Translation: “I Am Fan Yusu” (Part 1)

Last week, migrant worker (范雨素) posted a biographical essay about her struggle through China’s rapid urbanization on a literary Sina blog. Her story quickly went viral, capturing the hearts of Chinese netizens—who shared her story widely on WeChat, and attracted the 44-year-old Fan a great deal of media attention. At the South China Morning Post, Zhuang Pinghui reports on the reception Fan’s essay received:

Fan, 44, decided to write down her life experiences in an autobiographical essay, I am Fan Yusu, which she posted on a social media literary site last Monday. Within 24 hours, it was shared more than 100,000 times and received more than 20,000 comments. Overnight, Fan became China’s most sought-after writer.

During a visit to her home in a run-down area about 30km from central Beijing, at least 20 journalists and publishers were waiting at her locked door.

One villager said Fan had gone into hiding because she felt overwhelmed by the visitors and the attention her article had generated.

[…] Fan’s 7,000 word essay chronicles her experiences over the last three decades, detailing how a rural woman’s life was shaped amid massive social and economic change in China. Her story also raises thorny issues, from the widening gap between rich and poor and the urban-rural divide, to the violent seizure of farmland to make way for development. [Source]

At What’s on Weibo, Manya Koetse last week posted an excellent summary of the full essay with translated excerpts that show how Fan’s story provides a poignant glimpse into the hardships faced by many amid China’s economic miracle. As interest in Fan’s story continues to resonate, CDT is translating her full essay in two parts. Part one:

I am Fan Yusu

An Essay | by Fan Yusu

1

My life is a book that’s unbearable to read, and my fate has made the binding on that book extremely clumsy.  

I am from Xiangyang, Hubei. When I was 12, I started teaching at the village school. If I never left my hometown, I’d have continued, and would have become a formal teacher there.

But I couldn’t bear to stay in the countryside viewing the sky from the bottom of a well, so I went to Beijing. I wanted to see the world. I was 20 that year.

After arriving in Beijing, things didn’t go smoothly and without hindrance. Mainly this was due to my own laziness, my lack of nimble hands and feet, and my stupidity. What other people could get done in an hour would take me three hours to finish. My hands were far slower than most people’s. When I worked as a waitress I’d drop trays and shatter plates. I made just enough to keep myself from starving to death.

I wasted two years in Beijing, and figured I was I was the type who couldn’t see the flame of my dreams. Then I married a man from Dongbei, hastily making myself a wife.

We were married for a short five or six years, and had two daughters. Their father’s business got worse and worse, and every day he’d get drunk and want to fight. I couldn’t stand the domestic violence, so I decided to take my children back to Xiangyang and appeal for help. That man never looked for us. Later I heard he went from Manzhouli to Russia, and right now he’s probably stumbling drunk down a Moscow street.

I returned to my hometown, and told my mother that I had to raise my two daughters by myself.

2

When we were kids, my big sister and I used to lay leg-to-leg on the bed and read books. As our eyes tired, we’d trade a bit of gossip. I asked my sister: we’ve read countless biographies, which person do you admire the most? My sister said: All those people in the books, we can’t see them, can’t touch them. I don’t admire any of them. The person I admire the most is our second eldest brother.  

When I heard this, my heart couldn’t accept it. Sure, the people from the books can’t be seen or touched. But of all the people in life I can touch and see, the most admirable is my mother. My second eldest brother is nothing more than a child prodigy.  

My mother, Zhang Xianzhi, was born July 20, 1936. When she was 14, since she had the gift of gab and was good at settling disputes, she was elected director of the local committee of the Women’s Federation. Starting in 1950, she held that job for 40 years, longer than political strongmen like Saddam and Gaddafi were on their thrones. However, this isn’t the reason I admire my mother so.

When my mother was just a few years old, my grandfather arranged for her to be married to a neighbor, that was my father.  The arrangement also benefitted my uncle financially. When my father was young he was very elegant, but their marriage wasn’t very good at all, they would quarrel day in and day out.

Ever since I can remember, my impression of my father has always been that of a shadow to a tree—I could see him, but that was about it. He didn’t speak, his health was bad, and he couldn’t do much physically. There were five small children in our house, and all of them relied on the support of my mother.

My mother was a rural woman born in the evil old society. She didn’t attend a day of school. All five of us were named by my mother. She named my eldest brother Fan Yun (范云), and my second eldest brother Fan Fei (范飞). She was hoping that they would grow up to be a dragon and a phoenix, who could soar up to the clouds. Mother named us three sisters a lot more casually. My eldest sister was named Fan Guiren (范桂人), meaning that she was conceived when the osmanthus flowers were in bloom. My next eldest sister was born when the plum blossoms were opening, so she of course was named Meiren (Méirén 梅人 [literally “plum blossom person] ). But, Meiren sounded just like Meiren (Méirén 霉人 [literally “moldy person”])— very inauspicious, so mother named her Fan Fan Meihua (范梅花) instead. I was the youngest, born as the chrysanthemums were blooming, so mama gave me the name Fan Juren (范菊人). When I was 12, I read the most popular romantic fiction of the year, “Fire and Rain,” (煙雨濛濛, [literally “Misty Rain”]) by auntie Chiung Yao. By that time I could act on my own initiative, so I changed my name, calling myself Fan Yusu (范雨素).

From the time my eldest brother was little, he always studied independently, but he wasn’t very skilled in the classroom. Every day, he’d begrudge waking up to go study. The year of his exams, he didn’t score into university on his first try. He repeated the year and still didn’t pass his exams. He got angry, he’d stop trying to change his fate by testing into college. Rather, he would do so by becoming a writer. He wanted to be a writer, not a farmer. Our family was very poor, and my two elder sisters were both disabled and had to see doctors over many years, making us even poorer.  My brother wanted to be a writer, but being a writer requires an investment. He exchanged our rice and wheat crops for money, then spent that on literary journals and classical masterpieces. Without our grains, the whole family had to eat just sweet potato. Fortunately, of my mother’s five children not one of them starved to death, nor did one of them protest the lack of food too hard.

For many years my eldest brother read a lot and wrote a lot, but he never became a writer. He built up a very concentrated scholarly manner, opening his mouth to pour out a bunch of nonsense. In the village, they called people like him “ drinkers.” Just like Mr. Lu Xun’s character Kong Yiji was, they are despised.

However, my eldest brother and Kong Yiji did have one area of stark difference, my brother had my heroic mother.  Because of her, nobody ever cast him a despising glare.

My mother was very eloquent; when she opened her mouth she spoke with the elegance of a leader.  Always the matchmaker, she was known by the people of Xiangyang as “Red Leaf.” She never took a single penny for acting as “Red Leaf,” she did it all as good deeds, what they call today a volunteer. In the early 80s of last century, each family had many children, when a boy grew up took a wife, and when a girl did she was married off. People like my mother were the most popular types of people.

That my eldest brother was never considered a writer and never escaped the farm is not a big story. That he needed to get married, that was a big deal. In the village, people like my big brother were called literary lunatics, not worth considering for marriage. But, since we had such an awesome mother who could always present black as white, she presented my brother’s shortcomings as merits.

On the basis of my mother’s awe-inspiring might, our poverty-stricken household found my eldest brother a wife as sincere and honest as a spring pagoda tree.

As a married man, my eldest brother was still just as pedantic. He told mother, the village government is small, and filled with grasping officials. He asked mother not to hold village office, which could end up in disgrace. At that time, even though I was very young, I found big brother amusing. Did the corrupt officials also only nibble on two sweet potatoes for dinner?

But without saying a thing, mother resigned from the official post she’d held for 40 years.  

Five months after my eldest sister was born, she caught a fever and developed meningitis. At the time transit wasn’t convenient, and she had my fast-running uncle carry my sister 40 li to the Xiangyang central hospital. Staying at the hospital didn’t cure my sister; she didn’t have a fever, she had a mental disability.

According to my mother’s theory, inoculations were too heavy those days, and big sister had been poisoned by drugs.  

Big sister had her issue, but mother could never give up. Mother believed that she herself could change the facts, she believed in Western medicine, believed in Chinese medicine, believed in spiritual treatments, she couldn’t abandon even the vaguest chance. Very often someone would show up with news, they’d say there’s some place with some immortal, some effective spirit. Mother had father lead big sister in praying to the gods, asking for a cure. Recovering the god’s talismanic burned ash, the spirit water, having sister drink it all up. Time and time again, hope after hope. Mother never gave up.

The younger of my eldest sisters had polio. She had surgery when she was 12, after which her legs opened like a jackknife, and then only improved very slowly.

Mother had five children, and not a single one was worry-free.

The author’s mother. Supplied by the author.

3

The former me was very arrogant.

I was born when my mother was nearly 40, and I was her only healthy daughter. During my childhood, my mother was often too busy to pay me any mind. When I was about six or seven, I learned how to read on my own. This isn’t something worth bragging about, my youngest elder sister and my older cousin both could read books the thickness of bricks. The only thing I was proud of as a child was when I read a vertical printed traditional version of “Journey to the West.” Nobody knew I’d done it, and nobody praised me. I was proud of myself.

At that age, it’s easy to be proud. My grades were always the best in the class. When I was in class, I never listened to the lesson material, instead revisiting novels in my head. I must’ve read “Plums of the 12th Lunar Month” (梅腊月) a thousand times in my head.

During primary school, the most popular publications were those by the “educated youth,” which would all teach people how to cheat train fares, pilfer fellow villagers cabbage and fruits, or beat the dogs who were guarding peasant’s houses and scheme to make a stew.

Reading books like these made me feel blessed to be eating a meal of two sweet potatoes. I didn’t need to steal or rob, and nobody wanted to hit me. I had two sweet potatoes to eat, and I could also enjoy my light reading. According to these thoughts, the young me developed a principle: if a person cannot feel happiness and satisfaction in life, the reason was because they weren’t reading enough novels.

I didn’t only read the stories of the educated youth, I also read “Robinson Crusoe,”  “The Mysterious Island,”  “Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist,” “In the World,” “Uncle Lei Feng’s Revolutionary Stories,” “The Song of Ouyang Hai,” and “The Magnificent Golden Road.” Through these novels, I learned of Chinese and world geography, and of Chinese and world history. Just say the name of a place, and I’ll know on which of the world’s continents it lies. Say the name of a river, and I’ll know which of the world’s oceans it flows into.

At age 12, I’d swollen near to the point of bursting. On all the paper in the house, there was written “walk the world barefoot.” During summer vacation when I was 12, I left without saying goodbye, heading south to see the great big world.  

I chose to head south because of a magazine story I saw in 1982. In Beijing there was a philanthropist who took care of street children. One winter he took in a boy from the street who had been sleeping the winter away in cement pipes, froze his leg, and had to have it amputated. This story left a deep impression on me,and I knew if I went to Beijing my legs could freeze.

Drawing from the schemes the educated youth stories had taught me, I stowed away to Hainan island. Down there fruits were in season and flowers bloomed all year round. The streets were lined with papaya and coconut trees, I could lie beneath the shade and eat papaya and sip coconut juice. I ate so much fruit I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I started looking for food in the rubbish bins. All the heros in the books lived this way. My hair was very short and my face unwashed and dirty, I looked like a neglected boy. Child traffickers couldn’t tell my gender, and I didn’t catch their eyes.

But this life could get boring. No school to attend, no novels to read, and no mother. I hung around Hainan for three months, then decided to return home. I hitched a ride back to my hometown, back to my mother’s side.  

When I got home, only my mother welcomed me with loving eyes, my father and eldest brother hated me to the bone, said I was an embarrassment to them. In the village, my eldest male cousin found my mother, and told her I’d lost face for the entire Fan family, told her to beat me and drive me out.  

At that moment, the 12-year-old me experienced an awakening. In our Xiangyang village, if a male child abandons his family then returns, it’s a trivial and ordinary story. But if a girl does it, it’s as if she had eloped like a character in a classical story. In our village, no girl had done this before, I’d injured my virtue and shamed my parents.

I had no face in front of the people, and I had no face at school. Most crucial though, I hadn’t the courage to be a drifter. How would I live? It had to find a reason to keep going.  

But mother didn’t abandon me. At this time, my child prodigy second eldest brother had finished at a professional training school, had succeeded in upping his intelligence and abilities, and had become an official. Mother ordered my child prodigy brother to find me work as a private teacher. They let me work in a remote private school as a teacher, settling me.

Time slipped away and crumbled. In a flash, all of mother’s children had become adults. Mother had been seeking a cure for my big sister for 20 years, but never found that cure for her disease. During her 20th year she caught a high fever. Treatment was ineffective and she died.  

After my next eldest sister grew up, she became a literature teacher at a rural middle school. While she was teaching, her gifted boyfriend went to Shanghai to seek out future prospects. In mind were stored countless verses from classical poems which my sister bitterly recited: “only those who don’t understand a single character are poetic.” My sister then looked for a man who was illiterate and hadn’t spent a day in school, and hastily made arrangements for herself.

My eldest brother was still in the village working the land, spading, hoeing, shoveling until he smashed his ideal writer self. Today he is still farming, bitterly passing his days, but done lamenting his fate.

The younger more brother who had enjoyed success in his youth became obsessed with gambling when he was 40. Possibly due to his fortunate official life, his time in the gambling parlors can only be described by one word: loss. He’d lose money then borrow from a loan shark. Soon, he could no longer pay his debt. He’d spend all day in hiding, moving, dodging his debt. His official title was taken away.   

The hypocrisy of the world. My second eldest brother had no friends, no family relations. Very late at night he’d pace back and forth on the second bridge over the Han river.  

At this time, mother stood up, and tried to comfort my brother over and over again. She told her 40-year-old child that he was a good baby. She said that it wasn’t his mistake, but it was the misguidance of his friends in officialdom.  

Mother said, I’m so sorry I didn’t let you take the college entrance exam again one more time. If you had repeated it, you would have been admitted to a big city university, you’d have become a big city official. Big city officials are of high quality, and wouldn’t have taught you bad habits, you wouldn’t have become a gambler. Mother said, people don’t die, and debt doesn’t soften, there is nothing to fear, just keep on living well. Thanks to mother’s love, my second eldest brother is still living strong.  […] [Chinese]

Continue to Part 2.