Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Hunger

By Xie Bingying

Believe it or not, I’ve been starving for four days on end.

At first, I ate nothing but four baked cakes or two small buns per day, then I cut them down by half and then by another half, until I didn’t even own a copper for buying boiled water. When I was thirsty, I would stand under a tap and let its running water pour down my throat through my wide-open mouth. I felt bloated. There was a pain and chill in my stomach. I cannot tell you enough how miserable I was.

How did it come that I had been reduced to such poverty? It was because the school where I studied had got into trouble. Many students had been arrested and taken to the police station. Some students had moved house and some had gone home. The school canteen was closed because it refused to serve meals on credit. While trying to rescue the arrested fellow students, I meanwhile had to find enough money to pay my living expenses. So I was terribly busy.

Pressed by hunger, I would visit Chunchao Bookstore every day to seek a loan of money. When Kang Nong or Fu Hua was there, I would have no problem in borrowing a couple of silver dollars through them. But I seldom found them in the store and the clerks of course had no say in this matter. Therefore, in nine times out of ten nothing would come of my visit there.

I was beside myself with joy the day when I found my book The Diary of a Woman Soldier published at long last. Pasted up at the door of the bookstore was an eye-catching colourful poster advertising the book. I went into the store full of curiosity, and, as an ordinary customer would do, took from the shelf a copy of the book, which had on its bright-red front cover a cartoon by Feng Zikai’s daughter portraying a little woman soldier riding on a cow. I didn’t buy it for I knew I was entitled as its author to at least ten complimentary copies.

“I need money badly. May I have a few dollars now out of the royalties on my book?”

Seeing no customers around, I whispered to the cashier with embarrassment.

“No, not now. Royalty payments are made only twice a year. How could I pay you ahead of time?”

“I just can’t wait. Today you’ve got to give me an advance of a few dollars. I wouldn’t be here bothering you if I could help it. Believe me, I can’t even afford the streetcar fare going back home. I came here on foot.”

The uncontrollable desire for food burning within me, I ignored all propriety and poured out my complaints without feeling ashamed. The cashier seemed apathetic, smiling a sardonic smile. A young clerk, however, was kind enough to tell me,

“You just need to wait a little while. I’m sure your book will sell quick. Soon you can take all the money that comes from today’s sale of it.”

The cashier cast an angry sidelong glance at the young clerk, but he had to keep silent in my presence and worked his abacus with a vengeance.

I volunteered to serve as a temporary clerk, ready to hand the book in person to any young customer who wanted to buy it. They often had no idea that I was the author of the book. Some didn’t like the way I did the wrapping and looked somewhat displeased. The young clerk was about to tell a customer who I was when I immediately stopped him by tipping him a wink. The young man was confused and, after looking me up and down for a while, walked off in sulky silence.

To my great surprise, I got as much as five dollars towards evening. On my way home, I travelled first class in a streetcar instead of third class. The moment I stepped into it, chin up and chest out, the conductor barked pointing to the front compartment, “Third class in the front!” Judging by the way I was dressed, he must have thought I was too poor to travel first class. I quickly showed him the fiver in my hand and demanded by way of a protest,

“Hey, give me my change!”

He was silent, lowering his head.

A young man sitting beside me happened to be reading my The Diary of a Woman Soldier. He boldly recommended me the book and advised me to go and buy a copy for myself. I replied,

“I don’t like this book because I don’t think it’s good for a woman to be a soldier.”

He was much annoyed at my remark and called me a diehard.

“A 20th century woman shouldn’t go against the trend of the times!” said he angrily.

I purposely kept up the argument till it attracted the attention of all passengers. After I got off the streetcar at the Carter Road stop, I hurried excitedly to call on Guang Guang. Being hard up, she and Yuan Zhen were immensely pleased to see me, guessing I must have brought some money with me to share with them. I quickly gave them two dollars and spent the remaining two dollars and something treating them to dinner at a small eatery. I returned home with only a few cents left. But I didn’t care, because I knew I had had a full meal to last me three days without feeling hungry.

It was also at this time that I started to take to drinking. The poorer one is, the more he looks upon money as dirt. I often wonder why a miser should be so rigid in self-denial, even grudging to spend every single cent for himself. All I seek is inner joy. The material life, however hard it is, will never affect my mind and will. When I have money, I’ll share it with friends in need, or go to a restaurant to eat and drink to my heart’s content, or buy and bring home many things I like to eat, such as dried shrimps, dried roast beef, salted duck’s gizzard and liver, candies. When I’m broke, I’ll go strolling around the streets alone on an empty stomach, or shut myself up in my small room with nothing to eat, or lie in bed sleeping for a couple of days or reading an interesting novel, just to while away the terrible long days.

If I’m asked what it is like to go hungry, my answer is prompt and clear-cut, “Keep starving yourself for four days, my dear friend, and you’ll know.” Honestly, hunger is even more painful than death. It is the greatest of all human sufferings. When you hear your own stomach rumbling with hunger, you’ll feel as if a large snake were trying to gnaw its way out of your belly. Sometimes, you feel so giddy that you cannot rise from your bed no matter how hard you try to, and your legs feel like jelly so that you cannot walk. Sometimes, you feel nauseous, but you throw up nothing but the gastric juice. You may even feel like gulping down a piece of flesh bitten off your own arm so as to appease your unbearable hunger. That made me believe as true the tragic story of ancients driven by hunger “to eat the flesh of each other’s son” and victims of some calamity-stricken areas cooking corpses as food.

Destitute as I am, I can bear my privation with great fortitude. I never yield, never bow to the rich, never think that a woman’s way out is to marry a wealthy man.

Hunger deepens my knowledge of present-day society and gives me more courage to live. From now on, I’m going to redouble my efforts to struggle not only for myself, but also for thousands upon thousands of young men and women who, like me, are on the brink of starvation.