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Foreign Desk
China: Former "Little General" Goes Down on the Fu-Wu-Yuan
by Tom Bradley
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I don't worry about not having a good position.
I worry about the means I use to gain position.


"This comrade is making his way to the provincial capital to research the merchandising techniques of various regional free-marketeers on behalf of our production team. For the sake of the Motherland's glorious Four Modernizations drive, please give him every consideration you can."
     The fat lady sneered down from the metal steps. The train was just pulling out, Bu Yu trotting alongside. She blew her nose on the letter and flipped it down on the concrete at his feet. Though it was a forgery and hardly worth losing an arm for, he dove for it and almost fell under the wheels.
     "Here's every consideration I have to give," she said, holding out a short-handled toilet broom.
     The train was starting to reach a speed at which Bu Yu would have to leap to get on.
     "I'll teach you a new meaning of 'link with the masses' that you never imagined in your so-called Cultural Revolution. You still interested in the ride, little man?"
     Bu Yu grabbed the broom by the shitty end, which was all she offered him, and swung on behind. As soon as both of his feet hit the grating, her presence enveloped him. Now he was the official fu-wu-yuan's assistant for this leg of the journey through the hills to Putian.

* * *

It was from this train--not just this line number, but the very car itself (the vague indentations of Maoist slogans they'd carved into the benches were still visible)--that the locals had thrown his Red Guard brigade when it became apparent that none of them were fluent in this particular mountainside's dialect.
     It had been in the midst of the worst Taiwan scare in months. Provoked into rash action by the lies of secret representatives of the local power structure, a group of well-meaning factory workers had pooled their small cash reserves and sent a collective telegram to the Central Committee in Beijing, warning them that a Hungarian-style coup attempt was imminent in the provincial capital. They claimed that a vicious gang of middle school dropouts, who wore counterfeit arm bands and pretended to be legitimate "little generals" as a ploy to disguise their dirty activities, were planning to attack the party headquarters and debilitate the leadership in preparation for a Guomindang counter-attack.
     Unintentionally substantiating the claims that they had spies in the area, Radio Taibei had sent out a cleverly-worded message at this time insinuating that such a counter-attack would be far from the realm of impossibility once the regional party organization had been softened up by "valiant, right-minded mainland youth."
     The effect of this diabolical broadcast was to discredit Bu Yu's brigade and to defame their actual intentions, which had simply been to obey the Sixteen Key Directives of the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the CCP: to purge local leaderships of power-factionists who took the capitalist road.
     To nobody's surprise, Beijing ignored both the telegram and the broadcast. Nevertheless, with an efficiency rare among these people, the natives printed several hundred thousand copies of the telegram and distributed them everywhere, even across the breadth of this remote mountain. Everybody became suspicious of groups of more than three young people who spoke with strange accents. Bu Yu and his comrades were not the only ones to be thrown from moving trains.
     They had just come from the notorious 8-17 incident in Putian: open combat in the streets, their Molotov cocktails, slingshots and cooked stones up against the Third Middle School's Soviet-built Kalashnikov AK-47 assault weapons. Liberated from a PLA surplus dump, rusty, many lacking magazines, firing pins, etc., the guns had been brandished for intimidation purposes mostly; but some spewed occasional automatic fire, distributing fatalities with reasonable fairness between each faction. Bu Yu had seen comrades' heads split wide open at the bone seams, and many of the girls were carried off bleeding.
     The survivors had just been riding this train to get home so they could bind their wounds and regroup in time for the scheduled storming of the party headquarters. They had no intention of aiding any counterrevolutionary strike from the fascists' island stronghold. They huddled in an unoccupied corner of the hard sleeper section, trying to conceal their own flowing blood, trying not to say anything, somehow managing to keep their teenaged hearts from bursting out in conspicuous weeping.
     But it wasn't until they were deposited at two o'clock in the morning in this wilderness that panic had threatened to overtake the ranks of the little army. Not only the darkness and the horrible ghosts it might conceal, but the countryside itself terrified them: snakes and tigers and water buffaloes with naked rice urchins fastened to their humps like blood-lice; the very open spaces themselves, rivers, hills, sky. The moon blinded their bruised eyes, unencumbered by her customary shroud of city soot.
     "We will undergo our own little long march," proclaimed Commander Yue, who feared nature somewhat less than the others because she'd been an early victim of the first experimental rustication programs. Three years running, she had heroically filled more than her share of the farm labor quota, on behalf of some lesser girls whose health would've broken under the strain.
     "We should learn from the heroes of 1934, who embarked from these very hills upon a march of 25,000 li," said Commander Yue.
     But, in spite of the inspirational parts of Liberation mythology, the rank and file of Bu Yu's brigade had been unable at that moment to forget the sanguinary losses the Chairman had suffered at the hands of warlike Mantzu tribesmen and Xifan nomads in the wastes of Qinghai. China was a whole world, and the world had many lightless folds in its flesh, where diseased organisms shielded themselves from the light of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought. For all their talk of learning from the peasants, the young urbanites still feared the unknowable, gibberish-speaking, black-skinned tillers of the dirt. This was a Proletarian Cultural Revolution, wasn't it? The peasant revolution was yet to come--or, wait, hadn't it already taken place? None of the teens could think straight enough to sort it out. They kept hearing coughs and spitting out there in the inky blackness.
     The farmers in these parts used the catamenia of virgin urbling girls as the active ingredient in a special mulch that made their lichees and longans and loquats extra sweet. Everybody knew that was how they managed to achieve the status of model commune harvest after harvest.
     To make things worse, the provincial Party Secretary, in a desperate attempt to salvage his credibility and cling to his crypto-monarchist throne, had declared an anti-crime campaign, which conveniently served as an excuse to rid the capital of Red Guard factions more loyal to Mao Zedong Thought than to himself. But the literal-minded militiamen had run many members of the hooligan and criminal classes up into the jungle with the threat of a bullet in the back of the neck, followed by a breakable bayonet between the ribs.
     If warlock splinter-Daoist peasants didn't get the stranded youngsters, cutthroats from town would.
     The girls had already said goodbye to their maidenheads. They began to squeal and swoon among the stinkweeds like princesses in some dynastic opera. And it was only the feel of the girls' bleeding arms on their shoulders that kept the boys from bolting away from the rail lines and into the open-pit grave of the underbrush, or just collapsing and dying right there of exposure, starvation and horror.
     And so their famous Little Long March along the tracks began.
     They hid in the jungle outside each village until well past dark, marching only at night. It took twenty days to complete a journey of less than 150 li. Most of their families had given them up for dead. In those chaotic times there was every reason to suspect death and few ways to confirm it.
     Train security had taken their knives away, so they had to use bare teeth to get at the pith of the wild sugar cane that grew in sporadic patches near the rails. When their teeth began to ache from the strain and excessive sweetness, the braver brigade members tried to live off strange nuts and berries which they gathered and gagged down as original botanical field research, like Mao searching for smokes along the route of the first Long March. Everybody else tried and failed to catch frogs, which began to look succulent and ample enough to deserve their traditional nickname of "field-chicken." They all upped their caloric intake with garbage thrown from the trains, trying inside their minds not to draw the obvious parallels between themselves and their dessert.
     Several months later, when Chairman Mao encouraged the teenagers of China to emulate the early People's Liberation Army with their own little ordeals, Bu Yu's brigade was way ahead of everybody. Toughened and inspired by that midnight march, they had already instituted their Spartan Youth League, a physical culture and health reform program. They had fasts, winter swims, shirtless sojourns in the sleet of autumn. Sometimes they ate only lard and uncooked mung beans to put calluses in their bowels. All within the gates of the city. Tough as they were, the countryside had cowed them.
     Younger Brother sometimes joined in, all the while reminding everybody of the philosophy behind their actions. "This is not just a test of individual prowess," he'd squeak in his sparrow voice as Mother dragged him home to do his lessons. Later she would use shocking words to curse Bu Yu for the damage to Younger Brother's health.

* * *

But now Bu Yu could see that the physical training of his youth, to stand him in good stead, should not have consisted of such constitutional privations. He should have spent the time soaking his head in vats of fermented cabbage, stuffing his nose with cigarette ashes, eating terrible sugary things from plastic bags, and withstanding the foul breath and fouler language of a hag in a blue China Rail uniform. Such disciplines would have prepared his stomach for this train ride today.
     He was expected to perform the woman's work of cleaning the car--and it seemed likely that this was the first time anybody had considered doing it since the start of the fat lady's tenure as fu-wu-yuan. But, unfortunately, not much custodial work could be done.
     The benches, the tea tables between the benches, the aisles, the windowsills, the baggage racks, even the toilet floor, every solid surface, in fact, was covered with at least one layer of immobilized human flesh, maybe 300 reminders that the population of this province had more than doubled since the last time Bu Yu had gone near a train. Even if he'd been able to reach the windows, he'd not have been able to wash them, for they were flung open so people and their luggage and their livestock could be hung outside. If nobody had lost a head or a limb on a utility pole on this trip so far it was a miracle--proof of the existence of the myriad gods these people still believed in and bribed with joss sticks and tempted by placing themselves in idiotic situations like these.
     If Younger Brother were to rise from the grave and materialize at this point, he would probably narrow his eyes and ask, "How much less idiotic was it for a mob of adolescents to engage the Party Secretary's machine-gun-toting personal guard with heated stones and ten-centimeter toy daggers?"
     But correct ideology neutralizes idiocy. And where was the ideology, correct or incorrect, on this train? There was no hint of political action or debate among the passengers, though Bu Yu saw countless possibilities.
     Occasionally a rich peasant bulldozed through on his way to the soft-sleeper compartments, extending invitations to the select few to briefly enjoy a privilege formerly reserved for high cadres and foreign dignitaries--living proof, with fragrant, pink fingernails, that positively everything was for sale now. And nobody stopped him for quotationizing or rose up and slashed his black throat. When the passengers' mouths weren't stuffed with cheap cigarettes or hand-rolled hemp cigars, they emitted sinewy wads of phlegm, a characteristic habit of these farm people. Their ideology formed puddles.
     Nobody was inclined or even able to move around much. The situation was exacerbated by eight hoodlums who had occupied the toilet floor for the sake of a few centimeters' extra leg room. Their noses were probably insensate from having been broken repeatedly in street brawls.
     Many people had chosen to maintain a semi-asphyxiated inertia. Rather than bestir themselves they urinated down their trouser legs and, by capillary action, up the trouser legs of their neighbors. Here was concrete proof of the feudal maxim: slothful people piss often.
     Motion was communicated indirectly to their lethargic bodies by the car as it feebly negotiated the many switchbacks that snaked through this rugged coastal range, and by the frequent unannounced stops to allow the engineer to steal sugar cane from the railside communes.
     "These stalks were accidently broken off by the people's cow-catcher," the engineer would cry out to the peasants as they ran to catch the escaping train. "Truck and bus drivers get to eat their road kill, so why shouldn't I? You should teach your cane to stay out of the way, just as your roadside colleagues teach their pigs and chickens."
     At one point the baggage rack collapsed under the weight of about twenty people. It smashed into the head of a mother publicly suckling a three- or four-year-old boy according to the barbaric custom of this mountainside. The impact opened up her scalp and knocked her cold.
     The boy's screams were so loud that eventually even these bumpkins decided to move their arms and legs. At the next sugar cane stop they passed the pair through an open window to some harvesters who were gathering up a fighting force to protect their crop from the railway personnel. The peasants were so puzzled by the gift that they just formed their arms into a hammock and received it. They hardly had time to open their mouths before the train got rolling again.
     The fu-wu-yuan, representative of officialdom, leaned over the windowsill, mostly to help a fart gain passage between her mammoth buttocks. But, since her mouth was hanging out the window anyway, she bellowed, "My first-aid kit's been pinched by a ticketless stowaway in here! Find that woman a 'barefoot doctor!'"
     They just stared at her. Everybody knew that the peasants no longer enjoyed the services of even those amateurs. They'd all been allowed to return to the cities to become entrepreneurs among the proletariat.
     The seat vacated by the mother and child was bloody, but the most powerful passengers fought their ways into it by turns. They brushed off wood splinters and settled themselves down, seeming quite mollified with their new position in life. Bu Yu thought he saw a few minor knife wounds inflicted here and there as the people divided up the contents of the young mother's bag.
     Such were the effects of Deng Xiaoping's craven revisionism on the socialist spirit of Bu Yu's homeland.
     He stood all night except for extended recesses in the "office" of the fu-wu-yuan. She dragged him there sometimes, breathing hard in his face and threatening to have the people throw him off "again." (How did she know about the first time?) She forced him to get down and kowtow to her.
     "I'm Empress Wu Zetian. I'm a railroad cadre." She moaned it over and over again. "Wu Zetian...railroad cadre..."
     The cubbyhole was so cramped that his face knocked, not against the mass of compressed cigarette butts that constituted the floor, but against her jellied blue-twill lap, which trembled with--what? The vibrations of the tracks, or some aberrant passion? He realized with a cold sensation that there were indentations in the floor, rubbed by the knees of a succession of unticketed "assistants" before him. This was a habit of hers. Had each of them come equipped with an ersatz letter of recommendation?
     But then the rank mountains spread their thighs and opened out into the gentle terraced hills that announced the flood plain of Putian, where Bu Yu had a good comrade to look up. He got up from his knees, dropped his toilet broom, and lost himself in dreams among the rice paddies as the sun came up. He stared between bodies out a thin slice of window, even as the empress threatened and screamed, then actually did have him thrown out on the outskirts of Putian.
     She correctly assumed that the country people would be too meek or stuporous to help her; but even the vacationing college students refused.
     "Why should we do your job?"
     "Because it is your civic and moral duty to aid a public servant in time of need!" she screeched, and they laughed at her.
     By the time the guards finally came around and confiscated his shoes ("He stole them right off me!" she shrieked, displaying hooves twice too large for Bu Yu's poor slip-ons), the students had pressed a cool green bottle of Snowflake beer into his hands, plus two loose-skinned Mandarin oranges which had been donated by a family of farmers.
     "Good luck, Big Brother!" they cried after him as he rolled and bounced down the embankment, protecting the beer with his arms, taking the blows with his face. "Walk carefully, Uncle!"
     The fu-wu-yuan lorded it over him from the door of the receding train, triumphantly and mistakenly assuming that she had caused him to abandon his "research trip" to the capital.
     He would make the rest of the journey by some means other than China Rail, after he had linked up with formidable Hong Ma Han, the Red Horseman.

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