Ai Wu (born Tang Tao-keng) was born in 1908 in the province of Szechwan. He graduated from a government-sponsored normal school in Ch՛eng-tu in 1925. Then he drifted to Yunnan and Southeast Asia, maintaining himself with various jobs, sometimes as a manual laborer. He tried his hand at writing at this time. Returning to Shanghai in 1931, he began his life as a writer. The War of Resistance took him to the interior. After Liberation in 1949, he returned to Szechwan, where he taught in Chungking University and served as a moving force for the Southwest Federation of Writers. As of 1973, he was reported to be alive and well.
Ai Wu’s most productive period as a writer was the decade before Liberation, during the War of Resistance and the subsequent civil war. He had demonstrated great promise in the five novels, two autobiographies, and two short-story collections published during this period. His output since Liberation has been more limited, but, more fortunate than most writers active before 1949, he escaped the rectification campaigns in the 1950s and continued to write until the Cultural Revolution. He produced numerous short stories, some of which are collected in Homeward Journey (Yeh kuei, 1958) and Going South, II (Nan-hsing-chi hsü-p’ien, 1964), and the novel Steeled and Tempered (Pai-lien ch’eng-kang, 1958), which has been acclaimed as the best “industrial” novel since 1949.
“Rain” (Yü) was published in the collection A New Home (Hsin-te chia) in 1955. It follows the formula promoted at that time, but it also demonstrates subtlety and keen insight into a young woman’s psyche.
“GOOD DAUGHTER, your clothes are drenched! Take them off immediately! Why are you standing there in a daze?”
Mother was impatient, worried. She couldn’t refrain from helping her daughter peel off her rain-soaked clothes, half scolding, her heart reaching for the daughter.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?”
“Ma, I’m okay, I feel fine.”
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing snatched her wet clothes and hung them up, then stood before the window, silent, absorbed in the sound of the rain. Lightning flashed through the black sky; the buildings opposite were revealed starkly for a moment, then were smothered by darkness. A blast of thunder; windows shivered, stammered; the eaves surrendered a splattering of rain, which beat the ground. Layers of storm sounds settled upon each other and reverberated with increasing intensity.
Mother glanced through the window and sighed: “The weather has gone wild — it’s raining harder and harder.” She turned a happy, thankful look to her daughter. “It’s lucky you ran fast—any slower and you’d have been soaked through. Quickly, go eat. Aren’t you hungry?”
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing did not answer. She stood entranced, motionless; her eyes would not be coaxed from the scene outside the window. It was as though something out there had possessed her.
Mother put Hsu Kuei-ching’s dinner on the table, looked at her daughter and, somewhat perplexed, asked, “Kuei-ch’ing, what’s with you today? Did something happen?”
“Ma, nothing’s happened.” Hsu Kuei-ch’ing hurried over and sat on the k’ang.* She picked up her bowl and chopsticks, then said ruefully, “Why does it have to rain so much?”
“Why are you concerned about the rain now? No matter how hard it rains you’ve made it home. Go ahead and eat.”
Yet as she said this, the mother lifted her head to examine the ceiling for evidence of the rain seeping through. When she heard the rain falling harder still, she too became concerned.
“Ma, don’t you realize that at this very moment there are lots of people who are still walking in the rain?”
Kuei-ch’ing was clearly disturbed. Her thin, curved eyebrows drew together and her small eyes glistened anxiously. Another terrifying roar of thunder shocked Kuei-ch’ing—she could no longer eat—and unconsciously she muttered, “Couldn’t have been struck by lightning . . . could that happen?”
“Hurry up and eat. Don’t worry about them, they would find shelter in people’s homes.”
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing’s face was filled with disappointment. She put down her bowl and mourned: “What homes? There are no homes on that road.” Even as the words left her lips, she realized she shouldn’t have uttered them. She ducked her head and began to eat vigorously.
Mother surveyed her quizzically—then, triumphant with insight, she said: “You should have asked Little Chang here to sit out the storm. Then, when the rain stopped, we’d have let her go.”
“Ma, Little Chang doesn’t concern me. Today is her day off so she didn’t come to work.” Hsu Kuei-ch’ing answered with annoyed impatience, then added, “I am worried about those who live in the country.”
“Aiya, why be worried over nothing? There are three hundred and sixty days in a year, it’s got to rain once in a while.” Mother lectured: “Do a good job on the train and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Sometimes you really go out of your way—you’re good to everybody. You become concerned about things that you have no need to be concerned about. Other times you couldn’t care less about people—you lose any sense of propriety—for instance, when Little Chang visits here and stays a bit too long, you actually become annoyed.”
“Ma, don’t talk about Little Chang anymore. I don’t like her—all she likes to do is play cards; she has no desire to study at all.” To show how much she disapproved of Little Chang, Hsu Kuei-ch’ing punctuated her remark with the shaking of chopsticks.
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing was a conductor on a commuter train that circled the city. The steel company operated the train primarily to transport workers to and from the factory. Many workers lived in villages surrounding the city and depended on the train. A few of the young workers had taken an interest in Hsu Kuei-ch’ing. The pretty and slightly aloof way in which she carried herself attracted them. Sometimes they would plan pranks to play on her. Each day she made her rounds with a ticket puncher in hand, and as she arrived beside the young workers she would say in a business-like tone, “Ticket-check.” Her admirers would hand her their meal or vegetable coupons, along with very serious expressions, and act as though there were nothing amiss. Other young men would pretend to be so deep in slumber that even a clap of thunder could not awaken them. These antics annoyed Hsu Kuei-ch’ing and sometimes she would curse them in her mind, “I wish these devils would go to hell.” But she never let these words escape her lips.
There was one young worker who was unlike all the others. On boarding the train he would immediately lean against the train window and, with the utmost concentration, read his book, some times pulling out a small notebook in which he would make calculations with a pencil. The summer sun, in its twilight position, sparkled through the fields of sorghum, slanting its rays through the train window and across his face, but his eyes did not once shift their attention from the book. In the winter, the sun would have set by the time the young worker boarded the train. He would swiftly find a seat near a light. If the light was weak, he would stand up and lean against the seat, trying to be as close to the light as possible. This young man began to attract Hsu Kuei-ch’ing’s attention. Other young workers read on the train, but none pursued their reading with such unfaltering dedication.
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing’s father had been a locomotive engineer. When he was afflicted with severe arthritis two years ago, he was hospitalized and, finally, sent to a convalescent home. Since then, he had received a long-term disability salary that was, according to regulations, somewhat reduced from his previous salary. Therefore, the family’s financial situation had become difficult. The daughter was forced to look for work as soon as she graduated from elementary school, so that she could supplement the family’s income. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing became a ticket-checker on the train. At the time, she had a good cry about not being able to go on to middle school. On her way to work in the morning, she sometimes ran into former schoolmates with handsome book-satchels slung from their shoulders. She saw them striding along willow-lined avenues toward the middle school, their faces, flushed with excitement, lifted toward the fresh-risen sun. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing’s eyes would fill with tears on such occasions. Her ticket-checking job was on three alternating shifts, scheduled according to the needs of the commuting workers. The first week of the cycle, she would report to work in the morning, the next week in the afternoon, and the third week she would go to work at midnight. This made it impossible for her to attend evening school regularly, and she grieved over the lost opportunity, feeling that it was her last chance to learn. She asked the leadership to transfer her to another job, but they could not find an appropriate job for her within a short time and told her to be patient.
From the moment she took notice of him, the young worker became a symbol of perseverance for Hsu Kuei-ch’ing. When she noticed the pencil or the book in his hand, she felt a surge of courage within herself. She would reason: “Don’t I have a lot of spare time myself? Why should I play cards with Little Chang and the others when I can get books to read?” She was inspired by his example, and her pocket soon bulged with books. In the evening, as she read beneath a light, she would sometimes become so exhausted that her eyes could not stay open and she would doze off. But awaking with a start, she would see the youthful, glowing face of the young worker bathed in sunlight or lamplight, concentrating with characteristic intensity, and she would urge herself to read on, brimming with self-encouragement. She would tell herself: “He works eight hours a day in the factory, and when he boards the train he reads without resting. At this very moment, he’s probably at home, and I bet he’s still reading. My job is nothing more than checking tickets—that’s not tiring work.” By telling herself this, she was able to persevere in maintaining a consistent study schedule.
It had been a year since Hsu Kuei-ch’ing noticed the young worker for the first time, but she still didn’t know his name. There was one thing about him that she was absolutely sure of: the young worker always left the train at the Willow Village Station. Yet several times she was puzzled when he rode past Willow Village and disembarked, several minutes later, at the next station, Clear Water. Each time the young worker missed his stop, Hsu Kuei-ch’ing noticed that he was so intent on mathematical calculations that he refused to put away his pencil. She decided that his village lay somewhere between the two stations. However, one day, by chance, she overheard his conversation with two other young workers as they left the train at Clear Water: “Little Ch’en, now you must walk three or four extra li.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter—I had just enough time to finish a math problem.”
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing was certain then that the young worker’s village was closer to the Willow Village Station. She pondered about which village it was. Four or five li past Willow Village Station, by a green sorghum field, there was a village surrounded by willow trees, revealing patches of white wall that could be seen from a distance. In the winter, the village bared itself and could be seen in detail from the train. Glittering snow blanketed the fields, threads of naked willow branches patterned the dark grey roof-tiles which appeared to be closer than in summer. Unconsciously, she imagined it to be a beautiful village. More people board and disembark at Clear Water that at the other stations, and the train stops there longer. From this station two broad roads forge across the fields, each flanked by rows of young willow trees. One of the roads stretches toward Willow Village.
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing stood in the doorway of the train, gazing into the distance, and fantasized about how it would feel to walk that road—it became a dream — she could imagine nothing closer to her heart than to be walking toward Willow Village. This fantasy danced through her head for an instant, then disappeared. But ever since then, she felt sorry for the young man each time she saw him leave the train at Clear Water Station: why did he make himself walk three or four extra li just to finish a math problem? She questioned his behavior but, at the same time, admired his determination. At times, when she reached the young man in her ticketchecking routine, she would feel an urgent desire to say: “Don’t make yourself walk farther than you need to—get off at the Willow Village Station.“ But since they had never spoken before, she would suppress what she really wanted to say, and instead just come out with a “Your ticket please.” He never uttered a word, nor did he look at her. He merely fumbled for his ticket, eyes never straying from the book, and absently held the ticket within her reach. She would clip the ticket and hand it back to him saying, “Here’s your ticket,” and he might extend his hand to accept it. Sometimes he was so intent on his reading that he would absent-mindedly leave his arm in the same pose that had offered the ticket, casually waiting for her to replace the punched ticket between his fingers. He simply did not see her.
This daily encounter became a source of frustration to Hsu Kueich’ing. How could she turn the process of transferring a train ticket into a relationship that would accommodate sincere advice? She could not possibly suggest that he disembark at Willow Village when she was not even in a position to say “Good day.” Often, after puzzling over such a small dilemma, she laughed at her own vexation and realized that the source of her anxiety was mostly her own imagination. With such laughter she dissipated the whirl of thoughts and feelings that bewildered her, and her encounters with the young worker became no more significant than the scenes that swept past the train windows: like an apple orchard, or a cottage enveloped in a haze of blossoming trees, images which flowed past the window panes, then vanished again in the wake of the train. But strangely, the young worker’s glowing face, and those eyes all intent on a book still appeared to her from the farthest corner of her mind whenever she had a novel idea. Try as she would, she could not escape the image of that face, nor did she really want to.
Little Chang fanned the playing cards in her hand and called out, “Little Hsu, come play a round or two.” Hsu Kuei-ch’ing, without thinking, skipped to the card table. But as she picked up the cards she began to look introspective and uncomfortable, then quickly she pushed the cards away and left the table, pulling a book from her pocket. Little Chang tried to tease her into playing, but Hsu Kuei-ch’ing would not budge.
Some mornings, she would still pass her old schoolmates with their clever bookbags, but now she would quip proudly to herself: “Now let’s see who learns the most.” At times like these, she discovered how bright she felt as a result of her disciplined reading, and she admired the young worker even more.
The burgeoning basic-construction program began to employ many young village women to work in the factory. Women workers began to ride the beltway train. As she checked tickets on the dayshift, Hsu Kuei-ch’ing noticed two or three young women sitting with the young worker. They were also reading, and she observed that they too disembarked at the Willow Village Station. She gradually became aware of a keen anxiety within herself but did not know the cause of it. Sometimes she assuaged her anxiety by telling herself how ridiculous she was to be bothered by a guy she didn’t even know. She would turn her back and say to herself “Why worry about someone else’s business? They’re not your concern.” But if Hsu Kuei-ch’ing caught sight of the young worker sitting alone, without the two or three young women workers, she felt a surge of satisfaction. She smiled, without knowing why.
On the day of the storm, black clouds were gathering in the sky as the train pulled out from the factory station. Dark swirls engulfed the sun before it dipped into the horizon. Expansive fields clutched the bending, shivering trees that bordered the irrigation ditches. The sorghum grain outside the train windows was like shimmering waves on a turbulent sea. Gazing at the swollen sky outside, the workers feared that when it came time to walk home they would be drenched in a torrent. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing sensed the workers’ tension as she was checking tickets. At last she came to the young worker and saw that he was spellbound by some diagrams drawn in pencil: circles, squares, an ellipse, rectangles, all manner of shapes that made him unaware of the storm threatening outside the train window. Kuei-ch’ing peeked at the diagrams with great interest, but was unable to decipher what he was doing, and moved on after checking his ticket. She wondered how the young worker could be so absorbed that he was unperturbed by the impending storm, but then calmly accepted this behavior as being part of the core of his nature.
The rain was still waiting to be released when the train reached Willow Village Station. At Clear Water Station the tempest broke loose. Workers raced from the train to the station seeking shelter. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing caught sight of the young worker, the last man to leave the train, dashing towards the station. Scolding him, she muttered to herself, “You deserve the wrath of this storm—why didn’t you get off at Willow Village?”
A thick mist swathed the fields and the rain fell more densely. Sky and earth melted into a darkness that obscured even the row of poplars in front of the train station. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing decided: “It’s just as well that he found refuge in the Clear Water Station: if he had left the train at Willow Village he’d be on the open road now.” She no longer worried when she remembered that the summer deluge would spend itself quickly and that in a short time the young worker would be strolling home.
Clear Water is the largest station: it marks the halfway point on the beltway railroad, and trains moving in opposite directions meet there. There is a large waiting room with a candy and cigarette shop. By the time the train reached Clear Water all the home-bound workers had reached their destinations, and people traveling to work began to board the train. As the train collected workers along the route to the factory, the rain kept on at a manic pace, dashing raindrops against the train windows. Many workers boarded the train dripping with water; small puddles formed in the carriage corridors. Each time Hsu Kuei-ch’ing passed a soaked young man, her fear revived and she thought to herself, “I’m sure that young worker is almost drowned in the rain by now.” She hoped that the rain would stop but it persisted.
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing’s shift ended when the train arrived at the main station. She rode the trolley home. As the rain pelted the earth with renewed force, lightning shattered the sky, and explosions of thunder seemed to penetrate each crevice of the land. Obsessed with the vision of the young worker huddling within Clear Water Station, trapped by the storm, Hsu Kuei-ch’ing asked herself, “How will he sleep tonight? He may lose his senses and try to brave the storm to walk home—that would be his end.” This image twisted her heart, tormenting her until, as she reached home, she felt dazed, as though she had lost her soul.
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing finished her dinner, then repeatedly ran to the window to watch the sky. She saw nothing but the dark swallowing the earth, until a jagged knife of lightning illuminated the street in eerie detail. Thunder spilled across the sky. The rain grew sharp. Now Hsu Kuei-ch’ing felt calmer: the storm had become so violent that the young worker certainly could not have attempted to walk home. He certainly was not stupid; he was certainly in the Clear Water Station at that moment waiting for the warring elements to subside.
These “certainties” lightened her heart, and she began to envisage the waiting room at Clear Water Station. The beltway train stops at Clear Water to wait for the train from the opposite direction to pass. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing often had time to run into the station to see what new political posters had appeared on the walls. Consequently, she was familiar with the layout, of the station. She imagined the young worker sitting beside the glass counter, reading in the light of the shop, and occasionally munching on a roll, perhaps stopping to make diagrams with a pencil. Hsu Kuei-ch’ing began to smile at this vignette—she thought he must be an amusing sight, studying with absolute concentration as he absent-mindedly chomped on the roll. Swiftly Hsu Kuei-ch’ing pocketed her smile; pulling out from her drawer volume one of the Middle School literature books, she spread it out on the table and began to read.
Mother was upset to see her getting ready to sit up late and said, “You’ve been through a lot today, you should go to bed early tonight.”
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing kept reading as she replied, “must use every spare minute to read — some people even study in the train station—I would be ashamed to give up now after seeing their example.”
This reply confused Mother, who asked, “Who in the train station are you talking about?’
Hsu Kuei-ch’ing felt her face swelling hot and red, she lowered her head farther into her book. Mother waited for her to explain herself, but the daughter only continued reading, lost in concentration. Mother decided not to disturb her, and took out her needie work.
The tempest continued to thunder and howl outside the window.
* A k’ang is a raised platform that serves as a bed. It is heated by the flue from the stove running across its length underneath. The Chinese also sit on it by day to sew, read, eat, etc.