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In the story, the author reminisces about Dismount Fort, the small town where she attended elementary school in the 1960s. After a decade, she returns for a visit but finds country life dull. At night, she passes her time by reading books and magazines and writing her boyfriend. It is while reading a narrative poem in an issue of Youth magazine that she remembers her elementary school teacher, Zhu Wenli, a young female teacher who taught at the school eleven years before.
The narrator remembers that Zhu Wenli was a pretty and delicate recent college graduate when she first taught at the school. Her features were exquisite, 'lacking the stern looks of a woman soldier,' and 'her voice was much too soft and too weak for those revolutionary songs' the children had to learn how to sing. Chairman Mao's words were gospel at that time, and the narrator learned to scoff at her teacher's fragile sweetness. After all, the children were being taught that 'sweet flowers are poisonous.'
As history bears out, Mao had no patience for delicate female attributes such as the ones Zhu Wenli possessed. Mao's ambitious agricultural five-year plans depended upon brute labor from both men and women for successful implementation. Therefore, it was not unusual for elementary students to be taught to hold all beauty in suspicion. Mao himself taught that all sex and romance was a corrupt bourgeois practice; in fact, the ages for marriage for both men and women were pushed back by the regime (to 25 years of age for women and 28 years of age for men).
In the story, the typical regime practice was to inform on those considered disloyal to the Communist government. When the narrator and her friends come upon Zhu Wenli singing an Uigar folk song, one of them immediately reports her. Later, when Zhu Wenli and Miao Jian (the class teacher) are caught in a sexually compromising position, both suffer the consequences of their dalliance. Miao is immediately sentenced to hard labor in the fields while Zhu Wenli is openly shamed and mocked by the students for her supposed debauchery (as defined by the Communist Party).
Later, when Zhu Wenli makes the mistake of admitting that the Russian Revisionists and American Imperialists are still human (despite Mao's assertion that they are dirt), she is sent to labor camp to atone for her capitalist 'sins.' Once again, Zhu would not have gotten into trouble if her students had not reported on her, this time to the Workers' Propaganda Team.
The story takes a sad turn when the narrator tries to visit Zhu Wenli after a decade. As mentioned above, the narrator is visiting Dismount Fort; while there, she attempts to look in on her old teacher. When she comes across her arguing with a woman on East Street, the narrator can hardly recognize her former, pretty teacher. At present, Zhu Wenli is no longer attractive nor delicate. The narrator is shocked by Zhu Wenli's 'thick body and fleshy face.'
All the tenderness and innocence which had marked that face was now replaced by a numb, stony look. Even her voice had changed too, full of scratchy metal.
The cruelty of the labor camps have transformed Zhu Wenli into a caricature of what she used to be. The narrator finds herself overwhelmed by 'a kind of hatred rising' in her for what the Communist regime has reduced her former teacher to. Overwhelmed with sadness, the narrator sheds tears of misery and walks away without greeting her teacher. The relationship changes, but it is a negative change. Fairly or not, the narrator has lost any feelings of admiration she once held for Zhu Wenli.
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