Wu Tsu-hsiang was born in 1908 into a landlord family of south central Anhwei. He began to write while he was a student of Chinese popular fiction at Tsinghua University. In 1934 the prestigious Shanghai journal Literature Quarterly (Wen-hsüeh chi-k’an) published his short story “Eighteen Hundred Piculs” (I-ch’ien-pa-pai tan, 1934), and overnight Wu was touted as a highly promising writer of rural fiction. With the publication of two collections of stories in 1934 and 1935, Wu’s literary star continued to rise only to burn out in the cataclysmic fifteen years that followed. Instinctively aware of the dangers of the didactic heresy, Wu kept the ideological freight of his stories light and artistically integrated, so that his moral perceptions are transmitted keenly and soundly. Wu Tsu-hsiang has clearly demonstrated brilliance in his writings, but his output is rather meager. He stopped writing altogether after the War of Resistance. He taught Chinese at Peking University from 1949.
The following miniature piece was written in 1933. Though not the best example of Wu’s craftsmanship, it nonetheless demonstrates well his skill at conjuring up instant human drama couched in lively dialogue.
THE MAID WAS about twenty, with a flat nose and flat lips, coarse eyes, coarse hands, and a bulky waist. She lightly pushed open the door and tiptoed inside.
“Mistress, I th-th-think … I’d 1-like . . .” She was wringing her thick hands and staring at her bare fidgeting toes as she spoke. Affecting feminine modesty seemed to require an effort on her part, and her attempt at polite address clashed with her big rustic appearance.
T’ai-t’ai, the mistress, was about the same age, but looked much younger. Standing before her, the maid was only a plain, rough clay figurine. Together these two women made an interesting contrast: one unpolished and crude, like a shard of ancient pottery just unearthed; the other very delicate and sophisticated, an exquisite porcelain toy.
T’ai-t’ai was just regaining her composure after a quarrel with her husband. He had gone to see a movie without inviting her. And the night before she had prepared a big dinner, but he didn’t come home until eight and then informed her that he had eaten out. “Eaten already! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” She had gotten so angry that her stomach was upset all night long.
She could no longer hold back her anger and it broke out in a quarrel. Her husband had his own reasons, he refused to apologize, and he didn’t even pretend to humor her. That only made her more furious. “I know you don’t care for me any more!” she yelled at him, and collapsed onto the bed to sob. Her husband picked up a book and stared at it for a moment, then reached for his hat and stomped out of the house.
T’ai-t’ai was alone in the bedroom, lying down and feeling very listless. Her pillow was damp and cold and stuck to her face. She pushed it away and sat up. To occupy herself, she opened her bureau and began to put a messy pile of assorted stockings in order.
The door opened and her maid stepped in, fidgeting in a ridiculous manner. T’ai-t’ai had to laugh to herself. She thought, “How amusing.” A week ago when the employment agency had sent over this woman, her husband asked whether or not she was satisfactory. T’ai-t’ai had said, “It will be amusing to watch such a simpleton,” and decided to keep her. How even though T’ai-t’ai had stopped crying, she still had a bellyful of anger, and she was weary and bored. She needed someone to talk to. So she turned her head and asked tolerantly, “Well, what do you want? Speak up, you can tell me.”
“I thought T’ai-t’ai might read a letter for me.”
“Of course,” said T’ai-t’ai haughtily, with a condescending nod.
The maid fumbled with her jacket and drew out an unsealed, crumpled letter. With much embarrassment, she handed it to her mistress.*
T’ai-t’ai looked over the contents twice very carefully, and then with an amused smile she said, “Ah, this letter is from your husband!”
The other woman was about to say something and raised her head, but she dropped it again and stared at her wiggling toes. She said nothing after all.
T’ai-t’ai went on, “Your husband says he’s very sorry about the argument you had, and he begs you to come home in the spring to help with the planting. He won’t curse you anymore, and your father and mother-in-law won’t beat and curse you anymore either. He says Little T’an has no milk, so he wants you to hurry and send money home . . .”
T’ai-t’ai explained the letter once, then again, watching her maid’s reaction. Her neck reddened first, then the blush rose into her cheeks and finally crimsoned her ears.
“Curse them!” she snapped suddenly, and then with hatred she spit out, “Those devils!” In just an instant, her bashful manner vanished.
T’ai-t’ai found this rather interesting. As if she were speaking to a child, trying to draw her out, she said, “So you had a fight and ran away from home! You certainly have guts! How did you manage to get away? Where did you live? Tell me the whole story.”
The other woman wrung her hands once or twice and grew bash-fui once again. Hemming and hawing, she finally said, “I am cursed, cursed! At home I worked in the fields, planting the rice seedlings. Those two old scoundrels would beat and curse me every day. The year there was a flood, they said I brought it on! This year there was a drought, and they blamed me again. I brought it! I brought it! Maybe so, but I didn’t mean to. Then that wife-beating devil of a husband, he started in on me too! When I planted seedlings or weeded the fields, that little devil, that Little T’an, he’d be bawling on my back! He would cry and cry, even in June when I had to tread the water mill, I had to carry him too. I’d work into the evening, and be sweaty and smelly. The dew would fall, and Little T’an would cry to high heavens. And then he caught a fever. I got heat rash all over my back from him. But they said I gave the heat rash to . . . they said I made Little T’an sick! My husband … he took the hoe and started to beat my legs with it. He beat me and beat me and beat me!” Noisily she sucked in her own saliva.
T’ai-t’ai watched her become frenzied as she spoke: she was s wallowing hard, nodding her head violently, and shaking all over. Her mistress repressed a smile and put on a very shocked face. “Ugh! He beat you!? How could anyone do such a thing? Calm down, speak slower!”
“Damn them! I was getting only three bowls of rice a day under his roof, scraped rice at that! Damn them! I thought to myself, ‘I can’t stand this, I … I just … I just couldn’t take any more! So I sold the silver hair clasp my mother had given me to Red Feather. Red Feather, what an old chap! I left with him. He didn’t want to take me but I knew he was going to Shanghai. I nagged and begged him, so he finally let me come. I used three hundred in cash to get to Nanking. Then I met San Ting-tzu and Hsin Sao-tzu and Erh Sao-tzu and even Fu-t’ou’s mother! They were all at the agency. They all refused to slave in the fields and they ran away too!”
“These women, they are all your chums from the village?”
The maid nodded.
“How gutsy you all are!” exclaimed T’ai-t’ai, settling back in her chair.
“That old coot Red Feather, he tried to scare me with all sorts of lies. He made my heart pound sometimes! He said the foreign devils in Nanking and Shanghai plucked out people’s eyes! He said there were airplanes that dropped bombs. I would become a beggar if I left the village. He went on and on and on! But I wasn’t really afraid. I wasn’t going to put up with all that abuse back home just to get my keep. I knew I’d find a way for myself. I wouldn’t starve. I wasn’t really afraid!”
“But your child, Little T’an . . . don’t you care about him?” asked T’ai-t’ai with genuine concern. She had suddenly and unconsciously become involved in her maid’s story and no longer found it trivial.
The other woman stared at her wiggling toes again and said nothing. After a while, she blurted out, “Could T’ai-t’ai loan me two dollars? Could she write a letter for me?”
“The money is no problem, I’ll give you an advance on your wages. But a letter … do you have any way of sending it? Your husband says to send letters to Hung-sheng-hsien. What is that? A man, a shop, or an address?”
The maid stared blankly out the window. “Probably it’s a shop in the city, a tea shop, run by someone named Hung.”
“Who do you know that’s named Hung? There is no such surname!”
“Damn it! He can’t even write clearly!”
“Did your husband write this letter himself?”
“Him? Write? He couldn’t recognize the simplest character even if it were as big as a shoulder pole! . . . I’ll have to go ask Erh Sao-tzu.” She excused herself and lumbered out.
T’ai-t’ai sighed deeply. Her eyes fell upon her pillow, with its large wet stain. Her face flushed. She no longer found her maid “amusing.” She admired her, almost envied her. But her own problem? What was she to do? She wondered . . .
* The letter that follows is omitted in this translation. It is incoherent and full of incorrect expressions-obviously the work of a semi-literature person.