8. They Crossed Their Hearts
9. See Lao Ma E #3
10. See Lao Ma E #2
3. Minutes of a Meeting
4. Brown Leather Shoes
5. The Children
6. See Lao Ma A, #3-01
7. Children’s Day
1. Thirst (渴)
The large water park built in the urban scenic area attracted a lot of tourists.
Boss Gan looked complacent sitting under a patio umbrella next to the artificial waterfall. He seemed to be enormously proud of his accomplishments.
Some sort of mystical power works behind every successful person. At that moment, Boss Gan was silently thinking “The gods have been there for me!” and thanking Heaven for its munificence. They were having another hundred-year drought – the air seemed to be on fire and the blistering sun had evaporated every last drop of moisture remaining on the land and people – but at the same time it was heating up the waterside business Mr. Gan had started.
He was greedily enjoying the hubbub of people’s voices on the surface of the lake. The serious expression that stretched tightly across his face year around was doing its best to hide his barely discernable smile. He was calculating the costs of a planned expansion of the recreation area. Scientific forecasts of global warming and persistent drought had become the most reliable source of business information for formulating his investment strategies.
He took a sip of iced mineral water, reached out to accept the bath towel that the young female attendant handed him, and wiped off the drops of water that had splashed on his face from the waterfall. His expression returned to the look of pensive concentration that his subordinates often saw.
He seemed to think of something and the corners of his mouth twitched slightly. The people around him and the media were constantly trying to unravel the mystery of his life. People knew only that he was from Northwest China – they could tell that from his accent – and that he’d struck out on his own after college instead of taking the job assigned to him by the government. He didn’t smile or talk much, and no one had heard stories about his hometown and family from the horse’s mouth. According to media lore his father was a senior official, while some people said that he was born to a shepherd family and had been a beggar in his childhood. Once when he’d drunk too much he blurted out, “I went through college eating mud soup, and not much of that.” If that wasn't just idle chitchat, it confirmed his origins as a shepherd family’s baby beyond doubt.
He’d never returned to his hometown after going off to college. He never even felt the urge to go home and show off after he made his mark in the world. At one point he wanted to bring his parents to the city and wrote letters home about it, but his parents read him the riot act and cursed him for being an ungrateful, self-centered disgrace to his ancestors. He never brought up the idea again and had no desire to return home for a visit. He justified this to himself as his fate, something that no one could do anything about.
The corners of his mouth twitched slightly again as he collected his thoughts. He stood up and jumped into the pool and swam for a while. After he got out, he sat down under the umbrella again. The young attendant served him some cool herbal tea and then handed him that day’s newspaper. A letter that had just arrived was stuck in the newspaper. The envelope was crumpled and seemed to have passed through several hands.
The corners of his mouth twitched again as he opened the envelope. The letter was from his hometown – from the village’s Communist Party Committee. It told him that his hometown had been suffering from a severe drought for successive years. Six months previously his father had started a fight with someone from another village over a bucket of water. The result was, the fellow cracked his head open with an iron hoe. His mother was too old and frail to walk the dozen or so miles across the mountains to wait in line for water, so she up and died of thirst shortly after his father.
The letter fell from Boss Gan’s hand. As always, he maintained a look of pensive concentration, except that the corners of his mouth kept twitching.
2. Experience (经验)
Spring in Beijing changes like a shrewish woman. Sandstorms stir the earth and sky into darkness, leaving everyone in a dreadful mood.
My friend Bravery had lost in love. His girlfriend had turned against him and been hooked by a minor salesman at their company. He was so beaten down by the pain that he couldn’t bear it. His entire outlook on life had changed. He insisted on visiting me to talk about it and chose a day when the sand was blowing everywhere.
I really wasn’t interested in his pain but was hindered by feelings of sensitivity towards a classmate, so I adopted the posture of a victor in life and preached to him from on high.
Love and loss are private matters which should not be publicized to outsiders. Bravery had forgotten the holiday a few years previously when he and I had competed for the favors of a female classmate. Believe it or not, he’d come to me and shamelessly poured out the details of that decidedly unromantic romance to me. I’d listened listlessly to his rambling, incoherent discourse while I secretly rejoiced.
This time, Bravery had discovered an interloper in a closet in his girlfriend's dormitory. He’d just come back from a business trip that day, a day earlier than he’d originally said he would. The door to the women’s dorm was locked. He’d knocked for a long time but got no answer, so he took out the key his girlfriend had given him and let himself in. He was surprised to find that his girlfriend had just gotten up, and right away he went the closet to get clothes for her. That’s when he found someone standing there. He was stunned speechless and didn’t figure out what’d been going on until long after the bosom buddy had gone.
This place in Bravery’s story was rather in the nature of a theatrical play and caught my interest a bit. He and the girl had been glued at the hip for more than two years, but up to that point they had had no substantial physical contact. He’d never “closed the deal” or "put the lock" on her. I believed that was the crucial point in her betrayal of him. He firmly disagreed and thought my judgment was vulgar, and that the purity of love should be upheld until marriage.
I screamed and yelled trying to wake him up. I made it clear that love can't just be talked about endlessly, and still less can it stop indefinitely at verbal expression. Lovers must kiss when the time is right, and hug when the time is right, and go further when the time is right. Otherwise the girl will run away sooner or later because she can't figure out whether a man who doesn't take action really loves her. In this regard, I told him it’s better that the woman have a bun in the oven than that the man have a grudge in his heart.
Bravery didn't think his girlfriend was the kind of girl I was talking about, but he couldn't fully explain the appalling scene he’d witnessed. He believed throughout it all that she still loved him very much and had only been momentarily confused and led astray by that punk salesman. I really wanted to just smack him a few times to make him realize the objective reality, that she’d long ago stopped loving him, a man who was unmoved by human desires. I felt compelled to flaunt personal experiences where I had been successful.
Incorrigible wimp that he is, Bravery not only didn’t follow my example after listening to me describe my experiences, but even berated me. He said I was a low-life, really just a knot on an elm tree, a bread-for-brains idiot. I couldn't take that, so I shook my finger in his face and yelled back. Finally I told him, "Bottom line, you're not a man at all!" Then I swaggered off without a second thought for him.
I was quite late heading home that day, and with that added to the damn dusty weather, I was bummed out all the way. When I walked through the door of the lousy room I was renting, several figures suddenly emerged from the darkness. I heard a familiar woman's voice say, "It's him!" Another woman’s voice, which also sounded somewhat familiar, answered, "Yeah, that’s the low-life!" As soon as the women finished speaking, “whoosh", I’d been downed by a club. I punched and kicked and instinctively guarded my head with my hands. I couldn’t clearly see who’d attacked me, but I got a rough idea of their identities from the sound of the voices cursing me. It seemed they were the brothers of those two girls, my “experiences”. They were taking it out on me because both girls were pregnant and they saw me as the culprit.
I was laid up in bed for over a month. Bravery came to see me many times and giggled as he told me that he’d just got in solid with a woman college student. He wanted to rid himself of his former way of thinking, namely, that in matters of love “a gentleman advances with words and not physically”. He wanted instead to learn from my experiences and consolidate their love in bed, and the sooner the better. I stopped him right away and told him not to do such an unethical thing. He gave me a puzzled look, so I told him the real reason I’d been lying in bed for more than a month. He really had believed me before, when I’d spun him a story of courage and heroic action!
3. Minutes of a Meeting (会议记录)
As old as I am, this was the first time I’d ever seen such interesting minutes. I've long wanted to sneak the file out of the archives room but have never done so, and I can therefore only repeat from memory what I heard. If there are any discrepancies in the particulars, the official record should prevail.
title: Minutes of Special Departmental Meeting
time: May 15, 8:30 a.m.
venue: Office Conference Room #2
attendees: Director Yellow River, Deputy Directors Xie, Cow, Chen, Shao, Horse and Jiang, plus Office Manager Qin and Personnel Section Chief Yang (Deputy Director Zhang requested leave for hemorrhoid surgery)
topic: Discuss and approve methodology for distributing organization’s grants for sunstroke prevention and cooling costs
moderator: Director Yellow River
yellow river: Opening remarks (Explains theme of meeting, subsequent nonsense remarks omitted)
deputy director xie: Read full text of Grant Methodology (including two mispronunciations and a punctation error which caused " provisional subsidy" to sound like "sexual subsidy").
Long silence before starting discussion. Deputy Director Chen coughs for three times in succession without saying anything.
deputy director shao: "The overall theme of the ‘Methodology’ is very good, but the distribution standards are vague and should be defined in detail. Sunstroke prevention and cooling grants should reflect differences between jobs."
deputy director jiang (AKA Fatty Jiang): "An individual’s weight should be factored in as well. Fat people don’t like the heat...." (Pants and mops sweat from brow while speaking.)
deputy director chen: "Heatstroke prevention and cooling grants should be related to the floor area of the building, the inside area, and especially east-west orientation of the residence." (Rationale omitted.)
deputy director cow (yelling): "You can't paint everyone with the same brush. I'm thin, but my wife is fat. You have to consider both our body types. " (Rationale omitted.)
deputy director horse (Crying out): "The residence’s orientation cannot be used as a reason to get more cooling funds unless the winter heating grant is reduced first."
director yellow river (getting angry, thundering): "This is really nonsense, total bull. Things like bodily weight, floor area and a room’s orientation aren’t determinative factors for the cooling fee grant. Only age and seniority should be considered...."
Office Manager Qin and Section Chief Yang snored throughout and didn’t speak.
Overall impression of the meeting: Cow mooing, Horse neighing and Yellow River roaring.
Recorded by: Office Secretary Wu.
4. Brown Leather Shoes (红皮鞋)
Owning a pair of brown leather shoes has been a dream of my family for two generations.
Life in the countryside was brutal when I was a child. Every family was squeezed tight. Adults generally wore tattered cloth shoes and rubber shoes (the latter also called "liberation shoes"). Leather shoes were hardly ever seen. As for the children, we generally went barefoot from spring through fall. We ran around everywhere unshod, even school. We could only wear “liberation shoes" stuffed with soft grass or shredded cotton during the winter.
The Village Chief did have a pair of leather shoes, and they were brown. Rumor had it that he’d been to Shanghai back when he was a soldier during the War and had brought them home from there. There was no way to find out whether he’d bought or stolen them.
Those brown leather shoes were quite eye-catching. He only wore them a few days each year, namely, during the Spring Festival.
Everyone in the village knew about that celebrated pair of brown leather shoes. Starting in the 1950s, come the Spring Festival those gaily colored shoes would make an appearance in every household in the village. The Chief would strut around wearing them and a small green cotton-padded jacket. He never stuck his arms in the sleeves, so they dangled and swayed when he walked.
For many years, the sound of firecrackers accompanied the brown leather shoes whenever they appeared. Those shoes were as emblematic of the Spring Festival as couplets and lanterns. The Chief looked dynamic and sufficiently officious in those shoes. After all, he was a man who’d been out and seen the world, and his brown leather shoes had been brought back from Shanghai. No one in the village except him even knew what direction Shanghai was in.
Those brown leather shoes brought honor and stature to the Chief, but they also brought him trouble and misfortune. For a time during the "three anti" and "five anti" campaigns, some people imagined that those highly celebrated shoes were associated with his economic situation and lifestyle, so his superiors organized "study sessions" and confiscated them. The Chief was upset about this for quite some time, and at the mention of it, the foulest, most strident language would spew from his mouth. He didn’t go from door to door to wish everyone season’s greetings that year, presumably because he didn’t have his brown leather shoes.
The campaigns passed, and his superiors returned the brown leather shoes to him. He was so happy that he couldn’t conceal his joy. During the Spring Festival every family once again saw the flashy brown color on his feet. A few years later, a "Four Cleanups" working group used the brown leather shoes again as a pretense to pick fault with the Chief. He was allowed to keep them this time, but his position as village chief was usurped by someone else. He didn’t go around wishing people season’s greetings that year, either. It wasn’t right having just the brown leather shoes and not having his position.
Still later, the Chief again started wearing his brown leather shoes to walk from family to family during the joyful atmosphere of the Spring Festival. The villagers called him Chief or Grandpa or Uncle or brother to his face, but they all called him "Brown Leather Shoes” behind his back. It had become his nickname.
My father and my older brother both hope to one day don those brown leather shoes, symbolic as they are with power, status and dignity. Thus far, however, neither of them has got his wish.
Forty years have passed, and I long ago left the village. The deep impression that pair of brown leather shoes made on my child’s mind has gradually faded. The old Village Chief departed this world two years ago, and those brown leather shoes probably went to the grave with him, if they weren’t abandoned by him long before his death.
A few days ago, a childhood friend of mine came to Beijing on vacation and looked me up. The moment we met, my eyes were attracted by the brand new brown leather shoes on his feet.
"You must be the new Village Chief," I inquired instinctively.
"How’d you know? I just took office."
He grinned, I laughed, and scenes from our youth floated through my mind.
5. The Children (孩子)
Although you could call it their first date, they’d each acquired a fairly complete understanding of the other beforehand.
The young man and the young woman had differences regarding their first loves, but both had failed at marriage. They’d each been divorced almost a year, and each had custody of a six-year-old son.
The place for this day’s date was a secluded part of a landscaped area in a street median. The pair sat down on a bench at the same time, the time they’d agreed upon in advance.
"Wah!" Two little heads protruded from behind the bench, startling them. They looked at each other and smiled.
"You’re so cute, little dears." They each grabbed one child's hand. "How old are you," he and she both asked. "Six," both little guys said together.
"Kids these days don’t have a care in the world," he declared.
"You said it. No worries at all," she agreed.
"Do you like children?" she continued.
"Of course. When I’m with a child, no one can tell which one’s the kid." He smiled and gently pinched the child's nose.
"How about you,” he asked, even though he already knew the answer. “You seem to like children especially well, too."
"I’m a woman. How could I not?" She took the child in her arms and kissed it gently.
"It’s so lonely now, with only the one child at home," he said disconsolately.
"Yeah! Look how happy these two are together!" The smile remained on her face.
He fished out a hundred-yuan bill and put it in the child's hands. "Go on, buy yourselves some ice cream over there."
She stuffed a hundred-yuan note into the other child’s hand as well. "You two play together, then buy yourselves lunch at McDonald's."
"Your son’s really a good boy," he said.
"What? My son? Where do you know him from?" Her eyes got wide.
"Just now, wasn’t that child your son?" He also looked puzzled.
"No. And what about the other child?" She furled her brow.
He shook his head "Hey, why would I have brought my son here?"
There was a sudden burst of laughter in the park in the median strip.
7. Children’s Day (儿童节)
Today is Children's Day. First thing in the morning, I rushed over to my son and fawned on him.
Last night my wife and I had agreed on three rules. On Children’s Day, we had to make every effort to meet our son’s desire that we not box his ears, not kick his butt and not yell at him. I’d fully agreed with my wife's proposal because this would be my son’s last holiday as a child.
"Time to get up, Son," I said softly, with my mouth close to his ear. He mumbled something, then rolled over and went back to sleep. My wife moved closer, gritted her teeth and keeping her voice low. "Ah, Son, I bet you’re dreaming. Are you dreaming about testing into a good high school?" He kept snoring stubbornly, because last night he’d gotten our permission to sleep in a bit today.
It would be eight o'clock soon. A fierce look flashed across my wife's face – her mood often depends on the boy. I gestured to remind her of our agreement and saw, right away, that her face and neck were turning red from the effort of keeping her promise. Our son stayed fast asleep, paying us no mind whatsoever. My wife's hand reached for his ear several times but I stopped her before she could latch on.
My wife’s wheezing became more and more labored as we sat beside the bed and waited patiently. Finally she could hold back no more – her hand snaked out unexpectedly and grabbed on to the boy’s hair. “I won't box your ear, I promised not to.” Our son was assuredly grateful that his mama hadn't boxed his ear, but not even the severe pain in his scalp was able to eliminate his sleepiness. He lay back down as soon as she loosened her grip.
Such arrogance. He shouldn’t have thought he could act in such an unbridled fashion just because it’s Children's Day. A flash of anger hit me right in the forehead and I punched him in the abdomen with so much force that I broke out in a sweat. “Oof!” He sat straight up. I smiled awkwardly and gave him a reasonable explanation: “At least I didn’t kick your butt.”
He began to fumble into his clothes. He broke into a broad smile and massaged his scalp for a while, then moaned and grumbled as he rubbed his stomach a bit. After half an hour, he still hadn't gone to his desk to review his homework.
My wife and I kept control of ourselves. We’d discussed it yesterday and agreed not to yell at him or scold him. We exchanged glances and decided with one mind to wait until this day was over before doing anything. Children's Day is an internationally recognized holiday and an untold number of parents almost die from stifling their anger on this day. My wife kept mumbling softly, continually cursing our son and the patrilineal legacy he’d inherited....
Our son's holiday is over at last. He passed the day much more contentedly than usual. At noon he proposed to go out and play with his classmates for a while, and we agreed. It was almost midnight before he finally came home and went to bed without a fare-thee-well.
My wife and I consoled each other by saying, “Fortunately June First only comes once a year.”
8. They Crossed Their Hearts (赌咒)
After funding for the autumn and winter quarters arrived, the County immediately called various leaders to an emergency meeting to study the implementation of post-disaster reconstruction projects.
The leaders attending the meeting uniformly agreed that the highest priority was to get a grip on the construction of residential buildings so that the affected members of the public could live through the winter in safety.
They focused on a problem to which the public had reacted strongly, cadre corruption: specifically, illegal and criminal activities which made use of construction projects for personal enrichment. For more than an hour, the County Commissioner repeatedly warned the leaders, organizations and various departments participating in oversight of the design and construction of residential buildings, as well as the units and various kinds of cadres doing the construction work, to maintain a high spirit of responsibility. He demanded that they always keep in mind the victims’ need for warmth, and always empathetically assist and render practical aid to the victims. They must exercise strict discipline and strengthen supervision in order to ensure that every penny of the disaster relief funds would be used for the victims, that the funds required for construction of residential buildings would be used exclusively for that purpose and no other, and especially with no embezzlement or restrictions on distribution. If such problems were detected or discovered, they would absolutely not be tolerated.
The Commissioner became excited about what he was saying. He pounded the table, pointed to Heaven and promised to start with himself – “If I have any problems along these lines, you all should smash my head with bricks and kill me!”
This vow stunned the officials in attendance. The deputy county heads; the directors of planning, real estate and urban construction; the head of the urban construction company; the financial director, the civil affairs director and others all followed his example and made their own promises. One by one they crossed their hearts and hoped to die by being run over by a car, or struck by lightning, or drowned in a cesspool. Some said they’d drink themselves to death, some were willing to be eaten by wild beasts, some would let a hangman strangle them and some would have their wives feed them arsenic. A solemn atmosphere pervaded the meeting room.
The Commissioner was deeply moved by the sincerity of his subordinates, but at the same time he pointed out that the methods of death were creepy and inconsistent. He concluded by emphasizing that crossing one’s heart and hoping to die was a way to show determination, not a wish for an untimely death. He incorporated the various methods of death into one type, namely: If there were any corruption, bribery or embezzlement in the victims’ residential building construction projects, let bricks smash the perpetrator’s head in. Everyone raised their hands to adopt the proposal.
The residential building construction proceeded methodically according to plan, and an orderly residential district was completed on schedule before winter started. After it passed inspection, the County held a grandiloquent opening ceremony to distribute the keys for the new homes to the victims' representatives. The Commissioner and the others, the various levels of leaders of all departments and units involved in overseeing, organizing, design and construction, all crowded onto the second-floor balcony of a carefully furnished model unit to cut the ribbon for the new building. The Magistrate beamed from ear to ear at the victims, the cameras and flashing lights in the courtyard below him as he raised the brilliantly shining scissors....
"Ka-boom!" The whole building was transformed into a pile of rubble in an instant.
The tragedy was later identified as due to negligent construction. None of the people who had crossed their hearts and hoped to die at the meeting had been able to escape.
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Chinese Stories in English
Stories by Lao Ma (Ma Junjie), Page 9
laomaruc 的博客, translated from pages cited below