This article comes from Humans of China (WeChat ID: humans-of-china), which aims to document and tell the stories of the many varied people of this vast country, one individual at a time.
I first married when I was 19, but within less than a year I was a widower left with a baby girl. My husband sadly passed away after becoming sick. I was introduced to him by a neighbor and after meeting him a couple of times we got married. My parents couldn’t attend the wedding and they had to stay at home. I walked from my village with my auntie to his village which took around an hour and there we married. There was no wedding dress and nothing special was prepared, only RMB 50 for my parents as a dowry. His family was pretty poor but they treated me well for the short time I was with them. He was also a good man and when he died I was sad, but I was also very young and so was he, only 21. It all happened so fast and after he died I continued to live with his family.
Around six months later, when I just turned 21 I remarried. Again, I was introduced to him by a neighbor, but marrying him meant I couldn’t keep my daughter. I had to give her up to a friend who offered to help me and we lived in the same village, so luckily I could see her often. I would share vegetables I grew or food that I made with her. I had no money to give. The second wedding day wasn’t much different from the first, no special clothes, no party or celebration and this time no dowry. He came from a poor family and at times unloving. Before his mom and stepdad married, his mother spent a lot of time with a married man who was a rich landlord. She fell pregnant with his child and had to leave. After marriage, she decided to keep and raise the baby, but his stepdad didn’t treat him well. He would often hit him for the smallest things like dropping a chopstick on the floor. They would often argue and fight, and after we married he would leave the house for days and I would worry about him. He’d leave me there alone and I didn’t like it as they also didn’t treat me well.
In 1958, the Great Leap Forward started in China. Life was hard before 1958 but it only got harder. We were arranged in groups of 50 people, the oldest around 60 and the youngest 16, both men and women together. Each group had two leaders, a lady and a man. Each group was given daily tasks to complete depending on what season it was. In summer, we grew rice and in winter we grew vegetables such as white radish. For months on end, without days off, we would wake up before the sun had risen and sleep after the sun had long gone down. Before breakfast we would have to do small jobs such as feeding the pigs we raised for the government and after we went home to cook. We cooked together in our group of 50, once in the morning, and it was normally gruel, rice, and water, and if we were lucky, some vegetables – no meat or eggs, they could only be eaten once or twice a year. The meal cooked in the morning would last all day. It would also be lunch and dinner. After breakfast it was back to work until lunch, no time for a nap after lunch, it was back to work until it was too dark to see. We all ate together but if you didn’t go to work then there'd be no food for you. Work meant points and points got you food. We would also have to make sure there was enough food to be taken home for our children and parents. The older men and women stayed at home drying the rice and removing the skin which we could also eat.
In the evenings the leaders often held meetings which we would have to attend. They all spoke Mandarin which I can’t understand. I would carry my chair to the square and sit there fixing shoes or mending broken clothes. I’d use old clothes to mend old clothes. Two broken pieces could become one new piece. The only thing I could join in was the singing. I knew a lot of songs which were sung in Mandarin about Chairman Mao and the government. Sometimes I still find myself singing them today. I didn’t work in the same group as my husband so we didn’t see much of each other. We had already given birth to a son and my husband’s mother looked after him.
We’d always meet in the evening around 8pm to collect the points we earned for working that day unless we had to go back to work. I could get seven points for the day, the most for a lady, and my husband could get ten points, the most for a man. He was the leader for his group but there was nothing extra for that. After we had ten points we could trade them in for seven Mao or food tickets which would let us buy rice, oil, or cloth. The food we could buy wasn’t good quality as the good stuff was given to the government. We weren’t allowed to grow food ourselves, take wild vegetables or animals, and we weren’t allowed to raise chickens, ducks, or pigs. No matter how hard we worked it wasn’t enough and most nights we’d go to bed hungry.
The Great Leap Forward didn’t last long but life didn’t get better afterward. A few years later the Cultural Revolution started. These years were harder than in 1958 and 1959. In 1966, the land was divided up and given to people to farm themselves but the food we grew wasn’t for us. It was also given to the government in return for tickets. Food was much harder to come by during those years and there were more mouths to feed as we had more children. Sometimes my husband and I wouldn’t eat three meals a day, as the children ate first. Everyone wore a pin badge with the face of Chairman Mao and whilst farming we still sang songs about him. You had to show how much you loved him otherwise there could be trouble. If someone heard you say something bad about him or the government then they’d parade you through the village making you wear a very, very tall white hat and people would laugh and throw things at you. This also happened to teachers, landlords, and educated people around us. In 1980 my husband and I opened up a small shop selling food and household items like bowls and chopsticks with the help of the local government. The money we made we had to give them. My husband would drive a tractor to the wholesale market to buy things the shop needed and I stayed home growing rice and also looked after our children.
From 1958 up until about 1985 the food we grew was handed over, and finally after around 25 years, we could start to keep what we grew and earn money ourselves. We kept the shop and we did well, better than other families. Every festival we could afford to buy some meat and eggs. It was much better than before. We still struggled at times though and life really became much better around 2000. Our three children had grown up and married but they were giving birth during the one-child policy. I gave birth to our youngest daughter in 1979, a year before the policy was introduced, even though I was forcibly sterilized by the local government in 1978. It didn’t work and I still fell pregnant but we kept her and I’m glad we did. We’d often see little girls dumped around the village wrapped in blankets with a red packet tucked into their clothes. Families would take the babies and help raise them. My husband died in 2008. He liked to drink a lot and I would often tell him not to drink so much. I told him because I cared about him. I told him because I didn’t want him to become sick and die. I told him because finally, our lives together were better. He was a stubborn man and he didn’t listen to me. I know he loved our children and our grandchildren and we all loved him very much too. We only have one photo left of him now.
READ: Humans of China: "When I Was 10 We Used Horses to Move House"
Photos: Cameron Hack