1. Classics Han (韩吾经)
Zhang Xiaolin (张晓林)
From the time he was a young child, Classics Han was one of those people with a dual personality. His entire self was full of contradictions. Back then he lived in a rural area of Qi County, near Kaifeng City in Henan Province. Only wormwood weeds remained in the fields after the sorghum harvest there, leaving bunches of mouse holes exposed. Classics once took a group of half-grown kids wearing open-seat pants to dig up a hole with shovels and catch a big mouse. Then he himself stuffed a large soybean into the creature’s anus, sewed it up with a needle and thread and put the mouse back in a different hole.
Knocking the dirt off his hands, the excitement showed in Classics’ eyes. He said, "The big mouse will go crazy in a while and kill all the other mice in the nest!"
After no more than the time it takes to eat a meal, Classics directed the half-grown kids to dig up the mouse hole and, sure enough, all the mice in the hole were dead. Even the pups whose eyes weren’t open yet had been bitten until they were mutilated and bloody. One could imagine the big mouse’s painful death – its eyeballs were protruding all the way out from their sockets. Classics broke into tears when he saw the wretched scene. He buried the mice together, then squatted down and kowtowed to them three times.
Classics’ father would sometimes watch his son from a distance and have a panic attack. He had a strange dream one night, and it was still vivid in his mind when he got up the next day. In the dream, an old fellow dressed in black had told him: "The only way to dispel the air of ruthlessness that completely surrounds that son of yours is to send him to a Zen monastery.” Classics’ father stayed sitting there for a long time and smoked several bowls of tobacco in his long-stemmed pipe. In the lingering smoke, this middle-aged man in the prime of life grew several years older.
The next day, Classics was sent to the Summon the Poor Temple on the outskirts of Qi County’s county seat. He became a young apprentice monk to Brother Peaceful Nothingness, the Abbot.
One day ten years later, Brother Nothingness summoned Classics before him. "You’ve happened upon a chaotic world,” he said. “You’d best go forth and accomplish something." He handed Classics a letter he’d written out beforehand and asked him to take it to Abbot Peaceful Void of the National Ministers Temple in Kaifeng, so that he could be provided with some much-needed ministrations. Before long, with the way cleared by Brother Void, Classics was studying law at the Henan Academy of Politics and Law.
In the following years, Classics became known to almost everyone in Kaifeng as a leader among the young people. Some young martial arts advocates repeatedly appeared around him and whispered among themselves that his skill at martial arts was profoundly mystical. The news spread like wildfire.
A Taiji practitioner named Sun came from Luoyang to visit him and compare notes on the practice of martial arts. He walked into the courtyard of the building where Classics resided and, with one blow of his fist, smashed a stack of green ceramic tiles to smithereens. Classics stood in the doorway and smiled slightly. After an exchange of pleasantries, the two men faced off in battle array in the courtyard.
Master Sun made a strong opening move, threatening Classics with injury, but Classics dodged it in one continuous move with his hands tucked in his sleeves behind his back. When Master Sun saw that Classics was treating him lightly, he ground his teeth and couldn’t help but take action. He lashed out with a ferocious move. Before he knew what had happened, Master Sun felt his arms go numb and his fists lost all trace of strength. He took another look at Classics, but the man’s hands were still tucked in his sleeves behind his back. He hadn’t seen Classics bring them out at all. He went away feeling ashamed.
After graduating from the Academy of Politics and Law, and after a period of time in the judicial department of the Nationalist government, Classics resigned from public office and opened a clinic on White Water Lane. It wasn’t long before he became known by word of mouth in Kaifeng as a miraculous doctor.
Kaifeng fell to the Japanese invaders in 1938, and Stop Mountain Gao of Common City became mayor. Late one night, Stop Mountain sent someone to invite Classics to his official residence. He was an arrogant man, and when he saw Classics coming into his residence, he remained sitting on his sofa and he didn't even lift an eyelid. All he did was stick out his arm so that Classics could take his pulse. Classics just stood there and smiled calmly.
Only then did Stop Mountain get up and bow to Classics in the traditional manner, with his hands clasped in front of him. With a fawning smile, he asked Classics to have a seat. After taking the man’s pulse, Classics’ expression became serious. “Every day you often discharge bloody pus from your urethra,” he said. “Isn’t that right?”
Stop Mountain’s expression changed drastically. He suddenly appeared weak. “This is an unmentionable disease that I have. Not even my wife knows about it. How did you know?"
"When I took your pulse just now,” Classics replied indifferently, “I noticed that you closed your left hand carefully with apparent deliberation. That told me the fourth lobe of your liver has a drainage problem. The waste has to drain out from the bottom. What is created above must come out from below. That’s how I knew."
Stop Mountain pushed two gold ingots over in front of Classics to request an effective prescription. "My position will be changed to Mayor of Nanjing on the fifth of next month,” he said. “I hope for a prescription that will be effective before then!"
Classics laughed. "You don’t need medicine. The problem will end of itself in due time. It’ll be over when you get to Nanjing."
Stop Mountain was overjoyed. Half a month later he went to Nanjing. That night, the bloody pus discharged from his urethra in a torrent. He died from the sudden recurrence of the disease.
Classics closed the clinic and retired to live in seclusion in a garden in the west part of the city. He began working hard at the practice of calligraphy. He’d discovered that he liked it because it made him think.
It had happened on a twilight evening. On his way home from the clinic, he’d been passing by the Anyuan Gate. Suddenly he’d stopped. There was a calligraphy and painting shop next to the Gate with the three words "Pot Sky Pavilion" written in gold characters on the overhead signboard. It was inscribed with the name "Splendid Virtue Wang", and it actually was the handwriting of that famous calligrapher from Yimen.
At the time, a wild goose was flying south by itself. Classics stood under the signboard like he was stupefied or drunk, drawing the index finger of his right hand back and forth over his arm countless times, tracing those three words until the golden characters gradually disappeared in the deepening twilight. That very evening he’d returned to the clinic and, under the dim yellow soybean oil lamp, worked hard at writing “Pot Sky Pavilion" stroke by stroke on the yellow paper that he used to wrap medicine. By the time the eastern horizon had turned fish-belly pale, the stack of yellow papers with “Pot Sky Pavilion" written on them in large, regular-style characters was as tall as he was.
Later, Classics sent someone to work out a deal whereby he could apprentice himself to Splendid Virtue Wang to learn calligraphy. The master turned him down, however.
Every few days for a time, one of the Japanese soldiers stationed in Kaifeng would die for no apparent reason. They couldn’t find the reason no matter how hard they looked. The only clue was that the soldiers died with an expression of terror on their faces, as though they’d seen something extremely frightening just before they died. When a fat foreign translator opened his goldfish eyes and saw the face of one of the dead soldiers, his eyeballs almost popped out of their sockets. Trembling, he said: "This place Kaifeng is really evil!" He went mad unexpectedly soon thereafter.
Classics suddenly disappeared.
Someone saw him in a nameless alley in Kaifeng the year New China was founded. In one hand he was weighing a small bucket of muddy water that had been thickened with a yellow additive, and in the other he clutched a huge brush made of hemp fibers. He was writing characters on the pavement with no apparent concerns. No one was there to grade him!
Text at p. 023; translated from 小说导航 at http://www.waok.net/1/1296/83812.html
2. Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodles (阿婆黄鱼面)
An Liang (安谅)
Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodle Shop sat on a small street close to Central Huaihai Road in Shanghai. It was only a bit over twenty square meters in area but held enough square tables and benches to do a decent business. The place was usually packed and had a long line waiting outside the door.
Granny, whose last name was Zhang, hailed from Ningbo. She was thin with rather delicate features, and was quite nimble even though she was getting along in years. She rose early every day to go to the market, where she got the best yellow croakers and brought them home to clean and cook with all the fixings. She was meticulous about her cooking.
Customers beating down the door should’ve been a good thing, but Granny’s young grandson, who went by the English name Jack, was an emphatically disappointed fellow. He watched his grandma working so hard every day just to take in a few thousand kuai and felt it wasn’t worth it. Sometimes he’d nag her to reopen as a tea shop or a Shanghai snack shop, or at least to add some variety to the noodle shop menu. He said that noodle dishes with things like quick-boiled eel or menudo or mushrooms are popular among the Shanghainese, so why not offer them?
At first, Granny patiently explained that she’d learned to roast yellow croaker from her grandmother when she was a child in her hometown in Ningbo. Cooking the croakers had been her chore in the family. Later, when her grandson would periodically bring the matter up again, with one new idea after another, Granny would just laugh and not answer.
Jack worked in a privately-owned company. Business had been going downhill and he had almost no work. While he was idle, he had nothing better to do than drum up a few new noodle dishes for Granny’s shop.
Granny didn’t stop him. She put up with his "innovating". For quite a few days, very few people showed any interest in Jack’s new dishes. He calculated that Granny was suffering a big loss – almost everyone who came to the shop ordered yellow croaker noodles. He stared blankly at the shop’s door for long periods of time, gazing at the signboard, "Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodle Shop". He felt that the shop’s name was affecting the new dishes he was pushing, so he screamed for his grandma to change the name to "Granny’s Noodle Restaurant". Granny smiled and refused. If she made the change, she said, the shop would have a name similar to every other noodle shop in the world. Jack wasn’t convinced, but since she was so determined, he had to give in.
Then Heaven intervened. Granny was hospitalized with a high fever and soon passed away, and the noodle Shop had no one who could manage yellow croaker noodles. Jack made a point of hiring an old Shanghai auntie to help out, but she wasn’t good at yellow croaker noodles. She could make a rich variety of other garnishes for noodles, though, so Jack also took the opportunity to remove the words "Yellow Croaker" from the shop’s sign.
Some customers still came to the shop at first, but gradually they became fewer, and the long lines that had always formed before were gone. When Jack took stock after one month, he couldn’t stop shaking his head: the noodle shop was unable to make ends meet. Grandpa’s Salty Dishes Shop opened in the next alley over and drew a constant stream of customers. Jack was utterly depressed and felt that the customers who went to that place really didn't know what was good.
He kept an eye on the doorway of Grandpa’s Salty Dishes Shop for a long time and came to a conclusion – most of the customers who went there were of a certain age, younger people in their twenties and thirties like himself. As though he’d had a sudden inspiration, he changed the noodle shop into a Korean restaurant. When he saw a red-hot Korean TV drama, he introduced, with great fanfare, beer-batter chicken as a house specialty. Of course, the chef he hired wasn’t Korean, but a girl from the countryside, because he didn’t have to pay her much and she did what she was told. They threw together a few Korean recipes and made do for a time. Anyway, he was the boss and had the final say.
Against his expectations, the Korean restaurant hadn’t taken off after more than two months in business. Jack was rather discouraged and sought out some of his young friends for ideas and suggestions. Some of these friends had just returned to China from studying overseas, and some had grown up in Shanghai. They pooled their resources to finance Jack’s transformation of the Korean restaurant into a Western café. Since it was located is in the bustling city center, with lots of foreign tourists coming and going, such a business seemed like a sure thing.
The café was really lively for a while when it first opened. Jack’s friends and classmates, and friends of friends and classmates of classmates, were all encouraged to come over and join in the festivities. After two or three months of prosperity, though, consumers and even acquaintances began to patronize other Western restaurants, and gradually Jack’s place became so deserted that swallows started to nest inside. As the losses grew, several of the smaller partners couldn’t hold on and requested return of their investments. Jack dragged his feet for almost half a year before he refunded the money. He took down the signboard, closed the door and got ready to sell off the restaurant’s assets, but his asking price was so high that he hadn’t got rid of them even after a long time.
He often hung out on the road in front of the restaurant, bored to death. One day an elderly couple approached and asked, “Where’s Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodle Shop? We used to go there to eat all the time. Don’t know why we can’t find it now.”
Jack was surprised. Granny had passed away some time ago, so why would anyone still think of going to her place to eat? The old man said they’d eaten there a few years ago, but he’d been in poor health the last few years, and also they’d moved, so they hadn’t been back. He could still taste Granny’s yellow croaker noodles, though.
“The broth back then was so fresh,” the man said, “and the fish, wow, it was so delicate, but wouldn’t fall to pieces, so you could chew it.”
The old woman added, “We’ll be satisfied if we can taste Granny’s yellow croaker noodles a few more times in this life. That’s why we got the idea to come back here to this road.”
Jack had heard enough. His eyes grew red and he started to tremble.
He wasn’t willing to tell them that Granny was gone, and the noodle shop with her. After a moment’s thought, he answered, “Come back after a while. The shop’s being redecorated right now, but after a while you’ll definitely be able to eat yellow croaker noodles.” Jack’s heart was heavy when he saw how doubtful the old folks both looked as they walked away disappointed.
Nobody saw Jack for a while. Friends and classmates who called him said he was out of town, or busy. He didn’t even respond to the businessmen who contacted him wanting to rent the premises. “Is the place still available?” Even his family didn’t know what he was doing. They just knew he was swirling around like a gust of wind, and they paid him no mind.
A little more than a month later, Jack came back to the shop and brought an old lady with him. He surprised people by scraping of the words "Western Restaurant" from the signboard he’d stored in the shop and repainted it with four words – “Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodles”. And he bought back the big wok. The first batch of soup he cooked up gave off a rather familiar aroma, causing the neighbors to stick out their heads to see what was going on....
After a few days getting ready to receive customers, Granny’s Yellow Croaker Noodle Shop was back in business.
Jack's friends and classmates were invited to come over for a taste. He asked them one question: “Does it taste like it used to?” Starting the next day, an announcement was posted at the shop’s entryway. “For three days starting tomorrow, have a taste of Granny’s yellow croaker noodles for free. One hundred bowls will be served each day.” Customers rushed to the door at this announcement, and for three days the shop and its stove never cooled down. Jack listened to diners' comments as they left after eating and felt that, if his grandma could have been there, her face would’ve been all wrinkled from smiling.
Admirers came from all over. The shop was obviously small and narrow, but since Jack only served one type of noodle, he didn't consider taking over the neighboring store to widen the place. Later the family realized that Jack had returned to his ancestral home in Ningbo for the month-plus that he'd been gone. He'd found an old woman who was good at cooking yellow croaker, and he'd studied everything about making the dish himself, right from the first step, from picking and roasting the fish to boiling the noodles. The old woman from Ningbo, the one people saw standing in his shop, offered on-the-job guidance and taught him until his hands could make yellow fish noodles like Granny Zhang's, with fresh broth and silken noodles.
Lots of people sought Jack out to talk about franchising the operation, but he turned them all down. Some said he thought too small and couldn't handle a large-scale business.
Jack laughed and didn't answer, just like his grandma, and busied himself with his own business.
Text at p. 017; translated from 解放日报 at
3. Reunion (团圆)
Wang Jufang (王举芳)
The sun was so good. Its orange glow gave the world a warm color. Old Man Yang held a cane in one hand and touched the sun on his clothes with the other. Then he raised his hand, wiped the tears from his eyes and walked outside the nursing home. He’d asked for leave for the day and wouldn’t stay in the nursing home. He was going home.
The night before, he’d dreamed that his wife was calling him. "Come home, old man, come back and get together with us." She’d reached out her hand to him as she said it, and he’d happily reached out and took it. He hadn’t expected her hand to be so warm. Overjoyed, he’d said, "Just wait, Hon, I’ll be there." She’d smiled and disappeared, and he woke up from the dream excited. His wife had passed away more than ten years before, and this was the first time he’d dreamed of her so vividly.
"Yeah, I should go home and see the wife." That’s what Old Man Yang was thinking. Back then he’d come to the nursing home for special care. He was penniless and was the only senior in the place getting free room and board. It was only because his son had been friends with the director of the home, Roc Zhang. He had another reason for deciding to go home that day, though. He’d seen on TV that an old man had suddenly died in the nursing home, and the relatives of the deceased were making a lot of noise in the place. The people at the home had taken good care of him for almost ten years, giving him good food, good drinks and good accommodations, and now that he was near the end, he couldn’t cause any more trouble for them.
His wife had gotten sick more than a decade ago and had died when she could no longer endure the torment. Old Man Yang was heartbroken, but Heaven thought he hadn’t suffered enough and added salt to the wound. Half a year later, his son and Roc Zhang were out together with his son driving. The road was foggy, causing a multi-car pile-up. Zhang was seriously injured, but the injuries weren’t life-threatening. His son died on the spot. Old Man Yang had no strength left after going through those two extreme sorrows. He’d felt like a leaf that was blowing in the wind and about to fall.
His son’s wife couldn’t stand the pain of seeing things that reminded her of her husband, so she’d taken their child, Happy Yang, and returned to her family’s home in the provincial capital. Old Man Yang didn’t blame her. She was still young and was a good mother to his grandson afterwards. He thought of his grandson, Happy, whom he hadn’t seen for more than ten years. He must’ve grown big by now. Suddenly the old man changed his mind and walked toward the bus station.
It was evening when he arrived at the provincial capital and there were a lot of people and vehicles on the streets. Old Man Yang walked carefully along the side of the road. He came to a corner and gazed at the red and green traffic light. He hesitated a moment, and just as he was about to step out, a car screeched to a stop beside him. He was so startled he had to squat down on the ground. The driver, a young man, rolled down his window and said, "What’s up, Gramps? You pretending you got hit? Ha, your acting skills leave too much to be desired!"
The old man struggled to pick himself up. "Not every oldster wants to scam people, young fellow,” he said. “I was just scared by the sound of your brakes and fell down. I’m not scamming you. I just slipped and wouldn’t intentionally fall down on someone’s car."
He remembered that one of his relatives had a store near the bus station. He got there after crossing the road and walking only a few hundred meters. It was just that the provincial capital hadn’t had so many tall buildings, cars and people ten years before. He stopped when he saw the sign, "Happy Yang’s Shop," and ducked behind a tree on the sidewalk, from where he could peer into the store without being seen.
A young man was enthusiastically greeting customers inside the shop. His forehead showed a heroic spirit. "Happy really looks more like his father than ever." The old man's eyes filled with tears and he decided not to disturb his daughter-in-law and grandson – it was enough just to know that they were living well. He spent the night in a hotel and returned to his hometown early the next morning.
The old family home hadn't been maintained for years and was in ruins, except for the east wing which was still intact because a neighbor stored things in it. When he saw Old Man Yang had come home, the neighbor helped him straighten things up and moved a folding bed in for him to sleep on. Old Man Yang didn't thank him, just kept saying, "Nearby neighbors are better than distant relatives, and that's the truth."
The next day the old man didn't return to the nursing home. When Roc Zhang came to pick him up, he said, "I want to stay at home for a few more days. I miss the place." Zhang did as he wished and asked the neighbor to keep an eye on him.
Old Man Yang sat in the sun with his eyes closed, thinking about bygone days. He'd lost his wife in middle age, and his son as well. He'd stayed awake crying silently for many nights back then. He'd felt like his heart and body were numb. After his daughter-in-law moved back to the provincial capital with Happy, the old man had stayed in his right mind by looking at photos of his grandson. He'd told himself that he couldn't stay at home any longer and went out to find a job. He hadn't counted on falling from a high scaffold and injuring his spine. The doctor said he'd probably never be able to work again. After he got out of the hospital, Roc Zhang took him in at the nursing home and treated him like his own father. Old Man Yang had always bemoaned his bitter fate, but today, after thinking things over, he felt that he'd had a good life.
That night he dreamed once again that his wife was calling him to a reunion. When it got light, he got up, dressed himself neatly and walked to the graveyard outside the village. His wife's grave was overgrown with weeds, as was their son's grave beside her. Feeling dizzy, the old man slowly dropped to the ground between the two graves....
He didn't know how long he'd slept when he heard someone calling him. "Grandpa, Grandpa, it's Happy...." The old man opened his eyes slowly and smiled.
Old Man Yang pointed to Roc Zhang and said to Happy, "All these years, it was your uncle Zhang who took care of me. You need to remember that. People need to know how to be grateful."
Roc Zhang said, "In fact, all these years it was Happy's mother who requested that I take care of you. She came to the nursing home every month to look in on you, without telling you. She paid the fees and bought your clothes, shoes and hats. Later she remarried and it wasn't easy to do all that. She's better than a lot of flesh-and-blood daughters....” Old Man Yang’s mouth trembled and his eyes filled with tears. He couldn’t say a word.
"Grandpa, my Mom said we'll spend a few days fixing up the house, and when it's done, we'll move back in right away to live with you. If Mom’s dad hadn't been paralyzed for the last seven or eight years, we would have come back before now....”
The old man smiled through his tears. He would never again have to spend his last years alone and lonely.
Text at p. 23; translated from 新浪博客 at
http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_6f84e37a0102xtej.html, fourth story
4. A Diagnostic Conversation (问诊)
Zheng Yuchao (郑玉超)
My wife found a small growth on her leg and got nervous. She urged me to take her to see a doctor. I thought of a friend of mine who’s an expert scholar in medical matters.
I’d heard he’d been drifting around the country teaching in recent years, from Zhenjiang to Wuxi, from Wuxi to Wenzhou, and later to Fuzhou. Recently he’d caught us all off guard and, in his words, "returned to his hometown covered in glory". He came back to a job as a doctor in the hospital. I got in touch with him and learned that he had the day off and was taking it easy at home.
So I took the wife to his place for a diagnosis.
After checking the growth with his hands, his brow wrinkled and he didn’t say anything for a long time as he mulled it over. The wife was apprehensive and nervously asked, "Is it serious?" It made me tense as a scared rabbit, too.
He still didn’t say anything. He seemingly couldn’t make up his mind and pressed on the growth again with his hand. Finally it seemed he’d come to a decision. He sighed with relief and said, "It’s not a big problem."
It was my turn to be anxious. "That means there is a problem, right?"
He laughed inscrutably. "The problem isn’t very big. I can’t explain it to you clearly. It’s a small cyst." Then he had to add two more words, apparently to make the pronouncement more solemn: “That’s all,” he said with some effort, drawing out his voice."
When the wife heard the word "cyst", she couldn’t keep quiet. She’s timid by nature, so I knew right away that she must be extremely agitated.
"That's a tumor, isn’t it?" She questioned him with some trepidation. "Is it benign?" There was a hint of a scream in her high-pitched voice.
I watched his mouth closely with the same query in my eyes. I was scared that he might spit out some even more frightening words.
But he was calm and composed. "Generally speaking, cysts are not the same as tumors." The wife and I both calmed down at that. Unexpectedly, he went on to add, "That’s the case in principle, but it’s not a hundred percent."
Experts are experts. Their statements are watertight and they’re quite scientific. But his addendum made the wife and I, so recently calmed down, get carried away again. It was like we were being lowered back into a well in a bucket with the rope about to break.
"I say this based on medical theory and my clinical experience." He kept on talking, totally disregarding our feelings. "What’s true in principle often proves to be wrong. So let me put it to you this way: There’s a 99.99 percent chance it’s a small cyst, but I can't preclude the existence of that 0.01 percent possibility."
His words left me feeling completely helpless, like I was trying to rub the bald head of a nine-foot-tall monk.
"Neither of you should be anxious. There’s no reason at all to be frightened." He smiled warmly. "I’ll give the two of you an analogy. That 0.01 percent is like the odds of you guys buying a lottery ticket and winning the five-million-yuan grand prize.”
What the heck was that? It was making me confused.
He seemed to read my mind. "Now do you understand what I mean?"
To be honest, the more I listened to him the more confused I got. I couldn’t say so, though. The guy was a well-known expert.
I thanked him profusely and pulled on my wife to make good our escape as fast as possible. Who knew what marvelous conclusions might follow?
Just as we got downstairs, I saw him suddenly stick his head out from an open window. He reminded us kindly, "I can't guarantee that what I said was a hundred percent right. If you’re worried, I suggest you go get a color ultrasound and an MRI."
I looked up and his expression was as warm as a spring breeze.
I asked why we would need both those tests. He burst with happiness. "I can't really explain it to you. Just remember that both tests need to be done. You can’t skip either one. Right now that’s the most reliable way to check on whether there’s a tumor."
"Just now, didn’t he just say that cysts and tumors are not the same thing? How can he say that now?" The wife was sick with worry.
Just as she said that, and before I had a chance to answer, we were pounded with more advice from upstairs, words which resounded in my ears. “Of course, don’t be overly superstitious. Those two tests can’t be guaranteed a hundred percent accurate.”
Text at p. 30; translated from 闲敲棋子的博客 at
5. The Last Teacher (最后的老师)
Mr. Cereal Deer (Lin Tingguang) [鹿禾先生(林庭光)]
He stood on the other side of the river and watched his last student walk across, then slowly returned to the mountain. The school on the mountain had more than a dozen villages beneath it, some to the east and some to the west. It had become the last school left in this mountainous region, and he was its last teacher. He limped a bit when he walked, his hair was growing white and he was becoming farsighted.
It was quiet when he got back to the school. The old clock on the walnut tree swayed slightly in the autumn wind. Several windows in the dilapidated classroom had been broken, and the wind whooshed across the transparent plastic sheets nailed over them.
She’d been his student. When she saw he was back, she pointed to the dinner on the table. "Have dinner, Teacher." It was an extremely simple dinner: a bowl of freshly made corn porridge, two pieces of steamed corn bread on a plate, and another plate full of pickled dried radish. He picked up a piece of the bread and used his chopsticks to stuff some dried radish into it, and started to eat. He ate ravenously and, when crumbs from the bread fell on the table, he picked them up and put them in his mouth.
She was squatting outside, on the side facing a mountain spring, rubbing clothes against a gray stone slab. The moon had come out, and her rhythmic movements washing the clothing looked beautiful in the moonlight.
He came over to squat beside her and rolled tobacco in a piece of yam paper. It took only a moment to roll the homemade cigarette. He took out a lighter and lit it. She put down the clothes she was washing and turned to look at him. "I’m heading back to the city tomorrow, Teacher,” she said. “What else do you need here? I’ll bring it to you next time I come."
He fixed his eyes on the nighttime sky. The faraway stars twinkled brightly, and the wind in the mountains was getting chilly. "Just bring some more clothing that people in the city have thrown away. Look, the clothes that the kids here have are too ragged to wear any more. It’ll be getting cold soon, and I want them to be warm this winter."
She glanced at him. "I meant you. What are you going to do from now on? The school building is being torn down."
He raised his head toward the school. It looked lonely sitting halfway up the mountain. He thought for a moment. "If they want to tear it down, so be it. At most, I’ll only lose a few hundred yuan a month. I’ll stay here, and if the babies want to go to school, I’ll be here to teach them."
She seemed to want to say something, but paused for a moment before saying, "Our superiors’ intention is for these students to go study at Central Elementary School."
He looked at her. She was from here, and was one of the students he’d personally ushered out into the world. Now she held the position of Director at the Education Bureau. She’d come back here this time just to persuade her teacher to go along with the plan.
She’d been here a few days but didn’t know how to tell him. The students here regarded him as part of their families, and why hadn’t she been that way back then? Oh, she did remember. His legs were just for carrying her across the river, but he’d fallen and twisted them. She remembered the storm clearly, with him propping her up in the water, not letting her fall. He’d gnashed his teeth and struggled to wade through the water. His blood had flowed in the river, and since then, he’d walked with a limp.
This was the last educational facility on Big Mountain, and he was the last uncredentialed teacher in the county. She’d been consolidating educational resources since her first day as Director of Education, sending the mountain children to town to go to school. She’d torn down dozens of school buildings for the sake of this plan, which she felt was winning the hearts and minds of the people. This would be the last one to go. But resistance came from the teacher – her own beloved teacher. She’d decided to come personally to persuade him, and had even considered what would happen to him. She would let him be a security guard on duty in the Reception Office of the Education Bureau.
When she'd arrived, she'd seen that the facility hadn't changed in twenty years. Still the same old place, except the classroom was more dilapidated than ever. The teacher was a lot grayer, but he was still passionate about leading the babies there to read their texts fluently. She noticed she was missing something when she got there and decided to stay a while. She wanted to change the conditions there. She felt her decision was correct.
She watched her fellow townspeople who were sending their children to school. When they saw she'd come back, they filled a basket with special products from the mountain area for her. Everyone surrounded her and asked detailed questions about her life. She was the pride of the village people and everyone gathered around to reminisce about things that had happened while she was in school. The teacher had sat to one side and listened to everyone praise her. She bowed her head as she listened, not knowing what to say.
Yes, she'd been a student here and had left the village, but what was she bringing back to the place? With some difficulty, she opened her mouth to tell them she was closing down their school. Everyone said, when their school was gone, it would be a struggle to get to the primary school in town. It was so far away, and their babies were so small, too. If it wasn't the adults their children might meet on the road that made them apprehensive, it was the harassment they might encounter in the school dormitory.
But this was a decision of the Communist Party's County Committee. She'd also pounded her chest and guaranteed the success of the policy, and moreover, it would make a better future for the mountain children. She felt terrible seeing her beloved teacher's arduous life, and she shed tears when she saw the run-down school. That was the first time she started a fire to cook for the teacher, and squatted down to wash his clothes in the spring. These were things she could do to make his life better. Besides that, however, what else could she do?
When she left the village, the teacher went with her along the small river. She crossed it slowly. As always, he maintained his usual demeanor while he silently watched her leave.
Text at p. 35; translated from 小小说 at
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Stories printed in Best Chinese Mini-Stories 2017
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Chinese Stories in English