Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Pawnshop

◎ Xiao Hong

“You go and do the pawning! You go, but not me!”

“OK, I go. I wouldn’t mind. I’m not afraid at all. I don’t see anything wrong about it.”

Thus, my newly-made cotton-padded gown, which had not been worn even once, accompanied me to the pawnshop. At the door of the pawnshop I hesitated for a while, recalling the asking price suggested by Lang Hua when I left home — “Nothing less than two yuan.”

I stood on tiptoe, face upward and back straightened, to hand the cloth-wrapped bundle onto the counter. How strange the pawnbroker should have put up a counter so forbiddingly high!

A man in a skullcap turned the gown over and over to examine it. Before he could open his mouth, I said,

“Two yuan.”

He must have thought me too unreasonable, for he rolled up the gown without even taking a look at me. Impatience was written all over his face as if he were about to throw the bundle onto my head.

“If two yuan won’t do, then how much?”

“We won’t take it for anything,” said he, shaking his longish watermelon-shaped head, the decorative red bead on top of his skullcap swaying.

I was aware that he was out to make things difficult for me. Therefore, bold and confident, I reached out my hand for the bundle. But, just as I had been doubly sure, he simply wouldn’t let go of it.

“Fifty cents! The sleeves are too tight. The gown won’t fetch much…”

“I won’t pawn it,” said I.

“Well, how about one yuan? … Can’t give you any more. That’s final.” He leaned back a little bit, his bulging paunch concealed behind the high counter … Meanwhile, to signal “one yuan”, he gestured with a finger raised as high as his temples.

Armed with a one-dollar note and a pawn ticket, I, unhappy as I was, walked with a light step and felt like one of the rich. I visited the food market and the grain shop. I did not tire of carrying an armful of purchases. My hands ached with cold, but this was as it should be. I felt no pity for them. It was their bounden duty to wait on me — even at the cost of suffering frostbite. I also bought ten steamed stuffed buns at a pastry shop. I was proud of my shopping. Again and again I felt so thrilled that I completely forgot all the pain in my frostbitten hands. When I saw an old beggar by the roadside, I stopped to give him a copper coin. Why, if I had food to eat, he certainly had no reason to go hungry! But I couldn’t afford to give him more, for I needed the rest of the money for keeping my own body and soul together! Before I walked on again, I put my hand on the pawn ticket in my pocket to make sure that it was still there. By then, the pain in my hands had become the only thing I was conscious of. So I was anxious to be home again. My back sweated, my legs felt like jelly, my eyes stung. At the gate of my home, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever been out to town since I moved here and that accounted for my legs feeling so weak and my eyes being so shy of light.

On entering the courtyard, I touched the pawn ticket again. Lang Hua was still lying on the bed with the same aversion to a pawnshop. I wondered what was now in his mind. The moment I produced the buns, he jumped up from his bed,

“I’m so hungry. I’ve been long waiting for you to come back.”

It was not until he had gulped down more than half of the buns that he began to question me closely, “How much did you pawn it for? Did they cheat you?”

I showed him the pawn ticket and he eyed the pitifully small sum scratched on it.

“Only one yuan? Too little!”

True, the money was too little, but the buns were good to eat, so that all’s well that ended well. One after another vanished the buns into his cavernous mouth — a mouth that looked even bigger than a bun.