Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Mr. About-the-Same

◎ Hu Shih

Do you know who is the most well-known person in China?

The name of this person is a household word all over the country. His surname is Cha and his given name, Buduo, which altogether mean “About the Same”. He is a native of every province, every county and every village in this country. You must have seen or heard about this person. His name is always on the lips of everybody because he is representative of the whole Chinese nation.

Mr. Cha Buduo has the same physiognomy as you and I. He has a pair of eyes, but doesn’t see clearly. He has a pair of ears, but doesn’t hear well. He has a nose and a mouth, but lacks a keen sense of smell and taste. His brain is none too small, but he is weak in memory and sloppy in thinking.

He often says, “Whatever we do, it’s OK to be just about right. What’s the use of being precise and accurate?”

One day, when he was a child, his mother sent him out to buy her some brown sugar, but he returned with some white sugar instead. As his mother scolded him about it, he shook his head and said, “Brown sugar or white sugar, aren’t they about the same?”

One day in school, the teacher asked him, “Which province borders Hebei on the west?” He answered, “Shaanxi.” The teacher corrected him, “You are wrong. It’s Shanxi, not Shaanxi.” He retorted, “Shaanxi or Shanxi, aren’t they about the same?”

Later Mr. Cha Buduo served as an assistant at a money shop. He could write and calculate all right, but his mathematics were often faulty. He would mistake the Chinese character 十 (meaning 10) for 千 (meaning 1,000) or vice versa. The shop owner was infuriated and often took him to task. But he would only explain apologetically with a grin, “The character 千 differs from 十 in merely having one additional short stroke. Aren’t they about the same?”

One day, he wanted to go to Shanghai by train on urgent business. But he arrived at the railway station unhurriedly only to find the train already gone, because he was two minutes late. He stood staring helplessly at the smoke belching from the diminishing train, and shook his head, “Well, all I can do is leave tomorrow. After all, today and tomorrow are about the same. But isn’t the railway company taking it too seriously? What’s the difference between departing at 8:30 and 8:32?” He walked home slowly while talking to himself and kept puzzling over why the train hadn’t waited for him for another two minutes.

One day he suddenly fell ill and immediately told one of his family to fetch Dr. Wāng of East Street. The latter went in a hurry, but couldn’t find the physician on East Street. So he fetched instead Veterinarian Wáng of West Street. Mr. Cha Buduo, lying on his sickbed, knew that a wrong person had been brought home. But, what with pain and worry, he could ill afford to wait any longer. So he said to himself, “Luckily, Vet Wáng is about the same as Dr. Wāng. Why not let Vet Wáng have a try?” Thereupon, the veterinarian walked up to his bed to work on him as if he were a cow. Consequently, Mr. Cha Buduo kicked the bucket before an hour was out.

When Mr. Cha Buduo was about to breathe his last, he uttered intermittently in one breath, “Live or die, it’s about … about … the same … Whatever we do … it’s OK … to be … just … just about right … Why … why … take it … so seriously?” As soon as he finished this pet phrase of his, he stopped breathing.

After Mr. Cha Buduo’s death, people all praised him for his way of seeing through things and his philosophical approach to life. They say that he refused to take things seriously all his life and that he was never calculating or particular about personal gains or losses. So they called him a virtuous man and honored him with the posthumous reverent title Master of Easy-Going.

His name has spread far and wide and become more and more celebrated with the passing of time. Innumerable people have come to follow his example, so that everybody has become a Mr. Cha Buduo. But lo, China will hence be a nation of lazybones!