During the Cultural Revolution in China, my father was declared a traitor, and my mother was imprisoned by the Red Guards and repeatedly coerced to divorce him.
While Mother was confined at school and Father was away in Beijing, Nainai became the sole adult at home. During the day, she appeared perfectly calm. She continued to tend the chickens we raised, care for the garden, and put three meals on the table, but at night, she tossed and turned. Lying next to her, I could hear her sigh and sometimes sob in the darkness.
One day Nainai said she was going to visit Mother at the No. 3 Middle School. We were all astonished. Ever since we settled in the Compound, Nainai had never set foot out of the enclosed area. Her age and her bound feet prevented her from going far. Even though there were still many women of her generation whose feet had been bound, they were seldom seen in the streets. Foot binding was associated with the feudal society and backwardness. The era of the “golden lotuses” was long gone. As for Nainai, in addition to worrying about the physical limitations imposed by her feet, we worried about her safety. A visit to Mother was obviously a demonstration of support. It could be seen as a counterrevolutionary act. Would Nainai be able to stand on her feet should some Red Guard push her? Could she move out of the way quickly enough?
“What can they do to an old woman like me? Keep me too?” Nainai said.
The two-mile distance from our home to school was a long journey for Nainai. My sisters and brother tried to talk her out of it. They had all been pressured to denounce Mother at school. Nainai seemed to understand my siblings’ concerns, but she wouldn’t change her mind. To avoid causing them any trouble, she did not ask any of them to go with her. Instead, she turned to me, her youngest grandchild.
“Jian can show me the way,” she said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Can’t you?” I was a first grader. The effect on me, Nainai figured, would be inconsequential.
I looked at Nainai. Her back hunched forward, and her eyes were red from lack of sleep and crying. It was a big step for her. Nainai must have thought it over thoroughly. I had never said no to Nainai and couldn’t do so at this time. I nodded yes.
“If anyone questions you,” Nainai said, “tell him Nainai has threatened to beat you with her walking stick.”
That sounded outrageous. Nainai had never laid a finger on any of us, and I had always been her little darling, but I dutifully agreed. I knew Nainai could not make the trip by herself. Despite my mounting fears, I wanted to accompany her.
We set out on a warm day in the early fall. Nainai put on her traditional light gray blouse, a pair of baggy black pants, and her small black shoes—all made by herself. We started our journey early in the morning. Nainai was 84, and I was seven. Holding her with one hand, I assured Nainai I could find the way.
Since all the schools were closed, students were everywhere. The Red Guards used military trucks to spread revolutionary messages. Some trucks raced to their destinations, leaving behind echoes of revolutionary songs blasted from loudspeakers. Swirls of dust trailed behind them. Others crawled, announcing Mao’s latest instructions. Their high-pitched voices sounded like sirens. Most of the vehicles in the streets, however, were horse-pulled carts. Peasants, sitting on the front edge of the flat wooden frames, shouted at the horses. From time to time, they whipped their animals, hoping to speed them up. They delivered produce to retailers in the city or hauled human manure scooped from the outhouses back to the countryside to be used as fertilizer.
Nainai and I walked slowly on the dirt sidewalk. She held her walking stick with one hand and grasped my hand, or my shoulder, with the other. The curious stares of passersby and their murmuring made me nervous. I looked at Nainai. She seemed to be focused only on the road in front of her. I tried to follow her example.
We stopped frequently for Nainai to catch her breath. Each time we took a rest, she stood still, putting both hands on the walking stick for support. She needed to give her feet some relief from her weight. She couldn’t sit down on the side of the street. She knew I was not strong enough to pull her up.
By the time we arrived at the No. 3 Middle School, it was almost noon. Mrs. Yu and Mrs. Chen, two schoolteachers who used to come to our house to visit Mother, ran into us at the entrance.
“Little Jian, oh, Grandma, what do you think you are doing here?” Mrs. Yu was shocked to see us.
“I need to see Wenxiu,” Nainai said. “Can you tell us where she is?”
Mrs. Yu threw a glance over her shoulder. Seeing no Red Guards nearby, she pointed to a low building. “She is in there,” she said quickly.
“Jian, you should take Nainai home as soon as you can,” said Mrs. Chen in a hushed voice, grabbing my shoulder. Then they rushed away.
We walked slowly toward the building. As we drew closer, I saw two teenage girls wearing Red Guard armbands sitting behind a desk.
“Who are you?” one girl asked.
“What do you want?” the other added before I could answer.
“Young ladies,” Nainai said. She was trying hard to catch her breath. “I’m here to see Gu Wenxiu, my daughter-in-law,” she continued. Her voice was soft but firm.
“Visitors are not allowed.” The girl who was taller stood up and extended an arm to stop us.
“We’ve come a long way,” Nainai said, slowly. “We are not going to leave without seeing Jian’s mother.”
The other girl, who wore a washed-out army uniform and had two ponytails above her shoulders, moved forward as well. She stared at us but said nothing. The mere sight of us must have taken them by surprise.
They exchanged a few words in low voices, and the girl with the ponytails took off.
I watched the tall girl in front of me carefully, thinking she must be in the same grade as my siblings.
Nainai was exhausted. She moved toward the small desk and leaned against it. The desk shifted with Nainai’s weight. I gave out a cry and clutched her right arm.
“I’ll have to sit for a moment,” Nainai said. With considerable effort, she supported herself on the back of the girl’s chair and slowly settled herself on the seat.
“You can’t do that,” the tall girl yelled.
I stood by Nainai. I didn’t know how to stop her, should she try to chase Nainai out of the chair. She was much bigger than me. But I knew I would not let her touch Nainai.
As we stared at each other, the other girl came back with a man trailing her. The man also wore a Red Guard armband. He was slim and tall. His expression was more amazement than anger when he saw us.
Nainai wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. She looked tired, and her blouse and pants were covered with dust.
The young man came closer. He examined Nainai up and down, his two thick eyebrows furrowed into a knot. He said nothing.
I bit my lower lip and looked at him nervously. The moment he turned to face me, I cast my eyes to the ground, my heart pounding with anxiety.
“Young man,” Nainai said. “I need to see my daughter-in-law. I won’t be long.”
I admired Nainai for being so calm and composed. She was not begging, nor was she reproaching the young man or the two girls. She was totally herself, an old reasonable woman asking permission to see her detained daughter-in-law. She was humble, but not without dignity.
“I’m not going to leave before I see her,” Nainai added quietly, returning the man’s gaze with her usual grandmotherly look.
“You are not supposed to be here,” the young man said. He paused for a moment. “But today is your lucky day,” he continued when Nainai said nothing. “I’ll give you 30 minutes.”
It was our turn to be surprised. I helped Nainai to her feet. Through the corner of my eye, I saw the young man whispering to the two girls. Then he left without saying another word.
Adapted from Jian Ping’s memoir, Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China (MoraQuest, 2009). Jian came to the United States in 1986 for graduate school at Ohio University. After 20 years in corporate America, in 2008—the year after she completed the University of Chicago Graham School’s Basic Program—she founded MoraQuest to publish books that bridge cultural differences. In 2011 Jian’s memoir was released as a documentary of the same name.