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CHAPTER 1: Land of Fish and Rice

From: Wang Renmei

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CHAPTER 1 Land of Fish and Rice . . . crowded years and months of endeavor, Young we were, and schoolmates, In high assurance, fearless Pointing the Ànger at all things . . . Under the unmoving sky a million creatures try out their freedom I ponder, I ask the boundless earth, Who rules over destiny? Do you remember? How, reaching midstream, we struck the waters, And the waves dashed against our speeding boats?1 he poem, “Changsha,” written by Mao Zedong about his days at the First Normal School in Changsha was a poem of nostalgia. He remembered the experience that he had under the leadership of math teacher Wang Zhengshu (Li’an) at the First Normal School in Hunan. The future leader of the world’s most populous nation spent many happy days at the home of teacher Wang during the turbulent years after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. In fact, one T 2 Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai summer he spent the entire vacation living at the educator’s home. During that time, he had an opportunity to get acquainted with the entire Wang family, including the ten children and other relatives who stayed with the family. It was a happy time for the teenage Mao, even though he was beginning to see the injustices of the contemporary Chinese society. The young student was particularly fond of the youngest daughter of teacher Wang whose nickname was “Xixi,” which meant double slight or thin. She later took the name of “Wang Renmei” when she was older. Renmei remembers that she would sit bouncing on the knee of this young student and never contemplated what the future would hold. What Mao discovered living with the Wang family was a typical feudalistic family with modern ideas. For example, none of the daughters had their feet bound, nor did the female servants. Wang Zhengshu was not only a famous mathematics teacher in the province, he also tutored his children and others in classical Chinese, calligraphy, and medicine. He collected rare books which Mao had the opportunity to read. At the dinner table, children were expected to discuss the great Confucius classics that they had read. Even the servants were asked to recite. No one laughed at the poorly educated servant who made amusing mistakes when reading these texts, but the kindly teacher believed that a classical education was the foundation of the future of a modern China. He believed that learning could rescue the country from foreign imperialists and industrial development would make the nation stronger. He encouraged his children to study abroad.2 Mao, as a student at the First Normal School, was free and easy when he spoke, never getting Áustered, losing his temper, or speaking in anger. However, when it came to the feudal autocratic Land of Fish and Rice 3 work style, he was not as temperate. In his views, “he made absolutely no compromise.”3 Each day, as Mao walked to school, he experienced Àrsthand the corruption of the ruling class. He “had a deep hatred for the entire old feudal order. He despised the gentry, whose mouths were full of benevolence and righteousness, for their meanness and their falseness . . .”4 As the First Normal School was located alongside the railroad, Mao observed that whenever troops came and invaded by train, the school was the Àrst target. Sometimes the soldiers took everything in sight, including food and Àrewood. Other times, the students would not permit the soldiers to enter and so the troops simply took over the large dormitory. The young student was a witness to the killings and theft of the various warlords’men.5 Mao’s grades in math were poor because he was more interested in other subjects and reading his own books. Despite this, Wang Renmei’s father, the math teacher, still had a high regard for Mao because of his abilities as a natural leader in the school. Her father was instrumental in preventing Mao from being expelled from the First Normal School in an incident in which the young student stirred the student union to Àght red tape. Mao harassed the stuffy and corrupt principal whom Mao called “Mr. Turn-back-the-clock.” He also was one of the leaders persuading students to barricade the school against soldiers who wanted to loot.6 Several authors hint that the province of Hunan (“south of the lake”) and the capital city of Changsha (“long sands”), known as the “land of Àsh and rice,” were...