Author’s Note: Jiangxi Soviet is the story of a village caught up in the formation and eventual dissolution of the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet, a short-lived communist state which existed in central China in the 1930’s. It highlights the point at which political upheaval and the thoughts and feelings of the individual collide.
When the wind gets up on the ridge it takes the top soil with it, leaving the rocks exposed like ragged bones. Climbing up there in that sudden rush of pressure before the storm comes, you see it; the ridge bristling with red dust as if someone has taken their thumb and smudged the whole thing up into the sky. Then the rain comes in thick, heavy drops and lays the dust again, then the flesh is stripped back once more as the downpour rips away at it, and the slop of mud slides off the hillside, leaving the bones where they belong. It tumbles down beneath leaves stained dark green by water and beneath the cables of briar which curl over one another with barbs bared and angry. Then the pressure of the water grows too great and the sludge slips further, the rain carving rivulets into the hillside, down and down and down into the valley where it is harnessed in channels of our own, where the soil stays rich and fertile, and where the elements are kept at bay by the two jagged peaks that converge at the head, sheltering our village in the crook of their arm; the land we now claim as ours.
United, then, under the red banner and nothing much had changed. Young and old still worked their pitches in the cool of morning, ate and dozed beneath the cypresses at noon, then returned to drive the ox back and forth or to tend to the crops until the women called them back to the village. Some were smiths who stood at their forges all day with singed skin soot-etched and glistening with sweat, others farriers and veterinarians who took care of the animals when required, but what we were known for – our village – was cultivation. We were masters of our trade; the soil up there was just too good an opportunity to miss. But in the evening when the dark draws in quickly and calmly and the bullfrogs boom out a chorus from the paddy fields beyond the boundary stone, that’s when the sense of something different is palpable. Gathering beneath the torch beacon by Mrs Liu’s house, all long shadows and flame-lit faces in the night, sitting around on makeshift tables smoking dry cigars rolled in palm leaves and laying out chess mats – it is at this time when the talk becomes powered by the growing pressure of change.
“It’s all ours now,” said Old Fan in the slow and measured way that he felt befitted an old man of his standing, “they told us, the soldiers when they gave us cigarettes in the top field.”
Old Fan slapped his son hard on the shoulder. The son nodded. “It’s true.”
A large woman, about forty or thereabouts but dressed in the faded felt suit of someone much older, sashayed deftly down the steps from the house and into the courtyard, sharp-scented liquid sloshing from the earthenware jar in her right hand.
“This was always mine,” said Mrs Liu as she reached the first table, stooping and pouring the baijiu from the jar to the two old men who had already pushed their cups forward expectantly. The sonorous chime of glasses, the bitter liquid knocked back like water, then Mrs Liu, smiling, pouring out another two measures.
“It’s not yours, you don’t understand. That’s not what the soldiers said.” The snarling voice from the corner where two youngsters sat sipping on Shanghai Beer, their mouths not yet hardened to the spirit being doled out to the older men.
“Oh what do you know, you pups?” Mrs Liu said without looking, moving delicately between the tables.
Snarling, spitting, and standing up now, the elder of the two boys roared back.
“What do you think I know? You stupid old witch. I was at Nanchang, and at Jinggang, I’ve seen more than all you old ones could even imagine.”
A few looked over at the boys, and those who did saw that they wore battered green fatigues and had their hair cropped short, with scars peppering the scalp of the elder boy; a scalp of pale, untanned skin which betrayed where hair had recently been.
“Yes, you got about as far as Fenghuang and you ran out of money, got your head all scarred up in some brawl at Pingxiang and come back thinking you’re a man,” said Old Fan, without even turning his head to look upon the interloper. “You and your little friend talk a lot of talk sitting here and sipping the GMD’s beer.”
The young man stared silently at the back of Fan’s head. Fan’s son stood up;
“Why don’t you both fuck off back to your mothers?”
The two boys in army fatigues drained their beers without a word and slipped away into the darkness.
“These kids have no respect,” Mrs Liu said, as she continued her arcing circuit of nine tables in the courtyard outside her home, drying the rim of the clay jug on her jacket sleeve as she went.
“They don’t know anything, it’s all different now.” The thin voice of my mother spoke up from the sidelines where she sat with my auntie – my father’s sister; the two of them relegated still by the patriarchy which continued to exist, even after the red wave of egalitarianism had swept over the land. The change wrought by the Communists was a constant fuel for conversation – Mrs Liu would chatter about the factory girls in Changsha who cut their hair short and smoked on lunch breaks, keeping all the old folks squawking with their traditional, provincial outrage – but nothing like that had ever permeated this far into the hills. The arrival of the two strangers had made it feel a little closer.
“How can you be sure?” Xiao Fan asked, reaching for a match for his cigar.
“My son told me,” my mother replied in a reedy, wavering lilt, “he’s working in the bank in Ruijin, he says nothing will be the same now.”
Old Fan held his glass of baijiu close to his chest and snorted with derision. “What do we need a bank for? Everything we need is right here.”
They brought them in today, the new bills. Great stacks of them, pristine and shining and no one any the wiser about how much each is worth. Do you think that’s a lot of money? If it wasn’t they wouldn’t have guns. They always have guns. Do you think that’s a lot? Nuo Ning rushing in breathless, letting the door swing closed behind her. Have you seen them? Have you seen them? And then turning to the side with her eyes wide, noticing through the pane of glass behind us; the six men with rifles laying their great stacks of notes in the vault.
Nuo Ning wears a green ribbon around her wrist, hidden beneath the cuff of her shirt. I notice and Jie Shan notices and I look at Jie Shan but I’m thinking of the way that ribbon once held Nuo Ning’s hair when it was longer, before she cut it short. Dark uniform of a peasant girl, flash of green to remind of old times. What do you remember of the old times, Nuo Ning? I don’t ask. No one would ask a stupid fucking question like that now. First we had our country, now we have our currency. Nuo Ning is still talking and Jie Shan is listening and I’m listening too but I’m turning away to where the earnest-eyed soldiers of the Soviet are loading their tightly wrapped bills into the vault.
In the morning they were back, in their military fatigues and looking and smelling like two men fresh from a night in the cowsheds by the river. They held a banner this time, a faded red one with a reproduced photograph on yellow paper stitched to the front. A man stared down from the photograph; a proud military man with medals and sashes adorning an opulence that would have been evident even without all the decoration.
The two young men stood in the courtyard outside Mrs Liu’s house, the small space which served as the village’s centrepoint and meeting place, and in their eyes and in their stances rang the staunch belief in the rhetorical framework upon which this fledgling state was built. But there was something more than this; not a belief – their eyes made it clear that the time for belief was past – but a knowledge, a knowledge that this revolution was not like the others, not an entity that would rise suddenly and then be upended by history, but something real and tangible and sustainable. The knowledge told them that for this state to succeed the ideology alone would be sufficient sustenance; the ideology and the capital.
“Zhang Zong Chang,” the more vocal of the pair shouted, as chickens scratched in the dirt at his feet and the women who were not with their husbands in the fields laid out spices on the stoops to dry in the gathering heat. His partner stood resolutely at his side, shouldering the banner on a long wooden pole, silent as always.
“Zhang Zong Chang, disgrace to the worker and to the military man, archetype of the decadence and division that the old ways have wrought upon our country for generations.”
No response from the wives still tending to their tasks. Three young women entered the square, crossing slowly on their raised sandals, their thin legs encumbered by the long hand-me-down gowns of worn dignity and prestige that signalled their eligibility for marriage.
Each of the three knew the stories of Zhang Zong Chang, the Dogmeat General from Henan who loved booze, gambling and exotic women in seemingly equal measure. They knew, too, about his legendarily prodigious sexual appetite, about the legions of concubines he had amassed from across Asia, Europe and North America, and about his san bu zhi – the three don’t knows – the answers he invariably gave to any questions regarding his wealth, the number of men at his command, or the size of his harem. Perhaps it was this that fuelled the giggles and the sniggers that the girls passed between one another in quiet tones, laughing together at the jokes that tradition forbade them any knowledge of, but which they enjoyed all the same. Whatever it was, the laughing girls – not so much younger than himself – provoked a flicker of red in the cheeks of the standard bearer, suddenly longing to be back in his own village and among girls who didn’t laugh in his face when they saw him. No such reaction from the orator, whose resolve was only steeled as he turned his attention towards them.
“You want to be the whores of some dog like this? Walking around dressed up like that hoping for some landowner to snatch you away. There’s no place for you here, not anymore.”
The three sniggered, either not hearing or not caring about the words from the pumped-up young man in the military outfit. Slowly, stepping carefully on their precarious shoes, they moved away across the square, inching into the shade and disappearing into the narrow alley between the rows of houses.
“This is what we must fight against; the decadence, the selfishness; these things are in opposition to the world we have built here, for all of us.”
Mrs Liu came billowing out of her house at full sail, the jowls of her neck rustling against the hem of her embroidered jacket, her whole being quivering with fury.
“What we don’t need here, or anywhere, is people like you… How can you come here, to my home, and berate these young women?
Ranting about some rich bastard up in Henan.”
Mrs Liu pushed the orator hard in the back, her momentum bringing her into collision before the two men could turn upon her, and the three became a jumble of limbs that staggered forwards across the space, shadows converging in a single mass in the dust beneath their feet. Some of the older women rose from their tasks, now, and looked on in concern. Their babies ran from hiding places for a better view, reluctantly slinking back when called and then smacked sharply across the backend.
Mrs Liu, panting and gasping at the breath that the rage had forced from her body, summoned her energy for another go.
“Henan, Henan! What’s that got to do with us? This isn’t Henan, this is Jiangxi! It’s different now, or didn’t you listen? You’ve got no right to talk like this here, no right!”
Screaming now, almost. The confident orator of the previous evening suddenly tongue-tied and dry-mouthed in the face of such an assault, and then the glimmer of an idea in Mrs Liu’s eyes as she lapsed quickly into local dialect, forming words entrenched deeply into the soil of the valley floor, and into the hearts and characters of the people who depended upon it. This language that they had been encouraged to abandon ever since the communists had returned here from the east in ‘29, came pouring forth, much to the delight of the women who were closer now, advancing steadily in a tightening circle around the three figures in the square.
“Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you trying to achieve?” and the two interlopers were suddenly as mute as the pole holding their banner.
A voice broke out above the cacophony and then all were looking around from the courtyard to the trail at its southern corner, winding its way out to the boundary stone and to the fields beyond; the trailhead now occupied by a ragged army of fifty or so men, those who worked close enough to the village to render it worth their while coming home at lunch time. And from the front of that column of men, the voice boomed again; Mr Yan calm and collected, sun-darkened skin stretched tight as parchment across bone and sinew, taking control of the ruckus he’d found.
“We don’t tolerate this sort of trouble here, you’d best be warned.”
And all the figures in the courtyard frozen in place, not speaking, Mrs Liu looking as if she would speak if she could but unable to find the words, the three girls in their dowry gowns looking out from the alley with babies now clinging tightly to their ankles, and the column of men, their legs mudstreaked from the fields, black work tunics torn and tattered, advancing en masse into the courtyard.
In the confusion, the militiaman detached himself from Mrs Liu’s grip and began smoothing his shirt which was wrinkled and damp with sweat. He feigned a coolness, an unruffled affectation which he felt necessary for any great revolutionary, and the strength of his words supported this.
“What you will or won’t tolerate is nothing to me, my friend. But you will fall in behind the people.”
Mr Yan moving forward now, breaking rank and stepping with purpose and hunger towards the two militiamen, annoyed above all by the fact that all this disruption was delaying his dinner and sleep. “Who are the people?” he was saying quietly, “who are the fucking people?”.
But before he reached the pair, Mrs Liu spoke up, still trembling in fear and rage and her timbre trembling too as she forced the words out. “They’re strangers, they don’t know anything about us, they need to go, go now!”
“Get the fuck away from us and from our village,” Mr Yan said with words that were as solid as his balled up fists. “Go on, leave.”
The two youngsters faced up to their defeat, stepping forwards and dragging their standard behind them. As they moved shamefacedly between the two lines of tired workers, hungry farmhands, and weary husbands, brothers and fathers, dragging the pole behind them, the proud face of Zhang Zong Chang stared up from the dirt, fixing the dead eyes of the bourgeoisie on the open blue expanse above.
The water rises against the material of Nuo Ning’s shirt. It rises in a bubble and down she pushes it, kneeling and pressing down with her right hand, bringing the rough hunk of soap down with her left and scrubbing it up into a lather. Coloured rings of oil spread out across the river and I watch her, wondering if she’ll do the same to my shirts in the future. A wife to me or to Jie Shan, which will it be?
Bank open in one hour. Just a morning stroll half a mile out of my way through Nuo Ning’s district, this little corner of Ruijin which she calls home. Somewhere nearby are the floor tiles which accepted Nuo Ning’s long dark hair when it fell upon them like rain. Watching and looking across the river to the trees where they said Jie Shan pushed Nuo Ning down in the shade of the branches. I never believed them. I never believed them, so I never needed confirmation either way.
Hey, Hey, Sui Luo! She’s kneeling by the water and looking at me over her shoulder. Come help me with this, I don’t want to be late! So I scrub and the lather rises again and more rings arc out across the rippling water. Look at the colours, and the trees! Aren’t they pretty? And this belongs to each and every one of us now. And I hear her words but how can I look upon the trees? How can I look at them like a man in need of confirmation? And why does everyone talk so suddenly of ownership, anyway? It’s all my parents talk about now, back home. We have this country now, we have the stacks of money in the bank vault and still I’m kneeling washing Nuo Ning’s shirt in the river and the city unfolds into life behind me.
A state needs capital, and that capital is controlled by us, all of us. We are its producers and its beneficiaries. Me, you, your parents, Jie Shan. But is it different to before, Nuo Ning? Is it really any different? Walking away now, glad to have my back to the whispering trees on the opposite bank and the stories of Nuo Ning and Jie Shan deep in hot darkness and holding each other through mutual first times. Sounds of river lapping up at the bank and the slow dark sounds of breathing visible only to those whose faces are pressed up close enough to reach out and touch.
Of course, she says, wait and see.
The valley was wider at its mouth where the two arms of the opposing ridges dipped slowly down to join the plain. At this point, there was a mile and a half between each, and the gently rounded hillocks rose benignly from the valley floor, dotted with grazing sheep and cattle. Their topography was a contrast to the shattered limbs of angular rock and dust which loomed above the village at the head of the valley, and across the wide expanse between them were the five fields that made up Old Fan’s land.
At the southern edge of Fan’s swathe of land were two bean fields, sheltered by the rise from the prevailing wind and weather that surged north from Guangdong in springtime, then came the mud and murk of the two rice paddies, and beyond that the patchwork greens and browns of the single field left to fallow at the northern extreme. A few of Fan’s cows grazed here, while others had pushed through the thicket and up onto the hill, unable to find their way back.
The ox trembled on the track leading eastwards from the village into the farmland and beyond, Fan’s son running his brown, weather-beaten hand along its coarse flank and onto its shoulder, patting its neck and cooing softly as the hulking machine of its body settled into inertia. Fan was up ahead, turning left onto the narrow terrace of land that marked the division between his fields and Liang Yu’s adjacent patch. The terrace rose for perhaps 18 inches above the surface of the bean field, which was still brown, its seedlings not yet able to penetrate the surface. Gingerly, Fan crouched at the edge of the field, placing the palm of his hand upon the baked-hard surface of the divider and lowering the battered leather of his boot down onto the soil. He stood up then, feeling the pleasant give of the earth as it conceded beneath his bootsoles, looking down and admiring the rich brown, the complete antithesis of the parched-out, sun-cracked yellow of the terrace and of the trail heading back toward the village. This porous clay, the impermeable rock that lay beneath it, the way the moisture drained quickly from the heights and stuck around here in the water table, the way the irrigation channels his grandfather had built into the earth and lined with slate still shepherded the water around the land three generations on; it was this that sustained him, sustained all the villagers, and made them the envy of the district whenever they ventured into town on market days.
Fan’s son pulled tight on the bridle, bringing the beast’s head back down into its state of calm repose. As he did so, he looked back to check that the struggling had not upset the tools in the cart, and caught sight of two figures approaching from the north along the narrow dividing line, single file. He looked back to where his father stood, ready to alert him to the new presence, but Old Fan had already seen them through the haze of almost-midday, seen their strange young faces and the wretched military fatigues that clung to their skinniness. Xiao Fan watched his father for a moment, trying to gauge a reaction, but there was nothing to read. Old Fan simply stood motionless, his black peasant tunic rippling across his bent back as a breath of wind cut through the heat from the east.
The two men had crossed the intersection and were traversing the western edge of the beanfield. Xiao Fan understood from his father’s silence what to expect now, and so he withdrew from the shoulder of the beast that breathed with a gentle rumble at his side, laying his hand upon the raw-edged wood of the cart. Old Fan turned back towards where his son stood and slowly clambered back up onto the path.
“Old man, what are you doing with this land?” the taller of the two men called out, his mute partner retaining a silent countenance.
“What I do with my land is my business,” replied Old Fan without looking, straightening up and peering over to where the sharp lines of the village softened in the indistinct light some distance away.
The young man laughed, “I should have known it was you.”
Old Fan said nothing. He turned slowly to face the two figures who now approached him on the path.
“Except it’s not your land is it, it’s not your land to let go to shit any more. What’s that top field doing lying empty? There’s nothing there, you’ve let it go to waste.”
“It’s lying fallow,” Old Fan said softly. His son’s hand had moved from the rough surface of the cart’s topside slowly down into the darkness of its bed.
“It’s lying fallow,” Fan repeated, without expression and without emotion.
“Fuck this, I know what you’re doing.” The young man adjusted the dirty green cap that rested upon his head, wincing a little as the sun fell directly upon his scalp. A few strands of greasy hair – missed by the barber’s razor – freed themselves and fell into the film of sweat on his brow.
“You’re speculating, you’re holding back production and jacking up prices. You’re a dog like the rest.”
Old Fan turned from the men. He’d had enough, and moved languorously away as the air turned thick with heat and anger. It was approaching midday now, and the conditions were too stifling for a man of his age to do much more. As his father moved towards him, Xiao Fan saw the younger man trembling with rage. Beyond his shoulder – a pace or two behind – his partner stood resolute, betraying no signs of intent whatsoever.
“Where are you going to?” the young man roared. “I’m not done with you yet.”
“It’s midday,” replied Old Fan, still with his back to the militiamen and with a note of levity in his voice, “we’re going to eat some egg and rice and snooze in the shade of that bush over yonder.”
“You’re going to do no such thing, you’re going back up to that top field with that fucking ox and you’re going to turn it over ready for planting.”
“It’s lying fallow,” Old Fan said for a third time, now openly laughing at the ridiculousness of the lines of inquiry being used against him. The youngster stepped forward, placing a hand on the Old Man’s bony shoulder and feeling it suddenly tightening beneath his grip, six decades of field work rendering it lithe and strong. Xiao Fan moved too, raising his hand clear of the ox cart as the sun glinted on the keen edge of the hand-scythe he now held.
“Saboteurs! Saboteurs!” The young man cried, “fucking pigs, traitors, enemies!” He yelled this into the wind which scattered his words across the valley floor, the steaming paddy fields swallowing them up as they passed over the surface.
But then Xiao Fan saw what Old Fan could not have done; the young militiaman reaching beneath his jacket and producing the battered black metal of an old service pistol. It stopped Xiao Fan in his tracks, he’d never seen anything like that before – maybe these kids had been telling the truth – a Mauser C96, the hezipao or Box Cannons that the officers had carried when Chen Jingming drove the western warlords out of Guangdong. It could have been given to him in honour after the fighting in the Hunan borderlands, or he could have looted it from the spent corpse of a GMD defector down in Ganzhou; there was too much uncertainty now, and Xiao Fan felt the choice being made for him as he advanced along the trail to the intersection where his father and the young militiaman stood, scythe held high and still glinting in the midday sun. The old man raised his arm, calling out for his son to stop, but the nervous militiaman had already levelled the Mauser in defence. A shot rang out and for a long instant all four men seemed to exist in a different place and time entirely, until the desperate, guttural lowing of the wounded ox brought them back into the here and now. A thick chain of dark blood began to pump down the animal’s rear flank and it sank down into the dust, its uncomprehending eyes open and livid.
The militiaman spoke calmly and plainly with words that seemed wholly disconnected from the nervousness now evident in his body as his trembling hands fumbled to reload the weapon: “You are enemies of the Soviet and now you will accept the consequences. There is simply no place for the likes of you…”
Xiao Fan looked up as the words were severed in the air. The scythe was no longer in his hand. Instead it was arcing downwards automatically, except not automatically, because it had been taken deftly from his grip by his elderly father who now slashed at their assailant in blind fury. Xiao Fan saw the Mauser now lying in the baked dirt, spattered with another thick cable of blood, this time from the arm of the militiaman which was cut wide open by the flashing blade. There were no words now, just the aperture of a mouth that was open in disbelief and the silver movement of the scythe which now bit deep into the man’s neck from the left, sending him crumbling away to his right and keeling over, falling from the intersection into the soft, accepting earth of the beanfield. Afterwards, Xiao Fan couldn’t remember how long his father had remained down there with the militiaman, or how many times the silver of the scythe – stained dark red now – had made its terrible journeys upwards and then back down. He vaguely remembered seeing the blood seeping into the fertile earth beneath the lifeless form at his father’s feet, seeing the faded green figure in military fatigues splashing desperately away through the paddy fields to the north, and feeling the creeping knowledge that the fragile thing that existed here, that had swallowed up each one of their lives so completely, was now broken somehow, forever.
It was painted with thick heavy brushes, trailing wisps of paint in black and grey, and into each corner they hammered in their four iron staples – language, ideology, equality, currency. Torn away, then, and what’s left after that? A patch of dark wood beside the sun-aged bleached parts, and the driven, ugly holes where the staples had once been.
Panic in Ruijin. Panic and stories that flow at the heads of columns of soldiers. Somehow the soldiers never seem to be far behind. Nuo Ning stands tearfully in the dust outside as the gunmen return. Her hair slightly longer now, falling just above the shoulder, her belly swollen just a little, the heaviness of her pregnant breasts bound tight to her chest with cloth, so that the untrained eye can see no change, and Jie Shan looking over her a little more anxiously than before. Green sash still around her wrist. It’s over.
Only it isn’t over. It’s just beginning. Dull clink of bullion under rattan sacks as it is loaded onto the cart, dull thud of Nuo Ning’s tears in the dust at the feet of the gunmen as they file past, backs braced beneath the load. Dull talk, talk of tumult, of the man who came down from the mountain one morning with his teeth smashed in and his clothes in rags… he’d done it to himself they said, done it to evade the GMD’s spies. Anyway; so he spat it out through a torn up mouth, they are cutting us off… overwhelm… kill all… no chance now.
Four iron staples driven into Nuo Ning; her face full with the pain of it all, freshly washed and cheeks rinsed clean with tears. Tears of a green sash, tears of a baby with no home, tears of disbelief, tears from shattered sockets of the eyes which bore the first two staples. Her hands are held forwards, palms uptilted, ready and waiting, just like the rest of us.
John Burns is a writer and teacher from Nottingham in the UK. He has been published in Litbreak Magazine before. He has also had work published in several different print and online-based publications, and is the author of a novella, due to be published by Frith Books in 2017.