My Father10 min read

The first gaokao after the Cultural Revolution – Karoline Kan

For years, I despised my father. In my eyes, he was the most irresponsible dad in the world. He wasn’t earning money to support us. He didn’t enjoy family gatherings, and was always the first to leave the table. He didn’t care whether his kids were happy in school or not, but would be angry if we didn’t perform as well as he expected. He often quarreled with my mother, for reasons I didn’t understand.

“Who can you blame? It’s your own fate!” My mother would shout at him. Father would just stay silent, turn to the other side of the room and light a cigarette, while my mother again repeated the story from more than thirty years ago which in her mind led to father’s bitterness. Through the cigarette smoke, I remember seeing tears in his eyes as mother reminded him of the pain.

My father was born in the summer of 1957, the first boy in a conservative family in a village near Tianjin. Life was hard, but he was loved and spoiled by the whole family. My grandfather had never been to school, which became his life’s regret, so he projected all his old hopes onto his son. “Nothing in the world is as noble as being an intellectual,” he would tell his neighbours. They didn’t understand why he never made his son do farm work, and instead let him read novels, poems and comic books, or listen to an old radio broadcasting the latest international news, while his peers laboured on the farmland for their families in that poverty-stricken time.

Father didn’t let his family down. He had a very good memory, and did well in school. My grandmother told me that one day in math class, the teacher couldn’t solve a question, but my father raised his hand and gave the embarrassed teacher the answer, using a formula that had not been taught in class yet. In his countryside school, that story made my father a kind of legend. I don’t know how true it is, but since then my father was given the nickname “Hua Loo Keng the Second”, after the famous Chinese mathematician. They still call him that in his hometown.

There wasn’t much entertainment in China’s countryside in the 1960s and 70s. My father spent most of his time reading books: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Art of War, The Water Margin. He enjoyed telling the stories to a group of young boys who would follow him around, while my grandfather planted the rice, cut the weeds and fed the horse. People joked, “the old farmer has a city son.” Hearing this, my grandfather would just smile and say proudly, “he is a good student.”

My father never regarded himself as a member of the village. People said he was arrogant. In his heart, he didn’t see the other young villagers as his friends, he just liked being admired by them. He made jokes about them, and thought up nicknames which became popular, like “Duck Zhang” for the guy whose voice sounded like a duck, “Little Fifth Potato” for a fifth son who was short with dark skin, or “Mao the Second” for the kid who admired Chairman Mao so much that he kept the same hair style as the young Mao Zedong, and always had two Little Red Books in his pocket.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the key years of my father’s education, classes in school were suspended, not properly given, or replaced with special cultural and labour education classes. Those children who didn’t like study found themselves in paradise, but for others, like my father, they never gave up studying and waited for their chance.

In 1966, when my father was still in primary school, the gaokao was stopped. Mao Zedong wrote in People’s Daily in 1968: “Education should emphasise revolution [and] serve proletarian politics.” In the 70s, university was only for farmers, workers and soldiers. Family background was an important factor, as well as your ability and “political consciousness”. My father thought he had a chance, but he was wrong. The system was based on recommendation, and since none of his family members were cadres, Party members, or Red Guards, my father wasn’t nominated. In 1975, my father finished high school. But he couldn’t believe the door was totally closed.

On October 21st, 1977, after ten years, the gaokao was reinstated. This rekindled my father’s dream of going to university. He prepared hard for the exam which would take place one month later, and was confident of being the first university student in the family. On that winter day, my grandfather took his son to the examination building in his horse carriage, and waited outside in the cold for hours. It was the only gaokaoin Chinese history that took place in winter, and the one with lowest enrollment ratio. Less than 300,000 students were enrolled from more than 5.7 million students.

His result was good. My father was accepted by a prestigious medical university, to major in surgery science. But while he was preparing for the first semester, some family members changed their mind. Doctor? they thought. Doctors are just like servants, serving patients. Will he end up being a barefoot doctor, carrying his medicine box from village by village like a fraud cheating villagers into buying his medicine? The discussion confused my grandfather, who couldn’t accept that his son would be just a “patient server” in the villagers’ eyes. He told my father, “I don’t allow you go to this university. Prepare for next year’s gaokao, do it again, and let’s have a better plan for your major.”

In the summer of 1978, my father took the gaokao for the second time. This time, his score was even higher. He chose a science university, to major in physics. But a few days later, an official from the local education bureau told my father that there was a new policy, and those who were enrolled last year but didn’t go are disqualified this year as punishment. “Our country has very limited education resources,” he said. “So I can’t send your materials to the university.”

Nobody knows if what the official said was the truth. In that era everything was in a mess, and it’s hard to say if there really was such a policy, or if there were other reasons behind it. Rumour had it that the official was newly appointed to his position and wanted to do something. Others said that the official’s niece performe worse in the exam but applied to the same major in the same university, and it’s not that possible two students from the same high school been accept both, so my father was sacrificed.

My father wanted to have a third try in 1979. This time, before he even registered for the gaokao, he was refused on account of being overage. He was 22. It was the death sentence for his future.

When I think of what my father went through, my heart bleeds for him. I can imagine how devastating the hit was to a young man whose entire life was built on the motto, “Knowledge Changes Fate”.

I have a box for special things I value. In it, there are two things that belonged to my father. One is a black and white photo from his high school student card. He wasn’t handsome, but he has the air of someone who is well educated, a bit shy, in a black uniform commonly seen in that time. The other is a draft of a play script he wrote in school. His handwritten characters in dark blue ink are handsome, and at the end it says, “By Tai, 1972”.

I collected both items from a pile of old books in my grandfather’s house in the early 2000s. I still remember how shocked I was when I found them. I could ’t believe they belonged to my father, the man who in my eyes was boring and weak, whose hobbies are smoking, playing poker and Chinese chess, and drinking beer. The man who, for as long as I could remember, seldom smiled, never hugged me, never kissed me, never talked to me about my joys and sorrows, fears and worries. The only thing that could cheer him up was when I got another first place in the school exams.

I loved when my father got drunk, because it was the only time when he became talkative. He liked to talk about politics and history, and once, while drunk, he wrote down a poem. I remember the last two sentences: “Don’t have the courage to look back twenty years / In my dream the scent of books cuts me dead.” (不忍回首二十载,梦里书香断做殇)

In 1979, when my father was excluded from university, he allowed himself to sink into the mire of his own thoughts. The villagers thought he had gone mad. He became very silent, and for days he left home every morning, only coming back when it got dark. Some of the villagers said sarcastically, “he believed he was a phoenix, but turned out to be a chicken, no different from other country chickens.” A farmer’s family in 1970s China could not afford his slow recovery. Within a month, my grandfather sent him to the farm, to learn everything from the beginning. In the countryside, if you can farm, at least you won’t starve to death.

One day in the late autumn of 1979, my grandmother told me, my father disappeared for two days. Some people in a neighbouring village said they saw a silent young man sitting alone on the riverbank. My father’s family went crazy looking for him, afraid that he would jump in, but he came back on the third day, with a pale face and purple lips. Nobody knows what happened in those two days, but after that my father seemed to accept his new fate. He locked all of his books in the warehouse, together with his once beautiful dreams.

Over the years, my father did all kinds of work – farming, trading, running kindergarten with my mum. But he never felt truly passionate about any of it. Most of the time, he depended on my mother to take the lion’s share of responsibility and make all the big decisions. When I was five, we moved from the village to a bigger town nearby. “I missed the best age,” he would tell me, “the best opportunities, the best everything.” Back then, I thought it was just an excuse for his laziness. Now, I understand it as a self consolation full of helplessness.

I said a lot of things before that hurt my father’s feelings. I told him that he doesn’t love our family. But as I grow older, I have gradually come to forgive him. I am trying to understand my father. If I were him, could I have done it better? I don’t know.

The day when I took my gaokao in 2008, it was raining. When I saw my father waiting for me outside the school in the rain, one hand holding an umbrella and the other a bag of my favourite cakes and fruits, I again thought of my father’s story, and noticed that he was getting really old. I turned my face away from him, and started to silently cry. ∎

This piece first appeared at the Anthill.

Header image courtesy of the author