Chinese Stories in English
The Old Landlord, Zhou Shude
by Old Wei (Liao Yiwu)
The Reason for the Interview
My grandfather was a landlord in the old days in the Black Plain area of Salt Tower County, Sichuan Province. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 84. He was just mildew on the fields, never leaving the county in his whole life.
My most deep-seated memory of him is his stinginess. He'd keep dried meats and peanuts around for seven, eight years because he didn't like the idea of using them up. But people said he'd loaned out a lot of money, a few pennies or a few dollars at a time, and if the borrowers didn't bring up paying it back, he wouldn't go ask for it. I always wanted to ask him what his thinking was, but there's no way I can ask him now.
But because of my fellow author Zhou Mingyue, I was able to make up for what I missed. His grandfather Zhou Shude was also a rural landlord. He's 89 now, still articulate and clear-minded as you could want. On February 3, 1998, my girlfriend Song Yu and I got up early to catch an inter-urban bus. After a trip of well over a hundred miles, we finally arrived at a township in northern Sichuan that afternoon. The next day, under clear skies, we took another bus to a rural village, and then we walked a couple of miles before knocking on Mr. Zhou Shude's door.
Later, when I was collating my tapes of the interview, I couldn't help but exclaim: "There are millions of old landlords in China, but peasant moneybags as interesting as Grandpa Zhou are few and far between."
Old Wei: Sir, what do you want in your last years?
Zhou Shude: What I want…. I've become a lonely old man. I raised three sons and three daughters, but none of them are around anymore. They've got their own lives now, working outside the village. I count Mingyue as the most filial of my grandsons. He came home to see me twice last year. He's your coworker?
Old Wei: We're friends. Or colleagues, you could say. We both write.
Zhou Shude: Oh, literati.
Old Wei: Your house is a wreck. Hasn't Mingyue's dad spent any money to fix it up?
Zhou Shude: He wants me to move to Pan's Ravine to my second daughter's place. He'll pay my living expenses. But who'd take care of the ancestral home? Once I move, Zhou Family Flats wouldn't be my home any more. I wouldn't have a Household Registration card, and they'd give the land to someone else to farm.
You shouldn't think of this house as a wreck. It used to be a courtyard house: one wing on the left and one on the right, the main room and an enclosed veranda. My humble home. My grandfather built it and passed it on to my dad. Dad gave up the ghost in '45, from overwork. His estate was split into two shares, the house and the fields. I got one share and my brother got the other. That year Mingyue's dad had already graduated from college and gone to Jiangxi Province to be a beach bum. Of all three brothers, he was the wildest.
My brother Zhou Shugui was a lazy good-for-nothing. When I get to Hell I'll drag him in front of the Devil and let him be the judge. He went to town a few times, but he didn't just eat and drink and gamble and whore around. He got addicted to opium, too.
You younger generation might not know it, but in those days if you got hooked on opium, you were done for. Even millionaires couldn't afford to smoke that stuff. After a couple of years, he'd sold the land and the house. Finally he hocked his old lady. She jumped in the pond a few times but it never woke up his conscience, so she decided that going to the clan leader to ask for a divorce would be better than being an opium widow. The clan leader got a posse together. They tied Zhou Shugui to a tree and left him there in the sun and the rain for a whole week, trying to sober him up.
But as soon as they untied him, he took off in a cloud of dust and ran over to my house to borrow money. He kowtowed, and rolled around on the ground, and slapped himself upside the head. Finally he hit his head against the wall and threatened to start a fire and burn up the shrine to our ancestors. I was so disappointed in him, I made out a written pledge saying he and I were no longer brothers. He signed it, and grabbed the ten pieces of silver out of my hand and was gone.
Think about it! Anyone like that doesn't deserve to be alive! Even the clan leader, as decent a man as he was, finally had to call all our people together and declare that Zhou Shugui was no longer a member of the village. If he ever had the nerve to put his dog's feet down inside the village again, they should be cut off immediately.
To earn back people's respect, I started working around the clock peddling salt. My old lady was pregnant, but she went out into the fields with the hired hands. I vowed to buy back all the property Zhou Shugui had sold off. It's hard to start a business, and it isn't any easier to keep it going. Luckily his wife and kids all worked hard, too, so by '48 I'd paid off all his debts.
We brought his wife and the two kids back from her parents' house and put them in the right wing. Before you knew it we had a big family again, and everyone had their own space. The livestock was thriving and things were getting better every day. I made sure to light incense every morning and evening to give thanks to our ancestors for their blessings.
It didn't last long, though. We got liberated. The County Land Reform Working Group came to the village in '50. I was classified as a landlord. There were five, six landlords in the village. The clan leader and the head of the Baojia [Civil Control System] were both Evil Tyrant landlords. They were put in front of a Remember the Misery struggle meeting in town and then executed.
Me and Mingyue's mother and a bunch of landlords and rich peasants were all escorted to the execution. That was the first time in my life I was ever tied up with my hands behind my back.
Well, I'd been to a private school, so I knew all about the Way of Confucius and Mencius, and earning merit through good deeds. I'd never cheated or hurt anyone. But all my fellow villagers who'd been so polite and respectful to me before, now they all turned against me. They pointed and jabbed their fingers and struggled against me. Two of my long-term hired hands were members of the Poor Peasants Association. They brought the Work Group over to my place and registered my land, my house and my livestock. The deeds for the land and the house got confiscated. Those two thieves, I'd always treated them well.
Of course, it's the way of the world that rich people suffer calamities, and poor people emancipate themselves and become leaders. I figured it out, and it's no big deal, because it wasn't just my family that got their assets divided up. It was a transition period between two governments. As long as we came through it with our lives, we could deal with the rest of it later. So I urged my wife not to take the easy way out. Our sons were grown, and it was OK if they wanted to make a clean break with their mother and father. And if they went off to faraway places to work, so what! It was up to them.
Toward the end of the land reform, the leader of our work group came to talk to me. He commended me for having such a positive attitude, for being able to cooperate with the government. My heart was breaking, but all I could do was bow and scrape.
What I really couldn't get was Zhou Shugui, my brother, the good-for-nothing, he got classified as a poor peasant! Of course, it didn't matter how he got so poor. In the early years after Liberation he was actually living on the street, begging and singing folk songs. If it wasn't for **, he would've long since starved to death. Now, the world was turned upside-down. He was on top and I was on the bottom.
He even got up on the stage and struggled against me, slapped me around, cursed me for being lower than a dog. He said I'd not only stolen his land, but grabbed his wife and kids, too. It was really unjust. Everyone in the village knew that Zhou Shude, me, was always one to go lightly on people and earn merit through good deeds. I'd provided for his wife and kids, the three of them, all in vain. But not one of the villagers would stand up and speak the truth!
I was in a daze, and by the time I woke up, four families had already moved into my courtyard house. Our big family was put in the enclosed veranda. It's a good thing they didn't tear down the main room, so I could still sneak over and burn some incense. But Zhou Shugui occupied three big rooms in the left wing. Just like that he had a home and fields and a family again. He'd become a rich man. Who'd of thought that an opium addict could have such a stroke of luck!
First time I saw him strolling around the courtyard, I got so worked up that I couldn't breathe. But whenever I looked up, there he was, and after a while I accepted my fate. If we ran into each other when no one else was around, Zhou Shugui would ask me, "Baby brother, you were a workhorse all your life. Did you save the family's estate?"
I'd tell him, "I'm a landlord, you're a poor peasant. You'd better keep a clear class boundary between us."
So he says, "Come on, my world came out of an opium pipe. If it wasn't for the opium, you and I wouldn't have anything left at all."
Old Wei: Your brother "Remembered the Misery" against you. I think, in any farming village, it would be hard to find a family that's been poor for three generations.
Zhou Shude: A family's ruin comes in the blink of an eye, but for a family to flourish, that depends on whether capable people are born in every generation. Land gets acquired slowly, bit by bit, one small plot at a time. If you don't do it right, you'll spend decades to acquire any decent acreage, even a whole life's hard work. But a family's ruin is like a landslide, it's gone before you can say it. So in the countryside it's not hard to find a family that's been poor for three generations. Finding one that's been rich for three generations is what's hard.
Old Wei: How'd things go for you later on?
Zhou Shude: In this country you got so many landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad guys, rightists – however it was for them, that's how it was for me. I've lived in this house since the Land Reform Work Group disbanded. Loose talk can get you in trouble, but as long as you keep your mouth shut, people in this village won't bother you much.
There used to be a loudspeaker installed in this courtyard, and at the first sign of trouble, they'd call us here for a meeting. There were 20 or more bad guys, with a dozen or so First Line Militia in the neighborhood to keep watch on them.
Look at this little bench I'm sitting on. Nailed it together during the Land Reform. It's really sturdy. Been rubbing my butt on it for 47 years, so now it's as smooth as a flagstone. Look, you can see your reflection in it. When I sat on it, I could rest my chin on my knees.
When there was a minor political campaign, we'd have a two or three-hour meeting in the village and that was that. For a bigger campaign, the First Line Militia would march us over to the commune for the meetings, four or five miles over hilly roads.
There'd be tens of thousands of people there, with two rows of leaders sitting on a stage and over a hundred rich guys, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists standing in a hollow at the foot of the stage, standing for several hours. Every leader's speech was a long one, about how good the domestic and international situation was; or about the implementation of the spirit of the central authorities' policies down to the provincial and the county level, and finally to the commune and the individual production brigades; or about classes and class struggle. This kind of meeting would sometimes last three days. We'd get up before dawn to make rice or corn cakes for breakfast, to fill up as much as possible. Then we'd take a bunch of corn cakes and go sit on the doorstep to wait for the announcement over the loudspeaker. That's what we did in the morning, and we didn't get to come back until after dark. As long as they didn't light the gas lamps for a "torch meeting". That was like burning high-grade incense for a prayer session.
In the fifties I was over 40, but I could put in some long hours. I was fit as a fiddle and no matter how long they'd make me stand as a punishment, I'd do it without blinking. These days I'm getting older and older, and I've got back problems, every day worse and worse.
Fortunately the campaigns melted away in the 70s, and I got taken to the commune fewer times. Even when I did have to go, they'd give me breaks so I could rest up, go the bathroom. Sometimes they'd even let me sit down during the meeting. Everyone's attitude towards landowners was getting better, I guess, and people would even come visit me. The village folks, well, only the mountains never change. If you got bad Feng Shui for a while, time comes it'll turn around.
Old Wei: When I was little, the school often brought in poor and lower-middle class peasants, people who'd suffered a lot and were full of resentment. They'd "remember the misery" with us, and tell us how much better it is now. They'd give us a meal with lousy food, to show us what it was like. We were really shocked, especially after we visited the Despotic Landlord Liu WencaiMuseum. We all hated landlords, and hated exploitation. We didn't want to go back to the old society and suffer through that again, and be victimized again. What do you think of that sort of class position that we had? Would you want go back before Liberation, to recover your status?
Zhou Shude: You're a sensible fellow, why do you bring up that class struggle red herring? It's way out of style. They took the landlord label off me in '79. I thank **, and **'s reform and opening out, for giving me a second chance at life. Mistakes have got to be corrected. Of course, I'm not a big talker. I won't venture to say ** was wrong and had to be corrected. I'm saying I was wrong and had to be corrected.
Nowadays we've got things better than the landlords did before Liberation. We've got electric lights, and television, and can eat meat whenever we want. When people start to get on in years, they've got to stay home and do some handicrafts. But that was impossible in the old society. We didn't have electric lights, let alone TV, and meat was something we had only once a week. A little bird told me, criminals in prison get meat twice a week.
My dad and my grandpa, they were country bumpkins. When they were in their sixties and seventies, they were out in the fields with the hired hands. Sometimes they got so tired they'd spit blood, but they'd keep at it. That's how they got their property.
They didn't even have it as good as the young men and women these days, the ones that leave the village to get jobs. They've got nothing when they leave, but after a few years out there, they come back with their pockets full of money. They're like magicians. And they build new houses. If you use the standards from back then, during land reform, they're all landlords or rich peasants.
Mingyue's dad, he teaches in the provincial capital. And that little kid Mingyue, he went to college. I heard he even got himself a doctorate. Back then I never heard of anybody in the whole county getting a doctorate. My teacher in school said the author Hu Shihad a doctorate, and even the emperor granted him an interview and asked for his advice. Imagine how much those doctors must know! It's a real blessing from our ancestors. My little grandson got a doctorate and is living in Beijing. Who knows, maybe the central government leaders come to him for advice all the time. Like the scholar Kang Youwei said, all of China is one family.
About those "Remembering the Misery" struggle meetings. Having a meal of bitter memories is the first stage of socialism. I've got it figured out. The ancients used to say, "Those who suffer the most become the best." I'm an old fool, with no abilities except to help my son and grandson when they're being wronged. At the beginning, when my two hired hands got up on the stage and accused me of exploiting them, of forcing them out into the fields in the dead of winter and withholding their wages, I didn't accept it, because I was out there in the fields with them. Having a new society doesn't mean you don't have to go to work in the winter.
But gradually, I figured it out. It's fate. This world is made up of the good guys and the bad guys. If you can't make it as one of the good guys, you've got to rely on that pile of bad guys. Even though I was just the smallest of small landlords, and didn't mean to do anyone wrong, I never had a rainy day account.
But above all, conspiracies to restore capitalism were always with us. Like Gao Gang, and Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi, and **, **. I was their filial progeny. Don't laugh, during the **, they had a slogan, "Down with Zhou Deshu, the Filial Progeny of Liu Shaoqi". I didn't know these high ranking guys, of course, but I had connections with their relatives. I had connections with **'s relatives, too, and he got us rehabilitated. Talk about filial progeny, I was willing to be their beast of burden.
Old Wei: Now that you've told me the story, I know you're a broad-minded old gentleman who understands his lot in life and is at peace with it. No wonder you've been able to reach such a venerable age.
Zhou Shude: I'm 89 this year, and I've been tired of living for a long time now, but what can you do? The more I think about dying, the longer I stay alive. That cedar coffin has been in the main room for more than 20 years, and still I can't die. It's actually the third coffin – the termites got to the first two. The coffins die but I don't.
The Feng Shui Master's been here lots of times to look the place over. He goes on about how well positioned it is, with the veranda right in the south-east corner, blocked off from the feng shui from the north-east. That's why this old man's life turned around in the end, even though I was classed as a landlord and suffered that fate for decades. This bonanza shouldn't come to me, to this old body that won't die. It should come to my sons and grandsons.
Mingyue, that one, he couldn't get in the army or get a job because of his bad social status. He snuck off to cry lots of times. But in '79 I was rehabilitated, and he got admitted to college, two strokes of luck in one family. Isn't that ten times better than being a soldier or a worker? My other grandkids are doing OK, too. They all got sinecures. I'm telling you, my great grandkids are all in grade school.
Old Wei: So you should live several decades more, and enjoy your good fortune.
Zhou Shude: You see what I've got. There's only me left in this courtyard house. Everyone else has either died or moved away. It's like I'm there in the south-east corner completing a predestined lifespan. None of the men in the other four families made it past 50. You don't believe me? More than 20 years ago, that half of the courtyard had widows in every room. The first one was my sister-in-law. My brother Zhou Shugui and my old lady, Mrs. Zhou nee Wang, they both died in a natural disaster. I can't say it was justice, because I won't speak ill of the dead, even if Zhou Shugui was my worst enemy.
Old Wei: You should live with your sons or grandsons, have someone to look after you.
Zhou Shude: I lived in the provincial capital for two months. Mingyue's dad invited me. I felt stifled and came back. He's a middle school teacher, and very respectful toward me. But I'm an old rube, couldn't get used to living in a high-rise. It was like a pigeon coop. I couldn't go down for a breath of air whenever I wanted, because a bunch of middle school kids would crowd around and watch me, laughing.
One time, I was sitting at the bottom of the basketball stands getting some sun. I'd just opened my trousers to pick at the lice when I heard someone nearby cry out in alarm. In the village, nobody would care, but at the school, how could Teacher Zhou's dad pick lice in public?
My daughter-in-law and the rest of them weren't used to me smoking leaf tobacco. They made me go downstairs to smoke. Ah, there's too many rules in the big city. Out on the street, you've got to pay money to use the toilet. It's not casual and free like the village. Take a pee in the courtyard and the next day it's gone, some stray dog licked it up clean as a whistle.
I'd get tired of Mingyue and them, a bunch of youngsters always pestering their mom and dad.
They want to tear down the courtyard house. Oh, yea, they don't call it a courtyard house any more. Three sides have collapsed. This side where I live, the supports are full of termites. You can hear them crunching away at night. When I first heard it I got goose bumps, but I got used to it after a while. The place is getting lighter, and maybe one of these days it'll all fall down. The foundation is rammed stone, though, and the termites can't hurt it. This pair of stone lions in front of the main room, I've rubbed their skulls smooth.
This is a hundred-year-old home. The youngsters don't get it. It'd kill me to move. Who could ask for a better house?
Old Wei: I didn't think you'd be so set in your ways. It's probably because you were a landlord for decades, always under supervision, having to grin and bear it, so now you want to be free.
Zhou Shude: Right. What I hate most is people running my life. When my sons and grandsons come here to visit, none on them want to stay in the courtyard. They're afraid of the fleas. I raise cats. I started with one pair, and they had several litters. These creatures like to get on the bed and sleep beside me. When you get old, you get cold at night, all the way through 'til morning. They keep me warm, though, and they catch mice, too. I often talk with them, tell them old people stuff.
Zhou Shuren died the year before last. He was two years older than me. He used to come into the courtyard all the time, and we'd go back and forth about the old days. Now I've got nobody to talk about the old days with. I just raise cats. Who can say, maybe they're dead people reincarnated. In the winter they bore under the covers and snore in chorus. It reminds me of when I was a young salt dealer. We slept in the shop, a dozen or so of us on one long bed.
Old Wei: Cats can carry germs.
Zhou Shude: I've got more germs than the cats do.
Old Wei: Ha, ha, so you say. But your roof leaks too much. There're puddles all over the place.
Zhou Shude: That's OK, as long as it doesn't leak on the bed.
Old Wei: Is that all you want out of life? No wonder you've lived so long?
Zhou Shude: Someone like me, there's not much difference between life and death.
Old Wei: You're not like a landlord, more like a monk taking care of a broken down shrine.
Zhou Shude: What do you think a landlord should be like?
Old Wei: You should be a reactionary. That's what they said in the grade school textbooks.
Zhou Shude: You're kidding. But you can't take care of a broken down shrine for too many years.
The people in the village often make excuses to come to me to get things, like the frame carriers, cages for pet grasshoppers, woven-reed rain gear, conical hats, and other stuff I've made. Someone even stole my dishes. The superstition is, when you attend the funeral of someone who's lived a long life, you should take something that he used in his daily life home to your children. That way they'll be sure to live a long and happy life, too. I'm not dead yet, but people can't wait.
Old Wei: You are a funny old guy. Mingyue and I wish you'd move to the city. Of course, moving to his aunt's house in Pan's Ravine would be OK, too. Society has made progress and life has improved, so there're long-lived people everywhere. You could do Tai-ji exercises, and go fishing, and you can raise cats or dogs anywhere. You could try associating with other people, and it might suit you. Just maybe, people would even want to hear your story.
Zhou Shude: Where would I put my coffin?
Old Wei: Cremation is fashionable in the city. You wouldn't need to take your coffin.
Zhou Shude: Burn me to ashes? No way. My soul wouldn't have anywhere to come back to. To tell you the truth, I've already picked my gravesite. It's beside Mingyue's grandma. I left a space there, a good place to go. The Feng Shui Master's seen it. It's right on a tail of Breezy Mountain, what they say is "the Dragon and Phoenix", a dynamic lay of the land.
I don't have time to jibber-jabber with city people. I live at peace with myself. When everybody gets to the next world, maybe I should "Remember the Misery" against them – For now, when I think of death, I laugh, and I'm not sorry I was a landlord. It was for the benefit of my children and grandchildren, right?
I heard that now you can buy a house and land again. Going to have more landlords.
Old Wei: Do you think they'll start drawing lines between class elements again?
Zhou Shude: That's a question for your generation. God knows.
中国底层，访谈录，上卷, Low-Level China: The Interviews, Vol. I, pp 208-217
长江文艺出版社 Great Wall Literary Arts Publishing House)
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