The “White-Haired Girl” (白毛女) was one of the first films made in the People’s Republic of China. Originally a Chinese opera and later a ballet, the film depicts the miserable life endured by a peasant girl whose poor father is murdered by a rapacious landlord. The landlord then takes the girl as a concubine and mistreats her, but she escapes and lives alone in the mountains for many years, surviving on the offerings at a nearby temple. Years later the landlord comes to worship at the temple during a stormy night. In a flash of lightning he sees the girl – now a disheveled, white-haired figure – and is nearly scared to death by what he perceives to be a reincarnated goddess come to punish him for his misdeeds.
The front page of the Shenyang Evening News (沈阳晚报) from Liaoning province today recalls this legend of the white-haired girl in the mountains with a very real report on a “wild woman” that was found deep in the mountains of Gansu. Like the White-Haired girl, this woman’s tale is likewise infinitely sad and appalling.
Lying just to the east of Lanzhou (兰州), the capital of Gansu province, Yuzhong county (榆中县) is part of an arid, mountainous region. On May 20th, a villager from Yuzhong went up the mountains to tend his flock of sheep, but it suddenly began to rain heavily and he got lost. To try and get out of the downpour, he took shelter in a cavern. Yet to his amazement, the villager found that the cavern was in fact someone’s home. And then he saw her, dressed in shoddy clothing; with unkempt, dirty hair; a crooked waist and sunken eyes with a lifeless stare: an apparition of mere skin and bones, a “wild woman”.
Scared witless, the villager ran off and alerted the police, who came to collect the woman and begin to piece together her identity. She could (or would) no longer speak, and had been living in the mountain for more than a year already. It took the police some time to establish her identity and trace her history, but like all people who have fallen on hard times and plowed the depths of human misery, she was once someone’s friend, family member, and acquaintance.
On May 24th, Ms Li, who lives in Shenyang, received an unexpected phone call. At the other end was someone from the homeless shelter in the city, and when after three years Ms Li now suddenly heard that old familiar name again, she felt warped into a tumultuous previous era of her life.
It was three years ago when things started going wrong for her younger sister. Everything suddenly fell apart. In quick succession her sister lost her job, her husband and her family, and started exhibiting signs of mental illness. Then one day in 2010 she ran barefoot out of a hospital and disappeared without a trace. Her sister received no letters or any communication from her. She was reported missing, and her sister started to think that she had departed this world.
On May 30th, the “wild woman” sat with a journalist from Shenyang Evening News for what was an exceedingly awkward interview. Still unable or unwilling to utter a word, she sat there in her faded jeans, dilapidated clothing held together by red string, and bare feet bulging with callouses. Curled up in the corner with her head buried between her knees, she silently scribbled answers to her bewildered interviewer, relating in the most cryptic of words what had happened to her the last three years.
“I did manual labor”, she wrote, “I did farm work. I washed cars”. After running away from Shenyang, she had boarded a train to Dashiqiao (大石桥) county to the south-west of Shenyang, where she started doing some part-time work. Yet she stayed here for only a short while before starting a long roaming sojourn that would finally end in solitude in the mountains. Taking a train to Beijing, she then moved on to Changzhou (常州) and Suzhou (苏州) in Jiangsu province, before landing in Dezhou (德州) in Shandong province. From here, however, she went straight to Lanzhou, and sought out the lonely crevice deep in the mountains where she thought she would live out the rest of her days alone.
Links and sources
Shenyang Evening News (沈阳晚报): 兰州山洞里发现沈阳现代版白毛女