Hsiao Hung’s popularity as a writer has grown considerably in recent years. Her highly evocative style, masterful recreations of life in North-east China (Manchuria), and accent on the feminine experience are drawing readers and critics to her work in increasing numbers.
She was born Chang Nai-ying in 1911, to a landlord family near Harbin in Northeast China. Hsiao Hung’s world view was largely formed by a generally unhappy and lonely childhood. Her rise to prominence on the Chinese literary scene dates from her first and, in the eyes of some critics, finest novel, The Field of Life and Death (Sheng-szu ch’ang), published in December 1933. It was acclaimed as a major literary and political event, for it deals with the issues of Japanese aggression in Northeast China and the burgeoning attempts by Chinese peasants to resist.
From 1936 to 1940, the early years of the Sino-Japanese War, Hsiao Hung continued the vagabond, somewhat Bohemian existence that characterized most of her adult life. Her literary output over these years was limited to several small volumes of short stories and essays of uneven quality.
In 1940 Hsiao Hung fled from the wartime capital of Chungking to Hong Kong. At the age of thirty, she died in a hospital there on January 22, 1942, barely a month after the city fell to the Japanese. During her refuge in Hong Kong, she produced three novels. One of them, Tales of Hulan River (Hu-lan-ho chuan, 1942), which she had begun in her final years in Chungking, is generally regarded as her masterpiece. It is a moving and highly artistic reminiscence of the author’s home, and it was only after the national wartime emotions had cooled that this novel began to enjoy the acclaim and popularity it rightly deserves.
The most comprehensive study of Hsiao Hung’s life and works in any language was written by Howard Goldblatt (Hsiao Hung, Boston, 1976). He has also translated into English Tales of Hulan River and, with Ellen Yeung, The Field of Life and Death, both of which have been published in one volume (Indiana University Press, 1979).
“On the Oxcart” (Niu-che shang) was written while Hsiao Hung was in Japan and was first published in Literature Monthly (Wen-hsueh yüeh-k’an) in 1936. In the following year it was reprinted in a collection with the same title by Cultural Life Publishing Company (Wen-hua sheng-huo ch’u-pan-she).
LATE MARCH. Clover covers the banks of the streams. In the early light of the morning our cart crushes the red and green grasses at the foot of the hill as it rumbles through the outskirts of Alter-grandfather’s* village. The carter is a distant uncle on Mother’s side. He flicks his whip, but not to strike the rump of the ox; the tip merely dances back and forth in the air.
“Are you sleepy already? We’ve only just left the village! Drink some plum cider now, and after we’ve crossed the stream you can sleep.” Alter-grandfather’s maid is on her way to town to visit her son.
“What stream? Didn’t we just cross one?” The yellow cat we’re bringing back from Grandfather’s house has fallen asleep in my lap.
“The Hou-t’ang Stream.”
“What Hou-t’ang Stream?” My mind is wandering. The only things from Alter-grandfather’s village still visible in the distance are the two gold balls topping the red flagpole in front of the ancestral temple.
“Drink a cup of plum cider, it’ll perk you up.” She is holding a cup of the dark yellow liquid in one hand as she puts the lid back on the bottle.
“I don’t need anything . . . perk me up? You perk yourself up!”
They both laugh as the carter suddenly cracks his whip.
“You young lady, you . . . you sharp-tongued little scamp ... I, I . . . ” He walks over from alongside the axle and reaches out to grab hold of my hair. Drawing my shoulders back, I clamber to the rear of the cart. Every kid in the village is scared of him. They say he used to be a soldier, and when he pinches your ear it hurts like the dickens. Wu-yün Sao† has gotten down off the cart to gather a lot of different kinds of flowers for me. Now the wind blowing in from the woods has picked up a bit, and her scarf is flapping around her head. It reminds me of a raven or a magpie, like the ones I saw in the village. Look at her jumpin’ up and down, just like a kid! She’s back in the cart now, singing out the names of all kinds of flowers. I’ve never seen her so happy and carefree.
I can’t tell what those low, coarse, grunting noises from the carter mean. Puffs of smoke from his short pipe float back on the wind. As we start off on our journey, our hopes and expectations are far off in the distance.
I must have fallen asleep. I remember waking up once, some-where after we crossed Hou-t’ang Stream—I don’t know exactly where—and through the cobwebs of my mind I thought I saw the boy who watches over the ducks beckon to me. There was also the parting scene between me and Hsiao-ken as he straddled the ox. And I could see Alter-grandfather again taking me by the hand and saying, “When you get home tell your grandpa to come on over during the cool autumn season and visit the countryside. You tell him that his old in-law’s quail and his best sorghum wine are waiting here for us to enjoy together. You tell him that I can’t get around so well anymore; otherwise the past couple of years I would have gone.”
The hollow sound of the wheels wakes me up. The first thing I see is the yellow ox plodding along the road. The carter isn’t sitting there by the axle where he should be—there he is, on the back of the cart. Instead of the whip, he’s holding a pipe in his hand. He keeps stroking his jaw with his other hand; he is staring off into the horizon. Wu-yün Sao is holding the yellow cat in her lap and stroking it’s tail. The blue cotton scarf around her head has dipped below her eyebrows, and the creases on her nose are more distinct than usual because of the dust that has gathered around them.
They don’t know I’m awake.
“By the third year there were no more letters from him. You soldiers …”
“Was your husband a soldier too?” I couldn’t hold back. My carter-uncle pulls me backwards by my pigtail.
“And no more letters at all after that?” he asks.
“Since you asked me, I’ll tell you. It was just after the Mid-Autumn Festival—I forget which year it was. I had just finished eating breakfast and was slopping the pigs in front of the house. ‘Soo-ee, soo-ee!’ I didn’t even hear Second Mistress from the Wang family of South Village as she came running up, shouting, ‘Wu-yün Sao, Wu-yün Sao! My mother says it’s probably a letter from Brother Wu-yün.’ She held a letter right under my nose. ‘Here, let me have it. I want to see... ’ I don’t know why, but I felt sick at heart. Was he still alive? He ... A tear dropped on the red-lined stationery, but when I tried to wipe it off, all I did was make a red smudge on the white paper. I threw the slop down in the middle of the yard and went into my room to change into some clean clothes. Then I ran as fast as I could to the school in South Village to see the schoolmaster. I was laughing through my tears. Tve got a letter here from someone far away; would you please read it to me? I haven’t had a single word from him for a year.’ But after he read the letter he said it was for someone else. I left the letter in the school and ran home. I didn’t go back to feed the pigs or put the chickens to roost; I just went inside and lay down on the brick bed. For days I was like someone whose soul had left her.”
“And no more letters from him since then?”
“None.” She unscrews the lid from the bottle of plum cider and drinks a cupful, then another.
“You soldiers, you go away for two or three years, you say, but do you return home? How many of you ever do? You ought to at least send your ghosts home for us to see.”
“You mean ... ?” the carter bursts out. “Then he was killed in battle somewhere?”
“That’s what it amounted to; not a word for more than a year.”
“Well, was he killed in battle or wasn’t he?” Jumping down from the cart, he grabs his whip and snaps it in the air a couple of times, making sounds like little explosions.
“What difference does it make? The bitter life of a soldier doesn’t allow for much good fortune.” Her wrinkled lips look like pieces of torn silk, a sure sign of an unrooted nature and a life of misfortune.
As we pass Huang Village the sun begins to set and magpies are flying over the green wheat fields.
“Did you cry when you learned that Brother Wu-yün had died in battle?” As I look at her, I continue stroking the yellow cat’s tail. But she ignores me and busies herself with straightening her scarf.
The carter scrambles up into the cart by holding on to the hand-rail and jumping in, landing right above the axle. He is about to smoke; his thick lips are sealed as tightly as the mouth of the bottle.
The flow of words from Wu-yün Sao’s mouth is like the gentle patter of rain; I stretch out alongside the handrail and before long I’ve dozed off again.
I awake to discover that the cart is stopped alongside a small village well—the ox is drinking by the well. Wu-yün Sao must have been crying, because her sunken eyes are all puffed up and the crow’s-feet at the sides of her eyes are spread open. The carter scoops up a bucketful of water from the well and carries it over to the cart.
“Have some—it’s nice and cool.”
“No thanks,” she replies.
“Go ahead and drink some. If you’re not thirsty, at least use some of it to wash your face.” He takes a hand towel from his waistband and soaks it in the water. “Here, wipe your face. Your eyes are all dusty.”
I can’t believe it, a soldier actually offering his towel to someone! That strikes me as peculiar, since the soldiers I’ve known only know how to fight battles, beat women, and pinch children’s ears.
“That winter I traveled to the year-end market to sell hog bristles. I stood there shouting, ‘Good stiff hog bristles . . . fine long hog bristles . . .’By the next year I had just about forgotten my husband . . . didn’t let him tear at my heart anymore. What good was there in thinking of him, I told myself. After all these years, he’s got to be long gone! The following autumn I went into the fields with the others to harvest kaoliang . . . here, look at my hands—they’ve done their share of work.
“The next spring I hired myself out for a season’s work, so I took the baby with me, and the household was broken up for two or three months. But I pulled it back together the next winter. All kinds of ox hairs . . . hog bristles . . . even some bird feathers, I gathered them up. During the winter I sorted them, cleaned them, and took them into town to sell whenever there was a thaw. If I could catch a ride on a cart, I took Little Baldy into town with me.
“But this one time I went in alone. The weather that day was awful—it had been snowing almost every day—and the year-end market lacked its usual bustle. I’d only brought a few bundles of hog bristles but I couldn’t sell them off. I squatted there in the marketplace from early morning till the sun was setting in the west. Someone had put a poster up on the wall of a large store at the intersection, which everyone stopped to read. I heard that the ‘proclamation’ had been put up early in the morning, or maybe it had only been there since around noontime. Some of the people read part of it aloud. I didn’t know what it was all about. They were saying, ‘proclamation this’ and ‘proclamation that,’ but I couldn’t figure out just what was being ‘proclaimed.’ I only knew that a proclamation was the business of officials and had nothing to do with us common folk, so I couldn’t figure out why there were so many people interested in it. Someone said it was a proclamation about the capture of some army deserters. I overheard a few other tidbits here and there … in a few days the deserters were going to be delivered to the county seat to be shot.”
“What year was that? Was that the execution of the twenty-odd deserters in 1921?” The carter absent-mindedly lets down his rolled-up sleeves, and strokes his jaw.
“How should I know what year it was? Besides, execution or not, what business was it of mine? Anyway, my hog bristles weren’t selling so well and things were looking bleak.” She rubs her hands together briefly and suddenly stretches out her hand as though she were catching a mosquito.
“Someone was reading out the names of the deserters. I saw a man in a black gown and said to him, ‘Read those names again for me!’ I was holding the hog bristles when I heard him say Chiang Wu-yün . . . Chiang Wu-yün . . . the name seemed to be echoing in my ears. After a moment or two, I felt like throwing up, like some foul-smelling thing was stuck in my throat; I wanted to swallow it, but couldn’t. My eyes were burning. The people looking at the ‘proclamation’ crowded up in front of it, so I backed off to the side. I tried to move up again and take a look, but my leg wouldn’t hold me. More and more people came to look at the ‘proclamation,’ and I kept backing up . . . farther . . . farther . . .”
I can see that her forehead and the tip of her nose are beaded with perspiration.
“When I returned to the village it was already late at night. Only when I was getting down from the cart did I remember the hog bristles . . . they’d been the farthest thing from my mind at the time. My ears had turned as stiff as two chips of wood . . . my scarf had fallen off, maybe on the road, maybe in the city . . .”
She lifts up her scarf to show us and, sure enough, her earlobes are missing.
“Just look at these; that’s what it means to be a soldier’s wife . . .”
The ends of her scarf, which she has fixed tightly over her head again, flutter slightly when she speaks.
“So Wu-yün was still alive, and I wanted to see him; after all we had been husband and wife for a time.
“In February I strapped Little Baldy on my back and went into town every day. I heard that the ‘proclamation’ had been put up several more times, though I never went to see that God-awful thing again. I went to the yamen to ask around, but they only said, ‘That’s none of our business!’ They sent me to the military garrison . . . ever since I was a kid I’ve had a fear of officials ... a country girl like me, I’d never seen a single one. Those sentries with their bayonets sent shivers up and down my spine. Oh, go ahead! After all, they don’t just kill people on sight. Later on, after I’d gone to see them lots of times, I wasn’t afraid any longer. What more was there to lose? After all, out of the three people in our family, they already had one in their clutches. They told me that the deserters hadn’t been sent over yet. When I asked them when they would be, they told me, ‘Wait another month or so!’ But when I got back to the village I heard that the deserters had already come from some county seat or other—even today I can’t remember which county seat it was, since the only thing that mattered to me was that they had been sent over—and they said if I didn’t hurry and go see him, it’d be too late. So I strapped Little Baldy on my back and went back to town, where I asked around again at the military garrison. ‘Why all the impatience?’ they asked me. ‘How many dozens of times are you going to ask? Who knows, maybe they won’t be sent over at all.’ One day I spotted some big official riding in a horsedrawn carriage with its bells jingling as it came out from the garrison buildings. I put Little Baldy down on the ground and ran over; the carriage was heading straight toward me, so I knelt down in front of it . . . I didn’t even care if the horse trampled me.
“ ‘Venerable sir, my husband . . . Chiang Wu-. . . ’ Before I even got his name out I felt a heavy blow on my shoulders . . . the car riage driver had pushed me over backwards. I must’ve been knocked over … I crawled over to the side of the road. All I could see was that the driver too was wearing a military cap.
“I picked myself up and strapped Little Baldy on my back again. There was a river in front of the garrison, and for the rest of the afternoon I just sat there on the bank looking at the water. Some people were fishing and some women were washing clothes. Farther off, at the bend in the river, the water was much deeper, and the crests of waves passed in front of me, one after the other. I don’t know how many hundreds of waves I saw passing by as I sat there. I felt like putting Little Baldy down on the bank and jumping straight to the bottom. Just leave that little life behind; as soon as he started crying, someone would surely come and pick him up.
“I rubbed his little chest and said something like, ‘Little Baldy, you go to sleep.’ Then I stroked his little round ears . . . those ears of his, honestly, they’re so long and full, just like his daddy’s. Looking at his ears, I was seeing his daddy.”
A smile of maternal pride spreads across her face.
“I kept on patting his chest and said again, ‘You go to sleep, Little Baldy.’ Then I remembered that I still had a few strings of cash on me, so I decided to put them on his chest. As I reached over . . . reached over to put . . . when I was putting them on his ... he opened his eyes . . . just then a sailboat came around the bend, and when I heard a child on the boat shouting ‘Mama,’ I quickly picked up Little Baldy and held him against my bosom.”
Her tears fall as she tightens the scarf under her chin.
“But then . . . then, I knew I had to carry him back home. Even if I had to go begging, at least he would have his mother … he deserved a mother.”
The corners of her blue scarf quiver with the movements of her jaw.
A flock of sheep cross our path; the shepherd boy is playing a willow whistle. The grass and the flowers in the woods all blend together in the slanting rays of the sun, so that all we can see is a vast jumbled patch of yellow.
The carter is now walking alongside the cart, raising trails of dust on the road with the tip of his whip.
“It wasn’t until May that the people at the garrison finally told me, ‘They’ll be coming soon.’
“Toward the end of the month a big steamship pulled up to the wharf in front of the garrison. God, there were a lot of people! Even on the July Fifteenth Festival you don’t have that many people coming out to watch the river-lanterns.”
Her sleeves were waving in the air.
“The families of the deserters were standing over to the right, so I moved over there with them. A man in a military cap came over and pinned a kind of badge on each of us. I had no idea what the badge said, since I can’t read.
“When they were about to lower the gangplank, a troop of soldiers came up to those of us who were wearing the badges and herded us into a circle. ‘Move a little farther back from the river, move a little farther . . .’ They pushed us back some thirty or forty feet from the steamship with their rifle butts. An old man with a white beard stood next to me, holding a bundle in each hand. ‘Uncle, why did you bring those things along?’ I asked him. ‘Huh? Oh, I have a son and a nephew . . . one bundle for each . . . when they get to the next world it wouldn’t be right for them not to have clean clothes to wear.’
“They lowered the gangplank. Some of the people began to cry as soon as they saw the gangplank being lowered. Me, I wasn’t crying. I planted my feet squarely on the ground and kept my eyes on the ship, but no one came out. After a while, an officer wearing a foreign sword leaned over the railing and said, ‘Have the families move farther back; they’re going to be leaving the ship now.’ As soon as they heard him bark out the order, the soldiers herded us even farther back with their rifle butts, all the way back to the bean field by the edge of the road, until we were standing there on top of the bean shoots. A rumble sounded on the gangplank, and out they came, led by an officer, their leg-irons clanking along. I can still see it: the first one out was a little short man . . . then five or six more . . . not one of them with broad shoulders like Little Baldy’s daddy . . . really, they looked wretched, their arms hanging stiffly in front of them. I watched for a long time before I realized that they were all wearing manacles. The harder the people around me cried, the calmer I became. I just kept my eyes on the gangplank … I wanted to ask Little Baldy’s daddy, ‘Why couldn’t you just be a good soldier? Why did you have to desert? Look here at your son; how can you face him?’
“About twenty of them came down, but I couldn’t spot the man I was looking for; from where I stood they all looked the same. A young woman in a green dress lost control and burst through the rifles holding us back. Naturally the guards didn’t allow her to pass; no, they went out and grabbed her, and she started rolling in the dirt and crying, ‘He hadn’t even been a soldier for three months . . . not even . . .’ Two of them carried her back. Her hair was all mussed up and hanging over her face. After God knows how long they finally led those of us wearing badges over. The more we walked, the closer we got, and the closer we got, the harder it was for me to spot Little Baldy’s daddy. My eyes started to blur . . . the weeping all around made me panicky . . .
“Some of them had cigarettes dangling from their mouths, some were cursing, some were even laughing. So this was the stuff soldiers are made of. I guess you could say that soldiers don’t give a damn what happens to them.
“I looked them over; Little Baldy’s daddy wasn’t there for sure. That’s strange! I grabbed hold of an officer’s belt: ‘What about Chiang Wu-yün?’ ‘What’s he to you?’ ‘He’s my husband.’ I put Little Baldy down on the ground and the little pest started to cry. Pah! I slapped him across the mouth, then I began hitting the officer: ‘You’ve destroyed him! What have you done with him?’
“ ‘Good for you, lady, we’re with you.’ The prisoners shouted as one, stamping their feet. When the officer saw what was happening, he quickly called some soldiers over to drag me away. ‘It’s not only Chiang Wu-yün,’ they said. ‘There are a couple of others who haven’t been sent over yet; they’ll be over in a day or two on the next ship. Those three were the ringleaders of the deserters.’
“I put the child on my back and left the riverbank, with the badge still pinned on, and walked off. My legs were all rubbery. The streets were filled with people who had come over to watch the excitement. I was walking behind the garrison buildings, and there at the base of the garrison wall sat the old man with the bundle, but now he had only one left. ‘Uncle, didn’t your son come either?’ I asked him. He just arched his back, chewed on the ends of his beard, and wept.
“He told me, ‘Since he was one of the ringleaders, they carried out their capital punishment on the spot.’ At the time I didn’t know what ‘capital punishment’ meant.”
At this point she begins to ramble.
“Three years later, when Little Baldy was eight, I sent him to the beancurd shop . . . that’s what I did. I go to see him twice a year and he comes home once every two years, but then only for ten days or a couple of weeks.”
The carter has left the side of the cart and is walking along the berm, his hands clasped behind his back. With the sun off to the side, he casts a long shadow which makes a huge fork with every step he takes.
“I have a family too . . .” The words seem to fall from his lips, as though he is speaking to the woods.
“Huh?” As Wu-yün Sao loosens her scarf a little, the wrinkles above her nose quiver momentarily. “Really? You’re out of the army, and still you don’t go home?”
“What’s that? Go home, you say! You mean go home with nothing but the clothes on my back?” The carter sneers as he rubs his nose hard with his coarse hand.
“Haven’t you put a little something away these past few years?”
“That’s exactly why I deserted, to make a little money if I could.” He cinches his belt tighter.
I put on another cotton jacket and Wu-yün Sao throws a blanket over her shoulders.
“Um! Still another mile to go. Now if we had a cart horse . . . um! We could be there in no time flat! An ox is something else. This beast just plods along with no spirit, and it’s no good at all on a battlefield.”
The carter opens his straw bag and takes out a padded jacket. Pieces of straw fall off and swirl in the wind. He puts it on.
The winds at dusk are just like February winds. In the rear of the cart the carter opens the jug of wine that my mother’s father had brought for Grandfather.
“Here, drink! As they say, ‘In the midst of a journey open a jug of wine, for the poor love to gamble.’ Now have some.” After drinking several cups, he opens his shirt and exposes his chest. He is chewing on some pieces of jerky, causing froth to gather at the corners of his mouth. Whenever a gust of wind blows across his face, the bubbles on his lips expand a little.
As we near the town, through the gray overcast we can tell only that it is not a patch of open country, or a mountain range, or the seashore, or a forest. The closer our cart comes, the more the town seems to recede. Our hands and faces feel sticky. Another look ahead, and this time even the end of the road is lost from view.
The carter puts the wine jug away and picks up his whip. By now even the ox’s horns have become indistinct.
“Haven’t you returned home even once since you left? And you don’t hear from them either?” Apparently the carter doesn’t hear her. He whistles to urge the ox on. Then he jumps down from the cart and walks along up front with the animal. An empty cart with a red lantern hanging from its axle comes rolling up to us.
“A heavy fog!”
“You said it!”
The carters thus hail each other in passing.
“A heavy fog in March . . . that means either a war or a year of famine . . .” The two carts pass on the road.
* The distinction between maternal and paternal relations is marked in Chinese kinship terms. In this translation, the prefix “alter-” is used to distinguish maternal grandfather from paternal grandfather.
† The term sao designates the wife of one’s older brother, but it is also used loosely in informal familiar address to any middle-aged woman.