Kung I-Chi by 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 again!"
"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
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
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 schooling?"
When I nodded, he said, "Well then, I'll test you. How do you write
the character hui in hui-xiang (aniseed—Translator
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
"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 accounts."
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 radical?"
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 beating."
"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
"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 broken."
"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 was haggard 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,
"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 coppers!"
"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 stealing again!"
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
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.