Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Salt Merchant’s Granddaughter-Born in Famine

I started my story in the 1990s after my first son was born since I wanted to tell him about my life in China; I was born during a famine and raised by my grandparents, traveled around China in the early 1980s west to Tibet, north to Inner Mongolia, and in the northeast, southeast, and southwest parts of China after college. Then how I adjusted to my life here in America covering student/working life including over 20 years of getting to know common middle-class Americans and Chinese-Americans. But it never finished... until he went to college.. then it ended up much bigger than myself. So I started my blogs with Searching For My Hakka Roots, then The Salt Merchant's Granddaughter.

Four pounds and two ounces, I was born on September 10, 1961, in Chengdu’s People’s Construction Hospital next to the Oil Company, Sichuan Province in southwest China. Both of my parents were geologists working for the Oil Company, but they worked in two different cities. My youngest uncle was a college student. He sent my mom to the hospital and took care of her until my father arrived. It was common then for a husband and wife to work in different cities. Fortunately, they had a one-month vacation each year together which makes me lucky enough to come into the world.
      Chengdu was the only city in China which never changed its name for thousands of years. It is the capital of “Heavenly State” Sichuan (天府之国), home of giant pandas in its subalpine mountains. The provincial name Sichuan means “Four rivers and gorges.” 
Sichuan was also referred as Ba-Shu (巴蜀), a combining the name of  two independent kingdoms of Ba and Shu. Ba included Chongqing and the land in eastern part of Sichuan along the Yangtze and some tributary streams, while Shu included today's Chengdu, its surrounding plain and adjacent territories in western part of Sichuan. 
In 1920, Joseph Beech visited there and said Chengdu was “eden.” Marco Polo described how Chengdu was nurtured by the upper Yangzi (Yangtze) River.
Jiaozi ( 交子) is a form of banknote which appeared in Chengdu. Most regard it as the first paper money in history, a development of the Chinese Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD). To combat counterfeiting, Jiaozi were stamped with multiple Banknote seals.
     In ancient times, the road to Sichuan was almost impossible. A famous Sichuanese Li Bei’s (李白701-762 in Tang Dynasty) poem said, “蜀道之難,難於上青天, 黃鶴之飛尚不得過, 猿猱欲度愁攀援,” which means “trying to get into Sichuan was like trying to get to Heaven, the bird could not fly over and the monkey had a hard time climbing.” Sichuan has always been considered as China’s last “hold out and backbone.” The surrounding mountains provide a natural defense. Defeated Han and Tang Dynasty emperors ran south to Sichuan for safety. When the Japanese invaded China in the 1930-40s, Sichuan was a hideout as well.

The road to Sichuan 蜀道
     Chengdu is located in the western part of the Sichuan Basin, in the center of Chengdu Plain. It covers a total area of 4,749 square miles with a population of over 11 million people, with vegetation ranging from subtropical to alpine. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System (都江堰) on the Min River (岷江), the largest tributary of the upper Yangtze River, was constructed in 256 BC. It is the earliest artificial irrigation system in the world, and it serves as the lifeline of Chengdu. The water enabled Chengdu to become one of the largest granaries in the world. It allowed the State of Qin to become the strongest in China. In 223 BC, Qin troops sailed from Chengdu on the Min River to the Yangtze. They sailed downstream and defeated the State of Chu and united China as one, thus beginning the first imperialist dynasty with centralization. The Dujiangyan Irrigation still works today, over 2000 years later, and still serves as the lifeline of Chengdu, the land of abundance.

The Dujiangyan Irrigation System (都江堰) built in 256BC

          When I was born, China was in one of those hard times. There was not much food to eat. Hundreds died from starvation everyday. In Sichuan province, the government reported millions of deaths during 1958–1961. The government provided one pound of eggs for a pregnant woman. That’s all the protein my mom had while carrying me.
      After I was born, my grandmother had a hen in Gongjing (贡井) that was still laying eggs. She wanted to kill the hen and so she could bring it with her to Chengdu for my mom to eat. Chicken soup was a must for women after giving birth. But my mom stopped her because the hen could give eggs instead.
      I don’t remember the hardships of those times. My only memory of those days is the fact that I don’t like to eat potatoes. My mom told me that when I was born, because she didn’t have much milk for me, she only could give me mashed potatoes. Since my mom saved the potatoes for me, my father went without much food, and he became ill. He was weak and sick for weeks and had a puffy face. Since I didn’t like those potatoes, my father finally ate them and he became better. I was always proud to hear this when my mom told this part of the story because if I had liked potatoes my father might never have been cured. I was known as “picky, picky” since my parents tried so hard to let me eat whatever they could find, but I was good at spitting out everything except my mother’s milk. I was one of the lucky ones though since my mom’s girlfriend lost her baby girl and many children born at that time did not survive.
      In the market, there were all sorts of fake food for sale. My father heard that people actually ate clay or cow droppings but he could not imagine that. One day, he saw these nice brown pancakes, the sight of which made his mouth water. He bought one and ate it. It was tough. Later on, his friend told him that it was cow droppings and then he threw up.
      My mom went back to work right after and an old lady nearby her workplace took care of me. My mom told me how fast she ran when she took time off for breast-feeding since she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. I used to cry so much for more of her milk, which she did not have.

My mother and me in Chengdu  (1961).
Mao's Great Famine 1958-1962 
1: Glamorous Sichuan part 1 Waters in Sichuan
2: Glamorous Sichuan part 2 Mysteries of the past
3: Glamorous Sichuan part 3 Colorful waters of Jiuzhai Valley
4: Glamorous Sichuan part 4 Ethnic harmony
5: Glamorous Sichuan Part 5 The Leshan Giant Buddha and Mount Emei
6: Glamorous Sichuan Part 6 Rise of the Phoenix

Food in Chengdu