Shengliver’s Note: In this entry, Shengliver tells the story of Mr Lian. What happened to him and his family was a tragedy. The narration here is based on what Shengliver saw and heard in his home village.


Most families in the hamlet share the same name, Wang. In fact all the Wang families are related one way or another. Local legend has it that the Wangs are descendants of four brothers who migrated here from north China in ancient times.


Uncle Lian did not share our family name and his family was one of the few that were not related to the Wangs. But Uncle Lian’s father and my great grandfather were buddies, so the two families were on good terms over the decades. To strengthen the bond, following the Chinese custom, the two families agreed at a special ceremony that my father was adopted by the Lians as a son. The title was just nominal though.


Uncle Lian was a few years older than father. He was probably born in the early 1940s. Life was harsh in his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. When things were picking up in middle age, he fell abruptly.


Uncle Lian was a bright pupil from the very beginning of his school years. When he completed primary school, he was one of several kids in my village who made it to middle school. But the middle school he was to attend was located in a town called Nanhua, which is about 30 kilometres away from my village. Uncle Lian suffered a lot in his middle school days.


It was arranged that pupils whose homes were too far away had to reside in the school. Uncle Lian had to carry his provisions to the school at the beginning of each week. 30 kilometres of mountain trails was no problem for Uncle Lian, for he was brought up to be strong and hardy for a harsh life. What pained him was that when he left home for school his father and mother at times could not provide the food he would need for the coming week. What he needed was normally cornmeal and flour, which would be handed in to the school kitchen, where the ingredients were processed into soup for the boarding pupils.


potato slice 02When the family could not come up with the food, his parents would borrow some dried sweet potato slices from the neighbours. Uncle Lian would then take them along to school. He would survive on the slices in the week. Chinese kids in the 21st century might believe that Uncle Lian’s potato slices were as tasty as those potato chips served at the McDonald’s or KFC, but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that dried in the sun and wind, the slices were stored in the attic to last a family through the following spring, when staples like corn and wheat ran short. Uncle Lian’s dried sweet potato slices were coarse, tasteless and uncooked.


I have no idea whether Uncle Lian managed to complete middle school or not, but he ended up a farmer while a couple of his classmates from the village went on to high school. Like most of his contemporaries, he got married to a country lassie, and the couple brought a boy and a girl into the world.


Uncle Lian worked in the People’s Commune for over a decade. Then in the early 1980s, the system was dismantled and each peasant family was allotted a share of farmland to work.


Chemical fertilisers were introduced and used extensively when People’s Commune was in place. After the system was replaced by each family working on its own, chemical fertilisers were even more widely applied in the fields as a result of the farmers’ desire to increase their output. The local Supply and Sales Cooperative Shop supplied several varieties of chemical fertiliser the year round to the farming community.


Uncle Lian’s attitude to the chemical stuff was poles apart from that of his fellow villagers. Instead of chemical fertilising his fields, he carried compost, manure and human waste over to his crops. Chemical fertilisers were light while organic fertilisers were hefty, so it took Uncle Lian a lot of sweat to port his organic stuff to the fields. Few fellow farmers understood him, and his eccentricity incurred laughter and derision.


I remember walking by his crops with father one day. I asked father whose crops it was because the plants, weak and yellow, stood alongside those in the neighbouring fields, which were verdant and green. Father told me that Uncle Lian raised them. While saying so, father sighed, “We have to go with the flow. Your uncle is obstinate and he will go against it.”


When the crops were ripe and harvested, Uncle Lian did not reap as much as did the other farmers in the village. It was obvious to the farmers that chemical fertilisers did help boost production, so it baffled them how on earth Uncle Lian could be such an idiot.


Because father and Uncle Lian got on well, they often met at our cottage in the evening to chat. Their talk sometimes lasted deep into the night. Mother, my brother and I often retired to bed when they were still conversing. Many a time Uncle Lian tried to persuade my father to accept his ideas on organic farming. Father sympathised with him, but to feed the family, father had to follow the herd and increase the output of our crops in the fields by means of the chemical stuff.


The discussion between Uncle Lian and father also involved issues which at the time were beyond me due to my age and naivety. When father did not agree with him on some issues, Uncle Lian would scribble some messages down and pass them on to father. The messages were not written on proper stationery, for Uncle Lian could not afford it. He penned them between the lines on a leaf torn off some used books like Selected Works of Chairman Mao. This was in the early 1980s.


To my young eyes, Uncle Lian was poor but great. I thought then he was very knowledgeable. One summer the local government organised an illiteracy eradication programme to help those who could not read or write. Many farmers refused to let their wives attend the lessons, but Aunt Lian, with his husband’s unwavering support, went to the classes and never missed a lesson. She was among the few who became literate through the programme.


To augment the family income, Uncle Lian and his wife bought an electric noodles processing machine and set it up at their one-room cottage. The villagers had to pay a fee if they had their flour processed into noodles on the machine by Uncle and Aunt. Their service was very popular. My family received special treatment from them. On several occasions mother sent me on the errand. I took the flour to their cottage. When the noodles were ready for me to take home, Uncle and Aunt refused to charge me anything for the service.


Uncle Lian had a good knowledge of feng shui. Father and mother, with the help of fellow villagers, built our new bungalow of dried adobe bricks around 1982. The orientation of the house was adopted following Uncle Lian’s advice. My family owed a debt of gratitude to him for his wisdom. Also he led the fellow villagers in the construction of the house, without any modern machines. Father said that without Uncle Lian’s coordination the construction would have been slower and the quality lower.


Later on I went on to high school in the county town. One summer holiday when I got home from school, father told me that Uncle Lian had committed suicide. I was stunned. He was working in his fields when he drank pesticide and killed himself that way. His failing to come back for lunch alarmed the family. They started a search and found his body amidst the maize plants. Why he took his own life I have forgotten.


After his death, his wife got remarried to a man in a village in Henan Province so that Uncle Lian’s two kids, a boy and a girl, could be supported.


Last winter I went back to visit mother. Mother told me that Uncle Lian’s son had died earlier in the winter, exactly in the same manner as his father. The young lad had been chasing a lassie in his village in Henan. For one reason or another, they could not get spliced. Uncle Lian’s son took his own life by drinking pesticide. His corpse was later brought back to my village and laid to rest beside his father at the graveyard.


What became of Mr Lian’s daughter then? Mother told me that the young girl was in trouble. She had left her village to go and work as a housemaid in a city. Unfortunately the girl had an affair with the man for whom she had been working as a housemaid. She ended up pregnant, and her master was going through some legal process with his wife at the moment.


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