[Zhou Shuren (25 September 1881 – 19 October 1936)
known in literature as Lu Xunwasa
Chinese writer, essayist, poet, and literary critic of great fame and a pioneer
of modern Chinese literature.]
Author's Name: LU HSUN
The wine shops in Luchen are not
like those in other parts of China. They all have a right-angled counter facing
the street, where hot water is kept ready for warming wine. When men come off
work at midday and in the evening they buy a bowl of wine; it cost four coppers
twenty years ago, but now it costs ten. Standing beside the counter, they drink
it warm, and relax. Another copper will buy a plate of salted bamboo shoots or
peas flavoured with aniseed, to go with the wine; while for a dozen coppers you
can buy a meat dish. But most of these customers belong to the short-coated
class, few of whom can afford this. Only those in long gowns enter the adjacent
room to order wine and dishes, and sit and drink at leisure.
At the age of twelve I started
work as a waiter in Prosperity Tavern, at the entrance to the town. The tavern
keeper said I looked too foolish to serve the long-gowned customers, so I was
given work in the outer room. Although the short-coated customers there were
more easily pleased, there were quite a few trouble-makers among them too. They
would insist on watching with their own eyes as the yellow wine was ladled from
the keg, looking to see if there were any water at the bottom of the wine pot,
and inspecting for themselves the immersion of the pot in hot water. Under such
keen scrutiny, it was very difficult to dilute the wine. So after a few days my
employer decided I was not suited for this work. Fortunately I had been
recommended by someone influential, so he could not dismiss me, and I was
transferred to the dull work of warming wine.
Thenceforward I stood all day
behind the counter, fully engaged with my duties. Although I gave satisfaction
at this work, I found it monotonous and futile. Our employer was a
fierce-looking individual, and the customers were a morose lot, so that it was
impossible to be gay. Only when Kung I-chi came to the tavern could I laugh a
little. That is why I still remember him.
Kung was the only long-gowned
customer to drink his wine standing. He was a big man, strangely pallid, with
scars that often showed among the wrinkles of his face. He had a large, unkempt
beard, streaked with white. Although he wore a long gown, it was dirty and
tattered, and looked as if it had not been washed or mended for over ten years.
He used so many archaisms in his speech, it was impossible to understand half
he said. As his surname was Kung, he was nicknamed "Kung I-chi," the
first three characters in a children's copybook. Whenever he came into the
shop, everyone would look at him and chuckle. And someone would call out:
"Kung I-chi! There are some
fresh scars on your face!"
Ignoring this remark, Kung would
come to the counter to order two bowls of heated wine and a dish of peas
flavoured with aniseed. For this he produced nine coppers. Someone else would
call out, in deliberately loud tones:
"You must have been stealing
"Why ruin a man's good name
groundlessly?" he would ask, opening his eyes wide.
"Pooh, good name indeed! The
day before yesterday I saw you with my own eyes being hung up and beaten for
stealing books from the Ho family!"
Then Kung would flush, the veins
on his forehead standing out as he remonstrated: "Taking a book can't be
considered stealing, . . . Taking a book, the affair of a scholar, can't be
considered stealing!" Then followed quotations from the classics, like
"A gentleman keeps his integrity even in poverty," and a jumble of
archaic expressions till everybody was roaring with laughter and the whole
tavern was gay.
From gossip I heard, Kung I-chi
had studied the classics but had never passed the official examination. With no
way of making a living, he grew poorer and poorer, until be was practically
reduced to beggary. Happily, he was a good calligrapher, and could get enough
copying work to support himself. Unfortunately he had failings: he liked
drinking and was lazy. So after a few days he would invariably disappear,
taking books, paper, brushes and inkstone with him. After this had happened
several times, nobody wanted to employ him as a copyist again. Then there was
no alternative for him but to take to occasional pilfering. In our tavern his
behaviour was exemplary. He never failed to pay up, although sometimes, when he
had no ready money, his name would appear on the board where we listed debtors.
However, in less than a month he would always settle, and his name would be
wiped off the board again.
After drinking half a howl of
wine, Kung would regain his composure. But then someone would ask:
"Kung I-chi, do you really
know how to read?"
When Kung looked as if such a
question were beneath contempt, they would continue: "How is it you never
passed even the lowest official examination?"
At that Kung would look
disconsolate and ill at ease. His face would turn pale and his lips move, but
only to utter those unintelligible classical expressions. Then everybody would
laugh heartily again, and the whole tavern would be merry.
At such times, I could join in
the laughter without being scolded by my master. In fact he often put such
questions to Kung himself, to evoke laughter. Knowing it was no use talking to
them, Kung would chat to us children. Once he asked me:
"Have you had any
When I nodded, he said,
"Well then, I'll test you. How do you write the character hui in hui-xiang
I thought, "I'm not going to
be tested by a beggar!" So I turned away and ignored him. After waiting
for some time, he said very earnestly:
"You can't write it? I'll
show you how. Mind you remember! You ought to remember such characters, because
later when you have a shop of your own, you'll need them to make up your
It seemed to me I was still very
far from owning a shop; besides, our employer never entered hui-xiang peas in
the account book. Amused yet exasperated, I answered listlessly: "Who
wants you as a teacher? Isn't it the character hui with the grass
Kung was delighted, and tapped
two long fingernails on the counter. "Right, right!" he said,
nodding. "Only there are four different ways of writing hui. Do you know
them?" My patience exhausted, I scowled and made off. Kung I-chi had
dipped his finger in wine, in order to trace the characters on the counter; but
when he saw how indifferent I was, he sighed and looked most disappointed.
Sometimes children in the
neighbourhood, hearing laughter, came to join in the fun, and surrounded Kung
I-chi Then he would give them peas flavoured with aniseed, one apiece. After
eating the peas, the children would still hang round, their eyes on the dish.
Flustered, he would cover the dish with his hand and, bending forward from the
waist, would say: "There isn't much. I haven't much as it is." Then
straightening up to look at the peas again, he would shake his head. "Not
much! Verily, not much, forsooth!" Then the children would scamper off,
with shouts of laughter.
Kung I-chi was very good company,
but we got along all right without him too.
One day, a few days before the
Mid-Autumn Festival, the tavern keeper was laboriously making out his accounts.
Taking down the board from the wall, he suddenly said: "Kung I-chi hasn't
been in for a long time. He still owes nineteen coppers!" That made me
realize how long it was since we had seen him.
"How could he come?"
one of the customers said. "His legs were broken in that last
"He was stealing again. This
time he was fool enough to steal from Mr. Ting, the provincial scholar! As if
anybody could get away with that!"
"What then? First he had to
write a confession, then he was beaten. The beating lasted nearly all night, until
his legs were broken."
"Well, his legs were
"Yes, but after that?"
"After? . . . Who knows? He
may be dead."
The tavern keeper did not pursue
his questions, but went on slowly making up his accounts.
After the Mid-Autumn Festival the
wind grew colder every day, as winter came on. Even though I spent all my time
by the stove, I had to wear my padded jacket. One afternoon, when the shop was
empty, I was sitting with my eyes closed when I heard a voice:
"Warm a bowl of wine."
The voice was very low, yet
familiar. But when I looked up, there was no one in sight. I stood up and
looked towards the door, and there, facing the threshold, beneath the counter,
sat Kung I-chi. His face washaggard and lean, and he looked in a terrible
condition. He had on a ragged lined jacket, and was sitting cross-legged on a
mat which was attached to his shoulders by a straw rope. When he saw me, he
"Warm a bowl of wine."
At this point my employer leaned
over the counter and said: "Is that Kung I-chi? You still owe nineteen
"That . . . I'll settle next
time," replied Kung, looking up disconsolately. "Here's ready money;
the wine must be good."
The tavern keeper, just as in the
past, chuckled and said:
"Kung I-chi, you've been
But instead of protesting
vigorously, the other simply said:
"You like your joke."
"Joke? If you didn't steal,
why did they break your legs?"
"I fell," said Kung in
a low voice. "I broke them in a fall." His eyes pleaded with the
tavern keeper to let the matter drop. By now several people had gathered round,
and they all laughed. I warmed the wine, carried it over, and set it on the
threshold. He produced four coppers from his ragged coat pocket, and placed
them in my hand. As he did so I saw that his hands were covered with mud—he
must have crawled here on them. Presently he finished the wine and, amid the
laughter and comments of the others, slowly dragged himself off by his hands.
A long time went by after that
without our seeing Kung again. At the end of the year, when the tavern keeper
took down the board, he said, "Kung I-chi still owes nineteen
coppers!" At the Dragon Boat Festival the next year, he said the same
thing again. But when the Mid-Autumn Festival came, he did not mention it. And
another New Year came round without our seeing any more of him.
Nor have I ever seen him
since—probably Kung I-chi is really dead.