I was eight when I heard our neighbour miscarrying. She was a pale and thin young wife, who worked in a nearby silk factory where my mother also laboured. It was a sweaty summer morning in southern China, in our compound yard where lots of families lived. I had heard cries and screams from a number of women for nearly half an hour, so I ran next door. Blocked by a crowd of neighbours, I tried to squeeze in to find out what a miscarriage meant. All I saw were trails of blood on the floor, then a pool of blood in the bedroom. The woman was half-crawling on the floor in her blood-soaked clothes, her mother and grandmother on each side trying to get her to stand. Her husband wasn’t around. There were no men in that room.
Then I heard my mother: “They slaughtered two pigs this morning in the silk factory. Should I run to the canteen now?” Another woman’s voice, much more urgent, cried out: “Take the bucket! Two buckets!”
Through the tangle of legs and bodies in the doorway, I saw my mother and another woman run towards the factory canteen with buckets in their hands. I didn’t understand why slaughtering pigs was connected with a miscarrying woman. Half an hour later, my mother and the other woman returned, out of breath with two buckets of pig blood. “It’s still warm!” someone claimed.
The mother of the blood-covered woman brought a rice bowl from her kitchen and poured the pig’s blood into it; she ran back to the bedroom, handed her daughter the bowl and ordered her to drink. Another voice spoke: “Auntie, can I use some of your ginger? We need to boil a wok of blood soup. Let’s add gouchi seeds and meat, if you have it.” All of a sudden, women were running in and out of the front door, ferrying special herbs and vegetables from their kitchens as the hens that scuttled around the yard were shooed away. In all the excitement I managed to make my way into the bedroom.
The miscarrying woman had just drained a whole bowl of the blood, her lips red, her eyes terrified. Her mother, wide-eyed, said: “Look at the veins in your wrist! You can see them expanding!”
I went closer to the woman and stared at her wrists. Her veins seemed to be darkening and thickening. So was it the pig blood that was making her veins thicker and stronger?
“Now your blood is fortified,” an elderly woman said, “and you will be fine.”
That day the kitchens were busy with villagers making food containing pig blood. First, blood soup with meat shreds and ginger. Then the women used solidified blood to make blood tofu. Others made blood sausage, mixing it with sticky rice. It was 1981. We children were always hungry. But we were told not to touch any of the pig-blood food until the miscarrying woman had had her fill. So we went out to play at the local pond by the bamboo hills. There we often found small shrimps and snails, though there were no longer any fish left to catch. Everything had been eaten by ravenous villagers.
I grew up skinny and yellow-faced, with worms living in my intestines. I swallowed at least a hundred tapeworm pills, but by the time I was 20, I’d reached a weight of just six and a half stone. The woman next door who had the miscarriage became a strong mother and even the manager of the silk factory. She had been drinking plenty of blood, I assumed.
Then one day I packed and left for university in Beijing. I couldn’t stand another moment in that provincial backwater. My family walked me to the long-distance bus station. With mosquitoes biting my skin, my hair knotted and sweaty, I jumped onto the bus. My mother shouted to me from outside the bus: “Make sure you eat lamb meat, drink blood soup and chew garlic in Beijing!” They were supposed to be good for a skinny girl like me.
From the day I arrived in Beijing, I swallowed kilos of lamb, garlic and blood soup. I felt strong. I wanted to become someone big, in the big capital of a big country. I didn’t miss my small hometown, even though I often dreamt I was walking in the bamboo-lined mountains, trying to find the fish pond where we played. In my dream, the laughter from the children was loud and vivid, and the bamboo forest shimmered in the steaming summer air. I’ve never encountered that landscape in the country where I now live.