"It seems to me your life has been rather smooth," she said. She did not want her name to be used, so I shall have to call her Miss Liu. There was nothing "counterrevolutionary," as the Chinese would say, about her remarks, but she was merely exercising the caution that many of her fellow- citizens do when speaking to foreigners.
Miss Liu was exchanging anecdotes about life experiences with a visiting Western journalist. Her experiences seemed painfully intense, but her story is hardly unique. It is similar to that of many who went through the searing experiences of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Miss Liu grew up in the rampart city of Chongqing (Chungking), China's capital during World War II. Chongqing sits stop a great promontory at the confluence of the Changjiang (Yangtze River) with the Jialingjiang. In winter it is a city of perpetual mist. In summer, it shares with Nanjing and Wuhan the unenviable title of being one of the three "furnace cities" of the Changjiang.
Miss Liu's life unfolded placidly enough until 1966, the year when Chairman Mao Tse-tung precipitated the Cultural Revolution by telling youth to rebel against their conservative or reactionary elders.
She was then 18, the daughter of an engineer who had worked 30 years for the same factory. Her home life was happy, and she did well in her studies. She graduated with excellent grades from her high school and could look forward to a stimulating and rewarding experience at a university.
But this was not to be. Like almost all her schoolmates, Miss Liu greeted the Cultural Revolution with eagerness and fervor. She believed that the old society and its remnants needed to be swept away. She believed that young people could construct with their own hands a golden new society under the leadership of the great helmsman, Chairman Mao.
She did not, however, agree with the denunciations of teachers with which the Cultural Revolution began in her former school. She knew many other of her teachers had been kind to her, and also that what they had taught her was correct. Confused, she decided to travel to other cities to "exchange revolutionary experiences." She went to Guiyang, Wuhan, Nanjing, Peking, Shenyang, and many other cities.
Meanwhile her father was denounced as belonging to the "stinking ninth degree" and as an intellectual of no use to the revolution; because of this she knew that she herself would never be allowed to become a university student.
She therefore volunteered to go to the countryside, as many of her schoolmates were doing. Peasants were idealized in the Cultural Revolution, and in all humility she decided that living among them would rid her of her city-slicker ways and teach her the deeper meaning of life. But after two years in a village not too far from Chongqing, she found that life was hardly ideal and peasants were often sly and mean.
"I was still so idealistic," she recalled, "that I thought it was because the village was too close to the city. So I asked to be transferred to a really remote place, three days from Chongqing by bus and boat and steamer."
Her two younger brothers, then 16 and 17, came with her. Conscious that they would continually be regarded with suspicion, both because of their "class origin" and because they came from the city, they worked with almost furious energy.
Life was very hard. The village was in the mountains, and everything had to be done by manpower, from the hoeing and weeding to the carrying of backstraining loads up and down steep paths. But the peasants, she recalls, "were wonderful".
They were unspoiled and kind, and eventually she was assigned to be a teacher in the local school, although she was only a high-school graduate. She met and married the local doctor, who had been transferred to the region at the height of the Cultural Revolution after having completed three out of four years of medical training.
In 1976 Chairman Mao died. The "gang of four," headed by his widow Jiang Qing, was arrested, and normalcy began to return to the Chinese countryside. Regular university entrance examinations were revived in 1978. Mis Liu, by then 28, revived her dream of attending university, but the county authorities would not let her leave her school. "We need you here," they said.
One week before the examination, they relented. She stayed up till 2 a.m. cramming each night, then went to the county seat to take the examination. "I had had so little time to study, I really had no expectations, "she recalled. "If I could just get into some teachers college, that would be enough for me. I answered the questions as best I could, and went home to Chongqing for the lunar New Year holidays."
There, suddenly, she received a telegram saying she had been accepted by the most prestigious university in the province, Sichuan University. She did not believe her good fortune even after taking the train to the university some weeks later and seeing teachers on the platform greeting incoming students.
"I stole around the group of welcomers and went to the station entrance, where a list of incoming students to be met was posted. Only when I saw my name on the list was I really certain that it was not all a cruel mistake."
Miss Liu's two brothers are also back in Chongqing, her father has retired with honor, and her family has emerged from the years of storm more or less intact.
"I used to think," she recalls, "that the meaning of life lay in contributing one's all to society. I used to think that no sacrifice was too great, that the individual had to submerge his own interest in that of society as a whole.
"I haven't totally lost that ideal," she says. "I still think life must be magnificent, and to be magnificent it must be meaningful. But one-sided contributions are not enough. Each of us has something to contribute to society , and in return society must also contribute something to each one of us.
"The life we lead has to be a life that satisfies us and that also contributes to society. There has to be a balance." Miss Liu is fortunate, and she knows it. Very few of her contemporaries sent to the countryside have managed to gain, however late, the university education the Cultural Revolution denied them.
At the same time much of her good fortune is due to her own grit, her unwillingness to give up, her lack of bitterness and resentment over all the experiences she was forced to undergo.
She may be wiser today than she was at 18. But she is, one imagines, as clear-eyed as she was then, willing to meet whatever challenges the future may bring. She still has one major family goal: to reunite herself with her husband and six-year-old daughter. The present national policy is to reunite divided families, but in practice this is often difficult, particularly in cases such as that of Miss Liu's husband. As a doctor, the remote county where he works finds him indispensable and will be extremely reluctant to let him go.
Meanwhile, she has her university degree to complete. And as her own job prospects depend on her academic results and as the kind of job she gets will in turn influence her husband's reassignment prospects, she has every incentive to study hard.
"I am happy," she said, "because there is meaning in what I am doing. I am working for my country, for my husband, for my daughter -- and for mysel f."