#17 The Deep Well
In response to a request, I am putting the English version here. As you can see, the beginning is somewhat different. The introduction was for American readers, but it's actually not necessary. It can be embedded in the story itself as I later altered in the Chinese translation.
The Deep Well
By the end of 1971, the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution had gone with the air-crash death of Lin Piao, the Chinese Macbeth, whose defeat in the power struggle with Mao, I never imagined at the time, would mark the beginning of China's policy toward the west as my best friend Shangde once casually mentioned.
How could I know? At that time, I was only eighteen, an ordinary lathe operator working in a factory affiliated to Beijing University, where I could get some information about "who would be in and who would be out," for the university was then one of the two political barometers in Beijing, but I was not so interested in politics. I had just fallen in love with a pretty girl, and both of us had just become interested in learning English. We simply shut ourselves up in our own little world of love and learning.
Then came Shangde, a childhood friend of mine whom I had not seen for over two years because he had been working on a state farm in the northeast of China. During those years, all the universities were closed. All we expected was to get a good job in the city, but we had absolutely no freedom to choose where to live or where to work. Everyone was assigned to work in a particular place and was supposed to be a "shining screw that stays forever where the party puts it on the revolutionary machine." Shangde was a year older than I; therefore, he was unfortunate. Somehow, during the first half of the Cultural Revolution, the high school students who graduated in odd numbered years were unlucky compared with those who graduated in even numbered years. Shangde graduated in 1969. He and all his classmates, like the graduates of 1967, were assigned to work on state farms or in the remote countryside. I graduated in 1970. Most of my classmates and I, like the graduates of 1968, were assigned to work in factories in or near Beijing. We considered ourselves very lucky because working in the country was much harder than in the city, and moreover, the farm workers could hardly make both ends meet while we factory workers were basically self-sufficient. If they wanted to come back to the city or to visit their parents, they had to provide enough reasons in order to get the permission. I remember how sincerely my mother and I thanked our great leader Chairman Mao for my good luck. When I saw Shangde again, I wondered whom he should thank.
He was taller but thinner, weaker, and darker than before, and it took me quite a while to figure out what was missing from his face. It looked somewhat bare! Then, I realized that his eyebrows were almost all gone. He did not seem to care at all but casually explained that it might have to do with the poor food and bad water they had on the farm. "Most people lost their hair, but somehow," he joked, "my eyebrows abandoned me first, probably because I knitted them more often than I rubbed my hair on the pillow." I knew he was a knowledge seeker. No matter how exhausted he was after a day's work, he would still read deep into the night by a small lamp in a corner of the camp which was shared with twenty-three other young men, who did nothing after work but play cards, chat, and sleep.
Shangde was permitted to come back to Beijing because his mother had passed away, and his father was sick and needed a nurse at home. This was a common reason for the child to have a break from the tiring and tedious physical labor---that is, if the parent could obtain a medical excuse. Many doctors even made a fortune out of such a social phenomenon. However, Shangde's father was really sick and was really needed at his job. He was the number one academic authority where he worked. By then even Mao had felt the loss and waste of the intellectuals, and so the party's policy about the intellectuals was just beginning to become milder. The administrators were trying to transfer Shangde to where his father worked so that he could take care of his father, who would, in turn, "make more and better contributions to the revolutionary cause."
Whatever the cause was, Shangde was just happy to be back. Besides taking good care of his old father, he spent every minute on his studies. Whenever I visited him, he discussed problems in his studies of mathematics, geometry, physics, history, philosophy, and English with me. Actually, he knew more than I did, and I learned much from him in those discussions. In those years, most young people did not bother to learn any book-knowledge because it seemed useless. Shangde and I read books and did exercises with no purpose whatsoever; just for fun. It was also due to our family influence that we both felt that it would be a waste of our lives if we did not learn something new everyday.
Working in Beijing University, I had access to the library there. Although I was allowed to borrow only five books at a time, it was a great privilege because people outside universities simply had no way to get books. Bookstores everywhere were selling very few books other than the works by Mao, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. As for personal collections of books, most of them had been burned in the early years of the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, Shangde and I made full use of the library of Beijing University. One day, he asked me to borrow some books on hydrography for him. I wondered why he would want to specialize so early, and then he told me his practical purpose.
Water shortage was a big problem on the farm where he had worked. People, not to mention the crops, could hardly get enough water from the rain. There were 240 young graduates living in the crowded camps and working with rather primitive tools on the vast wasteland. No wonder the output was always low; many youngsters had to walk two hours everyday just to get to where they worked. Their cisterns were more often than not completely dry. Their tractors were used more often to transport water from a river over two hundred miles away than to work the land. They had tried to dig a well dozens of times before they finally hit a wellhead twenty-five yards below the surface. In order for the well to hold a lot of water, they continued to dig fifteen yards deeper before Shangde persuaded them to stop. They had convenient drinking water now, but before long, it began to taste a little stale because the well was so deep that they could not use up the water in the well by the evening and get fresh water from the well in the morning. "Well, it's indeed a little stale," the party commissar said, "but stale water can strengthen our revolutionary willpower still more!" Thus, thanks to their hard work, they had to drink the "elixir of revolution" every day. Now, only one small tractor went to fetch fresh water from the river every other day for the constant turnover of sick farm workers and the party cadres including, of course, the commissar, whose revolutionary willpower was already so strong that it did not need to be strengthened any more.
Shangde suggested that they should make a wellhead protector and put stones into the well so that the water level might be raised and purified. But the ignorant commissar thought that he was either crazy or that he intended to destroy the hard-dug well.
Now, more than a thousand miles away from the farm, Shangde was still concerned about the Pyrrhic victory of the deep well. He wanted to acquire enough knowledge of hydrography in order to help his friends locate the position for another well. "It's a great pleasure to seek knowledge for its own sake," he said, "but it's a greater pleasure to seek knowledge so as to be able to put it into practice."
Shangde was by no means a bookworm, and our meetings were not merely discussions of book-knowledge. We were both fond of singing songs, telling stories, and doing outdoor activities. One weekend in late spring, he, his girl-friend, my girl-friend, and I pedalled our bikes all the way to the Great Wall. It took us six hours to get there, but we did not feel tired at all. We were singing the old songs that we had learned before the Cultural Revolution and all the foreign songs that we knew. Singing those songs, we experienced the joy of forbidden fruit because they were still regarded as politically incorrect. If we had been caught, we would surely have been criticized or even persecuted. However, since we set off at dawn, as soon as we rode out of the city, we saw almost nobody along the road. So we sang to our hearts' content, one song after another, as if we were flying on the wings of songs. They sounded so much more melodious and beautiful than the songs of Chairman Mao's quotations and those so-called revolutionary songs. We felt that our souls were freed, liberated, emancipated! Before we knew it, we had arrived at the foot of the mountain on which the Great Wall was built.
Back then, the wall had not yet become a tourist attraction. We saw no more than ten other visitors that day, and yet, we did not sing on the wall, not that we were afraid, but that we were intoxicated by the magnificent scenes below and around us. We were all quiet and filled with admiration ...
Suddenly, I said, "I don't know if I should be glad or sad for the Great Wall. On the one hand, it's the only human construction that people can see with the naked eye from the moon. It's our pride, our strength, our wisdom. On the other hand, it was so stupid of the emperors to order such a huge project constructed. So much labor! So little use! The Chinese Maginot line. We would be much better off if we had a strong army rather than the wall. We should be aggressive rather than defensive. It's our shame, our weakness, our stupidity."
I noticed that my girl friend was watching me with admiration and I felt quite pleased with myself.
"I'm afraid I can't agree with you," Shangde said gently, "because we don't really know if the wall was as useless against the attacks of the nomads for two millennia as it was against the guns of the imperialist armies for the last century. I should think the wall was very effective in the past. Although it did not stop Kublai Khan and the Manchus, it did prevent most invaders, such as the Huns and the Tartars. How else could we defend our long borders more effectively? Besides, I don't like the idea of military aggression. It's a shame to be invaded, but it's a bigger shame to invade others."
My girl friend was now watching him with admiration. Deep inside, I felt that he was right, but I would not admit it before my girl.
"Well, as you said we don't really know how effective the wall was," I argued, "We need to check all the history books if we want any convincing conclusions. What we don't need to check is your last point. It's rather like Ah Q's philosophy, isn't it?" (A fictional figure by Lu Hsun, Ah Q is the typical Chinese who always consoles himself by thinking that he has been spiritually superior to the man who has physically humiliated him.)
"Indeed, I shall conduct a study of the Great Wall and write a treatise one day." Shangde answered, "As for Ah Q, he's only trying to balance himself psychologically. Whenever he has a chance, he'd physically humiliate others, too. But I do believe in non-violence. I don't think there's any teaching greater than 'Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'"
"So you've turned into a Christian?" I asked, "Do you really believe in God? An old man with a white beard sitting above the ninth sky?"
"Well, that's just some people's imagination or personification of God." He said, "For me, God is good, truth, beauty, or the Way, the logos, the natural as well as the social law that we human beings have been trying to recognize. Whatever you call it, it is there. We all have the desire and capacity to know it. Otherwise, we wouldn't be different from other animals."
The girls had lost interest, and they went ahead to take pictures of each other and of us. I, however, found the topic fascinating. My father was a Christian, but he had never talked about Christianity to me. When I learned the theory of evolution in the primary school, I was rather ashamed of him for his being so "superstitious." Once I even tried in my innocent way to persuade him that there was no God. I asked him, "Dad, would you please take me to where God is and let me play with Him?" He smiled and said, "God is not a being to play with, child." But he never explained why. When I grew up, I understood that he did not want to cause any trouble. Although the constitution of China allowed the citizens the freedom of religious beliefs, to spread any religion outside a church or a temple was illegal, and its punishment was severe, especially during the Cultural Revolution. However, I had secretly read my father's bible and was longing to discuss it with somebody. This was actually the first time that we had touched on the topic, and naturally, we went deep into it until the girls urged us to take pictures with them.
Then, we walked down the wall into the forest nearby and started our picnic. While we were taking out the food, Shangde was suddenly gone. We waited, shouted, and looked for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Just when we were getting really anxious, he appeared before us as mysteriously as he disappeared. He was carrying a pot of water and some dry pine branches and needles. We did not know that he had a pot with him, and we wondered where he got the water. He smiled and winked mysteriously and said, "From the book on hydrography you lent me." I understood that he had put his newly learned knowledge into practice. The girls did not know what he meant and did not bother to ask. They just put the pot on three stones and made a fire. Soon, the water was bubbling. The sausages he brought and the mushrooms he had just gathered smelt so inviting! It was the most delicious picnic that I ever had.
After the meal, each of us told a story. I made mine up, and they unanimously hailed it as the best. It opened with the mysterious death of a young man whom we all knew and closed with Lin Piao's air-crash after his conspiracy against Mao had been exposed. Finally, Shangde made a casual comment: "All of our stories depend on the plot, without which they wouldn't be attractive at all. But a real man of letters can simply describe this forest and hold your attention." Little did I understand at the time the truth in his words, of which a college professor tried a whole semester to convince my classmates nine years later.
Shangde put out the fire and holding something in his right hand, he approached his girl-friend in a manner as if something mysterious and mischievous was imminent. His facial expression was serious. He commanded in a scary voice, "Give me your hand."
"Why?" She hesitated.
"Don't ask. Just give me your hand!"
She reluctantly stretched out her right hand to him. His left hand grasped her wrist firmly, and suddenly, Shangde put his right palm onto hers. She screamed as if she was in great pain, and she shook off her hand and shouted, "Ouch, it's burning hot! You hurt me!"
"No, I didn't." Shangde said calmly, "You hurt yourself with your mind. You see, it's only some embers. A little warm, that's all. I've been holding them all the time. Why don't I feel them burning hot as you did?"
"I don't know," she whined.
"You should," he said, "It's psychology."
"You're being mysterious today," she countered.
"It's nothing to be mysterious for only a day," he said, "but it would be wonderful if one could be mysterious all his life."
Shangde did not play mysterious after that, nor did he conduct a study of the Great Wall. He was more concerned about the well and borrowed more books on hydrography through me.
Between the dates with my girl and the discussions with Shangde, time flew. A year passed. It was a momentous one in which President Nixon came to China and started, as he put it, a "new era." The remaining confederates of Lin Piao were purged, China began to do business with the West. Soviet Union became the trump card that China and the United States played in dealing with each other. Nevertheless, Shangde and I paid little attention to these changes until the day when the British industrial exhibition came to Beijing.
For us, this was the real thing. Ever since the Communist Party attained power, not a single exhibition from any capitalist country was held in China. We longed to learn everything about the West, and Shangde also wanted to learn more about digging a well. But the tickets for the exhibition were extremely difficult to obtain. They were not sold to the public, but rather, given to "persons of concern and consequence" in factories, universities, hospitals, research institutes, and the government organizations. Those who had the luck to see the exhibition were talking about it everyday as if they had just come back from Mars. The listeners had endless questions about those wonderful machines and equipment that the "oppressed and exploited" British workers were enjoying. Everyone had an inexhaustible interest in the advanced science and technology that the "old and declining imperialist country" was developing. People were also surprised to get those beautiful brochures, descriptions, and introductions, all given to them free of charge, and all printed on paper of a quality seldom found in the country that invented paper almost two thousand years ago.
Shangde's father, as a "concerned scientist," was invited to the opening ceremony of the exhibition, and a few days later, was given two extra tickets. We were overjoyed, but Shangde's girl friend also wanted to go very much. Of course, I understood that she had the priority, and yet, I could not manage to hide my disappointment.
"Don't despair!" he said to me, "I'll draw a ticket for you."
My sadness turned into hope again, for Shangde was fond of painting and had been learning to draw. Once he showed me a collection of the masterpieces of Western painting, which was a rare survival of the xenophobia of the Cultural Revolution. He pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has no eyebrows and speculated whether that was the fashion in Renaissance Italy. I then called him jokingly Shangde Lisa for months until his brows sprouted out again. He was not a great painter yet, but he could already paint quite realistically. In fact, he had drawn sketches of both my girl friend and me, and they are our best sketches. After he promised me that, I rested assured.
The next day, I went to his home. His girl friend and he were waiting for me, and so was the ticket. What a similarity! Even though I knew it was drawn, I could not tell the difference without comparing it with the printed ticket. So happily the three of us went to the exhibition with the mixed excitement of both adventure and curiosity. The exhibition hall was designed by Soviet experts in the mid-50s when China was a member of the socialist bloc. Now the British national flag was fluttering below the red star. The story went that at first the flag was hung upside down, and the British Embassy even presented a note of protest. Looking at the flag, I was unable to see how it could possibly be hung upside down. It seemed to be the same either way.
"Ticket, ticket." The guard's voice was solemn and demanding as if the embarrassment of the communist diplomats had turned into a mixture of serious precaution and nameless indignation that was being vented upon the visitors. I was rather nervous, and for a minute, I even wanted to withdraw. After all, this was the first time I had done anything illegal. But I was pushed on by curiosity as well as adventurousness. Shangde and his girl friend went in. I deliberately lagged behind several other visitors. When I gave my fake ticket to the guard, my hand was slightly trembling. He seemed to hesitate for a second and take another glance at the ticket, but he dropped it into the box. My heart that had been up in my throat dropped down. I went in and looked around. I saw Shangde and his girl. I walked toward them hurriedly.
A big mistake! The visitor should go to get the packet of brochures and introductions first. My irregular action and flurried manners immediately caught the attention of the guards who were patrolling around inside the hall.
"What're you doing?" Two of them stopped me and questioned, "Why are you in such a hurry? Did you have a ticket?"
I was stunned and stuttered, "I...I'm just vi...visiting. I ga...gave my ti...ticket to that co...comrade."
"Let's see." They took me back to the gate. ... The ticket-box was opened, the fake ticket was recognized, and I was taken to the police station.
"What's your intention?" The officer asked me after the routine questions, "To destroy the exhibition?"
"No, I just wanted to see it."
"Who drew the ticket?"
"After whose ticket did you draw it?"
"You liar!" He roared. Two policemen came up and slapped me in the face.
"I really don't know whose ticket it was. It's a used one I picked up outside the exhibition hall."
"You liar! We burn all the used tickets everyday." The two men hit me in the stomach. I doubled up and felt a terrible pain and nausea.
"Tell the truth!" The officer shouted. I would have, had I known it was impossible to fool them, but humiliation choked me. I remained silent.
"Well, you liar," he jeered, "You want to play tough? I'd like to see just how tough you can be. What're you waiting for?" He ordered the two policemen rhetorically.
They grabbed my arms, twisted them behind my back, and forced me to kneel on the floor. One of the men held my head steady by the hair. The other pressed his knee hard against my spine and slowly lifted my left arm. The torture was unbearable. The pain was indescribable. I felt as if my arm and spine were going to break. I remember hearing them crack. ... I confessed.
That evening, Shangde was arrested. Beijing was purging idlers and criminals. He was treated as an idler and sent back to the farm when the commissar there had just sent out his work transfer. All went in vain: a year's efforts to go through the red-tape, a father's hope, and a young man's expectations. When his father received the transfer, he almost went mad, now crying over it, then cursing his unworthy son. His crying and cursing stabbed my conscience constantly, but I did not know what to say to soothe him. I just went to his home everyday after work to do whatever I could for him.
Soon, I began to receive letters from Shangde, who showed me complete understanding and even comforted me saying that nobody could fool the police in such a case, just as nobody could puzzle us with a simple math question, and nobody could stand the notorious tortures in the police station, about which he had heard so much from so many people. He also said that he was actually happy to be back on the farm because he could really work on the project, namely, to locate the spot for another well. He asked me to check this and that in the books on hydrography. In retrospect, I wonder whether or not he really needed the information, but at the time, his requirement did ease my guilt considerably.
So we kept in touch. He was telling me every progress that he had made. His last letter told me that he had finally located the spot which he and two friends of his there firmly believed to have a wellhead. Then, the horrible news came. Shangde was dead.
It was the hot summer of 1974. The farm killed a big pig, which was a rare treat for the poorly fed youths. They did not want to eat up the pork all at once. To refrigerate it, they tied half of it on a rope and put it down in the deep well just above the water. Then they ate a quarter. Then an eighth. Then, the last eighth accidentally fell into the well. They tried every means but simply could not get it out. The well was too deep.
Finally, the commissar said, "Whoever can get the pork can have it." Several people tried again but had no success. When Shangde's two friends asked him if he had any idea, he did not even know about the whole business, for he was too much buried in making the concrete steps to carry out his project. They told him, "It's about twenty-five pounds of pork, Shangde! Our camp would have a banquet if you could get it out." He thought a while and said, "The pork will spoil the water. Tomorrow, I'll get it out somehow."
The next morning, he got up at 4:30 as usual and studied his English. An hour later, the two friends awoke and went with him to the well. His plan was to let him down the well by the wooden winch. He would carry a huge stone, with which he would dive to the bottom of the well to get the pork. Somehow, the winch collapsed and probably hit him. He was knocked out and drowned. This was what the two friends reported, officially.
People on the farm tried to fish him out, but they failed. Nobody dared to take any risk. Three days later, Shangde floated up and was finally pulled out. The corpse was examined, and his neck was found broken. Since nobody would ever drink the water from the well, they buried him within its dark confines. Because he died in "getting the pork for himself," and the commissar never mentioned it was he who had encouraged the farm workers to retrieve, Shangde was not considered or treated as a "revolutionary martyr" like the girl who had died of malaria on the farm a month before, but almost everybody attended his funeral. His camp-mates, who used to mock him as a bookworm, cried like mad.
So did I, but then my subconscious simply could not accept the tragic fact. For years I often dreamed of him, alive as before, with no eyebrows, but a mysterious smile, on his face smile. I would say to him, "So you didn't die after all. You're playing mysterious with all of us. What a joke, Shangde!" I would then slap him on the shoulder, only to wake up and find it was my own stomach that I had slapped. Lying awake in the darkness, I felt as if I were in a deep well, shuddering with cold, drowning with shame and guilt. I would then come to the cruel realization that Shangde was already dead, that he could never come back to life again. It was such an aching void! His father, I would like to believe, never felt the same. He had gone mad and took me for Shangde. I faithfully played the role until his death eight years ago.
After the downfall of the "Gang of Four" in 1976, the Cultural Revolution was officially declared to have come to an end. The state farms in the northeast of China were gradually abandoned, and the young farm workers were coming back to the cities. Two years later, I discovered that the two friends of Shangde's on the farm had also come back. I invited them to have dinner with me at Quanjude, the best restaurant for the famous roast Beijing duck. I reserved a private room for just the three of us. After a plate of duck and a few bottles of beer, I put down the chopsticks. Sincerely I told them about my guilt, of which they had known absolutely nothing. Then, I beseeched them to tell me what really happened to cause Shangde's death. They looked at each other in silence. I left the room to give them time for consideration. Two cigarettes later, I came back and found them in tears.
They told me that Shangde straddled the bucket that was connected to the wooden winch, and they let him down into the well all right. Then, he dived with the stone only once and got the rope that tied the pork. Everything went well just as he had planned. He straddled the bucket again, and they were winding the winch to pull him up. They were overjoyed to see him coming up with the pork. Then, they both tried to grab him. It was only a split second, but it was a momentous mistake. He was falling down with the bucket, the winch was spinning rapidly. One of them tried to grab the handle but was knocked away. The other tried to grasp the rope. Another fatal mistake! Not only did he fail to hold the rope, but he also caused Shangde to sway and probably to knock his head on the wall of the well. They both had heard a noise before Shangde splashed into the water. It was the final pull that destroyed the winch, which was then dragged into the well. They admitted that they were too cowardly to tell the whole truth, but they suffered from their guilt all these years. I understood them perfectly, for they had gray hairs on their young heads just as I did.
"Don't blame yourselves." I said, "It's the deep well..." Then, we all burst into tears, and wept, and sobbed ... Nobody touched the beer or the roast duck again. Before they said good-by to me, however, they told me that they did dig another well on the spot that Shangde had located. It was a complete success.
I could hardly wait to see the well. By now I had become a college student. As soon as the summer vacation began, I took the train and the bus and then walked about two hours to get to where the farm used to be. Although it was deserted, the local people were forming a tiny village around the new well, which was not too deep but had plenty of fresh water. None of the villagers knew any stories about the well except that it was dug by the students from Beijing. They took me for a hydrographic surveyor and told me that there had been another well, which was buried because the water was bad. They showed me where it was. I knew that it was Shangde's grave. What an unusual grave it was! Instead of sticking out, it was somewhat sunken. The stone mouth of the well could be clearly seen.
I stood by Shangde's grave for a long time, recollecting his short life. He died when he was only nineteen! What had such a brilliant young man accomplished? Nothing especially noteworthy but that well over there. What would he have been able to accomplish, had he survived the Cultural Revolution? Nobody could ever know. His boundless prospects were all sucked into the black hole of this deep well. The well is now buried, but can the deep well of the Cultural Revolution be buried like this? Should it?