s t o r y

ain pelted down on cottage-roofs in Qijiangkou in Ningbo, China, on a cold autumn night in 1937. The weeping willows bent over the bloated Yong river, their branches rumpled. Waves swept against the banks, almost driving ashore the three small boats moored there. The furious elements conducted a prelude to a tragic symphony composed by the young wife of a farmer. The husband lay on the bed gasping for air. He tried to speak. Breath was more important than words. The young wife knelt at his side; her tears fell as thick as raindrops outside the cottage. Their only son, Xiaobao, was asleep in the crib. The husband’s gasps became laborious. The young wife sprang up and threw herself upon him, crying out, “Jiqin! Jiqin! How can you leave us alone in this world!” The cry startled the sleeping boy and he also began to cry. But the cries of mother and son couldn’t wake the man who had stopped breathing and slept for good. “Oh, let me go with you to the other world,” sobbed Young Mrs. Wei, as her hands loosened from the body. She fainted.

The next day, Young Mrs. Wei herself broke the news of Wei Jiqin’s death to his grand-uncle, Wei Yuzhong, head of the Wei clan. Wei was seventy-one, a big landlord, a tough patriarch who had been magistrate in a neighboring county. Any major clan event had to be reported to him, and he had to approve it. He was the driver of the carriage of the Wei, people said, and he kept a tight rein on it. He had a wife, a concubine, four sons, and a daughter.

“Ah, what misfortune befalls the Wei, that such a brilliant young man should have met his untimely death,” said Wei Yuzhong to Young Mrs. Wei. “You have my great sympathy. Here is a hundred yuan as my contribution to his funeral expenses.”

The man called Old Wei measured his words to his grandneice-in-law. He cleared his throat, as if choked by grief for his grandnephew, before continuing: “I’m an enlightened man. You would have my consent to remarry, if it were not for Jiqin’s son, Xiaobao. He is the only male descendent of your family. You and I have the duty to give him a good education. The fifty mu of rice fields ought to be enough for you both to live a decent life. If you run into difficulty, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll do my best to help you. I am head of the clan, and so I must take care of every member.”

He clapped his little Manchurian cap on his head.

Young Mrs. Wei stood deferentially before the old man, her head low, her hands down. Torn between anticipation and despair, she was thrown into confusion. After an agonized silence, she burst out: “Don’t people say that you can marry freely now when your husband dies?”

“Who has told you such nonsense?” Old Wei replied sharply. “I wouldn’t say a wife must remain chaste after her husband’s death — if she has no son, nor any way of sustaining herself, though there are many who would prefer death to remarriage. That is the virtue of Chinese women; it is also a sign of what in the West they call true love between man and wife.”

His stern speech silenced Young Mrs. Wei and everyone else. People knew it would be futile to contradict what the old man said. He was not only leader of the clan but an influential man in the city. Wei Lihua had to withdraw.

Wei Lihua, known as Young Mrs. Wei, was a daughter of a peasant of medium-sized holdings. Her maiden name was Shen Lihua. She had finished her primary schooling at fifteen, as a pretty girl well known in the neighboring villages. Her late husband, then aged nineteen, was a recent graduate of the middle school. He had courted Shen Lihua for a long while, despite his mother’s opposition.

“I asked the fortune teller for advice. He said that the date and hour of her birth were not compatible with yours. They will offend mine, also,” his mother had scolded. “Besides, her father is poor, a very small farmer. You and she are not of equal status. No child of the Wei would marry such a girl.”

But the son’s passion for Shen Lihua defeated his mother’s opposition. Ten years before, Old Mrs. Wei had been widowed. Since the death of her husband she had endured much mental torment while rearing her only son, Jiqin.

“Society has changed. A parent’s word no longer counts. I have to consent, but I do it reluctantly,” she told her relatives and friends.

As fate would have it, a year after her son’s marriage the mother died of typhoid fever without ever seeing her grandson. Three years after her mother-in-law’s death, Lihua became a widow.

Thus, Young Mrs. Wei became the talk of Qijiangkou and its neighboring villages. Some pointed their finger at her, calling her untouchable, an evil-courting woman. But others felt sympathy for her and her unfortunate family. When her son, Xiaobao, played with other boys and girls, the people whose minds were dominated by superstition quietly took their children away. The boy began to feel rather isolated.

Young Mrs. Wei had a neighbor, Mrs. Zhang, five years older than herself, who had married a cotton salesman from Shanghai, Mr. Zhang. She had returned to Ningbo three years after her husband’s death. She had a son called Xiaoyong.

Young Mrs. Wei employed two farm hands, Uncle Fan and Liu Dahai. Uncle Fan had been a small-farmer once. He had owned ten mu of rice fields; but a drought in 1926, and an illness the next year, had ruined his fields and his health. He had sold the land and gone to work for the Wei. Liu Dahai was twenty-seven. He was a capable hand, good at ploughing, transplanting, weeding, spreading manure. He had been born into a poor peasant family. When he was nine he began to work in the fields, shouldering a part of his family’s burden. During the big flood of 1928, his family’s thatched cottage had been washed away; his old grandmother and his father were drowned. His mother sold their three mu of land to bury the dead. Weeping, she had torn herself away from her only son, and remarried. The boy was then seventeen. He was forced to live with his uncle, also a poor peasant. Though he worked hard for his uncle, he was not treated well; the old man had not even been able to feed his own family. At eighteen, Dahai had gone to work for Old Mrs. Wei, earning his living as a farmhand. The Wei had liked their young hand, who was honest and hard-working.

Now that Old Mrs. Wei and Mr. Wei were dead, he worked all the harder. With Uncle Fan, Dahai managed to plant the fifty mu of rice fields, so that Young Mrs. Wei and Xiaobao lived a fairly comfortable life. Young Mrs. Wei ran a small dofu shop, partly because she wanted to earn some cash, partly because she was a bit bored at home. She knew how to make dofu; her father had been good at it. She soaked the beans overnight; early in the morning she ground and boiled them. Around eight o’clock, Dahai would come and put the bean mash in the big, bag-shaped press, then squeeze until the bean-milk flowed into pails. Finally, he would mix a little brine with the milk, so that the dofu set. Young Mrs. Wei herself sold the dofu in the workshop. The white, jelly-like dofu brought approving comments and sold well.

Little by little, the daily meeting of Young Mrs. Wei and Dahai gave rise to feelings they had never known and could not explain. Casually, their eyes met; fingers brushed against fingers. One’s head bowed, the other’s lifted. Their hearts beat with what they had no words to say. By eight o’clock, Young Mrs. Wei would look innocently out the window, as if to watch birds in the trees or frogs in the pond. She would pull firewood from the oven, then put it back, for no reason at all. Minute by minute she grew more restless. She brushed non-existent dust from her clothes. Her face flushed, and not just because she stood too close to the oven. Her hands trembled a little as she struggled against any thought of passion. She tried to stem the emotions rising to flood her mind. Her struggle ceased when Dahai crossed the threshold, but she never looked at him directly, or smiled at him, or revealed what a young widow should never show a man. In summer it was so hot in the workshop that Dahai stripped to the waist when he worked the press. The muscles of his arms were taut. Young Mrs. Wei stole glances at his broad chest. Oh, the strength of a young man! How it challenges a young widow. “Food and sex are part of human nature,” says Mencius. Her heart beat wildly. She exerted every ounce of her strength to recover her composure. She said to him: “Shall I bring the pail over?” when the pail stood next to Dahai. She had to be careful; people would begin to gossip.

It was a late-summer morning, close and cloudy. Dahai had finished weeding and was on his way to the dofu shop. When he saw heavy smoke rising in the distance, he knew the cause at once, and ran desperately to the workshop. A mule stood by a pond: he mounted quickly, using a willow-withe as a whip. Within minutes he had reached the shop, which was wrapped in flames. He leaped from the mule and rushed into the burning building. He found his young mistress lying unconscious beside the millstone. The window belched heavy smoke; the angry fire licked at his clothes. He lifted her in his strong arms and carried her outdoors, where he lay her down on a carpet of grass. The sleeves of her blouse were burnt. By that time, the neighbors had arrived. They laid her in an ox-cart and took her to Mrs. Zhang’s house. Mrs. Zhang settled her in a small room, and vowed to take care of her and her young son.

When Young Mrs. Wei opened her eyes, the two women wept. Mrs. Zhang did not know how to comfort her neighbor; yet, who but another widow would know her heart? Hot tears stung Young Mrs. Wei’s burnt face. When Mrs. Zhang told her that Dahai had rescued her from the fire, her tear-washed face glowed. “Oh, it was he. . . .” Her sentence ended with a sigh. She closed her eyes again.

“There, there. He’s a good man, and he’s honest,” said Mrs. Zhang. “You can recuperate here. Who will care for us? Men can remarry any time they choose when their wife dies. The law says, One man can have only one woman. Bullshit! Old Fang Minyuan at Xilong Village has already had four concubines! Last month he bought a fifth one from a brothel! Has the law done anything against him? The town magistrate even praised him! Says he has rescued a prostitute and made her a decent woman. A good deed, indeed! When Dahai comes to my house I’ll ask him to dinner. You can join us. He has saved your life, after all.”

Mrs. Zhang was filled with indignation against the injustice of it all. Young Mrs. Wei opened her eyes again; they were filled with tears.

The next day, Dahai passed by Mrs. Zhang’s house. He walked briskly, then halted, then strode away; but Mrs. Zhang’s son called after him: “Dahai, my mother asks if you would repair a broken door. Would you like to come in?”

Mrs. Zhang seated Dahai in the outer room and chatted with him about rebuilding the dofu shop, and forgot about the broken door. Dahai said it wouldn’t take much time or money to rebuild; but as for how to do it, he had to listen to his mistress’s thoughts. Mrs. Zhang laughed gently: “Let me take you to see your mistress: she’s in the inner room. I’m very interested in dofu, too!”

She led Dahai into the inner room, then withdrew and left him alone with Young Mrs. Wei. Young Mrs. Wei lay on the bed moaning softly, her eyes closed. The burns still hurt badly. Dahai stood in front of her, at a loss for what to say or do, but Young Mrs. Wei felt the heat of his body. She opened her eyes, and saw the man she had just been dreaming about.

“So you came,” she murmured, with an effort. “How did you get here? Did anybody see you?”

“I was passing by, on my way to my uncle’s,” stammered the young man. His face had turned as red as Young Mrs. Wei’s. “But how bad were you burned? How did it happen?” he asked in a low voice.

“One of my arms still hurts very much.” Hesitantly she began to draw her right arm from under the blanket. In spite of herself, she uttered a small cry. Her cry pierced his heart, and he fell at her side and helped her move her arm.

“I was too careless. I laid too much straw in the oven. I left for just a minute for —” she paused, “for the latrine. When I got back, the straw was burning outside the oven. I tried to beat the fire down.” She stopped speaking, choked not by the memory of smoke, but by excitement.

“Ah, you should have left the shop at once and called for help!” For the first time, Dahai criticized his mistress. Her account of the accident had hurt him.

“The beam caught fire so quickly,” she went on. “I knew I was in danger. I was going to leave, but the smoke choked me. I crawled away, a few steps, but it smothered me and I was coughing. I had nearly passed out when I felt someone carry me in his arms. —I didn’t know it was you.” The tears she shed now could have put out the workshop fire.

“When I saw the fire on your arms I rushed for you and carried you out,” he said. “Funny, I didn’t even know my left arm was hurt.” He showed her the burn. She touched it gently.

“Does it hurt now?” she asked, with a little smile.

“No, no, not at all. I never felt it hurt.”

“So you’re a brute, not a human being. You don’t feel hurt.”

“Oh, brutes feel hurt. They shriek and dodge when I crack my whip.”

“Then you’re worse than a brute.”

Mrs. Zhang’s voice called, “Dinner’s ready.”

“You’d better go,” Young Mrs. Wei said. “I can’t sit up and eat. In a few days I’ll be home again. I’ll see you then.”

His eyes spoke a swift, bright good-bye to her, and he left.

Dahai was not only a good hand, but a playmate for Xiaobao. In spring, he brought the boy small fishes or shrimps in a bottle, and in the fall, brought grasshoppers or crickets in matchboxes. He helped Xiaobao when other children tried to bully him.

The Fifth Day of the Fifth Moon is a traditional festival known to the West as the Dragon Boat Festival. It takes its name from the boat race people hold to commemorate the great patriotic poet Qu Yuan, to search once more, they say, for the drowned poet in the river.

The Dragon Boat Festival of 1938 fell on a very hot day. Qijiangkou was a busy place. People had long been preparing for the boat race. For several days in a row children crowded along the banks of the Yong river, watching the boats being painted. A platform for distinguished guests was under construction. Old Mr. Wei, being an important gentleman of Qijiangkou, would of course be invited. In that season, farmers weeded in the early rice fields; but Old Wei summoned Dahai from his farmwork to help build the platform, because he knew carpentry. The day of the Festival neared. The villagers sped up construction. Boys crowded around the site, picking up bits of wood for sword fights. Young girls used left-over paper for making pinwheels and small flags. They all ran back and forth, shouting in their high-pitched voices, laughing and chasing one other. Xiaobao and Xiaoyong were among them.

“Hey! It’s so hot, let’s go swimming!” Xiaoyong shouted. A dozen boys shouted back, “Let’s go!” They ran to the riverside, ripped off their clothes, and jumped in the broad Yong. The young girls stood on the bank watching them, waving their pinwheels and small flags. Periodically, a cheer went up for the boy who swam fastest. Xiaoyong and a boy with a shaved head were strong swimmers. They left Xiaobao and the others behind. Xiaobao stroked desperately, unable to catch up. The children saw him sink, gulping mouthfuls of water. The girls cried: “Help! Help!”

Dahai was nailing a board to the main frame of the platform. Hearing the girls’ shouts, he looked, and spotted Xiaobao. He threw down his hammer and raced to the river. Stroking fast and powerfully, he swam against the current and reached the sinking boy, whose hair alone was visible above the water. Dahai grabbed the boy’s arm and lifted him above the water. Straining, he dragged the boy to the bank. There, he laid him on the ground and pumped his stomach, until the boy threw up water. Soon he awoke and began to cry. Dahai wrapped the boy in his clothes and, carrying him on his back, squeezed through the crowd which instantly had collected from nowhere. Everyone was talking. Several old women whispered together, pointing at Xiaobao.

“That boy can survive this disaster. But, sooner or later, he’ll certainly see his daddy and granny.”

“That’s right. That’s a hundred percent certain. You bet he will. That Shen Lihua is a bitch of the worst kind. Young master Wei had only himself to blame. How could he be so blind as to marry this fox-woman, when the hour and date of their birth didn’t match?”

“She is disgusting. I hear she’s secretly attached to Dahai, who’s a bumpkin with no money. He’s her hired farmhand. How could she be so shameless and low? She’s certainly tarnished the reputation of the Wei.”

“We need to keep our eyes open. Such a wicked bitch will come to no good. She’s murdered her husband and her mother-in-law. Now she’s going to murder her own son.”

“Such a shameless slut ought to be confined to her own house. Shouldn’t be allowed to go beyond her front doorstep. I’ll suggest it to Old Wei.”

Amid curses and defamation, Dahai ran as fast as he could to Xiaobao’s house. But he met Young Mrs. Wei on the way. The neighbor’s children had told her that her son had nearly drowned. She had rushed from her house and down the river-path, where she met Dahai. How tightly the mother held her child. She wept bitterly. By the time they had returned home, Xiaobao was still very weak, but he grabbed Dahai’s leg and would not let him go. Young Mrs. Wei asked him to stay for supper. The three sat facing each other at the dinner table. None had any appetite. Xiaobao looked at Dahai with childish gratitude, and with his chopsticks pressed a piece of pork against the man’s lips. Dahai kept his mouth closed, and it was smeared with pork fat. This provoked a smile from Young Mrs. Wei. She said to Dahai: “Eat it quickly, or the pork will slip from the cat’s mouth.” In spite of herself, she began to laugh; but then her face reddened because of her thoughtless allusion. Under pressure from mother and son, Dahai had to swallow the pork, but his head hung lower and lower. He stared at Young Mrs. Wei’s pretty feet, his heart racing as fast as when he had carried the boy home. When supper was over, Xiaobao still wouldn’t let him leave, but Young Mrs. Wei said, “Let him go. He’ll come again tomorrow.”

“Come with a praying mantis! Don’t forget!” Xiaobao ran after him, shouting. Young Mrs. Wei halted at the front door, but her eyes ventured out into the dark night.

The rumor spread that Dahai had spent the night with his young mistress.

One day in early autumn, four ladies were playing mahjongg at Young Mrs. Wei’s: Mrs. Zhang; Mrs. Li, from the neighboring village; Miss Rong, a neighbor of Young Mrs. Wei’s and senior middle-school graduate; and Young Mrs. Wei.

“Why, you’ve grown thinner — what’s wrong?” Miss Rong exclaimed, looking at Young Mrs. Wei’s pale face. The other women looked up at her.

“She’s still not recovered from her burns,” said Mrs. Zhang.

“Oh, I’m all right. Only, I’ve lost my appetite,” said Young Mrs. Wei.

“I’m afraid malicious gossip is worse than a burn,” said Miss Rong. “How hateful those wicked tongues are! Nosing about into everyone’s privacy. The ‘three obediences and four virtues’ still shackle women, even as our nation is changing. We are still bound by that feudal nonsense. I won’t tolerate it anymore! I declare openly that I will have freedom in marriage. I’ll marry whomever I love. I’ll say to him openly, ‘I love you,’ and marry him. I admire any brave young man who defies feudalism! The brave man will win a girl’s heart!”

Her vehemence left the other women speechless. They didn’t quite know what “feudalism” meant, but they looked at Miss Rong with admiration, mixed with slight consternation.

“I don’t care what those gossip-mongers talk about. I have a clear conscience. I’ve never done anything against my dead husband,” said Young Mrs. Wei softly.

“What if you had done something against him!” cried Miss Rong. Her voice was raised. “Your husband is dead. Why should a living wife be made a walking burial-object? That’s as bullshit as bullshit can be! Of course, when your husband is alive, you should be faithful to him. Still, it’s not a one-way love. If the guy turns out to be unworthy of you, you just leave him. Divorce is a modern weapon against husbands like that. Don’t mind how the village tongues wag, Lihua. Go your own way. If you have a man in your heart, don’t wait to tell him you love him.”

“Easier said than done.” Young Mrs. Wei bowed her head and continued her game in silence; but her mind had lost its composure, and she lost the game that day. Miss Rong was the only winner.

The next day Mrs. Zhang brought some fresh sword fish from the market for Young Mrs. Wei. She cooked the fish but didn’t eat much, for she didn’t care for dead salt-water fish: it was too “fishy.” She gave it to Xiaobao, and said she’d like to have some live silver carp to stimulate her poor appetite. Early the next day, Xiaobao went to the rice field to find Dahai and ask him for some live carp. Dahai promised to deliver them later that day. At four o’clock that afternoon, Dahai brought Xiaobao a big bottle of live fish. The small fish darted to and fro, trying to break through their transparent cell. When Xiaobao cheerfully presented the bottle to his mother, Young Mrs. Wei was puzzled.

“I give you these to stimulate your appetite,” said the boy, placing the bottle in his mother’s hands. She couldn’t help laughing, and said that such little fish were only playthings, certainly not grown up enough for the table. Xiaobao walked away disappointed. He told Dahai that the fish were alive, but they hadn’t lived to be big enough for food. Dahai laughed and said he would get a big live fish one of these days.

Late one hot afternoon, Dahai came to Young Mrs. Wei’s house stripped to the waist and with a fish-basket on his back. Xiaobao hadn’t returned yet from Mrs. Zhang’s, where he played with Xiaoyong and the other boys.

Young Mrs. Wei sat under the eaves, fanning herself, daydreaming. She was dressed in a short-sleeved blouse and a white skirt. The fair skin of her arms and calves was inviting; a man could hardly look away. She didn’t notice the man’s approach until the fish jumped inside the basket and interrupted her reverie. Before her stood the figure that had so often slipped into her dreams. For a moment she had no idea what to say, while Dahai tried to make an excuse for visiting her so late in the day. He was tall, robust, masculine; he stood before her, and his body gave off heat. She tried to rise, but her knees gave way. At last, she stood up.

“So you came.”

“Yes, I came because Xiaobao said you wanted some live river-fish to stimulate your appetite. Here are two silver carp. I just caught them,” he stammered, while unpacking his basket. Young Mrs. Wei’s face flushed. She looked into the basket. One of the fish jumped, suddenly, and hit her on the mouth. She was more startled than the fish, and cried out, “Oh, what a naughty fish!” This set the farmhand laughing. Quickly his big hands subdued the fish. Then its mate leaped, and landed next to it on the ground. Young Mrs. Wei, feeling bold, placed her hands on the second fish, which began to flap madly about. She struggled to hold it as it grew madder and madder. Dahai, having tossed the first fish back into the basket, came to her rescue.

At such a desperate moment, of course, prudence, as described in The Story of the West Chamber, was impossible to exercise. Roughly he covered his mistress’ hands with his own and pressed down on the huge fish. Flesh upon flesh: the contact thrilled them, and quieted the fish. They felt weak. And ‘s-s-s-’: the fish slid from between their joined hands and slipped under the leg of a chair. Young Mrs. Wei looked up into Dahai’s face and smiled.

“How naughty and mad you are!” she scolded the fish. Her heart was madder than the fish’s. She stood up.

“You can catch it in water, but you can’t catch it on land! You really are a silly good-for-nothing. Now, gather them into the basket and clean them. I’ll cook. I’m already hungry. Stay and share this delicacy with me.” Her voice went from gentle to soft. She felt an inner warmth that was not from the autumn sun.

“Yes, Miss Rong is right. Women should break their feudal shackles. To hell with the ‘three obediences and the four virtues,’” she thought.

That evening Young Mrs. Wei cooked a huge dinner. The appetite she had lost was fully recovered. Xiaobao clung to Dahai. Dahai hugged and tickled him till the boy laughed himself almost helpless. It grew late. Xiaobao went to bed. And going to bed were the couple drunk on the bliss of youth.

Oh, let the shackles of feudalism break up, piece by piece! Let all wag their tongues as much as they like! The bed curtain falls, and two souls rise to paradise.

Dahai left Young Mrs. Wei’s house before dawn, but gossip traveled fast through the village. “To think that a well-to-do widow should have fallen in love with a cheap hired farm hand!”

“I bet she’s got a sexual mania,” sniggered an elderly man in a dark green gown, who kept inhaling from his emerald snuff bottle. “Could it be that her desire can only be satisfied by such a rough hired hand? But will Old Wei tolerate it?”

“Dahai won’t live long. No one who married her would live long,” a wrinkled face said mysteriously.

“Such a bitch will ruin the reputation of the village. Old Wei will do something, I’m sure,” a thin, bearded man said, grinding his teeth.

“Well you shouldn’t talk about her like that. She wants to marry. That’s her own business,” a middle-aged woman cut in.

The news finally reached the ear of Old Wei.

“That slut dares to carry on a clandestine love affair. It’s an outrage. She’s ruined the reputation of the Wei. Tomorrow I’ll send my men to bring her here. I’ll make it hot for her,” said Old Wei angrily.

“Oh, master,” said Cuihua, his concubine. “Don’t be so excited.”

She then put her mouth to the ear of the old man. The old man nodded. “An excellent idea. Wonderful!”

The next day Old Wei summoned some young gangsters from other villages and instructed them personally about what line of action to take.

On an early autumn night in 1938, the waxing moon looked down on the Yong River, whose gentle flow, having lullabied children into their dream land, hummed the night’s millennial old songs for happy and unhappy folk. And the moon sharpened her eyes to observe the nocturnal activities of mice and men. She saw six living beings in black tunics, stealthier than the creatures of the night, move toward the house of Young Mrs. Wei. One climbed over the wall by standing on the back of another, then on the spine of a third. Noiselessly, he landed in the courtyard, then opened the bolted door for his comrades. One after another, they crept up to the window of the widow’s room. Two carried ropes, another a sword, the rest, flashlights, clubs, or bare fists hard as rocks. They listened for the slightest rustle in the room, or any whisper in a dream. Some of them pressed their ears to the window pane. But they found nothing unusual, except a pain, self-inflicted, in their hearts. They waited, crouched or prone, their sides and knees aching. They endured this hardship for the sake of the hard money promised them by the head of the clan. Just as someone thought of withdrawing, the man with the sword heard a short snore. He waved the sword and broke the window, as with a flung stone. How quickly a man’s feet can fly! They sprang upon the bed, and found two occupants, not one. What an assault followed! Clubs and fists rained down on the blanket from head to foot. Two flashlights pierced the darkness like lightning bolts. Tearing at the skin, binding trembling, resisting limbs fast, the attackers were victorious. They conquered the room in a blitzkrieg and captured its two residents.

The news was sent at once to Old Wei’s hall. He was waiting in gown and cap, and he arrived in a sedan chair within fifteen minutes. He found Young Mrs. Wei’s courtyard cold and damp, but bright with burning candles. The prisoners were brought in on their knees before him. Old Wei frowned; then, he smiled. He ordered his men to cover the naked woman. The prisoners knelt on the stone floor, their backs and legs covered with a pattern of bruises. Xiaobao was trembling and crying, not knowing why his mother had been beaten and humiliated.

“What a nice scene you two have made! Shameless. Who could have expected it? You’ve disgraced the Wei. This is more than I can tolerate. According to clan discipline, both of you should be clubbed to death, or burned alive.”

Young Mrs. Wei bent her head low. She was overcome by an undeserved shame. Tears flooded her cheeks, but she showed no repentance.

“It is my fault. Dahai had nothing to do with it,” she said, between sobs.

“Well, well, it’s a ticklish matter, but we still have time to make amends,” said Old Wei helplessly. “I didn’t know this had happened tonight, until my men awakened me. I rushed here to see how to save the face of the Wei. I don’t want to wash our dirty linen in public. All of us present must keep this to ourselves. No one is allowed to speak of what has happened here, or he’ll be dealt with severely. As for the magistrate, he is my intimate friend, and I have men in court who can hush the whole thing up. Of course, I’ll do my best as head of the clan. But I’ll have to pay handsomely to keep their mouths shut and their eyes closed. If you can pay that money, I can assure you that what has happened here will be forgotten. Ah my grand-neice, you young women should behave more prudently.”

“Yes, I am willing to pay. But I have no cash just now,” Young Mrs. Wei nodded slowly.

“That doesn’t matter. I can advance it for you. You can simply give me the deed of twenty mu of your rice fields as a mortgage. Well. You men! Untie the ropes and let these two get dressed. You two must have had a hard time. Now,” he turned to his retainers, “all of you: go back to where you came from. This was really disgusting — no wonder you acted so fiercely. But she is my grand-niece. For my sake, keep the whole thing quiet. Let it pass. After all, she is a member of the Wei.” Turning to his grandniece-in-law, he said: “Where is the deed? I’ll need it now to raise mortgage money tomorrow.”

Young Mrs. Wei and Dahai struggled to their feet and got dressed. The widow took the deed from her drawer, and the young man limped away. The thugs had slipped off, one by one, before Old Wei returned to his sedan chair.

Old Wei was quite carried away by his windfall. He rewarded his concubine with kisses and a gold necklace. The kisses, and his bad breath, she avoided by slipping under the blanket, but the golden reward thrilled her. It was a testimonial to her wisdom, not his generosity.

A few days later the concubine whispered again in the old man’s ear, so long, so close to his face that her breathy instructions left faint lipstick marks on the old man’s face — a bit like an M, a little O: funny initials for “My Old Man.” Old Wei frowned, then was flattered. Money meant more to him than a good name or an honest woman.

For a week, Young Mrs. Wei shut herself in. Xiaobao was told to say nothing to anybody. Her old mother came to visit. Young Mrs. Wei told her that one foggy evening she had been stopped by three gangsters, who had tried to rob her of her rings. She had resisted, she said, but had been beaten from head to foot. It was a mercy that she had escaped with no broken bones.

Her story moved the old woman to tears. “What terrible fortune my daughter has had. First, she lost her mother-in-law; then, her husband. Now, robbed by gangsters, she almost lost her life.” Full of remorse, the old woman blamed herself for her daughter’s misfortune; for, its only cause, she believed, was that, in her previous life, she herself had done few good deeds.

Dahai, when asked about his bruises and his limp, blamed an unworthy friend to whom he had lent money two years before, and who had refused to pay it back. Instead, he had rounded up a gang of hoodlums and beaten Dahai with fists and clubs, nearly breaking his neck. “Kindness is requited with enmity,” people couldn’t help sighing.

But there also were people nosing around, hoping to discover new, more interesting information. Second Aunt Huang was trying to figure out why the bodies of Young Mrs. Wei and Dahai bore similar wounds in similar places.

“Odd,” she said. “It’s like they were Siamese twins. One is hit in the head, the other’s head is bruised, too. One is beaten on the legs, and the other is limping. Two accidents on the same day. Two people seem depressed. The whole thing sounds fishy. Wheels are turning within wheels.”

She gossiped to everyone she met.

“The world has changed. Morality is thrown aside, and all this horseshit about freedom to choose your husband or wife becomes the new rule. The whole world is degraded,” said some of the elderly people, echoing Second Aunt Huang.

“You must respect the privacy of other people, good Second Aunt Huang,” said Miss Rong severely to the old woman. “Matters of the heart are especially private. According to the law, intruding on other peoples’ privacy is a sin.”

“Where are your manners! Where’s His Majesty’s law!” The old aunt flared up. “I could be your mother. I carried you in my arms when you were a baby. Should you talk to me like that? No wonder His Majesty’s law is no longer enforced. No wonder the world is in such disorder!” She walked away in anger.

Young Mrs. Wei’s wounds healed gradually. One day while she was cooking, there was a knock at the door. She told Xiaobao to be certain who it was before he let the caller in. The caller wouldn’t give his name, and his gruff voice was unfamiliar. Xiaobao refused to open the door. The knocks became loud bangs. Young Mrs. Wei came and, through the closed door, asked who was there. A rough voice shouted that he was “Zhu.” Young Mrs. Wei said she didn’t know anyone of that name.

“Bitch, you really don’t know me? But I know you. I saw your pretty face, and I saw your naked hips. Open the door quick, or I’ll break it down!” Young Mrs. Wei recognized the voice of one of the thugs. She didn’t know what to do next.

“Quick, or I won’t be so easy on you,” the man threatened.

“But why have you come here?” she asked timidly.

Another loud bang on the door, which shook under the blow. Young Mrs. Wei opened it. “This man tore my underwear,” she thought. The memory shamed her, and, in spite of herself, she hung her head.

“Mr. Zhu, sit down, please” she said meekly. Zhu, a tall man and robust, about thirty, threw himself into the chair.

“My master, Old Mr. Wei, says your affair is causing too much trouble. You’re the talk of the village. The magistrate was outraged when people accused you of offending public decency. He would have sent the police here, but Old Mr. Wei begged him not to. He’s spent more than three thousand yuan on your case. The mortgage on your twenty mu of land was only for two thousand. Not enough. He’s worried.”

“What is to be done?”

“Well, Old Mr. Wei says, if you give him ten more mu of land for another mortgage, the thing can be settled. He sent me to see if you’d agree to his terms. If you do, he’ll come tomorrow for the deed. If not, the police will come, instead.”

“I can’t answer such a question so hastily. I have to think it over. Please, ask Mr. Wei to give me three days’ grace.”

“I took all this trouble to come here for nothing?” Zhu rolled his eyes, threatening the dejected woman. She put two one-yuan notes in the palm of his hand. He shrugged his shoulders, delight mixed with contempt, and darted from the house, quick as a rat.

Night fell. The lamp was dim. Before its flickering light, Young Mrs. Wei looked very thin. She opened the drawer and took out the deeds. She examined them, put them back, and shut the drawer again. She began to sob. “The horrible scandal. Malicious gossip. Blackmail,” she thought. “All of it a sword against my neck, a mill-stone on my back. How can my son and I live if ten more mu of land are gone? Will they extort money from me until nothing is left? Who can tell? Is no one fair and honest enough to protect me? Can I marry Dahai, as I wish to? It’s impossible. How women suffer under this feudal sun. They have no freedom to choose their men. Now that war has broken out, the world ought to change. But change never comes here. Old Wei and his kind always do exactly as they like. My fate is sealed, there’s no escape. Oh Heaven, Heaven, have you no mercy on Women! Why do you connive at Old Wei’s trickery? Don’t you tell us: ‘Good will be rewarded with good, and evil with evil’? Why can Old Wei and his kind enjoy everything at others’ expense? Oh Dahai, my dear, people say you and I have committed adultery. If it was that, it was justified. We’re both unmarried. We love each other. We want to marry. Who prevents us? We’re insulted, bullied, blackmailed. Oh Dahai, let’s leave this hellish world. I would rather suffer in Hell, where there is no hypocrisy.”

She grew quiet, and sat down at a small table. She scribbled a few words on a piece of paper, then hanged herself on the roofbeam.

Dear Mama:

I’m sorry, I can’t stay with you anymore. I’m leaving this terrible world.

Please take care of my son. Everything I have is yours.


Young Mrs. Wei’s cry to Heaven, her appeal or her accusation, was lost on the stone-hearted Universe. Her son, Xiaobao, wept. Her old mother wept. A few people sighed; a few were angry; but others giggled and even laughed. That afternoon, a body was found floating on the Yong River, and was identified as that of Liu Dahai.



Author’s notes:

One mu equals 0.165 acre.

In Old China, people believed in fortune-tellers. On the basis of the hour and date of their child’s birth, they predicted whether his or her marriage would be a happy one, or whether it would court evil or bring misfortune to the family.

“Food and sex are part of human nature”: The quotation, a famous one, is taken from Mencius ( 340 BC-278 BC), Chapter 11.

Fifth Day of the Fifth Moon: Qu Yuan (340 BC-278 BC), a patriotic poet of the State of Chu, drowned himself in a river when he learned that the State of Chu was about to fall.

‘fox-woman’: implying ‘of a fox spirit’. In Chinese culture, a fox spirit usually refers to a female. She is pretty but loose in morals.

sword-fish: as called by Northeastern Chinese. It is a fish shaped like a belt; some English people in China also call it ‘hair-tail fish.’

“...pork will slip from the cat’s mouth”: In Eastern China, a girl is often compared to a piece of pork, and a boy to a crying cat who wishes for the piece of pork, i.e., to marry the girl.

The ‘three obediences and four virtues’: A feudal code of female behavior, enforced over two thousand years, until 1949. The three obediences were to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son after the death of the husband. The four virtues were chastity, proper speech, modest manner and diligent work.

The Story of the West Chamber, a play by Wang Shifu of the Yu Dynasty (1279-1368). The play describes how a poor young scholar, Zhang Hong, falls in love with the daughter of the ex-premier Cui Yungying at a temple; and how, under the careful arrangement of Cui’s maid Hongniang, they succeed in their love affair.

in her previous life: According to the Buddhist belief in transmigration of souls, human beings are subject to repeated cycles of life and death. When a person dies, his or her soul will, after a length of time, migrate to a foetus, to be reborn. If that person has done many good deeds in the previous life, he or she will be rich and successful in a subsequent life; and vice-versa.

“Where’s His Majesty’s law?”: ‘His Majesty’ here refers to Fuyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He had long since abdicated. At that time, the year 1938, he was the puppet emperor of Manchuria, which was controlled by Japan, but some rural old people, ignorant of the situation, still regarded him as their ruler. As for the ‘world’ being in ‘such disorder’: the War of Resistance against Japan’s aggression in Manchuria had been going on for about a year by then.


Zuxin Ding, 1999. See also, “The Arched Bridge,” Shi Zhecun, tr. Zuxin Ding. Archipelago Vol. 1, No. 4.


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