In an era when China encouraged literature from the ranks of workers, peasants, and soldiers, many hitherto unknown writers, who were in fact not writers by profession, came on the scene, saw publication, then disappeared into oblivion again. Apparently, Sung Shun-k’ang belongs to this category, for he is all but unknown except for the one story “Old Team Captain Welcomes a Bride” included in the New Collection of Short Stories (Hsin ku-shih-chi) published by Writers Publishing House (Tso-chia ch’u-pan-she) in 1965. This story, listed in the “peasant” section of the collection, is an interesting reflection of the ideal role promoted by the Chinese regime for young women in the countryside, and for this reason, has been included in this anthology.
I. ESCORTING THE BRIDE
IN THE AUTUMN of 1963, everywhere the fields were golden and hopes were bright for a rich harvest. Members of the Ho Village production team in the Victory Brigade were in a gay, high-spirited mood. But, they were not complacent. They had resolved to meet the party’s challenge to produce in 1964 a record crop of a thousand catties of grain, a hundred catties of cotton, and a hundred and fifty catties of rape seeds. But, because fertilizer was an essential factor in producing such a high yield, the production team, following the directive from the brigade party branch, had quickly organized a task force to collect fertilizer.
At the crack of dawn, team members were out in force busily gathering water plants, dredging mud from the river, and pulling up weeds. On the team was a former poor farmer named Ho A-huo. Everyone called him Old Team Captain because he had served for the past few years as the leader of the fertilizer-collection team. The Captain at fifty-eight was a man of forthright character who freely spoke his mind, and if he undertook a task for the collective, his loyalty and fortitude could be counted on. At present, he was responsible for collecting water plants. Every morning before the break of day, he set off in his boat and never returned before dusk.
The Old Team Captain’s nephew, Ho Pai-ch’ing, was to be married on National Day, which was fast approaching. His bride-to-be was a girl named Cassia from the Lu Village production team in the Red Star Commune to the west. Pai-ch’ing, who had been just a boy when his father died, was now head of the production team of the Ho Village.
“Trees bear fruit but once a year, and a person marries but once in a lifetime.” mused Pai-ch’ing’s mother to herself. “It’s a great event affecting one’s whole life. But my son is of the new breed. I wanted him to hold a banquet, but he just shook his head. And, when I suggested that the bride’s family get together a bit of dowry, he didn’t want that either. Well, if he doesn’t want it, then forget it; but there is one custom that can’t be disregarded. When the bride enters our gate, she mustn’t be allowed to do it on her own two feet. A boat will have to be sent to fetch her, and Eldest Uncle is the man for the job. Eldest Uncle is the head of the clan and the head of the fertilizer-gathering team in the village. Only by having him go over in a boat to fetch the bride can we welcome her with the proper ceremonies, thereby demonstrating our sincere affections and enhancing our status in the village.”
Pai-ch’ing’s mother talked it over with the Captain’s wife, Paich’ing’s aunt, and she was of the same mind. “When the bride enters the household, of course she should be escorted,” she replied. “It’s all right for in-laws to come on their own, but not for the bride. Furthermore, Pai-ch’ing is the last young sprout in our two households. Although things are often different these days, we can’t allow the custom of escorting the bride to be reformed too. As for that old man of mine, I’ll go and talk with him and insist that he personally undertake the job.”
It was September thirtieth, the day before National Day and Paich’ing’s wedding. At dusk, the Captain finished unloading the water plants and went home for supper. As he set out his rice bowl and began to eat, he was thinking to himself: “Today while I was gathering water plants by Victory Bank, I discovered a small stagnant stream filled with plants and rich mud. They would make fine fertilizer. I’ll take my boat there tomorrow. In fact, there is so much that I’ll probably need two boats to handle it all.”
He was interrupted by his wife who chimed in, “Old man, is everything settled for tomorrow?”
“Everything is settled.”
The wife chuckled when she heard this and asked again, “Tell me, old man, how have you decided to manage it?”
“I thought I’d go over with two boats to save a little time.”
When his wife heard this her heart leaped. “What?” she puzzled. “He’s taking two boats to fetch the bride? That’s a bit much! It’s just like him! Yesterday when I asked him to go over in one boat to fetch the bride, I talked my tongue dry and he wouldn’t give in. Now, he says he’s taking two boats.”
“But I haven’t talked it over with Pai-ch’ing yet,” replied the Captain.
When she heard that he planned to mention it to Pai-ch’ing, the old lady became flustered. “We must keep it from Pai-ch’ing,” she thought to herself.” He is sure to object if he hears about it.”
She spoke up quickly, “Old man, Pai-ch’ing has a meeting. His work keeps him very busy. There is no need to discuss it with him. You’re the eldest uncle, and the head of the family should decide.”
“Well,” responded the Old Team Captain, “I may be head of the family, but the head of the fertilizer team takes orders from the head of the production team, so I should ask his advice about it before I set out.”
“This has nothing to do with work,” said the old lady. “Why do you need his advice?”
“This old woman doesn’t understand,” thought the Captain. “Since when has fertilizer gathering not been considered work? It is important work!” So he countered, “If gathering fertilizer isn’t work, what, then, do you call work?”
“What!” The old lady realized with a start that they had their signals crossed. “He’s going off to gather fertilizer? He’s not going to fetch the bride? No wonder he planned on two boats. My ropes are really tangled up this time. Collect fertilizer! Collect fertilizer! It’s affected his head. He can’t even remember his own nephew’s wedding. What kind of flesh-and-blood uncle is he?”
Becoming upset, she leaped to her feet and shouted at the Captain, “So! So! I knew it all along. You don’t pay any mind to the family anymore! You can’t even remember Pai-ch’ing’s wedding!”
Only after hearing the word “wedding” did he realize that he had confused the issue, and that his wife was talking about fetching the bride, not fertilizer. “Didn’t I tell her about that yesterday?” He was getting annoyed with her now. “When we are so busy with the fertilizer, old customs have to give way,” he thought. “These oldfashioned people won’t be turned around. She’s like a stone that can’t be shattered. And yet she’s finding fault with me and getting all heated up.”
He blurted out, “If you’ve nothing to do tomorrow, you can come with me to gather water plants and see a bit of the outside world.”
The more the old lady thought about it, the angrier she became. “Pai-ch’ing is the only sprout in a two-acre bamboo grove. We have no son or daughter, and the day will come when we will have to depend on the young couple to lay us to rest. Gathering fertilizer may be important, but you can’t just put aside Pai-ch’ing’s wedding.”
In the midst of the argument, Pai-Ch’ing’s mother came running in. Remonstrating with the Old Team Captain, she said, “Brother-in-law, try to put yourself in my place. I’m a person who is open to the new ideas. This is an important event in Pai-ch’ing’s life, but I didn’t invite the bride’s relatives. I didn’t even give a banquet. All I’m asking now is that you go over to escort the bride. Can’t you even do that for us?”
“Sister-in-law, this is the ideal time for collecting fertilizer. In another few days, when the autumn harvest begins, there will be no time to spare. Pai-ch’ing told me a few days ago that the two of them had already made up their minds that the bride would come over on foot on the day of the wedding. So why bother to fetch her?”
“I’ve no intention of holding up the fertilizer gathering,” said Pai-ch’ing’s mother, “you’re the head of the family, and a cadre too. You understand better than we do the principles of things. But did you ever hear of a bride walking to her new family on her own? You know the old saying:
Going alone to the husband’s gate is improper;
A bride who would do so isn’t worth a copper.
What’s more, I already sent a message to the Lu Village yesterday to say that we would send someone to fetch the bride. We can’t break faith with the bride’s family.”
At this point a young man came running up to speak with the Captain. “The party branch secretary sent me to inform you that tomorrow, our National Day, has been declared a holiday. He asked me to tell you especially to take a good rest and look after yourself, because of your advanced age and poor health, and because you’ve worked so hard these past few days.” The young man then added with a chuckle, “If you don’t rest tomorrow, we will call a special meeting to criticize you.” Having said this he was off. It was clear to the two old ladies that their opportunity had come. Tomorrow was a holiday. The branch secretary wanted him to take the day off. He couldn’t claim now that he was too busy with the fertilizer. The two chattered animatedly about how the Captain must go in person to fetch the bride.
“They will pester me until they get their way,” the Captain reasoned to himself. “If I don’t give in, they will never give me any peace, and the branch secretary is concerned about my health and wants me to take the day off. On the other hand, I find it hard to sit around idly with nothing to do. Why not combine both jobs, collecting the fertilizer and escorting the bride? There are plenty of water plants in the river around Lu Village. I can bring back the water plants and the bride in the same trip.”
So he gave in to the old ladies: “All right, all right, enough of this babbling. I’ll go tomorrow.” Thus he finally set their minds at ease.
II. THE ENCOUNTER
The Old Team Captain was up at the first cock crow, before his wife was awake. Feeling chilled and a bit uncomfortable, he drank a glass of hot water and put on some extra clothes. He took a chair along for the bride to sit on and placed it with great care in the boat. Then he pulled up the bamboo punt, plied his paddle and set out. As he paddled past Victory Bank, his eyes were fixed on the stagnant stream choked with water plants. Instinctively he steered his boat off the river and entered the smaller waterway, and as the eastern sky began to show traces of white, he was already within two or three li of the bride’s house. He knew that the water was thick with plants by the sound of the constant thumping on the bottom of the boat. The morning was young. He arranged some of the floor boards to partition off the back of the boat for the water plants, leaving the front section for the bride. She was one of the new breed, so it would not make any difference to her. When the preparations were complete, he began to load the boat with water plants.
By the time the sun was up, he had the boat half-loaded. Since it was well into the morning by this time, he thought he should paddie over and pick up the bride, but when he leaned his weight into the bamboo punt, the boat did not move. He could not budge it at all with his punt. He was more than a li from the bride’s house, and he did not know what to do.
The Old Team Captain was not in the best of health, and he had been loading the boat all morning. As he strained, feeling anxious about the situation, he suddenly felt a chill come over him and there was an aching sensation in his heart. Then his knees weakened and he toppled over into the stern of the boat.
Luckily a young girl had seen him from the river bank. “Uncle, uncle,” she called out, but the Old Team Captain did not respond. Slipping off her shoes and rolling up the bottoms of her pants, she crossed the sandy shoal with shoes in hand and jumped down into the boat. She placed her shoes, her straw hat, and the bundle she carried in the front of the boat and assisted the Old Team Captain to a sitting position. The old man’s face was deathly pale, his teeth were clenched. He could not speak, all he could do was nod in her direction. “Uncle,” her tone of voice was urgent, “what’s the matter?”
The Old Team Captain responded, his voice quavering, “It’s an old ailment . . . the pain . . . will soon … go away.”
The old man had been captured during the War of Resistance by the Japanese devils and beaten until his entire body was lacerated. Afterward, they threw him into a dungeon without even so much as water to drink for four days and nights. Pai-ch’ing’s father had sold everything in the house and borrowed money at high interest rates. He had to make a thousand promises and beg on hands and knees before his brother was finally released. After he came out of prison, the Captain’s house and land were confiscated by the landlord, and the family was thrown into the streets and forced to beg for food. Exposed to the weather and not always having enough to eat, the Captain developed a serious stomach disorder. After liberation, life gradually got better for him, and his ailment flared up much less often. For several years he had consistently been among the hardest workers in the brigade. But because of the hard work he had just put in on the fertilizer project, his stomach had been acting up for the past few days. Now he had a serious relapse.
Seeing him suffer wave after wave of pain, the girl grew worried: “Such an old man coming out here by himself to gather fertilizer and getting ill, and no on€ knowing about it. I just can’t go off and leave him.”
“Uncle, where do you live?” she asked. The old man simply pointed to the east. She got into the water and gave the boat a tug. Then, pushing with all her might with the bamboo pole, she finally managed to free the boat from the sandbar. Turning eastward, she began to paddle.
As she paddled, she noted something very strange about this boat. The back half was loaded with water plants, but in front, stark and empty, there was only a chair, which had been placed there with deliberate care. She could not imagine its purpose.
The Captain’s stomach had somewhat recovered, and when he realized she was paddling the boat he said, “Many thanks comrade, but don’t paddle any farther. After I rest up a bit, I have another matter I must attend to.”
“You aren’t going to gather more water plants, are you?” asked the girl. “Uncle, you aren’t well. You shouldn’t try to collect any more. I think I’d better take you home.”
“No, no, it’s not water plants. I have to go fetch someone.”
“Uncle, who are you supposed to fetch?” she inquired.
The whole business of fetching the bride made the Captain a little cross again. He blamed his predicament on his wife’s old-fashioned insistence that he go fetch the bride. “I have to meet a cadre,” he said in a weak tone of voice.
Hearing this, the girl thought it strange that a chair should be necessary for a meeting with a cadre, so she asked, “What kind of cadre are you meeting that you have to use a boat?”
“An important one.”
She persisted, her curiosity mounting, “Uncle, I thought cadres didn’t have ranks anymore. Don’t they all serve the people equally?”
“There is no point in going on with this topic,” he thought. “I’d better get back to the real thing.” Without allowing her to finish, he interrupted, “Comrade, thank you. I’m feeling a lot better. You can be on your way now. I must go to meet someone.” At this he tried to stand, but his legs were too weak and his body began to tremble, so he sat back down again.
Quickly restraining him, the girl replied, “Uncle, you are ill. I’m going to take you home. If you really have some important cadre to meet, I’ll go pick him up for you after I deliver you home.”
“This will never do,” thought the Captain. “How can I permit a stranger to go meet the bride? When the women hear of this, heaven only knows what they will do.” But unable to stand again, he could do nothing but sit back and listen to the sound of the paddles.
Old Team Captain observed the girl’s healthy, glowing face, her strong body, and her kindly manner and asked, “Comrade, where do you live? Where are you going today? I don’t like to detain you.”
On hearing this, the girl’s face flushed from ear to ear and she felt too embarrassed to reply. She was, in fact, the very person the Captain had set out to meet today, the bride, Cassia. She and Pai-ch’ing had agreed long ago that their wedding should exemplify the new customs, and they decided that she should go by herself today. Her mother was a very open, receptive person. They had only to suggest it and she agreed. The bride was puzzled yesterday when her neighbor Lin Sheng delivered a letter saying that a boat was coming to fetch her. Pai-ch’ing was not a man to change his mind, and this was clearly inconsistent with what she knew of his nature. They had reached the decision on this issue together, so she decided that it would be better to follow their original plan and go over by herself. She could leave early and arrive before anyone from Ho Village started out to fetch her. Having made up her mind, she combed and arranged her hair, changed into clean clothes, packed her clothes and other belongings into a small bundle, and set out following the river.
It was here that she caught sight of the old man falling over in his boat. When he failed to respond to her calls, she realized that he was sick, and went down to the boat to help him. Now, when the old man asked her where she was going, although she embraced the new ideology, she still felt hesitant about admitting that she was a bride on her way to her husband’s home, so she simply replied, “Uncle, I live to the west in Lu Village. I am on my way to visit relatives.”
Hearing that she was from Lu Village, the Captain was quick to ask, “Comrade, there’s a girl in the village named Cassia. Do you know her?”
Cassia’s heart skipped a beat. “Why does he mention Cassia? Is this boat the one that’s coming for me? He asks if I know Cassia, but, I am Cassia.” And she blurted out, “It’s I who . . . ” But, she regretted the words even as they came to her lips, and broke off in mid-sentence.
The Captain interpreted her half-finished phrase to mean, “It’s me.” “Oh!” he burst out with an air of surprise and great delight. “Then, you are Cassia!”
By this time Cassia was almost certain that this boat was intended for her. After all the small complications of a while ago, she found herself too embarrassed now to make a clean breast of it. Bending the truth, she replied, “Cassia is one of my closest friends in Lu Village. This morning she left early for Ho Village on foot.”
When the Captain heard that the bride had already gone on foot, he was very relieved and his stomach began to feel much better. In another few moments the small stream, which was connected with Victory Bank, came into view directly ahead. The Captain, noting that he still had half an empty boat, grew animated again. “Well,” he reasoned, “since the bride has already gone by foot, I may as well turn in here and gather a few more water plants and take back a full load.”
“Comrade,” he addressed her, “I can paddle the boat now. You go on back up the bank. Don’t let me delay you any further. I have another matter to attend to.”
“Uncle, what is it you have to do?” asked Cassia. “I can lend you a hand.”
The Captain quickly declined her offer, saying, “No, thank you kindly, you have relatives to visit. Don’t let me hold you up. It’s nothing important. I just thought I’d go by way of that stagnant stream and gather a few more water plants and fill up the rest of the boat.”
Cassia considered how he had been attacked by stomach pains only moments before, and now he was about to work again. “Uncle,” she said, “you aren’t well. You should be resting. Actually my relatives don’t live far from here. Let me give you a hand.” And, even as they talked the boat was entering the small tributary. When they reached the stagnant stream, there were plants growing on both banks. Cassia abandoned the paddle, picked up the bamboo pole, and began hauling in the water plants. The Captain was very moved but was at a loss to think of how he could repay her kindness.
After a while, she noticed that the water was shallow. Rolling up the bottoms of her pants, she slipped down into the water and began to gather plants by hand, dumping armload after armload into the boat, and spraying water in all directions. This made the Captain very uneasy. He could not sit still with idle hands. So, ignoring the fact that he had only just begun to recover, he took up the bamboo pole and began to pull plants into the boat. In no time at all the boat was loaded to the brim. Cassia poled the boat out, and the Captain, taking up the paddle, steered homeward.
III. WELCOMING THE BRIDE
The Old Team Captain watched the girl as he paddled along. Smiling, he mused to himself: “This girl is clever and capable. We think a lot alike. Whatever comes to my mind, she seems to know it instinctively and she carries it out. A fine girl like this speaks highly of the caliber of leadership at Lu Village. Cassia must be a capable girl too. She came over twice during the past six months, but I was always out spreading manure and never saw her. I’ll soon meet her for the first time. We left some of the water plants in the stagnant stream today. I’ll bet if I ask the bride to go with me tomorrow to get more, she’ll do it.” As Old Team Captain paddled along with these thoughts running through his mind, the boat was nearing the village.
At home that morning, the Captain’s wife rose early. Seeing no trace of the Captain, she went down to the river behind the house; but as his boat was gone, she knew that he had gone to fetch the bride. She ate a quick breakfast, fixed her thinning white hair at the mirror, changed into a new light cotton jacket and went over to Pai-ch’ing’s house. As she reached the corner of the front court, she could hear Pai-ch’ing reproaching his mother.
“Shame on you for being so stubborn,” she chipped in. “Everything else has been done the way you wanted it! What’s so oldfashioned about having your uncle go over in his boat to fetch her? Enough! Enough! Go get yourself ready now.”
Pai-ch’ing, realizing that there was no way to stop the boat now, simply shook his head and went down to the office by the river. The two old ladies continued, with renewed vigor, to busy themselves with the preparations.
When everything was ready the two old ladies waited at home for the bride. They waited and waited, but there was no sign of her. They began to worry. After lunch was over in the village and there was still no sign of the Captain and the bride, they began to feel anxious, and neither sitting nor standing seemed to help. By this time all the neighbors had arrived, and some of the older ones began to ask to see the bride. The younger boys and girls started helping themselves to the wedding sweets, and in no time, the house was bubbling over with excitement. Suddenly a shout was heard from the back of the house, “The Captain’s coming with a boatload of water plants.”
Auntie jumped to her feet mumbling, “The old fool’s lost his senses. We sent him to fetch the bride, and he went off to collect water plants!” Pai-ch’ing’s mother was upset too.
By this time, everyone had crowded down along the riverbank. When the Captain saw the throng waiting on the bank he assumed the bride had arrived, and in his excitement he said, “Where is the bride? I heard that she came over on foot early in the day. I would like to get a look at her. Tell her that I’ve brought her a whole boatload of dowry. When we harvest a thousand catties of grain next year, this dowry will have made a considerable contribution.”
When the crowd saw that there was no bride in the boat, they began to wonder. And, when the Captain asked where the bride was, they lapsed into an awkward silence. All were utterly baffled. If the bride came on foot early in the day, then why wasn’t she here? All eyes were fixed on Pai-ch’ing’s mother and aunt.
When the two old ladies saw the Captain back with a boatload of water plants, along with a stranger wearing a big straw hat, they were ready to burst with anger. It wasn’t enough that the old man had gone off to gather plants, but he had even taken someone to help him! As the boat touched the bank, the girl helped the Captain onto the shore, cautioning him, “Uncle, be careful, be careful now.”
At this moment Pai-ch’ing came running over from the office shouting, “Cassia, Cassia. You’re here!” The crowd was mystified. Where was Cassia? Then, they noticed an embarrassed blush on the face of the girl assisting the Captain. She kept her gaze lowered and was smiling.
Only then did the Captain realize who she was. “Oh! Young lady, so you are the bride, Cassia!”
The two old ladies looked again closely. It was the bride. They hadn’t recognized her in her straw hat and mud-spattered clothes. All they could manage was a happy, “Oh! . . ., ” accompanied by wide smiles of welcome.
“Welcome to the bride! Welcome to the bride!” chanted the villagers. “Instead of being escorted, she brings her own uncle home. She’s added a touch of ‘new’ to the ‘new’ customs. From now on, who needs to escort brides anymore!” Speak of the “new” and she made it new. Speak of “well done” and she did it well. The bride escorted her uncle home and, with him, a dowry of water plants. But what was more, early the next morning, the bride, Cassia, went again with the Captain to the stagnant stream to collect water plants; and thereafter, the Captain had a new hand to help him collect fertilizer.