Hsi Jung was born in the province of Shansi. As a teenager he joined the communist wing of the War of Resistance against Japan, serving as a “cultural” worker. He became nationally known in 1949, the year of Liberation, with the publication of the novel Heroes of Lüliang (Lüliang yinghsiung chuan), written with his fellow provincial Ma Feng. Since Liberation he has been associated with the Shansi Federation of Writers and Artists, serving as the editor of that association’s literary journal Sparks Monthly (Huo-hua yüeh-k’an) since 1956. In 1957, he again collaborated with Ma Feng and produced the movie script The Unextinguishable Flame (P’u-pu-mie-de huo-yen). He has to his credit three collections of short stories and several others published in the journal People’s Literature (Jen-min wen-hsüeh). During the Cultural Revolution, Hsi Jung experienced some setback when he was criticized for “portraying middle characters.”
“Corduroy” (Teng-hsin-jung), originally published in People’s Literature in 1961, portrays a woman’s struggle between loyalty to her family and loyalty to the state.
ACCOUNTANT MA SHOU-JEN was at his desk working away at his accounts. There was a sound at the door; then someone tiptoed up to his desk. “He’s not here?” a woman’s voice asked.
Accountant Ma raised his head and pushed the heavy, thick-lensed glasses up to the bridge of his nose. Ah, it was Aunt Ch’ien, the Old Cooperative Chief’s wife. She was probably just looking for her husband, he thought, and, going back to his accounts, he replied: “That man never sits still. Who knows where he may have run off to now.”
He worked for a few minutes more finishing up his accounts; then he closed the account book and said, “So what’s up?”
Aunt Ch’ien took a quick, furtive glance around the room. No one there. Gleefully, her tone confidential, she leaned forward across the desk: “Did you know the Supplies Coop has just gotten in some red corduroy cloth! It’s just the most wonderful corduroy, heavy and thick as a rug; I held it in my hand between my two fingers,” she went on excitedly. “I’ve never seen such corduroy. And what a dazzling red! I’ve just got to get several feet of it.”
Under this deluge of enthusiasm, Accountant Ma teased, “Well my goodness, Auntie! Who would have suspected? A respectable old woman like you—still young enough yet to be fashionable, is that it? Could you be looking for a husband or something?”
“You old devil!” Aunt Ch’ien broke into a great, good-humored laugh. “It’s my son, Yü-pao, who’s looking for a wife. And I’m going to sew up some clothes for Yü-pao’s little fiancee. You know all about Yü-pao’s little romance, don’t you Uncle? With Tung-hua, this year’s model pig-raiser? They were both very quiet about it. And she’s quite a girl, quite a girl. If you want to talk about figures, she has got a figure. If you want to talk about beautiful faces, well just take a look at hers. But imagine! We didn’t send her a single penny of dowry money and she’s still willing to follow our son into marriage.
“But, you ask, what about the duties of a parent in this affair? Of course we don’t need to follow old customs anymore. But we can’t be so stingy that we wouldn’t spend a penny on our own son’s marriage. Why just the other day I ran into Tung-hua’s mother. We got to talking. And then Tung-hua’s mother let slip a valuable bit of information: that young lady loves red corduroy! Now, can you imagine, what should arrive at the Supplies Coop only today but this very commodity! Well I just have to get a piece of it and sew up a pair of trousers or a jacket for that young lady. After all, I understand my position as mother-in-law, and no one could ever accuse me of neglecting my proper obligations.
“And,” she continued, though poor Accountant Ma had attempted quite a few times to interrupt, each time succeeding only in being swamped by her flood of excited words: “And you see, the timing is just perfect too! On the twenty-eighth of the third month, the Temple Fair is being held. What better occasion for her to show off a new outfit!”
The way she talked sounded like a frying pan full of hot beans. Pip pop! pip pip pop! On and on . . . he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
“Well, that’s all very interesting,” he finally asked, “but I still don’t understand what you want the Old Chief for.”
“Well, you should understand this problem of mine; you’re an accountant. If you don’t have any money, no matter how good the stuff is, the Supplies Coop isn’t going to let you have it for nothing, right?”
Accountant Ma finally understood what she came for. He opened the account book and glanced into it. Then he looked up, puzzled. “What about that hundred and ten dollars your family got last year?”
“That’s been deposited in the Savings and Trust Cooperative. And you know how the commune’s all caught up with capital investment now—that old man of mine won’t let me take out a penny. And he has the checkbook with him all the time, so there’s nothing I can do . . . Ay!” Auntie Ch’ien gave a long sigh.
“Doesn’t he know Yü-pao’s planning to get married?”
“Him? Hah! No, when it comes to his family, he practices total ‘laissez faire’. He never ever thinks about his own family. The only thing that matters to him is his precious commune. It’s commune this and commune that. It’s the only thing that comes out of his mouth! ‘This year the commune must buy a water pump’ and ‘soon we’ll have to get some chemical fertilizer.’ But when I ask to buy this little something, he won’t even give me a penny. When I made the suggestion that we take out some of the savings, what do you think he said? ‘No, the term isn’t up. You can’t take any out.’ ”
“He won’t let you take it out? Then you should lock up the door at night and not let him come home,” Accountant Ma teased.
Auntie Ch’ien was serious. “Not even that will work! He doesn’t even come home at night anymore, not for the past two weeks. I can’t even catch his shadow to talk with. The other day he came home to get his cotton-padded jacket. I asked him whether we couldn’t borrow a few dollars from the commune. He just pulled a tight face and said, ‘No, the commune has a regulation. Before paydays, no one is allowed to borrow or draw advances.’ Now I ask you Uncle, is that the truth? Are the commune regulations really as strict as all that?”
“That’s the way the system’s been set up. But you know, when important things come up, we have to be flexible too.”
“That’s right; for important things we have to be flexible,” Aunt Ch’ien went on. “But my husband is so unreasonable, so difficult—everyone in the village agrees . . . he’s the most difficult cadre member in the commune to get past. You have something that involves a tiny sum of money—nothing to get worried about, really—and he thinks it’s as huge as a millstone! If he had your job, handling money all day long, why, he’d be so anxious and tense he’d hang himself!”
The accountant was never one to turn a deaf ear to flattery. Nothing pleased him more than being high up on a pedestal. So whether Auntie Ch’ien had come for that purpose, to give him a good buttering up; or whether she had come just to fill his ear with her marital complaints; or whether, in fact she truly admired the way Accountant Ma handled himself and his duties in the world—it did not really matter to the accountant. The flattery was all he heard, and it made him feel good all over.
“Well,” he said, “That big brother in your household, that husband of yours—he’s all right. He’s all right—but he’s just too niggardly about money. And he’s so serious! And of course it’s terrible the way he’s so stingy and restrictive with you. He’s pressed me between the boards many a time, too. The commune gets a little bit of money, and he can’t get it off his mind. What’s he so uptight about? When I worked in Tientsin for a big business there I handied eight hundred to a thousand dollars in cash a day and even then I was more tranquil than he is now. But Auntie, you can put your mind at rest. This little problem is no problem at all!”
Auntie Ch’ien beamed. “I knew you could handle this.” After she had praised Accountant Ma, she saw him fumble with the keys to his drawer. Was he getting the money out for her? She waited expectantly. But all he did was take his account book, place it in the drawer, and lock it back up.
“About that money,” he said, “I’ll see that you get it. But I’ll have to talk to the Chief first.”
“What for?” Auntie Ch’ien frowned. “His job is commune leader, not accountant. He’s got nothing to do with money.”
“That’s the rule,” the accountant replied “The resolution of the commune council was: if commune members have emergencies or run into difficulties they didn’t expect, and they need to take out a loan, it’s got to be approved first by the chairman.”
“So where is he?”
“Right now he’s probably at the horse stable. Better go quick or you’ll miss him—he’ll have gone to the fields.”
Aunt Ch’ien seemed reluctant to leave. She sat for awhile on the bench without moving, her eyes on Accountant Ma. Finally, she said, “Uncle, it’s just no use for me to talk to him. Every time I open my mouth he tells me my thoughts are backward. But you’re a cadre member, and you’re a leader in the commune. You’ve got real authority in our community, and I know you can work this matter out for me. It will probably be some trouble for you, but don’t think I’m ungrateful, oh no! When my son Yü-pao gets married, you’ll take the seat of honor. And there’ll be a few extra cups for you to drink as well.”
Accountant Ma was on the spot. If he didn’t go, it would seem as if he didn’t have the power to deal with this little problem. But if he did go . . . well, he knew the old Chief’s temperament and he was reluctant to get in a tangle with him. He could talk with the old Chief about some things, but when it came to money, there was no one who could block a request more skillfully than he.
But, maybe this was a different situation. Maybe there was a chance. Because this wasn’t just any old commune member asking for a loan, this was the Chief’s own wife. And the cloth was for the soon-to-be wife of the Chief’s own cherished son. So maybe he wouldn’t be so stubborn, maybe not in this case.
Weighing all this, Accountant Ma agreed to give Auntie Ch’ien’s request a try. He took off his heavy glasses, put them in a box, lit up a cigarette, and went to look for the old Cooperative Chief.
The old Chief Ch’ien Chü-fu was already over fifty, but the years had not slowed him down. His energy and high spirits flourished magnificently. He was not an educated man—he knew only a few characters and had been a hired hand most of his life. His memory, however, was exceptional, and no detail of the thousands he dealt with daily ever slipped his mind.
He had joined the Communist Party in the year of the Land Reform. It was only then—so he told people—that he began to do revolutionary work. After organizing the mutual-aid team, the people elected him to be the team’s leader. The team soon became a low-level agricultural cooperative, then a high-level cooperative. In all these changes, Ch’ien again and again accepted the responsibility of being leader. Then, in 1958, when the People’s Commune was formed, he was elected the district’s Party Branch Secretary and concurrently, the chairman of the Commune. But the people still fondly called him the old Cooperative Chief.
He was not a great orator; his public speeches were awkward, but in the fields, when he was talking heart to heart with his fellows, everyone listened. Aphorisms and folk wisdom seasoned his talk. Every other sentence began with “Well people often say . . .” or “You know, as the saying goes . . .” His favorite sayings were: “Well you know what people say—if you want to be full, eat plain food. If you want to be warm, wear coarse cloth.” and also, “Like they say, wealth grows from little bits and pieces. Best be frugal, son,” or “As the saying goes, the earth is like a board from which one can reap gold. If you are hardworking and diligent, the earth will not be lazy.” These he used to inspire the people of the communе to follow the directives and to work with patience and enthusiasm for the commune and themselves, to be frugal and disciplined.
But in a commune of a hundred people, there will be a hundred personalities, and in spite of the Chief’s teaching, there were small problems, There was, for example, the accountant Ma. It had always been Accountant Ma’s opinion that the Cooperative Chief was timid in his leadership and had no poise or flair. The very sound of the Chief’s habitual “as the saying goes . . .” made the accountant throw up his hands in disgust. “Forget it!” he would say to the old Chief, “Forget it! You and your sayings! All you know how to do is to recite dusty old proverbs. I think you must have been poor to the point of starvation in the past. Now you’ve got your life turned around and have even become the commune Chief, but everywhere you go, you still carry this poverty-stricken cloud around you.”
They seemed like harsh words, but the old Chief wasn’t offended. Later, however, there were two misdemeanors on the part of Accountant Ma that really roused the leader’s anger. Fortunately, in both of these cases, Accountant Ma finally did listen to the old Chief.
The first incident concerned an irrigation project. In the spring of 1957, in a cadres’ meeting, someone had suggested that, as an irrigation method, they fill in all the wells that were currently being used—innumerable small wells—and in their place, dig a row of deeper, larger, more efficient wells near the major water source. Pumps would be installed, a large drainage ditch would be dug, and, using this system, all the cultivated land could be irrigated.
“Not a bad plan,” the old Chief had replied, “not bad at all. But there’s one factor we all have to keep in mind. Machinery costs money. It’s true, it’s true. The production of the cooperative has been increasing yearly; it’s something to be proud of. But still, we don’t have much capital. If we use it all to buy machinery, nothing’s going to be left for our other investments, our other projects. “And,” the Chief continued, “think of how many cooperatives there are in the country. If every one of them went out and bought themselves heavy machinery, would there be enough to go around? And if there were enough machines would there be enough technicians?” These were practical, pragmatic questions. But several of the younger cadre members did not agree. In their opinion, the situation demanded bold, decisive action, and, as usual, the Chief was being slow, over-cautious, backward.
In a cleverly sarcastic tone, Accountant Ma stood up and addressed the Chief. “Big brother,” he said, “you’ve been around for a long time. You’ve seen a lot. Now tell me, have you ever, in your whole life, seen a situation where it is possible to accomplish something without spending a single cent?”
There was more debate. The old Chief put forward reason after reason why it was impractical to buy the machinery. No one at the meeting was being receptive. So in the end he had no choice but to shrug his shoulders and say “OK. So let’s give it a try.”
The next day, Accountant Ma went to the bank, took out a substantial loan, got on a cart, and went himself to the capital of the province to purchase the machinery. Back at the homefront, people were ready to begin work, to fill up the old wells and dig the drainage ditch. But the old Chief stopped them with an aphorism. “The saying goes,” he said, “those who are impatient never get to eat soft rice. And in doing things, you know, you’ve got to make sure you leave a footprint with each step you take. You can’t work on thin air. Let’s not be hasty, hmmm? Why don’t we just wait until Accountant Ma drives up the road with those machines before we start filling the wells. Because it only takes one man-day of work to fill up a well. But to dig a new one? nine, ten, even eleven man-days.”
Despite his words of caution, several people began filling the old wells. Then Accountant Ma returned with his news: at present, there weren’t enough machines to fill the demand; the supplier was out of stock.
“It’s not eating that leads to poverty,” was the old Chief’s reply, “and it’s not putting clothes on your backs that leads to poverty. It’s poor planning that leads to poverty. It’s poor planning, . . . poor planning leads to poverty. Or so the saying goes: It’s not enough just to look in front of yourself. You’ve got to look to the right, to the left, behind, beyond—you’ve got to use your eyes and look around. This is called planning.”
So the wells that had been filled in were dug out again, and, under the old Chief’s direction, ten more new wells were dug. It was not a program of total irrigation; nevertheless, the amount of land that was under irrigation that year had increased by one-third over the previous year.
The second matter over which Accountant Ma and the old Chief nearly came to blows was the purchase of office furnishings. Over the past several years, the economy of the commune had been progressively improving. Production was increasing, they had received awards and pennants and had been mentioned in the newspapers. They had acquired quite a reputation. And yet, the commune office was still squeezed into the hall of the Dragon King Temple. When the party leadership arrived for business or inspections, there was nowhere for them to sit. They were offered water in nothing better than old ceramic bowls. This pained Accountant Ma; it embarrassed him to have to receive guests with such miserable hospitality and so little splendor.
He began attempting to remedy the situation. Where there was paper covering a window in the office, he decided glass must be installed. And a thick slab of glass for the desk top too. And on the glass-topped desk, a brush container, an ink bottle, a bowl to hold the wet sponge, stamp pads in a variety of colors, a box of paper clips, a container of tacks. And, for those long evenings in which there was some work to be done, a kerosene lamp was needed, a kerosene lamp on a stand, with a lampshade. On the four walls there would have to be hanging framed portraits, and of course a tea service would have to be purchased. Carefully, Accountant Ma considered all these details and then drew up a list. When it was complete, he handed it to the old Chief for approval.
The old Chief held the list before him for a long time, his eyebrows involuntarily twitched, but still smiling, he asked, “Do we really need all this?”
“We certainly do,” the accountant replied. “We’ve needed them for a long time. You should go look at the other communes’ offices. They really look like something. You step in and you know you’re in an office,” he said enviously.
“Are offices the same as dumplings you sell on the corner, that there has to be a standard model?”
The old Chief’s question put the accountant on the spot, but he also could not help but laugh. The old Chief continued, “So, you think other people’s offices are better than ours. I think ours is all right. You know, Secretary Lü of the County Party Committee tells the story of Chairman Mao during the campaigns—he had to use his own knees for a desk. He would write documents, send out orders, and even without a desk, didn’t he still defeat the enemy? Now Ma, you know the saying, ‘Eat according to what food is available; cut your clothes according to the measurement of your body’. You’re the one in charge of the money; you should know how much capital we have. You can’t just gawk at the way other people are doing things and imitate them like a monkey.”
Accountant Ma did not move. The disappointment was apparent on his face. He said nothing, unable to find an argument to counter the old Chief. But of the entire list he had drawn up, to be denied every single one! He could not be more dissatisfied. In a tone of both complaint and resentment, he said, “You want the horse to run well, but you won’t feed him even a handful of grass. Who is it, when every three months the members get their wages, who is it has to burn the midnight oil calculating and recording? Who is it has to suffer then? I do. If I light the wick low on that old, useless kerosene lamp, I can’t see a thing; and if I light the wick high, I get a headache from the smoke. So all I ask for is a kerosene lamp with a glass cover, and what do I get instead? A big long lecture.”
Seeing how unhappy the accountant was, the old Chief tried to reason with him: “Comrade, comrade, we’ll buy what we have to buy. All I’m saying is that when we spend, we should keep frugality in mind. I’m not objecting to you buying a lamp with a shade, not at all”
So, since there was no objection, Accountant Ma sent someone off to the city to buy a new kerosene lamp, one with a glass shade. When it arrived, he lit it with great joy. It was much brighter than the other! he noted with satisfaction, and wrapped another piece of white paper around it.
In the evenings, then, in his free time, Accountant Ma took to reading his newspaper under the pure snowy light of that lampshade. Other times he’d call in a few friends and they’d have a card game. He was having a marvelous time.
One night, however, Accountant Ma had come into the office and was about to light the lamp, when he noticed the lampshade was missing. Ma, grumbling and cursing, began searching about the room, when the door opened and someone came in. “Why haven’t you lit the lamp?” a voice asked. Ma looked up and saw the old Chief.
Ma said hurriedly, “The one we bought only a few days ago . . .”
The old Chief laughed. “No, nobody’s broken it. I just took it and hung it on the wall. Our capital is too small; we can’t afford to support that hungry god of a lamp.”
“Well, we may as well not light any lamp at night then,” Ma replied angrily.
“Now now,” the old Chief said placidly. “Of course the lamp has to be lit at night. But the way you’ve been lighting it, it blazes brighter than the sun. I would think you’d be blinded by it. And besides, you only used less than an ounce of kerosene before; but now, to keep your sun blazing, you’ve been feeding him more than twice that, more than two ounces of kerosene a night. Figure that up in the long run, and you’ve got quite a supply of kerosene frivolously gone up in smoke. Now if you’ve really got something to do, go ahead. Use the lamp with the shade. But if there’s no business—light the small lamp.”
From that moment on, the glass lampshade hung on the wall. Whether from spite, or merely because he found it too troublesome to take down, Accountant Ma let the shade hang there gathering dust, and he refused to touch it, even when doing accounts late into the night.
The courtyard of the Animal Husbandry Team seemed unusually vast and deserted. The animals had all been taken out to the fields to work. Under the eaves of the horse stable, on the west side, sat the old Chief.
He was repairing saddles, taking bits of cotton to work with from a loose pile on one side of him; and while he worked, he talked with members of the Animal Husbandry Team. “Whenever you use a piece of equipment,” he was saying, “always take a good look at it first. Examine it from top to bottom, and underneath as well. If it’s broken, fix it. This way, the animals don’t get hurt from accidents, the equipment doesn’t get ruined. Take a look at this saddle, for example. It’s unbalanced. Put it on a horse, ride him for a day, and what does the poor beast end up with? A bruised shoulder. But does the horse speak up? Tell you his shoulder hurts? No. So you pay no attention to what you do to him; you think you can do anything. It doesn’t hurt you, that bruised shoulder. But Yu-hsi,” he went on, directing his lecture toward the head of the Animal Husbandry Team, “if I gave you a tight pair of boots and made you walk around in them all day, I think you’d yell soon enough.”
“I suggested a long time ago,” Yu-hsi replied self-righteously, “that we buy some new saddles. But Accountant Ma refused us the money.”
The old Chief laughed, a dry, cold laugh. “Oh, that’s just dandy. Now you’ve all learned how to open your mouths and eat. And to stick out your hands and ask for money. As soon as the first paint chips or the first thread breaks, you’re thrown into helplessness and all you know how to do is buy a new one. You just take the lazy man’s path and ask for the money to buy a new one.
“Have you ever given any thought to the question of where the commune’s money comes from? Do we print our own? Or maybe we’re a bank? No! we don’t have much money at all. And if we grab those few dollars in both our fists and toss them extravagantly into the wind, how are we going to manage production? You know the saying, ‘Even the household with ten thousand strings of cash still has to make patches half the time’. When you guys worked for yourselves, you could make a saddle last ten, twenty years. But now? Saddles fall in pieces in five, in three years. The spirit of living collectively is not a lot of big talk at big meetings. Collective living is how we deal day to day with concrete details.”
Yu-hsi and the two other Animal Husbandry Team members, shamefacedly joined in on the saddle repairs.
Two women, who had been waiting on the side for quite a while, now glanced at one another as if to say, “look at him! the minute he starts working, he forgets everything.”
“Ay! Old Chief,” the younger of the two women began, plaintively, “Can we resolve the difficulty I brought up with you?”
The other one, a woman of about fifty, also started in, “Old in-law! And what about me? The Temple Fair is almost here; my daughter needs a new pair of trousers. And the Supplies Cooperative has just gotten in a shipment of corduroy. Can you see to it that I get an advance of a few dollars?”
“That’s right! A shipment of corduroy has arrived! In every color of the rainbow; and sturdy, quality-made cloth. A girl in a jacket or in trousers made of this cloth would be as beautiful as a bird.”
No one noticed Accountant Ma’s entry into the scene. By the time anyone noticed him, he was already there, standing next to the two women. As soon as he heard Tung-hua’s mother mention the corduroy, he quickly wedged himself in for his own request. If the old Chief listened to her, then his request would be granted too, and his promise to Aunt Ch’ien would be fulfilled.
Raising his head, the old Chief caught sight of Accountant Ma. “Ah, you’ve come in the nick of time. Go, give her an advance of twenty dollars.”
“Give me twenty dollars?” Tung-hua’s mother said, flustered and excited.
“Hold your horses, in-law!” the old Cooperative Chief laughed. “Why are you in such a hurry? You and I have to talk a little more about this matter you’ve brought up. The twenty dollars is for Ts’ui-hsiang to take her child to see a doctor in the city. But for a piece of corduroy . . . well, I’m sorry, but your need really isn’t urgent enough.”
“Well that’s just great,” the woman grumbled. “You have to fall sick before you’re allowed any money around here, and those of us who are unfortunate enough to be healthy . . . we go away emptyhanded.”
The old Chief’s voice was quiet and patient. “It was announced very clearly at the last general meeting that it was not possible for anyone to borrow money before the pay date. It was a resolution agreed on by everyone. Weren’t you there? Didn’t you agree to it too?”
Tung-hua’s mother persisted obstinately. “Those meetings are all a lot of talk. We’re a big commune; if I borrow a few dollars, no one’s going to feel it.”
“If that’s the case,” the old Chief replied, “Shall I give money to everyone that comes to me and requests it? Anyway, about the Temple Fair—if everyone’s clothes are clean and their rear ends aren’t hanging out, I think that’s good enough.”
“Well listen to you! We’re talking about young girls—not rough unmannered hayseeds like you.” She did not disguise her contempt.
“My hayseed appearance may not be real pleasing to you, and I apologize for it, but I sure haven’t let anyone go hungry or bareassed. Take a look at the accounts at the Savings and Trust Coop. Every single family’s got eighty to a hundred dollars.”
“Well I don’t even have a dollar saved.”
“You’ve let your family’s entire hundred and ten dollars slip away already?”
“My old man’s got it locked away. He says he’s going to buy a Flying Pigeon bicycle.”
“You people!” the Chief said in despair. “You people are like a carpenter’s axe—you know how to chop on only one side. You sure know how to handle your own money—buy yourselves a brandname bike, got it all planned out. But when it’s the commune’s money, you suddenly get easy and careless. Borrow a little here and there. There’s plenty where that came from . . . No, no, when we manage the commune’s money, we’ve got to be just as careful. Why don’t you use some of the money you’re saving up for the bike to buy the corduroy?” The old Chief gave the woman a sly glance.
“If we use that money we won’t be able to buy the bike!” the woman answered seriously.
“Well now, the commune has two big necessities on its list: a water wheel and fertilizers. They’re as precious to us as your Flying Pigeon is to you. Now do you think we should use up all our money?”
She was driven into a corner and could think of nothing to reply. She stood at a loss for a moment; then, catching sight of Accountant Ma standing in the corner, she appealed to him. “Old Ma, what do you say? What can I do?”
Ma had listened to all the arguments, and his first impulse was to reply with two simple words: “Can’t do.” But he was afraid of spoiling his own case, and then he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise to Aunt Ch’ien. So he hedged, hesitated, and smiled. “Well maybe we should look into it.”
“Wonderful, that’s just wonderful,” Tung-hua’s mother said irritably. “You two look into it. Fine.” And she left.
The old Chief stood up too. He brushed the dirt from his pants and shook his head. “Concepts, concepts,” he said wearily. “There’s nothing harder than to try and reform concepts.” He was moving toward the door of the horse stall with his purposeful, long-legged stride, and was nearly out when he heard Accountant Ma calling behind him. He waited. “There something on your mind?”
Accountant Ma had been waiting to be alone with the old Chief to bring up the business of Auntie Ch’ien; but now suddenly his heart warned him it wasn’t the moment, so, deftly, he changed directions and said: “Oh nothing much. Just that the commune called and wanted to know how many catties of chemical fertilizer we wanted.”
The Chief, surprised, said, “Didn’t we do that chart a long time ago, and send it on? Three thousand catties.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” Ma answered sheepishly. “I don’t know why I asked.” He had only made up that little white lie, but when he saw the Chief was taking the question seriously, he dropped it, and turned to leave.
“Ay!” the Chief caught him by the shoulder and stopped him. “Go tell the Savings and Trust Cooperative to pay out the money for the fertilizer today. Tomorrow we’ll send around some carts to go collect it.”
“Fine, fine,” Accountant Ma was afraid the Chief was going to start asking questions, so hurriedly he stepped out the stable door.
Aunt Ch’ien was still there, in his office, waiting, when he returned. He had been gone a long time. “Well,” she asked anxiously, as soon as he stepped in the door, “yes or no?”
What answer could he give her? That the Chief had said OK? That lie would force him into handing over the money, against the rules, without the required authorization. Not a risk the acountant wished to take. But he couldn’t tell her that the Chief had refused the loan either. In the first place, he hadn’t even raised the issue with the old Chief, so he couldn’t know if the Chief would have approved. And second, to admit he had failed would have made him look impotent. So the accountant just answered evasively, “The old Chief will have to look into it.”
“Look into it with whom?” Aunt Ch’ien asked again, nagging him, he thought, worse than a horsefly.
Accountant Ma shook his head. “Who knows, who knows?”
“Well, you’re the accountant; can’t he look into it with you? This is pitiful,” she said contemptuously. She would not stop complaining. “That old bag of ours, that backward old fuddy-duddy—you can’t teach him any new tricks. His thinking is about as lively as the thinking of a dead grey rock. He’s the Chief in this commune. Shouldn’t he have enough authority to deal with family matters without having to worry that someone might object? But you’re someone in charge too, Ma; why can’t you make decisons?”
Aunt Ch’ien had unsettled Accountant Ma. He now became agitated and critical toward the strict, sober, inhuman way the old Chief insisted on doing business. He was uneasy too at his own recent cowardice; feeling a few pangs of regret, he began to reason that, after all, it was a matter of marriage, not simply money, this affair over the corduroy. It was domestic trouble Aunt Ch’ien was asking his help in. And she was the one in the right, the accountant reasoned, her arguments were sound; it was her husband’s attitude that was narrow and unjust. So, putting on an easy, confident tone, he said, “Aunt, set your mind at ease. The loan’s yours and I’ll take full responsibility. So how much do you need?”
She was not slow to see that she had persuaded him. She grew animated. “Oh not much at all, not much at all. Certainly not eighty or a hundred dollars, no, no. Just enough to cut a nice swatch of cloth.”
The accountant turned the lock, pulled the drawer open, and took out a stack of bills. But as his hands nimbly flew through the bills, counting them out, doubts began to assail him. Auntie Ch’ien’s request was clearly worthy; but the old Chief had not been consulted. That was a pitfall, and could be quite a nasty one too. Ma counted and re-counted the money. Finally he put it in her hands, but as she was just about to disappear gratefully out the door, Ma, in haste called out: “Aunt, I’m giving you this loan, but it would be better if nothing were said to the old Chief. Do you understand my meaning?” he asked uneasily. “It’s a matter just between you and me?”
She nodded, she understood well. Her face was jubilant. “Rest easy, Accountant,” she said. “I won’t sell you out.” Then she turned and went directly to the Supplies Cooperative.
Even before she got to the counter, she saw the sales clerk pulling out that precious bolt of red. He was talking with some woman and showing her the cloth. It was Tung-hua’s mother.
“Ah, it’s you, in-law!” Aunt Ch’ien cried in a warm, cheery voice. “So you’ve come to cut a piece of cloth too—great stuff isn’t it? I’ve never seen such a dazzling red . . . Wouldn’t it just look charming on a young girl? Trousers, or a jacket . . .”
Tung-hua’s mother, nodding, asked, “And what did you come to buy?”
“Me? Why, several feet of the corduroy.”
“Guess.” Aunt Ch’ien’s heart danced with delight. Then she leaned toward Tung-hua’s mother’s ear and said in a low voice, “Our daughter’s got a small frame: I think eight feet should be enough, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Seven feet wouldn’t quite cover—she has gotten a little plump. Eight feet should do it. Better to have more than not enough. Good, sturdy fabric, isn’t it? I’ll bet it lasts more than a year without fraying. She could wear it while she’s living with you, and then, when she comes to live under my roof—why, she’ll still be wearing it!” Aunt Ch’ien stretched her wit to appear as generous as possible in front of her future in-law.
Tung hua’s mother did not, at first, quite understand who this young girl was that Aunt Ch’ien was referring to. But as it gradually dawned on her, she became somewhat peeved. “Well, if I had only known,” she was thinking, “that this was in my future in-law’s head, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that teeth-grinding with the old Chief today.” So she too, in a tone of extravagant generosity, said: “Aunt, you are just too kind. She hasn’t crossed over to your house yet; why worry your head about her? And young people today, why, they spend all their time in the fields falling into mud and water and calling it manual labor. They can’t wear beautiful clothes—they’d ruin them. Why bother cutting such fine cloth for Tung-hua?”
“Oh, just listen to you!” Aunt Ch’ien pushed her future in-law playfully. Then, taking hold of her arm, she pulled her close to herself again. “Your daughter has every right to wear whatever she chooses, even if it were a dragon robe. She’s a model worker; look how many work days she earns in a year! She’s going to be attending conferences, visiting the County Seat—she’s going to have to dress properly. If she’s not decent, we’ll both lose face.”
This exchange of course did not displease either of them; still Tung-hua’s mother felt it necessary to hide her jubilation and pride in her daughter and continue her pretense of discontent a while longer. “Young people just aren’t the same these days,” she said. “Good food, elegant clothes—they claim none of this is important to them. All they talk about is frugality, building socialism. Tunghua is even behaving as if she were already drinking water out of the same vat as the old Chief, as if she had already crossed over into your household!”
“Aiii!” Aunt Ch’ien leaned her head to the side in a gesture of helplessness. “The young people today! They’re all like that. My own son, Yü-pao, sends letters home from the army criticizing me! You can just imagine how angry it makes me—someone you’ve given life to, treating you like that! But of course he’s your flesh and blood, so your heart softens. But this building up socialism—I think it’s the young people’s business entirely. We old people don’t have to bother our heads about it. But what we do have to do is to stick together and keep our traditions alive, don’t you think?
“Now, I’ve had this little plan in my mind for a long time, but there was never any cloth in the Supplies Cooperative. The cloth finally comes—and I don’t have any money. I have to run here and there dealing with this person and reasoning with that one—oh what an exhausting day I’ve had!—before I finally get together the money. So here I am at last, with the goods in my hand.”
“Where did you manage to get the money from?” Tung-hua’s mother asked sympathetically, remembering all the frustration and irritation she had had to suffer in her pursuit of a loan.
The question cast Aunt Ch’ien into a gloom again. She thought with dissatisfaction about the old husband she was saddled with. “He put our entire bonus under lock and key in the Savings Bank and wouldn’t let me touch a penny of it. So I have to go begging all over the commune. He really drives me mad!”
“I couldn’t agree with you more. That old bag of yours is terrible! He doesn’t recognize any of his responsibilities to his relatives or family.” Tung-hua’s mother gave the whole angry report of her attempt in the afternoon to get the old Chief’s permission to borrow money.
The attack alarmed Aunt Ch’ien. Would the discontent of Tunghua’s mother affect her son’s marriage? Aunt Ch’ien hurriedly began to defend her husband: “He’s just getting old lately—too old to manage all the affairs of the commune. I’ve been telling him to quit for months. But everyone says he’s a good leader and they support him, so he won’t step down.
“But everything is getting out of hand these days. There are so many rules! The commune votes in more and more rules! All that trouble you had today—it was because of those silly rules. I couldn’t even get around them. If it wasn’t for Accountant Ma, I would never have been able to get this piece of cloth cut . . .” Suddenly, Aunt Ch’ien caught her tongue. Her secret with Accountant Ma had almost slipped out! She wavered a moment more, then could not resist. She leaned toward Tung-hua’s mother’s ear. “I’m really not supposed to tell anyone. Accountant Ma is afraid someone might report us,” she whispered. “But it’s all right to keep it in the family. I know I can trust you.”
Tung-hua’s mother was a little upset. So the old Chief had approved his own wife’s loan, she thought mistakenly, and had turned her down! But of course she could say nothing to Aunt Ch’ien’s face. So she nodded once or twice and smiled a bright but bland smile. “That’s very nice,” she said. “I myself was thinking of making Tung-hua an outfit—now you’ve saved me the trouble!”
The sales clerk was done with all the paperwork. Now he handed the bolt of cloth to Aunt Ch’ien. Aunt Ch’ien took the soft material into her arms as if it were a newborn baby. “Look at this color!” she said reverently. “It’s so bright it hurts your eyes!” She could not find enough words of praise. “Feel how thick it is. Take it,” she said generously, thrusting the cloth at Tung-hua’s mother. “Take it home to your daughter”
“Me? Oh no, you should give it to her yourself. After all, she should understand that it is her mother-in-law and no one else who’s giving her this fine gift.”
“You’re right, you’re right! You think of everything. Well, send her around to see us soon, then.” And, full of the animated chatter of old ladies, the two women left the Supplies Coop.
Aunt Ch’ien had never been very good at keeping things to herself. She could not stop thinking about what a rare and beautiful piece of cloth she had come into possession of; she could not stop marveling over its hue and texture. And she could not keep from sharing her happiness. By afternoon, everyone in the neighborhood had heard about the daughter-in-law, and the jacket, and the bright red cloth.
In the evening, the old Chief broke off work at an unusually early hour and came home. He seemed delighted at something too. He came into the center of the room, saying, “Great day, great day! At last this thing’s worked out.”
It was an easy leap for Aunt Ch’ien to assume he had heard about her red cloth and her good fortune; an even easier leap to assume this was why he was in such good spirits. So, in a righteous tone, she began to upbraid him. “You never lift a finger to help me. I have more luck getting a nail to ferment in the pickle bin than I have in getting you to help me.”
The old Chief chuckled. “You know, people often say, ‘The flower doesn’t bloom before its time; and you can’t ripen a gourd with impatience.’ Yes, we’ve been waiting and working and waiting and finally our commune has bloomed. Our strength and our finances have developed and things that should be done are being done!”
What the old Chief was thinking about, of course, was a big white Berkshire boar the commune had purchased that afternoon. It would be a substantial asset: the pig-raising business would leap forward. He had been dreaming of this boar for more than a year. In the afternoon, Tung-hua had walked the boar home. It was a huge creature with great meaty flanks, as big as a calf. In one meal, it ate a whole bucket of food. The old Chief had stood by the pigpen happily, lost in thought, gazing at the boar. Such moments were good for the soul.
Then he called Tung-hua over. Together, they went over the care and feeding instructions meticulously. “And we’ll have to have a pen for the boar” he added. “Call the wood and mortar work team and tell them to get on it. He’ll need a separate pen definitely, a pen all to himself.”
Only after every detail had been arranged would the old Chief allow himself to walk home. He walked happily, he whistled; feeling alive and excited, he told his wife the whole story, from beginning to end.
Contrary to her usual habits, Aunt Ch’ien listened patiently. On most days, her husband’s reports of commune business bored her. But today her face beamed, as he wound patiently and lovingly through all the details on the great white-flanked boar. The moment he paused, she jumped in with her own tale. The entire tale of the red corduroy cloth came tumbling out, and she unfolded and displayed the prized material itself without skipping a beat. “And I knew how the young lady wanted it, but she was too shy and reserved to say anything. Take a look at what a dazzling red that is! And Tung-hua’s mother herself mentioned to me that Tung-hua needed a new jacket. I understood what she was saying! It was impossible not to buy it, not under the circumstances. What a shame on our household if we were to ignore the requests of our own future in-laws! And it was a great bargain, quality material at a low cost.” She fibbed to convince her husband that what she had done was both reasonable and proper.
The old Chief looked at her coolly. He did not praise the material. In a stern voice, he asked if she had gone to the Savings and Trust Cooperative for the money.
“Now how could I take out the money?” she replied. “It’s in your name.” Her gaiety of only moments before quickly dissipated.
“Then where did you get the money from?”
She did not dare tell the truth. “It’s none of your business,” she said. “I didn’t steal it, so don’t worry about it. I took care of it all. I can manage very well without your help, thank you. Look at you, grinding your teeth and worrying your hair grey over commune affairs. And what do they call you? The ‘household manager’? What a joke! You don’t manage your household. You don’t give your home three seconds of your time.”
The attack, of course, was a defensive maneuver. She bombarded him with a lecture in the hopes that she could get him on the floor before he saw what was happening. It worked. The old Chief, his mind still dreaming about the big white boar that now snuffled and rooted quietly within the confines of the commune, had no patience for a shrew’s domestic warfare.
“OK, OK, you’re right. I don’t know anything about what goes on here, it’s terrible. I leave it all to you, and the only one who knows how to manage things is you.” And, noticing the water vat was empty, he picked up the buckets and went outside. Out there, someone called to him. Something had happened, he’d better come quickly. What? The old Chief dropped his buckets and rushed over to the office courtyard.
There, by the foot of the east wall, a group of people had gathered, each mouth putting in its own opinion, so that when the leader arrived, he could make out nothing but chaos and babble. Some outrage had occurred, some scandal.
“Isn’t it fine,” they said sardonically, “the way the hand is so conveniently attached to the wrist? The ones closest to the money boxes need only reach inside.”
“Oh, I understand,” threw in another. “Now that they’ve become cadre members, they are no longer bound by the rules, is this it?”
It was pointed out that the character poster was not signed. “Who wrote it? Who was it that wrote this?”
“I’d say Tung-hua,” one man pointed out. “It’s her handwriting.”
The old Chief approached the clamor and the crowd. He peered forward at the character poster plastered across the wall. It was too dark to make anything out. He went into the office, lit the lamp, and returned carrying it. He peered again at the poster and finally realized what the uproar was about. Even though it didn’t mention his wife by name, he knew it had to do with his wife and the accountant and the illegal funding. It was a clever and pointed poster. Before he even finished reading the characters, the old Chief realized what the long lecture he had just received from his wife was all about.
Accountant Ma had been strolling happily through the courtyard, whistling a tune.
“Hey you! Ma! Come here, I’ve got something I want to see,” the Chief shouted at him angrily.
Accountant Ma ran over. He raised the lamp and stared up at the poster that spread above him. His jaw dropped, a muscle in his cheek twitched. He became speechless as a gourd.
The old Chief, in his fury, did nothing but jab a finger at the accusing characters. Then finally he said, “Oh Ma! How can you have lived for decade upon decade and still do something so stupid? Haven’t I told you a thousand and ten thousand times that the most important thing to being a cadre is to have a selfless, public-minded attitude? Now look what you’ve done!” In his anguish he raised both fists above his head and shook them at the poster. “Your own ass is sitting in shit. And you think you can raise a voice of education and criticism in this commune?”
Accountant Ma stood numbly under the abuse; he felt the critical eyes of the people around burning tiny holes in his body. All the arguments he had constructed in his defense fell down dead inside him, like sparrows in winter. He lowered his head; he could not reply.
The next day, the wood and mortar team were hauling the bricks and mud for the construction of the boar’s pen. The old Chief approached and singled out Tung-hua.
“Tung-hua,” he said in a low, demanding voice, “did you write that poster?”
Taken aback by his ferocious manner, she hesitated. Had she written something wrong? Had she been wrong in writing it?
“Yes there was a defect in it,” the old Chief said. “It was not thorough enough.”
She was confused; what did he mean? “There was a defect?” she asked.
“Accountant Ma certainly committed a crime and you were right to expose that. But why only Ma? Your old Aunt was as guilty and her name should have been scrawled across the paper in characters just as bold.”
“But Accountant Ma is a cadre,” Tung-hua objected, “and my Aunt is just one of the people. It seemed to me that in a situation like this, it was the cadre we should assign the primary responsibility and blame to, wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s true, that’s true,” the old Chief agreed, “but things with your Aunt have just gone too far. She is stubbornly backward in her thought. What she needs is a good shock to wake her up, otherwise she’ll just get more and more backward. She won’t listen to me—maybe if you young people and everyone in the commune were to take this opportunity to make her ways clear to her, we might be able to bring her around.”
He was right. Admiration of her leader’s insight and regret for her own shallow thinking rose up and mingled in Tung-hua’s heart. “You’re right; I didn’t think to the bottom of it,” she replied.
“I’ve got a job for you then,” the old Chief said. “Now you must make sure you do it well.”
“Go talk to your Aunt and help her. Point out where she’s gone wrong. Help her write up a statement and post it on the wall. As you know, one sentence from you will be ten times more effective than all the nagging I might attempt.”
“Old Chief, I . . .” Tung-hua hesitated, feeling that she was in an awkward spot.
“Is there a problem?” he asked, suspicious. “Tung-hua, I heard it was you who wanted the corduroy cloth and that you had suggested to your mother that she might be able to get Aunt Ch’ien to buy it. Is this true?”
“No, not at all! I didn’t even know about the business with Aunt Ch’ien and Accountant Ma until yesterday when my mother began talking about it with me.”
“And what did your mother say exactly?” He wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.
“She was criticizing you. She said you were a hypocrite. She said that you really didn’t have a selfless public heart at all. She was telling me how she asked you for a loan and you turned her down; and then when your wife asked for a loan, she received it. She said Accountant Ma must have gotten the OK from you, since that was standard procedure. So I think it was you she was most unhappy with—I said the accountant probably had made an unauthorized loan, that’s what I thought. So that’s what I wrote on the poster.”
“What you did was right,” the old Chief said. “But we’ve still got a few messes to clean up here. Let’s go to my house—come with me.”
He led the way to his home. As soon as Aunt Ch’ien caught sight of the two of them, she beamed. “How well things are going now! The old man seems to be coming over to my way of thinking,” so she thought, “yesterday he saw the piece of cloth I cut for Tunghua, so today he brought her, our future daughter-in-law.”
Hurriedly she got off the brick bed, went over to the closet and got out the red piece of cloth. She pulled Tung-hua over to her and said affectionately, “Tung-hua, I have a son but not a daughter; so you must be like a daughter to me. Now I know you young folks like this color: just look at that rich, thick texture.”
“Auntie,” Tung-hua said smiling, “these days it doesn’t matter what I wear, as long as it’s clean and covers me decently. I think we can wait until the work on our socialist society is completed before we begin wearing fancy clothes. It won’t be too late then. But this is not the time. Auntie,” she continued, “I heard you got an advance from the public funds. When I heard it, I hoped it wasn’t true. You know it wasn’t an honorable thing to do.”
That Tung-hua addressed her as “Auntie” pleased Aunt Ch’ien enormously. She felt herself growing warm. But at the same time, the content of what Tung-hua was saying! Why, it was the same old garbage that worthless husband of hers handed her. She shook her head. So the old man had poured his lies into Tung-hua’s young head, what a shame. She glared at her husband, then, turning back to the young girl, she said, “Well, now, I just had the notion that I wanted to do something for you and I couldn’t think of anything appropriate”
“Didn’t you tell me it was Tung-hua who wanted it?” the old Chief demanded. “I want to get this story straight. Maybe I’ll have to get the real story out of the girl herself.”
Aunt Ch’ien’s face twitched. How could he do this to her? Not only did he not support her as a husband should, he actually took pleasure in humiliating her in front of a guest! She was sick and furious but there was nothing she could say, not with a guest still in the house. So she could only reply, “You don’t need to concern yourself with my business. You take care of the commune and I’ll take care of the home. Even if I decided to buy a dragon robe for our future daughter-in-law, there would be nothing you could say about it. It’s not your concern!”
Tung-hua hurriedly intervened, “Now, now Auntie, don’t get mad. Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t have bought the gift. You just shouldn’t have asked for an illegal loan. If you had just waited until payday, the money would have been yours; you could have bought the cloth, and everyone would be happy. But reckless advancing and borrowing will ruin our production plans. Everyone will suffer.”
The old Chief saw Tung-hua’s words were making an impact. His old wife sat there speechless. So he caught the girl’s eye. “Why don’t you sit here and chat with your old Aunt for awhile? I’ve got some business to take care of.” Having said this, he took off.
The girl and the old woman talked on and on until dark. When Tung-hua finally emerged from Aunt Ch’ien’s home, she had the piece of red cloth under her arm. She went directly to the Supplies Cooperative and exchanged what Aunt Ch’ien had spent so much effort obtaining. With the money in her hand, she made her way to Accountant Ma’s office and laid it before him on the desk. Then she found the old Chief. “Everything is straight now,” she said. “Give me a piece of paper. Aunt Ch’ien and I have something to write.”
The next morning, two fresh character posters hung on the east wall of the office. One was signed, “Ma Shou-Jen” and other other: “Chia Ch’un-e” or, in parentheses, “Great Aunt Ch’ien.”
Three days later there was a meeting of the commune representatives. At the meeting, the old Chief discussed the whole matter. He mentioned Accountant Ma and Aunt Ch’ien by name. Accountant Ma, before the whole council, stood up and made a self-criticism.
Then, just as the meeting was about to conclude, someone brought up the fact that although payday was still some time away, the Temple Fair was rapidly approaching. He said the majority of the members wanted to advance some money. He said there should be a vote, some uniform policy should be made. Arguments were heard on both sides. It was a special day, people should have money, some said. If they had no money, they would spend less, others argued. The old Chief sat back, hearing the debates, mulling it over. Finally, he gave his opinion in a firm confident voice. “I agree with the loan,” he said. “It’s only once in every long year that the Temple Fair comes around. It’s an occasion for happiness. Let everyone have a little spending money; if you’re happy, your spirit is whole and healthy, and in everything you do, you will be more alive. People will be more joyous in their work. Let’s be frugal where we should be frugal, but let’s not be stingy with celebration.”
A vote was taken, the holiday-loan policy was approved. Accountant Ma took down the glass lampshade which had been untouched for more than a year. He lit the lamp. He burned the midnight oil; and at the end of two days, he passed out a small sum of holiday money to every member of the commune.
The old Chief took his share of the money home to his wife. He suggested she go to the Supplies Coop and retrieve the corduroy. “This time,” he said with a smile, “no one will say that you are in the wrong.”
But Aunt Ch’ien had not completely come to terms with the matter yet. In a cantankerous voice she said, “When I run into an obstacle and have to take out a loan, it’s considered a crime. But when other people suggest borrowing money, well then all of a sudden it becomes honorable and public-minded! I don’t think your name is Ch’ien at all. Your loyalties certainly aren’t to this family.”
The old Chief felt the old wave of weary impatience. Instead of arguing with her, he said with a smile, “Well, you know what people say about raising up a tall, multi-storied building, that it starts from the ground up. The construction of a collective society is no easy matter.”
Aunt Ch’ien angrily snatched the money from his hand. “Back and forth! Back and forth! I feel like a pebble bouncing down a stream. I don’t even know what’s right anymore, you’ve given my head such a spinning! It makes me sick in my heart.”
She was angry, but still, she went back to the Supplies Coop and retrieved the bolt of material. When she unfolded the cloth to show the old Chief, her anger had long vanished.
“Have you ever seen a brighter red?” she kept saying admiringly.