Excerpted from Chapter 1: “A Flowering” (footnotes excluded) (courtesy Little, Brown & Company, March 2010).
In the globally and even cosmically tumultuous year of 1910, little could have seemed less significant than the birth of a peasant girl in the far reaches of southeastern China. That year, the Great Fire wiped out a vast swath of northwestern U.S. woodlands, the flooding Seine swamped the Paris Métro, and the earth passed through the tail of Halley’s comet. Mexico erupted in revolution, Japan annexed Korea, and Egypt’s first native prime minister was assassinated. So disturbing was the changing world that the Vatican demanded that its new priests renounce Modernism.
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But the most stunning and epochal convulsion of all was unfolding in China, the world’s oldest continuous civilization, where the Qing dynasty had entered its death throes. Two thousand years of dynastic rule in Asia’s largest and most populous nation were crashing onto the shores of the twentieth century, launching what was to be four decades of upheaval and civil war and, on the tide of world wars, reshaping the global order.
Only months prior to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty, the peasant girl was born in the obscure village of Yeping to the Wei family. In traditional China, the birth of a boy was called jieguo, “the bearing of fruit,” and was considered a boon to the family. The birth of a girl was called kaihua, “a flowering” — though visually pleasing, ultimately unrewarding because only her eventual in-laws would prosper from her labor and offspring.
The little girl had entered a world of rigid gender and birthorder politics, a realm of oppressive spirits, ancestral ghosts, and Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and cultural traditions that would weigh on her like the blanket of bamboo smoke that hovered over a village house. She could quite possibly live her life within a one mile radius. Befitting her status as a daughter in traditional China, the little Wei girl in Yeping was given no name. But she was lucky in two regards: First, some peasants too poor to feed their families drowned newborn daughters in their night soil buckets. Though destitute, this girl’s parents had let her live. Second, her family could not afford to bind her feet to produce the “three-inch lilies” that would make her an attractive bride but would also require crushing the bones at the end of her feet, bending her toes under to her heels, and securing them with strips of cloth. She did not have the luxury of being permanently deformed and housebound. She was needed in the fields.
Yeping would eventually find itself at the hub of Chinese Communism, but for now the sleepy village in southern Jiangxi province was a mountainous backwater so remote that no roads reached it from the north. Camphor trees here had growth rings of more than five hundred years, and change came slowly to the village. The isolated inhabitants — about forty families in all — spoke with a thick southern accent, frequently interjecting “ha,” “sa,” and “bo” to emphasize their points, while also using expressions dating back to ancient Chinese.
The local dialect differed greatly not only from the predominant Mandarin but also from that of villages only a few miles away. In rural Jiangxi, an archipelago of remote homesteads and villages each steeped in the past and its own superstitions, the women worshipped the white-robed female bodhisattva Guan Yin, who brought them sons and saved them from both deadly fires and drowning. In each village, humble roadside stone shrines to the villagers’ own bearded earth deity brought protection from drought and famine. Villagers, mostly tenant farmers, lived in mud-brick huts with dirt and pebble floors that turned liquid during spring’s subtropical rainfalls. Most of these huts had only two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom, where the whole family slept.
Abundant rice — two or even three crops per year — was a blessing of the region and so central to life that in both Mandarin (the principal Chinese dialect) and Cantonese (the language of Guangdong), the term meaning “to eat,” chi fan, literally means “to eat cooked rice.” But the Wei family tasted little of its harvest. All of their rice crop went to the landlord. Instead, they ate the same small fibrous sweet potatoes that they fed to their pigs. The family cooked in large metal woks on a wood-burning mudbrick stove. They ate yam congee or pumpkin soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at a wooden table with a drawer for bowls and chopsticks and benches on either side. Stacks of pumpkins occupied one corner of the kitchen, where ducks and chickens roamed, fouling the floor and necessitating constant sweeping.
Outside, the yard was thick with animal and human odors. Near the outhouse — a collection of boards around a hole with brick foot pads on either side — sat the pigsty with a breeding pair, whose sucklings were sold to the local butcher. The waste of both humans and beasts was collected in pits only a little farther away, to be held for use as fertilizer for the crops.
Around Yeping, crops grew year-round, but for the peasant farmers fall was the busiest time. After bringing in the rice, they harvested yams, which they peeled, cubed, and dried on rooftops or in communal courtyards. Pumpkins, some of which had been culled in summer while green and tasting like zucchini, also were harvested now, orange and sweet. After long workdays, villagers sat in bamboo chairs around the courtyard, where laundry dried on poles and naked children and rawboned dogs (a selection of the latter to end up on a spit come winter) produced a din among the prodigious flies. Children from the same clan ran in a pack, calling one another “brother” and “sister.”
Although the baby girl born to the Wei family in 1910 had her share of good luck, it only went so far. Six months after her birth, her mother died. Hundreds of miles to the north, in the great capital city of Beijing, as the Qing dynasty teetered, old and new powers clashed over the fate of the nation. At their height, the Qing, from Manchuria, had reshaped China, suppressing warlords, pushing into Tibet, and taking Taiwan from the Dutch. But their rule had been in a steady decline as China was rocked by the Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) and the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, by the bloody civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), and by the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), which had cost it Taiwan. With the abdication of the last
emperor, a mere child, in 1912, the dynasty finally collapsed.
Sun Yatsen, a reformer and unifier later considered the father of modern China, emerged as the provisional president of the newly founded Republic of China. A visionary, Sun asserted that the country belonged to all its historic peoples, including the Hui (Chinese Sunni Muslims of Turkic descent), Man (Manchus), Meng (Mongols), and Zang (Tibetans), not just the predominant Han. His enlightened reign was all too brief, however. In 1912, a former Qing military commander pushed Sun aside, taking the presidency and declaring himself emperor, dealing democracy a mortal blow. When he died in 1916, China again plunged into chaos.
That same year , the girl in Yeping, now six, was sold by her father as a tongyangxi, or child bride, to a family in another village. This was not an uncommon practice. The husband-to-be might be much older or younger, perhaps an infant himself, in which case she was expected to raise him while serving in his parents’ household. Often the acquiring family had no son at all for the girl to marry, in which case she simply became a servant.
As the girl had grown older, though not that much larger, the villagers had begun to call her “Shorty.” When Shorty was told that she should prepare to depart for her new home, she surreptitiously collected stones and hid them in the bedroom. When two men came to get her the next day, she attacked them with her stockpile. After she had hurled all her rocks at them, she grabbed a sickle and swung it at them. One of them tugged the weapon out of her small hands and hoisted her over his shoulder like a sack of rice. But Shorty was not finished. Furiously pounding the man’s backside, she clenched one of his ears in her teeth. The man dropped her, and the two men bolted without the girl they called a “pint-sized demon.”
Shorty’s respite was brief. Her family summoned an older cousin to come for her. In rural China, where children might just as easily eat or sleep in the homes of their aunts and uncles as in their own, cousins were like siblings, and she was fond of this one. He successfully coaxed her into letting him take her to her new home, and as unceremoniously as that, Shorty’s childhood was over.
Henceforth, she spent her days fetching water, chopping wood, doing laundry, and cooking. The tongyangxi was expected to make pig fodder and to collect the night soil and pig waste for the fertilizer pit. When Shorty made mistakes, her in-laws chastised or beat her and sometimes refused to feed her. Like millions of peasant girls across China, she did little but work. She was paid in welts and bruises across her small body and in near-ceaseless scorn.