Haunting encounter with Hungry Ghost

October 31, 2001|By Joe Venafro

NEW YORK -- My students called him the Hungry Ghost.

Before meals, I'd see the old man carting a butchered pig to the cafeteria of Tanghu Middle School, a Communist Party boarding school in Sichuan, China, where I taught English.

My students scoffed at the man's battered blue Mao suit, which clashed with their Michael Jordan jerseys and flared jeans.

Being teens, they'd hold their noses and point, saying he smelled like the pigs he tended.

But he'd pay them no mind, his ghoulishly sunken eyes lowered and unfocused.

His back was bent by a life of labor.

After delivering his pig, he'd roll the wheelbarrow back along the dirt path to the rear of campus, the quarter reserved for the school's cooks and custodians. There, his tin shanty stood in the shadow of my housing unit, one of the school's many anonymous and ruthlessly utilitarian buildings.

At night, after his pigs were fed, the old man would play the erhu, a wooden, two-stringed instrument popular among the Chinese peasantry. Its doleful sounds would float up through my bedroom window. I'd lie awake, curious about the Hungry Ghost a few hundred yards away.

According to Chinese legend, hungry ghosts roam the earth every autumn. These spirits of the dead are cursed with an insatiable yearning for answers they couldn't find while alive. Many Chinese try to appease the ghosts with worldly possessions: burning paper money in bonfires, playing music and placing sweets on their doorsteps. But the hungry ghosts' curse, so the story goes, is never broken.

That Halloween, I was introduced as a "distinguished foreign guest" at a banquet commemorating the Four Modernizations of China. I was seated at the front table, among the highest-ranking cadres. Over green tea and roasted peanuts, the representative from Beijing recited a multitude of statistics, all showing amazing growth in industry, agriculture, defense and science. "The Four Modernizations continue to be realized by the workers of New China," he said, holding a smile and nodding rhythmically.

As we left the banquet, the campus-wide PA system roared to life. "Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China" blared into the evening, now shrouded by a heavy fog. The four hours of posturing and handshaking and smiling and nodding had exhausted me. I followed the road back to my dorm, accompanied by the crashing of horns and cymbals coming from ubiquitous speakers. As I passed the cafeteria, I heard underneath the din a distant thread of music: the hungry ghost's erhu.

I turned down his path and headed toward the rear of campus.

He sat on a tree stump outside his shanty, hunched over the wooden instrument. Beyond, his pigs slept in their pen. A soulful melody rose and fell as he swept the bow over the strings. I waited for him to finish before I asked how he'd learn to play so skillfully.

"I wanted to teach music," he said. He seemed eager for company. "But I was labeled a class enemy." During the 1966 Cultural Revolution, because he was a musician and his parents were professors, he was sent to the work camps. Like many in his generation, he told me, Mao Zedong's radical reforms ripped him from his home and schooling. He spent six years in southern China, where he cultivated mountains into terraced hills of cabbage, corn and rice. When he was released, he was too old and poor to attend a teachers college.

"Now I feed the pigs," he said. "No one wants to feed the pigs. Many would like to forget about them. Isn't that terrible?" he smiled uneasily.

In the distance, a convoy of glossy black Buicks filled with cadres exited the campus. The PA system was silent.

His eyes seemed wistful and full of longing. He stared at the ground. "I can't fill their heads, but I can still fill their stomachs."

Joe Venafro, a free-lance writer living in New York's Chinatown, lived in China for a year until August 2000.

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