Translator’s note: My dad wrote this short story back in the early 80s, based on a real trampling incident during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This story satirizes a very specific juncture in contemporary Chinese history, but I thought I’d share it on the eve of Thanksgiving as it has already reminded me of the absurdities of Black Friday shopping, and the way poor folks are pitted against one another for scraps.
*New year shopping is the annual preparations for the Lunar New Year feasts with the family
*I’ve decided to translate 文革 as “Culturarev” as an experiment to make the dialogue feel more natural, feedback welcome from fellow translators
*I’ve included the Chinese original if you scroll past the translation, for fellow translators, Chinese readers, and Chinese language students.
It was still dark out when I rolled out of bed that morning. Spring Festival of 1970 was coming up fast, and I needed to go queue up at the market for new year shopping. I had slept terribly, tormented by the prospects of indulging in a meal that featured both meat and drink. Beijing was much colder back in those days, even when you layered up till you’re roly-poly, a cold gust of wind would still manage to pierce your defenses.
“Got your Quotations?” Mom asked.
As if she needed to ask?! The Quotations from Chairman Mao is the essence of Mao Zedong Thought, directives from Up High to be chanted from memory in devoted daily worship. Leave home without the “Precious Red Book”? Who would dare??
Was I first in line? Not even close! There were already over twenty people crowded in front of the market entrance! The time was twenty minutes to six, over two hours till doors open. Though everyone was impressively bundled against the cold, we still stamped our feet to keep warm. Nobody was in the mood for small talk.
I silently counted twenty-three people ahead of me. A tiny granny stood at the head of the queue, mumbling to herself. The way her wrinkly head kept bobbing out from the collar of her thick overcoat kept reminding me of a turtle.
“It’s not easy to be out here in the freezing cold! I’ve been here since four in the morning! First in line!” The Turtle’s head bobbed.
“Ma’am, why didn’t you tell your kids to come? This cold is too much for someone your age!”
“My son and my daughter in law are busy working! Too far, and hard to take a day off. My grandson is too young! Anyways, I can take it! I have suffered my entire life!”
“Surely you misspoke! How can you say that you’ve suffered all your life?!” Someone piped up without missing a beat, “You should say ‘I suffered before 1949, and then after Liberation it’s been nothing but bliss under the leadership of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao!’ If we are still at the beginning of the Culturarev, someone would have asked you to identify your class background.”
“Actually! Before Culturarev the people lived under the Counterrevolutionary Revisionist Rule of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping!” Someone else quipped, “You should say ‘I’ve been living in bliss since the start of Culturarev!’”
Yet another person cut in. “Comrade! What a dangerous line of reasoning! The Liu Deng Counterrevolutionary Ideology only disrupted Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Ideology post-Liberation! Understand? Only disrupted! But the people are still managing to live in bliss! You have to say ‘life has only become sweeter since Culturarev started!”
Masterful argued! Seamless rhetoric! We all fell silent once more.
“I showed up yesterday morning!” The Turtle was still feeling chatty. “At first people queued up, but as soon as doors opened it was pure chaos! How am I supposed to keep up with all that pushing and shoving? Everyone got in front of me and bought everything up! So! Today! I got up super early to be first in line!” She was pretty smug.
“Can’t do new year right without some proper food and drinks. I didn’t get to buy anything yesterday either, that’s why I’m here super early too!” A middle-aged uncle spoke up, “Went all out and took the day off! What kind of a new year celebration has no food and no drink? I overheard the market manager say that for Spring Festival, every family can have three jin of belt fish, two jin of beef! I haven’t eaten fish in such a long time!”
“Sir, wouldn’t you receive admonishment from your work unit for taking off to go shopping?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“No big deal! I managed to wrangle a sick slip! What are they gonna do, tell me to not get sick? Anyways, who’s twisted enough to give me crap over this? My class background is good, factory worker!”
Class background! What was my background? I was a “sent down educated youth” visiting home during agricultural slack season! My class background was not good, both my parents were Capitalist Intelligentsia who must devote their lifetimes to reforming their ideology! Factory workers were the Possessionless Proletariat! Chairman Mao taught us that “factory worker class are the leaders in everything!” Though, we all had to do our new year shopping together!
Other shoppers formed a long chain behind me. I kept glancing back at the lengthening formation, thankful for my superior position. What’s there to buy if you’re number one hundred something in line? You’re basically out of the running.
Regardless of age and gender, the entire queue was outfitted in that particular shade of blue of the era, with the occasional trendy military green. Chairman Mao was often dressed in green military attire, the People’s Liberation Army was the “Great Wall made of steel”, but we can’t have the whole populace outfitted in that glorious shade green, that would seem blasphemous. Humble, loyal blue was more suitable. During this time, Westerners called China the “Nation of Blue Ants”. Out of mockery? Or fear? Were the Blue Ants viewed as proud? Or angry? But in that exact moment, I was a Blue Ant gripped by escalating paranoia as more Blue Ants came up from behind me and asked us up in the front, “When did you get here?”
“Just after five!” Which was to say, we’ve worked hard for our position up front, don’t get any ideas and try to cut the line.
“Can people in the back even get anything good?”
“Everyone who stays in line will definitely get what they want! There’s plenty of stuff to go around!” A desperate plea! Please keep queuing, my dear comrades!
It seemed that some of the Blue Ants who walked up front to look around…didn’t return to their place in the back! They had the nerve to take a new position pressed right up against those at the head of the line. Ominous! Will this be a repeat of yesterday? I didn’t make a peep, but scooched forward, and made myself flush against the back of the person in front of me. The other Blue Ants around me were doing the same, silently resisting the invading faction. But these shady late-comer Blue Ants continued increasing in number, and grew increasingly brazen as they pushed on us!
The Uncle who took the day off finally spoke up, “I gotta ask, comrade. Where are you supposed to be at? Are you in line? People have been here since before daylight.”
“Right here!” The young man’s tone was decidedly pushy! He then stuck a foot right in front of the Uncle without missing a beat.
“Was he over here?” The Uncle asked the bespectacled Four Eyes in front of him, who proceeded to push his frames up without giving his head a shake or nod. With an exasperated grunt, the Uncle used his shoulder to shove the young man off of him. The young Blue Ant was unfazed, and continued to stand firm, with no hint of shame.
More invading Blue Ants were upon us, employing the same tactics! Each stuck a leg into the queue! The defending Blue Ants used their shoulders to hold the line! The opposing Ant factions were locked in battle, trying to control the territory, bunched into a dense mass. Couldn’t stamp our feet for warmth anymore, there were just too many feet underfoot!
“Is this your spot in line? I’ve been here since four in the morning!” The Turtle kept protesting, but we could no longer see her, only hear her voice emerge somewhere from the fluid mass of Blue Ants out front.
Suddenly, a new wave of commotion in the front, a powerfully built Blue Ant broke through the throng and planted himself at the very head of the line! When anyone complained, he pointed to a broken brick on the ground and said, “I was here last night! This piece of brick marks my spot!”
Is that so?! My God! Don’t let there be any more broken bricks on the ground!
More young Blue Ants powered through to the front! My feet were about to leave the ground, my head was getting sweaty. Fifty to sixty Blue Ants piled by the entrance, and behind me there were hundreds more! It was only seven-twenty! Time, begging you to pass faster!
“Is this fair? Is this fair? Is this Revolutionary?” The Turtle’s futile protests droned on laboriously. Someone ought to have told her, the Great Leader Chairman Mao taught us that “Revolution isn’t hosting dinner parties, isn’t writing manifestos, isn’t arts and crafts, cannot be so languidly elegant, so calm and collected, so polite and considerate. Revolution is violence, it’s the explosive motion of one class overthrowing another.” Since revolution is “explosive motions”, then there’s really no sense in queuing, is there?
Seven-thirty. A few store clerks managed to squeeze up to the entrance of the store by sliding along the wall. “Move aside! Move aside!”
Blue Ants thought the store was opening early, and mobilized at once in a collective push forward. Just then, a store clerk shouted in a booming voice, “Revolutionary comrade shoppers! Let us first gather our boundless thanks for our Great Teacher, our Great Leader, our Great General, our Great Helmsman, our Crimson Commander, the Reddest of the Reddest Red sun, our Beloved Father Chairman Mao! Long may He lead!”
“Long may He lead! Long may He lead!” The clerks in standard issue white smock waved their “Precious Red Book”, their expressions deadly serious!
Every single Blue Ant pulled out their own “Precious Red Book” and commenced waving, echoing the practice refrain. “Long may He lead! Long may He lead!” I waved my “Precious Red Book” while looking listlessly all over for Chairman Mao himself. Found him! A portrait of our beloved Father himself hung above the entrance of the store, yellowed from the ravish of the elements.
“Let us come together to wish good health to our Vice General, the Great Leader Chairman Mao’s closest brother in arms, Comrade Lin Biao!”
“Forever in good health! Forever in good health!” The Blue Ant masses cried as one while the shadow territory skirmish raged on.
The “Daily Benediction” was finished, and the store clerks went away. Half an hour to opening, and we approached the final meltdown. Blue Ants were fully riled up, raucous shouting escalated around me, and my feet had finally left the ground! I could still make out the Turtle’s faint cries over the ruckus, “Where is the justice? Where is the justice?”
At eight o’clock the doors opened right on schedule, and all Blue Ants surged forth! Suddenly a scream, “A granny is down! A granny is down! Stop pushing!” But the forces in the back kept powering forward, unstoppable. In front of the entrance, another person ate dirt, and then a few more. The Blue Ants were piling up in the entrance bottleneck, with the Turtle at the bottom!
From the back, anxious Blue Ants were roaring, “Keep going! Keep going!” It was utter chaos at the door as Blue Ants jumped and climbed and charged on in, heedless of what “roadblocks” they stumbled over and trampled in the process! Fallen Blue Ants were cussing and shouting, struggling with all their might to get back up! Every muscle of my body was fully clenched as I threw myself forward, I don’t remember how I stepped over the “roadblocks”, only that I was driven mad by my lust for good food. Six hours later, I was triumphant, hungry, ready to drag my tired body home with beef, pork, belt fish, and booze in tow.
As I left the store, I heard two clerks chatting.
“The old granny got trampled pretty bad!”
“Seriously! If we didn’t pull her out, she probably would’ve kicked it!”
“I found one of her shoes and her Quotations, after the rush, squashed into a couple of mud pies!”