Translatedby Yang Xianyi
Thewine shops in Luchen are not like those in other parts of China. They all havea right-angled counter facing the street, where hot water is kept ready forwarming wine. When men come off work at midday and in the evening they buy abowl of wine; it cost four coppers twenty years ago, but now it costs ten.Standing beside the counter, they drink it warm, and relax. Another copper willbuy a plate of salted bamboo shoots or peas flavoured with aniseed, to go withthe wine; while for a dozen coppers you can buy a meat dish. But most of thesecustomers belong to the short-coated class, few of whom can afford this. Onlythose in long gowns enter the adjacent room to order wine and dishes, and sitand drink at leisure.
At the age of twelve I started work as a waiter in Prosperity Tavern, at the entrance to the town. The tavern keeper said I looked too foolish to serve thelong-gowned customers, so I was given work in the outer room. Although the short-coated customers there were more easily pleased, there were quite a fewtrouble-makers among them too. They would insist on watching with their owneyes as the yellow wine was ladled from the keg, looking to see if there wereany water at the bottom of the wine pot, and inspecting for themselves the immersion of the pot in hot water. Under such keen scrutiny, it was very difficult to dilute the wine. So after a few days my employer decided I was notsuited for this work. Fortunately I had been recommended by someoneinfluential, so he could not dismiss me, and I was transferred to the dull workof warming wine.
Thenceforward I stood all day behind the counter, fully engaged with my duties.Although I gave satisfaction at this work, I found it monotonous and futile.Our employer was a fierce-looking individual, and the customers were a moroselot, so that it was impossible to be gay. Only when Kung I-chi came to thetavern could I laugh a little. That is why I still remember him.
Kung was the only long-gowned customer to drink his wine standing. He was a bigman, strangely pallid, with scars that often showed among the wrinkles of hisface. He had a large, unkempt beard, streaked with white. Although he wore along gown, it was dirty and tattered, and looked as if it had not been washedor mended for over ten years. He used so many archaisms in his speech, it wasimpossible to understand half he said. As his surname was Kung, he wasnicknamed “Kung I-chi,” the first three characters in a children’scopybook. Whenever he came into the shop, everyone would look at him andchuckle. And someone would call out:
“Kung I-chi! There are some fresh scars on your face!”
Ignoring this remark, Kung would come to the counter to order two bowls ofheated wine and a dish of peas flavoured with aniseed. For this he producednine coppers. Someone else would call out, in deliberately loud tones:
“You must have been stealing again!”
“Why ruin a man’s good name groundlessly?” he would ask, opening hiseyes wide.
“Pooh, good name indeed! The day before yesterday I saw you with my own eyesbeing hung up and beaten for stealing books from the Ho family!”
Then Kung would flush, the veins on his forehead standing out as he remonstrated: “Taking a book can’t be considered stealing, . . . Taking abook, the affair of a scholar, can’t be considered stealing!” Thenfollowed quotations from the classics, like “A gentleman keeps hisintegrity even in poverty,” and a jumble of archaic expressions till everybody was roaring with laughter and the whole tavern was gay.
From gossip I heard, Kung I-chi had studied the classics but had never passedthe official examination. With no way of making a living, he grew poorer andpoorer, until be was practically reduced to beggary. Happily, he was a goodcalligrapher, and could get enough copying work to support himself.Unfortunately he had failings: he liked drinking and was lazy. So after a fewdays he would invariably disappear, taking books, paper, brushes and inkstonewith him. After this had happened several times, nobody wanted to employ him asa copyist again. Then there was no alternative for him but to take tooccasional pilfering. In our tavern his behaviour was exemplary. He neverfailed to pay up, although sometimes, when he had no ready money, his namewould appear on the board where we listed debtors. However, in less than amonth he would always settle, and his name would be wiped off the board again.
After drinking half a howl of wine, Kung would regain his composure. But then someone would ask:
“Kung I-chi, do you really know how to read?”
When Kung looked as if such a question were beneath contempt, they wouldcontinue: “How is it you never passed even the lowest official examination?”
At that Kung would look disconsolate and ill at ease. His face would turn paleand his lips move, but only to utter those unintelligible classical expressions. Then everybody would laugh heartily again, and the whole tavern would be merry.
At such times, I could join in the laughter without being scolded by my master.In fact he often put such questions to Kung himself, to evoke laughter. Knowing it was no use talking to them, Kung would chat to us children. Once he asked me:
“Have you had any schooling?”
When I nodded, he said, “Well then, I’ll test you. How do you write thecharacter hui in hui-xiang (aniseed–Translator) peas?”
I thought, “I’m not going to be tested by a beggar!” So I turned awayand ignored him. After waiting for some time, he said very earnestly:
“You can’t write it? I’ll show you how. Mind you remember! You ought to remember such characters, because later when you have a shop of your own,you’ll need them to make up your accounts.”
It seemed to me I was still very far from owning a shop; besides, our employer never entered hui-xiang peas in the account book. Amused yet exasperated, Ianswered listlessly: “Who wants you as a teacher? Isn’t it the character hui with the grass radical?”
Kungwas delighted, and tapped two long fingernails on the counter. “Right,right!” he said, nodding. “Only there are four different ways of writing hui. Do you know them?” My patience exhausted, I scowled and made off. Kung I-chi had dipped his finger in wine, in order to trace the characterson the counter; but when he saw how indifferent I was, he sighed and lookedmost disappointed.
Sometimes children in the neighbourhood, hearing laughter, came to join in the fun, and surrounded Kung I-chi Then he would give them peas flavoured with aniseed, one apiece. After eating the peas, the children would still hang round, their eyeson the dish. Flustered, he would cover the dish with his hand and, bendingforward from the waist, would say: “There isn’t much. I haven’t much as itis.” Then straightening up to look at the peas again, he would shake hishead. “Not much! Verily, not much, forsooth!” Then the children would scamper off, with shouts of laughter.
Kung I-chi was very good company, but we got along all right without him too.
One day, a few days before the Mid-Autumn Festival, the tavern keeper was laboriously making out his accounts. Taking down the board from the wall, hesuddenly said: “Kung I-chi hasn’t been in for a long time. He still owesnineteen coppers!” That made me realize how long it was since we had seen him.
“How could he come?” one of the customers said. “His legs were broken in that last beating.”
“He was stealing again. This time he was fool enough to steal from Mr.Ting, the provincial scholar! As if anybody could get away with that!”
“What then? First he had to write a confession, then he was beaten. The beating lasted nearly all night, until his legs were broken.”
“Well, his legs were broken.”
“Yes, but after that?”
“After? . . . Who knows? He may be dead.”
The tavern keeper did not pursue his questions, but went on slowly making up his accounts.
After the Mid-Autumn Festival the wind grew colder every day, as winter came on. Even though I spent all my time by the stove, I had to wear my padded jacket. One afternoon, when the shop was empty, I was sitting with my eyesclosed when I heard a voice:
“Warm a bowl of wine.”
The voice was very low, yet familiar. But when I looked up, there was no one insight. I stood up and looked towards the door, and there, facing the threshold,beneath the counter, sat Kung I-chi. His face was haggard and lean, and helooked in a terrible condition. He had on a ragged lined jacket, and was sitting cross-legged on a mat which was attached to his shoulders by a strawrope. When he saw me, he repeated:
“Warm a bowl of wine.”
At this point my employer leaned over the counter and said: “Is that KungI-chi? You still owe nineteen coppers!”
“That . . . I’ll settle next time,” replied Kung, looking up disconsolately. “Here’s ready money; the wine must be good.”
The tavern keeper, just as in the past, chuckled and said:
“Kung I-chi, you’ve been stealing again!”
But instead of protesting vigorously, the other simply said:
“You like your joke.”
“Joke? If you didn’t steal, why did they break your legs?”
“I fell,” said Kung in a low voice. “I broke them in afall.” His eyes pleaded with the tavern keeper to let the matter drop. Bynow several people had gathered round, and they all laughed. I warmed the wine,carried it over, and set it on the threshold. He produced four coppers from his ragged coat pocket, and placed them in my hand. As he did so I saw that hishands were covered with mud–he must have crawled here on them. Presently hefinished the wine and, amid the laughter and comments of the others, slowlydragged himself off by his hands.
A long time went by after that without our seeing Kung again. At the end of the year, when the tavern keeper took down the board, he said, “Kung I-chistill owes nineteen coppers!” At the Dragon Boat Festival the next year,he said the same thing again. But when the Mid-Autumn Festival came, he did not mention it. And another New Year came round without our seeing any more of him.
Nor have I ever seen him since–probably Kung I-chi is really dead.
LU HSUN 鲁迅(1881-1936),chief commander of China’s modern cultural revolution, was not only a great thinker and political commentator but the founder of modern Chinese literature.As early as in the May 1918 issue of the magazine New Youth, Lu Hsun published one of his best stories, A Madman’s Diary. This was his “declaration ofwar” against China’s feudal society, and the first short story in thehistory of modern Chinese literature. Thereafter he followed up with asuccession of stories such as The True Story of Ah Q and The New Year’s Sacrifice, which cut through and sharply attacked stark reality in the dark old society. These stories were later included in the three volumes Call to Arms,Wandering and Old Tales Retold, and have become treasures in the Chinese people’s literary heritage.