Two years after his graduation from Taipei Medical School in 1914, Lai Ho opened a hospital in his hometown, Changhua. In 1917, he went to China and offered his service to Amoy’s Po-ai Hospital. He returned to the island in 1919, at a time when echoes of the May Fourth Movement, initiated by the students at Peking University, were reverberating over the country. His China experience affected his intellectual outlook immensely, so much so that he was no longer content to practice medicine alone. Following Lu Hsüns (1881-1936) example, he took up writing, hoping to rouse his compatriots from their sloth, apathy, and intellectual sterility in the face of Japanese barbarity. His spirit of defiance in this respect is sufficiently represented in “The Steelyard”, selected for this volume. Though he has written a number of poems in classical Chinese, he is best remembered as the author of fourteen stories in the vernacular—a medium that provided him with the most leverage in his battles against feudalism, ignorance, and cowardice. When, on the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Lai Ho was jailed for the second time, his health rapidly deteriorated. He died of a heart attack on January 31, 1943. His complete works can be found in the first volume of Taiwan New Literature under the Japanese Occupation (Jih-chü-hsia T’aiwan hsin wen-hsüeh).
Translated by Jane Parish Yang
Most of the inhabitants in Wei-li Village of Chen-nan County were hard-working, steadfast, peaceful, and submissive farmers. Except for a few powerful families who managed the governmental affairs of the area and several families of low ranking clerks, the majority of the villagers were poor.
Ch’in Te-ts’an’s family was especially poverty-stricken, since his father died before he was born. Though the father had rented several mou of farmland, after his death his wife and son were left with nothing. If the landlord had sympathized with them and continued to rent to them, they could have hired laborers to work the land. That way they could have made a little profit to sustain themselves. But who among the wealthy would be willing to let someone else profit from the land? Such a person wouldn’t have become wealthy in the first place. And so it was in this case: the landlord got a few more pecks of rice by renting the land out to someone else. The money the father had earned with his blood and sweat was carried into the ground with him. The situation of mother and son seemed hopeless.
The neighbors felt sorry for them. Some of the older people took it upon themselves to help keep Chin Te-ts’an’s family from starving. With a neighbor acting as matchmaker, the mother was remarried to a man willing to bear her family name. But not only is it true that a stepfather seldom shows affection for the son of a previous husband: he also treats the son’s mother like some kind of machine. In the case of Te-ts’an this was more than true, for he was cursed and beaten by his stepfather, and because of this, his mother was unable to get along with her second husband.
Fortunately, his mother was hard-working and was able to plan ahead. She wove grass sandals, raised ducks, chickens, and pigs, and, in spite of great hardship, managed to muddle through the hard days. When Tets’an was nine years old, she sent him off to herd cows and work as a farmhand. By that time, the stepfather wasn’t paying much attention to household affairs. Even so, mother and son were able to avoid the threat of starvation only by their own efforts.
When Te-ts’an was sixteen, his mother had him quit his job as a farmhand and return home. She wanted him to rent several mou of farmland, but at that time rented land was hard to come by. The Sugar Processing Company earned great profits from its operations. The farmers, badly exploited by the company, were unwilling to plant sugarcane. Thus, to compete with the farmers for rented lands, the company gave the landlords most attractive offers. Now, if a landlord could bring himself more profit, why should he care about the farmers’ difficulties? In this way land was grabbed up by the company for sugarcane production. There were several landlords who could be said to have had a conscience, because they were willing to rent to the farmers, but the rent was set at the same high price the sugar company paid. Thus Te-ts’an couldn’t afford to farm, and working as a laborer for the sugar company was like being treated like a draft animal. His mother refused to allow him to do that, and so he remained at home and occasionally worked odd jobs. Because he was strong and hard-working, he was sent for every day and earned more with less effort than if he had hired out as a full-time laborer. His mother was thrifty, and they gradually saved up some money.
Three years swiftly passed. When Te-ts’an turned eighteen, his mother’s one remaining wish was to see him married. The money she had saved up by her hard work was enough for a wedding, and he married a daughter of a farmer in the village. Fortunately, after they were married, the wife helped Te-ts’an work in the fields, her strength the equal of any man’s. The harvests were good and the young couple were, for the time being, at least self-sufficient.
When Te-ts’an was twenty-one, he presented his mother with a grandson, and from that time on a smile lit up her withered face. The satisfaction she felt in her heart allowed her gradually to lay down her burden of responsibility, because her duties as a mother were already fulfilled. But her frail body was unable to sustain itself after twenty years of hardship. Since she had now eased up on her responsibilities, she did not take care of herself as she used to. Illness struck. After several days in bed, satisfaction and joy spread over her features, and she passed away. At that time Te-ts’an’s stepfather was husband to her in name only. With her death, Te-ts’an had nothing more to do with him. Poor Te-ts’an! His happiness vanished with the death of his kind mother.
The next year a daughter was born. With his mother now gone, Tets’an’s wife had to take care of the house. Since she was unable to work outside because of her young children, their income was reduced by half, and Te-ts’an had to work twice as much as before. Under these difficult circumstances four years passed. Finally, he too became ill. At the beginning of harvest time, malaria struck. After four or five days without any signs of recovery, Te-ts’an saw a doctor of Western medicine. He spent more than two dollars. But, though he felt a little better, he was still weak.
At a busy time like this, however, the industrious Te-ts’an didn’t dare sit idly at home. So, enduring the pain, he went back to the fields. When he returned that night, he felt a little sick. He woke up in the middle of the night with chills and hot spells. The next day he was unable to get out of bed. This time he didn’t dare send for the doctor of Western medicine. Three days’ work won’t even pay for one treatment, he thought to himself. Where is the money to come from? But he couldn’t ignore his illness either. He would either brew some green herbs—that didn’t cost anything—or take some relatively inexpensive Chinese medicine. Although this was somewhat effective, he still had hot spells and chills every two or three days. Only after many months did they stop recurring. His belly, however, had become bloated. Some said that eating too much of the green herbs caused it. Others said it was called swelling of the spleen and was caused by taking Western medicine. Te-ts’an didn’t care what it was called or what caused it, but inasmuch as it prevented him from working, it became a great problem.
When Te-ts’an became ill, his wife had to go back to work and leave the children unattended at home. Their cries kept time with Te-ts’an’s moans from his sickbed. Though they didn’t starve to death, they got only one or two meals a day if they were lucky, and the whole family became malnourished, especially the children. Luckily, his wife did not become pregnant again.
At the end of the year, Te-ts’an was finally able to do a little work, but with the year-end banquet1 approaching, he had yet to find a suitable job. Because everything came to a halt at Lunar New Year, and there would be no opportunity to work then, he would have to store up food for this halfmonth period. Te’ts’an became especially worried and upset.
In the end, having heard that selling vegetables in town was profitable, he decided to try it. But he lacked capital, and being an honest person, he felt uncomfortable asking people for a loan. Finally, having no alternative, he was forced to ask his wife to turn to her family for help.
It stood to reason that the wife of a poor farmer could hardly have come from a wealthy family, and so one couldn’t expect much help from them. Her sister-in-law treated her well, however, and gave her the only jewelry she owned, a gold pin, to pawn for a few dollars to serve as capital. Pawning the pin was risky, but since there was no other solution, Te-ts’an’s wife could only go along with it.
One morning Te-ts’an brought back a load of vegetables, hoping to go to town right after breakfast. It was then that his wife discovered that he didn’t have a steelyard. “How can we get one?” Te-ts’an thought. “Steelyards are sold exclusively by the government, and they’re not cheap either. Where can we get the money?” Finally, his wife hurried over to a neighbor’s house to borrow a steelyard. The neighbor was kind and lent them a fairly new one. Because the police were bent on finding picayune faults with the common people in order to accumulate merit on their record for fast promotion—the ones who rooted out the most cases were promoted the fastest—there were countless crimes that were literally fabricated by the police. And, seeing that they had no chance to win these cases, the people, though wronged, wouldn’t dare to speak out. Transportation bans, travel rules, scale and measurement regulations—anything to do with daily life was within the scope of the law and could be controlled or prohibited. Te-ts’an’s wife, worried that something like that would happen, decided to borrow the new steelyard.
Business that day wasn’t bad. By the end of the day, Te-ts’an had earned over a dollar. He first bought some rice for the New Year. After several days, when he had put aside enough food, he began to think, “Our luck this year was just awful. Next year first thing we have to do is buy a new picture of Bodhisattva Kuan-yin for the living room altar. The couplets along the door have to be replaced, too. And we have to have gold-colored sacrificial money to burn for the gods and silver-colored for the spirits. And then there’s the joss sticks and candles.” After several more days of fairly good business, he then thought of steaming some rice cakes, the traditional New Year treats. When he brought the rice home, his wife couldn’t hold back and chided him, “We should save the extra money to get the gold pin back from the pawn shop. Isn’t that more important?” Tets’an answered, “I haven’t forgotten about it. But today is only the twenty-fifth. I’m not worried about earning the money to get it back. But even if I don’t, we still have the capital. No matter when you redeem it, you still have to pay a full month’s interest.”
One evening when he was getting ready to go home, he remembered his children. He felt he wouldn’t be fulfilling his duties as a father if he didn’t buy them new outfits for the New Year. He may not have been able to provide a good life for his children, but he should at least bring them a little happiness. He bought several feet of patterned cloth for them, and in doing so he spent the profit from the last several days.
The next day at noon, a low-ranking policeman strolled over and stood in front of him, his eyes riveted on the load of cabbage. Te-ts’an asked politely, “Ta-lang,2 is there something you want?” “Your produce seems fresher than the others’,” the policeman said. Te-ts’an replied, saying, “That’s right. People in the city know how to live better than country folk. If it’s not the best, they don’t want it.”
“How much for a catty?”
“Since it is Ta-lang who wants it, don’t bother about the price. I feel honored simply because you ask for it.” He selected several of the cabbages, tied them up with a length of straw and respectfully offered them to the officer.
“No, weigh it.” The policman made a show of declining the offer several times. Unsuspecting, Te’ts’an did as he was told. Then he said: “Ta-lang, you’re too polite. It’s only one catty and fourteen ounces.” Usually, requesting an item’s weight was an indication of agreement to buy, rather than taking it for nothing as a present. “You’re sure about that?” the policeman asked. “Well, actually it’s two catties, but since it’s you who wants it . . .” Te-ts’an answered in his usual business tone, giving no hint that it was to be taken as a present.
“Your steelyard’s not accurate, then. Two catties should count as two catties. Why one catty and fourteen ounces?” The policeman’s face hardened. “No, it’s still new,” Te-ts’an replied with composure. “Give it to me!” the policeman demanded angrily. “You can still see the lines,” Te-ts’an said as he handed it over calmly. The policeman held it in his hand, examined it for a moment and said, “It’s worthless. I’m taking you to the station.” “What for? Can’t it be fixed?” “Oh, so you don’t want to go, eh?” The policeman ranted, “We’ll see if you won’t go, pig!” With a snap he broke the weighing rod in two and tossed it aside. Then, taking a small notebook out of his breast pocket, he recorded Te-ts’an’s name and address. He returned to the police station in a rage.
Te-ts’an stood dumbly in front of his load of vegetables, vainly seething with anger from this unexpected insult. When the officer had gone some distance, several bystanders drew near. An older one said, “You dummy! You come to the market but don’t even understand this rule? You think you’re going to do business with him? So many catties of this and that? You really meant to take his money?” “Why should we give him things free of charge?” Te-ts’an protested. “You don’t realize how much power he has! You don’t know what green herb ointment feels like,”3 the older man smiled sarcastically. “What? An official can insult the people as he pleases?” Te-ts’an asked. “What a blockhead!” someone in the crowd commented. The bystanders discussed the meaning of the incident for a while before they dispersed.
Te-ts’an returned home, but he had lost his appetite for dinner. He just sat glumly, in silence. After his wife gently prodded him several times, he finally told her what had happened that day. “Don’t worry,” she said, comforting him. “You can buy a new steelyard with what you’ve earned the past few days. The rest is still enough to redeem the gold pin. Take a rest. You don’t need to go out tomorrow. We’ve got about everything we need for the New Year. Our luck has been rotten this year, and perhaps that explains why we got in trouble with the authorities. But since we’ve had bad luck this year, we might have better luck next year.”
Te-ts’an stayed home the next day. No move was made against him, and since the next day was New Year’s Eve, he had only one day left to do business before the long holidays started, and then, he decided, he could take a good rest. He got up early the next day and took a load of vegetables to the market. It was still dark when he arrived. The shouts of the people in the market sprang up out of the early morning mist, a sad reminder on this day of the year of the swift passage of time. Shortly after dawn, the produce in the market was almost gone. Some people had already begun packing up their baskets, eager to go home and gather around the table with their families and enjoy the New Year’s Eve banquet as a reward for their hard work over the past year. It was then that Te-ts’an encountered the officer again.
“You pig! Where were you hiding yesterday?” the policeman roared.
“What? How could you curse me for no reason?” Te-ts’an retorted.
“I’ll give you a reason at the yamen. Move, pig!”4
“If I’ve got to go, I’ll go. Just stop calling me ‘pig.’ ”
The policeman glared at him and led him off.
“Are you Ch’in Te-ts’an?” asked the judge at the yamen.
“Yes, I am,” Te-ts’an, kneeling on the floor, answered.
“So you’ve committed a crime, huh?”
“I’m thirty years old and I’ve never committed a crime.”
“I’m not interested in your past. I’m only telling you that you’ve violated the standard measurement regulation.”
“I’ve been wronged, your Honor.”
“What? You mean you’ve been falsely accused?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“But it’s clearly stated in the policeman’s report that you’ve violated the law, and a policeman can’t be wrong!”
“But, in fact, I’ve been unjustly charged.”
“Well, since it’s reported that you committed this crime, I can’t let you off lightly. However, I’ll only fine you three dollars. Do consider that a special favor.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“In that case, stay in jail for three days. Once again, do you have money to pay the fine?”
“No, your Honor.” He figured that three dollars was certainly worth more than being jailed for three days during New Year’s holidays.
Te-ts’an’s wife had planned to redeem the gold pin from the pawn shop right after she finished doing the laundry. But before she got out of the house she heard the bad news. Immediately she asked herself: “Who can I turn to? Who can help me out?” She could think of no one. The more she thought about it, the more distressed she felt. She burst into tears, as if she could release her pent-up emotions only by crying. Finally, a neighbor suggested that she take the money she had planned to redeem the pin with and go to the yamen to find out what this was all about.
Country folk are frightened enough just by the thought of encountering a policeman, not to mention going to the yamen. Besides, she was just an ignorant woman. Her anxiety was not difficult to imagine. As she entered the building, she was stopped by a policeman shouting to her: “What’re you doing here?”
She immediately stepped outside in terror. Fortunately, a young janitor came out to make inquiry about her, and she entreated him to help her out. What was even more fortunate was that the boy still had the innocence of youth with him. He sincerely offered her advice and volunteered to go in her behalf to pay the three dollars to the judge.
“I was locked up only a while ago. How come I’m released so soon?” Te-ts’an asked himself suspiciously before he came out of the yamen and saw his wife waiting outside.
“How come you are here?” he asked her dutifully.
“I heard . . . that you’d been locked up,” she replied, sobbing.
“Nothing to be excited about. I haven’t done anything serious enough for them to chop off my head,’’ Te-ts’an grumbled dispiritedly.
By the time they reached the market, it had already closed. The sound of firecrackers sending off the old year could be heard all around.
“Did you redeem the gold pin?”
“I hadn’t even left the house when I heard about what had happened to you. So I hurried over to the yamen and gave them three dollars. What’s left isn’t enough now.
“Humph,” Te-ts’an grunted. He took out the three dollars he earned that morning and handed it to her, saying: “I’ll take the load home. You’d better run to the pawnshop before it closes. Come home as soon as you can.”
No sooner had the children finished their dinner than they retired to bed, dreaming their sweet dreams. They wanted to get up early the next morning to welcome the New Year. The father paced back and forth in the room without heeding the call of his wife urging him to go to bed. His thoughts were tempered with unutterable sadness. Between sighs, he mumbled to himself: “People are treated just like animals. What kind of world is this that makes life more miserable than death?”
He recalled the look of contentment on his mother’s face as she was about to depart from this world. Suddenly, he came to a final recognition of what he had to do.
On New Year’s day, screams, followed by pleading and moaning, suddenly erupted from Te-ts’an’s house. Then a short exchange was heard: “Is that all you’ve got?” “Yes, unless you want the sacrificial paper money.”5
Around the same time a rumor spread through town that a night patrolman had been killed in the street.
AUTHOR’S END NOTE
I have witnessed this kind of tragedy many times and wanted to write it down. But on recollection, sorrow filled my breast and I couldn’t take up my pen. Recently, having read Anatole France’s (1844-1924) “Crainquebille” (1904), I have realized that incidents such as the above did not take place only in underdeveloped countries. It happens in any place subjugated by authoritarian force. For this reason, I have disregarded my own crudeness of style and committed this story to writing.
This story was originally published under Lai Ho’s pen name, Lan Yün (“idle clouds”).
1. Given on the sixteenth day of the twelfth lunar month in celebration of the local god of the earth.
2. “Master.” Polite address by Taiwanese to Japanese policemen during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, from 1894-1945.
3. Ointment administered after a beating.
4. Yamen: Local government administrative offices.
5. The ending of this story is rather cryptic. We have no idea whether the exchange is between husband and wife, or between Te-ts’an and the policeman. The ambiguity might be deliberate in view of the nature of the story.