My Rural Childhood Life
by George Dong
One day, my mom and I were arranging firewood beside a creek. All of a sudden, a pig came rushing down, with shrill screaming, from halfway up the mountain. We frightenedly looked in the direction of the sound. “Look, a wolf.” my mom shouted with a finger pointing at the mountain. “Where?” I asked. “There.” My eyes were looking in the direction my mother was pointing. A few seconds later, my mom said, “It has gone upward to the ridge.” Finally I didn’t see the wolf. After a while, the pig rushed to us, and we saw there was blood on its mouth.
Twenty years later, I told the story to my wife. And thirty years later, when my wife told the story to my son, it became like this: “When your dad was a boy, he was so brave that he went into the mountains to hunt a wolf.”
On both sides of the kitchen were living rooms. There was furniture and a Kang in the living room. The Kang was a platform made of stone. People sat, ate, and slept on it.
The story happened in a small village in northeast China called Shangdianzi. The village is surrounded by mountains. On the flat land were scattered dozens of residences. That is my hometown, where I was born. Some creeks streamed between mountains to a river, which flowed through the village. A dirt road (now it’s a tarmac road) came from the town, divided into two roads in two directions, went through the village, and extended into the distance. It was a beautiful place. All sorts of fish lived in the clear water in the river and creeks. The mountains were covered by woods. Four seasons were distinct. In spring, new green leaves and twigs grew out. Here and there, you could see flowers of pear, cherry, hawthorn, and locust. In summer, it’s dark green. In fall, it’s yellow. In winter, it’s white.
“Every family in the village lived in a farm compound, which was surrounded by walls or fences. It consisted of a house, a barn-and-warehouse, a latrine, a chicken-duck-goose house, a pigpen, a cattle shed, and one or two vegetable plots.”
My family lived on a terrace at the foot of a mountain. Beneath the terrace, was a creek, where the hunting-wolf story happened. And 1000 feet away, was a river. Every family in the village lived in a farm compound, which was surrounded by walls or fences. It consisted of a house, a barn-and-warehouse, a latrine, a chicken-duck-goose house, a pigpen, a cattle shed, and one or two vegetable plots.
Entering the house, you were in the kitchen. You would find a big vat, which was used to hold water; a shelf, which was used to hold cookware and tableware; and one or two cooking platforms, which were made of stones or bricks. There was a hole on one side, and one or two big pots were embedded on the platform. Firewood was put into the hole under the pot to make a fire, heating the pot for cooking.
On both sides of the kitchen, there were two bedrooms, which also served as living rooms. Entering the living room, you would see a Kang, a platform made of stones or bricks with a tunnel in it, which was connected to the cooking platform. While cooking, the smoke went through the tunnel to warm up the Kang, which became a radiator to warm up the room. You would also find some cabinets and boxes holding quilts, pillows and clothes. In the period of my childhood, if the family had a baby, you might find a cradle in the living room hanging under the ceiling.
Raising poultry and domestic animals and planting crops are the primary jobs in the rural life. We raised chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs, for eggs, meats and lard(fat oil). We also raised cattle for plowing the land. Some families also raised goats and horses. In spring, we fertilized and plowed the fields and sowed vegetables and grains. In summer, we fertilized again and got rid of weeds. In autumn, we harvested crops, stored potatoes and radishes, and pickled Chinese cabbages. In winter, we had little to do except raise poultry and livestock. We had corn as a staple, and a range of staple foods were made of corn. In summer and autumn, we had many kinds of vegetables, but in winter and spring, we almost only had potatoes, radishes and pickled cabbages.
Traditional festivals were happy times for children. In China, the three most important festivals are: Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Spring Festival i.e. Lunar New Year. We have special foods for each festival.
The Dragon Boat Festival occurs on lunar calendar May 5th. It commemorates the great ancient patriot and poet Qu Yuan. The special foods for this festival are Zhongzi and eggs. We also decorate doors and gates with colorful stripes and mugwort. Some places will play dragon boat games, but in my childhood we didn’t have the right conditions because the river was not deep enough to run a boat.
The Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on lunar calendar August 15th. It celebrates the harvest, and the special food is mooncake. In the lunar calendar, every 15th is the time that the moon becomes round, so the Mid-Autumn Festival is also a time that the whole family reunite. At night, people sit outside, chatting, eating mooncake and appreciating the round bright moon if the weather is clear, of course.
The Spring Festival is the most important festival for the Chinese. When I was a child, we started preparing for it a month before it. The first activity was to kill pigs. Seven days before the festival, we started to clean up, made a lot of foods and froze them. Three days before, we started decorating the house, pasting up couplets and hanging up lanterns. On the festival eve, the whole family dressed up and sat together for the first festival feast. In the next half month, we almost did nothing except entertain. We didn’t even make new food.
“We played shuttlecocks, but I was not good at it. What I was good at was catching fish and frogs. I had many ways to catch fish.”
Killing a pig is a technical job. On that day, neighbors and relatives came to help. It was bustling and lively. We prepared a lot of hot water and put it in a big pot or vat. Four or five people caught and tied the pig, holding it on a big wood table. A pot was put beneath the table under the pig’s head. The butcher bundled up the pig’s mouth, holding its head with one hand on his lap and with a long knife in the other hand, thrusted the knife into the pig’s neck down to its heart. Then he pulled out the knife, with the pig screaming, its blood streaming out into the pot. After the blood drained out and the pig stopped screaming, the pig was put into the big pot of hot water for a while. Then it was pulled out and people began to get rid of its hair. After that it was cut into big and small pieces, which were stewed for eating that day, or stored and pickled for the New Year and the next whole year. The fat was rendered into lard. The blood was seasoned and infused into intestines to make blood sausages, which is a famous food in northeast China, even nowadays. After a busy day, people sat down around the table to enjoy a sumptuous dinner.
We also killed chickens, ducks and geese for the festival. We ate chicken and duck’s blood, but we didn’t eat goose’s blood. It was easy to kill a goose. Just press its neck and head against a board, and use a knife or axe to chop off its head and wait for it to bleed out. One time, my mom and I cut off a goose’s head, and while waiting for it to bleed out, I released it. Suddenly, the headless goose flapped its wings and flew up into the sky. After flying for 300 feet, it fell down on the side of the creek. I ran to pick it up and brought it back and got rid of its feathers and gutted it and cooked it and ate it. Feathers of chickens, ducks and geese were used to make pillows, dusters and shuttlecocks.
We played shuttlecocks, but I was not good at it. What I was good at was catching fish and frogs. I had many ways to catch fish. One way was to block water from one branch to another branch and pick up all the fish on the dried riverbed. I could get a bucket of fish at one time. Another way was more like a game. I sliced a pie-shaped piece of a potato, drilled a hole in the center, embedded it into the mouth of a jar, put some sauce in the jar, and put the jar in the river where it was about 2 to 3 feet deep. After about half an hour, when I retrieved the jar, usually the jar was full of fish.
In autumn, I had a special way of catching fish and frogs. As autumn gradually becomes colder, frogs jump into creeks, with the fish, swim downstream to the river. I cut some wickers and made a basket. The basket had a thin neck but a big stomach and a wide mouth. Then I piled a V-shaped dam with stones in the river, made a mouth at the center and let the water flow only through the mouth. Every night, I put the basket against the dam mouth and when I pulled it back the second morning, I would get some fish and frogs. The species of frog I want to catch is called Northeast Forest Frog, which is a famous food in northeast China too. But usually I also caught some toads. And sometimes, the basket was just stolen and I got nothing. I would be infuriated and had to make another basket. I used to be so crazy that I would squat in a corn-rod-pile beside the creek to keep an eye on it.
In winter, the river was covered with thick ice, but the ice couldn’t stop me and my brothers, sometimes my father too, from catching fish. We chose some corners aside the river, hit the ice at the center of the river to force the fish to swim to the corners, broke the ice and caught the fish. Usually we were not disappointed.
“My rural childhood life was interesting and colorful. I had no worries. I miss the beauty of the changing seasons, and the delightful festivals we celebrated, and the many games I played.”
Another favorite thing to do was to climb mountains. In spring, we went into the mountains to pick and dig up wild vegetables. I also often climbed onto a locust tree to pick flowers to eat. They were sweet and delicious. In autumn, we went into the mountain to pick wild fruits and mushrooms, and cut some wood for winter. Sometimes we climbed onto the ridge just for fun. A terrible thing that might happen when you were in the mountains was encountering snakes. But for some experienced adults, it would be an opportunity because snakes were also sources of some medicines. One day, my uncle and I were walking in the mountains. My uncle had a stick in his hand. Suddenly, I heard a special sound. I knew it was neither wind, nor leaves. It was a special rustling sound from the shrubbery, familiar and horrible, and I was in fear. But only a second later – I didn’t even know what happened – only after a hwee sound, there was a snake hanging on my uncle’s stick, with its neck broken, dead. I was turned from terrified to surprised.
In my childhood, we also played many games with friends. The most welcoming games were hitting-marble, rolling-cycle, rope-skipping and Piaji. If you are interested, I’d like to tell you following what rules and how they are played.
In summer, we swam in the river. Floods would make some places of the river very deep and wide, sometimes 30 feet deep and more than 100 feet wide. Swimming there was sometimes dangerous, but there were always boys who were not afraid of the depth and width just dived into the depth and swam to the other side.
In winter we skated on the ice. We didn’t have ice skates. We made sleighs and ice-shoes, and we invented a special device called the single-leg-donkey. A blade was fixed under a wood board, which was attached to a backboard. You squatted with the front of your feet on the flat board and the back of your feet on the backboard, and used two sticks in your hands to slide the device forward.
My rural childhood life was interesting and colorful. I had no worries. I miss the beauty of the changing seasons, and the delightful festivals we celebrated, and the many games I played. I remember to this day how to kill pigs and geese and how to catch fish and frogs. Now and then so many plots with sweet taste just come into my dreams and make me happy.