Chen Jo-hsi (born Chen Hsiu-mei) comes from a proletarian background. Born into a family of carpenters, she was raised in Taipei. In the socially mobile post-1949 Taiwan society, she graduated in Western Literature from National Taiwan University in 1961. Like most of her contemporaries, Chen Jo-hsi came to study in the United States after graduation. She attended Mount Holyoke College and Johns Hopkins University, and received an M.A. in English Literature in 1965. In 1966, she and her engineer husband Tuan Shih-yao “returned” to mainland China to dedicate their lives to the revolution. They were caught in the political maelstrom of the Cultural Revolution. Their earlier dreams and visions shattered, they left China in 1973. After a year in Hong Kong, they lived in Vancouver, Canada, until 1979, when Chen Jo-hsi joined the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley, California.
Chen Jo-shi’s writings can be divided into two stages, reflecting two distinct periods in her life. During the years from 1958 to 1962, her writings demonstrated a good knowledge of native and Western literary traditions and skillful though self-conscious craftsmanship, but they were not yet informed by a rich first-hand life experience. There followed a hiatus of over ten years, seven of which Chen Jo-hsi spent in Cultural Revolutionary China. When she reemerged in 1974, with her first story about the Cultural Revolution, “Mayor Yin” (Yin hsien-chang), her writing was no longer a conscious effort. The characters and stories in her mind sought a way to flow from her pen. Chen Jo-hsi was no longer the author; rather the stories, now informed by her momentous first-hand experiences, told themselves through her art. Some critics argue that Chen Jo-hsi’s post-China stories are not as skillful as her earlier ones, but this shortcoming is more than compensated for by the immediасу and conviction of the later stories. Chen Jo-hsi has sometimes been called a dissident writer because of her negative views of China. However, her Cultural Revolution stories are not in any sense motivated by a political mission, and they are all the more convincing because they are not. Another feature that distinguishes Chen Jo-hsi’s stories from dissident writings is that they were not written in China, but after she had left the country, at an objective distance from the events and circumstances depiecte.
Chen Jo-hsi’s better-known stories from her first period are collected in Stories by Chen Jo-hsi Selected by the Author (Chen Jo-hsi tzuhsüan chi, 1976). Her Cultural Revolution stories appeared first in newspaper supplements and magazines, and were later published in the two collections Mayor Yin (Yin hsien-chang, 1976) and Old Man (Lao-jen, 1978). Her writing about the Cultural Revolution reached its culmination in the novel The Repatriate (Kuei, 1978). It is likely that her writing will take a new direction in the near future.
“My Friend Ai Fen” (Nü-yu Ai Fen) first appeared in United News (Lien-ho pao) in 1978 and was later incorporated into the collection Old Man.
IN THE AUTUMN of 1967, when I gave birth to my first child, I met Doctor Ai Fen in the delivery room.
The first time a woman gives birth she often cries out in pain and feels the hardship is unendurable. After screaming and crying out for several hours in the labor room, by the time I reached the delivery table I suddenly lost all strength. Only then did they find another doctor to come and insert an acupuncture needle into my ear, and then finally delivered the baby. When I heard the infant wail, I let out a sigh, “So painful! After this, I never want to give again!”
Immediately, the woman obstetrician lectured me. “Even a bowel movement takes some exertion, how can you expect childbirth to be painless?” Thereupon she turned her back to me.
The doctor who had inserted the acupuncture needle, however, bent down and whispered in my ear, “Don’t mind her. Giving birth is painful. Even I haven’t been willing to have one so far!”
Feeling as if I had just met an old friend, I grasped her hand, which rested on the edge of the delivery table, expressing without words my thanks. This was Dr. Ai Fen: forthright and sympathetic. I was weak from giving birth, and I spent more than a week recuperating in the hospital. As luck would have it, it was Ai Fen’s turn to check on the patients. Seeing each other every day, we had the chance to become well acquainted. Her aunt had been in the United States to study in the 1940s; during the Great Leap Forward she had become terribly disillusioned and committed suicide. Ai Fen had loved her aunt very much; perhaps it was for this reason that, when she heard I had just returned from America, she was especially good to me, often stopping by my room to chat, if only for a moment. By the time I was to leave the hospital, we had long since passed the usual bounds of a doctor-patient relationship and had become close friends.
Ai Fen was the youngest gynecologist I met in Peking; she was only twenty-six at the time. Though her thick hair was cut very short, it wouldn’t entirely stay in place under her white cap; always a few locks stuck out. What’s more, a smile always hung about the corners of her mouth, giving one a feeling of unrestrained warmth. The professional solemnity that customarily belongs to doctors seemed completely absent in her. In fact, out of her uniform, she became one of the prettiest young women in all of Peking. She was of medium height, and her figure was ideal—not an ounce too fat or too thin. Her tailored, lined jacket of brightly printed cotton fit so well that the curves of her bodice were just subtly noticeable. In an era when Chiang Ch’ing wore drab military dress to “present herself as a model,” Ai Fen’s manner of dressing was tantamount to rebellion. At that time, most women, afraid of incurring such critical labels as “infatuated with vanity” or “pursuing the life-style of the bourgeois class,” intentionally stored away their more attractive clothes and wore only large and baggy shirts and trousers. But Ai Fen was not very keen on political matters. According to her, she did not aspire to “make herself a martyr or see her name engraved in gold”; she only wanted to “get along from day to day.” For this reason, she always wore her best clothes: under the long white physician’s coat were trousers of very fine material, the cuffs perfectly pressed; her leather shoes, though somewhat worn, were still polished to a bright sheen.
Ai Fen did not have a northerner’s round face. Her cheekbones protruded a little but her jaw was small and square, giving her face a well-proportioned, trim look. But what was most striking was her complexion: white with just a trace of red. In winter when the north wind would blow, her cheeks looked as if she had put on rouge; that radiance could rival the red peonies in Chungshan Park. Besides this, she had a pair of almond-shaped eyes with bright, shining pupils. Her only flaw was her flat nose, but her smiling lips diverted people’s attention from it, imperceptibly compensating for this defect. Because Ai Fen’s appearance and style of dress radiated an aesthetic sensibility, when she revealed that her husband was an artist, I wasn’t surprised at all.
“Hsiao* Fan likes to paint portraits,” she told me. “Unfortunately he doesn’t have any models, so all he can paint is me. Not only is he tired of painting me, but I can hardly stand to look at myself anymore!”
Not long after I left the hospital, Ai Fen brought her husband to our hotel to see us and the baby. Hsiao Fan had a slender build; his skin was very dark, like ink splashed too thickly on a sketch; the bridge of his nose rose up straight below a pair of deep, bright eyes, revealing the melancholy, emotionally charged temperament of a poet. Ai Fen said it was this pair of eyes that had swept her off her feet. Hsiao Fan dressed heedlessly, surprisingly the opposite of Ai Fen: the top button of his jacket undone, gray slacks covered with ink stains, cloth shoes, the original color already unrecognizable. But the sloppiness of his appearance did not at all diminish his charm. Moreover, one year of living in the topsy-turvy world created by the Cultural Revolution had added an element of resentful cynicism to his bearing. Hsiao Fan’s father had been with the famed antique emporium Jungpaochai for years; he was skilled at carving seals, good at calligraphy, and possessed a profound knowledge of Chinese painting. Influenced by his father, Hsiao Fan majored in traditional Chinese painting at the Central Arts Institute, but had also worked at Western painting; his artistic interests were wide-ranging. Unfortunately, not long after his graduation, the Cultural Revolution started up; and thereafter he was continuously occupied with revolt and self-criticism. He churned out political and propagandistic paintings, but had not painted one picture which he could like himself.
Though I knew little about traditional Chinese painting, I sympathized with his pain at the neglect of our artistic heritage. At that time, traditional Chinese painting was considered in the same light as Chinese opera: both were criticized as worthless. Of course it was said that if traditional painting could undergo the same “face-change” as opera, it might also have room to survive. For example, take an overhanging cliff with a cascade, add two red flags, and entitle it “Chingkang Mountain”; or put several Red Guards beside a dangerous cliff or a clear stream, and claim such a grouping expressed the theme: “Follow the route of the workers, peasants, and soldiers,” etc. When I mentioned such an idea, Hsiao Fan shook his head, saying that this would be blaspheming art.
“I won’t paint then!” he announced, seemingly giving up all his ambition. “To be involved with art is dangerous enough: choosing to do traditional painting is just like being thrown into a wrong reincarnation, to be given the death sentence!”
Remembering that he liked to paint portraits, I tried to persuade him to change his subject matter. “Then paint Chairman Mao. That’s guaranteed not to backfire. If you paint just one good one you could become celebrated!”
Turning to me, hands clasped respectully in front of him, he said, “Don’t bother to flatter me!” His lips formed a crooked line, displaying a sour smile. “I paint the human body, not portraits. If I were to paint Chairman Mao, even if I put the old man in swim trunks, that could still get me dragged off to the torture chamber!”
On the spot he gave examples of disasters that resulted from painting Mao Tse-tung. A painting not true to life—the color a bit gray and dark—brought upon the artist the accusation of “uglifying the Red Sun.” A woodblock on the theme of “to cross the great sea, rely on the helmsman” had given rise to the cynical suspicion that Chairman Mao was represented as “renounced by the masses and deserted by his closest comrades,” and the artist was beaten and taken to a “cattle stockade,” all because the background was not crowded with the masses, even though Chairman Mao was rendered with marvelous vividness. Apparently, flattery also wasn’t easy; usually it brought on more trouble than it was worth. No wonder, then, that Hsiao Fan only dared to follow the others and paint propaganda posters that were all alike, with the result that his aspirations and spirits sank; Hsiao Fan’s only consolation was in drinking.
At that time we lived in a hotel that accommodated returning overseas Chinese and was stocked with cigarettes and wines, the likes of which far surpassed those which the city markets offered. One reason Hsiao Fan came anxiously to meet us was to ask us to buy him a bottle of Erhkuot’ou, an inexpensive but fairly good wine. Ai Fen herself never touched a drop, and she also didn’t like her husband drinking so much; the two of them often quarreled over this. But except for drowning his sorrows in liquor, Hsiao Fan did not know how to allay his sense of bitter disappointment. The Cultural Revolution had not only broken his life’s routine, but had also shattered his aspirations. Previously, he only had to follow along mouthing the slogans, and he was able to maintain the care-free life of a resident in Peking: in the summer going to the North Sea Park to row boats; in autumn, to the Fragrant Mountain to see the red leaves; and there were even special places to sample tea and enjoy the flowers. But when the Cultural Revolution broke out, its affirmation that “to rebel is correct” threw Hsiao Fan into an unprecedented state of mind. Young people were suddenly permitted to challenge authority, and so sharply that they could not be checked. However, from a certain time on, the prohibitions began to be issued one after another. First the “bad elements” were forced to “stand aside,” or were considered fit only for carrying buckets of glue on the streets to paste up slogans. In the end, Hsiao Fan realized that the Revolution had done nothing for him aside from denying his own worth. At first he didn’t dare paint what he wanted. Now, even if he felt like painting, he could find no inspiration. His future so uncertain, little wonder that he sought consolation from the bottle.
On New Year’s Day of 1968, the two of them came again to see us. My husband bought a bottle of sorghum wine as a treat. Hsiao Fan kept praising the wine and in a flash downed half the bottle. His dark face and neck flushed the deep purple of an eggplant, and his eyes got so bright they looked as if they could spit fire. Suddenly seized by a desire to draw, he grabbed a pencil and stationery from the desk. Facing Ai Fen, he quickly sketched her. Ai Fen, who was no drinker, had, at my prompting, taken two swallows of wine. Her eyes were so red she could hardly keep them open, and she leaned diagonally across the sofa. After coaxing my child to sleep, I immediately came over to look at Hsiao Fan’s sketch. Rendered in a few supple, deft strokes, the sketch showed a nude, voluptuous woman in a drunken pose in the style of Yang Kuei-fei, and it caught the spirit perfectly. My husband remarked that it resembled one of Matisses’s preliminary sketches for the painting “Nude”; at this, Hsiao Fan was very pleased with himself. I showed it to Ai Fen. After giggling for a while, she tore it into pieces.
On May First, the Labor Day holiday, Ai Fen had the day off and invited me to eat dumplings in a famous restaurant at T’iench’iao. As I poured the soy sauce, Ai Fen abruptly informed me that Hsiao Fan had been sent to work at a neighborhood-organized soy sauce factory.
“To make soy sauce?” I hardly knew what to think. “Soy sauce and painting are a million miles apart!”
“No kidding!” Ai Fen responded, with an expression that showed her exasperation and depression. “He tangles all day long with soy beans and brine. His whole body smells of the stuff! And the salty, thick smell in his clothes—I just can’t wash away! At night, in bed, unless he takes everything off, I won’t let him come near me.”
“This is just temporary discipline through manual labor,” I said quickly in order to console her. “China’s artists still have a future; we have never been a people to ostracize art.”
Ai Fen only shook her head and sighed, “We can’t look into the future, so there’s no point in talking about it. All those who have any connection with art or literature will probably be sent to the country soon. Hsiao Fan himself is talking that way every day. I’m afraid sooner or later we’ll end up divorced.”
The word “divorce” gave me a start. But from her knitted brows and the worried look in her eyes, I could tell that she wasn’t joking. I counted to myself: they had been married only a little more than two years. Though I had heard often about their little tiffs, when things were going well between them, they were inseparable, more lovey-dovey than any other couple. How could Ai Fen have such a change of heart as soon as Hsiao Fan was demoted to work in a factory?
“Ai Fen, it was out of love that you two married. Why, then, have your feelings cooled so quickly?”
“Our conception of love these days is different from yours,” Ai Fen responded, in a tone of voice that made me feel separated from her by a whole generation, while in fact she was only three years younger. “If a husband and wife can’t live together, what’s the use of this love? The romatic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ notion has long ago been condemned here! If Hsiao Fan is sent to the country then I must go with him unless we divorce. But what about my father, who is about to retire, and my mother, who is in poor health? They have only one daughter. Naturally, they want me close by.”
Confronted by this pragmatic problem, I felt lost for words. In order to make clear to me, though, that at one time she had put a lot of stock in love, there in that noisy restaurant Ai Fen confided all the details of her first love. Apparently, her first boyfriend was her classmate in college. Right from their freshman year they captivated each other. By their junior year they were known throughout the campus as an inseparable couple. However, in the second semester of their fourth year, when they went into practical training, the students were all caught up in the question of where they would be assigned after graduation. At this time, another girl in their class—whose father was a high-ranking cadre and thus had no worries about being sent away from Peking—suddenly butted in and made it clear that she had set her eye on Ai Fen’s boyfriend. Because his class background was bad, he feared being assigned to some distant province. Half-reluctantly, he finally gave in to this cadre’s daughter. When it came time for graduation in the fifth year, naturally the pair of them was installed in a clinic for ranking cadres in a suburb of Peking.
“Originally I was destined to be assigned to some distant place. Who could have guessed that at the last moment our hospital needed a gynecologist and, by sheer luck, I was able to stay in Peking. But four years of a love-relationship went down the drain, and there was no way to salvage it. Aside from a good political background and connections, the other girl wasn’t better than I in any respect. She just happened to cast a covetous eye at my lover and stole him away. This is the kind of love we have!”
Even though several years had passed, bringing up this episode of her first love filled Ai Fen’s voice with bitterness and jealousy. I could easily imagine how broken-hearted she must have been at the time. She had even thought of suicide, but her professional training and her sense of responsibility for her family, in the end, overcame this terrible idea. It was during her internship that Hsiao Fan dropped into her life. His fiery courtship softened the blow of having been jilted. Perhaps stemming from a desire for revenge, or perhaps only in order to forget the pain and bitterness of losing a lover, she disregarded her mother’s advice and married Hsiao Fan right after graduation.
“My mother is old-fashioned in her thinking and believes that if an artist doesn’t become famous, he’ll be poor for the rest of his life. And Hsiao Fan’s lackadaisical ways didn’t please her either—the only thing that made her feel the least bit content was that I could come home often. Because my parents’ home is close to the hospital, when I’m on nightshift, it’s fairly convenient to go back and forth. My father-in-law used to live in a big house with a courtyard, but when the Red Guards confiscated the property, they moved the whole family into two and a half rooms. Including me, there were six people, so we were really cramped! Hsiao Fan made only forty-eight dollars a month, and he gave it all to his parents. Even the pocket money for his cigarettes and wine came out of my earnings. He’s destined to be able to support only himself, and he knows it. If I really want a divorce, he won’t hold me back.”
I thought that this was just a transient feeling of insecurity in Ai Fen. I didn’t for a moment take this matter of divorce seriously.
That year, the situation in Peking changed rapidly. Chiang Ch’ing’s directive to “attack culture, defend the military” burned like an unending brushfire, while Lin Piao’s declaration that “political power is the power to suppress” was even more widespread. In order to gain power, the rebel faction engaged in militant struggle throughout the year. This eventually gave Mao Tse-tung the excuse to turn against old friends and to station both worker and proletariat propaganda teams at every educational level, to snatch away the rebels’ power base, and to impose a “proletarian dictatorship” on them through purges, liquidation, and forced confessions, to step up the Rustication Movement, whereby the main forces of the Red Guards were dispersed to the rural villages. The Rustication Movement gradually touched all walks of life, even neighborhood committees received mobilization orders. Suddenly in Peking everyone was apprehensive. That entire summer I didn’t see a trace of Ai Fen.
A few days before the Autumn Festival, I went out to buy a few things and ran into Hsiao Fan at the Hsitan Market. He was wearing bibbed overalls; a pair of slip-on sleeve covers peeped out from the frayed cuffs of his jacket; and an absolutely filthy blue cap sat crooked on his head. At first I was afraid it wasn’t he, and I didn’t dare to call out, because he had his arm around a young woman worker. The two of them seemed completely carefree, as if they were out for a stroll. But that dark face and that high-bridged nose I’d recognize anywhere. As I stood there in a stupor, Hsiao Fan caught sight of me. Quickly casting aside the girl’s hand, he hurried across the street to chat with me. I asked him about Ai Fen. He said that recently she had been filling in on the night shift for a colleague and, because it was more convenient from the hospital, had moved back with her parents. I then asked him about his work at the soy sauce factory. He drew down the corners of his mouth contemptuously and let out a bitter laugh. Then, pretending not to care, he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Work is work. What’s there to say about it? I just live from day to day. Who knows when they’ll send us down to the country. And when they do we’ll just pick up our bed-roll and start walking.”
Because Hsiao Fan didn’t bother to introduce his friend, I felt embarrassed that she should just stand there waiting. On the pretext that I needed to get home to feed the baby, I left without further ado. All the way home I thought about the intimacy between Hsiao Fan and his young woman friend; I felt indignant for Ai Fen’s sake. And yet I felt Ai Fen’s casually moving back in with her parents wasn’t right either. After all, even the best couples have their rifts after a while.
Since both Ai Fen and Hsiao Fan were only newcomers at their work units, had no children, and had families in Peking itself, they had had little chance of being allotted their own living quarters. Hsiao Fan’s parents believed that the daughter-in-law was duty bound to live with her husband’s family and help with the housework. Unfortunately, in such a cramped apartment it was difficult for a couple to have any privacy. How could Ai Fen, who had been pampered since childhood, put up with that? She had continually pestered Hsiao Fan, wanting them both to go live with her parents. But Hsiao Fan was filial by nature and wasn’t about to hurt his parents’ feelings. Their living arrangement must have had something to do with the discord in their marriage.
On the day of the Autumn Festival, Ai Fen unexpectedly called and asked if, as a favor, I would buy a bottle of brandy for her father. I promised to, and then added that I’d run into Hsiao Fan—but didn’t mention anything about that woman.
“I’ve moved out on the Fans!” Her anger came through over the phone. “And I’ll never move back!”
“You two had a fight?”
“Not this time. I’m at work in the delivery ward right now. I’ll tell you all about it when I drop by to pick up the brandy.” She hurriedly hung up the phone.
Close to evening she came to pick up the brandy, but had to hurry home to pass the holiday with her parents; there really wasn’t any time to sit and chat. I accompanied her to the bus stop, hoping to snatch a few brief moments to try to persuade her to return to her in-laws’ home. She shook her head and refused, saying she had already sent in a formal application for a divorce to the authorities.
“You say you didn’t have a fight. So if you two were getting along, how can you be so heartless?” I asked, in a somewhat accusatory tone.
“Of course you wouldn’t know. One night he came home dead drunk. He kept shouting some woman’s name, it was really obscene. His whole family heard him!”
I thought of the woman I saw him with at the Hsitan Market. And though I almost brought it up, I managed to hold my tongue. Instead I asked her if she had gotten any actual proof.
Ai Fen laughed coolly, and suddenly became magnanimous, her jealousy completely vanishing. “I guess he’s fooling around with some woman from the soy sauce factory. He’s always had a soft spot for girls, and he fancies himself to be like Chia Pao-yü,* a lover of beauty. He doesn’t turn down any comers either. Even in a real hag, he can find some modicum of beauty! I hope this time around he’s able to find some woman from a good class background. I myself am like a clay Buddha crossing a river—can’t even guarantee my own safety!”
The Red Guards may have destroyed the “Four olds,”† but that seems to have had no effect on me. Whenever I hear the word “divorce,” it is as if something I’ve swallowed has gone down the wrong way; it just sticks in my throat. I couldn’t restrain myself from trying to say something that might save their marriage.
“Even if I closed my eyes to Hsiao Fan’s fooling around with another woman, I’d still want a divorce,” Ai Fen said stubbornly, as if she’d already made up her mind.
According to her, the Rustication Movement was far fiercer than the papers reported. Not only did departments and schools take it as a chance to dismiss a batch of deadwood, even law-abiding citizens were banished to the country. The slogan of the day was: “We have a pair of hands like everybody else; why stay in the city and eat for nothing!” Unemployed dependents were mobilized to the country, but those who were considered “bad elements” were singled out and given “permission” to leave first. And on the pretext of promoting “concern for one’s spouse,” when one person was sent down, his whole family inevitably followed.
“Our hospital already has encouraged everyone to enlist voluntarily in the Rustication Movement. Who would be so idiotic? But if your spouse is sent to the hinterlands, you too must take a stand: Do you support or oppose the movement? Of course you support it! And how? You all move out to the country to “settle your family happily!” At the hospital two of my colleagues have already handed in their ‘pledges,’ requesting to be sent with their spouses to the country. When the Revolutionary Committee broadcasted this through the hospital, saying that it was a triumphant victory for Mao Tse-tung thought, everyone’s flesh crawled. A colleague in our own delivery ward has also submitted a ‘pledge.’ Ever since then she’s looked as if her soul has left her body. Though the hospital hasn’t handed down the official approval yet, she’s already like a sentenced convict, completely collapsed. Today we delivered a baby after the mother had an extremely hard labor. When the infant let out the first wail, she said, ‘Cry, go ahead and cry. Why not?’ If this kind of remark were reported, that colleague could be charged with harboring ‘negative tendencies’ in the future! Just think, if I don’t raise the matter of divorce now, if and when Hsiao Fan is ordered to leave, I’d be forced to take a stand, and the choice would not be up to me then!”
I recalled her first love affair and worried that history might repeat itself.
“Ai Fen, be more cautious. What if Hsiao Fan doesn’t get sent down to the country. If you raise the matter of divorce prematurely it might bring it on for real.”
She smiled futilely and said, “You may escape this time, but you won’t the next.”
In the evening haze two yellow headlights appeared in the distance. The bus was approaching. In the pressure of the moment I asked the most important question. “You still love him, don’t you?”
“I used to believe in love and gave myself without reservations. I don’t feel the same way anymore.” In her indirect answer, her tone of voice had a faint sadness to it, like that of the dusk falling all about us. “I only hope to find someone with whom I can talk, someone to live out my days with in peace. But even this is difficult: we just don’t have any control over our fates!”
The bus came to a stop. Ai Fen pressed my hand and, without saying goodbye, mounted the steps. I slowly walked back to the hotel and, for the first time, realized that in Peking autumn at twilight could be terribly desolate and gloomy. I couldn’t blame my friend’s rather heartless and pragmatic attitude toward marriage. In reality, she was a very sentimental person. It was just that something was inexorably working against her, so that all her passion could find no safe object. I heaved a deep sigh for my friend.
With the start of winter, the task of “cleansing the ranks of bad elements” became more earnest and the atmosphere more turbulent. This political storm was even more threatening than the cold winds from Siberia. Aside from going to work and attending meetings, people kept close to home and didn’t dare to have much contact with friends. One day, having caught a cold, I went to the hospital to see a doctor. Since I was there, I detoured over to the obstetrics wing, hoping to catch Ai Fen. She wasn’t in the examining room, though. As I was leaving, I glanced over the “big character posters” along the corridor. I noticed that the Obstetrics Section had singled out one of the senior doctors for having “a serious historical problem” and was currently focusing its bombardment on him. There were also a couple of other posters criticizing a certain “backward Doctor X,” asserting that she coveted ease and comfort, and contrived to avoid joining the Rustication Movement. The poster went on to claim that she neglected her political studies and was tainted with capitalist thinking up the extent of “violating the law.” She was called on to carry out with the greatest despatch a soul-searching self-criticism, to be followed by a full public confession. Because I’d stayed at the hospital and was close to Ai Fen, I knew a little about the doctors in the Obstetrics Section. As soon as I read the posters, I knew the doctor with a “historical problem” was the head of the section, because during the Japanese occupation he had treated the invaders. The accusations about the “backward element,” however, confounded me. Though Ai Fen herself had admitted that she was “backward,” she wasn’t the type to break laws or regulations.
Since the time Ai Fen had come for the brandy, I had had no news of her. I missed and worried about her. So one evening, toward the end of the year, I quietly went to visit her in the suburb outside of Ti-an Gate. In spite of the fact that it was a dark, winter night and I had never been to her house, the moment I entered the courtyard, I could identify which door was her family’s. I had heard, early on, that Ai Fen’s father loved flowers. There by the doorway was a wooden frame with over ten or twenty pots of flowers and plants. I had chosen to go in the evening in order to avoid people’s noticing. By coincidence, that evening Ai Fen wasn’t on duty. Outside, she and her mother were washing the dishes and putting out the cooking fire. She seemed delighted to see me and pulled me right into the house and introduced me to her father. Mr. Ai had been an editor at the People’s Publishing House. But with the start of the Cultural Revolution, he was shunted aside and now did only odd jobs at a printing company. Although he still liked to drink, he didn’t dare to compose or recite poetry anymore. Instead, he practiced calligraphy, copying Wang Hsi-chih’s Lan T’ing Hsu.* Brushes, ink, an ink stone, and a thick ream of writing paper lay piled on the desk. Although he was not yet of retirement age, Mr. Ai’s hair was already completely white, and the wrinkles between his eyebrows formed deep furrows. His shoulders hunched forward slightly, as if he were under an unbearable burden. His expression, however, was refined and gentle, and his manner remarkably tranquil and serene.
Ai Fen’s mother had followed us into the house. Ai Fen had long ago told me that her mother was timid and leery by nature. For quite some time she had suffered from nervous disorders and migraines; she also chattered incessantly. Sure enough, after just a few minutes of small talk, she immediately began to pour out her complaints to me. Originally they used to live in spacious quarters, she said. But each time there was a new “movement” they were forced to give up a room. Now they were reduced to only three small rooms, piled with the chests and furniture she couldn’t bear to part with, so that every movement in the house was restricted. I tried to comfort her with old aphorisms like “it’s not as good as the best, but still better than the worst.” But she still shook her head and kept on sighing. Suddenly she changed the subject and started in about her daughter wanting to get a divorce, complaining that Ai Fen was too willful. At first Ai Fen’s mother had not particularly liked her son-in-law, but now she deplored the divorce even more, feeling it wasn’t honorable. Thus her son-in-law had become suddenly priceless in her eyes.
“Hsiao Fan always yields to Hsiao Ai. Such a sweet temperament. Where would she find another like him?” Mrs. Ai grumbled to me.
Beneath the thirty-watt light bulb, Ai Fen could only look at the floor, silently putting up with this. Ai Fen’s father didn’t stop his wife from complaining, but while sipping his tea he cleared his throat several times, as if to remind his wife not to be so tedious. But the old woman paid no attention. Instead, she moved her chair closer, lifted her tea cup, and prepared to pour her heart out to me. I used to blame Hsiao Fan for being too proud to live with his wife’s family. I now knew otherwise.
“Come and see my room.” Taking advantage of an instant when her mother was sipping her tea, Ai Fen pulled me away.
Her room was on the side of the house. Aside from the single bed, desk, and chair, there was not much space left. Although the room was small, like it’s occupant’s appearance, it was meticulously neat and tastefully decorated. The matching print of the bedspread and curtains pleased the eye; their pink color added a touch of warmth and brightness to the otherwise drab, neglected four walls. Above the head of the bed hung a free-brush painting of a peony, the brilliant red of the petals radiant against the dark green of the stems and leaves. Just as I was about to ask her if this was Hsiao Fan’s work, I heard her sit down and let out a sigh. Noticing that her cheekbones had grown more prominent and her face thinner, I hastened to ask her whether her work was too hectic.
“Add the meetings to the time on duty, and you get a typical twelve-hour day!” She immediately began to let out her grievances. “I’ve never seen so many women having babies! All we know about is furthering revolution; we don’t know how to get a handle on birth control. Now the result is upon us! From last summer the birth rate has continuously broken all records. In one particular night I alone delivered twenty babies! The maternity ward was filled to bursting, and a few of the mothers had to sleep in the corridor. We couldn’t even keep up with feeding the infants, let alone changing diapers. According to the inside story, the population is already approaching nine hundred million. Nine hundred million! Just think of it. Birth control simply must be made a national policy. The more I deliver babies, the more I can’t bear to have one myself. These days, not having a child is the greatest contribution to our country. Often as I deliver the babies, I also try to impart to the mothers the rationale behind birth control. But what’s the use? I speak ‘bitter words with a kind heart,’ and people still label me as a ‘backward element’!”
So those two posters were aimed at her! The moment I discovered this I couldn’t help but feel terrible for her.
“Life is really difficult!” she continued to grumble. “Take me, for example. Because I don’t have a good class background, I don’t dare be an activist even if I wanted to. I only hope to make no mistakes. I can’t hope for any great honor. Every time a movement comes along, I just hope to get by unscraped. To have a mundane, uneventful life, that’s good enough. But even that was not to be! Out of caution, I finally joined the radical organization, and now they say I’m just shifting with the tide. What doctor doesn’t ‘open the back door’ sometimes? I did it, and I am accused of breaking the law. It’s utterly unfair!”
The story was that Mr. Ai’s boss, an old party cadre, had a daughter who traveled as a Red Guard for half a year all over the country to “spread the revolution.” She came back and discovered she was pregnant. This old party member asked Ai Fen’s father for help. One day while Ai Fen was on shift, she cleared the way for his daughter to have an abortion privately. Before the Cultural Revolution there was a rule that before a woman could get an abortion, a letter of approval from her department was required. In order to obtain that letter, an unmarried woman had to undergo self-criticism and submit a confession to her department. It inevitably led to a scandal.
“She was only seventeen and didn’t know a thing. She didn’t even know the father of the child. How could she write a confession? What’s more, to have such a record on file to follow her wherever she goes would become a terrible burden. How pathetic! What doctor wouldn’t ‘open the back door’ in a case like this? The woman colleague who pasted the poster criticizing me has a husband in the northeast. She was pregnant even before she went to visit her husband. Didn’t she herself get a colleague to give her an abortion on the sly?”
“Why didn’t you put up a poster criticizing her?” I suggested indignantly.
“How could I dare to do that?” she asked. Then as if swallowing her anger, “Everyone thinks she’s got it with the second top man of the hospital’s Revolutionary Committee. That guy was originally just a technician in the lab. He didn’t join the party until 1965, but, relying on his ability to talk big, he took to leading the revolt. Now that he’s become an official, he’s all high and mighty. He has a wife in some rural section of Honan, but he even gave up his annual home leave on the pretext that he’s busy with ‘advancing the revolution, promoting production.’ Just think, for a man of thirty, something fishy must be going on. In fact, after he became an official, he immediately moved out of the single men’s dormitory and moved into an office at the hospital, saying that it was more convenient for his work. Many times people have seen a light still on in the office at midnight and have even heard a woman’s laughter. Of course no one dares to breathe a word about it; even if someone were to accuse him publicly, he can’t be touched. Vice Chairman Lin Piao has decreed that relationships between men and women be considered a ‘small matter’ and that ‘a small matter can do no harm.’ This has practically become the favorite homily of the radicals. Hmph, the way I see it, the morals of this new group in power is even more ‘capitalist’ than the old ‘capitalists.’ ”
“He really should be dragged onto the stage and ‘struggled’ against.” I too became angry. “This is one of those officials who set fires while the common people can’t even strike a match!”
Ai Fen’s face was full of indignation. We were sitting very close together on the bed. She suddenly bent forward to look outside the doorway, and then leaned her head closer to mine, whispering, “This fellow seems to have his eye on me. As soon as my request for a divorce reached his desk, he immediately sent for me. He glibly asked me all sorts of questions. He urged me not to make this decision too hastily, but to think it over for a while, all in the manner of a leader truly concerned about his people. Since then, whenever we’re alone, he flatters me. I even suspect it was he who leaked the fact that I had illegally given an abortion, contriving to put pressure on me.”
I was so startled that I clutched her hands. Only after a long while could I open my mouth to suggest with a stammer, “Withdraw the request for a divorce right away!”
“If I don’t get a divorce, what do I do when Hsiao Fan’s sent to the country? Or perhaps the hospital will send me down to the country. If so, it wouldn’t be any good to drag him along. Hsiao Fan’s even more reluctant to leave Peking than I am!”
Good lord! I suddenly thought of Homer’s Odyssey. It seemed as if Ai Fen was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, in a dilemma with no way to turn. “What are you going to do?”
“Just wait it out,” she smiled sadly and forced herself to be stoic. “I’ll only make an oral report. I’ll never submit a written statement. A written report is iron-clad evidence. Once it enters your file, it will become a baggage you carry around for the rest of your life; you’ll never be able to shake it off. I’m only twenty-seven. I still have more than half a lifetime to live. No matter what, I can’t pick up that baggage.”
“Your family doesn’t know anything about this, do they?” I thought of the tranquil expression I had just seen on her father’s face.
“They only know that I’ve been criticized on posters for having opened a ‘back door.’ My father had been criticized by a whole wall of posters last year, so they’re already used to it. But don’t let any of this leak out to them. I’m afraid my mother might get sick if she begins worrying about me.”
I nodded my head earnestly.
“After this whole thing blows over, I’ll come visit you all. For the time being, we’d better keep a distance for a while. You know what I mean, don’t you?” she asked, holding my hands.
Of course I understood her situation. I immediately got up, said good-bye, and slipped out of the courtyard.
For several months after this Ai Fen didn’t come to see me. Although I was anxious about her, I kept my promise not to visit her. At the beginning of April, my husband and I were abruptly as signed to a post in Nanking. Just before we left, unable to restrain myself, I went to the hospital to take a look. I first registered as a patient. Then I headed down the corridor to read closely all the big character posters on the walls. The “cleansing of the ranks” seemed to be at its tail end. A couple of posters were aimed at the director of the gynecology section. The rest were all in fervent support of movements like “discard the old, adopt the new,” “tighten the ranks, cut out the slack, send technical workers to the country.” I didn’t see Ai Fen, so I asked a nurse whether she was around.
“Doctor Ai is on sick leave. She won’t be in to work for a whole week.” When the nurse mentioned “sick leave,” her nose and eyes wrinkled up and her lips were curled in a mocking smile.
Startled, I asked her what was wrong with Dr. Ai. But she paid no attention to me and just chattered with the other patients. Having had the door slammed in my face, I hurriedly rushed to Ai Fen’s home outside of the Ti-an Gate. On the way I continuously blamed myself for having neglected my friends.
Her mother was watering the flowers and plants at the doorway. Recognizing me, she put down the watering pot and immediately led me into the house.
“I hear Ai Fen’s sick. What is it?” I asked impulsively.
“Nothing serious,” she started her spiel. “This headstrong child! She went ahead and had an abortion without even telling me! You know, I’ve been waiting to have a grandson every day. Her father says that it’s all because I have spoiled the child ever since she was small.”
Hearing me come in, Ai Fen called to me from her room and stopped her mother’s grumbling. She was lying on the bed, huddled up in a pink quilt. Her hair hung down loosely on her forehead. Her face was a greenish white. She looked sickly and haggard.
“You’re a doctor yourself. How could you be so careless?” As soon as her mother turned her back, I scolded her.
“Doctors are human too,” she said, shifting herself and the quilt to let me sit on the bed.
I was relieved to find that she still had some spirit. I couldn’t help mocking her, “This is like having your boat capsized in a drainage ditch—how did you ever get yourself into such an incredible mess!”
We looked at each other and laughed.
I’d never met a doctor more enthusiastic about promoting the use of contraceptives than Ai Fen. She even used herself as a guinea pig. Whenever Shanghai or Peking came out with a new contraceptive, she was often among the first to try it out. I remember when I’d just given birth to my child, she recommended a kind of contraceptive cream which only had to be applied daily in small amounts near blood vessels, like on the wrists or behind the ears. I was timid and didn’t dare to try it recklessly. When I finally plucked up my courage to use it, she told me the cream wasn’t effective after all. The doctors had shifted to trying out a contraceptive injection. An injection once a month was both simple and trouble-saving. However, these shots evidently had some bad side effects: they caused menstrual irregularity. The injection method was soon abandoned, and something else new was tried out. There were so many techniques, I simply can’t keep them all straight now.
“Did you try out some new contraceptive that wasn’t effective?” I was curious.
“No, I was just careless.” Then she sat up, reached for a comb on the table, and began to comb her black, shining hair. On the wall beside the bed hung a framed picture of her family—herself, her mother and father. I discovered there was one new picture this time—a portrait of Hsiao Fan from the waist up. It occurred to me that if she’d gotten pregnant, her relationship with Hsiao Fan must have changed for the better.
“Ai Fen, how could Hsiao Fan bear to let you have an abortion?”
But she avoided my questioning eyes and concentrated on combing her hair. After quite a while she answered, “I didn’t tell him.”
I sighed, feeling sorry for her, but secretly blamed her for being a bit heartless. I often thought that if they had a child, they probably wouldn’t be seeking a divorce. “Is he still at the soy sauce factory?”
She nodded and said, “It’s fortunate that he’s there and not in his original work unit. So at least this recent round of ‘cleansing of the ranks’ hasn’t touched him.”
Setting down the comb and putting on her quilted jacket, she talked about him. They had become good friends now and no longer quarreled. He often came to see her. Even her mother was getting used to the smell of soy sauce and no longer complained about her headaches; in fact, she couldn’t praise him enough. Hsiao Fan didn’t try to keep his dalliances from her. Ai Fen was obviously a little jealous, only she didn’t admit it.
“It looks like you both still love each other,” I insisted without any hesitation. “When the high tide of this Rustication Movement is over, you should promptly withdraw the divorce petition.”
“That won’t work. Our reconciliation is built on the security that separation has brought us. If we tried to live together again, the problems would only recur.”
The topic of her divorce made me suddenly think of that second in command at her hospital, that glorified lab technician who tried to take advantage of her plight. I asked her in a low voice, “You didn’t write a self-criticism, did you?”
She too whispered in reply, “No.”
I felt so relieved for her sake. Clasping my hands, I exclaimed, “Thank heaven! Thank heaven!!”
My concern moved her, and her appreciative eyes wandered over me for a moment. Then suddenly she motioned me closer and leaned forward herself—our heads were almost touching.
“I gave him certain favors, and now things are cleared up. There just wasn’t any alternative. I had to do as the circumstances dietated.”
She didn’t explain what favors, and I didn’t want to ask her. Actually I was afraid to ask. Seeing this expert on birth control laid low by an abortion, how could I ask her anything?
Usually lively and talkative, Ai Fen also grew silent at this moment. Her almond-shaped eyes gazed vacantly at the printed curtains in front of her. The delicate April sunlight was blocked out by the curtains; and the little room seemed as if it had gathered a whole winter’s cold darkness, a chill that could not be driven away. Having tidied her appearance, Ai Fen looked less haggard. Nevertheless the paleness of her face and the lifelessness of her eyes revealed melancholy and distress. This was the first time since we had gotten to know each other that I had ever seen her with this kind of expression. She was truly like a free, soaring bird that had suddenly broken its wing, its spirit drastically curtailed.
I told her that my family would soon move to Nanking. She was happy for me and yet couldn’t bear to part with me. She said that after I left she wouldn’t be able to find anyone else to talk heart-to-heart with. When I was about to go, she disregarded all my pleas and insisted on dressing herself and seeing me off at the bus station. On the way, both of us were too dispirited to talk much. But before I departed, Ai Fen gave me a warm, captivating smile and warned me, “I’m not the kind of person who writes, you must know that. If we want to talk, we’ll have to wait until the next time we see each other. I wrote too much before—those years when I first fell in love. The love letters I wrote then would be enough to fill a book. I had really written myself dry. Now all I can write are prescriptions for my patients. As far as letters go, I can’t write a single word.”
Sure enough, Ai Fen didn’t answer any of my letters. In 1971, though, we got news of her from a friend of hers traveling south to visit his family. Passing through Nanking, this friend visited and brought along two boxes of Peking candied fruits which Ai Fen had sent for our child. According to her friend, Ai Fen was now formally divorced, and would soon be joining a circulating medical team that would travel around the country for a half year. As for Hsiao Fan, this person knew nothing about what had become of him.
In the beginning of 1973, I was in Peking on a business trip. One afternoon I went to the hospital especially to see Ai Fen. She was on duty in the delivery ward. She was elated to see me and insisted on taking me home for dinner. So after she got off work, we first took a bus to Taohsiangts’un in Wangfuching. Ai Fen bought a stewed chicken and had it cut up. And I bought a bottle of Hsifeng wine for her father. Then, carrying wine and meat, we returned to her house outside of Ti-an Gate.
It had been several years since we’d last met. Her father and mother were still the same. Only Ai Fen had changed a little. She had gained some weight which gave her an attractively full figure. Her breasts thrust forward like those of a young nursing mother. Her face had rounded out, her cheeks like pomegranates in full bloom in May. Ever since Nixon’s visit to Peking the year before, when Chiang Ch’ing wore a Western-style dress to receive the foreign guests, such fashions for women in Peking had gradually returned.
Ai Fen dressed even more stylishly than before. A red quilted jacket with small printed flowers was set off by turquoise woolen slacks. On her feet were brand new leather shoes. The gloves and scarf she took off were bright colored and eye catching. As I sat beside her at dinner, I kept smelling the scent of rouge. She was still all smiles, but now they had a quiet grace to them which, like her movements and bearing, reflected experience and maturity.
Her mother still complained about her migraines and the crowded apartment. She made a point of mentioning her daughter’s divorce, saying that their neighbors were gossiping about Ai Fen. But because her father’s coughs kept interrupting, I really couldn’t understand what Mrs. Ai was saying. As soon as we finished dinner, Ai Fen left the dishes and pulled me into her bedroom.
The room, like its occupant, had also changed, with many things added. The most distinctive addition was a charcoal drawing which had replaced a traditional painting above the head of the bed. The drawing showed a nude in profile. The face was subtly but intentionally obscured, but the figure reminded me at once of Ai Fen as she was in the 1960s. The artist was undoubtedly Hsiao Fan.
Ai Fen saw me gazing fixedly at the drawing and she hastened to tell me, “Because of this drawing, I don’t dare open the curtains. The door has to be tightly shut, too. If someone should see it, I’d be in big trouble!”
“You’re really gutsy, Ai Fen!” I exclaimed. I deeply admired her courage to enjoy and appreciate art; yet, at the same time, I suspected it was this drawing that had brought on her neighbors’ gossip.
She giggled and pressed me to sit on the bed. She removed a pair of paint-spotted work trousers from a chair and sat down.
I noticed the curtains were indeed closed, but they had been changed to a gold print. The bedspread too had been replaced with a light yellow one. And besides the old pink quilt, there was now a light purple one. The wall in front of the bed was plastered with colorful posters from the “model operas.” Ai Fen’s room was so colorful that it rivaled the Fragrant Mountain in autumn. I turned around to look closely at the picture frame on the wall beside the bed, and I saw that Hsiao Fan’s photo had been replaced with their wedding portrait. Ai Fen hadn’t forgotten their former love after all, even though they were now divorced. From the moment we met again after the long separation, we had talked about everything under the sun, everything except Hsiao Fan. Now that I saw the drawing and that photograph in the room, I no longer could hold my tongue. “Where’s Hsiao Fan now? Do you see each other often?”
“Not only that, he practically regards this place as his second home. My mother is completely carried away with him; she even takes him for her own godson.”
As Ai Fen talked, she gestured with her head toward the work trousers that she had moved to the table beside her. She spoke casually, as if she were talking about the most ordinary occurrence. It was only then that I noticed the toothbrush intermixed with the paint brushes on the table, and underneath the table lay a pair of sneakers with the toes turned out. It appeared that Hsiao Fan often shared Ai Fen’s bedroom.
Recalling the way her mother grumbled about the divorce at the dinner table, I surmised that she hoped they would remarry. Many people who had been forced into divorce because of the political situation during the high tide of the Cultural Revolution were now starting the procedures for remarriage. After all, divorced women were still rather discriminated against. Ai Fen was already over thirty, so her chances of marrying someone else would inevitably dwindle year by year. Since she got along so well with her former husband, I too thought “putting back together the broken mirror” was a good idea.
Moreover, Hsiao Fan had escaped the misfortune of being sent to the country. In 1972 he was transferred to the Propaganda Department of the Peking Municipal Committee. The political movements went on year after year, but he had lost all interest in them. In fact, he began to take time out again to paint privately the things he loved. Just before Nixon came, Chou En-lai invited many old artists to the foreigners’ guest house to paint landscapes, flowers, and birds. That made those who had studied traditional painting feel somewhat vindicated for a while. After that, Chiang Ch’ing had her lackeys instigate meetings to criticize “black painting” on some pretext, and to throw cold water on these artists. But the seeds of revival in art had already sprouted. On the faith that “a brushfire can’t entirely burn away the grass, with the spring breeze it will regrow,” artists had regained enough hope to wait it out. Now that Hsiao Fan had a future, Ai Fen’s marriage could be saved. I decided to try to give my friend a boost from the sidelines.
Just as I was plotting my approach, Ai Fen changed the subject to the currently popular “model operas.” Her eyes frequently wandered to the wall in front of her. It was plastered with colorful posters from several of the operas, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,” “Shachiapang,” “On the Docks,” and others. When Ai Fen spoke of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,” her almond-shaped eyes shone brightly and, like a true opera fan, she fixed an enamored gaze on the wall poster. This surprised me greatly. How could she possibly be fascinated by Chiang Ch’ing’s “model operas”? In the past she seldom even went to hear traditional Peking opera. As I was wondering this, I saw that Ai Fen had finally shifted her gaze away from the poster. With an expression of irrepressible happiness, she blurted out, “I might remarry.”
“Good!” I was so happy that I grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “I was just thinking, you and Hsiao Fan . . .”
“It’s not him,” she winked her eyes mysteriously.
“Ah, then who is he?” I didn’t think Ai Fen could change so dramatically.
Seeing me gaping like a simpleton, Ai Fen giggled and deliberately flaunted her secret like a mischievous little girl. Having laughed for a while, she regained her composure and informed me. “Hao Kuang, ‘Hao’ as in Hao Liang, and ‘Kuang’ meaning ‘bright.’ That’s just his stage name, but I’m used to it. He performs with the Experimental Peking Opera, following Hao Liang’s style, and he was once received by Chiang Ch’ing! Come, I’ll show you his photo.”
From the pocket of her padded jacket, she fished out a small plastic jacket with a monthly bus ticket in it. On the other side was Hao Kuang’s photo. Of course he looked exactly like an opera star, and from the photo I could sense his stage presence: the elegantly featured face was looking upward, smiling with his teeth just showing; his expression was rather self-assured. I still liked Hsiao Fan, and for a moment was reluctant to see Ai Fen throw herself into a stranger’s arms. But everyone has a right to pursue his or her own happiness. For Ai Fen’s sake, I was prepared to accept her lover with open arms.
“Not bad!” I congratulated her. “ ‘Model opera’ performers have got it made these days! I didn’t expect that you’d find another artist to fall in love with. I thought this time you’d choose a doctor.”
Ai Fen smiled blandly. “You and my mother sing the same tunes. She always hoped that I’d marry a doctor. It’s as if that was the most stable and secure profession. But I’m not a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl anymore. I can’t afford to be so choosy! Actually one profession is the same as another. Even someone high and mighty like Lin Piao—the second in command in the whole country—can be toppled overnight.”
“Does your mother like Hao Kuang?” I asked Ai Fen.
She shook her head. Apparently, her mother was traditional-minded and felt opera singing was not a proper occupation, even worse than painting. She’d sooner have her daughter remarry an artist than marry an opera singer. Thus whenever Hsiao Fan dropped in, she always welcomed him. However, when Hao Kuang occasionally visited, if her daughter didn’t urge her, she would not even ask him to stay for a meal. Her mother thought that at her daughter’s age a semi-arranged marriage would be the best route: it was more reliable to get a general sense of the potential bride-groom’s background even before meeting. But Hao Kuang fell into Hsiao Fan’s old groove, a match of the “love at first sight” variety. This made Ai Fen’s mother guarded from the start.
Ai Fen said that she and Hao Kuang met each other purely by fate. In 1972 she had traveled around the country with a circulating medical team. Hao Kuang and his troupe were performing up north. By chance, at Changchiak’ou they met each other. People from Peking who bump into each other while away from the city feel a special warmth, even if they’re total strangers. At the time Hao Kuang was interested in her, but she felt nothing special for him. Then last summer Hao Kuang returned to Peking. Immediately he searched her out at the hospital and, from then on, had courted her like a whirlwind. At first, because Hao Kuang was two years younger, Ai Fen still had reservations. But finally she couldn’t resist his passionate pursuit and gave in.
These past two years her mother had asked people all around to introduce prospective husbands to her daughter. Ai Fen had reluetantly gone to two such arranged meetings, but nothing came of them. She would never consider old bachelors working in the provinces, widowers with children also intimidated her—she never wanted to be a mother herself, how could she possibly take good care of other people’s children? The young and handsome Hao Kuang contrasted favorably with these other prospects; naturally he won Ai Fen’s heart easily. Her father was open-minded; he thought marriage should be his daughter’s own decision. That left only her mother grumbling.
“Your mother will come around, Ai Fen,” I predicted with confidence. “Isn’t it always true that the more a mother looks at her son-in-law the more she likes him?”
“I’m not worried about my mother’s passing objection; I worry about myself.”
For those trapped in a net of emotions, it is hard not to worry about gains and losses. A bewildered and troubled expression suddenly floated across her face.
“Having weathered two stormy emotional entanglements,” she admitted candidly, “I’ve become somewhat timid. I have this fear that if I offer my whole self, I might end up shattered again. I think this is my last time to stake everything on a single roll of the dice. The dice already have been thrown, but my heart is still on tenterhooks. Love came too smoothly. I’m lucky, but I almost don’t dare believe it’s all true. You’ve got to meet Hao Kuang! We can all go out to have Mongolian fire pot. I’ll treat.”
I gladly accepted the invitation. That evening, Ai Fen, holding my arm, saw me to the bus stop. On the way she kept talking about Hao Kuang this and Hao Kuang that. The whole evening I had held myself back from asking more about Hsiao Fan. Finally I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I interrupted, “You and Hao Kuang are in love, but isn’t Hsiao Fan terribly hurt?”
“Not at all.” She spoke in a light tone of voice. “Hsiao Fan has vowed to remain single. He is determined to paint the rest of his life. You wouldn’t know it, but whenever his inspiration to paint rises, he even forgets to go to work. A family is actually a burden to him.”
“Has he met Hao Kuang?”
“Once. His impression wasn’t bad either. Hsiao Fan agrees that I should remarry soon. He said that I’m the kind of woman who can’t live without men.”
“Hsiao Fan has become your bosom buddy!” I said. “You might as well go ahead and get married.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking too.” she said and grasped my hand tightly as if to express the sincerity of her intention. “But I don’t know why, when Hao Kuang asked me the last time, I was stumped. You know? The way he speaks is just like my boyfriend in college. Even the words he used when he proposed to me were exactly the same! Ah, just wait ‘til you meet him!”
I really wanted to meet Hao Kuang. Especially since I’d heard how much he resembled Ai Fen’s unforgettable first boyfriend, I became very curious. However, at that time Hao Kuang was busy performing in “On the Docks,” and it wasn’t until the day I was to leave Peking that Ai Fen was able to arrange the dinner.
At dusk the three of us met in a small restaurant on the corner of East Fourth Street. The place was so small it could accommodate only two tables. Set in the middle of each was a brass fire pot as big around as the circle formed by two people linking hands. On the side of each was inscribed the title of the last Ch’ing emperor’s reign, and each pot’s belly was so red it shone. Judging from the elegant ancient style, they were surely antiques. The mouth of each pot was divided into six sections by thin mesh dividers. Each customer would cook his own mutton in his section of the pot. The rich juices from the meat flowed into the other sections and could be enjoyed equally. This was a truly socialist way to eat. It was just into March and the weather was gradually warming up, so not many people were inclined to patronize the fire pot. We three had a table all to ourselves, and thus the accommodations turned out to be very spacious, even more comfortable than in the famous restaurants at the Tungfeng Market. This little place, praiseworthy for its excellent quality at low prices, had been chosen by Hao Kuang; he was obviously a connoisseur of Peking’s eating spots.
Though not particularly tall, Hao Kuang had bright, clear eyes, finely-drawn lips, and his manner of speech had a way of magnetizing his listeners. He possessed a certain magical charm which people found irresistible. He came from a middle-peasant family in the suburbs. A person from such a background belonged neither to the “Five Red Elements” nor the “Five Black Elements”; the way Hao Kuang put it, he was politically neutral. This kind of safe, neutral position not only allowed him to have an unencumbered spirit, but also gave him a superior and independent sense of self-confidence. He had been a fan of Peking opera since childhood. Early on he learned to play the Chinese fiddle and grew up playing it and singing. In time he passed the entrance exam to the opera company. This profession matched his disposition, and he was well satisfied with his lot. When Chiang Ch’ing advocated “model operas,” Hao Kuang saw it as an irreversible trend and was glad to change over and support it wholeheartedly. He was so fired up about his work that he not only put great effort into performing, but also enjoyed talking about it at length.
Hao Kuang ordered two tall glasses of beer and chatted about the ins and outs of his performance career as he drank. Because the “model operas” were much in vogue all over the country, Hao Kuang had left his footprints over half of China. When he spoke of the things he had done and seen, he was absolutely enthralling. I was so captivated by his stories that several times I overcooked my pieces of mutton.
I asked Hao Kuang which role he was best in. Ai Fen hurriedly butted in, “Yang Tzu-jung, right?”
Hao Kuang gave a slight smile. His self-assured expression was the best answer to my question. I surmised that, with his medium build, to play the tall and straight Yang Tzu-jung, he probably had to wear platform shoes.
At this time he looked around the restaurant and, seeing that there was no one nearby watching, he suddenly lowered his voice and said to me, “Ai Fen saw my poster at Changchiak’ou where I was performing. Not to brag, but that color poster of me pasted on the walls was even bigger than Chairman Mao’s—and caught many more eyes!”
Hao Kuang’s youthful, self-assured spirit was something totally new for a somber, heavy-hearted intellectual like me. His self-confidence alone left me far behind in the dust. On stage, with his make-up and costume on, I could imagine that he was even more overpowering. It was no wonder that Ai Fen, who worshipped heroes, would be fascinated by him. As she sat beside the fire pot, her eyes lingered on his face the whole time. With red lips slightly parted, she took in every word he uttered. I had heard that he was two years younger than Ai Fen; and knowing her educational background and professional training—not to mention her hard knocks in love and marriage—I had originally expected to see a “older sister-younger brother” kind of love between them. Who would have expected that, once in front of him, Ai Fen’s calm maturity, like the slices of mutton thrown into the boiling soup, would shrivel into a ball instantly and allow itself to be gobbled up without the least resistance. Whenever Hao Kuang reached the most self-congratulatory parts in his stories, he would fix his gaze upon her, as if he were opening himself up especially to her. She too embraced him with her eyes, without holding back in the least, allowing herself to follow him without the least resistance. That meal she ate very little and didn’t touch the beer. But when we walked out of the restaurant, a bright red flush spread across her cheeks to her ears. Her almond-shaped eyes glistened like a melting pond in early spring. Her body was even more docile and limp, and she kept leaning against him. Hao Kuang was naturally chivalrous, as if to protect her, and even held her handbag for her; he was most attentive.
I was to take the late train south. Ai Fen, afraid that I couldn’t manage to get on the train with my luggage, insisted on seeing me off. They both accompanied me to the hotel to pick up my suitcases, and then we took a bus to the Peking Railway Station. While Hao Kuang was buying platform tickets, Ai Fen suddenly asked me, “What do you think of him?”
“He’s really eloquent,” I replied honestly. “And very charming.”
Ai Fen agreed completely. “Ah, the way he talks resembles so completely my first boy friend. It’s as if every word is chosen and said only for you to hear; and because it’s what you want to hear, it makes you unable to resist. I can’t help but give in totally!”
“Get married quickly!” I urged. “You’re already inseparable. What are you waiting for?”
As I expected, she didn’t wait much longer. The summer of that year, I wrote to her to say that we had decided to leave the mainland. She made an exception and answered my letter, informing me that she had just gotten married. As for my leaving the country, she didn’t mention a word.
Since then, I haven’t had any more news of Ai Fen. But every time I think of her, the scene in the restaurant, where she became intoxicated without having touched any alcohol, floats vividly before my eyes. I silently wish her happiness in her marriage. In 1976 I heard the news that Chiang Ch’ing was toppled, and the “model opera” also collapsed in the wake of her downfall. I sighed over Hao Kuang’s misfortune. Later I heard that Hao Liang was being “rectified”; I could not help but fear for Hao Kuang, and worry even more about Ai Fen. When I wake from my dreams in the middle of the night, the same question often enters my mind: Is Ai Fen’s marriage still untroubled?
* An adjunct to a person’s name to express intimacy. Originally, it meant “little.”
* the main protagonist in The Dream of the Red Chamber.
† Old thoughts, culture, customs, and habits.
* A literary work by Wang Hsi-chih, a fourth-century writer and master of calligraphy.