Lo Hua-sheng, born Hsu Ti-shan, was the son of a Chinese official in Taiwan. When Taiwan was ceded to Japan as a result of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, his whole family moved back to their native province of Tukien. Although his family was of the gentry, it was economically on the decline. As a child, he was exposed to both Buddhist and Christian beliefs, and that may account for his preoccupation with religion when he reached adulthood. He received enough education in his teens to become a teacher at a provincial school at age nineteen. Later, he received missionary support to attend Yenching University, where he was graduated in 1920. Even as a student he was an active writer, and he was one of the twelve founding members of the Literary Association. Between 1923 and 1926, he studied comparative religion at Columbia University and Oxford University, earning his M.A. from Columbia in 1923. Upon his return to China, he taught at the top universities in Peking—Yenching, Peking, and Tsinghua. Lo Hua-sheng’s interests ranged far beyond literature. In this period, he wrote several books on religion, Indian literature, and even Sino-British diplomatic history. In the early 1930s he went to Southeast Asia and taught there briefly. The last several years of his life were spent in Hong Kong, where he taught Chinese literature at Hong Kong University until his death from a heart attack at age forty-nine.
Lo Нuа-sheng’s writings are unique in that they reflect his belief in religious ideals and in the human spirit. The Buddhist concept that all human beings, all living creatures in fact, possess equal worth is present in his stories. His adopting the pen-name Lo Hua-sheng, “Peanuts,” refleets his humble attitude toward himself. The characters in his stories may be downtrodden and may be trapped in seemingly hopeless circumstances, but with faith, patience, resilience, and good will, their human spirit and dignity triumph in the end. It is significant that Lo Hua-sheng tended to choose women for his protagonists. It is extremely difficult to portray characters with the above-mentioned qualities who could at the same time be realistic and convincing. Lo Hua-sheng does not totally succeed at this, but comes powerfully close to it in his final story, “Yü Kuan,” published posthumously. His literary output consists of a dozen or so short stories. The mainland Chinese literature journal Chinese Literature has published several of Lo Hua-sheng’s stories in translation, including “Big Sister Liu” (originally “Ch՛un-t’ao,” Chinese Literature, 1957, no. 1). “Merchant’s Wife” (Shang-jen fu, 1921) and “Yü-kuan” (1939) are available in English translation in Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas, edited by Joseph Lau, С. T. Hsia, and Leo Ou-fan Lee. “Garbage Gleaner” is a second and improved translation of “Ch’un-t’ao”
THE SUMMER WAS especially hot in Peking that year. Although the street lamps were already lit, the man who sold sour plum cider at the corner of the lane was still clanging his brass bowls, like the accompaniment of the women ballad singers. A woman carrying a basket full of scrap paper on her back passed by the vendor. Her face was hidden beneath the battered straw hat, but as she hailed him, her even white teeth flashed momentarily. The burden weighed heavily on her back, keeping her from straightening up at the waist; just like a camel, she walked sternly step by step to her gate.
The gate opened into a small compound. The woman lived in two dilapidated rooms. Most of the compound was scattered with rubble. By her door was an arbor of cucumbers and some corn. Beneath her window there was still a row of tuberoses. Some rotted beams under the arbor were probably the most prized seats of her home. As she reached the gate, a man came out and helped her lay aside her heavy load.
“Wife, you are late today.”
The woman looked at him, as if surprised at his words. “What do you mean? You’ve gone mad thinking of a wife. Don’t call me wife, I tell you.” As she entered the room, she took off her battered straw hat and hung it behind the door. Then, with a bamboo ladle she scooped some water from a vat, several ladlefuls in succession, and drank until she ran out of breath. She stood for a moment, gasping, then pulled the basket aside and sat down on a rotted beam in the arbor.
The man’s name was Liu Hsiang-kao. He was about the same age as the woman—thirtyish. The woman’s surname was also Liu. Except for Hsiang-kao, no one else knew that her given name was Ch’un-t’ao. The neighbors called her Big Sister Liu, the scrap collector, because she made her living by rummaging through rubbish heaps in the streets and lanes, sometimes calling out as she went along, “Matches for your scrap paper!” Though she swallowed dust from morning until night, under the blazing sun or out in the cold wind, she always loved cleanliness. Be it winter or summer, each day when she came home she always bathed and washed her face. It was always Hsiang-kao who prepared the water for her.
Hsiang-kao was a graduate of a rural elementary school. Four years earlier soldiers had marauded his village and his whole family had scattered and fled. On the road he met Ch’un-t’ao, who was also a refugee. They traveled together several hundred It and then went their separate ways.
She had somehow followed some people to Peking. A Western woman wanted to hire a fresh, innocent country girl as an Amah, and she was recommended for the job. The mistress was impressed with Ch’un-t’ao’s cleanliness and robust grace and became very fond of her. Ch’un-t’ao on her part could not get used to seeing her masters eat beef, smear butter on their steamed buns, and even add milk to their tea. They exuded an odor that she couldn’t get accustomed to. One day, her master asked her to take their child to the zoo. It dawned on her then that they all smelled like the tiger and wolf cages. She became more and more troubled in her heart. In less than two months, she quit her job. Then she went to an ordinary household, but country folks are not used to being bossed around and cannot stand to be scolded, so she did not stay there very long either. When her money was about to run out, she decided to try her hand at collecting scrap paper. With this occupation she managed to eke out a living from day to day.
The story of Hsiang-kao after he and Ch’un-t’ao parted ways was quite simple. He went to Chochou, but could not find any of his relatives. Erstwhile friends, hearing that he had come as a penniless refugee, were reluctant to have him stay with them. Somehow, he too drifted to Peking. He became acquainted with Old Wu, the sour plum cider vendor at the street corner. Old Wu loaned him the run-down living quarters in the compound, with the understanding that when someone came to rent the rooms, he would have to find himself another place. He had no job, so he helped Old Wu keep his accounts and sell the cider. He received no cash for this service, but he was provided with the two rooms plus two meals a day.
Ch’un-t’ao’s scrap paper collecting business gradually picked up, but the people with whom she was staying would not allow her to store her merchandise there. So she looked for another place along the north city wall. When she knocked at a gate, it was answered by none other than her old acquaintance, Hsiang-kao. Without much ado, she rented the rooms from Old Wu and let Hsiang-kao stay to help her. That was three years ago. With his knowledge of a few characters, Hsiang-kao could help Ch’un-t’ao sort out the scrap papers she collected. He was able to pick out those that were valuable, such as inscribed paintings, or scrolls and letters written by prominent generals and ministers. With the two of them working together, the business improved. Sometimes Hsiang-kao also tried to teach Ch’un-t’ao to read, but without much success. As his own knowledge was limited, he found it very hard to explain the characters.
For the several years that they lived together, they got along quite well. Even though they did not enjoy the connubial bliss of a pair of mandarin ducks, it could be said that they led the cheerful life of a pair of common sparrows.
As Ch’un-t’ao now entered the room, Hsiang-kao followed her with a bucket of water. “Hurry and wash up, wife,” he chirped, “I’ve been starving waiting for you. Tonight let’s have something good—onion griddle cake, how about that? If that sounds good to you, I’ll buy the fixings.”
“Wife, wife! Stop calling me that, OK?” Ch’un-t’ao became impatient.
“If you promise to answer just once, tomorrow I’ll go to a second-hand shop at T’iench’iao and buy you a nice straw hat. Didn’t you say that you need a new one?” Hsiang-kao pleaded.
“I don’t like to hear it.”
He knew that she was getting annoyed, so he changed the subject and asked, “What would you like to eat then?”
“Whatever you’d like to eat, I’ll make it for you. Go!”
Hsiang-kao bought a few stalks of onions and a bowl of sesame sauce. As he placed them on the table, Ch’un-t’ao, already bathed, came out holding a red card.
“This must be some big shot’s marriage certificate. This time, don’t give it to Old Li from the Little Market. Have someone take it to the Peking Hotel; we can sell it there for a better price.”
“It’s ours! Otherwise I wouldn’t have the right to call you wife, would I? I’ve tried to teach you the characters for a couple of years now, and you can’t even recognize your own name!”
“Who can recognize so many characters? Cut out this wife! wife! nonsense. I don’t like to hear it. Now who wrote this?”
“I did. This morning a policeman came to check up on the tenants. He said that they are tightening up the martial law these days. Every house has to report exactly how many there are in the house-hold. Old Wu said that we could save ourselves a lot of trouble if we were reported as husband and wife. The policeman also said that it wouldn’t do to register a man and a woman living together. So I filled in the blank marriage certificate that we didn’t sell last time. I put down that we were married in 1931.”
“What! 1931? I didn’t even know you then! Aren’t you making a big mess here! We haven’t kowtowed to Heaven and Earth together, nor have we exchanged wedding toasts. How can you say that we’re husband and wife?”
Even though Ch’un-t’ao resisted the idea, she spoke calmly. She had changed into a pair of blue trousers topped with a white tunic. Although she wore no make-up, her face exuded a natural grace. If she was interested in finding a husband, the matchmaker could easily pass her off as a twenty-three or twenty-four-year-old widow. She could have commanded a bride price of at least one hundred and eighty dollars.
Smiling, she folded up the card and said, “Don’t be crazy. What a marriage certificate! Let’s make our griddle cakes and eat.” She lifted the stove lid and thrust the card into the flames, then she walked to the table and started to knead the dough.
“You can burn it if you like,” Hsiang-kao said with a grin, “but the policeman has registered us as husband and wife. If an inspector comes, couldn’t I just say the certificate was lost on the road while we were fleeing? From now on I am going to call you wife. Old Wu recognizes our marriage, and so does the policeman, so I’m still going to call you wife whether you like it or not. Wife! Wife! Tomorrow I’ll buy you a new straw hat. Ayee! I can’t afford a ring.”
“If you don’t stop calling me that, I’ll get mad.”
Hsiang-kao was not as high-spirited as he had been moments before. “It looks like you’re still thinking of that Li Mao,” he muttered to himself, not intending for Ch’un-t’ao to hear him, but she did.
“Me? Think of him? Husband and wife for just one night, then not a single word for four or five years. Isn’t that nonsense?” She had once told Hsiang-kao what had happened on her wedding day. As the wedding sedan chair entered her husband’s gate, even before the guests had a chance to sit down for the reception, people came in from two neighboring villages warning that a big troop of soldiers had arrived and were nabbing men from everywhere to dig trenches. At this news, everyone took flight. The new couple hurriedly bundled up a few belongings and fled with all the others toward the west. They walked all day and all night. The second night on the road, they suddenly heard people ahead shouting, “The bandits are coming, hide quickly!” In the mad scramble, everyone rushed to get out of sight, and no one could attend to anyone else. When day broke, about a dozen people were missing, Ch’un-t’ao’s husband, Li Mao, among them.
“I think he must have been taken by the bandits, and maybe they killed him long ago. Well, forget it! Let’s not bring him up any more.!”
Ch’un-t’ao finished making the griddle cakes and set them on the table. Hsiang-kao scooped a little bowl of cucumber soup from the pot. Having nothing to say, they ate their meal in silence. After the meal, they sat as usual in the arbor and chatted. There were flickers of light between the cucumber leaves. The cool breeze had brought the fireflies down to the arbor, like a myriad of shooting stars. The night-blooming tuberoses gradually opened and filled the courtyard with their perfume.
“How lovely they smell.” Hsiang-kao plucked a flower and placed it in Ch’un-t’ao’s hair.
“Don’t spoil my tuberoses. Wearing a flower at night—I’m not a prostitute!” She took the flower out, sniffed its fragrance, and placed it on the wooden seat.
“Why were you late coming home tonight?” asked Hsiang-kao.
“Huh! Today I did a good piece of business! As I was about to come home this afternoon, I passed the Houmen Arch and saw a street cleaner pushing a big cart of papers, so I asked him where he had gotten them. He said that they had been thrown out at the Shenwu Palace Gate. I saw that there were a lot of red and yellow document papers and asked him if he would sell them to me. He said that if I really wanted them, he’d give me a bargain. Look here!” She pointed to the big basket under the window. “I paid only a dollar for that basketful. But I’m not sure if we’ll get our money’s worth. We can look them over tomorrow.”
“You can’t go wrong on stuff from the Palace. It’s things from the schools and the foreign business offices that I dread. Not only are their papers heavy, but they also smell bad. We can never be sure of what we’re getting.”
“In these past few years, all the shops have been using foreign newspapers for wrapping. I can’t imagine who all these people are that read the foreign newspapers. They are heavy to handle and not worth that much money,” said Ch’un-t’ao.
“More and more people are reading foreign books, and everyone wants to read foreign newspapers, so they can do business with foreigners.”
“Let them do business with foreigners, we’ll stick to collecting foreign wastepaper.”
“Looks like everything will have foreign labels from now on. Ricksha pullers are pulling ‘foreign’ rickshas, donkey drivers will want ‘foreign’ donkeys, the next thing you know there will also be ‘foreign’ camels!” Hsiang-kao coaxed a laugh out of Ch’un-t’ao.
“You shouldn’t mock other people. If you had the money, you’d also want to learn to read foreign books, and get yourself a foreign wife.”
“Heaven knows! I’ll never be rich. Even if I get rich I wouldn’t want a foreign wife. If I were rich, I’d go back to the country and buy myself a few acres of land. We could till it together.”
Ever since Ch’un-t’ao fled from her home and lost her husband, the word “country” always had bad associations for her. “You’re still thinking of going back?” she countered. “I’m afraid that even before you buy the land, you and your money would have been gobbled up! Even if I were starving I wouldn’t go back.”
“I’m talking about going back to my village, Chinhsien.”
“These days, the country is the same wherever you go. If it’s not marauded by the soldiers, then it’s raided. If it’s not raided by the bandits, then it’s the Japanese. Who dares to go back? We’re far better off staying here and collecting scrap paper. What we need is one more helper. If we had one more person at home to replace you in sorting out the papers, you could set up a stall by day and sell directly to customers. We’d do away with the middleman, and we’d be less likely to pass over choice items.”
“Three more years as apprentice at this trade and I’ll be set. If we let any choice items pass, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. I’ve learned plenty these past few months. Now I know pretty well which stamps are valuable and which are not. I’m also getting the hang of spotting the writings of famous men. Remember that piece by K’ang Yu-wei I picked out of the pile the other day? Guess how much I sold it for today!” He gestured proudly with his thumb and index finger. “Eighty cents!”
“What did I tell you! If we can pick eighty cents out of the scraps every day, we’ve got it made. What’s the point of going back to the country? Isn’t that just looking for trouble?” Ch’un-t’ao’s happy voice sounded like the oriole’s warble in late spring. “I bet we’ll find all kinds of goodies in the pile I brought home today. I hear that there will be more tomorrow. This man told me to wait for him at the Houmen Arch first thing in the morning. Things are being cleaned out at the Palace these days. They are packing up and moving south, and discarding a lot of papers from the offices. I noticed that sacks of them have been thrown out at the Tunghua Palace Gate as well. Tomorrow you should go down there and find out about it too.”
They chatted in this high-spirited vein. Before they knew it, it was past ten o’clock. Ch’un-t’ao stood up and stretched. “I’m tired, let’s get some rest.”
Hsiang-kao followed her inside. Against the window there was a brick oven-bed wide enough for three to sleep on. In the dim light of the oil lamp, two pictures were faintly visible on the wall. One was of the Eight Fairies playing mahjong, and the other was a cigarette advertisement poster. If Ch’un-t’ao took off her battered straw hat and put on a decent dress—not necessarily one from a fancy shop in Shanghai, even a second-hand Chinese gown from the T’iench’iao market would do—and sat on a grassy knoll, she wouldn’t look much different from the fashionable girl in the advertisement. Hsiang-kao often teased Ch’un-t’ao, saying that it was her photograph.
She got up on the bed and undressed. Then she pulled up a thin coverlet and lay face down on one side of the bed. Hsiang-kao, as usual, gave her legs and back a massage. And as usual, she gradually relaxed and smiled faintly under the flickering light of the oil lamp. Half asleep, she murmured, “Hsiang-kao, go to bed too. Don’t work tonight, we’ll have to get up early in the morning.”
Soon she made a steady, faint snoring sound, and Hsiang-kao put out the lamp.
At daybreak the man and the woman both got up promptly, and like a pair of ravens searching for food, went flying hastily to their own work.
As the midday cannon sounded and the gongs and drums of the Ten Monasteries Lake reached their peak, Ch’un-t’ao came through the Houmen Arch carrying a basket of scrap paper on her back, and headed west toward Puya Bridge. As she neared the marketplace, she heard someone calling her from the side of the road, “Ch’un-t’ao, Ch’un-t’ao.”
Even Hsiang-kao called her by this pet name only once in a blue moon. Since she had left her village four or five years before, no one had ever called her that in public.
“Ch’un-t’ao, Ch’un-t’ao, don’t you recognize me?”
As if by reflex she turned her head and saw a beggar sitting on the roadside. The piteous call had come from a mouth buried under a heavy beard. He could not get up, because he had no legs. Draped on him was a tattered grey army uniform, with all the metal buttons rusted. His skin showed through the split shoulder seams, and a nondescript army cap sat askew on his head, its insignia long gone.
Ch’un-t’ao stared at him, speechless.
“Ch’un-t’ao, I’m Li Mao.”
She took two steps forward. Grimy tears ran from the man’s eyes down his unkempt beard. Her heart beat wildly. For a long time she could not utter a word. At last she said, “Mao, are you really a beggar? How did you lose your legs?”
“Ai, it’s a long story. How long have you been in Peking? What are you selling?”
“Selling? Why, I collect scrap paper. Let’s go home, and then we can talk.”
She hired a ricksha, raised Li Mao onto it, and also placed her basket in it. She herself went to the back and pushed along. At Tesheng Gate the ricksha puller helped her put Li Mao down. As they entered the lane, Old Wu was there clanging his small brass bowl.
“Big Sister Liu, you’re early today, good business, eh?”
“A relative has come from the country,” she replied.
Li Mao crawled like a circus bear, using his hands and dragging his mutilated legs. Ch’un-t’ao unlocked the door and guided Li Mao in. She took out a suit of Hsiang-kao’s clothing, and as Hsiang-kao did for her every day, she went to the well and drew two buckets of water. She filled a small wash basin and told Li Mao to bathe; then she gave him another basin so he could wash his face. She helped him to a seat on the brick bed and went into the next room to bathe herself.
“Ch’un-t’ao, this place of yours is nice and clean. Do you live here by yourself?”
“My partner lives here, too,” she answered with no hesitation.
“Are you in business?”
“Didn’t I tell you I collect scrap paper?”
“Collect scrap paper? How much can you earn in a day?”
“Stop asking questions about me. Tell me about yourself first.”
Ch’un-t’ao dumped out the bath water. She came back inside, combed her hair, and sat down opposite Li Mao.
“Ch’un-t’ao, ah, it’s too long. I’ll just tell you the bare outline. Since that night when the bandits captured me, I hated their guts because they made me lose you. I waited for my chance, then I grabbed one of their rifles and killed two of them. Then I ran for my life. I managed to flee to Shenyang, just as they were recruiting for the border guards, so I joined up. All through the next three years I kept trying to get some news from home, but everyone said that our village had been razed. I don’t even know who has the title deed for our bit of land. I had forgotten to take it when we fled. So, in those few years, I never asked for leave to go home to have a look around. I was afraid that if I did, I ’d lose even the few dollars that I was earning each month.
“I settled down to being a soldier, living from month to month just for my pay. As for becoming an officer, I didn’t dare hope for that. I must have been born unlucky. At the end of last year, the colonel of our regiment issued an order that any man who could hit the target nine times in a row would get double pay and be promoted. No one in our regiment could hit the target more than four times in a row, and even those did not hit the bull’s eye. But shot after shot I hit the bull’s eye, nine times in a row. Not only that, with the remaining bullet, I thought I’d really show my stuff. To show how good I was, I turned around, bent over and fired from between my legs, and sure enough I hit it dead in the center. I was so pleased with myself at the time.
“When the colonel sent for me, I prepared to receive at least some praise. Instead, the last thing I expected happened. The ass became very angry at me. He swore that I must be a bandit to be able to shoot so well, and wanted to have me shot. Nobody but a bandit could shoot so well, he said. My sergeant and my lieutenant both pleaded for me; they guaranteed that I was not a bad lot. Well, that saved me from being shot, but they took away my rank as a private, and wouldn’t even let me be a second-class private. The colonel said an officer is bound to hurt the feelings of his men sometimes, and with a sharpshooter like me in the ranks, he could be shot in the back during a battle. Although he’d be considered killed in action, it still wouldn’t be worth it to be killed for someone’s revenge. No one could say anything to that. They could only advise me to leave the army and look for another livelihood.
“Not long after I was discharged, Shenyang fell to the Japanese. That dog of a colonel led his troops to surrender without a fight. When I heard that, I really got furious. I swore I’d get the bastard, so I joined the Volunteers. We fought around Haich’eng for a couple of months, but then we had to give ground gradually and retreat to south of the pass. Two months ago we were fighting northeast of P’ingku. I was on patrol duty when I ran into the enemy. I was wounded in both legs. I could still walk, so I took cover behind a boulder and killed a couple of them. When I couldn’t hold out any longer, I threw my rifle away and crawled toward the fields. I waited one day, two days, but still no sign of the Red Cross or the Red Salvation. The wounds were swelling badly and I couldn’t move. I had nothing to eat or drink. I just lay there and waited for death. Luckily a big cart passed by, and the driver helped me up and rushed me to an army first-aid tent. They took one look at me, put me in a car, and sent me to a hospital in Peking. It was already the third day. The doctor opened up the bandage and said that my legs were too far gone. There was no way but to amputate.
“I stayed in the hospital for more than a month. I recovered but my legs were gone. I had no relatives here that I knew of, and I couldn’t go back to the village either. Even if I could, with no legs, what could I do on the land? I pleaded with the hospital to take me on and give me some odd jobs to do. But the doctor said that the hospital treats people but cannot support them or find jobs for them. There is no home for disabled veterans in this city, so what could I do but beg on the streets? Today is only the third day. In the past two days, I’d been thinking that if this is what life is going to be I might as well hang myself.”
Ch’un-t’ao listened intently, tears welling up in her eyes. She was speechless. Li Mao wiped the sweat from his brow, and paused for a while.
“Ch’un-t’ao, what about you? This place of yours, although it is cramped and nothing like our broad open country, it looks like you’re not suffering too much hardship.”
“Who’s not suffering? Even if things are bad, a person still has to find a way to live. Aren’t there people who put on smiles even at the gate of hell? These past few years I have been collecting scrap paper for a living. A man by the name of Liu is my partner. The two of us share everything and we can get by OK.”
“You and this person Liu live here together?”
“Yes, we both sleep on this brick bed.” Ch’un-t’ao did not hesi-tate a bit, as if she had made up her mind on the matter a long time ago.
“Are you married to him then?”
“No, we just live together.”
“Hm, in that case, you mean you are still my wife?”
“No, I’m not anybody’s wife.”
Li Mao’s pride as a husband was wounded. But what was there to say? His eyes were fixed on the ground, not that he was looking at anything of course, but just that he was somewhat afraid to look at his wife. At last he spoke in a low voice, “People would laugh at me and call me a living cuckold.”
“Cuckold?” As the woman heard his words, her expression stiffened, but her attitude remained calm. “Only people with money and status are afraid of being called cuckolds. A man like you, who gives a damn? No one even knows you’re alive. Cuckold or not, what’s the difference? I’m on my own now. Whatever I do can’t have any effect on you.”
“But we’re still husband and wife after all. As the saying goes, One night of marriage, a hundred days of affection.”’
“I don’t know anything about any ‘hundred days of affection,’” Ch’un-t’ao cut in. “If you count the days of affection, more than ten ‘hundred days of affection’ have passed. No word of each other for four or five years . . . I’m sure you never dreamt that we’d meet up like this. I was here all alone, I had to live and I needed a helper. After living with him like this for all these years, if we are to speak of affection, naturally I don’t feel the same for you. Today I brought you home because our fathers were friends, and we’re still from the same village. You may claim that I am your wife, but I shall deny you. Even if you take me to court, I’m not so sure you’ll win.”
Li Mao fumbled at the pouch by his belt, as if looking for something. He stopped and stared at Ch’un-t’ao, and his hand dropped back and rested on the mat.
Li Mao was silent. Ch’un-t’ao wept. Neither uttered a word. The shadows quietly lengthened.
Li Mao finally gathered his thoughts.
“All right, Ch’un-t’ao, have it your way. We both know I’m crippled, so even if you are willing to come back to me, I couldn’t support you.”
“I’m not throwing you over just because you’re crippled. But I’ve grown too attached to him and can’t give him up either. Why don’t we all just live here, no one needs to think about who is supporting whom, how about it?” Ch’un-t’ao, too, spoke what was in her heart.
Li Mao’s stomach rumbled faintly.
“Oh, we’ve been talking here all this time and I haven’t even asked you what you would like to eat. You must be very hungry.”
“Anything would be fine, whatever you have. I haven’t had a bite to eat since last night. I’ve only had water.”
“I’ll go buy something.” As Ch’un-t’ao was hurrying out the door, Hsiang-kao strode gaily into the courtyard, and the two collided squarely in the arbor.
“What are you so happy about?” she asked. “And how come you’re home so early today?”
“I did some terrific business today! This morning I went through that basket you brought home last night, and right in there was a bundle of petitions sent by the Korean Emperor in the Ming Dynasty—worth at least fifty dollars apiece, and we’ve got ten of them! I brought just a few sheets down to the shops to see what price they can fetch from customers, then I’ll bring out the rest later. And then there were two documents bearing the Tuan-ming Palace seal. Some expert said that they are from the Sung Dynasty and offered sixty dollars for them right off, but I was afraid to sell it, afraid that I’d be taken for too low a price. I brought them back for you to take a look. See here.” He opened the bundle and took out the petitions and old documents.
“This is the imperial seal from the Tuan-ming Palace.” He pointed to the stamped imprint. “If it weren’t for this seal, I sure wouldn’t have seen anything special in this piece of paper; even fine foreign paper is whiter than this. Those Palace officials must be as blind as I am.” Although Ch’un-t’ao looked at the paper, she still could not see the value in it.
“We’re lucky they’re not more sharp-eyed; otherwise, how could people like us make a couple of bucks now and then?” Hsiang-kao put the documents back into the bundle along with the petitions. Grinning, he said to Ch’un-t’ao, “I say, wife . . .”
Ch’un-t’ao gave him a sharp look and said, “I told you not to call me wife.”
Hsiang-kao didn’t pay any attention to her and went straight on. “Well, you’re home early too. Business must have been good.”
“This morning I bought another basketful, just like yesterday’s.”
“Didn’t you say that there was a lot more?”
“They had all been sent to the Morning Market to be sold in the country for wrapping peanuts!”
“Never mind, after all, we’ve done well today. It’s the first time we’ve done over thirty dollars’ worth of business in a day. Say, it’s not often that we’re home together in the afternoon. Let’s go to the Ten Monasteries Lake for some fun. It’s a nice cool spot to spend a hot day. How about it?”
Without waiting for an answer, he entered the house and put the bundle on the table. Ch’un-t’ao followed him in. “We can’t, we have a visitor today.” As she spoke she raised the door curtain to the inner room and nodded to Hsiang-kao. “Go on in.”
He went in, and she followed. “This is my husband,” she said to Hsiang-kao; then to Li Mao whe said, “This is my present partner.”
The two men stared at each other, eyeball to eyeball. Both remained speechless; even the two flies on the window sill were still. In that silent spell, the shadows inched on.
“Your name, sir?” Hsiang-kao knew it very well, but he followed the usual courtesy just the same.
At last they began to chat.
“I’ll go buy something to eat.” Ch’un-t’ao then turned to Hsiang-kao. “You haven’t eaten yet either, have you? How about griddle cakes?”
“I’ve eaten already. Stay home, I’ll go and buy them.”
The woman pulled Hsiang-kao to a seat on the brick bed. “You stay home and chat with our guest,” she insisted with a smile, then went out herself.
The two men remained in the room. In such a situation, either they had to love each other like old friends from the start, or they would have to fight to the death. Fortunately, the former turned out to be the case—and it wasn’t because Li Mao could not fight. Just because he had lost both legs didn’t mean he was helpless. It must be remembered that Hsiang-kao’s only exercise in the past four or five years had been wielding a pen; if Li Mao used all his strength he could easily have crushed Hsiang-kao to death. If he had a gun, it would have been an even simpler matter; one crook of the trigger finger and Hsiang-kao would have crossed the bridge to the nether world.
Li Mao told Hsiang-kao that Ch’un-t’ao’s father was a well-to-do landowner in their village. His own father managed the donkeys and did other odd jobs for that household. Because he could shoot so well, Ch’un-t’ao’s father was afraid that he would go off and join the army. To make sure that Li Mao would stay and protect the local villagers, the old man gave his daughter to him in marriage. This was something Ch’un-t’ao had never before told Hsiang-kao. Li Mao went on to tell Hsiang-kao about the conversation he had with Ch’un-t’ao that day. By and by, their talk pressed in on the issue that weighed on both their minds.
“Now that you are united again, of course I must step aside,” said Hsiang-kao reluctantly.
“No, we have been separated for such a long time; and what’s more I’m a cripple now, I can’t support her. It wouldn’t be of any use. You two have lived together these past few years, why break it up? I can go to a home for the disabled. I heard that there is one around here; and with the right connections, I may be able to get in.”
Hsiang-kao was surprised to hear these words. He never expected a rough soldier like Li Mao to harbor such a noble spirit. Although his heart wanted to accept Li Mao’s magnanimity, his mouth continued to refuse the idea. Such is the trickery of “propriety” understood by all who have studied the Books.
“That wouldn’t be right, I couldn’t live with myself if I came to be known as wife-snatcher. And looking at it from your angle, how can you willingly let your wife live with someone else?”
“I can write out a divorce paper for her, or a bill of sale for you. Either one will do,” Li Mao said with an earnest smile.
“Divorce? She hasn’t done anything wrong; you can’t divorce her! I won’t have her losing face either. Sale? Where do I have the money to buy her? All my money is hers.”
“I don’t want any money.”
“What do you want then?”
“Nothing, I don’t want anything.”
“Then why bother to write a bill of sale?”
“Because a verbal agreement has no validity. If anyone has regrets later, we’d have a terrible mess. It’s better that we be a little petty now, to be sure that we’ll be honorable later.”
At this point, Ch’un-t’ao returned with the griddle cakes. Seeing that the two men had hit it off, she felt very happy.
“Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about getting a third person to help out. Now by a lucky coincidence Brother Mao has come on the scene. Since he cannot move about, he’d be perfect for managing things at home, sorting paper, and whatnot. You can make the rounds outside selling the goods. I’ll stick to collecting the paper. The three of us can set up a business!” Ch’un-t’ao came out with this idea of her own.
Ignoring the usual courtesies, Li Mao reached for a griddle cake and stuffed it into his mouth. He was so starved, he had no time to speak now.
“Two men and one woman start up a business? And you put up the capital?” Hsiang-kao asked the unnecessary.
“Why? Don’t you want to?” It was the woman’s turn to ask.
“No, no, I don’t have any objections.” Hsiang-kao could not bring himself to say what was weighing on his heart.
“What can I do? What use would I be, sitting in the house all day?” Li Mao was rather hesitant too. He could guess what was on Hsiang-kao’s mind.
“Don’t you two worry about it, I’ve got it all figured out.”
These words didn’t set Hsiang-kao’s mind at ease; he moistened his lips, then swallowed hard. Li Mao continued eating, but his eyes were fixed on Ch’un-t’ao, waiting to hear her plan.
Collecting scrap paper was probably an occupation in which women played the leading role. She had already decided that Li Mao would stay home and pick out the used postage stamps and the picture cards from the empty cigarette packs. That job required only hands and eyes; be could easily do it. She figured, if Li Mao could pick out a hundred-odd picture cards from cigarette packs every day, the income from it would cover his food. And if he could in addition find two or three rare stamps every day, he would be doing pretty well. The sale of foreign cigarettes in the city came to about ten thousand packs a day; for her to collect one percent of those wrappers should not be too difficult. As for Hsiang-kao, she would still have him sort out famous peoples’ letters and other relatively valuable things. He was, needless to say, already an expert of some sort and could carry on without any guidance. Ch’un-t’ao herself would continue the most strenuous job. Unless there was a really heavy rainstorm, she would go out collecting. The hot sun and cold wind would not keep her home; she would work all the harder in bad weather, because some of the other scrap collectors would not be out giving her competition on such days.
Ch’un-t’ao glanced at the sun through the window. She knew that it was not yet two o’clock. She went out into the courtyard, put on her battered straw hat, then peered into the room and instructed Hsiang-kao, “I’m going to find out whether anything more is being thrown out at the Palace. Stay home and look after him. I’ll be back tonight; we can discuss this some more then”
Hsiang-kao knew he could not hold her back, so he let her go.
Several days went by quietly. But two men and one woman sleeping on the same brick bed would inevitably be awkward. Societies based on the polyandrous system could never become very wide-spread. One reason is the fact that the average man cannot rid himself of the primitive concepts regarding his rights as husband and father. It is on the basis of these concepts that our customs, habits, and moral precepts were formed. But the fact is, only the parasites and exploiters in our society observe these so-called customs and traditions. As for those who make their living with their own sinews, they have very little regard for these things.
Take Ch’un-t’ao, for instance. She was neither a madam nor a lady. She would never attend a diplomat’s ball, nor would she ever have the chance to play a leading role at some important social function. Her conduct was not subject to anyone’s criticism or question. Even if it was, it would not bother her one whit. The only ones who paid any attention to her were the local policemen, and they were not difficult to handle.
And the two men? Hsiang-kao admittedly had some schooling, and he had some ideas about the philosophies of the ancients. But aside from a mild interest in keeping up appearances, he felt more or less the same as Ch’un-t’ao. But ever since he and Ch’un-t’ao started living together, he had depended on her completely for his livelihood. Ch’un-t’ao’s words were like vitamins absorbed through his ears; he listened to her because that was good for him. Ch’un-t’ao told him not to be jealous, so he cast aside even the seeds of jealousy.
As for Li Mao, he was thankful for each day that Ch’un-t’ao and Hsiang-kao let him stay with them; if they regarded him as one of the family, he was more than satisfied. After all, a roving soldier is bound to lose a wife or two. His problem was also just one of appearances.
Nevertheless, although Hsiang-kao didn’t feel jealous, various kinds of uneasy feelings floated between the two men.
The heat of the summer had not let up. Ch’un-t’ao and Hsiang-kao were not the kind that went to resorts like T’angshan or Peitaihe. Regardless of the weather they had to carry on to make a living. At home, Li Mao was beginning to catch on to this trade; he could already distinguish those papers that could be sent to the toilet paper manufacturers from those that should be kept for Hsiang-kao’s appraisal.
One night when Ch’un-t’ao came home, she found Hsiang-kao waiting for her as usual. It was already late, and she could smell mosquito-repelling incense burning as she entered the courtyard.
“Since when did we start burning incense?” She directed that at Hsiang-kao who was sitting in the arbor. “You’re liable to burn the house down too if you’re not careful.”
Before Hsiang-kao could reply, Li Mao piped up, “It’s not for driving away the mosquitos, but for getting rid of the musty smell. I asked Big Brother Liu to light it. I’m thinking of sleeping outside tonight. It’s too hot in the room. With three people sleeping on the brick bed, it really gets uncomfortable.”
“And whose red card is this on the table?” Ch’un-t’ao picked it up to examine it.
“We talked it over today.” His voice came from the brick bed. “We agreed that you should belong to Big Brother Liu. That’s the contract of sale I gave him.”
“So, you two have settled this between yourselves! What makes you think you can dispose of me just like that?” She walked over to Li Mao with the red card. “Was this your idea, or his?”
“It’s both of ours. The way we’ve been living, I was miserable, and so was he.”
We’ve talked about this over and over, and you two are still hung up on it. Can’t you just forget about this husband and wife business?”
She tore the red card to shreds, and her voice became angry. “How much did you sell me for?”
“We put down some figure just to make it look decent. Only a good-for-nothing man would give away his wife for nothing.”
“So you think selling your wife would make you into a good-for-something?”
She walked out to Hsiang-kao. “Now that you have money, you think you can buy yourself a wife. If you spend just a little more …”
“Don’t talk like that, don’t talk like that,” Hsiang-kao pleaded. “Ch’un-t’ao, you don’t understand. For the past few days, the people in the trade have all been laughing at me.”
“What’s there to laugh about?”
“They laugh at . . .” Hsiang-kao couldn’t say it out loud. In reality he did not have strong feelings about the matter. Whatever Ch’un-t’ao wanted, nine cases out of ten, he would obey. He himself did not understand why she had such power over him. When she was not with him, he knew which things should be done and had definite ideas about how things were to be done; but as soon as he came face to face with her, it was as if he were before the Dowager, and he would obey her every wish.
“So you can’t forget your genteel ideas—just because you’ve studied a few books, scared to death that people will make fun of you/’
Since the earliest times, real control over the people has come not from the teachings of the sages, but from cursing tongues and blows of the whip. It is these curses and blows that have maintained the customs and habits. But through her experience, a certain attitude had taken hold in Ch’un-t’ao’s heart; she was ready to return “a curse for a curse, a blow for a blow.” She was not a weakling; she did not pick on others, but she wouldn’t take abuse from others either. All this was clearly demonstrated in the way she instructed Hsiang-kao.
“If anyone laughs at you, why don’t you let him have it? What’s there to be afraid of? Our affairs are nobody else’s business.”
Hsiang-kao had nothing to say.
“Let’s not talk about this any more. The three of us will just go on living like this, okay?”
The whole room was silent. After dinner, Hsiang-kao and Ch’un-t’ao sat in the arbor as usual, but both were exceptionally taciturn that night. They didn’t even talk about the day’s business.
Li Mao called Ch’un-t’ao into the room and urged her to become Hsiang-kao’s wife officially. He said that she did not understand a man’s heart. No man would willingly be a cuckold, nor would a man like to be known as a wife-snatcher. He took a faded red card from his waistband and handed it to Ch’un-t’ao.
“This is our marriage certificate. That night when we fled, I took it from the shrine and stuffed it inside my shirt. Take it now, and let’s just say we are no longer a couple.”
Ch’un-t’ao took the card without a word; she just stared at the torn mat on the brick bed. Involuntarily she sank down next to the crippled man,
“Mao, I can’t take this; take it back. I’m still your wife. As the saying goes, One night of marriage, a hundred days of affection.’ I can’t wrong you like this. What kind of a person would I be if I threw you over just because you can’t walk and can’t do heavy work anymore?”
She put the red card down on the brick bed.
Li Mao was deeply moved by her words. “I can see that you like him a lot,” he said softly to Ch’un-t’ao. “It’s best that you live with him after all. When we have a little more money scraped together, you can send me back to the village, or to a home for the crippled.”
“Truth to tell,” Ch’un-t’ao’s voice became very soft, “he and I have lived like a couple these past few years. We get along very well and we’ve grown fond of each other. I’d be loath to let him go now. Let’s ask him in. We’ll talk it over and see what he thinks.”
She called through the window, “Hsiang, Hsiang.” But there was no reply. She went out to look, but Hsiang-kao was already gone. This was the first time he had ever gone out at night. Ch’un-t’ao was stunned. She turned toward the room. “I’ll go look for him.”
She was sure that Hsiang-kao would not have gone very far. But when she went up to the corner of the lane and asked Old Wu, the old man said he was headed toward the main street. She went to all his usual hangouts, but Hsiang-kao was nowhere to be found. It’s easy to lose someone; once he gets out of sight, he can disappear for good, just like that. It was almost one in the morning before Ch’un-t’ao returned home dejected.
The oil lamp in the room had already gone out.
“Are you asleep? Has Hsiang-kao come back?” She struck a match, lit the lamp, and glanced over at the brick bed. Cold terror gripped her. Li Mao was hanging by his own belt from the lattice of the window. But she managed to stay coolheaded enough to climb up and untie him. Luckily he had not been there long, and there was no need to alarm the neighbors. Slowly she massaged him, and he gradually came around again.
Taking one’s own life for the sake of another is a noble deed befitting a knight-errant. If Li Mao hadn’t lost his legs, he would not have had to resort to this. But in the past few days, Li Mao had felt that there was no future for him. He had come to the conclusion that it would be best to kill himself, so that at least Ch’un-t’ao could have a better life.
Although Ch’un-t’ao did not feel love for him, she had a strong sense of duty toward him. She comforted and reassured him, talking to him until it was almost daybreak. At last he fell asleep. When Ch’un-t’ao got down from the brick bed, she found on the floor the charred remains of that red card—the marriage certificate that Li Mao had tried to give her. She stared at it transfixed.
She did not go out at all that day. In the evening she sat beside Li Mao on the brick bed.
“What are you crying about?” Ch’un-t’ao saw the hot tears rolling down Li Mao’s cheeks.
“I’ve wronged you. Why did I have to come here?”
“No one is blaming you.”
“Now he has left, and I don’t have any legs . . .”
“You mustn’t think like that; he’ll come back.”
“I hope he’ll come back too.”
Another day went by. When Ch’un-t’ao got up the next morning, she went out to the arbor and picked two cucumbers. She fixed a dish with them, and slapped together one large grilled wheat cake. She and Li Mao shared the simple meal together.
Then, as before, she put on her old battered straw hat, and carried her basket on her back.
“Since you’re depressed today, why don’t you just stay home?” Li Mao said to her through the window.
“I’d feel worse sitting around the house.”
Slowly she walked through the gate. It was her nature to work; even when she was depressed and unhappy, she still wanted to work. Chinese women seem to be concerned only with life and not with love. Advancement in life is what occupies their consciousness, whereas love is only something that stirs in the dark, stifled recesses of their hearts.
Of course, love is only an emotion, while life is tangible and real. The art of chattering about love all day long while lounging behind a silk curtain or sitting in a secluded forest glen was imported by ocean-going steamers—the Empress this or the President that. Ch’un-t’ao was not a woman of the world and she never studied with blue-eyed foreigners. She did not understand this fashionable “love.” All she knew was a dull weariness.
She wandered from one lane to another. Endless dust and endless streets engulfed this heavy-hearted woman. Now and then she shouted “Matches for scrap paper,” but at other times she would even pass up a pile of paper for which she did not have to exchange anything. Sometimes she would give someone five boxes of matches when she was supposed to give only two. After muddling through the whole day, she followed the black ravens—who only knew how to caw raucously and to snatch food—and reached home. She lifted her head and saw posted on the gate a new resident’s identification card, stating that Liu Hsiang-kao and his wife Liu were the occupants. The sight made her heart sink even deeper.
Just as she stepped into the courtyard, Hsiang-kao came running out of the house.
Her eyes opened wide in disbelief. “You’ve come back …” Her eloquent tears said the rest.
“I cannot leave you; everything I have I owe to you. I know you need my help. I can’t be so heartless.”
Actually, for the past couple of days Hsiang-kao had been wandering aimlessly. As he walked the streets, his feet felt as if they were dragging heavy fetters, with the other end of the chain fastened to Ch’un-t’ao’s wrist. What’s more, wherever he went, he ran into the cigarette ad with the girl who looked just like Ch’un-t’ao, which struck him repeatedly at the heart. He was so miserable that he didn’t even notice when he was hungry.
“I’ve talked it over with Brother Hsiang already.” It was Li Mao’s turn to speak. “He’s the head of the household here, and I’m the co-occupant.”
Hsiang-kao helped her unload her basket as always, and at the same time wiped the tears from her face. “If and when we all go back to the country, he’ll be the head of household and I’ll be the co-occupant. You are our wife.”
She did not utter a word, but went straight into the house, took off her hat and clothes, and took her daily ritual bath.
The chatter about business was resumed once again in the arbor. They talked about selling those documents from the Palace, then Hsiang-kao could set up a stall in the market, or perhaps they could move to a slightly bigger place to live.
In the room, the tiny flame of the oil lamp was suddenly snuffed out by a moth diving into it. Li Mao had long been fast asleep, for the Milky Way was already low in the sky.
“Let’s go to bed too,” said the woman.
“Get into bed first. I’ll come give you a massage in a minute.”
“There’s no need, I didn’t walk very much today. We’ll get up early in the morning; don’t forget to take care of that piece of business. We haven’t done any trading for a couple of days now.”
“Say, I forgot to give this to you. When I came back today, you hadn’t come home yet, so I made a special trip to the T’iench’iao market to buy you a hat. It’s practically brand new. Look!” He groped in the dark for the hat, and handed it to her.
“How can I see anything in this dark! In any case, I’ll put it on tomorrow.”
All was quiet in the courtyard; only the fragrance of the tuberoses wafted in the night air. In the room faint voices could be heard.
“Wife . . .”
“I don’t like to hear that, I’m not your wife.”