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11

The Shoe-Mender Mother: 28 Years Spent out in All Weathers

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The shoe-mender woman, Zhengzhou, was at first shy of our camera . . .

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. . . but later invited us home for lunch.

MRS Xie, a shoe-mender, interviewed in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province in central China, near the Yellow River. She has worked on the same street for twenty-eight years in all weathers, repairing the shoes of passers-by. At the end of the day she returnswith her husband, a bicycle repairman, to the same place they have lived since she came to the city from the Hubei countryside almost thirty years ago: underneath some factory stairs. Yet, with their hard-earned savings they have sent both their children to two of China's best universities. Their son is starting his PhD and their daughter is studying for an MA.

The way I saw it in 2006, there are five kinds of roads in China.

The first kind is what are called the national roads – fast highways planned and built at the national level and maintained by local government. I could clearly "feel" the difference between those built after 2000 and those built before; on the newer ones, you didn't get the stomach-churning effects of their appallingly fissured and bumpy surfaces. Nor did you need to hire a local guide to alert you to traffic hazards along the road, although not even the newest map could steer you accurately through the ever-changing road system. The toilets on the national highways are "national-grade toilets" and are, most of them, much better than the houses the local peasants live in. No wonder a lot of drivers say that these highways are not only good for driving on – you get "national-grade" treatment while you're at it.

The second kind are city trunk roads built by the municipal government and generally very wide: six to ten lanes in big cities, two to four in smaller ones. The roadsides reflect a government image and vary little in their "local touches". They are uniformly lined with tower blocks and smaller buildings, flowers or sculptures. The wealthier municipalities have real flowers, the ones that have no money use plastic ones. In most cases, there are pavement studs for blind pedestrians. The traffic lights show a standing person on red, and a scuttling one on green. The most enjoyable thing about them for ordinary Chinese who can't afford cars is the wide green verges, squares and benches on which you can sit and chat and get a breath of fresh air. They are unlike the city roads of ten years ago. Then, scooters, mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians were all jumbled together. The narrow pavements were too packed to move during peak times, and all you could hear were car horns tooting in competition with each other, the endless cursing of drivers as they jockeyed for position, and the shouted admonishments of the traffic cops.

The third kind are streets in working-class districts. There are more bicycles than people and cars, the streets are narrow, and there is only a single lane for scooters, into which vehicles going in both directions are squeezed by traffic jams on the main carriageway. The sides of the roads are crammed with daily necessities and everyday life, businesses and things. There you can see people who yesterday ran stalls, and today have opened shops. The space where goods are piled high during the day is converted at night into the place where the family eats and sleeps. These city streets are more or less equivalent to the high streets of a small country town, although with fewer agricultural items and cheap plastic goods.

The fourth kind are the back streets and alleys which link the homes of the teeming populace. These are chiefly inhabited by small traders and craftspeople who have come in from the villages to "make their fortune" in the big city, and make a start by setting up stalls and kiosks. There are a few cars who don't believe that the streets are impassable to traffic until, half an hour later, they have proudly made it fifty metres through the people and goods only to discover that their triumphant vehicles are a mass of scrapes and scratches and bespattered in grime. These back streets are one big "breakfast bar" in the morning, a street market by day and a kind of leisure market in the evening, providing profits all day. The beneficiaries of all this activity are the residents' committees. In order to ensure that "no manure should escape onto someone else's land", the levels of administration are the most regulated in China; there are toilet attendants, security guards, overseers of regulations, administrators of local commerce, guardians of public order and of household registration. Then there are the "bound-feet vigilante aunties" with their "keep order" armbands, who focus on things that "don't look nice". These range from serious matters, such as accusations that city folk are treating peasant labourers unfairly, and the rights and wrongs of a fight between husband and wife, to the more trivial – a man with inappropriately long hair, or a woman with an indecently short skirt. City folk say that the red-armbanded aunties look after stuff that the government and people's families ignore. No matter what rank the administrators are, so long as they have a sleeve badge, wear a uniform and can show their certificate, they are all "supported" by the local stallholders who keep the local government or street committee going. Those who scrape along at the bottom of society are fleeced on a daily basis by one or other of these numerous administrative charges. But they still feel that they are living better than in the countryside. I sometimes think that their past lives must have been unimaginably hard.

The fifth kind are the dirt roads of the countryside, and the "construction roads" of the cities. Twenty years of frenzied urban construction in China have given rise to many original ideas in the heads of those whose inspiration has been stifled for a century: why not install a "zipper" in the ground so that you don't have to dig down to make repairs? Why not set up a crane so that new-builds which have been "programmed out" can be lifted out of the ground and shifted to the countryside for the peasants to live in? Why not get an advance picture of what's in the minds of people who are going to be important officials in ten years, so that today's policymakers don't have to start all over again? So many ideas! And most of those who thought them up have trodden these "construction roads", quite a few of which are made from metal grids. These are fine in dry weather – apart from being wobbly – but when it drizzles, they turn very greasy underfoot, just the thing to send you flying head over heels! The worst sort are made of a dozen or so planks of scrap wood, and before you walk on them you have to check there's no one at the other end. There is? In that case, make sure you know who's the heaviest, or you may be "seesawed" into the mud on either side. And then there are roads made of bricks and stones, forcing you to "skip". Some of them simply take you over building rubble.

While our group was on the road doing interviews, we became thoroughly familiar with the five kinds of roads of modern China. Not only that, but these roads somehow came to embody in a very real way the China Witness experience. Once off the plane, we would be on a state highway, the sort used by upper-class Chinese in their daily lives. When we interviewed famous people, we would take the city trunk roads to go and call on them – famous Chinese people invariably move into the cities, and always have done. Town streets were what we used most – breakfast, night markets, nosing around and making purchases, all were successfully accomplished there – and we had experience of construction roads in Gansu and Anhui. Finally, the back alleys "developed" by migrant workers gave us a story to add to our interview plan.

On 10 September, we took a taxi to a chaotic and jam-packed back street in the Zhongyang area of Zhengzhou city, to interview an intriguing woman who had turned her back on her village to come to this back street and make her living as a shoe-mender. By dint of twenty-eight years spent repairing shoes in all kinds of weather, Mrs Xie had managed to put her son and her daughter through the best universities in China.

As we drove, the female taxi driver said to us: "I can hear you speaking a foreign language. Which kind of English are you speaking? Which English-speaking country are you from? What have you come to do in this dirty old street?"

We wanted to make sure she was not one of those Chinese taxi drivers whose "alertness and vigilance" might lead to trouble from the local police, so we earnestly told her about educational charity work we were involved with. She was so moved by our description that she refused to charge us. We wrangled for some time before we could get her to accept the fare.

We went into the side street, past a store selling cigarettes and other sundries, a stall selling home-cooked flatbreads from a cooker, two carts with general household items, a fruit stall, and a cart selling cold dishes from a glass box mounted on it, before arriving at the shoe-mender's stall. This consisted of a crudely made cart topped with an old oil-paper umbrella. On the cart lay a collection of insoles, and an assortment of creams and folk remedies for foot problems, together with bits and pieces for repairing shoes, such as soles, heels, heel tips and so on. Her stock, while not large, was neatly arranged. A few customers waited by her stall, apparently queuing to have their shoes repaired. A man in his early forties sat opposite, and there was a middle-aged woman, and a girl in her teens.

Mrs Xie did not look much more than fifty. Her dry, wispy hair was tied into a ponytail and she wore a Western-style, mixed-fibre purple top over a pair of very cheap denims. On her feet were a pair of ill-fitting leather shoes – which I guessed were someone's cast-offs – and her arms were covered by a pair of flower-patterned oversleeves. Nothing she wore appeared to match, city-style, but she was clean and neat.

The friend who had set up the meeting for me went over to greet her: "Big sister," – country folk respectfully call women in the towns, big sister, and men, big brother, sometimes even when they are younger than them – "I often come and get you to mend my shoes. But you have so many customers, do you remember me?"

*

MRS XIE: Of course I remember you. You never try and bargain my prices down. Your husband is in the army. You're a good person.

FRIEND: This is my friend Xinran, whom I've known for nearly thirty years.

XINRAN: Hello. I'm delighted to meet you.

MRS XIE: Hello. I've got a job in hand. Why don't you sit down?

XINRAN: Can you mend my shoes? They've come unglued inside at the bottom.

MRS XIE: I'll have a look. [Gives a quick glance.] Yes, I can, it's very simple. Wait till I've finished this pair, and I'll do them for you.

*

But the middle-aged woman customer sitting on a stool objected that she had been there first. And I quickly agreed.

*

MRS XIE [to the woman customer]: Don't worry, her shoes just need gluing. They'll only take a second to stick. Yours need new heel tips. She'll have to wait half an hour or more, and everyone's busy . . .

XINRAN: No, really, I'm happy to wait my turn. It gives me a chance to learn your craft and chat to you. My friend told me that you've scrimped and saved your shoe-mending money to send your children to university. You're amazing!

MRS XIE: Aren't all Chinese mothers like that?

XINRAN: When I came here looking for a shoe-mender, everyone said you were the best. They all sing your praises.

MRS XIE: They look after me. They look after poor people like us.

XINRAN: When did you start mending shoes here?

MRS XIE: In 1978.

XINRAN: Nearly thirty years! Where do you come from? Did you come alone or with your family?

MRS XIE: From Hubei. I came with my husband.

XINRAN: And your children?

MRS XIE: It was only my son then. He was just born. We left him at home, for the grandparents to bring up. We left to earn money.

XINRAN: Why did you leave?

MRS XIE: We were so hard up there. The land was truly poor and barren.

XINRAN: You have one son and one daughter?

MRS XIE: Yes.

XINRAN: Where are they at university?

MRS XIE: My son works, my daughter is at university.

XINRAN: Where does your son work?

MRS XIE [maternal pride in her voice]: He's doing his doctorate at Xi'an Communications University [one of the top science and engineering universities], and he has some teaching work there.

XINRAN: And your girl?

MRS XIE: She's doing a master's at Beijing University.

XINRAN: Do they come and see you?

MRS XIE: Of course! My daughter comes more often than my son. She's good at getting jobs to pay for her fare. My son has a girlfriend, so he's busy with her family too!

XINRAN: Why did you decide to come to Zhengzhou to earn money?

MRS XIE: In 1978, you weren't allowed to leave your home, and if you just left, you would be arrested. It's not like now, when you can go wherever you want. But where we were was poor and there was no education, so when my son was born, we discussed it and decided we definitely wanted to leave so that my son could go to school.

XINRAN: Was there no school in your village?

MRS XIE: There was, but it was a disgusting place! A primary school needs a schoolhouse and a teacher, but this one had neither. A relative of the village accountant just took it on for a bit of money. For middle school you had to go to the county town. Hang on a minute and I'll tell you a story about the county middle school!

MRS XIE [to the middle-aged man]: These shoes are ready. Thank you.

MIDDLE-AGED MAN: We agreed on the price, four yuan, isn't it? Here, four yuan.

MRS XIE: Thank you for giving me your business. [The middle-aged man does not respond and leaves. She turns to the middle-aged woman.] Your shoes?

MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: Last time you put a new heel on. I've worn them six months, and the heel tip has worn through again. Can you put a better one on this time?

MRS XIE: What I used last time was the best. You walk on the outside of your foot, so you wear away the outside of your heel. You've had those shoes at least two years now, and the leather has stretched and the shoes have lost their shape. Now when you walk, your foot moves in the shoe and wears it down even faster. I can put in an insole so the shoe and your foot fit better, and that should improve it.

MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: How much will the insole cost?

MRS XIE: One yuan each.

MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: So expensive! Other people charge one yuan the pair!

MRS XIE: That's the price. Go and ask someone else if you don't believe me. I pay eighty fen per insole, so if I let you have one for fifty fen, I lose thirty fen on each insole, and I'm not doing that! Otherwise I can just reheel them for you, and you go to a cheaper place for an insole.

MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: OK, just reheel them for me.

*

I watched as Mrs Xie rifled through heel tips of all sorts in an old shoebox and found a couple of metal ones which matched the old pair in size and colour. She rubbed them clean with a cloth, and put them on a wooden box beside her. Then she dexterously pulled off the heel tip with the hammer claw and carefully filed the bottom of the worn-down heel until it was quite flat. Finally she used her apron to give the surface a good rub and get rid of the flecks.

Then she applied a layer of viscous rubber solution and put the shoe down on the tip. She repeated this procedure with the other shoe, and when she had completed the repair work on both shoes, she reinforced the heels with a kind of square-headed shoe tack.

She was eager to tell me the story of the county middle school as she worked on the shoes.

*

MRS XIE: Wasn't I going to tell you about the county middle school?

XINRAN: Yes, if it doesn't interfere with your shoe repairs, please tell me.

MRS XIE: Not at all. When I talk about it, it gives me more energy and more qi. Did you know that the more qi you have, the more energetic you are?

XINRAN: OK, tell me then!

MRS XIE: When I was at the county middle school, I was an excellent student. I came top in the county results. But when it came to university, they wouldn't let me apply. In those days, the middle school put your name forward, and they said I had a bad class background, that I was from a rich peasant family and so I couldn't go to university.

That was a muddle my mother had made in 1951 – it was nothing to do with me. Just after Liberation, when property was registered and people were put into class categories, the recorder didn't do the figures properly and they came out wrong. My mother had just got married. She was illiterate, and also didn't hear what was said. It was only when the class categories were announced that she found out that the family had been put into the "rich peasant" category. How could that be? If we'd been rich peasants, why would my father have gone to make revolution? He'd have been making revolution against himself!

My father worked in the county government offices, and the cadres told him the mistake had been corrected, but they were bad guys and they deceived him. During the Cultural Revolution, someone made it known that my father had misrepresented his rich peasant background, and said they'd found the original testimony. The original cadres hadn't written an explanation of the mistake on his documents, they'd just put a line through his name and left it at that! So my father, after working for the revolution for twenty-something years, was turned into a "counterrevolutionary covertly working within the ranks of the revolutionaries". Just like that, it was over for my family, and I couldn't go to university. I was furious! Ever since I knew about it, I had been absolutely desperate to go to university. I liked literature, I liked history, I loved anything in books; I was the best in the county but they wouldn't let me go to university. When I sit here every day mending shoes, I think about that, and it still makes me angry!

You couldn't go to university somewhere else and get on in life, like you can nowadays. You couldn't do that then. Once my father had "become" a counter-revolutionary, the family had no means of earning a living, and very soon we were packed off back to the village to work on the land. All my studying had been a waste, hadn't it? I wouldn't ever be able to go to university, would I? I wasn't reconciled to this, I really wasn't! Every evening as I watched the sky grow dark, I would think to myself, I should just wait, the sky will get light again. Even if I can't go to university, my children will definitely be able to go, and to the best ones!

XINRAN: And the sky did grow light. Your son went to the best university, your wish came true.

MRS XIE: Well, it didn't all come true. Xi'an Communications University isn't as good as Qinghua or Beijing University, and Qinghua and Beijing University aren't as good as Oxford and Cambridge. If it were me, I would definitely want to go to the best university, to show those people who wouldn't let me go. I've told my daughter, when she's finished her master's, she should go on studying. Mum'll support you, I said. We don't want the government's money. People say we're poor, but that poverty's given us ambition, and out of poverty has come university learning. That'll show those people who look down on us! Neither of our children applied for a grant. I told them: "You're not allowed to borrow money or ask the government for money. If you've got talent, you'll fight your own battles! Don't compare how you eat and dress to other people. Don't worry that people will laugh at you if you look less smart or work harder than they do. The only thing you should compare is how educated you are!" I sit here repairing shoes and lots of people look down on me, but I think to myself: Have you sent your son to do his PhD? I'm not talented, but my children are talented. And I've earned every penny of their fees and their living expenses!

*

Once more I was left speechless, struck dumb by the indomitable spirit of the mothers of China, by their soaring aspirations. As a race, we really are like the wild grasses in the poem by Bai Juyi: "Wild fires cannot consume them, they grow again in the spring breeze." In fact, I was not the only one to be quite overwhelmed by the shoe-mender woman's straight-talking. I could sense a silent surge of feeling from everyone around her, and I believe it was because of our mothers that we felt that way.

I realised that the middle-aged woman had been listening as she quietly chose two pairs of appropriate insoles from the pile on Mrs Xie's cart. She put down five yuan and was about to leave with her reheeled shoes when the shoe-mender stopped her: "I told you, the insoles are one yuan each, two yuan the pair, you've given me too much!" "Take it, buy your daughter a pen," said the customer. "No, no, I can't take it," said Mrs Xie. "You're helping them just by bringing me your shoes to mend. I can't charge anything else!"

Back and forth went the argument, just as I had so often seen women in Chinese restaurants fighting for the right to pay the bill. The shoemender woman won, and only accepted four yuan. The customer left, and I saw that she really was bandy-legged. I turned to the girl and said: "It's your turn." She was embarrassed and told me to go first, she wasn't in any hurry.

*

MRS XIE: Let the girl sit here a bit longer, and I'll glue your shoes. She comes with a pair of shoes every weekend. She says it gives her something to do.

XINRAN: Is this true?

GIRL: Yup. My mum and dad are divorced and neither wanted me, so I'm with my grandparents. They only have two rooms, and they use my room to play mah-jong every day, so it gets very smoky. When I'm out at school it doesn't bother me, but at weekends there's nowhere to go, so I come here and watch people.

XINRAN: Watch people?

GIRL: That's right, watch people. This lane may be cramped and higgledy-piggledy, but you can see all sorts of people here, even big cadres. There's one big noise whose mum and dad live in that building, and sometimes he comes in with his arms full of packages to see them. He can't drive in, so he stops the car at the entrance, making all the passers-by swear.

XINRAN: But how do you know he's an important cadre?

GIRL: It may seem a mess here, but we have public security patrols every day. They say it's so that "the regulations are obeyed". If anyone else's car blocked the entrance, the PSB would put a stop to it. I've heard people say that the numbers on his car number plate are low ones, and the lower the number the higher the cadre's rank.

XINRAN: And what other kinds of people do you see?

GIRL: Just ask her. She can tell who's walking past her without even looking up. We often play "guessing people" games. She tells me what kind of a person someone might be and why. I point out to her anyone I see from far, far away, and how they walk and hold themselves. Some of them are my neighbours. She gets lots of them right. It's fun!

MRS XIE: It's just a bit of nonsense, like a dog scrabbling away at a hole, as we say. It's just a game I play with the girl to keep her entertained!

XINRAN: OK, tell me. Entertain me. Too bad that just now there's no one coming.

MRS XIE: If you think about it, I've sat here for twenty-eight years mending shoes, and that's twenty-eight years' worth of lessons, learning to watch people. Shoe size depends on the person's height, everyone knows that. OK, that's a generalisation. There are some tall people with small feet, but not many short people with big feet. Big wide shoes usually belong to someone who's done a lifetime of manual labour which has splayed their toes. He may have come up in the world, but you can tell he has lots of poor relatives. If someone has wide shoes, you should look at their trouser legs too. If their trousers hang above their ankles, they're usually old – I reckon it's because their old bellies stick out. If the trouser bottoms drag on the ground, they're either kids or nouveau riche who haven't learned how to wear their trousers properly. When it's a small foot with narrow shoes, the person's family have been city folk for generations, and their toes haven't been splayed through hard work. If they have a good life, then they have a slow gait. If they're poor, then they stride along. If they tread on someone's foot and can step back and give way, then they're educated, good people. Then there are people who don't know how to give way, people who wear designer shoes, fakes too. But human beings are not made by the clothes they wear. If they have no feelings and no talent, they're useless!

The man whose shoe I just mended only knows about what he wears, and doesn't know about people.

XINRAN: Why?

MRS XIE: His shoe was a designer fake, a particularly cheap one. If you've got learning, you can tell by looking that real and fake labels are not the same. He can't, so he falls right into the trap. Besides, does smiling at a woman make you lose face? He's been coming to have his shoes mended for a few years now, and he's never said more than a word or two to me. He wants you to understand that he's a city gent, higher up the social scale than you, and a man. But he hasn't managed to have a son. If a man wants a son, he needs to be strong-willed, he needs to be daring, and show his goodness in his face. A man who's only good at being a bully boy can only produce daughters.

XINRAN: And what can you tell from these feet? What kind of learning does this woman have?

MRS XIE: You want the truth?

XINRAN: Of course I want the truth.

MRS XIE: Then I'll tell you. As soon as I caught sight of your feet, I knew you were a poor person from a posh family.

XINRAN: A poor person from a posh family? I don't understand.

MRS XIE: You don't understand what that is? It means your forebears were posh, but you don't have any money. If you were posh now, you wouldn't have bought yourself those cheap shoes. The soles are very thin and the shape's not good. I guarantee you've got corns!

XINRAN: You're amazing! I do have corns on my feet – they've been killing me the last couple of days!

MRS XIE: I've got cream here specially for treating corns. Do you want to have a try? Don't put your feet in water for two days, and they should be better on the third day.

XINRAN: But it's thirty-nine degrees, so hot, and I sweat buckets every day! I can't put my feet in water?

MRS XIE: Well, you're not home yet . . . see how they hurt then . . .

XINRAN: And what can you tell about other women?

MRS XIE: The ones in high heels are most worth looking at. If they jab their heels into the ground as they walk, it's because they don't know how to wear them, or they've put them on for the first time. You don't need to look at them to know that they're sticking out their bums, which is really unattractive! You have to walk slowly in high heels – walking fast looks hideous. The higher the heels they're wearing, the less willing they are to give way to other people – these are shoes that can only go forwards not backwards. The high-heeled slippers that are fashionable nowadays are really funny. The foot often slips out of them, and then the slipper is just looped over the foot, which makes it completely useless. Everyone knows that women have small, delicate feet, but with these high heels now, the toes are very pointed, not for putting your foot in. It makes the whole shoe big, and a small woman striding along with a pair of big feet looks ridiculous! And something else: not a lot of women look after their feet. Sometimes you smell her perfume, what a lovely smell! But she walks past you and her feet are really ugly with yellow calluses at the back of the heels and the feet all wrinkly. If I look up, the face is bound to be plastered in thick make-up. Quite repulsive. I can't bear to see that. Then . . .

*

A man who was cycling past paused with one foot on the ground. "Hey, are you here this afternoon?" he asked. "I'm always here, in all weathers, apart from when I'm eating and sleeping. If my stall's here and I'm not, it's because I'm in the toilet." "I'll come back this afternoon then," said the man, and he cycled off.

*

XINRAN: So, in your twenty-eight years here, what changes have you seen in the shoes you've repaired?

MRS XIE: Twenty-eight years ago, the money came in a few jiao at a time, everyone was poor then. In the early days, I was mending rubber and plastic shoes for a few jiao a time, and putting plastic soles on cloth shoes. There were some leather shoes that people had for a lifetime. Leather shoes then were sturdy, not like shoes now which come in fancy styles – you only wear them a few days and the seams come apart, the glue comes unstuck and the leather gets holes. In the eighties, more people were wearing leather shoes but when they bought new shoes, they'd come and get another sole stuck on so they could wear them for longer. Still, I could only charge a few jiao, less than one yuan, each time. In the nineties, it seemed like everyone was wearing leather shoes, but a lot of it was fake leather – there wasn't much real leather – so that was a real money-earner, I was charging by the yuan. Now we're in the next century, and it seems like there's hardly any repair work for real leather shoes – people wearing real leather shoes don't come – it's almost all fake designer labels. A lot of people who bring me their shoes for repair boast how good and how expensive they were. I don't say anything, but I think, like hell these are genuine! Would a genuine label shoe be so disgustingly badly made? Would the leather be such poor quality? But what's the point of saying anything? People pay to have their shoes mended, I mend them, take the money, and we each go back to our own homes. Why go looking for trouble! Aiya! I must go and make lunch, my old man's waiting for me.

XINRAN: You go home at midday?

MRS XIE: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

XINRAN: What do you usually eat at midday?

MRS XIE: I just buy a couple of fried pancakes or dumplings or something. [She laughs.] Nothing fancy.

XINRAN: Can the five of us come and join you for lunch today? Would that be all right? Can we share your meal?

MRS XIE: You can, though I don't have any kind of a home. There's not even anywhere to sit down. Doesn't that put you off?

XINRAN [I could see she didn't believe that we wanted to visit her home]: We really do want to go. I've got an appetite already.

MRS XIE: Aiya! Well then, you keep an eye on the stall for me. I'll just pop to the loo.

XINRAN: Fine, we'll be here to make sure you don't lose anything.

*

Mrs Xie trotted off, and seeing how anxious she looked, I said guiltily: "She looks like she was desperate to go." A drinks seller on a nearby stall overheard and laughed: "No one here worries about losing things if they leave their stall, because we all look after each other's stalls. There's no need to let anyone know. She'll have gone to buy food, because she can't give you pancakes and steamed bread when you get to her house!"

When I heard this, I rushed after her, and found she was indeed buying a fried chicken. I was too late – the chicken had already been cut into pieces and couldn't be given back. I knew we couldn't persuade her to let us pay, so all I could do was carry the chicken and go with her to buy vegetables.

When we followed her to her home, we were all struck dumb. We were in a small factory which had gone out of business years before. The ramshackle premises were secured by a big gate beside which stood an empty storeroom and toilet. This space, devoid of all furniture and fittings, was their home. The "bedroom" was in the triangular space under the stairs, partitioned off and just big enough to put a board down. There they slept in winter, spring and autumn. The "kitchen" was a gas cooker in the space beside the toilet. Water for washing, rinsing and drinking all came from the toilet cistern. It was stiflingly hot when she took us inside and, with some embarrassment, she moved their summer bed – a board sitting on some old wooden packing cases – outside so that she could free up a bit of "cool" space.

We sat down to eat our meal with her and her husband, who repaired students' bicycles outside a technical middle school. She made us a Hubei-style dish of meat steamed with ground rice, some fried greens and some fried dried bean curd left over from a previous meal. Then there was the fried chicken she had bought, and rice and steamed bread. Afterwards, we worked out that our meal had cost the couple what the two of them earned in a month from shoe and bicycle repairs. That was the first time I had sat on an old tyre to eat a meal. They had no stools or chairs – in fact they had no furniture at all.

After we had eaten, Mrs Xie burst out crying and said: "In twenty-eight years, no one has come to visit us or eaten a meal with us! City folk look down on us, no one respects us, in fact no one pays us any attention at all! We have nothing. We've used every penny to put our children through university! Every time my daughter comes back on holiday, she squeezes onto the plank with me to sleep, poor thing. In winter, she freezes like us; in summer, she swelters like us. If we give her money to go and stay with her grandparents for the holidays, she won't go. She says, 'My mum and dad live like this day in and day out so that we can go to university, why can't I spend the time with you?' She's very mature. She studies and has a job, and hasn't even got anywhere to go in the holidays, but we just can't do any more for them than we already do!"

Her husband had been standing beside her smiling silently. His eyes, too, reddened and he said: "As soon as our children were born, we had to leave them with our parents to bring up. We've had such a hard grind, so very, very hard. We couldn't afford to send our children to school in the city. They had to go to school in the countryside, but they both did us proud! Just like their mum, they came top in the county results. I'll never forget when my son got his offer for Xi'an Communications University and came to show it to me at my bicycle repair stand outside the school. His clothes were so tatty the students thought he was a beggar. He didn't have the money to take a train, so he'd spent several days and nights on a long-distance bus to get here. When he saw me, he didn't have the strength to be happy any more, he just said: 'Dad, I'm hungry. I've passed the university exams!' And then he collapsed. I called some students over to help, and when they saw the offer letter for Xi'an Communications University in his hand, they were flabbergasted! This is one of the key universities that they dream of getting into! My . . . son . . . is . . . fantastic!"

He was unable to say more.

As I watched them, I thought – and you could not help but think – that this couple who lived worse than refugees had produced for the Chinese people two highly talented youngsters. You could not help but think that their savings, accumulated jiao by jiao, and yuan by yuan, had saved China's educational system two student grants. And you could not help but think that these two country people, despised by everyone, had brought up a son and a daughter who aroused admiration in everyone who saw them!

We all had tears in our eyes. I knew that my crew were feeling very emotional. This couple exemplified just the kind of Chinese self-respect and pride that we had been looking for.

Before saying goodbye, I asked them my final three questions.

*

XINRAN: How did you two meet?

MRS XIE: When I couldn't go to university, I refused to get married. Then we were introduced, and he said to me: "You couldn't go to university, but if you have children, you can send them to university in your place." Intelligent, wasn't he? Among all the men I knew, none of them understood me the way he did. So I married him, and we both earned the money to send our children to university!

XINRAN: What is your next wish?

MRS XIE: To help my children do advanced studies at the best universities of the world, and to help them see the world and further increase their learning!

*

This led us to put through a long-distance call to their son, establishing how we could keep in touch. I hoped I could look into the possibilities of helping this mother realise her dreams, and also help this young man who had fought his way up from the lowest level of society to the pinnacle of Chinese academic circles see a bit of this great and colourful world for his mother.

*

XINRAN: Who's more handsome, your son or your daughter?

MRS XIE: They're both good-looking!

XINRAN: Friends who've seen your daughter all say she's very pretty.

MRS XIE: No, no, not at all. They're both ugly. Poor families don't have good-looking children!

*

Poor families don't have good-looking children! Her words pained me. In China there's a saying: "Laugh at the poor, but don't laugh at prostitutes", meaning that the poor are the lowest level of society, lower even than prostitutes, and are only worthy of ridicule. It's an old saying, which had been officially wiped out by half a century of revolution, but has now been dug up again from the rubbish heap of history. It describes the gulf which separates rich and poor as a result of the flying leaps which China's development has taken.

While I was worrying about this "putting old concepts to new use", I received an email that had been circulating on Chinese blogs from a friend in Beijing. She asked me to pass it on to the overseas Chinese who were with me, and tell them it described the kind of love which was becoming fashionable among Chinese city dwellers.

Ten true things that everyone should keep in mind.

1. On meeting a beggar: When you meet someone begging for money, give him or her a bit of food; when you meet someone begging for food, give them a bit of money.

2. If you meet an elderly or disabled person or a pregnant woman on a bus, don't raise your voice or make a song and dance about giving up your seat to them. When you stand up, use your body to keep the space and give it to the person who needs it. Then pretend you're getting off and move away. It's a fact that too often people don't move far away. When someone thanks you, give them a smile.

3. In snow and rain, and on cold or snowy evenings, if you meet someone selling vegetables, fruit or newspapers who has just a bit left and still can't go home, buy everything if you can, and if you can't, buy something. Because eating something is still eating and reading something is still reading, and buying it means they can go home sooner.

4. If you meet an elderly man or woman or child lost on the streets, take them home if you can; if you can't, put them onto a bus or take them to the local police station. If you have a phone, then make a call for the old person or child before you go. After all, you won't miss the cost of a couple of calls.

5. If someone who's lost asks you for an address and you happen to know where it is, then go ahead and tell them. Don't back off apologetically; no one's trying to get at you.

6. If you find a purse, have a look for the owner. If you really need the money, then leave the small change behind. Phone the owner and say you found it in a toilet. Return the credit cards, ID card and driving licence to the owner. Most people won't be bothered about losing the money. Jot down the person's address in your notebook, and when you've made your money, go and say sorry and pay the money back.

7. If you come across students doing jobs to pay their school fees – especially if they're middle school students and if they're young girls – buy a bit of whatever they're selling. If she's not from a poor family, and needed courage to go out and find work, then give her some encouragement.

8. If you see someone sitting on the pavement at night with their goods laid out on a bit of carpet, buy as much as you can and don't haggle. These things aren't expensive, and no one whose home situation is less than terrible would ever go out in the cold to sell stuff like that.

9. If you're pretty well off, don't keep a mistress. Support a few school students from poor mountain areas on the quiet. Don't let them know who you are, otherwise it will be awkward and terribly embarrassing when you meet. But you won't be on tenterhooks all the time like when you're keeping a mistress – in fact you'll feel quite easy in yourself. If you really want to keep a mistress, then keep one, but at least do something good as well. After all, people are complicated.

10. If you have plenty of time, and you happen to feel that what I have said is right, then post an answer to my message. It's more gratifying than answering completely rubbish messages. Also if you have enough time, post this text on to a few other sites. The more good people there are, the better we will feel.

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