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Born into a “red-rooted” family, Ming automatically became a Red Guard when he enrolled in Songzi High School in the spring of 1973. To go along with the red trend, he half-heartedly joined the Communist Youth League about a year later. And for the first few months after coming to settle down on Mayuhe Forest Farm with sixteen other zhiqing* In answer to the Party’s call, it never crossed his mind to apply for a CCP membership, though every aspiring adult of the day would try to. But as he began to think seriously about his future, he found the great need: only by joining the CCP could he ever hope to win the nomination from the local Party branch and revolutionary masses for any university space that might (or might never) become available to him, thus putting an end to his physical hardships in the labor camp. Since all zhiqing were required to work at least for two years in the countryside before they were allowed to “return to the city” in one way or another, Ming made up his mind to fulfill his political goal first and foremost.   


The first action Ming took was to have a private conversation with Shao, during which he proposed to publish a wall zine, with its inaugural issue devoted to the current national political campaign called “Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius.” Probably because the secretary found this idea not only new and interesting but very likely to win some extra political credits for the forest division of the farm under his personal leadership, he gave Ming a green light on the spot. 

  “Pick up anyone to help you, and take a few days off if you need,” he offered. 

  “No such need. I can do the job all by myself, on a rainy day when we all have to stay indoors.”

  With Shao’s support, Ming collected as many critical essays from his fellow zhiqing at the youth station as possible, selected those best written, and clean-copied them with an ink brush pen on big poster-paper before pasting them on the interior walls of the meeting room. As he had done something similar in high school about one year before, Ming completed his job to everyone’s satisfaction.  

  “Ming’s handwriting is beautiful!” said someone behind his back one day.

“Of all the zhiqing here, you’re the only one looking like a true senior high school grad!” commented one local senior ranger to him before a small crowd another day. 

  For Ming, as for all country folks, handwriting was particularly important because it was indicative of a person’s educational level. While most of his fellow zhiqing’s showed a clumsy style, his handwriting was impressively handsome.  

  To gain more applause from both his fellow zhiqing and local people, he spent his spare time preparing and publishing a follow up issue centralizing around the theme of “Settling down in the countryside to continue the revolution,” a sociopolitical catchphrase for millions of zhiqing of the day. In this issue, he wall-showcased some of his own best written revolutionary poems with a view to demonstrating that he was not merely a good calligrapher but also a talented writer in his own right.  

  “Well done, and step up your game, Son!” Ming’s father praised him for the first time when he got to know how he was doing recently in Mayuhe. “But more important are your actual political deeds. Don’t let people say you’re all mouth!”

  “How can I outperform others in deed?” 

  “Do what others would not or could not do!”

  Though Ming had always disliked his father, partly for being too much of a propagandist, and thus habitually turned a deaf ear to his preaching, he was ready to take his advice this time since it might help him get the Party membership he needed for university.

The time came when the lunar New Year’s Day of 1975 was around the corner. While everyone else was eager to return home, Ming told Secretary Shao that he wanted to stay at the headquarters as the only one on duty to take care of the premises.

  This little sacrifice soon paid off. At the next general meeting, Ming was elected to be the political study leader of the youth station, a position which enabled him to compete on an equal footing with Jin, the station leader who was also trying to get his Party membership. To develop a competitive edge over Jin and all other applicants, Ming made a cruel and unusual rule for himself: on every work day, he would be the first one to appear in and last one to leave the field. During the working process, he would labor like a true slave.  

  So he did. For instance, on a chilly morning in early March, he and other zhiqing boys were digging in the nursery. Hardly had Chang, the local team leader supervising their work, left the site in a hurry when everyone began to slack. Some stood up to take an extended break, others continued in a clever way by digging shallow and sparse, but Ming dug every inch deep and well even when his comrades joked about his foolishness. Despite several big blood blisters developed in his hands, he kept digging hard until almost every one of them broke. Seeing his hands bleeding, Chang, who had returned to the field without Ming knowing it, came over and asked him to go back to his dorm to wrap his hands with something clean, but Ming just went on with his work instead.  

  A few days later, Ming caught a cold and started to run a high fever. His best friend Pan suggested he ask for a sick leave; however, Ming insisted that he’d rather take the opportunity to exercise his willpower, as the protagonist in How the Steel Was Tempered or Gadfly would do. When Secretary Shao somehow got to know this episode later, he mentioned to an old Party member that Ming was one of the strongest CCP applicants within their branch.  


In late March, Ming was chosen to be a forest ranger. After some guided practice, he became reasonably familiar with the routes in addition to the requirements for his new post.  

The day he began to patrol on his own, he felt both lonely and nervous. To overcome fear and loneliness, he brought with him his cheap bamboo flute so he could play it whenever he wanted to. Walking along barely discernible trails and checking around everywhere on a regular basis, he soon developed a deep love for trees and hills. Listening to the wind howling through pine trees surging like sea waves, seeing distant hills rolling with red glows at sunrise or sunset, smelling the fresh air with the flavor of grass or mushrooms, tasting some wild berries as sweet as they were sour and bitter, he came to find his life as a ranger much more enjoyable than he had imagined. Whenever he felt too tired to go on patrolling, he would stop and hide himself among the bushes like a hunter. When it happened to rain cats and dogs, he would hang his big wood-oil-painted paper umbrella on the twigs and make himself a cozy shelter. This was the time he felt most peaceful. For some reason unclear to himself, he liked to take a nap by lying upside down on a grave mound on a sunny afternoon, with his head pillowed on a stone at its bottom and his four limbs reaching out straight to make his whole body look like the Chinese character meaning “big”. Once, this favored body posture scared a group of young woman passers-by to death. Of course, he never meant to act like a corpse having come back to life, as superstitious villagers tended to believe. 

One evening, after he returned to the base, Secretary Shao said to him, “You’ve been doing a quite good job as a new ranger, because you never slack off, though without any supervision. Anyway, we expected nothing less.”

“But…?” Ming asked in a nervous voice. 

“Well, you shouldn’t have played your flute or sung any songs while patrolling around. That signaled your presence to potential lumber robbers. Don’t you know better than this?” Shao answered with a rhetorical question. Clearly, he was far from really satisfied with Ming’s work performance. 

“Sorry for my oversight!” Ming said, “I’ll try to do a better job.”

After this short conversation, Ming became more attentive to his duties. Instead of enjoying his solitary hikes in treed hills, he now kept a close eye to anything or anybody looking suspicious to him, though he seldom saw a human, not even an animal bigger than a wild chick or rabbit.  

On a dark night in early summer, he was stumbling along and groping his way back to his small shed on a hilltop to sleep as usual when he suddenly spotted a pair of eyes sparkling with a greenish light. It must be a wolf, jackal or coyote as other rangers had mentioned. In response, he stopped right away, took a squatting position behind a tree, and fumbled around with his hands for a rock, a broken twig, or something hard he could use for self-defense, but found nothing except grass and dirt. He decided to wait for the animal to turn away and leave of its own accord, yet it showed no intention to budge at all. For God knows how long he and the animal remained still, staring at each other in the darkness like dead enemies, within a distance of approximately four to five meters between them. The thought that the animal might have a much better night vision and thus could see him more clearly than the other way around threw him into an abyss of fear. He did remember a few wushu tricks taught by a friend in high school, but he never practiced them. Moreover, the few movements he did learn well were meant for use on humans rather than wild animals. So, all he could rely on now was the little bodily strength he had acquired as a foster village boy. “Perhaps I could frighten it away somehow,” he thought. With a low but loud voice, which was enhanced by singing at the top of his voice on his recent inspection tours, he believed he could yell the animal away before he had to enter into a close combat. Luckily, after a prolonged hesitation, the animal left the scene reluctantly, and Ming returned to his shelter safe and sound. 

However, he was soon to see how civilized humans were much more dangerous and harmful than wild animals. It was a cloudy morning in June. Ming found himself quite lost among gushing mists when he heard noises somewhere half-way down the hill. When he arrived hastily at the scene, he saw three middle aged men cutting down trees with handsaws. Unable to recognize any of them, Ming became strongly suspicious and approached them with caution.  

“Hi there! Why are you guys cutting trees here?” he asked. 

“Because Director Sun needed some nice wood to build tables and file shelves.”

Answered one of them in a friendly way, who looked taller, thinner and smarter than others.

, Since they knew Sun, the top leader of the farm, the men were evidently locals. To make sure they were not telling lies, Ming went on to ask them if they had any anything written to that effect. 

“Sure, come over, and we’ll show you the papers with his signature,” replied a different guy in an encouraging voice. 

But hardly had Ming come close to him before the bulky guy swooped upon him and held him with his powerful arms like a bear. Almost at the same time, Ming felt his head or neck hit so hard at the back he lost his consciousness. When he regained it, he found himself tied tightly behind a tall pine with a rope. Unable to see the men behind his back, he heard them moving quickly and leaving the scene without saying another word. By the time he managed to set himself free, all the three men had already disappeared in an unknown direction. Though he could not tell which specific production team they might belong to, he knew for sure that they were illegal tree fellers from the agricultural division of the farm. This was something that had rarely happened when every ranger was equipped with a standard fowling piece. But about two years before, a local ranger used the gun to kill his wife for making him a cuckold and, in consequence, the farm management took back all the pieces. Without any weapon for deterrence or self-defense, every ranger had to rely on his own intelligence and physical power in every dangerous situation they had to face. Young and inexperienced as he was, Ming was doomed to lose in this battle against the “anti-revolutionary elements” as they were commonly called then. 

After filing a detailed report on the incident to Secretary Shao, Ming anticipated harsh criticism for having failed to catch at least one of the bad guys or prevent them from stealing trees, but to his surprise, he received as much praise from Secretary Shao as from Director Sun himself. In their opinion, Ming did his best, for even a well experienced but unarmed adult ranger could not have done better when dealing with several cunning guys alone in the forest. As for the loss of trees, it was minimal since the robbers fled from the scene without being able to cut more trees as they had planned. In Shao’s words, “Ming’s very presence at the scene and determination to investigate the matter had a deterring effect on them.” 

A couple of weeks later, he was patrolling among cypress trees when he spotted a small straw-thatched cottage burning close to the foot of the hill. To bring the situation under control and safeguard the forest, he darted to the site and joined the fight against the fire. Though he never mentioned this incident to anyone afterwards, the farm management somehow learned about his heroic deeds and officially recommended him to be one of the handful “red-flagged zhiqing” at the county level.  


For all the good name he had earned as a politically promising zhiqing, Ming had something hidden in the backyard of his heart, which was his love for a girl zhiqing, no less than an unspeakable agony.

Her name was Hua, also a graduate from the same high school. The day Ming saw her in Mayuhe, he was blown away as much by her good looks as by her sunny character. However, as all romantic relationships were discouraged, if not completely banned, he had to hide his affection even from himself and concentrate on “revolutionary production” exclusively, as the local people and especially the Party branch had expected. 

Though he never dated Hua, or even had a private talk with her, Ming strongly felt that he had a unique unclaimed or unpronounced relationship with her. As a couple of other girl comrades later pointed it out to her quite jealously, he not only spoke to Hua in a different tone and looked at her with something special in his eyes, but he also showed a sincere concern over her wellbeing. On several occasions, he was seen to pick out the fried eggs or mushrooms from his own rice bowl and give them to her in an unconscious fashion, when such dishes were as rare as meat and fish on the dinner table. Likewise, Hua seemed to like him more than any other boys, as she appeared to be particularly delighted each time he said something to her, especially in a half-serious half-flirtatious way. As one of their common friends noted, they were really a loving couple. 

To articulate his intensive feelings, Ming did write a couple of love poems for Hua, but he never showed them to her or anyone else. For him, his top priority was to get his Party membership first at any cost, because that was the surest way for any youths, including all high school grads, to become a “worker-peasant-soldier” student of a university during the Cultural Revolution. His plan was, once he became certain about his university admission, he would make a confession to Hua in no time, who he assumed would readily accept his marriage proposal. As he saw it now, his own future as well as Hua’s both depended on his effort to earn the official title of a “model zhiqing,” hopefully at the county level. 

Fortunately, Hua seemed to understand him well. As if they had mutually agreed beforehand, she kept waiting for him to pursue his political interest first and gave him no pressure in any form. But Ming was sure of her feelings for himself. And the most telling proof was a red tuner she had given to him, a gadget extremely rare back then, as a practical gift to help him learn to play the erhu in the summer.

  “What’s this for?” Ming asked her.

  “Just to help you to set the tune,” said she meaningfully, in a tone full of warmth and tenderness.  

Without saying anything, Ming accepted it as a token of love, which he would treasure like his own life. It was from that day that he felt doubly motivated: he would continue striving for the Party voucher as much for Hua as for himself, as it stood for the best possible future for both of them. 


Before achieving his first goal in life, Ming knew that he would have much more to go through, and the most challenging time turned out to be July and August, the two hottest months in a year, when pine caterpillars posed the biggest threat to the survival of young pine trees. To control the plague, the farm management set up a task force consisting of twelve pest controllers, whose job was to blow 666 powder [dried HCH] onto the trees while they were still wet with heavy dew in the morning. Of all the zhiqing at the youth station, Ming was the only one drafted into the team. Without knowing what lay ahead of him, he readily took the job as the operator of the heavy-duty blower powered by gasoline. Whatever the Party assigned him to do, he must do it well unconditionally. That’s all he knew as one of its “most active” applicants.  

From Big Tang, the director of the forest division and deputy secretary of the Party branch, Ming learned that pest control was actually the most demanding work for anyone on the farm. Since ordinary forest workers would shy away from this extremely tough work, the management had to call all party members to step forward. As a result, each time the pest control team was organized, the members were all strong-bodied men with a full or probationary Party membership.  

To ensure the best result, the team had to get up at two o’clock every morning. Within half an hour, all the members would finish their breakfast and get both the equipment and 666 powder in place. Led by Big Tang personally, the pest controllers would hit the road in the heart of darkness, trudging up or down a hill every minute through grubs and bushes, with two of them carrying the big blower like a sedan-chair positioned upside down, the other eight carrying the pesticide loads on their shoulders behind the operating group, ready to replace the machine carriers when they needed to take a break. Whenever they arrived at an infected area, which looked as if burned by a wildfire, Ming would start the powerful machine, and Big Tang was the one to manipulate the head and blow the chemical powder overwhelmingly high above the trees. While everyone had to put up with the blower’s deafening noise, they also had much difficulty breathing because of the thick masks they wore. Slowly, the powder settled down like a yellow cloud and became mixed with the dew. As the team members kept moving back and forth, their shoes and clothes grew all wet inside out with dew and sweat. If the double darkness from the nighttime and powder-smoke was something they could learn to get used to, the powder itself, which was, as Ming knew many years later, highly detrimental to humans, was so poignant it made everyone sneeze, choke and cough constantly. 

While the machine carriers could take turns for a bit of relaxation as they were replaced every half an hour or so, Ming had to walk side by side with it all the time as its sole operator. When the blower works well, he must help to carry it as circumstances require, or replace Big Tang to control the blow-head. However, the blower was a nasty trouble maker, for the working condition was no less harsh to the machine than to the humans. Every time the blower broke down for one reason or another, Ming must diagnose and fix the problem manually while Big Tang was waiting and watching listlessly beside him. If the trouble persisted and had no easy solution, Ming would feel so much pressure he could have let out a loud cry, but he had learned to bite his teeth tight and sweated it out, doing everything to his best ability. As the only one who was still an applicant of the Party membership, he must show himself to be as good a worker as any other communist-member of the team. On such occasions, Big Tang, the most experienced pest controller of all, would show more or less understanding, sometimes even saying that nobody else could have done a better job than Ming did. 

As the youngest team member with the weakest physique, Ming was, needless to say, bound to suffer most throughout the campaign. Though he had endured many physical hardships since childhood, he found this job simply too exhausting. For one thing, he was starving to death every morning because nobody had anything to eat or drink until after finishing their work around ten o’clock when all dew had evaporated. For another, working so hard for eight consecutive hours in such harsh conditions without a break, he felt so spent he could collapse any moment. Worse still, he had much less time to sleep than his fellow workers. Every day, after the brunch, other members could take a long nap until suppertime, but he had to spend a couple of hours maintaining the machine. To make sure the blower would behave properly the next morning, he had to dismantle the whole machine, soak the parts in gasoline and clean them well before restoring them for a test run. Every so often he needed to change those parts that had worn out, especially the belt, the cylinder gaskets and spark plugs. After the supper, for which there were only steamed rice and potato slices fried with pepper, exactly the same as they had for each brunch every day, he would take the lead in the daily political study by reading People’s Daily, Chairman Mao’s selected writings, and other Party documents to the team, conducting a self-inspection, or reporting how he had understood them. Being the best educated member of the team, he must enforce “do more according to [his] ability,” as Big Tang often said to him. 

Once, on a particularly dark night, he lagged behind when he helped shoulder-carry loads of 666 powder. Walking on a thickly bushed ridge, he stumbled over something and then kept lying down there amidst the grass. Because he had been too drowsy, hungry and tired to get up, he fell asleep before he knew it. When he was found a few minutes later, Big Tang said to him in a soft voice for the first time, “I knew it was too tough for a town boy like you!”

Even more unbearable than hunger, malnutrition, physical exertion and lack of sleep was the hot weather. Since his early childhood, Ming had nurtured an intense dislike for the local climate. “The fucking climate’s like a living hell itself,” he often cursed aloud when nobody could hear him. During the summertime, the temperature was usually between 39 and 41 degrees Celsius according to the local weather forecaster, who was not allowed by the authorities to tell the truth if it was actually higher than that. While it was sizzling hot everywhere, there was neither rain nor wind that could be expected for almost the whole season. Electric fans and air conditioners were still far from becoming known in the country, and there was no lake or even a decent pool of water in the hills, a place where humans could cool themselves down by soaking in it like water buffalos. The only thing they could do was hand-wave a make-do fan every second, but that would make one sweat even more. Coupled with the great nuisance of mosquitos biting humans aggressively day and night, the heat drove everyone nuts.  

In the depth of his young heart, Ming felt that he just couldn’t stand the situation anymore. On several occasions, he was tempted to withdraw from the team, but each time he managed to suppress his impulse by reciting Mencius’s famous teaching about how to endure hardships. No pain, no gain. And luckily, two weeks before the yearly campaign against pine caterpillars came to an end, he became bedridden with a persistent high fever. Seeing him completely breaking down, Big Tang told two members to send him to the clinic down at the headquarters, where the barefoot doctor told him his tonsils were terribly infected and had to be removed as soon as possible. After he was transferred to Songzi General Hospital, the doctor in charge said he also had viral myocarditis and rheumatoid arthritis. So, for the first time after coming to Mayuhe, Ming finally got a chance to take a real break, though as a quite critically ill patient. 

  The day before he had his bad tonsils removed, Secretary Shao came to see him in his ward, telling him that he had passed two major political tests purposely prepared for him: one was to let him work alone as a forest ranger, the other as a pest controller. Because his work performances were well satisfactory to every Party member within the branch as well as to the Party organizations at higher levels, his application for a full membership was officially approved. “Congrats, Comrade Ming!” Shao said warmly as he gave him a long handshaking. That was a sunny Sunday in the winter of 1975, almost exactly one month after Ming turned eighteen. 


On the evening of the International Workers’ Day in 1976, after returning to the station from his daily patrols, Ming received an official form called “Rooting permanently in the countryside and becoming a lifelong revolutionary.” Unwilling to fill it in and sign his name, Ming felt the great pressure as the only Party member at the youth station to “set a good example” to all other zhiqing in Mayuhe. While many began to cry secretly over the matter, Ming wished to ask his father for advice. But it was out of question, since no telephone was accessible yet at either end. He remembered that when his application for the Party membership had been approved, he was still in hospital and thus didn’t have to attend the Party-joining ritual, where every new member must raise their right fist in front of the Party flag and say their admission oath solemnly. But now there was no excuse of any kind from committing himself to a cause in a formal fashion. No matter what, he must make a quick and positive decision; otherwise, his politically incorrect reaction would definitely jeopardize his candidacy for the best possible university space available to him. Believing that the whole socio-political reality could change one way or another, sooner or later, he might as well fill in the form for now. As Chairman Mao himself has pointed it out emphatically, everything in the universe is changing after all, he thought aloud. Once the Party branch recommends him for university studies, he would have every reason to uproot himself from Mayuhe to answer the Party’s call once again.   

Ming’s hunch was right. In early September, Mao’s death put a sudden end to “the Great Cultural Revolution'' as well as many national policies. More importantly, Ming finally got what he had really wanted: the official admission to Shanghai Jiao Da, one of China’s most prestigious universities. Though he could not enroll himself in a program in Journalism, Chinese Literature or Political Education as he had hoped, he felt very happy to become one of the last “Worker-Peasant-Soldier students'' majoring in English as a second language, which would allow him to see the world beyond the Chinese down the road, even if not with his naked eyes. As for mathematics, physics and chemistry that he had excelled at in high school, they were not meant for him. “To hell with Mayuhe! To hell with Songzi! To hell with zhiqing life!” he shouted aloud the moment he left the farm, which he swore in his mind he would never face even when peeing in the wilderness. 

When he departed for Jiao Tong University right after the Spring Festival of 1977, he certainly had no idea that about half a century later, he would be dreaming about returning to Mayuhe, both as the starting point of his adult life and as the romantic mecca for him and Hua, his first love to be long lost but eventually re-found between Vancouver and Melbourne.

*A special historical term referring to educated youths with official urban origins sent to the countryside to receive “re-education” from poor locals during “the Cultural Revolution” led by Mao between 1966 and 1976.

Bio :: 

Yuan Changming edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuan in Vancouver. Credits include 12 Pushcart nominations for poetry and 2 for fiction besides appearances in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry (2008-17), BestNewPoemsOnline and 2019 other literary outlets worldwide. A poetry judge for Canada's 2021 National Magazine Awards, Yuan began writing and publishing fiction in 2022.  


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