I arrived at Red Fire Farm – along with many other girls in ten large trucks – late one spring afternoon in 1974. Our names had appeared on our schools’ Glorious Red Lists, a great honour, but one which meant that we would have to leave home to work in another province. The farm was near the East China Sea. It consisted of endless fields of sea reeds, and rectangular grey barracks each with a long outdoor sink.
I was assigned to house number three, and to a small room with bunk beds for my seven room-mates. The floor was packed earth. My only private space was provided by a mosquito net that hung from thin bamboo sticks. The bed next to mine was given to a girl named Shao Ching, who, like me, was seventeen years old. Shao Ching was pale-skinned and slim as a willow. When she spoke, she looked down at the ground. Unlike the rest of us who tied our braids with standard brown rubber-bands, Shao Ching tied hers with colourful strings. She was extremely neat. No matter how tired we got after a day’s heavy labour, she would walk forty-five minutes to the hot-water station and then carry back water to wash herself.
I was proud to be Shao Ching’s friend. She showed me how she used remnants of fabric to make pretty underwear, finely embroidered with flowers, leaves and lovebirds. She hung a string next to the little window between our beds on which she could hang her underwear to dry. In our bare room the string was like an art gallery.