- Chairman Mao Is Dead!
Translator’s Note: Mao died two months after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake killed anywhere from 240,000 to 779,000 in the northeastern port city of Tianjin (the far lower official estimate conflicts with the initial numbers reported by the Hebei Province Revolutionary Committee), and the “feudal” notion still lingered that natural disaster means the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven. As an “heir to the revolution,” Tang wasn’t aware of such portent, and as a child, her greatest lament was that the earthquake didn’t amount to much at home in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. The link between disaster and death had not yet revealed itself to her, nor to her peers. Decades later, in 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake would strike not far from her hometown, killing 70,000 and leaving another 18,000 missing. Over 5,000 of the dead were children, crushed under the rubble of their flimsy school buildings.
Tang writes in a deceptively simple style. I laughed out loud while translating some of the passages in this story. Sadly, most of Tang’s puns didn’t make it in translation. Her story opens with her staring at caterpillars, which in Mandarin are called máomaochóng 毛毛虫, literally “hairy bugs.” The character for hair, máo 毛, is the same as Mao Zedong’s surname, and being a bug (chóng) can also refer to obsession—giving máomaochóng a third meaning, “Mao fanatic.” I played with using “maomao bugs” instead of “caterpillars,” but decided it was too confusing. There’s a second beastly allusion toward the end of the story, when Tang’s aunt recounts how a woman from the country mourned Lord Mao (Máo Zhŭ) with such a thick rural twang that it sounded like máozhū (wild boar). I did my best to preserve this pun by having the woman lament “Chairman Sow.” I don’t know if “Mao” could really be misheard as “sow,” but I liked the rhyme. ah
When Chairman Mao died, I was looking at caterpillars.
Here’s what was going on when it happened: every summer break, my terrifying father went to the Aba Valley to collect botanical specimens and research the cultivation of the native yellow Himalayan fritillary. It was just my mother and me at home. As my parents used to say, when the cat’s away, the mice come out to play. I always liked summer best, but that summer was especially great, because everywhere it was all about the earthquake. Everyone was anxious. An “earth wind” even tore through Chengdu, and we all had to move into earthquake tents. So kids all sat around waiting for the ground to [End Page 96] move, not wanting to miss the chance for a good show. Finally the earthquake came to Songpan and Pingwu, and then the earth winds were done, and it was decided that all the children “might as well” be moved back into their houses. They wailed, “That was it? We didn’t even feel anything!”
I was happy, though, because my dad was in Songpan, which was the epicenter of the quake. He wrote a letter home that sounded like his last will and testament. He said he had to stay and suffer with the people, that he couldn’t abandon them at a time like this. If something should happen, he wanted my mom to raise me to be an heir to the revolution. Looking back on all their petty arguments about me, about my strengths and weaknesses, he told my mother that he had concluded I was like a rotten piece of wood—I could still be carved. While my mom tearfully read the letter to me, I thought, The “earth winds” are long gone, and everyone’s living in tents. Besides, the earthquake is over, and Dad can’t die. What’s there to cry about? At the time I thought they were just being dramatic. But when I heard that he would be coming home later than planned, I was secretly overjoyed! I also remember that the letter didn’t end with “I...