From Tea to Coffee by Cheng Wang is the story of struggle and triumph during China’s modern-day cultural and political drama, and is a rare and personal account that showcases the Chinese national psyche. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book.
“Communism will one day seize the world,” our political economics teacher often lectured as a part of our indoctrination, “and it will happen as naturally as a river flows into the ocean.” Growing up in China, this common creed was well-ingrained in us, and at the ripe old age of seventeen, I wanted to play a part in making it happen.
By the time the Great Cultural Revolution had reached its boiling point, I was at the most ambitious stage of my life. Armed with Chairman Mao’s thoughts, I was ready to assume my role in emancipating humankind. All the humanities textbooks had instilled in us the idea that human societies evolved in a specific order: primitive, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and—guess what came next—communism. Our generation was born precisely to accomplish this mission.
It was a seasonally crisp and sunny day in early September 1975 in Shenyang, my hometown in Northeast China. But, for me, today was anything but normal. I got up much earlier than usual and hurriedly finished my breakfast. I put on a new, pine-green uniform, like those the soldiers wore. Standing in front of a mirror, I strapped a leather belt around my waist and put on a soldier’s hat. It made me look and feel resolute. Pinning a red paper flower as big as a frying pan onto my chest—the size and color representing fire and the highest level of enthusiasm—I waved goodbye to my parents. No words were spoken: we did not even make eye contact.
“I will go with you to the train station,” my brother offered. He was less than two years older than me, and we had always been close.
“No need for that,” I said. Upon second thought, I added, “Or if you want to go, let us meet at the train station.” Today I wanted to stand alone, to look like a real soldier, and enjoy this most significant moment in my life.
Marching out to the street, I climbed onto a military truck along with seven others heading to Shenyang Central Railway Station. To me, today was the most celebrated day in the biggest city in Northeastern China. Flowers and colorful streamers hung for miles, announcing the significant event now underway. Red banners strung across intersections displayed the slogans that everyone could recite in those days: Going to the frontier! Going to the poorest places in China! Going to learn from the peasants!
The uproar of drums, gongs, and cheering crowds became louder and louder as a single-file procession of military trucks slowly rumbled toward the railway station. Standing on the truck bed, immersed in the great commotion, I felt like a hero in a city of five million people.
For the past nine years, Chairman Mao had orchestrated the Great Cultural Revolution. Now, at the end of middle school, I could not wait to play my part in this unprecedented movement that had swept the entire country. Today, like tens of thousands of Educated Youths before me, I was embarking on a journey to a remote village in Inner-Mongolia, Northern China.
My brother rode his bike to the train station. We then had a photo taken next to the train to record the moment.
There, I met seven other people whose parents also worked under the same Cultural Bureau of Shenyang as my father. Overall, thirty-five of us urban teenagers were destined for the same village in Inner-Mongolia.
“Hey, Wang Cheng!”
I turned to see WuYong, my childhood friend; his father had been a close friend of my parents for many years. He and I were going to the same village. I gave him a brief pat on the shoulder. It was an overwhelming moment for us; after all, we had heard the inspirational tales of all the exemplary urban youths before us. Now, it was my turn. I was imbued with the revolutionary spirit.
With a loud and prolonged whistle, followed by the heavy chuffs from the steam engine, our train pulled out of the station. Settling onto a wooden seat, I removed that enormous paper flower from my chest, as it had already served its purpose. Suddenly, it hit me. For the first time, I had left my comfortable home to go to a place 600 miles away where I had no idea what to expect.
The silence in the train carriage was in sharp contrast to the earlier deafening drumbeats. That, along with constant rhythm of the wheels grinding along the rails, slowed my heartbeat and dimmed my cheeks. Singing from the neighboring carriage lifted my spirits with a prevalent revolutionary song:
“Let us get together, and tomorrow The Internationale shall unite the human race…”
Apparently, another group of Educated Youths had the same fate as us, but their hearts were still racing faster than the now roaring train.
History had chosen us to break away from our attachments—our families, our friends, our idyllic lives—which we willingly did. But what was to come? That was beyond me. Still, I was unfazed, because I knew I had boarded the right train: our destination was one where everyone would follow, eventually.