Chinese Stories in English
6. Official Titles
7. Learning is the Chinese Religion
8. Iron Rice Bowl
1. My Mother's Phone Number
2. A Phone Number I'll Never Forget
3. A Bachelor Stomach
4. Friends are "No Use"
Wu Yijun talked about her memories of her mother’s inveterate optimism. She loved to sing and dance. At home she was always a “pistachio”, or “happiness nut” as it’s called in Chinese.
[Wu Yijun speaking: “She liked to sing Beijing opera. Whether coming or going, she was always singing an opera tune.”]
[Wu Yijun’s daughter, Wu Zubing, speaking: “ Her views on life were very sanguine…. She could always tell you from various perspectives what was good about life.”]
Ten years ago, when her mother had already reached the ripe old age of eighty-nine, she had a mishap and twisted her back. Moving around was quite inconvenient for her. She voluntarily suggested moving to a retirement home because she feared being a burden on her five children.
She brought a lot of happiness to the retirement home while she was there. Wu Yijun and the other children went to the home to chat with their mother often, whenever they could get the time. They couldn’t always be at her side, though, so what could they do?
[Wu Yijun, speaking: “After the first time I went there, I bought her a cell phone. I thought to myself that, with a phone, she could talk with her children any time…. That way she’d always be talking to this one or chatting with that one, and wouldn’t have any empty time at all.]
As Wu Yijun tells it, her mother really treasured her phone and carried it with her in her purse wherever she went. After two years in the home, it had become an important tool for her to keep in touch with them. It never rang again after she passed away in 2011, but that most familiar of phone numbers has become one that her sons and daughters will never forget.
[Wu Yijun, speaking: “Maybe someday I’ll get a phone call and it’ll be my mother calling from Heaven.”]
For some time now, on Mother’s Day, Wu Yijun has thought about a number of things that happened while her mother was
1. My Mother’s Phone Number (母亲的电话号码)
Wu Yijun (吴一筠)
My mother went to an old folks' home at the age of eighty-nine.
That day happened to be Mother's Day and I bought her a cell phone. The number was 187-7568-xxxx. I gave the number to my four brothers and sisters to store in their respective phones, and urged them to keep their phones on twenty-four hours a day for her sake. I also entered our numbers in her phone in sequence, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, to make it easy for her to call us. If she wanted to call her oldest she just had to press "1", and if she wanted to call her third child she could just press "3". That way she could call any of her children at any time from the home and she wouldn't feel lonely.
She called her third child the most, the son who'd lived with her for nearly thirty years. She'd become accustomed to hearing his 'prattle'. Myself, I was always asking her to do something or eat something when we talked on the phone, and she may not have been happy about it, but she listened to whatever her third child told her.
Next, she liked to call her youngest daughter. Mother was very lively and loved to sing and dance, and she and her youngest daughter were very much kindred spirits in this regard. Mother had only to get a call from her youngest daughter and, after they'd spoken only a few sentences, she'd be dancing around and gesticulating for joy, or sometimes she'd just break out in song. The other people in the home didn't understand and wondered, is the old girl not quite right in the head?
That wasn't the case, actually. When she answered a call from her youngest daughter in far-off Nanning, the girl would often start singing over the phone. This made mother happy and the two of them would simply sing a “telephone duet”. It made the people around her happy, too.
Mother was conspicuously gentle when speaking to her eldest child, a daughter, on the phone. She told her she was doing fine at the old folks' home and was well taken care of. Her second child went to the home several times every week to see her and to spend time her.
She wanted her eldest daughter to take better care of her health. If she was too far away she shouldn't come visit her. As for her youngest son, she'd say: "Why hasn't the boy come to see me for such a long time? He doesn't even call me." Then she couldn't wait to chat with him and would call him on the phone, and her grievances would disappear as soon as she heard his voice. The young man’s humor often made her laugh out loud. She told him, “You go on about your business and don’t worry about me”; “I’m doing fine. Your older sister’s here!”; "Don’t be in a rush to come over if you don't have the time”... etc, etc.
Sometimes, when I heard how affectionate mother sounded on the phone with my siblings, I’d purposely tease her. Once I said, “Mom, look how you show favorites. You treat my older sister and the others so well, and speak to them so politely. Why don’t you treat me a little better? I do so much for you, but you’re never satisfied."
"Who told you to hang around with me?” she shot back. “That old saying, ‘Far away is aromatic and nearby stinks – chicken shit stinks when you’re right beside the fence,’ do you get the logic of that? You’re the one right beside the fence."
She went on to say, "What is it? You don’t like it when I chat, is that it? My five sons and daughters are like five lamps. If the one on this side isn’t on the one on the other side is. Which one shouldn’t I chat with?"
"Don't jerk me around,” I retorted immediately. “I'm the lamp that’s never off.”
She changed her tone right away. "I'm relying on you. How about that? If you pushed me away I wouldn't go."
"I was kidding you, Mom. I love you, and I’ll be here for you till the end.” My mother, the old baby, often had me not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
My mother's cell phone never left her side. She was afraid she wouldn’t hear it ringing when one of her children called. What made her even happier, though, was when her grandchildren phoned. Even her great-grandchildren would call her…. That kind of thing would make her happy for a whole day.
What worried us most was getting a call from her in the middle of the night. We were afraid it would be sad news. At a little after six in the morning on October 17, 2011, I got my last call from her number. It was the old folks’ home calling me on her phone to tell me she wasn’t doing well.
I put down the breakfast I’d been making for her and hurried to catch a bus to the home. When I got there, my mother was lying flat on the bed, her breath like gossamer. She’d been waiting for me to arrive to breathe her last breath.
I leaned close to her ear and whispered, "I'm here, Mom." Right at that moment, I saw her breathe her last rasping breath. I turned on the speaker she kept on the coffee table – this is was something she’d told me repeatedly. Her whole life she’d loved to sing, and she hoped to have music accompany her when she went. The song “My kind mother, you are the most beautiful of women....” floated through the old folks’ home.... The gentle melody tugged on my heart strings as it accompanied my mother to heaven.
My mother was ninety-one years old that year. Her phone number is still in my heart. Maybe someday my phone will ring and display the number 187-7568-xxxx on the screen. It will surely be my mother calling from heaven....
柳州晚报, 2018/05/17, Luizhou Evening News, page 23
2. A Phone Number I'll Never Forget (一个忘不掉的电话号码)
Narrators: Zhang Lian and Fang Jun (张莲 劳军 摆古)
[This is the script of a Liuzhou TV news feature broadcast on May 23, 2018– Fannyi]
I happened across an essay a couple of days ago. The title was “My Mother’s Phone Number”, and the author was a seventy-seven-year-old retired teacher named Wu Yijun. She wrote the essay especially in memory of her mother, who has been dead for seven years. She describes her mother’s last years in a retirement home where she used a cell phone to keep in touch with her sons and daughters.
[Wu Yijun speaking: “My mother was lying sick in bed, her breath like gossamer. She’d been waiting for me to arrive to breathe her last breath.”]
Screen grab of Wu Yijun reading “My Mother’s
Phone Number” aloud, with expression, for the
camera. As she was reading, her glasses fogged
up and she couldn’t keep from choking with
living in the home, so she wrote the essay “My Mother’s Phone Number”. Between the lines, the essay reveals her deep feelings and longing for her mother. It’s utterly moving. I think her mother was so carefree, and had such a loving family, that she must certainly be enjoying great happiness in Heaven.
[Essays 3 through 8 are from "Special Literary Digest" (特别文摘) April 2018, and also at websites as noted – Fannyi]
3. A Bachelor Stomach (从单身胃到婚姻胃)
Xiao Xiao (晓晓)
A friend of mine is a businessman. Before he got married, he lived a very irregular life. He often ate only one meal a day, but then he could eat two roast chickens at one sitting. I asked him, "Isn’t it hard going hungry?"
The friend patted his belly and said, "I’ve never known what it means to be hungry."
Then I asked, "Doesn’t it give you stomach troubles?"
He patted his belly again and said, "Nope. Got me a cast iron stomach here."
A few days ago, this friend and I had arranged to go fishing at the seashore. Close to noon, he abruptly put his fishing pole away. "Does it need fixing?" I asked.
"I’m a little hungry,” he said with some embarrassment. "I’m going home to get something to eat."
I laughed. "Aren’t you the one who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘hungry’? You with your cast iron stomach?"
"That was then, this is now. I'm married."
"What’s the difference?"
"There’s a big difference," he said. "After we got married, my wife was always pinching my ear and forcing me to eat three meals a day at regular times, so I got used to it. Now she doesn't have to force me. If a meal’s a little late, I’m famished. Have you heard of anyone starving after missing a meal? They’re definitely married people."
I still wanted to chat with him for a while, but the son of a gun was in an all-fired hurry to leave, like he really hadn’t eaten for three days. In just one year’s time, the bachelor stomach my friend'd had for thirty years had turned into a married stomach.
A married stomach is actually a picky stomach. It’s not picky about the taste of the food, but about having three in-home meals a day. Therein lies the orderliness of marriage and its expression of love.
Life is gray without hope; hope is blind without knowledge; knowledge is wasted without work; and work is monotonous without love.
4. Friends are "No Use" (朋友是“无用”的)
Chen Guo (陈果)
Friends are "no use". The reason we make friends, and why we need friends, and why we love our friends, is not because they're "useful". Friends are not for "utilizing". Nor are they safe channels for venting our emotions; nor mere sources of consolation for us; nor contrasts to set off our own superiority; nor extra "helpers" or "accomplices". They are the focus of our love and care, with whom we can share the richness of the soul and the beauty of life; with whom we have the kind of rapport brought about by mutual understanding; and with whom we feel a sense of togetherness and trust, and an ambiance like “they're with you everywhere, even if you're not always thinking of them”.
We don't be with friends because we expect to get anything but satisfaction from a mutual relaxation of the need to defend oneself, and the unconstrained freedom of not having to be meticulous about everything. One of my same-sex friends described in this way the kind of tacit but thorough understanding between friends: "Holding hands to see each other without words, but understanding clearly everything on our minds". That's exactly it. Her casual remark, “Don’t I know you yet?” can often move my heart and make me feel fortunate – you do know me, just as I know that you know me, and there's no need for further explanation because you do understand.
http://epaper.syd.com.cn/sywb/html/2017-07/11/content_92536.htm?div=-1, last ¶
5. Attitude (态度)
Cao Aman (曹阿曼)
My sister went to see her husband who was working in another part of China. In the bus on the way back, she complained that her husband hadn’t helped her pack her bags the night before. He’d said, “I don’t want to let you go!” She’d remained sweetly silent at the time.
Her husband hadn’t explained the matter on its merits. He’d only expressed how he felt about her, and their little spat had been satisfactorily dealt with. No amount of explanation could have matched a loving attitude toward her.
Once I was eating with my uncle and his wife. He said, "This restaurant’s food tastes good. This is my third time here."
Auntie immediately cut to the nitty-gritty. “That’s not right. How come you told me you’d never been here before?"
"I’m getting old,” he said. “My memory isn’t as good as yours. What I said last time was wrong.”
Auntie laughed. "You’re getting old, and I’m not getting old too."
Uncle admitted his mistake to Auntie. He didn’t accuse her of sticking her nose in his business, nor did he show impatience. Instead, he went straight into self-criticism. He let Auntie realize that this wasn’t an important matter of principle. No amount of explanation could have matched his attitude of sincerity.
One rainy day I bought a raincoat for my child. He put it on and ran around excitedly in the rain.
It didn't rain the next day, but he still wanted to wear the raincoat. At first I wanted to explain to him that we only wear raincoats when it's raining, but when I saw him looking at it with such expectation, I had second thoughts. If he wants to wear it, let him.
After I buttoned it up for him, the boy's eyes were radiant. He walked in front of me energetically, then looked back at me and made a face. He'd run far ahead for a while and then run back. It was just like he was wearing a coat of mail and had turned into Superman or an armored warrior.
I didn't explain to him what's reasonable and what isn't, but just adjusted to his emotions so that the child could have a good time. No amount of explanation could have matched an attitude of respect for him.
There are lots and lots of examples of such things in our lives. However, it‘s easy for us to categorize people with fancy but meaningless words. We don't think it through – only people who really care about each other will consider how to say something in a way that's easy for the other party to accept.
A lawyer friend says that, because of his professional habits, when he talks to people he always thinks about how to refute what they're saying. Isn't that so for ordinary people as well? In conversation we always want to express ourselves. If we're met with doubts, the first thing we think of is to exculpate ourselves. We're always afraid of taking responsibility and fear for the impact on our image. But these kinds of unmindful explanations often lead to more doubts. Because we didn't listen carefully to the other person, we didn't see things from their perspective and respond rationally to them.
The purpose of communication is not to show one's own ability or express oneself. Nor is it to crush the other party flat. It's to let the other party understand the content of what you're saying. Then both parties can reach an accord with pleasure.
Translated from小说导航 at http://www.waok.net/1/1433/91805.html
6. Official Titles (称官)
Chen Siyi (陈四益)
The Chinese like to address people by titles. It’s a way of showing respect, or, you can say, a way to curry favor.
When Wei Yingwu served as Suzhou’s Provincial Governor in old China, he was addressed as “Suzhou Wei”. By the same reasoning, Liu Yuxi was an honored guest of the Emperor and was called “Honored Guest Liu”.
Even if, after holding office only for a period of time, you are relieved of your duties or even fired outright or retired, your official title will follow you for the rest of your days. The reason is probably that, under the despotic system which lasted for several thousands of years, bureaucrats were always considered special people. The titles thus became accepted from long usage.
But what were those who never held office to do? They had a way. The Chinese people are most skilled at “expanding”. I don’t care what the original meaning of this term was, here “expanding” in its broadest sense means making something common. For example, in the Tang Dynasty only people who held an official position could be called "Guanren" (官人) or "Lord". By the Song Dynasty, however, the term was being used for chess players, street singers, story tellers, snake charmers and small shop owners. They even added the word “Great” to the title, calling these people “Great Lord”.
Xianggong (相公), another term translated as "Lord", was a special term for a person who had been enfeoffed as a duke in the late Han Dynasty; the title Yuanwai (员外) or "Landlord" began to be used at the start of the Tang Dynasty to refer to an official position outside the regular group of officials – what we would call today "Department-Level Status" or "Bureau-Level Status". In later generations, both "Xianggong" and "Yuanwai" were used anywhere and everywhere [as polite terms of address].
This custom seems not to have changed up to the present day. Everywhere you’ll hear people being called Bureau Zhang, Department Li, Secretary Wang or Director Qian, regardless of whether they actually hold the position or just have the status, and regardless of whether they're still on the job or retired, and even without regard to whether it's an official title or if the person just likes hearing it. All these things occur.
特别文摘， 2018/4，第 72 页, not available online.
7. Learning is the Religion of the Han Chinese (读书是传统汉族人的宗教)
Qian Wenzhong (钱文忠)
In traditional Chinese thought, a person should have culture and should learn from books, including the classics. This brooks no debate. In Chinese tradition, the Han people in comparison to other peoples do not have religious beliefs in the ordinary sense of the term. Actually the Han people's religion is learning from books, which includes reading the classics.
In ancient China, of course, and even in other cultural traditions around the world, little emphasis was usually placed on the education of women. In the past, we attributed neglect of women's education, as well as disrespect for women, to Confucian cultural traditions. In fact, it wasn't only the Confucians – the devaluation of women's status was a world-wide phenomenon.
In Chinese tradition, at the age of one year children would be led to "grab around"; that is, a variety of articles (writing brush, abacus, etc.) would be placed before the infants to see which one they picked up, which would supposedly indicate their inclinations and future careers. Jia Baoyu, the principal character in the famous novel "Dream of Red Mansions", didn't reach for a pen or a book – he unexpectedly grabbed a container of rouge. This became a major event both inside and outside his family. Why? Because ancient Chinese people considered book learning so important that it looked like a religion. Jia Baoyu seemed destined to be a man in a heap of powdery resin.
Of course, Jia Baoyu is a just character in a novel. In the real world, however, contemporary author Mr. Qian Zhongshu got his name from grabbing around. He reached for a book and his father (some say uncle) was so happy he gave him the name "Zhongshu", which means "fond of books".
So I say that, in the Chinese tradition, learning from books has been passed down as a religion for thousands of years. In the history of Chinese culture, it plays an enormous and substantial part.
Translated from 百度阅读 at
8. Iron Rice Bowl (铁饭碗)
Feng Yang (冯洋)
Recently my work unit has been on edge. People are worried. It’s said there’ll be a comprehensive reform, but no one has a clue what specifically will be reformed or what it will be reformed into. What we can be clear about, however, is that the so-called reform will redefine our duties, reduce personnel and increase efficiency.
Some portion of the staff will have to go. Who will be leaving? Well, therein lies the problem. Our organizational structure is split between career employees and contract workers. Contract workers will of course be the first to get the knife. The chief of our unit has already issued a memo suggesting that everyone find other ways to support themselves right away, and make alternative preparations.
I’m among them, and I really can’t help being spooked. In the past I’ve consoled myself any number of times by remembering that, while there are all sorts of injustices here, they’re just because of what’s called the different nature of the jobs. We have to do as much work as the career staff, or more, and all we get is a portion of their salary. But then I'd recall that the work environment is all right and there’s not much pressure.
When a girl has this kind of job, she can have a baby later on and still take care of her family conveniently. That almost makes it OK. I actually thought that, as long as I didn’t voluntarily resign, I could keep on working here. Sometimes I wondered if I could really spend all my life doing this, and it was a little scary, but the fears passed in a flash.
Every time I think of the term "lay off", I always feel that it belongs to my parents’ generation in the 1990s. Workers who held iron rice bowls in state-owned businesses were caught off guard by the tide of lay-offs back then. One day the work unit where they thought they’d work for a lifetime suddenly disappeared.
As for me, I’m sandwiched between people relying on me for support – my elders above and my child below. This situation came on me suddenly, like an enemy army emerging out of nowhere, a huge power that unexpectedly forced the closing, bit by bit, of any means of escape. Now I'm facing the same problem as most people who return to society at middle age without having prepared any ability to compete – how to adapt to survive?
The braver or shrewder ones coming out of state-owned units in the 90s would do the dirtiest, most tiring jobs, as long as they could feed their families. Some were accustomed to doing office work, and a sense of the superiority of state-owned units had gotten deep into the marrow of their bones. They couldn’t lose face, and perhaps because of this, their ability to make a living was cut short.
This was the situation for many women and men who’d started families at the age of thirty or forty, then found themselves stewing in a pension in middle age. The fortunate ones had someone in the family who was still able to work. Those families could make do for a few decades.
I used to always take the previous generation’s tide of laid-off workers as a warning to myself: Don't be so comfortable with the status quo that you forget about getting ahead. If you get laid off yourself one day, what will you do? What can you do to get back into society? It was a scary thought, but comforting at the same time. “It’s not very likely,” I thought. “Such a large, big-name school, how could they do without employees? How could such a responsible professional as I am get laid off?” I never expected that that day would come this quickly, so quickly that I was caught off guard.
I had to consider whether anything could last forever in this era of rapid change. Or, from another perspective, whether this idea that one job could last forever might just be a hope. In today's society, if you find a job with a so-called fixed staff, that's an iron rice bowl. As long as you get in the door, the unit has no way to fry your bacon no matter how you perform. You have a lifetime of protection from the time you start work until you retire.
If there are opportunities for promotion, there may be some sense of achievement in the job. On the other hand, it may also be that one employee does the same job for a lifetime, like a water buffalo that pulls a plow decade after weary decade. Under such a system, a person's ability to work or their contributions to the unit play no part in determining their circumstances. Many individuals have no way to control their own destiny.
Of course, this refers specifically to administrative work, the kind of job that doesn't involve any special ability. Even if a master's degree is generally a hiring requirement these days, an undergraduate can in fact do the work entailed by the job. And as for the difference between people who've been on the job for one year and those who've worked for ten, the former are called novices and the latter old hands. They're only called old within the particular unit, though.
Going somewhere else to look for another job after ten years, I figure that my enthusiasm and passion, as well as my ability to learn and adapt, have long ago been ground to dust by so many years of repeating the same tasks day after day. What I've accumulated over the past ten years isn't experience, but just replication, over and over again. I've gradually been acclimated to listening to the leaders and obeying their instructions. I've slowly come to realize that my whole person has degenerated, that abilities like logical thinking, language usage, and decision-making have gradually become absorbed by the day-after-day stability.
Over time, this job really did become an iron rice bowl. Because the person holding this bowl of rice finds it difficult to leave and find another....
Translated from 豆瓣 at https://www.douban.com/note/646416720/
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