Chinese Stories in English
6. A Cough
3. Bad Phone Connection
5. A Near Mistake
2. Sound the Bugle
Stories by Lao Ma (Ma Junjie), Page E
Laomaruc 的博客, translated from pages cited below
1. Prestige (威望)
Who’d be rude enough to call so early in the morning?
I picked up the phone and said “Yes” impatiently.
"Who’s this?" The person on the other end asked in a tone harsher than mine.
"Who're you calling?" I was even more angry.
"I’m looking for the Section Chief of the Service Office. I’m Dust Cloud Wu."
God, my old Director. This old guy wasn’t one to tangle with. He wasn’t high ranking, but he could bring a lot of trouble by relying on his seniority and flaunting his old age. Many of his subordinates and trainees now hold sway in various ministries. He often takes on the role of old leader or teacher and nitpicks about minor details. If he makes irresponsible remarks, everyone is willing to make excuses for him.
"Oh, my old boss. I’m sorry, I really didn’t recognize your voice. Are you still in good health? What can I do for you?” I hurried to nod my head and bow toward the phone.
"Oh, so you’re the chief. No need to apologize. I put on airs as an official when I was young, and talked like a big shot. Which department were you in when I was at the bureau – ?" He stretched out his words.
"I reported to you, Sir. I was an ordinary cadre in the General Affairs Section at the time." I was bending at the knees.
"The section where young Bi was the Chief? You’ve come up fast for an ordinary guy. I mean, you must do pretty good work – Ha!" The old man must have been stretching while he was holding the phone.
"Yes, sir, it was the section headed by Section Chief Bi. He’s now our Director." I again bowed twice automatically.
"I know that. I gave him a little lecture a few days ago. I do care about him, though. I put in some good words for him when I had supper with Minister Zhang yesterday. Got to keep beating the drums for the youngsters.”
"Yes, yes, yes, you’re right, Sir! Young people should remember to seek the advice of old comrades and learn from them. You, do you need something from me? No, I mean, what instructions do you have for me?" I wiped my hand across my forehead. Why was I sweating so profusely, considering it was the middle of winter?
"Can't I call you unless I need something?"
"I wouldn't dare, wouldn't dare think that. It’s an honor to get a call from you." I was nodding my head even faster.
"Don't say that. I’m old and useless now. Not like when I held that position, when my every word meant something and everyone took what I said seriously. But that being said, I might not have been successful at doing good, but bad things always got done. Uh, what do you say?"
"Absolutely don't say that, Sir. If you should be criticized, it should be to your face. We’re all your subordinates, aren’t we?" My legs were going soft and I was getting a little dizzy. In particular, the phrase "bad things always got done" really gave me a tight feeling in my chest.
"It’s like this. I just went to the bathroom and discovered that the toilet was stopped up. I couldn’t flush it. You can sniff your phone. Did you smell it?"
"Yes, yes, I smell it. Oh, no, no, you’re telling a joke. I can't smell it. The phone line blocks it."
"I just got this toilet last week. How can it be such poor quality? I can’t even push the flush button down."
"I’ll send someone to fix it for you right away."
"Send someone? Sending someone is the thing with cadres these days. Always get someone to do the work for you. We did things for ourselves back in the day…."
"Then I’ll go over there myself...."
"Forget it. You might as well send someone over. You have to know how fix it."
"Just wait a little while, Sir. The repairman will be there soon." I put down the phone at last, and realized that, some time or other, I'd gotten down on my knees on the floor.
I put on my clothes right away and told the repairman I’d go along with him. The phone rang again.
"Young Wang, I assume?"
"Yes, yes," I answered, repeating myself. I’d really always felt that phrase “Young Wang, I assume” is a bit awkward because it's pronounced the same as “little bastard”.*
"You guys don’t need to come over." It was my old boss’s voice again.
"The button I just pressed was the cap of a bottle of mineral water. My little grandson is a brat. He was drinking water while doing his business and left the bottle cap on top of the toilet tank. My eyes aren’t so good, getting old, don’t you know, and I just pressed on the bottle cap. I pressed really hard but no water came out. I got tired and was sweating all over.... but those opinions I told you about still have a certain reasonableness to them."
“Quite right, quite right. What you said was completely correct."
I really wanted to slam the phone down, but that would’ve been as dangerous as having a tiger pull your cart. Who’d rush to be that rash?**
*小王吧 / 小王八
**[谁敢（赶）呢。Literally, “who'd dare (rush)” “Dare” and “rush” are homophones in Chinese. This is as close as your translator could get to rendering the pun – Fannyi]
2. Sound the Bugle (打响)
“We must sound the bugle and win this battle!” Worker Zheng, who came from a military background, always showed this kind of martial attitude when he spoke, especially since he was at a university with a pile of intellectuals. His manner of expression was exceptional, truly out of the ordinary.
He’d never fought in a war and had worked as a technician while he was in the service. You could say he was a “xiucai”, the title of junior officials in Imperial China, but wearing a military uniform.* What he meant when he said "battle" was actually a job, at most the completion of an independent project – things like connecting a wire to install an electric lamp or digging a trench to lay pipes, for example. But no matter what it was, if the job was assigned to him, he’d tell the leaders solemnly, “In this instance we will certainly be victorious.”
That was his pet phrase, and in fact it meant that he would do the job well. Whether he was actually victorious or not, only he knew, because there really was no job that he did any better than anyone else. You could hear him saying “Fight this battle” or “Win that battle” all day long, but there was never any detectable result. Someone mocked him: “We keep waiting to hear him blow the bugle, but all we ever hear is him farting.”
Last fall, as a sub-project to the school’s coal-to-gas conversion project, Worker Zheng was asked to put together and install a small gas boiler. He’d never done such a big project before, but he told the leaders he’d certainly "blow the bugle".
He also presided over a mobilization meeting attended by the installation company’s staff at which he’d posted this slogan on the wall: “We Will Sound the Bugle and Win the Installation Battle!” During the meeting he swung his fist so hard that he almost knocked the wind out of himself, and shouted hoarsely, “We must sound the bugle and win this battle!”
Winter arrived and the project was behind schedule. The school was anxious. Anyone who saw Worker Zheng would put the pressure on. “Haven’t you blown the bugle yet?”
“Shouldn’t you blow the bugle?”
“If you don’t blow the bugle now, the leaders will sound off in your ear!”
Worker Zheng always laughed. “I’ll blow the bugle, I will. I’ll be blowing it right away!”
The Furnace was finally installed. Acceptance testing was completed on the eve of Chinese New Year. Worker Zheng, acting as representative, excitedly pushed the button at the kick-off ceremony.
"Boom!" The sound of the explosion shook the entire campus. Worker Zheng died in the line of duty, and many others were injured.
That was the only time in his life that he ever heard the sound of war.
*[This is a pun. “Xiucai” can also be understood as “show your talent”. In fact the entire story is a pun on 打响, but you'll have to read the Chinese text to appreciate it – Fannyi]
3. Bad Phone Connection (电话故障)
The Department’s Secretary called me to ask for advice. I was overwhelmed at the honor.
"The mid-term assessment is coming and I want to hear everyone's views. You’re a long-time member of our Department and are familiar with what's happening, so I’d like to hear your views first.” The Secretary spoke amiably over the phone.
"I really don’t deserve this honor, sir, troubling yourself to take time from your busy schedule to call me personally. Since you took office, our Department has had a good grip on the reforms and has done its job in accordance with realities. The organization’s workers and cadres alike cheer for you. We very much admire you." I was in a rush to flatter him.
"Don't just pick nice-sounding things to say. Are there differences of opinion?" The Secretary's tone had changed slightly. He sounded like he was sitting on a podium leading a discussion.
"Differences of opinion? Let me think...." I felt compelled to scratch my head.
“Say it, say it. Just spit it out." The Secretary was a little impatient.
"Yes, yes, yes...." I quickly reported. "Some cadres have expressed the opinion that your professionalism is exemplary, often working overtime at night…." I remembered his driver, Young Zheng, telling me that the Secretary often “rubbed the [mahjong] tiles" at night. He’d have Young Zheng pick him up in the wee hours, causing him to be drowsy all the next day.
"When you have a job to do, how can you just leave it at the office and walk away? Don't you guys often burn the midnight oil, too? Anything else?" The Secretary was quite pleased.
"Also, some comrades say that you're quite strictly self-disciplined. They say you’re not concerned about what you eat, that plain tea and simple foods are enough.” I also remembered something his personal secretary, Old Fu, had talked about. Every weekend he accompanied the Secretary to a rural restaurant on the outskirts of town, where he went especially to eat fruits and vegetables gathered in the wild.
“That’s quite normal, isn’t it? Leading cadres need to take the lead in thrift, so how could they be extravagant and wasteful? Are there any other opinions?” he asked through a yawn.
"No, that’s it. Everyone says there’s method in your leadership, and that your thinking is liberated, and that you have the courage to open up…." I was blathering, thinking about going to sleep. The Secretary's yawn over the telephone had infected me.
"What do they think about the housing reform?" The Secretary had perked up.
"Their opinions on housing reform are pretty good, too…. It’s just, just that...." I perked up, too, at the mention of housing reform, or more accurately, I started having gas pains.
"Just that what? Say whatever you have to say!" The Secretary's tone returned to a level more consistent with his position.
"Just that they feel you and some of your deputies have taken possession of too many condos...."
"What?!” The Secretary raised his voice.
"It’s a common reaction, widespread. They think you’ve exceeded your housing allocation, which is a negative influence and damages your prestige among the masses." I said what I was thinking without considering the consequences.
"What's with your phone? Hello? Hello? Hello? What’s all that clicking? It’s so noisy I can't hear. Hello? Hello?..." The Secretary was shouting, then hung up.
The phone helped me out. I really don't know what trouble I’d have gotten myself into, but for the fact that the Secretary couldn’t hear clearly! The phone went bad at just the right time.
4. Prescriptions (处方)
If it hadn’t been for the people who suspected that he had a nervous problem, Dr. Bai may not have brought these things up.
When he was drinking, he kept muttering, “That's no place for a human to live,” over and over again.
Before the poverty alleviation program in the mountainous western district, he’d gained some understanding of the economy, living conditions and local traditions and customs in the area through a study of written materials. While the numerical statistics were somewhat abstract, and perhaps less than accurate, they threw light on the truth in general. And poverty, well, he had an intimate understanding of it from personal experience.
Dr. Bai was from a small town in a coastal area in the southeast. As a child he’d also gone to the countryside to live with his maternal grandmother’s family. Lack of doctors and medicines is a common phenomenon in poor and remote areas – rural people are not as precious as city dwellers. For minor illnesses and small calamities like headaches and fevers, aside from drinking a bowl of hot ginger soup or getting a moxibustion heat treatment, the alternative was to grit their teeth and endure the pain while they got back to work.
A barefoot doctor used to come to the village to make house calls. Although his medical skills weren’t the best, he was able to treat animals as well as people and resolve cases with folk remedies plus superstition. The local people all endorsed him. After all, Chairman Mao said that people dying is something that happens all the time. Even if a mishap occurred during treatment, no one would investigate. To the contrary, they just had some added material for conversation and storytelling in the shade under a tree. In those years, the word “health” was too bookish to cross the lips of the common people.
Dr. Bai was no stranger to such things, but after arriving in the village in that mountainous western district, he nonetheless felt that the poverty there was something beyond his imagination.
Dr. Bai was not a man who lacked imagination. As a child, he’d aspired to becoming a richly imaginative poet. Attending medical school was by no means a choice that sprang from his heart. He always denied that Norman Bethune's deeds had influenced him, or that he’d acquired from them a calling to heal the injured and save the dying. If it hadn't been for a joking comment by his lead teacher in high school, he might never have donned the white coat in his life.
His handwriting was such a scrawl that people found it hard to believe it was actually writing. It often made his teachers feel faint and their heads spin. Because of that, his lead teacher made fun of him with a sarcastic comment. He said he was born to be a doctor, since he wrote like doctors did in prescriptions that only druggists and ghosts could understand. He didn't expect that the boy really would take the admissions test for medical school, and in fact go straight through to a Ph.D.
Highly talented people naturally go to work in high-level positions. He was no exception and stayed on at the University Hospital once he graduated. After 10 months he applied to join a Youth Volunteer Poverty Relief Group to go to the poorest mountainous area in the west. The assignment was for one year.
When he returned, the hospital’s Chief Surgeon praised him and his spirit of dedication. Dr. Bai scratched his head, wondering what he’d done that was so great. He said repeatedly that it hadn’t been difficult for him at all, since he’d been through harsh conditions himself before he went to college.
It was only a few days later when comments by some of the other doctors reached the Chief Surgeon’s ear. Doctor Bai’s colleagues, speaking behind his back, said that he’d become mentally ill from his year in the poverty relief program. There was also a letter from a patient saying that the doctor had a nervous disorder.
It really startled the hospital’s leaders to hear such opinions. They investigated and studied the matter right away. This resulted in a discovery that the problem was with Dr. Bai's prescriptions. The medicines he was prescribing generally cost only a few yuan, or a few tens of yuan, and seldom more than a hundred yuan. This was a great difference compared to what the other doctors were prescribing for the same diseases.*
The patient who’d written the complaint letter had felt a certain level of dissatisfaction because the doctor had not prescribed a good medicine. He complained forcefully to Dr. Bai that, other times when he’d come in to see a doctor for a cold, he’d been prescribed medicine costing several hundred yuan. He’d asked what reason this young fellow had for prescribing some stuff for ten yuan. Dr. Bai got angry and shouted, “Do you want to treat your illness or squander your money?”
The head of Dr. Bai’s section asked him if he understood what would happen to the hospital's income if he prescribed in this manner. Dr. Bai didn’t say anything for a long time, but finally he'd said weakly, “The year I was in the countryside, the most expensive prescription I wrote was seventy yuan. Maybe I got used to it and for the moment haven’t been able to change.” Then he sighed and continued, “To pay the seventy yuan for that medicine, the villager's child had to drop out of school.”
*[In China, the organization that employs the doctors also sells the medicine, an obviously cozy arrangement – Fannyi]
5. A Near Mistake (差错)
The rain started suddenly.
The earth had been dry too long, and the raindrops pounding the ground sent dust flying. The pungent smell of soil filled the street.
It had been cloudy for several days without a drop of moisture. People had been longing anxiously for rain and it was finally falling on their faces. He thought of his wife, about to give birth – she was like the weather, thick clouds but no rain.
He’d just come out of the hospital and was feeling rather annoyed. The doctor had said, “What's the rush? You got the day wrong. Go home and wait, nothing’s going to happen for the next month.”
A month? That's just plain bull. It might be hard to remember the exact day, but at most he’d be just a few days off. He absolutely couldn’t be wrong by a whole month. The doctor was more in a rush than he was and had pushed and pulled to shoo him out the door. “Are you the doctor or am I?” he’d asked. “I've been in the delivery business half my life, and you think you know more than me?”
The doctor said his wife would be staying in the hospital for a couple of days so they could do a good evaluation and see if the fetus was in the correct position in the womb. The doctor urged him to go get his deposit back from the hospital. He could go home without waiting for his wife to come out of the exam room.
The pedestrians on the street were covering their heads and running. They hadn’t had any hope of rain, even though it was a cloudy day, so not many had umbrellas with them. He walked down the sidewalk, absented-mindedly noting the people all around him taking shelter from the rain, but not really looking at them. He was bumped into and nearly knocked down by harried pedestrians several times. His mind was occupied by the question of his wife's due date.
Rain hit him in the face, but he seemed not to have even the slightest reaction. He counted the days to himself, and counted again, and the more he thought about it, the more he thought something didn’t add up. Even if he’d “hit the mark” the very night he’d left home for two months, the day should’ve arrived already. If there was a mistake, it’d just be a matter of days.
He couldn’t be off as much as the doctor had said. That’d mean someone had taken advantage his two month absence and “helped him out”. He felt a tightening in his chest and a tingling in his bones at the thought. “It's him, he’s the one. It must be that punk. You dog fucker, watch how I clean your clock.” His eyes were bulging, his teeth clenched.
He turned into an alley. It was the way to that “dog fucker’s” place. He was going to grab the guy's collar and drag him out into the street, right out into the rain. He’d knock out two-thirds of his teeth with a left cross to his right jaw. Then he’d throw him to the ground and kick him in his left ribs with his right foot and push his fucking head into the sewer.... These imaginings relieved the stress and he relaxed. He seemed to see the wretched image of the "dog fucker" kneeling on the ground and begging for mercy.
No one was home. He kicked the door several times but there was no reaction inside. Enraged, he went around to a window and paced back and forth. After a while he was still livid and could no longer contain his anger, so he looked around for a brick. Taking advantage of the fact that no one could see him, he threw the brick through the "dog fucker’s" window. Then he threw several more.
Suddenly his pager rang. It was the hospital messaging him – "Your son’s been born. Mother & son OK. Please come to hospital ASAP." Dumbfounded, he sped off to the hospital.
The doctor who’d shooed him off that afternoon didn’t apologize. He just said he’d had the wrong person and thought he was another expectant woman’s husband.
6. A Cough (咳嗽)
Really, Old Mo didn't cough before the professors’ appraisal. Coughing is a problem. No need for a doctor’s verdict on that – even three-year-olds know it – but Professor Mo's cough was an exception.
Who wouldn't enjoy a professor’s title and a job teaching at a university? For the sake of such a position and its universally recognized status, Lord knows how many people have exhausted their brains and gone without sleeping and eating, swallowing their pride and suffering chest pains and acid stomachs.
The annual Professional Title Evaluation stirs up feelings of disquiet among those who consider themselves to be teachers. Every single one firmly believes that they must have a “Professorship”, the mouth-watering fruit at the top of the tree, for themselves. The wind shakes and the people tremble as they watch helplessly while the fruit disappears from their eyes and falls into someone else’s hands. Does that leave a taste in their mouths that’s easy to take?
The furiously angry ones start writing letters listing all sorts of "facts" to accuse the lucky ones of cheating, and maintain that their research results are nothing more than plagiarized copies; Those given to beating their breasts and stamping their feet look to the sky and sigh about how the injustices of the world have come to this, about how Heaven fails to see when such a great crime has been committed; The supercool ones, always confident and at ease, laugh unceasingly and spew out satire, saying that a professor's title is bullpucky, while in their hearts they anxiously await the next time, when people will be able to compare them to fertilizer.
Old Mo had stewed in this bitterness for decades. The hairs left on his noggin could now be counted easily on the fingers of one’s hand, and they’d all lost their color, but his dried-out hands had at last grasped the fruit tightly – a professorship. He’d been called “Professor” by others thousands of times in his dreams, but from now on, the colleagues who called him “Old Mo” really would be calling him “Professor Mo” instead.
Although he was well past the age when people act impetuously, when he heard the results of the evaluation, Old Mo took two quick-acting pills to protect against a heart attack.
Old Mo, no, Professor Mo, held his hands behind his back when he braved the hot noonday sun to take walks on campus. This made his belly – a belly that had been sunken inward for several years – stick out in a way that people found hard to believe. Carefully orchestrated smiles of humility were stacked on his face. These smiles were like a well-argued thesis, displaying an inarguable belief in its own success along with a strongly worded expression of a resolute position.
Professor Mo became tolerant and amiable, and his former negative attitude disappeared. Before giving lectures and speeches, he always coughed politely a few times to show unflustered self-confidence. Students and colleagues alike agreed with this coughing program, and smiled to show their understanding. They even thought there was a wealth of knowledge contained in these coughing sounds, with no element of morbid pretense whatsoever.
Red blotches sprinkled across Professor Mo's face, which made him look much younger. He walked, lectured and held meetings more energetically, and maintained a constant cough to call attention to himself and express his inner joy and dignity.
But the cough became uncontrollable after more time had passed. Complete sentences were ripped asunder and scattered to the winds by his coughing. His colleagues began to wonder in that it didn't seem to be a normal reaction to a promotion and new job title. His students were also rather dissatisfied since, except for the coughs, they could hear little in the way of new content in class. Professor Mo suddenly had an unfortunate premonition and went calmly to the hospital, looking forward to a just treatment once again.
With assumed ease, the doctor told him that it was only common consumption, probably tuberculosis. Professor Mo felt that a heavy burden had been taken off his shoulders.
The doctor then informed Professor Mo's family that it was late-stage lung cancer and they should not hold onto any false hopes.
For the next three months, for the first time in his life, Professor Mo was able to cough happily.
7. Aspirations (抱负)
He came to see me on three different occasions.
At first he only wanted a job in a government agency. He had a very determined attitude.
The first thing I always do, when graduates come in for career counseling, is to ask them about their career aspirations. I want to understand their initial thoughts about career choices.
"I've wanted to get into public administration and politics since I was little," he said. "That's my ambition."
From conversations with him I knew that he didn’t come from an official's family, but from an ordinary peasant family in the countryside. According to what he’d told me, none of his forebears had even reached the rank of village chief. But being an official doesn't depend on genetics, of course. Everyone understands that.
“Get into public administration? Politics? A government career? Aren’t those words a bit fancy? To be clear, don’t you just want to be an official?”
“Really, I’m not glossing over my true thoughts. I do just want to be an official.”
“So, what is an official? See if you can tell me. And do you think you're up to the job?"
“Being an official means working in a government department. Nowadays they’re called ‘civil servants’. No man is born to be an official. As said in the Records of the Grand Historian, ‘Are powerful people born different from others?’ At least I don't think I lack any abilities that those who are already in office have. Scarecrows and fatheads can muddle through half of what they do. I’ve graduated from college, so why can't I?”
“It’s great that you have political aspirations, but enthusiasm isn’t enough for a job in public administration. That’s a specialized profession with a high coefficient of difficulty. There’s no way amateurs and aficionados can be successful at it.”
“I understand. I’ve grasped some of the political skills and I also have a strategy. But I'm not going to ‘rectify’ anyone.”
“Civil servants aren’t treated with a high level of respect these days, and sometimes it’s even an austere job. Your major is suitable for work in business, enterprise or banking systems. Why do you insist on going to work for the government authorities?”
"On the surface, officials' incomes are low, but there's more than enough gray income. There's no need to be corrupt or take bribes, since there's no end to everyday things that can be used. When they go around the grass-roots units, they get good food, good drinks and good hospitality. And they're given this and given that when they're about to leave. More than enough benefits...." He was so excited he was snapping his fingers in sincerity.
"I get it. Yours isn't so much a professional aspiration as a 'criminal motive'. You want to go to work for an agency to wait for opportunities to commit crimes."
His face turned red and he smiled stiffly. He looked me and my angry face up and down blankly.
"That's not what I meant. You misunderstood." He obviously regretted talking to me. Maybe he felt he'd been taken in by my consistently easy-going attitude.
He applied for the civil service exam but failed it.
He looked a little depressed when he came to see me again. I tried everything I could to suggest that he consider another career route. He agreed.
A few days later, he told me that he'd found a company to work for but didn't intend to stay there long term. He wanted to take the civil service exam again later. He was also looking for ways to get an in into a government office.
For some reason, the company ended up letting him go.
He still hadn't secured a position by the time he left school. He had to return to the district where his hometown was located to wait for the secondary allocation.
I received a letter from a middle school a year later. It was from him. I learned from the letter that he'd finally perfected his career ideals – he was teaching politics at the school, which counted as doing politics.
I'm just worried that he's training future politicians in accordance with his political aspirations.
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