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One typically sizzling summer afternoon in the Central China city of Wuhan in

early September 1998, in need of custom-made sandals and disappointed that in Hong

Kong no longer could a shop specializing in that trade be found, I strolled the streets, wondering if that old Hong Kong business might--like so many others--have relocated to the Mainland. About to give up hope, I noticed a small, eager Chinese woman crouching by the curb, displaying a crude signboard announcing that she was there to repair shoes. That was the beginning of my acquaintance with Zheng Erji, a woman who now calls me “dajie” [elder sister]. I immediately questioned her: “Ruguo ni hui xiuli xiezi, ni ye hui buhui zuo xiezi?” [If you can repair shoes, can you also make them?]. She nodded in the affirmative and soon she was at work on my first two pairs of hand-made, custom-made sandals.

I didn’t give the encounter much thought at the time, just came back several days afterward and picked up my shoes. But the following year, back in the city at the same season, I decided to seek her out again. I figured she would likely still be installed in the exact same place, and sure enough she was. I was greeted as if I were a once-lost god, returned from Heaven expressly to bless her life, and that did strike me as a bit odd. It was only a few days later that I learned the significance in her life of that particular day. It happened that the very date on which I returned to her station ____________________

From interviews, January 11 and 12, 2004, Wuhan. All the names used in this chapter are pseudonyms, but all the people are real.

on the sidewalk was also the day her two young boys’ school bills had to be paid. Had I not arrived with cash in hand to order yet another two pairs of homemade shoes, her children would not have been able to register for that semester.

Zheng rapidly grasped the opportunity of having a foreign client who seemed interested in her situation to beg me to take her smaller son, then aged six--and, of course--without a word of English to his credit, back to America so he could be given a proper education. She explained that she was unable to afford to raise that boy properly. I was troubled by this plea, but felt utterly incapable of complying with her request. At the same time, she had also mentioned being short about 300 yuan per month, the very sum of money then essential to educate her children.

As I tossed in my hotel bed that night, pondering what I might be able to do to help, all at once it occurred to me that it might be possible to assist her simply by sending a monthly check in the amount of about $40 US (the equivalent then of 3000 yuan). By the time this solution had hit me, it was still afternoon in Chicago. So I telephoned a colleague who lives in Chicago and who was raised in China and asked if such a thing could be done. When he assured me it could be, I resolved there and then to adopt this family (informally, I should add). From that late summer night in 1999 until now, I have been able to claim that I have a “family” in Wuhan, and the two boys are convinced that they have a “Meiguo mama” [American mother]. As for Zheng Erji herself, she thereupon became my little sister, and I her “dajie.” The basic outline of her life, which she related to me on one of our first encounters, was totally threaded through with the impacts of the political vacillations of the Chinese state after 1949. Because of the various forms of policy liberalization linked to the post-1978 economic reforms, along with her own personal mettle, soon after 1980 she was able to leave her rural, suburban home on the outskirts of Wuhan, where she had existed with a “nongmin hukou,” [rural household registration], eventually to work in the city at a state-owned shoe-making factory. There she met her future husband, a man endowed with an urban household registration [feinongmin hukou], and married in 1987. The two gave birth to a boy in 1989, who, through some awful accident (too terrible to reveal to me even after some six years of friendship), lost sight in one eye at the age of about 19 months. Mrs. Zheng keeps herself relatively well informed about government policy, and knew that if one’s first child was disabled it was permitted to have a second.

But, quite unfortunately for the family, son the second appeared in early 1992, before the necessary permission for his presence on earth had been granted. The factory in which both Mrs. Zheng and her husband had been employed precipitously discharged them both. The shock of such treatment--at a time years before the policy of “xiagang” [or layoffs] had been enunciated and popularized--instantly turned this man into a social outcast, impairing his sanity at the same time. According to Mrs. Zheng’s account, supporting the family then became her responsibility alone; she considers her husband unable to handle a steady job. Though she has managed from time to time to find scholarship funds for her boys of one sort or another, her life became a constant struggle from that day onward.

Zheng has always adapted to her fate and dreamed of ambitions. The openness of the economy during economic reforms allowed her to move into Wuhan and to marry an urban man; it also allows her to try to earn a lilvelihood when her family’s original source of sustenance was denied it because of other state policies (the one-child policy).

But the arbitrariness of officialdom has beset her and her family time and again from the days of Mao Zedong up to the present. Yet, despite the abuse visited upon her, Zheng maintains a persisting sense of what is fair and she continues to feel that fairness and justice is her due.

While I have kept in fairly close contact with the family, visiting them at least once a year since 1999, occasionally exchanging letters, calling long distance, and sending growing sums of money as the years have passed, I never took the trouble to sit Zheng down and hear her details of her entire story until January 2004. Once I did I found that she was truly a child of the economic reforms, at once the beneficiary and the victim of a wealth of shifting and haphazard policies that repeatedly threw her life awry. This discrepant finding prodded me to wonder: Is she a victim and if yes, what does victimhood connote to her? What does it prevent, but also position and enable, her to do?

As for me, I see Zheng as an emblem of the core conundrum of the economic reforms, a symbol of the paradoxes inherent in the state’s relation to its own control system: While loosening old strictures released swells of erstwhile sowers into the cities, winning the privilege of urban residence proved far from the solution to all their ills. For structural discrimination met them at the gates, as Zheng’s experiences reveal all too well.

Her narrative lends several other insights and lessons, as well. One is of the mutual manipulation intertwining Zheng and the government attempting to manage her.

On occasion the issue of who controls (or who endeavors tol control) whom, who molds (or strives to mold) whom. Given Zheng’s outrage and cunning, there is sometimes the scent of a draw. Another is the theme of nostalgia for a misremembered past, a recital of justice forfeited. Whence come these values, these made-over memories? Is it the nostalgia itself that breeds the feeling of rights wronged, or instead the notion of present injustices sustained that harkens back to a different yesteryear? And the third precept for the transcriber is the role of fabrication, irreconcilable inconsistencies.

Could it be that the mind of the recounter is so clouded by insult and grievance as to deceive itself? Zheng’s presentation seems, periodically, to slip between fable and fancy as she struggles to retrieve her past.

Throughout all her travails and in rather regular brushes with state agents, there is a theme that crops up in Zheng’s autobiographical account with some regularity: she insists on fighting for what she wants, even if she knows her plans counter the law or current regulations. Mostly, she takes it upon herself to live by her own lights, to the extent that circumstances--even if not the law--permit. When, intermittently, she has to suffer for this, she brims with bitterness against injustice. Her constant refrain is the unfairness of officialdom and the maltreatment she has wrongly endured. I had never before pursued the puzzle of whence her conception of her own rights and deserts derived. Zheng Erji’s own telling of her tale uncovered some of the root of her conviction that she deserves treatment that is righteous. I proceed to relate her life to date, as she herself would have it told.

As her autobiography commences, Zheng was born in December 1959 during the Great Leap Forward, in a rural area outside Wuhan by an hour or two. Her family had been labeled as safe “poor peasant” in an earlier era. But, as bad luck would have it, during the “Four Cleans Movement” of the early 1960’s, her father’s brother piloted a ship and earned high wages. As a result, the family as a whole was peremptorily converted to the unfortunate category of “rich peasant,” certainly spelling hardship to follow. This first bit of inequity took place when the local leader instigated an investigation expressly aimed at reversing the family’s label, perhaps from spite or envy.

For, Zheng avers, at that time, the family was still rather illustrious locally. For instance, Yin Zhentao, now a Vice Mayor of Wuhan, was vice director of a company under her brother’s command when her brother was serving as a lianzhang [company commander] in the army. Later, however, this brother became a teacher and suffered attacks during the Cultural Revolution. He even became ill from being beaten, and was sent to perform physical labor. Some people, jealous of his ability, falsely charged that he had written a sentence attacking Mao. Here was the second injustice to befall her family. Zheng’s lingering fondness for the past, an emotion that crops up later on in her telling, appears to have overwritten those Mao-era manufactured offenses.

In general, Zheng bemoaned, local officials disliked her parents, and the ordinary people simply followed the leaders. Perhaps this was connected to the fact that her grandfather had been in the leather business beforfe 1949. According to her account, this man was killed by a cow cart and his business had subsequently collapsed. At any rate, Zheng attributed the family’s difficulties in part to the fact that back at that time, people didn’t speak honestly [qiushi], unlike today. The upshot was that her family became a marginalized one in the mid-1960s, as Zheng was growing up.

But despite these discriminatory slights, Zheng managed to launch herself onto a promising path at a young age, attending senior high, and even graduating (after five years of primary school, two years of junior high, and three years of high school). Of the six children in her natal family, she was the fifth in birth order but the only one to graduate from high school, which she did in 1975 (the family was unable to afford to send the others to school, all of whom had to go out to work instead). Sadly, her older sister, a very capable person, missed out on this opportunity of obtaining a higher education. Because of the manmade political “problems” in the family, this sister was also unable to find a husband.

As for Zheng herself, when Mao Zedong died, she, like many millions, whether forsaken or favored under his dominion, felt very sad. She believed “he was the state leader and had merit, had made contributions,” even while she admitted that the Cultural Revolution was his “greatest mistake.” Nonetheless, it appeared that her own situation was reasonably good despite the bias against her relatives. Her first stint of employment was in a production brigade [shengchandui], where she stayed for four years. Her pay could amount to as high as 36 yuan per month when she worked well.

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