Hong Ying on Sweet Dreams in a Place of Suffering

Buildings shrouded by dense fog in Chongqing, southwest China. Luo Guojia/Xinhua via Corbis

I was born in the year of China’s Great Famine and grew up in a slum on the south bank of the Yangtze River in Chongqing. It was a place crowded with small wooden hovels, rotten and blackened houses, narrow alleys, and deep, twisting courtyards. The area had no plumbing or drainage facilities, so polluted water ran through channels alongside pedestrian walkways and flowed downward along mountain slopes. It was a place where rubbish piled up randomly along the roadsides, waiting to be washed away into the Yangtze River when there was heavy rain, or to decompose in the hot weather.

My family had only a 10-square-meter main room with a small wooden window facing south, just like a prison cell. The window was blocked by another house, and an electric light had to be turned on even in the daytime. My father made two beds, placing them in the loft for us six children to sleep in at night. My parents used the main room under the loft. When a bed was placed in it, the leftover space in the main room was only big enough for a five-drawer cabinet, an old cane chair, and a dining table. Our family’s six children had only one pair of heavy plastic rain boots between us. So whenever there was rain, whichever of us moved the fastest would be able to grab that pair of boots to wear, while the others had to wear gym shoes and get wet feet.

I was an illegitimate child, born of the love between my mother and another man. Because of this, my mother was rejected and attacked by all of society back then. My father was blinded during the years of the Great Famine, so my mother had to do manual labor just like a man, to keep our family life going. When I was a young girl, I never had any new clothes, playmates, or anyone who wanted to talk with me. I had to struggle forward in the darkness alone.

Local people worked hard during the day and slept at night; aside from that the only excitement was to go down to the riverside to watch dead bodies floating by. That was when the Cultural Revolution was going on, between 1966 and 1976, and Chongqing was the most badly affected city in China in terms of armed conflict between rival factions. Occasionally, when they could not bear the interrogations and forced confessions, people jumped into the river to commit suicide.

When such people drowned, according to Chinese folklore, their dead bodies would float on the river’s surface for seven days and blood would flow from their eyes, nose, and mouth when the corpse was witnessed by anyone—friends or enemies alike. Children like me would follow the adults running alongside the river to watch the dead bodies, frightened but not knowing what to do.

One day, warships came from downstream and tanks appeared on land; there was gunfire everywhere, and bullets whistled past our ears. We hid ourselves behind a big stone and watched what was going on. We were lucky not to have been killed.

At age 18, when I learned the truth that I was illegitimate, I got so angry that I left home. I crossed the Yangtze River from the south side and walked out of Chongqing, roaming about and living as a vagrant for about 10 years; I became a writer. After that, I left China for the West and lived abroad for another 10 years before I finally came back to China again. But I did not go back home to visit my mother very often, since I didn’t like to return to Chongqing even though it had changed a lot and had tall buildings everywhere by then.

Six years ago, my mother passed away. I remembered that, when I was a kid, our village had a traditional practice that was followed whenever someone died. According to that old custom, on the third day after a man dies or on a death anniversary, family members would sprinkle the ashes from burnt coal and grass in front of their doorways. When they got up the next morning, they’d see footprints of horses, cattle, or foxes in the ashes. People would then say the dead had come back home.

On one of my mother’s death anniversaries I dropped ashes outside my doorway, but the next morning I didn’t see any footprints. Looking at the dark and gloomy sky of Chongqing, I suddenly realized my mother’s soul wouldn’t come back again. This world had filled her with humiliation, and she wanted to get away from it.

Am I not the same as her? The difference between us is that I like to dream, and in my dreams I come back to Chongqing to see clear river water under a blue sky, with fish swimming in schools. I dream of mountains upon mountains, of cities upon cities, and people living their lives with no worries about food and clothing. I hope Chongqing can be a place like what I’ve seen in my dreams.