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 husbands 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 couldnt 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 Jiqins 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: Im an enlightened man. You would
have my consent to remarry, if it were not for Jiqins 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, dont hesitate to let me know. Ill 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: Dont
people say that you can marry freely now when your husband dies?
Who has told you such nonsense? Old Wei replied
sharply. I wouldnt say a wife must remain chaste after her husbands
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 mothers 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 sons passion for Shen Lihua defeated his
mothers 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 parents 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 sons
marriage the mother died of typhoid fever without ever seeing her
grandson. Three years after her mother-in-laws death, Lihua became a
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 husbands
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 familys
burden. During the big flood of 1928, his familys
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 oclock, 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. Ones
head bowed, the others lifted. Their hearts beat with what they had
no words to say. By eight oclock, 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. Zhangs
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. Weis
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. Hes a good man, and hes 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 Ill
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. Zhangs house. He
walked briskly, then halted, then strode away; but Mrs. Zhangs 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 wouldnt take much time or money to
rebuild; but as for how to do it, he had to listen to his mistresss
thoughts. Mrs. Zhang laughed gently: Let me take you to see your
mistress: shes in the inner room. Im very interested in dofu,
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 uncles,
stammered the young man. His face had turned as red as Young Mrs. Weis.
But how bad were you burned? How did it happen? he asked in a low
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 didnt
know it was you. The tears she shed now could have put out the
When I saw the fire on your arms I rushed for you
and carried you out, he said. Funny, I didnt 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
No, no, not at all. I never felt it hurt.
So youre a brute, not a human being. You dont
Oh, brutes feel hurt. They shriek and dodge when I
crack my whip.
Then youre worse than a brute.
Mrs. Zhangs voice called, Dinners ready.
Youd better go, Young Mrs. Wei said. I cant
sit up and eat. In a few days Ill be home again. Ill see you then.
His eyes spoke a swift, bright good-bye to her, and he
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
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! Its so hot, lets go swimming!
Xiaoyong shouted. A dozen boys shouted back, Lets 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 boys
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, hell certainly see his daddy and granny.
Thats right. Thats 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 didnt
She is disgusting. I hear shes secretly attached
to Dahai, whos a bumpkin with no money. Hes her hired farmhand.
How could she be so shameless and low? Shes certainly tarnished the
reputation of the Wei.
We need to keep our eyes open. Such a wicked bitch
will come to no good. Shes murdered her husband and her
mother-in-law. Now shes going to murder her own son.
Such a shameless slut ought to be confined to her
own house. Shouldnt be allowed to go beyond her front doorstep. Ill
suggest it to Old Wei.
Amid curses and defamation, Dahai ran as fast as he
could to Xiaobaos house. But he met Young Mrs. Wei on the way. The
neighbors 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
Dahais 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 mans 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 cats 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. Weis pretty feet, his heart racing as fast as when he had
carried the boy home. When supper was over, Xiaobao still wouldnt let
him leave, but Young Mrs. Wei said, Let him go. Hell come again
Come with a praying mantis! Dont 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. Weis: Mrs. Zhang; Mrs. Li, from the
neighboring village; Miss Rong, a neighbor of Young Mrs. Weis and
senior middle-school graduate; and Young Mrs. Wei.
Why, youve grown thinner whats wrong?
Miss Rong exclaimed, looking at Young Mrs. Weis pale face. The other
women looked up at her.
Shes still not recovered from her burns, said
Oh, Im all right. Only, Ive lost my appetite,
said Young Mrs. Wei.
Im afraid malicious gossip is worse than a burn,
said Miss Rong. How hateful those wicked tongues are! Nosing about
into everyones 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 wont tolerate it anymore! I declare openly
that I will have freedom in marriage. Ill marry whomever I love. Ill
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 girls heart!
Her vehemence left the other women speechless. They
didnt quite know what feudalism meant, but they looked at Miss
Rong with admiration, mixed with slight consternation.
I dont care what those gossip-mongers talk
about. I have a clear conscience. Ive 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? Thats as
bullshit as bullshit can be! Of course, when your husband is alive, you
should be faithful to him. Still, its 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. Dont mind how the village tongues
wag, Lihua. Go your own way. If you have a man in your heart, dont
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
The next day Mrs. Zhang brought some fresh sword fish
from the market for Young Mrs. Wei. She cooked the fish but didnt eat
much, for she didnt care for dead salt-water fish: it was too fishy.
She gave it to Xiaobao, and said shed 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 oclock 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 mothers hands. She couldnt
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 hadnt
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. Weis
house stripped to the waist and with a fish-basket on his back. Xiaobao
hadnt returned yet from Mrs. Zhangs, 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 didnt notice the mans 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. Weis 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 Dahais face and smiled.
How naughty and mad you are! she scolded the
fish. Her heart was madder than the fishs. She stood up.
You can catch it in water, but you cant catch it
on land! You really are a silly good-for-nothing. Now, gather them into
the basket and clean them. Ill cook. Im 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. Weis 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 shes 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 wont 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, Im sure, a thin, bearded man
said, grinding his teeth.
Well you shouldnt talk about her like that. She
wants to marry. Thats her own business, a middle-aged woman cut
The news finally reached the ear of Old Wei.
That slut dares to carry on a clandestine love
affair. Its an outrage. Shes ruined the reputation of the Wei.
Tomorrow Ill send my men to bring her here. Ill make it hot for
her, said Old Wei angrily.
Oh, master, said Cuihua, his concubine. Dont
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 nights
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
widows 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 mans 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 Weis hall. He was
waiting in gown and cap, and he arrived in a sedan chair within fifteen
minutes. He found Young Mrs. Weis 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? Youve 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
It is my fault. Dahai had nothing to do with it,
she said, between sobs.
Well, well, its a ticklish matter, but we still
have time to make amends, said Old Wei helplessly. I didnt know
this had happened tonight, until my men awakened me. I rushed here to
see how to save the face of the Wei. I dont 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 hell 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, Ill do my
best as head of the clan. But Ill 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 doesnt 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? Ill need it now to raise mortgage money
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
A few days later the concubine whispered again in the
old mans ear, so long, so close to his face that her breathy
instructions left faint lipstick marks on the old mans 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 daughters
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 couldnt help
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. Its like they were Siamese
twins. One is hit in the head, the others 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! Wheres His Majestys
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 Majestys law is no longer enforced. No wonder the world is
in such disorder! She walked away in anger.
Young Mrs. Weis 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 wouldnt
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 didnt know anyone of that
Bitch, you really dont know me? But I know you.
I saw your pretty face, and I saw your naked hips. Open the door quick,
or Ill break it down! Young Mrs. Wei recognized the voice of one
of the thugs. She didnt know what to do next.
Quick, or I wont be so easy on you, the man
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
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. Youre 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. Hes
spent more than three thousand yuan on your case. The mortgage on
your twenty mu of land was only for two thousand. Not enough. Hes
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 youd agree to his terms. If you do, hell come tomorrow
for the deed. If not, the police will come, instead.
I cant 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? Its 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,
theres no escape. Oh Heaven, Heaven, have you no mercy on Women! Why
do you connive at Old Weis trickery? Dont 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. Were both unmarried. We love each other. We want to marry.
Who prevents us? Were insulted, bullied, blackmailed. Oh Dahai, lets
leave this hellish world. I would rather suffer in Hell, where there is
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
Im sorry, I cant stay with you anymore. Im
leaving this terrible world.
Please take care of my son. Everything I have is
Young Mrs. Weis 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.
One mu equals 0.165 acre.
In Old China, people believed in fortune-tellers. On the basis
of the hour and date of their childs 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
...pork will slip from the cats 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 Cuis 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.
Wheres His Majestys 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 Japans 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.