Excerpt from Awakening the Sleeping Tiger

Read the first ten pages below of Awakening the Sleeping Tiger: The True Story of a Professional Chinese Athlete © by Liu Yu and Dawn Cerf

Chapter 1: The Hidden Yearnings of a Tiger Cub

The confusion began as Mama eased herself gently down onto the bed, low moans escaping her throat.  My beloved grandmother, NaiNai 奶奶, soothed my overanxious imagination, explaining everything was normal.  Although nearly three years old, I sensed normal would never be the same again.

Banished from our dwelling, my “Baba 爸爸,” the Chinese word for father, joined a noisy gathering of relatives and neighbors outside, chatting away as if attending a party.  From time to time, many popped their heads inside volunteering their help, only to receive a sharp shake from NaiNai’s head or a polite refusal from the unruffled midwife.

A loud knock at the door heralded the husband of one of my aunties—ladies Mama worked with who really weren’t relatives at all.  His arms brimmed over with a load of fresh straw tightly bound with string.  I squatted next to NaiNai as she carefully arranged golden stalks in the wooden cradle we had borrowed, piling the excess alongside Mama’s bed.

After a cursory glance in my direction, the midwife asked NaiNai for scissors, towels and paper.  While NaiNai darted here and there, I scurried around in her shadow like a little tail behind her.  Aiming to be helpful, I kept faithfully close until she shooed me from her side, busying herself by prodding the fiery coals in our small charcoal brazier.  Instead of using it outside in the courtyard as she had always done before, she had set it up inside near the door over the carefully swept dirt floor of our cramped, windowless room.  While puzzling it out, I stared hypnotically as dreamy tendrils of smoke mingled in dancing spirals with steam from the heavy pot of boiling water.

My thoughts strayed to the five children in my neighbor’s family and how the boys always received special treatment.  If Mama has a boy, I thought sadly, Baba might not notice me as much as before.

In my most treasured memory, Baba sat watching me draw at our little dining table.  Each time his attention rested on me, my heart expanded, filling my world with sunny happiness.  Reaching over, Baba picked up my hand, commenting that it was dirty.  In the chill of winter we children didn’t like washing our hands in the icy water collected from the river.  Baba then led me to the washing stand, coming in close behind me.  Putting his arms around me, he reached for my hands, carefully lathering and rinsing them above the washing bowl.  What a rare feeling to have another person touch me.  I savored that moment with Baba.  This memory stood out because families rarely touched each other or showed affection.  Words such as “I love you” remained unspoken.  In our culture, we believed no one needed to speak about love and no one needed to hear it.  Love was simply understood. Yet after that experience, deep within the stillness of my young heart emerged an inkling that something was missing, and I yearned to recapture that closeness.

Interrupting my reverie, NaiNai, holding a large rubber foot warmer, turned abruptly toward the boiling pot, nearly knocking me over.  Exasperated, she said, “Xiao Yu 小玉,” my name which meant Little Jade, “go somewhere else, out of this room.”  She swiftly motioned me out the door.

Both the narrow pathway to our door and the adjacent, tiny courtyard overflowed with people, everyone talking at once.  Peering through a tangle of legs, I searched unsuccessfully for Baba, wishing he would lift me up and plop me down close to him on his shoulders.  Too quickly, however, I found myself pushed up against the wall.  As much as I wanted to spend a few precious moments with Baba, I sensed he was too distracted now to give me much notice.  Scrambling alongside the building, I settled cautiously in a corner, amusing myself by drawing in the dirt with a craggy pebble and idly wondering where my older sister was playing.  Accustomed to NaiNai’s watching over me like a mother hen, I felt increasingly forgotten as time dragged on.

Finally, NaiNai’s sharp voice barreled out above the commotion, “It’s a boy!”

Everyone congratulated Baba for having accomplished something great, how he had secured the continuation of the family line.  It made me think my birth as the third daughter had disappointed my parents, though they always treated me with kindness.

Eager to catch a glimpse of my new brother, I edged myself along the wall, only to find our door firmly closed.  At that moment, feeling lost, not knowing quite where I should be, I wandered slowly down the walkway, away from the commotion.  Perhaps I would find my sister in another courtyard.

My family lived in what was originally a long storage shed tacked onto the side of one of three gray brick buildings previously comprising one private residence.  Before the Communist revolution, four generations of one family lived in the enclosed compound where three inner courtyards offered a modicum of privacy.  When the Communists took over the country, people who owned large houses were forced to take in other families and share their living quarters.  Now this house was home to ten unrelated families.  When the government assigned my family to occupy this humble dwelling, my parents breathed a huge sigh of relief.  After surviving the death of their infant daughter who was my first-born sister, my parents then witnessed a flood washing away their home.  They had nowhere else to live.

When the other two courtyards failed to reveal my sister, I continued toward the creaky wooden door leading to the street.  Raising myself on tiptoes, I peered through one of the eyeholes at the intriguing scene so close to me.  What I did next was a clue to my innate personality, one that had already been beaten back by poor health and strict codes of social behavior.  I opened the door without fear, stepping into a world I rarely saw and one I had never viewed lingeringly from the sidelines.

Remembering NaiNai had said I shouldn’t walk by myself, I plunked myself down in front of a shop, mesmerized by the busyness before me.  In this lively shopping district, bicyclists pedaled by chiming ding-ding-ding, their spinning wheels delightfully reflecting the warm October sun.  Clusters of women in traditional peasant head scarves of white with blue tie-dyed designs chatted happily as they paraded by, baskets woven from shavings of bamboo skin hanging from their arms.  Other baskets brimming with vegetables hung from the ends of poles balanced across farmers’ shoulders.  Two- or three-wheeled push carts wobbled by filled with either a mound of rice, squealing pigs, or caged chickens.  One had a side basket carrying a young boy who glared at me with squinty eyes.

Eagerly, I looked around for the sugar artist, who would fill his straw from pots of five colors of sugary mixtures warming over a coal brazier.  With the straw placed between his lips, he blew the sugar onto a stick while his hands shaped it into multi-colored animals, birds, or flowers.  The most popular shape was the devious Monkey King, decorated with a golden shirt, dark pants and shiny boots.  Most shapes cost one coin, but parents paid two coins for the Monkey King clutching the long, wooden staff he used as a weapon.  Generally, children kept the sugar shapes for a day, stealing occasional licks, before finally eating the entire treat.  Sadly, I didn’t see the sugar artist on my street today.

Eventually, standing up, I watched a cobbler with a mouthful of needle-sized nails repair a leather shoe that was hooked onto a metal platform in his repair shop.  To fix the worn heel, a wedge was inserted, affixed firmly with nails, and stained to match the shoe’s color.  Then he began stitching the sole of a cotton shoe.  His left hand operated a tool that pierced through all the cotton layers of the sole while his right hand maneuvered a needle of thickly corded thread.  Before long the old cobbler’s gaze met mine.  He smiled and then shuffled toward me with a curious expression.  A lady followed behind him.

“Hello, little girl,” the man said.  “What’s your name?”

“Little Tiger,” I answered.  Although my family called me Xiao Yu, they often reminded me of my birth in the year of the tiger.  I always thought of myself as a little tiger.

“Where do you live?”

I pointed vaguely in the direction I had just come from, suddenly unsure if I knew which door would take me back home.

“Why are you out here all by yourself?” the lady asked.

“Everyone is busy.  Mama has a new baby,” I explained.

Just then, a familiar voice called out, “Xiao Yu, what are you doing?”  NaiNai shuffled awkwardly on her bound feet toward me, concern written in her crinkly eyes.  With a shaky hand, she reached for me, tightly gripping her thumb along my collarbone and firmly clamping my shoulder.

The cobbler explained how they had been trying to help me.  NaiNai thanked them warmly before we turned to go home.

“Xiao Yu, why did you go outside?  I told you always to tell me before you leave the courtyard,” NaiNai scolded as the creaky wooden door swung closed behind us.  And, then, with tension rising in her voice, she said, “What if you got lost or someone took you?”  She gripped my hand tightly, saying with a dawning realization and deep emotion, “I could lose you.”

Despite my feeling guilty for doing something wrong and making NaiNai so concerned, warmth flooded through me.  NaiNai really cares about me.

Inside our home, my little brother, wrapped in a blanket, lay crying by Mama’s side.  I reached out carefully and touched the pink skin on his downy cheek, amazed at its softness and at how loudly such a small thing could cry.

“Mama,” my Mama said to NaiNai, “maybe Xiao Yu would like to rock her brother in the cradle.”

NaiNai gently gathered up the baby and set him down on the blanket-covered straw.  “Not too fast,” NaiNai instructed.  She put my hand on the cradle and taught me how to rock it, slowly and rhythmically.  After a few minutes, the baby stopped crying.

“You have the right touch,” Mama said.  “From now on, this will be your job.”  Ignoring the birth of my oldest sister who died, she added, “You are second sister now, Xiao Yu.”

My brother became known as “Little Crooked Head” until sufficient time had passed that the jealous gods would no longer attempt to take away a perfect child.  Only then could he safely be named.  As an infant, Mama never wanted to awaken him when his head needing straightening.  Despite the aunties’ predictions his head would become permanently crooked, Mama always spoiled him by letting him sleep with his head scrunched in a funny position.  After all, silence was precious because my brother cried too much.

Although three years had transpired since the end of China’s Great Famine, food remained scarce.  While my brother cried because he was always hungry, I suffered from a lack of appetite and was plagued by periodic bouts of dizziness and fatigue.  I learned never to complain, even when Baba, who worked as a doctor, made me drink his bitter herbal remedies to rid me of my anemia.  Without a word, NaiNai communicated with her stern looks that complaining was inappropriate.  NaiNai, who lived with her crippled, bound feet, provided signals on how to behave.  I tried to follow her example of combining grace with silent tolerance

Mama always said I possessed a good memory for my early life, although it helped that relatives enjoyed reminding me.  I remembered my brother’s crying was tolerated with little attempt made to teach him manners.  Naturally, he garnered tremendous attention as the young emperor of the family, and I came to know my place as a female in Chinese society ranked below his.

When my brother was a few years old, Baba delighted him with a wooden gun he had carved, filling me with wistfulness.  Although, due to my family’s poverty, I never had any toys, not even a doll of any kind, it wasn’t my brother’s toy that I envied.  I craved Baba’s attention like I did the feel of the sun to dispel shivers of cold.  I worked hard at school and in my free time tried to read Baba’s books, struggling through vocabulary too advanced for my years, in the hopes he would notice and offer some small murmur of praise.  Some day, I vowed, Baba will be proud of me for something I accomplish.

My future may have appeared to be written.  I had only to follow my mother’s footsteps toward a factory job with long hours, little pay and no free time to spend with one’s family.  Things were changing in China, however.  Already in my mother’s generation, women could choose their own husbands and China outlawed the barbaric practice of footbinding—breaking the bones of a woman’s foot and bending the foot under until the toes were positioned at the bottom of the heel, creating the tiny golden lily feet that pleased husbands.  I hoped for more changes.  After all, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong 毛泽东, had proclaimed that women held up half the sky.

Something inside me allowed me to see possibilities, though I had yet to learn to develop them.  Perhaps my birth in the year of the tiger gave me the extra insight and someday I would trust it.  According to the time-honored Chinese astrological calendar system, tiger people are considered noble and brave, earnestly cultivating deep inner strength in their lifetimes.  Circumstances in my life, however, inhibited the growth of the small tiger cub I concealed inside.  I knew it was there, but to everyone else I appeared to be sickly and shy, certainly not qualities characteristic of a valiant tiger.

Amid overwhelming political chaos, at the delicate age of four, I buried my true nature deeper after witnessing an alarming scene that left me anxious and frightened.  From that moment on, I tread carefully as if stepping across an expanse of smooth, slippery ice, my tentative footholds never fully confident and secure.  To become the brave tiger I knew I could be and earn my father’s praise, I needed to discover a way to overcome my anemia and fearfulness.  Surely a tiger can accomplish it. But troublesome memories complicated my resolve, making the task all the more daunting.

Baoying, Jiangsu Province, China, 1967

Piercing voices from the nearby town square blared over the thunderous loudspeakers, summoning the townspeople to another political rally.


My head jerked up as the familiar harsh sounds torpedoed over the rooftops, invading my solitude in the small, barren courtyard.  For many months now, the town square rarely remained quiet during this time of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Heated accusations against political prisoners and entreaties for sentences of jail or death often reverberated over the tops of our walls.  The insistent noise reminded me of a loud, obtrusive dragon wielding its importance with heavy footfalls and fiery invectives while demanding everyone’s undivided attention.  Instead of the mischievous dragon that chased us children for fun on New Year’s Day, this raging dragon with imaginary bulging, demonic eyes and scissor-sharp talons was bullying its way into my world, leaving behind a swath of fear.

Shuddering at the angry screeching, I drew on the calming protectiveness of the familiar courtyard walls elegantly topped with curly-edged tiles, breathing a sigh of relief that Baba was only a whisper away inside our home.  While squatting next to a steaming pot of soup that rested on my family’s outdoor brazier and idly guarding the precious food from bird droppings, I wondered anew how life outside these walls could be so crazy.  Many times my tender four-year-old mind struggled to comprehend the nature of the meanness and hostility that gripped the townsfolk. Yet, in spite of feeling fearful and confused, I remained curious as was my nature.  Maybe, I hoped, Baba would take me to the nearby square, not to witness the handiwork of the dragon, but for the comfort of companionship I would share with my father.

NaiNai hobbled toward me to fetch the soup.  She paused briefly, tilting her head upwards to catch the fiery commands.  As her eyes met mine, I saw her jaw set in that disapproving yet determined way of hers that meant she would thrive no matter what obstacle awaited her.  I watched her skeletal-like body bending down while her knotted fingers carefully wrapped rags around the handles of the soup pot.  Between us, we silently carried the load into our modest home for the family’s noontime meal.

Six of us—NaiNai, my parents, my older sister, my younger brother, and I—lived in the makeshift, dirt-floored home containing two tiny rooms connected by a short hallway.  Old wooden doors served as walls with only one tiny window-like opening set too high to look out.  To prevent the freezing winter wind from penetrating our heatless home, we mixed flour and water together to paste newspaper along the cracks between the doors.  In the summer, we removed these wooden doors by lifting them off their dowels to welcome any breeze, though we gave up all privacy to keep cool.

Shivering slightly in the fresh spring air, I sat on a stool next to the open door.  It was left ajar to allow light to spill into a room we used both for dining and as my parents’ bedroom.  It also admitted noise from clamorous chanters accompanying a parade of political prisoners on the street.  My family and I listened while we sipped salty broth and chewed on the cooked vegetable roots and greens we fished from our bowls.

Within minutes of eating, my baby brother began his ritual of mealtime crying.  No one tried to comfort him because it never did any good.  Even though annoyed, I had already learned it was proper never to show my emotions, but my brother was too young.  My family sat there stoically knowing only a full stomach could satisfy him.  Baba quietly sighed in resignation.

Usually, I dawdled over my food.  Today, however, I forced myself to finish my soup quickly because I wanted Baba to take me to the square.

Baba turned his head toward my sister.  “Da Jing 大静,” Baba said, calling her by a variation of her name, “would you like to come to the square with me?”

I guessed her response.  My sister, though older than me by three years, generally avoided things that made her uncomfortable.  Shuffling her feet she said, “Baba, I would rather stay and play with my friend in the courtyard.”

Raising myself up to sit taller on the stool, I eagerly awaited Baba’s invitation.  It would be improper to ask him myself.  As soon as his eyes met mine, he permitted himself a small smile.  “Okay, Xiao Yu,” he said using my birth name, “you can come.”

Warmth filled me inside, and I basked in the enjoyment of Baba’s invitation, knowing that soon my brother would be old enough to be asked first.

NaiNai turned around, peering into my empty bowl and nodding her head in approval.  She grabbed a piece of clothing off the rack and handed it to Baba.  “Here’s an extra shirt if she gets chilled.”

Along with devoting her time to keeping house and preparing food, NaiNai raised my siblings and me in place of Mama.  Sadly, Mama’s long hours at her job as a seamstress rarely allowed her to spend much time with us.  As a result, I often felt motherless and grew to depend on NaiNai.  She was a strict disciplinarian but I had no doubts she cared about me.

Baba and I walked along the brick path between the buildings of our compound while the din over the walls grew louder.  We exited the narrow front door sandwiched between a shop selling firecrackers and a shoe repair business and found ourselves on the edge of a moving horde of people.

Briefly, I regretted my decision until Baba bent down, picked me up, and placed me on his shoulders.  My family, like all families I knew, never showed affection on the outside by hugging or kissing, so this rare physical contact helped me feel braver and safer.  I lived for these moments of closeness with Baba.  As we fell in step with the movement of the crowd swarming toward the square, I settled myself comfortably on Baba’s strong shoulders and craned my neck to see what lie ahead.

To find out what Liu Yu witnessed that day in the town square and read the rest of her remarkable story, order the book here.