Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution
by JIANQING ZHENG
reviewed by THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI
Texas Review Press, Sam Houston State University, 2018
In these spare and evocative poems, Jianqing Zheng brings us to rural China during the great proletarian revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. During that time, young people were “sent down” from cities to work in cotton fields and rice paddies as a form of “reeducation.” With the help of the poems’ speaker (one of those sent to the countryside), we see and feel the tedium of working outdoors and doing little else. The government’s aim was get rid of “capitalist” or traditional elements in order to bring people in line with Mao Zedong Thought. Unfortunately, those who were “rusticated” often did not benefit from their new environment—the relocation was “enforced,” as the book’s title indicates. Their return to schools and cities did not occur (if it occurred at all) until after the death of Chairman Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s last wife.
One of the earlier poems in this forty-eight-page book, “In the Cotton Fields,” contains a description of the workers’ duties and pairs their labor with learning the Communist line. “Cotton picking is as drab as reciting / Chairman Mao’s little red book” the poem begins. A description of the unavoidable “muggy heat” follows, along with a mention of a working song: “Farewell to My Hometown.” The speaker (the poet) is concerned with his own sweat and thirst (the former, when licked by his own tongue, assuages the latter). Still, he reports a tenderness (flirtation?) between his fellows as his roommate, Pigsy, says to Pearl, another cotton harvester, “If I die of sunstroke, will you / wear a white flower and cry for me?” The “white flower” must refer to the cotton fiber the people are gathering, and the likely point is that this flower and tears, along with the real possibility of death, are all that’s available here. Pigsy receives a bittersweet response. Pearl says, in a voice “dry as a mummy: ‘For you I’ll wear a cotton fluff.’ ” Pearl herself could be near death, but she will put the plentiful cotton to use, even if to commemorate a departed friend.
Another early poem, “Break,” centers on the time between work shifts, when laborers can relax. Apparently, the way to take one’s leisure is to find a secluded spot and smoke a tobacco cigarette. Nicotine is a stimulant; it allows the brain to focus on things that might otherwise escape notice: lotuses in a pond, the trilling of hidden frogs, a splash made by a jumping frog. The cigarette smoke itself becomes a natural phenomenon; it “rushes out” of the throat “like light blue peonies.” This is a perfect, idyllic moment, interrupted only by the signal to return to work:
I lie back yawning, eyes closed:
thousands of stars are sparkling.
The lotus scent nears.
The bell for work. I rub my eyes,
light one more cigarette,
and drag toward the field.
The image of “thousands of stars” reminds me of the illusory spots that appear when I shut my eyes against a bright light, such as the sun. Here, the image also has a universal connotation. The play on “drag”—an intake of smoke by the lungs, versus the heavy-footed return to work—is appropriate. The carefully chosen word adds to the meaning of the tiresome action without reducing its gravity.
“Goodbye,” one of the longer poems at slightly more than a page, contains a mix of emotions caused by leaving one’s home, even if that home has been strange and uncomfortable. The speaker reveals his excitement at leaving the room he has occupied for three years. He compares his feeling to that of “a mouse scooting and squeaking on the roof beam.” The description is apt, because a running mouse must be a common sight in this village, and people (all of us) tend to relate to animals when we are in their company. The speaker suddenly recognizes the spartan quality of his room: It contains only a desk and two beds, one of which is empty now that Pigsy has left for the navy. In his case, the speaker is more fortunate; he has a college admission letter in his pocket. Clearly, he is one of those “intellectuals” that rustication was supposed to reform. But we should read these lines carefully. This transition is not simple. While the speaker is escaping the countryside, he is not going away unchanged. He concludes with these words:
Before leaving the village
I turn for the last look:
a string of muddy footprints
running toward me.
Those footprints are the speaker’s own, and, like Li Po’s shadow cast by moonlight in the eighth-century poem “Drinking Alone Under the Moon,” the footprints (and the mud on the shoes) will never be completely lost. In Enforced Rustication, Zheng, who left China years ago and now lives in Mississippi, delivers a testament to a dark, inescapable era.
THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.