The Life and Times of Book Idiot Zhou

By John Pomfret
Sunday, July 16, 2006

On a beastly summer day in 1966, in the country-side of northern Jiangsu province, 100 farmers lined up at the threshing ground of Production Team 7 in the Shen Kitchen Commune. The threshing ground doubled as a village square, where chickens and pigs had free rein. Zhou Lianchun, a gangly 11-year-old boy with a shaved head and raggedy cloth shoes, was 12th in line.

Thwack. Thwack. The line moved forward. Thwack. Thwack. It inched forward again.

Zhou reached the front of the line. A middle-aged woman, blood seeping from her nose and ears, faced him on her knees. He pulled back his right hand and, as the others ahead of him had done, smacked the left side of her face -- Thwack -- then slapped her again with his left hand. Thwack. The sweat from her cheeks stung his skin.

Zhou and his neighbors were carrying out party policy. Earlier that spring, on May 16, 1966, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a demand for a purge of undesirable influences from abroad and from China's past: capitalism from the West, communist revisionism from the Soviet Union, and what Party Chairman Mao Zedong called "feudalism" from ancient China.

Mao launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution as a way to regain power in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, his economic program of the late 1950s/early '60s, which had brought China to the verge of collapse. In Zhou Lianchun's region, families were herded off their land onto communal farms, where everyone was forced to eat together in a large dining hall. Private farm plots, the most productive element of the region's agriculture, were outlawed. In a frenzied attempt to increase steel production, the party demanded that all commune members hand in their woks and wheelbarrows to be smelted in backyard furnaces.

One of Zhou's nephews died of starvation; another newborn nephew was abandoned in swaddling clothes at the doorstep of a party committee office and never seen again. Nationwide, during the Great Leap Forward more than 30 million perished of starvation. Zhou and his family survived on weeds, seeds and the runny gruel served at the communal canteen. Whenever they sat down to eat, Zhou recalls, he would cry at the sight of the paltry meal before him.

Born in 1955 in a village near the town of Dongtai not far from the coast of the Yellow Sea, Zhou (pronounced "Joe") is the son of a peasant and a woman the Chinese refer to as a "borrowed belly." Zhou's father had brought her into the house at the urging of his wife after his wife discovered she couldn't have children. Zhou called his birth mother Little Mama and his father's wife Big Mama. Big Mama had bound feet and doted on the boy, buying him books and other gifts.

I am the first foreigner Zhou Lianchun ever met. From 1980 to 1982, we were classmates at Nanjing University, where I was among the first American students to be allowed to study in China after the death of Chairman Mao and China's opening to the West. Years later, we renewed our friendship while I was a correspondent for The Washington Post in China from 1998 until 2004. This is his story as he has recounted it to me.

AS A BOY, ZHOU EXHIBITED AN ENTREPRENEURIAL STREAK, selling radishes and sand crabs, which the Chinese treasure as a delicacy, by age 8. The only fertilizer available in Zhou's region came from human excrement. Collecting it was a popular vocation for boys, akin to a paper route in the United States. In a written account of his life, Zhou recalls his eagle-eyed hunt for excrement: "There's a boy, carrying a spade and a

basket searching along the alleyways of a village. From his concentration, you'd think he had gotten out of bed at the crack of dawn to search for a lost wallet. In reality, he is looking for a pile of [excrement]. And when he finds the steaming mountain of crap, the

expression on his face is as if he has won the lottery."

Zhou was 11 when Mao organized the country's students into the Red Guard and set them loose. Zhou and his Red Guard unit went from village to village beating people who belonged to one of Communist China's five lowest castes: former landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists.

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