Strength is born in adversity. Fear creates danger; courage dispels it. Necessity begets invention. Life goes on for most; not for some. Those who survive and later prosper are those best equipped to learn from life. The apodeictic mistakes of history, wrought by men; the seemingly capricious cruelty of nature, decreed by fate; changes in space and time, determined by place-in-time; all bequeath to us their lessons. Wisdom is the aggregate of all these lessons; knowledge, insight, and judgement gained through accumulated experience; invincibility sustained by unflagging courage; fear confronted and overcome. For those who dare to live, in daring, living, wisdom is their reward.
On a sultry summer’s evening in 1976 – July 27th – I returned home to Tianjin on the last train from Beijing. It was late, almost midnight, but I was fascinated by a book that I had discovered and purchased in Beijing, read all the way back on the train, and felt compelled to continue to read ’til I could no longer evade sleep’s inducement. Though I made every effort to dampen each alteration of my position and posture to avoid arousing my sleeping mother – as if privacy, even secrecy, were required to conceal the reading itself – my efforts proved futile. Once awakened, I moved to my mother’s bed, and we began to talk about my day in Beijing, and the book I was reading. Animated now, my mother sat up in bed, and I prepared some watermelon for us. She had been reading, too, and between watermelon and literary inspiration, we whiled away the time, hours passing without notice or care. Though the night was stifling, an intense calm and richness pervaded the atmosphere of our one-room flat. We were a mother and a daughter together, sharing, even as the rest of humanity lay in slumber and dream. And then, as we drew nigh a degree of synaesthetic sublimity hitherto unknown to us, it happened. Like the commingling of lightning’s flash and thunder’s roar, just overhead, our bliss was shattered.
Suddenly, the bed began to shake; the room, to sway. Through the window, I saw that the sky had lightened ominously. Not with the soothing ivory-whiteness of moonlight, but with the grey-green luminescence which precedes tornadoes in other seasons and at other latitudes. Now everything was rattling with self-destructive intensity. My mother’s bed, on which we both cowered, jounced and rocked. The walls wavered, fissured. The ceiling heaved, warped. The entire room momentarily lost all definition. Debris began to fall. Cups and bowls, quavered, wobbled, and crashed to the floor. Vacuum bottles tottered, toppled, spat out their wooden stoppers, spewed their contents, rolled from the dancing table, and burst upon the concrete. The lamp, by whose mellow blue light we had chatted only century-seeming half-minutes ago, was jolted so violently that its bulb shuddered and died. Now in semi-darkness, my mother instinctively held me to her and covered my head with her arm. She murmured a feeble explanation – an earthquake. I was not sure whether I was actually living through a nightmare, but I did not want to perish in it, either. I disentangled myself from my mother, felt for and found my house shoes, and leapt from the bed onto a moving floor strewn with broken glass and pottery. I bid my mother to rise, too, that we may escape before the roof collapsed on top of us. It was darker now, and I could not locate my mother’s shoes. Overwhelmed with panic, she did not wait but a second, then bounded from the bed, only to hit the floor as it entered its final convulsion. She lay there in a heap as stillness returned. The first and most cataclysmic tremor of the earthquake had exhausted itself.
I helped my mother up, and struggled to open the door. The hinges were sprung, the lock snapped, and the frame misshapen. When I finally freed the door – it would never close again – we ran into the street. Blackness awaited us there. All electricity had been cut off, the moon and stars had fled behind the clouds, and it had begun to rain. We had been the first to seek safety in the open, my mother in her pyjamas, I in a nightgown. As dawn approached, others came to join us. Some children were crying, parents calling. There were a number of head injuries and other cuts and bruises, but mostly it was a mixture of shock and relief that shown in the faces of our neighbours – all of them barely clothed as we were. We had been spared our lives. It was summer. We could and would carry on. Later, we would ascertain that from Shenyang to Jinan at least 1,500,000 persons had either died or had been seriously injured that night.
When it got light enough to see, I went back into our flat to search for some money and an umbrella, and to survey the damage. The cracks in the walls had widened. The ceiling could tolerate no further abuse and had detached itself in chunks of plaster, tile, and brick, which lay about the floor and furniture. My own bed was the worst casualty. It had been caved in and crushed to the floor by an entire section of ceiling. I shivered to look at it. Was it the trip to Beijing that had saved me, or the book, or my mother? Or maybe it was the watermelon? Fate had indeed smiled upon me. How was I to prove myself worthy of this reprieve? I closed the door as best I could, and rejoined my mother.
She was sitting on the kerb, blankly watching the activities of others. After a moment of silence, she showed me her feet. They were badly cut and bleeding. She had not noticed them before, and now there was nothing that could be done for them. We had no water, no medicine, no home. There was also no time for submission to desperation. I had to make an appearance at work. I did not occur to me that my daily routine need not be followed. My mother was instructed to remain where she was; I would return as soon as possible. Our bicycles had met the demise of most everything else; so I set out walking.
The way to the factory was scattered with the dead, hindered by the mangled, congested by the whole. Everywhere, there was rubble. What little was left standing was unsafe to re-inhabit. From within mountainous masses of brick, beseeching moans fought to be heard. Families with missing loved ones dug frantically at the wreckage. The factory where I worked had sustained little damage. Like most of the other homes, former houses of worship, factories, and office buildings built prior to Liberation (1949), almost invariably by Westerners and the Japanese, it had escaped virtually unscathed.
The factory leaders told those of us who had shown up for work that production would be halted while we all laboured to resurrect something of our lives from the ubiquitous devastation. Though we needed no reminding, we were informed that it would be our individual responsibility to construct temporary dwellings for ourselves and our families. The government would eventually clear away the ruin, demolish all faulty structures, and rebuild permanent housing for everyone who lacked. Meanwhile, until further notification, we should continue to report daily to the factory for a brief roll call and dissemination of vital information. This meant, of course, that they did not know what to do with us, and were merely intent upon protecting themselves from any criticism from above.
All I could think about was what to do with my mother. I had to get her off the street immediately. I had to take care of her feet. The meeting dispersed, I privately asked the foreman if I could have some plastic. He agreed to turn a blind eye, under the circumstances, and I quickly made off with a rather substantial roll of the factory’s best plastic sheeting. On the way back to my mother, despite the gauntlet of horrors through which I passed, I felt strangely uplifted. The prospect of re-assembling fragments of our abruptly slivered lives presented me with challenge; and challenge, with hope. Yes, I would prevail. Courage would uphold me; courage so unswerving, it would have no opposite in fear.
My mother had not budged, it seemed. Now, where to begin? Before attempting a temporary dwelling, I needed to fabricate an immediate dwelling. Sleep could not be shunned much longer. Perhaps some of our belongings could be salvaged. Yes, I could brave our room as often as was necessary. My mother looked cold and weak. Her feet must be hurting her. Of course, she would not complain. I ran to our room, crept in, and rummaged around for clothing, blankets, food, bandaging cloth, and anything even vaguely medicinal. Grain spirits? Maybe. Potassium permanganate crystals – that might work, too. (Potassium permanganate is a mild disinfectant which is dissolved in water and commonly used throughout the Far East to rinse green leafy vegetables before consumption.) But water was still a problem. There was no use going to the hospitals for either medicine or treatment; all available medication, and the attention of nurses and doctors, would be reserved for more serious cases than that of my mother. With alcohol and disinfectant, then, I cleansed my mother’s wounds as thoroughly as I could. In strips of cloth, I wrapped them snugly. It would have to suffice for the time being. We ate a few bites, dressed, and I resumed my work.
With our bicycle frames, other scraps of metal, and bamboo poles, I devised a shell over which to drape the plastic. The skirts I weighed down with bricks. We now had a tent of sorts. Back in our room, I emptied two wooden trunks, dragged them to the tent, and filled them again with necessities and valuables. I had to make many trips back and forth between the tent and our flat, minor earth tremors occurring intermittently all the while. These were doubtless threatening, but proved harmless. Finally, I had done all that I could do. The light was dwindling, I was tired, and our makeshift tent could accommodate no more. Until other arrangements could be made, the trunks would serve as beds. If we did not lie with our bodies fully extended, they would be satisfactory. July 28th was drawing to a close.
My mother was curled up, resting. I was totally drained, but unable to fall asleep at first. There was still so much to do. We had only just begun. Tomorrow, and every day thereafter, other battles must be waged. I wanted to lay a brick floor in our tent. We would need provisions. Before a possibly stronger tremor wasted the rest of our furniture, its safe storage should be negotiated. I had been the innovator in this camp; now others were tardily following my lead. Dusk had descended, but many still had not settled in for the night. For us, though, considering the circumstances, we had managed our first day after the catastrophe with as much fortitude as we could muster. My mother, too. She was sleeping now. With a small but significant measure of wisdom gained, I also slept.
The next few days saw the accomplishment of all my most urgent plans. I also took care of my mother, and spent about two hours at the factory each morning. Normal life in the city had been arrested. Until its soundness was confirmed by knowledgeable authorities, no building of any size could be deemed free of hazard. The streets narrowed with the encamping multitudes. Athletic fields, like the one which played host to us, and parks, all filled. Except for the military and public security forces, the staff of clinics and hospitals, and essential government personnel, most work obligations had been suspended. The continued threat of aftershocks remained a concern, but in general spirits were high. The weather was warm, the army had begun the monstrous task of clean-up, and many work units were distributing or selling bread and other foods that could be rapidly prepared and served in quantity. Water was also available now for drinking and for indispensable hygiene.
For many, this was even taken as a time for celebration. When circumstances permitted, they wore their best clothes, cooked their best food, and conscientiously visited their friends and acquaintances. There was little talk of the earthquake. We had all survived the Cultural Revolution – a tragedy born of human weakness – and then been granted nature’s mercy. As fatalists, we believed nature to be the great arbiter of fate. Forbid that it be foretold, cajoled, or counted on; it took you when your time was ordained. Traditionally, we also believed that natural disasters bespoke the imminent smiting of erring leaders. No one ventured mention of this, of course. Many persons also undoubtedly harboured the attitude that while they could, they should – Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die. Mao Zedong died on September 9th.
One evening, my mother and I paused to watch the setting of the sun. It was the first time we had been aware of it since the earthquake several days before. Come to think of it, I do not remember when I had seen such a sunset before. Was it nature’s compensation to those who live on, or a warning that another purge would soon betide us? Victim, vanquished, or victor, I was humbled beneath its beauty. Inimitable Nature! How blessed I felt to witness Her awesome wonders, to sound Her unfathomable depths – to live. ‘Certainly only You can paint the earth with blood, the sky with rose!’
At that very moment, the most extreme aftershock since the earthquake obliged us to brace ourselves lest we tumble over. The shock was brief in duration, and outside, away from danger’s fitful fury, we could observe with collected distance the expiration of previously weakened structures. Within easy view of where we were sitting, the entire near wall of a several-storey housing block keeled over backwards. The rest of the building remained intact, exposing floor upon floor of variously decorated rooms as if on display. But these were not stage sets; people had lived in each and every one. I tried to imagine the warmth and the comfort of those rooms in better times, but could not.
Two days later, crews came in to level the area that was once my neighbourhood. There was still no electricity, and at night an eeriness arose from the seeming battlefield in whose midst only plastic shielded us from all elements and all intruders. With the return of daylight, it was impressed upon us with even greater clarity that we now had nothing else. There was no turning back. There was not a moment to squander. The burden of our survival was on my shoulders, and on my mettle.
When it rains, it pours. And that is precisely what had begun to happen with reliable unpredictability. Torrential rain and occasional hail beat down upon our plastic roof and walls. The lightning was blinding, the wind tearing, the shallow river at our feet nearly tripping. Just as the rain was disorienting, so was the sun fierce. Inside our plastic shelter, the heat and the humidity conspired to cook us alive. For a couple of weeks, the earth had been quiet. Still one could not be sure. Or was that the voice of fear? After the rains would come the cold, the snow. Winter. No, not in a tent of plastic. Many people had already gone to live with relatives, or departed for other cities, or moved back into flats and houses that had been preserved or repaired. We had nowhere else to go, and only one solution. I would build a hut for us of bricks and other scavenged materials; I would build it myself; I would begin tomorrow. Why had I waited so long?
The very next morning, early, I went to the hill of rubble which had once been five blocks of housing, including my own. With my hands alone, I began to toss usable bricks and lumber into separate piles at the hill’s perimeter. By the end of the day, I had both enough bricks and enough lumber to begin hauling them to the building site the following day. I had also been fortunate in finding a battered but functional door frame, and two window frames. For days, from dawn ’til dusk, I dragged the bricks load by load on a discarded sheet of metal from the hill to the site. The lumber that could not be carried was also dragged. For mortar, I made a modest midnight-requisition of sand and lime from another building site nearby. These were in head-high mounds which appeared undisturbed by my borrowings. I made a number of trips with a small cardboard carton that when filled could still be carried. I also gathered all the coarse paper, cardboard, wire, and bamboo I could find, and bought a skein of heavy plastic twine. With all the requisite materials now at hand, I sifted the lime through a wire screen, tidied up the bricks, and removed the nails from the lumber. The tools that I required these and subsequent tasks – the screen, a hammer, a saw, mason’s trowels, and shovels – I scrounged. Only water was absent, and that could now to fetched nearby as well. I was ready to begin construction. To help me with this last stage, I imposed on three longtime friends.
We dug a ditch for a foundation and floor of brick, and came up with the walls, fitting in the door and window frames. The roof was of widely spaced lumber secured by brick; covered first with layers of cardboard, then plastic; and held down with a crossing of bamboo poles which were tied to the lumber below. We were not going to have any more bricks falling on our heads. While the mortar was still wet, we moved in – our new home.
Even as we settled in for the night, I began to be annoyed by the defects. Sure, it was better than our plastic tent, but I was far from thrilled. It was ugly. The door would not close properly. The wind whistled in through the glassless windows. We had only a kerosene lamp. Worst of all, we were completely alone. There was no light or sound outside our walls. Living in such isolation might even be dangerous. No city is without its mischievous and delinquent – especially in times like these. The silence was frightening. Were those silhouettes of figures lurking about outside, or just our own shadows cast by our lamp? I lay down by the door with a knife close at hand. I made mental plans for improvements. Who was I? I had built us a house. Now I intended to protect that house. Should I be proud of myself? Defects notwithstanding, all due modesty employed, I was.
For many days thereafter, I worked on our hut with untiring devotion. I tarpapered the roof, painted the walls inside and out, fixed the door, glassed the windows, covered the ceiling in attractive paper, built a small kitchen, and began a little yard. When our erstwhile neighbours came by to visit, they were amazed. It could really be done! They started to build their own places next to ours. Now a veteran house builder, I showed them the basics. It was nice having neighbours again. What is the use of living in a city of thirteen million people if you cannot flaunt the fruits of your labour? Actually, my mother did most of the exhibiting. She enjoyed verifying that, yes, it was her daughter who had done it all; yes, few men could compete; yes, she is both strong and courageous.
We lived in that hut for five years. During at least the first two of those, I made regular enhancements. When the government finally rebuilt our old flat, almost exactly as it had been, my place was torn down with all the other temporary dwellings. In its material dimensions it is no more, but in my mind it remains a monument to courage, a fortress of strength, a sepulchre for fear – all set in a sylvan sanctuary of wisdom.
Only the past can bestow wisdom. Only wisdom can allay fear. Dare to live. You have only ignorance, complacency, prejudice, fear, to lose. Life itself is what you gain.