After a recent move, while unpacking, I noticed a carefully-wrapped package inside an old cardboard box.  Ripping off its layers of yellowed paper, I saw a white enameled mug still sparkling as brightly as when it was first presented to me years ago when I was still in China, a gift from a peasant girl I knew for only a few days in a hospital – a mental institute to be exact.

That was 1971, and we were in Fengshui, a small town in the south, far away from the political center of Beijing. The Cultural Revolution was in its fifth year.  Colleges and universities had just begun to reopen after being closed, but instead of admission by scores in the national college entrance exam, students were now selected from workers, peasants and soldiers. Proletarian consciousness far outweighed academic competence. I was among the first such students to enter the Teacher’s College of Fengshui.  

It was summer break. I was one of the last to leave campus; I had volunteered to close down our dorm to give others more time to travel home. My family was close by, but my college mates came from all over the district, some having to travel for days.  

While I was walking through rows of bunk beds to collect trash, Administrator Wang rushed in and asked if I could accompany a girl to the hospital, a girl from the math department who had suddenly fallen ill. Her name was Mei, “Plum Blossom” in Chinese. Administrator Wang was in charge of student affairs. A big bear of a man, he was well-liked and was ready to extend a helping hand whenever one of us students needed it. He even walked me to the dorm one evening when I returned to the campus too late from a home visit, to make sure I got in safely.

I followed him outside and saw two male students and Mei already waiting.  Her hair uncombed and a bit messy, Mei looked more distraught than sick, which was a relief to me as I had trouble seeing the very sick.  The hospital where my mother worked as a gynecologist had more than its share of them.  Each time I passed through to get to our living quarters, I had to look the other way to spare myself the sight.

The four of us set off without delay.  Mei and I walked in front, while the two young men followed close behind.  Passing through the campus gate, I turned to the right in the direction of my mother’s hospital, the best the city had to offer.  “Wrong, Kiddo!” the young man in charge shouted from behind me.  I was sixteen, while my peers were already in their early twenties. Since I was the youngest on campus, older students dubbed me the “Kid” or “Kiddo.”

I had to admit that my presence in this college was a “freak accident.”  The Cultural Revolution had forced the shutdown of China’s entire higher education systems from 1966 to 1970, during which middle school graduates were sent to the countryside to receive “re-education” from the peasants, or sent to the factories or the army if they came from proletarian families. By the time colleges reopened four years later, all of those graduates were in their late teens or early twenties.  I was one of the few exceptions.

Strictly speaking, I was not a peasant, worker or soldier.  The reason I was here could be traced back to an overheard lesson. One summer evening right before the Cultural Revolution was about to hit us in the south, my grandfather, who had made education his life’s mission, was showing my youngest aunt how Pinyin, the phonetic spelling of Chinese characters, could be used to learn the English alphabet. Always curious, I moved closer to listen.  Even though he had migrated to the city as a young man, Grandpa had not changed his village accent a bit. The funny foreign sounds, mingled with his country accent, stuck in my memory and made the English exam I took upon my graduation a breeze. 

That was most fortunate because at our middle school, our core curriculum consisted of visiting factories, digging bomb shelters in preparation for the escalation of border disputes with the Soviet Union, learning to grow vegetables and sweet potatoes in neighboring communes, and marching and drilling like little red soldiers.  Books other than Mao’s and revolutionary pamphlets were locked up and forbidden.  The last thing any self-preserving teachers dared to focus on was academics.

After graduation from middle school, at age fifteen, I was sent to the countryside to build roads – shoveling in the mountains and carrying soil in two bamboo baskets under a shoulder pole.  There was no such thing as choosing your own high school or career. The state made those decisions and assigned you to positions they deemed necessary. 

It just happened that at around the same time Mao began exploring normalization with the United States to counter-balance the Russians. After Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, English suddenly became important, replacing Russian as the sole foreign language to be taught in all schools.  Since I scored a perfect 100 on that exam, consisting mostly of the English alphabet, after only six months in the countryside, I was reassigned and sent to the Teachers’ College to be trained as an English teacher.  Thus, I skipped years of physical labor.  Grandpa’s devotion to education had helped prepare me, but timing and luck were certainly on my side.

The young man who shouted at me turned left and led us in the opposite direction, away from the city and into the mountains.  Our campus was already on the outskirts of the city. There were no other buildings beyond us except for a mental hospital several miles away, which had recently gained national fame for its innovative use of acupuncture combined with group sessions on ideology and self-criticism.

Outside of the city, public transportation was non-existent. Roads were generally rough paths, unlevel and dusty.  I was surprised that the road leading to the mental hospital was smooth and evenly paved with asphalt. Once in a while, an army vehicle would pass by, but we were the only pedestrians.  We walked silently. Mei was quiet, too.  She was tall and powerfully built. Years of physical labor had left unmistakable marks on her calloused hands and masculine shoulders.  Yet she appeared placid and gentle.  I humored myself that I must have had a calming effect on her.   The two young men walking behind apparently knew what was going on with Mei, but neither bothered to tell me.  I did not ask any questions, but just kept walking.  There was no need to feed their sense of seniority.

After a long and intense walk, we reached a gated facility at the foot of a hill.  Inside the gate, canopies of tall trees shaded single-story buildings. Evergreen bushes and flowers of bright colors framed their exteriors, and brick paths connected one building to the other. Nurses in white rushed in and out. The young man in charge of our group got hold of a nurse and asked for directions. We were sent to the main building.  Once there, I was told to wait in the hall while the two took Mei to the registration window.  She was then ushered into a room down the hall, apparently the doctor’s office. 

After what felt like hours of waiting, the head young man returned to fetch me.  I followed him to another building and into a room with two rows of beds.  Mei was already there, settled into one corner.  The young man told me that she had to be in the hospital for observation, and I needed to stay with her until her family was notified.   He assured me that Administrator Wang had already sent someone to her village, but it was remote, and it would take several days for a relative to arrive. As if reading my mind, the young man said that there was a store inside the facility.  I could get a toothbrush there.  Food coupons for the two of us and a bed for me next to Mei were already arranged.  All I needed to do was to stay with my ward. One of them would come tomorrow and take me on a quick trip back to campus, where I could shower and bring back a change of clothing.  Before long, he said, I would be home.  He was reasonable and I could not argue with him.

Still in the dark as to the exact nature of her illness, I reconciled myself to the unknown. These “adults” seemed to want to shelter me from something.  Still, Mei’s quiet suffering had already earned my sympathy.   After the two men left, I brought her to the cafeteria.  We took long walks on the hospital grounds after lunch and dinner.  She was quiet and kept her thoughts to herself.  I kept quiet, too.  When it was time for bed, we went back to our room, shared with several other patients and their caretakers, and I went to bed with my clothes on.

I was awakened next morning by the loudspeaker playing “The East is Red, the Sun Rises, and China has brought forth Mao Zedong,” a typical regimen to break the day. I looked at my watch. It was only 5:30. I got up quickly, like everyone else in the room, and made sure my ward was up and dressed, too.  A nurse soon came and led the roomful of us to a meeting hall in an adjacent building.

Others were already there.  As soon as we sat down on our designated wooden benches, a middle-aged man in a faded army uniform approached the podium.  In his right hand was the “Little Red Book” – Quotations from Chairman Mao.  He waved that hand high in the air and shouted, “Long Live Chairman Mao! Long Live the Proletariat! Down with the Bourgeoisie!”  On cue, we stood up, waved our right fits, and began shouting after him. This went on for a few minutes.  I was relieved that we did not have to do the loyalty dance as in the earlier days, in which young and old alike would wave their hands and kick their feet high in the air to show loyalty to Chairman Mao.  Those dances had always embarrassed me.

When we sat down again, the man on the podium opened up his “Little Red Book” and began reading in a deep and reverential voice: “Because we are here to serve the people, we should not be afraid of being criticized.  If what they say is right, we should correct and improve.  If what they propose benefits the people, we should adapt and implement.”  He continued with a few more readings. After that, we were told to stand up again and repeat after him.  Fifteen minutes later, we were dismissed for morning exercises and breakfast.

At breakfast, I overheard the nurses whispering excitedly among themselves that the Fifth Golden Flower was back and would be joining the morning self-criticism session.  “Whose group will she be in?” one of the nurses asked. “Mine, in Room 15.”   This was the same nurse who led us to the meeting hall.  I could barely contain my excitement. The Fifth Golden Flower was the most beautiful and beloved movie star, if China had ever called an actress a star in those days. How on earth would she come down all the way from her end of the world to this hospital?  Had she, too, had some sort of a mental breakdown?

The Fifth Golden Flower was the heroine of the movie “The Five Golden Flowers,” a musical so popular that even my grandmother could sing its theme song, “By the Butterfly Spring.”  Set in Dali of Yunnan, one of China’s most scenic and ethnically diverse provinces, and in the period of the Great Leap Forward, the movie tells the story of Ah Peng, a young Bai man in search of his love, a girl he meets on his way to a horse race. A young woman, driving a tractor loaded with young girls, is stranded with a broken wheel on their way to the same race. Ah Peng jumps off his horse and fixes the wheel for the driver. Falling for each other, the two decide to meet next year at the same time and place. In his rush to get to the race on time, Ah Peng forgets to ask the girl for her full name, – he just knows she is called Golden Flower.  When Golden Flower does not show up the following year, Ah Peng begins to search for her, unaware that Golden Flower is a common name for girls in that area.  After many mishaps and four Golden Flowers later, Ah Peng finally finds the fifth Golden Flower, his love from the roadside.

The movie was released in 1959 and won the best actress and best director awards at some international film festivals, but was banned during the Cultural Revolution for promoting bourgeois romance.  Leading the attack was none other than Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who had been a B-list actress herself prior to joining Mao’s revolution, and was famous for her insatiable jealousy and deadly vengeance.  The actress who played the Fifth Golden Flower became the natural victim.  Suddenly, China’s most beloved movie star was a counter-revolutionary and an enemy of the people. She disappeared from the public overnight, and her real-life Ah Peng left her.

The next morning, after walking Mei to her meeting room at 8:30, I sneaked into Room 15 to get a glimpse of the beautiful Golden Flower.  What I saw shocked me.  Instead of that willowy young girl in bright-colored Bai costume, I saw a stocky woman in a tight burgundy shirt – a shirt that obviously could not accommodate her weight gain.  Her face, though still beautiful, had barely a hint of her former sparkle. 

One by one, members of her group discussed how they had cleansed themselves of their selfish thoughts after studying such and such quotations from the “Little Red Book.”  How terribly wrong of them when they had so wrapped themselves in their own thoughts, while peasants were toiling in the soil and workers were sweating in front of furnaces to provide for them.

When it came to her turn, the Fifth Golden Flower read a quotation from Mao in Mandarin, with each character clearly enunciated.  Like the fifth Golden Flower in the movie, she, too, was of Bai ethnicity and normally spoke a Bai dialect. At a reception held in her honor, Premier Zhou Enlai had encouraged her to learn Mandarin – he had heard that her lines in the movie were voiced over. Apparently the fifth Golden Flower had taken the Premier’s counsel to heart.   She then described how fearful she was of the needles during acupuncture, the institute’s revolutionary miracle cure.  It was Mao’s quotations, she emphasized, that helped her overcome those fears.  She recited one of the quotations on the spot: “Be determined, not afraid of sacrifices, overcome all obstacles to win victory.”  A chill suddenly hit me. The contrast between the Fifth Golden Flower in the movie and in person was too much. There was not a single thread left of her former vivacity and free spirits.  I could bear no more and slipped quietly out.

In the meanwhile, at the Teachers’ College, somebody must have reached out to a certain young man, the platoon leader of Mei’s department.  He came to visit us, as handsome and refined as Mei was sturdy.  Her spirit lifted upon seeing him: a smile appeared on her impassive face, something acupuncture had failed to achieve. “Mei, you are finally blossoming,” I teased her, playing on her name.  “Thank you!”  Her face turned a crimson red.  A few days later, Mei’s father arrived to take her home. Before leaving, Mei and her father insisted that I accept that big bright white mug, an expensive gift for a peasant family.

I learned later that Mei broke down badly when the handsome platoon leader left her for home without making any good-bye.  They had been spending a lot of time together and reached a stage beyond just friendship.  I did not know all the details, but I was simply thrilled that things worked out between the two of them. Campus romances were forbidden in those days, but instead of getting kicked out, as was the norm for breaking the rule, Mei and the handsome young man were discreetly married, a miracle possible only in a far-away town during a quiet summer break. Perhaps Administrator Wang, with his big heart, while carefully skirting the politics of the day, was able to engineer a happy ending.

Hongbo Tan came to the United States from China on a scholarship in 1982. Seven years later, she received a Ph.D. in English from Washington State University. But, after her divorce, she took a corporate job to provide for and raise her three-year-old son. With a son fully grown, she retired last April and is now pursuing a writing career full time.