How to honor your grandmother without getting in trouble with the government. A Chicagoan's new book tells revealing stories from China's Cultural Revolution. The author of The Little Red Guard joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from the book below.
At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma’s seventy- third birthday. He forbade us from calling it a “coffin” and insisted that we refer to it as shou mu, which means something like “longevity wood.” To me, it seemed a strange name for the box in which we’d bury Grandma, but it served a practical purpose. It was less spooky to share my room with a “longevity wood” than with a big black coffin.
In 1973, Grandma had turned seventy- one, or seventy-two by the Chinese counting in which you are already one at birth. All of a sudden, she became obsessed with death and was scared. My sister, Wenxia, and I still remember the night when Grandma first broached the topic. Over dinner, Mother had launched into her usual tirade over household chores. She had visited a neighbor’s house the night before and seen how their eldest son willingly pitched in to wash dishes after dinner. “He polished the stove squeaky clean,” Mother said, looking at the four of us. “Too bad I have given birth to a bunch of lazybones.” We all hunched over our bowls silently. Grandma, impatient with Mother’s whining about mundane household tasks, announced that she might die soon.
It never occurred to us children that Grandma would die someday. Ever since I could remember, she had seemed old, with wrinkles and brownish age spots on her face.
Father put down his chopsticks, looking startled and concerned. “Are you feeling sick?”
“Not . . . yet.”
Mother couldn’t resist. “What do you mean by that?”
It turned out her fear was based on the old Chinese adage, “When a person reaches the ages of seventy-three or eighty-four, the King of Hell is most likely to make his call.” Considering that she had only one year to reach that first threshold, Grandma wanted to be ready. She asked Father to start planning her funeral. Following her death, Grandma wanted to be buried in her native village in Henan Province, next to my late grandpa.
Annoyed that she had been upstaged by Grandma, Mother left the table. Father looked relieved that his mother wasn’t suffering from some serious physical ailment. “Don’t start imagining things,” he said. “It’s a new society now and people no longer believe in those superstitious sayings.” He picked up his chopsticks and went back to slurping his noodles.
Grandma never went to school, but she had a library full of sayings in her head and dispensed them freely. A few months before, a neighbor was planning a small banquet at home to celebrate her father’s upcoming fiftieth birthday. She came to Grandma to seek advice on a proper gift for her father, but ended up getting an earful on why she should give up on the plan. “Back in our village, people never celebrated their birthdays before they turned sixty,” she said, and backed up her point with a Chinese saying, “Enjoying a banquet of meat and drink at sixty, one’s life would never cease.” Grandma warned that making a fuss over one’s birth days too early could harm longevity. Our young neighbor nodded gratefully.
When I heard the story, I asked Grandma to explain the science behind it. She brushed me off. “If it has been passed down from generation to generation, it has to be true,” she told me. In later years, I was surprised to hear friends who grew up in different parts of the country repeat a similar saying about celebrating birthdays at sixty, echoing what Grandma had said to our young neighbor.
We thought Grandma’s new obsession with death was a phase and she would snap out of it soon, but as the cold, dark winter approached, she began to sleep less and less and the subject seemed to linger on the edge of every conversation. Oftentimes, Grandma would pretend to chat with me and my siblings at dinner, but we all knew she meant for my parents, especially Father, to hear. She said people in her native village were very particular about burials— the location and maintenance of yinzhai, or residences of the dead, were believed to be critical to the well- being of the future generations. In addition, people spent extravagantly on funerals because it was considered an ultimate expression of filial duty. Grandma then recounted the story of a virtuous young woman in a poor family near her village, kneeling on the street and offering to sell her body so she could collect money to give her deceased father a proper burial.
According to Grandma, the Huang family clan had a harmonious and prosperous life in a village in the northwest of Henan Province, on the northern bank of the Yellow River. In the late 1920s, tuberculosis hit the village and Grandpa was one of the first to succumb. It was a bloody death. The family paid a well-known feng shui master who recommended moving the family cemetery plot outside the village, next to the Yellow River, as a way to stem the outbreak. In those days, there was a popular legend about a big dragon resting under the Yellow River at the very point where it bordered Grandma’s village. The feng shui master assured everyone that the spot he had chosen for Grandpa straddled the dragon’s back. “The new burial ground will bring luck to our family,” Grandma continued. “When I reunite with
Grandpa in my next life, a generation cycle will be complete. It’s good for all of you.”
Grandma repeated the story countless times. We would look at one another and mouth her words as she spoke them. My elder sister would call Grandma a superstitious woman. Even Father agreed and told Grandma not to tell the story again.
At first, my parents ignored Grandma’s plea, but she only became more determined. During a chat with a neighbor, she learned a startling fact— burial had been outlawed in our city of Xi’an. The neighbor said that if a city dweller died in the hospital, the doctor wouldn’t allow relatives to take the body home. It went to a big icebox in the morgue and then was sent for cremation. A young man had bribed the morgue keeper and retrieved his mother’s body so he could have it buried. He was caught, and the police intercepted the corpse and sent it straight to the crematorium, so he had no time to perform even perfunctory rituals.
Grandma was in a panic. She seldom left our residential complex and was clueless about the changes sweeping China. She got most of her news from neighbors, from my parents and from me. Sometimes, knowing the kind of stories she liked to hear, I would make one up to get her attention, but I didn’t dare lie when Grandma asked me about the cremation law. Yet in telling the truth, I scared her. She waited until Mother was outside chatting with her friends and approached Father, who was sipping tea by a coal- burning stove near the front door. She sat down on a chair next to him, had me bring her a basin of hot water so she could soak her tiny bound feet. “Jiu-er,” she said, using Father’s pet name. “Please don’t burn me after I die. Will you promise me that?”
My sister and I were doing our homework under the light of the single bulb that lit the room. The word “burn” caught my attention. I watched Grandma and Father from the corner of my eye.
“I’ve told you, there is nothing to be afraid of,” Father said, sounding a little impatient. “What difference does it make? When we die, our mind and body cease to exist. You won’t know or feel anything.”
Grandma shook her head; her face was a grimace of horror. “No . . . I don’t want to be tortured in fi re after I die,” she said. How would she reunite with her husband in the next life if her body was reduced to ashes? As they talked, Grandma grew more and more agitated, and began stomping her tiny feet, sending the water from the basin splashing across the floor.
Father stood up and grabbed a towel for her to dry her feet and spoke softly, “We’ll talk later. Let’s not interrupt your grandchildren’s homework.” Father found himself in a difficult situation. Initially, he fully intended to follow the regulations— bring Grandma’s ashes home, hold a simple ceremony, and then bury the urn next to Grandpa. The practice of burial had been banned since the Communist takeover in 1949 and the government stepped up its crackdown in the mid- 1970s. The mandate for cremation carried both practical and ideological reasons— burial wasted land that might otherwise be used for agriculture or buildings. Land for farming was scarce; urban residents were crammed into smaller and smaller dingy apartments. Father saw sense in the policy and tried to reason with Grandma. In the 1960s and 1970s, China faced threats from the Soviet Union and the United States, which then had a heavy military presence in Southeast Asia. To protect China’s industry from possible attack by “Soviet Revisionists” and “American Imperialists,” the government moved many strategic industries inland. Xi’an was chosen for the manufacture of military equipment and heavy machinery and as the site of universities and scientific research institutions. Within a few years, the city’s population exploded to six million (now eight million). As a result, Father said many young people at his company couldn’t get married because there was nowhere for them to live. They waited years to be assigned an apartment. In other words, the dead had to make room for the living. And traditional funeral rituals were expensive, and rife with Buddhist and Taoist tradition, which was contrary to Communist ideology.
At the time, the Cultural Revolution, though winding down, had not yet run its course. Chairman Mao’s political campaigns in the early 1970s included condemnation of Confucius and the eradication of old traditions and rituals. Funerals and weddings were simplified to reflect these views. Father said he had attended a public denunciation against a company official who gave his son a traditional wedding ceremony. Someone from the village with a grudge against the official tipped off the authorities that he had hired a red sedan chair to carry the bride and paid a band to play traditional operatic tunes. The official’s denunciation was severe. Walls were plastered with big white posters painted with black characters: transform old traditions and customs! lve simply and oppose waste! Posters even covered an outside wall of the communal lavatory in our residential complex.
For me, the thought of dumping Grandma’s body into a furnace was rather scary, but at school we were taught that the traditional burial was a symbol of the decadent and cruel past of the pre- Communist era. There was a popular picture book for schoolchildren, A Silver Dollar, which told of a poor family in Father’s home province of Henan. During the famine of 1942, the family sold the daughter to a wealthy landlord as a maid. When his mother died, the landlord killed the girl by putting mercury in her drink so that she could serve his mother in the afterworld. At the funeral procession, pallbearers carried the girl sitting on a seat in the lotus position, with a fake lamp in her hands. The mercury preserved her peachy skin color, making her look as if she were alive. The story horrified me, making me believe traditional funerals to be abhorrent.
Superstition, I thought, was worthy of condemnation. At school, I was the head of the “Little Red Guards.” During the annual singing contest, my classmates and I performed a song called “Down with Confucius, Oppose Old Rituals.” I even helped put together a display on the school bulletin board that featured a cartoon of a big “revolutionary” fist pounding on an old man who was supposed to be Confucius. Grandma would hear nothing of my political activities at school. She even said Confucius was a saint. I was often vexed by her adherence to the old ways. On most things, I could bring her around with Father’s help, but on burial, she was firm and resisted all of our attempts to dissuade her.
A filial son, Father had always respected Grandma’s wishes and seldom argued with her in front of us. This was different. At dinner, he talked for the sake of Grandma about how Communist leaders Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai had embraced the idea of cremation back in the 1950s. “If our great leaders don’t even ask for exceptions, what’s so special about us?” After attending a coworker’s funeral at Sanzhao Crematorium, in the southern part of the city, he told her, “It wasn’t bad.” The body of the deceased was brought over; relatives, friends, and coworkers gathered for a brief wake. Instead of the traditional sutra chanting and wailing, sad yet upbeat Communist- style mourning music played over a loudspeaker. Government or company officials delivered eulogies; family members thanked the officials and gave brief talks. After everyone bid good- bye, the body was slid into a furnace and the ashes were gathered at the other end and placed in a cinerary urn, which was taken to a big hall, like a library. Important leaders were accorded a bigger memorial service, and they didn’t have to wait in line for the furnace, but everyone went the same way. On Qingming, or Tomb- Sweeping Day, relatives retrieved the urn and paid tribute to the deceased in a big yard behind the crematorium.
Grandma was skeptical. Neighbors had told her how crematorium workers never completely emptied out the furnaces after each cremation. “When they scoop out handfuls of ashes from inside the furnace, how would you know they’re mine? You might pay tribute to someone else’s mother at Qingming.” Grandma ended the conversation by standing and clearing the table.
Mother couldn’t bear to see her husband beaten so easily. “Where do you expect us to bury you? Have you ever seen a cemetery around here? What makes you think your husband’s tomb is still there in Henan?”
Grandma dismissed her with the wave of a hand. “I’m sure the Huang family maintains the tomb and they have kept a place for me.” She made it clear to Father that she would be buried in her native village with a traditional funeral, and that she would not be denied her last request.
Reprinted from THE LITTLE RED GUARD: A Family Memoir by Wenguang Huang by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Wenguang Huang
Author Wenguang Huang will appear at 6:30 pm on Thursday, April 26, at The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka.