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Peggy Keener: Son of the seventh sister

He was born in 1893 into a peasant family whose ancestors had lived in the area for more than 500 years. Forests surrounded their village with nearly 300 species of trees, as well as prides of tigers, leopards and boar. With no roads or navigable rivers to either enter or exit it, the village was detached from the world. Indeed, the death of the country’s emperor in 1908 did not reach the villagers until two years later.

At the age of 10, his father, Yi-chang, became engaged to a 13-year-old girl from a village ten kilometers away. The villages were so isolated, that even this short a distance was enough to produce dialects that were mutually unintelligible.

His mother was not named for she was, after all, merely a girl. Instead, as the seventh daughter, she was simply addressed as Seventh Sister. As was the custom, her feet were crushed and bound when she was young to produce the desired three-inch golden lilies, then the epitome of female beauty.

His parents’ engagement was based upon practical considerations. The tomb of Seventh Sister’s grandfather was in her betroths’ district. As it needed to be tended regularly with elaborate rituals, it was efficacious to have her near it. Thus, Seventh Sister moved in with her future husband’s family. Later in 1885, the couple married.

Soon thereafter, Yi-chang left to join the army in order to pay off the family’s debts. Peasants at that time were not serfs, but rather free farmers, and becoming a soldier for financial reasons was common. Yi-chang did not see combat, but instead the military opened his eyes to the world of commerce.

Two years later he returned home. Barely able to read and write, Yi-chang nonetheless learned to keep his accounts. Besides raising pigs, he processed and sold top-quality rice which eventually enabled him to buy more and more parcels of land, soon making him one of the richest men in the village.

Despite his wealth, Yi-chang remained extremely thrifty and hard working. In time he replaced the thatched roof on their small home with tiles, a major upgrade, but the mud floor and walls remained. The windows had no glass, still a rare luxury, but were openings with wooden bars blocked off at night by wooden boards. It was in this spartan home under a mosquito net and blue homespun cotton quilt that Yi-chang and Seventh Sister’s son was born. They named him Mao Tse-Tung.

Mao was the third son, but the only one to survive infancy until two more sons were later born. His full name meant “to shine on the East.” It reflected the inveterate aspirations that Chinese parents had for their sons. At that time young men of all backgrounds had access to education, and if they proved themselves worthy in the nationwide exams, they could rise to the level of a mandarin or even a prime minister.

But, names could also be onerous and potentially a temptation to fate. Therefore, pet names of less aspirational value were also given; nicknames that were tough and more humble. Mao’s was the Boy of Stone given to him by his mother who took Mao for a second baptism to an enchanted rock where he performed obeisance and kowtows. He loved his pet name and used it throughout his life.

Mao adored his mother. “As a child I worshiped her. Wherever she went, I followed.” He lived an idyllic childhood, raised by his mother’s family as she chose to live with them. His grandmother, uncles and aunts doted on Mao as if he were their own son. As the women spun and sewed under an oil lamp, Mao learned to read.

At age eight, Mao returned to his father’s village where in a tutor’s home his formal education began. Mao excelled over the other students because of his exceptional memory. Books became his passion, reading deep into the night by an oil lamp outside of his mosquito net. Years later, when as the supreme leader of China, half of his huge bed was covered with foot high stacks of Chinese classics.

But, being headstrong and disobedient, he frequently clashed with his tutors. When he was 10, Mao ran away from school. Following that he was expelled from four more schools. Still his mother indulged his behavior while his father grew increasingly disturbed by it. It was Yi-chang’s hope that his son would grow up and keep the family accounts, but disappointingly Mao was hopeless with numbers and even worse with economics.

Eventually, Yi-chang could no longer abide his son’s idleness. As he had spent every waking hour of his life laboring, Yi-chang expected the same from Mao. He often beat Mao and Mao hated him for it. With unthinkable insolence, Mao would tell his father that being older, the father should do more manual labor than the son. One day the two had a row where Yi-chang called Mao lazy and useless in front of some guests. Mao fled from the house with his cursing father in pursuit demanding that he return. Mao reached the edge of a pond whereupon he threatened to jump in. His father backed down. The fear of losing his son was greater than his anger. Mao had struck at his father’s weakest point, and he had won.

To be continued.