Chinese Stories in English
Birth of a Hero
One day the tea house's servant girl died. It was only then that people realized she'd been alive; it seemed like her living had been the same as death.
An outsider had come into the village that afternoon. His face was covered in sweat and the dust had turned his hair silvery grey, making it impossible for anyone to guess his age. They knew only that he'd come from far away, and that he was very much in need of something to drink.
"Hey, gimme some tea!" he yelled, his vigorous voice shaking the dust loose from three rafters. His imposing manner was very much like that of the warriors of ancient times.
The servant girl scurried over to pour him some tea. She raised the copper kettle high and the tea flowed from the spout directly and accurately into his bowl. Not a drop was spilled.
The guest had to admire her skill. He glanced at her but didn't say anything.
According to what the villagers said later, the guest's eyes filled with envy at first, and then with a murderous look. The guest wanted to kill the girl because of his detestable envy. In one breath he downed three bowlfuls of tea from the bowl the girl had brought over, before realizing that the tea was a boiling 100 degrees Celsius.
He stood up and pointed at the girl, wanting to accuse her of enticing him into drinking three bowls of boiling hot tea in one breath, but he wasn't able to speak.
The servant girl saw a blister the size of a chicken egg forming on the guest's mouth, with a crowd of smaller blisters spread randomly over it, so that it looked very much like a white toad.
The guest's neck jutted out. Unable to speak, he pressed forward toward the girl. Her eyes filled with terror as she retreated toward the large pot used to boil water. When she'd backed up as far as she could, she lost hope and knew "I'm going to die." At this time the murderous look in the guest's eyes reached its peak, and he understood that "I want to kill her."
The guest lifted the girl up and put her into the pot upside down. She screamed, a short scream from out of the pot – then her mouth sunk under the boiling water and the only sounds were "uh, uh" and "gurgle, gurgle". She struggled a moment, splashing some of the boiling water onto the guest's face. Then she stopped moving. She was dead and curled up in the pot like a chicken that had been put into boiling water so its feathers could be plucked.
The guest began to notice the splashes of boiling water on his body cutting into his skin like knives. It was like someone had stuck a hot poker into his neck and stomach. When he realized this he said to himself, "I'm going to die."
"Is it because you killed someone?" he asked himself.
"No, it's because I'm dying." he said.
"But people will think you died because it was your karma." At that thought the guest fell to the floor, like a pagoda collapsing in a snowstorm after completing its historical mission and it's life's responsibilities.
The villagers all felt the teahouse shake three times when the guest fell. Further, all the dust jumped down from the roof and covered the villagers' faces. It made them look like the guest had looked when he first arrived: silvery hair and dirty faces, so no one could tell how old anyone else was.
The villagers began to deal with the aftermath. Dripping with sweat, they carried the guest to a wolves' haunt in the mountains and left him there. They said they wanted the wolves to gnaw his flesh away and eat him bite by bite, an evil fate for an evil man.
Their tears flowed as they fished around in the pot for the girl's remains. The fire underneath it had gone out by then and the temperature in the pot had begun to fall. The workers used shovels to stir the contents of the pot around while they searched. A pleasant aroma wafted up from the pot, and they soon found themselves salivating instead of shedding tears.
To rectify this unexpected phenomenon and fully express their respect and mourning for the girl, the villagers decided to postpone this work – they would wait until the temperature in the pot had completely cooled down.
When the work resumed two days later, it was discovered that the pot contained a thick slurry in which only a few shining white bones could be found. The girl's pale and abundant flesh had departed for parts unknown. The villagers cried even harder at this tragedy, and their tears left an ample reserve of water for the village.
After reflecting on this bitter experience, the villagers decided on a lasting way of commemorating the girl. Namely, tribute must be paid by putting up propaganda slogans and posters – the two are the same – and the thick slurry from the pot would be used as paste to stick them up.
And so posters of various sizes appeared on walls in the village. People were reminded of the girl's life whenever they saw the slogans, so she still lived, living forever in people's hearts.
Her remains were buried under the tree at the entrance to the village. A few days later the tree withered and died. People said it was because her greatness exceeded that of the tree.
* * *
Lude sat by the serving girl's grave, crying, for three days and three nights. For three days he didn't eat or drink anything and he didn't sleep a wink at night. He banged his head against the tree until his head had a bump on it and the tree had a dent. He was the only one who knew that the reason the tree had died was because he'd been beating on it.
After three days, some people discovered the skinny, white-haired old man sitting by the girl's grave. They asked him where he came from but he didn't say anything. They asked him about his relationship to the girl while she was alive, and he didn't say anything. They asked him if he hadn't been touched by the girl's spirit and he didn't say anything.
Later the same day they discovered that Lude was gone. The white-haired old man who said he loved the serving girl appeared in the village. The villagers thought that was blasphemy and wanted to chase him away, but he refused to leave. And so the villagers tolerated him with a tolerance they had never shown before. "Since the elderly cannot have feelings of love," they believed, "this old cannot feel love for the serving girl."
But the old man wondered, "Why did I realize I love her only after she died?" He'd discovered she was an angel. "Her departed spirit is soaring in the heavens on angel's wings – people die in order to live and live in order to love – the perpetually loving dead. The departed rely on the love of the living to continue living, and the living stay alive in order to love the departed. The two rely on each other. Without either one, both would be lost and their counterparts would turn to nothingness, the nihility of the unknowing.
Lude had become old the year he turned twenty five.
* * *
Death is everlasting, the rebirth of the dead is everlasting, and only the lives of the living are temporary, mere intervals. The purpose of a temporary life is everlasting life when you die. A temporary life is existence, physical and methodical. Rebirth for the dead is nonexistence, abstract and purposeful. The plane of the dead is above the living because their souls are floating above the Heavenly Realm. They are suspended high, high above the Realm of Heaven.
Three days later some people found that the guest's corpse was intact and unharmed. A pack of wolves had come up to it, but only bowed their heads in silence for a while before running far away. It seemed as if this place was the Muslim Mecca, or the Buddhist Western Paradise, or the Christian Jerusalem.
When the wolves went away, they left behind a series of bewildering howls. Like a whip in the hands of a shepherd, the howls leapt through the air and into people's ears.
At the exact same moment that day, people in the village also felt their hearts jump. It was ominous. "Something's about to happen," they said, maybe a terrible disaster.
Everyone followed the sound and came upon the corpse. They saw a pearl in the guest's mouth as big as a chicken's egg. The pearl's splendor was gently reflected into the people's eyes until their eyes were filled with what might be called "the color of greed". The people rushed forward and swarmed around jewel. They were all thinking of it. They all wanted it, and they wanted to get it for themselves. No one would give way to anyone else.
A war began in the small village. Near the guest's corpse, people fought toward a common goal, but each of them prevented the others from moving forward, and thus, no one was able to reach it. Eventually, since no one was able to reach their goal, people began to go away, but not before leaving a few more corpses lying by the guest.
Those who left the area had determined that the goal was forever unattainable. When they got away, they discovered something called "detachment". Thereafter they completed a sort of unfettered freedom.
The next day, the wolf pack again returned to the battlefield. They gnawed on the bodies and devoured them completely.
On the third day, some people who had come back to pick up the pearl discovered that it was gone. Only a disorderly pile of white bones was left on the ground. They heard someone whisper, "Alas!"
* * *
One night many years later, people saw phosphorescent light shimmering faintly in the wilderness. The light was twinkling like a wolf's eyes, so people began to feel terrified: wolves, man-eating wolves.
It was a tragedy cutting prominently through the wilderness. The jewel, the war, the wolf pack, the whitened bones, the phosphoresce, the past, yesterday, today, pulsating in history with a faint glimmer – but there was still tomorrow.
Thus, the place where the war had been was precisely the place of wolves. The wolves had transformed into men and the men who were transformed into wolves became the fodder for war. The wolves in war had started to become one with men, and no one could tell who was who.
The wolves were men, and the men wolves, and the men and wolves shuttled along between battles. They came together at the intersection of wealth and material desire.
Many years later——
* * *
The writing on the wall posters has begun to fade. It's hard for people to see clearly what's written on the yellowed, crumbly paper. No one can touch the posters because they're fragile; they can only try to remember. They think of the sweet, meaty aroma that had wafted through the village and remember that someone had died – it was the serving girl. She'd turned into a fragrance and drifted far away – for most it was the first time, and the last, that they'd smelled an aroma going into the distance – they feel it's rather beautiful, and comforting.
But the feeling is gone in an instant, turned to nothingness, so they commemorate the serving girl, and cherish her memory. Then they begin to adore her, the kind of cherished memory that one feels when looking back on things that are long gone and will never return. A cherished memory is our understanding of and reflection on things that have been a part of us. It always proceeds in the opposite direction as history, from beginning to end a twin sister of the past.
The girl's face is already hazy, but people clearly remember the aroma that rose thickly from the pot after her death. Even today the back sides of the posters retain a faint scent of fatty meat.
One day a poster peels off in the rain and the people discover a piece of the young girl's marvelous skin behind it. The skin is as rosy and fair as it was when she was alive. It's like a young girl's naked body, embossed, but strangely it doesn't arouse anyone's desire. It's like seeing a painting of some tragedy and hearing a plodding dirge, with the two entwined to form a powerful theme, spiraling upward. Because of this the people start to "rise up", and in rising they find "beauty".
That bit of fair, rosy skin enlarges without limit and wraps the people together inside it. It is a world, enshrouding its disciples, and they live within.
And in it the people see a totem.
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Internet Compositions, p. 126
Translated from an edited version here. Also 天涯社区 at http://bbs.tianya.cn/post-free-62939-1.shtml
To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to email@example.com