|Standard practice in these parts¡ªwhen being hosted in the home¡ªis to be offered green tea (in a lidded cup to keep it hot) and roasted sunflower seeds. Sometimes too you'll be offered the home-brewed sorghum wine. On this occasion Mr. He didn't just offer. Although he doesn't drink the stuff himself, he insisted that Evelyn and I partake. Consumption of such a beverage in the village falls exclusively in the male domain. But foreigners are seen as different and perhaps a bit strange and so we were both handed cups and¡ªsensing a strong undercurrent of pride in this local product¡ªwe couldn't refuse.
As we munched sunflower seeds¡ªEvelyn and I neatly piling the shells next to the serving tray, Mr. He letting his drop hapazardly to the concrete floor¡ªMr. He spoke to us in Mandarin. He was telling us about Baoshan and and about his life. Evelyn was translating for me when appropriate¡ªcareful not to interupt the flow.
As he spoke, Mr. He rose from his stool and pulled down one of two plastic bags that hung from nails on the wall. Apart from the bed, the desk and its objects, the seats on which we sat, and an inflated innertube leaning incongruously against the wall, the plastic bags were the only other objects in the room.
Pointing to the innertube, Mr. He joked that he used it while swimming in the Yangtze. He then opened the plastic bag and pulled out three or four little red books. One was "the" little red book¡ªa collection of Mao's quotations. The others were what he was after¡ªidentity documents from his youth. He'd been telling us of his adventures away from the village when he'd fought with the Communists in China's civil-war.
Not that there was a trace of ideology in his words. This was purely a personal history. Mr. He clearly considered the war and his role in it as part of the tragic course of human events. Most people are victims in such conflicts and 20th century Chinese¡ªregardless of which side of the fence they fell on during the war¡ªhave perhaps suffered more than most.
Mr. He offered the little red book of Mao's quotations as a gift to Evelyn and laughed. She politely refused it and Mr. He turned his attention back to the identity documents.
A young Mr. He looked up at me from the fifty year old mug shot in one of the documents. I thought of the smiling, good-natured man before me returning from war to face yet more hardship in the China of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the subsequent Cultural Revolution.
He told us how chaos had reigned during the years immediately following the war. It took some time for the Communists to consolidate power in such out-of-the-way places as Baoshan. In the fifties bandits attacked. The residents barricaded the village gate and holed up inside the upper portion of the village¡ªthe portion situated high up on the stone outcropping. The ancient defense mechanism of the village would succeed once more.
As the bandits approached the village gate they were confronted by a shower of stones. The village people were above them behind the walls of Baoshan's ancient fortress. With stones as their only weapon, they managed to kill one of the bandits. The others then gave up their attempt to penetrate the gate. None of the villagers were injured but the lower village was burned to the ground.