by Chelsea Ma
I often choose to write when I'm preoccupied by kinetic thoughts and emotions that beg to be sorted out and given meaning. When I learned of the enormous impact China's Cultural Revolution had upon my family, I felt a blend of anguish and dismay that such inhumanity had pervaded a country for ten years. Yet, I was moved by the courage that individuals, like my grandmother, still held, even while their spirits were being torn. "Lovely Scars" is my own way of paying tribute to my family and the brave victims of the revolution.
Editor’s comments: In this touching, extremely personal journey through family and cultural history, Chelsea Ma excavates a box of old photos and her grandmother’s diary for glimpses of the past.
Today is Enlightenment Day. I came up with the name myself, just to give it some sort of significance. Enlightenment Day has no specific date, and it comes more than once a year, sporadically, usually when I’m buried among a disarray of papers and am suddenly seized with a desire to learn something new (something other than what the derivative of a trigonometric function is, or what force an orbiting satellite exerts upon the Earth).
Well, this morning I am instead sitting at the dining table, digging through a box of old family photos my father just brought back from China. One black and white picture captures my attention. It depicts a woman, delicate in frame, with her hands folded neatly in her lap. She wears a traditional patterned blouse (like the ones seen in old Chinese movies, with the knotted stitches at the collar), trousers, and slippers on her tiny feet. Her lips tilt slightly upward, as if she were smiling, but there is something ambiguous, quite possibly pained, in her expression. Yet, she holds a quiet dignity, a divine grace, which seems to soften the world around me as I sit alone in the dining room and look at the grandmother I never knew.
When I was younger I sometimes dreamt her alive in my mind, in such a way that I found myself believing that she once saw my face and teased my ruddy cheeks, or prepared a large bowl of rice topped with extra rou song, shredded pork, just for me. When the sky became dark, she would sit me on her lap and softly sing the songs of the lost empress in my ear, or tell me folktales about some silly child who made even sillier mistakes (hoping to teach me a lesson or two, I’m sure). Early in the morning, before the sun chose to cast a glimmer of its first rays, before the birds fluttered their resting wings, she would be awake preparing a simple breakfast of tea and rice cakes. When I toppled out of bed from my slumber, she would be there, the warmth of her crinkled smile permeating every niche in the room.
But now, I’m compelled to know the facts. I search deeper into the box, and discover, lying on the very bottom, her diary. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but the first page is dated December 20, 1966. Peeling back a thin film of time, I call forth those memories long ago tucked away, flashbacks that shroud my eyes for a moment. It is a dark veil, embroidered with history’s horror, over my countenance.
I shut my eyes and peer through the abstract kaleidoscope images the sunlight plays upon my eyelids. My mind does what it is so good at doing—it takes these meaningless blotches of color and twists them into something coherent, non-surreal, non-imaginary. I am my grandmother’s words, walking down the busy Shanghai streets that she did, my movements reflecting every dainty stroke of her pen. I am looking down at my feet, marveling at the way the dust swirls like fairytale clouds, something celestial about my toes. My pace quickens in accordance with hers, and we soon find ourselves amidst a large crowd. What are they here for?
A wave of horror and fear answers us. Grandfather stands upon a platform, hunched forward, wearing a heavy metal plate around his neck and a strange, pointed hat upon his head. Blows are delivered and red pours forth. We see nothing but his battered body, and hear nothing but fanatical jeers. I scream for my grandmother because she cannot. Each violent motion of the baton chokes her to silence, and the Hands of Depravity do not let go until we tear our eyes away from the scene and head home. But everyday, those hands visit again. Monday they knock when neighbors, once renowned professors and officials, are dragged out of their apartments and brutally beaten. Tuesday they come uninvited as grandfather is stripped of his dignity as a World War II colonel and commanded to clean the streets. Wednesday they barge in as grandmother’s sons are torn away to labor in the fields of the destitute countryside. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday they appear, andtheir visits never stop.
I hadn’t learned much about China’s Cultural Revolution in school, but running around the pages of my grandmother’s memories taught me more than any bulky textbook could have. For a decade, China’s world was turned upside-down. The shadow assumed the sunshine and much of the population did not question it. The Confucian values that had been embedded in the people’s hearts for generations, ren yi dao de—humanity, justice, virtue, and morality—were obliterated. Society was at once the devil’s utopia and the angel’s nightmare.
So daily my grandmother rose, perhaps hoping to awaken from a nightmare conjured by the demons of the era, only to live through the reality that seemed to mock Satan’s kingdom. Physical abuse, mental torture, and public humiliation—these were the things that she saw. She could not bear to watch, but she was forced to, and that was the revolution’s way of torturing her. Her entries end in 1968, when she discovered that her husband, my grandfather, could not endure the wickedness around him and committed suicide. It is then that I am propelled out of her world and back into this one.
Until now, my knowledge of the degree of emotional suffering individuals experience was limited. I am still young, and though my wounds do go a little deep, I had never felt the agony of being a prisoner in my own body. But today is Enlightenment Day, and I am new. I shared an experience, and it has caused me to gasp, tremble, then ponder, how much can the heart take before it breaks, the mentality before it snaps in two?
Yet through those years, my grandmother never cried. Something in her did not die. When I live vicariously through her written thoughts, half of me feels the sting of one thousand whips, but where the other half could be numb, I feel it. It is neither forgiveness nor acceptance; I am not sure what it is. I imagine, though, that what she kept was an unnamed component of humanity that can conquer the vilest corruption.
My senses tell me this human phenomenon must be aided, and embroidery was my grandmother’s support. She took her greatest pain, pulled it out from the deepest crevices of her soul, and twisted it into the finest thread. With the greatest care, she sewed her anguish into a silk cloth, one pang after another. When the revolution ended ten years later, she had created eight pieces in all, but only one of them still exists.
I raise my head and there it is. It has been hanging on the dining room wall for the past sixteen years, and only now do I feel the bruises it holds. The work depicts a tiger, the Chinese symbol of courage, stitched with such detail and expertise that from my seat I cannot believe it is painted in thread. When the sun peeks through the windows, wishing to see the emblem of spiritual strength, the work glitters with a wondrous loveliness. It is a ballet that teaches me of human sorrow and solace, of truth amidst floods of lies. Every physical and emotional scar dances to some secret rhythm, a tempo for the falling and wandering. They plié and pirouette, hold hands and twirl, leap and sashay in spectacular shades and shapes.
It is a beautiful wound.