Changchun City

“Changchun City”
[1986: I received an offer from Professor Zhang Siyang of Jilin University, in the People’s Republic of China, to come to Changchun City with my family, there to work with a local acting company on a production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and to teach courses on the modern playwrights at the university. My wife Norma and our two little boys, David and Danny, came with me.   I also would inherit the five graduate students who were doing dissertations with Professor Zhang. All this happened just months before we would leave and the country would be rocked by the riots at Tianamen Square. This  is a section of that story.]

Three weeks into our stay, Fe May-may asked me if my family and I would come to the women’s dorm room for dinner. The invitation was a radical move, for faculty members at Jilin University seldom mingle socially with students. “If you wish, please invite Chen Young-guo [our translator] to come with you.”

As we approached the dormitory, there were hundreds of students who had gathered to see the rare event. A crowd followed us into the building as we made our way down the hallway to the tiny one-room apartment where the Gang of Five lived. We were greeted with gifts–rulers “all the way from Hong Kong” for the boys, a silk shawl for my wife Norma. From a cassette on the table came the sound of John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High,” the only tape of American music they had.

“We know all the latest Western music,” Fe May-may assured me.

In the center of the room was a card table where the various items for jousa (a Chinese version of ravioli) had been carefully arranged–dough rolled into four-inch circles and the necessary ingredients (pork, onions, ginger, garlic), along with a large bottle of garlic sauce in which the jousa, once cooked, would be dipped. On a kerosene single-burner stove water was boiling away in an over-sized pot. After instructions from the Gang on how to fold the dough around the ingredients, then pinch the top so that the jousa, looking like a purse, was ready for boiling, we were soon busy around the table, chatting about school and the United States, while other students watched us, discretely standing behind the curtain that served for a door. Little did I know that two days later in the student newspaper the headline would read, “Shakespearean and Family Have Dinner in Student Residence Hall: Rare Ceremony Witnessed by Several Hundred Jilin Students.”

“Homan, we have some wine for you and Chen.”

Shi Lin produced two glasses and Fe May-may poured from a large bottle with the same “Great Wall Wine” label I had seen in Professor Zhang’s apartment that first night.

“Shu Ping, why aren’t you women having a drink?”

“Homan, it is the custom for the men to drink, as the women watch.”

“A custom?”

“Yes, we have always done it this way.”

“Do you think of yourselves as liberated women?”

A silence, punctured a second later by nervous laughter. At last Lee San-bing spoke up, “Yes, Homan, we wish to be liberated.”

Parodying a fatherly philosopher, I said, “Then fellow persons . . . sisters . . . surely you know that women are the equal of men. Maybe even more than equal. Am I not right?”

A silence.

“I will take your silence for agreement. How are you women ever going to show us men the way to true liberation if you stick to a politically incorrect customs like this? What do you think, Chen?”

“I suggest the women bring out six more glasses.”

In a few minutes we were all drinking deep of that strong Great Wall wine, making toasts to women’s liberation, parodying the old men-alone custom now thrown to the winds, locking arms as we sang together “Rocky Mountain High,” the boys dancing together around the table, all of us breaking out in those tears of joy that come when the human spirit, long damned up, is released.
With the Gang of Five now drunk, the conversation changed.

“Homan, you were a protester in your country in the 1960s. Is that true?”

“Yes, Wong Su-ling.”

“What did you protest?”

“Equal rights for African-Americans. And also the war in Vietnam.”

“What were your tactics?”

I naively assumed that the questions stemmed from the Chinese interest in the parallel histories of the two countries during the Mao era. And so, with Norma filming away on the camcorder, and John Denver singing in the background, I gave a scholarly lecture on the protest movements–how we organized, what symbols we used, the slang and political shibboleths of the cause, the range of protests from marches to sit-ins and shut-downs to the violence of the SDS. The women sat transfixed, once in a while asking for a clarification, at other times checking with Chen on a particular point of translation, and very often exchanging glances. The wine continued to flow freely; two more bottles of Great Wall Wine magically appeared. Even the crowd in the hall sang along as I taught the gang “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

Hours later, with sleeping children draped on our backs, we were escorted to the outside door by our hosts.

Clutching an empty wine bottle, a very drunk Shi Lin pulled me to one side, her eyes alive with anger.

“Homan, I don’t give a damn about our glorious past, or about the Great Wall. I don’t care if the damn wall crumbles to the ground. I just want–.”

As she began to weep, I put my arm around her. This was the first time I had heard a Chinese woman curse.

“What, Shi Lin?”

“I just want things to be different here . . . different.”

Shu Ping came up.

“Homan, today we Chinese are thermos bottles with tea, like the ones you have at the Nan Hu Hotel. Cold on the outside, but boiling inside.”

Four months after we returned from China, a graduate student of mine went to teach at Jilin University, just two months before the student riots in Tianamen Square. He reported that there was also a massive demonstration in Changchun City, though it received no press coverage in this country. Five thousand people marked down the Joseph Stalin Boulevard to the steps of the Post Office. Circling the city was a contingent of the People’s Army. My graduate student served as liaison between the military and the citizens. Leading the protesters were the Gang of Five, my Gang of Five, their right arms held out straight, fists clenched, in the very protest gesture I had described that night we made jousa, the five women urging on the crowd as it shouted a Chinese translation of our own defiant “Right On!”

After the riots were quelled, Fe May-may and Shi Lin were sent to workers’ camps in the country for political “re-indoctrination”; Lee San-bing lost her job with a printer and left Changchun–nobody knows where she is now. Shu Ping was expelled from the university, and Wong Su-ling came to this country to do graduate work in English.

Seeing that evening in their apartment as preserved on video-tape provides an unsettling experience indeed, as I expound like a pedant on the 1960s, the jousa spread on the table, the boys bouncing on the beds, the crowd watching from the curtained doorway, and the Gang of Five listening intently, their minds racing to that moment when the Great Wall itself would crumble, a future when things would be “different.”