- Mai Jia
- Translated by
- Yu Yan Chen
Mention Han Dong in China to anyone over the age of fifty and they’ll remember him as a 1980s rebel poet and poetry magazine editor. While the influence of poetry still shows in his fiction, he is now chiefly known as a writer of novels, essays and screenplays. I have wanted to see Han Dong’s novellas in English translation for years. I knew Han Dong thought they were amongst his best work, and recently asked him why. He said:
"I have always felt that the novella length suited me best. My stories start slowly and I like to build them up into a sort of ‘complex simplicity’. By that, I mean using simple language and elements to weave together into something more complex. If I can put it like this, my stories read very simply, but the more you read, the more complex they seem. The material, the [narrative] elements are as simple as I can make them, but I manage them, construct them, weave them together, juxtapose them, entwine and layer them…"
Unlike the whimsical Tabby Cat's Tale, Han Dong's first novella to be published in English, Gu Jieming has a much darker theme: a hero born after his time, who pays the ultimate penalty. – Nicky Harman
Twenty years ago
Twenty years ago, I left Gaoliang to go to university. In the autumn of the same year, my parents also left, to go home to Nanjing. They’d spent nine years of the Cultural Revolution in Gaoliang. Four of my friends from middle school helped my parents with packing up, and Gu Jieming was one of them. No doubt he threw himself into the job, his army-style, olive-green jacket soaked in sweat, the droplets pearling on his shoulders in the breeze.
That’s how I see it in my mind’s eye, though I wasn’t actually there that day. My four friends were exactly the same age as me, seventeen years old. Naturally they all poured with sweat – it was hard work cramming half a century’s worth of three generations’ belongings into one small cart. They were on their own. My father had been in poor health for years, my grandparents were both elderly and my mother’s only contribution was to clear up after them. And my parents had not asked anyone else for help apart from these four youths!
Jieming took command, blocking the doorway (though he must have realized it was unnecessary) to make sure my father stayed indoors. Having bigged himself up as the man for the job, he then had to work like crazy. The trouble was our three friends had to work like crazy too. This would have been all right if they’d all been built on a scale like him but they were puny teenagers who still had a lot of growing to do, like me in fact. Poor things! My mother wept as if she was watching me suffer the same way far from home…
The next year, Jieming left Gaoliang too, to become a soldier.
At first, he and I wrote often and he sent me a photo of himself. It showed him with a steely gaze, eyes round as ball bearings and lips bulging belligerently. He wore an army cap and was in uniform, though you could only see the collar as this was a studio portrait. On the back of the picture, he had written some characters I didn’t recognize, in a ballpoint pen. Korean, he told me. He was studying Korean and learning to drive too. It was clear the army had spotted his potential and were training him up accordingly. Jieming had great prospects. There was no need to worry about him, I told myself, and it didn’t matter if I didn’t write back to every letter. My real reason for not writing was that I had a new life. It wasn’t like when I’d just arrived and knew no one. However, Jieming left Gaoliang a year after me so he still needed his old friend. He was furious when I didn’t answer his letters, and announced he was ending our friendship.
Still, I kept that picture of him in my photo album, where his huge head filled an entire page. If Jieming had seen it, he would surely have been touched. After all, how many pages did a photo album have? I stuck it right at the front of the album, after some pages of pictures of me as a bare-bottomed toddler. He cut a heroic figure, eyes shining, firm-jawed. That picture could never have been me. Whenever people admired my album, I told them: ‘A childhood friend. He was really good at fighting.’
If it was a girl, she’d comment: ‘He’s a good-looking guy.’
‘He’s OK,’ I’d say dismissively, though secretly I was very pleased.
‘Where is he now? Can you introduce me?’
‘Absolutely not. Jieming was executed by firing squad.’
The girl would look horrified, her lips parted as if in expectation of a passionate kiss.
It worked every time.
A few anecdotes
Jieming and I were at middle school together, and were really close. He lived at the foot of Black Bridge, in the first house as you entered the county town of Gaoliang, and I lived in the compound of the food-processing factory, close by. I met up with him every day and we walked along the tall reservoir embankment to the East Is Red Middle School together.
We were improbable friends. I was a quiet, thoughtful, rather weedy boy, while Jieming loved to joke around and had enormous physical energy. Our differences meant that, apart from going to school, we didn’t do a lot together.
Actually, I really wanted to be in his gang. But I couldn’t swim so I couldn’t join them in the river, and I never got up early enough to go out hunting with them. But Jieming still treated me like one of them, and he showed it by sharing the ‘spoils’ with me.
‘Hunting’, to Gu, meant taking pot shots at the farmers’ guard-dogs. He would drape his father’s greatcoat over his shoulders, tuck a rifle under his arm and lie in wait for a couple of hours at a time in the snow. There was absolutely no need, but he did it for fun. Whenever he shot a dog, he declared he didn’t want it and the corpse was divided up among the hungry.
I always got given a bloody leg and, out of respect for Jieming, took it home with me.
‘That’s against the law!’ my Mum said on the first occasion, meaning both shooting the peasants’ dogs and using guns which belonged to the local government.
‘You be careful who you make friends with,’ my father warned.
But when they met Jieming, they really warmed to him. They even told him how good the dog meat was. Delicious! So much better than meat from the market!
My parents encouraged my friendship with Jieming, reasoning that I needed a friend like that. It protected me from bullying and, besides, some of his bravery might rub off on me. They wanted me to learn to swim and shoot, and even misbehave a bit. But all I did was stand on the main road with him yelling ‘Ai! Ai!’ at passing drivers.
The drivers would look round, thinking something had fallen out. That was our cunning plan. We gazed off somewhere else, still shouting ‘Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai!’ which we then made into a chant: ‘Ai-ya-lai-ya! Ai-ya-lai-ya!’
‘You’re off your heads!’ the drivers shouted back angrily.
This was the only thing I learned from Jieming. Apart from going to school together, we stood at the side of the road, yelling ‘Ai! Ai!’
We never tired of it. ‘Ai! Ai!’ The echoes probably still linger in Gaoliang’s main street to this day. It might have been a silly game, but it was Jieming’s great invention.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of Jieming. He wasn’t just another street yob. He stood out from the crowd even at that age – his love of freedom was one sign he was different. He loved joking around and was quick with his fists sometimes, but he refused to be tied down. He made up most of his games himself, and hardly ever got involved in anyone else’s.
He never joined in school sports, which is something I still find strange. He never played ball games and had no special aptitude for athletics. Our class teacher, Mr Wang, put it like this: ‘He’s nothing but brute strength!’
One clear autumn day, about twenty years ago, it was Sports Day at our middle school. Our class was one man short in the hundred-metre finals and Jieming was told to go on as a substitute. ‘Look at those fine muscles,’ said Mr Wang. ‘Who else would I choose?’ But when the starter gun smoke cleared, Jieming was nowhere to be seen. No, he hadn’t sped off in the lead – he’d actually fainted and was lying on the ground.
Most of what Jieming did took place after school. He didn’t like classes and was better at self-education.
In Physics, the teacher patiently explained how electricity worked, the difference between direct and alternative current, how incandescent lighting worked and its dangers. Jieming fell asleep. But when class was over he went to the generator room to have a feel of the electrics. It was so silent, he couldn’t understand how so much energy could come out of wires as fine as those. He racked his brains, until finally he had to go and get the measure of it.
Jieming knew exactly what Old Man Electricity did. The electric lights he had at home, and the belt which drove the shaft round in the generator room, were all proof of its power. But he’d never had the chance to get up close and personal, as it were. And Jieming was stubborn – just knowing what electricity did didn’t count as real knowledge.
‘Get back!’ he told the onlookers. Then he struck a martial pose, knees slightly bent, and rolled up his shirtsleeves.
The old maintenance man tried to dissuade him. ‘What’s up, boy? Tell us! Don’t go killing yourself over it!’
There was a murmur of agreement. ‘He’s right, you know. You’re too young to die. It would be such a pity…’
Unsurprisingly, Jieming got an electric shock and hurtled backwards. He landed in a basket and looked very sorry for himself. But I can tell you this, he was back on his feet quicker than anyone else. (Not that there was anyone else to compare him with, as no one else wanted to have a feel of electricity.) I don’t mean to imply that he was unscathed, he had a bad burn on his right hand. He stood up as if he had every intention of striking back…. but then he didn’t.
He balled his blackened hands into a fist and shouted at the circuit breaker: ‘Respect! Respect!’
Jieming was a true hero. He stood up bravely to a powerful enemy, but he also knew when to back off.
The All–Powerful Ones
My story so far has been about what Jieming got up to out of school, how he went swimming in the river, hunted the village dogs, or stood by the road-side shouting nonsense. But if you were to conclude from this that Gaoliang was a haven of tranquillity inhabited by simple, honest folk, you’d be quite wrong. Gaoliang in those days was a turbulent place, and life for the town’s youth, in particular, was fraught with danger!
The observant reader will have noticed that Jieming went hunting with a rifle. Here was a middle-school student who found it easy to get hold of a gun, and bullets too. It was a good thing that Jieming only used it to kill dogs and didn’t start picking off his enemies. Actually, plenty of students at the East Is Red Middle School could get hold of guns. Jieming was certainly not the only one, just the only one keen on hunting.
Generally speaking, the kids who could get a gun were big and tough and had family connections, that is they were the children of powerful local government officers. To be blunt, they were a ferocious bunch of bullies who sometimes fought pitched battles between themselves.
There were exceptions. Some of the bullies were from poor families and didn’t have the advantage of weapons. They were just bigger than us because they’d started school later or developed earlier. Lin Huazi was typical.
He was twenty-one years old, a late starter because his family was poor. He was a pimply youth, so tormented by lust that it kept him awake at night (according to other students who boarded at the school). They said he used to get up to dirty things with one of the girls. The only place the pair could get any privacy was in the huge water jar in the school canteen. That earned him the nickname ‘Water Jar’. Everyone in the school knew about Water Jar and his girlfriend but no one dared mention it in his hearing and Water Jar didn’t even know that that was his nick-name. Just the sight of his biceps made our legs go like jelly and it required too much courage for any of us to call him Water Jar to his face.
Except for Li Guoqing. He blocked Water Jar’s way and said: ‘Did you know your nick-name’s Water Jar. When you hear someone shout Water Jar, it’s you they’re talking about! Water Jar! Water Jar!’
Of course the two got into a vicious fight but in the end, Guoqing was no match for Water Jar. With his broken tooth clutched in his fist, he rushed home to get a gun. He came back with two, a rifle and a pistol. Rifles were not unusual in the village but the pistol meant that his Dad was a senior cadre. No one was in any doubt about that: Guoqing’s Dad, as County Party Secretary, was the most senior figure in the Gaoliang municipality.
Water Jar fled as soon as he heard that Guoqing had come back with two guns, and never dared show his face in school again. His girlfriend had to leave school too. The incident cemented their affair and they moved into a shack together on the reservoir embankment behind the school, where they had a vegetable patch. By the time we left middle school, their son was six or seven months old. They still had Guoqing to deal with, however. He would turn up at harvest-time looking for trouble, and rampage through their field like a wild boar. He made life hell for the young couple.
The most feared of the All-Powerful Ones was Jin Binglong. He was not only as hefty as Water Jar, his family had guns too. But his real fame came from something else: he’d joined a criminal gang in town. It was not just his fellow pupils who were scared of him, the school head was too.
It was an open secret that Binglong had killed a man, and he didn’t bother to deny it. The gang had tricked their target into meeting them at the back of the distillery where they beat him to a pulp at the foot of the factory compound wall. Only two of the thugs were arrested for the offence. Binglong was below the age of criminal responsibility, plus his family connections put him beyond the law’s reach. He was not even expelled from school.
My readers may be wondering why I’ve described the All-Powerful Ones so exhaustively but have not mentioned the hero of our story, Jieming, for some time. Was he one of the All-Powerful Ones? Their most powerful member, perhaps?
The answer is no. He may have been physically strong but he was the polar opposite of the likes of Binglong.
I can see the All-Powerful Ones in my mind’s eye – particularly Water Jar, Guoqing and Binglong. They all looked very alike, tall and muscular, with tanned, faintly gleaming skin. Jieming, however, was shorter, only 1.7 metres in those days. He also dressed neatly and never went bare-chested. It was quite a shock when he did bare any flesh, when he went swimming, for instance. His skin was fairer than a girl’s, a source of general amazement. He never bullied the younger children and no one bullied him, not even Binglong or Water Jar. He’d been in hand-to-hand combat with electricity. You didn’t mess with Jieming without a very good reason. And he stayed well away from their power struggles. Like Binglong, his life was outside the school gates but, unlike him, he was not in a gang. He was the cat that walked by itself. All he wanted to do was have fun.
Actually, Binglong wasn’t born fierce. He’d been skinny little runt at nursery school, often bullied by a kid called Song Dawei. Maybe that was what made him start working on his physique until he’d built himself up into a real thug. Back then, Dawei had been an overweight lump of a boy, but by the time he reached our class, he’d stopped growing and was just a normal size.
Practically all the children had been beaten up by Binglong. The only one he’d stayed clear of so far was Dawei. He was just waiting for the right moment, the tenth anniversary of the day when Dawei beat him into submission. In the meantime, he issued notification that on such and such a day of such and such a month at such and such a time, Dawei was going to get it coming to him, and it wouldn’t just be a bloody face either. He was going to end up half-crippled at the very least!
Dawei came looking for me. He and I shared a desk in school, and he knew I was friendly with Jieming. For my sake, Jieming went to negotiate with Binglong: ‘If you’re going to fight him, you fight me first. Dawei did wrong when he was a kid and he certainly should make amends. So he’s booked a table at the Red Star Restaurant and he’s going to treat you to dinner. If you don’t want to offend me, you’ll turn up, and we’ll drink on it!’
Binglong blinked, then went purple in the face. Finally, however, he beamed and said to Jieming: ‘Fine words, eh? OK, I’ll do it for you, we’ll go out to dinner.
But when the time came, it was Jieming who wasn’t happy. You could tell that from his expression. He spent the whole meal trying to pick a fight. Dawei and I began to sweat nervously. Luckily Binglong was being particularly deferential that day but, even though I’d drunk myself squiffy-eyed by then, I caught him staring at Jieming. It made my blood ran cold. There was a green gleam of hatred in that long stare. And then it was gone.
The Wu Gui murders
When I was at middle school, lessons were a relaxed affair. I used to spend my free time day-dreaming about the heroes of olden days, pretending the All-Powerful Ones were the Five Tiger Generals, or the Four Warrior Gods.
My Tiger Generals were Water Jar, Guoqing, Binglong, Dawei – and Jieming. Dawei was a reluctant ‘general’, fatty at nursery school, not fat any more, in fact quite a normal size, he needed Jieming’s protection to keep him safe. On reflection, I thought he should be left out, leaving just the Four Warrior Gods. The next question was: who was the most fearsome of the four? I thought long and hard about this, and figured the only way to settle it was for them to get up there and slug it out between them.
In the past, Guoqing had been no match for Water Jar, but then his two guns had forced Water Jar off the field of battle. Neither of them had come to blows with Binglong, not for lack of opportunity, just because they didn’t dare. Jieming had challenged Binglong, to get Dawei out of trouble. Dawei had beaten up Binglong when he was a child, but that didn’t count. On the whole, I thought that the champions were Binglong and Jieming.
Of those two, who would come out on top? I just couldn’t make up my mind. But it was vital to decide, because the winner would be number one out of the whole school. Number one in the school meant the best in Gaoliang and that, in my childish eyes, meant number one in the world. I so wanted the glory to go to Jieming because he was my best friend.
Then there was a massacre in town. The perpetrator, Wu Gui, was so savage he put every one of the Four Warrior Gods in the shade.
Wu Gui was an unknown quantity. At the time when the Four Warrior Gods were making a name for themselves, he was in the army in Xinjiang. As a youth, he was no hero and by the time of the murders, he was married with a child, and approaching middle age.
First he killed his wife, then he killed his son. Between the two of them, there was another casualty, a nameless baby still in its mother’s belly. Wu Gui killed both mother and baby with a knife blow, muttering as he did so, ‘Little bastard!’, thereby putting another son to death. (There is some disagreement about the tally of three, however. Does a foetus count as a person?)
We heard that Wu Gui then went out into the street, his knife dripping blood, and asked around for his Director, a Mr Gu. The Director had arrange Wu Gui’s marriage for him and Wu Gui blamed him for its unhappy outcome. However, Mr Gu escaped by the skin of his teeth because he was in the bath-house that day. Wu Gui burst in but there was so much steam that he couldn’t tell which of the shiny pink bodies was the Director, and he couldn’t kill off four butt-naked men, even though they hadn’t an inch of steel, or even a stitch of clothing, between them. So Wu Gui turned and left. Instead of killing Mr Gu, he went to his home and killed Mr Gu’s wife, thus tallying up four deaths.
I didn’t waste any more time thinking about the Four Warriors Gods. My head was full of these four murders. The day of Wu Gui’s trial finally arrived. It was to be a ‘trial by the masses’, held on the Gaoliang county shooting range, and the whole of East Is Red School, teachers and pupils alike, were marched off to attend.
But Jieming bunked off and instead cycled to Xu Da Wan, the town’s old-style execution ground, a field knee-deep in grass and surrounded by a mud wall. Here he waited patiently to catch a glimpse of the ‘master murderer’.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were baking in the hot sun at the ‘trial by the masses’. There was a sea of onlookers, and Wu Gui was too far away to make out clearly, and when he was put on a truck, he was flanked by enormously tall police officers. The whole of the town had turned out for the occasion, and it was more bustling and crowded than market day. Wu Gui disappeared from view, then re-emerged, or rather the truck did, atop the reservoir embankment. I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck until it was just a black dot in the distance.
I felt no sympathy towards Wu Gui but I was stirred by the thought of his last journey into the great unknown. It took him from Gaoliang shooting range, down the town’s one main street, then westward along the reservoir embankment. Then the truck turned south along dirt roads, until it reached the execution ground at Xu Da Wan where Wu Gui had an appointment with destiny. It was the very same route which Jieming was to take, many years later, on his own premature departure from this life.
I was in Xian, not Gaoliang, when that happened, but from what I heard, Jieming too had a ‘trial by the masses’ at the shooting range, and huge, noisy crowds turned out to watch. For the rest of my old friend’s last day, there’s only my imagination to go on.
Jieming had been to Xu Da Wan before. The first time was to see Wu Gui shot dead. This, the second time, it was to be shot dead himself.
‘The executioner wears dark glasses and holds a pistol. He fires from behind and the man falls to the ground. The firing squad lined up in front of the man is only for show, or rather in case there’s a mishap. After the shot is fired, someone goes over and sticks a prod deep inside the bullet hole. When he pulls the prod out, it’s all red and white, like a barber’s shop flagpole.’
I never went to Xu Da Wan, but this was Jieming’s excited description. He never stopped going on about it, gesticulating and miming the scene and adding his own commentary: ‘The man in the dark glasses fires at the condemned man from behind. That way, the man won’t recognize him and his spirit won’t come back and haunt him. The atmosphere’s very tense and rushed, so there’s a good chance the shooter will miss his target. That’s why they need someone to examine the bullet hole with the prod. If the firing squad have to finish him off, they march forward, bayonets at the ready. They don’t wear dark glasses and they don’t sneak up from behind, but it doesn’t matter because they all lunge together so no one man is responsible for the death. Why do they use bayonets not guns? Because bullets are expensive. Just that one pistol bullet costs 75 cents, and the family of the condemned has to pay the cost of it.’
Jieming, my old friend, why were you so obsessed with Wu Gui’s execution? Why did you find out so much about it? Why did you go into such detail?
Twenty years later
Twenty years later, last year, Dawei and I went to a reunion of middle school students in Gaoliang. We got a cab to the Grain Institute. A classmate of ours had landed himself a top job, as Director of Studies, and was hosting a dinner in the institute dining room. This was my first visit to the Grain Institute. At the entrance gate, we were met by a woman whom Dawei addressed as ‘Gu Lei’.
Lei led the way on her bicycle. It was pitch dark outside and the car headlights shone full on her rear view. I noticed she had a large bottom, very sexy. The road looked like it was flanked on either side by dark woodland.
Inside the brightly-lit dining room, host and guests took their seats. Although there was only one table, we were packed in tight, thirteen of us altogether. Lei was sitting opposite me and I thought: I expect she’s the wife of one of our classmates. She had obviously been very familiar with our route through the campus, so she was probably the wife of our host, the Director of Studies, Liu Quan.
But perhaps not. Quan kept beaming at her, and was almost flirtatious. Later on in the meal, Dawei raised his glass in a toast to twenty years of friendship, and I noticed Lei raise her glass too. So she must be one of our classmates. But how come I had no memory of her at all?
Quan started talking about Lei dancing on the stage at our school sports ground, and how gracefully she moved. He wasn’t talking about a performance or a rehearsal, but about Lei practising on her own, unsupervised. Lots of people were watching, but on the quiet, from a distance. They knew there was a girl who sometimes came to practice after school or during the lunchtime break.
I had absolutely no memory of this. That made me take a close look at Lei. I searched her face and found one deep wrinkle, running vertically between her eyebrows. Apart from that, she was unremarkable, with the natural relaxed smile of a middle-aged woman and flushed cheeks that suited her – she’d had quite a bit to drink this evening. She was talking about children with the people sitting on either side of her, and one of them, an entertainment centre manager, told her she could bring her child ice-skating, free of charge. Lei seemed very interested; she said that her son was keen on ice-skating and had his own skates.
On the way home, I shared a cab with Dawei. I asked him who Lei was, and he said: ‘Surely, you must remember her. You remember the Wu Gui murders? Well, the Director, Mr Gu, was her father.’
I was startled. ‘Wu Gui killed Gu’s wife, didn’t he?’
‘That’s right. That was Lei’s mother.’
I had vivid memories of the Wu Gui murders, but none at all that the daughter of one of the victims had been at school with me. (Well, I did have occasional, perplexing lapses of memory.)
It was clear that something terrible had happened to Lei from the deep vertical wrinkle between her eyebrows.
But we should return to the main topic of our story, Jieming.
A battle and a duel
Men express their friendship by taking friends to a meal and drinking together, or being taken out themselves. It makes us feel grown-up. It’s different from when I was a kid and my parents took me to a relative’s house for dinner, that didn’t count. Nor did inviting my school friends to share dinner with us at home. It had to be a public place, a restaurant wreathed in smoke, and it had to be without the family.
Jieming invited me to a meal twice (he grew up before me), and each time it met these criteria. The first time, the venue was the Red Star Restaurant. The air was filled with smoke, there was spittle all over the floor and flies buzzed around, but as far as I was concerned, it was palatial.
The time I’m talking about was when Dawei and Binglong made peace, and Jieming was the peace-maker. I was just hanging around while they ate. So it would be stretching a point to describe this as Jieming inviting me out for a meal. The other occasion definitely fitted the bill. Jieming invited me and only me.
It was after we had graduated from middle school and I was about to leave Gaoliang for university. We ate in a restaurant on the reservoir embankment. I didn’t see its name, not because it was dark but because it actually had no signboard hanging outside. It was probably just a family Jieming had asked to fix us up with a meal, and not a regular business. It definitely wasn’t Jieming’s own home, and the old folk were not his father and mother.
In the very dark room, there was a grime-streaked table and four large bowls filled to the brim with some indeterminate meat and vegetable stew. In front of each of us was an equally large bowl full of baijiu, a liquor brewed from sweet potato in the Ganliang brewery. The single-story house of blue-grey brick was built on the slopes of the embankment, and you had to go down steps to the front door. There was a huge pot sitting over a fierce fire at the entrance, but the interior was lit only by a small lamp with a pea-sized flame. It was not nearly as smart as the Red Star Restaurant but Jieming had properly invited me and this was a first for me. (Hanging out with other people who were eating didn’t count.)
I was well aware of the honour that was being done to me with this invitation and secretly decided that I would return the invitation when I had money. Jieming would surely do me the honour of coming. I would be just as proud to play host as I was to be the guest. Sadly, we never had the opportunity, either for me to invite him back or for him to invite me again.
Years later, I developed a terrible, burning desire to return that invitation: I would cut up brown paper to make ‘hell money’, take along food and drink, add some top-brand cigarettes, and make the trip to the town outskirts to pay my respects to the ghost of my old friend!
After that meal, Jieming and I went our separate ways. I went to university in Shandong, Jieming stayed in Gaoliang.
When, a year later, he helped my parents move house, I wasn’t around, as I said at the beginning of this story. The next year, Jieming left to become a soldier and there was nothing to bring me back to Gaoliang. I was a poor letter-writer, and that ended our friendship. He was doing very well, he was young and strong and his prospects were good. So I didn’t give it much thought. I thought there was plenty of time, and sometime in the future, we’d get back together. After all, we hadn’t fallen out, in fact, we’d been as close as brothers.
I was at university for four years, then I graduated and was assigned a job in a new place, where I made new friends. As time passed, so did my initial elation. I began to miss the old places and my old friends. I dreamed of Gaoliang, the East Is Red Middle School and the phlegm-smeared road that led to it. In my dreams, I walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Jieming and the road glinted gold as the sun’s rays caught the gobs of our spittle.
I kept my ears open for news of Gaoliang and was in occasional touch with my old classmates. I was doing this for Jieming, laying the foundations for our reconciliation. I’m not saying that I did it only for him, just that he was the only one I’d stopped being friends with. So Dawei, Quan and I sometimes got together and, when we did, the main topic of conversation was Jieming.
If I didn’t make it up with Jieming, how could I go back to Gaoliang?
It was different for Dawei and Quan. Although they’d left too, their work took them back there, and they’d kept up with Jieming. He sometimes dropped by Nanjing and there was always a scramble to see him. Only I wasn’t invited, and that made it difficult to move on.
By this time, Jieming had left the army and had become a jobless vagrant. I was teaching at university so I was a proper intellectual. Maybe he felt that coming to see me would look like pulling in favours. I’d have taken him out to dinner, giving me the satisfaction of playing host. I could understand his point of view.
When he was in the army and used to write to me, he’d looked so impressive (witness the photo) and his prospects seemed limitless (witness his news). How come he’d been reduced to a tramp in less than three years?
It was because he’d got into a fight.
In the army, people from the same village or town looked out for each other. The ones from our area, Jiangsu province, were a bunch of weaklings, and were always getting bullied. That was before Jieming, of course. When he turned up, everything was different. He did his training during the day, and at night, by the liquid light of the moon, he passed on his training to his buddies in the company. Then, when the area in front of their barracks was plunged into darkness, the Jiangsu men paired up and went at it, hammer and tongues. They must have looked like shadow puppets because they were not allowed to make a sound.
But practising in pairs wasn’t enough – the army wasn’t the streets of Gaoliang. To progress their training, they had to fight as a cohort.
The ensuing battle made the Jiangsu men a sensation and Jieming, in particular, distinguished himself. In fact, the occasion went down in military history, and ended up with the entire regiment being disbanded. Jieming and a couple of his fight-buddies were demobbed back to Gaoliang.
Although he was never punished, he wasn’t allocated a job either. As a result, wasn’t allowed a registered address. He was neither fish nor fowl, not a countryman, but not a townie. For a while he retreated to Gaoliang to lick his wounds, but then he set off again, and covered all of East China. It never seemed to get him down. He went all over the place and always had engagements lined up. When he was invited to dinner by a fight-buddy, or to play football, he always thoroughly enjoyed himself, throwing himself into everything with a passion.
He had a loose-knit gang of cronies, mostly made up of old classmates and fight-buddies from the army, plus his brother, who was three years younger. With a reputation like his, he was their natural leader, he could have done anything with them. But his open nature and his dislike of discipline meant that he became second-in-command, and a reluctant one at that. Rather than collective brawls, he preferred to take on one opponent at a time, and apparently was never beaten.
Number one in Gaoliang’s gangland back then was Binglong. He was a dastardly criminal with a huge number of hangers-on, and Jieming fixed to have a showdown with him on the Gaoliang shooting range. This was something that had been a long time coming. I had dreamed of a confrontation like this when I was a small boy. I was properly grown-up now, but my heart thudded in my chest when I heard about it. Urgently, I asked Dawei: ‘So who won?’
Dawei kept me on tenterhooks while he very deliberately lit a cigarette and drank some water. Finally he said nonchalantly: ‘One punch, and Jieming sent Binglong flying.’
He put it well enough but I was disappointed he hadn’t said something like: Jieming made it look as easy as flicking off a speck of dust. Dawei was so lucky to have been there, while I only had his description to go on.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the shooting range in the bright moonlight and two black shapes closing in on each other across the sodden grass. Binglong was still the taller and heavier of the two but there was no need to worry about Jieming. As I imagined it, they made contact and one immediately bounced off, blown away like a leaf in a gale, and vanished in the shadows. It was clear from his silhouette that the one who was left standing was Jieming.
Dear reader, please excuse my hyperbole. My head had been full of dreams of Jieming for years. His victory over Binglong was never in doubt but, even though it was over in one swift bout, I got a huge kick out of hearing about his win.
Arrest and imprisonment
In the summer of 1983, Jieming was arrested in Gaoliang and, sometime in autumn of the same year, he was taken before the firing squad in Xu Da Wan. The reason I remember the year was that there was a historical date to check it against: the first of the Crackdowns on Crime campaigns was in full swing all over China.
A poet friend of mine, a real skirt-chaser, was arrested at the same time for the crime of ‘hooliganism’, loosely defined, amongst other things, as a man having many sexual partners. The crackdown was supposed to hit ‘hard and fast’ and, as a result, my poet friend narrowly avoided paying the ultimate penalty himself. Apparently he was on the first list of those to be executed. Then he was at the end of the second list, among those who might, or might not, be killed. By the time the third round of executions began, our poet had already ambled to freedom and was lining up the drinks in the Qu Yuan Restaurant in celebration of his new lease of life.
At the time, I was frantic with worry over my friend, running around pulling strings wherever I could. I had no idea another friend was in prison too, and needed my help. Jieming had cut all ties with me long before he was imprisoned, and the high prison walls cut us off from each other definitively. Besides, he was in Gaoliang, far beyond the reach of my influence. The poet was different: he shared my literary interests, was also in Nanjing, and we saw a lot of each other. Besides, his case hit the headlines and was regarded as a bit of a joke. The poet supplied the police with a list of more than seventy girls he’d had sex with – a remarkable feat for 1980s China – including plenty of wives and daughters of prominent people, and some TV and film stars. Everyone followed the case avidly.
So that was how things were. It all felt like a game to me. If the poet could morph from prime candidate for execution into a law-abiding citizen (he was released without charge) in the blink of an eye, then Jieming’s case must have been piddling too. He’d never seduced anyone’s wife, he just liked a fight, and he had never killed anyone, although he had injured a fair few. But he never inflicted serious injury and none of his victims had ended up paralysed or in a coma. Anyone who fought Jieming generally suffered just minor injuries, at most a few broken ribs. Jieming’s skill lay in his accuracy: his blows were not too light, but not too heavy either; they put you hors de combat instantly without leaving you disabled for life.
I heard that the day in question he and his cronies had had a meal in Jiangba and got plastered, after which they got into a fight with the next-door table. Jieming picked up his opponent bodily and landed a punch that broke two ribs. It was uncalled-for, he’d clearly hit too hard, and the onlookers were very upset. Everyone felt that Jieming had changed for the worse. He was picking unnecessarily on someone weaker than himself. He’d turn into a villain if he went on like this. Jieming was promptly arrested, and that was a good thing, they felt. No one foresaw the Crackdown on Crime that condemned Jieming to death. He was unlucky, for sure, but there was a feeling that to a degree, he’d asked for it. Long before he was arrested, he’d stopped being the old laid-back, steady Jieming. He’d turned downright nasty.
There’s another explanation, that Jieming had acted out of tactical considerations. The man he beat up was a local from Jiangba, and by putting the fear of god into him and his friends, he was forestalling trouble in the future. No else dared move so it would not have been difficult for him to do a runner from the restaurant but that might have landed innocent people in trouble. The local policeman was called, and he arrived carrying the electric prod he’d just been issued with.
His resolve bolstered by his weapon, the policeman raised it and aimed a smashing blow at Jieming’s face. Jieming gallantly lunged for the prod. The policeman switched it on, but Jieming didn’t flinch. Afterwards, it transpired that the battery was in back to front, which was why Jieming didn’t receive an electric shock.
He was blind drunk, otherwise he would never have grasped the electric prod (he was fully aware of the formidable power of electricity). The policeman froze, and Jieming took his chance and hoisted him on his back in a fireman’s lift. It was only because he was so drunk that he didn’t smack the man’s head on the ground. This was much more serious than just breaking someone’s ribs. However, with the policeman weighing on him like lead, Jieming collapsed to the ground, where he promptly went to sleep and started to snore.
His arrest in Jiangba happened six months before the Crackdown on Crime began. Jieming was banged up for a couple of days, then released. He covered the medical expenses of the guy whose ribs he’d broken, in full, and that was the end of that. Then the Crackdown on Crime began and Jieming was arrested again, this time in Dawei’s house, by the Gaoliang County Police. They came prepared. They locked the yard gate, moved Dawei outside and, having made sure that Jieming was asleep, they rushed him. He woke up to find himself in handcuffs.
Dawei thought that Jieming had committed another crime, but it turned out that he had been arrested for the fight in Jiangba. Apparently, every police force had to meet a quota of arrests and Jieming was just being used to make up the numbers. Jieming had loads of cronies all of whom liked a fight and were always getting into trouble. Once they had him, they could mop up a whole lot of people, and define them as a ‘gang’. Once they had been labelled a ‘gang’, then they could call Jieming the ‘gang leader’, and he was unlikely to try and duck responsibility. They arrested his little brother at the same time, and a few more of his fight-buddies. Dawei saw a lot of Jieming and narrowly avoided prison himself. Did he feel guilty for letting Jieming take the rap? I have no idea. All he said was that Jieming had been sound asleep.
I’m not blaming Dawei, or hinting at anything nasty. I’m just trying to show how normal people give in to brutal treatment. Jieming’s buddies and brother were badly beaten to force them to confess, and they allowed Jieming to take the blame for offenses he’d never committed, to get a bit of respite from the pain. After all this was over, Jieming’s brother suffered a mental breakdown and lost his mind. In my view, everything they did was all perfectly normal. The only one who wasn’t normal was Jieming. His staunchness and heroism could have come from the pages of a novel. He acted the screen idol.
Inevitably, Jieming became famous (or infamous) while he was in prison. A folk hero.
He took the blame for everything, and refused to involve anyone else or inform on his buddies, no matter how badly they beat him. They broke his legs for that.
To make sure he never weakened or said anything stupid that he might regret, Jieming bit his own tongue off. He must have had a premonition that he was going to die. He would never need to eat again!
His last words were a few characters scratched on a piece of soap with a sharp fingernail. He said he was innocent, and would die without regrets. He wrote it to his younger brother, exhorting him to be a good son to their parents in years to come.
In my mind’s eye, I saw Jieming’s bloodied corpse. I saw a dirty package (of Jieming’s possessions) arriving from the prison and being unwrapped, layer by layer, under the oil lamp, to reveal the half-cake of yellow soap dazzling like gold. My imagination was drawn to the scene, and every detail in it, with a dreadful fascination. Sometimes, at dead of night when there was not a sound to be heard, grief overcame me. I could not understand why Jieming had done it.
He died like a hero but he was the leader of a criminal gang. He didn’t do it for the revolution or for patriotic glory, not even for something practical like saving a child from drowning. Jieming was a man born at the wrong time, a hero without a cause. If he’d been born in war-time, he could have shown his mettle on the battlefield. The way he actually died was anything but heroic, but he seemed to have been intent on acting out a parody of heroism.
There was something else I didn’t understand: where did this gallantry in the face of death come from? I couldn’t believe that he’d laid down his life for the sake of his friends and his personal honour. Gaoliang’s streets reeked of blood and nihilism. Did he believe in spirits? Did he think his soul would live on? Or that he’d be reincarnated and get another chance to be a hero twenty years hence? Who did Jieming call on when he was beaten black and blue?
What kind of religious belief did he have? Was he a Buddhist? A Christian? A Muslim? Or did he believe in some cult? Or maybe he was an atheist, or practised qigong…
I will never know.
Twelve years later, that is, three years ago, the girl who had been our housekeeper in Gaoliang for a time, and was now married, came on a visit to Nanjing. I asked her how things were in Gaoliang. ‘Lots of people believe in “Yasu” now,’ she told me. ‘Yasu can make you better when you’re ill. If you believe, then the illness goes away.’
I couldn’t think who she was talking about. Who was this god called Yasu? Eventually light dawned: Yasu was Jesus. It was the Gaoliang accent that threw me. I’d been away so many years that there was a language barrier.
For some reason that made me think of Jieming. He died at the beginning of the 1980s, when there was nothing like a Yasu, or a Jesus, in Gaoliang. The god of Christianity was still waiting in the wings.
I didn’t want to believe that Jieming died in terrifying loneliness. I imagined a pale wintry gleam of sunshine piercing the drab grey terror and illuminating the laughter lines at the corner of his lips. That light – love – would embody a kind of warmth and gentleness. It would be the love between a man and a woman (since there’s no such thing as divine love) and in Gaoliang, just as everywhere else on earth, it would be natural and understandable, and absolutely necessary, especially for poor, condemned Jieming.
I tried hard to find evidence of Jieming’s love. I interrogated Dawei, and strung together a few scraps of information. I speculated, imagined and described it until I’d quite convinced myself Jieming had a love story.
Jieming may have been labelled as a gang leader but he was no serial seducer, in fact he was known to steer clear of woman. So his romantic exploits were shrouded in mystery. Some people even believed he died a virgin.
But I remembered what a strong and vigorous young man he was, not homosexual or given to masturbation (or so they said). It seemed impossible that he’d never touched a woman.
When we were at middle school, girls and boys had no contact with each other. Apart from Water Jar and his girlfriend, the rest of us didn’t even talk to classmates of the opposite sex, unless there were work reasons. For instance, the secretary of the Communist Youth League (a girl) might talk to the boys to encourage them to join, but even that was regarded as somewhat irregular. As a result, there were only girls in the CYL. If the boys wanted to join, they had to request to move up or down a class, where the CYL secretary was a boy.
When I think back, it wasn’t that we were so backward at fifteen years old that we didn’t know what went on between boys and girls. Quite the opposite, we knew only too well. We were just sensitive, over-anxious about showing our feelings towards the opposite sex. We all remembered a tall, fair-skinned girl called Xiang Xiaohong. She had a lean face with prominent cheekbones, in other words, she looked grown-up. On the sports field, she would do high kicks on the spot, and she was in the school basketball team. As I watched those snow-white thighs flashing up and down and her slender hands clapping, the crisp smack reverberated in my ears, the blood surged in my veins and I felt overwhelmed with shame. I turned away, unable to look at her.
Each day after school was over in the village, Xiaohong used to sit on the edge of the stream, dangling one foot in the water, examining the other foot with close attention. She would splash the foot with water to rinse off the mud, or scrape the callouses from her soles with a curved knife. I thought it was only me who was excited by this and felt too anxious ever to mention it to anyone.
But I was wrong. Many years later, I declassified my secret – only to discover there had been no need for the secrecy. Every single one of my classmates had clear memories of Xiaohong, the way she jumped up and down on the sports field and washed her feet in the stream. And not one memory but an average of two or three each. We all felt the same way.
‘Did you ever notice Xiaohong?’ I asked Dawei.
‘Of course I did. She certainly stood out from the crowd. All the boys in the school noticed her.’
‘Jieming too?’ I asked.
‘Definitely,’ Dawei hesitated and looked mysterious. ‘He…she…they…’
He obviously had inside information but he was in some difficulty. It didn’t matter at all linking Xiaohong with anyone else, but he had to exercise the utmost caution if he was to link her name with Jieming because he had received the death penalty and been executed right there in Gaoliang. Being associated with a convicted criminal would make it difficult for Xiaohong to marry. If she’d really been the girl Jieming left behind, then any boyfriend could hardly disregard her past.
I didn’t ask any more but I made up my mind that Jieming had loved Xiaohong. All the boys had felt like that back then, so why would he have been any different? I was convinced that Xiaohong had loved him back, although there were no rumours of anyone having their way with her. He was such a handsome, outgoing type, however, that if you were to pair up Xiaohong with anyone, it would be him. You see, at the East Is Red Middle School, there was Xiaohong (among the girls) and Jieming (among the boys).
They had surely loved each other. Jieming was no ascetic saint, he ought to have enjoyed the gifts this world could offer him. He ought to have enjoyed a beautiful woman.
I remember another sad story. During the Crackdown on Crime, one young delinquent was condemned to death for a horrendous crime. Just before his execution, tears began to roll down his cheeks, and he cried: ‘I haven’t been married!’
The dark road to Xu Da Wan
This is how I imagine the scene that day: *There is Jieming, on the reservoir embankment in the truck taking him to the execution ground. To his right, the lake waters stretches away into the distance, glinting in the sunlight, dazzling his eyes. Jieming looks out to the right, at a row of squat little homes built on the slope, most of their roofs not reaching above the embankment. I had a meal in one of these shacks, as Jieming’s guest. His friendship with these people must go back a long way.
Was he secretly going out with Xiaohong even then? The old couple who had brought us our food, were they Jieming’s prospective in-laws? Xiaohong certainly came from round here. Her grandparents were fisherfolk and her father had settled at the edge of the lake. He had a tour business or a restaurant along the highway. There were forty or fifty households clustered along the embankment, and the settlement had grown into something like a village or a small town. It had established itself as a place where people driving by stopped for a meal.
People around there were always busy meeting and greeting passers-by. Return visitors got special treatment, in fact, it was considered absurd, not to say unforgivable, not to come back. Unless you were a homicidal maniac like Wu Gui on a one-way trip to Xu Da Wan, of course.
On this particular occasion, another one-way traveller, Jieming, had grown up hereabouts and was the intended son-in-law of one of their neighbours. It was all extraordinarily shocking. One after another, the locals dropped the work they were doing and closed up shop, then trooped out onto the highway or the embankment to wait for the motorcade bringing the condemned prisoner. They had a built-in advantage compared with people who’d come from more distant villages and towns to gawk. All they had to do was step out of their front doors and they could see everything. If that wasn’t good enough, they would carry a bench to the top of the embankment, stand on it and get a panoramic view. All the same, they still had to crane their necks, because Jieming was in the back of an open truck, high up off the ground. His face was as white as a newspaper, on which his eyes and eyebrows made thick dark headlines. It was hard to read his expression, but luckily, the road was congested, the truck was going slowly and the condemned prisoner kept turning his head. Over and over again, he looked back longingly until he was far in the distance.
The spectators followed his gaze and saw it settle on the wooden door of Xiaohong’s house. The door creaked in the wind is if Jieming’s eyes were tapping lightly. His gaze became fiercer, as if it wanted to break the door down, then sorrowful, as if it was caressing the wood. His line of sight lengthened and lengthened, until the thread grew taut and broke and Jieming reeled it in. The remaining bit, nailed at one end to Xiaohong’s door, lifted in the breeze and fluttered over the lake waters and the fields.
That day, Xiaohong was not behind the door, nor in front of her house. She’d crossed the highway and chosen a good position on the other side. It was just half past two in the afternoon, and the ripples on the surface of the lake sparkled like gold. Her home faced west so if she’d watched from there, the reflection would have got in her eyes. So she went to the opposite side and hid her face in the shadows. She’d brought with her four handkerchiefs and a chair. Her father, elder brother and other family members kept her company. This meant that when Jieming was searching for her, there was no one in front of the house. Or rather, it was crowded with enthusiastic onlookers but none of them was the one Jieming was looking for.
If she had been there, everyone would have been pointing at her. That was one of the reasons why the family had decamped to the other side of the road. Unfortunately, Jieming kept on turning and staring at that damned door. If only he had turned his head a bit more, he would have spotted her. Xiaohong, tears pouring down her face, screamed herself hoarse: ‘I’m here! I’m here!’
Her elder brother took up the cry: ‘My little sister’s here! She’s here!’
Their father joined in: ‘My daughter’s here! She’s here!’
Even the other villagers and passers-by were moved despite themselves, and lent their support. Their shouts followed Jieming, rising in a great roar as if they were a mob storming the execution ground.
‘She’s there! She’s there! On the highway opposite the house!’
‘She’s on the other side! She’s on the other side! She’s not here!’
‘Your girlfriend’s on the other side! Your old woman…your young lady…’
‘You clumsy fool! You idiot!....Cannon fodder! Damned convict!’
Jieming ignored them. He couldn’t concentrate on two things at once and all his energy was taken up with looking. And so Xiaohong was cast off. Inevitably she was the one who got everyone’s sympathies. Beautiful, pale and heart-broken, she was so young. This was the last she would see of her lover, and he had turned his back on her.
Completely taken up with Xiaohong’s predicament, people forgot their personal sorrow. For instance, Dawei was terribly sad for Xiaohong. What a way for the lovers to part. So he had no time to think that this business affected him as well, that he was losing a friend of many years’ standing. Even Jieming’s own family were full of sadness. They kept saying: ‘That poor girl. Our boy’s dragged her into all this too!’*
When the news reached Nanjing, I had the same reaction. First, I asked after Xiaohong, then I mourned Jieming’s death. My old friend was already so far away on the dark and dismal road to Xu Da Wan, there was nothing else anyone could do for him. I had only a few laconic words from Dawei to go on, but I gave full rein to my imagination.
Twenty years ago
Since leaving Gaoliang, twenty years ago, I’ve only been back once. When Jieming was alive, I steered clear of the place because I hadn’t had a chance to make it up with him. After he died, there was even less to draw me back. The place reminded me painfully of him, not to speak of my eternal regrets. I had recurring dreams that he and I were good friends again. In my dreams, he was getting along fine and was really happy to be reunited with me. When I woke, I would find my eyes wet with tears. I would get out of bed, throw on my clothes and stand at the window having a smoke. Again and again, that dream surprised me when I least expected it. It was a dismal autumn that year.
A few years passed and the happenings in Gaoliang gradually faded from my memory. When finally I did go back there, just the once, it was twenty years later. I had no hesitations, and no fears either. It was all so long ago, in fact, it felt like another life. My particular reason for going to Gaoliang was my girlfriend. She was young and had grown up in a different world (compared to Gaoliang). She had never seen the Milky Way. This seemed unbelievable, until it occurred to me that the city was a forest of tall buildings covering half the sky and, in the remaining half, the glare of the city lights hid the stars. So we made a trip to Gaoliang especially to see the stars.
That evening, we were to stay at the Grain Bureau Guesthouse in Gaoliang, as the accountant at the Grain Bureau was another classmate of mine. We ate and drank and then sat around chatting in our room. Around midnight, we heard someone banging on the gate. The accountant hurriedly turned the light off and we looked out of the window. Someone outside was crying and shouting. It was weird, but the person looked very familiar. ‘That,’ the accountant said, ‘is Jieming’s little brother. Everyone knows him around here, he’s gone completely crazy, spends his time roaming the streets.’ This was very upsetting news, and I got up to let him in but the accountant quickly stopped me. He warned me that he was trouble. Was I really going to end up taking him back to Nanjing? I glanced at my girlfriend – she looked appalled. So all I could do was look out of the window at the figure who was wrestling with the metal gate and the air. Some time later, the accountant and Dawei left. The light was still off in the room and gentle snores were coming from my girlfriend. I stood at the window, smoking, wrapped in a dream of years ago.
Then I shook my girlfriend awake and told her a half-truth: we were going to see the stars, I said. We walked in the direction in which the madman had disappeared, trotting along until we got to the reservoir embankment. The night-time fires set by the fishermen to attract their catch lit up the forest of masts in the harbour while above, a slender, arching band of light shone down. This was the first time my girlfriend had seen it, and the Milky Way slanting through the night and the brisk lakeside breeze were the best presents I had ever given her. Still, I felt uneasy. Wasn’t this the road to Xu Da Wan? If so, poor, condemned Jieming must have passed this way, looking back over and over again. I finally spotted the house where Jieming had taken me out for a meal.
The next morning, Dawei and the accountant came to take us to Black Bridge. It looked completely different, broader, flatter, now such a busy road that I was nearly knocked flying by a speeding car. I leapt out of the way, grabbed the gold-painted railings and looked down into the river to calm myself . What I saw nearly frightened me out of my wits. The water beneath the bridge boiled and eddies swirled. Where was the stream that I remembered so well? This was a major river. I could have been leaning over the parapet on the Yangtze River Bridge back home in Nanjing. It was filled with large boats passing up and down. The banks had lost every vestige of green and among the grotesquely-shaped buildings that covered them, I could no longer see Jieming’s brick-and-tile home, the first you came to at the foot of the famous Black Bridge.
I thought of the bamboo grove behind his house, and the paulownia tree in front, and the long narrow field next to the river where Jieming’s mother worked every day. She was registered as a peasant but she didn’t need to work in the commune fields because Jieming’s father had a job in the county town. She had her field, and raised large numbers of poultry and pigs. All along the river, the peasants’ allotments teemed with chickens, ducks, dogs and pigs. It was a bustling, lively scene. Instead of the great waterway of today, there was a stream, in whose limpid, chattering waters, Jieming duck-dived and caught crab, and Xiaohong washed her feet (the village school was 500 metres upstream from this spot). I was a non-swimmer, but sometimes I’d gone in myself, to experience a frisson of danger in the safety of its shallows.
I thought of how Jieming used to head east from here out of the village, his rifle in his hand, to go hunting or, book bag over his shoulder, wait for me to go to school. Side by side, we walked down the county town’s only street. Back then, my family lived in the food-processing factory not far away. There’s no trace of it left now.
I thought back to one New Year. On the last day of the old year, I’d gone with Jieming to the hospital. He was carrying an enormous basket, crammed with bowls and plates, packed with dried fruits and cooked dishes, and steamed buns in decorative twists. The basket was heavy, even for a big, strong boy like Jieming, and I had to take some of the weight. It turned out that an old friend of Jieming’s father was having an operation and he reckoned that the family would not be in the mood for celebrating, so Jieming’s father ordered his wife to get all their food out and pack it into the basket. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. That New Year dinner’s food didn’t seem much when it was in their small, dark food cupboard, but it seemed an awful lot when it was packed into that basket.
Dawei told me that the river had been dredged, making it deeper and wider. That much was obvious. This Black Bridge was new (that was also obvious). ‘Jieming’s family home was bulldozed, and the course of the river was straightened. It’s right in the middle of the river bed now.’
‘The first building you come to under the bridge now is the public toilet. It’s quite unusual, definitely worth a look,’ added the accountant.
So we went to the luxury model toilet for a pee. Apparently, it had cost 700,000 yuan to build. It had two stories and was covered in coloured mosaic tiles outside. Inside, joss sticks kept it smelling sweet. This was the first building as you entered Gaoliang from the east of China, so obviously the county government had spruced it up to keep up municipal appearances.
I turned down Dawei’s suggestion that we go to Xu Da Wan. I didn’t want to visit Jieming’s grave either. Instead, I sat down by Black Bridge and lit a cigarette. Even though everything else had changed, the inscription ‘Black Bridge’ on a concrete slab mounted on the bridge support was still there. For the time being, I thought, this would do as Jieming’s gravestone. I made the customary three bows to the slab, and pronounced in a loud voice: ‘Dear old friend, you’re destitute and homeless now!’