Jennifer’s father visited Jennifer on a business trip to Beijing while she was studying in Peking University. The photo was taken at the famous Weiming (or Unnamed) Lake in Peking University. (Provided by Jennifer Zeng)
My father was born into an ordinary peasant family in Chaozhong village, Zhongjiang County, Sichuan Province. It was said that my grandmother had given birth to 12 children, but only 9 survived. My father was the second eldest son in the family. With numerous younger brothers and sisters to look after, he was naturally expected to share the responsibility of supporting the family.
I didn’t have a chance to visit my father’s home village until the 1980’s, when I was already a high school student. Several of my uncles were still living in the shabby, old mud wall houses inherited from our ancestors, with literally no furniture inside, nor electricity. People still relied on dim kerosene lamps in the night.
To me, this kind of family should have fallen into the “absolute poverty” category. However, in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) categorized everyone in China into different classes after coming into power, my father’s family was classified as a “small land lessor.”
Jennifer Zeng (right) with her two sisters in the 1980’s at Chaozhong village, Zhongjiang County, Sichuan Province in China. The mud wall house behind them was the family house passed on to many generations from their ancestors. Some of Jennifer’s uncles and many of her cousins are still living in this house and village today. (Provided by Jennifer Zeng)
I learnt the term “small land lessor” in 1973, when I was required to fill in the “personnel archive form” while enrolling into elementary school. One of the items to be filled was the “family class category on your father’s side.”
At that time a “personnel archive” was set up for everyone when you first enrolled into elementary school. All personal information was included in the archive files including all exam scores in the school, all the comments your teacher wrote about you, all your family situations, and all the good and bad things about you.
Everywhere you went, this archive followed. But you were not allowed to view the contents or know what was actually inside. It was only meant for the Party to know everything about everybody.
As a 6-year-old, grade-one student, I already knew that there were a “class of landlords” and a “class of poor and the lower-middle peasants,” but I didn’t understand what a “small land lessor” was. I then asked my mother, who immediately said indignantly, “It was unfair! There were so many brothers and sisters in your father’s family. Overall, they didn’t own much land. If it were calculated based on the average land area per person, your father’s family should have been categorized as ‘middle peasants’ at most. Only because they had hired people to help farming the land, they were categorized as a ‘small land lessor,’ which was unfairly high!”
In the 1990s'Jennifer revisited her relatives who still lived in the village. The old family house remained unchanged. (Provided by Jennifer Zeng)
In the 1990s’Jennifer revisited her relatives who still lived in the village. The old family house remained unchanged. (Provided by Jennifer Zeng)
I didn’t fully understand mother’s explanation. However, I somehow already knew that it was a terrible thing if you were ranked “high” in the “class category.” At that time, the grandfather of a girl in our class was a landlord; and the entire class looked down upon that girl.
Once I went to her home, and unintentionally saw an old man in a black cotton-padded coat sitting in the corner quietly. I realized that this must be her landlord grandfather. Immediately I was struck with fear, as if having seen a monster. I hastily made up an excuse and fled her home as fast as I could.
Fortunately enough, the social class category of my mother’s side was “poor people in the city,” which was part of the “proletariat.” This gratefully evened up my father’s “high category” a little bit.
My mother’s parents got divorced soon after she was born; and she was adopted by another family. Actually, my mother’s foster father was once a “capitalist,” who owned a brewery and a shop in Zhongjiang County. My father actually came to know my mother when he worked in that shop as an apprentice.
Later on, my mother’s foster father became addicted to opium. As a result, he spent all his wealth. When the CCP took power in 1949 and gave everyone a “social class category,” he was therefore classified as “poor people in the city.”
From then on he often boasted in front of my mother and my grandmother, “Do you think it would have been so easy for you to become part of the ‘proletariat’ if it weren’t for me?”
My father had some private schooling when he was young. When he was older, he had to attend school, which was very far from home. Every day, he needed to finish all his homework at school, as his time after school belonged to family duties, including weaving a certain amount of fabric, which was to be sold at a farmers’ market every ten to fifteen days.
When he became a teenager, my father insisted on going to the capital city of the county to study. My grandmother didn’t want him to go, as he was much needed at home. She figured: if we find him a wife and get him married, he would then stay, become a strong farmer for the family, and then raise his own children to carry on the family line.
Therefore, they managed to find a girl for him. When he went on an arranged blind date, my father saw that the girl had a “pig-belly” shaped face, and instantly disliked her. With much determination, he refused this marriage arrangement; and overtook many difficulties before he was finally able to go to the capital city, where he eventually met my mother.
When my father told me this story, there was always an unnoticeable trace of contempt on his face. I always thought to myself: How lucky! If father had married that “pig-belly” faced woman, wouldn’t he have been “trapped” in the countryside? If that were the case, there would have never been such a person as me in this world. Therefore, I have never thought highly of anybody who had a “pig-belly” shaped face, no matter how others praised her for being beautiful.
However, I had never figured out: as a mere teenager, why my father could be so determined about gaining more education when the entire family was against this.
Profile photo of Jennifer Zeng’s father at university. Ever since Jennifer’s childhood, she has believed that this is what a handsome man should look like. (Provided by Jennifer Zeng)
My mother later told me that my father was the eldest student in his class. As a fourth grader at the elementary school, he was already 18 years old. He studied very hard and showed various talents in different areas. He was good at singing, playing musical instruments, basketball, swimming, calligraphy and writing. The essays he wrote were spread amongst the students in the entire county as good examples; and my mother had also read them in school. So, my father was quite a figure even then!
In the 1960’s, at the age of 27, my father was admitted to the Southwest University of Political Science & Law in Sichuan Province; and thus became the first ever university student in his village. This caused quite a sensation among all the villagers.
As far as I can remember, father only told me one story about his university life, and that was about a secret skill for obtaining one more bowl of rice.
When my father was attending university, China was experiencing the so-called “Three Years of Natural Disasters.” It should actually be called “The Three Years of the Great Chinese Famine,” when 20-43 millions were starved to death, according to some scholars.
My father said, when it was mealtime in the university, everybody ate in the dining hall, with eight people sitting at each table. Rice was supplied in a big pot for everyone to share.