Selected Modern Chinese Essays: First Love

By Zhou Zuoren

I was then 14, and she about 13. I was living with grandpa’s concubine Song in our temporary home in Hua-Pai-Lou, Hangzhou. The little girl was our next-door neighbour Yao’s daughter. She had originally been the daughter of a Yang family in Qing-Bo-Men-Tou. As she was the third child of the family, people often called her San-Gu-Niang. The old Yaos had no children of their own, so they took her as their goddaughter. Hence she put up with the Yaos for more than 20 days per month. Though Concubine Song was very friendly with the daughter-in-law of a distant neighbour named Shi, who owned a mutton shop, she was not on speaking terms with old Mrs. Yao next-door. San-Gu-Niang, however, didn’t care about all that. She would push our door open and enter to have fun. She would first go upstairs to have a little chat with Concubine Song, and then, after coming downstairs, stand beside the wooden table, which I used to share with our servant Ruan Sheng, to watch me practising handwriting after a wood-cut copybook for calligraphy by Lu Runxiang, carrying in her arms a big cat named San Hua.

I didn’t get into any conversation with her, and nor did I ever dwell my eyes on her face and bearing — perhaps due to my myopia. But there was another reason for it. Though unconsciously attracted by her, I felt meanwhile so overshadowed by her brilliance that I just could’t lift my eyes to take a close look at her. As far as I can now remember, she seemed to be a little girl with delicate features, black eyes, slender figure and small feet, and have nothing especially appealing. But she was the first person of the opposite sex that had caught my notice. The first person that had made me love somebody else as much as myself. The first person that had made me sexually aware. The first person that had aroused my adoration for the opposite sex.

Of course I knew then I was nothing but an “Ugly Duckling”, but that didn’t damp down my passion. Whenever she came to watch me practise calligraphy with the cat in her arms, I would hearten up unwittingly and go about my job with redoubled effort and inexplicable joy in my heart. I didn’t bother whether she loved me or not, and nor did I know whether I myself was in love with her or not. Nevertheless, when she was around, I felt happy and desired to do all I could for her. That was my real state of mind, and that was also something bestowed on me by her. I didn’t know how she felt, but as for me, it was just a feeling of adoration, and there was no thought of anything having to do with sexual relations at all. One evening, Concubine Song suddenly burst into another fit of abuse at the Yaos and ended it up with,

“That Goddam Ah San! She’s no good either. She’s sure to end up a whore some day in Gong-Chen-Qiao.

I didn’t quite understand what was meant by becoming a whore. However, I said to myself, “If she should really be reduced to a whore, I’ll definitely come to her rescue.”

More than six months went by. In July or August of that year, I left Hangzhou for home to see my ailing mother. One month later, Servant Ruan Sheng incidentally paid me a visit while he was on leave. In referring to the state of affairs in Hua-Pai-Lou, he said,

“San-Gu-Niang of the Yang family died of cholera.”

I, too, felt very sad, picturing in my mind her tragic death, but, meanwhile, somehow remained very calm like a big stone weighing on my heart had been removed.