Mrs. Liu did not believe that dumplings should be prepared alone. During the days before the Chinese New Year, she organized an assembly line where her neighbors turned out trays of dumplings that spread through their apartment on No. 2 Goubuli Alley like mushrooms in a swamp. Mrs. Liu had said that managing the dumpling assembly line was her duty: if the neighborhood did not turn out a sufficient number of dumplings, the families would not be able to feed the relatives and visitors who streamed into her neighborhood during the fifteen-day festival.
A dumpling assembly line had to be managed efficiently, each resident given a duty matching his ability and disposition. Mr. Liu chopped the pork, scallion, and ginger roots in fine strips. He had thin fingers and rounded out knuckles that were perfectly shaped to carry a butcher’s knife. Mrs. Liu’s daughter kneaded and rolled the dough into a brief cylinder. Her palms were nearly opposite of her father’s. They were wide and soft, experts at pushing and prodding the dough into proper shape.
The herbal doctor had palms with thick, coarse skin ideal for mixing the pork, scallions, and ginger root in a large wooden bowl on the kitchen counter. Mrs. Liu had square palms with protruding knuckles, useful for boiling the water in the wok and nudging the dumplings so as to test whether one was ready to rupture.
The rest of the neighborhood lined up on either side of a fold-out kitchen table, taking the mix that the herbal doctor had prepared from the pork, scallions, and ginger root and placing a teaspoon in the center of a doughy circle that Li, Mr. and Mrs. Liu’s daughter, had kneaded with her wide and ivory-papered palms.
Even a not-so-expert spy could identify the author of each bun. The coal delivery man had large hulking palms, and his dumplings were filled with so much pork and ginger root that the reddish green filling bled out the dumpling lips. His son went to the other extreme. The fifteen-year old was precocious, learning early on that desire arose from absence, meaning that his dumplings had hardly anything to them.
The only dumplings difficult to tell apart were those by Mrs. Chi and Chen, her daughter. The explanation was simple and had nothing to do with the palms of their manufacturers. Mother and daughter sewed buttons for twelve hours per day, six days per week, with a half day off on Sundays on the second assembly line at the No. 2 Textile Mill. Consequently, they had both developed strong fingers and were able to repeat a stitching pattern for hours on end.
Chen might have accepted the judgment that her mother’s and her dumplings were interchangeable parts. She might not have minded such a comparison. Her mother, though, would have rejected outright such a verdict, and her mother would have been correct. Mrs. Chi was a connoisseur and would have focused on the slight differences between the dumplings, and would have noted the difference between her and her daughter’s palms. Chen had strong, firm palms, the lips of her dumplings thick and well grounded. Her mother’s palms were as thin-skinned as the lips of her dumplings were tightly wound. Everyone in the neighborhood was drawn to Mrs. Chi’s dumplings. The coal delivery man inhaled their supple edges. His son nibbled on their greenish red insides.
But Mrs. Chi had learned to conceal her pride. She was a worker on Line No. 2 at the No. 2 Textile Mill. Mrs. Chi could suggest the superiority of her output, noting the lack of fines from the quality control supervisor and the size of her bonuses from surpassing the complex array of production targets. But she had to be careful. Her supervisor might think that Mrs. Chi was uppity and assign Mrs. Chi a winter coat with buttons that took nearly twice as long to stitch and had a target that was nearly impossible to achieve.
Mrs. Chi did not always have to be modest. Once, she had been the Head of the Neighborhood Watch. Her job was to be on the lookout for Revisionists, who might seek to sabotage the Great Helmsman’s five-year plan. The Great Helmsman was the name that Chairman Mao had affectionately been given after the Party No. 2 announced at a Party conference that “Sailing the sea needs a helmsman; making a revolution needs Mao Zedong Thought.”
The duty of each resident was to follow the directions of the Great Helmsman. A resident who turns aside his direction was a Revisionist—a child of the revolution who wished to alter Marxism from the true way. A Revisionist might not know that she was a Revisionist. She might have been too far down the boat to hear the leader’s direction. But Mrs. Chi’s job was to find each Revisionist with a permit to reside on Goubuli Alley. How did Mrs. Chi know she was successful in locating all the Revisionists, with the permission to reside on Goubuli Alley? When she achieved her quota.
The Great Helmsman liked to speak in terms of farts. Revisionists had odiferous farts, and revolutionaries had farts that smelt like chrysanthemums, so Mrs. Chi would receive an order phrased like: “Five percent of the residents of the Machang District have farts that stink like a Revisionist’s.”
Mrs. Chi would round up the five percent of the neighborhood with farts smelling like a Revisionist’s and organize a struggle meeting to educate the Revisionist on the stink of her farts, and to encourage the Revisionist to make a sincere confession of her odor. To emphasize the educational purpose of a meeting, the Revisionist was not called a defendant or the accused. The Revisionist was a target of reform, and a bucket of black ink and a container of glass shard were used as educational tools.
Goubuli Alley was part of the Machang District, and the struggle meetings were held at the Junior High gymnasium. The gymnasium had a solid flooring and good acoustics, though its best attribute was that the gym was not in use, the school having been closed down a few years ago when the Great Helmsman had remarked at a Party Conference that “a Revolutionary’s education must be foreshortened.”
Mr. Chi was accused of sabotage. He had been head mechanic at the No. 2 Textile Mill where Mrs. Chi worked as a button sewer. The threading machine kept breaking down, the needle snapping like the arms of a very thin man.
Each resident was given a part to play in the struggle meeting. The herbal doctor had palms with thick, coarse skin and was an expert at cutting across the air of the gymnasium with the timbre of his voice. Mr. Liu had thin fingers and rounded out knuckles and held down the target’s arms, stretching them out until they fit the shape of a bird’s wings. Mrs. Liu poured black ink on the target, making sure not to pour on too much so that the target was still free to confess his crime.
Mrs. Chi slapped the target’s face, the thin skin on her palm perfect for the task, Mrs. Chi’s object not to hurt but to explain how the target had been working against the Great Helmsman’s plan, how the target was not alone, how the target had been born into a family of Revisionists and how the family of the target played a role in the Revisionist plot. The only way for the target’s family to escape was to attack first. Each resident of Mrs. Chi’s neighborhood knew this mantra: If your husband was taken to a struggle meeting, divorce him quickly. Volunteer to pin his arms down. Put your foot against his neck, and press hard. Not always foolproof but certainly the soundest course.
This had happened a few years before Mrs. Chi became the head of the Neighborhood Watch, and she followed precisely the well-worn direction. Mr. Chi was accused of sabotage. He had been head mechanic at the No. 2 Textile Mill where Mrs. Chi worked as a button sewer. The threading machine kept breaking down, the needle snapping like the arms of a very thin man. This was not an infrequent occurrence but had caused the factory not to make a production objective. Mr. Chi was told to take the fall and was sent off to a struggle meeting at the junior high gymnasium the next day.
Mr. Chi understood the routine. Mrs. Chi had to divorce him and participate in the struggle. Slap Mr. Chi. Pin Mr. Chi’s arms back. Dust Mr. Chi with some glass confetti. But Mrs. Chi resisted at first: she did not want to show disrespect to her husband. Though she was a true believer, Mrs. Chi had grown up before the Revolution. Her mother had hammered in the belief that a good wife should serve her husband.
Whenever she held a struggle meeting and watched the target plead for a chance to confess, Mrs. Chi recalled the night before her husband’s struggle meeting, how Mr. Chi squeezed Mrs. Chi’s palm, how an electric shock passed from his wrist to hers, how her spine tingled with that shock and how her fingertips and palm felt dead afterward. Afterward, Mr. and Mrs. Chi slept next to one another, fully clothed: their lips bound together tightly like two dumplings in a wicker basket container, the steam coating their insides just right so that tomorrow, they would not know each other. Mrs. Chi would divorce her husband in front of the neighborhood, shouting through a bullhorn that her husband’s farts were Revisionist stink bombs.
Chen had watched her parents the night before her father’s struggle meeting and believed that Mr. and Mrs. Chi were lying in a wicker basket filled with steam. The steam was coating the pork and scallions that made up the scant insides of her parents. She could not open the top of the wicker basket, so she did not know whether her parents were over or undercooked. Chen was eight at the time. She was helpless. One night, around eight or so, her father was standing on the porch, smoking a cigarette. Early the next morning, he went off with her mother to a struggle meeting, never to return. Chen did not ask why her mother had divorced her father or where her father had disappeared to. He had worked a shift and a half six days a week plus an extra shift on Sundays, so he was always disappearing.
When Mr. and Mrs. Chi went off to Mr. Chi’s struggle meeting, Chen stayed behind with her grandmother. Then, her grandmother died a few months later. Then, Mrs. Chi became the head of the Neighborhood Watch and got a dog, a Pomeranian, from the No. 2 Government Store, a store that could only be used by special officials. The Pomeranian was white and furry and gave out a yelp whenever Chen got anywhere close to her mother.
That left Chen to sleep alone in the living room, a graded wall separating her from her mother. Mrs. Chi was aware of the Pomeranian’s role as watchdog, and, might, in other circumstances, have taken steps to dislodge the furry alarm system. Mrs. Chi was not uncaring. But Mrs. Chi could not accept her part in her husband’s struggle meeting and blamed her daughter instead. Mrs. Chi had joined in her husband’s struggle meeting because Mr. Chi had asked her to and Mr. Chi had asked Mrs. Chi to play a part in order to protect their daughter. Mrs. Chi knew that she was unfair to blame her daughter, but every time she saw Chen’s thick-skinned palm reach for her, Mrs. Chi recalled the climax of her husband’s struggle meeting when she slapped her husband across the eyelids with enough force to cause his knees to buckle. Mrs. Chi could not stand having her daughter near her.
Of course, Chen had no way of knowing why she had been shut out of her mother’s company. Chen merely knew that she had to find a way in. She waited until 4:30 each morning when Chen heard her mother’s rocker bend a loose board on the Chi family porch. Then, Chen got up from her post on the living room couch and stopped her mother’s progress with the edge of Chen’s firm palm. Then, Chen removed her mother’s left palm from a cluster of fur and let that palm drop comfortably to the loose floor board that had been causing the railing on her mother’s rocker to creak.
Except for this early morning duty, Chen was not able to be an obedient daughter until Mrs. Chi became the target of a struggle meeting. This happened for reasons, which Mrs. Chi understandably viewed as completely outside her hands.
The Party No. 2 had betrayed the Great Helmsman. How the Party No. 2 had betrayed the Great Helmsman, or why did the Great Helmsman suddenly discover that the Party No. 2 was a Revisionist after nearly fifty years of collaboration, their fists clenched together on each poster decorating the walls of the neighborhood compound, Mrs. Chi did not know. She only knew what the Tianjin Daily told her: the Great Helmsman had ordered a surprise inspection of the Party No. 2’s villa in Beijing and discovered a wall hanging in his and his wife’s bedroom. The wall hanging repeated a saying from Confucius that the duty of a son was to obey his father.
Some big intellectuals were brought into what the paper called the “No. 2’s sinister den of iniquity” and announced that No. 2 was a closet Confucian who wanted to return China to the days of slave labor when residents like Mrs. Chi had no choice but to obey their masters.
The herbal doctor and Mr. Liu applied force to the delivery man’s armpits and neck until Mr. Zhou admitted that the Zhou’s were Closet Confucians and had been shorting .2 kilos of coal from the residents of Goubuli Alley for generations.
All this stuff sounded pretty obscure to Mrs. Chi and to the other residents of Goubuli Alley except when the Party started having struggle meetings against anyone with a family name that sounded remotely related to Confucius, Confucian thinking, or Classical Philosophy in general. The first to go was the coal delivery man and his daughter. His name was Zhou, sounding like the Duke of Zhou, a prominent early follower of Confucius. The choice of the coal delivery man was a popular one. The coal delivery man was known for shorting the residents on coal, not much—only .2 kilos, enough so that his family could hide away some savings but also enough to provide the residents with an excuse to blame him for the chill that the chipped plaster in their apartments kept only part way out.
The struggle meeting for the coal delivery man drew a packed house. The herbal doctor pressed the bullhorn against the coal delivery man’s right ear and accused the coal delivery man of being a descendent of the Duke of Zhou’s family. Mr. Liu applied unusual pressure to the coal delivery man’s wrists. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Liu placed the bottom of her wrist on an uppermost bone in the coal delivery man’s vertebrae before making sure to douse him fully with a bucket of black ink. Mr. and Mrs. Liu’s daughter pulled the coal delivery man up by his balding head. Mrs. Chi slapped him, causing his eyelids to shiver like her husband’s had done several years earlier. The coal delivery man tried to claim that the error was inadvertent. He had not intended to be a Revisionist. “The Great Helmsman did not accept the possibility of accidents,” Mrs. Chi said, a bullhorn lodged against his right ear.
The herbal doctor and Mr. Liu applied force to the delivery man’s armpits and neck until Mr. Zhou admitted that the Zhou’s were Closet Confucians and had been shorting .2 kilos of coal from the residents of Goubuli Alley for generations. Chen waited, expecting her mother to continue the struggle, bringing the wife and son of the coal delivery man onto the gymnasium floor. This was Mrs. Chi’s general approach. The strategy was not her invention. Every struggle leader took the same efficient approach. Start with the father, move onto the wife, then the children, a few such meetings, and quota was met in no time flat.
Instead, Mrs. Chi stopped the meeting almost in mid-breath, a move not popular with the herbal doctor who kicked a fold-out metal chair in frustration. A few weeks later, Chen found out the reason why her mother chanced provoking the herbal doctor. Mrs. Chi was afraid to add fuel to the fires of the Criticize No. 2 Criticize Confucius campaign. Mrs. Chi was worried that she and her daughter were next in line to be the targets of a struggle meeting. The name, Chi, sounded like the ch’i of Chinese Classical philosophy, which described a life energy that bound together all the workers on the dumpling assembly line.
And Mrs. Chi was right to be afraid. She was ordered to attend a struggle meeting the following day. That night, Mrs. Chi sat on her porch, complaining to her Pomeranian about the unfairness of life. She had divorced out of the Chi family. Her real family name was Zhu, which looked different in Chinese script but sounded exactly the same as the word for pig. “Pigs may be dirty, but they are useful,” Mrs. Chi declared.
Her mother had only married her off because the Zhu family lived in a poor area on the outskirts of Tianjin near the port. The Chis were from Machang, a prosperous district. True, Mr. Chi had matchstick arms that fit sleekly around Mrs. Chi’s wide hips, and she liked to place her wide knuckles gently against his eyelids before sealing his lips together with her slender fingers. But that was a perk. Their marriage was a marriage of convenience.
The Pomeranian listened intently, perhaps too intently. Mrs. Chi had the feeling that the dog was spying on her just as the two of them had done to the neighborhood for the past five years. Her daughter was the only one safe enough for Mrs. Chi to confide in. So Mrs. Chi forgot her belief that Chen had conspired to make her husband a target and left the porch, which had been her permanent post with the Pomeranian for Chen’s permanent post on the couch. Chen stared out at the chipped plaster on the ceiling, pretending not to notice her mom. But Chen found the act too much and reached for Mrs. Chi’s left palm, the one Mrs. Chi used so deftly to prod a target to confess as well as to seal together the lips of pork and scallion dumplings. Then, Chen explained how to be a victim:
Close your eyes. Imagine you live in a wicker basket full of steam. Imagine not that you are a dumpling from start to end or something silly like that. No, imagine that all your memories come only after you are ready to be steamed, that you have forgotten what it is like to be touched by a resident of Goubuli Alley. Then, press your lips together. That is important. Make your lips like the lips of any target.
Don’t worry. The resident who prepared you, the resident who took just the proper amount of filling and placed that filling inside the wrapper, and squeezed your lips together until you forgot how to say your family name, that resident will take credit for finally getting you to talk. Make sure to give that author full credit. The black ink in a book does not just fall from the skies. That is pure nonsense. Remember that.
Mrs. Chi looked up stunned. Suddenly, she realized that she hadn’t heard her daughter speak for years. Mrs. Chi studied her daughter whose thick leathery skin that was clumped together at the edges of her palms. Chen was not attractive. That remained true. But maybe she would marry if Mrs. Chi confessed properly and did not make her daughter the target of the next struggle meeting.
For moral support, Chen walked her mother to the junior high gymnasium. Chen opened the rusted metal gate by herself and walked up the unprepared lawn. But when they got to the door of the gymnasium, they were stopped for a ticket. Chen smiled sheepishly. Chen had been so busy preparing her mother that she had forgotten to trade in her family’s requisition stamps so that she and her mother could attend her mother’s struggle meeting.
At first, the guard, one of Chen’s ex-classmates, a boy about fifteen or so, would not let Mrs. Chi in, but Mrs. Chi found herself and was soon completely red faced, calling Chen’s ex-classmate a stinking Revisionist with Revisionist’s fart up his asshole, closing by jabbing her forefinger into Chen’s ex-classmate’s caved-in chest, shouting that the show could not go on without Mrs. Chi.
Mr. Liu came out and put his arms on Chen’s ex-classmate’s shoulder, whispering in her ex-classmate’s ear the true nature of the situation. Chen’s ex-classmate let Mrs. Chi in, but Chen had to remain out in the hallway. She paced nervously, remembering a similar situation when her seventh-grade teacher had sent her to the Principal’s office. Chen had already forgotten the reason why she was sent to the office, that time in her life being far away. Chen paced the hallway, wondering what punishment the Principal would devise. He was a very short man, but Chen figured that, in his office, he was much taller.
Chen’s worries were ungrounded, then, and her worries were ungrounded now. The movement to uncover Confucians was fizzling out. After several movements, each having a more obscure literary origin than the last, the struggle meeting had lost its entertainment value except when the target was an object of particular hatred.
The residents of Goubuli Alley believed the coal deliverer made them cold at night and hated him for making them cold. But they were willing to forgive Mrs. Chi whom they saw as just doing her job. Mrs. Chi was not even exiled. She just lost her position as the Chair of the Neighborhood Watch as well as the Pomeranian who found a new home with the Lead Cadre of the No. 2 Textile Mill. Mrs. Chi went back to being a button sewer on the No. 2 assembly line, the job she held before becoming the Chair of the Neighborhood Watch.
Of course, Mrs. Chi never forgot when she had led the Neighborhood Watch, and kept a silent movie of a struggle meeting going on in her head 24-7. Here’s how that movie played out. Mrs. Chi led the struggle meeting, only she wasn’t Mrs. Chi. She had given up the her ex-husband’s Confucian-sounding name and taken back her old family’s so that she could remain the Chair of the Neighborhood Watch, the leader of the struggle. The coal delivery man’s son was brought into the gymnasium by the Liu family. He was the next logical target of the neighborhood. Mrs. Chi removed the lonely strand from the coal delivery son’s right eye and smacked him across the eyelids, just as she had done to her ex-husband nearly seven years ago. The son confessed the truth: the struggle leader stitched on buttons perfectly. The struggle leader bound her dumplings tightly, their lips never coming apart.
Chen did not want to be her mother. Chen never aspired to be the lead dumpling maker on Goubuli Alley, her only ambition to be a part of the assembly line. Nevertheless, she became a supervisor, the other line workers appreciating Chen’s desire to fit in. Chen returned their appreciation, continuing to work on the line, and not so infrequently as Mrs. Chi grew older and more cantankerous, delivering over her work to her mother so that Mrs. Chi was able to make quota consistently until she retired some twenty years later.
By that time, Chen had married, had a teenage daughter of her own and had enough saved to buy an apartment, which skyrocketed in value during the recent housing boom—enabling Chen and her husband to trade up to a condominium near the new Olympic Stadium on the outskirts of Tianjin. Chen was very happy.
She would sit next to her husband and daughter on the living room couch in front of a huge plasma television, regularly streaming in violence-packed films from Hong Kong and Korea. But Chen still missed her old neighborhood and would speak longingly of the days leading up to the New Year when she and her mother worked side-by-side, producing dumplings looking nearly alike.
Charles Lowe’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Raven Chronicles, Pacific Review, Hanging Loose, and Evergreen Review. He is an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Alfred. At present, he is living in Shanghai with his wife and daughter.