'CAN I MAKE it?' a scary thought crosses my mind as the plane climbs away from Sydney into the night's sky. 'Your dad is not very well,' Mum's voice echoes in my head. She has never said that before and there is something in her voice that is measured and yet unsettling. 'Are you coming back for work soon?' she asks over the phone. 'No, but I'll be back as soon as I can,' I assure her.
As a conscientious woman, Mum has tried to shoulder most of the burden Dad's condition has inflicted on her family. On a July evening in 2000, in the coal-rich city of Taiyuan that overlooks the Yellow River, Dad was attacked by a stroke. It was past midnight when he was rushed into the operating theatre. Mum told First Sister not to call me or Second Sister. 'Don't wake them now. There's nothing they can do from Beijing. Wait until morning.'
AFTER A SLEEPLESS night on the plane, I finally reach my destination. Once in Taiyuan, I jump into a taxi, heading straight to the hospital. Dad's face looks swollen. With a feeding tube inserted into his nose and a strange pipe connecting his throat to a breathing machine, he slowly opens his eyes. As he gazes at me, a faint smile appears on his tired face. Slowly, he lifts his hand; as I feel his weak touch, tears well up in my eyes.
Sitting next to him, I hold his left hand, the one he can move. The right side of his body, once strong and agile, is now stiff and still; his voice, once clear and vivid, is now silenced. Like a candle in the wind, his life is dwindling, burning low, towards its end.
'Go home and get some rest, we'll let you know if something comes up,' urges the doctor.
When we arrive home, Mum hands me a piece of paper. On it, two lines of Mum's handwriting read: A life with no grand achievements, only silent devotion.'I've been thinking about a funeral couplet for your dad,' Mum begins, 'What do you think?' Dumbfounded, my eyes freeze on the two short lines. It is as if Mum has asked me to sew Dad's Shou Yi, his eternity clothes – the last set of clothing to accompany him to the next world – while he is still with us. And yet for Mum, this funeral couplet will be the final verdict of Dad's life.
For top Chinese leaders, the official speech delivered at their state funeral and broadcast across the country is the final nail in their coffin. For their surviving family, it is a matter of honour, or shame. Although Dad has not achieved the prominence to qualify for such an official speech, Mum feels that it is important that we, his own family, give him a verdict through the funeral couplet which would be hung vertically on both sides of his portrait at his funeral. 'What would Dad want us to say?' I ponder, thinking of his tired face.
FOR DAD, LIFE has been a bumpy road. When he cried his way into the world, he was wrapped in a silk quilt, held in his grandma's soft arms. As the first grandson, Dad was born to be the future head of the family. By then, Great-Grandpa had already made enough money selling coal. He had married a beautiful woman from a landlord family and built her a large house in a prosperous town.
One after another, he bought shops in the south and farming land which he leased out to landless peasants. Life was comfortable for the Guos. No one had to work in the field. They ate well and dressed respectably. While the men went out for business, their women stayed behind, drinking jasmine tea and watching Shanxi operas at the local theatre.
Then the Sino-Japanese War broke out. The Japanese bombed Chinese cities and villages, turning Dad's family shops into rubble, killing Dad's First Uncle on the spot. The family's fortune went downhill. When the bitter war with Japan finally came to an end, the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists began. The Communists were rapidly gaining momentum. Compared to the corrupt Nationalist government, the Communists seemed an exciting alternative, at least to young students like Dad. Inspired by the new ideal, Dad left home and joined the Communist troops, the People's Liberation Army.
By 1949, the Communists had defeated the Nationalists and taken over China. Within a few years, while Dad's army became part of China's new air force, back in his hometown Grandpa had lost everything. Through a sweeping 'land reform', all farming land had been seized from landlords and redistributed to landless peasants. But losing land was not the only curse for landlords and their families. Despite Dad's devotion to the revolution, his landlord family background had made him an easy target for Mao's political campaigns, particularly in the Cultural Revolution.
As a result, as my sisters and I were wearing Mao's badges and studying his Little Red Book at school, Dad was sent to the Chinese Siberia, the Great Northern Wilderness, to attend a 'cadre school'. Soon after their arrival, Dad and his fellow students, from middle-ranking officers to hard-nosed generals, found what their school was all about – from dawn to dusk, working the endless fields, under gunpoint.
When that ordeal was finally over, Dad had to join millions to mourn the passing of Mao, the Great Leader, the same man who had caused mass famine, launched brutal political campaigns, resulting in countless deaths and suffering, including that of his own.
'No grand achievement, only silent devotion, that's true,' I muse, but doesn't that describe the lives of most Chinese people of Dad's generation? In fact, silent devotion is an understatement, it should be blind devotion. But, was Dad's lifelong service to the Party always an unconditional devotion? Has he ever had any doubt? What was on his mind when he toiled in the endless fields of black soil in the Great Northern Wilderness, at gunpoint, far away from his family?
Whatever Mao's Cultural Revolution intends to achieve, the Great Northern Wildness has clearly left its mark on Dad. Since his return, Dad's natural air of confidence has softened, replaced by a sense of humbleness. Perhaps years of back-breaking labour in the freezing north, coupled with brutal psychological torture in the name of 'thought reform', have done the trick. Perhaps he genuinely feels guilty for his landlord ancestors? I sometimes wonder.
And yet, despite all the ordeals Dad has endured, there is hardly a trace of bitterness on his face. He still looks good – his body tall, slim, his steps firm and swift. Somehow, the Great Northern Wilderness has also turned Dad into a dedicated family man. Every day after work, Dad rides his bicycle to the local market, bringing home fresh vegetables and starts cooking. As soon as it turns dark, he would drop everything and walk to the bus stop to wait for Mum. It is as if he wants to make up for all the years he was kept away from his family.
WHEN HE RETIRES, Dad joins the choir at the local seniors' college. He enjoys singing. When he sings, his whole face lights up, and his voice, clear and smooth, takes you to a joyful place far away. Dad also writes eloquently. As a former army propaganda officer, he has written many punchy propaganda articles. His classic education has also equipped him with beautiful handwriting, a skill still useful for special occasions. Before each Chinese New Year, many of our old neighbours would ask Dad to write red spring couplets for their front doors. Dad never turned anyone down and he took each request seriously. He would hold a large brush, dip it into a bowl of black ink, and carefully put his handsome calligraphies on the two narrow stripes of red papers. When he walked past those doors with his red couplets on each side, he would stop, examine his calligraphies again, shake his head, or smile.
Then, in amongst the city's frenetic urban development, Dad receives a notice from the local government. A freeway will be built in the area. All the buildings blocking its way will be demolished and the whole neighbourhood will soon disappear. With the country's rapid urbanisation, forced eviction has become a common practice for Chinese developers and the most widespread source of social tensions in China. In my parents' case, although a small compensation is offered, it is only a fraction of the cost of an apartment in similar locations.
Dad is shocked. Our small terrace house, a short walk from Dad's office, is perhaps the most important benefit Dad has received for his lifelong service to the state. For Dad, that service stretches from the battlefields of the civil war against the Nationalists in the 1940s to the endless wheat fields at Mao's cadre school in Chinese Siberia twenty years later. With Dad's little flower bed at the front and a storage room he built at the back, the house is not just a property: it is Dad's home, a home where he has envisaged he would grow old with Mum, until carried out in a box.
Day and night, the eviction notice feels like an invisible knife hanging over Dad's head. It reminds him of my landlord Grandpa, who died penniless in a mud house. Silently Dad feels in a way that his fate has turned out not that differently from his dad's – a comfortable childhood, followed by hardship half way, then kicked out of home at an old age. Although Second Sister has offered to buy our parents a new apartment, Dad still feels overwhelmed by the whole thing. He becomes quiet and withdrawn. Then, with the eviction deadline marked on the calendar coming closer and closer, the stroke gets him first.
MUM'S PHONE RINGS. Second Sister, who has just flown in from Beijing, picks it up.
'What? When?' she asks tensely. 'Dad has gone,' she says as she puts down the phone.
'What? But he was fine when we left, and they said they'll let us know,' I counter.
'Don't blame the hospital, they've tried their best,' says Mum as tears flood our faces.
As we rush into the hospital, nurses are running in and out of Dad's room cleaning and dressing him. When we are finally allowed to enter the room, I find Dad lying there, dressed in his padded green army overcoat and hat, his face ashen, his hands swollen and cold.
'Don't drop any tears on him,' an anxious voice cautions me. Four men walk in, lift Dad from the bed, put him into a yellow silk-lined coffin, and put a red satin quilt on top of him.
'The three sisters, kneel here, kowtow three times, wish Dad a safe journey,' instructs a man, the funeral organiser hired by First Sister's colleagues. Silently, the three of us obey: kneeling in front of Dad, we kowtow three times together, wishing Dad a safe journey to another world.
Following further instructions, Second Sister and I sit in the van to accompany Dad to the last part of his journey. I gaze at him – the padded air force jacket, pants and overcoat look rather bulky on his swollen body. Why the uniform, when it has been years since he retired from the air force? 'Before Dad left the air force, he ordered an extra set of winter uniform, as his Shou Yi (burial clothes),' Second Sister explains.
Chinese burial clothes are normally padded anyway. I am not sure where this tradition comes from – perhaps as pragmatic people who have suffered lack of food and warm clothing for too long, we want to make sure that our family can be warm in the afterlife. Perhaps despite what Dad has been through, he still misses his life in the army – thirty years, a big chunk and the best part of his life. Let's hope his padded overcoat will keep him warm down there, and he'll never have to endure the bitter wind and the knee-high snow of the Great Northern Wilderness again.
Second Sister and I watch Dad being pushed into in a large drawer in the morgue. To my surprise, when we come home, Mum's sitting room has been turned into Dad's memorial hall. The clock above the dining table has been replaced by Dad's portrait. Under it, joss sticks are burning in an incense burner on the dining table. Plates of fruit and moon cakes are on either side. Behind them, a white steamed bun covers the top of an earthen pot. 'Make sure the incenses burn continuously for three days and three nights, and don't forget to add food to your Dad's food bowl every day,' urges the funeral organiser.
Wreaths start to arrive. They all look similar – on a metre-high bamboo stand, white and yellow Chinese chrysanthemums blossom against green palm leaves. White couplets dedicated to Dad from relatives and First Sister's colleagues hang on each side of the wreaths. Mourners keep coming. Picking up a few incense sticks, they bow to Dad's portrait first, before adding them to the burner.
Before long, Mum's apartment is packed with people. Relatives sit around Mum in her small bedroom. In the main bedroom, First Sister's colleagues and friends are fully mobilised. A man is holding a calligraphy brush writing funeral couplets on rice paper. All the women are sitting on Dad's bed, cutting white and yellow papers into shapes of large ancient coins, and folding glossy papers into small gold and silver ingots.
'What's this?' I ask.
'Money, for his afterlife,' replies a woman, her hands keeps folding. 'This is how you do it,' she hands me a piece of golden paper and begins to show me. I try it once, twice, but soon become bored.
'What's all this fuss?' I ask myself. Why are we so obsessed with money, not only in this life, but also in the next?
Why are you all here, taking over our home when we need it most? Why would you go through all the trouble, fuss over nothing much but money and food? For Heaven's sake, haven't we got over the fear of poverty and starvation?
THAT AFTERNOON, I am sent to buy a cinerary casket with our local funeral organiser.
In the van, the man asks in his heavy Shanxi accent: 'Who will go to the funeral tomorrow?'
'I'm not sure, at least all my family,' I reply.
'And your mum?'
'Yes, of course.'
'Well…that…that's no good.'
'Old custom…the wife can't be there.'
'Just like women can't enter their ancestral temple?'
'Yah, that's right,' the man seems pleased with my perception.
'Don't even think about it,' the words slip off my tongue, surprising both of us, 'You don't know who my mum is, and if there's anyone allowed there at all, it would be her.'
Silence – no more words from the funeral expert. As the van cruises on the road flanked by mushrooming office towers and shopping malls, I sit there fuming. At least he asks me first rather than telling Mum to her face. I can't imagine how much it would hurt Mum. I remember she told me that when she grew up, women were not allowed to enter the ancestral temple, and most girls never went to school. When a choice had to be made, it was always the sons who were given the chance. Back then, girls were inferior beings – a child raised for another family. She was good for nothing other than doing household chores, for her family at first, and then for her in-laws.
Imagine how Mum would feel about this? After fighting against the odds throughout her life – having to drop out of school to be a free nanny for her step-mum, fighting for her last chance for education at the age of seventeen, joining the Communist Party, dedicating her entire life to the cause of children's education – only to find that towards the end of her life, the whole thing slips back to where it all started from, as she's told that she can't attend her husband's funeral just because she is a woman.
The van pulls up in an alleyway, in front of an old house. As we step into a small room filled with boxes, our funeral organiser greets a village-looking woman. The woman opens box after box, showing us cinerary caskets in various shapes, colours, and materials. Finally, a dark casket with simple but elegant carvings catches my eye.
'It's good, hard wood,' the woman assures me, knocking the casket with her dark finger.
'Which flag do you want?' she asks, opening two small red flags, the same size as the casket in my hand. One of them has a yellow hammer and sickle on its top right corner, another is covered by two yellow dragons. I stand there, hesitating.
'Is he a Party member?' asks the funeral organiser.
'Yes, an old one.'
'Then take the Party flag, he's a Party member, not just a lao bai xing, the common people.'
Holding the casket in my hands, with the small Party flag wrapped on top, I step into the van. As the van moves along the road, I ponder: Is it a compliment that Dad, a Chinese Communist Party member, is not part of the common people? What does this special treatment mean? Does it imply that a Party member is more progressive, more respectful, or, he is simply someone who is entitled to more privilege and power? How did Dad feel? Was he proud to be a Party member to the end? Would he wish to be covered by this Party flag, or would he prefer to rest under the simple 'descendent of dragon' flag?
As the night crawls on, Mum's apartment is filled with the smoke of burning incense. Second Sister offers to stay up to guard the incenses, making sure they don't burn out. By the time we wake at six o'clock, her eyes are red and sore.
An hour passes and more guests turn up. The funeral organiser announces the arrangements again. The two men in the family, my brothers-in-law, are given the most important tasks. Holding Dad's portrait, Second Brother-in-law leads the way; First Brother-in-law follows him, holding Dad's food pot while the rest of the family follow them. Before we step into the chartered bus, the organiser asks First Brother-in-law to lift the food pot above his head and throw it hard to the ground. Dutifully, he does. With a loud bang, the clay pot breaks into pieces, scattering a large steamed bun and moon cakes on the road.
When we walk into the funeral hall, slow funeral music is playing. Paper wreaths with funeral couplets dedicated to Dad line the hall. Dad is lying there, in his padded green army hat and overcoat. Supporting Mum's arms, we walk towards him, for the last time. Among the close family, Mum is the only one not sobbing; but as we approach Dad's face, through my blurred eyes, I see her deep and silent pain – her face is twitching and her lips shivering… Soon the cruellest moment comes. Heart-broken, we watch Dad being pushed away, to be taken by the merciless flame…
HOLDING DAD'S WARM ashes in the casket, we head towards his tomb. Half an hour's drive from the city, the cemetery is on a hillside overlooking the metropolis. The leafy site used to be a resting place for the revolutionary martyrs killed during the bitter battle when the Communist army tried to break into the walled city fiercely defended by the Nationalists. It is only recently that the cemetery has changed its name, from Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemeteryto Public Cemetery.
After more than half a century of peace and isolation, the forgotten place suddenly becomes a hot spot. Next to the martyrs' tombs, land is cleared, divided into small lots, sold to private owners. The buyers are the city's new rich and the emerging middle-class families. Like China's rocketing property values, the price of such tombs keeps rising.
Mum is at first hesitant about buying a tomb. 'Once I'm gone I'm gone, why create more trouble for the children?' Finally, the idea of being buried with Dad and being close to her deceased brother convinces Mum. A joint tomb for our parents is secured. For now, it is only Dad's tomb. It looks good. On the black marble tombstone, a stonemason has just carved Dad's name, the dates of his birth and death vertically on the right side of the stone, leaving the left-hand side for Mum when her time comes.
Sadly, I watch the funeral organiser put Dad's casket in a larger waterproof container, then place a tiny porcelain tea set and two small figurines – a boy and girl – into the back of the tomb. Following the same principle of China's First Emperor's entombed terracotta army, the two figurines are there to serve Dad and to keep him company.
After we bow to Dad and place flowers under his tombstone, we head downhill towards the bus. Before my sisters and I board the bus, three women rush over, take off the black arm band on our left arms and give us each a metal badge. On its black round surface, a white Chinese character reads Xiao, filial piety, the pillar of traditional Chinese values.
'Wear this, for three years,' the women tell us as they pin the badge on our left sleeves.
I stand there woodenly, saddened for leaving Dad behind and intrigued by the re-emergence of this ancient tradition trampled during Mao's era. Besides, it has been decades since I last wore a metal badge. Somehow it reminds me of Mao's badges we used to wear all the time, on our green military-style jackets in the 1960s.
Today, although Mao's portrait still hangs on the red wash wall of the Gate of Heaven, his body still lies in a crystal coffin in the heart of Tiananmen Square, few of the millions of Chinese people he once inspired, brainwashed, and starved, still bother to pay him a visit. The horrendous trauma caused by Mao's Cultural Revolution has taught them that they have been conned and turned brutally against each other, even their own family members.
Ironically, today, the most popular form of Mao's portrait is on the red RMB banknotes. Although Mao had done all he could to crush the seeds of capitalism, thirty years later a form of capitalism is flourishing in China. Mao's deep resentment of China's feudal traditions and his denouncement of Confucius have also failed. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards smashed Confucius temples across the country and the sage was disrespectfully referred to as 'Kong's Number Two Son'. At school, we followed the loudspeakers and passionately condemned Kong's son and his mysterious preaching of 'Self-Restraint and the Return to Ritual'.
But today, Confucius statues are standing on university campuses across China and at Confucius Institutes around the world. In reality however, not many in contemporary China believe in any '–ism' any more. Three decades after Deng's economic reform, capitalism and consumerism have washed away the feverish Communist ideals of Mao's time. Meanwhile, China still stands as one of the few remaining socialist countries in the world. Despite its economic miracle, ideologically China is full of confusion and contradiction. What is left to hold the people together are the age-old Confucian values of respect for education and strong family bonds.
AFTER DAD'S FUNERAL, the funeral organisers gather everyone to a restaurant. A sumptuous banquet is laid out on large round tables. When the banquet is finally over, I feel exhausted, sad and empty. It all happens so fast. There is not even one speech dedicated to Dad at his funeral. What's the point of all the fuss? How can we make it up to Dad? An idea occurs to me. 'Why don't we each write Dad a letter and bring it to our next tomb visit, on the seventh day?' I propose. 'Good idea,' respond my two sisters.
According to Chinese filial loyalty tradition, after the death of a parent, the children should visit the tomb every seventh day for seven weeks after death. The visits on the first, third, fifth and seventh of those seventh days are particularly important. On the initial seventh day after Dad's passing, my sisters and I return to Dad's tomb. Facing his black marble tomb stone, we read out our heart-felt letters to Dad.
Through our words, vivid memories come alive – Dad's military-style disciplining during our childhood, how his strong arms lifted our small bodies up in the air, his unshaved face rubbing against our tender cheeks when he finally returned from the cadres school, and then the silent devotion to the family afterwards… Reading our letters to him, our teary voices, mixing with choking laughter, echo in the cemetery's autumn air.
When we finish reading the letters, one by one, we send them to Dad through a dancing flame. As the white papers curl in the flame, breaking into small grey pieces, Second Sister starts singing: Riding my horse, I roam on the grassland. The river is crystal clear and the sky bright blue… Hearing Dad's favourite song, suddenly it dawns on me – perhaps after what Dad has been through, what he treasures most is just that, the sense of dignity and freedom once ruthlessly taken away from him.
How does Dad think of his own life? What was on his mind before he closed his eyes? Does he still admire the man who took everything from his parents, sent him to the Great Northern Wilderness, but still gazes at the world from the red gate of Tiananmen? What would the future hold for this country he once fought for, a new China with its odd combination of socialism and capitalism? Was there a moment of truth towards the end of his life? I wish I could ask Dad, I wish he could tell me, I wish I knew.