Chinese Stories in English
Visitor to Paradise,
(back to p. 1)
Old Edge worked overtime at the factory repairing a machine and returned home at noon the next day. Little Strong’s mother offered to let him have a few drinks, and even fixed some scrambled eggs to go with them.
Old Edge was suspicious but drank two ounces of “Direct Sale” brand Kaoliang. He didn’t believe the lazy old bag had turned into a good wife.
"You must’ve done something to make you feel guilty, right? I haven't had scrambled eggs for five years...."
"I’ll tell you but don’t get excited," his wife replied sweetly." Old Tune gave us two hundred eighty yuan...."
Old Edge stood right up when he heard that and, “pwaa”, spit out a mouthful of scrambled eggs. He pointed his chopsticks at his wife and yelled, "No wonder my right eye has been twitching for days. Old Tune gave us so much money! What exactly is going on between you two?"
"That’s bullshit! What would that guy Old Tune see in me...?" She squinted her eyes narrow and opened her mouth wide, and started wailing again.
That evening Old Edge found out the truth of the matter, but it still drove him crazy. He rushed out of his house and lifted his foot to kick the toon tree in the courtyard, howling at the top of his lungs.
"I’m a member of the working class and I don’t need your pity! I’ve won the Advanced Producer title for three consecutive years. If my family has difficulties we rely on the organization, Party Secretary Jiang and Chairman Zeng of the trade union and Director Guo of our workshop. The leaders of the hemp factory are a mountain we can always rely on. You think you’re such a hot shot, Old Tune? Your money stinks, you fop, and I don’t want it...."
Old Edge had a big set of lungs and he kept cursing off and on until late that night. He ordered his wife to give the money back Old Tune the next day, every last penny of it.
Wine Vat Alley off South Grand Avenue. It’s a place described in Liu Yunruo's novel "Young Volunteers from Yangzhou". Old Tune was renovating a home in a residential construction site. The plaster was getting stained from all the sweat dripping off his forehead.
The weather was quite cold. Old Edge’s wife was surprised to see that Old Tune’s entire body, from his blue-and-yellow plaid shirt and gray trousers to his bronze-colored shoes, was, as always, unstained by splashes of mortar. The shoes, indeed, were still bright and shiny. The tiler seemed to be working in an almost spotless vacuum.
This was a tip-top technician, and Old Edge’s wife sighed in respect. "I used to think you cleaned yourself up all spic and span after you got off work. Can you actually keep yourself so neat and tidy while you’re on the job, too?"
"Yeah, I’ve never worn work clothes on the job,” Old Tune said as though it were nothing special. "I look the same whether I’m at work or not.”
"First time I've seen a worker like you...." Her view of the world had just been expanded.
The other workers saw that Old Tune had a woman visitor and made a fuss, whispering that he'd finally found himself a girlfriend. This made him blush beet red. He repeatedly bowed to them in the traditional manner, with his hands clasped in front of him, asking them to be quiet.
Old Edge’s wife gave him the banknotes wrapped in a handkerchief and told him the truth about what had happened in detail. "Old Edge has made up his mind not to take the money. He said he can't allow the working class to lose face."
"Old Edge belongs to the working class, and so do I!" Old Tune said, not understanding. "When one worker helps another, how is that losing face?"
"You and him,” she said with emotion, “you’re very different types of worker."
"But I’m not a class enemy." Old Tune stubbornly refused to accept the money she was returning to him.
"Don't say that. Why did my son Little Strong have to have such an out-and-out bastard for a father?" Her tears started to flow. "If you don't take the money back, Old Edge will think there’s something illicit going on between us! He said no one would give away two hundred eighty yuan for nothing. That’s both of our salaries together for half a year."
"What?" Old Tune was wide-eyed with shock. "What is he thinking! He’s still a working class...."
She stuffed the handkerchief with the banknotes into his hand again. She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, "If my name isn’t Elegant Hero Guan, I’ve never seen anyone as generous as you! I’ll insist on being your wife in the next life, if there is one, and I’ll serve you well!"
Old Tune was stymied. He stared at her as she walked off into the distance.
The workers were curious as all get out. They surrounded him and expressed their opinions. Some of them said the woman was crude, and some said she had a big ass. Old Tune shook his head. "You guys are risking your lives."
That stopped them. The crowd broke up with a shout and returned to work. Old Tune found a corner where no one else was working and squatted down without making a sound.
Old Tune gradually recovered his spirits as quitting time drew nearer, and he picked up his trowel and got back to work. The other workers were surprised to find that, this time, the fellow who had been a tip-top technician in the art of staying neat and clean had his shoulders covered with spots of mortar. It seemed his mind had been wandering.
Old Tune was a teetotaler, but he walked into the Drum Tower West Bar when he got off work and drank “Direct Sale Kaoliang”.by himself. "If there is a next life, Elegant Hero Guan, you should still marry Old Edge. I think you two suit each other quite well...."
He continued talking to himself, "I’ve never been married, and I don't know about husband-wife stuff, but I saw what true affection is with Loyal...."
Late evening in the compound. Jade Qi, the female textile worker, had gotten off work. She came home, walking fast because she wanted to listen to the miniseries “The Spark” on the Tianjin People’s Radio Station. There was a character in the show who was very much like Loyal.
Her neighbors in the compound waylaid her to describe Old Tune’s act of charity. They also told her that his Deer’s Head bicycle was missing.
She listened carefully and nodded again and again. "Okay, good. Loyal wasn’t wrong about him back then...."
"Who’s Loyal?" they asked curiously.
She thought for a moment before replying, "Someone who used to live here...."
The neighbors talked among themselves. They said Old Tune and Jade Qi were a good match but had never gotten together, like there was something keeping them apart.
Time, like running water, stops for no one, and the New Year was almost upon them. People were busy cleaning their windows, sweeping their houses, making new clothes, adding new tableware, and preparing rice and noodles.... In the midst of all those chores, they lost interest in whatever was happening around them. On the next-to-last day before the holiday, someone finally remembered that the Old Tune hadn’t put in an appearance for a long time.
Old Edge’s wife whispered, "It’s been over three months…."
The big white cat was still there, though, but it was noticeably thinner. People said that cats customarily stayed around when they were alive but disappeared when it came time for them to die. They had to die in a place where no one was around. Cats went into heat in spring, but the people in the compound had never heard the big white cat howling. It seemed to have obliterated its animal nature in order to stay alive, or to have persevered in spite of its nature for the sake of the gentle people of this compound.
One day Old Edge was on leave at home and went to a neighbor’s to borrow some calligrapher’s ink. He was in good spirits. He stood up straight under the toon tree and said, "I might not be cultured, but I can write my own revolutionary spring couplet!" Then he made a beeline into his house. The neighbors thought he went in there to search through his treasure trove of slogans.
In the time it would take to smoke a pipe of dried tobacco, Old Edge emerged holding a couplet on red paper in both hands. The first line was, "The working class is enthusiastic"; the next was, "Straddling the Steed of the Motherland’s reconstruction”; the connecting line across the top was, "Down with the old, up with the new."
Sparse applause echoed in the courtyard. Old Edge said loudly: "I know my words aren’t adequate! But our factory’s Party Secretary Jiang said, ‘Don’t fear being inadequate! Only fear not daring. If you’re timid, you’ll make a spectacle of yourself. If you’re brave, you’ll look good.’"
Old Edge turned around and went into his house when he finished this speech and, not wasting a moment, brought out another couplet. The first line read, "Self-reliance and hard work"; the next read, "Determination and fearless sacrifice"; the connector said, "Carry the revolution to the end."
One of the neighbors, Old Zhao, walked over and said, "I’ll give you the lines, you write them down! The first line is, ‘Our compound is destroying the Four Olds everywhere’ The next line is, ‘Every family is building the Four News’; and the connector is, ‘Transform outmoded habits and customs.’”
Just then Old Edge's wife came outside carrying a cloth bundle in her right hand and leading Little Strong with her left, not hurrying in the slightest. She greeted her neighbors with a broad smile. "I’m taking Little Strong to his grandparent’s home for the holidays, so we’ll wish you an early Happy New Year now!”
Her husband was immersed in the enthusiasm of creating of revolutionary spring couplets and completely ignored the mother and child.
Jade Qi followed them out of the courtyard. With some concern, she asked the mother why they weren’t spending the holidays at home.
"I used to be the toad at the bottom of a well who’d never seen the sky and didn’t know anything about the world. Ever since I got married,” she said with a huge sigh, I always thought of Old Edge as a he-man and a great husband…. Now I’ve compared him to someone and it’s opened my eyes. He’s petty-minded and no excuse for a man! My whole life, gone!"
"Yeah, you didn't know Loyal, did you? He used to live here.... There’re lots of men under the sun, but not many real men!"
"Is that why you haven’t got married yet? I’m telling you, Sister, you made the right choice! Men are afraid of getting into the wrong career; woman are afraid of marrying the wrong man." Then she left, leading her son.
Jade Qi watched the mother and son walk away. "You still have a family to go home to,” she said. “What about me?"
Old Edge’s footsteps came pounding up to the compound’s gate. He had a brush in one hand and waved it in broad strokes to apply paste to both gate columns and the header, then excitedly stuck a couplet on. On one side "On the four seas, the clouds tremble and the water is angry"; on the other, "The five continents shake with wind and thunder"; and across the top, "Our desire is our inextinguishable asset."
Speaking in a low voice, Jade Qi said, "Old Edge, you’ve used all the flour for New Year’s dumplings to make paste."
"Our factory’s working overtime during the holidays, and Party Secretary Jiang sent dumplings to the team. We’ll get the job done early even if we have to float the boat on the sweat of our brows!"
Indeed, Old Edge really did work overtime without coming home during the Spring Festival. The boat really must have been floating in their sweat. New Year's Day passed, and then the Lantern Festival, but he still didn't see his wife coming back with their son. He finally got some days off and spent them at home, alone, drowning his sorrows in booze.
Their neighbors speculated among themselves that Old Edge's wife wanted a separation but he didn't, and he couldn't stop her this time any more than he could stop rain from dripping off the rooftops. Their speculations were quickly confirmed when Old Edge's wife asked everyone to stop calling her that and instead use her actual name, Elegant Hero Guan.
Could she be seeing someone else? Some women ride the old horse while they look for a new one, and when the time comes they'll pick up their butts and change mounts. But people didn't think she was that kind of woman.
Old Edge kept drinking and smoking and didn't change his expression. He was thinking hard about the reasons for this family crisis.... One quiet night he stepped out of his house like a sleepwalker, mumbling something under his breath.
"Old Tune, Old Tune, you got yourself a great reputation for your two hundred and eighty yuan. Me, on the other hand, I've ended up with a terrible reputation. You pitter-pattered around drawing comparisons with me and opened my wife's eyes. I've become a pile of stinky meat in her eyes. I start to stink and you don’t even show your face. You're destroying me on purpose...."
He was walking in circles around the toon tree. "I'm a technician at a large state-owned enterprise. You're a tiler with a small collective enterprise. How could I suffer by comparison to you? You're just more optimistic and cheerful than me, more straightforward and cool, but those things don't put food on the table! I promise, if I fucking find out you’ve stolen Elegant Hero Guan, you'll never get away with it!”
A shadowy figure came up to the tree and called out to Old Edge gently. "Don't suspect someone without any evidence. When Loyal planted this tree's sapling, he said that since we believe in each other, we shouldn't be jealous of each other. And when he adopted the little white kitten, he said no one should complain about another's generosity just because it makes them look stingy.…"
The female textile worker who was accustomed to speaking in a loud voice was whispering now, which surprised Old Edge very much. "This Loyal you're talking about, who the hell was he? And what else did he say?"
"Before he went to Swampy Lake farm in Qinghai," Jade Qi replied softly, "he said that for as long as this compound stays here, we're all just passing through." Then she walked quietly away.
Oh, talking about Loyal always brought Jade Qi back to the days of her youth. She didn't yet talk loud back then. She was naturally soft spoken.
Old Edge wasn't convinced, though. The next day the neighbors discovered that he'd given up his pipe and switched to pre-rolled cigarettes, Tianjin's own "Big Baby" brand, which was sold in simple packaging for twenty-two cents a pack.
The weather was gradually getting hotter. Things were heating up in the street as well. Big-character posters got stuck up in some places and slogans in others. The tide of revolution was surging. Schools set up "Red Guard" units, and all students from revolutionary families were required to participate. Factories created "Scarlet Guard" units and everyone from families in the "Five Red Categories" of poor or middle peasants, workers, soldiers, cadres and martyrs, had to join. Old Edge was in the Tianjin Hemp Fabric Factory's "Workers Scarlet Guard". He walked into the courtyard at the compound wearing the "Scarlet Guard" red armband and said with a serious expression, "This is the deciding battle between the two classes. We've pledged our lives to defending the headquarters of the proletarian revolution."
His neighbors in the compound rushed off a letter to Elegant Hero Guan, telling her, "Come back to being Old Edge's wife right away. He's become a Scarlet Guard with a red band wrapped around his arm!"
The woman who'd once called herself Elegant Hero Guan immediately took her mentally impaired son in her arms and asked, "Little Strong, Little Strong, tell me, should we go back?"
Little Strong blinked his big, uncommunicative eyes and didn't say a word.
As it was, Old Edge was enjoying a complete reversal of his fortunes. The Southern Development District Residential Renovation Company announced its list of Scarlet Guards. Old Tune, to everyone's surprise, was not on it. The announcement exploded over people's heads like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.
The optimistic and cheerful Old Tune had trouble getting to sleep at night. He stopped wearing plaid shirts and switched to T-shirts. He took his worries to the company's leader. "My father grew up as an orphan in the Infant Care Palace in Little King Village. I wouldn't exist without the Communist Party. I'm red from my guts to my skin. Why aren't I in the Workers Scarlet Guards?"
Old Tune, who'd mixed white sugar in the dregs of his medicine and miraculously cured his "encephalitis", had become an oddball to his colleagues. This time he had no way to heal the disease in his heart.
"Comrade True Talent Tune, your father was indeed an orphan in the Infant Care Palace in Little King Village, but if the organization thoroughly investigates, what family did he actually come from? If he was born from the union of a capitalist family's scion and a servant maid, and then quietly abandoned in the orphanage, that would change your characterization"
Old Tune couldn't accept that kind of hypothetical thinking. "Are you talking about Cao Yu's play, Thunderstorm? My parents definitely weren't the characters in that drama!"
"Of course not, of course not. The organization still thinks that you belong to the Red Five Categories, but you usually dress up, not much like the working class. More like a character in a book, like Little Open of Shanghai, or the Young Master from Tianjin, or Little Brother Eight Flags of Beijing, so the Scarlet Guards didn't want you in the first batch...."
"You're saying there'll be a second batch?" Old Tune was quite dejected. "So here I am, True Talent Tune, just a factory reject...."
He took sick leave and sulked at home for three days, smoking silently until the entire floor was covered with cigarette butts. Late at night he talked incessantly to himself. "I'm not an acceptable product. I've become a factory reject. I'm not an acceptable product. I've become a factory reject...."
Old Tune, who'd always been optimistic and cheerful, kept reciting this refrain until he'd almost turned into the character Auntie Xianglin that Lu Xun wrote about.
They say it happened at dusk. Old Tune committed suicide by hanging himself in a grove of trees by the Galaxy Bridge. He used the brown leather belt that he was never seen to replace. The Galaxy Bridge was the only way to get from Tianjin to the capital, Beijing.
They found him hanging from a willow tree where worms were living. He had on a red and blue plaid shirt, camel trousers and his bronze colored, three-tone shoes. This guy hadn't changed his clothing even to die.
Jade Qi rushed to the morgue and confirmed that this brown belt was the one Loyal had given him as a remembrance before he'd been transferred to the farm in Ningxia.
Jade Qi at last burst into tears. "True Talent Tune! If you had something inside you that you wanted to say, why'd you go to your death without saying it!"
The leader of the Scarlet Guards found a suicide note in Old Tune's pocket. There were two messages:
"First, back then Loyal suffered in my place, so that I kept my status as a worker. Sooner or later we will meet again in Paradise and I will repay him twofold.
"Second, the big white cat was Loyal's pet, which he left behind. He left the toon tree behind as well. Jade Qi is the girlfriend that Loyal discussed marriage with. That's of course why I came to the compound so often...."
Two days before his suicide, Old Tune had gone to the compound to see Old Edge. He was still smoking high-end "Great Front Gates". Perhaps he wanted to explain the reason he wasn't selected for the Workers Scarlet Guard to Old Edge in person. Unfortunately, Old Edge wasn't home and missed the last opportunity for the two to see each other.
Old Tune also brought back the handkerchief that Old Edge's wife had used to wrap the money in when she returned his gift. He gave it to the neighbor, Old Zhao, and asked him to return it to her.
The compound's residents were afraid of saying the wrong thing when they heard of Old Tune's death, so they remained silent. Old Edge stood under the toon tree wearing his Workers "Scarlet Guard" armband and said, "Oh, no, if I'd done ideological work with Old Tune back then, and got him to approach this great, unprecedented movement correctly, he wouldn't have come to a dead end. It's a shame, a real shame, such a good grade-four tiler."
Old Edge spared no effort to finalize Old Tune's status as a tiler with a small collective enterprise, thus showing clearly that his own status was entirely different from the dead man's. Thereafter, feeling righteous, he went to his mother-in-law's house and displayed his badge of victory. "We'll do self-criticisms to make sure our mistakes never happen again," he said. "We'll criticize to save the patient. But the two of you, mother and son, come home with me!"
"Old Tune should've had that belt around his waist. Why'd he put it around his neck." The married woman named Elegant Hero Guan burst out in sorrow as she followed her husband home with their son. When they entered the compound, someone told her they hadn't seen hide nor hair of the big white cat in some time.
Without hesitation, Old Edge said, "No doubt it died somewhere outside the compound."
The homeless big white cat had ended up becoming a transient guest at the compound, just like Old Tune.
Old Edge's wife seemed to think of something. Right away she asked, "Do you guys think cats have a next life?" Her demeanor indicated she really needed to know.
Jade Qi responded in a low voice. "Cats are better off than people. They have nine souls."
Old Zhao, the neighbor, handed Old Edge's wife the handkerchief that Old Tune had returned, and told her it was something Old Tune had especially asked him to do. Old Edge's wife took it and noticed that it had been washed. For a moment she didn't know what to say.
The handkerchief had pictures of peonies printed on it. Jade Qi looked at it and said, "Old Tune always was conscientious."
Old Edge walked over to his wife with a bottle of booze in his hand. "We'll have noodles for lunch," he declared. "Make three-ingredient stew with bean sprouts, wheat noodles and…."
The people in the compound talked about all kinds of things, things having to do with the weather. Who knows if they even remembered the foreign phrases like "scratch the competition" and “t’backy" that the ever optimistic and cheerful Old Tune had left behind. Anyway, the compound never again had a visitor like him.
The female textile worker, Jade Qi, continued to live alone in the compound on Paradise Lane in a southern corner of Tianjin until the Great Tangshan Earthquake on July 28, 1976. Tianjin suffered serious damage from the quake and the compound on Paradise Lane was flattened. Thus she'd also become a transient guest there.
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 100
Translated from 广州内衣价格联盟 at http://www.jinker.cn/xiangqing/34505142.html
Tweet comments to Fannyi@Fannyi5, or Email Fannyi@Chinese-Stories-English.com
To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to email@example.com