Chinese Stories in English
A Village Movie Projectionist in 1976
by Chen Yaodong
My work as a movie projectionist started quite by chance, or more exactly, by sheer luck. In 1975, I finished high school and returned to work as a farmer in the village where my grandfather used to live. I was barely 16 then. Farm work was heavy but I tried to be a good farmer.
My former teacher of English, Mr. Jiang, had heard that the movie projection team for the commune (公社, a grass-roots organization at town level in 1960s and 1970s) was looking for young people to be trained as movie projectionists. He kindly recommended that I be a candidate. I was wild with joy at the news because I would be leaving the village for something totally unknown to me: showing movies. I was a movie fan like any other lad, by the way, and I seldom missed any movie shows whenever there was one in or around my hometown. I remember once walking for five hours to the county seat in order to watch a Korean movie, The Flower Girl, when I was studying in senior high school.
Training for new movie projectionists was simple. It lasted only a week before we became apprentices in the team. An experienced projectionist took us to village after village to show movies for farmers. Sometimes we showed in towns for townsfolk too, though.
I was a quick learner and was praised by the veteran projectionist. I practiced rewinding reels of film every day and very soon I was allowed to operate the movie projector myself, with the experienced projectionist sitting by, watching me do my job. Sometimes, we made slides to show on our projector. The interesting part of the job was that we kept moving from place to place, which allowed me to visit almost every village in the region. We didn’t have hotels to stay in while touring about in the countryside. The village head was our host each time we arrived. We paid for meals but were offered free lodging. During the day time, we didn’t have much to do. Still we didn’t bother to shoulder the movie projector nor the loud-speaker. We would put them into big boxes and pay someone to carry them for us to the next village.
Our work usually began at 8 p.m. when villagers had had their supper. Kids would often bring chairs, benches or whatever with them to sit on in the ‘cinema in the open’. Our open cinema was often set up in an athletic field if there happened to be one. Otherwise we would make use of any open space in the village to show the movie. It was with four bamboo poles and a string that the screen was raised high enough that people could watch the movie even when they sat very far away. People would often want to take a seat around the projectionist since that spot was considered the very center of the ‘open cinema’. Some people would choose to sit at the back of the screen to watch the movie because it was less crowded there. I found it odd but used to go and sit with them to watch for a while.
The movies we showed at that time included mostly revolutionary movies like the "eight model plays" (dramas with modern subject matter defined as ideal by Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, during the "Cultural Revolution"); and documentaries or war movies which depicted the Anti-Japanese war or the civil war between the KMT (Nationalist) army and the Communist army. We did have cartoons, but only rarely. I don’t remember ever showing any foreign movies those days.
The movie I liked best was about two teenaged sisters in Inner Mongolia who braved an unprecedented blizzard in minus 37 degrees centigrade temperatures while herding their flock in the prairie. Only three out of 384 sheep were frozen to death, thanks to the care from the two sisters, who were found the next day, more dead than alive. One of them lost her toes and the other lost one leg and one foot from injuries brought about by the freezing cold.
I remember well one evening when we came to the athletic field of the elementary school I had attended. People had been told that I was to show them a movie and some boys that knew me sat around me. It was a good and long movie and one of the boys didn’t want to miss any part of it. So, during the movie, he just peed in the crowd right behind me without anyone’s knowledge. People smelled the urine but nobody knew who had done it. The next day he declared that he was the one, giving me the nickname ‘Sniffer’ because I had to smell his urine all the while the movie was playing. I knew he had meant no harm but this nickname spread quickly. For years I was called ‘Sniffer’ whenever I met him and his buddies. Forty years later I ran into this guy’s younger sister in Liuzhou and I asked her about him. She said that he has lived in the village as a bachelor all his life.
Another story was the sparrows we shot to cook porridge with after the movie. In the country, sparrows were plentiful. Our friends would use their air guns or rubber strings with rocks to kill sparrows in the trees. Some of the boys were good shots and they could kill a dozen sparrows a night.
Time flew. It was the end of 1976. My father decided that I should have found a more ‘serious’ job than movie projectionist. I didn’t follow his advice since I thought showing movies was more interesting than farm work. However, my father was adamant about this and he decided to intervene. He contacted the administrator of the movie company in the county, who had a talk with me later on, telling me I would not be employed in the coming year. “Your dad wants you to work in the countryside for a better future.’’ Therefore, I had to leave the movie team in the spring of 1977 with a sort of resentfulness at my father’s decision.
I came back to the village where my forefathers had lived and took up farm work again and learned to drive a hand-tractor to plow the field. I missed my time as a movie projectionist and I started to read whatever books were available. I believed things might change and I might have a chance to leave the village. The chance did come some weeks after I got home---the village head came to see me, informing me that the village school needed a teacher. I declined his kind offer as my mother was a teacher in that school and I didn’t want to work in the same school with her. Wasn’t I childish then!
I assume that my father couldn’t foretell this, but months after I returned home as a farmer, China decided to reform the college entrance examination. I lost no time preparing for it and made it in 1978 when I became an English major student in a teacher’s college. That was a turning point in my life.
[This essay was written in English. The author is a Professor of English at Guangxi University of Science and Technology in Liuzhou – Fannyi]
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