Ping Hsin (born Hsieh Ping-hsin, also named Hsieh Wan-ying), a native of Fukien province, was born in 1900. She is remarkable in that her fame as a woman writer of fiction, essays, and poetry has spanned the past sixty years.
Ping Hsin, the daughter of a prominent naval officer, came from a well-to-do, comfortable home. She received her high school education at a missionary school in Peking, her college education at the American associated Yenching University, and her M.A. from Wellesley College in 1926. After returning to China, she taught literature at Yenching University and married one of her colleagues, Professor Wu Wen-tsao, a sociologist. During the war, she taught in the United Southwest University in the interior. For a time she and her husband were active in the service of the Kuomintang government. In 1943, Ping Hsin became the editor-in-chief of the bi-monthly magazine Women’s Culture (Fu-nü wen-hua) founded by Mme. Chiang Kai-shek. In 1946, when her husband was appointed the Cultural Attache to the Chinese Embassy in Japan, her whole family went to live in Tokyo, returning in 1952. Nothing was heard of Ping Hsin for the next two decades. But given her class background, foreign associations, and “capitalist bourgeois mentality,” it is not hard to surmise that she suffered criticism and “rectification” in this period. We do know that she received “re-education” in the countryside in Hupei for fourteen months in 1970-71
Having been “re-educated,” Ping Hsin resurfaced in 1973 as a representative on the Japan-China Friendship Association delegation to Japan. Since that time, she has been a visible personage in Peking, often meeting foreign cultural visitors and working as an editor for juvenile literature.
Ping Hsin was a productive writer of fiction only in college and for a brief period afterwards. During the past forty years she has been active more as an essayist. Her fiction has a fairly narrow range, but within its limits Ping Hsin demonstrates a keen sensitivity for the psyche of women and children. Her fiction is often pessimistic in tone, but it also reflects her faith in nature, children’s innocence, and motherly love. Her writings sometimes contain an overdose of feminine sentimentalism, although it seems relatively restrained when compared with its occurrence in works by other women writers of the 1920s and 30s.
Ping Hsin has to her credit several volumes of essays and travelogues, one volume each of short stories and poems, and translations of two of Tagore’s works and Gibran’s The Prophet. “West Wind” (Hsi-feng) was published in 1936 and “Chang Sao” appeared during the War of Resistance.
CH’IU-HSIN RECLINED by the window of the train, staring abstractedly at the forlorn landscape rushing past her eyes. “Late autumn is upon us,” her heart murmured as she took in the passing scene.
In the fields the crops had just been harvested. The short stubby stems of sorghum left standing cast long slim shadows in the setting sun. The weeds had turned sere, and cracks appeared in the parched fields. The brown willow trees along the railway swayed in the dust whipped up by the autumn wind, adding to the somber mood. “Late autumn is here,” Ch’iu-hsin muttered under her breath.
The mood that had lately come upon Ch’iu-hsin had become almost overwhelming the last day or two. She was in the grip of deep melancholia as she surveyed the endless vista of swirling leaves outside the train window.
Distractedly, Ch’iu-hsin smoothed her dress and sat up straight. Her fellow passengers all looked tired from the prolonged monotony of the jolting train. Those who had been engaged in conversation stopped talking, yawned, and asked for tea. Mothers stared out the windows as their children slept in their laps. Everything evoked a feeling of weariness, unrest, and ennui.
“And these are my traveling companions in life’s journey!” Ch’iu-hsin knitted her brows and looked out the window.
“Ch’iu-hsin, I now bid you a fond goodbye! Yours is a sacred calling. Who am I, an ordinary mortal, to becloud your bright future? Much as it hurts, I now bid you farewell. I shall retreat to a corner of the wall and, like a solitary flower, gaze at you as you, like a full moon, make your way up to the sky.
“Farewell, my friend. Allow me to offer my last good wishes and to pledge my unwavering loyalty. The day will come when middle age will catch up with us, the wind will sweep the earth and the waning moon will peep through the curtain. If and when your heart should be touched by loneliness and sorrow, don’t forget there is one person who will still be with you in spirit, ever ready to proffer his humble solace.”
These were the last paragraphs of the last letter that Yuan wrote her after receiving her letter of rejection. Now that the day envisaged by Yuan had indeed arrived, Ch’iu-hsin could not help but recall what Yuan had said in the letter.
Ten years had gone by. She knew Yuan had married shortly after writing that letter. “That’s men for you!” Ch’iu-hsin thought derisively at the time. “All they want is a wife to cater to their creature comforts. Love and loyalty are merely words to be bandied about in courtship. Didn’t Yuan say that without me the future would have no meaning? and hasn’t he managed very well without the things he claimed were dearest to his heart?”
Ch’iu-hsin was young then. Despite her deep feelings for Yuan, she was not quite ready to give up her own promising future, for which her education and training had so well prepared her. She was not ready to play a secondary role as wife and mother. In a way, she was happy to know that Yuan had settled down. Although somewhat miffed, she had written Yuan a warm congratulatory letter at the time of his marriage.
She had lost contact with Yuan. She did learn, indirectly, that he was doing well and that he often visited Peiping.* Who knows? Perhaps Yuan had made a deliberate effort to avoid her. Or perhaps circumstances had conspired against such a meeting. Be that as it may, Ch’iu-hsin could not completely banish him from her mind.
“If and when your heart should be touched by loneliness and sorrow …” Ch’iu-hsin heaved a soft sigh. She stood up, dusted herself off, took up her briefcase, and made for the dining car.
There were only three or four people there, and they were either reading or smoking. Although they had all eaten, they remained in their seats. Perhaps the dining car offered more elbow room than their cramped quarters. Chi’iu-hsin seated herself at a table near the door and ordered a cup of coffee.
Steadying the saucer with her left hand and holding a spoon with her right, Ch’iu-hsin stared at the steam rising from her cup. The words “Don’t forget there is one person who will still be with you in spirit …” floated into her mind.
The door of the dining car snapped shut with a bang, breaking her train of thought. She raised her head and could hardly believe what she saw. Her heart beat violently; her face suffused with a warm glow. The person who came through the door was none other than Yuan! In the confusion of the moment, they greeted each other as if by reflex action. With a tremulous smile, Yuan seated himself across from Ch’iu-hsin.
Regaining a measure of composure, Ch’iu-hsin observed that the ten-year span had hardly left its mark on Yuan. His face was fuller, but he appeared as youthful as ever. He was impeccably dressed and wore a ring on the third finger of his right hand.
Yuan, of course, was looking at her too. From the startled look on his face, Ch’iu-hsin could see the ravages that time had wrought on her own person. She was momentarily disheartened. As soon as he had regained his composure, Yuan sat back with a smile.
“This is indeed a surprise. How have you been all these years? I hear you are making great strides in your career.”
“Things have been going pretty well,” Ch’iu-hsin replied. “How about you?” Somehow, the words came out like a sigh.
“We live in Shanghai. That’s also where I work,” Yuan replied. He ordered a cup of coffee and something to eat. “Life is one long grind, but I have no complaints. The family is fine. I’m the father of two children now.”
He asked Ch’iu-hsin to help herself to the food. He then inquired where she was going.
“I’m boarding a steamer at T’angku to attend a meeting in Shanghai,” Ch’iu-hsin replied. “It’s been a long time since I traveled by boat. The voyage should give me a little time to relax.”
“What a coincidence!” Yuan exclaimed excitedly. “Are you sailing on the Shun-t’ien? That’s my boat too. I just love to watch the moon on the sea. We who live in Shanghai hardly ever get a good look at the moon.”
They were both looking out the window. Before them was an endless expanse of reeds growing in shallow water. T’angku itself loomed in the distance.
Ch’iu-hsin stood up and said happily, “We’ll be there in a moment. I think I’ll go get my things together.”
Yuan also stood up and said, “I’ll be coming shortly. I’ll take care of the bill and see you later.”
As he spoke, he opened the door for Ch’iu-hsin. From the smile on his face, his words, and everything about him, Ch’iu-hsin could hardly believe that a long ten years had elapsed since they had last met.
A mini-train took them to the boat. They were welcomed aboard by the smiling, white-clad captain and his crew lined up along the railing. After being led to her cabin, Ch’iu-hsin put down her suitcase and looked out the porthole. The gangplank had been taken down and the boat was slowly moving away from the shore. She could hear the muddy water sloshing against the side of the boat. It was getting dark, so she switched on the light.
She looked into the mirror. Her hair was flecked with dust. Her eyes had dark rings around them. Her face had a weary and emaciated look.
“That’s not the face that was’” she could not help noticing.
The dinner bell had sounded, rudely awakening her from her reverie. She hastily changed into fresh clothes, washed her face and applied, for the first time in a long while, a touch of rouge on her face.
In the dining room, Ch’iu-hsin found that everybody had been seated. Most of the passengers were foreigners. A waiter took her to a small table where Yuan was seated by himself.
Yuan, too, had changed clothes. Under the light, his collar appeared snow-white. He was wearing a blue necktie with white dots and a blue woolen suit. His freshly washed face had a robust glow. As Ch’iu-hsin approached, he rose and pulled out a chair for her. The tableware, the cuisine, and the foreign languages spoken in the dining room all brought back memories they had once shared in a foreign country.
Somewhat at a loss for words, they chatted politely about the relative merits of Chinese and Western food. As they talked, Ch’iuhsin appeared to Yuan younger than she looked when they had met unexpectedly that afternoon. The pale blue dress with white flowers was a perfect fit for her slender frame. Her eyes were as captivating as ever. Her make-up, however, could not conceal the faint wrinkles around her eyes. Absent, too, was the lively glint that used to animate her large dark eyes.
They finally got the conversation going at a lively clip. As they exchanged the latest information about their mutual friends, they could not help but lament the passing of the years. Ch’iu-hsin even broke into spontaneous laughter as they reminisced about hilarious situations involving their friends.
Dinner over, Ch’iu-hsin stood up and slowly walked to the door with Yuan following her. The boat had already left Taku* behind. The moon was rising out of the sea, and a brisk sea breeze was blowing. As if propelled by an invisible force, they slowly made for the highest deck.
The moon was in all its glory. The long shadows of the masts looked like dark lines etched on the deck. On the bridge outside the control room, the white-clad officers could be seen pacing back and forth under the moon. They were smoking and occasionally laughing at some joke. After looking around, Ch’iu-hsin seated herself on a deck chair facing the moon. Yuan seated himself beside her.
In that setting, the world seemed to have ceased to exist. The only realities were the shining moon, the expanse of water, and a boat making its way toward the distant horizon. She was all alone with Yuan, the person she had cherished for the past ten years. It was like a miracle. As the words “And gaze at you as you, like a full moon, make your way up to the sky . . . Don’t forget there is one person who will forever be with you in spirit …” came back to her, she turned to look at Yuan, her heart filled with a sense of regret not untinged with bitterness.
Yuan did not look at her or at the moon. He was staring at the sparkling, restless waves until he sensed that Ch’iu-hsin was looking at him. He smiled and was about to speak when, in the moonlight, he saw tear-drops welling up in Ch’iu-hsin’s eyes. Caught off guard, he gave a slight cough, but remained silent.
With a forced smile, Ch’iu-hsin lifted her head toward the moon so that her tears rolled back into her eyes.
“The moon at sea seems to have a coolness all its own,” she said. “I’m a little chilly.”
“Let me go to your cabin and get your coat,” said Yuan, standing up.
Ch’iu-hsin also got up. “No, that isn’t necessary,” she said. “I’m a little tired. It’s time to retire anyway.”
Yuan walked her to the door, wished her good night, and left. Ch’iu-hsin closed the door and made ready for bed. The events of the day had come upon her so suddenly and unexpectedly that they seemed to have come out of a dream. How could she explain it? She had been totally immersed in her career for the past ten years and yet, when she met the person she had earlier rejected, she could not restrain her tears.
“That’s a woman’s fate!” she muttered to herself. “I had known all that before I made my choice between marriage and a career . . . Yuan has nothing to do with it. This is but a foolish, fleeting feeling. It is the sea voyage, the moon, the romantic aura of it all! It is my vulnerable emotions …”
She looked into the mirror and broke into a smile as if to shore up her own morale. She then hung up her clothes, turned out the light, and crept into bed.
Even with her eyes closed, she could not shut out the moonlight. She opened her eyes and found her cabin flooded with light from the moon. It was a little warm, so she got up and opened the port hole a little wider. She returned to bed, pulled up the blanket, and laid her head on her arm. She could hear the sea breeze outside the window and rhythmic footsteps pacing the deck. She also heard the faint sounds of singing and laughter.
“I wonder if Yuan has retired” She let her thoughts wander just a bit, “On this moonlit night . . . just the two of us . . . If, ten years ago, I had made a different decision . . .” She shook her head, pulled the blanket over her shoulders, and closed her eyes.
Before breakfast Ch’iu-hsin had already made up her mind. “Don’t betray your feelings to Yuan. Actually, what feelings are there to betray? Just avoid meeting him and talking with him. There is so much I have to do, not to mention the speech I have to write for the conference …”
She took out her fountain pen and her notebook so she could work in the study after breakfast. She walked out the door, but immediately turned back and put on a simple but attractive dress.
As he did the previous evening, Yuan stood up and pulled out a chair for her. He looked, as usual, calm and collected. His face was full and had a healthy glow. She tried to carry on a conversation in a natural manner, but her eyes smarted and her head ached. “Insomnia isn’t much fun,” she thought to herself.
Yuan told her that the boat was due to arrive at Chefoo at nine and asked her, since it would remain in dock for the iarger part of the day, whether she would like to go ashore. After a moment’s thought, Ch’iu-hsin replied with a smile, “I hope you’ll excuse me, but I still have a speech to write and it’s easier to write when the boat is not in motion. I think I’ll make use of the time to do some work.” Yuan did not insist. He excused himself when breakfast was over.
Winding through green-clad hills along the inlet, the boat slowly made its way into the harbor. In the morning light, the sea and the hills appeared to be shrouded in a luminous mist. Like fish scales, the grey tiles of the houses peeped through the foliage. The white lighthouse in the foreground was partly hidden by trees and rocks. Like little fishes, a flotilla of sampans converged on the boat. Yuan boarded one of the sampans. He was wearing a hat and holding an overcoat. He looked up and waved to her.
Ch’iu-hsin turned and headed for the study. She opened her notebook and proceeded to jot down the topic of her speech: “The Two Problems Facing Women—Career and Marriage.” Somehow, she could not continue. She distractedly doodled circles around the characters she had committed to paper.
She had a leisurely lunch by herself. After lunch, she took a nap. She was awakened at three o’clock by noises outside her window. “The boat is about to set sail. Yuan should be back any moment now,” she thought. She got up, washed her face, and went up to the deck.
Yuan was walking up the gangplank. He had a paper bag under his left arm and a basket in his right. He said with a smile, “Chefoo is famous for its fruit, you know. Take a look at these grapes. My children just love them.”
Ch’iu-hsin looked into the basket and said, “They are really huge and they smell so sweet! What’s in the paper bag?”
“That’s Chefoo embroidery,” Yuan replied. “My wife told me it’s known to be fine and reasonable and that I should stock up on some for gifts. I am not a knowledgeable buyer, so I just bought some at random. You should have come with me.”
Ch’iu-hsin smiled but said nothing.
The boat moved slowly away from the wharf. A number of foreigners had come aboard. Most of them were returning from their summer vacation with their children. The deck was alive with noise and gaiety. Ch’iu-hsin and Yuan leaned on the railing watching the children skipping rope.
“How old are your children?” Ch’iu-hsin asked. “Whom do they look like?”
“The boy is eight,” Yuan replied, “and the girl is just five. It’s difficult to say whom they take after. The funny thing is, when you hold them up and look into the mirror, you seem to see them as yourself, and yet they are so different.”
Ch’iu-hsin was looking into the distance, so Yuan held his silence. Ch’iu-hsin then turned to Yuan and said with a smile, “I heard what you said. Your wife must be very young and beautiful and yours must be a very happy family.”
“Yes, indeed,” Yuan said after a pause. “My wife is about ten years younger than I. When you come to Shanghai, you must spend a few days with us.”
“Thank you,” Ch’iu-hsin replied. “I certainly will.”
At the sound of the dinner bell, they went to the dining room.
Seated at their table were a young foreign couple and a little boy. Yuan was acquainted with the man and went over to say hello. Upon being introduced, the adults all shook hands and took their seats. The boy was about four or five. He had big eyes and rosy cheeks. His mother gave him a nudge and said, “Aren’t you going to say hello to Mr. Chang?”
With a smile, the boy said, “Hello, Mr. Chang.” He then turned to Ch’iu-hsin and said, “How are you, Mrs. Chang?” Ch’iu-hsin blushed and was about to say something when Yuan explained, “This is Miss Ho.”
The boy’s mother smiled and said to the boy, “Say you are sorry. I failed to make the proper introductions,” The boy looked at Ch’iu-hsin and laughed.
Ch’iu-hsin was not in the mood for conversation and confined herself to a few words with the foreign woman. Yuan, on the other hand, carried on a lively conversation with the man.
After dinner, the woman, with the boy in tow, retired while Yuan went with the man to the smoking room. Ch’iu-hsin went to her cabin to get a coat and went on deck.
The moon appeared clearer and cooler than the night before. The wind, too, was blowing hard. It was too cold to stand by the railing. She pulled up a deck chair and sat under the shadow of the lifeboat away from the wind, watching the moon.
There was not a single soul on deck. All was silence except for the sound made by the boat and the waves and the wind. Under the moonlight, the sea was a sheet of white. A myriad of twinkling stars formed a path from where she sat to the moonlit horizon.
“If it were only possible to ride the ocean breeze and travel the high road to the end of the horizon . . .” she mused, waxing poetic. So immersed had she been in the mundane affairs of living the past ten years that she had seldom had the chance to give free rein to her fantasies.
“What high road? It is no more possible to travel the high road than to walk on the waves. What appeared yesterday to be a high road leading to happiness may turn out to be a low road leading to darkness and destruction. The high road that promised to lead to happiness ten years ago is now . . .” Ch’iu-hsin mused, her hands cradling her cheeks.
As Ch’iu-hsin roused from her mind’s wanderings, she was surprised to see Yuan leaning on the railing, looking at her with a smile.
Blushing, Ch’iu-hsin said, “When did you get here? And why the silence? You really scared me.”
Yuan sat down next to her and said, “I’ve been here quite a while. Your face was buried in your hands, so I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Ch’iu-hsin looked at Yuan but said nothing. She clasped her knees, looking at the moon.
After a while, Yuan volunteered, “You seem somewhat upset. What does a child know and why let it bother you? You haven’t changed …”
Ch’iu-hsin stood up and asked, “What have I got to be upset about? I paid no attention to what the child said. And tell me, what was I like before?”
Obviously displeased, she look at Yuan as she held on tightly to her coat.
There was a tenderness in Yuan’s eyes as he said in a low voice, “It’s not as if we just got acquainted. Do you really believe I’m insensitive to your moods? You hardly spoke a word all evening. That was why I did not impose myself on you after dinner. I can tell you have been upset the last couple of days and not just tonight.”
Although Ch’iu-hsin tried not to betray her emotions, she felt a tug at her heart. She lowered her eyes and sat down again.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “if I appear to be upset. All these years I have been totally wrapped up in my work. When I have a moment to myself, I tend to be beset with a feeling of weariness. The reason I took this boat trip was to avoid familiar faces and familiar situations. I hardly imagined . . .”
Yuan, too, sat down and said in a serious tone, “Really, I’m very anxious to know how you have been. How well do you cope with the pressure of work? What do you do for relaxation? You know as well as I do that all work and no relaxation often brings on a feeling of ennui and frustration.”
With a sign, Ch’iu-hsin replied, “All in all, I’m quite happy with my career. That is not to say, of course, that it’s been a bed of roses. I used to visit my family whenever I had the time. Since my mother passed away, however, my brothers have gone their separate ways. In the last ten years, my friends, too, have moved, making it difficult to find somebody congenial to talk to. Sometimes, this feeling of loneliness . . .” She smiled wanly and continued, “Actually, it’s not all that serious except that, after a hectic day, one gets a vacuous feeling . . .”
Yuan looked at the sky but kept his silence.
The moon was high in the sky and the wind was blowing harder. Ch’iu-hsin stood up and said, “Let’s go now. It’s getting late.”
Yuan put out his hand and stopped her. “You still have a friend, a friend who will forever remain true. My home is your home. We would love to have you visit us.”
Smiling a cheerless smile, Ch’iu-hsin said, “Thank you, but you have a happy family and the presence of an intruder . . .”
Holding her hand, Yuan said, “I made my proposal a long time ago. If you had . . .”
At that, Ch’iu-hsin could no longer hold back her tears.
“Loneliness! I, too, know its meaning,” Yuan continued. “I love my children and I know my duties as a husband. And yet, there are times when I cannot help thinking if at the time . . . things would have been vastly . . .”
Several people were coming up the stairs, talking and laughing. Yuan and Ch’iu-hsin let go their hands and parted company.
In her cabin, Ch’iu-hsin sat on the edge of the bed. She hated herself for having said what she had not intended to say. Why expose your own weaknesses to Yuan after all these years and why sow discord in Yuan’s family? The more she thought about it, the worse she felt. “Until we dock,” she vowed, “I will not see Yuan again.”
The next morning, Ch’iu-hsin was at first going to ring for room service so she could have breakfast without leaving her cabin. But she decided that that might give Yuan the satisfaction of thinking she was probably suffering from a bout of depression, and so she went to the dining room.
Yuan appeared calm and self-possessed, as usual. During break-fast they engaged in polite talk about nothing in particular. Ch’iu-hsin then spent the whole day at her desk and drafted two speeches. She felt almost elated.
It was almost time for dinner. After resting a while, she tidied up her hair, went on deck, and stood by the railing. The moon was full and there was a haze over the shimmering sea. After an entire day by herself, she was again assailed by a feeling of melancholy. “This is the last day of the journey,” she said to herself with a sigh, “the last day to look at the moon . . . With the dawn of another day, it’s back to the rat race!”
She could sense Yuan making his way in her direction, but she pretended not to have noticed. At the sound of the dinner bell, she followed the other passengers into the dining room.
After dinner, the young foreign couple, having put their child to bed, suggested going on deck to watch the moon. With no great enthusiasm, Ch’iu-hsin nodded consent. In the absence of any objection on the part of Ch’iu-hsin, Yuan followed them up to the deck.
They carried on an animated conversation under the moon. The foreign couple, in particular, appeared light-hearted and gay. They poked fun at each other as they talked about their falling in love.
“He claimed that unless I married him,” the young woman bantered, “he would never know the meaning of happiness. He vowed that unless I married him, he would never again look at the autumn moon or sit by the fireside on a winter night. So you see, the only reason I married him was to save him from the fate of never again looking at the moon or sitting by the fire.”
“Do you really believe all that?” the man countered. “The only reason I married her was so she would not end up being an old maid.”
While Yuan and the others roared with merriment, Ch’iu-hsin gave only a perfunctory short laugh.
After a while, Yuan stood up and said, “If you will excuse me, I think I’ll go now. The boat will dock early tomorrow and I have to get my things together.”
“What’s the rush? It’s not often you get to see such a lovely moon,” the man said. “Let’s stay a while longer.”
Looking at Yuan, Ch’iu-hsin added, “Yes, why don’t we?”
Smiling, Yuan replied, “The thing is, my children will be there to meet me tomorrow morning. The things I bought them in Peiping are at the bottom of the trunk, and if I don’t take them out now, there’ll be a lot of rummaging when they ask for them tomorrow.”
Ch’iu-hsin made no reply.
The foreign couple got up and said with a smile, “You’re truly a model father! We have to go too. If the boy should wake up and not find us, there’ll be no end of trouble.”
Ch’iu-hsin lifted her head and said, “Go ahead. I’d like to sit here a little while longer.”
At the head of the stairs, Yuan turned his head and said tenderly, “The night air is getting chilly. Don’t stay too long now.”
It was hazy when the Shun-t’ien steamed into Wusung harbor. Ch’iu-hsin, who had hardly slept, was standing alone by the railing. The only people around were the deck-hands swabbing the deck. Through the morning mist could be seen tiers of buildings and billboards on both banks of the river.
With knitted brows, Ch’iu-hsin muttered to herself, “Another cloudy day . . . It’s enough to make anybody miserable! Wonder if there’ll be anybody from the association to meet me . . . Yuan’s children, his family . . . perhaps he would . . .” At that, Ch’iu-hsin shook her head and went into her cabin.
By then, all the passengers were up and had had their breakfast. They were busy getting their boxes and other pieces of luggage together and instructing the stewards to move them to the railing by the gangplank. Amid all this confusion, Ch’iu-hsin put on her coat and emerged from her cabin with a briefcase and a suitcase.
The buildings on both banks of the river loomed larger and larger and the babble on the wharf grew louder and louder as the boat eased itself into the dock. Suddenly she heard Yuan, who was standing behind her, calling to somebody. Ch’iu-hsin turned and saw him beaming and waving to somebody on the wharf. She followed Yuan’s eyes and saw a young woman with her hands on the shoulders of two children. The moment the gangplank was lowered, they scrambled up to the boat. Yuan led them by the hand to the door of the parlor.
So engrossed was Ch’iu-hsin with the sight and sound of the happy throng, that she stood where she was, instead of disembarking with the other passengers. Yuan’s wife was young and slim. Her hair had a smooth permanent wave, and she wore pearl earrings. Her full face was attractive and tastefully made up. She was wearing a white silk dress with big red flowers. On another woman, all this might have appeared vulgar, but on her person it only accentuated her youth.
The boy wore a white shirt and green corduroy pants, and a hat dangling from his neck. The little girl had neatly bobbed hair with bangs. She wore a pale yellow, round-necked short-sleeved coat over a pale yellow dress. Both children showed off a pair of chubby legs.
They were laughing and asking many questions. With head raised, the girl held on to her father’s legs. She had clearly defined eyebrows and she bore an uncanny resemblance to her father. The boy was smiling and holding his mother’s hand. His dainty lips looked so much like his mother’s!
When Yuan turned his head and saw Ch’iu-hsin standing at the gangplank, he led his wife and children to her. As soon as the introductions were over, the children tugged at Yuan’s hands and said, “Daddy, the car is at the wharf. Let’s go.”
While trying to restrain his children and get his luggage together, Yuan asked Ch’iu-hsin, “Is someone meeting you? If not, why don’t you come with us and stay a while?”
“Thank you very much,” “Ch’iu-hsin replied. “I’m being met. In fact, I see them on the wharf now. Why don’t you go ahead?”
Yuan and his family walked down the gangplank. After getting in the car, they waved to her. The car moved and disappeared around the corner.
Most of the passengers had disembarked and left. The wharf was almost deserted. Ch’iu-hsin walked slowly down the gangplank with her luggage. She stood on the wharf for a while, looking at the desolate scene around her. A gust of westerly wind blew across her impassive face, sweeping up swirling pieces of straw and scraps of paper on the wharf.
I DON’T FEEL at liberty to call Chang Sao* “my Chang Sao” and that’s a pity, but the fact is I cannot claim her to be mine in any capacity. She was neither my neighbor nor my maid, and she would be the last to consider herself a friend of mine. She was only the wife of Old Man Chang, the custodian of the temple.
I lived on the floor above the temple. The ground floor was occupied by the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Li, proprietors of the temple. Old Man Chang and his wife were given the use of a small room adjacent to the front door.
The Lis’ daughter was a student of mine. After showing me around the temple, she said, “This is a secluded spot, an ideal place to do your writing. It’s true, up here on the hill, there are certain inconveniences, but you can always get Chang and his family to run errands for you.”
At the mention of his name, Chang, who was at the door sill, stood up and smiled, baring a mouthful of yellowed teeth. He was about forty years of age, short, and with honesty written all over his face.
“Where’s your Chang Sao?” my student asked.
“She’s gone to fetch water,” he replied.
As my student took me upstairs, she said to me, “His wife is very capable, a lot smarter than her husband and strong to boot. If there’s anything you want done, it’s better to get her to do it.”
For the sake of convenience, I boarded with the Lis. That way, I wouldn’t have to go down the hill in inclement weather. Besides, the eating places in the village were infested with flies, especially in the summer.
The elderly Lis were natives of Shansi Province. They were a kind and friendly pair. Mrs. Li, who was a good cook, prepared all the meals.
In the morning, I would go down to the kitchen to fetch water to wash my face. I would then tidy up my room. Except for mealtimes, I hardly saw the Lis.
The Lis kept early hours. Even during the day, they hardly made a sound. There was nothing to disturb the quiet pervading the premises. What a contrast to the lodgings I took in the city! I felt completely at ease.
On the third day, I went to see Chang Sao to ask her to do my laundry. As she emerged from her dingy little room into the sun-light, I was able to take a good look at her. She had stringy hair, the color of burnt toast. She wore a bun high on the back of her head. Her face was swarthy and lined with wrinkles etched by wind and sun. She had a large mouth framed by thin lips. There was a glint in her eyes. Her figure was not tall but wiry and charged with energy.
“What can I do for you?” she asked with a big smile.
“I have some clothes that need to be washed,” I replied. “They are white, so be careful.”
“I understand,” she said. “Your clothes require particular care. I need a piece of soap.”
Mrs. Li, who was leaning on the door and who overheard the conversation, beckoned to me. When we had gone into the room, she said to me in a whisper, “I suggest you get somebody down the hill to do your laundry. This woman is just too much. Every time she is asked to do the laundry, she asks for a piece of soap. She keeps what’s left over and sells it. That’s why we always do our own laundry.”
After a moment’s thought, I said with a smile, “I’ll think about it, but let it go this time.”
Early next morning, Chang Sao brought back the clothes and the bedsheets, which she had washed to a dazzling white. She laid them on my bed, all neatly folded, and said, “Sir, here are your clothes and here’s what’s left of the soap.”
I thanked her, well pleased with my “good fortune.” I must say she gave me a good impression.
As I came to know her better, she often came upstairs to sweep the floor, deliver my mail, take my washing, and empty my waste-basket. My worldly belongings had always been few and simple, and she knew where everything was. Although I never locked the door, I never lost anything, be it money, clothes, or books. As for such things as matches, snacks, towels, and soap, I never kept track of them anyway. Mrs. Li had warned me a number of times to be careful with my things, but why should I bother? They were not worth anything. Chang Sao did a fine job of keeping my room neat and clean and that was good enough for me.
Although Chang Sao seemed to cotton to me, she was not so accommodating as far as Mr. and Mrs. Li were concerned. She would, for instance, raise the price for fetching water every two or three days. No, she would not come right out and ask for more, but, by using slow-down tactics, she left no doubt what she was trying to get across.
On one occasion, Chang Sao did not appear for a couple of days. The water in the vat ran out. Somewhat put off, Mrs. Li asked Chang Sao’s husband, “Where’s your wife?”
“She’s working for somebody in the field,” Chang replied with a smile.
Of course, you could ask Chang to fetch water. The trouble was he would say yes and then never get around to it. It was not until I had come downstairs several times to remind him that he finally saw fit to go out with buckets slung over his shoulders.
From where I stood at the bannister, I saw Chang Sao coming in from the field. She stopped at the foot of the hill and stood talking to her husband.
After fetching two buckets of water, Chang lay down and complained about a stomachache. He did not appear the next day.
Obviously annoyed, Mr. Li said, “This is nothing short of extortion. Do they think there’s nobody else to do the job? I’ll go down the hill and look for somebody myself!”
Mr. Li sat for hours at the teahouse, trying to find somebody in the village to do the job. The people he talked to all shook their heads and said with a smile, “It’s a steep climb up the hill. You’ll have to pay more.” When they indicated the amount they wanted, Mr. Li went back up the hill in a huff. What they asked for was even more than Chang Sao was getting.
I quietly went down the hill and found Chang Sao in the field. I said to her, “Go get the buckets. There’s no water to drink.”
“I haven’t got the time,” she replied with a smile.
I smiled and said, “Now, you know that’s not true. I know what’s on your mind. From now on, I’ll pay for the labor. After all, I have to use it too.”
She smiled and followed me up the hill, carrying a basket on her back.
Since then, she has never failed to keep us supplied with water no matter how busy she might be on the farm, except for the few days she took off to have her baby. Then it was her husband who took over the chore.
Chang Sao wore loose-fitting clothes, so I never noticed anything unusual about her appearance. Then one day, Mrs. Li said to me, “Chang Sao is getting heavy. I suggest you speak to her husband about the water situation just in case he takes it into his head not to do it at the last minute.”
I wasn’t sure how I should approach the subject. Only a short while ago, I had seen Chang Sao carrying a large basket of beans up the hill. I didn’t think anything was about to happen any time soon, so I did not mention the subject.
The next morning, Chang Sao did not come upstairs to clean my room. While we were having breakfast, her husband came in with a small basket of eggs. I asked him where his wife was. With a broad grin, he said, “She had a baby last night.” Offering our congratulations, we inquired whether it was a boy or a girl.
Mrs. Li said, “Its amazing how these people can deliver a baby all by themselves. This is their first baby too. It seems giving birth to a baby is no more complicated than laying an egg!”
I went upstairs, wrapped a fifty-dollar bill in a piece of red paper and gave it to Chang. “This is for buying brown sugar for Chang Sao.”
Mrs. Li also brought Chang a red paper envelope.
Accepting the gifts with a smile, Chang said, “Thank you very much. Would you, Mrs. Li, like to see your nephew?*” Mrs. Li appeared pleased as she went into the murky room.
Mr. Li and I were chatting in the hall when Mrs. Li returned. She was shaking her head and laughing when she said, “Such a big baby boy, so dark and sturdy! You know what Chang Sao was doing? She was sitting on the bed-board making a fishing net! She just had the baby in the middle of the night and now she is already hard at work, and she doesn’t even look the least bit exhausted. She’s got to be made of steel!”
She then told me that Chang Sao had been adopted by the Changs at the age of twelve as an intended daughter-in-law and was married to their son at the age of fifteen. While she was alive, Mrs. Chang often beat her, and Chang Sao would hide in a cave to cry her heart out. It was not until Mrs. Chang died the year before that she was able to live in peace with her weakling of a husband. She was no more than twenty-five.
That came as a complete surprise. I had always thought of her as being somewhere between thirty and forty. Hard work had robbed her of any vestige of youth! She was the type of person who never asked why, never had any doubts, never harbored any grudge or resentment. She rose with the sun and worked till dusk, carrying water, chopping firewood, doing the laundry, working on the farm. She worked nonstop like a windmill, climbing up the hill and going down to the valley. So long as there was a ray of light, she could be counted on to be doing something. Even on moonlit nights, she would take advantage of the light to pick beans the whole night through.
It continued to rain for five or six days. When the sun came up on the seventh day, Chang Sao was seen going out with a basket on her back and a scythe in her hand. While she was away, the baby was left in the care of her husband, who could be heard humming and grunting in the room. When Chang Sao was late coming home and the hungry baby started to cry, Chang would pace back and forth at the door, not knowing what to do.
We said to him laughingly, “It’s a lot less trouble for you to go down the hill and let your wife tend the baby. As it is, when your wife comes home, she has to make dinner and feed the baby too. It’s enough to kill anybody.”
Chang shook his head and answered with a smile, “People want her. She does her job well. I’m useless!”
Chang was at least being honest. I often felt ashamed. When I sat with a book in my hand, I would see Chang Sao hurrying in and out, always carrying something on her back, her shoulders, her hands and her waist. She had no idea she was doing the most basic, backbreaking, and productive work in the rear during the war. As for me, whenever I wrote to my friends, I felt obliged to complain of my weariness, poverty, and ennui. While in reality, here I was, comfortably ensconced in the hills amid the pines, moaning and groaning without a cause! Seeing Chang Sao going about her endless chores with such enthusiasm is enough to make me throw down my book and get on my feet.
One day, my student and her schoolmates in the propaganda squad came to plaster war slogans on the temple door. One of the slogans carried the message “Redouble your efforts in decimating the enemy at the front and increasing production in the rear,” Chang Sao was standing behind the crowd, not quite knowing what was going on. When she saw me, she asked with a giggle, “What does that say?” “The first line,” I replied, “is about your country folk doing battle at the front. The second line is about people like you.”
Uncomprehending, she asked, “What about you, sir?”
Bowing my head in shame, I replied, “Me? There’s no place for me up there.”
* Peiping, “Northern Peace,” was renamed Peking, “Northern Capital,” in 1949.
* Taku is further down the coast from T’angku.
* The term sao designates the wife of one’s older brother, but is also loosely applied to any middle-aged woman in informal, familiar address.
* “Nephew,” designating the baby, is applied loosely to the son of a close friend.