Three Excerpts from The Crystal Monkey
By Patrick Nohrden
Excerpt 1: Opening Paragraphs
Explanation—The opening to The Crystal Monkey shows the bleakness of the landscape, as well as the abject poverty in which we find our heroine, little Min Li, a six-year-old Chinese peasant. Although she is lucky if she can eat rice twice in one week, Min Li believes she lives an abundant life in the world’s greatest nation, China, despite the oppressive nature of her time, six years into the Cultural Revolution.
The crooked gray furrows, fallowed by the early winter, crawled toward the horizon, blurring as they met the gray overcast sky as though a vandal had airbrushed out the painting’s subject, leaving nothing more than a blurred bleakness between the foreground and the background. The bare ground had been picked clean by the production team, leaving nothing to waste. Even the stubble of the cornstalks had some use. Weeds that might have been there had been eaten a long time before.
Little Min Li quickly surveyed the scene as she did every morning while making her morning dash to the outhouse. The scene changed by the seasons. In the spring, the muddy freshly tilled furrows would show sprouts of life as corn weakly grew from the unfertilized mud. Then came summer with its own hot, humid misery, the time for flying insects and snakes and the corn at only half the height it should be, ,with its wheezing promise of a harvest and the realization of production quotas that could not be met. The time of reckoning, autumn, colored only by the yellow stalks of corn, the yellow dust, and the glistening sweat of villagers in the fields, proved to be a reminder to everybody in the village that life was hard and would always be hard. But life is life, and the purpose of life is to keep living in order to better serve the dictatorship of the people and its beloved leader, Chairman Mao Zedong.
Min Li thought little of the changing seasons or the hard life of her neighbors as she ran to the outhouse. She thought only of the spider who lived there, wondering if she had spun her web across the squat hole again. Min Li’s mother, Zhou Lian Min, had assured her that the spider was harmless, that its only purpose was to catch flies who shared the same habitation. Min Li believed the spider to be thoughtless, knowing that every morning she and other members of her family would have no time to clear the spider away. Ever since that one time last spring, when Min Li did not think about the spider and squatted over the hole in the outhouse without caution and found the spider tangled in her hair, Min Li carried a stick with her. Now a routine, Min Li would enter the small outhouse waving her stick as she turned and readied herself for relief. The spider learned too, as she spun her web more often in the window these days, but it was still there, and Min Li smiled at the thought of a successful compromise. It is not often that a six-year-old gets her way.
The village loudspeakers crackled to life as Min Li exited the outhouse, just as they did every morning at 7:00 for as long as Min Li could remember. And she stood still, despite the nearness of the outhouse, despite the chattering cold of the morning air, as she listened to the same song that she listened to every morning for as long as she could remember:
The east is red, the sun rises,
From China arises Mao Zedong
He strives for people’s happiness
Hurrah, he is the peoples’ great savior
Chairman Mao loves the people
He is our guide to build a new China
Hurrah, lead us forward
The Communist Party is like the sun
Wherever it goes, it is bright
There is the Communist Party
Hurrah, the people are liberated!
And when she heard this song she thought what a wonderful life she had and how horrible life must be for people who lived in other countries. It is good to be Chinese, she thought as she heard the familiar bark of her mother, “Min Li! Ni chi la! (Min Li, come and eat!)”
Min Li quickly slipped into the main room of her family’s two-room house, the same room that served as both kitchen and bedroom for herself, her older brother, and her baby sisters, and she saw that the corn porridge had already been ladled into the bowls sitting on the low bench that served as a table. The warmth of the room sharply contrasted with the bitter cold outside, so much so that she felt no need to close the door behind her, but her brother felt differently.
Excerpt 2: From the Beginning of Chapter Four
Explanation—Min Li witnesses her first “struggle session,” typical during the Cultural Revolution when friends, neighbors, and even relatives reported each other to the authorities for being exhibiting traits that went against Chinese communism and against the teachings of Mao Zedong. The results were usually more than expected and often with horrific results.
Soon Min Li, her mother, and her brother were on Liberation Road in front of Mr. Li’s shop. A reluctant fragment of an angry crowd was there, some still with rocks in their hands. Broken glass and debris from inside the store lay strewn on the dirty street. Min Li recognized some of the European porcelain dolls, their faces shattered, as well as other toys, knickknacks, and assorted items formerly for sale in Mr. Li’s shop. She could not see whether the crystal monkey was there or not, nor did she have time to look further, since she was being tugged by her mother who was walking with the flow the crowd.
They turned left at the corner and had just started up the gradual slope of Cemetery Road when Min Li nearly stopped breathing due to what she saw. A large platform had been erected in front of the old church, flooded in light by several stage lights while Chinese patriotic music played over the loudspeakers. On the platform stood a perky Red Guard wearing a green Mao suit and sprouting a red armband proclaiming her affiliation to a particular Red Guard unit. To her right and her left were six older villagers, all badly beaten, all on their knees, and all with their hands tied behind their backs. Their arms had been placed over boards that were arranged across their backs so that their tied hands were elevated behind them, giving them the appearance of imitating airplanes. One of the old men fell as if having passed out, but he was pulled back into position by his hair. That was when Min Li recognized him as Father Wang, the retired priest.
Along with the priest were Mr. Li, the gift shop owner; Feng Lan Lan, the wife of Zheng Yun Fei; Zhao Hui Ren, the agricultural planning office cadre alleged to be Feng Lan Lan’s boyfriend; Bai San Ni, the headmaster of the village primary school; and Sun Peng Jiu, the director of the agricultural production teams. All were similarly tied, kneeling, and airplaned, with evidence of having been beaten.
Min Li found herself in the largest crowd she had ever experienced. With few exceptions, everybody in the village was present, including her Ye Ye and Nai Nai. The excitement of most of the crowd was contagious, and too many people seemed pleased with the events, so much so that there appeared a single vapor over the entire crowd created by the breath of the speaking mixing with the cold air, partially blurring the spectacle on the platform. A much smaller number of people appeared anxious, even apprehensive or fearful. Fewer people still muffled sobs as tears froze on their cheeks from the arctic-like night air.
At the front of the crowd, just before it met the platform, were all the teachers from the village primary school, lined up and on their knees, although none had been bound. They were there to learn so that they could better teach China’s next generation of revolutionaries.
Suddenly, the music stopped, and the young woman on the platform began to speak into a microphone. “The Chairman said: ‘It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.’ Comrades, that is exactly what we are doing tonight. We have come to Shangguang, a small corner in the great house of China, in order to sweep out the grime that pollutes this village, to sweep out the contagion that infects our great dictatorship of the people, to save China and to invigorate the revolution.
“Our Chairman believes that most people can be reeducated and become productive members of society,” continued the Red Guard on the platform. “Some, however, are beyond hope. Those who cling to the bourgeois habits of our imperial enemies are the most difficult. In these individuals, there is no hope of acceptance into the proletariat. They are too corrupted by the false promises of the West, and even if they show evidence of rehabilitation, they quickly fall prey to their past recklessness while encouraging others to do likewise, thereby causing an awful strain on society. These are counterrevolutionaries of the worst kind and must be swept from society.”
“You see before you some of that dirt, the same dirt that’s been contaminating your good village since before the revolution. Holdouts from the past, reactionaries, counterrevolutionaries, capitalist roaders, agents of imperialist powers, and those that seek to foul the air of Shangguang, of China, with their bourgeois habits.”
Min Li understood little of this. She had heard many of the words before. They were much of the same that raked her ears every day from the village public address system. She listened anyway, because she was expected to listen, and she was a good Chinese. Meanwhile, she scanned the crowd for her Ye Ye and Nai Nai, spotting them near the back. Min Li grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her toward her grandparents. Xiong Yong followed, nodding at his classmates as he passed them.
“Did you see Teacher Luo in the front row?” one of them asked.
Xiong Yong’s eyes widened in surprise. Luo Mei Guo was his teacher, and he liked her when she was not yelling at him for not knowing all of his characters. “Why is she up there?” he wondered aloud.
“They’re all up there, all the teachers—even the janitor, but he’s standing.”
Just then Lian Min tugged her son sharply, giving him no more time to gossip with his classmate. Ye Ye spotted the trio first and acknowledged their presence by holding his hands out for Min Li to jump into. Especially because of the cold air, she welcomed Ye Ye’s warm embrace, his smile not so much, though. Three of his good friends were on the platform. Ye Ye regularly played mahjong with Mr. Li, Father Wang, and Headmaster Bai San Ni.
What happened next caused Ye Ye to hug Min Li even tighter. She was just starting to nod off in his arms, but Ye Ye inadvertently woke her. Min Li turned to look across the large crowd in the direction of the platform as the young woman continued her diatribe.
“Feng Lan Lan and Zhao Hui Ren, you stand accused of encouraging counterrevolutionary activities in this village by your indiscreet liaisons. The Western imperialist dogs tolerate such conduct, but this cannot be tolerated in a dictatorship of the proletariat. You are the dirt that can never be cleaned from the surface of any floor. You are the dirt that can only be eliminated by replacing the floor. You are therefore sentenced by the people to be summarily eliminated.”
Just as she finished speaking these words, two male Red Guards, who were standing at each end of the line of teachers, raised their rifles and shot the illicit lovers in their foreheads. The look of surprise froze on both victims’ faces as they slumped over, spraying people in the first three rows with blood. Women in the crowd screamed, children cried, and men gulped air or uttered oaths. This was more than they expected. Before the murmuring of the crowd could cease, four more Red Guards dragged the bodies off the platform and hung the corpses on the eaves of the old church, then they tied them together so they would sway in unison.
Excerpt 3: From the Beginning of Chapter Six
Explanation—The spider in this chapter is a metaphor for the evil nature of the Red Guards who have taken up residence in Min Li’s small village. Their alleged purpose was to root out evil and to correct the counterrevolutionary tendencies of the peasants, but actually all the did was to create fear, leaving the village victimized by their evil ways, serving no purpose whatsoever. It also shows that Min Li’s big brother, Xiong Yong, is willing to protect his sister despite the dangers.
Min Li slept later than usual. When she awoke, thin corn meal porridge waited on the bench to be eaten. Xiong Yong helped Lian Min this morning, since the school was closed. Min Li crawled out of the kang, pulled her winter shoes onto her sockless feet, threw her winter coat on, and headed out the door to the outhouse. She sleepily dragged her feet, stumbling slightly when her foot dragged across a stone in her path.
She wrestled a moment with the outhouse latch, a seemingly impossible task until her thumbs could start working, finally getting the door open. Min Li’s plans changed suddenly when she saw the spider. This was not a typical garden spider taking refuge in the natural warmth of an outhouse to avoid hibernating in the winter. It did not have the bright blue abdomen of its predecessor. This new spider was ugly. Its ugly hairy body gave it the appearance of already having been engorged by its prey. Its web was not a delicate work of artistic excellence but was so thick and mottled, it looked like smoke and the spider seemed to float heavily in the middle of the smoke, which must have been quite a feat, because balled up, the spider looked almost as big as a ping-pong ball. It looked like it meant business. It looked like it was here to stay.
Min Li lacked the resolve needed to deal with the spider, so she simply squatted outside behind a stump that had once been an apricot tree. The cold air on her exposed backside reminded her of the bitter cold of the night before and the horrors of the evening in front of the old church. She remembered too vividly how Father Wang was beaten and then taken away with Mr. Li, how the two paramours were summarily executed and their bodies, tied together, were hung from the eaves of the church. She remembered the teachers being silently led away. And she remembered the crystal monkey. Min Li reached into her coat pocket and found the monkey, still intact. Taking a quick glance at her booty, Min Li noticed at once how the monkey was still smiling.
Min Li tucked the monkey back into her pocket and dashed for the door, more to get out of the cold than to eat breakfast. It all seemed like any other breakfast. Xiong Yong sat on the floor at the bench slurping his porridge. Lian Min suckled the younger girls. But Xiong Yong would not be going to school today, and the future looked less certain than it did before. Min Li started daydreaming about the crystal monkey.
“Min Li,” her mother said, breaking into Min Li’s daydream.
“Don’t do anything to bring attention to this family.”
“What do you mean, Mama?”
“You know exactly what I mean, child. You left the house in the middle of the night. You scared me half to death. I heard those gunshots and you weren’t in bed. What was I supposed to think?”
“They didn’t shoot me, Mama. One of those Red Guards killed Zhu Pan Nian for looting the stuff on the street in front of Mr. Li’s shop.”
“Goodness! Are you sure?” Lian Min worked with Zhu Pan Nian’s mother in the same production team. “How do you know?”
“I saw it.”
“You were there?” Lian Min asked, half-believing.
“Sort of. I was hiding in Mr. Li’s shop.”
“Why on earth were you hiding in Mr. Li’s shop?”
“To rescue the monkey. Mr. Li acted like it was the most special thing in the shop, and he said I could have it when he dies. I want to give it to him when he comes out of prison.”
“Keep it.” Lian Min knew too well that Mr. Li would never come out of prison. “But those Red Guards we met last night suspect you, and they might come back. You better hide that thing, and hide it well. I wish you hadn’t gone out on your little escapade.”
“But, Mama, it was the right thing to do.”
“Nothing is the right thing to do anymore. Hide that toy.”
“How about under the kang?” Min Li asked.
“Absolutely not. That’s the first place they’ll look. People always hide things under their kangs. Every thief knows that, and those Red Guards are nothing but thieves. From what I’ve heard, they gotten pretty good at finding people’s hidden assets.”
“The outhouse,” offered Xiong Yong.
“The outhouse. People don’t hide things in outhouses. They think it’s too gross. Nobody will look there.”
“What about the spider.”
“No. The new spider. I’m afraid of it.”
“Oh, so that’s why you were squatting behind that old stump this morning,” chided Xiong Yong. “Let’s go spider hunting. Then we’ll hide your monkey.”
“Finish your breakfast first. We can’t afford to waste and I’m not cooking again until supper,” Lian Min warned.