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Spider Eaters

Spider Eaters: A Memoir

Rae Yang
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 310
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  • Book Info
    Spider Eaters
    Book Description:

    Spider Eatersis at once a moving personal story, a fascinating family history, and a unique chronicle of political upheaval told by a Chinese woman who came of age during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution. With stunning honesty and a lively, sly humor, Rae Yang records her life from her early years as the daughter of Chinese diplomats in Switzerland, to her girlhood at an elite middle school in Beijing, to her adolescent experience as a Red Guard and later as a laborer on a pig farm in the remote northern wilderness. She tells of her eventual disillusionment with the Maoist revolution, how remorse and despair nearly drove her to suicide, and how she struggled to make sense of conflicting events that often blurred the line between victim and victimizer, aristocrat and peasant, communist and counter-revolutionary. Moving gracefully between past and present, dream and reality, the author artfully conveys the vast complexity of life in China as well as the richness, confusion, and magic of her own inner life and struggle. Much of the power of the narrative derives from Yang's multi-generational, cross-class perspective. She invokes the myths, legends, folklore, and local customs that surrounded her and brings to life the many people who were instrumental in her life: her nanny, a poor woman who raised her from a baby and whose character is conveyed through the bedtime tales she spins; her father; and her beloved grandmother, who died as a result of the political persecution she suffered. Spanning the years from 1950 to 1980, Rae Yang's story is evocative, complex, and told with striking candor. It is one of the most immediate and engaging narratives of life in post-1949 China.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95536-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface to the Fifteenth Anniversary Edition
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Rae Yang
  4. Author’s Note
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1 A Strange Gift from the Pig Farm
    (pp. 1-7)

    Fifteen years ago when I left China for the United States, I wanted to forget the dreams my peers and I used to have. These we had inherited from our parents. Some of them had long since turned into nightmares for me. I wanted to open a new chapter in my life. Let the old fear, anger, and guilt melt away and the barriers between myself and others slide into the melting pot. But by and by I realized that this was just another dream.

    I could not leave my past behind, as I could not help waking up at...

  6. 2 Old Monkey Monster
    (pp. 8-15)

    Speaking of dreams, I recall a famous Chinese dream in which Chuang Tzu, an ancient philosopher, became a butterfly. In the spring wind he fluttered his wings; he danced among flowers. He drank dew and rested under a green leaf. His heart was ever so happy and serene. When he woke up, he was Chuang Tzu again. Wearing a scholar’s hat and a long robe, he sat in his study meditating on the nature of all beings including himself. “Am I really Chuang Chou who dreamed that I was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly who is dreaming that...

  7. 3 Nainai’s Story Turned into a Nightmare
    (pp. 16-23)

    In my memory, Nainai’s house is always what it looked like in 1956, when Nainai, her two sons, their wives and children, as well as her daughter, whom I called Third Aunt, lived together in it. In the real world, however, the beauty and elegance of this old Beijing residence was destroyed. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, six families who called themselves “revolutionary masses” moved in without the consent of Nainai or anybody else. They put Nainai, who was then bedridden with diabetes, into a small storage room that had no windows. Not even servants of the...

  8. 4 Nainai Failed Her Ancestors
    (pp. 24-30)

    Reflecting on the fact that I could not forget Nainai’s stories no matter how hard I had tried, I realize that I am more attached to her than I once cared to admit. As I was her only granddaughter, she told me more stories about her life than she told my cousins.

    To people who did not know her well, Nainai’s life in the old society appeared carefree. Her forefathers had power and privileges, her father-in-law and husband had a great deal of money. Only I knew that Nainai’s life was not as easy as others might have imagined. In...

  9. 5 Why Did Father Join the Revolution?
    (pp. 31-37)

    After Nainai married my grandfather, she gave birth to ten babies in ten years. Father and Second Uncle weighed more than seven pounds at birth. Third Aunt was less than six pounds. After her, the babies continued to come. One each year. Smaller and smaller. Nainai did not know how to stop them. Nor did she know how to save them. So the babies died in a few days or just a few hours, before they could open their eyes and see their mother’s face, which was as pale as the moon.

    The heavy loss made Nainai love even more...

  10. 6 Second Uncle Was a Paper Tiger
    (pp. 38-49)

    When we returned from Switzerland in 1956, Nainai’s dream came true. Finally the entire family was together, living in Nainai’s big house. After my great-grandfather and grandfather died, Nainai was the head of the family.

    Although I do not remember ever seeing Nainai read Lao Tzu, the way she ran our family was very much in keeping with the latter’s teaching. According to the ancient philosopher, the best rulers ruled by non-action. That is to say, they let ten thousand things take their own courses; they did not impose their will on any of them. As a result, all were...

  11. 7 The Chinese CIA
    (pp. 50-57)

    After we moved into our new home in the western suburb of Beijing in 1957, I soon forgot the troubles Nainai and Second Uncle were having. My life at my parents’ work unit was filled with new thrills as well as new difficulties.

    Our new home was located in a huge yard, many times larger than Nainai’s compound. People called this placejiguan, which means mechanism. Later I learned that thejiguanwe lived in was the Ministry of Investigation under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, it was the Chinese CIA.

    So of course...

  12. 8 When Famine Hit
    (pp. 58-65)

    The large-scale famine that set in around 1959 brought the Great Leap Forward to an end. Actually today many people say it was the Great Leap Forward that brought about the famine. Either way, toward the end of 1959 suddenly food became very scarce. Pork, chicken, fish, cookies, candies, nuts, canned goods, fruit, vegetables—in short, all edible things—vanished from the store shelves. Afterwards ration coupons were invented, all kinds of them: grain coupons, cooking oil coupons, meat coupons, fish coupons, egg coupons, tofu coupons, pastry coupons, sugar coupons, cigarette coupons, cotton coupons, cloth coupons, and many more. All...

  13. 9 A Vicious Girl
    (pp. 66-73)

    If the Great Leap Forward and the famine were like tidal currents that swept over China, affecting the lives of tens of millions, my private life in those years was like an undercurrent. The anxiety and despair I kept to myself.

    All my trouble started with Lian, my younger brother, who was such a perfect boy. At the age of three he had large brown eyes, plump rosy cheeks, and soft black hair. When he smiled, tiny dimples floated up. All adults loved kids with such “wine nests,” which unfortunately I did not have. Lian’s good looks must have given...

  14. 10 Aunty’s Name Was Chastity
    (pp. 74-86)

    Aunty’s name was Tian Xi Zhen. Zhen, her personal name, means chastity. She was born in 1904. Emperor Guangxu was still alive, but by then the power was in the hands of the dowager empress. Many generations of Aunty’s family had been the emperor’s craftsmen. Their hereditary handicraft was to put up mat sheds for the imperial family before summer and for special events. Such mat sheds were made of bamboo poles and reed mats, giving people shelter and shade wherever they might need them. But that was not all. In old Beijing, one mark of a family’s status was...

  15. 11 Beijing 101 Middle School
    (pp. 87-100)

    Fifth grade was a turning point for me. I was eleven years old. One morning when I opened my eyes, I found that my mind, which had been thick and heavy like mud, suddenly became light and clear. It started to run like a mountain stream. The golden sun danced on it, accompanied by the silver moon, five-colored stars, and the rainbow—a miraculous moment. I woke up as Sleeping Beauty did. Even today I still can’t tell what triggered the change. “The apertures of your heart opened” was Aunty’s explanation. For the Chinese have always believed that intelligence comes...

  16. 12 The Hero in My Dreams
    (pp. 101-114)

    The political campaigns made me increasingly uncomfortable, and I began to regret that I went to a school with such a glorious revolutionary history. As an option, I thought of the nearby middle school attached to Qinghua. Perhaps they would not emphasize physical labor and thought reform as much? I secretly decided that when the next entrance examination came round I would apply to that school. From there I would go on to Qinghua University and eventually become a woman scientist.

    For 101 did not make me feel good about myself. Nor did it make me feel good about my...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. 13 At the Center of the Storm
    (pp. 115-129)

    From May to December 1966, the first seven months of the Cultural Revolution left me with experiences I will never forget. Yet I forgot things almost overnight in that period. So many things were happening around me. The situation was changing so fast. I was too excited, too jubilant, too busy, too exhausted, too confused, too uncomfortable … The forgotten things, however, did not all go away. Later some of them sneaked back into my memory, causing me unspeakable pain and shame. So I would say that those seven months were the most terrible in my life. Yet they were...

  19. 14 Red Guards Had No Sex
    (pp. 130-145)

    After Aunty left, I returned home even less often. Home was no longer the safe haven I once loved to hide in. Now it had become a nest of troubles, making me feel frustrated and vulnerable. So why not stay away from it? The things one’s eyes do not see will not disturb one’s heart.

    Starting in late August 1966, Red Guards were beginning to travel to all parts of China free of charge. Our task was to spread the idea of the Cultural Revolution. We were seeds of fire. Chairman Mao was the spring wind. The trains and buses...

  20. 15 Semi-transparent Nights
    (pp. 146-158)

    If I could fall asleep in the middle of a street far away from home in 1966, how could I suffer from insomnia the next year when I was back home? It seems unthinkable. But this was indeed what happened. After I was in bed three or four hours but sleep was still playing hide and seek with me, I would reason with myself.

    Last year, that was last year. Now is now. Last year Red Guards were Chairman Mao’s brave young generals, charging the enemy line ahead of millions. There was so much to do and never enough time....

  21. 16 “The Hero, Once Departed, Will Never Come Back”
    (pp. 159-173)

    Insomnia tormented me for a year and a half. By June 1968 I couldn’t take it anymore. I must do something about it, I said. This something was to volunteer to go to a farm in the northeast, at a place known as the Great Northern Wilderness.

    I use the word “volunteer” because unlike those who graduated from middle schools in the following years, in 1968 we still had a choice: those who did not want to leave Beijing could stay. But the jobs awaiting them were not glorious: mending shoes, fixing bikes, cleaning streets, selling soybean milk and fried...

  22. 17 In a Village, Think, Feel, and Be a Peasant
    (pp. 174-187)

    Seventeen years after the campaign of educated youths going to the countryside ended, many are still bitter about it. “A big mistake,” they label the campaign that lasted more than a decade and involved twenty million young people. Or they say, “A tremendous waste.” I agree with them. Yet I disagree. Lao Tzu, the ancient philosopher, says: “Good fortune breeds disasters. Misfortune ushers in well-being.” Sometime after I came to America, my anger toward the campaign died down and I began to feel lucky that I had been to the countryside.

    I don’t mean that I have much use for...

  23. 18 “The Tree May Wish to Stand Still, but the Wind Will Not Subside”
    (pp. 188-199)

    Although I thought it unwise for my fellow educated youths to provoke Zhao, it didn’t mean I liked him. He was, in my opinion, a typical “local emperor.” He treated the peasants in “his” village like dirt under his feet. So perhaps he didn’t mean to be particularly rude to the Beijing youths the other day. He was just his normal self. Many villagers resented the way he treated them as well. But they did not dare show it. Only after we gained their trust did they tell us behind closed doors some of the things Zhao and his few...

  24. 19 Death of a Hero: Nainai’s Last Story
    (pp. 200-216)

    On the pig farm each of us was responsible for a group of pigs. These hundred pigs, I took care of them from the moment they were born. When spring came I let them out to graze. In summer I got up before four o’clock everyday. By four thirty my pigs were out on the grassland.

    The morning breeze was cool and faintly fragrant. In June the Great Northern Wilderness was an ocean of wild flowers. Gold lilies were delicate and sweet. Red lilies looked waxy and sturdy. Irises purple and blue grew around shallow ponds of water. Wild peonies...

  25. 20 Remorse
    (pp. 217-232)

    When I returned from Beijing, somehow I had a feeling that nothing was the same at Cold Spring, as if suddenly I looked out of another pair of eyes. Or maybe the place had indeed changed in my absence, like a change of season? One morning I woke up, summer was gone and autumn had its signature on everything. Flowers had vanished from the fields. Leaves were falling. The wind carried sharp blades and the insects’ chirping had a sorrowful note as if they knew the end was near.

    The first news that welcomed me back was of rape and...

  26. 21 Friends and Others
    (pp. 233-244)

    By the time I remembered Zhang Heihei and then sank into despair, about ten educated youths from Cold Spring had left the Great Northern Wilderness for good. Without exception, these were the sons and daughters of high-ranking cadres from Beijing. After the “seven big flies” left, for a while Wen had the dormitory room all to himself. He took advantage of this privacy and studied fortune-telling. Though I wondered how serious he was about such stuff, as time went by his reputation grew. People sought him out during the day and in the evenings. Later some even came from other...

  27. 22 My First Love, a Big Mistake?
    (pp. 245-260)

    After I turned over all the keys and account books to Fang, I heaved a sigh of relief. For four years I had worked so hard on the pig farm trying to reform the world and reform myself. In the end I reaped the same punishment Chen got—Chen, a man I had originally come to combat. What an irony! But now I was glad all this was behind me.

    I reported for duty to tractor number ten. Old Sui was the head of its crew. Li and Zhou wereshifu(master workers). Xiang and I were assistants.

    Old Sui...

  28. 23 What Have I Lost? What Have I Gained?
    (pp. 261-273)

    When I got home, Mother rushed out to meet me. Her face was still yellow and swollen. But at that moment it was lit up by joy, overflowing with love. She looked like a mother who welcomes home her dear little girl, lost in an enchanted forest for three days. Seeing Mother like that, I was moved as well as relieved. Then Father told me what had happened on their end.

    According to Father, the message I was trying to send in my short letter went straight past him, even though in our family he had been known as the...

  29. 24 Epilogue
    (pp. 274-285)

    A week later, I was back home. My parents welcomed me as if I were a victorious Napoleon. Mother was so proud of me that she made me promise: in the future I would help my brothers out the same way. I agreed. Then we moved to Shijiazhuang, where I resumed my studies.

    In December, my parents went back to Beijing to celebrate New Year with Lian, Yue, and Aunty. I stayed behind “to look after the house.” By that time, of course, nothing in our house was worth a burglar’s trouble. I said that because I wanted to save...