One child for life. That was the law in China.
Dama has raised her three sons in the village, Flying Dragon. Children – boys – are essential to carry on the family line, but her three sons have failed to produce any and now her pregnant daughter-in-law is living in a hidden cellar to avoid a forced abortion. Meantime Fenghua’s only nephew has been kidnapped, probably sold. In a land where people are viciously punished for wanting to be parents, and where the law keeps changing, peasants will go to desperate lengths in order to have a baby boy, legally or otherwise.
Mingming and Fenghua must make a heartbreaking decision in order to have the baby they long for. Dingming wants to marry but his lady is elsewhere. Xingming hasn’t yet met a wife. Will Dama’s offspring be able to carry on their family line?
About the Author
Fengqin Dadswell was born in a small village in north east China. Her parents could not read or write. She was lucky to enjoy free education, graduated from Beida (Peking University), and was a teacher in the Department of Economics and a researcher of the Population Research Institute of Peking University. In the 1980s, she visited more than ten provinces of China, conducting social research in the countryside. She left China in 1988 on a UN grant to complete an MA in Population Studies at Exeter University.
The light was struggling to break the darkness from the east. Its first showing was a line of light, outlining the profile of the Earth. Gradually, the light developed like the drawing of a stage curtain. The east was printed with a silver colour. It was long before sunrise, but the silver light had already swallowed most of the stars, and pushed the darkness away. Dama, Aunt Lu and Sister Xu came together at the biggest pine tree at the end of the village.
They greeted each other. Aunt Lu was accompanied by her son, Tiezhou.
“My mum didn’t sleep very well last night. I’m afraid she will fall asleep when she gets onto the bus,” he told Dama.
“I’m always like that. I can’t get to sleep because I worry about oversleeping, or missing the bus, silly things like that.”
“I told you I wouldn’t let you miss the bus. I told you I would wake you up, but you don’t trust me.”
“It’s no time for an argument between a mother and son,” said Dama. “We must go now. By the way, don’t worry about your mum, Tiezhou. We’ll take care of her.”
“Have a good journey,” Tiezhou said, and stood under the pine tree, gazing after the three departing women.
They set off in the direction of the bus stop. It was a good two hours’ walk. The road was quiet.
Dama broke the silence. “Sister Lu, look at your son, tall and handsome. If he lived in a city, he would have become a father long ago. How many months is his wife pregnant?”
“Four months. You don’t know how difficult it was to find a wife for my son.”
“Was your son looking for a beautiful girl?”
“No. Our condition was simple. We just wanted a woman who could provide a baby. Even then we had difficulty.”
“The problem was, we didn’t have a separate house for his marriage. If he married, he would still have to live with us. Girls want to live separately from their parents. If there’s no house ready for their marriage, no girl wants to come. At last, we found a girl from Jiangxi province. She was happy to live under the same roof with us. That’s why my son got married when he was thirty-two years old.”
“Your husband is the only son in his family. According to the policy, your son should be allowed to have two children. Why are you going to pray for the first baby of your daughter-in-law? It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl for the first.”
“You’re wrong. The government policy says you can have two, if there has been one son for three generations, but our family has only had one son for two generations. My son is allowed to have one child. That’s why I pray for a boy for them.”
Sister Xu interrupted. “You have a son. I have no son, only three daughters. They called me a ‘childless person’, because girls don’t count. The girl grows up, gets married and goes away with her husband. It’s like throwing water away. This time, I pray for my youngest daughter to have a son. I don’t want my youngest daughter to suffer the same fate as me.”
Dama joined the conversation. “I think girls and boys are never equal in their manual work. Now the land is contracted to our household, one family is one production unit. If there’s no man, who is going to pull the plough in the water field? When we are old, the government doesn’t pay us a pension. At last, we have to depend on our children. When my husband died, there was no backbone in the house. Life was very difficult. I’m just luck my three sons grew up. The government teases our common people with this ‘One Child Policy’. Let the ‘One Child Policy’ go to hell. I want my children to have at least two children.”
“You’ll have to pay a fine on the second one,” Aunt Lu warned.
“I think it’s worth paying the fine. When a child grows to four or five years’ old, he starts to pick firewood, collect the eggs, and feed the chickens. They grow so quickly. It’s different from the children in the city. They cost a lot to bring up.”
Talking made the time pass so quickly, that the walk to the bus stop seemed insignificant. The bus was very crowded. It was mid-February, and New Year was in the offing. People were busy with their New Year shopping. The passengers were carrying poles, and live chicken in bamboo cages, and oranges in bamboo baskets, occupied every space. The old women had to struggle to get on the bus. There was scarcely a place for them to put their feet, let alone sit. Eventually, after two hours standing, Aunt Lu found a seat and the three of them took turns to sit down.
When the bus stopped at the foot of the Hundred Flowers Mountain, Aunt Lu’s feet were swollen, but, when they saw the mountain, they forgot the very uncomfortable journey. They were attracted by the beautiful scenery. The stone track wound like a snake, twining round the Hundred Flowers Mountain. The clouds were like a rose wreath, worn by the head of the mountain in the setting sun.
Xu had been there before. She took the lead. “We follow the footpath to Guanyin temple.” She pointed out the track paved with stones. It had been built long, long ago by pilgrims, who wanted to make life easier for the monks and nuns living in the temples at the top of the mountain. It made the task of carrying provisions less onerous and made the temples accessible to the old and inform, who needed to come here to pray. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards had destroyed the temples. The monks and nuns were told to go off and marry and do something useful. The Red Guards’ slogan, which they had trumpeted loudly, was, “To destroy the old world and to establish the new.”
“They destroyed the temples, but they didn’t build anything,” said Xu, reproachfully. “They just let the space grow wild, and the track got overgrown. Now, since 1979, everyone has different ideas. More and more people cry for Buddhis. Some people cut the bushes and opened the track to get to the ruins of the old temples to pray. One day, the local people were ordered to rebuild the temples, because foreigners and overseas Chinese wanted to visit the temples here. You know the temples have more than a thousand hears of history?”
“Did the temples get rebuilt?” Dama asked.
“Yes, they did. The government wants to earn hard currency. When they realised the temples were attractive to the tourists, they started to build at once. They’ve been rebuilding the temples for the past two years, but they aren’t finished yet. One of the problems is the shortage of monks and nus. They got rid of all the original ones; they died or were sent to prison.”
“I saw a lot of young monks and nuns in the temples,” Aunt Lu added.
“You don’t know the secret,” said Xu. “Most of them are employed by the government to do that work in the daytime. When the temple closes, they go home, unless they live far away. They are country people, like us. They like to work in the temple to escape from hard work in the field, but they don’t like to be single and celibate.”
“I wonder how you got so much information about the temple?” Dama asked.
“That’s a secret,” Xu replied.
The sun, a ball of flame, was sinking slowly down the mountain in the west. The moon rose; the stars were twinkling at one another, as if they had first me when the night started in the sky. The mist like a silver belt wreathed up from the bottom of the valleys to the top of the mountain. Night drew her curtain and brought quiet, broken only by the sounds of a waterfall.