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Yao Popo, or the Medicine Woman of Xingyi

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Sitting on the step of Yao Popo's herb shop.

YAO POPO or the Medicine Lady, aged seventy-nine, interviewed in Xingyi, Guizhou province, south-western China. When she was four years old, Yao Popo's mother was killed and she was given away to a medicinal herb seller. She was married off to a musician, the foster son of the herb seller, and the three of them travelled around China, from the Yangtze River to the Pearl River between the 1930s and 1960s. She says the Cultural Revolution helped her: she made a home and a life from it because hospitals and medical schools closed down, and people came to her instead.

At 2.20 a.m., on 27 July 2006, after twenty-eight hours on aeroplanes, from London to Guilin, via Munich, Beijing and Xi'an, I found myself too exhausted to sleep. The two strong sleeping pills I had taken earlier gave me only three hours of troubled rest, full of dreams of getting on and off planes, checking in, reclaiming baggage, and running round and round an enormous circle, searching for its centre – the witnesses I wanted to interview.

The last part of my dream was linked to what my husband Toby and I talked about on the plane: China's century-long quest for a new political and moral centre, following the 1911 revolution. Every time I go back to China, I look for the places that have been important to me in the past, but most of them have disappeared – everything is different. Sometimes, I find it hard to distinguish between my memories and my dreams. If the past is already this blurred for me in middle age, how do older people manage? Do their memories cease to become real? If so, does this cause them pain? Do the stories they hear from other people of their generation also start to seem unreal? How can they convince their uncomprehending or doubting children that stories and events that have left no physical historical trace really took place?

Returning to Guilin in the south – famous for its lush greenness and eerily beautiful limestone formations – for the first time in ten years, my heart grew heavy. As we continued our journey and the moment for approaching my interviewees drew closer, I felt underprepared, hesitant, overwhelmed by the speed at which China was changing. Everywhere I had been a decade ago seemed no longer there. I had nothing with which to orient my memories.

When I moved to Britain in 1997, I was very proud of the speed at which China, and its cities in particular, were changing. But after I saw how careful Europe was to preserve the traces of its past, I began to be troubled by the unseemly haste with which my country was destroying the old to bring in the new. I saw now that this millennia-old empire of ours was being rebuilt by mindless modernisers who took their cultural bearings from McDonald's. In the two decades that Mao had been dead, modernisation had taken a heavy toll on every Chinese city, with arrogant local planners still gleefully bent on continuing this irresponsible destruction of the ancient past.

Xingyi, the capital of the Buyi Minority and Miao Minority autonomous region in the province of Guizhou (south China), is a typical example of a city being transformed by post-Mao modernisation. "Situated at the intersection of three provinces," the local government guidebook informed me, "Xingyi has historically been a key communications, and collecting and distributing centre in the region. Surrounded by undulating hills and intersecting rivers, the area is notable for its limestone formations. With its beautiful countryside and temperate climate, Xingyi – the home of many illustrious historical figures – has much undeveloped potential as a tourist destination."

Arriving in Xingyi, on our way from Guilin to Chengdu, felt like stepping into a time warp. Everything in the city reminded me of early 1980s Beijing and Shanghai: the streets, the clothes, the shops, and especially the municipal government guest house that we stayed in, with its shabby decor, malfunctioning room fittings and leaky bathrooms, its clueless receptionists, chambermaids who never changed your towels, and waiters and waitresses who ignored diners in the main restaurant to minister to raucous private rooms of local officials, its ceaseless din of karaoke and its noticeboards passing off romanised Chinese as English.

What really took me back twenty years was the yard full of high-priced cars and the self-important officials getting out of them. The only way to ensure the attention of the staff in a guest house like this is to impress upon them, the moment you swagger inside, just how important you are. Otherwise, your laundry will disappear, your breakfast token be misplaced, and your personal belongings get "tidied away", never to be found again. Sometimes your room – for which you have already paid – will even be taken away for an official meeting, while your dinner will fail to materialise, because the cooks have knocked off after producing yet another banquet for government bigwigs.

In the two nights and three days that we spent in the city, Toby and I got the full Xingyi experience, with cockroaches, bedbugs and a violent midnight encounter with a roaring drunk, karaoke-singing cadre thrown in as special bonuses.

But, as Nietzsche once said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. My original intention had been to start my interviews in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, western China, but while attending the wedding of the friend who translated my first book, The Good Women of China, I happened to encounter my first storyteller: the Medicine Woman of Xingyi.

Early one morning, Toby and I – just as we always do in China – were wandering about the streets, people-watching. A couple of hours before 9 a.m., the streets of Xingyi were already bustling with commercial activity: with peddlers and stalls run by local farmers and fishermen, selling various exotic local delicacies, including the mountain mushrooms for which the area is famous. We stepped into a dark, narrow lane running parallel to the main market street, and back through history: past the kind of dilapidated houses and shopfronts I associate with films depicting the "old" (pre-1949) society. What immediately struck me was that most of the shopkeepers and stallholders were women: in addition to those mending shoes, carving chopsticks, selling haberdashery, making burial clothes and paper funeral money, a great number were selling local speciality foods and herbal medicine.

My attention was caught, from some distance, by an old woman whose face shone with a particular, resolute intelligence. She was sitting in an open-front shop talking to a customer. Various kinds of dried herbal medicines were displayed around her: some hanging in bags, some on shelves, tied in bundles; others heaped on the ground at her feet.

I pointed her out to Toby. "She's the only one on this lane who doesn't look worn-down, demoralised by life. I wonder why she seems so different from everyone else round here."

"Go and talk to her, I'll wait. We're not in a hurry." Toby knows that I love these opportunities to chat casually with Chinese women – spontaneous encounters can yield unexpected information.

I waited until the old lady had finished with her customer, then walked over and started up a conversation. "Hello. Are these herbs all grown round here?"

"They are," Yao Popo (Chinese for Medicine Woman) replied in a Hunan accent, without even looking up from the bunch of herbs she was binding.

"What about these? Where are these from?" I asked again, trying to get her to open up.

She finally looked up at me. "I don't pick them myself. Local farmers bring me my stock."

I climbed one of the two low steps in front of her shop. "You must be famous round here, then."

"I'm just an ordinary old woman," she smiled. "I've been here a long time, that's all."

"So when did you start selling medicine?"

"Oh, years ago. Was there anything particular you were looking for?" Yao Popo eyed Toby, standing a little way back from the shop. A foreigner would be a rare sight in provincial Xingyi. "Who's that?"

"My husband," I quickly explained.

The Medicine Woman squinted. "He's tall. And handsome. My daughter married a foreigner too, a Taiwanese." A lot of people in rural China think that anyone from outside the mainland counts as a foreigner – even if they are ethnic Chinese. "He treats her well, but he's not much to look at."

It was my turn to smile. "Are a man's looks so very important?"

"Of course!" she frowned. "Or you'll have ugly children."

I smiled because I knew how to get her to talk to me now. "How many children do you have?"

She was delighted to be asked. "Two sons and five daughters, a dozen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren!"

Yet again, I was reminded of how much importance Chinese women attach to having children. "Goodness me. Lucky you."

"How about you?" Yao Popo asked me, suddenly looking worried on my behalf.

I felt touched by her concern. "Just the one son. He's eighteen."

"Only one?" Yao Popo was unable to conceal her sense of regret. "At least you had a boy, I suppose. Back then, when I was young, we were told to have lots. If you didn't, everyone said you were a bad woman."

In the 1950s, ignoring the warnings of demographers and economists, Mao Zedong encouraged women to have as many children as they could, telling them it was a heroic thing to do. He thought that its enormous population would turn China into a global superpower.

I next asked a question to which I already knew the answer. "You're a woman – do you really think sons are better than daughters?"

She stared uncomprehendingly at me. "It's because we're women that we need to have sons, to protect us. Before 1949, women who didn't manage to have sons really suffered. Girls were always abandoned before boys. I almost starved to death myself. I wouldn't be here today, if my father hadn't taken pity on me."

I climbed the second step. "I'd like to hear about your life."

She batted a hand at me dismissively. "What's there to hear? No one takes notice of what us old people have to say, not even my children. What good would it do you if I told you? Don't waste your time, or your husband's. Off you go, he's waiting for you."

Glancing around to check there were no other customers about, I sat down on a small stool next to her. "I'm not going until you've told me about yourself!"

She looked at me, surprised. "Do you really mean it?" she said, more seriously.

I nodded. "I want to be able to tell my son about people like you. He moved to England six years ago, when he was only twelve. He has no idea about ordinary Chinese people's lives. Whenever I come back to China, I ask people I meet whether they know about their mothers' lives. Most of them don't know their mothers' or their grandmothers' stories. I want to write them down, for later generations to read. I don't want everything your generation suffered to be forgotten. If our children don't know how their grandparents suffered, they won't know how lucky they are. Tell me why you seem so different from everyone else on this street, why you look so happy and calm."

She shook her head. "I've suffered much more than anyone else round here."

She told me she had been born seventy-nine years ago in Hunan. As her mother had died when she was four and the family was very poor, her father gave her and five of her brothers and sisters away to other people. She went to a travelling medicinal herb seller, to whom she was later apprenticed, and who also had a foster son, five years older than her, who could play the huqin, a kind of two-stringed Chinese violin. Because she was quick-witted, a fast learner, her adopted family took a liking to her. At the time, itinerant physicians used music and acrobatics to attract custom to their roadside stalls, and she quickly mastered various gymnastic tricks for the purpose – such as handstands, headstands, spinning jars on the soles of her feet. At the same time, the medicine man began passing on to his children some of his knowledge about herbal prescriptions. At the start of the 1940s, with the country torn apart by war, he decided to move the family over the mountains from Hunan to Yunnan, to escape the fighting. As they were too poor to travel by train, they walked and begged lifts wherever they could, on carts, railway repair wagons, and so on. Worried that, as an unmarried girl, his adopted daughter might be abused by passing soldiers, the father quickly married off his two children. After wandering about the mountains of Guizhou for a few years from 1946, in 1950 they arrived in Xingyi, which at that time had just been liberated by the Communists. The municipal government persuaded them to settle there, and helped them to open a Chinese medicine clinic for the local population, which had almost no access to medical treatment. Barely twenty years old at the time, the Medicine Woman looked after her growing family and sold prescriptions from home, while her father went out on domiciliary visits and her husband ran the clinic.

"Life was hard in those years," Yao Popo remembered, "with seven young children. Every day I worried about what we'd eat the next. Luckily, everyone listened to what Chairman Mao said, about it being good to have lots of children, and the government and the neighbours helped out when things got difficult. It's not like now, when no one trusts anyone else, no one helps anyone. Back then, officials never took advantage of you. Or ever forced us to pass any medical certificate." At the same time, she was gaining a reputation for her medical skills; some people even thought her prescriptions better than her husband's.

"You probably don't believe me, but I can tell what's wrong with a person from the look in his eyes, or the colour of his face – even from the smell of his farts or burps. I'm best at curing headaches, stomach aches and joint aches."

The idea was extraordinary: that she could see straight into you, like an X-ray machine. The fierce certainty on her face made me believe her though.

I very much wanted to know why she thought life back then was so different from China today. "What happened afterwards?" I asked instead.

"When? The sixties and seventies? I made a lot of money!" Yao Popo's eyes glinted mischievously.

"You made money during the Cultural Revolution?" I thought I must have misheard. For so long, I had heard nothing but anger, grief and loss in recollections of this period. I had encountered so many victims that I sometimes wondered where all the perpetrators of this misery – the millions of violent, even murderous Red Guards – could have disappeared off to.

Seeing my incomprehension, she smiled. "I'm telling the truth: I really did! With everyone arguing and fighting and making revolution, the hospitals and medical schools had all shut down. But the revolution wasn't curing their sickness; it was making it worse. So more and more people came to me for medicine. I was revolutionary too; I helped a lot of people who couldn't afford medicine, for free. I made my money from the rebels, from the Red Guards. Because if they'd just taken my medicine, if they'd not paid me for it, they would have been no better than capitalists. Though I didn't actually want too much of their money. I was worried that if they became poor, they'd make even more revolution. Yes, I made a lot of money in the Cultural Revolution, but I also saw terrible things: people forced to confess things they hadn't done, punished for crimes they hadn't committed; everyone was terrified the whole time. The money didn't make me happy."

Those bright eyes dulled. I changed the subject. "Now that your children have grown up, do they help you out with money?"

She threw her head back. "I don't want their money, I'm richer than they are. Last week, when my great-grandson got married, I gave him 5,000 yuan!"*1 Thinking of her family again cheered her up.

"How many of your children and grandchildren have studied Chinese medicine like you?" I pictured her lecturing a classroom full of her descendants.

"None of them!"

"Why?"

I could hear no regret in Yao Popo's voice. "They say it's not a proper job, there's no money in it, or respect."

I supposed that their scorn was directed at her acrobatic past. Traditionally, it was thought that athletes and dancers were physically strong because they were mentally weak. Although the Chinese have always liked entertainment, they don't respect entertainers. I was surprised to discover the prejudice had survived into the twenty-first century.

"But you earn more money than them. And you've led such an exceptional life. Everyone knows you, respects you round here."

She bent over to whisper into my ear: "They don't know anything about my past, about the money I've earned; I've never told them. They don't think I know anything; they think I'm just an odd-job woman. Whenever I give them money, they always think it's from my husband, or my father. But I've earned a lot more money than them over the years. Men only know how to treat old illnesses, they can't adapt to new ones. They're no good at business, either. They're too proud to work on a stall."

"What do you mean by old and new illnesses?"

"Old illnesses are the ones everyone's known about for hundreds and thousands of years – the symptoms tell you straight away what they are. Every family used to have a grandfather or a grandmother who had a bit of medical know-how in the old illnesses: for example, if a person's stomach was sore, they'd best not take any medicine or eat anything. Just drink warm water, rest the stomach and it would soon get better. Stomach problems are at the bottom of most things: headaches, backaches, sleeping problems. Settle the stomach, and everything else will right itself. But these days, I see more and more new illnesses: sore eyes and back from sitting in front of the computer, or in an office, acne from eating too much McDonald's, stomach upsets from too much travelling, earache from too much karaoke, exhaustion from too much driving . . ."

Looking down at my watch and seeing that Toby had been waiting almost an hour, I decided to interrupt Yao Popo's list of modern complaints. "After working hard for so many years, are you planning to retire?" My bottom was numb from sitting on that small wooden stool. I could barely imagine how she could have sat there for seven or eight hours every day for most of her working life.

"Why would I do that? My foster-father's well over ninety and he's still treating patients; his eyes and ears are still good – he's probably healthier than I am. My husband and I are rushed off our feet with the business – we now stock four hundred different herbs. Every day we sell at least thirty or forty different varieties, sometimes over a hundred. That's tens of thousands every year . . . Is he taking a photograph of us?" On discovering Toby aiming his camera at us, Yao Popo suddenly drew herself up and sat facing forward, rigidly straight-backed on her stool, hands folded neatly on her knees. "Has he finished yet?" she whispered to me as she posed. "Has he finished?"

When I told her Toby was done, she relaxed back into her usual posture. While she was clearly in good health, her shoulders had the inevitable hunch of old age.

"Tell your husband to photograph me straight-on. I broke my nose when I slipped doing acrobatics in my youth. My children never got to see how pretty I once was."

Her vanity took me by surprise. The Chinese prize modesty above all other virtues. If we work with other people, we're always trying to pass the credit for successes and achievements onto them; if we do a thing on our own, we'll say we did it badly. A mother will say at her own daughter's wedding how ugly her child is, or how much less clever than other people's children. Her regret for her lost beauty was the first time I had encountered such frankness in twenty years.

I told her I had to go because my son and two other students were waiting for me, but that I wanted to bring PanPan to see her after lunch. She clearly didn't believe she'd see me again. "Come back if you've time," she shrugged. "You look like a busy person."

A little while after noon, PanPan, a couple of female students and I reappeared in front of her shop. "So you really did come back," she beamed at us. "And with these fine young people! Sit down, I've stools for all of you."

She seemed to have just finished her lunch: an empty bowl and pair of chopsticks were lying in the bamboo basket next to her, along with a handful of spring onions and some wild mountain peppers. The Hunanese can eat furiously spicy food. Perhaps she was taking advantage of a lull in business to prepare dinner. An ancient Thermos flask stood next to the basket, alongside a rubbish-filled shopping bag.

I told her that PanPan wanted to give her a poster of London. Also, one of the students, Y, wanted something for her skin allergy, while the other student, K, wanted to take some professional-quality photos of her. Though I'd expected her to refuse to be photographed, she seemed delighted and immediately agreed, even thanking us for our time.

She was very taken with the poster of Tower Bridge. "What a beautiful building!" she exclaimed to herself. "The bridge opens, you say? I've never seen anything like it! What country is London in? Why's it called London? What does it mean?" As I had no answers to her questions, I pushed Y forward. "Could you take a look at her?"

Y pulled up her shirt. Her skin looked terrible, covered in great patches of suppurating lumps and bumps. Without blinking an eye, Yao Popo beckoned her inside. "Three doses of my medicine and it'll be better."

Y and I followed her doubtfully into the shop, where she got down from a shelf a wooden box filled with ground walnuts, peanuts and red dates, on which a number of small brown-winged insects were feeding. Yao Popo then got Y to pick out twenty-one of the fattest, liveliest insects, which she deftly caught and divided between three blue-and-white medicine capsules. She instructed the student to take the three capsules over the course of a single day – checking that the insects were still alive before swallowing them – and to take the first now. "Don't be afraid," she told Y as she passed her the first capsule, "I've fed them only on nuts and fruit. They're much cleaner inside than us."

Y looked first at the insects wriggling inside the capsule, and then questioningly at me. I didn't know what to say to her. After a brief hesitation, she asked me to pour her a large cup of water. She took a deep breath then, still rather nervously, swallowed the capsule down. I was impressed by her intrepidity – a rare quality among her generation of cosseted only children.

She obeyed the Medicine Woman's instructions to the letter, swallowing the remaining two doses over the next twelve hours, checking both times that the insects were still alive. Very soon, her itching stopped; a couple of days later, her scabbed skin miraculously healed over.

Just before we said goodbye, Yao Popo told us about the unhappiest and the happiest times in her life. Her first great source of unhappiness had been growing up without parents, without a home of her own, and with only a damp mud floor to sleep on. The second hardest thing had been bringing up seven children in a tiny room of only twelve metres square. While they were small, she'd not had a moment's peace, day or night. The third had been breaking the bridge of her beautiful nose. A good nose, she said, was a woman's most important feature. The single thing that brought her greatest happiness was that all her children had survived the famine of the 1950s and '60s in which so many millions had died, and that her grandchildren had gone to school and had children of their own. The second great blessing for which she was thankful was that her husband had never hit her. Her third source of pleasure over the years had been sitting in front of the shop, day in, day out, watching the world changing around her.

"In the thirty or forty years I've been sitting here, the city centre's changed every time someone has taken over the local government," she said, pointing to the buildings towering over her poky lane. "Those houses to your left date from the 1950s. Hardly anything was built during the Cultural Revolution, but the ones opposite are from the 1980s, while the buildings to the right went up within the last two years. Now I hear the new mayor wants to rip them down and start again! As soon as they have a bit of cash in their pockets, officials always want to show off, changing everything too quickly for anyone to catch up. But no one's ever thought of fixing this crumbling old lane of ours, even though hundreds of people live here. I'll retire when they finally do something about that," she laughed.

We waved goodbye to Yao Popo, but every straight nose I have since seen has made me think of her – an old woman whose yearning for beauty had not been ground out of her by poverty.

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