New Year Shopping/买年货

Black Friday shoppers

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.

“Got it!”

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!”

买年货

早上天还黑着我就爬起来。1970年的春节临近,我得上菜市场排队买年货去。这一夜都没睡好!有酒有肉地吃喝一顿的念头折磨得我不得安宁。那年头的北京比现在冷,穿得滚圆出门还是被阴冷的小风顶个寒颤!

“《毛主席语录》带了吗?”妈妈问我。

“带了!”那能忘了吗?!《毛主席语录》是毛泽东思想的精华,每天都要奉为“最高指示”熟读背诵之。出门没带“红宝书”,敢?!

我得排第一个吧?哪儿呀!已有二十多人挤在菜市场门前!这可是差二十分钟六点,离开门还有两个多钟头呢!人们用冬装包裹得十分严实,但严寒仍让大家跺脚,彼此很少搭话。我默默地数着,有二十三人在我前头。最前头是个小老太太,不时地从厚厚的大衣里探出乾瘪的头自言自语。那动作总让人想起乌龟。

“天寒地冻的,不易呀!早上四点我就来了!第一个儿!”“乌龟”头往上一冒、一冒的。

“您为什么不叫您孩子来?这么冷的天,您这么大年纪得多遭罪!”

“儿子,媳妇儿都上班,路远,也不好请假。孙子小!咳!我老太太怕什么?一辈子都受苦!”

“错了不是?!怎能说一辈子受苦?!得说一九四九年以前受苦!以后解放了,共产党、毛主席领导我们过上了幸福生活!这要在“文革”刚一开始那阵,就得有人问您什么出身!”边上立刻有一人接话茬儿。

“哎!‘文革’前老百姓可是生活在刘少奇、邓小平反革命修正主义的统治之下呀!”另一人抬杠。“说过幸福生活得是‘文革’之后才对!”

“同志!这话您说得可太危险啦!刘(少奇)、邓(小平)反革命路线只是在解放后干扰了毛主席的革命路线!懂吗?干扰!人民的幸福生活还是有的!只能说‘文革’之后生活得更幸福了!”

高论!天衣无缝!大家又都默不作声。

“昨天早上我就来了!”“乌龟”话还真多。“开始还排队,门儿一开就乱了!人都往里冲!我哪儿挤得过他们?眼瞅着成了最后!什么也甭买了!今儿!我起一大早!第一!”她还挺得意!

“年限了,总得有点儿吃喝吧?昨个儿我也是什么都没买着。今儿得来个大早!”说话的是条四十多岁的汉子。“今儿豁出去不上班了。没吃没喝过什么年呀?昨儿听菜市场头儿说了,春节每户三斤带鱼,两斤牛肉!我可好久没吃鱼了!”

“您不上班,来买菜,单位的头儿还不得批判您?”我忍不住插话。

“没事儿!我想法儿搞张病假条!他还挡得住我生病?再说了,谁有那么大瘾头子整人?我成份好,工人!”

成份!我什么成份?农闲回城探亲的“上山下乡”知识青年!出身也不好,父母都是资产阶级知识分子,必须一辈子改造思想!工人是无产阶级!毛主席教导我们,“工人阶级必须领导一切!”不过我们都在一起买年货!

来买菜的人陆续在我身后排起了长龙。我不时地向后看着伸延的队伍,心中庆幸自己的好位置。队尾还能买上好年货么?那都是第一百多个!“名落孙山”!

队伍里男女老少都身着时代的蓝色,偶见时髦的绿色。毛主席常绿军装在身,解放军是“钢铁长城”,但不能人人都一身光荣的绿色,那样显得有点儿亵渎神明。还是忠诚的蓝最妙。西方人称此时的中国为“蓝蚁之国”。是讥讽,还是恐惧?“蓝蚁”们是自豪,还是忿怒?可现在我这只“蓝蚁”此时只有疑惧!后面的“蓝蚁”们不断走到前边询问,“几点来的?”

“五点多钟!”言外之意,我们有多辛苦!别觊觎前边的好位置,企图“加先儿”。

“这后边还能买到好东西吗?”

“大家都排队肯定都能买上!年货有得是!”多么恳切的期盼!排队去吧,我的同志们!

然而有些“蓝蚁”到前边探头探脑之后,似乎没有回到队尾!他们竟贴着前边的人们站着不动!真是不详之兆,该不会象昨天一样吧?我没吱声,只是向前蹭着,紧贴着身前的人。前后排队的“蓝蚁”皆如此,默默地抗拒着不速之“蓝蚁”。可后到的图谋不轨的“蓝蚁”越来越多,他们越来越坦然地贴着我们!

汉子终于发话了,“我说同志,你哪儿的?排队了吗?这儿的人可都是天没亮就来了!”

“就这儿的!”年轻人口气还挺硬!他乾脆将一只脚插到汉子前边!

“他是这儿的吗?”汉子问前边的“四眼”。那人扶扶眼镜发楞,即不摇头,也不点头。汉子无奈地嘟囔了一声,用肩膀一扛,使那年轻人不能紧贴着他。那“蓝蚁”公然不畏,岿然不动!

更多的不速之“蓝蚁”效仿之!他们的腿都插进队伍!排队的“蓝蚁”也用肩膀扛住!“蓝蚁们相互抗拒着,各自控制着自己的“地盘”,挤成一个疙瘩!没机会跺脚也不能跺脚,地上都是“蓝蚁”的脚!

“你们是排这儿的吗?我早上四点就来了!”“乌龟”不断地抗议,我已经看不到她。声音从最前头处于胶着状态的一堆“蓝蚁”中发出!

忽然前边又一阵乱,一个身强力壮的“蓝蚁”冲开众人站在第一个!当他被责问时,此公指着地上的一块半头砖道,“我昨天晚上就来了!这半头砖就是我的记号!”啊!竟是这样!天那!可别再有别的半头砖在地上!

更多的年轻力壮的“蓝蚁”挤到了前边!我的脚快离地,头上已冒汗。门口堆了五、六十“蓝蚁”,身后的“蓝蚁”有几百!刚七点二十!时间呀,快点过呀!

“你们讲理吗?你们讲理吗?这是革命行动吗?”“乌龟”仍在徒劳地抗议。应该告诉她,伟大领袖毛主席教导我们,“革命不是请客吃饭,不是做文章,不是绘画绣花,不能那样雅致,那样从容不迫,文质彬彬,那样温良恭俭让。革命是暴动,是一个阶级推翻一个阶级的暴烈行动。”既然是“暴烈的行动”,还要遵守秩序排队吗?

七点半,有五、六个菜市场的售货员贴着墙朝门口挤来,“靠边儿!靠边儿!”“蓝蚁”们以为要提前开门,前呼后拥。这时挤到门口的一个售货员用洪亮的嗓音喊道,“革命的顾客同志们!首先让我们怀着无限崇敬的心情,共同敬祝我们伟大的导师,伟大的领袖,伟大的统帅,伟大的舵手,我们的红司令,我们心中最红、最红的红太阳,毛主席他老人家,万寿无疆!”

“万寿无疆!万寿无疆!”那几个身着白大褂儿的售货员手持“红宝书”挥动着,表情严肃!

所有“蓝蚁”都摸出“红宝书”挥动着,整齐地重复着“万寿无疆!万寿无疆!”我一边挥动着“红宝书”,一边上下乱找“毛主席”。啊!发现了!在菜市场大门的上方悬挂着他老人家的象,风吹雨淋得已经发黄。

“让我们共同敬祝,我们的林副统帅,伟大领袖毛主席的亲密战友,林彪同志身体健康!”

“永远健康!永远健康!”众“蓝蚁”齐声符合,但暗中控制“地盘”的较劲无法停止!

每天的“敬祝”完毕,售货员们又都离去。开门还有半小时,白热化的半小时!这真是个充满焦虑的时刻。“蓝蚁”们开始骚动起来,吵闹声愈来愈大,我的双脚终于挤得离地!“乌龟”的声音仍隐隐可辨,“没地儿讲理了!没地儿讲理了!”

八点钟菜市场大门准时打开,“蓝蚁”们蜂拥而入!忽然有人惊叫,“老太太摔倒了!老太太摔倒了!别挤了!”然而后面的仍急不可待地狂挤!门口的便一而再,再而三地摔倒!“蓝蚁”成堆地堵在门口,“乌龟”垫底儿!

后面的“蓝蚁”焦急地大喊,“往里进呀!往里进呀!”门口乱成一团,“蓝蚁”们不顾一切地踏过“路障”连蹿带蹦地冲进菜市场!摔倒的“蓝蚁”大声咒骂,极力挣扎!我浑身肌肉都绷紧,忘了自己是如何踏过“路障”冲进菜市场的!欲望使我疯狂!六小时后,我终于买了些牛肉、猪肉、带鱼,还有白酒,带着一身的疲倦,怀着庆幸,饿着肚子准备回家。在菜市场门口,两个售货员的聊天引起了我的注意。

“那老太太被踩得够呛!”

“可不是!咱们不赶紧把她拉出来,她八成没命了!”

“人都进出后,在门口看见她的一只鞋,还有《毛主席语录》,都踩成泥饼!”

Beijinger American changeling, Renaissance woman, feminist, storyteller, translator, strategist, illustrator. Encore Public Voices Fellow 2020 She/her