The story is set during the reign of Mao Zedong, when China was experiencing an ultimate change in the form of government. The purpose of change was to bring China to restoration after the devastations caused by wars. Mao called it “Great Leap Forward” (Rummel, 1991). Mao Zedong was a follower of Marxism as he upheld the socialist form of government. Unfortunately, he interpreted the Marxist movement in his own way, thereby creating a communist form of government. In the process, massive killings were committed, and the agricultural system was destroyed causing the greatest famine in the history of the world – 27,000,000 starved to death (Rummel, 1991).
The village of Old Man Xinjiang is a poverty-stricken place in western China as a result of communism. The government represents the Capitalist, and old man Xinjiang, his wife and all the other people of the village represent the working class. Poverty is clearly evident in most parts of the story. For instance, old man Xinjiang’s source of income is vending eggs and pears but “his stall is nothing more than two baskets and two pieces of cardboard.
The eggs were piled on one of these, the other held the pears·”This indicates that these are only what he could buy for his capital. At his old age, he goes around the village carrying pole with a basket at both ends. His stature also shows that he is a poor man with no enough means for proper nutrition and medication:
“You haven’t got any flesh,” the doctor said.
“I can only hold a few inches of skin, that’s all there is. You should feed yourself better.”
“I want a jab. Give me penicillin, will you? That’s the only one I know.”
His house’s description and his wife’s also signify the deprived lives that they have.
“‘Hers’ was a dilapidated shack with bits of plaster flaking off the back wall like diseased skin.”
“His house was small. There was a bed and a mud-brick stove, and a tall narrow window· the paper covering the window was yellowed with smoke, and the room was dark”.
According to Hays (2015), poor families in the rural areas during these times lived in mud-and-straw bricks homes with packed earth floors. There were also houses which were made up of bamboos. The walls of these brick houses were usually papered with newspapers.
Their poverty is also shown by the fact that even at their old age, old man Xinjiang and his wife’s husband, old Red-Eyes, are still working for a living. He is a vendor, and old Red Eyes, a farmer.
“It’s been another bad harvest this year”, said old Red Eyes.
The working class remains at that social status until they become old. They have to work even at old age because the Capitalist (the communist government) does not provide any benefit for them.
That same statement from the story (“It’s been another bad harvest this year”, said old Red Eyes.) also demonstrates one of the effects of the program of Mao called the “Great Leap Forward” which organized farmers into collectives. According to www.bbc.co.uk. (2018), this move of Mao led to an immense decline of agricultural yield which resulted to famine.
Another manifestation of the dearth of the villagers is when the men in the doctor’s clinic just got the pears being sold by Old Man Xinjiang without permission:
“He wouldn’t give away his pears to them, he thought, that wouldn’t do at all. But the men helped themselves from his basket anyway·”
So when he was going home, his basket has become lighter, because three pears were deducted from it: the one he gave to the child, and the two were taken by the two men without permission. He was annoyed by this gesture of the two men; but he just let it be. When he thought of that incident, he just told to himself:
“That’s just how I was. You needed to be smart in this life”.
This statement from the story implies that the people in the village of Old Man Xinjiang are going through some difficult times and they grab any chance that they can get some sort of free food. Old Man Xinjiang is so considerate that he does not reprimand the men who take away his pears without permission.
In the writings of Rockwell Jr. (2017) describing the communism in China during the reign of Mao Zedong, the peasants were divided into four politically accepted classes: poor, semi-poor, average and rich. On this scenario, all the ordinary citizens, the working class, are termed as peasants. The upper class are those in the communist government. Old Man Xinjiang, his wife and all the other people in his village are peasants. In the Socialist-Communist form of government built by Mao Zedong, he is whom Marx would call as the elite class. According to Bottomore (1983), the elite are powerful and oppressive and their domination comes from the control of the economy or the material factors. Meanwhile, the farmers and peasantry are considered by Marx to be dispersed, disorganized, and not capable to carry out change (Bottomore, 1983). This description of the peasantry characterizes Old Man Xinjiang and the people in his village. Their disorganization is shown in the story by their lack of sympathy over Old Man Xinjiang that they continue to mock and condemn him for his actions towards his former wife instead of rendering concern for him for his current pitiful condition. Here, the people in the village show gross disrespect towards the old man.
“The villagers watched him. “Where are you going old man”, someone asked. .. ‘and you’ll get your leg over in return, will you? The others laughed. Embarrassed, Old Man Xinjiang tried to leave but he was surrounded”.
The story “Old Man Xinjiang” reflects the ghastly socio-economic condition of that time and the struggles of the poor such as Old Man Xinjiang, his former wife and Old Man Red Eyes who are living in extreme poverty. All of these characters are old, helpless but they are still working like slaves in order for them to live decently in their shanty homes.