The Four Dreams of San Mao
By Charles Lowe
Li nicknamed her cousin after the cartoon character, San Mao, who likewise had three reddish hairs that arose from an otherwise desolate scalp.
Otherwise, these two were polar opposites. The character from the 40's strip was an orphan who wandered the streets trying with little effect to help the poor of Shanghai. My wife's cousin was a successful entrepreneur who owned a condo in a high-rise on Friendship Road and who proudly would say that his ways were strictly modeled on the ways of Chairman Mao.
My wife, Li, and I were in Tianjin to visit this favorite cousin of hers and his wife, Ai Qing. They took us to a Shanghainese restaurant famous for the Western antiques plastered to its walls and for its crabs soaked in Shaoxing wine with pear-shaped slivers of meat the color of sun-scorched jade.
My wife and her cousin were kindred spirits and enjoyed their talk in Chinese, a language whose shell I had not learned to crack open.
I downed shot after shot of rice liquor, watching his three lone reddish hairs grow in their intensity. They added force to his complaints to the waiter that the lamb was undercooked and that the noose of scallions had not properly been arranged and that too much or too little salt had been used to flavor the shark soup.
His three reddish hairs stayed with me long after San Mao had finished occupying his seat across from me. These three lone hairs were lodged between the cracks that cage the carved animals populating the mirror frame above the dresser and were interwoven in my wife’s grayish hair.
Each night during our trip, as we drifted from banquet to banquet and from one relation to the next, Li grew used to my silences and became accustomed after to my requests for a new history. She undid the tightly woven band around these long strands, which, under his spell, fell to a birthmark that scarred her right shoulder before telling me, without my having to ask her, San Mao’s story: how her favorite cousin who shared an odd trait with a famous cartoon character from the 50s had married three woman, each bearing a striking likeness to a wife of Chairman Mao’s.
The first was forced on him by a tyrannical father. The second wife had been the daughter of a philosophy professor whose sole wish was to serve her husband green tea at night. The third was his able assistant and had provided him with a key business contact enabling San Mao to acquire a door factory.
His fourth dream was to be an actress who went, like the last Madame Mao, by the stage name of Blue Apple and whom yesterday he had promised to marry when conditions prove ripe.
San Mao's given name was Wang Shiwei. His parents had lived in the Machang District of Tianjin and had at one time been neighbors with my wife. During the Cultural Revolution, his family had been exiled to a village in Shanxi where San Mao spent his nights in a cave filled with hundreds of Buddhas that the villagers had chipped away at, imagining that an angel’s face could fuel a fire.
San Mao's first wife was the daughter of a prominent party official. She first saw San Mao carrying a bundle of wheat on his shoulders. He was fifteen, five years younger than she was, and had already lost much of his hair. But Miss Luo was fascinated by his eyes that were always placid and probed her and her friends as if they were paper dolls. He became aware of her when he was at a dance at the collective, the hay affording an outdoor floor, her thin gown barely visible in the whirl.
The collective was not efficient way to farm, but its easy-going practices did give its members plenty of time to spread gossip. San Mao’s father quickly found out about Miss Luo’s fascination with his son and saw the advantages to his family of the match.
Once married to Miss Luo, San Mao’s new in-laws would support a request by San Mao’s father to be permitted to move to Taiyuan, the provincial capitol, and might be counted on to assist San Mao’s father in returning to his position as an administrator with the technical college in Tianjin.
Miss Luo was not unattractive, her long strands of hair echoing the coal dust covering the sculpted faces in the cave where he and his family had spent their exile. But San Mao could not shake the idea that she was a part of his father’s plans to regain his position in Tianjin. When his father announced without warning his son's impending marriage, San Mao shouted before the entire collective that he would never marry Miss Luo.
His mother chased after him trying to persuade San Mao to come back home. His father also pursued him, cursing him but at the same time, commanding him to return. San Mao said he would come back but only to denounce his father for acting like Mao’s own in forcing his son to marry for an extra hand. His father was fully aware of San Mao's potential for mischief and gave up arguing the advantages for finding such a well-connected partner.
Eventually, San Mao did accede to his father's wishes though he claimed not to have consummated the marriage. Despite his in-laws’ promising connections, San Mao's family was not allowed, until after Mao’s death in ’76, to leave the cave housing the Buddhas whose faces had become the discarded shard littering the nightly fires.
Once arriving in Tianjin, San Mao immediately left his wife with his parents to study philosophy at Nankai University. Even though the university was in a nearby district, he did not stop by to visit Miss Luo and cut off his father completely only catching a glimpse of him ten years later at his mother’s funeral.
San Mao was called on to give his mother’s eulogy, strangely announcing to the family that his mother was driven by a hatred for those who were not faithful to their spouses. My wife thinks that San Mao may have referred to the rumor that Miss Luo had become his father’s lover. That would also explain why after San Mao left for the university, his mother had gone to live with her brother's family in Hebei province.
San Mao went on as if he had never been married and saw no need to divorce Miss Luo. While working as a librarian at the university, he met his second wife. Unlike Miss Luo, Yang Kaihui was not ghost-like and was not especially graceful. Her feet plopped up the stairs to the family apartment. Her father was a professor in Marxist philosophy and frequently invited San Mao over to dinner, lecturing him on the theory of material dialectics, which the professor argued was at the core of the master’s thinking.
Yang Kaihui occasionally interrupted these speeches, ladling out her father’s favorite dish of tofu balls wrapped in leafy dough. During one such break, San Mao took the opportunity to recite an aphorism from Mao on how the power of human love formed the basis for a good marriage. Without such a bond, a husband would search out another, finding himself amid the mulberry fields of the Pu River. Yang Kaihui was entranced by his placid expression when reciting the poem that chipped away at the slight lines creasing her forehead.
San Mao took a job, teaching philosophy at his father’s technical college. Soon after, he and Yang Kaihui married. Although he was a charismatic lecturer, he was not happy with his life as an instructor. He had grown used to spending his nights amongst the disfigured faces in a cave and could not accustom himself to disinterested gray of his students’ eyes and to the stacks of papers ensnared by the cobwebs around the worn lampshade in their apartment.
His attention wandered to the tea that Yang Kaihui had simmering for him on the coal-burning stove and to the drops of rains irregularly tapping on the tin roof of their apartment dwelling and to an upstairs neighbor who by habit quarreled with her daughter-in-law while sharing with her the chore of scrubbing the day's laundry against a squeaky baseboard.
Tianjin People's Daily announced on its front page that Comrade Xiaoping had opened up in Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone where foreign investors would be given special tax breaks and would be free from interference. San Mao recognized the opportunity for small potatoes like he had been and quit his position at his father’s technical college. He told Yang Kaihui that he would send for her and their three-year old at the first chance. But he only sent them back some cash accompanied by a brief note on his progress.
Yang Kaihui grew tired of waiting and left behind their three-year old daughter with a neighbor to move to Los Angeles where there, San Mao assumed, she would let green tea slowly simmer on a stove for her new American master. Yang Kaihui never sent for their daughter, and San Mao did not have the time to visit the little girl though he does forward to the neighbor more than enough to cover her expenses.
Ai Qing, his third wife, was a marketing representative for an exporter based in Hong Kong. San Mao was a factory manager and met her when giving her a tour of a button-press line, the noise deafening enough that the two of them had to block their ears.
Ai Qing strolled leisurely on the faint chalk lines that marked the production aisle, skipping over the shreds of cloth that had discarded over one 12-hour shift. San Mao immediately recognized that she could be a useful partner and proposed a date where they could take cheesecake and swing on a straw swing-set at the front window of a western-style teahouse in the center of Shenzhen that he once rushed by on the way to a meeting with a banker.
Ai Qing smirked in disgust at his offer, “How can I be expected to call a band of ringworms a bouquet of flowers?”
Li told me that she admired most San Mao’s spirit of persistence: how, like the Chairman, he treated life as an eight-course banquet, meeting piecemeal each obstacle until a pathway was plowed clear.
When Ai Qing nearly forgot the three reddish hairs that arose from his nearly desolate scalp, San Mao sent her a basket of plums with a note attached, echoing Mao's penchant for contradictions: "Life is death, dirty is clean: a ringworm is flowers."
Soon after, San Mao confided to Ai Qing an idea that had been germinating for a while. The new middle class in China was well known for its obsession with security. There could never be enough guards. Each luxury apartment house had to have bars on the first and sometimes up to the third floor. A market might be had for top-of-the-line security doors, and San Mao tossed in a powerful wrinkle: these doors would be designed to fit each owner’s peculiar tastes.
Ai Qing added excitedly that she knew of a Hong Konger with money to burn and suggested that they bring this businessman to the restaurant famous for its drunken crabs with meat as white as scorched jade.
"San Mao is far-sighted in his choice of women," I looked slyly at my wife who was by now sitting at the edge of our paper-thin bedspread
"Enough," Li smiled, "that we could eat piecemeal meat that was drenched in Shaoxing wine as white as sun-scorched jade."
"Who is to be become his fourth wife?" I asked, bending down to her as if I too were one of the workers who had grown deaf from their work on the button-press line. She whispered, "You will find out tomorrow. Let's go to bed."
Often Li's routine is to shower in the mornings. But that night, she prepared a bath, planning, I suppose, that we would make love. After placing a towel on the sheets, she permitted the cotton towel to drop to the loosely twined carpet.
I have grown familiar with the lines of her skin and could reach without thought for her hips that had filled out since she gave birth to Mei, our four-year old daughter. She guided my hands until putting the full force of her palm on my knuckles.
I am still a clumsy lover even after ten years of marriage, more like San Mao's second wife than his ghost-like first, and when she was ready, she slowly pressed her fingernails into the nub of my back. After, she took the cloth that had fallen to the floor as so many sparks from an open furnace and scrubbed the sheets that the maid would not discover the pear-shaped stain.
I looked out our window at Hui River nearly drained by the demands on its water from the laborers migrating in droves to Tianjin’s flowering economy and saw, though I know it is impossible, San Mao amongst the crowds of workers on the riverbanks, the reddish hairs on his nearly desolate scalp scarcely visible from a distance of four stories. Soon, the whole of Tianjin would resemble San Mao's scalp, a dust bowl sans almost entirely the original cover of this city nearly blind from its appetite for unending growth.
In the morning, San Mao picked us up in a sleek sedan, which he called his running horse, and reached over from the front seat, encircling his clammy palms round my own smallish hands. Li translated his apologies that his wife was not feeling well and would not be with us. I told Li to convey my wishes for the speedy recovery of her spirit.
My wife and San Mao ducked into a rapid-fire conversation. Our driver, looking about fourteen, floored the accelerator, our running horse weaving its way through the waves of bicyclists, skidding over the occasional curb and slightly almost tenderly brushing aside a pedestrian who would, then, get up and ignoring his momentary encounter, dust himself off for a new workday.
Li and San Mao also accepted as routine the intricacies of this dance and would not permit a cargo truck that was intent on squashing us like a pancake to interrupt their throaty exchange.
The radio blared full blast a song from the revolution, °The Hearts of the Yunnan People to Chairman Mao.” I lost myself in its overheated trill until a cop confidently strode to the center of the road, putting his hand firmly out in what seemed to be a Fascist salute, our wheels skidding to a halt centimeters from his neatly ironed sneaker laces.
He had a teenager’s clear, almost translucent skin and seemingly puffed his chest out in a way meant to cover for his immaturity. San Mao bolted out the passenger door, prepared to deposit the cop in the mulberry fields beside the Pu River where San Mao’s wives slept awaiting his promised return.
Li told me, laughing hysterically, her face buried in my shoulder blade that San Mao has just called the cop Comrade Shit-Stink. I stiffly moved away, having noticing at once the cop’s nervous twitch at his holster as if readying to ask for a date to the prom.
"Don't worry," Li tried to reassure me. “The cop’s been offered a 100 renminbi. It’s really just nothing, just a way for the cop to save face. San Mao is shouting to the driver that the fine’s going to be deducted from his salary."
“One hundred renminbi works out to 12 bucks U.S,” I said. “That’s nothing for San Mao but to his driver, it might be a few days’ wages.”
°Have to keep the proletariat in his place,” my wife smiled.
Our driver put his foot to the accelerator: undeterred by whatever lesson San Mao may have wanted to impart. We skidded onto a dirt road, the red dust from the radials nearly covering the windshield. Our driver was forced more than once to stop and wipe down the windshield.
An old man with a toothy grin waved us through a gate with San Mao’s name scratched on its rusted surface. His factory complex was small: a dormitory where lines of underwear hung, like flags on a flagpole, from rusting iron poles and a one-story production facility that was made of concrete and, though five-year old, was already showing signs of wear.
A portrait of San Mao was hung in the foyer of the office building, his three reddish hairs directing in his absence an army of clerks dedicated to hammering out a record of his bottom line.
Our guide met us at this entrance. She was tall and willowy, her hair firmly knotted up in one thick ball. She came from Shandong near Qingdao, a town on the northern coast well known for its smooth tasting beer. Before joining San Mao’s company, she had been an actress going by the stage name, Blue Apple, and had played Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House.
This actress who had once been a blue apple gave my wife and me a brief tour of the production facility. We walked past a tall barrel of oil leaking rainbow pools onto the mud-printed floor and saw an open container marked toxic in a highly visible English on top of a stove in the factory kitchen.
One worker ran quickly past, nearly jabbing me with his rubber mallet. Another child soldered a large door in the open courtyard of the factory, the sparks leaping into his eyes — cascading off his soft, nearly perfect skin.
Li looked at me, then, at San Mao and the actress. This was to be his fourth dream: his blue apple whose skin would become pared away until she, like the last Madame Mao, would be his perfect attack dog, bite whomever she was told to bite until she had to be locked away. San Mao waved me over to a door that had been specially fitted for the home of a high party official, a lover of Beijing Opera, who had requested to have a flowering plum tree inscribed on its bronze frame.
He jerked me to one side of this door, my wife yelling for me to knock, and I heard voice reply in a strange accent, "Who's there?" My wife called for me to say San to which he responded, "Are you San Mao too?"
My wife, San Mao, and his future bride all laughed hysterically though what they could have found so funny I did not recognize at the time. I walked over to a group of three workers, standing by a furnace in the center of the production floor, the oldest no more than fourteen.
The four of us watched the sparks fall out of the furnace, spotting the floor with vast grains of the sun. None of us had on goggles or an apron. We were at San Mao's mercy.