Communist folk tales: 《水缸的秘密》- The secret of the water jug

Our last Communist-themed post for the week: a classic revolutionary-era story about the man himself, Chairman Mao. HSK 4-5.

It’s Communism Week at CRP. All this week, we’re learning Chinese through the lens of historical and modern CCP propaganda, speeches, stories, essays and songs.

Quick reminder: To maintain a polite, language learning-focused environment, political comments – positive, negative, or neutral – are not allowed, and will be deleted. Dinner table rules, please.

We’ve really made the rounds on Communist folk tales this week: we’ve had a story about Zhu De, founder of the Red Army, one about socialist boy scout Lei Feng, and now, we’re going to read one about the man himself, Chairman Mao (毛主席). I didn’t start out the week intending to illustrate a point, but a theme has definitely emerged. Taken as a whole, these stories underscore the friendly, paternalistic role that China’s founding fathers were painted into at the time, described in populist stories as approachable, proletarian helpers of the common folk. Today’s tale really drives that one home.

We also get a taste of the exaggeration that often surrounds autocratic leaders. The last bit of the story describes Mao as “tall and stalwart”. Mao Zedong was around 5’8″ (1.72-1.75m), not a short man, but not an exceptionally tall one either.

Some language stuff

The way characters are named in this story is quite Chinese: they’re mostly referred to by their title or place in society. First, the characters: we’ve got Auntie Yang (杨大娘). 大娘 means “wife of father’s elder brother”, but it can also just be used as a polite way to refer to an older woman, and it’s unclear which definition is being used here. We’ve also got Second Brother’s Wife (二婶), and same deal: 婶 means “wife of father’s younger brother”, but can also just be a polite form of address. The thing is, in Chinese societies, especially rural communities, the difference doesn’t really demand clarification.

We’ve also got 代耕队长 dài gēng duì zhǎng. When a farming family doesn’t have enough human labor to cultivate their fields, especially when a farmer has to go away to fight a war during harvest season, a 代耕 is a laborer that farms in their stead. 队, as you probably know means “team” and 长 means “captain” or “leader” or “chief”. So, 代耕队长 is the head of the team helping this family farm their land in the absence of the male head of household (in this case, the eldest son).

And of course, there’s Chairman Mao (毛泽东).

Some other points:

怎么回事? zěn me huí shì – Means “How can that be?” or “What’s going on here?”

下地 xià dì – To go down to the fields (usually to farm).

两竿 liáng gān – 竿 literally means “pole”, like a rod or staff. But it’s also used to describe how far the sun has risen or set. It’s not a standard measurement, it’s more of a generalized measure, so “两竿 from the mountains” means that the sun isn’t very far above the mountains (either rising or setting).

接着 jiē zhe – Means “after that…”, or “And then…”

丢了个眼色 diū le ge yǎn sè – To shoot someone a knowing look, or to give them a wink.

撞个满怀 zhuàng ge mǎn huái – 撞 means to “run into” or “bump up against”, 满 means “full” or “fully”, and 怀, in this case, means “(a person’s) chest”. Altogether, this means to “bump someone full in the chest”, or in better English, to “run smack into someone”.

非…不可 fēi … bù kě – This means “must”, “have no choice but to”, or “to insist on doing”, like “弟弟要妈妈抱不可“, or “little brother insists on having mother hold him”. This sentence structure underpins a popular Chinese meme about Facebook. The English word “Facebook” sounds a lot like the Chinese phrase 非死不可: “insist on dropping dead”. So, Facebook is sometimes jokingly referred to this way within China.






“没有啊,”代耕队长也感到奇怪, “真有这样的事?”









Show English translation »
Aunt Yang was from a Red Army family. After her elder son went to join the Red Army, there was one less laborer at home, so she had to look after everything herself.

One night in July 1933, Aunt Yang had finished irrigating the vegetable garden, and returned home to fetch water for cooking. She had just picked up the carrying pole, when she noticed that the water jug was [already] full. Auntie thought this was strange: two days ago the water jug was full, yesterday the water jug was full, and now today the water jug was full again. How could this be? She asked her son, “Did you fetch water this afternoon?”

Her 11-year-old son shook his head and said, “I didn’t fetch it.”

The more Auntie Yang thought about it the more strange it seemed, so she ran to the field and asked the head contract laborer: “The water jug in my rooms, they’re full every day. Did you send someone to fetch water for our family?”

“I didn’t,” the head contract laborer also thought this was strange, “Did that really happen?”

Just as he said this, Second Brother’s Wife walked over carrying a vegetable basket and said: “Yes, the water jug in my room also fills up as soon as it goes dry, I don’t know who’s doing these good deeds.”

The head contract laborer smiled and said, “Chairman Mao encourages us to investigate and research, you two should look into it!”

Auntie Yang and Second Brother’s Wife thought what he said made sense, so they discussed it for a bit, and then each went back to their home.

The second day, Auntie Yang wiped the table, washed the clothes, and before the afternoon had come, all the water in the full water jug had been used up. She purposefully didn’t go fetch any more, nor did she go to the fields to work, but took up a pair of shoe soles, and sitting by the door with Second Brothers Wife, began to stitch the soles. The two of them listened with all four ears for any sounds of movement, and with two pairs of eyes looked about in all directions, sewing while “investigating”.

When the sun [had sunk close] to the western mountains, Auntie Yang suddenly heard the back door of the house make a sound, and soon after she heard the iron hook of the water pot clang. Pleasantly excited, they shot each other a knowing look, and shouted in unison, “We’ve got him this time!” As they spoke they stood up and ran into the house.

As soon as Auntie Yang entered the house, she almost ran smack into the person who was fetching water. She lifted her head up to look, and saw this person was tall and stalwart, wearing the uniform of the Red Army, and was smiling at her and Second Brother’s Wife. Looking at that pair of big, bright eyes, she thought he seemed a little familiar, but she couldn’t remember where she’d seen him before. [But] Second Brother’s Wife recognized him: “Ah! If it isn’t Chairman Mao!”

Second Brother’s Wife pulled Chairman Mao into a seat, and Auntie Yang quickly brought some tea and said, “Chairman Mao, you haven’t been [in town] long, but everywhere you go, you are caring and considerate towards the common people, tell us how can we ever thank you!”

Chairman Mao drank his tea, and chatted with the two [ladies] from Red Army families about their daily lives, asking them: “Are there any difficulties in your lives? Is your [roof] leaking water? How’s your children’s primary schoolwork?” They talked until darkness swept over the sky, and then Chairman Mao once again made to go fetch water, insisting on filling the water jugs again. Auntie Yang couldn’t talk him out of it, and she had to agree.

4 replies on “Communist folk tales: 《水缸的秘密》- The secret of the water jug”

Another fascinating story. Out of curiosity, and only if it can be asked, what remnants of the Cultural Revolution are still present in current Chinese culture? After reading Lei Feng’s short story I went online to find more about him, and discovered that he is still a very prominent figure in China, there being a whole day of the year devoted to him. When it comes to Mao, for example, are stories such as this one still prominent in Chinese culture?

Thanks once again for another great entry. This truly is a look into an entirely different world.

Well, I can’t generalize for every Chinese person, but if you want to get a sense of how “close” the Cultural Revolution feels to many here, think of some famous event that was happening in your own country in the 1960s and 70s. For Americans, that would probably be the Vietnam War. Feels like recent, yet ancient, history.

The youth of today, those born in the 80s and after, have no personal connection to this stuff really. Their parents, however, were there, and remember. My Chinese friends have told me that their parents either never bring it up, or talk about it as a tragic, scary time. But there are also a few elderly folks I’ve met that remember that time with fond nostalgia, mostly because there was a sense of common purpose and struggle which is lacking in the consumerist culture of today, the same way soldiers sometimes remember war time with a certain nostalgia, because life was simplified down to a single mission, and when you’re cold and tired and hungry, when there is a clear enemy, your troubles are less existential, and there’s a certain measure of romance and comfort in that.

When I first got to China in 2002, the subject was still taboo, and there was a sense that people were still nervous about criticizing it too much. The Party line at the time was, “Mao was 70% good and 30% bad” – that was said again and again in newspapers and on TV, that 30% being the concession to the nasty things that happened during the Cultural Revolution. But as time has moved on, and China has opened up, there is now no sense of nervousness about talking about it. I’ve read many public speeches and essays from prominent politicians stating that the Cultural Revolution set China back more than any other period in history. At the same time, Mao is still China’s founding father – China’s George Washington. His head is on the bank notes. So he’s not universally hated by any means, as he did do some good things as well. But I would say that among educated urbanites, there is a common recognition that the Cultural Revolution was a bad idea.

In terms of how “Cultural Revolution-y” modern China feels on a day-to-day basis? Not at all, really. Cultural Revolution kitch is still sold at tourists sites and in antique shops, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s in the past.

Lei Feng is a kind of special case… he’s still well-known because he’s such a perfect person to point to as a people’s hero, and his name is still synonymous with selfless, good-hearted patriotism, so “be like Lei Feng” is kind of an easy thing to say to children. But this is kind of like the George Washington and the Cherry Tree story, you know?

I am only answering with the bit of knowledge that I have, and it might include some personal opinions. For the most part, stories like these are still prevalent and can be taught in school to kids, but I don’t think it holds the same type of reverence/weight as when he was alive.
A lot of these stories are there to bring about a sense of national pride and a love for the country (爱国), but I’ve also been out of the Chinese education system for a long time so I’m not up to date.
If this comment is too political, feel free to delete it.

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