My Hero

- December 8, 2011

"I am still amazed at how the world works and what triggers us to make those around us heros"

I was asked recently, in a group setting around a dinner table, to talk about a hero in my life.  I immediately thought of  Jimmy Carter and some other more exotic heros, like Jackie Chan.  I wracked my brain for women that I highly admired and was having a difficult time remembering them, like the lyrics to many songs I can play on my guitar….or even the titles to the songs.  It is not that I don’t love the songs, I just have trouble getting started on them. 

Anyway, I was surfing the Internet the other day and thought I would key in Tachai, which was the model agricultural commune in The People’s Republic of China in the early 70s, over 40 years ago.  I was privileged to have been part of a “youth group” that visited China during the Cultural Revolution, after the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” event and before Richard Nixon went over there. The trip originated through the Chinese offer to host Bill Hinton, a famous friend of China since before “Liberation.” 

The group  had the amazing fortune to be hosted by the Chinese government and to be allowed to live in this village and work on the terraced fields with them. We also worked in a textile mill in Shanghai and traveled all over the country!  I lived in a “cave”  in Tachai,  which was actually a slick affair that was dug into a loess bank, along with a long line of other such dwellings, and then a brick arch was put in place for the walls and ceiling.  A beautiful stone face was put on the front and latticework on the paper windows and a nice front door. 

The interior was hard trowel plastered and painted a bright white, and contained a washstand, beds and some dressers.  Chairman Mao had chosen Tachai as the model commune and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people arrived in buses and studied this fantastic place.  They had turned a poverty-stricken place riddled with gullies into a thriving place, “tamed” the gullies and were producing great yields per mu of corn, millet, fruit, vegetables and more. 

Labor hero, Chen Yung Guei was like a senator now in the national government and wore the traditional towel on his head even in the high company of his fellow leaders. He was truly a hero with many stories to back that up.  Women in the village were also recognized for their extraordinary strengths of mind and character.  An older woman who was very strong and capable had a few digits of her hands cut of as a reminder of the cruel past--either by the Japanese or the ruling class or her own parents to make her less attractive and thus prevent her being a victim of sexual abuse.  I do not remember her name, but I was very impressed.

The first site that I came upon as I searched the Internet had a fascinating story about what had happened to Tachai over the years, and it included a photograph of an older woman.  It told about how the winds of change and politics had affected this place and how, it seems, the village and the villagers' accomplishments had been discredited over time, how they slipped into hard times and were struggling.  It got so bad, mostly because the government had appointed persons who were not effective in supporting the economies of the place and let it slip.  Books, I knew, had been written about the tragedy of what happened to this place due to the politics.  I read one some years ago entitiled, From Seventh Heaven to Nine Hells, or something like that.  It documented the horrendous fall from grace of Chen Yung Guei.  Anyway, I knew a little about the story.  This website capsulized the saga and brought it up to date.

The reason I am writing this piece is because I was amazed to see that the woman who was depicted in the photo and story was none other than that of a person I had, for some reason, realized was something special--even 40 years ago.  At that time, she must have been in her early 20s.  I had taken a picture of her out of China Pictorial (the Chinese equivalent of Time magazine) and framed it and kept it on my office wall for all these years.  I had framed no other pictures from that time, despite the many chances to do so. 

She was not wildly beautiful, except in the sense that her features showed a strong jaw, intelligent eyes full of life and obvious physical strength.  I had seen her and perhaps traveled with her in a bus.  I had heard about her leading the young women’s labor groups and somebody must have told me what a powerful and capable person she was as I was, obviously, deeply impressed.  I guess it is really special to be told about all of these strong farmers and to have her qualities singled out so clearly at the time and somehow it struck me and she became perhaps the only “hero” that I had ever taken the time to frame.  The story about her involvement in the modern history of Tachai is remarkable.

Things got so bad in Tachai that the government decided to put Guo Fenglian back into a position of authority after having shunned her for many years.  Incredibly, she figured out how to re-work the economy of that area and found very successful ways to turn the place around.  She had the ability to see what could be done (using their geology to make Portland cement and other things like that) and years later; she was still a hero, unbeknownst to me until recently.

So, obviously, I am still amazed at how the world works and what triggers us to make those around us heros.  I wonder how deeply their influence goes and, of course, how far!