Hard Road Home
By Ye Fu
(Ragged Banner Press, 176 pages, $17)
Taking humanity at large, perhaps the greatest service any person of our time could perform for future generations would be to bring rational, consensual government to China. That such a populous nation, with such high general levels of industriousness and intelligence, and with such a glittering cultural legacy, should be ruled by a clique of gangsters who do not even believe their own professed ideology, is a civilizational tragedy. It is also a danger to the rest of us.
All honor and glory, then, to those Chinese who speak up for an open society at the cost of their own careers and liberty—and still sometimes, even today, their lives.
Zheng Shiping (surname first, pronounced “Jerng”) is one such. He resigned from his job as a policeman to protest the crushing of the student movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the political deep freeze that followed he was arrested for dissident activities and spent four years in prison. He has since made his living as a writer and bookseller. Ye Fu is his pen-name, meaning approximately “man from a remote, wild district.”
Hard Road Home collects seven of Zheng’s essays. Each essay is centered on some person. One of these subjects is Zheng himself; three are family members (mother, mother’s mother, father’s father); one a friend; the other two are “characters” from Zheng’s home district. Along with descriptions of these people’s lives and personalities, we get reflections on twentieth-century Chinese history, especially the brutal “land reform” campaign of the early 1950s.
The horrors of the Mao Tse-tung dictatorship have been pretty well advertised, but they have tended to concentrate on the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and to a lesser degree on the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine (1958-62). “Land Reform” belonged to the earliest phase of communist rule, the few years following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Frank Dikötter has given an unsparing account in his 2013 book The Tragedy of Liberation.
The cruelest aspect of the program was the persecution of the rural gentry. In the meritocratic society of traditional China, these were thrifty and industrious peasants who had accumulated a few acres and hired a couple of farm hands—kulaks, basically. The best of them had, in the Confucian tradition, assumed responsibility for local order and improvement. Zheng:
For the control of civil society, the Court relied on the gentry class and the village elders to take care of things without being told. Traditional decorum…gave form to the Chinese people’s ethical sense of how life should be organized.
He is writing of his father’s father, who, with one hired hand, farmed ten acres in a remote mountain village, six days’ difficult traveling from the county seat. This gentleman had established the village’s first free school, and hired a teacher.
Mao, who was contemptuous of “traditional decorum” and all “ethical sense,” sought to enlist the poorer peasants in support of his new regime by turning them against the gentry: hence “land reform.” In April of 1951 Zheng’s grandfather was tortured for several days until, by a subterfuge, he managed to hang himself. His corpse was publicly dishonored, then thrown into a sinkhole. His two daughters hanged themselves with a single rope. Of his three living sons, one—Zheng’s father—escaped persecution by sheer good luck (and, the author suspects, some strategic silence). Another was murdered, the third spent thirty years in a labor camp.
Around three million people died in the “land reform” campaign. It served no purpose other than to affirm Mao’s despotism. To the degree poor peasants gained anything, they lost it six years later to the “people’s communes.” The great famine followed, and thirty million starved to death. The successful land reform campaign, as Zheng points out, was the one implemented in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek (at the point of a U.S. aid budget, admittedly) in which the landlords were given cash compensation, which they used as the seed corn for Taiwan’s economic miracle.
Zheng’s stories are told with a melancholy integrity. Andrew Clark has translated well within the limitations imposed by two different literary cultures. He has supplied copious footnotes, the longest of which—on the “struggle sessions” in which victims had to perform abject self-criticisms before a worked-up mob of colleagues or neighbors—sheds interesting light on the often-asked question: How much of the awfulness of Chinese communism is Chinese, and how much communist?
Hard Road Home is all in a minor key, as any honest account of twentieth-century Chinese history must be. The nearest thing to light relief is Zheng’s twenty-page character sketch of a friend and coeval from his home town who, in response to the political pressures of Maoism, withdrew into a heedless bohemianism amply lubricated with alcohol. A man of fine literary taste and powers, he publishes nothing, supports himself with a low-level civil service job, and “tends to exert his influence through conversation.” (A famous line of Li Po’s comes to mind.)
Zheng tells us he took up writing himself under that influence. His friend has not lived in vain.