I’d like to tell you about a man from whom we can all learn a lot. With determination, endurance and a clear set of values, An Wei, who today is 80, has led a rich, complicated life that helped hundreds – maybe thousands – to improve their lives. Despite haunting poverty and hunger, he thrived.
When he was in high school, communes had taken over China and swallowed up An Wei’s village. He became furious at the cattle shed attendant who consistently gave him the worst ox for grinding wheat, and the man seemed to gloat that he was now in charge of all village animals, including those that had belonged to An Wei’s family.
An Wei knew he had to stop the attendant’s abuse, but how? The following is excerpted from my biographical portrait of An Wei called One in a Billion
Back home for weekend chores, An Wei followed the cattle attendant down the row of animals in the communal cattle shed. He hated this attendant, who always gave him the slowest ox. It added hours to grinding corn or wheat.
An Wei glanced at the good animals as they passed them. Then, without thinking twice, he stepped in beside a good ox, pushed it into the open area of the shed and walked toward the exit. The attendant, who was about to back the slowest one out, wheeled around.
“Heah. You can’t do that,” he yelled.
An Wei said nothing and led the ox to the family grinding mill, his fury dissipating as he urged the ox into the harness. The pre-dawn sky began to lighten, accompanied by the coos of mourning doves. He dumped grain onto the bottom stone, flicked his whip and the ox began to move steadily around the circle.
An Wei settled into the long grinding routine. He loved the sound of the heavy stone cracking the kernels at an even pace. He thought about the problem of the cattle attendant; solving that was not going to be easy. If he did not, the man could make life difficult for An Wei by reporting him to the commune or, maybe worse, bullying him constantly. The attendant seemed to think he was great because he was classified as a “poor peasant” and therefore was considered better than An Wei’s “middle peasant” family, which had greater resources. The poorer you were, the more status you had.
Maybe the man liked tormenting An Wei and his family because the shed and feedlot used to belong to them.
Chairman Mao and the commune leaders said they needed to rely on the poor and the lower middle peasants. An Wei knew that was policy, but the cattle attendant did not have to give him the worst ox every time he ground grain.
If he did not speak out, this man and maybe others in the cattle shed would treat him worse and worse. But An Wei knew enough about life and politics in new China to realize he had to get back at the man within a narrow range between personal insult and public loss of face. He had to fight for his own rights cleverly—and now.
As the last flour fell into the box, he slowed the ox and untied it from the stone. Giving the gentle-eyed animal several pats, he led it toward the cattle shed and hoped he could respond just right to whatever the attendant said to him.
As they entered, the man was waiting. “How could you take the liberty to think you can have whichever ox you want?”
An Wei’s anger rose. “My family is a middle peasant family. We invested more than enough compared to many villagers.”
He could not contain himself once he started.
“Why do you always assign that slow ox to me? It’s not fair for you to punish me each time. Once in a while if you give me the slow ox, like everybody else, that’s okay. But you give me the slow one every time. This is my demonstration against you. I took that hard-working ox on purpose because I want to teach you a lesson. You should be fair.”
The man’s jaw tightened, yet he remained speechless. An Wei knew that most farmers would not expose people like this; they avoided making them lose face. But An Wei felt proud. He had spoken his mind. He had done it in private, so the man was only embarrassed in private.
Read a Review of One in a Billion HERE
Find out more about author Nancy Pine HERE
This post is republished on Medium.
Images courtesy of author