I got on the train on a horrid summer day, wearing a white designer shirt soaked with sweat. My father gave this shirt to me the night before my departure as a farewell gift. As he handed it over, he told me that he wore it in his youth whenever he needed to feel strong – only twice, once for his wedding, the second time for his father’s funeral.
On the station platform my father offered me last-minute advice. ‘Keep in mind, Zhao,’ he said. ‘Forgetfulness is essential to moving on.’ I nodded. We were both fighting back tears; we both knew this departure could be for life.
This was in 1972. I was fifteen, sent from my hometown of Shanghai to a remote rural town, X. According to central government policy, I needed to be reformed by the peasants because my class status wasn’t right – both my parents were high school teachers.
For three days I changed onto smaller and smaller trains until I arrived at a wooden shed with a cardboard sign that read X Town Station, the handwriting big and wild. Though I held a slip of paper with the address of my new home, I still didn’t know where to go. There was no road – east, west, south or north; all I could see was a vast barren land, yellow, dusty. I didn’t dare ask the conductor. He seemed to be a violent man, his two wolf eyes glaring as he came to puncture my ticket. I was among the last five passengers; the other four men looked like locals – dark, sturdy and silent. I walked over to them to ask the way, but they showed their teeth and one of them pushed me. I stood quietly, trying to look as if I wasn’t watching, while the four headed in the same direction across the dusty land. I sneaked after them until we passed a grove of poplars. Rows of low shanties, packed together, came into view.
In front of the shanties sat a dozen middle-aged women, naked to the waist. Their bulging breasts dangled like bags of rice. The toddlers climbed on their backs. When the babies whined for food, the women flapped their huge breasts over their shoulders so the kids could grab, hold and suck.
I had never seen a naked woman. I froze like a statue.
‘Never seen a woman?’ A stout man, much younger than the four locals I’d followed, approached me. I didn’t answer, blushed. ‘You must be Savage Zhao from Shanghai?’ he said, looking me up and down, and finally fixing his burning gaze on my shirt.
‘Why am I a savage?’ I asked.
Ignoring my question, he went over to one of the sitting women, pinched her right breast, and leapt away.
‘Chen, you bastard, your thing itches, right?’ shouted the woman. The baby on her back gaped indifferently at Chen.
‘You bitch in heat. You must’ve had your husband diao yangzi yesterday!’ Chen shouted to the woman from a stone’s throw.
‘What does diao yangzi mean?’ I blurted.
All the women, and Chen, burst into laughter.
‘Diao yangzi, the savage wants to know what diao yangzi is!’
‘Diao yangzi. Dogs diao yangzi.’
I had no idea what was so funny. I just echoed them, ‘Diao yangzi. Dogs diao yangzi.’
Chen turned out to be the person selected to help me reform, even though he was only two years my senior. ‘I’ve been an orphan since I was twelve,’ he said. ‘You’ll bring me a tiny allowance every month.’
Chen reminded me of the brown bear I’d seen in Shanghai zoo, with his long nose and his barrel chest. Sometimes when he didn’t say anything at all, I could still hear heavy grunts from deep inside him. But all the locals said he was a very kind boy, except for his wicked ideas.
‘Still, you’ll find his wicked ideas useful,’ they told me, half smiling.
I stayed in the pigsty behind his one-room shack; all the pigs had been sold years ago to pay for Chen’s father’s medicine. The first night, I could barely sleep, straining to blink away the images of my old Simmons mattress and the chamomile tea my mother had made for me every evening. Now, the plank bed ironed my back. I heard what must have been the call of an owl.
‘I knew you wouldn’t be able to fall asleep,’ a voice said out of the darkness; it was Chen. ‘Lie on the floor, Savage Zhao. No one can sleep on a bed in summer.’
I moved to the cement floor. Immediately I cooled down.
‘Sleep tight. Tomorrow we’ve got to work.’ He went out, leaving the door open.
The next day I was assigned a job in the local factory which produced magnets, working along with Chen. The factory was a two-story gray building, right beside X town’s only septic tank. I couldn’t help but cover my nose and mouth with both hands.
‘Savage Zhao, you make me sick. Drop your hands. You can’t work that way.’
I put both my hands down, and began to cough heavily. A shoal of men soon gathered around me, smirking.
‘What the hell’s with this guy?’ one of them asked.
‘Oh, he’s a savage. Just arrived yesterday.’
They stared at my designer shirt, their eyes flaring. One man – he had a scar across his left eyebrow and was markedly shorter than the others – took a step forward and raised his fist, ready for a fight. ‘Savage,’ he spat.
‘Didn’t I tell you yesterday? You should take off this disgusting shirt.’ Chen fumbled with the buttons, pulling off my shirt. Only then did I realize all the men in the factory were shirtless.
‘Take this off, or they’ll beat you,’ he whispered in my ear.
The men didn’t walk away until Chen had rolled my shirt into a ball and thrown it into the cesspool nearby.
At least the job was easy enough. I was to pour chemical liquid into a metal mold. I strived to work hard, running to fetch another metal bucket right after I finished emptying the one at hand. Chen laughed at me.
‘No need to work so hard. It’s useless. The magnets, I mean. They just stack them in the warehouse.’
I didn’t reply. He continued babbling, saying we were here only for the sake of lunch. He told me I was lucky because it was July – so much to eat in summer.
At noon, a bell rang and he led the way to the canteen. ‘Whatever you see, remember – don’t say a thing,’ Chen said in a muffled voice. I nodded.
Soon I realized what he’d been referring to. The stinky tank nearby had attracted swarms of flies to the factory, especially the canteen. They weaved a thick black carpet around the tables, sucking on the grease. I tried not to frown, or pucker my lips. Chen asked me to take his lunch pail for a second. He didn’t sit down. Instead of fanning away the flies, he banged the table with both hands. A cluster of black bodies crushed under his broad palms; the survivors flew away, a black funnel reaching to the ceiling.
Chen took his seat and put down our lunch pails. He dunked the dead flies into his soup. Then he bit into the flies with a snapping sound.
Around us, I heard more bangs and snaps, and witnessed black funnels rising from other tables. Chen scooped the rest of the flies into my spoon and encouraged me to have a taste.
‘You really think we can live on the food provided by the canteen?’ He frowned at his lunch: a bowl of watery soup with two green leaves, and another bowl of rice.
‘Take these. They’re nutritious. You’re lucky to have these summer supplements.’
I was reluctant. Several young men banged and sat beside us. They stared at me, waiting to see if I would eat my spoonful of flies.
‘Savages can’t appreciate the wonderful side dish,’ one of them said.
‘Then stay hungry.’ It was the short man with the scar. I knew now his name was Liu. He didn’t bother to look up, but buried his head in his bowl – he’d dumped dozens of flies in the soup.
I poured the full spoon of flies into my mouth, and bit them with a snapping sound.
‘How do they taste, Savage Zhao?’ Chen asked.
‘Great!’ I muttered, trying not to spit anything out.
Chen gave me a tour of X town on my first weekend. There was not much to see – only shacks and pens, except for two elaborate buildings: the local government office and the ancestral temple. The government building was the tallest in town, three stories. I saw a small red seal beside the left corner of its main gate, with two antique Chinese characters: Yu Household. Chen shook his head at me – he couldn’t read; the only school was converted into the magnet factory when he was seven. ‘But I think you’re right. My parents told me the richest family here used to be the Yus. They disappeared after 1949.’ The temple was the oldest building in X town, a high one-story wooden house not far from the station. Inside, floor-to-ceiling shelves lined three walls, and an altar stood at one end. There were no tables or chairs, only four giant pillars covered with knife marks. Chen told me this used to be the holiest place when he was a kid: the shelves held each family’s ancestral tablets. Behind the scratches the teachings of Confucius were once inscribed.
‘You’re lucky,’ Chen exclaimed. ‘If the government didn’t ban these superstitions, you wouldn’t be in here. Women and outsiders weren’t allowed to enter.’
I looked around. The emptiness made me uneasy. But I smiled at Chen.
When in the countryside, do as the locals do. I walked around shirtless and swallowed flies as special treats at mealtime. When a woman worker bent to retrieve something from the floor, I joined the other men who stared at her nipples and laughed out loud. After work, I pinched the seated women’s breasts before slipping inside my pigsty. There was no toilet in the village, so I learned to shit outside at night, whistling for a dog to come eat my stool, just like the locals did.
‘Human shit is nutritious for dogs, just like flies are nutritious for us,’ Chen told me. ‘Why do the dogs here grow so strong? They’re born to eat shit.’
Most of the dogs were fierce and stayed away from humans, but a meek dog ate my shit almost every night – Little White, a male dog with a snow white coat, rare to see in X town. Sometimes when he was enjoying the fresh food I provided, I talked to him in Shanghainese. I knew remembering Shanghai did me no good. Still, speaking my tongue with Little White was comforting. After having his late night snack, he’d lay beside me, listening quietly.
I sang Shanghainese nursery rhymes to him.
Yao A Yao / Yao Dao Wai-Po Qiao
Wai-Po Jiao Wo Hao Bao-Bao
(Row a boat / Row a boat to Grandma’s
Where Grandma calls me her dear babe)
Little White’s fur blued in the moonlight. A hint of melancholy in his blinking eyes made me feel he understood the song. I tried not to think what my parents were doing, or whether they missed me. My father had told me at the station that I’d probably never get back to them, never get back home in this life. Tears would brim when I saw Little White run away – like Cinderella, he would start for home after the very first call of an owl.
I dared not talk in Shanghainese with any locals. They might mock me and complain that the reforming work wasn’t being carefully done. They might even file a report to the local government, and have me sent to an even more horrible place. Chen might get in trouble too. I copied the way everyone spoke, though I didn’t always understand their words. When we got up early and went to work, Chen greeted the first woman neighbor, ‘You had your husband diao yangzi yesterday?’
Then we’d hoot and run away.
I didn’t ask again what diao yangzi meant. I guessed it had something to do with sex, and that was enough.
By the end of September, it was okay to lie on the plank bed. But to make my belly stop drumming, I had to imagine myself drinking a large bowl of my mother’s rib soup as I fell asleep. Each day, it seemed, there were fewer flies in the canteen. Sometimes we were still lucky enough to collect a pile of black bodies when having meals. Other times we could only watch a black carpet drown in the cesspool, helpless. In late October, when we scraped the very last of the flies from the switch rope of an electric lamp, we were sad to see that they were already dead. They had gathered around the rope for warmth, but it wasn’t warm enough to save them. They had remained there only because of the static electricity. Without the flies we were soon starving.
‘Autumn’s the cruelest season in X town,’ Chen said – even he was less stout. He sounded as if he felt sorry for me.
I felt sorry for Little White. He came to me every night, waited quietly as my face wrinkled and I groaned, but failed to produce anything solid for him. He showed no disappointment. He lay down beside me, let me tickle his belly and listened to my Shanghai song.
Yao A Yao/ Yao Dao Wai-Po Qiao
Wai-Po Jiao Wo Hao Bao-Bao
Little White was hungry too. I could see a harp-like skeleton under his skin.
There was something strange about the autumn in X town. Despite the hunger, everyone seemed excited, cheeks reddening, eyes widening, as if they were expecting something unusual. At first I believed there’d be a large harvest awaiting us, but it turned out we had little to reap. Then on a Sunday in early November, I learned what we were waiting for.
The local boys and girls were chasing one another in the streets, calling out in excitement, ‘Dogs diao yangzi! Dogs diao yangzi!’
Chen saw the look on my face and said, ‘You want to know what diao yangzi is, go find out yourself.’
I ran after the kids. They were happily chasing two dogs: a male dog who was pulling a female one along the street.
The kids skipped along and clapped their hands, shouting ‘Diao yangzi, diao yangzi.’ They were five or six years old.
I still couldn’t figure out the exact meaning of this phrase. But I noticed something unusual with the dogs – the male dog wasn’t dragging the female one with his mouth, but with his dick.
The kids darted across the street. The dogs were pulling and being pulled all the way around, groaning and grunting. Eventually the male dog was exhausted. He collapsed in a corner and drew out his long sausage-like dick, now soft.
November was dogs’ carnival. Every day I heard cries and shouts from the children and saw cheerful male dogs running and dragging female dogs – Old Wang’s Little Brown, Old Li’s Little Yellow, Young Sun’s Young Black. Strangely, I didn’t see my dear Little White. I realized I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. He didn’t even come at night when I whistled for him to take my shit.
I sang the rhyme all alone.
‘Have you seen Little White recently?’ I asked Chen.
‘You mean the white dog raised by Old Zhang? Oh, that’s a strange dog.’
I waited for him to continue, but he only yawned and said he needed a nap.
In autumn, the workload broke our backs. We hoisted all the magnets on our shoulders from one warehouse to another – the authorities said they needed one more empty warehouse to stack ripe grain from the farm. We labored every day until the warehouse was cleared. Then they announced crops were short this year.
Furious, all the workers showed their fists and teeth, but we had no strength for a fight – our fists shook from hunger and fatigue.
‘They’re fucking with us,’ I said to Chen in a whisper. I had learned the word from him.
‘Sure they are. But we have no choice. They’re the leaders – they move a finger and you’ll die. They play the same trick every year,’ Chen smiled a crooked smile. ‘Grin and bear it, Savage Zhao. Soon I’ll show you something truly spectacular.’
‘What’s so strange about Little White?’ I asked Chen one Sunday afternoon when neither of us had the strength to take a walk. Two weeks had passed and I still hadn’t seen the dog. I was careful not to let my voice show that I was sad.
‘He hides himself in mating season. Strange, right?’
‘But why?’ I asked.
‘He never goes after female dogs in the streets like other dogs. He’s got a weird temper. Two years ago, Old Zhang took him to mate. Three weeks in, he finally grew intimate with his partner. Then they mated. Afterwards, they were brought back to their owners. Little White behaved like a lovelorn boy – he refused to eat or go out. Maybe because that was his first time. You know what people say: the first time is unforgettable. But he’s only a dog, right? Even men can fuck women they don’t love. It’s like having a meal.’ Chen drew a figure with a sharp rock in the dirt in front of our shack.
Luckily he didn’t see me frowning.
‘At last, after a month, he began to eat. For two years, he’s refused to mate with any other bitch. He hides away in spring and autumn. An infatuated dog, isn’t he? Hey, come see what I’ve done.’
Now I could see he’d drawn a naked woman, chubby and full-breasted, no face. ‘That’s great . . . But why don’t they let the female dog stay with him?’
‘You mean like a marriage? Don’t be silly. Marriage isn’t for dogs. And you know which female he was screwing? White Beauty. We need her. You don’t know how important she is, do you?’
I shook my head.
Chen smirked. ‘You’ll see. This time we’ll use White Beauty strategically. She’s one of a kind. We used Little Flower last year, but she didn’t work well.’ He bent and put two stones on the breasts of the women he’d drawn on the ground – the nipples. ‘Wait and see, I’ll show you something truly spectacular.’
By late November it was freezing. Chen said winter in X town came earlier than in other parts of China. We were hungrier than ever. The trees were bald. Earlier in the month Chen had fried poplar leaves for us to eat. They were nasty, scraping our throats and stomachs. Now we’d even run out of leaves.
Strangely, the dogs were no longer emaciated. Male and female, they grew sturdier and sturdier. Every day, more dogs were seen having sex.
‘They’re catching the last bus,’ Chen said. ‘Their heat will be over as soon as December comes.’
On the last day of November, Chen said it was time. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I’d learned it was better not to ask.
‘Today, we’ll make a beauty trap,’ Chen said. He told me they did the same trick every November. Before the long and bitter winter swept X town, they needed something to warm their bodies.
‘Savage Zhao, you’re lucky. This time we use White Beauty. You’ll see with your own eyes how charming she is,’ Chen said.
There were four of us, Chen, Yang, Liu and I. Both Yang and Liu worked in our factory. They were the ones who’d threatened to rip off my shirt on my first day of work. Liu was the short, scarred man.
‘Back then you were such a savage,’ Yang said with a smile.
‘Still a savage,’ Liu said, looking serious and solemn. I’d never seen him smile, not even slightly.
Chen was in charge. ‘If you don’t want to stay hungry and cold the whole winter,’ he told me, ‘then do what we tell you to do.’
I promised I would.
‘Watch out, Savage Zhao,’ Liu spat, eyes fierce.
We stole White Beauty from Old Wang’s shack next to the ancestral temple. With the door closed, the windowless place was as dark as night – a perfect place for a trap. We gave White Beauty a bowl of fresh shit to keep her busy. When Liu chained her neck to the altar, she started to moan. Chen urged us to climb on the shelves. Holding clubs, we waited for the male dogs to come.
White Beauty grunted in the sexiest and most alluring way. Even though we were men, we got hard listening. Chen was happy with the noises she was making, said she was a real bitch. He had told us already that even if White Beauty was locked in the temple, all the male dogs would smell her female odor from miles away. All we needed to do was wait and get the fattest dog. Chen was right. Soon we heard a fiery mix of steps, like heavy rain drumming on the roof. The male odor of the dogs, like rotten meat, hung in the air. I imagined their drool dripping, their tails wagging and their things itching. Scores of them, heads crowding the door step, peered in. We held our breath.
The dogs seemed to know what we men were up to. They waited, keeping a safe distance, and watched White Beauty swaying her hips. The air thickened with their smell and heavy breath, but no dog dared to sidle in. Chen gestured to us to have patience.
We waited and waited, listening to the male dogs moaning at White Beauty and her grunting back. We waited and waited, until our legs were numb and our private parts wet.
Eventually a dog was brave enough to step in. But he wasn’t fat at all. My heart nearly pounded out of my chest.
‘Damn it,’ Chen whispered. ‘Little White, you fool, you’ve screwed things up.’
Should we do it again? That dog is skinny, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.
Zhao and Liu were disappointed too. They flared their nostrils and were about to jump down.
‘Hold on. We’ll catch him, the foolish dog,’ Chen said.
My heart was thumping with sadness.
We remained where we were and held our breath.
Little White raised his head and looked up. I knew he’d seen us. He must’ve known what would happen to him. But he strode directly to White Beauty. His snout nudged heavily on her neck, then moved to her back, her belly and her hip. She too rubbed against him, licked him and even bit him. Eventually he smelled her pussy and took deep breaths, like I imagined a man would with a woman.
I almost shouted ‘run’ to Little White. But I dared not. The other three men were entirely absorbed in the scene. Chen had told us that we needed to wait for the moment that the dog would diao yangzi.
We waited and waited. White Beauty seemed to hesitate. She dodged several times when Little White was about to mount. I knew she couldn’t stand to see him die.
Still, Little White was strong enough to climb on her and enter her. Chen, Yang and Liu’s faces glistened ecstatically. Liu and Yang wanted to jump down but Chen waved to us to wait, wait for the time when both sides of Little White’s dick swelled like balloons. At that moment, he wouldn’t be able to pull it out. Finally, I knew what diao yangzi meant.
Both the dogs moaned. And the scores of male dogs outside echoed their moans in a chorus. It was almost time. Chen fingered the door closed in a skilled maneuver. Hearing the door shut, we four jumped down simultaneously. Chen, Liu and Yang started to beat Little White with their clubs.
‘Stupid dog, you bastard,’ Chen shouted. ‘You’ve messed things up.’
‘Now you’ve learned the bitterness of love,’ Liu raged. He kept striking Little White’s head. His scar smiled when the skull cracked.
I watched for a long time with my club in my hand. Little White didn’t look surprised; he didn’t even attempt to bite us. He was ecstatic, enjoying making love with White Beauty until the very end of his life.
Chen carried a knife with him. After Little White was nothing but blood and pulp, Chen peeled off the dog’s skin right away, in front of White Beauty.
‘I’ll go get something to cover her eyes,’ Yang said. ‘We want her to perform next year.’
‘No need to do that,’ Chen said, still cutting. ‘She’ll be too old next year anyway. We’ll find another White Beauty.’
As we flayed Little White, removed his bowels, stomach, liver and heart, and chopped his flesh to pieces, White Beauty shuddered like an autumn leaf.
Yang took a wok and several logs of firewood from under the altar and began to make a fire.
‘You should taste this, Savage Zhao. Dog meat supreme,’ Chen said.
Liu went out to fetch some water from the well. I stood still, hoping no one noticed my trembling hands.
‘First time you killed a dog, right?’ Chen said. ‘You’ll get used to this. We’ll catch some old female dogs next month, after they give birth to pups. Not so delicious though. Their meat is tough and sour.’
‘Savage Zhao, sing a song for us. Chen likes listening to songs while cooking dogs,’ Yang suggested. ‘Liu used to sing Cantonese songs for us. He came from Guangzhou two years ago.’
I shook my head, astonished.
Liu came back with the water. Yang laughed at him, ‘Savage Zhao can’t see you’re from Guangzhou. A-ha, Savage Liu. You’ve done a wonderful job of reforming yourself.’
‘Sing us a Cantonese song, Liu,’ Yang pleaded. ‘Beautiful songs you used to sing.’
‘I can’t. I don’t speak Cantonese anymore,’ Liu said, nonchalant. He poured the water into the wok.
‘Savage Zhao, you sing. That song you sang in the night is a pleasant song. Yu A Yu, isn’t it?’ Chen said, mimicking my Shanghai dialect.
I should’ve been surprised and frightened to discover that even when I thought I was alone I’d been under surveillance. But I didn’t feel a thing. I opened my mouth to sing for Chen, but no words came out.
The aroma of dog meat wafted from the wok.
‘Sing, Savage Zhao. We’ll let you eat an extra piece if you sing a pleasant song,’ Yang said.
‘Sing, please. It’s a wonderful song.’ Chen stirred the stew.
Tantalizing aromas hung in the air. Drool trickled down from my mouth.
Yao A Yao / Yao Dao Wai-Po Qiao
Wai-Po Jiao Wo Hao Bao-Bao.
While I was singing, I felt the Shanghainese leap out of me, one word after another. I repeated the song again and again and, as I sang, the pictures of my old life faded away, my parents, my home, my town . . .
Yu A Yu / Yu Dao Wu-Pu Ju
Wu-Pu Qu Wu Hu BeBe
‘Come and eat, Zhao. Save this song for the next time,’ Chen offered me a chunk of Little White’s steaming leg. It didn’t make me sick. The image of the dog had already slipped my mind. The meat was chunky, thick and firm. I craved another bite, and another.
‘Zhao, am I right? This is really spectacular, isn’t it?’ Chen said, nodding vigorously at me while I reached my chopsticks back into the wok.
I swallowed, and murmured in the local dialect, ‘Spectacular! Diao yangzi. Dogs diao yangzi.’
Image © Edward and Caroline