Beijing Softens at a Baby's Smile

MY first inkling of the kinship that would grow from having a baby in China came one chill, clear morning last March when I was expecting our first child. Our Chinese driver, Mr. Shao, a man of unusual reserve, glanced at me as we rattled through Beijing's side streets in our 1980 Toyota on the way to an interview.

``These days, you should never be afraid,'' he said, again watching the road as the hint of a smile crossed his lips.

``And you should not lose your temper. In this way, your child will be brave and good-natured.'' This bit of intimate, peasant advice was surprising coming from Shao, a soft-spoken man so shy that he blushed at the least provocation.

As I would learn later, it was the beginning of a new camaraderie with many Chinese - from husky street sweepers and straw-hatted construction workers to government officials - who would come alive with my passage into motherhood.

A few weeks later, our bureau maid, Mrs. Zhang, paused while mopping the floor. ``I think you'll have a son,'' she said, joining the elevator ladies and mailmen in what seemed like a neighborhood-wide bet. She offered to verify her guess with a homespun method that involved suspending a pencil over my pulse and putting it to paper once it moved.

``Horizontal lines mean a boy, vertical a girl,'' she said. ``I'm right four out of five times.''

Spontaneous and universal, motherhood would sweep away in a graceful stroke many of the cultural inhibitions and Orwellian controls that make life in China trying for a foreign journalist. The bonds of sympathy it nurtured would be even stronger amid the anguish following the events at Tiananmen Square.

By mid-April, from a quiet, California college town, Shao, Zhang and China seemed irrelevant to the kicking, squirming life that preoccupied me.

But soon Chinese students marched for freedom in Beijing. And by May the world was watching China give birth to the most ebullient, popular democracy movement in its modern history.

Meanwhile, in the wee hours of May 20, half-hourly AM radio broadcasts blared news of China into a dimly lit hospital maternity room. My husband and colleague had arrived from Beijing that afternoon, bringing with him the excitement of the swelling revolt. Within hours, martial law was imposed on Tiananmen Square. Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang was ousted. And James, our son, was born.

Since 1949, a tradition has emerged in China of naming children after patriotic campaigns of the times. A man born during Mao Zedong's fanatical Cultural Revolution (1966-76) might be called Li Hongjun, or ``Red Army'' Li. So, the baby born with China's democracy movement took the Chinese name ``Min Sheng,'' or ``Voice of the People.''

As James burst forth with lusty infant cries, millions of Chinese were charging into city streets, cheering, honking horns and waving banners in a euphoric chorus for liberty. Ignoring martial law, they decried the malignant corruption and power abuses of the communist regime.

But too soon, these elated voices were silenced. On June 3, when James was two weeks old, Communist Party leaders ordered troops to storm Tiananmen Square, unleashing a massacre of hundreds or thousands of innocent Chinese.

While James stretched, gaped, and hollered in celebration of life, some of China's most promising offspring, bright and courageous young college students, perished in a night of terror.

Back in Beijing in the sultry month of July, James explored his unfolding world in the tranquil security of his nursery, grasping everything within reach of his tiny hands.

Outside, though, Beijing was tense with fear and violence. Helmeted soldiers stationed on a nearby corner fired warning shots to halt approaching cars. Troops trucks rumbled through the city. At night, wailing sirens of convoys of police cars and Army jeeps broke the silence of deserted streets.

Tens of thousands of Chinese, including many friends, were jailed or underwent interrogation as part of the party's nationwide campaign to ferret out dissent. It seemed the beginning of a long period of isolation.

But James, with his wide blue eyes and gurgling voice, changed everything. It was as if this new, determined little life refused to heed the repression about him - and would allow no one else to either.

On his daily walks James was like a magnet. Chinese, forgetting official warnings against contacts with foreigners, broke into high-pitched babbling with each of his smiles.

It was in such encounters that Beijing residents spoke their true feelings about the Army bloodbath. Old men airing their songbirds in nearby Sun Altar Park stopped to cluck at James and ended up denouncing the leadership for claiming that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

A leather-jacketed taxi driver who gave free rides to students during the protests spoke proudly of taking his three-year-old son around the capital the morning after the massacre.

``Now whenever he sees a soldier, he points and yells `ta-ta-ta!''' said the driver. ``I have to yank his arm down to keep us out of trouble.''

Even agents of party oppression softened around James.

Once, we crossed the street to greet a plainclothes policeman who was shadowing us on our walk. After a little uneasy small talk, the man gave a toothy smile, patted James, and slinked off in his faded blue Mao suit.

``I am a father, of course I understand mothers!'' a Chinese friend chided me one day. In sharing the trials of parenthood, many of the cultural, linguistic, and social barriers that divide Chinese and foreigners collapsed.

On the street, Chinese strangers offered all sorts of earthy child-rearing advice. One day, a middle-aged woman came over to admire James' pugdy cheeks and fair skin, but frowned over his hair.

``You should shave it off,'' she said, waving her hand at his wispy, blonde locks.

``Then it will grow better.''

Chinese customarily shave the hair, and even eyebrows and lashes, of their one-month-old babies to thicken them.

An elderly Shanghai woman who helps care for James cautioned as he nursed: ``Don't let his nose press against you!''

``Every morning you should lightly pull down on it,'' she said, motioning to James' slightly up-turned nose. ``That will shape it nicely.''

The use of Chinese language in our household naturally grew more intimate. Along with the Mandarin words for ``burp,'' ``diaper,'' ``gnaw,'' and ``fuss,'' the baby brought new insights into how the web of familiy ties is woven in China.

On Christmas morning, Shao drove us to an old Protestant church lying off a narrow Beijing hutong, or alley. It was bitterly cold. Several armed police sat huddled in a car just outside the church gate, a reminder of the 24-hour security alert imposed in Beijing during the Romanian revolution.

But inside, a young Chinese woman made a cheerful greeting. She gave us a hymnal and insisted that we bundle James in her overcoat. Red and green cuts of paper brightened pocked plaster walls, and strings of colored lights hung from wooden rafters. Worshipers wrapped in scarves, hats, and padded cotton jackets sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews.

The service began, an old organ piped up, and the congregation stood to sing ``O Come, All Ye Faithful'' in Chinese.

As I sang, my heart went out to those around me, long-suffering, oppressed from without and yet still full of warmth and hope within. Looking at James, asleep in my arms under the frayed coat of the Chinese woman, I thanked him for bringing me a little closer to the China I love.

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