By Yaxue Cao, published: June 29, 2012
The Shengs were a prominent family in Ningpo. There were the old Shengs and the new Shengs; Mr. Sheng’s family was the old Shengs, landowners for generations. The family residence consisted of ten adjoining quadrangles, the innermost being the ancestor hall where memorial tablets and portraits of ancestors were displayed. I loved to play there the best, said Mr. Sheng, on my family’s visits when I was a little boy, because it was as big as a basketball court and I could run amok there, whereas my older sisters were scared and wouldn’t dare to go. Mr. Sheng’s mother was also from Ningpo, the daughter of a brewery owner. Mr. Sheng’s eldest sister and Sheng Shuren, his only older brother, were both born in Ningpo.
In the early 1920s when Shanghai was experiencing an unprecedented industrial boom, their father moved his family there. For some years, he was the sales executive of the legendary Tian Chu MSG manufacturer, travelling frequently in Southeast Asian countries and all the way to San Francisco across the Pacific. He did very well and the Shengs lives comfortably in their house inside the French settlement, where Mr. Sheng’s older sisters and brother grew up and Mr. Sheng himself was born. In the mid 1930s, Mr. Sheng’s father founded a kerosene refinery and owned a barge that transported goods between the plant and the Wusong Mouth where the Huangpo River meets the Yangtzi. Just as the father’s career was peaking, the Japanese bombed the plant, destroying everything, and took away the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father was instantly bankrupted, had to sell the house, and the family lived on savings. After the Japanese surrendered, the Nationalist government took over the barge. Mr. Sheng’s father used whatever connections he could and paid “activity fees” to a lot of people hoping to retrieve the only property he had left. The bribes added up but did not bring back his barge. By the time the communists took over Shanghai, there was no trace of the boat anymore. In Ningpo, over the years, Mr. Sheng’s grandmother had accumulated more land using the money her son had been sending her, and when the communist land reform took place, her land and the family home were seized and distributed to the poor. In the 1950s, Mr. Sheng’s father worked in Hong Kong for a few years and returned to Shanghai at the end of the decade because of declining health.
In February 1961, Mr. Sheng, already teaching at Anhui University, saw his older brother when he visited home for the Chinese New Year. He looked pretty well, said Mr. Sheng. Did he? I was surprised to hear that. But on second thought it made perfect sense: After a year and half in the forced labor camp, he could only be glad to return home and in the company of the family. True that he had just suffered the most egregious injustice, but the full meaning of it could take some time to manifest itself, and, in any case, it is not hard for a capable man in his prime, like himself, to keep hope alive. After the Chinese New Year, Sheng Shuren returned to Beijing—as was required of him—to “take care of the paperwork.” That included cancelling his resident registration from municipal Beijing and signing the “Conclusions” about his case in the Organization Department of the Xinhua News Agency that stated “Sheng Shuren has admitted to the aforementioned wrongdoing without reservations” and announced his expulsion from the Agency. It didn’t matter that he had never admitted to the charges against him, nor had anyone asked for, or allowed him to express, his opinions about his own case. He signed the paper, prepared beforehand and dated, placed in front of him as he was supposed to.
On his way back to Shanghai, he stopped in Hefei to see what Anhui University was like. His younger brother was trying to find him a teaching job at the university. In bad need of talent, the university responded eagerly. But many days passed without a follow-up, and when Mr. Sheng inquired, he was simply told no without an explanation. Back in Shanghai, Sheng Shuren found he was denied a Shanghai resident registration by the Municipal Public Security Bureau. He became what the Shanghaiese called a “pocket registration,” or a shadow resident. Luckily for him, he was issued a Food Ration Certificate, except that the ration for a regular adult was 14 kilos a month but for him it was 12.5 kilos. Soon after he returned, his wife divorce him, each having the custody of two children, although, Mr. Sheng said, his wife still helped take care of the other two children and she also gave all the jewelry the Shengs had given her years ago for her wedding back to her husband to help him out. My brother’s subsequent attempts to find a job had all come to nothing, said Mr. Sheng, and he began to teach English stealthily—if caught, he would be in more trouble—to scrape a few yuan here and a few yuan there. His eldest daughter was a brilliant student, did very well on her national college entrance exams, but was denied a college admission because of her father. She came to me, said Mr. Sheng, asking what she should do; I coached her to make a high-minded gesture in school by saying “I love the Party with all my heart and I am prepared to go anywhere the Party assigns me.” My hope was, said Mr. Sheng, that, by looking righteous, perhaps she would arouse someone’s sympathy. But nobody took pity on her. Later on, Mr. Sheng found a job for her in Yunnan, the southwestern province, through his connections.
In mid-1960s, Shanghai Foreign Language College established a training program for studying-aboard candidates, and, with the help from his friend Qian Weifan, Sheng Shuren taught English there. The hope was, if he continued to teach and make himself essential, perhaps the college would offer him a permanent job down the road. But before long, the Cultural Revolution came, the training program was scrapped. During the Cultural Revolution, Sheng Shuren was largely spared the fresh assault on the educated class that reached a new, vicious peak, thanks to the fact that he had already been ostracized from society, without registration, jobless, and reporting to no particular work unit. One summer though when I was on vacation at home, said Mr. Sheng, my brother disappeared all of a sudden one day. His eldest son and I looked for him for three or four days and couldn’t find him. Finally, we found him in a little hostel occupied by a faction of Shanghai’s “revolutionary rebels” who had detained him at the black market and kept him for twenty or thirty days before letting him go. An old woman with bound feet told on him, he later told me. In Shanghai at the time, said Mr. Sheng, everybody knew the black market and used it, but only people like him, if not cautious, would be picked on. That was how he spent those years, said Mr. Sheng, earning a few yuan stealthily teaching English, getting some help from his two older children after they had grown and had jobs, and, now and then, my mother would tuck a few yuan into his hand. It was a hard time for the rest of us too, said Mr. Sheng, my monthly salary was fifty yuan, my sisters struggled too, all of us had to support our parents, and we had not been able to help him. When he was hit by a car and died, said Mr. Sheng, on his way to or from a hospital visit, no one in my family was in Shanghai. The neighborhood committee sold his furniture—the furniture my parents had left behind—on the spot to whoever took it and for whatever offer and paid for his hospital bills and his cremation before one of his sons made it back to Shanghai.
Have you read Rabindranath Tagore? Mr. Sheng asked me. I said I know the name, I might have read a few pages of Stray Birds in college, but I have forgotten it all. My brother became the untouchable, said Mr. Sheng, when he came back from Beijing. Do you see?
In the same sentence Uncle Erning mentioned Sheng Shuren’s name, he also named the charge against him: Obscenity against women. It was the first question I asked Erjia when he said he knew Sheng Shuren. “Ah!” Erjia’s voice leaped out of tune to a shrill. “In Xushui, it was a mayhem of people working day and night those days, and Erning said Sheng Shuren had to pee badly, so he ran to the edge of the field to relieve himself. When he did so, a woman saw him and made a scene of it. That was that! That was how he committed ‘obscenity against women!’” Erjia recoiled in pain and protest. “Erning said when they charged him with obscenity against women, the very woman who saw him laughed out loud! How did that bear out the charge? Erning said ‘An insult to common sense! Impossible to reason with them! Yet they can arrest you anytime they want, and you can do nothing but swallow it!'”
Uncle Erning, of course, was raging about not just Sheng Shuren’s case, but also his own.
I thought about the word “shameful”. Shame, it seems, has its own life regardless of its cause and whether there is justice to it. It lived with him like a shadow and lives on long after he was gone. Even Erjia would unconsciously use a word like that.