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Pioneers of China's Oil: a Distinguished Husband and Wife

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Mrs You, left, and Mr You, right, poring over an oil exploration map with a Russian expert, north-west China, 1950.

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Standing in front of their house in Hezheng, 2006.

MR YOU, aged seventy-eight, and his wife, aged seventy-six, pioneers of oil exploration in China, interviewed in Beijing and Hezheng, Gansu province, in north-west China. Mr You, a Hero of Labour, was part of the very first group of Chinese oil explorers. In the Cultural Revolution he was "struggled against" because of his contacts with the Soviet Union, but is now a respected authority and influences many aspects of China's oil exploration. Mrs You went from trainee teacher to become the first head of a female oil-prospecting brigade. Their three children were raised mainly by grandparents.

When I was at university I read a book called The Command of the Air by Giulio Douhet, a military strategist who was born in Italy in 1869, and who in 1909 started to challenge the traditional military idea of domination by sea, predicting that the skies would become the century's next battleground. In 1921 he published The Command of the Air, on which much modern air tactical theory is based, and followed it with The Face of Future Warfare. In due course, the great global slaughters of the 1930s and the Second World War proved the correctness of Douhet's theories. However, his contemporaries seem not to have been aware of oil in the way that we are today: since the year 2000, oil has been both a cause of war and a weapon in the struggle for world domination. Less than a hundred years after the first oil was poured into the first barrel, it has leaked into the skies, seas and earth of humanity, into our clothes, food, homes and transport; it has become a part of the structure of our lives that it is impossible to ignore.

In the years when I was growing up in China, people took pride in their future, but for most people this future involved "limitless high production" of wheat (like the exaggerated reports they were accustomed to hearing), and the Soviet Union's "potatoes cooked with beef " (the Chinese idea of a tasty Russian meal). When the great Daqing oilfields were mentioned, they conjured up an image of a profession that "forged men of steel", but the importance of oil in our daily lives, even in political discussions about China's future, was barely touched on. The first major discovery of oil was made in September 1953 in a town called Landa, located in north-east China. Did the Chinese care about oil? When they founded the New China, did the policymakers who had come from the muddy fields and ditches of the countryside, who had defeated the planes and guns of the American army and founded the People's Republic of China with "millet and rifles", understand that in the future Chinese people would need to drive cars and take aeroplanes?

I had tried many times to investigate this issue in the years before 1997, and each time I came away disappointed. I had been warned that this was "a national secret". Nonetheless, I hoped that somebody would help me understand the story of Chinese oil, and give an account of how its significance emerged. Finally, through my own circle of friends, I unearthed a married couple: he was a major figure in China's national oil prospecting, and she had been the first leader of a women's oil-prospecting team. Both husband and wife had been buried in history, retirement and "being a national secret" for a very long time.

On 11 August 2006, my reporting team set out in a twelve-seater Icarus minibus, which we had hired for 150 yuan, and travelled two and a half hours from Lanzhou to Hezheng county, where the two old people had a summer residence.

Hezheng county is located in the south of Gansu province. It has a total area of 960 square kilometres, exactly 1/10,000 of China's territory. Hezheng county is situated in the region where the Tibetan Plateau meets the Yellow Earth Plateau of the north-west: to the south of the county is a ridge of high, stony mountains, whereas the north is a region of gullies and ravines in the yellow earth. It is one of poverty-stricken Gansu's rare scenic areas, where the mountains come together, row upon row, each peak rising higher than the last, to form scenery as beautiful as any picture. The area's population is roughly 200,000, of which minority nationalities make up 57 per cent.

The police officers who had helped us along our route were surprised that we had made Hezheng county part of our itinerary, because Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, of which Hezheng county is a part, has seen one of the biggest intensifications of racial conflict in the country in recent years, especially between the Han and Hui (Chinese Muslim) groups. After nine o'clock residents do not enter the territory of other ethnic groups; if they do they might never be seen again. But as far as we newly arrived outsiders were concerned, apart from Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques by the side of the highway, each village vying with its neighbours for strangeness and beauty, and a feeling that the streets were unusually quiet and deserted, we didn't get so much as a whiff of cordite.

We spent the night in the Hezheng County Guest House. This government-run hotel, crammed between a crowd of new buildings which were still under construction, was used by local officials to hold meetings. The hotel was reminiscent of the guest houses attached to government ministries in Beijing in the 1950s and 60s, roadside hotels in the big cities in the 1970s and 80s, and "two-star" hotels in the 90s: a three-storey building, with a dimly lit service desk on one side of the ground floor, and rows of aluminium keys marked with red paint hanging on the wall, which showed both the scale of the guest house, and its emptiness. On the other side of the lobby was a long dining hall, in which the huge round tables were as numerous as the keys; without a doubt this place had seen innumerable "battles of eating and drinking". The first and second floors were guest rooms: peeling wallpaper patterned with peonies, mildewed red carpets and rust-speckled iron Thermos flasks for hot water. In the light of all this, it is perhaps not surprising that the building was constantly rocked by deafening blasts of noise from the demolition works and building sites outside, so loud that we couldn't hear each other speak.

It is impossible to escape from building noise, one of China's defining characteristics. My bedroom was equipped with the most luxurious furniture available locally, but in a very mismatched style: a mahogany sofa, metal tables and chairs and a king-size bed with plastic stickers on the headboard, against which was propped a pair of pillows embroidered with the words "Love Song" in English. The bathroom was very big, and boasted a 1.5-metre-high "sauna" box as well as a crude shower head, but since any attempt actually to use any of the functions invariably led to "flash floods", I was resigned simply to admire it as a piece of interior decoration.

In order to get a clearer idea of the role Hezheng county had played in the life of Mr and Mrs You, and to give them a chance to get to know us, we didn't start the interviews straight away, but went for a stroll with them around this small county town. This took less than an hour, after which we went with them and some of their relatives to the Hezheng Fossil Museum, a source of international pride to the locals.

Hezheng Fossil Museum is China's only museum of vertebrate fossils. It is one of China's very few national-level specialised museums, built after the Sichuan Dinosaur Fossil Museum, and the Banpo Neolithic village near Xi'an.

Starting in the 1950s, large quantities of rare fossils have been unearthed in Hezheng county, and today the museum collection comprises over six thousand fossil specimens. Hezheng Fossil Museum contains many different varieties rarely seen anywhere else in the world, preserved in good condition: their three-toed horse fossils and collection of fossil skulls are the best in the European–Asian land mass, superior even to the world-famous three-toed-horse-producing areas of Pikermi and Sarmos; and only the New York Natural History Museum and the Natural History Museum in Beijing have larger collections of shovel-tusked elephant fossils. Several of these creatures were named after this place, such as the Hezheng Goat, which has been found nowhere else in the world. The state invested 15,250,000 yuan to build the 3,850-metre-square museum, which is both a National Youth Education Base and a Popular Science Tourism Unit, as well as a scientific base for researchers from China and overseas. It took us almost two hours to view two of the six subject areas: the three-toed horse and the shovel-tusked elephant.

Among the local Han people, it is possible to tell the background of a family without entering the house or asking the owner's name, from the lintel of the doorway of every household. Those who had some local fame, such as an ancestor who had passed the xiucai examinations, would have a brightly painted, gilded lintel; if a family's ancestor had been a major official at provincial level, there would be two rows of even more luxurious lintels; three rows of lintels on the gate of a courtyard were for families whose ancestors had been high scholars or officials serving under the emperor himself. The last few generations of the You family had been important people in the locality, so the family courtyard was a small two-storey horseshoe-shaped building, inside the only three-lintel gate in the whole village, which stood out among the masses of humbler dwellings. We addressed Mr You by the respectful name younger people use for scholars of the older generation: Teacher You. Teacher You pointed to those three lintels and said proudly: "That's several generations of true scholarship and talent; you can't buy that now, not at any price!"

On entering the You family courtyard, the ancestral temple stands on the left and the parlour to the right, the two low buildings on either side being for the use of the three brothers and sisters and their families when they came to visit, with bedrooms upstairs and kitchens and living areas downstairs. We were told that this courtyard was normally managed by Mr You's youngest sister, who lived and worked here.

The broad, spacious ancestral temple attracted my attention, for in it were displayed relics of the changing times through which this family had lived. Against the left-hand wall were a pair of dowry chests of the kind used about sixty years ago when taking a bride into the family, and which in some places served as chests for the bride's personal possessions. Two antique high-backed chairs in yellow chestnut were placed against the main wall, flanking an old-fashioned square table, on which sat a radio with a dial printed in Russian, about the size of a small microwave oven. Teacher You said that his family had suffered a good deal in the Cultural Revolution because of this radio, which he had brought back after studying in the Soviet Union. The table also held a picture of Teacher You, taken on a visit to a missile base in a country I couldn't identify; when I asked what country it was he smiled but didn't reply. On the right-hand side the floor was empty, but several eye-catching calligraphy scrolls displaying large characters were hanging on the wall; these had been written specially for him by several deceased national leaders. An old couple gazed sombrely down from a photograph on the wall over the table on everybody who came in.

When I saw this room, I understood why Teacher You and his wife came to Hezheng every year for their summer holidays. I thought: Here at least there are no historical rights and wrongs, no worries over changes in the political climate and none of the stresses of keeping up with fashionable living. Or, in Teacher You's words: Not only is the weather cool, the atmosphere is free.

I had originally thought that the main focus of my interviews was to be Teacher You. However, I have always considered that half of a man is woman, and if you wish to understand the man, you must understand the woman who has shared his life, so Mrs You and I had our conversation first. Before she sat down, Mrs You showed me a selection of outfits, and asked me to help choose the one that "suited her best". My suggestion was a pure silk suit of lake green – I thought that this was a colour full of the gentleness of southern Chinese women, and the dignity of a woman with a successful career behind her. When she had changed her clothes and was sitting in front of me, the delicate beauty and dignity of her expression reminded me of my mother. How I wished this could have been me in conversation with my mother.

*

XINRAN: Mrs You, you can sit a little bit more comfortably if you like. First of all I want to ask you for a few memories of your childhood, then stories of when you were a young girl, after that some stories of you as a wife, then as a mother, then as a grandmother. Is that OK?

MRS YOU: Do I have to talk about being a grandmother as well?

XINRAN: We won't discuss big ideas, or politics, just life, your feelings at that time, experiences that are yours alone and nobody else's. How does that sound?

MRS YOU: That's fine, it's my own things I want to talk about, I don't care about other people's business. First let me say that I'm very happy to see you, with your sweet voice and smiling face. You don't have one of those put-on journalist faces.

XINRAN: Thank you! I know you have a lot of experience of interviews: from the 1950s onwards your name was in all the big national newspapers, you were famous all over the country. But I haven't come here because you're famous – there were many famous people in my lists of possible names, but I didn't really want to talk to them. I could tell over the phone that you were a woman of stature, and I saw your beauty from your photographs. In most Western people's eyes we Chinese have no spirit, Chinese women have no feelings and even no beauty in your generation, so I wanted to interview people with spirit, to show them your elegant beauty and spirit, nurtured by Chinese culture! You must have been very beautiful when you were young.

MRS YOU: Oh no, not me.

XINRAN: Mrs You, people say that the greatest benefit of retirement is having the time and space to recall the past. Do you have many childhood memories?

MRS YOU: I would dearly love to write a book of reminiscences, but I haven't got the time. My daughter-in-law had a child just after I retired, and very soon after that my third daughter had a child too. Because we had no time to look after our children in the past, and our children had a sad life as a result, I want to make it up to them now.

XINRAN: What is the story you most want to write? What are the four or five stories that you most want to tell, from when you were a girl of ten until now?

MRS YOU: There are ever so many, where should I begin? I've never told my stories because nobody's ever wanted to hear them. At first I was afraid that people would say I came from a bad family background, then later on I was worried that the children would laugh at me. I was born and grew up in Jingxiang village in Cang'an county, Zhejiang province, it has over six hundred years of history. It was built when the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang fought Japanese pirates there, it has a city wall with four gates and a moat, and there's a group of hills inside the town that looks like a lion, called Lion Mountain, the scenery is very beautiful, and there are a lot of cultured people in the town. But it's a pity, they pulled down the walls and got rid of the ancient buildings during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Eastern Sea is close by, it's a land of fish and rice, you could eat freshly caught fish every day there. Girls from the seaside all have big, bright eyes, perhaps because they eat a lot of seafood, fish and prawn skins.

XINRAN: Is this a local legend?

MRS YOU: We didn't understand in those days, but later on I discovered that seafood contains a lot of calcium, which is good for the eyes.

XINRAN: I've heard that Zhejiang girls are very beautiful, but I never thought that it was from eating seafood.

MRS YOU: The girls are pretty there, and it has a good climate, there are no bitterly cold winters, and no sandstorms either. There was this one winter when we were young, there was a sudden, light fall of snow, snowflakes were drifting about in small flurries, not many of them. My brothers and sisters and I were so happy, we got a cotton sheet, and each took hold of a corner to catch the snow so that none would fall on the ground, it was very beautiful. And then there was another particularly cold year, it snowed again, and that time we made a snowman. We never saw snow in winter again after that. We never wore thick cotton-padded clothes, thick overcoats, or even woollen undertrousers, we'd just use an extra pair of unlined trousers.

XINRAN: Tell me about your mother and father.

MRS YOU: My father's family had been scholars for generations, although by his generation they had lost most of their wealth. They always approved of education and supported setting up schools. My grandparents gave several mu of family land for a school, it was called the "Awakening Teacher School". My oldest uncle went to Hangzhou Commercial College, but my second uncle and my father didn't get so much schooling. My father started out as an apprentice in a tailor's shop straight out of primary school. He didn't marry until he was thirty, and he was very happy when I came along. It was a feudal society in those days, people only celebrated the first male child, but my father wasn't like other men – he treated me like a boy. My grandmother was widowed when she was still in her thirties, she was very fond of me. Now I don't have very clear memories from when I was very small, but sometimes they still appear vaguely in my brain.

I remember when I was four I often put charcoal bricks in my grandmother's brass stove – my mother used to get everything ready, and then I'd pop in the charcoal. It was a cold winter day, I hadn't slept all night. I heard the grown-ups crying, and I thought that it was Granny, crying because there was nobody to tend her stove, so I called out to Mummy, "Take the stove over to Granny so she can get warm," but Mummy said that Granny had passed away. Later, I saw the adults crying and I cried along with them. That was the first time I saw grown-ups cry, and it made me wonder why.

Then there was a time when I was five or six, a very cold day in winter. We had a pond in the courtyard of our house, the children all liked playing by that pond and looking at the fish. I went to play by the pond, but somehow I fell in! The pool was quite deep in the middle, though the sides were shallow, and I was wearing a black quilted jacket. That heavy soaked padded jacket was a dead weight, dragging me down, I couldn't move, and I didn't know to call out. Luckily, one of my uncles was over on a visit, he heard the splash from the parlour, and saw a black padded jacket bobbing about in the pool. "Aiya," he said, "I've just seen a child fall in!" and he came rushing over to pull me out. I was chilled to the bone. Now whenever I speak of cold, I think of the freezing cold of that black padded jacket.

By the time I was seven or eight, I was already in the second year of primary school. Our family had a big house then, with a central courtyard paved with flagstones. In those days there were no toys, nothing to play with, so in summer we little girls drew houses on the flagstones with chalk and played hopscotch. Just as I was playing happily with a few other girls, all of a sudden there was a roar, the earth and sky seemed to shake, the sky grew dark, and we heard a loud noise. We were frightened out of our wits, we didn't know what was happening, so we hurried out onto the street. We saw people strolling about, enjoying the cool evening air; they were all fine, they'd heard a loud noise, but it was all over quickly, and nobody knew what it was. It was only later that we found out from the grown-ups that this noise was made by something called a bomb. The Japanese had been dropping bombs on China, but we had never experienced it in our part of the world. So we girls slowly made our way back home, where we found that a beam of the house had been broken by the shock, and the two beds underneath the beam were covered in tiles from the roof. They had just fetched my baby brother from the bed.

XINRAN: You were saying that you were already at primary school then. What did you learn at school in those days?

MRS YOU: In the first year we learned a lot of poems and children's folk rhymes. There's a song I still know by heart: "Kitten small, kitten jump, kitten catch a rat, rat run away." In the second year the teacher taught us how to use an abacus to add and subtract – there were rhymes to teach us the rules of the abacus. For activities, we ran races and played with rubber balls, and we played hide-and-seek, and running to a tree for forfeits, the last one to touch the tree had to sing a song.

XINRAN: What was the proportion of male students to female students when you were in primary school?

MRS YOU: Our village was relatively enlightened for the time. A lot of the girls went to school, sometimes a third of a class was girls. All the girls in my extended family went to school. My uncle, who had attended commercial college, became the headmaster of the school my grandparents set up. He only had three daughters, no sons, but he had progressive ideas, and encouraged the villagers to oppose Yuan Shikai and support Sun Yat-sen. All his daughters went on to marry scholars and educated men, and they certainly influenced me.

XINRAN: It's said that in China in the thirties and forties standard middle schools were the only route to senior school and then university, but there were very few schools and the fees were very high, so what kind of middle school did you go to?

MRS YOU: In those days there was only a primary school in the village, so when I started middle school at the age of thirteen, I had to leave home to go to teacher training school. At that time my ambition was to be a doctor. A lot of people died of tuberculosis in those days – my cousin and my oldest uncle had both died of TB, and other relatives too. To become a doctor I would have had to attend the standard middle school, followed by senior middle school and university, but my family's finances couldn't stretch that far, so I had to sit the exam for the teacher training school. At the start of the course the teacher announced that the first essay was on "My Ambition". I said that my ambition had originally been to be a doctor, but now I was at the teacher training school, I had told myself: you should be a teacher, and serve the people. The teacher liked my essay, and I got 99 per cent.

Our home was a few li away from the teacher training school, and in those days there were no cars, and it would take two hours to get from home to school on foot. When I was in my second year, I wanted to go back home to pick up some clothes. I had a classmate, not as tall as me, but a year older, who also wanted to go home for her summer clothes, so the two of us set off early one Sunday morning. The school food wasn't that tasty or plentiful, four small dishes between eight of us, and if you were a slow eater you wouldn't get enough. We'd all stand to attention and then they'd say "kaitong! " ["dinner is served"], and everybody would pick up their chopsticks at once, quick eaters would eat their fill, slow eaters got very little, so when I came back home I wanted something to eat. In those years we didn't have any biscuits or bread, just rice; the family had a grinder, my mother ground flour and made a few flat cakes, with spring onions and shrimp flakes added – that was a delicious treat. Because we waited for those tasty shrimp cakes, we didn't set off back to school until four o'clock. In summer, thunderstorms could come at any time, but we were young and thoughtless, and nobody thought to warn us. There were four gates in the town wall, north, south, east and west, we left by the north gate, heading for school, but when we reached a village called Qianche the sky darkened, there was a roll of thunder, and all at once the rain came pouring down in torrents. The flagstone path we were walking on was only a handspan wide, just a row of stone slabs, with paddy fields full of uncut rice plants on one side and a big river on the other. We were walking in single file, and I was holding an umbrella, with a bag of summer clothes on my arm. I was scared I wouldn't make it back to school in time and they'd fine us, so I was getting panicky and flustered. We just kept walking, with her in front and me behind. We couldn't see any peasants working in the fields in their south Chinese straw rain capes, there wasn't even anybody else on the path, no one but ourselves between the vast, empty paddy fields and the river, where many wild water lilies were growing. The other girl was going very fast, she was over a dozen metres ahead of me, and somehow I slipped and fell into the river. Luckily the wild water lilies were very thick there, I dropped right on top of them, with the river water rushing past in torrents next to me. At the time I wasn't scared, and somehow I managed to clamber back up. As soon as I was on the bank I shouted, "Heavens above!" (Southerners shout "Heavens above" whenever anything happens.) But that evening I lay on my bed, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. The more I thought about it the more scared I became; if the water lilies had covered me, I wouldn't have been able to climb back up by myself, and nobody would have come to rescue me, they wouldn't even have been able to find my body. Having nearly drowned twice when I was young, I was always afraid of water and so never learned to swim.

XINRAN: Mrs You, in your memories, what sort of people were your mother and father?

MRS YOU: I can't remember so much about Daddy, he was always busy with his work; besides, I was a girl – he liked me, but he didn't care about my studies as much as my younger brothers'. My mother was a very hard-working, very honest woman, she wasn't afraid of hardship. She was very fond of me when I was a little girl, she taught me to turn up a hem, to cut out cloth and make clothes, to sew and mend. In the past, we even made our own belts for trousers; raising silkworms, weaving cloth, we did it all ourselves. She could do everything: reeling the silk off the individual silkworm cocoons to weave into silk, weaving cotton cloth and embroidery. In the summer and winter holidays I liked to follow her about and give her a hand here and there. I wove on the loom as well, and when I was a bit older I helped my mother make shoes. There were four boys after me, so I helped my mother to sew many shoe soles. Our summer holidays weren't like the ones children have nowadays, with drawing lessons, piano lessons or cramming classes. We had to spend every holiday making shoes, we couldn't afford to buy them. I really don't know how we would have managed without my mother's skill and hard work.

XINRAN: After listening to you, I can "see" your mother, a mother who not only taught you how to be a woman, but how to survive. Do you believe that this is one of the reasons why children nowadays are not as close to their mothers as they were in your generation?

MRS YOU: Of course! Just like I never thought about these things until I became a mother myself, but by that time I wasn't my own master, the times were different, and there were different demands on women.

XINRAN: You were the first head of a female oil-prospecting brigade in China's history. You went from a trainee teacher to that, which makes you a Chinese miracle in your own time.

MRS YOU: I haven't really thought about it. We weren't very sophisticated then, we only thought about building up our motherland, about not letting the American imperialists bully us, not giving the Westerners a reason to look down on us! In 1953 a call went out to train a batch of fast-track teachers to serve the nation. Three years of study were condensed into a single year. When I finished teacher training school I was sent straight on to Wenzhou City Normal School. My idea at the time was that once I graduated as a teacher I'd start making a living as a teacher. But when we were about to graduate and be assigned jobs, the North-West Geology Management College sent a representative from Xi'an to our school in Wenzhou to select two hundred students to help the great north-western oil-prospecting mission. He said the nation needed this survey more than they needed teachers, so the school encouraged activists to devote themselves to the construction of the motherland. I was very progressive in those days, I was class monitor, and I'd been on propaganda teams.

I liked the thought of seeing the outside world, that had always been an ambition of mine. I had read many books as a little girl, and the story of Mulan in the army was the one that stirred me most deeply. I had learned about the Great North-West in geography and history classes, I knew about the northern Chinese scenery, I knew that it snowed in the north-west, and I knew about things like the Qilian Mountains and Jiayuguan, where the Great Wall ends in the desert. All of these were things I'd heard about in poems, and I wanted to go out and explore it for myself. At that time none of us knew what a geological survey actually was, and we never thought to mention it – the motherland needed us!

I was in Wenzhou, which was a long way away from my home town, and at that time transport was poor, there was no road, and no bridge to cross the river, so I hadn't been back at all since I left for the Normal School. I thought the family wouldn't be that worried, after all I wasn't a boy, so I went straight from the school to Xi'an – my family didn't even know.

First we took the bus to Hangzhou, and then a train from Hangzhou to Xi'an. When we arrived in Xi'an we were all very excited, it was quite backward but we didn't care, and we went to visit the Great Goose Pagoda. The course in Xi'an was an accelerated course, we went very fast. We were put into two classes where we studied everything from the theory of surveying to on-the-spot surveying. I was head of the first class. We studied theory as though our lives depended on it, but we didn't really get to grips with what it was actually like and we had no idea of the hard work that was to come. As part of our training, the school sent our group away for field study and testing, so after several months of theory we went to Yan'an for winter training, on the Yellow Earth Plateau.

It was so cold in Yan'an in winter, there was over a metre of snow. Still, nobody complained, none of us showed the slightest anxiety or worried about the hardship, we felt almost holy, living in a cave house in Yangjialing, a place where Chairman Mao had once lived. I was in charge of three small groups in one subunit, all girls, six to a cave house, with six army canvas travelling cots and a basin of burning charcoal to keep out the winter cold. The quilts were very thin, just light summer quilts, and everyone had a heavy cotton-padded jacket and a pair of padded trousers. They only had millet in Yan'an, they'd never even seen rice, and mantou [steamed bread buns] were for field training only. Field training was very tough; we got up before daybreak, and set off carrying a water bottle and a dozen mantou in our backpacks. By noon our mantou were lumps of ice, sometimes we couldn't get our teeth into them at all, there was no fire to heat them on, and we'd finished all the water, we were so thirsty we had to eat snow, we always had good appetites in those days. Walking around in the ice and snow, tens of degrees below zero, the girls' hair stuck together in icy clumps, and when the boys went out their moustaches went all white. The Yan River had frozen solid, and we had to cross it every day to climb the snow-covered mountain; if you fell into a hollow where the snow had piled up you couldn't climb out by yourself, somebody had to pull you out. At that time we lacked even the most basic necessities for our tasks – we didn't even have warm shoes, just light military summer shoes with rubber soles, and those are very slippery. It was impossible to climb mountains in thick cotton-padded trousers, so we didn't wear them, just two pairs of unlined trousers, and nobody complained of the cold either.

We were young, we were healthy and full of energy, but even so, going out early and coming back late, some of our classmates' hands froze up like the mantou, sometimes we couldn't get our socks off because they were stuck to our skin. In the evening, when the cold became unbearable, we had to sleep in pairs, huddled together for warmth. I feel a real nostalgia for our enthusiasm and cheerfulness under those conditions: we used to sing songs while we were resting. Sometimes we'd start to sing on one mountain, and they'd pick up the tune on the next mountain; we sang back and forth to each other. There was the "Song of the Pioneers", and songs from the Soviet Union, "Katyusha", "One Road", I've sung them all. And that was our three months of practical study. Back in Xi'an we spent two or three more months reinforcing what we'd learned, and then we were posted to jobs in the Jiuquan Big Brigade. There were three survey brigades then, two with male leaders, and I was the leader of the third brigade. We were the vanguard of the survey, the advance guard of the oil pioneers; our duty was to draw topographical maps of the areas they were exploring, so we were always first on the scene. At that time trains from Xi'an only went as far as Lanzhou, there was no railway from Lanzhou to Jiuquan, so we set off from Lanzhou in big trucks, with the vast yellow sands of the Gobi all along the route, we could go for a day with nothing but endless yellow sands, no sign of human life, and then another day would come and go without a soul to be seen. All the roads were dirt tracks, all bumps and hollows, we were tumbled about in the trucks until even our insides hurt from all the shaking. Our track was a strip of yellow road under us; behind us was dust like a tail of thick, choking smoke, our throats were burning and dry. We could do nothing about our hair – we all had matted hair and grimy faces. Every time we reached a stop in the evening, there'd be over a dozen of us to one big kang, all in a row, one next to the other, with grass mats to lie on, we were stung and bitten all through the night, and we couldn't do a thing about it. What did we burn? Cow and horse dung! It was still very cold indeed in the Great North-West when we first went out in April and May, and we only had dung for fuel, which filled the room with its stink as soon as you lit it, but nobody said a word about the dirt or the harshness of the life. It's very interesting to look back on that time, our generation takes pride in having experienced this memorable part of history.

And that was how our band of girls arrived at the Jiuquan Big Brigade base. It was a single-storey building, we slept on iron beds, and we couldn't have been happier if we had gone to heaven. It was almost International Labour Day when we arrived, and I still remember 1 May very clearly: snow was still falling from the sky – we all sat on the ground in the open air, wearing big thick padded jackets, but no hats, holding an activists' meeting.

*

In post-1949 China, 1 May was a very important festival. First, it was a holiday that belonged to the working people themselves; second, it was an opportunity for propaganda, crusading against the oppression and exploitation of the labourers under capitalism; third, work units or the government would use this day to hold activists' meetings, introducing new schemes or work plans for the summer.

*

MRS YOU: In the activists' meeting the leaders told our group that we were going to leave for the worksite. The following day a long file of more than ten trucks set off in the direction of Jiayuguan, carrying my women's survey team and a few tents. Our worksite was on the far side of the Jiayuguan pass. In the past, many majestic, beautiful epic poems had been written by scholars and poets about this Jiayuguan, but when we got there all we could see was the vast Gobi Desert stretching out boundlessly in all directions, a great, barren desert with no sign of life and no vegetation! There wasn't a living soul to be seen.

But do you know something? When we saw it we were full of pride. I told our group: we too can bring our work to places where the great poets of ancient times have been, this is an honour. Really, at that time that was what I thought.

We put up our tents in a village in Jiayuguan and moved in. The only technicians in the team were me and my classmates, all women. One of the apprentice workers from Nanjing was just sixteen, and I was only eighteen. On outside fieldwork we were split into many small groups: Terrain Reconnaissance, Site Selection, Observation, Mapping. My team were the vanguard of the survey, the people in Mapping would survey and map the terrain based on the control points we had measured.

XINRAN: And was that where you met Teacher You?

MRS YOU: Yes, he was in the Jiuquan Big Brigade too. He came to work in our brigade in 1952, to help us with the technology. He was also responsible for the organisational work of the Communist Party Youth League, and he often came to inspect our work. At that time I was still young, I hadn't started thinking about courtship, marriage or anything of that sort. Then a writer called Yu Ruobin (his pen name was Sha Duoling) came to the site; he'd come to experience life with us in the Jiuquan Big Brigade, and he wrote a lot of poems about our women's survey team and the Gobi Desert. Many journalists from the Xinhua News Agency used to come to report on our team, and they took lots of photographs. This writer Sha Duoling told me about You's background: he was a graduate from the Lanzhou University physics department, a Hero of Labour, and his work was first-rate. He said he'd done a special report on You, a man who struggled fiercely for the sake of the construction of the motherland. He suffered from stomach trouble, and once he'd fainted dead away on the worksite, but when he came round he just carried on as normal . . . he was a man with a very strong work ethic. I began to notice this man, and later on You himself suggested that he would like to make friends with me.

XINRAN: Do you still remember the words he used when he asked you to marry him?

MRS YOU: He didn't say the romantic words you would see in books today, he just asked me if I wanted him to make friends with me, and was that all right?

*

In China before 1990, "lover" was an embarrassing word, even a louche, dissolute word. When a man and a woman were said to be "making friends", this referred to courtship. In the period between 1930 and 1980, a couple who were Party members had to gain authorisation from the Party organisation before "making friends"; from the 1950s to the 1980s this rule was an unwritten law in Chinese society.

*

XINRAN: How did you reply?

MRS YOU: At first I really didn't know what to reply. When I kept silent he said: "It's perfectly simple, just tell me, do we or don't we? Be frank." At that time there were quite a few people who were keen on me, but I agreed anyway. Why did I choose him? This has a lot to do with my family, and the influence of my older girl cousins: they had all married university students in the 1920s and 30s, and they were all very talented men: one was a professor in the Shanghai Finance and Economics Institute, and one had been a student of literature at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, and after the Liberation he became a teacher, everyone thought he was amazing – at that time people who had been to university were rarer than a unicorn horn or phoenix feathers. So I thought I couldn't do less than them, and I had always admired educated people. At that time I'd never heard of MAs, PhDs or anything like that, and though my ambition had been to be a university student myself, it was impossible then, so I would naturally tend to look favourably on a university graduate as a marriage partner! The best candidates among my classmates were only vocational school graduates, none of us had been to university. So You's educational background and his personal circumstances both met my standards, but actually the most important thing was the man himself. Besides, that writer Sha Duoling, our deputy group leader and the organisational secretary of the Youth League had all told me: "A Hero of Labour is bound to be a hard worker, and a hard-working man is always good news."

XINRAN: So, your marriage was influenced by the Party, and by the Party organisation.

MRS YOU: Oh, at that time an introduction from the Party organisation was as good as a guarantee, many people said yes as soon as the organisation introduced them! In those days we'd only just freed ourselves from arranged marriages – anything that wasn't decided by our parents was a kind of freedom! Besides, I had this notion of marrying a university student, so when other classmates suggested getting together, I turned them down. He was the first one I considered, but I didn't know how to answer him.

XINRAN: So how did you answer him?

MRS YOU: He was a leader – even when proposing marriage he knew a thing or two about leadership. He saw I was unable to speak so he said: "Can we or can't we? If not, we don't have to," just like that. I still didn't reply, but I didn't refuse him either.

XINRAN: And how long did your courtship last?

MRS YOU: Not that long. It was silly of me, he won a Hero of Labour prize (back then prizes were always The Complete Works of Mao Zedong) but when the time came for him to collect it he didn't go himself, but sent me to collect it for him, so I went blundering off to collect his prize. All this had a purpose, it was to test whether I was really serious, and to show me that he was a famous Hero of Labour. Afterwards when we returned from Jiuquan to Xi'an, he took my suitcase for me, and put it in the truck for me. He didn't lift a finger to help any of my other classmates, I remember it very clearly. When we were back in Xi'an for theoretical study, we went to the Xi'an restaurant on our rest day to eat snacks, especially their local speciality. Xi'an was very backward in those days. There were no cars or buses – we took a horse and cart from outside the city wall to the city centre.

XINRAN: What was the local speciality?

MRS YOU: Different kinds of Xi'an dumplings, all different types, and there was yang-rou-pao-mo – lamb stew with coriander and crumbled flatbread.

XINRAN: When you ate out together, who paid?

MRS YOU: He paid. I wanted to pay, you know, equality between the sexes and all that, but he wouldn't let me.

XINRAN: What was your marriage ceremony like?

MRS YOU: The marriage ceremony I do remember. Before we were married, the Petroleum Bureau wanted to train a group of people in aerial surveying at the Beijing Central Mapping Bureau, in order to improve the speed and quality of surveying. My name was on the list. But then the leaders said: "You're getting married soon, you don't have to go." At that time I always felt I had never learned enough, I'd always dreamed of a university diploma; given a chance like this, I couldn't not go. So I said: "It doesn't matter if I'm getting married, I can still go once I'm married. I'll come back when the course is over." I was already China's first head of a women's surveying team, I wanted to be a member of China's first aerial surveying team as well. In those days new training programmes were kept secret, there was no announcement. I'd heard the phrase "aerial surveying" but didn't knew whether it meant flying in the air or walking on the ground. I had no idea. I supposed that if it was aerial, it must be flying in the air, surely? I was determined to fly up to the sky; I wanted to be the first female aerial surveyor of the New China. Since I was going away to study, my colleagues said: "Have your wedding right away, before you leave, a settled relationship is beneficial to study" – and so we got married. We were still wearing our fieldwork clothes, even in our wedding photograph, but I bought us two new scarves for the photo, both the same colour and style, and we wore rosettes, attached to our work clothes. Our colleagues had a whip-round and got us two sets of bedding and some sweets, it was a very simple wedding.

XINRAN: Was there any of the traditional horseplay at your wedding?

MRS YOU: Of course – at that time marriages were the biggest events in our social life. They forced us to sing a song. A few of his geophysicist classmates were a bit more unruly, they were slightly older, they'd seen more of the world. I could sing Shaoxing Opera, and so I sang a bit of that, not very well, just "Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai". When I was young I used to join in the community singing, and I was in the singing group. Later on I had my tonsils out, and my voice turned hoarse.

XINRAN: Did you really go to study as soon as you were married?

MRS YOU: Mmm, I did.

XINRAN: For how long?

MRS YOU: Two years in all. As it turned out he was sent to Moscow for two years while I was studying – he went in 1956.

XINRAN: How long did you live apart?

MRS YOU: Three years, he didn't come back till '58.

XINRAN: Did you go to visit him when he was abroad?

MRS YOU: Go to the Soviet Union? No, in those days it was impossible, they were very strict about letting you go abroad. Besides, we had had our first child by then. When You came back from his studies in 1958 he was assigned to the Bureau of Mines in Turfan, in Xinjiang province; at that time the slogan was "Spur on the galloping horse to full speed, march on Turfan". They dug a well for prospecting beneath the Flaming Mountain, the same Flaming Mountain as in Wu Chengen's Monkey, the part where the monks borrow the fan of the Iron Fan Princess. We set up camp at the foot of the mountain, where we had a one-room brick house for living quarters. There were no fans or electrical equipment then, and in summer the average temperature was over forty-two degrees, and that was in the shade, impossibly hot, you could cook an egg by burying it in the sand. It was over forty degrees inside too, all our things were scalding hot – you could burn your hand on an iron bedstead. Nowhere was it cool, you had to splash the beds and ground with water and at midday draw the curtain, which was just a piece of black cloth, like in a photographer's darkroom; we had to turn day into night to survive there. At midday when it was hottest, work was out of the question, we women just lay there on soaking wet beds, and even that wasn't enough, we had to cover ourselves with sopping towels. The men went to the irrigation ditches, where they skulked under the little bridges, hiding from the heat of the sun. There was nothing else we could do in the middle of the day. Luckily by then our fieldwork could be taken indoors, but the drawing board was so hot that our maps used to stick to it. During the worst heat of the day all we could do was doodle aimlessly, with sweat streaming down our bodies. And as for the nights . . . it was impossible to sleep indoors. We'd drag our beds out into the big courtyard and sleep in the open air. Every evening in Turfan, at eight or nine, a wind would start to blow, and it would continue until eight or nine in the morning, every day was like this, so if we moved outside because we couldn't sleep, we had to try to sleep in the middle of a sandstorm, surrounded by flying sand and walking stones, just like it says in Monkey: "The sand was flying, the stones were walking." When I heard this story as a child I thought the writer was exaggerating, how can there really be stones that walk or grains of sand that fly? But in Turfan we experienced it at first hand. The sand and stones scoured your skin, it hurt, and we couldn't do anything about it, you just had to cover your face with a thin bed sheet, but then it didn't let any air in, everybody was in and out all night . . .

XINRAN: It's hard for us to imagine such hardship, let alone to live and work in those conditions. What did you eat at that time?

MRS YOU: There were lots and lots of grapes and Hami melons. We couldn't eat more than a hundred grams of grain rations in a day, it was too hot to eat, so we lived on fruit. The Hami melons were so sweet that they left a sticky, sugary layer on the table. We didn't eat grapes one by one, but a big handful at a time, like playing the mouth organ. [She laughs.]

XINRAN: How long did you work in Turfan?

MRS YOU: Aiya, we were there for years! We came in '59 and left in '64.

XINRAN: Where did you transfer your field of operations to after that? Was it an improvement?

MRS YOU: After that we went to Ningxia. Our living quarters were half in a cellar dug under the ground and half in a tent pitched above it. Ningxia suffers from sandstorms too – in a Ningxia sandstorm you could be sitting a metre and a half from me, and I wouldn't be able to see your face for all the sand blowing about!

XINRAN: I've been to a place there called Shouting Hill – people have to shout loudly even when they are very close to each other, there's so much sand in the air that they just can't see or hear each other when they are out working together.

MRS YOU: When you got out of bed in the morning there, you'd find a thick layer of sand on the plastic sheet, and we often used to find sand in our mantou, blown in during the cooking process, it creaked and squeaked in your teeth as you ate, really, you wouldn't believe it if you hadn't lived there. In the big storms, our tents used to get covered in sand, heaped up so thickly that we women couldn't get the door open. A man had to come and help us in the morning. In Ningxia it made no difference how high or low your rank was, the sexes were segregated, there was separate accommodation for men and women.

XINRAN: So how did married couples manage?

MRS YOU: Living arrangements were the same after marriage: men living with men and women living with women. Husbands and wives all lived apart.

XINRAN: So how did you have children?

MRS YOU: You need a room for a child, don't you [laughs], and when we first arrived there weren't any. Then a room was set up for married couples. You had to wait in a queue and book it. [She laughs again.] My three children were all made there – my older son was born in 1958, my second son in 1960, and my youngest, a daughter, in 1963. At that time we all knew that finding oil wasn't really the be all and end all, but you did have to go all out for the revolution.

XINRAN: "Finding oil wasn't the be all and end all, but you had to go all out for the revolution"? So you abandoned your families and spouses?

MRS YOU: We didn't abandon them, but they weren't as important as they are to people nowadays. Besides, anyone who talked a lot about their children and husband and so on would be looked down on, people would accuse you of not having a progressive attitude or of being too petty bourgeois. You couldn't be too fussy about living conditions.

XINRAN: Did you miss home?

MRS YOU: Very rarely, we were all tired out every day, nobody mentioned missing home or anything of that sort. When you got up you'd work with all your might; when you got back to the dormitory you went to sleep as soon as your head hit the pillow. It was very simple, and very happy too! Fortunately we didn't have the children with us at that time, my elder children grew up in You's home town, here in Hezheng. When I was pregnant with my younger daughter I decided to take home leave and go back to my own family. Taking care of the children was too much for You's mother, I needed help from my family.

XINRAN: So you hadn't been home since you left?

MRS YOU: The first time I went home on a family visit was 1964, ten years after I left. On the map it looks like there's a direct line from Xinjiang in the north-west to my home in Dong'an in the east, but at that time there were no roads, not even railway stations, the only transport was in big trucks. When I went home for the first time, I squeezed onto a big truck with the local Xinjiang people. I still remember the strong goaty smell from the old sheepskins they wore. It was freezing on the truck, we all crawled inside our quilts, it was like there was a counterpane covering the truck. I took my daughter home by myself, we went from Hami to Lanzhou, spent a night in Lanzhou, and then set off again, changing trains many times en route from Xi'an to Shanghai. At that time trains from Shanghai to my home only went as far as Jinhua, we had to change to a bus at Jinhua, and then a ferry, but at last we finally made it home!

It'd been ten years, and my mother and father looked at me like I'd fallen from the sky, but they were happy, so happy they cried! I didn't sleep at all the night I arrived home. It was summer, I sat with my mother and father in the central courtyard of the house, and we talked till dawn, just the three of us. I didn't have any gifts to bring them from Turfan, only a couple of bags containing several dozen pounds of raisins.

XINRAN: The most important thing to them would be that you brought their granddaughter to them.

MRS YOU: Oh, yes, my father went shouting all the way down the street: "My daughter's back, my daughter's come back, and she's brought my granddaughter!" All our relatives and friends could hear him.

XINRAN: Did they complain about your being away so long?

MRS YOU: Ah . . . they didn't complain.

XINRAN: They didn't complain? You'd left ten years before without a proper farewell, and hadn't been heard of since?

MRS YOU: My parents knew that I had wanted to leave to join the army in 1949 and 1950, but I didn't go then because my brothers were too small, I was needed at home. My home town was liberated in May 1949. The teacher in our local school was a member of the underground Communist Party, though I didn't know that at the time, I only found out once we'd been liberated. The Party organised a teachers' and school-leavers' propaganda team. I joined the team and we went to the country villages and the fishing villages by the sea, opposing imperialism, local despots and feudalism, and helping liberate women from arranged marriages.

XINRAN: Had the people in your home town seen the reports of you in the papers?

MRS YOU: Yes, in 1954, in the People's Pictorial News, People's Daily . . . you could find reports about me in all the youth papers. All my family knew, all the teachers too. The news caused a nationwide sensation at the time, this was the early fifties, remember. The Xinhua News Agency took photographs for propaganda, women going to work in difficult places was big news, they were big pictures too. We got letters encouraging us from all over the country, all the young people wanted to be like us, and went as construction volunteers to the north-west. We were all yearning to sacrifice our youth to the motherland.

XINRAN: You spent your youth toiling so hard, did you ever cry?

MRS YOU: No.

XINRAN: Not once? Why not? You have a woman's body too, don't you?

MRS YOU: No, I really didn't cry, not once. I think it's because I had good health, I never got even a touch of frostbite, or any injury – good health is one of my best traits. Plus I had both a burden and an ambition. When I was a student in Yan'an I read a book, in those days the Soviet Union was a model for China, and this story was set in a very, very cold place that was a long way away from Moscow, it was the story of a woman engineer who toiled, struggled and devoted herself to the motherland. I am a woman engineer too, I was a Bolshevik like her, and I was a long way from Beijing, in the Gobi Desert, the Great North-West, struggling for the sake of my own motherland. I thought I was the Chinese version of her.

XINRAN: Then have you ever been worried?

MRS YOU: Oh, I've had every kind of worry in my work! What did it mean to be a Big Brigade Leader, and how did I set about being one? I just didn't get it, but I was the first, there was nobody to teach me. At the very beginning we had to set up four starting points for prospecting sites in a day, when we went out in the morning the sky might be clear for a thousand miles, but a moment later we'd be in the middle of a thunderstorm, the light was all wrong for surveying, so the observation points weren't accurate, and inaccurate surveying would affect the quality of our work. The plan had been to finish our mission in eighteen days, but we couldn't make the deadline, we were working on it for a month. That was an anxious time, we all cried together, we all commiserated. At that time we took the nation's plans very seriously indeed; failure to complete your plan on time was like committing a crime, so if everyone was unable to complete their mission, they would be very, very guilty, profoundly guilty.

XINRAN: So have you cried over matters to do with the home?

MRS YOU: Over family matters? No.

XINRAN: And you didn't cry for your children either?

MRS YOU: No I didn't! The children were raised by their two grandmothers, so I didn't worry about them, we couldn't keep the children with us, and the old people were fond of them.

XINRAN: Mrs You, have you told these stories to your children?

MRS YOU: Not in as much detail as this, not yet.

XINRAN: Why haven't you told them?

MRS YOU: Ah . . . well, I said not in as much detail, didn't I?!

XINRAN: Did you not have a chance to talk about them? Or were you unwilling to speak of them? Or did you think there was no need to talk?

MRS YOU: I didn't . . . I didn't really go into it.

XINRAN: Have they asked?

MRS YOU: Not like you. They know a little bit. They complain that their parents didn't bring them up when they were small, they grew up tagging along after the old people, they couldn't even go to school properly.

XINRAN: Why not?

MRS YOU: This was the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution, my husband was "struggled against", and he was relieved of all his duties.

XINRAN: So did you get struggled against too?

MRS YOU: I hadn't had as much pre-Liberation schooling as he had. He was worried that I wouldn't be able to bear to see him punished, so he fixed for me to go and stay in the south for a while. I wasn't with him when the public humiliation and criticism were worst, I felt very guilty that I hadn't taken good care of him – '68 was the cruellest time for him, and I didn't come back until '69. Afterwards we had very poor living quarters, our bed was a narrow slab of wood, we had to squeeze onto it to sleep.

XINRAN: At that time, did you have any regrets? That you had married him? That other people didn't understand you?

MRS YOU: I had no regrets. At the time I thought: What's the worst that can happen? He'll go back home to the countryside, he can till the fields and I'll weave cloth, and we'll never go back to any leaders' jobs again, a peaceful, stable life is best.

XINRAN: Do you understand why it all happened?

MRS YOU: I can understand it. They struggled against him because he had been to study in the Soviet Union. Relations between the Soviet Union and China had been good, then later they deteriorated, and he became a running dog of the Soviet Union, and the knowledge he had studied in Soviet Union for the sake of the nation became a crime. [She sighs.]

XINRAN: You have experienced so many changes in China. What do you think is the biggest difference between young people now and in the past?

MRS YOU: The young people today haven't let themselves get caught up in political movements. We were witnesses to the whole process, we were the ones who went through it all. First it was suppressing counterrevolutionaries, later it was the Three Antis and the Five Antis, then the Four Clean-Ups, then the Anti-Rightist campaign, one movement after another. They haven't experienced that spiritual pressure, or seen the pathetic figures their parents cut on the stage in those sessions.

XINRAN: Do the young people today have the faith or aspirations you had in those days? As I was listening to your story, I felt it was full of heroic spirit, such hardship, such exhaustion; your expression when you were speaking was so full of pride, treating those arduous conditions like they were nothing special. So what about young people nowadays?

MRS YOU: Young people nowadays . . . judging by our own sons and daughter, they don't have our faith or sense of responsibility. In our day, work came first.

XINRAN: Do they understand you?

MRS YOU: Yes, they do, but now I feel very ashamed and full of regrets. We didn't bring up our three children properly, because we were both so devoted to our own work.

XINRAN: Why do you say you didn't bring them up properly?

*

Mrs You's eyes had started to redden and swim with tears. That face, which had been so full of high morale and fighting spirit, fell, and she stared at her hands, rubbing and twisting them together uneasily. When she spoke again it was in the voice of a child who had done something bad.

*

MRS YOU: When they were the right age for school it was the Cultural Revolution, and because their father was a "bad man", they weren't considered suitable. It wasn't till they were grown up that they went to the adult education school, and they found that really hard going. At that time we both had ambitions, we were both educated people and we had very high expectations for our children, but none of them measured up to our ambitions, not even in education. All this was because we had buried ourselves in our own careers, our careers for the sake of the future they have today, yet our children were rejected by the times.

XINRAN: Mrs You, if you could live your life over again, your career, your family, right up to your present day, would you choose this path in life?

MRS YOU: I . . . I think I have no regrets of any kind about my choice of career, in spite of the illnesses I picked up, the stomach problems and the rheumatism I have now. When I recall the hard work of those days, I feel very proud, I feel I have brought honour to my own life, because a person who has never experienced hard work and suffering will never know how sweet work and life can be afterwards.

XINRAN: If your children or your grandchildren were to ask you sometime, what made a girl like you, a girl who was afraid of the dark and afraid of water, into someone as strong and tough, successful and self-confident as you are today, would you say that was because of the times you lived in? Or because of your family? Or your personal ambitions? Or your will?

MRS YOU: This has a lot to do with the education in those days. The idea of women's liberation in those days was very masculinised. I wanted to be able to do anything boys could do. In the propaganda team I wanted to dress up to play the boys' roles. My father told me that he wanted me to have the same success as a boy – whatever a boy could do, he required me to do, his demands on me were very severe. There are other stories of Chinese women too, Hua Mulan following the army, Qiu Jin in the 1911 revolution, and Communist women like Song Qingling and Deng Yingchao. Those women influenced me a lot – in those days we were all imitating heroes.

XINRAN: Do you still believe that it was right to have those kinds of aspirations and beliefs?

MRS YOU: I feel that I was right.

XINRAN: Do you know that many young people say that their parents' generation was very foolish in their loyalty, and, going back another generation, that their grandparents' generation was both foolish and ignorant? How do you see this?

MRS YOU: China's current greatness and strength didn't just fall out of the sky, it's only the hard, bitter struggles and sacrifices of the previous generations, one generation after another, that have given us the China we have today. If you don't believe it, ask You later – our generation just had more spirit than today's young generation.

XINRAN: Are you certain that Teacher You will think the same as you?

MRS YOU: Other things I can't be certain about, but we're of one mind about the price we paid in those years for our work, and for the motherland.

XINRAN: Have the two of you ever had arguments?

MRS YOU: Oh yes, we've had arguments.

XINRAN: What do you argue about?

MRS YOU: Sometimes our opinions are different, or our ideas of family life.

XINRAN: In the family? Over the children? Or about life in general?

MRS YOU: He's a northerner, I'm a southerner, sometimes our tastes in food are different – he likes spicy things, I like sweet things – but we aim for agreement in big matters and agree to differ over smaller issues.

XINRAN: Who gives way most, you or him?

MRS YOU: Well, it's usually me who gives way . . . It's a miracle he's still here, he's had a lot of narrow escapes, he's been in car accidents, aiya, several times he's come out safely from some pretty scary situations. Once he was in a truck that turned over – he was on his way to help some other people, and his vehicle turned over in the same place; that big Liberation truck went belly up, all four wheels pointing to the sky, and the people inside all came tumbling out from inside the cab. He's been to that big desert they call the Sea of Death – for every ten people who went in nine never came out again. After the Cultural Revolution he became a big leader again, he must have received honours from every institute of learning in the world, rushing here and there, flying all over the place. He didn't retire till he was over seventy, and he's still climbing up and down the mountains, organising efforts to alleviate poverty.

XINRAN: You really are very strong, with a life like this, full of scares and alarms, but never complaining. If someone were to ask you what kind of man Teacher You is, as a comrade, as a wife, as friend, how would you reply?

MRS YOU: He's very strong, he's a very loyal friend, very practical, and in the time of the Cultural Revolution he didn't make wild statements about other people in order to clear himself.

XINRAN: Is he a good husband?

MRS YOU: Ah . . . [laughs] . . . he's a good husband.

XINRAN [also laughs]: Is he a good father?

MRS YOU: You can only call him just about average, because none of the children have grown up into people of accomplishment. None of them have his deep scholarship, none could ever equal him.

XINRAN: If I were to describe a woman like you in three sentences, what three sentences do you think could give the best picture of you?

MRS YOU: I'm really not very outstanding. I have ambition and I've struggled.

XINRAN: But especially as a woman?

MRS YOU: Ah, hmm . . .

XINRAN: As a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a grandmother.

MRS YOU: I don't know what to say. I want to make it up to them by being a mother and grandmother to them. And I don't know if they're grateful for what I've given up, coming to live in this out-of-the-way place. I want to go to the Old People's University too; I want to play mah-jong, take part in singing contests, sing songs, go on trips to scenic spots. But because I didn't do a good job of raising them before, now I'm retired I want to repay the debt I owe my children through my grandchildren. These aren't very grand ideals, but they come from the heart.

XINRAN: They are words from the heart that I've come on a journey of thousands of miles to hear. I have two questions – I don't want your answers now but I hope you'll think them over. One is: what are the three most bitter and three most happy things in your life? The second question is: you are so successful, you are one of the people who created an era; in the eyes of people nowadays, in the eyes of the young, was it worth it? Please consider these questions.

MRS YOU: I'll think about them, I won't be able to sleep for thinking about them.

XINRAN: I think you must have already spent more nights than you can count thinking about these questions. In fact, once we've given ourselves an answer, we can relax a bit, and sleep a bit easier, at least we won't be disturbed by dreams full of anxiety or sleepless nights. You have a rest now – I'll see you in a bit when we eat.

MRS YOU: Then you try to rest for a while too, don't wear yourself out.

*

When I invited Teacher You in for his interview, his first act on entering the room was to apologise, in a typical Chinese "great man" way, for his wife: "very naive", "no notion of other people's time", "endless nattering" and a series of similar "errors". Although I did not accept his apologies, I did not contradict him either. The first reason for this was that I no longer had the confidence to debate the rights and wrongs between Chinese men and women; the second was that we didn't have the time to discuss this question of "whether a woman could be great, wise and clever in the eyes of her husband", for which no woman has ever had a clear answer since the beginnings of the women's liberation movement. I was one of the many women who had been "taught" by this kind of very successful man; I knew that no matter who you were, in those men's eyes, you would never, ever be able to distance yourself from their preconceived notions of "women and their bad habits".

Teacher You was a man with many honours after his name, most of which were to do with geophysics and oil, but also including a few government posts. This is another very "Chinese" phenomenon: many name cards in China come folded into three sections, with rows of "honours and positions", high-ranking and important offices jostling for space. Sometimes I used to think that they must have three heads and six arms each – how else could they have enough time in the work unit to live out all these parallel existences? A person with so many titles is bound to be a great achiever. However, sometimes you will notice that the majority of the work units to which those titles belong share an address, and can be found in the same unit of the same block of flats: so does the sitting room perhaps count as an organisation? And the kitchen and the bathroom as two companies?

Teacher You's professional titles were all at a national level, yet I could feel a kind of "emptiness" in all of his titles; a feeling that things didn't quite meet in the middle; a sense that there was no successor to carry on his work. This was the "hunger" of modern China's oil business, the "thirst" of modern China's geophysics.

I don't understand the science or history of petroleum, but since the USA and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 I have seen the madness and cruelty to which petroleum can drive humanity: the men with guns shouting out for freedom and democracy, with never a thought for the children who cannot say in the morning if they will live to see nightfall, and nobody to console the aged mothers left without help or support in the middle of a racial war; and I have seen those oil-drunk "liberators" racing to divide up the "liberated" oilfields. Humankind has barely progressed from the primitive plundering, religious battles and power struggles of the last century; nowadays the evils that spring from hunger and desire have just learned to dress themselves in names like "justice and democracy". I worry that oil will cause my own rapidly developing country to turn to crime in its turn. So I wanted very much to know what those petroleum titles represented.

*

XINRAN: Teacher You, the first time I heard about you, I learned that you had very many titles. Please tell me something about the ten titles that you personally consider the most important, if you don't mind?

YOU: I'll tell you the simple truth: I only recognise a few of those titles. I have been Deputy Commander and Chief Engineer of the Yinchuan Petroleum Prospecting Command Office, and Deputy Head of the China Petroleum Prospecting Bureau, and then in 1979 Zhao Ziyang made me Head of the China Petroleum Prospecting Bureau. Now, although I wear many "hats", according to national policy I am classed as retired. When I was still in post, there were many local factors involved in some of my transfers. For example, I was once made head of a local law court in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. When the Petroleum Bureau found out, they said: "You can't go to work in the regions – you belong to us! So the boss of the Petroleum Bureau came with me to the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Regional Office and got me transferred back. Later on the government of another province wanted me to head their Fossil Fuel Bureau, but the Party organisation didn't allow it, and I was transferred back out again that same night.

The Chinese system of employing people is far from perfect; there is a lack of professional knowledge and imagination both in the plan as a whole and the way it is regulated and carried out.

XINRAN: But as I understand it, you are retired in name only – in fact, you are not properly retired.

YOU: I retired in 1990, it would have been impossible not to go then; people have to retire so that young people can get a chance at the top jobs – if the nation doesn't cultivate young people it will be too late for us. But what you say is quite correct: after I retired I was a consultant for five years, in fact I was also doing five years of bureau chief work. Before I was in post I thought that nobody dared to take the lead in anything, everything had to go through the bureau chief – I was in that position, so I had power, I could use the National Prospecting Bureau to sort out the issues surrounding prospecting on a national level once and for all, and sort out international cooperation in many different areas. So although I had retired, I made use of this time to make adjustments to the overall petroleum situation.

XINRAN: Can we say that, apart from your own learning, experience and ability, one of the reasons that the nation kept you on to continue your work was the fierce disputes over oil, as well as the lack of gifted people in petroleum in China?

YOU: Something of both. I have always worked in this profession, unlike many officials who were transferred out and had to do all sorts of other things. The result was that they lost their professional ability, and had no chance to improve their knowledge. I was once sent to the Soviet Union, and studied for two years in the Moscow State Geological Prospecting Academy. When I came back, the nation needed people like me, specialists educated abroad. The office I was working in was developing resources for the nation; they desperately needed competent young people who properly understood the right kind of analysis and deduction. That isn't something you can pick up overnight. China has been held back for a long time by political movements; the foreigners are racing ahead to grab whatever they can, and they won't wait for us.

For some time before I retired, I took part in a lot of international global management technology exchange and cooperation projects. I had a pretty close relationship with the SEG, the Society of Economic Geologists, which included academic matters as well as basic training of talented people. We worked together with Russia's European–Asian Association of Earth Management. I also had contacts with the European Earth Management Association, and represented the official Chinese Earth Management Delegation in fact-finding meetings, foreign academic symposia, international meetings and so on. In all these things and others like them, I was the one in charge of the Chinese delegation.

Because of this, I used to be in charge of the day-to-day running of the Petroleum Association, and headed the specialist committee on Earth Management. China's internal structure doesn't match the international system, which doesn't recognise organisations like ours. The state had to consider the fact that once I stood down there was no one to take over a lot of the international work, so I was asked to carry on for a few more years. But the third reason is just that I was still in pretty good health then – if I was left idle, what was I supposed to do with myself? I said that just having fun would be pointless, better to write a few essays, perhaps do a little bit of scientific research. The work needed me, so I carried on working, and I didn't stop after my five years were up, I still keep up with new developments.

XINRAN: As a child, did you ever think you would become the man you are today?

YOU: Never. I was born right here, in this county. Although Hezheng is a very small place, it has produced seven provincial governors and nine army commanders, thirty or forty colonels, over a hundred battalion commanders, and more besides. Some of these took a firm line with the rich and distributed their wealth to the poor, but there was another group who were capitalist bureaucrats or traders in government monopolies. Never mind that this place is small and very poor, all the horse caravans carrying goods to India and Pakistan had to pass through here! Islam is a powerful force here, we are known as China's Islamic county – in the old days everyone used to be Muslims, nowadays we don't see so much of it. In the past, the locals often used to use racial conflict as an excuse for battles and other disturbances – people could barely make a living! That's just the way things were in those days. I used to look at those bureaucrats, dealers in government monopolies and corrupt officials, and tell myself that it was impossible for me to punish them, the best I could do was to become a teacher, to educate the children, so that they could change our lives through education. In our generation the fashion was: "Study maths, physics and chemistry, and you'll never lack food to eat or clothes to wear!" At that time there was no middle school in the whole district, there were only two schools in the whole county for all ages. I had to go to the county town for senior school, and that was over fifteen kilometres away. I used to set off carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle of steamed buns, so I wouldn't have to go home for a week. The Anti-Japanese War was at its height, and the teachers in the school had very strong ideas; they were a fairly progressive lot. They had all come from places where there was fighting, so they taught us that we had to study hard for the sake of our own futures.

XINRAN: So was the course you studied at university one you chose for yourself? Or were you assigned it?

YOU: I graduated from senior school in 1949, when my home town was liberated, and I got into the physics department of Lanzhou University. There were no buses in those days, or any proper roads, it was all little tracks through the mountains. You had to ask your way as you went, and it took me a month to get to the university on foot from Hezheng to Lanzhou. I chose my course myself; I studied physics, but then I moved into geophysics. Geophysics and physics are two completely different concepts: physics is a relatively practical thing, but geophysics is a part of geology. When we went to university it was the time of the Korean War. We all put our names down to join the army and "Fight America and Defend Korea"; we wanted to go to the front. But the university wouldn't allow it. No students studying physics, maths or chemistry were allowed to enlist, though students from other departments could. In 1952, China urgently needed to develop the petroleum industry, and the search was on in China's few universities for skilled people to do geophysical prospecting. So all the graduates from all the physics departments in the country were gathered together in Beijing for specialist training, except for a few who were kept on by the universities to teach. There were only ninety of us in the whole county (in those days there only used to be seven or eight students in a university department): forty-five of us were sent to the Geological and Mining Production Department, which was called the Geological Bureau then, and forty-five were allocated to the Petroleum Bureau.

The Petroleum Bureau tested every aspect of our knowledge, and we were given forty days of specialist training. At the time I really resented it. Where were all the things I'd been studying? It was perfectly simple: my choice of subject and the subject I was using when I started work were totally different, but the nation needed this technical knowledge, so we had to offer our support; besides, we did whatever the Party told us to do! That was our attitude when we set off, and once we got there the leaders told us that the nation was developing petroleum, and our services were required for the task of geophysical prospecting for oil resources. So that was how I came to oil prospecting and became "a finder of oil, whose feet have trod to the north and the south of the motherland's great rivers" – like in the old song.

XINRAN: At that time, did you know much about the current oil situation in China?

YOU: I only knew that China's oil industry had been in a terrible state before Liberation. Oil was a strategically important war material, and if there was another war we'd be finished without it. So "seeking oil for the nation" became our patriotic duty. Prospecting for oil entails a big investment, long periods of work and high risk; it's complicated, and very hard work. I have personally been involved in China's search for oil in west Jiuquan, the Turfan Basin in Xinjiang and the E'erduosi Basin, and I have been in charge of geophysical prospecting in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, the Erlian Basin in Inner Mongolia and the Jilin Basin in northeast China.

XINRAN: Had the Daqing oilfield become a household name yet?

YOU: No, this was 1952. Daqing wasn't until 1957.

XINRAN: Just now you said that oil prospecting was extremely hard work, can you give me an example?

YOU: When we were fresh out of training in Beijing, there were four big brigades: the Chaoshui, Minhe, Turfan and Jiuquan Brigades. I was allocated to the Jiuquan Brigade, which at that time was centred on the Yumen oilfield in Jiayuguan; there were no people at all in that place, not even grass grew there. They say: "Leaving Jiayuguan, your eyes will be bright with tears, behind you the Ghost Gate Pass, ahead of you the Gobi Desert." That area was still out of bounds then, there were bandits in the mountains. In order to avoid an encounter with bandits we entered the base area under the protection of a squad of People's Liberation Army soldiers, in big Soviet-style trucks. We all wore bulky cotton-padded clothes, black and dirty, with electric wires tied tightly round our waists to keep the dust from blowing into our clothes. On the few occasions when we encountered any locals, they assumed we were Labour through Reform convicts under escort by the PLA – there were often convoys of trucks on that road, taking convicts to Xinjiang.

Lunch at noon was two mantou a head, which we toasted on a fire. There was nothing to burn, so we burned cow dung, which we had to bring ourselves; we'd heat a bottle of water and then just tuck in. When we came back in the evening we slept in tents – there was nowhere to stay – but our spirits were high in those days, nobody minded a little hardship. We put up the tents in the best places we could find by the side of the road. The drivers who went past on the road had a lot of bad habits, they'd try it on with the women comrades if they could, so the women slept in the middle, and the young male comrades slept on the outside.

We were very pure and idealistic; no matter how tough things were, nothing mattered so long as it did not hold back the work. Later I was made Prospecting Team Leader. I was very strict in my demands of the people under me: courting before the stipulated age was out of the question – marriage was nature's way, of course, but there was no accommodation for married couples, husband and wife could not be together, you might as well be in prison. So the rule was that anyone who got married had to be posted elsewhere, in that way there was no housing problem and no question of children. After all, in the army soldiers were never allowed to marry at all.

XINRAN: People always have the seven feelings and six desires; when they reached the standard age and got married, could they be together then?

YOU: No, normally they couldn't; if they had children, we'd send the children back to their old home. Look at my three children, one child went to her maternal grandmother in Wenzhou, and the other two here, and education here was appalling in those days! The children were left at home with no one to take charge of them. Now my children think badly of me because they had no chance to go to school, they missed out because of me . . .

*

Teacher You's head was bowed and he spoke the last few sentences in a hoarse, low voice, which I could barely catch, as if talking to himself. Once again I saw the deep pain and guilt which those who had sacrificed themselves in those days feel towards their children. There are many people like this in China's older generations, and these feelings could be seen to a greater or lesser extent on the faces of almost every old person I interviewed: a callus on the heart rubbed raw by days and nights of guilt. Their children had become the victims of their parents' devotion to duty, their innocent years of childhood sacrificed on the altar of politics. I am one such child; my father and mother have always been so taken up with their careers that to this day we have never managed to gather the whole family together to celebrate my birthday.

*

XINRAN: Teacher You, as I understand it, before 1980, you all had to request approval from your superiors before you could form a relationship or get married. How is it that a strict team leader like yourself chose a wife from within your own ranks? Wasn't your choice of wife a step beyond the bounds of propriety, a misuse of your authority?

YOU: Oh no, it was a very neat solution to the problem. I was responsible for technology within the brigade, so I had the power to check up on work everywhere, and that was how we got to know each other. She was very fond of studying, but there were almost no books, and you couldn't get magazines either. I worked in the city area, where there was a limited supply of books and newspapers, so I often brought newspapers and magazines out to her.

XINRAN: There were very many girls in the prospecting team; why was Mrs You the only one who caught your fancy?

YOU: She was slightly older, all the rest were younger than her. At the time there was a rule, wasn't there, that you had to be over a certain age, otherwise you would face disciplinary action.

XINRAN: I don't believe it! There must be some other reason, how could you only consider age when taking a wife?

*

Privately, I was quite put out by this typical "Chinese male" tone, unable to admit that his choice had been based on true feelings. His words were spoken in the patronising tone of a "husband" to his wife, as if making his excuses for his regrets in their marriage.

*

YOU: It's true, at that time she was a year or two older than the other girls, otherwise she couldn't have been a team leader. She was also extremely serious and responsible in her work, so when I went to check up on them, I got a good feeling about her.

*

I felt hugely indignant on Mrs You's behalf: in the eyes of the husband she admired so much, their marriage seemed not to have risen from mutual feeling, but to be a part of nature, as spring comes after winter, and summer follows spring. As a woman who has lived and worked in China for over forty years, I should be used to men passing such judgements by now, but it is more than I can manage; I cannot get "used" to it.

*

XINRAN: Do you still remember how you asked her to marry you?

YOU: Aiya! That . . . [He laughs.] What's the point of listening to this stuff?

XINRAN: I want to know how your generation lived your daily lives, people like you who devoted yourselves to the motherland, obeying the Party in everything.

YOU: In those days everybody was very simple, we weren't like people today, we didn't understand romanticism – people who worked well and were ideologically advanced were the first to touch our hearts. She was our nation's first ever female Prospecting Team Leader, that was a very tough job, and she did it very well. So, one time she got ill, she had a cold, I bought a few things and went to visit her, to look after her, and so we gradually came to have feelings for each other. I didn't say any words about wanting to get married, just wrote her a letter. In the letter I said: We both need to look after each other; if you're willing for me to look after you, I will take care of you all your life. We were relatively simple-minded, not sophisticated like people nowadays, with their talk of feelings and romance.

XINRAN: That's not simple-minded, it's called persistent devotion to duty, isn't it? The work above all else?

YOU: Well, yes.

XINRAN: You had been so determined, when they "struggled against" you in the Cultural Revolution, did that lack of understanding and denial of what you stood for cause you pain?

YOU: Hai, it was painful, it's true. In the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards searched our house as we stood there looking on, and we didn't dare say a word. I felt that it was morally wrong, and I didn't understand what it was in the name of. But at the time we just believed that whatever Mao Zedong said had to be right! And the longer it went on, the worse it got, nobody dared to speak out, and the denunciations were very severe. They had two problems with me, one was that I had brought back a radio from my study in the Soviet Union; nobody had a radio in those days, not even a watch, so these worker-peasant cadres all thought I was a secret agent, using that radio marked in Russian to communicate with enemy stations.

XINRAN: And you didn't explain?

YOU: Explain? Those people hadn't had more than a few days' schooling, they didn't understand what I was saying. That really was "a scholar meeting a soldier, in the right but can't make himself understood". In due course they sent me down to be a mechanic, they made me repair buses and trucks, and I came to understand motor vehicles very well, I was able to do things with engines that other people couldn't. I was a very good motor-repair man.

XINRAN: For how long were you under attack?

YOU: More than two years.

XINRAN: Do you think that you changed after you were denounced?

YOU: A little. Before I was denounced I used to be a straight talker, I always said what was on my mind; I dared to criticise everything, even the Three Red Banners [the general Party line on building up socialism, the Great Leap Forward, and the People's Communes], all of that. Afterwards, I told myself: I haven't committed any crime, they were unfair to me, but I won't betray my Party because of this. So for a long time after I was denounced, I very seldom spoke.

XINRAN: To this day?

YOU: Nowadays I'm a bit better. Sometimes I'm none too pleased with some of the policies, but I still have to take the same line as my superiors while talking to the workers; as a leader and a comrade I must do this.

XINRAN: What do you think are the three biggest differences between China before the Liberation, the fifties to the eighties, and the eighties until today? If young people today asked you how they should view this history, what would be your advice?

YOU: Well, now . . . The time is not ripe, you can't say for sure as yet. This is what I think: people should exchange opinions with former Red Guards and their generation, and they should accept the lessons of the Cultural Revolution. We have a responsibility to guide them, because we have experienced more aspects of life than they have; young people only come into contact with the surface layers of society, but my experience is not just of the surface, but of the cross section. Our generation should exchange views on China's development with the former Red Guards and the new generation of officials.

I'll tell you a bit of what I think about your three periods of history. A great change took place in our country after the Liberation – there can be no comparison between the pre- and post-Liberation systems of government. Firstly, the system of ownership is different: under the Guomindang it was a capitalist system of ownership, but after the Liberation we had ownership by the people. Secondly, relationships between people are different. After Liberation, why did the common people immediately stand up to answer the call of the Communist Party? Before, relations between people were those of capitalist slave owners and slaves, that is the big difference between the capitalists and the Communist Party. The third thing was the change in the means of production: in the past people worked for the capitalists, but now we work for ourselves. So in the period after Liberation, people believed that Chairman Mao was leading China to overturn the Three Great Mountains of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism; enthusiasm was high throughout society, so trust in the nation increased; if nothing else, the common people found self-belief.

After this period a series of major policy changes took place, which led to a series of tragedies that caused China to lag behind internationally and the people's standard of living to fall. In fact, the most significant damage to China was caused by ignorant, narrow-minded political movements, which eroded the self-respect that China had only just rediscovered after the Opium War. This is also one of the reasons why today's Chinese have this unhealthy obsession with things foreign.

XINRAN: Do you think that this situation was the result of limited knowledge, or political expediency, or was it due to economic conditions?

YOU: The damage done to the people and to China's non-state-run enterprises between 1958 and the end of the Cultural Revolution is impossible to calculate. I believe that this historical mistake was primarily due to limited knowledge on the part of the leaders. After a long period of making revolution, class struggle was all they knew, they knew nothing about production, and in the end political mistakes were made. I can't say much about anti-rightism, rightist tendencies and the rightist movement, I didn't have much to do with those, but my guess is that it was a political struggle, a struggle for power. The main reason was the major leaders lacked the knowledge necessary to manage a country – at that time hardly anybody in the government had any real understanding of economics. Deng Xiaoping and others like him had studied abroad in France, but they did not hold the dominant positions, and in my personal opinion Zhou Enlai never held a dominant position either. There are all kinds of reasons why China suffered an identity crisis after the Three Great Mountains were gone, but what it boils down to is a lack of sufficient knowledge on the part of the leaders. Nobody dared to say it in the past, but there was a tacit understanding; actually we have not yet opened up sufficiently to discuss this issue now either.

Chinese people still have their Chinese strength of will: if mistakes have been made, then they rectify them. China's luck hasn't been that bad really; once Deng Xiaoping was released, he took facts as his starting point, and reversed all the wrongful verdicts on the people who had contributed so much to the revolution.

XINRAN: From the vantage point of a high-level national manager, do you still have the same concerns about development now? Are the management and policymaking levels of government limited by their lack of international knowledge?

YOU: In my view there are limitations – I'm not saying with everybody, but they are making an effort to put things to rights. In my estimation, it won't require too much work to put matters straight. For example, Deng Xiaoping implemented the Reform and Opening [the opening up of China to the West], which made a great contribution to China's economic development, but in terms of the nation as a whole, imbalances have emerged, and many places still have a lot of problems. Take the heavy industrial areas of the north-east, and the big expansion of the economy in the western region, these are all long-term matters, not something you can sort out in a day. The new generation of leaders has great resolve; they have enlarged the Great North-Western Region, incorporating the big, wealthy cities of Chongqing and Chengdu into the western regions. Urumqi used to be a tiny city with just two streets, now it's the biggest city in the north-west, and after Urumqi they're going to start opening up Yinchuan [the capital city of Ningxia, one of the very poor, arid areas where the Yous prospected for oil]. In other words, by following the policy guidelines laid down by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin has achieved a certain level of development, and we now have a chance to re-establish the national pride we lost in the political movements and the Cultural Revolution.

But objectively speaking, the ability of Jiang Zemin and the leaders and cadres who came before him to plan the economy was severely limited, they lacked knowledge of global society. I have more confidence in the system of the current leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Why? Because they are tackling the issues that the people really feel they need. First there is the "Harmonious Society",*3 a concept that has already been extended to foreign relations; how much time we Chinese have wasted with our internal squabbles and external conflicts, how many wasted lives. The second thing is their idea that "people are the key": in our thousands of years of history it was always power that was the key, this is why we have never had true, meaningful respect for the common people. But it's the third thing that has won the most hearts: solving the problems of China's peasants.

In the past the Party and government used to make a song and dance about how peasants were the key, but in fact it was still the peasants who suffered most! Now it's much better, they have solved a good many of the peasants' problems in small places like Hezheng. There has been a widespread change to high-yield fields here, whereas in the past they would have sown low-yield wheat, beans and the like; oilseed rape used to sell for a few jiao, and now it's three and a half yuan a kilo. This has improved the standard of living for the peasants who grow the crops. Many city people believe that peasants are nothing to do with them, but that's not so! In the cities it's peasant migrant workers who build houses and do all the low-status work. If you don't take the peasants, the vast majority of the population, into consideration when attempting to solve China's problems, then it's never going to work. You won't catch me going with the cadres to view those "advanced experimental areas", listen to "model reports" or any of that stuff. I just want to visit the grass-roots levels, to hear what those peasants who can never leave their land have to say. China is a big agricultural nation; without the peasants as a stable foundation, the landscape of the nation which we have developed with such suffering will not be stable or harmonious. If the peasants don't have a decent life, our national self-confidence is vain and empty. It is the responsibility of a nation to bring harmony, wealth and equality to its people.

XINRAN: I have three final questions. First, young people nowadays consider that of the last two generations, one generation was foolish and ignorant and the other was foolishly loyal. What do you think? Are they right?

YOU: What angle should I look at this from? Have these people studied any advanced cultural knowledge? How much do they know about history, and what is necessary to set up a nation? I think that those young people are wrong.

XINRAN: Second, if you could choose, would you have your time over again?

YOU: Let's leave that one, you're talking about something impossible.

XINRAN: Third question then. Can you tell me about one or two things you remember best from your childhood?

YOU: This is an easy question for me; to this day I've never forgotten the things from my childhood. I'll give you two examples. When I was in primary school, our school only had fourteen uniforms, so anyone who wanted to be in the Boys' Army had to be a good student, one of the top ten in the class, they had to love study, and they had to love labour. I really wanted a uniform; it was made of khaki cloth, similar to foreign clothes, the kind the American soldiers wore. But to wear that uniform I had to pay a deposit of three yuan. I thought hard about it, and finally I begged my family for the three yuan, with tears in my eyes. It was a fine feeling, putting on that army outfit! Every day when school was out, the Boys' Army left first, leading the way, with the ordinary students following on behind, it really gave you a feeling of achievement. When I got home I used to quickly take it off, fold it up very neatly and put it away. This is one of the deepest impressions of my childhood.

The second was during the Anti-Japanese War, when we held a collection for the soldiers at the front line, and every family made an effort for those soldiers. But later on I saw the head of our police bureau giving a speech, ranting and waving his arms around, and he was wearing some of the things we had donated. I thought: Aiya, we've been had, they never sent our gifts to the front line, they took them for themselves! At that moment I decided: If I'm a big official some day, I will never, ever be corrupt. These are the two deepest impressions from my childhood.

XINRAN: Teacher You, do you have any unfulfilled wishes?

YOU: Ah, unfulfilled wishes . . . personally, yes. I'm more ashamed and guilty about my children than anything else. I never gave them a chance to get a proper education. This is my greatest regret.

XINRAN: Now there's hope for your grandchildren.

YOU: Yes! There's hope for the grandchildren! We devote our time to them now, but that's my biggest regret!

*

At that moment we heard a voice in the courtyard calling out for supper.

And so we concluded that day's interview. I prayed for this elderly couple, hoping that these confidences could bring them a measure of peace and comfort. They truly had given their all to China – their own youth, their children's chances in life; how many mothers and fathers in the world would sacrifice their own children's happiness on the altar of a political party or a nation?

The following morning, before we took our leave, I had two more long discussions with Teacher You, in the course of a morning walk and a picnic at noon. This mainly involved me listening to his analysis of the current state of China's petroleum.

*

XINRAN: Teacher You, within the limits of what is permitted, can you tell me in a simple way about China's earliest oil resources?

YOU: Before 1949, China had very little oil; there were only three oilfields in three places. One was the Yanchang oil deposit in northern Shaanxi, an old oil deposit, started in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Another was the Yumen oilfield in Gansu, and the third was the Dushanzi oil deposit in Xinjiang, which we had only just started to develop with Soviet help, we hadn't started extracting. The total value of all three was less than 150,000 tonnes a year.

Before the Liberation we relied mainly on the American company Mobil; as a nation we were dependent on them. After Liberation we only imported Soviet oil for political reasons. The Soviets helped China develop a petroleum industry; they were the ones to suggest recruiting China's physics students as geological prospectors for oil, and the Chinese government did as they suggested, so production levels were somewhat higher in the first ten years after Liberation; with the discovery of the big Kelamayi oilfield, production rose from 150,000 tonnes to 500,000 tonnes.

At that time, when the Petroleum Ministry held its yearly Oil Prospecting Conference in Beijing, there would barely be a hundred key workers present. Many geologists were posted to Daqing in the north-east; at that time oil work was really tough, it's impossible to describe how hard that time was. The centre told us to stick it out for four more years, and bring Daqing to heel! It was tough, but we just kept on working.

After opening up Daqing, we discovered the Shengli oilfield in Shandong, and the North China oilfield. This was when Chinese geological prospecting really took off and China's petroleum started to develop; come the sixties, China was no longer dependent on oil imports, and we didn't start importing again until after the eighties, when we found ourselves developing too quickly. In the seventies our production increased again, to nearly 700,000,000 tonnes. We could easily supply our own needs, and we started to export petroleum to North Korea and Japan.

XINRAN: I saw a news report recently on the possibility that a Russo-Japanese oil pipeline will pass through Chinese territory. Am I right in thinking this is closely connected with the future of our oil supply?

YOU: The best option for China would have been transportation by pipeline, that is, using a pipeline to transport the oil resources of neighbouring countries, thereby lessening China's dependence on oil from the Central Asian region and transportation via the Malacca Straits. The Archangelsk–Daqing Line that would have linked China and Russia collapsed in mysterious circumstances at the last moment, and this cast a heavy shadow over prospects of a pipeline in China's oil strategy.

XINRAN: Do you believe that this "loss" was due to pressure from America and Japan, or was it a Russian manoeuvre? Or was it a problem with our negotiators?

YOU: You could say that it's all of these. Oil is a part of politics now, this is clear to see from international relations, and it's very dangerous.

XINRAN: When did China start having plans for prospecting in Africa? And when did we begin diplomatic relations with the Middle East? When did we start to concern ourselves with Middle Eastern oil reserves?

YOU: Over 50 per cent of our oil imports come from the Middle East; very early on that region became an area of high demand for both oil and weapons. Central Asia accounts for about 30 per cent, and then comes Africa, which produces approximately 20 per cent of China's total crude oil imports. We are now officially trying to get into a few "sidelined and occupied areas". Our main attack is on two fronts: one is Africa, in particular North Africa; the other is the South American region, that's places like Cuba.

In a few months' time China will hold a summit with the heads of forty-eight African nations in Beijing. This will be a forum for Chinese–African cooperation, in which plans will be made for the period between 2007 and 2009, to ensure the future of Chinese–African oil cooperation. The fiftieth anniversary of China's opening diplomatic relations with African countries is in 2006, and it is also the tenth anniversary of the China Petroleum Corporation officially entering Africa on a large scale to develop oil and gas. China's leaders hope to create as quickly as possible a situation in which the African economy will be inseparable from China's oil investment. Africa's oil reserves can safeguard China's energy reserves.

XINRAN: Why are all the brains in the oil world thinking up plans for Africa?

YOU: If you follow the Gulf of Guinea south on an atlas you will see a group of African countries all marked with the sign for oil – that includes Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Congo, all the way down to Angola in the south. A whole series of new oilfields with rich potential have been discovered in the Sahara Desert in North Africa, Sudan in East Africa and Chad in Central Africa.

In Africa's history, petroleum came after gold, ivory and slaves; it was seen as another of the "black" treasures of the African continent. Over a period of decades, just about all of the Western oil magnates have invested large sums in Africa. China Petroleum has had forty-four prospecting and development projects in twenty countries in ten years, with thirteen of those countries in North and West Africa.

Just before oil prices started to rise, Africa became another storehouse of oil for the whole world, a possible successor to the Middle East. But, after decades of prospecting, how much virgin territory is there left in Africa to open up? Between oil giants like ExxonMobil, Shell, Total and the others, what opportunities will China Petroleum still be able to find? This is actually a challenge to China's prospecting technology and transportation capability.

XINRAN: Are you worried about China's prospecting capability?

YOU: In many aspects of prospecting and development, China Petroleum has already reached the world standard (in areas such as passive rift valley basin natural gas theory, integrated prospecting technology, fine-scale imaging of oil reserves and so on. China's oil prospecting is still at the middle-mature stage, and our oil reserves are still in the high basic value, stable growth period), but the difficulty of prospecting is increasing all the time. Generally speaking, China's top oilfields are entering a period of decline, and achieving stable production is becoming increasingly difficult.

China's oil needs are skyrocketing, and this has been perceived as a key reason for the major inflation of international oil prices in recent years. China has already replaced Japan as the world's second biggest consumer of oil (second only to the United States); it is estimated that in less than ten years China's oil needs will have increased from 6,000,000 tonnes a day to 11,500,000 tonnes a day. Our oil reserves are seriously inadequate, and in fourteen years' time China's oil may very well be exhausted. This dramatic transformation from the oil exporter of former years to a major oil-importing nation has already become a "bottleneck" in our development. It is predicted that by 2020 at least 60 per cent of our oil will have to come from imports. To bring our prospecting ability up to a level where it can contend with the world's established high-tech oil nations in fourteen years will be no easy task.

XINRAN: If we can't make it in time on the harvesting front, do you worry about the transportation of oil imports?

YOU: Our country's fleet of oil tankers in the Far East is pitifully small; this does not sit well with constantly increasing oil imports. Over 90 per cent of our country's oil imports have to be transported by sea, and 90 per cent of this seaborne oil is transported in foreign tankers. This leads to another even more serious question: the human factor – it is people who are in charge of our nation's oil security. In order to safeguard our nation's energy reserves, China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company is currently building a world-class oil tanker fleet.

XINRAN: Apart from worries about prospecting, harvesting and sea transportation, do you consider that there are any more urgent tasks for Chinese oil?

YOU: I'm not worried about our oil diplomacy with other nations; we can stand aside and let them fight it out between them. But our internal structure and systems of organisation are cause for concern. In 1998, as part of our country's reforms of the petroleum industry, the original single company was split up into the three companies we have today, in the hope of stimulating competition. But today there is no sign of the results they predicted, a state of competition did not develop, quite the reverse, it created a monopoly, with the three companies carving up their fields of influence between them. The government should be on the alert to prevent this; the oil groups could manipulate the market, to coerce the government.

*

Just as we were completing the China Witness interviews, I saw a news piece on CNN: on 27 August 2006, Chad, which is one of Africa's emerging oil nations, suddenly ordered two of the world's oil giants – America's Chevron-Texaco Company and a Malaysian oil company – to quit the country. This report stated that the Chad government's true motive was to clear the way for the Chinese oil company Sinopec; in all probability this was "reserving a seat" for Sinopec to enter Chad. Analysts were quoted, saying that if this was correct, it would constitute an enormous change in the political relations of the entire African continent. I hope that this is not setting up the battlefields of the Middle East all over again, and that this area will not become the next place of "urgent need" in the development of the arms industry.

When the time came for me to phone Mrs You to check my final draft, she told me that she was still thinking about my two difficult questions: What are the three most painful things and the three happiest things of your life? You are so successful, you created an era, but in modern people's eyes, in young people's eyes, was it worth it?

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