A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China's Daughters
by Chai Ling
I went to Beijing for the first time when I was seventeen—a young girl on the threshold of life. So much would happen during the short span of time between that ride, in 1983, and the one I would take out of Beijing in June 1989 that decades could well have passed since the morning I traveled through the Chinese countryside to begin my university studies.
On the bus from Rizhao, my father sat beside me in great spirits. He didn’t say much, but every so often he let out a sigh to show me how happy he was that his firstborn child was on her way to Peking University—or Beida, as we fondly call our school—the most prestigious institute of higher learning in all of China. He was relieved, because he knew things could have turned out differently. For a father who valued Chinese tradition, I—his firstborn, but not a son—was once a big disappointment. Still, as a young girl determined to overcome her “gender deficiency,” I had brought home the prize, which gave my father a profound sense of pride and contentment.
“Ling Ling,” he said as we settled in for the seven-hour trip from our village in Shandong Province, “you are leaving your home now. You know, I also was seventeen when I left home to join the army.”
Like most Chinese names, my father’s name, Chai Jingjin, which literally means “Going to Beijing,” embodied a cherished family wish. My grandfather had fervently hoped his son would grow up, leave the countryside, and go to the capital city to find a better life in serving the emperor, perhaps as a scholar. Dad never got to seek his fortune in Beijing, but he did leave the countryside to pursue a career as an army doctor.
Now he and I were headed for Beijing on a crowded bus, which bucked and jolted along a winding road through the Eastern Mountains on its way from our seaside village to the vast interior of the Chinese heartland. A perilous abyss yawned below us on one side, and the sun seemed to scorch the sheer rock walls rising sharply above us on the other. Every so often, we’d pass a pitiful collection of little straw huts shaded by a lone tree. I saw rags set out to dry on the hot rocks and small children scampering about in open-slit shorts that exposed their tiny backsides as they shouted and chased their goats in a haze of dust.
On a far mountain ridge, a man with a bare, dark-brown torso moved in and out of view as he toiled behind an ox and plow, swaying in perfect rhythm under the broiling sun.
Along the roadside, women and children would stop whatever they were doing and stand motionless, their mouths agape and faces blank, staring at the bus and its passengers as we drove past them into a distance they couldn’t reach and a future they could not even imagine. I was deeply saddened by the sight of these people on the mountainside, trapped in the suffering landscape with no way to make life better and no hope for the future of their children.
It reminded me of the time when I was five years old and was left in the foster care of a peasant family while my parents were sent on a military mission. I lived with these people in their mud-brick hut, with its central platform that served as a place to eat meals, sit during the day, and sleep at night. I remember the smell of smoke coming into the room when the bed was warmed by burning hay on winter nights. Now I was leaving behind these villages filled with helpless poverty, illiteracy, and boredom, but my heart ached for them. I felt they were a part of me—the earthy, hardy places where I came from and the roots that gave me the foundation and strength in my life.
“Bye, now,” I said silently as my view of the people faded behind the bus. “I am going away to learn, but I will be back someday when I am older and stronger. I will help you, bring you hope, freedom, and more. Someday!”
The sight of those poor peasants reminded me of my dear grandma—and thinking of her made my heart ache even more. Grandma, who had come to live with us and who had raised me, was the stable parenting figure in my early years when Mom and Dad were constantly sent on military missions. Her face had many wrinkles, and her tiny body had withered with age, but hidden within her small frame was the heart of a hardworking, enduring, tireless woman. The veins that stood out like blue ropes on the backs of her hands were a testimony to her years of manual labor in the fields, in every season and right up to the last hour each time she gave birth. She had married Grandpa at a young age and gave birth to seven surviving children, often returning to the fields within days of delivery.
As with many traditional Chinese women, the years of hard labor and subsistence living left Grandma with a strong set of values and traditions. Because Grandpa had died of starvation during the three-year famine in the late 1950s, Grandma was extremely careful not to waste food. She never started a meal when we did, but would wait for us to finish and then eat our leftovers. She got up early every morning, at five o’clock when my parents did their calisthenics, and began to make breakfast, wash clothes, and straighten up the house. She often went tottering about on her bound feet to gather twigs and leaves for kindling. On bone-chilling winter mornings, we would see her form rising and falling in the gray mist; and when she returned with an armful of sticks, her silvery-gray hair, which normally was combed neatly and coiled up into a bun, was blown down all over her forehead. My dad, a young officer with great potential and always concerned with appearances, forbade Grandma to go out, lest one of his army comrades see her and wonder why an officer of his rank had his mother out gathering sticks. But Grandma would say, “I’m no good anymore anyway. What’s wrong with helping you save a little money on kindling so I’m not just freeloading all the time?”
When Dad still strictly forbade her, my siblings and I inherited Grandma’s job. We quickly learned that she believed in Master Chan’s saying: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Though Grandma was illiterate and uncultured, the virtue of hard work was deeply rooted in her life—and now in mine.
Hard times did not keep Grandma from having a big heart full of mercy and kindness to people and creatures in worse situations than hers. One time I bought a number of little chicks, and Grandma helped me raise them. One of the chicks was crippled and could not completely stand up. A neighbor suggested we make a nice chicken soup, but Grandma felt a special compassion for the poor chick and always gave her more food and care because of her illness. Later the chick grew into a hen and laid many eggs. Grandma always said that hen worked extra hard to thank her owners for showing mercy and kindness.
When I told Grandma I was going to Peking University, her ancient, wrinkled face lit up with joy. In that moment, all the years of toil and strife fell away, and she was transformed into a young girl again, radiant, with a glimpse of sparkle in her eyes. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her so happy. She beamed and laughed and showed her missing teeth. All her long-buried memories rushed up, vivid and beautiful, and burst out in a flurry of words.
“In the old days,” she began, “when a student passed the exam and made the emperor’s list, the imperial palace sent a messenger by horseback to the village to deliver the news to the family. Can you imagine? The whole village came out to celebrate. They banged drums and performed dragon dances. That was a lot of fun, I can tell you. If the student happened to make the number one list, he won a chance to marry the emperor’s daughter and live in a palace in Beijing. Sometimes he’d bring his bride back home to visit the village and see his parents. Then the whole road would be strewn with flowers and brightly colored paper, and soon a team of horses, palace guards, flags, carriages, and sedan chairs—each one carried by eight people—would arrive. It was the greatest honor a son could possibly bring to his family.”
Grandma went on and on, as if she had just returned from a voyage to another century—the century before 1911, when the last emperor in a series of dynasties was abolished. In Grandma’s generation, those stories had been kept alive through folk music and plays, but my parents’ generation and mine—those who grew up in the “new society”—never saw such a thing.
“That’s why we named your father ‘Going to Beijing,’” Grandma said. “It’s too bad that when your father was growing up, China was in a different time. They didn’t have those exams anymore, or that kind of fun. But now my granddaughter is going to Beijing!” She clapped her aged, weatherworn hands. “At last, somehow, that Chai family wish has come true. How wonderful is that?”
Usually when Grandma got going on all the good things she missed about the “old society,” as the Communists called it, my dad would tell her to stop talking. He worried someone would overhear what she said and report that our family didn’t like the “new society”—a crime that could lead to death or a life sentence in a forced labor camp. This time, though, I guess she touched a soft spot in Dad’s heart. Instead of stopping her, he joined in with his own rhapsody.
“Today’s exam is no less competitive than in the old days,” he said. “It may even be harder. Only fifty spots for this university are permitted for our province, with millions of bright kids competing.”
Dad and Grandma were grinning, and my mother beamed with joy as well. She could clearly recall the day she passed the exams and entered medical school. She remembered what joy she’d brought to her mother and what pride she’d given her family. I couldn’t tell whether Grandma heard what my father had said, but this much was clear: The whole family was overjoyed that a family dream had finally come true after three generations. As it sank in, the realization that I was going to Beijing had a different meaning for everyone, but the whole family agreed that a bright future awaited me, and they acknowledged the luster and glory I had brought to the family. I loved the idea that I had done something to give my mother and grandmother such joy. What made me even happier was the thought that, by leaving, I would get out from beneath my father’s thumb.
I love my father, but I was intimidated by him when I was growing up. Our relationship became better when I started doing well in school, but less than a year before my acceptance at Beida, he and I got into a major conflict when I told him I didn’t plan to join the Communist Youth League. I felt so hurt by his reaction that I did not speak to him for some time. I decided to skip a class in order to test for university. Surprisingly, he later went to talk to the school principal, who agreed to establish an accelerated program for a few students, and some of us went on to college.
My dad saw college as the next step on a set pathway to success within Chinese society. I saw it as the gateway to freedom and happiness. Though focused on different destinies, we agreed on one thing: Beida was the culmination of the fairy-tale dreams of three generations of Chais.