Friday, April 15, 2005

Jiang Chunrui's Obituary

JIANG Chunrui

Domestic servant for the Government of Canada born in 1947 in Linyi County, Shandong China died June 3, 2002, in Beijing of lymphatic cancer aged 55.

Jiang Chunrui grew up in one of China’s most impoverished areas in the shadow of the Yimeng Mountains in central Shandong. Even today most of the inhabitants of his ancestral village live in simple homes made of adobe mud and straw with thatched roofs. The interiors are dark and dank. To keep warm in winter, families sleep huddled together on a raised platform built into walls of the house (called a kang) which is heated by the chimney of the straw burning kitchen stove that snakes underneath it. The only furniture in these homes is a table and some low 3-legged stools. To obtain water, the villagers must walk half a mile to the nearest well and carry the water home on shoulder poles. In China’s great famine of the early-1960s, the young Jiang watched, constantly wracked by hunger, as 20% of his family and neighbours died a slow and bitter death by starvation.

In his late teens, he had the good fortune to be recruited into the People’s Liberation Army. After his tour of military service he was assigned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Service Bureau, which provides staff for foreign diplomatic missions to China. He rose through the ranks as a domestic servant eventually achieving the post of butler at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in 1988. He worked at the residence of Canada’s Ambassador to China answering the door, serving pre-dinner drinks, the meals, and post-dinner coffees and liqueurs to high-ranking Ministers of the Governments of Canada and of China who were entertained by our Ambassador to the People’s Republic. He poured wine into the crystal goblets of Prime Ministers, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Ministers and any number of distinguished Canadians who would be invited to dine with the Ambassador while passing through Beijing. After supervising the cleaning up (blotting the inevitable spilled drinks out of the Ambassadorial carpet, etc., etc.) Jiang would bicycle alone to his Chinese Foreign Ministry dormitory room long after the dignitaries were tucked into their 5-star beds. He had married a much younger woman from a neighbouring village in his early-30s but saw his wife and 3 daughters only a couple of times a year as they were not permitted by the Chinese authorities to move to Beijing. His family resented his long absences and this caused him considerable emotional hardship. Some of his Ambassadors would deny Jiang’s applications for home leave on the grounds of “operational considerations.” His family never knew when he would be coming home next or for how long --- often it was just a couple of days by the time travel was factored into it.

I got to know Jiang when I worked as a junior functionary in the Embassy over 2 diplomatic postings in the 1990s. One of Jiang’s tasks was to bring coffee to the Ambassador’s office to serve to visitors in the day. He would regularly call me out of my office for a cup of left over Ambassadorial coffee in the Embassy kitchen on the sly. As a political officer I would quiz him on conditions in the rural areas and he told me of break down in law and order, dropping agricultural commodity prices (China’s entry into the WTO contributing to this), rapacious local officials extracting arbitrary fees from already hard pressed peasants and the hardship brought about by the frequent droughts in recent years due to the plummeting water table in the North China Plain which has led to Shandong’s rivers drying up very early in the planting season. But he had questions for me too. He was a devoted listener of the Radio Canada International Chinese service and was therefore well versed in Canadian politics. He found Canada’s ongoing constitutional crises puzzling, “according the UN, you have the greatest country in the world, why do you expend so much of your national energy on such trivial matters?” He urged me to vote against the Charlottetown Accord in the ’92 referendum. He was also deeply concerned that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would lead to non-elected judges having too much say in important matters relating to Canada’s political direction. But, as a servant whose virtue was to appear as unobtrusive as possible, he simply offered the cocktail nuts and a fill up of their glass to the likes of Joe Clark, Stephane Dion and Beverley McLachlin in servile broken English and kept his ideas to himself.

His cancer had already spread by the time it was diagnosed in the spring of last year. He suffered badly from the chemotherapy and blamed the pain of it on the American techniques of his doctor recently returned from advanced studies in Oncology at Harvard. He would have preferred a Chinese trained specialist. His voice weak over the long distance telephone, he asked me to come to see him in Beijing one more time before he died, I suspect to discuss provisions for his wife and remaining unmarried daughter who have been left destitute by his death, but I arrived in China 3 days too late. No diplomat from the Embassy attended his funeral. His coffin was a cardboard box.

Jiang Chunrui was in many ways nobler and more dignified than many of those he served. His parting gift to me was an exquisite set of tiny Chinese calligraphy brushes of rare quality that must have cost him several weeks’ wages.

He was my closest friend and I was his closest friend.

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