Ninth Building, originally written in Chinese, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the book here
Revisiting his experiences as a boy in Beijing and then as a teenager exiled to the countryside, Zou Jingzhi captures a side of the Cultural Revolution that is seldom talked about - the sheer tedium and waste of young life under the regime, as well as the gallows humour that accompanies such desperate situations.
November 16, 1966
Freezing today—it feels extra cold, because the weather’s just turned. At least it’s warm at home, with the heating finally on. In the morning, we sat by the courtyard wall, the south-facing corner with the piles of loose soil and torn paper, the only patch untouched by the wind.
By “we” I mean myself, Zheng Chao, Zheng Xin and Yuanqiang.
Yuanqiang said the others had formed a unit and got Red Guard armbands printed with the official insignia. Now they were occupying an entire block at the school. At night they shoved the desks together and slept on them. They’d written slogans across the white classroom walls and even the toilets. While correcting Teacher Hou’s thinking, they struck up a chant that Tian Shuhua devised: “Ho ho, Monkey Hou, holds a ball in her hole. Smile, monkey, drop the ball.”
Teacher Hou teaches Chinese. I saw her recently, standing by the second-story staircase. No one was paying any attention to her. As I walked past, she was singing a song about a sad maiden, something to do with resisting the Japanese.
I had a strange feeling that when she was done singing, she’d plummet to the ground. I waited, but she didn’t jump. Her son sat at the other end of the corridor, pretending to play but really watching her. She once praised me for having talent. (I should delete that last sentence—too bourgeois!)
After talking about it all morning, we decided to form a unit of our own. Yuanqiang said there was a place to print armbands near Caishikou, past a place called Dazhi Bridge. There were many gangsters in that neighborhood; last time the guys were there, they got mugged and lost three yuan. Zheng Xin said he’d bring a carving tool with him. It wasn’t a knife, but it was still sharp enough to slice open a face. I felt heartened by his words.
We prepared to set off the next day, as soon as the grown-ups left for work. We pooled our money and came up with five yuan, one of them mine.
I put my hand in my trouser pocket, which held a weight from a set of scales—hopefully this would be hefty enough to dent a gangster’s head. It sat cold and heavy in my pocket.
Today, we took the number one bus to Xidan. I was the only one who had a ticket, the other three slipped on without one. I did too, but spent the whole journey fretting and in the end bought one just before getting off. What an idiot!
From Xidan we headed south, growing anxious as we neared Dazhi Bridge. I put my hand in my trouser pocket, which held a weight from a set of scales—hopefully this would be hefty enough to dent a gangster’s head. It sat cold and heavy in my pocket. I couldn’t warm it. Zheng Xin whistled as he strolled, a hand inside his jacket. The carving tool he held was our heartbeat.
The event we feared never happened. The wind was so strong we had to jog along.
Past Dazhi Bridge, we walked into a rope shop to ask directions to the fabric-printing place. The old man told us where, some hutong or other.
This was the first time I smelled dye. We detected it some distance away. Later, I learned this was the odor of yellow. Each color had its own scent. Yellow’s reminded me of illness.
A young lady served us. She reminded me of Liu Naiping’s older sister from Door Three, who’d worn a red swimsuit the one time I went swimming with her. I believed then that only female college students should be called young ladies, and even then, only ones like Zoya. Liu Hulan didn’t resemble one, nor did Zhu Yingtai, nor did my own sister.
She wore a face mask, only revealing her eyes, but I could tell when she was smiling. All four of us were a little tense, a little awkward.
We ordered twenty-one armbands, four inches wide with gold lettering, twenty cents each. That was as many as we could afford—I think she realized that.
As she wrote out our receipt, the kettle on the stove behind her began bubbling, zrr, zrr. The room was draped with pennants displaying various words and pictures, the bright red fabric bearing down on us from all four walls.
I thought of the illustration of d’Artagnan kneeling to kiss the queen in The Three Musketeers. The queen’s feet were invisible beneath her long dress, her hand on her puffed-out skirt, d’Artagnan’s lips just touching her fingertips. I always felt this was something I’d do when I was grown up. (Strike this paragraph—too bourgeois.)
She smiled and asked if we’d like to have a look at the workshop. We said yes.
The room she led us into had liquid sloshing across the floor. The workers glanced at us. I didn’t understand what was going on. The printed cloths were still sodden red, and on each of them were the words “Red Guards,” over and over, covered with a layer of rice chaff. She explained that this protected the color. The chaff was removed when the cloth had dried, leaving an even brighter yellow.
It was noon and we had nothing to eat, so she shared her packed lunch with us. She’d brought it from home and left it on the stove to keep warm. It contained just rice, cabbage and tofu. Not much of a meal.
By the time we left, she still hadn’t taken off her face mask. She was very neat. We hadn’t had a chance to see what she looked like.
Nothing went wrong on the bus home. We slipped aboard through the doors on either side, saving the fare—we’d spend that on our return trip to pick up the armbands.
Before we said goodbye, Yuanqiang asked me if I could guess the young lady’s family background. I had no idea. He said, Probably capitalist. I asked why. He said, Didn’t you see how beautiful she was, also she was wearing a face mask—afraid of the stench of the dye. That made sense.
More and more people are wearing Red Guard armbands in the street, and ours aren’t ready yet. During the day we’re at Zheng Chao’s place. We don’t want to go out—too conspicuous without armbands. Something might have happened to Zheng Chao and Zheng Xin’s father. I saw him in the boiler room carrying heavy radiators, but the two of them didn’t say a word about him.
Zheng Chao and Zheng Xin’s dad is in real trouble.
We stayed home this morning, desperate for our armbands to be ready so we could rise up and maybe even denounce our parents. My older brother stuck a big poster on the wall: “Revolution is not wrong, rising up is correct.” The atmosphere at home is a bit tense.
Two more days…
On the bus this morning, we all got caught by the ticket inspector. She wanted to take us to Central Station. We were all shaking, then so many people got on at Wangfujing that we managed to slip away. Too scared to try another bus, we walked all the way to Caishikou.
We picked up our twenty-one armbands.
The young lady looked different from six days ago. She had a scarf over her head as she mopped the workshop floor. (Later we realized someone must have shaved her head.) A piece of white cloth sewn across her chest proclaimed “Bourgeois traitor Liu Liyuan.” She still wore her face mask, and all the time she served us, kept her head lowered. In six days she’d been transformed into an ancient crone.
Like before, the stove held a kettle, along with her lunchbox.
A man walked in to make tea. He ordered her to remove her mask. She was motionless for a moment before plucking it off.
She looked as I’d imagined, very pale, like a picture never seen before.
As we walked away, she was already picking up her broom again. She said “goodbye” softly when we left. The mask dangled in front of her chest, not hiding the white cloth. I read the words again swiftly—Yuanqiang had been right, she was a capitalist.
A person inscribed with words became those words, and nothing more than those words. As we walked down the street, I noticed more and more people had been labeled. Even some of the Red Guards were burdened with this white cloth and black lettering. Everyone was just a row of characters.
We put on our armbands as soon as we emerged from the hutong. Our arms grew glorious, weighty. Only swinging them vigorously made them feel natural.
Swaggering, we strutted into a small eating house and ordered four portions of roast meat. We splayed the food open, pouring soy sauce and vinegar in great streams that splashed across the table. The waiter saw the mess we were creating but didn’t dare say a word. Our arms moved stiffly, as if we’d just been vaccinated.