Selected Modern Chinese Essays: A Slave Mother

◎ Rou Shi

He was a dealer in animal skins which he bought from hunters in the countryside and sold in town. Sometimes he also worked in the fields; early each summer he turned farm-hand, transplanting rice for other people. As he had learned to transplant the seedlings in wonderfully straight rows, the peasants always asked him to help them. But he never made enough money to support his family and his debts mounted with each passing year. The wretchedness of his life and the hopeless situation he was in caused him to take to smoking, drinking and gambling, and he became vicious and bad-tempered. As he grew poorer and poorer, people stopped lending him money, even in small sums.

With poverty came sickness. He grew sallow: his face took on the sickly colour of a brass drum and even the whites of his eyes became yellow. People said that he had jaundice and urchins nicknamed him “Yellow Fellow”. One day, he said to his wife,

“There’s no way out of it. It looks as if we’ll even have to sell our cooking pot. I’m afraid we have to part. It’s no use both of us going hungry together.”

“We have to part?…” muttered his wife, who was sitting behind the stove with their three-year-old boy in her arms.

“Yes, we have to part,” he answered feebly. “There’s somebody willing to hire you as a temporary wife…”

“What?” she almost lost her senses.

There followed a brief silence. Then the husband continued, falteringly,

“Three days ago, Wang Lang came here and spent a long time pressing me to pay my debt to him. After he had left, I went out. I sat under a tree on the shore of Jiumu Lake and thought of committing suicide. I wanted to climb the tree and dive into the water and drown myself, but, after thinking about it, I lost courage. The hooting of an owl frightened me and I walked away. On my way home, I came across Mrs. Shen, the matchmaker, who asked me why I was out at night. I told her what had happened and asked her if she could borrow some money for me, or some lady’s dresses and ornaments that I could pawn to pay Wang Lang so that he’d no longer be prowling after me like a wolf. But Mrs. Shen only smiled and said,

“‘What do you keep your wife at home for? And you’re so sick and yellow!’

“I hung my head and said nothing. She continued,

“‘Since you’ve got only one son, you might find it hard to part with him. But as for your wife…’

“I thought she meant that I should sell you, but she added,

“‘Of course she is your lawful wife, but you’re poor and you can’t do anything about it. What do you keep her at home for? Starve her to death?’

“Then she said straight out, ‘There’s a fifty-year-old scholar who wants a concubine to bear him a son since his wife is barren. But his wife objects and will only allow him to hire somebody else’s wife for a few years. I’ve been asked to find them a woman. She has to be about thirty years old and the mother of two or three children. She must be honest and hard-working, and obey the scholar’s wife. The scholar’s wife has told me that they are willing to pay from eighty to a hundred dollars for the right sort of woman. I’ve looked around for one for several days, but without any luck. But your wife is just the woman I’ve been looking for.’

“She asked me what I thought about it. It made me cry to think of it, but she comforted me and convinced me that it was all for the best.”

At this point, his voice trailed off, he hung his head and stopped. His wife looked dazed and remained speechless. There was another moment of silence before he continued,

“Yesterday, Mrs. Shen went to see the scholar again. She came back and told me that both the scholar and his wife were very happy about the idea of having you and had promised to pay me a hundred dollars. If you bear them a child they will keep you for three years, if not — for five. Mrs. Shen has fixed the date for you to go — the eighteenth of this month, that is, five days from now. She is going to have the contract drawn up today.”

Trembling all over, the wife faltered,

“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

“Yesterday I went up to you three times, but each time I was afraid to begin. But after thinking it over I’ve come to realize that there’s really nothing to be done but hire you out.”

“Has it all been decided?” asked the wife, her teeth clattering.

“There’s just the contract to be signed.”

“Oh, what a poor wretch I am! Can’t we really do anything else?”

“It’s terrible, I know. But we’re poor and we don’t want to die. What else can we do? I’m afraid this year I won’t even be asked to do any transplanting.”

“Have you thought about Chun Bao? He’s only three. What will become of him without me?”

“I’ll take care of him. You’re not nursing him any longer, you know.”

He became more and more angry with himself and went out. She broke into uncontrolled sobs.

Then, looking back upon the past, she remembered what had just happened one year before: She was lying on her bed more dead than alive after giving birth to a baby girl. The newborn infant was lying on a heap of straw on the ground, crying at the top of her lungs and twitching her little limbs. The umbilical cord was wound round her body and the placenta left by her side. The poor young woman was anxious to get up to wash her baby. But she could only manage to lift her head while her whole body seemed to remain glued to the bed. All of a sudden she saw her husband, fierce and flushed, come up to the baby with a bucket of boiling water. “Stop, stop!…,” she threw what little strength she had into yelling at him. The vicious husband, nevertheless, was uncompromising. Without saying a word, he held up in both hands the baby with her cry of new life and, like a butcher slaughtering a small lamb, splashed her into the boiling water. The baby immediately stopped crying. All was silent except for the sizzling of her flesh in the boiling water. The young woman fainted away at the heart-rending scene.

At the painful recollection, she had no more tears to shed, but sighed faintly, “Oh, what a miserable life!” Chun Bao stared at her, whimpering, “Mummy, mummy!”

On the eve of her departure, she was sitting in the darkest corner of the house. In front of the stove stood an oil lamp, its light flickering like that of a fire-fly. Holding Chun Bao close to her bosom, she pressed her head against his hair. Lost in deep thought, she seemed absolutely dead to the reality surrounding her. Later, she gradually came to, and found herself face to face with the present and her child. Softly she called him,

“Chun Bao, Chun Bao!”

“Yes, mummy!” the child replied.

“I’m going to leave you tomorrow…”

“What?” the child did not quite understand what she meant and instinctively cuddled closer to her.

“I’m not coming back, not for three years!”

She wiped away her tears. The little boy became inquisitive,

“Mummy, where are you going? To the temple?”

“No. I’m going to live with the Li family, about thirty li away.”

“I want to go with you.”

“No, you can’t, darling!”

“Why?” he countered.

“You’ll stay home with daddy, he’ll take good care of you. He’ll sleep with you and play with you. You just listen to daddy. In three years…”

Before she had finished talking the child sadly interrupted her,

“Daddy will beat me!”

“Daddy will never beat you again.” Her left hand was stroking the scar on the right side of the boy’s forehead — a reminder of the blow dealt by her husband with the handle of a hoe three days after he killed the baby girl.

She was about to speak to the boy again when her husband came in. He walked up to her, and fumbling in his pocket, he said,

“I’ve got seventy dollars from them. They’ll give me the other thirty dollars ten days after you get there.”

After a short pause, he added, “They’ve promised to take you there in a sedan-chair.”

After another short pause, he continued, “The chair carriers will come to take you early in the morning as soon as they’ve had breakfast.”

With this he walked out again.

That evening, neither he nor she felt like having supper.

The next day there was a spring drizzle.

The chair carriers arrived at the crack of dawn. The young woman had not slept a wink during the night. She had spent the time mending Chun Bao’s tattered clothes. Although it was late spring and summer was near, she took out the boy’s shabby cotton-padded winter jacket and wanted to give it to her husband, but he was fast asleep. Then she sat down beside her husband, wishing to have a chat with him. But he slept on and she sat there silently, waiting for the night to pass. She plucked up enough courage to mutter a few words into his ear, but even this failed to wake him up. So she lay down too.

As she was about to doze off, Chun Bao woke up. He wanted to get up and pushed his mother. Dressing the child, she said,

“Darling, you mustn’t cry while I’m away or daddy will beat you. I’ll buy sweets for you to eat. But you mustn’t cry any more, darling.”

The boy was too young to know what sorrow was, so in a minute he began to sing. She kissed his cheek and said,

“Stop singing now, you’ll wake up daddy.”

The chair carriers were sitting on the benches in front of the gate, smoking their pipes and chatting. Soon afterwards, Mrs. Shen arrived from the nearby village where she was living. She was an old and experienced matchmaker. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she brushed the raindrops off her clothes, saying to the husband and wife,

“It’s raining, it’s raining. That’s a good omen, it means you will thrive from now on.”

The matchmaker bustled about the house and whispered and hinted to the husband that she should be rewarded for having so successfully brought about the deal.

“To tell you the truth, for another fifty dollars, the old man could have bought himself a concubine,” she said.

Then Mrs. Shen turned to the young woman who was sitting still with the child in her arms, and said loudly,

“The chair carriers have to get there in time for lunch, so you’d better hurry up and get ready to go.”

The young woman glanced at her and her look seemed to say, “I don’t want to leave! I’d rather starve here!”

The matchmaker understood and, walking up to her, said smiling,

“You’re just a silly girl. What can the ‘Yellow Fellow’ give you? But over there, the scholar has plenty of everything. He has more than two hundred mou of land, his own houses and cattle. His wife is good-tempered and she’s very kind. She never turns anybody from her door without giving him something to eat. And the scholar is not really old. He has a white face and no beard. He stoops a little as well-educated men generally do, and he is quite gentlemanly. There’s no need for me to tell you more about him. You’ll see him with your own eyes as soon as you get out of the sedan-chair. You know, as a matchmaker, I’ve never told a lie.”

The young woman wiped away her tears and said softly,

“Chun Bao… How can I part from him?”

“Chun Bao will be all right,” said the matchmaker, patting the young woman on the shoulder and bending over her and the child. “He is already three. There’s a saying, ‘A child of three can move about free.’ So he can be left alone. It all depends on you. If you can have one or two children over there, everything will be quite all right.”

The chair bearers outside the gate now started urging the young woman to set out, murmuring.

“You are really not a bride, why should you cry?” 〔15〕

The matchmaker snatched away Chun Bao from his mother’s arms, saying,

“Let me take care of Chun Bao!”

The little boy began to scream and kick. The matchmaker took him outside. When the young woman was in the sedan-chair, she said,

“You’d better take the boy in, it’s raining outside.”

Inside the house, resting his head on the palm of his hand, sat the little boy’s father, motionless and wordless.

The two villages were thirty li apart, but the chair carriers reached their destination without making a single stop on the way. The young woman’s clothes were wet from the spring raindrops which had been blown in through the sedan-chair screens. An elderly woman, of about fifty-five, with a plump face and shrewd eyes came out to greet her. Realizing immediately that this was the scholar’s wife, the young woman looked at her bashfully and remained silent. As the scholar’s wife was amiably helping the young woman to the door, there came out from the house a tall and thin elderly man with a round, smooth face. Measuring the young woman from head to foot, he smiled and said,

“You have come early. Did you get wet in the rain?”

His wife, completely ignoring what he was saying, asked the young woman,

“Have you left anything in the sedan-chair?”

“No, nothing,” answered the young woman.

Soon they were inside the house. Outside the gate, a number of women from the neighbourhood had gathered and were peeping in to see what was happening.

Somehow or other, the young woman could not help thinking about her old home and Chun Bao. As a matter of fact, she might have congratulated herself on the prospects of spending the next three years here, since both her new home and her temporary husband seemed pleasant. The scholar was really kind and soft-spoken. His wife appeared hospitable and talkative. She talked about her thirty years of happy married life with the scholar. She had given birth to a boy some fifteen years before — a really handsome and lively child, she said — but he died of smallpox less than ten months after his birth. Since then, she had never had another child. The elderly woman hinted she had long been urging her husband to get a concubine but he had always put it off — either because he was too much in love with his wedded wife or because he couldn’t find a suitable woman for a concubine. This chatter made the young woman feel sad, delighted and depressed by turns. Finally, the young woman was told what was expected of her. She blushed when the scholar’s wife said,

“You’ve had three or four children. Of course you know what to do. You know much more than I do.”

After this, the elderly woman went away.

That evening, the scholar told the young woman a great many things about his family in an effort to show off and ingratiate himself with her. She was sitting beside a red-lacquered wooden wardrobe — something she had never had in her old home. Her dull eyes were focused upon it when the scholar came over and sat in front of it, asking,

“What’s you name?”

She remained silent and did not smile. Then, rising to her feet, she went towards the bed. He followed her, his face beaming.

“Don’t be shy. Still thinking about your husband? Ha, ha, I’m your husband now!” he said softly, touching her arm. “Don’t worry! You’re thinking about your child, aren’t you? Well…”

He burst out laughing and took off his long gown.

The young woman then heard the scholar’s wife scolding somebody outside the room. Though she could not make out just who was being scolded, it seemed to be either the kitchenmaid or herself. In her sorrow, the young woman began to suspect that it must be herself, but the scholar, now lying in bed, said loudly,

“Don’t bother. She always grumbles like that. She likes our farmhand very much, and often scolds the kitchenmaid for chatting with him too much.”

Time passed quickly. The young woman’s thoughts of her old home gradually faded as she became better and better acquainted with what went on in her new one. Sometimes it seemed to her she heard Chun Bao’s muffled cries, and she dreamed of him several times. But these dreams became more and more blurred as she became occupied with her new life. Outwardly, the scholar’s wife was kind to her, but she felt that, deep inside, the elderly woman was jealous and suspicious and that, like a detective, she was always spying to see what was going on between the scholar and her. Sometimes, if the wife caught her husband talking to the young woman on his return home, she would suspect that he had bought her something special. She would call him to her bedroom at night to give him a good scolding. “So you’ve been seduced by the witch!” she would cry. “You should take good care of your old carcase.” These abusive remarks the young woman overheard time and again. After that, whenever she saw the scholar return home, she always tried to avoid him if his wife was not present. But even in the presence of his wife, the young woman considered it necessary to keep herself in the background. She had to do all this naturally so that it would not be noticed by outsiders, for otherwise the wife would get angry and blame her for purposely discrediting her in public. As time went on, the scholar’s wife even made the young woman do the work of a maidservant. Once the young woman decided to wash the elderly woman’s clothes.

“You’re not supposed to wash my clothes,” the scholar’s wife said. “In fact you can have the kitchenmaid wash your own laundry.” Yet the next moment she said,

“Sister dear, you’d better go to the pigsty and have a look at the two pigs which have been grunting all the time. They’re probably hungry because the kitchenmaid never gives them enough to eat.”

Eight months had passed and winter came. The young woman became fussy about her food. She had little appetite for regular meals and always felt like eating something different — noodles, potatoes and so on. But she soon got tired of noodles and potatoes, and asked for meat dumplings. When she ate a little too much she got sick. Then she felt a desire for pumpkins and plums — things that could only be had in summer. The scholar knew what all this meant. He kept smiling all day and gave her whatever was available. He went to town himself to get her tangerines and asked someone to buy her some oranges. He often paced up and down the veranda, muttering to himself. One day, he saw the young woman and the kitchenmaid grinding rice for the New Year festival. They had hardly started grinding when he said to the young woman, “You’d better have a rest now. We can let the farmhand do it, since everybody is going to eat the cakes.”

Sometimes in the evening, when the rest of the household were chatting, he would sit alone near an oil lamp, reading the Book of Songs:

“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys

On the island in the river.

Lovely is the good lady,

Fit bride for our lord.


The farmhand once asked him,

“Please, sir, what are you reading this book for? You’re not going to sit for a higher civil service examination, are you?”

The scholar stroked his beardless chin and said in a gay tone,

“Well, you know the joys of life, don’t you? There’s a saying that the greatest joy of life is either to spend the first night in the nuptial chamber or to pass a civil service examination. As for me, I’ve already experienced both. But now there’s a still greater blessing in store for me.”

His remark set the whole household laughing — except for his wife and the young woman.

To the scholar’s wife all this was very annoying. When she first heard of the young woman’s pregnancy, she was pleased. Later, when she saw her husband lavishing attentions on the young woman, she began to blame herself for being barren. Once, the following spring, it happened that the young woman fell ill and was laid up for three days with a headache. The scholar was anxious that she take a rest and frequently asked what she needed. This made his wife angry. She grumbled for three whole days and said that the young woman was malingering.

“She has been spoiled here and become stuck-up like a real concubine,” she said, sneering maliciously, “always complaining about headaches or backaches. She must have been quite different before — like a bitch that has to go searching for food even when she is going to bear a litter of puppies! Now, with the old man fawning on her, she puts on airs!”

“Why so much fuss about having a baby?” said the scholar’s wife one night to the kitchenmaid. “I myself was once with child for ten months, I just can’t believe she’s really feeling so bad. Who knows what she’s going to have? It may be just a little toad! She’d better not try to bluff me, throwing her weight around before the little thing is born. It’s still nothing but a clot of blood! It’s really a bit too early for her to make such a fuss!”

The young woman who had gone to bed without supper was awakened by this torrent of malicious abuse and burst into convulsive sobs. The scholar was also shocked by what he heard — so much so that he broke into a cold sweat and shook with anger. He wanted to go to his wife’s room, grab her by the hair and give her a good beating so as to work off his feelings. But, somehow or other, he felt powerless to do so; his fingers trembled and his arms ached with weariness. Sighing deeply, he said softly, “I’ve been too good to her. In thirty years of married life, I’ve never slapped her face or given her a scratch. That’s why she is so cocky.”

Then, crawling across the bed, he whispered to the young woman beside him,

“Now, stop crying, stop crying, let her cackle! A barren hen is always jealous! If you manage to have a baby boy this time, I’ll give you two precious gifts — a blue jade ring and a white jade…” leaving the last sentence unfinished, he turned to listen to his wife’s jeering voice outside the room. He hastily took off his clothes, and, covering his head with the quilt and nestling closer to the young woman, he said,

“I’ve a white jade…”

The young woman grew bigger and bigger around the waist. The scholar’s wife made arrangements with a midwife, and, when other people were around, she would busy herself making baby’s clothes out of floral prints.

The hot summer had ended and the cool autumn breeze was blowing over the village. The day finally came when the expectations of the whole household reached their climax and everybody was agog. His heart beating faster than ever, the scholar was pacing the courtyard, reading about horoscopes from an almanac in his hand as intently as if he wanted to commit the whole book to memory. One moment he would look anxiously at the room with its windows closely shut whence came the muffled groans of the expectant mother. The next, he would look at the cloudy sky, and walk up to the kitchenmaid at the door to ask,

“How is everything now?”

Nodding, the maid would reply after a moment’s pause,

“It won’t be long now, it won’t be long now.”

He would resume pacing the courtyard and reading the almanac.

The suspense lasted until sunset. Then, when wisps of kitchen smoke were curling up from the roofs and lamps were gleaming in the country houses like so many wild flowers in spring, a baby boy was born. The newborn baby cried at the top of his voice while the scholar sat in a corner of the house, with tears of joy in his eyes. The household was so excited that no one cared about supper.

A month later, the bright and tender-faced baby made his debut in the open. While the young woman was breast-feeding him, womenfolk from the neighbourhood gathered around to feast their eyes upon the boy. Some liked his nose; others, his mouth; still others, his ears. Some praised his mother, saying that she had become whiter and healthier. The scholar’s wife, now acting like a granny, said,

“That’s enough! You’ll make the baby cry!”

As to the baby’s name, the scholar racked his brains, but just could not hit upon a suitable one. His wife suggested that the Chinese character shou, meaning longevity, or one of its synonyms, should be included in his name. But the scholar did not like it — it was too commonplace. He spent several weeks looking through Chinese classics like the Book of Changes and the Book of History in search of suitable characters to be used as the baby’s name. But all his efforts proved fruitless. It was a difficult problem to solve because he wanted a name which should be auspicious for the baby and would imply at the same time that he was born to him in old age. One evening, while holding the three-month-old baby in his arms, the scholar, with spectacles on, sat down near a lamp and again looked into some book in an effort to find a name for the boy. The baby’s mother, sitting quietly in a corner of the room, appeared to be musing. Suddenly she said.

“I suppose you could call him ‘Qiu Bao’.” Those in the room turned to look at the young woman and listened intently as she continued, “Qiu means autumn and Bao means treasure. So since he was born in autumn, you’d better call him ‘Qiu Bao’.”

The scholar was silent for a brief moment and then exclaimed,

“A wonderful idea! I’ve wasted a lot of time looking for a name for the baby! As a man of over fifty, I’ve reached the autumn of my life. The boy too was born in autumn. Besides, autumn is the time when everything is ripe and the time for harvesting, as the Book of History says. ‘Qiu Bao’ is really a good name for the child.”

Then he began to praise the young woman, saying that she was born clever and that it was quite useless to be a bookworm like himself. His remarks made the young woman feel ill at ease. Lowering her head and forcing a smile, she said to herself with tears in her eyes,

“I suggested ‘Qiu Bao’ simply because I was thinking of my elder son Chun Bao.” 〔16〕

Qiu Bao daily grew handsomer and more attached to his mother. His unusually big eyes which stared tirelessly at strangers would light up joyfully when he saw his mother, even when she was a long distance away. He always clung to her. Although the scholar loved him even more than his mother did, Qiu Bao did not take to him. As to the scholar’s wife, although outwardly she showed as much affection for Qiu Bao as if he were her own baby, he would stare at her with the same indefatigable curiosity as he did at strangers. But the more the child grew attached to his mother, the closer drew the time for their separation. Once more it was summer. To everybody in the house, the advent of this season was a reminder of the coming end of the young woman’s three-year stay.

The scholar, out of his love for Qiu Bao, suggested to his wife one day that he was willing to offer another hundred dollars to buy the young woman so that she could stay with them permanently. The wife, however, replied curtly,

“No, you’ll have to poison me before you do that!”

This made the scholar angry. He remained silent for quite a while. Then, forcing himself to smile, he said,

“It’s a pity that our child will be motherless…” His wife smiled wryly and said in an icy and cutting tone,

“Don’t you think that I might be a mother to him?”

As to the young woman, there were two conflicting ideas in her mind. On the one hand, she always remembered that she would have to leave after the three years were up. Three years seemed a short time and she had become more of a servant than a temporary wife. Besides, in her mind her elder son Chun Bao had become as sweet and lovely a child as Qiu Bao. She could not bear to remain away from either Qiu Bao or Chun Bao. On the other hand, she was willing to stay on permanently in the scholar’s house because she thought her own husband would not live long and might even die in four or five years. So she longed to have the scholar bring Chun Bao into his home so that she could also live with her elder son.

One day, as she was sitting wearily on the veranda with Qiu Bao sleeping at her breast, the hypnotic rays of the early summer sun sent her into a daydream and she thought she saw Chun Bao standing beside her; but when she stretched out her hand to him and was about to speak to her two sons, she saw that her elder boy was not there.

At the door at the other end of the veranda the scholar’s wife, with her seemingly kind face but fierce eyes, stood staring at the young woman. The latter came to and said to herself,

“I’d better leave here as soon as I can. She’s always spying on me!”

Later, the scholar changed his plan a little; he decided he would send Mrs. Shen on another mission: to find out whether the young woman’s husband was willing to take another thirty dollars — or fifty dollars at most — to let him keep the young woman for another three years. He said to his wife,

“I suppose Qiu Bao’s mother could stay on until he is five.”

Chanting “Buddha preserve me” with a rosary in her hand, the scholar’s wife replied,

“She has got her elder son at home. Besides, you ought to let her go back to her lawful husband.”

The scholar hung his head and said brokenly,

“Just imagine, Qiu Bao will be motherless at two…”

Putting away the rosary, his wife snapped,

“I can take care of him, I can manage him. Are you afraid I’m going to murder him?”

Upon hearing the last sentence, the scholar walked away hurriedly. His wife went on grumbling,

“The child has been born for me. Qiu Bao is mine. If the male line of your family came to an end, it would affect me too. You’ve been bewitched by her. You’re old and pigheaded. You don’t know what’s what. Just think how many more years you may live, and yet you’re trying to do everything to keep her with you. I certainly don’t want another woman’s tablet put side by side with mine in the family shrine!”

It seemed as if she would never stop pouring out the stream of venomous and biting words, but the scholar was too far away to hear them.

Every time Qiu Bao had a pimple on his head or a slight fever, the scholar’s wife would go around praying to Buddha and bring back Buddha’s medicine in the form of incense ash which she applied to the baby’s pimple or dissolved in water for him to drink. He would cry and perspire profusely. The young woman did not like the idea of the scholar’s wife making so much fuss when the baby fell slightly ill, and always threw the ash away when she was not there. Sighing deeply, the scholar’s wife once said to her husband,

“You see, she really doesn’t care a bit about our baby and says that he’s not getting thinner. Real love needs no flourishes; she is only pretending that she loves our baby.”

The young woman wept when alone, and the scholar kept silent.

On Qiu Bao’s first birthday, the celebration lasted the whole day. About forty guests attended the party. The birthday presents they brought included baby clothes, noodles, a silver pendant in the shape of a lion’s head to be worn on the baby’s chest and a gold-plated image of the God of Longevity to be sewn to the baby’s bonnet. The guests wished the baby good luck and a long life. The host’s face flushed with joy as if reflecting the reddening glow of the setting sun.

Late in the afternoon, just before the banquet, there came into the courtyard from the deepening twilight outside an uninvited guest, who attracted the attention of all the others. He was an emaciated-looking peasant, dressed in patched clothes and with unkempt hair, carrying under his arm a paper-parcel. Greatly astonished and puzzled, the host went up to inquire where he hailed from. While the newcomer was stammering, it suddenly occurred to the host that this was none other than the skin dealer — the young woman’s husband. Thereupon, the host said in a low voice,

“Why do you bring a gift? You really shouldn’t have done this!”

The newcomer looked timidly about, saying,

“I… I had to come… I’ve come to wish the baby a long life…”

Before he had finished speaking, he began to open the package he had brought. Tearing off three paper wrappings with his quivering fingers, he took out four bronze-cast and silver-plated Chinese characters, each about one square inch in size, which said that the baby would live as long as the South Mountain.

The scholar’s wife appeared on the scene, and looked displeased when she saw the skin dealer. The scholar, however, invited the skin dealer to the table, where the guests sat whispering about him.

The guests wined and dined for two hours and everybody was feeling happy and excited. They indulged in noisy drinking games and plied one another with big bowls of wine. The deafening uproar rocked the house. Nobody paid any attention to the skin dealer who sat silently after drinking two cups of wine. Having enjoyed their wine, the guests each hurriedly took a bowl of rice; and, bidding one another farewell, they dispersed in twos and threes, carrying lighted lanterns in their hands.

The skin dealer sat there eating until the servants came to clear the table. Then he walked to a dark corner of the veranda where he found his wife.

“What did you come for?” asked the young woman with an extremely sad note in her voice.

“I didn’t want to come, but I just couldn’t help it.”

“Then why did you come so late?”

“I couldn’t get any money to buy a birthday gift. I spent the whole morning begging for a loan and then I had to go to town to buy the gift. I was tired and hungry. That’s why I came late.”

The young woman asked, “How’s Chun Bao?”

Her husband reflected for a moment and then answered,

“It’s for Chun Bao’s sake that I’ve come…”

“For Chun Bao’s sake!” she echoed in surprise. He went on slowly,

“Since this summer Chun Bao has grown very skinny. In the autumn, he fell sick. I haven’t been able to do anything for him because I haven’t had any money. So his illness is getting more serious. I’m afraid he won’t live unless we try to save him!” He continued after a short pause, “I’ve come to borrow some money from you…”

Deep inside her, the young woman had the feeling that wild cats were scratching and biting her, gnawing at her very heart. She was on the verge of bursting into tears, but on such an occasion when everybody was celebrating Qiu Bao’s birthday she knew she had to keep her emotions under control. She made a brave effort to keep back her tears and said to her husband,

“How can I get hold of any money? They give me twenty cents a month as pocket money here, but I spend every cent of it on my baby. What can we do now?”

Both were speechless for a while, then the young woman asked again,

“Who is taking care of Chun Bao while you’re here?”

“One of the neighbours. I’ve got to go back home tonight. In fact I ought to be going now,” he answered, wiping away his tears.

“Wait a moment,” she told him tearfully, “let me go and try to borrow some money from him.”

And with this she left him.

Three days later, in the evening, the scholar suddenly asked the young woman,

“Where’s the blue jade ring I gave you?”

“I gave it to him the other night. He pawned it.”

“Didn’t I lend you five dollars?” countered the scholar irritably.

The young woman, hanging her head, answered after a moment’s pause,

“Five dollars wasn’t enough!”

The scholar sighed deeply at this and said, “No matter how good I try to be to you, you still love your husband and your elder son more. I wanted to keep you for another couple of years, but now I think you’d better leave here next spring!”

The young woman stood there silent and tearless.

Several days later, the scholar again reproached her, “That blue jade ring is a treasure. I gave it to you because I wanted Qiu Bao to inherit it from you. I didn’t’ think you would have it pawned! It’s lucky my wife doesn’t know about it, otherwise she would make scenes for another three months.”

After this the young woman became thinner and paler. Her eyes lost their lustre; she was often subjected to sneers and curses. She was forever worrying about Chun Bao’s illness. She was always on the lookout for some acquaintance from her home village or some traveller going there. She hoped she could hear about Chun Bao’s recovery, but there was no news. She wished she could borrow a couple of dollars or buy sweets for some traveller to take to Chun Bao, but she could find no one going to her home village. She would often walk outside the gate with Qiu Bao in her arms, and there, standing by the roadside, she would gaze with melancholy eyes at the country paths. This greatly annoyed the scholar’s wife who said to her husband,

“She really doesn’t want to stay here any longer. She’s anxious to get back home as soon as she can.”

Sometimes at night, sleeping with Qiu Bao at her bosom, she would suddenly wake up from her dreams and scream until the child too would awake and start crying. Once, the scholar asked her,

“What’s happened? What’s happened?”

She patted the child without answering. The scholar continued,

“Did you dream your elder son had died? How you screamed! You woke me up!”

She hurriedly answered, “No, no… I thought I saw a new grave in front of me!”

He said nothing, but the morbid hallucination continued to loom before her — she saw herself approaching the grave.

Winter was drawing to a close and the birds began twittering at her window, as if urging her to leave quickly. The child was weaned, and her separation from her son — permanent separation — was already a foregone conclusion.

On the day of her departure, the kitchenmaid quietly asked the scholar’s wife,

“Shall we hire a sedan-chair to take her home?”

Fingering the rosary in her hand, the scholar’s wife said, “Better let her walk. Otherwise she will have to pay the fare herself. And where will she get the money? I understand her husband can’t even afford to have three meals a day. She shouldn’t try to be showy. It’s not very far from here, and I myself have walked some forty li a day. She’s more used to walking than I am, so she ought to be able to get there in half a day.”

In the morning, as the young woman was dressing Qiu Bao, tears kept streaming down her cheeks. The child called, “Auntie, auntie” (the scholar’s wife had made him call herself “mummy”, and his real mother, “auntie”). The young woman could not answer for weeping. She wanted so much to say to the child,

“Good-bye, darling! Your ‘mummy’ has been good to you, so you should be good to her in the future. Forget about me forever!” But these words she never uttered. The child was only one and a half years old, and she knew that he would never understand what she wanted to say.

The scholar walked up quietly behind her, and put ten twenty-cent silver coins into her palm, saying softly,

“Here are two dollars for you.”

Buttoning up the child’s clothes, she put the ten silver coins into her pocket.

The scholar’s wife also came in, and, staring hard at the back of the retreating scholar, she turned to the young woman, saying,

“Give me Qiu Bao, so that he won’t cry when you leave.”

The young woman remained silent, but the child was unwilling to leave his mother and kept striking the scholar’s wife’s face with his little hands. The scholar’s wife was piqued and said,

“You can keep him with you until you’ve had breakfast.”

The kitchenmaid urged the young woman to eat as much as possible, saying,

“You’ve been eating very little for a fortnight. You are thinner than when you first came here. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You have to walk thirty li today, so finish this bowl of rice!”

The young woman said listlessly, “You’re really kind to me!”

It was a fine day and the sun was high in the sky. Qiu Bao continued to cling to his mother. When the scholar’s wife angrily snatched him away from her, he yelled at the top of his voice, kicking the elderly woman in the belly and pulling at her hair. The young woman, standing behind, pleaded,

“Let me stay here until after lunch.”

The scholar’s wife replied fiercely over her shoulder,

“Hurry up with your packing. You’ve got to leave sooner or later!”

From then on, Qiu Bao’s cries gradually receded from the young woman’s hearing.

While she was packing, she kept listening to his crying. The kitchenmaid stood beside her, comforting her and watching what she was putting into her parcel. The young woman then left with the same old parcel she had brought with her when she first came.

She heard Qiu Bao crying as she walked out of the gate, and his cries rang in her ears even after she had plodded a distance of three li.

Stretching before her lay the sun-bathed country road which seemed to be as long as the sky was boundless. As she was walking along the bank of a river, whose clear water reflected her like a mirror, she thought of stopping there and putting an end to her life by drowning herself. But, after sitting for a while on the bank, she resumed her journey.

It was already afternoon, and an elderly villager told her that she still had fifteen li to go before she would reach her own village. She said to him,

“Grandpa, please hire a litter for me. I’m too tired to walk.”

“Are you sick?” asked the old man.

“Yes, I am.” She was sitting in a pavilion outside a village.

“Where have you walked from?”

She answered after a moment’s hesitation,

“I’m on my way home; this morning I thought I would be able to walk the whole way.”

The elder lapsed into sympathetic silence and finally hired a litter for her.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when the litter carriers entered a narrow and filthy village street. The young woman, her pale face shrunken and yellowed like an old vegetable leaf, lay with her eyes closed. She was breathing weakly. The villagers eyed her with astonishment and compassion. A group of village urchins noisily followed the litter, the appearance of which stirred the quiet village.

One of the children chasing after the litter was Chun Bao. The children were shouting like they were driving little pigs when the litter carriers suddenly turned into the lane leading to Chun Bao’s home. Chun Bao stopped in surprise. As the litter stopped in front of his home, he leaned dazed against a post and looked at it from a distance. The other children gathered around and craned their necks timidly. When the young woman descended from the litter, she felt giddy and at first did not realize that the shabbily dressed child with dishevelled hair standing before her was Chun Bao. He was hardly any taller than when she had left three years before and just as skinny. Then, she blurted out in tears,

“Chun Bao!”

Startled, the children dispersed. Chun bao, also frightened, ran inside the house to look for his father.

Inside the dingy room, the young woman sat for a long, long while. Both she and her husband were speechless. As night fell, he raised his head and said,

“You’d better prepare supper!”

She rose reluctantly, and, after searching around the house, said in a weak voice,

“There’s no rice left in the big jar…”

Her husband looked at her with a sickly smile,

“You’ve got used to living in a rich man’s house all right. We keep our rice in a cardboard box.”

That night, the skin dealer said to his son,

“Chun Bao, you go to bed with your mother!”

Chun Bao, standing beside the stove, started crying. His mother walked up to him and called,

“Chun Bao, Chun Bao!” But when she tried to caress him, the boy shunned her. His father hissed,

“You’ve forgotten your own mother. You ought to get a good beating for that!”

The young woman lay awake on the narrow, dirty plankbed with Chun Bao lying, like a stranger, beside her. Her mind in a daze, she seemed to see her younger son Qiu Bao — plump, white and lovely — curled up beside her, but as she stretched out her arms to embrace him, she saw it was Chun Bao, who had just fallen asleep. The boy was breathing faintly, his face pressed against his mother’s breast. She hugged him tightly.

The still and chilly night seemed to drag on endlessly…