Holy Communion vs Yikufan*
Before coming to the USA, I thought that the Holy Communion meant having a meal inside a church, which might also come with free drinks. During this process, a person would go from feeling hungry to being fully satisfied. Later on I learnt that it was merely a formality. At New Haven, I often attend an overseas Chinese Christian congregation, where the Holy Communion is held on the 1st Sunday of each month. During the ceremony, the Minister will solemnly pick up a piece of gluten-free wafer or bread and say: this is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given his life for us. We are eating this today in order to honour the memory of our Lord Christ. So saying, the Rev will proceed to break bread into smaller pieces with both hands and place them in a silver plate and have it passed around the congregation. After everyone has received a piece of bread, the Rev will then say, please take this piece as a way to remember Lord Jesus Christ. Then, slowly turning around to another silver plate on which stands a glass filled with dark grape juice, the Rev proceeds to raise the glass and announce that this is the blood shed by Lord Jesus Christ in sacrificing his life for us. When every member of the congregation has a glass of grape juice in hand, the Rev will, cast a look heavenwards, then proclaim in a loud voice: please drink it up in memory of our Lord Jesus Christ who sacrificed his life for us. At this moment, the sisters and brothers of the congregation all look awestruck, who, whilst maintaining a dignified silence with eyes tightly closed, will drain the glass of grape juice, which flows like a clear stream down to the bottom of each congregant’s heart. This has been an important ceremony in the Christian churches around the world for centuries as a means of commemorating Lord Jesus Christ. It is said that this is also a compulsory ceremony course for those who study at the Yale Divinity College.
Once, I saw a minister using a serviette to cushion the bread when breaking it up, which might have been done out of consideration for hygiene purposes. Among the congregation, most members are successful people in their respective careers, who naturally place a premium on cleanliness and health. Over the years, nobody has ever objected to seeing the Rev touching the bread with bare hands, here I clearly witnessed the power of faith. Once I accepted a piece of bread which tasted slightly mouldy so I did not swallow it, instead I quietly placed it inside my pocket. This action was still spotted by a Christian brother who was from Hubei Province in China. Afterwards, he asked me why I did not eat it. I hastened to explain that I had been suffering from stomach ailments lately. It is obvious that whilst you are observing others, other people are also looking over you as well.
In comparison with the Holy Communion, Yikufan was eaten for real. When did the practice of eating Yikufan actually begin? It was commonly believed to be during the Cultural Revolution in China. I personally think it started around 1962. At that time, China was going through a period of turmoil. In order to stabilise the army, all army units started the practice of Yikusitian education campaigns (which involved people to contrast the miserable past with the blessed present) during various national or public holidays. Prior to those meetings, mostly organised around public holidays, the soldiers at army units were served some light soup made of wild vegetables, this was so that they would understand why the past was so bitter and the present so very sweet. When the Cultural Revolution broke out, the practice of eating Yikufan reached its height or pinnacle. By then, everybody was made fully aware that only through personally eating the chuffs and wild vegetables which had been the daily intake of the poor peasants in the past, could they properly understand the miserable old society and fully appreciate the blessed new society. By 1969, all the work units at various levels throughout China started to conduct monthly political study sessions, during which they would always incorporate eating Yikufan as a means to get their people to compare the bitter past against the sweet present, an activity nobody would dare to skip. During this campaign period, the unit authority would usually arrange an old peasant who had been through much hardship to make a special presentation by recounting his miserable life in the old society. He would tell people about how the heartless landlord would ruthlessly exploit the peasants, hearing thus, the audience would then shout slogans like: “Don’t forget the hatred of the exploiting class nor the bloody debts owed by our class enemies”! “Never ever forget class struggle!” To this day, I still keep a picture taken of students from Shanghai Jiaotong University taking Yikufan. The students on the front row all wore a solemn expression, who, with lowered heads, were bent on eating Yikufan, while at the same time seeming to have lost in deep thinking, and trying hard to make sense of the bitter past.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Air Force was the exemplary model for the so called “the whole nation should follow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s suit” Campaign. Everyone knew that “the whole nation was supposed to learn from the PLA and the PLA in turn would learn from the Air Force”! The Air Force was extremely “leftist” and constantly came up with new, different and unique ways to do things. In 1969, I was undertaking labour reform at Dali Yellow River Farm which was affiliated with the air force of Lanzhou military district. It happened to be right bang in the middle of a traditional education campaign aimed at fighting against the rightist movement. Upon seeing the arrival of our three youngsters, the authority figures there decided to change the previously planned one Yikufan to having it for three consecutive days. The reason for this might well have been twofold: first, it was to serve to thoroughly educate us; secondly, seeing we were from the airforce compound, with our fathers still occupying their respective high ranking positions, they felt that by demonstrating some initiatives, they could hopefully one day get recognised and promoted. This we confirmed when we saw them marshalling all of us to do morning exercises. A day later, the company officer somehow got hold of a whole cartful of carrots and tofu scum and said this would be sufficient to last the whole company for 3 days. Carrots would be served as dishes and the tofu scum as rice. Before eating it, Instructor Ma Ben Li gave a pep talk, during which he read aloud the outline of class struggle education issued and printed by the authority, followed by a strong emphasis on the fact that harsh stuff like chuff would not be given this time to avoid hurting the stomaches of all the people involved.
On the first day, I felt the whole thing quite novel. Carrots were steamed which tasted slightly sweet. I had never had tofu scum before, so I remember over-stuffing myself that day. During the natural disaster year of 1962 in China, when boarding at Yupeng Primary School, I often ate dried sweet potatoes, noodles made of sweet potatoes and steamed corn bread, etc. At that time, a lot of things smelt mouldy, and did not taste as nice as Yikufan. Every time when we were partaking of Yikufan, Instructor Ma emphasized the fact that both carrots and tufu scum were good nutritious foods, which during the old society were not actually available to the poor peasants. I also felt that apart from the fact that what we ate was then passed out intact, there was nothing else bad about it. Both carrots and tofu scum consist of crude fiber, so it made bowl movement smooth, effortless and comforting. Now with a significantly higher living standard these days, the foods we eat tend to be far too oily for our own good. If one is found with bowel cancer, or suffers the so-called 3 highs, namely, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar, he/she then resorts to eating those foods again, it usually will be a bit too late. I recently found out that what bothered Mao Zedong everyday was precisely bowel disorder.
On the 2nd day after eating Yikufan, apart from feeling a bit listless, I did not experience any other particular discomfort. I could see that all the soldiers ate it with a great deal of zeal and did not complain or say anything negative. They were the younger generation of poor peasants and all dreamt of getting enlisted into the army and promoted so that when it was time to leave the army, they could expect to marry, have children and receive a permanent income. Some of them also noted down in writing their experiences and feelings, and they’d leave spaces for words they could not write, some even used symbols in place of words they did not know how to write, maybe they were influenced by Gu A Tao. In the morning, there usually would be a session aimed at prompting us to remember the bitter past which would be followed by self-study in the afternoon in the barracks. When evening came, the soldiers would lie down or sit down in all manner of postures, or pretending to be reading “Selected Readings of Chairman Mao” until the curfew whistle sounded to inform all to turn off the lights. I kept some white sugar at the time, so I would prepare myself a glass of hot sugary water in the evening which made me sleep very soundly after drinking it.
On the 3rd day, all of us felt limp and listless, when going out for physical exercises, many people said they could not muster up enough strength to run. I went to the toilet, and found the droppings heaped very high like a small hill. It was very hard for me to find a clean space to do my thing. There was a pigsty behind the toilet, I liked to pat the pigs usually, but this time, I found that the vessels in which we poured the carrots and tofu scum on the 1st day was still full and it was quite obvious that even the pigs did not bother to touch the stuff there overnight.
I immediately ran back to inform Liqiang who also came from the air force compound of my finding. “How could they say the stuff were nutritious, even the pigs refused to eat them! Liqiang was 2 years older than me, he repeated a grade, and having more worldly wisdom, he cautioned me against saying too much. Maybe the leaders had noted this problem, too. That particular evening was to be devoted to focusing on the bliss of our present happy life, it would not be a pretty sight if the soldiers ate to bursting point. Ma Liben could never forget the incident in which he overfed the horse with water and strictosidine which caused the horses’ stomachs to burst as a result and he got demoted as a punishment. Lunches changed into white flour buns stuffed with mixed carrots and scum instead. Seeing buns made of white flour, I bit on it straight away. Upon seeing the content of carrots and scum, I was very disappointed. I surreptitiously shook out the stuffing onto the floor and ate only the wrapping. My action was witnessed by an old soldier who hailed from Gansu Province. After the meal, he took me aside and reprimanded me for wasting food. So saying, he fumbled in his pocket for perhaps Chairman Mao’s instructions concerning the need to not waste any food. With a very limited education, he could hardly recognise many words, so he looked very anxious to the point that his veins bulged. The matter now was in the distant past of several scores of years, I felt I could understand why he carried on the way he did. He said to me that he most dreaded the prospect of returning to his old home in Gansu, where there was a severe water shortage, and the people there relied on scarce rainwater to subsist. The extent of the abject poor living standard of the ordinary people at the time was quite imaginable. He often woke up from a nightmare in the middle of the night which threatened to send him home to Gangsu.
Whether there was any inherent analogy between the Holy Communion and Yikufang, it is hard for me to sum up in a word. However, there is some resemblance as they both were aimed at reminding the congregation (masses), not to forget God (past). The problem is usually with us humans, we all know that in God’s eye, humans are sinful. During the Cultural Revolution, there was also the saying that Mao Zedong Thoughts were a mirror which could reflect the good and evil. If like God, you also look at the sinfulness of humans, and use the so-called Mao Zedong Thought during the Cultural Revolution to recognise evil, it would be impossible to see that there were actually true feelings among students and there was kindness among humans. Without being able to see the harmony of people, it is therefore of little wonder that nations fight against one another, neighbours argue incessantly over trivialities and colleagues fight and brothers torture or trample upon each other. If everyday, all people ever say to each other are words which are hurtful, there will always be endless fights. Didn’t we begin life’s journey seeking, searching, feeling alone, and later on, it is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness. Who knows, one can well end life broken-hearted and in a strange place!
Yikufan* refers here to special meals prepared or rather designed to allow people who eat it to contrast past misery against present happiness.