Jennifer Zeng is pictured at the award ceremony for the Free Speech Film Festival, on May 12 in Philadelphia. The movie "Free China," in which Ms. Zeng''s story of suffering persecution in China for her belief in Falun Gong is featured, took top honors at the festival. (Edward Dai/The Epoch Times)
My daughter was born in Beijing in 1992, the Year of the Monkey. At the time, I almost died from birth complications and the whole family was distressed. Her grandma exclaimed, “What kind of person could this child be, entering this world in such turmoil?”
My daughter learned to say “no” when she was only 1-1/2 years old. That day she had done something naughty. I had put on a stern face and begun to scold her, but surprisingly, she was not scared or upset at all. Looking at me, she just frowned and said very clearly with much effort, “No, mom! No angry!”
It was her first attempt to say “no,” clearly and forcefully. It seemed as if she cared more about my well being than about being reprimanded. Instantly I knew that everything I had gone through, and would go through for her, would be worthwhile.
My daughter began to worry about life when she was just 2-1/2 years old. One day I took her for a walk to a primary school and we sat in the playground.
She looked longingly at a classroom and asked me, “Mom, can I go to school too?” “No, you are too small,” I said.
She was silent for a while, then with a deep sigh, she said, “Mom, when will I EVER be taller?” She emphasized the word “ever” with such force, as if she had been bothered by this problem for a long time.
I was lost for words as I looked into her eyes, pondering silently whether she was actually some sort of a reincarnated philosopher. At last, I answered her in a very non-philosophical way. “Eat more, and then you will gradually grow taller.”
When my daughter was 3-1/2 years old, she actually taught me a lesson. In a serious tone of voice she asked me, “Mom, why are there bad people in the world?”
Astonished, I looked at her and thought, “Yes, why indeed? If there were no bad people, only good people, wouldn’t the world be great?” Hundreds of thoughts and thousands of possibilities flashed across my mind, but in the end I couldn’t answer her question in a way that a three-year-old could comprehend. I could only tell her honestly, “I don’t know.”
She tilted her head and said proudly, “Well, I know!”
Taken by surprise, I said, “Really? Then tell me why there are bad people.”
“They keep on doing bad things, so they turn into bad people!” Gosh, that is it?
One day when my daughter was 4-1/2 years old, my husband and I took her for a car ride. It was probably an auspicious day. We saw many wedding cars along the way, each one more luxurious than the last. My daughter gazed excitedly out of the window.
After a while my husband teased her, “When you get married, do you want to ride in a limousine?”
Sinking back into the seat, she answered instantly in a serious tone, “We will see when the time comes.”
After that she didn’t take a second look. Once more, her reply shocked and amazed me. How did she manage to remain so emotionally unmoved at that age?
My daughter was bright for her age. She was already in the second year of primary school when she was five and a half. When I went to a parent-teacher meeting I saw a big sign near the school gate, which read: “Learning to be. Learning to know. Learning to do. Learning to be healthy and strong.”
After returning home, I asked her, “What does the saying ‘learning to be’ mean?” While I was preparing to give her a lengthy sermon on the subject, she smiled and said with ease, “I know! It is just to be a good person!”
Instantly I forgot the speech I had prepared and just wanted to admire her.
When my daughter was six, one day I overheard her talking to her grandma in the next room. “Grandma, please practice Falun Gong. It’s really good for your health. Believe me!”
It’s true. My daughter knew that I had been extremely weak and in poor health for several years, but after practicing Falun Gong (which is a meditation practice based on truthfulness, compassion and tolerance) I had completely recovered. So she was making a similar plan for her grandma—wanting her to become well too.
Grandma said, “I don’t know how to.”
“Let mom teach you.”
“But my eyesight is bad and I can’t read the books.”
“I can read to you!”
Grandma couldn’t find a reason to refuse her, so she tried to satisfy her by saying,
“Fine, fine, I will learn when I have time.”
My daughter, however, would not give up so easily. She was overcome with emotion when she finally said, “Grandma, I don’t want you to die.”
When my daughter was nearly seven, the local television stations started broadcasting many defamatory and offensive programs against Falun Gong. The lies were so bizarre that I couldn’t believe my ears, and the bombardment was so heavy that I could barely think rationally.
While watching one program my daughter asked with wide open eyes, “Mom, why do they say Falun Gong practitioners are bad people?”
My heart ached like it had been “bitten by a thousand snakes.”
I knew she would never think of Falun Gong practitioners as “bad people” since she never saw any of them doing “bad things.” Besides, I had reminded her to be a good person all the time.
I could not handle the confusion in her eyes or her expectations and forthright demands for an immediate answer. I just did not know how to answer her question. I had the bitter thought of telling her to ask the television people, but then a friend answered her well,
“They distort the truth and have a guilty conscience because of their own wrong deeds!”
When my daughter was seven and a half, I was sent to a forced labor camp for practicing Falun Gong. My daughter came to visit me a few months later. The moment she saw me she started talking intently, “Mom, I’ve learned to play the flute. We now have a ‘little tinkle bell’ in our house.”
She kept on chattering about the fun she had with the “little tinkle bell”, though by the end of her twenty-minute visit I still had no idea whether it was a toy, a pet or a person.
At least I was relieved to hear her talking like that. I thought to myself, “Thankfully, a young child doesn’t know the harsh taste of sorrow. It seems that she is happy and untroubled by her mother not being around.”
More than a year later I learned that her grandma had strictly forbidden her to tell others about my detention in a forced labor camp, where only criminals are supposed to be held. No matter how unjust it was, detention is considered shameful and demeans a family’s reputation.
Being young, however, she was unable to restrain herself. She confided her secret to her teacher in an essay. Perhaps, subconsciously, she thought of her homeroom teacher as the mother she was missing.
Grandma scolded her for that, because she wished to avoid any discrimination against her granddaughter. To avoid this, her father had to transfer her to a new school.
By the time of my release from the camp my daughter was eight-and-a-half. I was lucky to be alive at all after narrowly escaping certain death. A few days later, I found a note on the table in my daughter’s handwriting. She had written, “Mom, I advise you to stop practicing Falun Gong. Please take a look at this book.”
Her school teacher had given her a book that described Falun Gong practitioners as murderers and psychopaths. I tried to explain to her that I was a good person, and that the book had been fabricated and was full of lies.
But she interrupted and shouted desperately at me, “I know you are a good person! But the television says Falun Gong practitioners are bad people! I don’t know who to believe!”
Her dark, sorrowful eyes were sad and she looked like someone who had already gone through too much in life.
My heart felt a stabbing pain. I wondered how much this young life had endured during my absence? How much had her young heart been hurt? How did she respond when her teachers and school friends asked where her mother was? What other torment did she suffer during my absence?
It hurt me to watch her trying to choose who to believe among her teacher, the media, those around her, and her own mother.
I had to tell her about many things that I would not normally discuss with such a young child: the Cultural Revolution, Party Chairman Liu Shaoqi, who was killed during the Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Although these happenings were very brutal, there was no other way to confront the lies, and convince her to believe me and love me again.
A few days later, she nodded her head knowingly while telling me what she had discovered. “It seems that whoever is in power stirs up something: Mao Zedong had the Cultural Revolution; Deng Xiaoping had the Tiananmen Square massacre; and Jiang Zemin has the persecution of Falun Gong.”
When my daughter was nearly nine, I faced the danger of being sent back to a forced labor camp. I had no choice but to flee my country, leaving her behind with her father to manage without me. A year later, still having not found me, the police took her father away to an unknown place.
On my daughter’s tenth birthday I phoned her to wish her a happy birthday. She said,
“I am not happy at all!”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I asked her, “Is there any news about your father?”
“It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!” was her answer.
I was speechless. Coldly she said from the other end of the line, “Do you have anything else to say?”
Tears flooded down my cheeks. I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me so deeply, and that these weren’t really her own words—she must have heard them from others. Still, my heart ached all the same.
It reminded me about a story I had read a long time ago. It was about a female author from the former Soviet union who had been wrongfully imprisoned. Her teenage daughter wrote to her and asked, “Mother, please tell me, are you guilty or are those who imprisoned you guilty? If it is you, I shall hate you; if it is those who imprisoned you, I shall hate them!”
The mother feared that attacking those in power would put her daughter’s life in danger, so she decided to swallow a bitter pill and tell her that she was guilty. As a result, they both suffered for the rest of their lives.
I did not intend to walk the same path as this author. But living in a foreign country made communication difficult. Also, the telephone in our house back in China was tapped and the letters I wrote to my daughter were confiscated before she received them.
It was very difficult for me to protect an innocent young heart from being poisoned by the constant lies coming from the country’s propaganda machinery.
Recently my daughter turned eleven. In my dreams I often flew back to my home and worried about her losing her innocence and in-born intelligence and thus getting lost. But on many other occasions I thought of sending word to my extraordinary daughter.
This is what I wanted to say: In order not to be enslaved by lies, in order to reunite with you in dignity, in order that your future daughter and your daughter’s daughter would never have to suffer what you have suffered, in order that thousands upon thousands of little girls like you could remain by their mothers’ side, to be loved and pampered, your mother is doing her utmost. This is the darkness before dawn!
Soon you will be able to witness an amazing phenomenon—the truth will overpower all lies and falsehoods; brutality cannot subdue compassion and justice; our days of enjoying happiness and merriment under the sun will once again be here.
This memoir was written just before the author and her daughter were reunited in Australia, in 2004. The daughter is now a university student in Sydney and is doing well.
Jennifer Zeng is the author of “Witnessing History: One Chinese Woman’s Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong.” Before being persecuted in China for her faith, she was a researcher and consultant in the Development Center of the State Council, the state cabinet. Her story is featured in the award-winning documentary, “Free China,” co-produced by New Tang Dynasty Television and World2Be Productions.