Selected Modern Chinese Essays: On a Yangtse River Steamer

◎ Ye Zi

Late at night, mother suddenly woke me up from my sound sleep,

“Han Sheng, listen!…What’s that noise?…I’ve just been to the women’s lavatory…”

I shuffled out of the cabin. The stewards were lying higgledy-piggledy on the floor like butchered pigs, snoring loudly. Even the one on duty, leaning himself against the cabin door, had dozed off to sleep. The passengers were all asleep too except two chatting unintelligibly over their opium pipes.

The wind was howling. The stars were sparkling from behind patches of dark clouds. The waves kept lashing violently across the deck, splashing foam into the air and giving out a piercing cry of pain. Mother went crouching to the back part of the ship and, pointing at the women’s lavatory in the dingy corner, said,

“There!Over there…in that corner!A kind of noise…”

“Shall I go get a steward?”

“No!You go and take a look first. It can’t be a ghost…Perhaps somebody…”

Leaning over the railing, I heard from down below intermittent moaning amidst the spray of breaking waves,

“Aiyo…Aiyo…”

“Go ahead!Go nearer so you can hear better!”mother nudged me and urged with concern.

“There is somebody. A woman!”I affirmed. “She’s probably hanging down there by fastening herself to a rope, under a horizontal iron bar…”

About fifteen minutes later, I, by order of mother, managed to secretly rescue the distressed woman from danger. I did it single-handed and despite the risk.

She, a country woman of about forty, was big with child. Her arm pits and chest looked swollen from having been fastened to the rope. Mother began to question her under a dim light in front of the women’s lavatory. The woman blinked her small eyes nervously and sobbed.

“Stop crying, you silly!”said mother consolingly, trying to dissuade her from sobbing. “The stewards will give you hell if they hear you…”

The woman gave a brief account of her miserable life:There had been a famine in the countryside. She, despite her pregnancy, had to flee from the disaster with her husband and child. They intended to go from Hankou to Wuhu[1] to seek shelter with some relatives. They attempted to steal a ride on the steamer, but were discovered by the stewards at sailing time. Her husband and child were expelled from the ship right away while she succeeded in hiding herself outside the ship under cover of night…

Mother turned to me and said with a long sigh,

“Two lives!How dangerous!What if the rope had snapped…”Then she turned to address the woman, “It’s getting light!You’d better hide yourself in the lavatory for a while. We’ll see the accountant and put in a good word for you. Maybe he’ll let you stay on the ship until it reaches Wuhu…”

We returned to our cabin to sleep. Mother kept sighing for a long while…Then, when it was dawning, the stewards kicked up a row.

“Han Sheng!Get up!They’re beating her to death…”Mother stamped her feet with anxiety and pulled me by the ear. Nobody knew when she had got out of bed.

“Who is it?”I mumbled, eyes heavy with sleep.

“That pregnant woman!The one we rescued last night!…The stewards are beating her!…”

We went hastily to the back part of the ship where there was already a big crowd of early risers from among the passengers. The accountant, a bespectacled thin man in pyjamas, was standing in the middle of the crowd directing the torture, a cigarette dangling leisurely from his lips. The woman huddled herself up and shivered, blood oozing out glisteningly from among her dishevelled hair. The onlookers, for the most part, enjoyed themselves as if they were watching an acrobatic show. Only a handful of them shook their heads and sighed out of sympathy.

I elbowed my way through the crowd, followed closely by mother. A squint-eyed steward, stick in hand, eyed us with an assumed air of impatience. Another steward, with a ferocious pock-marked face and wide-open dog-like yellow eyes, after giving a wink to the accountant as if requesting his instructions, dashed to the shivering pregnant woman and gave her a hard kick.

Letting out a shriek, she rolled over and lay flat on her back, with her limbs stretched out.

“How dare you take this foreigner-owned ship without buying a ticket, shameless bitch!…”He came up nearer to heap more insults on her as if he himself were a foreigner.

Mother anxiously squeezed forward to stop him from kicking the woman again, protesting,

“Why did you kick her?Why!…Don’t you see that she’s pregnant?”

“How can she travel by our foreigner-owned ship without paying for it?”the pock-marked steward retorted and gave the accountant a stare.

“After all, it’s—money only, eh?…”

“Yes, money!”said the other steward by way of stressing.

Mother pondered for a while without finding a way out. The woman then started groaning loudly on the deck, which alerted some of the onlookers and sent them speaking in urgent whispers. The steward with the stick, however, was about to thwack the woman by holding it aloft.

Mother dashed forward to stop him and approached the woman to examine her belly with great compassion. The woman suddenly stopped groaning and huddled up convulsively, rolling her eyes and biting her lower lip. She complained loudly of a pain in the belly. Mother hurriedly bent over and crouched down to stroke the woman’s belly gently over and over again. And, excited by great anger, she loudly cursed the stewards for being so brutal. Meanwhile, she warned that the woman had shown symptoms of an imminent delivery.

The crowd backed away. The accountant, spitting in disgust, also walked away quickly. The stewards listlessly followed at his heels like dogs until they disappeared into their cabins, hurling back filthy abuse as they walked along.

I was turning to leave when mother stopped me and told me to fetch the yellow blanket from my berth plus a flaxen string and a pair of scissors to be borrowed from somebody.

I left, passing through a crowd of nosy onlookers whispering to each other. When I returned bringing with me everything as mother had told me, she had already taken off the woman’s trousers and the floor was wet with a pool of dirty water. The woman’s lips were bloodstained through biting. Her forehead was dripping with beads of sweat. Her whole body was writhing in great pain. As soon as she saw me, she shyly turned her face away and shook her hand vigorously. Just then, a tiny, ruddy baby came out instantly dripping with blood. It turned over on the floor and burst out crying—probably to complain of its unknown destiny.

I quickly turned away. Mother was panting with exertion. It took her five or six minutes to remove the bloody afterbirth from the woman before tossing it from my left side into the depth of the river.

“The beating is to blame for the premature birth, ”said mother furiously, raising her two blood-smeared hands. “Damn ruthless gangsters!…The baby is just too undersized to survive. And yet they insist on charging the steamer fare. ”

“What shall we do then?”

“We shouldn’t give up halfway, ”said she firmly in the tone of a philanthropist. “You go and bring me a basin of water. I’ve got to wash the baby first before…”

The sun had just risen above the mountains on the left bank of the river. The wind, devoid of its previous night’s vehemence, was blowing softly. Beyond the distant right bank, the contour of the small end of a sprawling town gradually came into sight.

After fondly swathing the newborn baby and covering it with the blanket, mother showed it to the woman, saying,

“We’re nearing Jiujiang[2] now. Take good care of the baby…Congratulations!What a pretty baby girl!…We’ll see what we can do to help you…”

The woman seemed to have regained consciousness and opened her eyes, tears of gratitude trickling down her cheeks.

Taking on the look of a real philanthropist, mother had me accompany her with a tray in my hand visiting both steerage and cabin passengers to solicit donations from them. But the outcome was very disappointing. Except one or two who gave a 10 or 20-cent banknote each, all gave but a few copper coins each. Altogether, the contributions added up to only exactly one dollar and thirty cents.

Mother sighed deeply, “Good-hearted people are hard to come by. ”She decided to contribute the only dollar coin she had on her. She produced it meticulously after removing several paper wrappings.

Mother again went to the back part of the ship to see the woman, with coppers, banknotes and silver coins in hand, saying, “We’re pretty close to Jiujiang now!Here is more than two dollars. Talk to the accountant when he comes and ask him to let you travel to Wuhu at a reduced fare, so that you can keep some of the money for yourself…Of course I’ll try to put in a word for you too…”

The woman barely managed to prop herself up with tears in her eyes and reached out her tremulous hand for the money. As she was putting away the money under the blanket, mother exclaimed as her eyes fell on the lifted corner of the blanket,

“Hey, where is your baby?”

Flurried and uneasy, the woman didn’t say a word, tears rolling down her cheeks to plop on the blanket.

“So you’ve thrown her away?You heartless woman!”

“I, I, I…”she faltered and then hung her head in grief and utter silence.

Mother stood for a long while staring at the river bank and the busy streets of Jiujiang approaching slowly and quietly from afar. The spray of the breaking water under the ship was weeping—weeping over the innocent feeble life carried away by the whirling current.

The two stewards showed up again, this time to drive the woman ashore by order of the accountant. They dragged her roughly. One of the two rolled up the blood-stained blanket we had given her.

The ship anchored.

Mother’s act of benevolence had come to nothing. Watching the stewards dragging the woman ashore and picking up the coppers and silver coins from the ground, she could hardly keep back her tears.

[1] Wuhu—A river port and rice market on the southern bank of the lower reaches of the Yangtse River in southeastern Anhui Province.

[2] Jiujiang—A river port on the southern bank of the middle reaches of the Yangtse River in northern Jiangxi Province.