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Andrew Rule Translation: Luminous Grief

Luminous Grief 

By Liang Hong 梁鸿, translated by Andrew Rule (winner of the 9th Bai Meigui Translation Competition)

Just now, at three o’clock in the morning, Haihong received a text from Mingliang:

T: I’m not well. There’s something wrong with me. I haven’t shut my eyes in a month. I don’t want to live anymore. Don’t grieve for me. I know I’m heartless for not holding on for all of your sakes. Goodbye, T. —Mingliang

Haihong turned off her phone. It’s the middle of the night, she told herself. I did not see that text. She turned over and went back to sleep.

She dreamed that she was on her way to teach at a school somewhere. Or was it to teach? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she was trying to get to a school. She hurried down an old-fashioned dirt road swept clean and white by the autumn winds. Tall poplar trees stood bolt upright on either side of the road, just like the trees that had lined the roads of her childhood village, giving off their familiar scent. She ran and ran but still couldn’t find the place she was looking for. Hungry and in need of a restroom, she turned off into a nearby hamlet. There was a man sitting there, smiling as he watched her, as though he had known she would show up just then. He gestured toward the tall barrier surrounding the courtyard and a roadside latrine. He told her they belonged to his family. With his peaceful countenance, he seemed to be saying to her that all he had was hers, that her headlong rush ended here.

Gazing out over the lines of poplar trees and the bleached, undulating road stretching out over the horizon, Haihong understood that she had been cut off from the world forever.

In her dream, she saw her eighteen-year-old self, stumbling through the wide world she had been abandoned into.


I have arrived at Poplar Slope Middle School. This place feels forsaken, clinging lonely and desolate to the mountainside. They call it Poplar Slope, but there are no poplars here, just a few ugly old hanging trees. The biggest tree grows right over the house I’m
living in. If you come to visit, as soon as you see that tree you’ll know you’ve found me.

The students here don’t seem to have any interest in studying. All day long they wander around in the schoolyard. Some of them are even older and taller than I am. They’re not afraid of me at all. I’m not afraid of them either.

If anyone gives me any disrespect, I’ll come at them with fists swinging. They had better not fucking try me. They had better not fucking try to get anything from me.

“Ah, the wind rises, the clouds surge forth...”


Eighteen-year-old Haihong crumpled the letter in her hand and looked up at the speckled, wood-framed window. Just outside the window were some white poplars, affording a view only of the rough round tree trunks and the yellow, dust-clouded schoolyard beyond. Chickens pecked at the dirt in the corner of the yard. Suddenly, as though startled, they took to the air with a noisy fluttering of wings, leaving the ground littered with feathers. The school was ringed by a tight circle of tall poplar trees and patches of vicious weeds that stubbornly took root everywhere. Beyond the wall that surrounded the schoolyard were croplands stretching as far as the eye could see. The nearest village to the school was more than a li away. Stalks of corn higher than a person’s head grew in tight, chaotic rows, plunging the earth below into a deep-green gloom. At night, they whispered furtively to each other outside her window, like hungry spirits scavenging for food.

She didn’t know where Poplar Slope was. Rang County Teaching School trained teaching students for several of the nearby counties, and most were assigned to return to their home counties upon graduation. But you had no power over which township or village you were sent to within your home county. Haihong had been dispatched to an elementary school forty kilometers away from her home in Wu Township, while Mingliang, who came from another village entirely, was assigned to Wu Township’s Poplar Slope Middle School. Besides the small number who had stayed in the county seat, many of their other classmates had also been sent to this godforsaken Poplar Slope, wherever it was.

She had been cordoned off in the wilderness, cut off from life itself. Still, on the whole, Haihong didn’t feel bitter about her situation. She didn’t know if life could be any other way, nor had she been expecting anything else in particular.

In fact, she rather liked it out here on the plains. It was a good place for reflection. After the autumn monsoons, standing barefoot in the fields with a strong wind ruffling her hair and clothes, gazing out at the smoldering red and blue clouds as they rushed away westward, watching the golden sunbeams pierce the dark sky, it felt like she was seeing time itself flow around her.

She wondered how Mingliang had come by his fierce temper and vigorous emotions. He seemed to see Poplar Slopes Middle School as his personal battlefield. In her mind’s eye she saw him holding his copy of Classical Chinese (his eternal nemesis during the vocational school entrance exams, which he had attempted two years in a row without passing), studying intently in the doorway of his dormitory. His stark, resolute silhouette emanating a sort of furious determination, as though to say: Nobody had better fucking get in the way of my studying. Nobody.

Haihong had always felt that Mingliang must like her. When he looked at her, the depth of feeling in his eyes, the solemnity of his expression, his aura of sorrow—none of that could be faked. But Haihong also knew that he had surreptitiously pursued a classmate of theirs from his hometown throughout their third year at the teaching school. After he finally confessed his feelings to the classmate, receiving only a noncommittal response, he turned his attention back to Haihong, leaning down onto the desk beside her and staring at her disconsolately.

Later, Mingliang had simply switched seats with Haihong’s deskmate and taken the chair beside her. He had placed two large teapots on the floor at either side of their desk, where they squatted stupidly, like two protector spirits awaiting his orders. On the desk he positioned a brimming maroon plastic bottle, which he used to steep all kinds of herbal medicines. He would clutch the bottle and glug the contents in one go, his throat bobbing up and down as he swallowed the bitter medicine, and then he would refill the bottle with hot water to steep some more. He drank four big pots of medicine this way each day. He claimed to have some sort of illness, but it was never clear exactly what it was, and he never elaborated.

“You have to take care of yourself. You can’t just act the way people tell you to act. Otherwise you’ll get taken advantage of. You have to think about why they want to act that way. If you can figure that out, you’ll never fall into their trap or be beholden to their demands.”

As Mingliang proclaimed this to Haihong, he gestured forcefully with both hands, his voice low and intense. He analyzed each member of their class for her, explained the intrigues and power struggles between the class officers.

Haihong felt as though she had been pulled from the realm of expressiveness and emotion where she had always resided and suddenly introduced to a complicated new world, one where interpersonal relationships were always freighted with doubt, manipulation, and treachery. “Hell is other people”: when she encountered that phrase many years later, it was Mingliang’s face that swam before her eyes.