Chinese Stories in English
3. A, B and C
1. Magpies on the Branches (喜鹊登枝)
Gao Canghai (高沧海)
On the second, the matchmaker handed him a letter that said some people would be coming over from Big Plum Village on the sixth.
My dad of course knew that someone coming over from there was an event of great importance.
But he was a sluggard. “The sixth,” he said. “It’s still early!”
Dad shaded his eyes with his hand and looked up at the sky. “It’s a bad time, too. If you were an emperor, why wouldn’t you stay in bed and eat a bowl of cornmeal porridge thickened with ground meat, and a bowl of egg drop soup with brown sugar, then slip into a large robe and leather shoes and slowly rise up to Heaven, not forgetting to bring along a bottle of the good stuff, like Yi River Dry White. No one’d think you’re indolent. But then they’d just have to get all excited and, in the blink of an eye, they’d have you hanging several pole-lengths up in the sky and wouldn’t stand for you taking a proper bite of your cornmeal porridge.”
“The day’s been set,” Mom nagged him, “so we should do what the matchmaker said. Get on over to his aunt’s place and his grandmother's place and get several open-mouth pots filled up. Ask someone in Big Xiao’s family to herd her pig into our pen. Also, the weeds in the bean patch are taller than the beans.”
My Dad held his head in his hands. “Something bothering you? Let a man eat his meal in peace! Pasty porridge, pasty porridge. When am I going to get a bowl of egg drop soup with brown sugar in the mornings?”
Egg drop soup with brown sugar is the highest standard for treating guests in our area. You must have guests over to your house before you can serve it.
Girlie’s family, the ones coming over from Big Plum Village, would be our honored guests.
Her family had taken a fancy to my older brother, who was in the army serving in Xinjiang Province, and a home visit from the bride’s family is de rigueur in our area. The family’s hoity-toity daughter Girlie would be living here for a lifetime, so her parents wanted to get a feel for what kind of people were eating from the same ladle in our family’s cooking pot, and what kind of street we lived on, and what kind of house we had.
Taking a fancy to someone only accounts for thirty percent of the process of evaluating a proposed marriage partner. Looking to see whether the family is healthy, prosperous and harmonious accounts for another thirty percent. Once this sixty percent has been established, the woman's family can then take it easy and drink the egg drop soup with brown sugar that the man’s family has prepared. Everyone can talk and laugh loudly about the wedding and marriage, and just enjoy themselves.
Or, they may raise their eyes to the sky and say, “It’s getting late, the weeds in the field need hoeing and pigs in the sty need feeding.” However beautifully the egg drop soup with brown sugar has been presented on the table, and however fragrant the aroma, they won’t even raise an eyelid to look at it – they’ll say their goodbyes and stride off. They won’t care if the matchmaker's face turns gray. If the marriage arrangements reach this point, the sixty percent completion clock on the process will reset to zero, basically a failure.
“If you get everything arranged properly,” Mom said to Dad, “you can drink your egg drop soup with brown sugar on the sixth.”
Dad said, “Go to his aunt’s place, go to his grandma's place, that’s only a few steps, and whatever with the pots, I can get it done in a flash. By and by I’ll meet up with Big Shao’s family. I’ll tell her, I’ll just tell her we’re borrowing her pig and she should send a guy along to herd it. It’ll get done faster than saying it.
“All I get is a bowl of pasty corn porridge” he continued. “That’s really going for the cheapo stuff. Hard to take. I’ll drink some booze. Drink some booze and have a good time.”
He had a drink, then planted himself on the bed and slept straight through until the sun set in the west.
On the third, Dad poured the last mouthful of booze down the hatch. After he swiped a chopstick around in a duck egg shell that was already empty, and licked it, there was a knock on the door.
“God, the guests from Big Plum Village are here! They’re here early!”
While the guests from Big Plum Village walked around in the front room. Mom struggled to lift herself out of the bed in the dark. The chief guest extended his hand to grasp Mom’s hand and said, "Oh, Auntie, you’re in poor health. Don’t get up."
We didn’t have the traditional ten pots, each filled to the brim with food. We didn’t have the two kinds of thermoses, with red or green plastic shells decorated with paintings of magpies perched on branches. We didn’t have the teapot and cups with red plum blossoms etched on them, let alone the sewing machine or the radio. On the small square table where there were supposed to be fried crullers drizzled with oil, there was only a broken wine cup turned upside down and a duck eggshell that had been wiped clean. My Dad, a bit unsteady from the booze, held himself up with his hand on the door frame. “This isn’t right”, he said, “It’s not the right day.”
Our guests exchanged glances as they came out into the courtyard. We didn’t have the traditional fattened pig in our sty. We didn’t even have a litter of piglets.
When my grandma heard that our guests had come, she rushed over to our house like the wind. She was carrying a packet of brown sugar.
Standing beside the pigsty, our guests clasped their hands in front of them, the traditional gesture of respect. “Ma’am,” one said, “it’s getting late. The weeds in the field need hoeing and pigs in the sty need feeding.” They bid us a good day and left.
The sun sparkled on a roll of coins in the thatch on the pigsty. “It’s money, real money.” Dad stood ten steps away and closed his eyes. He could even smell the money.
He picked it up and immediately rushed out, kicking up dust devils all over the road leading out of the village. His voice changed and he shouted, “Money! Big Plum Village, money! Big Plum Village people, you dropped some money!”
The guests from Big Plum Village were unperturbed. Their chief gave a little wave and said that none of them had dropped any money.
“But, but….” Dad said.
“We’re going home,” the guest said.
Dad squatted beside the pigsty holding his head in his hands. “Twenty bucks! Pockmark Qiu at the elementary school, Principal Qiu, he only brings in that much money in a month!” Dad turned his face upwards, his eyes closed. He had a bottle of Yi River Dry White in one hand and egg drop soup with brown sugar in the other. “Ye gods!”
He clutched the money and smiled. Then he started crying, “tch, tch”.
He’d mixed the brown sugar that grandma had brought in three bowls of chicken egg drop soup, one for him, one for Mom and one for me. He drank his in one gulp, wiped his mouth and went out.
He used the twenty yuan to buy two little piglets.
Two years later, following the matchmaker’s instructions, just like that every pot in our house was filled with the appropriate foods; we had thermoses with red or green plastic shells and painted with magpies perched on branches; we had a teapot and cups with red plum blossoms etched on them; and a fat pig filled our sty. More importantly, we had a TV that was so adorable that people couldn’t get enough of watching it.
Then Girlie from Big Plum Village came and married into our family.
My brother told me in secret that Girlie’s father was so happy he couldn’t keep quiet about it. He said that if Dad had picked up the money that day and not chased after them, the marriage would have fallen through; and even if he’d chased after them, if he’d taken the money and bought booze, the marriage would still have fallen through. It didn’t matter if his daughter married into a poor family, after all. The important thing was for the people to be worthwhile.
Text at p. 001; translated from 搜狐 at
2. A Hot Bowl of Soup (一碗热汤)
Zhao Xianghui (赵向辉)
A rainstorm in mid-November made the small city’s roads even cooler. When you stepped on the pavement, a chill flashed from the soles of your feet to your fingertips.
An old woman hobbled along the main street one evening. When she came to a restaurant, she peered inside until she saw it was the Friendship and Fragrance Restaurant. In no hurry, she pushed open the door and walked in. There were a lot of customers inside. She sat down at an unoccupied table in a corner.
A waiter came over and asked, “What would you like to eat, Ma’am?” She raised a trembling right hand, and her voice was also shaking as she said, “I have two yuan. Can I get a bowl of hot soup for one yuan?” The waiter stared blankly for a moment before answering, “Yes, you can. Wait a moment and I’ll bring it over.”
The waiter didn’t go directly to the service desk. Instead, he entered the staff locker room first.
After ten minutes or so, the waiter came out with a bowl of steaming hot noodles in gravy, a bowl of hot soup and a meat pie. He brought them over to the old woman’s table.
“I only have two yuan. I don’t want the meat, I don’t want the noodles. I just want the soup.” The old woman waved her right hand, which was still trembling, as she spoke. Two lines of tears began to drip down her cheeks when she finished speaking.
“No problem, Ma’am. We have an in-house special today. All you have to do is come in for a meal and we give you the meat pie and the noodles in gravy. Go ahead and eat, and don’t worry about it.” While he was speaking, the waiter turned away and wiped his eyes twice with his sleeve.
The old woman ate the noodles with her trembling right hand and drank the soup. She had a smile on her face all the way through.
After a while, a handsome gentleman came over to the old woman, “Why aren’t you eating the meat pie, Ma’am? Isn’t it any good?”
“I’ll take it home for my hubby. He’s in bed, paralyzed. Hasn’t had any meat to eat for a long time.”
“Why did you come out today?”
“To buy my hubby some medicine. I had two yuan left. It really is awfully cold, and I was afraid I’d go down with a cold and not be able to take care of my hubby anymore, so I decided to spend one yuan to get some hot soup before I go home.”
“Is your home far from here?”
“Not far. It’s in the lot by the corner of the tax bureau.”
The gentleman left the old lady's table and went into a room with “Manager's Office” written on the door.
About five minutes later, the gentleman came out with a paper box in his hand. He muttered something to the wait staff, then shouted, "I’m the restaurant’s manager. We have a special promotion today. Everyone eating here can draw for a chance to win a prize. Those drawing the first, second or third prize will receive their prize on the spot."
Some of the customers muttered, “It’s not the New Year’s holiday yet, and not their anniversary or anything, so why are they having a drawing? And they didn’t advertise it in advance. It would have been better to have more of the regulars here!”
The gentleman walked around to three tables and held the box up with his left arm for the diners to draw. None of them won a prize. When he got to the old woman's table, he asked, “Have you finished eating, Ma’am? Will you please draw a ticket from here to see if you’ve won a prize?”
The old woman gave the gentleman a dazed look. He lowered the box and gestured for her to reach in and take out a piece of paper. She was still dazed, but she followed his gesture and took out a small, square piece of pink paper. He took the paper from her nimbly with his right hand, then slipped the box to his right hand and back again. Suddenly he raised the piece of pink paper in his right hand and said, "The lady has won the first prize! Two thousand yuan!"
The gentleman took a neatly arranged stack of cash from his pocket and handed it to the old woman. "You won, Ma’am! Here’s your prize. Go ahead and take it."
“I can't take your money,” she said. “I have money at home.”
“This isn’t a gift. It’s your prize for drawing the winning ticket. You don’t need to be embarrassed about taking it.”
It seemed that the old woman was talking to the gentleman, but it also seemed like she was talking to herself. “My luck is so good today. I’ve eaten some free noodles and I’ve won this big prize. Looks like God won’t let me and the old man die.”
A waiter walked over to the old woman with a key in his hand. "Ma’am, I happen to be getting off work and your place is on my way. I’ll take you home." The old woman had tears in her eyes as she got in the small sedan.
The drawing continued, and two other tables won the second and third prizes. The pink papers had “Free Meal” and “Half Price” written on them.
When they got their checks, the customers at both these tables paid the full amount billed. One fellow said, “I saw what you were doing.” Another said, “You’re good people. I’ll come back here to eat often.”
After the customers had all left, the waiter who’d first waited on the old woman asked the manager, "How did you think of that, sir. Great idea!"
"I have you to thank,” the manager said. I happened to hear your conversation with her when I was walking by. It caught my attention, and when I saw you take out twenty-plus yuan at the front counter to buy food for her, I decided right then to help the old lady out. I planned the lucky drawing bit in a hurry and those customers saw through it.”
When the waiter who’d driven the old lady home returned, he handed the car key to the manager. “I was chatting with the old woman in the car,” he said. She’s in her eighties. She’s so adorable, like my great grandmother....”
[Fannyi, cynic that he is, would have ended the story with the waiter saying, “Wow, that lady lives in a palace! She’s filthy rich!”]
Text at p. 004; translated from 共享e站 at
3. A, B and C (甲乙丙)
Ling Dingnian (凌鼎年)
The company had a receivable due from northeast China that was in arears. Things had dragged on for more than a year. The boss had been brooding about it, but everyone he sent to collect the money came back disappointed with nothing to show for their efforts.
Now the company had hired three new people, A, B and C, to work in sales. The boss planned to appoint one of the three to be the manager of the sales department in the future, and to see which one was suitable, he was going to give them a try-out to test them. He thought of the receivable that needed to be collected and asked them, “Which of you is willing to make the trip to the northeast and collect a past-due receivable?" Not wanting to conceal the collection difficulties, he said quite frankly, "This matter had dragged on for more than a year. It won’t be easy to collect. Go do it if you can, but if you can’t, it’s OK. Collection isn’t part of your job description."
A thought: “I applied for this job to be a sales manager, not to be a debt-chaser. Everyone has their own job duties and their own skills, you know. Doesn’t the boss understand that we each have our own strengths and weaknesses?” But he didn’t utter a sound.
B thought: “These days everyone understands that the debtor wears a white hat and the collector a black hat, and like those characters Yang Bailu and Huang Shiren in White Haired Girl, and the white hat always wins. Why should I bother sticking my toe in this mud puddle? It’d be good if I collected it, but I failed, the boss would look down on me and my colleagues would laugh, wouldn’t they?” After weighing the pros and cons, B didn’t volunteer.
C saw that neither A nor B would accept the assignment, and also that the boss was a little embarrassed, so he jumped at the chance like Mao Sui before the King of Chu: “I’ll do it! I’ll give it a try. No promises, but I’ll try my best.”
"Good,” the boss said. “I’ll have Finance give you the relevant information so you can familiarize yourself with it. You’ll leave in three days."
Three days later, the boss called all three into his office. “We have an emergency,” he told them. “A stock of the company’s goods is piled up in Kosovo. If we don’t put the goods out and sell them, our company will suffer a big loss. Considering that all three of you know English, let me see which of you can take a trip to Kosovo and avoid this loss for the company?
A thought: “I applied for this job to be a sales manager, but I can't lose my little old life for the job. The situation in Kosovo these days, bullets flying all over the place, explosions at any time, kidnappings and assassinations are commonplace…. No, no, it’s too dangerous.”
As before, he didn’t say anything.
B thought: “If A won’t go, why would I? The risk of kidnapping or losing my life by beheading, just for the company’s sake, isn’t worth it. Hell with it, let C go.
C was all prepared to go to the northeast to collect the debt, but now the boss said that the matter in Kosovo was more urgent. He thought, “If A and B won’t go, then I will. I’ll help the boss with this difficulty. That’s an employee’s duty, after all.” Out loud he said: “Well, I’ll go to Kosovo first, but I have to repeat what I said before. I can't guarantee I’ll be a hundred percent successful at it, but I will give it a hundred percent, no less.”
The boss was quite satisfied.
The day before he was to leave, the boss suddenly said, “Thank Heaven, you won’t have to go. The backlog goods in Kosovo has been resolved by negotiation through the Chinese Foreign Ministry.”
“So I won’t go to Kosovo,” C said, “but I’ll still go to the northeast to collect the receivables.”
"No need for that anymore, either. I just got the news. The boss who defaulted on the debt has been sent up because he was involved with a corrupt official who was double regulated. You know, disciplined by the Party. So it looks like this receivable can only be resolved through legal procedures."
A and B sighed at the kid’s good luck. He’d made a good impression on the boss, twice, and been both a hero and a macho man. And he’d come through it smelling like a rose. A and B even suspected that the boss had been deliberately testing them, and C had benefited very much at their expense. They both regretted that they hadn’t seen through the trick. If they had, they could’ve looked good themselves.
Before long the boss again called a meeting with A, B and C. He said the company would be choosing a place to set up a sales office in Europe, Oceania or Africa, and asked each of them to write a feasibility report as to which area would be best to expand into.
A was very quick-witted. He thought: “So the boss wants to expand the business. If I write a report saying that Europe is feasible, won’t that mean he might send me there? Europe is a good place and I can’t miss this opportunity.” He collected information and put his mind to writing the report.
B felt that this was his chance. Comparing the three regions, he thought Europe was good but was already a sphere of influence for Europe and the United States, so it would be extremely difficult for Chinese products to break in. As for Oceania, Europe has a historical foundation in New Zealand and Australia, but it was a suitable place for people to live. Indeed, lots of Chinese people live there nowadays, which would provide a basis for marketing Chinese products. Both New Zealand and Australia would be plum assignments. So B wrote a report saying it would be feasible to open an office in Oceania.
C mulled over the conditions in Europe, Oceania and Africa and made a comparison. He concluded that going to Africa to set up an office to market the company’s products was the most feasible and had the greatest prospects for future development. He was quite diligent about writing his report, highlighting several reasons why it would be more advantageous to expand into Africa rather than Oceania or Europe and America.
The boss carefully studied the three salesman’s feasibility reports. He believed that the reports of A and B were not written entirely from the point of view of the company’s interests, and that C’s report was the most practical and feasible. After repeated discussions with the company's top management, he finally appointed C as the on-site director of the African office. A and B were named as his assistants and were also assigned to go to Africa to work with him.
A and B complained to themselves when they learned of their assignments: “That kid C snuck one by us again!”
Text on p. 006; translated from 北方文化999 at
http://xlxscxh.com/nd.jsp?id=152, 2nd story
4. Angling for Frogs (钓青蛙)
Wang Zhen (王溱)
The girl had hands like Yang Liping, the famous dancer, and the bamboo strips danced one over the other in S-shapes as she wove them into a basket. The basket could hold fish or it could hold snakes. She was going to use it to go angling for frogs.
She’d pull an embroidery thread, tie one end around a frog leg and stick it through a slit in the dense sweet potato vines. She’d wiggle and jiggle it around, and soon a stupid frog would pounce. Surprisingly, it wouldn’t be able tell it was the same kind of leg, and, whoop, would swallow it in one gulp. When she spotted her chance, the girl would jerk on the line with all her might, and the frog she’d caught would fall right in the basket. Only a tiny number of frogs were quick enough to escape.
The girl laughed. “Stupid frogs! All they can do is croak.”
There are exceptions, of course, like this one staring alertly at the suspicious prey laying motionless in front of him. Equally as motionless was the poisonous black-and-white snake staring alertly at the suspicious frog. Yes, sir, a frog thinking things over is just too suspicious.
The girl kept jiggling the bait tirelessly. She never once expected the frog to pounce on the bait and the snake to pounce on the frog at the same instant. If she pulled a frog and a snake in together, it could frighten her into letting go of the line. The snake would fall to the ground and might bite her between the toes of her bare foot as it scurried away –a rare silver banded krait, poisonous to the max! The girl would be afraid she’d breathed her last.
But there wasn’t time for all that to happen. Just a second before the frog decided to quit thinking and pounce, the girl’s little brother suddenly darted out. He snatched the girl’s basket in one hand and took to his heels.
“Give that back!” she shouted.
“Never!” the boy yelled as he ran.
The girl threw down the line and rushed off after him. “I caught those!”
He didn’t even turn to look at her. “Mom said everything in the house is mine!”
The girl was not only quick, but fast, too, and she caught her brother right away.
The boy landed a roundhouse kick, but he was two years younger than the girl, after all, and she grabbed the basket back. She turned and ran back along the fish pond with the basket clutched in her arms. She didn't realize that the edge of the pond was just three meters away from her. There was a spot where the mud rim had broken through, and in three steps she’d be on it. Then she’d slide down in the mud of the collapsed rim and would never be able to get out.
But that didn't happen, either. An instant before the girl's foot stepped on the edge, her brother latched onto her pigtail and pulled. It hurt so much that she took a couple of steps back.
The girl was so mad she forgot she’d been warned not to hit her little brother. She turned around and began to scuffle with him. He held on to her hair and she yanked on his ear. The two of them arched into a ball and rolled around on the ground. Neither one would let go.
Unfortunately for the girl, the Grim Reaper had not given up on her. There was a sharp stone less than half a meter away from the two children’s heads, as sharp as a knife. The boy could press her head down on the stone without realizing it. The stone would go directly into the back of her head and she’d be killed on the spot.
They rolled over once, twice, and in a flash the girl's head was about to hit the stone when, unexpectedly, someone plucked it up. The girl looked up and saw her mother. Before the girl could stand up and steady herself, her mother pulled her away viciously. “You worthless creature! All you know how to do is pick on your brother!”
“Wah! He stole my frogs!”
Her mother slapped her. “I had you make that basket for your father to go fishing. Why were you goofing off catching frogs?”
Her mother left with the little boy in her arms. The boy hugged onto the basket with his head in the air, like a rooster that had just won a cockfight. The girl knew that the frogs in the basket would turn into a bowl of sweet-smelling, stir-fried frogs that evening, and be put in front of her little brother for him to eat.
The girl was quite upset, of course, and so was the Grim Reaper. He started to tempt her. “Look, you think you have a father and mother? All they’ll let you do is work to make money for your little brother’s future wife. If there’s the slightest chance they won’t have enough money, they’re sure to sell you, and whoever buys you won’t give you anything to eat. He’ll just beat you. What’s the point of going on living?”
The girl abruptly stopped crying and thought of Big Stopper’s wife over in the next village. She’d heard that Big Stopper’s uncle had bought her in another province. If she didn’t behave herself, Big Stopper’d whip her, so her body was often black and blue. She’d cry and get whipped again, then cry some more and get whipped some more. Finally she sought relief at the end of a rope. Her body hung in the tree, swinging back and forth like the frogs that bit down hard on the bait and wouldn’t let go when she caught them.
She wanted some relief, too. She found a rope, tied it to a tree, and moved a stone over to stand on. It wasn’t long before the girl's tongue was sticking out, never to retract….
This hadn’t happened yet, either, had it? I’d hoped not, but unfortunately, the branch didn’t break, the rope was of reliable quality, and no planter passed by on his way to market. In short, this is how the girl died.
That’s the truth. I’m standing before her grave right now. There’s no gravestone, nothing to tell you the girl’s name. “The girl” is just my name for her.
Truth is, I only came here to collect material about the culture in the countryside, and just happened to see a grave without a tombstone. An oldster in the village told me a ten-year-old girl was buried here and it was said that she hung herself. I really can't figure it out. How could a ten-year-old child die by her own hand? I thought and thought and came up with this story. If the girl hadn’t died, I would’ve wanted to continue to write: after a certain number of years, the girl grew up, left the village and went to art school. Her Yang Liping hands were a sensation and she performed on stages all over the country.
Text at p. 009; translated from贵州都市报 here.
5. Never Drop Out (永不掉队)
Xie Zhiqiang (谢志强)
Mountain Qin heard Singer Fang singing for the first time in the winter of 1947.
The Regimental Commander had issued an order: “Our legs will outrun the enemy's wheels.” Mountain Qin was wearing grass sandals and his feet were worn raw. He’d gradually dropped to the rear of the forced march, and that’s when he heard the Military Anthem of the People's Liberation Army: “Forward! Forward! Forward! Our army faces the sun....”
Singer Fang stood on a dirt embankment beside the road with two women soldiers next to her. She had short, ear-length hair. She was a member of the Workers Arts Ensemble.
Walking in step with the song, Mountain Qin caught up with the ranks.
The troops arrived at the designated place on time and blocked the enemy's retreat in a fierce, three-day battle. Mountain Qin was seriously injured and was sent to a field hospital.
Singer Fang’s art troupe came to the hospital to visit the sick and wounded.
He was in a coma, as though he’d dropped out once again, but he came to when he heard Singer Fang’s voice. Her singing flew into his heart, and he licked his lips and hummed along with her.
A doctor told her, “You brought this hero around with your singing.”
His family was quite poor, but his parents had paid for him to go to school. The Jap annihilators came when he was in junior high and he joined the army. He’d been injured five times, but this time was the worst. He said, “A shell sent me flying through the air.”
“I’ve seen you,” Singer Fang said. “I couldn’t tell you’d been injured. You’re still a hero!”
“You sing really well. If I do sacrifice my life, sing a song for me.”
She was proud of him. “Don’t say that.”
He smiled. “What’s the problem? When I hear you sing, I’ll come back to life.
She smiled, too. “If my singing is that powerful, then I’ll sing to you.”
“Then we’ve got a deal,” he said.
In 1948, Mountain Qin was transferred to Wang Zhen’s army and given command of an independent company. They advanced to the northwest, headed for Xinjiang Province – the province was liberated peacefully.
He heard Singer Fang the third time while they were crossing the Qilian Mountains.
Her art troupe was camped with his company. They couldn't sing anymore. Female soldiers attract a lot of attention. When he saw her, the wind was blowing through her short, ear-length hair, like willow fronds swaying over the water.
A melody began playing in his heart: “The vast Gobi Desert stretches farther than the eye can see.”
Suddenly she started to sing: “Forward! Forward! Forward!...”
He stood up and walked over to her. “How did you know I was singing...? I didn’t sing out loud at all.”
“I seemed to hear a melody. Someone started it. Sing it out loud.”
“With my lousy voice, I’d scare you to death if I did.”
The troops got to Aksu, a strategic town in southern Xinjiang – They were posted on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert to open up the wasteland for agriculture.
The fourth time Mountain Qin met Singer Fang was at Regimental HQ. He was happy and said, “You’ve come to comfort us, and the sands of the Gobi Desert will bloom when they hear your voice.”
“This time I got transferred to where you guys are,” she said.
He only learned later that she’d requested a transfer from the Workers Arts Ensemble to his regiment. She was working as an administrator in the propaganda office.
The Regimental Commander had been Mountain Qin’s superior for some time. He told him in confidence, “Hero that you are, you’re blessed with good fortune. Other heroes save the beautiful woman, but with you, the beautiful woman saved the hero. Singer Fang chased after you all the way to the desert, now we’ll see whether you can catch her.”
Whenever Mountain Qin saw Singer Fang, his face flushed.
She came to his camp several times to collect information about their efforts to recover the wasteland. She also organized a propaganda team to compile the stories into songs and kuaibar, traditional fast-rhythm narrations.
In the spring of 1952, Mountain Qin rode out on a horse, alone, in the direction of the sunrise. He entered the desert, intending to set up a new company to develop more areas of the wasteland. Or, as he put it, to “chew off a piece of desert with one big bite.”
A huge sandstorm blew up and it looked like that the desert would make a fool of the hero. Wind and sand covered the world for two days, as if the desert really was telling him, “You can get in but you can’t get out.” Then the wind stopped, the sand fell, and it seemed like nothing had happened. The desert was as beautiful as ever. The sand dunes had shifted and the trail was like ripples on water. The desert always takes whatever comes to it, and hides it, sucking it in and not letting it show.
Fortunately there was a withered poplar tree. They found Mountain Qin hugging the trunk, buried in sand up to his waist. The tree seemed to have shrunk by a section. Mountain Qin's mouth was filled with sand and he had almost no pulse.
They phoned Regimental HQ. Singer Fang rush out from headquarters with two women soldiers, one of whom was a doctor.
Mountain Qin was as still as the poplar tree.
Tears in their eyes, Singer Fang and the women soldiers sang "Song of Yimeng Mountain", a folk song about the beauty of the mountains in Shandong Province.
Mountain Qin was from Shandong. But he didn’t respond to the song about his home province.
The doctor couldn’t hear his heartbeat and wrapped him in a white sheet.
The trainer took an army flag and laid it on his body.
Singer Fang took the flag from his body and spread the white sheet open.
“Take another look at him,” the trainer said.
“We have a deal,” Singer Fang said. “I’ll sing to you now.”
All was calm in the hollow in the ground.
The song rang out: “Forward! Forward! Forward! Our army faces the sun....”
“Don’t drop out, Mountain Qin,” the trainer said. “Get up!”
Gradually, they all began singing along with Singer Fang. The sun shone through the opening above the hollow in the ground. Particles of sand danced in the sunlight like musical notes.
To their surprise, Mountain Qin’s lips moved.
The trainer said, “You son of a gun, I knew you wouldn't drop out.”
Later, Mountain Qin said it was like he was dreaming. He opened his eyes and saw a lot of faces, and right away his eyes focused on Singer Fang’s face. It was round as the full moon hanging clean and bright in the sky. It looked like it had been rinsed with water and was still dotted with droplets.
“Water,” he said. “I’m dying of thirst. What happened?”
“Singer Fang saved your life,” the trainer said.
They harvested corn in the fall. The Regimental Commander presided over the wedding. Mountain Qin and Singer Fang entered the… bridal chamber?
Well, a hollow in the ground. Singer Fang mentioned the sandstorm. She said, “At the time, I thought I was singing to you for the last time.”
“I didn't die in all those years of war,” he replied. “My life is so good, could I drop out that easily? I was just waiting for you to come and sing.”
Singer Fang said: “Don't be glib. ‘Drop out’ was another way to say ‘die’ in our fathers’ time.”
Years later, I discovered many other versions of the love story of Mountain Qin and Singer Fang. Our fathers’ generation doesn't like to tell stories about the past, but they all have a song they like, and they’ll start humming it when they aren't paying attention. Mountain Qin has become the deputy head of a farm, and it seems like he always walks in step with the rhythm of his song. His son Flat Sands Qin was my classmate. We’re both second generation of the army’s Land Reclamation Division.
Flat Sands once announced: “We meet a lot of hurdles in life, and any of them we can’t get over, whatever’s on the other side doesn’t exist. It’s quite dangerous. Several times when my Dad was facing death, it was my Mom who sang him back to life.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Without your mother's singing, your Dad would’ve ‘dropped out’ one day, and who knows where you’d be then? Maybe you wouldn’t be here at all, and I wouldn’t have you for a friend. That’s awful.”
Text at p. 011; translated from 搜狐 at
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Stories printed in Best Chinese Mini-Stories 2017
Text at page cited after story; translated from the webpages cited below.
4. Angling for Frogs
5. Never Drop Out
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2. A Hot Bowl of Soup