Memories of Family Planning
As middle age approaches, many things are forgotten, and I am willing to forget as well. But some memories are hard to let go of, those mottled memories stained with blood, always come back in the quiet of the night, bringing a long and sorrowful lament from a distant place…
I deeply understand that the murmurs of time’s blood will pale when poured into words. I try to piece together the fragments of memory into memorial tablets on the altar, to mourn those brothers and sisters who never had a chance to be born but died, as well as the mothers of a generation who endured great suffering but had no way to express their cries.
I strive to recollect those true pasts with a calm emotion.
In the past, rural women of our mother’s generation were most afraid to hear the words “family planning is here!” “Family planning is here”… Nowadays, just hearing these words makes many women shudder with fear.
Chinese people have a preference for having sons and often have a second, third, fourth, or even more children… My mother gave birth to four sons, and in my memory, our family was a key target of family planning…
Several younger generations are watching the movie “Red Chili” filmed by their uncle.
The family planning working groups from higher levels usually consisted of district, township, and village officials, sometimes led by officials from the county family planning office, totaling up to twenty or thirty people. Back then, many rural areas had no paved roads, and they traveled along mountain paths and field trails. A group of twenty or thirty people was quite imposing, especially for secluded mountain villages, which were greatly intimidated, and everyone was terrified when they arrived…
In my memory, the group of twenty or thirty people had clear hierarchies. County and district officials naturally played the role of “inspectors,” and the township officials below were very enthusiastic because they had to please the county and district officials to prove their efforts in family planning work…
As for the village officials, they naturally faced more difficulties. Unlike the township, district, and county officials who could finish their family planning work and leave, the village officials had to continue living in the village, facing everyone every day. They had to interact with the villagers and couldn’t just leave after finishing their duties. The village officials were caught in a dilemma, needing to show their dedication while also taking into account the villagers’ feelings, trying to appear as if they were merely following orders, and even giving the villagers prior notice…
However, back then, there were no cell phones, so they couldn’t make calls. The higher-level officials also knew that the village officials might inform the villagers in advance, so they would conduct surprise attacks, suddenly bringing a group of twenty or thirty people to the village. The village officials had no choice but to greet them with a smile and lead the group into the village…
In the past, family planning officials would often bring around ten strong and unknown men with them. These men were responsible for physical labor, such as herding cattle, carrying trees, and transporting grain from the warehouses of families who exceeded the child limit. These tasks required specialized individuals to handle them. Even more excessive was their practice of removing roof tiles from people’s houses, dismantling beams and doors, or forcibly taking away heavily pregnant women to terminate pregnancies. Of course, these ten strong men also served as a deterrent to prevent the male members of the exceeding families from retaliating against the officials.
Thus, the essence of family planning lies in this act of “implementation.” How to “implement,” who will do the “implementation,” who will be “implemented,” the extent of the “implementation,” how long it will last, and what comes after the “implementation” are all lifelong pursuits for family planning officials.
I still remember the attire of these family planning officials. Most of them wore white short-sleeved shirts or higher-grade silk white shirts, sheer stockings, and dark sandals. They wore pale yellow straw hats with a band stained black from sweat… The male officials’ combination of sandals and stockings felt like the uniform of that era…
They usually traveled in groups of twenty or thirty people, and as they passed through villages along the way, they would elicit sighs of lament from farmers working in the fields: “Which family is going to be unlucky this time…”
My grandfather was a shepherd, and I followed him and became a little shepherd boy. Sometimes, on the mountains, we could see a group of people in white coming along the winding paths.
My grandfather would say, “Junlin, hurry back and inform XX, the family planning people are here.” At that time, as a rural boy, I didn’t even wear a shirt in the summer, just a pair of shorts. I would run like the wind on the mountain roads and through the bushes, fast enough to catch up with other kids from the village school. When I returned to the village and told the aunties about the family planning officials’ arrival, they would drop their farm work and hide in the woods and bushes on the mountainside. Sometimes, even those expecting their first child would hide to keep their second or third pregnancy a secret…
When the imposing family planning team arrived in the village, they couldn’t see any young women; only grandmothers were around. The male heads of exceeding families would also hide, not wanting to face fines and interrogations…
As “Wang Er Xiao” (a nickname for me), I rushed through the narrow paths and thick bushes, my upper body exposed and my flesh torn by thorny branches, but seeing these officials miss their targets filled me with joy…
My childhood path where I used to shepherd in my hometown
Naturally, the family planning officials who missed their targets would be infuriated. After all, with so many people coming, they couldn’t return empty-handed. They would kick open the doors of the exceeding families’ houses. Generally, these families wouldn’t have anything valuable, so the officials would take their cattle, grain from the warehouse, roof tiles, doors, and windows (the tiles and doors weren’t valuable, but damaging them served as a show of force to the exceeding families). As these officials walked away with their loot, they would be met with a chorus of curses from the villagers. The language used was harsh, and the lowest-ranking member of the family planning team, usually a village cadre, would bear the brunt of the villagers’ wrath. Everyone knew the village cadres and their families, their background, and who their ancestors were. The village cadres would have to face these exceeding families even after the incident.
The villagers often cursed the family planning cadres. Whenever something went wrong in their families, they would say, “It’s because the family planning cadres were too ruthless back then.” They believed that the repercussions had fallen on their descendants. Of course, many village cadres were doing quite well, but such visions of retribution were prevalent among the poor common folks.
Many years have passed, but I still remember the appearance of those officials. Just like the blood that oozed from the wounds inflicted by the thorns on my body, I can still smell the metallic scent of the blood…
After I left my hometown and lived in other places, it was my turn to have children. Suddenly, there were propaganda campaigns everywhere, saying that we didn’t have enough children and that we should hurry up and have more…
“Don’t tell anyone that you have three younger brothers,” my grandmother often cautioned me when I was young.
I was born in 1979. At that time, my parents were very simple-minded. Influenced by the propaganda of “having one child is the best,” they even obtained a “Certificate of Only Child” for me. Under the long-term influence of the idea that having multiple children would bring good fortune and after experiencing the recent campaign of “strength in numbers,” obtaining the “Certificate of Only Child” was considered a rare “enlightenment.” The government even rewarded my family with 5 yuan for this certificate.
Soon, my parents changed their minds under the pressure from my grandparents. Other families had already had several children, so why could they only have one? Besides, I was often sick as a child and was frequently rushed to the local barefoot doctor for intravenous injections in the middle of the night. My family was worried that I might not survive, so they quickly had another child. When I was three years old, my mother gave birth to my older brother.
Having two sons was naturally a cause for celebration. That was in 1981, and my older brother was fined 200 yuan for exceeding the child limit. The family planning officials naturally came when they heard the news. They were still dressed in white shirts, with silk stockings and sandals. They came to collect the fine, and if the payment was made voluntarily in cash, there would be an 80% discount. So my older brother paid 160 yuan in actual cash. In the rural areas of 1981, this was a considerable amount. Pork was priced at 1 yuan per pound, so the 160 pounds of pork exchanged for a younger brother made the family feel that it was worth it, despite the curses they received.
My younger brother, who was born in violation of the family planning policy, was fined and not welcomed by the government. However, my grandmother was delighted. She took care of our bathing activities in the evening and watched us run around naked in the courtyard. The sight of our little genitals swinging in the wind symbolized the glory of generations and the promising future of our family. We were her precious grandsons, worth more than gold.
Soon after, my grandmother urged my mother to have another child, saying, “One more child means one more pair of chopsticks. I’ll take care of the child.” In the eyes of the elderly, grandsons were a source of endless joy.
My mother thought having two grandsons was enough, but when she showed signs of pregnancy again, the family couldn’t stay in one place. They knew that if they were discovered, the family planning officials would come knocking on the door.
To avoid trouble, my mother had to return to her hometown. My maternal grandparents lived in a neighboring county, 50 miles away from our home, and there was no paved road. Traveling 50 miles was already considered a long journey.
My grandmother told us, her grandsons, that our mother had gone to work in Guangdong, and I had been eagerly awaiting her return. People suspected that my mother had gone into hiding to evade the family planning policy and would ask me and my younger brother, “Where did your mother go?” We innocently replied, “My mother went to work,” as we were instructed to do. My mother had no choice but to stay inside my maternal grandparents’ house, avoiding being seen by others; otherwise, she would be taken away and forced to undergo an abortion.
After a long time, my father took us to my maternal grandparents’ house, and I was surprised to find my mother there. I had believed all along that she had gone to work.
Soon, my mother gave birth to my third brother, another boy, which made my maternal grandparents ecstatic. I still remember the scene when my younger brother was born. It was after my aunt and I returned from watching a movie in a neighboring village. My mother was in pain, and my grandfather was preparing hot water for the delivery. It was a difficult birth, and my grandfather even fired a few shots in the air with a blunderbuss at the doorstep to ward off evil spirits.
My mother, being my grandfather’s eldest daughter, had given birth to three grandsons, which brought immense joy. My father and I happily went to share the good news with my grandparents. My grandmother was overjoyed to hear about another grandson and instructed us, “Don’t mention outside that your mother has given birth to another brother. Otherwise, the family planning officials will come to raid the house.”
The immense fear of a raid made me keep my mouth shut, and I couldn’t disclose anything to anyone. This distrust and fear lingered in my childhood memories for a long time. It was almost a year before my mother dared to bring my youngest brother back home.
When we returned home, the family planning officials came knocking on our door again. Since the child was already born, they couldn’t do much except impose a fine. They demanded a 400 yuan fine, twice the amount of the previous fine for my older brother. I still remember the scene, with over twenty people, and if they didn’t pay the fine, they would take away belongings. After some bargaining and assurances, the fine was reduced to 320 yuan. Back then, 320 yuan was the equivalent of the cost of two pigs in the rural areas, which was a significant amount. I remember that it took a long time to gather enough money from relatives to pay the fine.
The joy of having three sons in the family quickly overshadowed the pain of the fine, and it was soon forgotten.
My mother gave birth to a fourth son not long after, and the family planning officials became more relentless, like facing a formidable enemy. With no other options, our family had to give away the youngest brother to be raised by someone else, leading to a painful separation.
These spine-chilling memories are something only the Jewish people can understand when they hear the phrase, “The family planning officials are coming.” Many years later, when my four brothers and I are together, I often tell them, “Look at the three of you, the country really doesn’t like you! Thanks to Mom’s persistent efforts to evade them.”
They quietly accompany me,
Just like when I was sick,
She stayed with me until dawn.
When my mother is awake,
I try to talk to her,
but it’s only me talking and she’s listening.
As I speak, she starts crying.
There are so many things I want to say,
Afraid that time might not be enough,
Yet I am overwhelmed
Choked with tears.
July 30th 2023