Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. -John Donne
For some people, death may be an alien concept until much later in their lives. After all, with increasingly advanced medical care, better hygiene and longer life expectancies, most of us live to a healthy, grand old age. In the 20th century China, death – like many forms of human tragedy – was an intrinsic part of everyday life. Years of political turbulence and economic underdevelopment took a toll on millions of human lives. Highly controlled national media was not in the business of sensationalizing these deaths. Instead, for many years, the government propaganda had painstakingly fiddled with death rates and played down their impact.
Perhaps because it was such a common occurrence, or perhaps for reasons only known to individual souls, a great many Chinese seemed totally unmoved by death, no matter how tragic; instead, they regarded it as normal, even unavoidable. Tradition dictates that we believe in our fate and accept whatever destiny bestows upon us. So, your neighbour’s daughter was crushed to death while working in the factory? No big deal, nobody shed a tear. “She would be better off in another world,” one would respond. “I have a friend whose wife jumped from a tenth floor window, then their son was beaten to death,” another would join in. The conversations often led to more horror stories about terrible accidents and the horrendous deaths of people they knew, their relatives and acquaintances. Pity and sympathy were rarely offered. After all, if your life was a constant struggle, barely surviving, why would you care about someone else who was already dead or about to die?
The exception, of course, was when it struck your own family. Then the loss became more immediate and tangible.
At just over three years old, in the winter of 1964, I witnessed death for the first time. YeYe, my Grandpa, died of bowel cancer. In the middle of a thunderstorm many grim-faced adults came, some in tears, and even a big man I called “Great Uncle” looked strange, unsmiling. I followed him into the largest room, where I saw YeYe lying on the bed, eyes closed and motionless. One of my great aunts held my hand and whispered in my ear: “Your YeYe is gone. He’s not going to wake up again. You should cry.”
I could not. Tears just would not come. I heard my little sister screaming out loud – for attention – but nobody made an attempt to hush her. What was going on?
What was death? All I remembered was YeYe’s pale, wrinkly face, against the white sheet that covered his body. Then he was no longer at the dinner table and the house no longer stank of that horrible, cigarette smell, which I hated but never dared to say. It made me cough. His absence made PoPo a widow at the age of 50.
A decade later, death came knocking on the door again. This time, although it was still a difficult and strange concept, I had a better grasp of its finality and lasting impact. The exquisite pain, sometimes sharp like a stab, sometimes more subtle and delicate, a numbing feeling, lingering and poignant, came and went without explanation. Time and space could not soften its blow.
Excerpt from The Same Moon
To find out how Pearl Zhang cheated death during the Cultural Revolution, check out her memoir style fiction The Same Moon, the first of her “Journey to the West” trilogy.