Ling Shu-hua, a native of Kwangtung province, comes from a comfortable family background. She was a student of literature along with Ping Hsin at Yenching University, graduating in 1923. While a student, she impressed Ch’en Yuan, a writer and professor of English, with her literary talents, and became his protégé and later his wife. Ling Shu-hua left China after the War of Resistance and, with the exception of brief visits, has remained abroad ever since. For most of this period, she has lived in London, where her husband served as China’s chief delegate to UNESCO. Between 1934 and 1960 Ling Shu-hua was a professor of literature at the Chinese Nanyang University in Singapore. As of this writing, she is still living in England.
Ling Shu-hua’s literary reputation rests on her several collections of short stories published in the late 1920s and early 30s. These stories are distinguished by her sensitive, sympathetic, yet convincing, portrayals of women, especially women of the upper class in a changing Chinese society. “Little Liu” (Hsiao Liu) first appeared in the collection Women (Nü-jen) in 1930. It portrays in two well-sketched scenes the humbling of the youthful spirit of a teenage girl as she matures into womanhood.
I WAS THEN IN the second year of middle school. All my classmates were girls of fourteen or fifteen. The weather had turned warm. After lunch, we would all hang out in the schoolyard by threes or fives, walking around arm in arm and kidding with each other; or we would sit on the steps, chit-chatting over our needlework. Since our afternoon classes didn’t require any preparation, nobody was dumb enough to pass up a chance for some fun. After all, who would want to get the reputation of being a grind?
“Hey, Phoenix, come over here!” I heard Little Liu calling out to me as I walked across the schoolyard.
“What’s . . . up?” I mimicked her offbeat Hupei accent. She and five other girls were all squeezed together on a bench.
“I’ve got a great story!” Flashing from her smooth, round, waterchestnut of a face, her big black eyes slid over me an instant, her rosy cheeks full of mischievous laughter.
“Hah! Great story, I’m sure. Probably just your naughty gossip again!” Though I scoffed with my tongue, my legs were already carrying me toward the bench.
“Well, Smarty, so what brings you here after all?” Little Liu knew she had scored a small triumph, but just the same, in feigned annoyance, she puckered up her little mouth into a wrinkled knot. Sparks flew from her big round eyes, but all I could see were the long lashes, framing those bright adorable eyes.
I suddenly grabbed her lips. “A dumpling!” I cried, “Who wants to eat a nice tender dumpling?” All the schoolgirls shrieked with laughter. Then Liu stuck out her foot and tripped me. I lost my balance and, my arms flailing, fell square on top of her.
To get even, I quickly took advantage of my position and nestled down with my cheek in the soft crook of her arm. I turned my face toward her chest, flung my arms around her, and began to whimper “Ma, ma-mee . . .” like a suckling baby.
Little Chou, famous for her naughty antics, didn’t miss this perfect chance to pull a pun on Little Liu. “Ha-ha, Little Cow,*” she chanted loudly, “shameless cow, suckling a baby, ha-ha.” That immediately drew another round of shrieking laughter.
“Get off me, you scab, get off!” Little Liu’s face was flaming as she shoved me with all her might.
Not one to be shoved off, I stood up. “OK, OK, I’m off.” I put on a smile. “So now tell me what this great story was that got you all so excited just now.” To keep her from running off, I sat right down by her and draped my arm over her shoulder.
“I forgot!” she said spitefully.
“Now now, my good little cow, you really do have to tell me . . .” I shook her shoulder. Whenever we Southerners got into a silly mood, we would let our tongues slip, changing Liu to niu —“cow.”
“Come on, finish what you were telling us, or we’ll die of suspense. So what happened to that pitiful ‘duck’?” Little Chou squinted her eyes, nudging Little Liu with a smile.
“What duck, what duck?” I demanded, giving Little Liu a pinch. “Hurry up, you’ve got to tell us.”
“You mean to tell me you don’t know about ducks?” Little Liu feigned a sober air. “When we get to biology class, why, Master Kowtow is going to quiz you about it.” Master “Kowtow” had gotten this nickname bestowed on him from the inept way he pronounced the word “tadpole”—ketou. He slurred it, from “ketou” to “k’out’ou”—“Kowtow.”
“Come on, don’t keep us hanging like this.” I gave her a fiercer pinch.
“Oh, what a blockhead you are. Such a big fat duck right in front of your eyes and you don’t even see it.” Little Liu giggled with a hand over her mouth. Then in a flat voice as if she were reciting a lesson, she began. “Consider the shape of a duck: a duck is puffed out in front and protrudes in back. A duck walks with clumsy flapping feet and points its toes inward, waddling from side to side . . .”
Before Little Liu could finish, the laughter of the schoolgirls drowned out her mock lecture. Everyone was shaking and gasping, wild-eyed with mirth.
“OK, you guys, don’t be so mean. She’s pathetic enough without you all making such fun of her.” Li Hui-sheng, who had had her share of merriment, admonished us in a serious tone when the swirl of laughter finally subsided.
“Now seriously, who is this ‘duck’ that you’re all gabbing about?” I demanded in a low voice.
“That new one,” Little Liu murmured back. “Look over there. Look good and hard and see if you don’t think ‘Duck’ or ‘Waddles’ isn’t the perfect nickname for her.”
My eyes followed to where Liu had gestured, and there, waddling along under the walkway, was the new student, the one who was auditing classes, named Chu. She waddled along with her chest puffed out and her fat rear end protruding, her obviously justunbound feet stuffed into a dumpy pair of shoes that looked like boats—and pointing in like pigeon toes. Her body was so lumpy and squat . . . Sure enough, I had never in my life seen anyone that fit the nickname “Waddles” more perfectly.
“She is a sad sight, and nobody wants to talk with her.” I began to feel sorry for her.
“You think that’s sad?” Little Liu replied, “Then get this—she has only just now gotten down off the bridal sedan chair . . . Get that! Here she is, coming to classes with her ears still ringing from the sound of wedding gongs and cymbals . . . Do you think any lessons could sink into such a sad befuddled head as that?”
“You mean she’s really just married?” I asked in amazement.
“Sure she’s married. You’ve seen the padded jackets she wears, bright red one day, bright green the next—all the colors of a sweet young newlywed,” Little Liu was snickering. “And not only is she just married, she’s even half a . . .” She stopped short.
“Half a what? Half a what? You’re awful, Liu! You’re teasing us . . .”
“What’s this business with ‘half’ and ‘whole.’ Go on, tell us.” Even Big Wu who is taciturn by nature, was getting impatient.
“Now don’t tell me you’re a bunch of three-year-old babies. You mean you don’t know about the birds and the bees?” Little Liu was still wearing her sober face.
“Ah ha!” cried Little Chou, who was always the sharpest. “This ‘half’ . . . oh, clever, Little Liu, clever ! You don’t mean . . .” Then she leaned over and buzz-buzzed into Little Liu’s ear, while Liu just kept nodding slightly.
“Ha, ha!” Now Hui-sheng cried out that she understood too. But she pinned Little Liu down with a sharp look. “But how do you know?” Hui-sheng demanded. “You better not be making it all up!”
“Do I ever lie to you?” Little Liu retorted. “I might as well tell you the whole thing. This morning as I was getting off my ricksha, I heard this ricksha puller cursing like the devil: ‘Damn ricksha seat’s got this filthy puke all over it. A woman having her morning sickness out in public, that’s got to be news!’ I took one quick look, that cursing ricksha puller turned out to belong to Waddles!”
“Disgusting!” Little Chou spat on the pavement in contempt. The rest of us all stared at Little Liu in silence.
Finally, Hui-sheng said, “If you ask me, things are getting out of hand at this school—letting married women come to a girls’ school! You’d think they’d have more discrimination.”
“Isn’t that the truth! They are getting more and more slipshod. Granted, they are quite generous: full tuition for adults, free for accompanying ‘children.’ ” Little Liu snickered.
“You are really mean!” Hui-sheng said, but she continued, “My cousin was telling me that other people have started making fun of our school, calling it the ‘Institute for Cultivating Good Wives and Wise Mothers.’”
“Last year there were that Ms. Pai and that Ms. Ch’ü—if that wasn’t enough to set mouths yapping . . . In one case, the old master of the house personally escorting his wife right into the schoolyard! And in the other, a young master coming every day to fetch his mother from the classroom! And do they think we’re blind? It’s only the principal who’s pretending to be deaf to these scandalous goings-on. Why, he’s ignoring the whole thing as if it didn’t exist!” Little Liu ranted on.
“I think we’d better go have a good talk with the principal.” Little Chou too was getting indignant.
“But do you think he’ll listen? No! You heard him the last graduation. He’s no ‘modern man’—you heard him. Giving us that stuff about being good wives and wise mothers.” Little Liu was quick to remember.
“We’ve been acting like a bunch of simpletons; in all the other schools the students are . . .” Hui-sheng was a couple of years older than the rest of us, she knew a thing or two about goings-on in the outside world.
“You’re right, we really have been simpletons!” two or three voices echoed.
“Yeah, aren’t we good girls?” Little Liu snickered sardonically, “walking the straight and narrow. We just swallow up the ‘three obediences and four virtues.’ That will sure turn us out to be ‘virtuous wives and wise mothers!’ ”
Everyone fell silent, feeling both ashamed and indignant. Then, suddenly, Little Chou leapt up. “Sure we can talk to him,” she said bitterly. “We can talk and talk until we’re blue in the face, but will it change anything? No. That old man is so slick; he’ll never listen to us.”
“But are we just going to sit back and let him go on doing whatever he wants?” Little Chou’s eyes were blazing now.
“You guys are a bunch of real blockheads, that’s all I can say. So you don’t want wives and mothers coming to our school? You think that’s a problem? That’s no problem at all.” All eyes were riveted on Little Liu now. “But going to the principal won’t do it. No, what we’ve got to do is pull a ‘Build the walls and clear the fields.’ Yes, that’ll be a million times more effective than going to the principal.”
Now this was an expression everybody understood. It had been on the history exam just last term. Question One: “What were Russia’s tactics when under the severe threat of Naploleon’s invading forces?” Answer: “Build the walls—that is, fortify defenses; and clear the fields—or, leave nothing for the invading army to eat or sleep in. Ravage the countryside.” It was a dull enough principle to have to memorize, but when Little Liu turned it to the matter at hand, whew! We were all bedazzled by her cleverness.
“Right!” cried Little Chou exuberantly. “We’ll fortify the walls! We’ll clear the fields! Little Cow, you will be the vanguard.”
“Now cool down! I didn’t say we had to go to war!” Little Liu had already assumed her leader’s role. “But actually, we will need a general, somebody to give the orders and get things organized. You all listen and do what I say.”
Of course everyone right away yelled out jubilantly, “Liu, Liu! Let Little Liu be the General.”
“Well, sisters,” Little Liu smiled with a slight wrinkle of pride on her brow, “let’s not stir up a hurricane about it. After all, we’ve got to stick together to make this thing work, don’t we?”
Well, we were all teenage kids and loved to stir things up. Even when nothing was going on we loved to make big hullaballoos out of everythingso you can imagine the uproar and excitement when we really had something to shout about. Then the whole bunch of us huddled around hashing out the various tactics, and, following the General’s command, went forth to mobilize other students. The sooner we got to it the better, so it was decided that the strategy of “fortify the walls and clear the fields” be carried out during sewing class that very afternoon.
Our timing couldn’t have been better even if we had planned it in advance. Just as the whole thing was more or less organized, the bell rang for afternoon classes to begin. Of course science class, which came first, was interminablenobody was in any mood to listen to the teacher. We were all passing notes, giving each other sly winks, making faces. As if this weren’t enough, those on the outskirts of the action were throwing spit balls into the center. It was lucky for us the teacher was a “good guy”—he was the kind that if you didn’t know the answer, he wouldn’t make you stand there turning red and wishing you could melt into the floor; no, he’d answer for you, quick. He was nice. No matter how bad we were, he’d just turn his head and pretend not to see.
The fifty minutes were endless and we were prancing with impatience. The bell rang; we all grinned like monkeys. As soon as the teacher stepped off the platform, we lunged ahead in a mad stampede to the sewing class upstairs.
The sewing teacher was a great lady too. She had been a widow since she was fairly young, and was very straight-backed and proper, so we called her “Li Kungts’ai”*—the Imperial Tailor Li. Since it wasn’t really a derogatory name, calling her by it soon became a most natural habit with us. In fact, sometimes we’d even use it in sewing class, and I know she must have heard it, but she never got mad.
It had always been customary for us to cut up in sewing class. But todaywow, the floorboards were louder than ever; even the window panes shook. The noise must have gotten to the third-year kids downstairs, the more take-charge ones ran out into the yard and yelled up at us, “Hey! You got wild horses up there or something?”
We didn’t give them a second glance; not even the promise of a juicy argument could pull us away from the schemes we were hatching that day. But Little Liu was not about to miss a chance to match her wit. She dashed to the window and flung out a clever retort. “Horses? Yes, heavenly horses. We’ve got the horses of Heaven on the run up here and look how all the gods are paying court!”
The Imperial Tailor Li was usually late for class, and so we usually got to have at least five or ten minutes of uproar and chaos. But today, we had our plan all set, and way before the usual time to pipe down, we were in our places ready for the action to begin. And of course, “Waddles” was sitting there, waiting with the rest of us.
We were all still chattering like a flock of birds, when up jumped Little Liu. “I’ve got some news for you guys,” she said in this loud voice. “Got some news! Shut up and listen . . . Just now I was going to the storeroom to get some paste. I ran into this old lady hugging this bag of clothes to her chest; she asked where she could find young Mistress Chu. Well, I cocked my head a second or two, then I said, ‘Chu? You mean like a pig*? No, you must have the wrong place. This is a school. We don’t have any Mistress Pig or Mistress Dog around here.’ I told her to go try other residences, but she wouldn’t budge. She just hugged her little bag of clothes, pleading for me to go ask if Mistress Chu was around. I said, ‘Do you think we’d hide your young mistress in a closet or something?’ Then this old woman got this really pathetic expression on her face. She said ‘It’s the second master in our family, he’s so afraid his new wife will catch a cold coming home, so he rushed me over with these clothes. If I can’t deliver them, I’m going to catch such a scolding when I get home.’ ”
Little Chou broke in, “You all hear that? Come on, own up. Who is it that has such a romantic ‘hei-ch’i pan-teng’†? Who is it? Don’t be embarrassed. Just step forward and collect your clothes.”
“Wait a minute,” Little Liu interrupted, “I haven’t finished my story yet. I was there talking to this old lady; I thought maybe I could have a little fun with her. So I started to bring her upstairs. And would you believe it? She just looked at those stairs and her legs started to shake, and she asked me in a quavery voice, ‘Couldn’t you please inquire for me, miss?’ So I was forced to inform her, ‘Ma’am, the truth is, we don’t have any mistresses or daughters-in-law coming to school here. No, we’re all unmarried girls here, and if I were you, I’d be careful about saying things like that. You had better advise your love-befuddled young master he should dote on his mistress in the privacy of his own home. The young ladies at this school are all very pure and innocent and easily embarrassed. If they heard you asking around for a Mistress it would embarrass them all to tears!’ ”
“So did the old woman finally leave?” Little Chou asked, laughing.
“You’re so concerned about her; maybe it was you she came looking for,” Little Liu threw it back to her.
“Bah! You punk!” Little Chou jumped up in protest; everybody broke out laughing.
“And did the old woman say anything else?” Little Liu had assigned me a couple of lines to say, so I said them, but I said them in a really stupid awkward way. I could see Little Liu giving me the reproving eye, but luckily for me, she just went on with the charade.
“Well, since this old lady was sitting there looking so pathetic and hopeless and stubborn, I asked her what her young mistress looked like, so I could go look for her.” Little Liu flashed a mischievous smile around the room. “So she said, ‘My young mistress? Well, she’s not tall and she’s not short . . . she’s got a duck egg-shaped face that augurs good fortune . . . and a pair of dumpling-like bound feed that are neither fat nor thin . . . and a pair of long slender delicate hands . . .”
“Oh, stuff it, Liu!” Hui-sheng shouted out amidst everyone’s laughter. “That doesn’t sound like the way an old lady would talk. I say you’re making it all up.”
“Don’t interrupt. What else did the old woman say?” Big Wu had been assigned a couple of lines too, and she recited them as flatly and awkwardly as I had.
“I’m not going to tell anymore! You think I’m lying?” Little Liu really sounded furiousbut it was all part of the act. “Some of you want to hear what happened, and some of you think I made it all up. It’s none of our business anyway. Why would any Mistress Pig or Mistress Dog go putting aside her domestic responsibilities to come attend this chaotic school? It’s crazy and absurd.” Finished, and smug, she sat down.
“Hmph! Even if they wanted to come here, they’d have to get our consent first,” Little Chou shouted.
“Well think about it.” Hui-sheng who wasn’t half bad at making speeches, took the floor. “At home they’ve got housework, fathers- and mothers-in-law to serve, those with children at their wit’s end coddling them and trying to keep them happy; those without, trying to coddle their husbands and keep them happy. Don’t you think they’re busy enough as it is? Why should they try and pretend that they can come to school and study too? Come exam time, they’ll be out of their minds with everything they’ll have to do. Their whole act will fall apart. The jig will be up.”
That was a good speech but it was too serious, we were all sitting there trying to think of something funny to say when Little Liu cut in. “Did you hear what she said? It’s so funny . . . husbands being the same as children . . . needing to be coddled too . . .” Everybody broke out in gales of laughter again.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you today, young ladies!” Little Chou turned and sat on her desk. She swept a righteous look around the room and admonished, “Maidens! Unmarried girls! Talking about husbands in every other sentence . . . you ought to be ashamed! This is a school for maidens! Such shameless talk!”
At this, some of us felt the joke was cutting just a little too close to the bone. Our laughter somewhat subdued, we turned around to sneak a look at “Waddles.” She had her head lowered, pretending to be occupied with her sewing. You could see her fat round cheeks were flushed.
Just then, the Imperial Tailor Li stepped into the room, bag in hand. Little Liu gave a hurried cough, everybody put on a grin and stood up.
“Teeeaa-cherrr,” Little Liu drawled out in the singsong voice we always used with good-natured teachers.
“Yes, what is it?”
“We would like to make something for a baby. Do you think you could give us some ideas for that next time?” Even before Little Liu finished, the room chuckled.
“How big a baby?” Mrs. Li asked.
“Oh, about a month old,” Little Chou was laughing so hard she almost couldn’t get that line out.
“How come everyone has to make one?” the Imperial Tailor asked. As usual, she was strolling up and down the aisles, bending over now and then to examine a student’s work.
“Teacher doesn’t know we’ll all soon be aunties?” Little Liu said in a coy and delicate voice.
“Don’t go stretching the relations too far,” Hui-sheng snickered. “You haven’t even seen the brother-in-law’s face to know whether it’s long or round, and here you are calling yourself ‘auntie’!” Everyone broke up again.
“Of course our brother-in-law’s face is long. Everybody knows that!” Even before Little Liu finished, peals of laughter rose.
“So what if it’s long, what’s the difference? And what’s so ‘of course’ about it anyway?” somebody cut in.
“Well think, pea-brain. If our brother-in-law is so romantic and doting that he worries about his darling wife getting cold long before the weather has even turned, his face can’t possibly be round.” We were all about to let loose another gust of laughter, but the serious look on Little Liu’s face promised better things to come, so we held ourselves in.
“But actually, we’re all just stumbling around in the dark, wouldn’t you say? I mean, we haven’t even gotten a close enough peek at our own sister’s face, to see if it’s round, or if it’s flat, and here we’re debating about our brother-in-law’s face? Now I call that silly. So who is this sister that we’re making these gifts for?”
We all put down our sewing and started looking around the room, our heads revolving this way and that, hardly able to suppress our giggles.
Little Liu added with a snicker, “We’ve got to know who it’s all for, don’t you think?”
I went along with the others and feigned confusion. But naturally, as we were just kids, we were terrible at hiding what really caught our attention—all eyes made a beeline to Waddles’ face. It burned redder than ever. Her hands, fumbling in her needlework, were vis ibly shaking. Pretending to be oblivious to what was going on, she stared down at her work, not daring even to sneak a peek at us. The corners of her mouth twitched, as if she tried to laugh along with us, but clearly she was trembling and having difficulty breathing.
The Imperial Tailor had to leave the room to take something downstairs. Little Chou took the chance and immediately jumped up yelling:
“No need to look around girls! It’s got to be the one whose face is the reddest!”
In unison, all eyes turned to steal sly glances at the young wife. Her hands were shaking worse than ever, her head so low her face was nearly hidden in her sewing.
“Little Chou, you’re being illogical,” Little Liu put on a sober tone. “How can you use a red face as the decisive factor? There is the saying, ‘Face is blushing, happiness gushing.’ How can you be sure that a blushing face alone is the sure mark of a young wife?”
“What do young ladies have to do with ‘happiness gushing’ anyway? Isn’t it all just ‘paying respects to Heaven and Earth’*? They’re just doing what they have to: ‘having honorable sons one after the other,’ right? So you’re being even more illogical.”
By this time, this witty exchange had pretty much loosened us up, and everyone was laughing complacently. We had long abandoned what little reserve we had, and began staring unabashedly at the young bride, not worrying anymore if we were embarrassing her or ourselves.
Then suddenly she raised her head, threw the needlework she had in her hands on the floor, and in an agitated voice cried: “What are you all staring at!” Big round beads of tears rolled down her cheeks, and her face was flaming red. She ran out of the classroom and clattered down the stairs.
We were stunned, the laughter froze in our mouths, and there was a moment of silence. Then, Little Liu broke it with a snicker. “Little Chou, she’s gone to tell the principal on you.”
“Aah, so what,” Little Chou said defiantly. “You think I’m afraid of being told on? Anyway, don’t get excited Little Liu. If there’s a catastrophe we’ll all bear it together.”
“So who’s scared? This is exactly what our strategy of ‘building the walls and clearing the fields’ is supposed to accomplish, isn’t it? Isn’t this what we planned for? I mean, if we were afraid, we shouldn’t have started anything in the first place,” Little Liu said cockily.
“You’ve got to be awfully stupid to be afraid of old Waddles,” Hui-sheng laughed. “Ha, a married woman and all, and she thinks she’s got the face to go reporting to the principal!”
We all began to get over being stunned. Just as we were feeling pretty smug about our success, someone suddenly shouted, “It worked! ‘Building the walls and clearing the fields’ was a great success!”
“Hooray for General Little Liu!” Little Chou cheered, putting her arm around Little Liu’s shoulder.
“Hooray for General Little Liu, hooray for Little Cow!” The room resounded with jubilant schoolgirl voices.
And as we cheered, we gazed on Little Liu, our leader, our idol. She looked so beautiful, her chubby doll cheeks flushed bright and adorable, her two little dimples, her two big round eyes flashing sparks—“Hooray for General Little Liu!”
It was twelve or thirteen years later, and I was living in Wuch’ang at the time. One day, after lunch, my husband rushed off to class as usual, leaving me with the endless boring routine of keeping house. Out of the blue came a knock at the door. It was the postman with a letter. It was from Big Wu—since we had attended the same college after graduating from high school, we had stayed more or less in touch.
The last paragraph of her letter read, “What you were saying in your last letter—that you feel vacant and listless —I had expected as much. But I think I just might have some good news for you. Just now I was having dinner with some friends, and I got to talking with this woman. To my amazement, I discovered she was Little Liu’s sister-in-law. And would you believe, she told me that Little Liu is living in Wuch’ang, on Big Well Front Street, No. 4—the Chin residence—only one street away! She’s practically next door to you. You two can get together and have heart-to-heart talks day and night! There’s so much life in her, I just know she’ll pull you right out of your doldrums. How I envy the two of you.”
That piece of good news couldn’t have been more timely. I was really going crazy with boredom lately. The only time I ever got to escape the house was when I taught English, two hours a week; and that was so easy I could switch off my mind and still teach it perfectly. And the rest of the week? I just sat at home. Wuch’ang is not a very pleasant place, with high walls around the houses and shallow courtyards. Being new to the city, I found it really hard to take. If you sat quietly and raised your head to look around, all that you could see were dim high walls pressing in on you from all directions. I remember waking from a dream one afternoon, jerking myself out of sleep. I looked around me in panic, desperately trying to remember what crime I had committed that I should be locked up in this dungeon.
Nothing amused me in the town. I had no refined enthusiasm for sights like the Yellow Crane Pagoda, nor had I a taste for windowshopping at the foreign stores across the river. And as for going into town—the streets there are so impossibly narrow that every time a car passes you have to fling yourself quickly into the nearest store, or be crushed. And then you look up at the clerks and they’re laughing right in your face because you have no business in their store. And as the sparks fly out of their hookahs, if you don’t watch out, you might end up with little burn holes in your clothes as souvenirs of your excursion to town.
Well it wasn’t five minutes from the time I received the letter until I was walking out the door, on my way to see Little Liu. As I thought about my own weariness and boredom, I remembered all the more Little Liu’s sharp vivacious manners. I thought of a thousand things that we would talk about. I envisioned her nimble birdlike gestures, and those sassy quips that came to her so quickly. It was the perfect sunshine I needed to melt away my dreary mood.
At Front Street I scanned the long row of walls, all so high it hurt your neck to look up at them. I counted the doors; No. 1, No. 2, . . . finally No. 4, the Chin residence. Impatiently, I knocked.
And I knocked and knocked. No one seemed to be answering. Only when my knuckles had begun to sting did I finally hear the dala-dala sound of slippers approaching the door. I quickly called out my name. It was probably my woman’s voice that gave me the edge, and the door opened.
The maid standing in the doorway yawned with a kind of insolent weariness as she inquired who I was. Any other day I probably would have been annoyed, but I was in a bouyant and generous mood and didn’t think anything of it. I even answered her with a smile.
“Oh, so you’re here to see the missus. Please come into the parlor.”
I followed her four or five steps into the parlor, and there I saw a little boy about three or four years old, and a little girl who looked just like him. The two of them were fighting over a dish of peanuts on the coffee table. The boy greedily popped whole peanuts into his mouthskin and all. He ate so hurriedly that when he spat out the skin, along came bits of half-chewed peanuts. There were filthy littie piles of chewed-up peanut skins all over the grey tile floor. The kids stared at me with big black eyes. They bore a shadowy resemblance to the Little Liu in my memory. Could these be her children?
“The missus will be here in a moment. Please have a cup of tea.” The maid handed me a cup. I took a sip. It tasted like medicine. I put it down again.
The maid went to a doorway on the right and pushed aside a light green printed drape. You could make out greasy handprints all over it. Behind the curtain the missus and the maid said a few indistinct words. Suddenly, “waa—waa—” came the racket of a baby crying. Then followed the sound of a baby being patted. The drape lifted, and out came a woman of about thirty with a thin face and a yellow complexion. She wore a grey printed linen Chinese gown; the collar shone with grease and the flaps at the slits were pulled all out of shape. This had to be Little Liu, but my memory did not allow me to believe it.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” The smile on the woman’s face was shallow, awkward.
“We haven’t seen each other for a long time.” I couldn’t think of any other way to keep the conversation going. My smile was strained too.
My God, can this woman really be Little Liu? Her cheeks weren’t rosy and shining like apples anymore—now they were yellow and waxy. Her eyes were no longer clear and sparkling with life, but were muddy and lackluster. And her laughter? . . . Her trim figure? . . . As these thoughts raced through my mind, I just stared at the person in front of me, stupified.
“When did you come to Wuch’ang?” she asked me listlessly. My stare didn’t even raise a blush in her.
“It’s been over six months.” I felt unbearably stiff. I coughed up some phlegm in my throat and thought to spit it into the spittoon. It was a nervous gesture, anything to ease the awkwardness between us. But when I turned toward the spittoon, a rancid odor rose up out of it, nauseating and overcoming me. I quickly turned away.
“It was only today that I found out you were in Wuch’ang. Big Wu, who was in our class, told me in a letter.” At first, I thought I’d tell her how I rushed over as soon as I received the news, but when I looked up again at this woman who bore no resemblance to the one I had envisioned, I faltered in embarrassment.
“Big Wu?” Her brow knitted in puzzlement. “Which Big Wu?”
“You know Big Wu. Wu Yü-ch’ing. She met your husband’s sister in Shanghai, and that was how she found out you were living in Wuch’ang.”
“Oh . . . She’s our Fourth Sister.” As she spoke, she kept glancing over at the two children eating peanuts.
“How long has it been . . . eleven years, isn’t it? Even your kids are so big now . . .”
“Oh you mean him?” she said, pointing to the boy. “He’s not even the biggest, there are two girls older than he.”
“When did you get married? And why didn’t you even tell us?” I asked, smiling.
“Let’s see, I was seventeen . . .” She counted out the years on her hand. “Big Pao is seven this year . . . that’s right . . . I had her the year after I got married.”
“How many little ones are there now?”
“Four girls and one boy.”
“I heard Little Chou is married too. Do you know where she is?”
“Little Chou? Oh, she died a long while back. It was a tragic death. I heard she carried a freak baby; it couldn’t be born. They operated; she couldn’t bear the pain and she died on the table. A couple of my relatives were there—they saw it with their own eyes.”
Perhaps because it had been too long since we were together last, and the thing was already past anyway, neither of us felt particularly grieved. We were silent for a moment, and nothing more.
“Have you been in touch with Hui-sheng?” Her mind was recalling the past now.
“We wrote a few times the first year. I heard she got married. But I haven’t heard a word for the past couple of years.” I unconsciously sighed.
We were silent again. On the way over, I had a million things in my mind to talk over with her. But they had all vanished. Now I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her.
The awkward spell was broken by the little boy, who pulled up his gown and yelled, “Mama, poopoo.”
“Sun Ma,” Little Liu called out to the maid, “come help the young master go poopoo.”
The maid rushed into the room. She pulled forward the spittoon—into which someone had just spat—and sat the child on top of it.
“Now sit still; I’ll get some tissue.” As Sun Ma left the room, Little Liu called after her, “. . . and bring two plates of sweets too.”
The child sat on the spittoon and groaned. Instantly the odor filled the room.
Absent-mindedly I glanced over at the child sitting on the spittoon—The face shaped like a water chestnut, the delicate mouth, and the bright black eyes, these features were endearing in themselves. If only his nose didn’t look like a piece of stepped-on dough, and his cheeks were a bit rosier, he would have been a perfect miniature of Little Liu.
“He looks like you. I imagine he’s a smart little thing, isn’t he?” I said.
“Ai! He’s horribly obstreperous. Everyone in the family spoils him.”
I smiled indulgently. “Well, I’d bet he knows just how to find everybody’s soft spot. That’s how he gets so spoiled.”
“The two before him were both girls, so naturally everyone fusses over him a bit too much.”
“The other older sisters are in school?”
“They’ve gone out with Grandma. Since we’ve come to Wuch’ang, we haven’t had time to look for a school for them yet.” As she spoke, her brow tightened for an instant.
Sun Ma came into the room, two plates in one hand, and some tissue paper in the other. As soon as the little boy saw the candy, he started yelling that he wanted some.
“You can’t have any until you finish going poopoo, precious,” the mother admonished gently. “Don’t yell or our guest will laugh at you.”
“I WANT IT!” he yelled, his little mouth stretched wide open.
“I’ll give you some after you get up. If you eat and go poopoo at the same time people will laugh at you. Now precious, be a good little boy,” the mother kept coaxing him in a gentle voice.
“I want to go poopoo and eat at the same time!” The child raged, he was so irate that his face was flushed red. His mother didn’t get angry, nor did she say anything.
“Give ME ! I hate you, mama, I hate you!” He screamed again.
His mother still said nothing, but placidly, without a trace of anger on her face, got up to coax the child and wipe his behind.
“I want this!” The child jumped over in front of the coffee table and reached out toward the dish. But his mother rushed over and pushed the dish out of his reach, saying in a mild voice, “Our guest hasn’t had any yet. I’ll give you some. Just be patient and don’t grab.”
“I want a lot! Give it to me! If you don’t, I’ll hit you!”
She gave him two handfuls. The child kept ranting, at the same time stuffing candy into his mouth. He ate so fast his breathing became labored, and snot began running down over his lips. He swiped it on the back of his hand and smeared it on his mother’s dress.
“Now why did you wipe it on my dress?” his mother asked softly, as she helped him wipe his face.
“You’re hurting my nose!” He twisted away from her and ran out the door, slamming it with all his might. A crash sounded outside. In the inner room, the baby began to wail. The mother hurried in to look after her, and emerged with the baby over her shoulder, humming and patting it softly.
“Maybe it’s time for some milk?” I suggested, seeing that the baby kept on wailing. The mother nodded and called to Sun Ma to bring a bottle.
“You’re not nursing her?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, wearily, “I don’t have any milk. The last four all grew up on cow’s milk.”
“How’s your health? Have you seen a doctor?” I asked, looking at her sallow complexion and thin cheeks.
“No, no, I’m not sick, just weak . . . I had a miscarriage at the end of last year, and this July I had her . . .” The baby’s wailing drowned out the end of her sentence. She called out anxiously, “Sun Ma, hurry with the bottle. Baby can’t wait anymore!”
“The bottle was broken by the young master,” Sun Ma replied from outside.
The mother looked sadly at the boy and sighed. “What’s to be done, I just can’t seem to manage him at all . . .” She patted the wailing baby and called out, “Sun Ma, hurry up with the milknever mind the bottle.”
The baby nestled in her mother’s bosom, sobbing as if aggrieved, refusing the milk offered her on a little spoon. The mother patiently slipped the milk into her mouth, drop by drop.
The little boy, meanwhile, took this chance to run to the coffee table. He pulled the whole plate of walnut candy to the edge of the table and began wolfing it by the handful.
“Careful you don’t make yourself choke,” I said, unable to stand seeing a child behave like that. “Eat slowly—we don’t want any, you can have it all.”
Just then, the next youngest child, a little girl about two years old, toddled in from playing outside and complained to her mother that she was hungry. Little Liu told her to wait a bit, so she sat down on the doorsill, now and then stealing pathetic, yearning little glances at the coffee table. I went over and got her a small handful. She smiled with delight and was just about to put the first piece in her mouth, when her brother dashed over and snatched it away from her. Unable to defend herself, she opened her little mouth and began to wail helplessly.
“What a bad boy!” The mother couldn’t hold back anymore. “Why did you have to grab your sister’s too? Now give it back to her—I’ll buy you some more tomorrow.”
“No! I don’t care if she cries.” He stared belligerently at the little girl. “Go ahead and cry; I’ll tell Dad to hit you.”
Little Liu smiled apologetically at me. “He knows his daddy dotes on him—he bullies all his sisters.”
“Is there anyone at home he’s afraid of?” I asked, smiling.
“He’s not afraid of anybody. His daddy never disciplines the children. And me, my health hasn’t been too good well one day but in bed the next. I just haven’t had the energy to discipline them.” Even as she said this, she seemed short of breath.
“They’re still young. When they get older they’ll be better.” I said the only thing I could.
“The child is a little rough, but he’s a smart little thing, much smarter than the others. When he’s in a good mood, he can charm anyone he wants. It’s just that his health isn’t too good, and it makes him irritable.” As she spoke, her tired eyes cast a tender, loving look at the boy.
That’s just what a mother would say, after all—so I thought to myself.
With some effort, the maid finally coaxed the little girl out to play. The baby too finally quieted. The mother brought her back into the inner room.
The boy came over, grabbed hold of my wrist and smiled boldly at me, his head tilted. I smiled back and made some small talk, humoring him as he tugged at my hand and began leading me around the room. Then a clutter of photographs on a desk caught my eye. As I stopped to look, the boy pointed to a young opera actress in costume. “This is Pi Yun-hsia, see?” Then he pointed to another, one that looked like a movie star, very fashionable. “This is Yang Ai-hua! Daddy says she’s some sort of star.” As he spoke, he noisily sucked back the snot in his nose.
“And what about this one—who’s this?” I pointed to one of a girl in some exotic outfit.
He shook his head, then said, “That day daddy went to the movies. Yang Ai-hua came out and sang.”
“Did you go see it?”
“Daddy wouldn’t take us. Big sister started crying and mommy hit her.” As he talked, he lifted his outer gown to wipe the snot that had begun to drip again, revealing an even dirtier padded jacket underneath.
I was just about to examine the other photos of female beauties, when he pulled away from me and ran toward the door, calling loudly, “Daddy’s home, Daddy bought some bananas.”
I looked up to see a man of about thirty with a wan, yellow face and a skinny build walk in the door. The boy, catching sight of the bag he carried, immediately grabbed at his legs and clung there, reaching out for the bag.
Little Liu came out of the inner room and introduced me. “This is Ms. Lin, an old classmate of mine.”
The man smiled slightly, nodded, then scrutinized me for an instant through his glasses. The expression on his face repelled me. It reminded me of the looks the store clerks gave me when I would dodge into their shops to get away from the cars. I understood that look—it was a look men reserved only for women. Though it makes one feel humiliated, I knew they didn’t mean any personal harm by it.
“This isn’t bananas!” The child was making a pest of himself, clinging to his father, pushing the bag roughly away from him.
“Don’t get my gown dirty! Look how filthy your hands are.” His father pushed the boy over to his mother. “Give him something to eat,” he said curtly. He turned and left the room.
“He just finished off a whole dish of candy. How can he still be hungry?” The mother tried to restrain the boy, as he jumped up and down yelling that he wanted bananas, nothing but bananas.
But seeing that no bananas were about to materialize, he dashed to the long table in the middle of the room and knocked the goldfish bowl onto the floor. The bowl shattered, water splattered everywhere, and the little goldfish flipflopped on the floor.
The mother was transfixed for a moment at the sight. Then she said with a sigh, “You’ve broken your sisters’ favorite goldfish bowl. There’s going to be quite a scene when they get home.”
I already had my purse in my hand. “I’m afraid I have to go. If you ever have time, come see me; I’m on Back Street, No. IO . . .”
“Stay awhile, it’s still early.” She stood up slowly. “I’ll come visit when the children are better.”
I walked toward the front door. Mother and son followed behind me, and when I reached the door and said goodbye, the child piped out, “Goodbye, Auntie!” The word “Auntie” rang out crisp and delicate. I must have heard a voice like that somewhere before. I searched my foggy mind as I walked homeward.
* The surname Liu and the word niu, “cow,” already close enough in Mandarin Chinese for a pun, become identical in the Hupei dialect, in which the initial 1 is merged into the initial n.
* Li Kungts’ai is a character in The Dream of the Red Chamber, who, widowed at a young age, dedicated herself to the upbring of her fatherless son. The name sheds light on her upbringing, for while still a young girl, she was deliberately encouraged to develop her interest in the “feminine” occupations of needlework and tailoring rather than in intellectual activities.
* The Chinese word for “pig” is chu, homophonous with the surname Chu, though they are written with different characters. The homophony is exploited here for a pun.
†“Hei-ch’i pan-teng” is a clever play on the English word “husband.” The four syllables in Chinese are pronounced like “heycheebahndeng,” a transliteration of the word “husband,” and they mean “a black painted bench,” something stiff and dull.
* In the ceremonial portion of a traditional Chinese wedding, the bride and groom kowtow to Heaven and Earth.