The New Year's
Sacrifice by Lu
New Year's Eve of the old calendar seems after all more
like the real New Year's Eve; for, to say nothing of the villages and
towns, even in the air there is a feeling that New Year is coming.
From the pale, lowering evening clouds issue frequent flashes of
lightning, followed by a rumbling sound of firecrackers celebrating
the departure of the Hearth God; while, nearer by, the firecrackers
explode even more violently, and before the deafening report dies
away the air is filled with a faint smell of powder. It was on such a
night that I returned to Luchen, my native place. Although I call it
my native place, I had had no home there for some time, so I had to
put up temporarily with a certain Mr. Lu, the fourth son of his
family. He is a member of our clan, and belongs to the generation
before mine, so I ought to call him "Fourth Uncle." An old student of
the imperial college who went in for Neo-Confucianism, I found him
very little changed in any way, simply slightly older, but without any
moustache as yet. When we met, after exchanging a few polite remarks
he said I was fatter, and after saying that immediately started a
violent attack on the revolutionaries. I knew this was not meant
personally, because the object of the attack was still Kang Yu-wei.
Nevertheless, conversation proved difficult, so that in a short time
I found myself alone in the study.
The next day I got up very late, and after lunch went out to see
some relatives and friends. The day after I did the same. None of
them was greatly changed, simply slightly older; but every family was
busy preparing for "the sacrifice." This is the great end-of-year
ceremony in Luchen, when people reverently welcome the God of Fortune
and solicit good fortune for the coming year. They kill chickens and
geese and buy pork, scouring and scrubbing until all the women's arms
turn red in the water. Some of them still wear twisted silver
bracelets. After the meat is cooked some chopsticks are thrust into it
at random, and this is called the "offering." It is set out at dawn
when incense and candles are lit, and they reverently invite the God
of Fortune to come and partake of the offering. Only men can be
worshippers, and after the sacrifice they naturally continue to let
off firecrackers as before. This happens every year, in every family,
provided they can afford to buy the offering and firecrackers; and
this year they naturally followed the old custom.
The day grew overcast. In the afternoon it actually started to
snow, the biggest snow-flakes as large as plum blossom petals
fluttered about the sky; and this, combined with the smoke and air of
activity, made Luchen appear in a ferment. When I returned to my
uncle's study the roof of the house was already white with snow. The
room also appeared brighter, the great red rubbing hanging on the wall
showing up very clearly the character for Longevity written by the
Taoist saint Chen Tuan. One of a pair of scrolls had fallen down and
was lying loosely rolled up on the long table, but the other was still
hanging there, bearing the words: "By understanding reason we achieve
tranquillity of mind." Idly, I went to turn over the books on the
table beneath the window, but all I could find was a pile of what
looked like an incomplete set of Kang Hsi's Dictionary, a
volume of Chiang Yung's Notes to Chu Hsi's Philosophical Writings
and a volume of Commentaries on the Four Books. At all
events, I made up my mind to leave the next day.
Besides, the very thought of my meeting with Hsiang Lin's Wife the
day before made me uncomfortable. It happened in the afternoon. I had
been visiting a friend in the eastern part of the town. As I came out
I met her by the river, and seeing the way she fastened her eyes on me
I knew very well she meant to speak to me. Of all the people I had
seen this time at Luchen none had changed as much as she: her hair,
which had been streaked with white five years before, was now
completely white, quite unlike someone in her forties. Her face was
fearfully thin and dark in its sallowness, and had moreover lost its
former expression of sadness, looking as if carved out of wood. Only
an occasional flicker of her eyes showed she was still a living
creature. In one hand she carried a wicker basket, in which was a
broken bowl, empty; in the other she held a bamboo pole longer than
herself, split at the bottom: it was clear she had become a beggar.
I stood still, waiting for her to come and ask for money.
"You have come back?" she asked me first.
"That is very good. You are a scholar, and have travelled too and
seen a lot. I just want to ask you something." Her lustreless eyes
I never guessed she would talk to me like this. I stood there taken
"It is this." She drew two paces nearer, and whispered very
confidentially: "After a person dies, does he turn into a ghost or
As she fixed her eyes on me I was seized with foreboding. A shiver
ran down my spine and I felt more nervous than during an unexpected
examination at school, when unfortunately the teacher stands by one's
side. Personally, I had never given the least thought to the question
of the existence of spirits. In this emergency how should I answer
her? Hesitating for a moment, I reflected: "It is the tradition here
to believe in spirits, yet she seems to be sceptical—perhaps it would
be better to say she hopes: hopes that there is immortality and yet
hopes that there is not. Why increase the sufferings of the wretched?
To give her something to look forward to, it would be better to say
"There may be, I think," I told her hesitantly.
"Then, there must also be a Hell?"
"What, Hell?" Greatly startled, I could only try to evade the
question. "Hell? According to reason there should be one too—but not
necessarily. Who cares about it anyway? . . ."
"Then will all the people of one family who have died see each
"Well, as to whether they will see each other again or not. . . ."
I realized now that I was a complete fool; for all my hesitation and
reflection I had been unable to answer her three questions.
Immediately I lost confidence and wanted to say the exact opposite of
what I had previously said. "In this case . . . as a matter of fact, I
am not sure. . . . Actually, regarding the question of ghosts, I am
not sure either."
In order to avoid further importunate questions, I walked off, and
beat a hasty retreat to my uncle's house, feeling exceedingly
uncomfortable. I thought to myself: "I am afraid my answer will prove
dangerous to her. Probably it is just that when other people are
celebrating she feels lonely by herself, but could there be another
reason? Could she have had some premonition? If there is another
reason, and as a result something happens, then, through my answer, I
shall be held responsible to a certain extent." Finally, however, I
ended by laughing at myself, thinking that such a chance meeting could
have no great significance, and yet I was taking it so to heart; no
wonder certain educationalists called me a neurotic. Moreover I had
distinctly said, "I am not sure," contradicting my previous answer; so
that even if anything did happen, it would have nothing at all to do
"I am not sure" is a most useful phrase.
Inexperienced and rash young men often take it upon themselves to
solve people's problems for them or choose doctors for them, and if by
any chance things turn out badly, they are probably held to blame; but
by simply concluding with this phrase "I am not sure," one can free
oneself of all responsibility. At this time I felt even more strongly
the necessity for such a phrase, since even in speaking with a beggar
woman there was no dispensing with it.
However, I continued to feel uncomfortable, and even after a
night's rest my mind kept running on this, as if I had a premonition
of some untoward development. In that oppressive snowy weather, in the
gloomy study, this discomfort increased. It would be better to leave:
I should go back to town the next day. The boiled shark's fins in the
Fu Hsing Restaurant used to cost a dollar for a large portion, and I
wondered if this cheap and delicious dish had increased in price or
not. Although the friends who had accompanied me in the old days had
scattered, even if I was alone the shark's fins still had to be
tasted. At all events, I made up my mind to leave the next day.
After experiencing many times that things which I hoped would not
happen and felt should not happen invariably did happen, I was
desperately afraid this would prove another such case. And, indeed,
strange things did begin to happen. Towards evening I heard
talking—it sounded like a discussion—in the inner room; but soon
the conversation ended, and all I heard was my uncle saying loudly as
he walked out: "Not earlier nor later, but just at this time—sure
sign of a bad character!"
At first I felt astonished, then very uncomfortable, thinking these
words must refer to me. I looked outside the door, but no one was
there. I contained myself with difficulty till their servant came in
before dinner to brew a pot of tea, when at last I had a chance to
make some enquiries.
"With whom was Mr. Lu angry just now?" I asked.
"Why, still with Hsiang Lin's Wife," he replied briefly.
"Hsiang Lin's Wife? How was that?" I asked again.
"Dead?" My heart suddenly missed a beat. I started, and probably
changed colour too. But since he did not raise his head, he was
probably quite unaware of how I felt. Then I controlled myself, and
"When did she die?"
"When? Last night, or else today, I'm not sure."
"How did she die?"
"How did she die? Why, of poverty of course." He answered placidly
and, still without having raised his head to look at me, went out.
However, my agitation was only short-lived, for now that something
I had felt imminent had already taken place, I no longer had to take
refuge in my "I'm not sure," or the servant's expression "dying of
poverty" for comfort. My heart already felt lighter. Only from time to
time something still seemed to weigh on it. Dinner was served, and my
uncle solemnly accompanied me. I wanted to ask about Hsiang Lin's
Wife, but knew that although he had read, "Ghosts and spirits are
properties of Nature," he had retained many superstitions, and on the
eve of this sacrifice it was out of the question to mention anything
like death or illness. In case of necessity one could use veiled
allusions, but unfortunately I did not know how to, so although
questions kept rising to the tip of my tongue, I had to bite them
back. From his solemn expression I suddenly suspected that he looked
on me as choosing not earlier nor later but just this time to come and
trouble him, and that I was also a bad character; therefore to set
his mind at rest I told him at once that I intended to leave Luchen
the next day and go back to the city. He did not press me greatly to
stay. So we quietly finished the meal.
In winter the days are short and, now that it was snowing, darkness
already enveloped the whole town. Everybody was busy beneath the
lamplight, but outside the windows it was very quiet. Snow-flakes fell
on the thickly piled snow, as if they were whispering, making me feel
even more lonely. I sat by myself under the yellow gleam of the
vegetable oil lamp and thought, "This poor woman, abandoned by people
in the dust as a tiresome and worn-out toy, once left her own imprint
in the dust, and those who enjoy life must have wondered at her for
wishing to prolong her existence; but now at least she has been swept
clear by eternity. Whether spirits exist or not I do not know; but in
the present world when a meaningless existence ends, so that someone
whom others are tired of seeing is no longer seen, it is just as well,
both for the individual concerned and for others." I listened quietly
to see if I could hear the snow falling outside the window, still
pursuing this train of thought, until gradually I felt less ill at
Fragments of her life, seen or heard before, now combined to form
She did not belong to Luchen. One year at the beginning of winter,
when my uncle's family wanted to change their maidservant, Old Mrs.
Wei brought her in and introduced her. Her hair was tied with white
bands, she wore a black skirt, blue jacket and pale green bodice, and
was about twenty-six, with a pale skin but rosy cheeks. Old Mrs. Wei
called her Hsiang Lin's Wife, and said that she was a neighbour of her
mother's family, and because her husband was dead she wanted to go out
to work. My uncle knitted his brows and my aunt immediately understood
that he disapproved of her because she was a widow. She looked very
suitable, though, with big strong feet and hands, and a meek
expression; and she had said nothing but showed every sign of being
tractable and hard-working. So my aunt paid no attention to my uncle's
frown, but kept her. During the period of probation she worked from
morning till night, as if she found resting dull, and she was so
strong that she could do a man's work; accordingly on the third day it
was settled, and each month she was to be paid five hundred cash.
Everybody called her Hsiang Lin's Wife. They did not ask her her
own name; but since she was introduced by someone from Wei Village
who said she was a neighbour, presumably her name was also Wei. She
was not very talkative, only answering when other people spoke to
her, and her answers were brief. It was not until a dozen days or so
had passed that they learned little by little that she still had a
severe mother-in-law at home and a younger brother-in-law more than
ten years old, who could cut wood. Her husband, who had been a
woodcutter too, had died in the spring. He had been ten years younger
than she. This little was all that people learned from her.
The days passed quickly. She worked as hard as ever; she would eat
anything, and did not spare herself. Everybody agreed that the Lu
family had found a very good maidservant, who really got through more
work than a hard-working man. At the end of the year she swept,
mopped, killed chickens and geese and sat up to boil the sacrificial
meat, single-handed, so the family did not have to hire extra help.
Nevertheless she, on her side, was satisfied; gradually the trace of a
smile appeared at the corner of her mouth. She became plumper and her
New Year was scarcely over when she came back from washing rice by
the river looking pale, and said that in the distance she had just
seen a man wandering on the opposite bank who looked very like her
husband's cousin, and probably he had come to look for her. My aunt,
much alarmed, made detailed enquiries, but failed to get any further
information. As soon as my uncle learned of it he frowned and said,
"This is bad. She must have run away from her husband's family."
Before long this inference that she had run away was confirmed.
About a fortnight later, just as everybody was beginning to forget
what had happened, Old Mrs. Wei suddenly called, bringing with her a
woman in her thirties who, she said, was the maidservant's
mother-in-law. Although the woman looked like a villager, she behaved
with great self-possession and had a ready tongue in her head. After
the usual polite remarks she apologized for coming to take her
daughter-in-law home, saying there was a great deal to be done at the
beginning of spring, and since there were only old people and children
at home they were short-handed.
"Since it is her mother-in-law who wants her to go back, what is
there to be said?" was my uncle's comment.
Thereupon her wages were reckoned up. They amounted to one thousand
seven hundred and fifty cash, all of which she had left with her
mistress without using a single coin. My aunt gave the entire amount
to her mother-in-law. The latter also took her clothes, thanked Mr.
and Mrs. Lu and went out. By this time it was already noon.
"Oh, the rice! Didn't Hsiang Lin's Wife go to wash the rice?" my
aunt exclaimed some time later. Probably she was rather hungry, so
that she remembered lunch.
Thereupon everybody set about looking for the rice basket. My aunt
went first to the kitchen, then to the hall, then to the bedroom; but
not a trace of it was to be seen anywhere. My uncle went outside, but
could not find it either; only when he went right down to the
riverside did he see it, set down fair and square on the bank, with a
bundle of vegetables beside it.
Some people there told him that a boat with a white awning had
moored there in the morning, but since the awning covered the boat
completely they did not know who was inside, and before this incident
no one had paid any attention to it. But when Hsiang Lin's Wife came
to wash rice, two men looking like country people jumped off the boat
just as she was kneeling down and seizing hold of her carried her on
board. After several shouts and cries, Hsiang Lin's Wife became
silent: they had probably stopped her mouth. Then two women walked up,
one of them a stranger and the other Old Mrs. Wei. When the people who
told this story tried to peep into the boat they could not see very
clearly, but Hsiang Lin's Wife seemed to be lying bound on the floor
of the boat.
"Disgraceful! Still ..." said my uncle.
That day my aunt cooked the midday meal herself, and my cousin Ah
Niu lit the fire.
After lunch Old Mrs. Wei came again.
"Disgraceful!" said my uncle.
"What is the meaning of this? How dare you come here again!" My
aunt, who was washing dishes, started scolding as soon as she saw her.
"You recommended her yourself, and then plotted to have her carried
off, causing all this stir. What will people think? Are you trying to
make a laughing-stock of our family?"
"Aiya, I was really taken in! Now I have come specially to clear up
this business. When she asked me to find her work, how was I to know
that she had left home without her mother-in-law's consent? I am very
sorry, Mr. Lu, Mrs. Lu. Because I am so old and foolish and careless,
I have offended my patrons. However, it is lucky for me that your
family is always so generous and kind, and unwilling to be hard on
your inferiors. This time I promise to find you someone good to make
up for my mistake."
"Still . . ." said my uncle.
Thereupon the business of Hsiang Lin's Wife was concluded, and
before long it was also forgotten.
Only my aunt, because the maidservants taken on afterwards were all
lazy or fond of stealing food, or else both lazy and fond of stealing
food, with not a good one in the lot, still often spoke of Hsiang
Lin's Wife. On such occasions she would always say to herself, "I
wonder what has become of her now?" meaning that she would like to
have her back. But by the following New Year she too gave up hope.
The New Year's holiday was nearly over when Old Mrs. Wei, already
half tipsy, came to pay her respects, and said it was because she had
been back to Wei Village to visit her mother's family and stayed a few
days that she had come late. During the course of conversation they
naturally came to speak of Hsiang Lin's Wife.
"She?" said Mrs. Wei cheerfully. "She is in luck now. When her
mother-in-law dragged her home, she had already promised her to the
sixth son of the Ho family in Ho Village. Not long after she reached
home they put her in the bridal chair and sent her off."
"Aiya! What a mother-in-law!" exclaimed my aunt in amazement.
"Ah, madam, you really talk like a great lady! We country folk,
poor women, think nothing of that. She still had a younger
brother-in-law who had to be married. And if they hadn't found her a
husband, where would they have found the money for his wedding? But
her mother-in-law is a clever and capable woman, who knows how to
drive a good bargain, so she married her off into the mountains. If
she had married her to someone in the same village, she wouldn't have
got so much money; but since very few women are willing to marry
someone living deep in the mountains, she got eighty thousand cash.
Now the second son is married, the presents only cost her fifty
thousand, and after paying the wedding expenses she still has over ten
thousand left. Just think, doesn't this show she knows how to drive a
good bargain? . . ."
"But was Hsiang Lin's Wife willing?"
"It wasn't a question of being willing or not. Of course anyone
would have protested. They just tied her up with a rope, stuffed her
into the bridal chair, carried her to the man's house, put on the
bridal headdress, performed the ceremony in the hall and locked them
in their room; and that was that. But Hsiang Lin's Wife is quite a
character. I heard she really put up a great struggle, and everybody
said she was different from other people because she had worked in a
scholar's family. We go-betweens, madam, see a great deal. When widows
remarry, some cry and shout, some threaten to commit suicide, some
when they have been carried to the man's house won't go through the
ceremony, and some even smash the wedding candlesticks. But Hsiang
Lin's Wife was different from the rest. They said she shouted and
cursed all the way, so that by the time they had carried her to Ho
Village she was completely hoarse. When they dragged her out of the
chair, although the two chairbearers and her young brother-in-law used
all their strength, they couldn't force her to go through the
ceremony. The moment they were careless enough to loosen their
grip—gracious Buddha!—she threw herself against a corner of the
table and knocked a big hole in her head. The blood poured out; and
although they used two handfuls of incense ashes and bandaged her with
two pieces of red cloth, they still couldn't stop the bleeding.
Finally it took all of them together to get her shut up with her
husband in the bridal chamber, where she went on cursing. Oh, it was
really dreadful!" She shook her head, cast down her eyes and said no
"And after that what happened?" asked my aunt.
"They said the next day she still didn't get up," said Old Mrs.
Wei, raising her eyes.
"After? She got up. At the end of the year she had a baby, a boy,
who was two this New Year. These few days when I was at home some
people went to Ho Village, and when they came back they said they had
seen her and her son, and that both mother and baby are fat. There is
no mother-in-law over her, the man is a strong fellow who can earn a
living, and the house is their own. Well, well, she is really in
After this even my aunt gave up talking of Hsiang Lin's Wife.
But one autumn, two New Years after they heard how lucky Hsiang
Lin's Wife had been, she actually reappeared on the threshold of my
uncle's house. On the table she placed a round bulb-shaped basket,
and under the eaves a small roll of bedding. Her hair was still
wrapped in white bands, and she wore a black skirt, blue jacket and
pale green bodice. But her skin was sallow and her cheeks had lost
their colour; she kept her eyes downcast, and her eyes, with their
tear-stained rims, were no longer bright. Just as before, it was Old
Mrs. Wei, looking very benevolent, who brought her in, and who
explained at length to my aunt:
"It was really a bolt from the blue. Her husband was so strong,
nobody could have guessed that a young fellow like that would die of
typhoid fever. First he seemed better, but then he ate a bowl of cold
rice and the sickness came back. Luckily she had the boy, and she can
work, whether it is chopping wood, picking tea-leaves or raising
silkworms; so at first she was able to carry on. Then who could
believe that the child, too, would be carried off by a wolf? Although
it was nearly the end of spring, still wolves came to the village—how
could anyone have guessed that? Now she is all on her own. Her
brother-in-law came to take the house, and turned her out; so she has
really no way open to her but to come and ask help from her former
mistress. Luckily this time there is nobody to stop her, and you
happen to be wanting a new servant, so I have brought her here. I
think someone who is used to your ways is much better than a new hand.
. . ."
"I was really stupid, really . . ." Hsiang Lin's Wife raised her
listless eyes to say. "I only knew that when it snows the wild beasts
in the glen have nothing to eat and may come to the villages; I didn't
know that in spring they came too. I got up at dawn and opened the
door, filled a small basket with beans and called our Ah Mao to go and
sit on the threshold and shell the beans. He was very obedient and
always did as I told him: he went out. Then I chopped wood at the back
of the house and washed the rice, and when the rice was in the pan and
I wanted to boil the beans I called Ah Mao, but there was no answer;
and when I went our to look, all I could see was beans scattered on
the ground, but no Ah Mao. He never went to other families to play;
and in fact at each place where I went to ask, there was no sign of
him. I became desperate, and begged people to go to look for him. Only
in the afternoon, after looking everywhere else, did they go to look
in the glen and see one of his little shoes caught on a bramble.
'That's bad,' they said, 'he must have met a wolf.' And sure enough
when they went further in there he was, lying in the wolf's lair,
with all his entrails eaten away, his hand still tightly clutching
that little basket. . . ." At this point she started crying, and was
unable to complete the sentence.
My aunt had been undecided at first, but by the end of this story
the rims of her eyes were rather red. After thinking for a moment she
told her to take the round basket and bedding into the servants'
quarters. Old Mrs. Wei heaved a long sigh as if relieved of a great
burden. Hsiang Lin's Wife looked a little more at ease than when she
first came and, without having to be told the way, quietly took away
her bedding. From this time on she worked again as a maidservant in
Everybody still called her Hsiang Lin's Wife.
However, she had changed a great deal. She had not been there more
than three days before her master and mistress realized that she was
not as quick as before. Since her memory was much worse, and her
impassive face never showed the least trace of a smile, my aunt
already expressed herself very far from satisfied. When the woman
first arrived, although my uncle frowned as before, because they
invariably had such difficulty in finding servants he did not object
very strongly, only secretly warned my aunt that while such people may
seem very pitiful they exert a bad moral influence. Thus although it
would be all right for her to do ordinary work she must not join in
the preparations for sacrifice; they would have to prepare all the
dishes themselves, for otherwise they would be unclean and the
ancestors would not accept them.
The most important event in my uncle's household was the ancestral
sacrifice, and formerly this had been the busiest time for Hsiang
Lin's Wife; but now she had very little to do. When the table was
placed in the centre of the hall and the curtain fastened, she still
remembered how to set out the winecups and chopsticks in the old way.
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, put those down!" said my aunt hastily.
She sheepishly withdrew her hand and went to get the candlesticks.
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, put those down!" cried my aunt hastily again.
"I'll fetch them."
After walking round several times without finding anything to do,
Hsiang Lin's Wife could only go hesitantly away. All she did that day
was to sit by the stove and feed the fire.
The people in the town still called her Hsiang Lin's Wife, but in a
different tone from before; and although they talked to her still,
their manner was colder. She did not mind this in the least, only,
looking straight in front of her, she would tell everybody her story,
which night or day was never out of her mind.
"I was really stupid, really," she would say. "I only knew that
when it snows the wild beasts in the glen have nothing to eat and may
come to the villages; I didn't know that in spring they came too. I
got up at dawn and opened the door, filled a small basket with beans
and called our Ah Mao to go and sit on the threshold and shell them.
He was very obedient and always did as I told him: he went out. Then I
chopped wood at the back of the house and washed the rice, and when
the rice was in the pan and I wanted to boil the beans I called Ah
Mao, but there was no answer; and when I went out to look, all I could
see was beans scattered on the ground, but no Ah Mao. He never went to
other families to play; and in fact at each place where I went to ask,
there was no sign of him. I became desperate, and begged people to go
to look for him. Only in the afternoon, after looking everywhere else,
did they go to look in the glen and see one of his little shoes caught
on a bramble. 'That's bad,' they said, 'he must have met a wolf.' And
sure enough when they went further in there he was, lying in the
wolf's lair, with all his entrails eaten away, his hand still tightly
clutching that small basket. . . ." At this point she would start
crying and her voice would trail away.
This story was rather effective, and when men heard it they often
stopped smiling and walked away disconcerted, while the women not only
seemed to forgive her but their faces immediately lost their
contemptuous look and they added their tears to hers. There were some
old women who had not heard her speaking in the street, who went
specially to look for her, to hear her sad tale. When her voice
trailed away and she started to cry, they joined in, shedding the
tears which had gathered in their eyes. Then they sighed, and went
away satisfied, exchanging comments.
She asked nothing better than to tell her sad story over and over
again, often gathering three or four hearers. But before long
everybody knew it by heart, until even in the eyes of the most
kindly, Buddha fearing old ladies not a trace of tears could be seen.
In the end, almost everyone in the town could recite her tale, and it
bored and exasperated them to hear it.
"I was really stupid, really . . ." she would begin.
"Yes, you only knew that in snowy weather the wild beasts in the
mountains had nothing to eat and might come down to the villages."
Promptly cutting short her recital, they walked away.
She would stand there open-mouthed, looking at them with a dazed
expression, and then go away too, as if she also felt disconcerted.
But she still brooded over it, hoping from other topics such as small
baskets, beans and other people's children, to lead up to the story of
her Ah Mao. If she saw a child of two or three, she would say, "Oh
dear, if my Ah Mao were still alive, he would be just as big. . . ."
Children seeing the look in her eyes would take fright and,
clutching the hems of their mothers' clothes, try to tug them away.
Thereupon she would be left by herself again, and finally walk away
disconcerted. Later everybody knew what she was like, and it only
needed a child present for them to ask her with an artificial smile,
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, if your Ah Mao were alive, wouldn't he be just as
big as that?"
She probably did not realize that her story, after having been
turned over and tasted by people for so many days, had long since
become stale, only exciting disgust and contempt; but from the way
people smiled she seemed to know that they were cold and sarcastic,
and that there was no need for her to say any more. She would simply
look at them, not answering a word.
In Luchen people celebrate New Year in a big way: preparations
start from the twentieth day of the twelfth month onwards. That year
my uncle's household found it necessary to hire a temporary
manservant, but since there was still a great deal to do they also
called in another maidservant, Liu Ma, to help. Chickens and geese
had to be killed; but Liu Ma was a devout woman who abstained from
meat, did not kill living things, and would only wash the sacrificial
dishes. Hsiang Lin's Wife had nothing to do but feed the fire. She sat
there, resting, watching Liu Ma as she washed the sacrificial dishes.
A light snow began to fall.
"Dear me, I was really stupid," began Hsiang Lin's Wife, as if to
herself, looking at the sky and sighing.
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, there you go again," said Liu Ma, looking at
her impatiently. "I ask you: that wound on your forehead, wasn't it
then you got it?"
"Uh, huh," she answered vaguely.
"Let me ask you: what made you willing after all?"
"Yes. What I think is, you must have been willing; otherwise. . . ."
"Oh dear, you don't know how strong he was.
"I don't believe it. I don't believe he was so strong that you
really couldn't keep him off. You must have been willing, only you
put the blame on his being so strong."
"Oh dear, you . . . you try for yourself and see." She smiled.
Liu Ma's lined face broke into a smile too, making it wrinkled like
a walnut; her small beady eyes swept Hsiang Lin's Wife's forehead and
fastened on her eyes. As if rather embarrassed, Hsiang Lin's Wife
immediately stopped smiling, averted her eyes and looked at the
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, that was really a bad bargain," continued Liu
Ma mysteriously. "If you had held out longer or knocked yourself to
death, it would have been better. As it is, after living with your
second husband for less than two years, you are guilty of a great
crime. Just think: when you go down to the lower world in future,
these two men's ghosts will fight over you. To which will you go? The
King of Hell will have no choice but to cut you in two and divide you
between them. I think, really. . . . ."
Then terror showed in her face. This was something she had never
heard in the mountains.
"I think you had better take precautions beforehand. Go to the
Tutelary God's Temple and buy a threshold to be your substitute, so
that thousands of people can walk over it and trample on it, in order
to atone for your sins in this life and avoid torment after death."
At the time Hsiang Lin's Wife said nothing, but she must have taken
this to heart, for the next morning when she got up there were dark
circles beneath her eyes. After breakfast she went to the Tutelary
God's Temple at the west end of the village, and asked to buy a
threshold. The temple priests would not agree at first, and only when
she shed tears did they give a grudging consent. The price was twelve
She had long since given up talking to people, because Ah Mao's
story was received with such contempt; but news of her conversation
with Liu Ma that day spread, and many people took a fresh interest in
her and came again to tease her into talking. As for the subject, that
had naturally changed to deal with the wound on her forehead.
"Hsiang Lin's Wife, I ask you: what made you willing after all that
time?" one would cry.
"Oh, what a pity, to have had this knock for nothing," another
looking at her scar would agree.
Probably she knew from their smiles and tone of voice that they
were making fun of her, for she always looked steadily at them
without saying a word, and finally did not even turn her head. All
day long she kept her lips tightly closed, bearing. on her head the
scar which everyone considered a mark of shame, silently shopping,
sweeping the floor, washing vegetables, preparing rice. Only after
nearly a year did she take from my aunt her wages which had
accumulated. She changed them for twelve silver dollars, and asking
for leave went to the west end of the town. In less time than it
takes for a meal she was back again, looking much comforted, and with
an unaccustomed light in her eyes. She told my aunt happily that she
had bought a threshold in the Tutelary God's Temple.
When the time came for the ancestral sacrifice at the winter
equinox, she worked harder than ever, and seeing my aunt take out the
sacrificial utensils and with Ah Niu carry the table into the middle
of the hall, she went confidently to fetch the winecups and chopsticks.
"Put those down, Hsiang Lin's Wife!" my aunt called out hastily.
She withdrew her hand as if scorched, her face turned ashen-grey,
and instead of fetching the candlesticks she just stood there dazed.
Only when my uncle came to burn incense and told her to go, did she
walk away. This time the change in her was very great, for the next
day not only were her eyes sunken, but even her spirit seemed broken.
Moreover she became very timid, not only afraid of the dark and
shadows, but also of the sight of anyone. Even her own master or
mistress made her look as frightened as a little mouse that has come
out of its hole in the daytime. For the rest, she would sit stupidly,
like a wooden statue. In less than half a year her hair began to turn
grey, and her memory became much worse, reaching a point when she was
constantly forgetting to go and prepare the rice.
"What has come over Hsiang Lin's Wife? It would really have been
better not to have kept her that time." My aunt would sometimes speak
like this in front of her, as if to warn her.
However, she remained this way, so that it was impossible to see
any hope of her improving. They finally decided to get rid of her and
tell her to go back to Old Mrs. Wei. While I was at Luchen they were
still only talking of this; but judging by what happened later, it is
evident that this was what they must have done. Whether after leaving
my uncle's household she became a beggar, or whether she went first to
Old Mrs. Wei's house and later became a beggar, I do not know.
I was woken up by firecrackers exploding noisily close at hand, saw
the glow of the yellow oil lamp as large as a bean, and heard the
splutter of fireworks as my uncle's household celebrated the
sacrifice. I knew that it was nearly dawn. I felt bewildered, hearing
as in a dream the confused continuous sound of distant crackers which
seemed to form one dense cloud of noise in the sky, joining the
whirling snow-flakes to envelop the whole town. Wrapped in this medley
of sound, relaxed and at ease, the doubt which had preyed on me from
dawn to early night was swept clean away by the atmosphere of
celebration, and I felt only that the saints of heaven and earth had
accepted the sacrifice and incense and were all reeling with
intoxication in the sky, preparing to give the people of Luchen
boundless good fortune.
February 7, 1924