Medicine by Lu Hsun
It was autumn, in the small hours of the morning. The
moon had gone down, but the sun had not yet risen, and the sky
appeared a sheet of darkling blue. Apart from night-prowlers, all
was asleep. Old Chuan suddenly sat up in bed. He struck a match and
lit the grease-covered oil lamp, which shed a ghostly light over
the two rooms of the tea-house.
"Are you going now, dad?" queried an old woman's voice. And
from the small inner room a fit of coughing was heard.
Old Chuan listened as he fastened his clothes, then stretching
out his hand said, "Let's have it."
After some fumbling under the pillow his wife produced a packet
of silver dollars which she handed over. Old Chuan pocketed it
nervously, patted his pocket twice, then lighting a paper lantern
and blowing out the lamp went into the inner room. A rustling was
heard, and then more coughing. When all was quiet again, Old Chuan
called softly: "Son! . . Don't you get up! . . . Your mother will
see to the shop."
Receiving no answer, Old Chuan assumed his son must be sound
asleep again; so he went out into the street. In the darkness
nothing could be seen but the grey roadway. The lantern light fell
on his pacing feet. Here and there he came across dogs, but none of
them barked. It was much colder than indoors, yet Old Chuan's
spirits rose, as if he had grown suddenly younger and possessed
some miraculous life-giving power. He lengthened his stride. And
the road became increasingly clear, the sky increasingly
Absorbed in his walking, Old Chuan was startled when he saw
distinctly the cross-road ahead of him. He walked back a few steps
to stand under the eaves of a shop, in front of its closed door.
After some time he began to feel chilly.
"Uh, an old chap."
"Seems rather cheerful. . . ."
Old Chuan started again and, opening his eyes, saw several men
passing. One of them even turned back to look at him, and although
he could not see him clearly, the man's eyes shone with a lustful
light, like a famished person's at the sight of food. Looking at
his lantern, Old Chuan saw it had gone out. He patted his
pocket--the hard packet was still there. Then he looked round and
saw many strange people, in twos and threes, wandering about like
lost souls. However, when he gazed steadily at them, he could not
see anything else strange about them.
Presently he saw some soldiers strolling around. The large white
circles on their uniforms, both in front and behind, were clear
even at a distance; and as they drew nearer, he saw the dark red
border too. The next second, with a trampling of feet, a crowd
rushed past. Thereupon the small groups which had arrived earlier
suddenly converged and surged forward. Just before the cross-road,
they came to a sudden stop and grouped themselves in a
Old Chuan looked in that direction too, but could only see
people's backs. Craning their necks as far as they would go, they
looked like so many ducks held and lifted by some invisible hand.
For a moment all was still; then a sound was heard, and a stir
swept through the on-lookers. There was a rumble as they pushed
back, sweeping past Old Chuan and nearly knocking him down.
"Hey! Give me the cash, and I'll give you the goods!" A man
clad entirely in black stood before him, his eyes like daggers,
making Old Chuan shrink to half his normal size. This man thrust
one huge extended hand towards him, while in the other he held a
roll of steamed bread, from which crimson drops were dripping to
Hurriedly Old Chuan fumbled for his dollars, and trembling he
was about to hand them over, but he dared not take the object. The
other grew impatient and shouted: "What are you afraid of? Why
not take it?" When Old Chuan still hesitated, the man in black
snatched his lantern and tore off its paper shade to wrap up the
roll. This package he thrust into Old Chuan's hand, at the same
time seizing the silver and giving it a cursory feel. Then he
turned away, muttering, "Old fool. . . ."
"Whose sickness is this for?" Old Chuan seemed to hear
someone ask; but he made no reply. His whole mind was on the
package, which he carried as carefully as if it were the sole heir
to an ancient house. Nothing else mattered now. He was about to
transplant this new life to his own home, and reap much happiness.
The sun had risen, lighting up the broad highway before him, which
led straight home, and the worn tablet behind him at the cross-road
with its faded gold inscription: "Ancient Pavilion."
When Old Chuan reached home, the shop had been cleaned, and the
rows of tea-tables shone brightly; but no customers had arrived.
Only his son sat eating at a table by the wall. Beads of sweat
stood out on his forehead, his lined jacket clung to his spine, and
his shoulder blades stuck out so sharply, an inverted V seemed
stamped there. At this sight, Old Chuan's brow, which had been
clear, contracted again. His wife hurried in from the kitchen, with
expectant eyes and a tremor to her lips:
They went together into the kitchen, and conferred for a time.
Then the old woman went out, to return shortly with a dried lotus
leaf which she spread on the table. Old Chuan unwrapped the
crimson-stained roll from the lantern paper and transferred it to
the lotus leaf. Little Chuan had finished his meal, but his mother
"Sit still, Little Chuan! Don't come over here."
Mending the fire in the stove, Old Chuan put the green package
and the red and white lantern paper into the stove together. A
red-black flame flared up, and a strange odour permeated the
"Smells good! What are you eating?" The hunchback had
arrived. He was one of those who spend all their time in tea-shops,
the first to come in the morning and the last to leave. Now he had
just stumbled to a corner table facing the street, and sat down.
But no one answered his question.
"Puffed rice gruel?"
Still no reply. Old Chuan hurried out to brew tea for him.
"Come here, Little Chuan!" His mother called him into the
inner room, set a stool in the middle, and sat the child down.
Then, bringing him a round black object on a plate, she said
"Eat it up . . . then you'll be better."
Little Chuan picked up the black object and looked at it. He had
the oddest feeling, as if he were holding his own life in his
hands. Presently he split it carefully open. From within the
charred crust a jet of white vapour escaped, then scattered,
leaving only two halves of a steamed white flour roll. Soon it was
all eaten, the flavour completely forgotten, only the empty plate
being left. His father and mother were standing one on each side of
him, their eyes apparently pouring something into him and at the
same time extracting something. His small heart began to beat
faster, and, putting his hands to his chest, he began to cough
"Have a sleep; then you'll be all right," said his
Obediently, Little Chuan coughed himself to sleep. The woman
waited till his breathing was regular, then covered him lightly
with a much patched quilt.
The shop was crowded, and Old Chuan was busy, carrying a big
copper kettle to make tea for one customer after another. There
were dark circles under his eyes.
"Aren't you well, Old Chuan? . . . What's wrong with you?"
asked one greybeard.
"Nothing? . . . No, I suppose from your smile, there couldn't
be . . ." the old man corrected himself.
"It's just that Old Chuan's busy," said the hunchback. "If
his son. . . ." But before he could finish, a heavy-jowled man
burst in. Over his shoulders he had a dark brown shirt, unbuttoned
and fastened carelessly by a broad dark brown girdle at his waist.
As soon as he entered, he shouted to Old Chuan:
"Has he eaten it? Any better? Luck's with you, Old Chuan. What
luck! If not for my hearing of things so quickly. . . ."
Holding the kettle in one hand, the other straight by his side
in an attitude of respect, Old Chuan listened with a smile. In
fact, all present were listening respectfully. The old woman, dark
circles under her eyes too, came out smiling with a bowl containing
tea-leaves and an added olive, over which Old Chuan poured boiling
water for the newcomer.
"This is a guaranteed cure! Not like other things!" declared
the heavy-jowled man. "Just think, brought back warm, and eaten
"Yes indeed, we couldn't have managed it without Uncle Kang's
help." The old woman thanked him very warmly.
"A guaranteed cure! Eaten warm like this. A roll dipped in
human blood like this can cure any consumption!"
The old woman seemed a little disconcerted by the word
"consumption," and turned a shade paler; however, she forced a
smile again at once and found some pretext to leave. Meanwhile the
man in brown was indiscreet enough to go on talking at the top of
his voice until the child in the inner room was woken and started
"So you've had a great stroke of luck for your Little Chuan!
Of course his sickness will be cured completely. No wonder Old
Chuan keeps smiling." As he spoke, the greybeard walked up to the
man in brown, and lowered his voice to ask:
"Mr. Kang, I heard the criminal executed today came from the
Hsia family. Who was it? And why was he executed?"
"Who? Son of Widow Hsia, of course! Young rascal!"
Seeing how they all hung on his words, Mr. Kang's spirits rose
even higher. His jowls quivered, and he made his voice as loud as
"The rogue didn't want to live, simply didn't want to! There
was nothing in it for me this time. Even the clothes stripped from
him were taken by Red-eye, the jailer. Our Old Chuan was luckiest,
and after him Third Uncle Hsia. He pocketed the whole
reward--twenty-five taels of bright silver--and didn't have to
spend a cent!"
Little Chuan walked slowly out of the inner room, his hands to
his chest, coughing repeatedly. He went to the kitchen, filled a
bowl with cold rice, added hot water to it, and sitting down
started to eat. His mother, hovering over him, asked softly:
"Do you feel better, son? Still as hungry as ever?"
"A guaranteed cure!" Kang glanced at the child, then turned
back to address the company. "Third Uncle Hsia is really smart.
If he hadn't informed, even his family would have been
executed, and their property confiscated. But instead? Silver! That
young rogue was a real scoundrel! He even tried to incite the
jailer to revolt!"
"No! The idea of it!" A man in his twenties, sitting in the
back row, expressed indignation.
"You know, Red-eye went to sound him out, but he started
chatting with him. He said the great Ching empire belongs to us.
Just think: is that kind of talk rational? Red-eye knew he had only
an old mother at home, but had never imagined he was so poor. He
couldn't squeeze anything out of him; he was already good and
angry, and then the young fool would 'scratch the tiger's head,' so
he gave him a couple of slaps."
"Red-eye is a good boxer. Those slaps must have hurt!" The
hunchback in the corner by the wall exulted.
"The rotter was not afraid of being beaten. He even said how
sorry he was."
"Nothing to be sorry about in beating a wretch like that,"
Kang looked at him superciliously and said disdainfully: "You
misunderstood. The way he said it, he was sorry for Red-eye."
His listeners' eyes took on a glazed look, and no one spoke.
Little Chuan had finished his rice and was perspiring profusely,
his head steaming.
"Sorry for Red-eye--crazy! He must have been crazy!" said
Greybeard, as if suddenly he saw light.
"He must have been crazy!" echoed the man in his
Once more the customers began to show animation, and
conversation was resumed. Under cover of the noise, the child was
seized by a paroxysm of coughing. Kang went up to him, clapped him
on the shoulder, and said:
"A guaranteed cure! Don't cough like that, Little Chuan! A
"Crazy!" agreed the hunchback, nodding his head.
Originally, the land adjacent to the city wall outside the West
Gate had been public land. The zigzag path running across it,
trodden out by passers-by seeking a short cut, had become a natural
boundary line. Left of the path were buried executed criminals or
those who had died of neglect in prison. Right of the path were
paupers' graves. The serried ranks of grave mounds on both sides
looked like the rolls laid out for a rich man's birthday.
The Ching Ming Festival that year was unusually cold. Willows
were only just beginning to put forth shoots no larger than grains.
Shortly after daybreak, Old Chuan's wife brought four dishes and a
bowl of rice to set before a new grave in the right section, and
wailed before it. When she had burned paper money she sat on the
ground in a stupor as if waiting for something; but for what, she
herself did not know. A breeze sprang up and stirred her short
hair, which was certainly whiter than the previous year.
Another woman came down the path, grey-haired and in rags.
Carrying an old, round, red-lacquered basket with a string of paper
money hanging from it, she walked haltingly. When she saw Old
Chuan's wife sitting on the ground watching her, she hesitated, and
a flush of shame spread over her pale face. However, she summoned
up courage to cross over to a grave in the left section. where she
set down her basket.
That grave was directly opposite Little Chuan's, separated only
by the path. As Old Chuan's wife watched the other woman set Out
four dishes of food and a bowl of rice, then stand up to wail and
burn paper money, she thought: "It must be her son in that grave
too." The older woman took a few aimless steps and stared
vacantly around, then suddenly she began to tremble and stagger
backwards, as though giddy.
Fearing sorrow might send her out of her mind, Old Chuan's wife
got up and stepped across the path, to say quietly: "Don't
grieve, let's go home."
The other nodded, but she was still staring fixedly, and she
muttered: "Look! What's that?"
Looking where she pointed, Old Chuan's wife saw that the grave
in front had not yet been overgrown with grass. Ugly patches of
soil still showed. But when she looked carefully, she was surprised
to see at the top of the mound a wreath of red and white
Both of them suffered from failing eyesight, yet they could see
these red and white flowers clearly. There were not many, but they
were placed in a circle; and although not very fresh, were neatly
set out. Little Chuan's mother looked round and found her own son's
grave, like most of the rest, dotted with only a few little, pale
flowers shivering in the cold. Suddenly she had a sense of futility
and stopped feeling curious about the wreath.
In the meantime the old woman had gone up to the grave to look
more closely. "They have no roots," she said to herself.
"They can't have grown here. Who could have been here? Children
don't come here to play, and none of our relatives ever come. What
could have happened?" She puzzled over it, until suddenly her
tears began to fall, and she cried aloud:
"Son, they all wronged you, and you do not forget. Is your
grief still so great that today you worked this wonder to let me
She looked all around, but could see only a crow perched on a
leafless bough. "I know," she continued. "They murdered you.
But a day of reckoning will come, Heaven will see to it. Close your
eyes in peace. . . . If you are really here, and can hear me, make
that crow fly on to your grave as a sign."
The breeze had long since dropped, and the dry grass stood stiff
and straight as copper wires. A faint, tremulous sound vibrated in
the air, then faded and died away. All around was deathly still.
They stood in the dry grass, looking up at the crow; and the crow,
on the rigid bough of the tree, its head drawn in, perched immobile
Time passed. More people, young and old, came to visit the
Old Chuan's wife felt somehow as if a load had been lifted from
her mind and, wanting to leave, she urged the other:
The old woman sighed, and listlessly picked up the rice and
dishes. After a moment's hesitation she started off slowly, still
muttering to herself:
"What does it mean?"
They had not gone thirty paces when they heard a loud caw behind
them. Startled, they looked round and saw the crow stretch its
wings, brace itself to take off, then fly like an arrow towards the