxue. First, the structure of the first story of the girls is a bit like the Abraham-Isaac story. Second, I’ve always thought this style of pedagogy that tries to instil the self-party relation is a lot like the kind of stories I was told as a child in Sunday school. Not all Sunday school lessons are like this, of course, but they certainly are in the kind of church concerned to set itself against the evils of “the worldly.”

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Lorin, I am confused by the Abraham-Isaac reference. How so? Not that I feel clear about your second reference. 🙂

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        On the first, just as the two girls are prepared to sacrifice themselves for a greater good, so too is Abraham willing to sacrifice his own son. In the end, he is not required to do so; nor are the two girls. The point is that they are willing.

        On the second, the pedagogy of Sunday school in the independent, fundamentalist (or literalist, I suppose) baptist churches of my youth was very much didactic and organized around morality tales that often pitted the Christian child resisting the evils of the world outside the chosen or born again. The children’s stories of the GPCR (Little Red Star, for example) always remind me of this experience.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Yaxue: I enjoyed reading your story above as I have enjoyed reading all your stories. You write so well and so evocatively of your childhood. Do you write in English or Chinese and then put into English? I am asking because I met Chinese author Zhang Lijia in the Beijing Bookworm three years ago. She said she wrote in English because she could express herself so much better in English, especially when writing about love (she wrote “Socialism is Great” which is a great read!). She also said that she was coarser and louder in her Chinese speech (her words, not mine!) and more refined when speaking English. I find this topic fascinating as Peter Hessler touches on it in his first book “River Town”. As Ho Wei (his Chinese name) he was more friendly and outgoing than as Peter Hessler. I would be interested in your views! Best wishes as always.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      美丽,some of my stories were first written in English, and others, such as “Sheng Shuren”, in Chinese and then rewritten into English, because I want to show them to the people who told me the stories. Either way, in my first draft, it’s almost always a mix of English and Chinese, because sometimes one language comes handy and other times the other.

      Interesting that for some writers speaking or writing in different languages, each language has a different “character.” For me, it’s about the same. In my native language, I am a pretty “formal”, perhaps boring, speaker, not colorful at all. In English, I love “small words”, words that are short, quick, pack a lot. The problem is, that part of the language is the hardest for a second language speaker. So I am often finding myself in a situation where I want only one word but have to say three, four or even more; where I want only one syllable but have to settle for, say, three.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Yaxue: I can relate to what you are saying about English “small words”. My friend from Holland loved the brevity of English speech. She said that she often needed three or four words to say in Dutch what one word would express in English. I also love brevity in written English. I used to write very detailed social background reports on people when I was a social worker and I always challenged myself to get all the information in the report with the least amount of words. I love reading short stories as they necessarily must express the story in a very few words. I envy your ability to speak more than one language. I look forward to reading more of your stories!

  4. Pingback: Is there still room for Lei Feng in modern China? | Seeing Red in China

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