TRANSLATED BY WILLIAM A. LYELL, JR.
LAO SHE 1899-1966)1 is probably best known in this country as the author of Rickshaw Boy (Lo-to Hsiang-tzu), a novel which became an American best-seller upon the publication of its English transiation in 1945. Elements of both native and foreign literary traditions were happily combined in Lao She to produce some of the best Chinese fiction of the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand he was strongly affected by the English literature he read during his sojourn in London between 1925 and 1930 (Dickens and Conrad were among his favorite authors) ; and on the other hand he was equally influenced by the tradition of the professional storytellers (shuo shu te) whom he so often went to hear in Peking teashops during his youth.
The following story, “Neighbors,” reveals traces of both these influences.2 It also affords us glimpses of city life in China during the early 1930’s and is a good example of Lao She, the humorist-raconteur, at his best. In “Neighbors” his humor is aimed at two of his favorite targets: Chinese who gain wealth and prestige through their connections with foreign patrons and young Chinese whose “modern” education has made them so “civilized” that all life and honest feeling have been drained from them. And yet, despite the concentration of satirical barbs, the author is in sympathy with all of his characters. “Neighbors” is an excellent example of Lao She’s humor at its warmest. He considered himself primarily a humorist (as distinguished from satirist) by character as well as by profession. He once described the humorist in this way:
Above all, humor is a frame of mind. We all know people who are overly sensitive and always approach things with a surcharge of emotion, never willing to make allowances for others . . . [Here, of course, he has the satirist in mind.—trans.] A person with a sense of humor is not at all like this ... he sees the flaws in mankind and wants to point them out to others; however, he does not stop at merely spotting these flaws, but goes on to positively accept them. And thus everyone has something funny about him, the humorist himself being no exception; if we take this to an even higher plane, then the fact that man is limited to a hundred years of life at most and yet would like to live forever, is in and of itself an extremely funny contradiction given in the very nature of human existence. Thus our laughter carries with it an element of sympathy, and at this point humor ceases being merely funny and enters the realm of profundity.3
MRS. MING was constantly on her guard. To be sure, she had already borne sons and reared daughters for Mr. Ming; and although she was fast approaching forty, she still waved her hair to keep attractive. And yet, in spite of all this, she was still in a state of constant apprehension from morning till night, for she well knew that she had one major flaw: she was illiterate. She felt that she had to do every last thing she could think of to make up for this defect; therefore in looking after her husband and taking care of the children, she was scrupulously diligent. With regard to discipline, however, she had to let the children do pretty much as they pleased, not daring to punish or scold them. She didn’t have the nerve to get strict with them, for she was conscious of the fact that because of her illiteracy, her own position was not as high as theirs in the eyes of her spouse. After all, it was only thanks to him that she was the mother of such fine children in the first place. In such circumstances, she could not but be constantly on guard. Since her husband was everything to her, she could not afford to strike or scold that husband’s children. She was well aware that if her husband really became put out with her he was quite capable of dealing with her in the most humiliating way he could. He could, for instance, take another wife anytime he wanted, and there would be nothing that she could do about it.
She was of a highly suspicious nature, and hence, always felt uneasy in the presence of anything with writing on it. For behind the written word lurked secret meanings which she could never guess. She detested all those housewives and young ladies who knew how to read. However, looking on the brighter side of things, she could console herself with the consideration that her own husband and children were not one whit inferior to all those literate housewives. Furthermore, she had to grant herself that she was naturally bright, enjoyed good fortune, and had a respectable social position. She would never allow others to say that her children were either bad or mischievous, for anything said against the children would constitute an indirect slur on the mother, and she wouldn’t stand for that. In everything, she obeyed the wishes of her husband or those of her children. But apart from this hint of subservience, she felt superior to everyone. She availed herself of every opportunity to display her dignity to the servants and neighbors. When her children got into fights with the neighbor’s children, she was very likely to join the fray with complete disregard for life and limb, in order to let other people know what a formidable person she was. She had her social position to think of; after all, she was Mrs. Ming and her own belligerence reflected the prestige of her husband much as the light of the moon causes people to think of the glory of the sun.
She despised the servants because she felt that they didn’t properly respect her. You see, they didn’t refer to her as Madame Ming every time they opened their mouths; moreover, occasionally they betrayed just the hint of a superior air, making her feel that they were saying to themselves, “Take off that fancy Mandarin dress of yours and underneath we are equals, or maybe you’re even more of a humbug than we are.” It seemed that the more carefully that she planned something out, the more likely they were to reveal that kind of superior air. This made her long to sink her teeth into them. She often fired servants, for this was the only way that she could spew out some of the excess wrath that welled up inside.
With regard to his wife, Mr. Ming was a despot. However, in such matters as spoiling the children, quarreling with the neighbors, or firing the servants, he did allow her a modicum of freedom. He thought it fitting that in these areas his wife should exercise the prestige of the Ming household. He was a hard-working and proud man. In his heart he himself did not really respect his wife, but neither would he allow outsiders to treat her lightly. For after all, no matter what she was, she was his wife. He couldn’t take a second wife because he worked for a very wealthy foreigner who was piously religious. A divorce, or the taking of a concubine, would be enough to shatter Mr. Ming’s rice bowl. * Since he himself had to muddle along as best he could with such a wife, he would not allow other people to slight her. It was all right for Mr. Ming to beat her, but an outsider wouldn’t be permitted to give her so much as a dirty look. Since he was incapable of really loving his wife, he doted to distraction on his children. Everything that he had had to be better than anyone else’s and that applied doubly to his own children.
Mr. Ming held his head very high. He provided adequately for his wife, dearly loved his children, and had a money-making occupation. Nor did he have any bad habits. He viewed himself with all the awed respect that one usually reserves for the sages of high antiquity. He had no need to ask favors from people and hence no need to be polite to them. He spent his days at work and in the evenings came home and played with the children. He never read because books had nothing to offer him; he already knew everything. Whenever he saw a neighbor about to nod to him in greeting, he turned his face away. He had so little respect for his own nation and society that he never gave them a second thought. However, he did have an ideal: to amass enough money to make himself secure and independent as a small mountain.
Yet in spite of all this, he was still somewhat dissatisfied. He told himself that he should be happy, but in life there are, it seems, some things that are not entirely subject to one’s own regulation and control. Nothing else can take their place. He clearly perceived that there was just such a black spot in him; it was like a tiny foreign object contained within a quartz crystal. Except for this black spot, he was self-confident, even proud; except for this black spot, Mr. Ming was absolutely flawless. Yet there was no way to get rid of that spot, for it grew within his heart.
He knew that his wife was aware of the spot and that it was precisely because of it that she was so given to suspicion. She had done everything possible to erase it, but she realized that it was getting bigger and bigger all the time. At a glance, she was able to judge variations in the spot’s size by observing her husband’s smiles or the expression in his eyes. But she didn’t dare put out her hand to feel it: it was like a black spot on the sun whose intensity is past all imagining. She was afraid that sooner or later someone else was bound to recognize the passionate intensity of her husband’s black spot. She had to think of some means of dealing with it.
Now it so happened that Mr. Ming’s children were in the habit of stealing his neighbor’s grapes. The dividing wall between the two homes was very low, and the children continually clambered over it to make off with the neighbor’s plants. The neighbors were a young couple named Yang, and although they were very fond of their garden they never complained of the thefts. Mr. Ming and his wife never actively encouraged the children to go out and steal things, but once they had returned home with the loot, the parents never told them that they were in the wrong. Moreover, they felt that grapes and flowers were not at all like other things and there was nothing so terrible about picking something here and there. As both the Mings saw it, if the children had taken a few flowers and the neighbors had come over to complain about it, then it would really be inexcusable to just ignore the whole matter. But the Yang couple had never come over to complain; Mrs. Ming, in her thinking on the subject, went one step further than her husband and concluded that the Yangs didn’t dare come because they were intimidated by the prestige of the Mings. Mr. Ming had long been aware that the Yangs were afraid of him. It wasn’t at all because the two young Yangs had in any way openly expressed fear that he knew this, but simply because he felt that everyone ought to be intimidated by a man like himself who always walked with his head held high. Moreover, both the Yangs were teachers, a line of work for which Mr. Ming had never had any respect. He had always felt that teachers were a bunch of paupers without any future prospects.
However, the thing that especially disgusted him about Mr. Yang was the fact that Mrs. Yang was so very pretty. He had no use for teachers, but women teachers (especially if they were pretty) well, that was something else again. To think that that pauper Yang should have such a wife, ten times better than his own! How could he help but be disgusted? When he thought about it from Mrs. Yang’s point of view, he concluded that it was probably a certain lack of foresight that had caused such a smart looking young woman to marry a teacher. Thus there was no real reason for his objecting to Mrs. Yang, but in the end he came to detest her too. Mrs. Ming was aware of all this, for her husband’s eyes often roved over in the direction of the short dividing wall between the homes. For this reason she thought it only right that the children should steal the Yang’s flowers and grapes; it was a way of punishing that Yang bitch. She had already made up her mind that if that Yang woman ever dared to so much as open her mouth, she’d tear her apart limb by limb.
Mr. Yang was a Chinese of the most up-to-date type who manifested the utmost courtesy in everything he did in order to let people know that he was an educated man. Throughout the affair, he didn’t want to say anything about the Ming children’s thefts from his garden. It was as though he thought that Mr. and Mrs. Ming—that is, if they were educated people too—would come over and apologize of their own volition. But to pressure them into an apology would smack too much of embarrassing them. But the Mings never once came over on their own to apologize. Mr. Yang didn’t dare become angry either, for while the Mings might disregard the rules of eti- quette, Mr. Yang had his dignity to preserve.
Yet when the Ming children began to make off with large bunches of his grapes, it was almost more than he could take. It wasn’t so much the loss of the grapes that annoyed him, but he did begrudge the time that he had spent on them. He had planted them three years ago and this was the first time that they had borne fruit. The three or four little bunches that had appeared were promptly picked and carried away by the Ming children. Mrs. Yang finally decided to report the whole matter to Mrs. Ming, but Mr. Yang (although he really wanted his wife to go over) held her back; for in the end his concern over the rules of propriety and their status as teachers was strong enough to overcome his anger.
Mrs. Yang didn’t see it that way at all, however; she simply had to go over, and moreover, she would go in an attitude of plenary courtesy; she had no intention of getting into an argument or fight. Mr. Yang, fearing that his wife would consider him a jellyfish, could not very well insist on her not going. Thus it was that Mrs. Yang and Mrs. Ming finally met.
Mrs. Yang was very polite: “Mrs. Ming, I presume? My own surname is Yang.”
Mrs. Ming knew exactly what it was that Mrs. Yang had come for, and she detested her from the bottom of her heart. “Uh huh, I’ve known your name for a long time.”
The education that Mrs. Yang had received caused her to blush at the brusqueness of her reply, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. Yet she had to say something. “It’s really nothing. The children ... It really doesn’t matter, but they have taken a few grapes.”
“You don’t say?” Mrs. Ming’s tone was sweetly musical. “Children just love grapes. Grapes are fun. Of course, I would never let them eat them. They just take them for fun.”
“Our grapes,” gradually the red began to recede from Mrs. Yang’s face, “are not easy to grow. It was three whole years before they bore fruit.”
“But it’s your grapes that I’m talking about; they’re so sour that I won’t allow the children to eat them, but I do let them play with them. What a paltry vine you have, so few grapes on it!”
“Now as for children,” Mrs. Yang began, remembering some of the educational theory that she had learned in school, “all children are mischievous, but Mr. Yang and I are very fond of plants.”
“Mr. Ming and I are very fond of them too.”
“What if your plants were stolen by the neighbor’s children?”
“Who would dare to steal our’s?”
“And if your own children steal other people’s?”
“They’ve stolen yours. Is that what you’re trying to say? Then the best thing to do is to move away and not live here anymore. You see, our kids are very fond of playing with grapes.”
There was nothing else that Mrs. Yang could say, and lips trembling with anger, she went home. Upon running into her husband, she almost burst into tears.
Mr. Yang reasoned with his wife at great length. Although he felt that Mrs. Ming was in the wrong, he didn’t contemplate any further action. He felt that Mrs. Ming was barbaric and to wrangle with a barbarian would demean one’s social status. But his wife wasn’t willing to let it go at that and insisted that he seek vengeance on her behalf. He thought it all over, at great length, and finally it dawned upon him that Mr. Ming couldn’t possibly be as barbaric as his wife. He’d negotiate with the husband. He’d write a letter. He’d write an exceedingly polite letter, not mentioning the last round between his own wife and Mrs. Ming. Nor would he say that he thought the children had been misbehaving. He would simply implore Mr. Ming to order his children not to come and wreak havoc on his plants anymore. In this way he felt that he’d be acting the part of an educated man. He thought of such high-sounding phrases as “the amity that exists between close neighbors . . . infinitely thankful . . . will be extremely appreciated.” In his mind’s eye he saw Mr. Ming receiving the letter, being moved by its contents, and coming over in person to apologize. With a feeling of utter satisfaction he drew to a close a letter of no inconsiderable length and asked the maid to take it over to the Ming household.
After Mrs. Ming had scared her neighbor back to her own nest, she felt particularly pleased with herself. For a long time she had been itching to lay into a woman like Mrs. Yang, and the latter had finally afforded her an opportunity. She began imagining to herself the way that Mrs. Yang would probably explain the matter to her husband and how the two of them together would see the folly of their conduct. Even if it is wrong for children to steal grapes, still one ought to consider whose children they are. When the Ming children steal grapes, one ought not feel resentful. Upon realizing this basic principle, the Yang family would undoubtedly stand totally in awe of the Mings. Mrs. Ming couldn’t help feeling very happy.
When the Yangs’ maid brought the letter over, Mrs. Ming was filled with suspicion. Obviously the letter had been written to Mr. Ming by that Yang woman with the intention of wiping her out. She hated the written word. Even more, she hated that Yang trollop who was able to write such words. She decided not to accept the letter. Although she was quite assured of her husband’s love for the children, still she had to bear in mind that the letter was written by that Yang woman. Perhaps because of the prestige that the trollop enjoyed in her husband’s eyes, he might even go so far as to give her a beating. If her husband really did give her a beating and that Yang baggage heard of it, that would really be too much to take. To be beaten for something else would be all right, but to be beaten for that Yang woman . . . she’d have to make preparations. When her husband arrived home she’d lay the foundation—she’d say that the Yang family had come over and started a big row over a few sour old grapes; she’d tell him that they had threatened to write him a letter demanding an apology. Hearing all this, her husband would certainly refuse to accept the letter and then the victory would be totally hers.
While waiting for her husband to arrive home, she composed what she’d say to him and even found ways of sandwiching in all of her husband’s favorite phrases. And Mrs. Ming’s words did indeed stir up the ardor of his love for his children. He might have been able to excuse Mrs. Yang had she not said that his children were bad. But now she had called forth his positive contempt. To think that she had given her hand in marriage to a poor disgusting teacher like Mr. Yang! She certainly couldn’t be a very good piece of goods herself. By the time that Mrs. Ming’s narration reached the point where she reported that the Yangs intended to send a letter demanding an apology, Mr. Ming was really boiling. He was thoroughly disgusted with literary paupers like Yang who would immediately resort to the writing brush over absolutely nothing. Working for a foreigner, Mr. Ming was convinced that only a signature on a typewritten contract carried any weight at all. He couldn’t possibly imagine of what use a hand-written letter from a poor teacher might be. Yes, if the Yangs sent the letter back over, he’d refuse to accept it.
And yet that black spot in his heart caused him to be curious about what Mrs. Yang’s writing might look like. Writing was worthless in itself, but then one had to take into consideration whose writing it was. Mrs. Ming had foreseen such an eventuality early in the game: she said that the letter was written by Mr. Yang. Of course Mr. Ming had no time to waste on a stinking letter written by that disgusting Yang bum. He was firmly convinced that a letter from even the very highest of Chinese officials did not carry the weight of the signature of a foreigner.
Mrs. Ming sent the children to lie in wait at the door with firm instructions not to accept any letter from the Yangs. She, herself, certainly had no time to waste in watching the Yang home. She was quite pleased with her own success, and although one would have thought that she’d let it go at that, she kept thinking of other steps to take and even went so far as to suggest that her husband buy the house that the Yangs were living in. Mr. Ming knew that he didn’t have the spare cash to buy a house, but he agreed anyway. Just listening to his wife speak of such a plan was music to his ears. It was too good to pass up. No matter whether the Yangs owned the house or were renting, he’d think of some way to get hold of it, and then he’d sell it right out from under them! It did his heart good to hear his children say, “We’re going to buy that house over there,” for outright purchase was the greatest of all possible victories. Houses, cars, things of gold—whenever he thought of buying such things he always became increasingly aware of his own greatness.
Even though he considered the Mings’ refusal to accept his letter as a personal insult, Mr. Yang did not favor sending the letter back over again. For a while he thought of having it out with Mr. Ming, once and for all, right out in the street, but it was just a thought. His social position, you understand, would not allow him to resort to such barbaric behavior. He was reduced to weakly explaining to his wife what rotten eggs the Mings were and how there wouldn’t be much point in starting a fight with rotten eggs. With this he was able to comfort himself to some extent.
Mrs. Yang did not give vent to her anger either; nor was she able to come up with any good plan for revenge. She began to think that “to be civilized” meant always taking the short end of the stick. She expressed a number of pessimistic views and insights on the subject to her husband and saying such things straight out helped her to get rid of quite a bit of her own spleen. The two of them were in the midst of babbling away their anger in this fashion when the maid brought in a letter. Mr. Yang took a look at the envelope: the street number was right, but it was addressed to Mr. Ming. For a moment he thought of keeping the letter, but he immediately realized that that was something that an upright man really couldn’t do. He told the maid to take the letter over to the Mings.
Despite her previous resolution, Mrs. Ming had in fact been spying on the Yang house for a long time, and upon seeing the Yang maid approach with the letter, she began to fear that the children stationed at the door might not really know how to handle the situation. Thus she steeled herself for action and personally joined the fray.
“Take it back, we don’t want to even look at it.”
“It’s for Mr. Ming,” the maid said.
“I know, but the head of this household doesn’t have the time to waste reading your letter.” Mrs. Ming was extremely decisive.
The maid handed the letter to her saying, “It was mailed to the wrong address. It’s not ours.”
“Oh, sent to the wrong address was it?” Mrs. Ming rolled her eyes around in confusion for a moment. She had it! “Let the master of your house receive it! Do you think that I can’t read? Don’t try to put anything over on me!” Slam! ! The door closed.
To the consternation of Mr. Yang, the maid brought the letter back. He didn’t want to go back over with the letter himself, nor was he willing to open it up to see what was inside. At the same time he really felt that Mr. Ming was a rotten egg too—for he knew that Mr. Ming had by now returned home and had formed a united front with that barbaric wife of his. How ought he handle the business of the letter? To confiscate another man’s letter would certainly be less than honorable. After thinking over a number of possibilities, he finally decided that he would put it in another envelope, address it correctly, and toss it into the nearest mailbox the very next morning. After he had stuck a penny stamp on the envelope, he was even able to smile.
The next morning the Yangs were so pressed for time in getting to school that he forgot the letter. It was only after arriving at work that he remembered it, but then it was too late to go back after it. Fortunately, he remembered that the letter had come by regular delivery and therefore, he decided, it couldn’t have been anything very important. It certainly wouldn’t make any difference if he sent it out a day late.
When he got home from school he didn’t feel like going out again and stuck the letter in one of his school books, promising himself that he’d be certain to mail it out the very next morning. Having thus disposed of the matter, he was just about to sit down to supper when he heard a great commotion over at the Mings’. Mr. Ming himself was a fastidious man and would never demean himself by screaming or shouting while beating his wife, but Mrs. Ming, the recipient of the beatings, was not at all that fussy about preserving such niceties. She wailed and howled for all she was worth so that even the children were attracted by the fuss. Mr. Yang listened very carefully, but he couldn’t make out what it was all about. Suddenly he thought of the letter; maybe it was important. Perhaps because he hadn’t received the letter on time some affair or other had miscarried and now he was taking it out on his wife. This thought made him very uncomfortable. He thought of opening the letter to see what was inside, but he didn’t have the nerve. Yet by not looking at the letter he managed to so frustrate himself that he couldn’t even enjoy his evening meal.
After supper the Yang family’s maid ran into the Mings’ maid. A falling out of employers doesn’t do any harm to the friendship between servants; the Mings’ maid let the cat out of the bag. Mr. Ming had beaten his wife over a letter, a very important letter. After the Yang maid had returned and reported this intelligence, Mr. Yang wasn’t able to sleep. He was sure that the letter in question must be the one that he had. But if it really were an important letter, why hadn’t it been sent by registered mail? Moreover, why had the sender been so careless as to write down the wrong street number? He thought about this for a long while and the only conclusion that he was able to reach was that businessmen are very careless with regard to the written word; this was probably sufficient to explain the mistaken address. Add to that the fact that Mr. Ming didn’t ordinarily write or receive many letters and one could very well see how the postman might have simply looked at the street number without noticing the name. Perhaps he didn’t even remember that there was a Ming family on the street.
Such thoughts as these caused Mr. Yang to become aware of his own superiority. After all, Mr. Ming was just a rotten egg whose only talent was raking in money. But if Mr. Ming was a rotten egg to begin with, then why couldn’t Mr. Yang open up the letter and take a peek? To be sure, reading another man’s mail was a legal offense, but a man like Mr. Ming wouldn’t be aware of that anyway.
But what if Mr. Ming should come over and demand the letter back? No, it wasn’t a good idea to open it. He picked up the letter a good many times, but in the end he lacked the nerve to open it. At the same time he no longer felt like sending it over to Mr. Ming. If it really were an important letter, then in the hands of Mr. Yang it might prove very useful. Of course this was not open and above board, but then who told Mr. Ming to be such a rotten egg? Who told him to deliberately give the Yangs a hard time? Rotten eggs ought to be punished. He began thinking of his grapes.
Then he started reconsidering things all over again. He thought; he pondered; and in the end he changed his mind again. He would still send the letter to Mr. Ming the very next day. Furthermore, he would send out his own letter exhorting the Mings to look to the conduct of their children. He’d show that rotten egg of a Ming how courteous and amiable a really educated man could be. He had no hopes of reforming Mr. Ming, but at least he could make him realize that teachers are gentlemen, and that would be enough.
Mr. Ming ordered his wife to go over and demand the letter back. He already knew its contents for he had bumped into the man who had written it and had already taken the proper precautions that the misplaced letter had indicated. But he still didn’t want the letter to remain in the hands of the disgusting bum of a Yang. The heart of the matter was this: he and a friend had used the name of his foreign employer to smuggle some goods into the country and somehow or other that rich and piously religious foreign employer had gotten wind of it. The letter was, in effect, a warning from his friend advising him to find some way of pulling the wool over the eyes of the foreigner.
It was not at all the case that Mr. Ming was afraid that the Yangs might make public the contents of the letter, for in his heart he had no respect for his own government and he had never feared Chinese law. Even if his compatriots did find out that he had been engaged in smuggling, it still wouldn’t matter very much. What he was really afraid of was that the Yangs might mail the letter off to the foreigner and thus prove that he had, in fact, been guilty of smuggling. He thought that that disgusting Mr. Yang was just the kind of devious person who might peek into the letter and then go on to foul things up for him. He, himself, couldn’t very well go to get the letter back, for if he met that Yang bastard face to face, there’d certainly be a fight. From the bottom of his heart he was thoroughly disgusted with guys like Yang. He had always felt that that Yang guy deserved a good working over. But in the end, it was his wife whom he sent after the letter. After all, it was because she had refused to accept it that such a fuss had been stirred up in the first place, and this was a good way of punishing her.
Mrs. Ming really didn’t want to go over because it would be simply too embarrassing. She’d rather take another beating from her husband than to go over and lose face at the Yangs’. She procrastinated until her husband had gone to work and then spied on the Yangs until she had satisfied herself that they had gone to work too. Finally she sent her maid over to arrange the whole thing through the Yangs’ maid.
Mr. Ming was called on the carpet by the foreigner and subjected to an interrogation. Fortunately since he had already seen the friend who had written the misaddressed letter, he was well prepared for what was coming. He was able to cover up everything very well during the interrogation, but he was still uneasy about the letter. The hardest thing to take was the fact that such a letter had to fall into the hands of nobody else but that disgusting pauper of a Yang! He just had to think of a way of punishing the rascal.
After arriving home, his first words were to ask his wife if she had gotten the letter back. Mrs. Ming, was, as ever, on her guard. She told her husband that the Yangs had refused to give the letter back and that took the responsibility for the mistake off her own shoulders. Hence Mr. Ming’s anger was diffused over a great number of people rather than being concentrated on her. It simply seemed a case of a disgusting pauper of a teacher daring to cross the great Mr. Ming. So that’s the way things stood! ! He ordered his children to climb over the dividing wall and stamp down every single plant in the Yangs’ yard. Then they were to report back to him and he’d consider what further steps he might take. The children were beside themselves for joy and spared not a single plant within reach.
After the children had returned from their “mission to the frontiers,’י the postman made the delivery that usually comes somewhat after four in the afternoon. After Mr. Ming had read the two letters, it was difficult to tell whether he felt sorrow or happiness. The misaddressed letter made him happy: he realized that Yang had not, after all, opened and read it. But that letter that Mr. Yang had written made him feel really mad, made him even more disgusted with that bastard pauper. He felt that only a pauper like Yang would ever be capable of that degree of politeness. Just to think that a man could be polite to such a revolting degree! He was glad that he had had his children smash down all their plants and flowers.
On the way home, Mr. Yang felt very good. He had expressed his original intentions in his letter and had, moreover, exhorted a neighbor to goodness; this sort of thing would certainly be enough to reform Mr. Ming to the path of righteousness. Upon arriving home, he was utterly stunned! The plants in his backyard looked as though they had been dumped there by a garbage truck. The entire yard was in a state of chaos. He had no doubts about who had done this to him, but what could he do? He tried to collect himself so that he might objectively consider his next move. After all it wouldn’t do for an educated man to react emotionally to such a shock. Try as he would, though, he was no longer capable of being objective. That tiny drop of barbarian blood that was left in him after so much education began to boil up, and made dispassionate thought impossible. He ripped off his coat and began gathering up pieces of brick. He took careful aim across the wall at the windows in the Ming house and began throwing. The sound of breaking glass was a symphony to his ears. He wasn’t conscious of anything anymore, except his own joy, his own sense of fulfillment, and even a feeling of glory! It was as though a civilized man had suddenly become a barbarian. He began to be conscious of his own strength, of his own guts. He felt the way that he felt when he stood naked just after a bath, completely free and unrestrained, a new man. He felt young, ardent, free, and brave.
When he had smashed almost all the windows within reach, he went back to his room to rest. He waited for Mr. Ming to come over and fight him; he wasn’t afraid. He puffed wildly on a cigarette and looked for all the world like a victorious warrior. He waited for a long time, but there wasn’t even the slightest stir from the direction of the Mings’.
Mr. Ming had no intention of going over to the Yangs’, for he felt now that Mr. Yang wasn’t really all that disgusting after all. Looking around at the broken glass, although he wasn’t pleased by it, he wasn’t altogether pained either. He even began considering the possibility of enjoining the children from making off with the Yangs’ flowers and grapes after this; previously, nothing had been able to move him to think in this direction. But the broken shards of glass changed his mind. As he thought things over, Mrs. Yang’s image flashed before his eyes, and thinking of her, he could not but hate Mr. Yang. But now he realized that there was a difference between “hate” and “disgust.” “Hate” carried with it a slight hint of respect.
The next day was Sunday. Mr. Yang was in the yard cleaning up his garden. Mr. Ming was inside his house repairing the windows. It seemed as though the whole world were at peace and mutual understanding had finally come to mankind.
1. In October of 1966 reports from Hong Kong stated that the Red Guards, objecting to Lao She as being “anti-party and anti-Mao,” had harrassed him into suicide. (See the article on Lao She by Hsü Chien-wen published serially in the supplement to the Central Daily News. Taipei: October 22, 23, & 24, 1966.) The reports have since been verified.
2. “Neighbors / Lin Chü Men” was translated from A Selection of Lao She / Lao She Hsüan Chi. Hong Kong: Wen Hüeh Ch’u Pan She, 1961, pp. 75-85.
3. Lao She, The Rickety Ox-cart / Lao N’iu P’o Ch’e. Hong Kong: Yü Chou Shu Tien, 1961, pp. 71-72.
* In other words, his pious foreign employer would fire him.