December 7, 2012
Distinguished members of the Swedish Academy,
ladies and gentlemen:
Through the mediums of television and the Internet, I imagine that everyone here has at least a nodding acquaintance with far-off Northeast Gaomi Township. You may have seen my 90-year-old father, as well as my brothers, my sister, my wife and my daughter, even my granddaughter, now a year and four months old. But the person who is most on my mind at this moment, is my mother, someone you will never see. Many people have shared in the honor of winning this prize, everyone but her.
My mother was born in 1922 and died in 1994. We buried her in a peach orchard east of the village. Last year we were forced to move her grave farther away from the village in order to make room for a proposed rail line. When we dug up the grave, we saw that the coffin had rotted away and that her body had merged with the damp earth around it. So we dug up some of that soil, a symbolic act, and took it to the new gravesite. That was when I grasped the knowledge that my mother had become part of the earth, and that when I spoke to the earth, I was really speaking to my mother.
I was my mother's youngest child.
My earliest memory was of taking our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water. Weakened by hunger, I dropped the bottle and broke it. Scared witless, I hid all that day in a haystack. Toward evening, I heard my mother calling my childhood name, so I crawled out of my hiding place, prepared to receive a beating or a scolding. But mother didn't hit me, didn't even scold me. She just rubbed my head and heaved a sigh.
My most painful memory involved going out in the collective's field with my mother to glean ears of wheat. The gleaners scattered when they spotted the watchman. But mother, who had bound feet, could not run; she was caught and slapped so hard by the watchman, a hulk of a man, that she fell to the ground. The watchman confiscated the wheat we'd gleaned and walked off whistling. As she sat on the ground, her lip bleeding my mother wore a look of hopelessness I'll never forget. Years later, when I encountered the watchman, now a gray-haired old man, in the marketplace, my mother had to stop me from going up to avenge her.
"Son," she said evenly, "the man who hit me and this man are not the same person."
My clearest memory is of a Moon Festival day, at noontime, one of those rare occasions when we ate jiaozi at home, one bowl apiece. An aging beggar came to our door while we were at the table, and when I tried to send him away with half a bowlful of dried sweet potatoes, he reacted angrily: "I'm an old man," he said. "You people are eating jiaozi, but want to feed me with sweet potatoes. How heartless can you be?" I reacted just as angrily: "We're lucky if we eat jiaozi a couple of times a year, one small bowlful apiece, barely enough to get a taste! You should be thankful we're giving you sweet potatoes, and if you don't want them, you can get the hell out of here!" After (dressing me down) reprimanding me, my mother dumped her half bowlful of jiaozi into the old man's bowl.
My most remorseful memory involves helping my mother sell cabbages at market, and I overcharging an old villager one jiao—intentionally or not, I can't recall—before heading off to school. When I came home that afternoon, I saw that mother was tearing, something she rarely did. Instead of scolding me, she merely said softly, "Son, you embarrassed your mother today."
Mother contracted a serious lung disease when I was still in my teens. Hunger, disease, and too much work made things extremely hard on our family. The road ahead looked especially bleak, and I had a bad feeling about the future, worried that my mother might take her own life. Every day, the first thing I did when I walked in the door after a day of hard labor was call out for mother. Hearing her voice was like giving my heart a new lease on life. But not hearing her threw me into a panic. I'd go looking for her in the side building and in the mill. One day, after searching everywhere and not finding her, I sat down in the yard and cried like a baby. That is how she found me when she walked into the yard carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. She was very unhappy with me, but I could not tell her what I was afraid of. She knew anyway. "Son," she said, "don't worry, there may be no joy in my life, but I won't leave you till the God of the Underworld calls me."
I was born ugly. Villagers often laughed in my face, and school bullies sometimes beat me up because of it. I'd run home crying, where my mother would say, "You're not ugly, Son. You've got a nose and two eyes, and there's nothing wrong with your arms and legs, so how could you be ugly? If you have a good heart and always do the right thing, what is considered ugly becomes beautiful." Later on, when I moved to the city, there were educated people who laughed at me behind my back, some even to my face; but when I recalled what my mother had said, I just calmly offered my apologies.
My illiterate mother held people who could read in high regard. We were so poor we often did not know where our next meal was coming from, yet she never denied my request to buy a book or something to write with. By nature hard working, she had no use for lazy children, yet I could skip my chores as long as I had my nose in a book.
A storyteller once came to the marketplace, and I sneaked off to listen to him. She was unhappy with me for forgetting my chores. But that night, while she was stitching padded clothes for us under the weak light of a kerosene lamp, I couldn't keep from retelling stories I'd heard that day. She listened impatiently at first, since in her eyes professional storytellers were smooth-talking men in a dubious profession, and nothing good ever came out of their mouths. But slowly she was dragged into my retold stories, and from that day on, she never gave me chores on market day, unspoken permission to go to the marketplace and listen to new stories. As repayment for my mother's kindness and a way to demonstrate my memory, I'd retell the stories for her in vivid detail.