Introductory note from Jennifer Quist:
Previously, I translated an excerpt of Lu Xun’s memoiristic essay “Na Han,” where he speaks for himself as himself. What follows is a translation of Lu Xun’s voice speaking through a work of fiction. Below are fairly close translations of two vignettes from Lu Xun’s 1919 short story named for a character he called "Kong Yiji,” a failed, impoverished scholar, ruined by a rigid, antiquated system of official schooling, examination, and social ranking. The story’s narrator is an unnamed, still-young villager remembering his boyhood job in a tavern.
In Lu Zhen, taverns are laid out differently than in other towns: they all face the street, their counters formed like carpenters’ squares, at right angles, where water is kept hot at all times for warming bowls of wine. Workmen, dispersing from their labours at noon or in the evening, would spend four coins to buy a bowl of wine—that was over twenty years ago, now the price of a bowl has edged up to ten coins—and they would rest against the outer, street-side of the bar, drinking their wine while it was still hot, and for one more coin, they could buy a dish of salted bamboo shoots, or broad beans in anise, which go down well with wine, or by spending quite a bit more, some kind of meat dish could be bought, but these customers, this gang of workmen in short jackets, largely didn’t toss money around like that. Only the men in long jackets, coming pacing into the shop-side of the tavern, indoors, would order such side dishes, and sit, and slowly, slowly drink their wine.
From the time I turned twelve years old [….] I stood [working] at that counter all day, minding my duties. I never shirked my work, even though I couldn’t help but find it a bit monotonous, a bit pointless. The boss was fierce, the customers were never civil, the atmosphere took the life out of me. Only when Kong Yiji came to the shop, only then could we have some laughs, which is why, to this day I still remember.
Kong Yiji was the only one of the customers who remained standing as he drank his wine even though he wore a long robe. His frame was big and tall, but his face was wan and pale, with scars scratched through his wrinkles, his beard grey and grizzled. Although his robe was long, it was dirty and disheveled, as if it hadn't been mended or washed in over ten years. When he spoke to us, it was with a mouth full of "zhi ping zhe ye"—scraps of jumbled Classical language, only half intelligible. Because his surname was "Kong," someone had nicknamed him Kong Yiji after the first line of characters in every school-child's workbook: “"shang da ren kong yi ji."
No sooner would Kong Yiji step into the tavern than the customers would look up from their wine, laughing, calling out, "Kong Yiji, on your face, that's another new scar!"
He wouldn't answer, moving to the bar, speaking his order: "One bowl of warm wine, and dish of anise beans." He'd lay out his coins in a line.
The customers would raise their voices, shouting, "You must have been stealing again!"
Wide-eyed Kong Yiji would say,
"How can you accuse an innocent man this way, out of nothing?"
"What innocent man? The other day you were tied up and beaten for stealing a book. We saw it with our own eyes."
Kong Yiji, face flushed red, veins pulsing through his skin, would protest all the more. "Making off with a book doesn't count as stealing...making off with a book! ...It's a matter of scholarship, how can it be stealing?"
Then he'd lapse into old sayings, something about gentlemen living nobly in poverty, that kind of thing, until everyone burst into laughter, and shop-side and street-side of the tavern, all were boisterous and lively[...]
[…]Kong Yiji was good for a laugh, but without him, we got along just fine.
One day, two or three days before the Mid-Autumn Festival, the tavern boss was poring over the accounts, and as he took the noticeboard of outstanding bills down from the wall, he blurted, “Kong Yiji hasn’t been by in a long time, and he still owes nineteen coins!”
It wasn’t until then that I too realized how long it had been.
A customer spoke up. “How could he come by, what with him beaten until his legs broke?”
“Yes, he was stealing, as always. This time he must have been out of his mind, and actually stole from Official Ding’s household. What was he thinking, stealing stuff from there?”
“Then what happened?”
“Then what happened? First he had to write a confession, then came the beating—beat him for half the night, until his legs were broken.”
“Then his legs were broken.”
“His legs are broken, what now.”
“What now? ... Who knows? Maybe he’s dead.”
The boss asked nothing more, just went right back to the accounts.
After Mid-Autumn Festival, the winds blew cooler day by day, soon the first days of winter would arrive; every day I kept by the fire, dressed in warm clothes. One afternoon, when the shop was empty, I was sitting still with my eyes closed. All at once, in the room, I heard a voice say, “One bowl of warm wine.”
This voice, though very low, was familiar to my ears. When I looked, no one at all was there. I stood, looking all over, toward the street, and there was Kong Yiji below the counter, against the high, raised door sill. His face was dark and gaunt, like nothing I’d ever seen; dressed in torn clothes, his legs were crossed beneath him, cushioned by a ruck sack strung from a straw rope around his shoulders. Seeing me, he said again, “One bowl of warm wine.”
The boss had popped his head out, and said, “Is that Kong Yiji? You still owe nineteen coins!”
Kong Yiji, dejected, looked up and answered, “About that … I’ll clear that up next time. I have cash today, the wine had better be good.”
As usual, the boss just laughed and told him, “Kong Yiji, you’ve been stealing stuff again!”
But this time, instead of making a proper defence of himself, one simple sentence was all Kong Yiji spoke. “Do not make fun of me!”
“Make fun? If you didn’t steal, how come your legs are broken?”
Kong Yiji, in that low voice, answered, “Broken in a fall, in a fall, a fall….”
The look in his eyes seemed to plead with the boss, don’t bring it up again. By this time people had gathered, all of them joining the boss in laughing. I warmed the wine, carefully carried it out, set it down on the door sill. Feeling around in his coat, Kong Yiji produced four coins, put them in my hand, and I saw his hands were full of mud, as if he had used those hands to bring himself here. Not a moment later, he drank up the wine, and again amid the taunts and laughter of the other customers, he used his hands to drag himself away.
After that, a long time again passed without any sign of Kong Yiji. At the end of the year, the boss took the board of outstanding accounts down from the wall and said, “Kong Yiji still owes nineteen coins!” When the Dragon Boat Festival came, he said it again. Mid-Autumn Festival returned, but this time the boss said nothing, and when the year’s end came again we still hadn’t seen Kong Yiji.
As of now I still haven’t seen him, most likely, Kong Yiji is indeed dead.
Translation © 2018, Jennifer Quist
Edmonton writer Jennifer Quist is the author of three novels, all published by LLP. The most recent, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, appeared in March 2018.