​​         Chinese Stories in English   

One Plot of Land
Jia Ping'ao (aka Jia Pingwa)


     What he said scared the heck out of me, but there was no way I'd ever think he was right. I was just worried that they'd be digging up the sod on those three acres before long to put up high-rises. How many days would the pheasant be able to survive then?

     It was XX who told me. He said that piece of land really isn't very big, three and five hundredths acres, but they customarily say it's three acres.
     The three acres are very flat – narrow on the north end and slightly wider to the south, with a canal on the west side. The canal turns away and heads off toward another plot, and a parasol tree is growing at the bend. They raise wheat on the three acres in the winter and corn in the summer.
     He was too young back then, maybe two, and really didn't take notice of whether the crops grew well there or not. He only cared about whether phoenix birds would come to the parasol tree.
     Parasols are the most densely growing trees in Sand White Village. Their crowns are big and especially round. When the wind blows, they're supple and make a whooshing sound as they move. The adults said they attract phoenixes, but he'd never seen one, just birds with black feathers who'd drop into the treetops and disappear.
     His great-grandfather was still alive at the time. The old man had a bushy beard under his nose, and no mouth. There'd been a time, he remembered, when great-grandpa was always going to the three-acre plot. He'd walk from the north end to the south, and then from the south end to the north, back and forth, with his hands clasped behind his back.
     It seemed like his legs didn't have knees: He'd stick one out to take a step forward, and then another, as though he didn't know how to walk. When a guy walking along the canal called to him, "Hey, Gramps, what are you doing, measuring that plot of land every day?" the old man answered "That I am!"
     "Well, it's your script," the guy said, and the old man just stared at him.
     He didn't know the reason great-grandpa had stared at the guy until his grandfather told him later. When his grandfather's grandfather had first come to Sand White, it was still a beach with thorns like wolves' teeth. The whole family worked hard from dawn to dusk to pull up the thorns and remove the rocks to fix up the three-acre plot. But the house caught fire the year his great-grandpa was thirty and everything burned to ashes, so they sold the plot to the Ma family from the village. After that his great-grandpa had worked for them as a carter.
     While his great-grandpa was spending his days measuring the three-acre plot with his footsteps, people in the village were banging on drums and gongs. They kept at it for maybe ten days or half a month. It was a brand-new set of percussion instruments, and when they started banging them he'd thought they were going to wear them out. But drums and gongs can't be worn out.
     Whenever the drum-beaters came to someone's house, the people would hang a red quilt outside for decoration. When they were on the way to his house, his great-grandmother couldn't stand the thought of draping a red quilt outside. He remembered great-grandpa standing on the front doorsteps, smoking a water pipe – he smoked his water pipe every day when he came back from measuring the three acres – saying "You, you, it's the new society, you know!
     Back then he didn't know what "society" was, or how a society could be "new". Great-grandpa told him, "It's land reform!"
     [The three acres were apportioned back to his great-grandfather and] the old man planted wheat on the plot. It grew pretty well. Whenever the wind blew, the wheat would swirl around in an eddy. It was like the wind had a pair of big feet and was forever dancing there. But just after the wheat turned yellow and was about to be put to the sickle, great-grandpa died.
     He just didn't have any luck.
     The graveyards in Sand White Village are all up on the high ridge where they pile the slurry stone. Great-grandpa's grave is the only exception; it's under the parasol tree. The old man had given instructions to great-grandma just before he died: He'd spent a lot of effort demanding to have these three acres allocated back to him and he definitely had to be buried there, even if it meant being alone. Great-grandpa and great-grandma had never agreed on anything in their lives – if one said something was like this, the other had to say it was like that – but she'd said she'd do what he wanted this time, so she buried him under the tree.
     People in the village said she shouldn't have buried the old man on the three-acre plot. Maybe great-grandpa had figured the old lady would intentionally disobey him and had therefore said the opposite of what he really wanted. After all, how could the old man have tolerated having a grave occupying space on the three acres?
     Then they brought up great-grandpa's past. They said the Ma family had not only owned a lot of land in Sand White, but had also had a mule business in Xian. Great-grandpa had driven the cart every day carrying passengers back and forth between the Wei River Wharf and the Bell Tower in the city. On winter nights when he finished driving the last leg, a prostitute would be waiting for him at the foot of the bell tower. He'd buy her two hot bowls of wontons and she'd clasp his feet to her bosom all night to keep them warm. That prostitute later became great-grandma. His grandfather never talked about that with the younger generation, however, and his father never talked about it, so he didn't, either.
     The fact is, he doesn't remember a lot about his great-grandpa. It's his grandfather that he remembers clearly. Grandpa cared even more about the three-acre plot. He grew wheat on it, and he grew corn, and he grew peas and sesame. He built a stone levee straight and fine, broke dirt clods apart with his fingers, and couldn't tolerate a single weed.
     A funny story circulated around Sand White for a long time, about once when grandpa went into the city, a little over three miles from the village. Grandpa had to go number two and hurried back toward the village because just had to do it on the three-acre plot. But it turned out he couldn't hold it and had to go when he was only half way, so he did his business on a lotus leaf and carried it back to dump it on the three-acre plot.
     That story might have been made up, but with his own eyes he'd seen his grandfather eat soil. It was after the autumn harvest. The three acres had been plowed and wheat had been sown, but hadn't sprouted yet. Grandpa took him for a walk there. The old man sniffed the air with flared nostrils, so he asked, "Grandpa, what do you smell?" Grandpa asked him if he'd never smelled the aroma of the soil. He couldn't smell it, so the old man picked up a handful of soil from the ground and rolled it around between his fingers. Then he took a pinch and stuck it in his mouth and started chewing.
     He was really shocked. "Grandpa, Grandpa, are you eating dirt?" he cried.
     "Yep."
     "Grandpa's an earthworm."
     The old man chuckled. "A worm? Ah, your grandfather's a worm."
     Later his grandfather became the Village Head. After that he'd strut around haughtily. Every time he went out he'd drape something over his shoulder, a cotton-padded jacket in winter or an unlined wind-breaker in summer. Everyone greeted him as he walked along the village lanes. He's not very clear about his grandfather's administration of the village, but during the dozen or so years he held the post, Sand White had quickly become known far and wide as a progressive village.
     One summer a feng shui master came to the village. He looked over the lay of the land and decided there was nothing exceptional about Sand White. When the master saw grandpa, though, he suspected that the graves of the Village Head's ancestors might not be well situated, so grandpa took him to the three-acre plot.
     Just when they got to the bend in the canal, grandpa asked the master to wait a moment. The master asked why, and grandpa said, "There's a bunch of kids down at the south end, stealing peas to eat. We'll scare them if we come up on them too quickly."
     "Ah," the master said, "I understand, I completely understand," and they didn't go on into the three-acre plot.
     It was two years later, maybe, when people in the village started to beat the drums and gongs again, ding-bong, ding-bong. Once more he was worried that they'd wear them out, but drums and gongs can't be worn out. Grandpa was of course part of the drum and gong corps. When it was over and he got back home, grandmother asked, "Why are they banging those things again?"
     "Society's changing again," grandpa replied.
     Grandma had been through land reform and thought that the fields were going to be redistributed again. "Aren't we finished redistributing here," she asked.
     "They're collecting the land," grandpa said.
     This was when the People's Communes were being set up. The land of every family in Sand White Village was taken, including the three-acre plot. All the land was turned over to the collective.
     They set up a public address system in the village, with a big-mouthed speaker that talked all day about how good the people's commune was. Grandpa got sick before long, though. First his eyes got jaundiced, and later his whole body turned yellow as the soil. Then he got diarrhea and couldn't keep anything down, not even watery rice.
     Sand White Village was set up as one of the commune's production teams. The production team had an election for team leader, and grandpa got elected. However, he was already [so sick] he couldn't pick commune members to pull out the border stones and levees [that marked individual plots] so as to level a large area of arable land.
     The old man's spirits suddenly improved by the beginning of autumn, after he'd slept on his side for a month, and he asked the family to help him go to the three-acre plot. They held him under the arms and walked him to the parasol tree. "Ah, the sesame's in bloom," the old man said. Then his head drooped and he took his last breath.
     Grandpa wasn't buried on the three-acre plot when he died because the land no longer belonged to the family. He was buried on the high ridge east of the village where they pile the slurry stone. There was no marker, so when the family pays homage to their ancestors during the Grave Sweeping Festival, they just burn some "
joss paper" under the parasol tree.
     They couldn't grow peas and sesame seeds on the three-acre plot any more. It was one of the three best plots in the village and was devoted entirely to corn in the fall. The ears of corn looked like misshapen cow horns growing out of the stalks. He always felt like there was a phalanx of cows on the three acres that might come charging out at any time.
     In those years grain and other foods, along with the firewood to cook it with, were all meted out by the production team according to the number of one's work points. At first people weren't getting enough to eat, and pigs got so skinny they grew orange hair. Almost everyone in Sand White Village turned into a thief, scheming to steal crops from the fields. He did, too. He went deep into the three-acre plot to gather leaves from the soybean vines that had been planted between the cornstalks. When he gathered the leaves he'd get the pods as well. He took it all home, where the pig ate the leaves and the people boiled the pods to eat. He went gathering three times, but the fourth time the Team Leader caught him, seized his basket and stomped it flat right on the spot.
     He said, "These three acres used to belong to my family…."
     "What are you saying?" the Team Leader said. "Let me hear that again!"
     The Team Leader slapped him upside the head, so he didn't say it again."
     When he got home, he told his father how he'd been beaten, but his father just took the drums and gongs and put them in the loft of their adobe cottage. He thought they were going to bang on the things again, but his father told him that the set had been stored at Old Man Chang's place. Chang's son had long been plotting to sell them as scrap metal to buy grain on the black market, so the old man had asked his father to store them at their place.
     The set was kept up in the loft from then on and was never played again [at least not for a long time]. One year a village man named Zhu the Able came over to their place to borrow some millet. His family didn't have a scale or a measuring cup, but Zhu the Able said "You guys are keeping the gongs, aren't you? Measure me out a gong-ful." His father brought a gong down from the loft and there was a nest of new-born mice in it.
     They used the gong to measure out one gong-ful of millet. Zhu the Able cooked it and ate it all at one sitting.
     Zhu the Able hurt the village's reputation. The other production teams in the area all laughed at us and said Sand White villagers are all reincarnations of people who had starved to death.
     His mother got sick the year he turned seven. Her back got more and more bent, like she was carrying around a big bag of sand and couldn't see the sky [because she was always looking down at the ground]. His father sent him to live with his aunt's family in the city and he went to school there. He mostly lost track of what was happening in the village after that. He just knew that his father became a carter later on, just like his great-grandpa had been when he was young. Except his father didn't carry passengers – he drove a horse-cart into the city to get night soil.
     Every Saturday his father would come to the tenement where auntie lived to collect the waste. There'd be a burlap bag hanging from the cart's hitching pole with yams in it, or cabbages and green onions. He'd leave the bag at auntie's place and go to the [public] toilet to scoop out the night soil. Then he'd carry it, bucketful by bucketful, to a wooden barrel on the cart. That old horse was really docile and would stand there motionless, sometimes facing east or sometimes west, but always with its tail pointed down. His father wouldn't stay at Auntie's for supper when he finished shoveling the night soil, but would take him back to Sand White Village to spend Sunday there. He'd ride back sitting on the cart's hitching pole.
     He rode the night soil cart every Saturday, right up until he graduated from high school.
     A lot of things happened during that period. His mother died, for example. And his father, he fell and broke his leg; and bit by bit his hair turned completely white. He went on to college and, after graduation, went to work at a newspaper.
     Once, on a trip back to Sand White, he told his father he'd been thinking of quitting his job and going into some kind of private business. He remembered that day very clearly. A bunch of people were crowded into the courtyard of their house, and they'd taken the drums and gongs down from the adobe building's loft. The leather skins of the drums had gone slack, but the drums could still be beaten once the skins were pulled tight again. The gongs were rusty in spots but could still be played.
     The sound was enough to wake the dead when they started playing. He was stupid, and thought they were going to have a celebration at the village altar. He wondered why they were having such an unprecedented celebration.
     Someone in the courtyard said, "They're requisitioning the land! They're requisitioning the land!"
     "Another land reform?" he asked.
     "You really are a city person," the guy said. "You don't even know what 'requisition the land' means?!"
     Of course he knew what "requisitioning land" was. The land in lots of villages around the city had been requisitioned to construct buildings. But he'd never expected that they would requisition land here in Sand White, so far from the city!
     Sand White's drums and gongs were bing-banging and the land really was being requisitioned, not only the farmland but the entire village. The three villages to Sand White's west were on the site of a Tang Dynasty Royal Park which was now being restored, so a dozen or so villages in the area had to be moved.
     The Sand White villagers were all in high spirits that evening. With this requisitioning, society would be changing again. At last they would no longer be peasants, and their descendants would never be peasants.
     Further, each family would collect a large subsidy and everyone was planning how to use the money: They could go to the bazaar and rent a shop to start a clothing business with goods brought in from Guangzhou or Shanghai. But then they worried about what they would do if the goods didn't sell. Maybe it would be less risky to set up street vendors' stalls, or to sell breakfasts from tricycle push-carts.
     His father, however, just sat in the house drowning his worries in drink. He finished off half a bottle, till his face was covered with oily sweat.
     "I really won't be a farmer anymore?" his father asked.
     "You won't have any land anymore," he answered, "so of course you won't be a farmer."
     His father suggested that they go down to the three-acre plot.
     He could understand how his father felt. The land had been apportioned out, then taken back, but at least it was still in Sand White Village where he could see it every day. Now he'd have to leave the village, and no one could say what the three-acre plot might be used for. And it would never be theirs again.
     He went down to the three-acre plot with his father. The moon was very bright that night, and his father looked like great-grandfather. He walked from the north end of the plot to the south, step by step, his hands behind his back and his legs without knees.
     They walked back and forth seven or eight times. Then his father's legs went soft and he knelt down, his forehead to the ground. He didn't know whether his father was kowtowing to the three-acre plot, or to the old man who was buried there.
     His father left Sand White and moved into a new development in the southwest corner of the city. He moved everything the family owned, including the set of drums and gongs. But he couldn't get used to life in a high-rise. He said it always felt like the building was swaying and he couldn't sleep soundly at night.
    He couldn't stay with his father. At first he visited the old man every ten days or two weeks. Eventually it was hard to find the time to go once every three or four months. It was because his company was engaged in an export operation and business was very good. In addition, after he'd accumulated a certain amount of capital, he'd gotten into the real estate market.
     The city was developing really fast. It spread out and expanded in all four directions like a flood. The Tang Dynasty Royal Park reconstruction was finished within three years, and the area indeed became the most modern, most beautiful in Xi'an. The land originally requisitioned at 1,200,000 Yuan per acre went up to 24,000,000 per acre, and the villas built on it sold for twenty thousand Yuan a square meter. The government put fences around the areas that had not yet been developed. After a while they'd auction off one lot and then, after some more time, they'd auction off another.
     He attended every auction, of course, but lost out each time because the price was too high. But when an auction was held for that part of Sand White Village, he struggled hard to compete. He didn't have the wherewithal to make an acquisition of the entire village possible, but he did end up getting the development rights to that three-acre plot.
     When he gave his father the news, the old man hired a three-wheeled cart and hauled the set of drums and gongs down to the three-acre plot. He and the employees from his company beat them for three days and nights, bing-bang, bing-bang. This time the drums did fall apart, and the gongs got worn out from the beating.
     He said getting the three-acre plot was what he'd wanted, and he would've gotten it even if he'd had to rely on all the resources of his company. He'd have gone mad if he hadn't gotten it.
     He really did have a bit of tunnel vision, so much so that he wasn't himself. When he explained his reasoning to his staff, he said he'd been watching the three-acre plot and seen what it went through. It had been taken away, then distributed, and then taken and redistributed again. It was society changing. Every change in society was a reform of the land, but the land always remained a three-acre plot. Its reforms tell the story of the fate of generations!
     When XX finished his story, I had him take me to the three-acre plot for a look. It was flat and, as expected, surrounded by a fence. There were no crops growing on it, just dense weeds as tall as a man. The canal was gone but the parasol tree was still there. It really is one rare tree, so thick it'd take two men to wrap their arms around it, with a big, dense crown.
     Suddenly there was a cackling sound from the south end and a bird took to the air. It was a curious looking thing with a long tail, and we recognized it at once as a wild pheasant as it flew away. Its wings flashed over the weeds a few times, and then we couldn't see it any more.
     How could there be a pheasant here. Pheasants can fly, but not very high or far. There're only buildings outside the fence, so where had it come from? We were both mystified.
     "There used to be pheasants in Sand White Village, didn't there?" I asked.
     "This is impossible," he said. "I've never seen one inside the village.
     I figured the weeds and the pheasant appeared spontaneously on the three-acre plot after it was fenced off. Because there's only one pond on the plot, and they'd never stocked any fish fry in it, but aren't there fries swimming around in it now, after all these years?
     But XX blurted out, "It's my great-grandfather's ghost, isn't it?"

     What he said scared the heck out of me, but there was no way I'd ever think he was right. I was just worried that they'd be digging up the sod on those three acres before long to put up high-rises. How many days would the pheasant be able to survive then?
     Another year has gone by, now, and I never saw XX again, and haven't heard anything about him. I went by the three-acre plot one day and there was a different barrier around it, a thick, high brick wall painted red. There was no construction going on inside it, and the parasol tree was still there, and the weeds were still tall as a man. On the west end of the barrier was a tightly locked, double-leaf iron gate. A sign on the gate said: One Plot of Land.


2011 中国最佳短片小说,主编王蒙,辽宁人民出版社,第17页
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 17
Translated from version at
http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2010-08-25/171618024027s.shtml


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