Read Ocean of Words Online

Authors: Ha Jin

Ocean of Words (3 page)

An Mali, 23, female

Family Background: Capitalist

Personal Class Status: Student

Political Aspect: Mass

An Long (An Mali’s father), male, died in 2

Class Status: Capitalist; owned two textile mills before Liberation

Political Aspect: Counterrevolutionary

The true nature of the affair was clear now. If he knew her family background, Kong must have lost his senses and ignored the class distinction. As a high school graduate, he must have read too many Russian novels, in particular Turgenev, whom I had once heard him praise beyond measure, as though the story-maker were as great as Lenin and Stalin. Kong acted like a petty intellectual, who believed in romances and universal love.

After exchanging views on the new discovery, Deng and I decided to talk to Kong again. The next afternoon, when the other soldiers were wearing straw hats and hoeing potatoes on the mountain, Kong sat in the headquarters answering our questions.

“Did you talk to An Mali?” I said.

“Not yet.”

“When do you plan to do it?” Deng put in.

“Probably this weekend.”

“Comrade Kong Kai,” I said, “do you know what her family background is?”

He nodded.

“Then why do you fool around with that capitalist’s daughter?” Deng asked.

“She’s not a capitalist, is she?”

“What? You don’t mind having a counterrevolutionary capitalist as your father-in-law?” Deng thumped the desk.

“Commander Deng, Mali’s father died years ago. She’s an orphan now and I’ll have no in-laws. Besides, she was born and raised under the Red Flag like me.”

“You, you — ”

“Kong Kai,” I broke in, since Deng was not his match in this sort of verbal skirmish, “your offense is twofold. First, you violated the rule that allows no soldier to have an affair; second, you crossed the class line. Chairman Mao has instructed us: There is no love without a reason, and there is no hatred without a reason; the proletariat has the proletarian love, whereas the bourgeoisie has the bourgeois love. As a Communist Party member, to which class do you belong?”

Kong hung his head in silence. Deng launched an attack again. “What can you say now?”

No answer.

“You’re ill, Little Kong,” Deng went on in a voice full of comradely affection. “Everybody gets ill sometimes, but you shouldn’t hide your illness for fear of being cured.”

“Today we called you in,” I added, “because we care about you and your future. We want to remind you of the dangerous nature of the affair.”

Seeing that he seemed too ashamed to talk, I thought it better to dismiss him, so I said, “We don’t need to talk more about this. You understand it well and must decide how to
quit it yourself, the sooner the better. If you don’t have anything to say, you’re free to go.”

Slowly he stood up and dragged himself out, with his cap in his hand.

“You should’ve ordered him to quit it,” Deng said to me. I was surprised and didn’t say anything. He went on, “He’s so stubborn. How can we let him lead the squad? It’s all right to fall into a pit, but he simply refuses to get out. How — ”

“Old Deng, let’s give him some time. He promised to quit it.”

As I expected, Kong entered the larch woods with the girl on Sunday. This was necessary, because he needed to meet her once more to break it off; I didn’t ask him to report progress. I wouldn’t give him the wrong impression that I enjoyed seeing young people suffer. As long as he quit in time, it would be fine with me.

I met Kong several times the next week. Judging from his calm appearance, it seemed he had disentangled himself. But the following Sunday, Scribe Yang, who had been assigned to keep an eye on him, reported that Kong had sneaked out. I told him to go look for Kong in the larch woods and bring him to my office immediately, together with the girl. An hour later, Yang returned empty-handed and said they were not in the woods. Then I sent him, with the orderly, to search the village. They spotted the lovers, who were lying in each other’s arms on the sandy bank of a stream, under a wooden bridge, but the couple slunk away at the sight of the searchers. Yang and Zhu returned with a used condom as evidence.

I was worried and dispatched the orderly to the Fifth Squad to wait for Kong and bring him over the moment he returned.

Kong arrived at my office two hours later. He said he had talked to her, but it didn’t help. “How come?” I asked.

“She cried her heart out. I can’t bear to hurt her. Besides …”

“Besides what?”

“I’ve promised to marry her.”

“What? That’s out of the question. You must stop it.”

“Instructor Pan, Mali isn’t a bad girl. She loves the Party and Chairman Mao. You can go ask the commune members.”

“I don’t want to judge whether she is good or bad. You’re a Party member and must not marry a capitalist’s daughter. Do you understand?”

“Please help me, my instructor!”

“I am helping you, to get out of this mess.” I lost my temper, though I was well known for being patient.

“No, I can’t hurt her. It’s too much for me.”

“All right, let me lay bare everything here. You must make your choice between that girl and your future. If you choose her, you’ll be expelled from the army.”

“Damn,” he cried. “I can’t decide.”

“Then let me help. Tell me, can you give up your party membership for her?”

He stared at me in silence and seemed overwhelmed by the dark picture. I continued, “What would your parents say if they were here? Would they allow you to take a capitalist’s daughter as your bride?”

“No, they wouldn’t.”

“Right, because it would bring shame to your family. Tell me again, don’t you want to be an exemplary soldier and send home a red certificate?”

He didn’t answer. I asked again. “Don’t you want to be an officer someday and command troops?”

I took his silence as acquiescence. “See, you’ve been lightheaded these days and never thought of the price you’ll have to pay. No man in his right mind should ruin his future this
way. I don’t mean you shouldn’t have love. We are all human beings and have emotions, but there are things more important, beyond love. A lot of revolutionary martyrs sacrificed their lives for the Party and the New China. Didn’t they have love? Of course they did. They loved our nation and the revolutionary cause more than themselves. Now you are merely asked to quit an abnormal affair, but you say you can’t. How can the Party trust you?”

He remained silent. I felt my talk had struck him hard and was boosting his determination, so I ordered, “Write her a letter and say it’s over.” To comfort him some, I added, “Little Kong, it’s not worth it to make such a sacrifice for a girl. A real man must never put a woman before his career. I tell you this not as a Party secretary but as an experienced elder brother. Believe me, someday you’ll marry a girl better than An Mali in every way. For the time being, it may hurt, but you’ll get over it soon.”

“All right,” he muttered, “I’ll write her a letter.”

“Good. After you finish it, bring it over. I’ll have it delivered to her. This may make you feel better.”

At dinner I told Commander Deng about the talk and assured him that this was final. He also thought it was wise to resort to writing and having the letter delivered for Kong, because that would prevent him from seeing the girl again. In the evening the letter arrived, and we were surprised by its ludicrous brevity. Deng complained, saying we had to make Kong write another one, but I felt this would do, short as it was. The letter read:

June 12


Please forget me. I love you, but we belong to different classes. There is no way for us to be together. I will not see you anymore. Take care.


With my fountain pen I deleted the words “I love you, but,” so that the writing became pithier. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help wondering why Kong hadn’t written a full page. He was one of our best writers. Very often he read out his long articles at lunch to the entire company, showing off his verbal command. A typical petty intellectual.

Immediately we dispatched Orderly Zhu to the Youth Home with the letter. An hour later he returned and reported that the girl had burst out wailing when she read it. Good, it struck home, we all agreed.

I was awakened by Commander Deng around three the next morning. He said Kong Kai was gone. I jumped out of bed, and together we went to the Fifth Squad. At first we were afraid he might have defected to Russia, but after seeing his uniforms and submachine gun, we felt that was unlikely. No one would defect empty-handed; besides, the Wusuli River was high now and Kong was a poor swimmer. Yet we sent out the Second Platoon to the river searching for him. Then Commander Deng, Scribe Yang, and I hurried along to Garlic Village, believing Kong was more likely to be at the Youth Home. But on the way we ran into a band of militia, who said they were looking for An Mali, who had disappeared after reading the letter. This information scared us, because we thought the lovers might have committed suicide. We returned immediately, woke up the other three platoons, and began combing the nearby fields, woods, ponds, and cliffs. The soldiers never stopped cursing Kong while searching.

Many villagers joined us in the search, which continued for a whole day, but there was no trace of the couple. The Regimental Headquarters was somehow convinced that they were alive and had eloped, so it sent out a message to all the police stations in the nearby counties and cities, demanding to have them detained. That had never occurred to
us. Who would imagine two bedbugs could jump to the clouds! Now the nature of the affair changed entirely, and they became criminals at large. If they were caught, Kong would be court-martialed and An Mali would become a current counterrevolutionary. “I’ll blow that bastard to pieces if I get hold of him,” Deng kept saying. For two days we were at a loss about how to deal with the situation; there had been no precedent in our battalion.

We believed they would be caught within a month or two, because there seemed to be no place for them to hide. Wherever they went, they would be illegal residents and easily identified by the police and the revolutionary masses. However, China was such a large country that you couldn’t deny there might be a village or a small town where they could settle down. Our regiment sent people to Shanghai and Kong’s hometown in Jiangsu Province, but the couple had never shown up at either place. Three months passed; still there was no news of their whereabouts. To punish me and Deng for our negligence, the Regimental Political Department gave us each a disciplinary warning. Deng was mad at me, because he believed I hadn’t taken strong measures in time to stop Kong and should have borne the responsibility alone. There was bad feeling between us for at least a year.

The next summer I received a letter two days before Army Day. It had no return address, though the postmark revealed it was from Gansu Province. It contained only a photo, black and white and three by four inches in size, in which Kong Kai and An Mali sat together with a fat baby on their knees. Kong looked silly, but obviously healthy and happy; his hair stuck out like a magpie’s nest. His bride smirked a little to someone beyond the camera. They looked like peasants now, and both had put on some weight. The background was blurred, perhaps deliberately, and there seemed a hillock behind them. In the upper left corner hung these words: “A
Joyful Family.” After spitting on their faces, I turned the picture over and found a big word in pencil: “Sorry.” I couldn’t stop cursing them to myself. My first impulse was to send the photo to the Regimental Political Department, but on second thought I changed my mind, not because I didn’t want to have them caught but because I couldn’t afford to stir up more bad feeling between Deng and me. In addition, our superiors might reconsider my involvement in the case, suspecting Kong had maintained a correspondence with me. No, to send the photo on would be to set fire to my own house. So I struck a match and burned it, together with the envelope.


It was December 28 by the lunar calendar. Squad Leader Han Feng and I brought back our lunch, sorghum and stewed tofu, and put it on the floor of the guest room in Uncle Piao’s house, where the five of us from the Sixth Squad were quartered. Before we could take out the bowls and spoons, the door of the family room opened, and Uncle Piao’s large white head appeared behind the frame. He waved his hand, summoning us. “Today’s my birthday. Come and eat with me.” He spoke Chinese with a thick Korean accent.

We looked at each other and didn’t know if we should obey him. “Thank you, Uncle Piao, but we have our own lunch here,” Squad Leader Han said.

“Come on, all of you.” The old man gesticulated forcefully, the corners of his pouchy eyes wrinkling up.

Getting up from the floor, we had no idea how to deal with the invitation. It was said that the Koreans were so sincere that they would be offended if you didn’t act like their close friends in their homes. Guanmen Village had about three dozen Korean families. They all kept their own customs and lived in convex-roofed houses, in which the floor and the bed were the same.

In the middle of the family room stood a short-legged dining
table. Beside it was a basin of rice sending up warm steam in the sunlight. A large bowl of hot soy-paste soup occupied the center of the table, on which there were several dishes and pieces of tableware — kimchee, jellied pork, miniature dumplings, a liquor pot with six small porcelain cups, and six pairs of chopsticks upon six deep plates. Mrs. Piao and their youngest daughter, Shunji, knelt near the two large caldrons set into the floor in a corner; they were ready to serve us. We didn’t know what to do. The old man had not told us a word about his birthday beforehand.

“Sit down,” Uncle Piao said. “All of you. Come close, close to the table.” He pulled my arm. “Sit here, Little Fan.”

We all sat down. I tried hard to sit cross-legged in the Korean manner, but my legs were as stiff as wood. Except Squad Leader Han, the rest of us — Hsiao Bing, Jia Min, Jin Hsin, and I — couldn’t bend our feet backward far enough to sit that way. The squad leader unbuttoned his collar.

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