Continuing our series of ‘meet the author’, we would like to introduce Martha Perriam who has contributed some marvellous pieces, and who is very kindly sharing another story, with unexpected consequences.
Sixty years ago China was famously infested with house flies. They buzzed around every kitchen, they feasted on every meal. During the summer months food was infected by them almost as soon as it was cooked and as a result many people fell sick. The answer, according to Chairman Mao, was to set targets for the collection of dead flies in each province, each district, each town and each village throughout the land; if all the people were forced to catch or swat a rigid quota every day flies could be eliminated far more easily than steel could be made in the peasants’ back yards or women “persuaded” to have only one child.
Wu Shi was a refuse collector, a lonely man of forty living in a medium sized village in the south of Hunan Province. His parents were dead, and although he still lived in a comparatively large house on the edge of the village he could not persuade any of the local girls that his filthy occupation and toothless mouth were worth overlooking in order to share it. He toiled seven days a week, from five in the morning until five at night for the lowest wage, and with no running water he rarely had the chance to wash himself or his clothes. Few people in the village could bear to be near him except two other men with whom he played chess most evenings. Chess, and the dawn chorus of the many varieties of songbird nesting around the village that he heard as he started each day’s labour, were his only pleasures.
When the target number of flies to be eliminated in Hunan Province was announced party officials took a simplistic approach to meeting their obligations. They set the quota for each city, town and village for which they were accountable strictly according to the population statistics. These were notoriously unreliable but never mind, Hunan was rich in flies if nothing else; they insisted that there would be no hardship involved in reaching such targets. Wu Shi’s village was sometimes dark with swarms of flies overhead and at first the villagers enjoyed the novelty of swatting and collecting dead ones to take to the party official whose task it was to count and deliver them to his superior in the nearby town. Boys put their arms around girls to teach them the best swatting techniques and with any luck, fly catching would take up most of a summer evening until love-friendly darkness fell. For Wu Shi himself, with flies following his every step as he collected night soil to spread on the fields, the quota was no problem. But after the first flush of fly-swatting enthusiasm amongst the villagers abated he found himself more popular than hitherto. Women stopped to greet him in the street and smiled when he gave them a handful of dead flies. If men demanded help with their quotas he became surly, until it occurred to him that he had something to sell – dead flies. It was an unintended consequence of the new law: dead flies became a novel form of currency. Since supplies seemed inexhaustible in Wu Shi’s village he was never going to make much money out of supplying old men and widows, but he was not a backward student of capitalism in spite of his complete lack of education or experience of the wider world.
A few miles from his village he could see the mountains of Hunan rising above the plains into the mists beyond the latrines and early morning swarms of flies. He had been to villages in the foothills many times, hunting rabbits with his father. Up in the clear air flies did not abound, but the quota for the villagers was the same as for those living on the fetid plains. They had to spend all their free time chasing after flies, or face very severe consequences. No exceptions were ever made, no mercy shown. Wu Shi saw his opportunity.
Soon he was making his way up into the hills every day with sacks of fly papers covered with dead flies and paper bags full of them. He could afford to employ two boys to see to his refuse collecting. He bought a handcart to transport a greater load than could be carried on the yoke he used for buckets of night soil. Even better, he had the money to bribe the man paid to burn the flies after they had been counted and checked by party leaders and then he could “re-cycle” them. By village standards he became rich; he bought a refrigerator, two wireless sets and a new foam rubber double mattress for his bed instead of the old fashioned feather one on which he had been conceived. His home lacked most comforts but these were the longed-for symbols of progress in rural China.
He found himself becoming decidedly more popular with the village girls too, even if his old chess playing friends fell silent when he sat down with them and didn’t offer him the customary tea. They pleaded poverty and ungraciously expected him to pay. Perhaps he smelt better now that he was rich, because he was quite amazed when Choi Ma, with her slim waist and shining hair, stopped to say hello to him. She stood with her weight on one foot, playing with the top button of her tunic, and asked him if he could spare her some cold water from his new refrigerator to quench her thirst. It appeared that she had an insatiable thirst most days and one glass or two would not do. She told him that she would like to share his foam mattress so that she could drink her fill at night time too.
His life was transformed. Smiling prettily at him, she cooked his meals, made his home comfortable and him her slave. He had to take extra loads of flies up into the mountains and extend his delivery range in order to keep her happy. Of course it was difficult to refuse her when she decided that there was room in his large house (after all, it had three rooms) for her elderly parents and her two younger brothers. He had to understand that his presence was not required when she was entertaining her friends to tea, all heads inclined towards one of the precious wireless sets in his now crowded house. If he sometimes thought in the dim light of their bedroom that she looked older than the twenty-five years to which she admitted, the pleasure of her company in his big bed stopped him from complaining. He had to leave her there asleep when he rose to start his fly collecting business, earlier and earlier as the months went by.
The trouble was that, from Wu Shi’s point of view, Chairman Mao’s campaign was actually, against the whole world’s expectations, beginning to succeed. There were fewer flies. Even when he dismissed his two assistants and resumed the night soil duties he could not catch enough flies to fulfill the demands of his customers. Choi Ma grumbled that he was not earning enough to pay for her clothes; her parents glared at him in silence over their portions of rice; her brothers sneered at him and refused to pay him any attention let alone respect. Choi Ma herself listened to the wireless later and later every night so that he fell asleep waiting for her on the by now sagging foam rubber mattress. He no longer had time to play chess. Before Chairman Mao declared the campaign over and China officially “fly free” Wu Shi’s little capitalist empire had collapsed. Choi Ma had, it appeared, an unfaithful husband in the town whom she now decided to forgive. She returned to him, leaving her elderly parents and brothers in Wu Shi’s house as unwelcome and non-paying lodgers.
Foreigners visiting China, of whom there were few in those days but whose reports were greeted with great interest in the West, were delighted to find no flies on their food or in the streets any more. The country seemed rather more civilized without these pests, and perhaps Chairman Mao was improving life for the people after all. Something they did notice as well was that birds didn’t sing any more. No flies, no food for the birds, no birdsong. That’s progress for you I suppose, they said. Wu Shi missed the birds too when he straightened his weary back over the latrines before the sun came up. He couldn’t hear music of any kind now, even on the wireless, because Choi Ma’s brothers had sold one set and taken the other into their part of the house. They told him they couldn’t stand to be in the same room as him because he stank and because he was, in any case, very poor company since their sister had left him and the village behind her.