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My Uncle Zhou

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am
 

CHINA seemed a world of absences. No Coca-Cola, no sweets, no special desserts. I couldn't find a decent chocolate anywhere in Beijing. No English underwear, either. Where were the handbags, the ribbons for my hair? And such ugly Chinese shoes, shapeless, made of flimsy, unwearable cloth.


Even worse, if possible, Chinese girls seemed to plait their hair into two short braids. I had naturally wavy hair tied back in a fancy ponytail, and my maid at home knew just how to change my hairdo from time to time so I wouldn't get bored. Clearly there were going to be no maids here to help entertain me with new hairstyles.


As the days passed, our caretaker Shanan began to speak more of my father and of Father's friend Premier Zhou Enlai. We were Zhou's guests, he said. Zhou had assigned him to look after us. That I liked; it sounded a little like my Thai world. But my confidence faded quickly when Shanan continued, speaking of how we were there to study and how our role had great significance. Being a guest was pleasant enough; a visit, even a long one, bearable. But no one seemed to envision the time when we would ever leave.


Wai and I grew more and more agitated. ''Father must have sent me because I'm not his favourite son,'' Wai said. I decided that it was time to take matters in hand and write to Father, appealing and demanding, as was my way with him, to let us come home.


Wai helped me draft the letter. When it was ready to mail, I insisted that Shanan escort me to the post office.


''You may not mail the letter at the post office,'' he told me quietly but very firmly.


''How dare you refuse?'' I said. ''You take me to mail the letter.'' ''Letters can be sent, but only through me and through the Chinese ambassador in Rangoon, whom you met. It is not possible for anyone to mail letters from China to Thailand. We can send letters to your father, but I don't think it would be wise to send such a letter. Your father would not understand, and it is our responsibility to carry out his wishes.'' ''His wishes? Do you think he expected us to stay here?'' I demanded, though now a little unsure of myself.


''He sent you to study here. You will be here for some time,'' Shanan said.


''Now you have to start learning Chinese, and I have arranged for a teacher to come work with you.'' ''Why do we have to learn Chinese? Nobody told us we would have to do that.'' ''You will start immediately,'' he said. ''We have instructions from your father.'' I stormed into the next room and slammed the door. Fury welled up in me, as though to fill the sudden emptiness. We had been dumped here. With Wai, however, I rallied myself to plot our way home.


''Something funny is going on,'' Wai said that night. ''I don't think things are quite right here. Father never told me I had to learn Chinese.'' Perhaps, I conceded, Father might have said, ''You must learn the language.'' But he had never suggested that we would actually have to go every day and learn the characters and study. Nor had he said how long we would really be here.'' The next morning Wai asked Shanan how long our stay would be. ''I thought it was going to be a few months,'' Wai said.


''Ask your father someday,'' was all Shanan said. Then he changed the subject. ONE Sunday morning, I was put out when our second caretaker, Qiu Ji came without his children. It was going to be a dreary day.


He was smartly dressed in a dark blue suit. I had never seen him that way before.


''Where are we going?'' I asked.


Qiu Ji cleared his throat. Warming my small hands between his big palms, he said, ''Premier Zhou Enlai has asked me to make regular reports to him about how you are and what you are doing. He is very concerned about you.'' His words were familiar. The intensity behind them was not.


''Ever since your arrival Premier Zhou has been eager to see you, but he has been very busy, particularly with the preparations for National Day on October 1.'' He paused. ''Premier Zhou has at last managed to find some time and he has asked me to bring you to his home today for a family lunch. Indeed, our premier so much wanted to see you that he has gotten up especially early to receive you. Normally he works at night and sleeps in the morning.'' The minute the car stopped, two men ran down the steps to open the car doors. I bounded up the steps, holding Qiu Ji's hand. The protocol man led us first into a large unpainted corridor, then into Zhou's private sitting room. Although it was simple, I appreciated the imperial beauty of it. We had been seated for barely a moment when in he walked. He was just like the photos I had seen all over - thick eye-brows straight shoulders, straight back. He was very handsome.


''Welcome, welcome,'' he said, smiling.


Wai and I made our Thai wai greeting. He returned it, the first person in China to do so.


Turning to Wai as well, Zhou asked us how we liked China.


''I'm bored stiff,'' I blurted out. Then I made a very sad face to show how I felt. Wai looked as though he would have kicked me under the table if we had been sitting at one.


Zhou laughed at such bluntness, and thus began the very direct relationship between us that was to last until he died. He made an equally sad face in response. ''I think I understand how you might feel. I was older than you when I was in Japan, but I was bored stiff too. Nothing to do and I didn't understand the language.'' Zhou turned to Shanan. ''Have they taken Chinese lessons?'' I looked uneasily at Shanan, but he only smiled and said we had started.


I gave Shanan my dirtiest look. ''Don't tell all the bad stuff!'' I said.


Zhou laughed when Shanan translated. By now I was quite relaxed.


Zhou didn't talk the way Father did. Not ''Life is hard, life is struggle.'' He was very precise and clear. ''Do your lessons well. Next time I see you I expect to hear Chinese. Your father is an extremely farsighted man,'' he continued. ''He entrusted you to me to learn about China and its civilisation. That way you, too, can do great works in the future.'' As he walked us to the car, he stroked my head lightly and said to Wai and me, ''Make my house your own. The door is always open to you.'' I was happy as we drove off. Wai was less so. ''How could you talk like that in front of the premier?'' he said. ''This could be very bad. He might think from what you said that the staff had failed to take care of us. How could you go on and on like that?'' I was unfazed. I felt I had at last been thrown a lifeline to a world in which I might survive.


THE Great Leap Forward was in full fury in 1958. The Party leaders hoped this gigantic mass campaign would galvanise people and the economy alike, overcoming the old distinctions of age, gender, and occupation while creating a new socialist world based on the communes in the rural areas. Everyone was expected to participate, and students were no exception. The older students in my school poured into the factories for part of each day to learn a few elementary practices from the workers. Nobody asked or told them to join in. For a few months the spirit of the people was palpable. In school large banners proclaimed: ''We will teach the sun and moon to change places!'' ''We will create a new heaven on Earth!'' Everyone wanted to join in ''moving the mountain'', to play a part in breaking the grip of poverty and backwardness on China.


At school, suddenly, all the talk was about steel - about its key role in modernising China, the need to produce more, the need for all of us to help set new production records. The 1958 target was set at 10.7 million tons - double the 1956 record. This goal could hardly be met by normal methods; creative new ones were called for. The older students worked day and night to build steel furnaces on the old sports ground. Students, once so attentive, came to class only to fall asleep. Awakened, they spoke excitedly of their great revolutionary production tasks.


At first our teachers opposed our participation: we were too young, the work was too hard. Some of them undoubtedly thought we should still be in the classroom. But they could no longer restrain us. I secretly joined with my classmates to run errands for the older kids, hiding as soon as we saw our teachers coming. I pushed my cart to the railway station to pick up scraps of iron and various other odds and ends that arrived by train from newly established communes.


One day I spirited away a lump of our product and proudly carried it over for Zhou to see. His ready smile quickly disappeared when he saw what I'd brought.


''Is this what your school is working on day and night?'' he said, his face taut.


''Of course,'' I replied. Something in his voice put me on guard.


Zhou took the mushy lump, turning it over and over in his hands. He was unusually preoccupied.


''Don't you like my joining in the steel campaign?'' I asked.


At first he didn't answer. Then, looking at me but ignoring my question, he asked me to tell him exactly how the steel was made, how we had built the furnaces, and what else was happening at the school.


He listened intently to my account, although my excitement was rapidly diminishing as I sensed his displeasure. I concluded by saying how much steel our school had produced.


''I don't believe it,'' he said.


Zhou had never spoken quite like this.


''Now, I want you to remember to study your lessons. The children should get back to school. It is wrong for them to be pulled away from their classes like this.'' Then he abruptly changed the subject.


When I returned to school the next day, I gave no hint of his response. My enthusiasm was dampened, and thereafter I watched the progress of the steel campaign with mixed feelings. I knew, as I had known in my father's world, that public statements about events did not have to conform with private evaluations of them. In Zhou's comments I sensed something at odds with the publicly espoused line.


What Zhou said to me, or what was said in my presence, I never felt had to coincide with the rest of the world around me. Accepting the disjunction was by now second nature, part of the way I was raised to see the worlds in which I moved. I had all but come to expect that what was said in public - the slogans, the propaganda - would be different from what was said privately. Although I was not removed by the simplistic public slogans, I rarely supposed that I would encounter such simplicity among the leaders. There the subtlety and complexity, the criticisms were much as I had always heard at home. The public propaganda ebbed and flowed, but the inner sanctum remained remarkably steadfast.


The feverish enthusiasm of the early months of the Great Leap Forward swept me along with countless others. When I paused to ask questions, I contrasted the inner and the outer realities and often found the inner quite sustaining and reassuring. Only behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, among the elite, did I hear criticisms expressed.


In the harsh aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, as the ''three difficult years'' began and famine spread, I watched Zhou say in public: ''People, we must tighten our belts. We will fight and triumph over these adversities.'' In private he would say, ''Look, people are starving. What are we going to do?'' To me, this was not cynicism - it was normal. IN December 1974 I returned to Beijing to see Zhou. His health, I knew, was bad. And the Gang of Four were escalating their attacks on him. I was six months pregnant. If I didn't go then, I wasn't sure I'd ever see him again.


Zhou's large hospital room smelled of fresh paint. His big bed was in the middle, a smaller one in the corner for his attendant. All around stood machines, ready for use in an emergency.


Zhou was alone, sitting up in his bed. The energetic and vigorous Zhou I knew was gone; his operation the week before had left him pale, thin, and exhausted. Various dark thoughts went through my mind.


''Uncle, are you being treated well?'' I asked. He knew, of course, what I meant. I shouldn't worry, he assured me. He was fine.


''I wish I was well enough to visit Thailand,'' he said with a forced smile, evidently in pain, ''but Marx's invitation to me has arrived. There are many things I have not done, and there is little time left to do them.'' Zhou spoke proudly of the fact that Thailand and China would soon establish diplomatic relations. With him, as with my father, politics was an inseparable part of our relationship. Yet he had always imbued those harsh political realities with a warmth and responsiveness toward me that had enabled me to survive - and to enter into the China of which he was so proud. I told him that if I had a boy, the child would be named Joe, after him. He moved his hands slowly, but with traces of his old gracefulness, as he touched mine.


In this room nothing could really be private. Zhou spoke with few specifics of the current bitterness and conflict. He could assume I knew essentially what had gone on and what was happening now. He leaned toward me, though, and said quietly, ''Politics can involve dirty tricks - have no illusions.'' Then he pulled himself back and changed the subject.


Zhou had spent his life trying to make it more than this: all his integrity had been directed toward that goal. I sensed enormous pain in his words.


From The Dragon's Pearl by Sirin Phathanothai with James Peck. (c) 1994 by Sirin Phathanothai

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