Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt

While there has been a great deal of noise made about the demise of the Freezing Point weekly supplement in China Youth Daily (see previous post), the discussion is likely to be handicapped for western readers because they probably have no idea just what Freezing Point is about.  What does it mean to say it is 'edgy,' for example?  Is every other word either 'freedom' or 'democracy'?  You would be very wrong to think so.  Freezing Point is an instance of 'soft power.'

The following is a translation from Li Datong's book The Freezing Point Story (see previous post).  This comes from Section 3 in Chapter 5.  It is the story about one of the most popular reports in the history of Freezing Point.  This is 'soft' and 'powerful.'

[in translation]

After Freezing Point had been in operation for several months, we realized that we did not have many investigative reports on rural problems because we just did not have the information channels.  Many readers wrote to us and recommended that we add more reporting in this area.  Therefore, I began to pay attention to leads about rural villages.

One day, I opened a letter from a reader.  It was a thick letter.  Originally, this was supposed to be a reaction over another article "The Orphanage Is Not My Home" that we had published.  But this reader wrote in the letter that these orphans reminded him of his two younger cousins.  These two children are both smart and talented with terrific school grades.  But their family was poor, their mother was ill and the two children were facing to have to quit school because they didn't have the money to pay tuition.  In the letter, he wrote: These are the children of my fifth uncle.  Fifth Uncle wanted to earn the money and so he carried more than 50 kilograms of firewood across mountains each day to sell in the city.  After more than twenty days, he made 300 yuan and that was far short.  "You know, this was in the heat of June.  My Fifth Uncle is also ill, and he is less than 1.6 meters tall!"  The letter writer came from the Tujia tribe autonomous region in Xiangxi, Hunan province.

"Xiangxi?  That was the place where bandits roved?"  I thought.  "Is there any value in this matter?"

None.  I came to the conclusion quickly.  The reason was that the reports about Project Hope were all over the place, and people have a good awareness of poor rural children who cannot afford to attend school.  Besides, Xie Hailong (解海龙) has take those heart-rending photographs (note: see Big Eyes' Hope).  But Freezing Point has been too light in reporting the rural situation.  Now that I have an information lead with a name and place, it was hard to pass on it.  After thinking some more, I decided to go for it.

I let Cai Ping take this assignment.  She asked: "Where is this Fifth Uncle?"  I said: "I don't know either.  Anyway, he is somewhere on a big mountain.  You find the person who wrote this letter, and then you can find out where Fifth Uncle lives."

Cai Ping left.  The odd thing was that there was no news from her after she left.  According to custom, when a reporter reaches the place where the interviewee is, she must inform the editorial department that she has arrived and then leave contact information.  Two days, three days, five days passed.  No news from Cai Ping.  I got worried: I hoped that she had not been kidnapped by bandits.

I called her family.  But they had no idea where she was either.  I got more worried, but there was nothing that I can do.  I waited for ten days before Cai Ping called.  She told me that the interview has been completed.

"What was the situation like?" I quickly asked.

"It is a sin to live in Beijing!"  Cai Ping said immediately.

I was taken aback.

Cai Ping went through a great deal of hardship to get this interview.  Fifth Uncle really lived up the mountains.  A county party propaganda department director drove Cai Ping in a jeep to the bottom of a mountain, and they got out and started climbing.  They climbed one mountain after another.  Cai Ping said: "I was so tired that I could not move.  I asked the director; 'Will we get there soon?'  The director said: 'Soon, soon.  As soon as we climb over this big mountain in front of us, we will be there.'  When I heard that, I sat down on the ground ..."  We laughed.

This interview moved Cai Ping deeply.  When she interviewed the two children, they were crying and she cried too and got the thought that "it is a sin to be able to live leisurely in Beijing."  I believe that if she felt that way, she should be able to come up with a good report.

The report was written.  I edited it.  The proof copy was produced.  It was sent to Zhou Zhichun.  When I went to get it back, Zhichun took a deep breath and said: "This article is really 'Freezing Point'!"

I asked: "Why?  Is there a problem?"

He smiled and said: "If this was before, this would be known as denigrating the image of socialism and you would be denounced as a rightist."

"What age is this now?  I laughed.  "You're still afraid!"

This report was scheduled to appear on June 28.  I did not wait until that day, because Zhichun and I had to hurry over to attend the reporters' meeting on a cruise boat from Wuhan to Chongqing.

We went upstream along Changjiang River.  During the day, we held meetings.  In the evening, we drank.  I was still thinking about the Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt article.  On June 28, the cruise boat stopped to let us sightsee on land.  I saw that a dockworker at the shipping affairs office had a copy of China Youth Daily.  I picked it up but I did not see Freezing Point in the newspaper.  I started to sweat: "What happened?  Did it really happen just like Zhichun said?  Did Old Xu (note: the editor-in-chief) spiked it because of the 'denigration'?"

On the afternoon of June 29, the boat arrived in Chongqing.  As soon as we arrived at the hotel, I called Zongzong at the newspaper.  I asked: "Why was Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt not published?  Was it 'spiked'?"

Zongzong laughed over the telephone: "No.  Another department had an urgent news item and we were taken out to make room for them.  Freezing Point appeared a day later."

But before I got to ask about reader response, Zongzong told me over the telephone: The telephone banks at the office are bursting.  At first, they were counting the number of calls.  After a while, they couldn't even worry about it.  The response was even stronger than the story about the feces buckets, and that was really weird.

I sighed a deep breath, but I was still mentally unprepared for the magnitude of that powerful response.

The next day, I hurried back to Beijing from Chongqing and I headed straight to the office.  As soon as I walked into the office, I was overwhelmed by the calls and letters.  Most telephone calls were crisp and simple: The address -- I want the address of Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt.

For more than one month, the calls and letters were a total "disaster" for us.  Just for the envelopes in the replies, we had to write out more than 1,000.  My fingers were cramping from all the writing.  A female CCTV program hostess came to the newspaper.  She barged into my office, took out 2,000 yuan and threw them on my desk: "Datong, I don't care about anybody else.  You'd better send it there for me!"

After completing the assignment, Cai Ping uttered the sentence about "it's a sin" to me.  That would become a sub-heading in the report.  I did not realize how many readers would call us and use the same phrase as Cai Ping: "It's a sin to live in Shenzhen!" "It's a sin to be living in Wuhan!" "Living in Guangzhou is a sin!" ...

The donations for Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt poured into the newspaper.  Each sum is not large, and many of them were unsigned: Just "Concerned," "Sympathetic," "A Poor Person Helping Poor People," ... it was very moving.

One day, I received a telephone call.  The voice seemed steady and it was a middle-aged man.  "I am the secretary of an old comrade.  This old comrade read the report on Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt.  He felt badly and said that we have not done our work.  I have sent 2,000 yuan over.  Please make sure that you forward it to them."  I asked him if he could tell me the name of the old comrade.  He said, "I cannot say."  I understood.  According to custom, this is a "revolutionary"-class leader in the central government.

One day, the Central People's Radio program "News Crosslines" called me and asked about the interview with Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt.  I gave a detailed reply.  But I was tricked because they surreptitiously recorded our conversation.  It turned out that they were deeply moved by this report and they got their best announcer to read the entire report on the air.  That generated a powerful response from their listeners.  Then they asked Cai Ping to appear as a guest on their show and they broadcast the telephone interview with me.  So more listeners joined the audience and the entire report was re-broadcast.  This whole process took one full week.  Later, when one of the radio directors met Old Xu, he said: "The Central People's Radio has never gotten such a huge response."

The radio broadcast generated another wave of donations.  Later on, even a foreign-capital pharmaceutical company came in to provide free special medicine for Fifth Aunt.  The donations amounted to more than 170,000 yuan, with plenty of other material: food, clothing, nutritional supplements ... the local post office said that they have never received so much stuff.

Just one report was able to thoroughly solve the difficult situation of Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt: the two children returned to school, Fifth Aunt was healed, Fifth Uncle used the remaining money to start a small shop and their lives were vastly improved.  Later, at the 45th anniversary of the newspaper, as one of the "Ten Persons in the News" in recent years, Fifth Uncle brought one son to come to Beijing at our expense.  Fifth Uncle wore green clothing with the green Tujia bandana and came to see me in my office.  He also brought Cai Ping a big colorful banner with words that say "The People's Reporter."

Fifth Uncle said: "I have never even been on a train my whole life.  But this time, I got to ride on an airplane."  He wanted his son to get down and kowtow to me.  I quickly pulled the child up, even as tears came to my eyes.

Afterwards, as an editor, I began to reflect on this report that did not have much news value: what was in it that produced such a tremendous stir?  I looked at it back and forth, and I only saw one thing: "Truth".  It was absolutely true.

Technically speaking, the report truly touched people through the description of three sets of tears.

The tears of Fifth Uncle: "He had a full smile on his face, but the tears flowed non-stop down his blackened face ..."

The tears of the elder son Changbing: "Changbing's nostrils were moving rapidly and the tears were dropping straight down into the bowl.  He was trying very hard to control himself so as not to make any sound ..."

The tears of the younger son: "I lowered my head to record.  Suddenly, I realized that the sound was not right.  I raised my head.  The little child was raising his head towards the roof.  The tears were welling at the corner of his eyes, and he was trying hard not to let them flow out ..."

Cai Ping has one bad eye, but she was astonishingly sharp in detailed observations.  As she was leaving Fifth Uncle's place, she took out 100 yuan and handed it to Fifth Uncle.  She wrote: "Fifth Uncle's eyes were opened wide.  He did not refuse.  He took the money and then started to bend and fold it in his hands. Then he held it firmly, and passed it from his left hand to the right hand, then from the right hand to the left hand.  All the while, he was smiling and he did not say a word."

I firmly believe that it is these meticulous detailed descriptions that moved people.  Such was the magic of words.  A simple narration could never have created such an impact, because the narration cannot create a space of imagination for people.

The extraordinary success of this report gave me a certain true sense of society.  In this society, there are many kind-hearted people who want to be charitable because they feel happy only when they give and that is their human value.  This is the most valuable moral resource of a society.  Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt happened to provide them with an object to express these sentiments.