Litro #118: China

Cover art by Wu Yiqiang, represented by Hai Gallery, London.

September 2012

Short Fiction
Disguises” by Jean Kwok
Then the Game Begins” by Xiaolu Guo
Common People” by A Yi

The York Bar” by Katrina Otuonye

Autumnal Absences” by Fan Zhongyan (989-1052)
Breaking Off in May by Zhang Xian (990-1078)
River Song” by Li Zhiyi (1035-1117)

Compiled by Alex James

You can pick up a copy from our stockists from 1 October.

Litro #118: China—Editors’ Letter

China is impossible to describe. An ancient civilization, a vast nation, the largest population in the world. All true, but what is it actually like? How can we attempt to understand a country with 1.3 billion people? What could possibly be representative? At times it feels like the Great Wall—so vast it can be seen from space—is a mental as well as physical barrier.

China’s official image gives a carefully considered answer: a modern political powerhouse opening up to the world—successful, disciplined and happy. But critics such as Ai Weiwei point to the cost of such Confucian perfection: an unsettling disregard for the individual’s rights compared to the needs of the state. To quote a well-known yet still deeply illustrative example, at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, two girls were used for the solo recital—one for her voice, the other for her face.

Perhaps China has two faces: its face to the world, and the faces of its people—sometimes celebrated, sometimes hidden. But in these short stories we have discovered the individual voices from inside and outside this country; voices of protest and ambition, love and frustration, hope and confusion, all the richness of the human experience. We invite you to listen.

We would also like to thank Chatto & Windus for allowing us to reproduce “Then The Games Begin” by Xiaolu Guo, and also many thanks to Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic for his help in reaching out to writers based in China and the editors of Pathlight magazine – an excellent publication for Chinese short stories, by the way – for allowing us to reproduce A Yi’s “Common People”.


On the night Mrs. Chen got lost, she was wearing a golden amulet of the goddess Kuan Yin underneath her clothes, for protection. She took the subway home from the factory in Chinatown. Sitting on the long seat with her feet lightly grazing the floor, she felt the weight of sleep drag her head forward, her permed curls sinking towards the small neat hands cupped politely in her lap. As the half-empty subway car lurched through the tunnel, its movement sporadically flung her head upward. She caught herself from sleep in those moments, looking about her, alarmed, only to have exhaustion fall over her again like a blanket. The swaying of the subway threw her back and forth against the hard seat, the thin fabric of her flowered pants brushed against the shopping bag full of sewing.

[private]One… two… she had to take the subway fourteen stops to get home. The conductor’s voice in English was a river of sound in her ear, noise following noise like the falling of water over rocks. Three… four…

Mrs. Chen lifted her heavy head. Five… six… the door opened and her factory supervisor strode out of the elevator with her polyester skirt flicking about her legs, stepping quickly and fastidiously, as though the clumps of fabric dust on the sewing room floor dirtied her high-heeled shoes. As she walked, she waved one wide hand in front of her mouth to clear away the dust in the air—the other gripped a wadded piece of clothing. The supervisor only came into the work area when there was a problem; otherwise, she stayed in the air conditioned offices upstairs. Mrs. Chen could feel the supervisor’s presence passing through the rows of silent women bent over their Singer sewing machines; no one dared look up, their needles racing, piercing the fabric.

The supervisor threaded her way through the pack of women, bright in her silver-toned suit; its light gray material stretched across her fat stomach like the skin of a snake. She stopped next to Mrs. Chen and with fingers thick with rings of jade, snapped open the garment she had been holding—a skirt. Mrs. Chen, knowing it was not her place to meet the supervisor’s eyes, cautiously raised her gaze to the round collar of her shirt, while everyone about her seemed to busy themselves with their work.

“Your seams are crooked,” the supervisor announced, wrenching her mouth around the crisp Cantonese words. “This is not acceptable.”  She always attempted to speak Cantonese, one of the so-called “sophisticated” dialects, although her accent was painfully rural. She told everyone that she had been born in Hong Kong where the cleanest Cantonese is spoken, but, Mrs. Chen thought, her peasant roots shone clearly through her words.

Mrs. Chen stood up.

“I am so sorry,” she said, her pronunciation flawless. She knew the supervisor resented her for the breeding that meant so little in this country. She could see the skirt was one she had labored over at night, sewing between the soft breaths of her sleeping family.

“May I see it?” she asked, taking a step closer.

The supervisor held it away from her. “If this ever happens again, just one more time, you will no longer be allowed to bring work home,” she said. “Please remember, Mrs. Chen, you are very new to this country—we have had much trouble with recent arrivals—and my uncle is doing you a great favor to allow you to take home extra sewing, and indeed to work here at all. I do not like to see ungrateful employees. You will, of course, not be paid for that entire bundle.”

Then, before Mrs. Chen could reach for the skirt, the supervisor took one corner of it in her teeth and the other in her hands, and tore it down the seams, in half. She tossed the pieces onto Mrs. Chen’s table as she turned on her heel and stalked from the room.

Mrs. Chen sank into her seat, spreading her fingers to shield her hot face. What crime have I committed, in which past life, to deserve these evil winds of fate that blow at my back? she wondered. She realized that everyone was watching her out of the corners of their eyes, pretending they had noticed nothing. No one said anything to her. The subway doors closed and her head nodded forward.

The last station sped behind her. The overhead light went out, and the fluorescent flashes from the subway tunnel gleamed in the darkness behind her eyelids, pane after pane like frames of a movie.

Mrs. Chen, then just a girl named Lai Fong, was in China again. She was wearing green silk, preparing with her mother the ceremony for the seven goddesses who protected virginal maidens; it was the last time she would do this, because she was soon to be married. She bent to kneel on the cushion before the goddesses at the altar. Her mother, already kneeling, stopped her with a touch on her arm. Slowly, her mother gazed up at her, and her small rounded features, so much like Lai Fong’s, were filled with grief and tenderness.

“My only daughter,” she said, “before you pray with me this final time, you must remember this: it is said, one who is human must kneel only before the gods.” She paused, and then said fiercely, “Never before anyone else.”

The screech of the subway rang in her ears, startling her. Mrs. Chen brushed her forehead three times, to clear away painful memories. She touched the amulet of Kuan Yin hanging from the gold chain around her neck; its shape underneath her blouse reassured her. Everyone knew that pure gold protected you from evil but even more importantly, the monks at Shaolin Temple had “opened it to the light,” so that the goddess could truly live in it, as though it were her temple. The amulet was the only part of her mother Mrs. Chen had been able to take with her when she left China.

More people filled the subway car than she had remembered. Two well-dressed black women across from her chatted, and as one laughed, the long yellow feather on her hat wiggled. A homeless man wearing a cardboard sign with English writing on it had wrapped himself around a pole near Mrs. Chen.

He gingerly peeled his hands from the pole, as if it caused him pain to do so, and holding out his left palm, began to make his way through the car. His rancid smell, like sour milk, reached her before he did, and she tried not to breathe too deeply. Spittle clung to the sides of his mouth, suspended in droplets in his rough beard, but his lips were full and red, as though they alone had not lost their hold on life. When he stood in front of her, she studied his dirty face, and she was not afraid. It is said, she thought, that we must all be beggars for one life, we only hope that that life has already past.

She opened her change purse and pressed a quarter into his palm. She had none to spare but in this world, she mused, the times when you are able to give are so few that when you can, you must; the gods always view compassion kindly.

“Haf nice day,” Mrs. Chen said, smiling. This was one of the few English phrases she had managed to learn.

The homeless man closed his fingers around the coin, his stare not leaving her smile as though it surprised him more than the quarter. He turned to the two women sitting across from her. They had stopped talking to watch Mrs. Chen. Now, they also took out their purses and gave him some change. As the homeless man went on his way, Mrs. Chen nodded to the women and they smiled back before resuming their conversation.

Mrs. Chen settled into her seat and closed her eyes. The subway car clattered; it was as though she and the women and the homeless man were all in a carriage together, riding to the same place. But where were they going? We are the Monkey King, the monk, and their two companions, seeking enlightenment on a road filled with demons and goddesses in disguise, she thought, and the voice of the English-speaking conductor sounded like her father’s voice in China when he would tell her stories that she was too tired to understand. Then it seemed to her that the homeless man had put his head on her shoulder and they were resting together, sleeping, with the women across the way looking on.

Suddenly, she sat up. What stop was this? This must be number fourteen! This should be the right one but why did everything seem so unfamiliar? Where should she get off? The black women were gone; there was no sign of the homeless man. Mrs. Chen grabbed her shopping bag and hurried out of the train just before the doors closed, hoping this was indeed her station. Mr. Chen always scolded her for being overly imaginative. But as she stood on the platform, with the rush of the subway wind at her back, she realized that she had never seen this place before.

She watched the few passengers make their way to the stairs. Then, from behind her, she heard the sound of footsteps. She panicked and fled for the exit, the shopping bag bumping against her legs. She had been mugged only a few weeks ago; she was the last one leaving the subway platform and a teenager in a leather jacket had blocked her way. He pulled out a long knife and held it in front of his body, half-hidden by the folds of his coat. His eyes horrified her. They were pale blue, blue as she’d only seen in the eyes of those blinded by cataracts in China, yet this man was able to see, as if he were some sort of demon. Without a word, he gestured with his knife. She gave him her purse; he took it and ran.

Mrs. Chen reached the token booth, passed it, and raced up onto the street.  She stood outside the subway station, gulping in the cool night air, holding onto the stair rail. She looked around. No one had followed her. A desolate avenue lined with streetlamps stretched before her, the concrete buildings smothered in graffiti, interrupted by long alleys. In the distance, a dark figure walked down the block, only to quickly disappear around a corner. A skeleton of a car, windshield broken, stripped of all four wheels, loomed next to the subway entrance. She did not recognize anything.

This was a terrible place. She took the amulet out of her blouse and clutched it. A low wind whistled through the avenue, setting stray pieces of litter skittering across the concrete. She went back to the token booth.

She was relieved to see the clerk, a heavy man with a gray goatee, through the murky glass; he was an official, he could help her. She went around to the front of the booth and rapped on the glass with her knuckles.

“Hello? Hello?” she said.

He was talking on the phone and when he saw her, shifted so that his back was to her. She tapped on the booth more insistently. He waved for her to wait. She searched through her purse to find the piece of paper with her street address on it. Her son had written it out for her, just in case she got lost.

“Hello, hello?” she said, her voice growing shriller.

Hunching over the phone, the clerk ignored her.

“HELLO!” she screamed.

He turned around. Mrs. Chen quickly pushed the crumpled paper towards him. He studied it, and said some words to her in English.

“No,” she said, “no understand.”

He repeated what he’d said, only louder. She shook her head. The man ran his fingers across the top of his puffy hair, then pointed at the receiver he was holding, like she was keeping him from something. She pressed her ear as close to the glass as she could. She tried to understand something, anything, of what he said, but it was just babble to her.

“Dank you,” she said. “Bye bye.” The man shrugged and returned to his phone conversation.

She slowly climbed to the street. Please, Kuan Yin, let me get home to my child and husband… she prayed. There was a pay telephone on the corner. She walked to it as fast as she could, put down her bag, fumbled for a quarter and dialed her home number. Her husband answered on the first ring.

“Big Brother Chen?” she said. She never called him by his first name because that would be disrespectful, even though they had been married more than ten years.

“Where have you been?” he asked angrily.

“I don’t know—I’m lost.” She leaned against the side of the phone booth and began to sob.

“How could you be so stupid?” he yelled, as he always did when he was afraid. “Your son is here, waiting for his dinner—why don’t you ever pay attention to where you’re going? Where are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have to stop that crying,” Mr. Chen said. His voice grew more quiet. “Listen, don’t be afraid. We have to find out where you are and then we will come get you. Let me put Sonny on the line.”

She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and tried to pulled herself together. Her child must not know how upset she was.

His voice seemed much higher over the phone. “Mommy, where are you?”

“You have to help Mommy,” she said. Sonny was only nine years old but he was as smart as the boys a grade ahead of him. He was learning English so rapidly. She described her surroundings but he did not recognize them.

“I know,” Sonny said. “Can you spell the name of the street by you? Can you see the street sign?”

She found it but the word was very long. She had never been that good with the English alphabet.

“M… I…. no, E… and then A… no, R…” she began. In the middle of her spelling, she had to put another coin in the telephone. Finally, she came up with something that Sonny thought could be the name of a street.

“But I don’t know where it is,” he said.

“Do you have any maps?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Let me check in my geography book. That has maps.”

She could hear him getting off the chair and running to his books. He was gone for a few minutes. Mrs. Chen looked at her amulet, glinting brightly against her dark blouse. She brought the golden goddess to her face and laid it against her cheek.

She heard shuffling, then Sonny came back on the phone.

“Mommy?” he said. “I can’t find it. It’s not in my book. I’m sorry.” He started to sniffle. “When are you going to come home, Mommy?” he asked.

“Shhh… don’t cry,” she said, trying to sound calm. She could hear Mr. Chen cursing in the background. “Mommy will be fine.  I will walk around and maybe I will recognize something. Just tell your father that I will call soon.”

She hung up before she had to speak with Mr. Chen again. It would be more frightening to talk to her husband; he was just as helpless as she, and he would not be as easily comforted as Sonny. Her quarters were almost gone and she did not want to waste another. Perhaps she shouldn’t have given one to the homeless man. What was kindness in this world? She rested her head against the telephone for a moment. I invite the goddess Kuan Yin, she said under her breath, from the Shaolin Temple in the hills of Canton, to come to me now; so soon as I…

She felt a hand close to her ear reach for the amulet, as though it were trying to take it before she could finish her prayer. Mrs. Chen screamed and ducked at the same time. Grasping the shopping bag, she swung it in a circle, felt it hit, heard the sides rip. She hugged the bag and fled towards the subway station, hampered by its bulk. Someone or something seemed to race away in the opposite direction. So soon as I call her, she gasped, running, so soon will she appear…

As Mrs. Chen rushed to the steps, she caught a glimpse of features that looked Chinese. She skidded to a stop.

“Mister! Mister!” she shouted.

The young man turned, surprised. “Yes?”  He was Chinese. He must be a student, with his thick glasses and a green bookbag slung over his narrow shoulder.

Mrs. Chen almost cried from relief. “I am lost,” she said, breathing hard, “and someone just tried to take my necklace.”

“My Cantonese is very bad,” he said in Mandarin.

“We are both Chinese,” Mrs. Chen said, part in Mandarin and part in Cantonese. “Please help me.”

She explained the situation to him, her voice breaking—how she was lost and almost robbed, how she couldn’t follow the token booth clerk, how her son and husband couldn’t help her—using as much Mandarin as she remembered and filling in the rest with Cantonese. She put her bag on the ground and took out the piece of paper with her address on it. The young man listened and nodded; he seemed to understand her story. He took the slip of paper and the two of them went into the subway station. As they approached the token booth, the clerk recognized Mrs. Chen, rolling his eyes.

The young man spoke to the clerk in English and showed him her address. Then he said to Mrs. Chen, “The train you were on must have been re-routed. They probably announced the change but you did not understand. What you must do now is take the train over here for two stops and then switch…”

But Mrs. Chen was frantic. She clutched his arm, shaking her head. He stopped speaking and looked at her fingers buried in his jacket. “I will go with you,” he said.

Mrs. Chen sighed and then offered to pay for his token, but he put one in the slot as he waved her hand away. When they got on the subway, the young man took out a book and began to study, only peering at her occasionally to check that she was all right. She was too exhausted to even try to make conversation. Kuan Yin, thank you for your aid… The student escorted her the entire way to her own station. Mrs. Chen asked him to come to her house, so she could at least give him something to eat to repay his kindness, but when she passed through the gate, he did not follow.

She turned back to him. “Thank you,” she said.

The young man grinned and bowed, his schoolbag slipping off his shoulder. She bowed in response but by the time she straightened, he was gone.

When Mrs. Chen got home, Sonny threw himself at her and cried, while Mr. Chen roughly patted her on the arm. They were quiet as she told them how the young man had helped her, how he must have been sent by the gods. Mrs. Chen lit incense at the altar in their kitchen to formally give thanks and noticed there were extra incense stubs in the holder—Mr. Chen had also prayed for her.

“We were afraid for you,” he said. “We thought we might have lost you.”

Later that night, she had to stay awake to do her work. She bent to sew the pieces of the torn skirt together, joining again the severed parts with thread.[/private]

Autumnal Absences by Fan Zhongyan (989-1052)

To the tune of Sumuzhe (Praying for Heavy Snow)



A green, cloudy sky; and yellow leaves covering the ground –

               there are even autumn colours in the waves.

Over the waves, there hangs an emerald green mist.

Mountains catch the setting sun; sky and water fuse.

               The fragrant grasses are heartless,

but move further, now, beyond the setting sun.

There’s homesickness and wanderlust.

               When each night comes,

only happy dreams afford me sleep.

With the bright moon, on the balcony, I’m not to be alone!

               The wine poured in my worry-guts

transforms itself to lovesick tears.



Translated by Julian Farmer with Liang Yujing.

Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand, London MagazineEpiphanySHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.

Liang Yujing was born in Changde, China, and completed an MA in American Literature at Wuhan University in 2007. Now a lecturer at Hunan University of Commerce, he writes in both English and Chinese. His poems in English have recently appeared in Tipton Poetry JournalPortland Review OnlineZouch Magazine, and Wasafiri.

The York Bar

“You want to know why they call me Sugar Daddy?”

A slender Chinese man with a pinstripe fedora angled on his head sidles up to Miranda and me, and a few of our friends, holding a few beers that look suspiciously unfamiliar. Miranda switches from her native Chinese to English easily, but runs her hands through her mass of curls at a loss for words. We shoot Miranda surprised and awkward glances as “Sugar Daddy” lets loose some rapid-fire Chinese and wrenches the caps off the bottles. We don’t spend much time in Hankou, the nicer part of Wuhan. Miranda drove us here in her red Buick, with a deftness that only comes with a lack of driving instruction. She often assumes the role of unofficial translator, so she leans over and says, “That’s the owner of the pub.”

As Sugar Daddy nods at her translation, we exchange sly smiles. This man is clearly interested in foreigners, and foreign friends receive free gifts. He settles in the chair next to me and grins to show off crooked teeth that move around like a series of zippers in his wide gums.

As we eye the bottles, I inwardly groan at the idea of drinking more fake beer. The Shanghaiist, a popular Chinese weblog and news site, once described the fake Tsingtao as a beer “steeped in nicotine wrappers and death,” and after a few nights out, drinking nothing but Tsingtao, I had to agree. The owner hands us bottles of Tsingtao and peels at the wrapper. It comes off with difficulty, while most other beers have wrappers flapping in the wind.

China sends out whatever goods they can, Sugar Daddy explains. Most people in the country will drink whatever is sold to them. The cheapest beer is called Snow, and for 5 kuai, it’s the US version of a Natty Light. We used to gather outside street vendors with some fresh lo mian andsuck down half-litre bottles of Snow. Once people are drunk enough, they’ll buy anything; they’ll drink anything. It’s good for business. We never get Sugar Daddy to admit what’s in the fake beer. A distributor sends him the real Tsingtao that usually gets shipped out of the country. We’ve taken to drinking “formaldehyde-laced Snow” when out at bars because of our lack of options. On those nights, we hover in the alcoholic stupor, as carboxyls and teeny hydrogen molecules release and eat at our insides.

The York Bar sits in the middle of a busy street in Hankou, the gentrified section of the three smaller cities that now make up Wuhan. Hankou comes complete with its own Soho, budding Chinese clubs and faux French restaurants just in front of half-demolished apartment buildings. There’s a Howard Johnson with a large sun sphere like the 1984 World’s Fair creation down the expansive street, which, after a few double takes and a few more beers, looks like downtown Knoxville.

The decorative outdoor patio is settled snug next to the newly paved street, with only a few feet and some transplanted shrubbery to separate us from the stream of taxis. Instead of the stuffy indoor bar, Sugar Daddy holds court on the outdoor patio from eight until whenever his customers decide to leave. He sashays around the deck chairs, places his palms on the wrought-iron tables and inserts himself into conversations.

“Real beer,” Sugar Daddy says. “From Tsingtao, where I’m from.”

“Why do they call you Sugar Daddy?” Miranda asks. He has never answered the question about his name and at first, his English comes out in stammered bursts.

“Foreigners all think I am being… mistrustful?”

A petite, red-faced woman comes by with a waitress and we pull out bills to cover the beers. Sugar Daddy waves the woman away and tells the waitress to bring over more beer. The woman yells, he offers a sharp response in local Chinese that even Miranda doesn’t understand, and the woman meanders off the patio and hovers in the doorway.

“I have the name because I like the way it sounds and then people say I should change it, but they always call me that. So I keep the name.”

The waitress appears again and apparently she and the angry woman would prefer if we not only paid for our beers, but drank liquor and ate something as well. After getting burned by “Johnnie Worker Red Labial” the week before, we decline the liquor and the woman storms off. Sugar Daddy responds by getting another waitress to drag out the rest of the case of Tsingtao. We slip the bills back into our wallets, settle in on the patio and get comfortable.

“Call your friends,” he says and we all pull out our phones.

“So why don’t we get the good beer?” I ask.

“You know, government. Money.” Sugar Daddy expresses these words in the absolute terms of a businessman acknowledging the demands of his culture. “But I am from Tsingtao.” As I raise my eyebrows, he puffs out his chest and rubs it, satiated.

The waitress returns with a menu, so Miranda orders the cheapest thing York has: popcorn. Sugar Daddy hustles the woman away and calls for more beer. The same red, angry face appears in the doorway and he throws his head back and cackles. He pulls off his fedora like an old pro and points to himself again: Businessman.

I text a bunch of American friends who often spend their weekends in a stumbling migratory pattern between Soho, a few buildings down, and 97, just across the street. When they arrive, the waitress proudly brings chilled fake beers for my friends, who don’t know what they’re getting or that I’ve been drinking steadily for three hours and haven’t paid for a thing. Sugar Daddy leans over to me, his conspirator.

“Once we’re friends, real Tsingtao. ‘Til then… blip!” He moves his right hand as if flicking away a fly.

My friends ask Sugar Daddy about the name of his bar. He shrugs. This is not the conversation he wants to have. He’s been watching movies, he tells me. He opens his arms like Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Sugar Daddy sucks up some unfortunate air and says, “This is China,” just before his lungs break down and he hacks out a few coughs, which he quenches with a swig of beer. He spreads his arms again, as if indicating his own impressive empire. And my friends, who have been drinking shit beer for months, honor their host as eager subjects. Happy to tell his story, he goes on as they invent and develop the dark conspiracy of “what’s in the beer.”

An hour later, all the foreigners are drinking the good beer for free. They compare the fake and real bottles as if analyzing counterfeit bills. They tear off the wrappers and wave them in the air to see their degree of transparency.

“Shit beer, shit glue.” Sugar Daddy now has a cigarette angled out of his mouth that he never lights. He tugs at the bottle wrappers to show his new, best customers. The angry woman has been relegated to the window, where her gaze is just as dangerous.

Miranda directs her thumb towards the ominous window. “You might have to fire that woman,” she laughs.

Our host leans back in his chair, slaps his thigh and claps his hands.

“I have tried! I have! That,” he says, “is my wife.”

He waves his hand to change the subject as if the motion could dismiss an entire marriage.

“I have hooked up in Tsingtao,” he says.

The group smiles, but no one says anything in a long pause.

“That’s wrong!”

He places the fedora over his face and laughs before he tosses it back on the table.

“I have the hookup.”

We decide how to get back home. Miranda’ll take a few in her car and the other handful will brave the drunken girls outside of Soho and commandeer a taxi.

“Hey Sugar, doing anything for the World Cup?” Miranda asks. The York Bar has a large screen set up to watch the preliminary games.

“My special guests! The best table and…” He points towards us with open arms—the maestro knows his audience.

“Real beer,” we chorale. We fall into the darkness, the silence of pre-dawn, and he stands. Instead of holding up one finger as if to say, “Shush,” he puts up the whole hand, pinky pointing out, with resigned but firm authority. That old-time country contractual obligation crosses his face. We nod in agreement.

“Good for business,” Miranda says.

We file pass the shrubs as he calls his wife to collect the empty bottles. Sugar Daddy walks us to the car and rubs at his face. He grabs my arm before I hop inside and kisses my hand. I get in the car and roll down the window. It’s getting late.

“It’s true,” he says. “This is China.”

Breaking Off in May by Zhang Xian (990-1078)

To the tune of Qianqiusui (A Thousand Autumns Old)



        The frequent sound of the cuckoo

again proclaims the meadow flowers’ passing.

I enjoyed the spring, so pick its last blooms, even more.

        There’s scant rain and cruel wind,

        while yet the plums remain unripe.

                          The Yongfeng Willow

stands alone all day, its snowflake-catkins flying.

        No plucking of my pipa’s highest string.

I hate it, for it speaks feebly.

Heaven won’t age, which makes love hard to break.

        My heart is like a double silk net

        with thousands of knots at its core.

                          Night is over.

My one lamp, in the eastern window, was put out, at first light.



Translated by Julian Farmer with Liang Yujing.

Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand, London MagazineEpiphanySHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.

Liang Yujing was born in Changde, China, and completed an MA in American Literature at Wuhan University in 2007. Now a lecturer at Hunan University of Commerce, he writes in both English and Chinese. His poems in English have recently appeared in Tipton Poetry Journal, Portland Review Online, Zouch Magazine, and Wasafiri.

Then the Game Begins

The man who invented Mah Jong is a hero. Yeah, definitely a hero. He saves people’s lives, people like me who have nothing good to count on at night. You know I used to think that playing Mah Jong was only for grandparents, and a young woman like me would have better things to do. But now I know this game is for everyone, for all the people in China. I wonder what Chairman Mao thought of Mah Jong during the Cultural Revolution, maybe he tried to stamp it out. Very unwise I think.

[private]I feel a much stronger person since I started playing Mah Jong. And you know what’s more, it has brought about an affair.

Let me explain to you why I like gambling—and now gambling with my marriage as well. For the last three years I have spent every day answering telephones in my office in a perfect polite voice, answering every query with a smile, and every evening cooking dinner in an empty home, waiting for my husband Hui to walk through the door. God, how boring my life sounds—don’t you think? So by the time he arrives home the dinner I have laboured over for him is cold and unappealing, so I almost always eat alone. Then I watch crappy TV on our crappy television set until Hui opens the door, weary as always. He seems to have put on weight recently, I wonder whether he’s been drinking too much beer after work with his colleagues, or perhaps his cheap shirt is just too tight? You know he is not that handsome or special, after all. He is just an ordinary man, now I realise. Disappointing or not, that’s the truth.

You know I haven’t made a single friend in this city of eighteen million people. And why is that? I used to think I was one of the many victims of old Confucius’ rules—he says the good virtue of a woman is to belong to her husband; the rest is not worth consideration. I thought I was such a modern woman—pah! What did I know? What stupidity! You know, I started to ask myself why I was even living in this big city with my plastic modern flat, my tired and absent husband. There is a whole city full of possibilities out there, and I was sat here at home watching cheap soap operas day after day. My body was getting old and tired and flabby, my mind loose and lazy—I needed something to shock me into living, really living.

Then one night, I stayed up late listening to a new CD, an album by Nick Cave. There is this one song called “Nobody’s Baby Now”. The lyrics go like this: “This is her dress that I loved best, with the blue violets across the breast. And these are my many letters torn to pieces by her long-fingered hand, I was her cruel-hearted man…” When I heard those lines, my tears flowed out freely. I played the song again and again that night, as if on a constant loop. Then I dried my eyes and made a decision. I decided to give up my young-housewife life. I needed something to happen for a change and you know even if it causes a small disaster—I’m ready for it, I really am. I also realised that for an ambitious man like Hui, home is a drag, and coming back to spend time with the wife in front of the TV is a waste. I never realised that it might also be a waste for me.

And you know Hui and I don’t have a child. They say if a man doesn’t want to have children with you within three years it means he doesn’t want to be tied to you forever. Forever! Ha! What an ill-conceived and unworkable word. Good riddance to that. I’m not interested in forever anymore. It should only be written on Mah Jong tiles—passed around casually from person to person.

But now everything has changed. Since I’ve started playing Mah Jong, I get home late, often later than Hui. Only the other day I tiptoed into the flat around two in the morning to find him slumped on the sofa, his tie askew and his dinner half-finished on a plate on the floor. The TV was still on. Some late-night game show was playing and the volume sounded violently loud in the silent room.

Usually I play Mah Jong with Old Gold and his mates or his clients. Then he drives me home in his big shiny BMW round and round the dark ring roads of Beijing. Sometimes we play deep into the night in karaoke parlours or bars. And sometimes I just sit in Old Gold’s BMW listening to his CD collection. Three weeks ago we were sitting there on the tan leather seats with Bryan Adams playing some sentimental 80s crap rock—I told him I liked it—and suddenly I realised that Old Gold wanted to kiss me. He was looking at me with his head on one side, his arm draped over the steering wheel, leaning forwards. I knew I had a choice: I could go back to my old life, be the woman waiting at home, or I could let Old Gold kiss me, and maybe even enjoy it. So I leaned my head on Gold’s shoulder and we kissed. We had sex on the back seat; the leather squeaked and was slippery and sticky next to my naked skin. The parking lot was so quiet and the night porters were wandering around with their white torch beams raised and shining so brightly that I was nearly worried someone might find us.

I think I forgot to mention that Old Gold is actually my boss. My husband Hui has played Mah Jong with him and his wife Xing many times; sometimes we even play as a foursome: two happy couples. What a joke.

I work for Gold’s newspaper—the New Consumer. I used to be the receptionist and then recently I was promoted. I know that Old Gold noticed me. He used to comment on my clothes or hairdo, and occasionally, you know, I would find him staring at me while he waited in reception for a lunch guest or client. Now my job is to read western fashion magazines and to report on the latest trends from Milan, Paris, or London. Gold is a smart guy—he knows people from the government and seems to understand how to run a business in Beijing. And of course he was well ahead of everyone when he bought his 250-square-metre flat in fashionable Jian Wai Soho—the most expensive area in Beijing—way before it hit the big time.

One night as I lay on my bed, waiting for my husband to come home, the scenes in Gold’s BMW flashed through my mind like a film reel. I was so nervous, you know. That night I played Mah Jong with colleagues in a bar, and Gold won all of our money. He flirted with me outrageously all evening, leaning in close, stroking my bare arm and commiserating with me on my bad luck. It was very late and he offered to drive me home. He was a little drunk and gloating about his winnings. I didn’t want to go home—I knew the life there too well. It bored me now. I wanted excitement and change, risk and adventure, and most of all, you know, I really wanted Old Gold. His body wasn’t great and his hair was greasy, but his touch had triggered something.

Three weeks later Gold’s wife Xing invites me and my husband to “build the Great Wall”—that’s what she calls Mah Jong. Now what can I tell you about Xing? So she picks great tiles… but what is that but just good luck? I can’t see that she has any other virtues. She is a fashionable woman who does nothing all day long, except for going to the hair salon and shopping for famous western brands. Before marrying Gold, she used to sing in a bar, screeching in her whiney high-pitched voice songs from Titanic and The Lion King, with the lyrics translated into Chinese. Actually, her voice isn’t that bad, but since she’s just been a housewife, she only uses it to order take away meals, or to curse Gold for not spending enough time with her.

My husband Hui loves playing at Gold’s place. He loves Gold’s brand new “Automatic Mah Jong Table”—a new gadget that automatically shuffles and arranges the tiles for you. It’s very popular because people save time in between each round and they can stay focussed on gambling instead.

So the day finally arrives when we four are supposed to build the Great Wall. It’s a balmy Saturday evening. I wear my best summer dress—fake Dolce & Gabbana—I imagine it being a bit like the blue violet dress in the Nick Cave song. Hui carries some beers under his arm. Arriving in Gold’s residential area, we have to pass through a whole series of security gates and  wind our way along a complicated garden path. As we approach Gold’s front door, I hear a woman crying. I hesitate, but Hui has already pressed the bell. Gold opens the door with sunken cheeks, and right behind him we see his wife Xing’s swollen eyes. The floor is a mess. Broken china plates, hair clips, crumpled old newspapers, a woman’s underwear, and Gold’s leather handbag. You know right that moment I wanted to run back home as fast as I could, but Hui had already walked into their kitchen and put five bottles of beer on the table. He was smiling, trying to sooth the atmosphere.

“What’s the matter? You two had a little argument?” Hui asks in his best voice.

“Let me tell you what kind of asshole my husband is!” Xing sneezes.

My heart sinks. I steal a glance at Gold, but he has buried himself in a big leather sofa, and he doesn’t look up. He stares at his toes. “Look what I found in his bag!” Xing fetches a small gift box from the top of the TV set. She opens it. It’s a silver necklace with a dangling crystal heart. Then she unfolds a note from inside the box and reads aloud: “For my darling, happy birthday!” She looks around at us with wide wet eyes, “Ha!” She looks at Gold. “Ha!” The words come out sharp and hard like little bullets.

No one says a word. Gold seems to grow more depressed, Hui looks at me for a couple of seconds but he quickly shifts his gaze back to the angry hostess.

“Happy birthday for my darling! Did you hear? That can’t be me! My birthday was a month ago, that day we went bowling. He bought me a jade necklace and I’ve worn it ever since!”

I look at her and sure enough she’s wearing a green jade necklace. It sits heavily around her neck—the colour is dull and there is no shine to the stone. I’m getting restless. Does Gold’s wife know the date of my birthday? And has Hui remembered it this time? Last year he didn’t you know, and I ate a special home-cooked hot pot dish all by myself for two and half hours waiting for him to come home and remember. Anyway, it is next Thursday.

“Where are your guts now? Who is she? Eh?”

“I’ve told you twenty times, my dear, I bought it for you then I found the jade and I always think jade things suit you best!” Gold yells.

“Let’s leave this business for now, buddies.” My good-tempered husband finds a broom, starts to clear up the floor. “In my opinion, Xing, you need to trust your husband. I believe he bought that for you.”

Xing seems to withdraw a little from her hysteria. She stops speaking, walks to the sofa and curls up beside her husband. Her legs are close to his—no, actually it looks like she is clinging to him. Her gesture makes me feel very strange. I realise I don’t want to be in her place, snuggled up to Old Gold’s sausage legs and breathing in his musky smell; but I am glad of our moments in the back of his car.

Hui sweeps everything into a corner. Now, with a light-hearted manner, he unfolds Gold’s expensive automatic Mah Jong table, and installs it in the middle of the room. He does it as confidently as if this was his own house. From the sofa, Gold and Xing passively gaze at their guest moving around the room in front of them. What a great husband I have!

“Maybe we should go, we’ll come some other time,” I say in a tense voice.

“No way, you’ve come all this way! You can’t possibly leave now!” Gold is nearly begging us.

“Yes, let’s forget about this stupid necklace and have some fun!” Hui adds. “It is Saturday night after all!” He drags Gold and Xing out of the sofa. Yes, Hui is right, why we can’t enjoy this game? I mean, the game of playing a Mah Jong together.

We all take our seats around the Mah Jong table. I am facing Old Gold. His eyes are lowered and beads of sweat dot his upper lip. Hui presses the control button, and at once a bunch of white tiles appear. Automatically they line up into four neat, tight walls.

Gold grabs some notes from his wallet and places them on the table, so does Hui. Then Xing follows, with her crab-like fingers. We start with one-yuan notes, as usual. I take out my wallet filled with credit cards, but there’s no cash in it. My husband notices this and throws me 20 yuan; you know I can’t help smiling to myself at how sweetly innocent is my dear Hui.

We arrange our tiles. Xing seems less miserable than earlier. The Mah Jong tiles do have a special kind of magnetism which sucks her into the game—I know only too well. Gradually, she seems to forget the memory of what happened twenty minutes ago. Yet she throws the dices like a desperate gambler, hypnotised by disaster.

The first hour passes uneventfully. My husband keeps losing money, and Gold’s wife is winning. Neither Gold nor I say much. I make a point of being very attentive to Hui and I can feel Gold’s eyes on me as I touch my husband’s arm or kiss his cheek. I enjoy Gold’s stare.

Then the game grows more intense, Gold’s wife bids 10 yuan at each round. Hui grows desperate. He has lost nearly 400 yuan, and the game is not even halfway through. I keep as quiet as Gold, who drinks his beer with a professional gambler’s face—motionless and unreadable.

Midnight. The beers are all gone. The two men start to drink Er Guo Tou, the strongest Beijing sorghum liquor, while Xing nibbles at a pack of cashew nuts. I sip at my glass of water. The whole situation has my rapt attention: I feel like I’m watching a play enacted in real time, only forgetting that I’m one of the key players. I peek at Xing: she is totally taken by the game. Now she stands up, goes to the kitchen and brings back two pomegranates. She bites into the fruit’s hard skin, and at the same time, she hands me the other one. I take the pomegranate and put it on the corner of the Mah Jong table. I can’t eat. Really, how can she eat such a hard fruit in the middle of the night?

Waiting for the machine to shuffle the tiles, the two men chink their glasses and swallow the fiery liquor into their empty stomachs. With pomegranate seeds in her mouth, Xing gazes at me with a strange expression. Then she says: “That silver necklace,” she spits out some seeds onto the floor, ‘I know who it is for.’

I am suddenly uncertain. Bit by bit my resolve feels like it is being gnawed away by a mouse. The air conditioning is too strong. A chill runs down my spine. My legs feel prickle with pins and needles. They hang loose from my body like the limbs of a puppet. I feel stuck. I can’t move my body at all. What should I do? And where should I look? I pull my eyes away from the scene and glance outside through the double glazed windows: it’s a warm summer evening, a group of old people are sitting under a polar tree, fans in hand, drinking tea. I wish I hadn’t worn this thin dress, this Nick Cave blue violet dress. My nose starts to run with clear liquid and I begin to sneeze.

Gold and Hui freeze and stare at her, glasses in their hands, the liquor a sweet golden nectar.

The automatic table suddenly gets stuck. It makes a disturbing noise, and starts to click and whine.

No one knows what to say.

“I’m going to bed now, you three carry on.”

Very deliberately Xing rises from her chair, leaves the table, still biting into the hard skin of her pomegranate.

I let out the breath I’ve been holding for so long. Gold watches as his wife disappears down the corridor towards her bedroom, then looks back at the table. Still, he doesn’t look at me. What a coward, I think. He would never dare to admit to everyone that he likes me, let alone mention that we now make love in the back of his car after every Mah Jong session. I start to think that maybe I don’t know my boss at all. Perhaps today is the first day I have really begun to know him. Then beside me, Hui drinks another swig of liquor, his face growing red and swollen. Silence.

I stare at the pomegranate in the corner of the table. It is a big one, with pink and brown mottled skin, and a dirty white sticker saying “Product of Iran”.

The three of us sit there hoping for the tiles to be delivered on to the table. But the shuffling machine goes on clicking, like a dying lobster.[/private]

River Song by Li Zhiyi (1035-1117)

To the tune of Busuanzi (Calculating the Future)



I live at the head of the long Yangtze.

He lives in its furthest reaches.

I think of him, each day, but we never meet.

The drink we share is the Yangtze water.


When will these waters come to rest,

or my regrets finally end?

I only hope his heart’s like mine.

Surely, we won’t betray our longings!




Translated by Julian Farmer.

Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand, London Magazine, Epiphany, SHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.

Common People by A Yi

Imagine—if you will—that you are a large bird, hovering over the town of Jujiu on 20 April 1998. You would have seen the county’s deputy mayor, Li Yaojun, getting unexpectedly promoted to legal-political commissar; Chen Mingyi, a secondary school teacher, smashing his head on the ground outside a department store; Li Xilan’s husband heading off (and not for the first time) to Beijing to get his impotence treated; a team of migrant workers digging a pit in the road outside the park; and Feng Botao—accountant at the Linye Hostel—suggesting a game of chess to Ho Lao’er, a security guard in the local building society. And if you had been asked to arrange these disparate pieces of information in order of importance, you would probably have placed the final fact at the bottom of the pile.

[private]Feng Botao trailed behind, as he always did. Ho walked in front, both hands behind his back. He puckered his lips sardonically when he encountered someone he knew, as if to say: “Pathetic, isn’t he?” I thought this was okay; I can’t think of a way round it. The townspeople of Jujiu understood the dynamic between Feng and Ho perfectly: it was as the moon is to the earth, or the earth to the sun. Today, though, there was something unsettling about the sight of the two of them together. There was a strange, bladelike glitter to Feng’s eyes—as if he were escorting Ho down to the underworld. But no-one could tell Ho he was about to die, just like you can’t tell a driver that he’s about to have an accident.
So all passers-by passed by, and Feng and Ho made their way to the lakeside. Ho settled his corpulent form on a stool, while Feng poured a plastic bag of chess pieces onto a stone chess board and carefully set them out. This was Ho’s last chance to read the expression on Feng’s face, but he saw only humility. He told Feng to start, and his opponent dutifully moved his cannon out. Feng had lost count of how many times he had tried this opening and of how many times he had sworn to abandon it. A sense of solemn finality overwhelmed him; the presentiment that today was the last time he would play it. Fuck you, he suddenly thought. Ho responded by moving his knight forward, as usual. After a few more moves, Feng drifted into a daydream: he was walking silently through a crowd of people asking him whether he had won. He looked to Ho for an answer; his opponent gave only a knowing smile. Its flash of contempt brought a flush to Feng’s face.

After a few brisk exchanges, Feng played the move that he had rehearsed the previous evening: as Ho’s hand paused over the board, Feng set his face into an expression of magnanimous victory. “Come on,” he hurried his opponent. Ho glanced at him and gave a strange, unnerving laugh—the sound of scissors skittering over sheet iron. Feng snapped out of his trance; he had already tried out his new move, he now remembered, one Mid-Autumn Festival several years ago. The game advanced, move-for-move, exactly as it had back then; even the casualties were identical. It was as if he were stuck in a time warp.

Ho, the eternal victor, made one more move and Feng’s position disintegrated irremediably. “This is our last game,” Ho pronounced. Usually, Feng’s response was abject; today he coolly agreed: “All right.” Slightly discombobulated by Feng’s composure, Ho made a few more  swift, careless moves, watched his opponent reluctantly react to them, then left without completing the checkmate. Feng sat stock-still, as if paralysed.

Ho’s bloated, maggot-like form shuffled slowly home. As he searched for his keys outside his front door, Feng caught up with him. Again, witnesses noted the glitter in Feng’s eyes, except that this time, Ho saw it too. Somehow, though, he felt he couldn’t ask if Feng was planning to kill him.

“One more game.” Feng rattled the pieces in the plastic bag. Bystanders noted Ho’s discomfort, his attempt to make excuses. But eventually, he allowed himself to be hustled inside.

Seven citizens of Jujiu witnessed Feng enter Ho’s house at five o’clock that evening; no-one saw what time he left. Ho (a widower) was discovered dead at nine o’clock by another security guard picking him up for his shift. On the street outside, a long queue of ants had formed under the lamppost; the air smelt freshly of death. Ho was lying, face down, over his dining table. The back of his head was covered with a white towel stained red in the centre, like the Japanese flag.

At eleven o’clock that evening, Feng (also a widower) quietly unlocked his own door. Hundreds of fingers seemed to be pointing at him out of the dark. He staggered backwards but they still pursued him. The valuables in his hand fell to the ground.

Feng claimed that he had left Ho’s residence at six o’clock that evening. “You should play to win,” Ho had told him, seeing him out with a pat on the shoulder. After six o’clock, he had taken his usual evening stroll around the perimeter of the park. This detail was Feng’s undoing.

“Did anyone see you?” the police interrogator asked him. “I didn’t notice,” Feng replied. “I was only thinking about chess.” “So you just kept walking around the park?” “Yes.” “How many times?” “Once or twice.” “You’re lying. They’ve dug up the concrete.” “Yes, I noticed.” “Where?”

Feng had no answer to that. For four or five days, he was forced to squat, to stand on one leg, or was deprived of sleep. Through it all, he heard only one word: “Confess.” The mesmerising quality of the repetition almost broke his childish defiance but he somehow managed to resist. Surrender, he knew, would mean death.

On the seventh day, the new Commissar, Li Yaojun, arrived to take over as chief interrogator. “Look at me,” he said. Feng slowly raised his head: a ray of cold afternoon light fell onto his forehead. He immediately looked back down. Li repeated his command. Feng tried, but failed, to avoid the Commissar’s gaze. He began to feel like a naked woman in a room full of voyeurs and his body went into spasm, rattling his chains. Li continued to lock eyes with him, like a lion with its claws poised over a victim.

Eventually, Feng broke. Though his first attempt at an admission of guilt was rather garbled—as if suffering from stage fright—the second was more audible, and the murderous sharpness in Li’s eyes melted into tenderness. “I killed Ho Lao’er,” Feng repeated. “I’ve also embezzled three thousand yuan from the state, and stolen a hundred yuan from a blind fortune teller and…” Li left the room. By the time the police interrogator had taken his place, Feng was filled with anti-climax.

“So, how did you kill Ho?” the interrogator asked. “With a kitchen knife.” “No.” “With an axe.” “No.” “With a truncheon.” “You’re getting warmer.” “A hammer.” “And where was he when you hit him?” “Standing up.” “Have another go.” “Sitting down.”

To Feng, his interrogator was like a spoilt child whose every whim he wanted to satisfy. But there were a few things Feng just couldn’t get right, such as where he had hidden the key to the building society vault or the murder weapon. However hard he tried, he couldn’t guess what he’d done with it.

The investigation dragged on for six months (confession following retraction following confession) until the untimely death of Li Xilan’s husband. On returning from his third, fruitless trip to Beijing, despairing of a cure for his impotence, he threw himself under a train. With no need to worry about her reputation any longer, Li Xilan swore—on her knees in front of the office of the district prosecutor—that Feng Botao had been with her between six and nine o’clock on the evening of 20 April.

The public prosecutor sent Feng’s file along with Li Xilan’s testimony back down to the county police, with four comments attached. First, the motive was unconvincing; second, the murder weapon had not been found; third, the confession was full of contradictions; fourth, the suspect had an alibi. That evening, Li and a few of his retainers went looking for Li Xilan. He slammed her testimony down on a table and struck it with a rifle butt. “What were you doing with Feng Botao on the evening of 20 April between six and nine?” “You know.” “What?” “Having sex.” “How d’you know it was 20 April?” “My period had just finished, I ringed the date on my calendar.” “You can go to prison for perjury.” “I’m telling the truth.” “We had this case sewn up, you whore. You’ve messed everything up. And got me in trouble with my bosses.”

At this point, Li Xilan wet herself. “Take her away,” Li said. Two policemen picked her up, one under each arm, as if she were a paraplegic. She was fully incontinent before she was released a week later. “Your evidence is worthless,” a policeman told her. “You’ve no one else to prove you were having sex that night. If anyone could say they were having sex whenever they wanted, what kind of a mess would China be in?”

Li had started out as a village cadre, slowly hauling himself up the political food-chain: to deputy village head, deputy Party secretary, village head, Party secretary, then township head, secretary of the township Party branch, head of judiciary and head of transport. Finally, aged forty-five, he had been promoted to deputy mayor of the county. He’d only got the commissar promotion because his predecessor had died not long after getting the job, and his bosses had decided to give him a chance. On taking up his new post, he had sworn that no homicide would go unsolved. He didn’t want to release Feng, but neither could he keep him locked up, so he rang the District Commissar and begged him to get public security to call a meeting to discuss the case.

“There isn’t enough evidence,” the District Commissar told him. “What’s wrong with what we’ve given you?” “He won’t get the death penalty.” “Well, give him a suspended sentence.” “He won’t get that, either.” “Just lock him up for twenty years, then. I’m sure he did it. I’d swear on my rank.”

Feng Botao, rotting in jail, had no idea that he was being bargained over like a cabbage. When he learnt that the court would be trying his case on 22 November, he was sure that this was the end. He ate his dinner and masturbated long and hard, fantasising about Li Xilan.

But a well-connected lawyer got him out before it came to that. His wrists, released of their handcuffs, felt suddenly cold. Without shackles, he felt light as a feather—as if the slightest wind might carry him off. As he left the prison, he looked up at the deep blue sky, stretching out to the horizon like a shard of curved tile. He glanced back: at the black characters on the white sign over the entrance; at the glass-tiled roof over the iron door; at the grey brick walls. A sentry box nestled amid white poplars; a green-uniformed policeman, toting a submachine gun, paced back and forth outside. Anxious to get out of his line of fire, Feng quickly got into a taxi parked nearby and collapsed, weeping, into Li Xilan’s soft chest.

On the journey home, Feng more or less kept himself together; he even noted the existence of a new furniture store and the motorbikes they passed. But he broke down as soon as he got home; the thick dust over every surface reminded him of the desolation of the past seven months. Li Xilan had him put on a saline drip, and for two days he ran a high temperature. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was vaguely aware of someone telling him he had important visitors. When the fever receded, he was convulsed by shivers. Finally, he craved food and drink: now pears, now stuffed rolls. Eventually, only the sight of Li Xilan’s breasts calmed him down.

Feng Botao slept and woke up feeling much better. A team of visitors burst in unannounced—Li Yaojun, the Chief of Public Security, the Director of Prosecutions. While Feng shrank back into his sickbed, Li seized him by the shoulder. Glancing nervously at him, Feng saw a tear forcing its way out of the Commissar’s eye. Li was gazing compassionately at him, as if Feng were a wounded younger brother home from the wars. “You’ve been wronged,” Li began, his voice husky with emotion. He produced an envelope: “This is four thousand yuan from the government, compensation for the 210 days you spent in prison.” Feng nervously touched the envelope lid. Thrusting it at him, Li quickly produced another package: “Here’s another seven thousand yuan—your salary for the last seven months.” Lost for words, Feng watched Li pull out one more envelope: “And here’s a sympathy collection that the police put together: ten thousand yuan.” When Feng tried to stagger out of bed, Li reached out a hand to steady him. “It’s too much,” Feng protested.

“Don’t be silly.” Li stuffed the third package under his pillow. “How can I ever thank you?” Feng mumbled. “Just concentrate on getting better,” Li replied. The delegation left, without touching the tea that had been poured for them. At the door, though, Li suddenly turned back around, as if he had just remembered something. “You know what reporters are like these days; always nosing about for stories for their shitty papers.” “I know,” Feng answered.

Under cover of darkness, several reporters did indeed pay Feng a visit. After ignoring them for a while, he felt he should at least open the door. “No interviews. My decision. If you write any rubbish about me, I’ll throw myself off your building.”

“We’re on your side,” one of them said.

“Get lost,” Feng replied.

Feng became very uneasy when he learnt, subsequently, that Li Yaojun had been demoted. Whenever he passed him on the street, he couldn’t look him in the eye. Feng also knew that he’d only been released because Chen Mingyi from the local secondary school had confessed to Ho’s murder, so it was Chen he really ought to thank for his survival. Bearing this in mind, Feng paid for some of the hospital treatment that Chen Mingyi’s father needed.

Chen Mingyi had been arrested in the middle of November. Three days in a row he had stolen Maotai—one of China’s most expensive spirits—from the local supermarket. On the fourth day, he was caught in the act. He was a slight, highly strung man, and the team at the police substation quickly terrified him into admitting several other thefts. After being transferred to the criminal investigations team, he swiftly confessed to Ho Lao’er’s murder as well.

According to his file, Chen Mingyi’s criminal activities began on 20 April. That day, after a meeting at the hospital, he had walked in a trancelike state to the department store, knelt outside and begun to smash his head on the pavement. People crowded around and asked what was wrong. His father’s breath smelt of urine, he told them. “So what?” they replied. “He needs dialysis.” What’s dialysis, they wanted to know. “Something that costs a lot of money.” Everyone vanished. Having driven away most of the department store’s custom, Chen proceeded to get drunk. At some point that afternoon, he watched a navy blue security van speed past, and Feng Botao and Ho Lao’er head off to the lakeside together. “Where’s his sense of dignity?” he heard Ho say.

Here was a solution, Chen felt. It was fate. He went home, washed his face, made a plan, washed his face again, then left for Ho’s house with a hammer. On his way over, he saw Feng Botao walking in the opposite direction, looking preoccupied. Ho must be on his own, Chen thought. He sat down, wrapped his shoes in plastic bags like a delivery man, put a pair of thick safety gloves on, and checked for the hammer in his pocket. Adrenaline made him meticulous. On reaching Ho’s house, he took a deep breath, opened the door and discovered Ho dozing face-down on the dining table.

“Lend me some money,” he said.

Ho twisted his fleshy head slightly to look at him, opened his eyes vaguely, and went back to sleep.

“Lend me some money,” Chen repeated.

Ho got angry: “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep? Get lost.” He lay his head back down on the table. Chen Mingyi took a few steps backwards, paused for about ten seconds, then charged forward and struck the back of Ho’s head with the hammer. Ho shuddered, then went back to sleep with a grunt. Chen Mingyi fetched a towel from the kitchen to cover his head then struck him about another dozen times until the blood began to show through.

There wasn’t much money in the house, but Chen eventually found the key to the building society vault. His next plan was to kill the duty guard and raid the vault, but halfway there, one of his trouser legs began to feel rather heavy. Was Ho tugging on his leg? he wondered, shivering. He looked down and discovered he had pissed himself. He ran home, mewling.

“Why didn’t you use a kitchen knife?” the interrogator asked him. “He would have screamed if I hadn’t killed him straight away.” “What about an axe?” “Too heavy. A hammer was quicker and easier. I thought it all through beforehand. A hammer was best for killing a big man like Ho. I needed to take him by surprise and get the job done quickly.”

Chen Mingyi, the interrogator now saw, seemed to be enjoying his confession, as if he were an actor in part. “You’d never committed a crime before.” the interrogator now asked. “Why did you decide to murder him?”

“I thought I’d need at least twenty or thirty thousand yuan. You don’t get that without murdering someone. And if you’ve decided to murder someone, you have to act fast. There’s no way back.”

“Why didn’t you kill anyone else?”

“I lost my nerve. I couldn’t sleep.”

“How about now?”

“I feel much better now, talking about it.”

Eventually, after losing his way several times, Chen Mingyi guided his interrogators to a stagnant pond. After some migrant labourers had emptied it, the police discovered a hammer and a key in the silt at the bottom. Chen Mingyi was formally arrested, quickly tried and sentenced to death.

Once Chen Mingyi had been moved to a tiny cell—five or six paces by seven or eight—on death row, his morale broke. Every day he spent with his face pressed to the bars, weeping. His grief was contagious, and soon all the other prisoners were crying in chorus. The guard thought there was something unusual about his crying: most people in the cells wept from terror, but there was a tenderness in Chen’s sobs. One sunny day, the guard led Chen Mingyi—now pale and trembling with malnutrition—to his cubicle and offered him a cup of wine. “Who are you crying for?” he asked. “My father,” Chen answered. “I heard what you did for your father,” the guard sighed. “You’re the most educated person here, too. What a waste.” “I had no choice,” Chen said. “How come?” the guard asked. “The doctor told me that uremia destroys families. Far richer families than ours had been broken by it, he said. If the urine can’t leave the system, it’ll poison the body; my father needed a kidney transplant, or second best, dialysis. If you’re lucky, the treatment costs one hundred thousand a year, two or three hundred thousand if you’re not. The school lent me a bit, and so did my relatives; even my students chipped in. But it was gone in no time.”

“So you turned to crime?” “Robbery and murder.” “Why didn’t you just let him go? We’ve all got to die some day.” “I couldn’t kill my father.” “I didn’t say kill him. I said let him go.” “Letting him die would be murder. I owe everything to my father, he even sold his own blood for me. How could I let him down? He’s only 49—younger than you.”

The prison guard took Chen Mingyi’s hand and pushed up his sleeve: “You’ve sold your blood too.”

“Even when I was at school, I already felt I could never pay my father back. Every day I read the Classic of Filial Piety. If I were the emperor of China or a prince, I thought, I could repay him like an emperor or a prince. But I was just an ordinary person. Then again, Confucius said that anyone could be filial—it didn’t matter whether they were an emperor or a beggar.”

The prison guard grunted his assent.

“Confucius also said,” Chen went on, “that as long as you were frugal, your parents would live long lives. But these days, you need money to be filial. If I only eat a bread roll every day, will that help my father get better? And Heaven is supposed to take pity on the truly filial. Do you remember that Han dynasty story about Jiangshi? He walked two miles every day to fetch river water for his mother to drink, so Heaven brought the river up to their house. Or there’s the legend about Wang Xiang, who lay down naked on the ice to catch fish for his stepmother. So Heaven cracked the ice and two red carp leapt out. I’ve dug fresh thunder god vine and researched endless Chinese medicine prescriptions, and all that’s happened is my father’s got worse.”

“But Confucius also said that sometimes it was all right to give up. Like I said, we’ve all got to die sometime. You can’t make your father immortal. You tried your best.”

“If my father had a terminal illness,” Chen answered, “then I would have given up. But he hasn’t. I couldn’t leave him in the hospital to die.”

The guard sighed. “But the Classics also say that you should respect other people’s elders like you respect your own. You shouldn’t kill other people to keep your father alive.”

Chen Mingyi slowly drank his wine. “I don’t care who I have to kill to keep my father alive.”

The execution took place on a crisp winter’s day. As he escorted Chen to the ground, the guard urged him to have a drink. Chen wanted to know how his father was. The guard rang the hospital. Eventually, a doctor picked up. “He’s dead,” he told the guard.

The guard walked out in front of the firing squad: “He’s a bit better. He’s reading the newspaper.” Tears streamed down Chen’s face.

Afterwards, the guard went to the hospital and, on making enquiries, discovered that Chen Mingyi’s father had died like a pampered pot-plant. The doctors said that, like a plant, he would have withered without nourishment. But he had been watered every day. At one point, a thin man trailing behind a rather busty woman had come and paid for some of his treatment. But after that—no one. “All good things must come to an end,” the guard thought.

So here we are, still hovering idly over Jujiu, greedily hoping for the scent of death. If we stay there long enough, we’ll see Li Yaojun getting appointed chairman of the Political Consultative Conference; an employee at the supermarket sighing that only an idiot would steal the same overpriced alcohol from the same shop for four days in a row; and Feng Botao, accountant at the Linye Hostel, happily fucking Li Xilan—day in, day out. “Where’s that ring you promised me?” Li Xilan asks one day, after they’re done. It seems that Feng Botao has forgotten. “You’re a bastard,” Li Xilan sobs. “You cheated Chen Mingyi and you’ve cheated me. You’re a bastard.”[/private]

Translated by Julia Lovell and originally published in Pathlight, No. 2: ISBN 978-7-119-07780-2.
© Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd, Beijing, China, 2012.

A Yi was born in 1976 in Ruichang, Jiangxi. He has worked as a police officer and editor of sports journalism. His works include Grey Stories, The Bird Saw Me, What Should I Do Next, Model Youth, and The Lonely One. He won the People’s Literature Novella Prize and the Young Writer of the Year Award, was chosen as one of People’s Literature’s Top 20 Future Masters, and won the Chinese Literature Media Awards’ Best New Artist Award.

Listings: September 2012

New St. James Theatre opens in London
St. James Theatre, the first newly built theatre complex in central London in 30 years, will open to the public this month. Rising from the site of the former Westminster Theatre at 12 Palace Street, in the heart of Victoria, the space will include a 312-seat theatre, a studio space, brasserie and bar. David Gilmore (Artistic Director) and James Albrecht (Assistant Artistic Director) will produce a varied programme to include musicals, comedies and classic revivals as well as offering a London venue to touring and regional productions. For more information, visit

E17 Art Trail: 1-16 September
Art in all its forms will be popping up all over Walthamstow. Step inside neighbours’ houses or sample art on shop walls, hanging from trees, in estate agents’ windows, in galleries and gardens, on pavements and in pubs. Almost 3,000 people have contributed to this year’s programme of over 350 events to surprise, entertain and amaze residents and visitors to Walthamstow in the eighth annual E17 Art Trail. The full programme is available at

Barbican presents Transcender Festival on 17 September
The Barbican’s contemporary music autumn season begins this month with a series of concerts that offers a look at transcendental, devotional, spiritual, hypnotic and psychedelic music. It explores music designed to transport the listener, to conjure trances or summon states of ecstasy. This year’s festival includes artists from Iran, the United States, Iraq and Armenia, and features a rare collaboration between Iranian maestro Hossein Alizadeh and one of Armenia’s greatest musicians, Djivan Gasparyan, a celebration of Iraqi music, the Sun Ra Arkestra led by Marshall Allen and a hypnotic multimedia collaboration featuring Oneohtrix Point Never, and Reliquary House at LSO St Luke’s. For more information visit

Be Open Sound Portal (London Design Festival 2012)
Trafalgar Square project, 19-23 September
This year Be Open, the new global initiative to foster creativity and innovation, and the London Design Festival are co-producing a project in Trafalgar Square that focuses on the idea of “design you can’t see”. Taking as its basis the idea of sound as a means of conveying memory and evoking emotion, the Be Open Sound Portal will be an immersive space in the centre of the square that will take visitors on an intriguing journey. The Portal will transport visitors to inaccessible places and remote environments through a series of three-dimensional soundscapes created by leading musicians and sound designers. For more information visit

South Place Hotel to open in London
South Place is an 80-bedroom, design-focused property, due to open this month. The hotel’s rooftop terrace will offer 7th-floor views of the City of London. South Place aims to bring something different to the hotel scene in London. Combining the buzz of D&D London’s restaurants, Conran-designed interiors and specially commissioned work by contemporary London artists, South Place looks set to be “more meet than sleep” than most London hotels. Handy for Liverpool Street commuters will be the two restaurants, including a brasserie on the ground floor, plus bars from hotel owner, the D&D London group, which also owns restaurants including London’s Bluebird and Coq d’Argent.

James Cousins: New Adventures Choreographer Award showcase
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 7 September.
Selected from hundreds, James Cousins is the winner of the inaugural New Adventures Choreographer Award (NACA). The evening features three world premieres. Cousins’ There We Have Been is a duet which takes inspiration from the climax of the 1957 novel, Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet; and Everything and Nothing is a dynamic collaboration between James Cousins, lighting designer Lee Curran and set designer Colin Falconer. The piece is performed to an original score fusing electronic and classical sound worlds by composer Seymour Milton. Visit

Roald Dahl Day with Michael Rosen
Cottesloe BS, National Theatre, 8 September.
A morning of brilliant stories about Roald Dahl, celebrating his birthday and a new book about him, Fantastic Mr Dahl, written by the former Children’s Laureate and poet Michael Rosen. For more information, visit

The Bartered Bride / A Night at the Chinese Opera
British Youth Opera, Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, 8–15 September.
British Youth Opera celebrates its 25th anniversary with two new productions in association with Southbank Sinfonia. Smetana’s comic masterpiece, inspired by folk tales from his native Bohemia, tells of the Bartered Bride whose arranged marriage is thwarted by her true love’s cunning. A Night at the Chinese Opera is a colourful depiction of China in the time of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and the “Orphan of Zhao”, whose tragic tale of military invasion and personal vendetta is mirrored by Judith Weir’s theatrically turbo-charged comic-opera-within-an-opera. For more information visit

Prince Of Wales Theatre, from 14 September.
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the world’s most successful rock’n’roll band, live in London’s West End. Let It Be is a spectacular theatrical concert jam-packed with over 20 of the Beatles’ greatest hits. Relive the Beatles’ meteoric rise from their humble beginnings in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, through the heights of Beatlemania, to their later studio masterpieces with live performances of early tracks including “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You” and “All My Lovin’”, as well as global mega-hits “Yesterday”, “Hey Jude”, “Come Together” and, of course, “Let It Be”. For more information visit

Private Peaceful
Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18–29 September 
Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful plays for a strictly limited 16 performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 18 September. Directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, Private Tommo Peaceful is a young First World War soldier awaiting the firing squad at dawn. During the night he looks back at his short but joyful past growing up in rural Devon; and the battles and injustices of war that brought him to the front line. Visit

The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 18–21 September.
Eccentric three piece band The Tiger Lillies comes to Southbank Centre with the UK premiere of their new show, The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet. Co-produced by Southbank Centre and Danish theatre company Republique, the show combines new music, circus acts, giant puppets and video projections to give a macabre twist to Shakespeare’s classic tale of the Danish prince. Visit

Jazz Nights in the Cafe in the Crypt
St Martin-in-the-Fields, Wednesdays through September 2012
Café in the Crypt St Martin-in-the-Fields plays host through September to some of the UK’s top jazz musicians and singers. Get ready for jazz, swing, ska and rock and roll. Zena James’ heartfelt, unpretentiousness and lustrous vocals giving a fresh interpretation to soul-laden jazz and Santi, a bright-toned and nimble trumpeter performing world-class improvisation. For more information visit

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Tate Britain, 12 September–13 January 2013
Combining rebellion and revivalism, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur, the Pre-Raphaelites constitute Britain’s first modern art movement. This exhibition will bring together over 150 works in different media, including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts, revealing the Pre-Raphaelites to be advanced in their approach to every genre. Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) rebelled against the art establishment of the mid-nineteenth century, taking inspiration from early Renaissance painting.

Art of Change
The Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition brings together some of China’s most innovative artists from the 1980s to the present including Chen Zhen, Yingmei Duan, Gu Dexin, Liang Shaoji and Wang Jianwei. It showcases some outstanding early examples from each artist, alongside more recent works and commissions. The acceptance that everything is subject to change is deeply-rooted in Eastern philosophy, and the artworks deal with themes of transformation, instability and discontinuity. The works on display all alter their appearance over time, or otherwise convey a powerful sense of volatility.

Everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s
Barbican Art Gallery, 13 September 2012–13 January 2013
This major photography exhibition surveys the medium from an international perspective, and includes renowned photographers from across the globe, all working during two of the most memorable decades of the 20th Century. everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s tells a history of photography, through the photography of history.  It brings together over 350 works, some rarely seen, others recently discovered and many shown in the UK for the first time.

Walking Home, Simon Armitage
British Library, 14 September
Part journal, part nature writing and part autobiography, Simon Armitage’s heroic and sometimes hilarious travelogue Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way combines prose and poetry as Armitage recounts his 256-mile epic walk along the Pennine Way. Contemplative, moving and droll, it is a unique narrative from one of our most loved writers. For more information visit

The Book Show LIVE! on 22 September
The Book Show 2012 is a show for authors and publishers. This full-day event will be held on the 22nd September 2012 over three floors at The Hat Factory in Luton, Bedfordshire. Being overseen by the UK’s leading digital publisher, Andrews UK, The Book Show brings authors and publishers together in one space to talk, network and build relationships with one another. Come along and take part in a full day’s worth of panels with both authors and publishers; ask questions to digital and traditional publishers; meet other authors and like-minded individuals and find out about getting your work out there, whether through a publisher or going it alone with self-publishing; hear from people talking about their experiences of self-publishing and make up your own mind. With talks on PR and marketing, there’s a chance to hear the professionals explain how they do what they do and to speak to experts about the impact of social networking and other media.