Her phone tingles with yet another message. In response to my unspoken question, she says, ‘Elections’.
‘Elections?’ I say.
‘For party branch secretary’, she says.
‘Party branch secretary?’ I say. ‘Of the communist party?’
‘Of course’ she says.
But who is this party branch secretary?
She works in a local school in Yichang, teaching children up to the age of twelve. She confesses that the gift of fostering the enthusiasm of thirty or so young children is one granted to few. It is easy enough to learn the techniques of discipline, especially in a country where children are still taught respect for elders (xiao). But it is another thing entirely to draw out the spark of excitement, the desire and eagerness for knowledge within children. It is something on which she works continuously, at times disheartened since she feels it is beyond her, at other times thrilled when she breaks through and the children are with her.
In all this she carries on a family tradition, for her father too was a school teacher in the village in which she grew up. As a child in the 1970s, her village in the Shandong countryside had a single well in the village square, no doctor or shops, and one school teacher – her father. He had seen immense changes in China’s history, for he had been born in a vastly different era. It was 1933, in the midst of the long struggle by the communists to win their revolution. His marriage had been arranged when still a child, to a woman who is seven years his senior. That woman came from a ‘respectable’ family, and so she has ‘small feet’ – the painful binding and twisting of bones and toes as the feet grew, inflicted on young girls from such families. Indeed, during the struggles of the 1930s, the White Armies of Chang Kai-Shek would shoot young women who had ‘natural feet’ and hair cut short in bobs. Why? They were obviously liberated women, working and fighting for the Reds. My friend knew full well that the end of foot-binding and her own natural feet were among the many outcomes of the revolution.
Yet my friend is a woman who is very much in between, squeezing through the gaps of history to carve out her own space. She is the last of six children, with three brothers and two sisters – a very fortunate combination, or so I am told, with a balance of boys and girls. But she was even more fortunate, for she was born in 1972, barely a few years before the one child policy for the Han majority. Had her parents been a little younger, she would not have been born at all.
Further, it may seem as though she is carrying on the tradition of teachers from her father and his father before him. Yet all is not quite as it seems, for she was the only one of her siblings who received a full education. Unlike her brothers and sisters, she began school at six years of age and went right through to university. Why did they not receive such an education? The Cultural Revolution. Given that the highest calling for the ruling class in Chinese tradition was to be an intellectual (from which position one engaged in the dirty business of politics out of necessity), given that the country was still largely run by such people, and given that the new communist government was tending in that direction as well, intellectuals were famously ‘sent to countryside’ during the Cultural Revolution. They were to learn peasant values, to work, eat and sleep alongside and often with them. Meanwhile, formal education largely went into hiatus. So her brothers and sisters did not go to regular schools, with the result that even now they work as peasants or builders or workers. What of her father, the teacher who is the son of a teacher? During the Cultural Revolution, he became a teacher in potentia. He became a peasant, replacing his chalk and hair brush with a pick and shovel. He would return to teaching only in the 1980s.
As for my friend, she may have been born early enough to slip outside the one child policy, but she was born late enough to get a formal education. With her father’s intelligence, she topped the class in her village, travelled some distance to attend high school, and then quite some distance to go to university – the only one of her family to do so.
Here it was that she became a party member. In a country where the communist party is woven deeply into the fabric of society, from the local Tai Chi group to the national government, the invitation comes already at high school and university. A bright student perhaps, one whose eyes twinkle in the thirst for knowledge, or perhaps one who shows an aptitude for sport, or to whom the others look for leadership. The reasons are as myriad as the members themselves, as are the motivations for those who join. They range from the practical to the idealistic, all the way from better job prospects for party members through to belief in the cause.
When I first met my friend some years ago she made little of being a party member. Other events had happened in her life, including marriage and then a painful divorce, living for a while overseas (in Oxford), joining a Christian fellowship group (intermittently), and meeting foreigners like me. Of course, she was free with the information that she was a party member, but she was highly critical of a party and a government that was concerned only for itself and not for the people they it supposed to serve.
So imagine my surprise when she mentioned her election to be party branch secretary.
‘What branch?’ I ask.
‘Oh, it’s just the local branch in our primary school’, she says.
‘I thought you weren’t all that interested in the party’, I say.
‘This is just local’, she says. ‘It’s … what is the right word? … trivial. Nothing special; just ordinary’.
Is this not precisely the way party work is represented? Ordinary, everyday work; nothing special, the mundane tasks of rank and file members. In downplaying her role, she fulfils the age-old and well-worked narrative of the ordinary member, whose minor tasks are vital for the whole. Perhaps she is more deeply enmeshed than she cares to admit.