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It was a catastrophe lasting for a full decade that plagued the entire country. Towards the end, even the education system was involved. Even Ch’in Ching, who was only a symbolic vice principal at an average elementary school and only a few years shy of retirement, had to be subjected to struggle sessions.
Struggle sessions in the city, struggle sessions in the district, struggle sessions even in the schools – fortunately, the public city and district struggle sessions only took place twice or so every month, and he was surely better off getting judged in school instead.
The students of the small-scale school all lived in the same neighbourhood, meaning everyone was neighbours outside of the classroom. No matter what conflicts went on between the adults, they did not add insult to injury. Behind closed doors, the parents would remind their children not to hit their teachers.
When the school term ended, however, the children were set free and became naughty. They had no evil intent, but kids were unruly to begin with and, under the influence of their environment, gathered in gangs to cause trouble all day long. Many a time, Ch’in Ching would be cornered by them in the streets, and the glass windows at the back of the house also became their target practice. Once the glass broke, the men did not bother to reinstall new panes and instead opted to cover the windows with paper.
One afternoon, neither the school nor the textile mill was holding struggle sessions. Ch’in Ching was home writing a self-criticism report while Shen Liangsheng sat beside the man watching. The taller man never ran into much trouble after the previous incident since he had protection from high places – apparently, the incident had been a blessing in disguise.
Ch’in Ching had become very skilled at writing the so-called ‘admission of guilt’ that consisted of the same old stuff every time. He could even carry a casual conversation with Shen Liangsheng while writing it.
It was the dog days of August. Shen Liangsheng was fanning the schoolmaster with a tattered cattail fan, reaching out to stroke the man’s head playfully every now and then.
Ch’in Ching had the “yin-yang cut” like many fellow teachers: one half of his head had hair while the other half was shaved bald. A short fuzzy patch had grown back lately and was prickly to the touch.
“You’d better not make that into a habit,” Ch’in Ching joked as he wrote his report without looking particularly crestfallen or dispirited.
Shen Liangsheng knew the man’s temperament, and if he were to name one fault, it would have to be the man’s excessive optimism. The man would constantly think well of any situation. One might call it positive; another might call it naive and dreamy. A leopard cannot change its spots – Shen Liangsheng did not bother to try to change this problem, and at that time, it was probably better that the man was optimistic.
In reality, it was because Ch’in Ching had found peace. He was content as long as this man beside him was well. If the country was in a bad state, then so be it. He didn’t care that he was subject to struggle sessions. Heck, having his head shaved was perfect for the summer heat.
He didn’t feel aggrieved even when he was writing the admission of guilt. He did not believe that he had taught his lessons wrongly, and thus he did not allow himself to feel aggrieved.
Ch’in Ching was writing when he heard the sound of rain. It was not actually raining; the kids were throwing things at the windows in the back. Perhaps they were scolded by their parents, so they stopped throwing bricks and stones and instead were throwing clumps of dirt that scattered once they hit the paper, making a light shuffle that sounded like rain. Ch’in Ching was not angered since kids were going to be kids, and he couldn’t really get mad at kids who simply wanted to fool around but were too scared to do so.
Hearing the noise, Shen Liangsheng stood up from his seat with the fan in hand to take a look. He had a naturally stern complexion and still did not like to smile at this age. Therefore, he was the mean old man that the children of the neighbourhood feared. Every time Shen Liangsheng as much as stepped outside with that his stony face of his, the rascals would scatter off in a burst of exasperation as they turned to their next victim.
“Oh, don’t bother. What’s a sixty-year-old doing terrorizing a bunch of kids?” Ch’in Ching put down his pen and chided smilingly. When the other man really did sit back down, he picked up the pen and resumed.
The three o’clock sun shone in through the windows onto the worn surface of the desk. The desk had been in use from the time they were living in Petite de Ceinture, and they had brought it over when they moved. It was not an antique, so it had survived the confiscation raids. Ch’in Ching had marked homework and prepared his lessons on it for more than a decade, but he never would have guessed he would be writing self-criticisms on the very same desk. There were countless teachers like him who had taught until their hair grew white but nevertheless ended up in the same situation.
Ch’in Ching could find peace partly because he knew he had done no wrong but mostly because he had Shen Liangsheng with him. As long as this man was with him, everything would have been worthwhile.
However, there were many who could not feel the same. As they wrote the admission of guilt they soon found it impossible to continue living – “” – some hung themselves by the neck while others jumped in the river.
After Ch’in Ching finished writing his self-criticism amidst the real sunlight and the unreal rain, he turned to Shen Liangsheng with a smile and asked, “What shall we have tonight? How about some congee?”
January eighth, nineteen seventy-six, Premier Chou En-lai passed away before he could see the end of the Cultural Revolution and the resurrection of China. The Gang of Four did everything in their power to suppress mourning amongst the people, but the people paid no heed to them. With no more fabric ration stamps, Ch’in Ching could not buy black cloth, so he shredded a black robe and made two for Shen Liangsheng and himself.
They would remember his kindness for the rest of their lives. It was now impossible to express their gratitude in person, but the least they could do now that he had passed was to wear an armband, even if that meant they would be criticized for it.
July twenty-eighth of the same year, a massive earthquake in Tangshan shook the entire North, causing much damage in Peking and Tientsin.
Shen Liangsheng and Ch’in Ching were awakened in the middle of the night as the sky spun and the earth rumbled. The initial horizontal shake changed into a vertical one, and things started falling, the lighter furniture all toppling over. They had never experienced an earthquake and hurried outside instead of hiding under the bed.
Naturally, they could not go very fast. Shen Liangsheng had only a slightly stockier build than Ch’in Ching when he was young but surprisingly had enough strength to carry the schoolmaster for a long time in a bridal carry. Now he was old, however, and was powerless to carry or protect the man. He could only hold the man’s hand tightly and stumble clumsily towards the door with him.
As luck would have it, the traditional housing was sturdy enough to withstand the quake. The two men successfully left the building but were wary of standing near the walls. They stood in the middle of the yard, hand in hand, face to face, dumbfounded even long after the primary wave.
They did have lingering fears, but only a little. They had been through so much that a measly earthquake did not even faze them. They were not even worried that the subsequent waves would bring the house down – as long as they had each other, hands joined together, they had nothing to fear.
Those were the darkest hours before the break of dawn – natural disasters, manmade horrors, one after another until the skies seemed to bleed and the earth seemed to burst.
Then, the skies lightened, and China rose once again from the ashes.
Nineteen seventy-seven, the Cultural Revolution officially came to an end, and it was followed immediately by the . The world was renewed in what seemed like a blink of an eye.
For so many decades, they had endured through the long wars, experienced flooding and earthquakes and survived sweeping political movements. After all of that, they could finally enjoy truly peaceful days and were grateful for each and every one.
The plants in the yard had been , but they replanted them all. The crooked date tree was still standing, however, and they had grown fairly attached to it after seeing it for so many years. As though it were their child, they didn’t mind its deformities nor did they complain about the fact it had never bore any fruit.
At the time, stamps were still required for the purchase of most products, but the variety had increased substantially. As usual, the two men would pull out a table under the tree in the summertime, boil some with salt, slice off a few dimes’ worth of chitterling and drink a glass or two together. Or maybe they would just chitchat, or drink while Ch’in Ching performed crosstalk.
See, the pieces that Ch’in Ching performed were full of history – with no books to read during the Cultural Revolution and few entertainment outlets, he would lock the doors and quietly tell crosstalk stories to fight the boredom. Some stories were the ones he had learned long ago, and others were new ones that he had created himself and kept alive until now.
These stories were told by one man and listened to by another – he talked while he listened. Some he had heard many times, but he didn’t find it repetitive.
One story after another, each one as delightful as the next.
Afterwards, more literature became available. They began a subscription to and read romance stories by writers like Chang Hen-shui, but what they loved reading the most waswuhsia. After the reforms, a large wave of new works flooded in from the south, many of which were brilliant. But the elderly perhaps were prone to nostalgia, for they still had a special spot for Huan Chu Lou Chu. They bought a new edition of The Legend of the Shu Shan Swordsmen and read it again from the beginning.
The author had passed away long ago, and no new chapters had been released since the Liberation, meaning there would never be an ending.
But that didn’t matter to them. Rather, they thought that a book like this was better off without an ending.
Lao-Liu had moved to the Hut’ong District two years ago. It was not far from their home, and the two families had frequent interactions. Lao-Liu had suffered during the Cultural Revolution because of his profession as a crosstalker. Perhaps he was naturally endowed, but not even that had been successful in bringing his weight down. Now at this age, he was plumper than ever before. Sometimes when the three men got together, Shen Liangsheng and Ch’in Ching would nag him, urging him to exercise rather than staying at home repeating the act of eating and sleeping – he had to do something about that stomach of his!
“Oh, you two leave me be!” The term “kidult” was the perfect description for Lao-Liu. Whenever he heard such criticism, he would pout and put on a face of hurt as though the other two men were ganging up on him.
On the other hand, Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng enjoyed walks after supper, especially when it was warm. They would stroll along the streets outside their home while greeting and chatting with the neighbours they were close with or take folding stools to the empty field in front of the Temple of Great Compassion and sit there under shelter from the heat. The temple was also situated on Tienwei Road, very close to the elementary school where Ch’in Ching had taught. It was not a grand shrine but a fairly popular one. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but rebuilt later on. The two stone lions at the entrance were curiously aged, the balls beneath their paws being extremely smooth to the touch. Kids would skip and scurry around the lions while the adults sat in the field in front of the gates and chitchatted. Although the temple was supposed to be an uncontaminated and holy sanctuary, the joys of the mortal world were everywhere the eyes could see.
Despite the struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution, Ch’in Ching still felt a fondness towards the school where he had taught and would take Shen Liangsheng back for visits.
The gatekeeper had never changed and knew that Ch’in Ching used to be the vice principal, but because he had always taught lessons, most of the acquainted staff still called him “Mister Ch’in.” Of course, the schoolmaster in question also preferred this title.
An old mulberry tree stood in the schoolyard near the . The mulberries ripened in summer and hung abundantly on the tree branches. Shen Liangsheng knew Ch’in Ching liked eating mulberries and that the man probably picked this time for a visit specifically to eat them, but actually seeing the man sneak into the school after classes had ended to steal the mulberries made him want to snicker.
The tree was old and had grown very tall. Ch’in Ching had shrunken a little due to old age and looked shorter and even a bit hunched over. Once during a struggle session, he had received an injury in his lower back and was unable to recover due to a lack of hospital care and medicine. After that, he had had trouble straightening his back without experiencing pain.
On the other hand, Shen Liangsheng still had a towering figure, and knowing the shorter man’s wishes, he stepped onto the podium and picked off some from the low-hanging branches. When the man took the berries and was about to put them straight into his mouth, Shen Liangsheng chided, “.”
The Hai Ho was near Tienwei Road. Sometimes, when they were energetic enough, they would amble eastward along the river all the way to the train station. There they would stand by the watching the passing vehicles and ships and listening to the horns coming from the water, a sound that remained unchanged for all these years.
Liberation Bridge and Wankuo Bridge are one and the same. Stories said that the blueprints were drawn by the master who designed the Eiffel Tower. Prior to Liberation, this bridge had belonged to the French concession and was indeed built by the French, but the stories were no more than stories. However, this bridge was rather similar to the Eiffel Tower in that it was made entirely of steel. Throughout the years, most bridges along the Hai Ho had been repaired. This one received nothing but a new coat of paint, and it was still as sturdy as ever.
Ch’in Ching would stand with Shen Liangsheng by the bridge and gaze at the other bank – Liberation Road. It was once called Main Street and had been lined with foreign shops and banks, its visitors the upper echelons of Tientsin society at the time.
Once when they were standing there, it suddenly occurred to Ch’in Ching that they had walked through Main Street together many years ago and stood by the river looking over from the other side.
They had been looking from the left bank to the right, and now they were looking from the right to the left. Ch’in Ching could almost see two men, each pushing his own bicycle, standing on the other bank watching them – they were the young versions of themselves.
Disregarding the others around them, Ch’in Ching grabbed Shen Liangsheng’s hand.
He held his hand, watching the two young men standing on the other side of the river. It was as though they had crossed a bridge together hand in hand, walking across four decades.
The summer of nineteen eighty-three came hastily; midday in May was already too hot to bear. Shen Liangsheng seemed to be suffering from heat illness and had had little appetite for weeks.
One afternoon Shen Liangsheng woke up from his nap to find the bed empty. He left the bed, and when he came to the door of the bedroom, he saw the man sitting on a folding stool with his back slightly turned to him. There was a large bowl by the man’s feet filled with water and half a dozen fresh lotus seed pods that the man somehow got his hands on. Wearing that pair of bottle-bottom glasses of his, he was painstakingly shucking the lotus and did not hear the footsteps behind him.
If this were any other time, Shen Liangsheng would certainly give a helping hand for a task that was taxing for the eyes, but this time, he did not. He merely stood at the doorway, silently watching Ch’in Ching peeling the seed pod, picking out the seeds and separating the bitter germ and the white parts into two white porcelain bowls.
He watched as the afternoon sun stretched into thin, long rays across the spotless concrete floor and fell upon the man’s nearly all white hair, and he had a sudden sense of gratefulness – no matter how much he suffered, he felt grateful for this life.
“Oh, you’re awake?” Ch’in Ching finished shucking and turned around to find Shen Liangsheng standing at the doorway. He spoke with a smile, “This is good for the heat. I’ll make some congee with the seed white, and if you don’t like the bitter germ, you can put them in your tea. The tea leaves will cover the bitterness very well.”
Shen Liangsheng nodded back with a gentle smile, too. “Fine.”
Retrospectively, Shen Liangsheng thought he had seen it coming. Ch’in Ching thought the other man had discomfort in the throat and had little appetite because of the heat, and Shen Liangsheng had thought so, too. It was only when the feeling of his throat being stuck became more and more prominent that he was reminded of his father’s illness.
If there was something that Shen Liangsheng had kept as a secret from Ch’in Ching for all these years, it would be the throat problem that his father had. At the time, Louis had told Shen Liangsheng straightforwardly because of their close relationship that laryngeal cancer was inheritable and encouraged the businessman to quit smoking.
Although inheritable disease was an uncertain probability, Shen Liangsheng had been unwilling to tell Ch’in Ching. If he had told the man, the matter would linger on his mind more or less. Later, as he lived with Ch’in Ching, he did gradually quit smoking, and as time went on, he forgot about this matter himself. But he eventually thought about it again now that his throat felt more and more uncomfortable even after taking traditional medicine.
Since he had his suspicions, he thought he should visit the hospital. He feared going with Ch’in Ching, so he spoke about it with Lao-Liu first, asking for his godson’s company.
“Don’t scare me, Lao-Shen.” Lao-Liu had stopped using “Mr. Shen Jr.” a long time ago. Before Shen Liangsheng even finished, the plump man began lashing out, “Don’t you jinx yourself like that. We’ll go get you examined, but you can’t scare me like that!”
Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng were together day in and day out, so the hospital visit could not possibly take place without his knowledge. Consequently, they ended up going together. Shen Liangsheng said their godson was there only because having a bicycle was more convenient, but Ch’in Ching knew this man better than anyone. The man had always been meticulous with all matters and had thought of resolutions even before Ch’in Ching had noticed the issue. Thus, Ch’in Ching was very anxious on the inside, but he showed none of it. He acted in the same usual way even while they awaited the examination report, eating and sleeping as he should.
Because he was too scared to think about it.
As though the two of them would be able to continue in the same way if he did everything the same as before.
Their godson volunteered to pick up the report on the day it was ready, but Ch’in Ching insisted on going, too.
Naturally, Shen Liangsheng could not stand by idly, so the three of them went to the hospital together. The young Liu was cut from the same cloth as his father and had the same friendly personality. He did not stop speaking on the way to the hospital, telling his godfathers about his work, about his eldest daughter, doing his best to lighten the atmosphere.
Only when it was their turn and the doctor came out asking for the family members did he shoot up from his seat and hurriedly replied, “Here.” Before Ch’in Ching could respond, the young man had entered the doctor’s office to view the results.
Shen Liangsheng had always belonged to the textile mill, and healthcare was paid for by the state at the time. They were lucky to have had a considerate doctor who felt sympathetic after seeing the two older men sitting outside and who did not linger on the question of whether the young man was immediate family. The doctor explained the scans in detail, but the young man did not understand the terms – nasopharynx and hypopharynx – only asking with wide eyes after the doctor had finished, “So, is there a way?”
“Yes, of course. Surgery is a possible choice in addition to other less intrusive methods….” The doctor paused but proceeded to fulfil his duty as a doctor by explaining the various methods and risks of each. In the end, he gave his kind-hearted suggestion, “Keeping in mind the gentleman’s age, surgery is not impossible, but I’ve told you the probabilities of recovery. Why don’t you think about this some more and come to a decision after discussing with the family?”
But how could he discuss this? The young man sat, slumped in the chair, with his eyes red, too scared to walk out the doctor’s office.
But he had to talk.
Lao-Liu had not gone with them but was waiting for their news at home. When he saw the three men and the heavy silence about them, he stiffened with apprehension.
Insistent on being straightforward, Shen Liangsheng told his godson to lay it all out. The four men sat down, and the young Liu reported what the doctor had told him. Then, his eyes flickered between his father and his two godfathers as the uneasiness brewed within him. It took all his will to stay seated in his chair.
By then, Lao-Liu was already stupefied, but Shen Liangsheng had the same old expression on his face. Even Ch’in Ching appeared rather calm, for he had prepared himself on the way home. If everything was fine, his godson would have told him at the hospital. Only a serious result would have had to wait until they came home.
“I think I’ll pass on the surgery.” Shen Liangsheng was the first to speak and made his stance clear. He then talked about his father’s illness and concluded, “There’s no use going under the knife. I don’t want the fuss.”
Snapping back to reality, Lao-Liu looked at his childhood friend sitting quietly beside Shen Liangsheng without a word of refusal or any signs of anguish, and he felt himself stiffen again.
In the end, things went as Shen Liangsheng wanted: no surgery and no hospital care, either.
It was not because they could not afford hospital treatment. Although public healthcare had just been implemented that year and the state-owned organizations set incremental plans to provide benefits for their workers, the administration of the textile mill had given word after knowing Shen Liangsheng’s condition that all medical fees would be covered. Ch’in Ching had also received a sum of wages owed since the Cultural Revolution, so money was not their worry. Shen Liangsheng just didn’t want to go.
He had lived his life, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. Never had he been immature or reckless until this matter, so Ch’in Ching listened to his wishes totally. Their godson married early, and his eldest daughter had already begun working. She disregarded all of Ch’in Ching’s efforts to find a home nurse since she was a nurse herself. There was no need for outsiders.
Therefore, everything from fetching prescriptions to administering injections became the duty of the youngsters of Liu. Shen Liangsheng felt terrible for this, but Lao-Liu forced a smile on his face and retorted, “They don’t call you dad and granddad for no reason. You let them do what they’re supposed to do for their elders. Don’t you start arguing with me now. Not with that throat of yours.”
Ch’in Ching, on the other hand, was not doing badly, either. It was just that he did not allow anyone to help with the daily chores. Like a hen protecting a chick, he lashed out at anyone who tried to take the job away from him.
In reality, there was no one who did that, for they all could see that this was Ch’in Ching’s motivation. Lao-Liu watched as his friend took meticulous care of Shen Liangsheng and began to fear for the day that this force would run dry and his friend would fall apart at the seams.
Shen Liangsheng’s condition was as the doctor had predicted – this type of cancer was not easily detectable in its early stages, but it developed very rapidly and nothing could be done – by late autumn, pain-killers had to be administered. The amount of time that Shen Liangsheng spent asleep began to increase. One day he woke up at some hour in the day and turned to look for Ch’in Ching only to find Lao-Liu sitting by the bed. He signed with his hands asking where Ch’in Ching was.
“He said he was going out for a walk,” Lao-Liu answered seemingly casually while he was actually burning with concern on the inside. Ch’in Ching had said that he was going for a walk and asked his childhood friend to keep watch for him. Unable to stop his friend, Lao-Liu could only let Ch’in Ching leave. But it was now well past four in the afternoon, and there was no sign of the man. He became more and more nervous and began praying for his granddaughter to end her shift early and come over so she could go out looking.
Shen Liangsheng still had a clear head and could tell from Lao-Liu’s expression that something was troubling the plump man. He gave a small nod, not fretting at all.
He was not afraid, for he was certain the man would come back – as long as Shen Liangsheng was here, the man would not go anywhere. He would never be far.
Frankly, Shen Liangsheng felt guilty because he would have to leave Ch’in Ching behind, but he could not say that aloud. Indeed, he had not spoken about this, but he took advantage of the opportunity while Ch’in Ching was not present. He asked Lao-Liu for pen and paper, and he wrote, “Take good care of him for me.”
Lao-Liu held back the tears and agreed. Ch’in Ching had not shed a tear yet, so he dared not shed any himself. Shen Liangsheng made a gesture that said, “Rip it up,” and Lao-Liu quickly complied. But even then he felt uneasy and decided to stuff the pieces in his own pocket.
Sure enough, Ch’in Ching had not gone far. He had only gone to the Temple of Great Compassion and knelt there from morning to afternoon. First he begged the bodhisattva to lessen Shen Liangsheng’s suffering, and then he knelt there repeating a line from : “Ju k’e shu hsi, jen pai ch’i shen.”
– If I could take your place, I would die for you a hundred times over.
That day, Ch’in Ching returned home a bit after five o’clock before anyone had to go out searching for him. Although his figure was even more hunched over from hours of kneeling, his face appeared normal.
Shen Liangsheng had already fallen back asleep. Lao-Liu let out a breath of relief as he sat with his childhood friend next to the bed. After some silence, he tried to talk some sense into his friend. “They say seventy-three and eighty-four are two years of great difficulty. See, he’s seventy-three this year…. But you know what, we’re close, too. We might not make it two years from now…so you just hang in there for two more years. It’ll pass by in a flash, and then you two can reunite in the netherworld…he’d surely be waiting for you.”
“I don’t need him to wait,” Ch’in Ching answered calmly but then realized his words could be interpreted wrongly. He corrected himself, “He doesn’t need to wait for me.”
Lao-Liu looked up at his friend. He saw Ch’in Ching sitting in the dim room with a flat expression, but the eyes that were gazing at the sleeping man were filled with affection.
“Believe it or not, Lao-Liu, I will know when he leaves, and when that time comes, I will have to go with him.”
“You probably don’t believe it, Lao-Liu, but I do.”
That night, Lao-Liu left in a complete stupor with his granddaughter in tow. The entire trip back home felt unreal to him. Each step he took felt like stepping on clouds.
Throughout the years, the two families certainly were close, but the relationship between Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng was a secret after all. Mrs. Liu knew, and her children could more or less guess. The grandchildren, however, truly thought the two men were cousins.
Once the lies were told enough times, even Lao-Liu seemed to have forgotten that Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng were not cousins.
He had a carefree and forgiving personality and was too lazy to recall the past – remember this, remember that – what was the use in that?
But on that day, it all came rushing back to him. Every event, every ordeal, the stories of two men had taken place right beside him. The characters were people who were close to him, but his recollections seemed surreal as though those stories were far, far away from him, as far as legends, as far as the fictional pieces that he wrote commentaries on after quitting crosstalk.
He was just a commoner who told stories, but the people in the stories were not.
After he walked home and ate supper in a daze, Lao-Liu turned on the radio and continued his dumb state as opera began playing on the airwaves.
It was A Gathering of Heroes – the boisterous instruments were playing – clang clang clang clang clang.
“When a man chances upon a master with whom he can bare his soul in this wide world, the outer bond of ruler and subject, and the inner bond of brotherhood shall be formed, and he is sure to obey every word and every thought, and share all fortune and misfortune alike.”
Lao-Liu sprung up from his seat as though the opera dialogue had awoken him. In a loud but off-key voice, he sang along for a while before hollering for his granddaughter in the opera voice, “Ying-, go and fetch your grandpa some wine and drink with me!”
Mrs. Liu and Liu Ying shared a look before both rolling their eyes.
“What’s wrong with Grandpa now?”
“Who knows with him?”
As winter came, Shen Liangsheng could no longer eat solid foods and survived through intravenous drips that left him unbearably skinny. Although Liu Ying was young and had minimal experience on the job, she had skills and was both accurate and steady with her hand. If she could do it in one shot, she would never do a second, saying that she couldn’t bear for Grandpa Shen to feel unnecessary pain.
But nobody knew if it was painful or not since the man was rarely awake. He was little more than bones, but he had a serene expression and was even easy on the eyes.
“Sometimes I regret it.” Liu Ying sat down with Ch’in Ching to talk after hanging up the medication. She kept a sweet smile on her face since she wanted to comfort the old man. “Why wasn’t I born as Grandpa Shen’s real granddaughter? If I had Grandpa Shen’s looks and was a bit skinnier, the boys would be lining down the block to date me, and I wouldn’t have such a hard time finding someone.”
“Don’t say that about yourself. Those boys don’t know what they’re missing.” Since that one autumn day, Ch’in Ching had improved and did not appear to be pushing himself. He patted Liu Ying’s hand, smiling. “Plus, it’s good fortune for girls to have a little meat.”
“This isn’t a little meat, okay?” Seeing the man’s smile, Liu Ying doubled down on her self-degrading joke and raised her arm. “Look at this. They might as well be pig arms. I can’t lose weight no matter how much I control my intake. It’s so frustrating.”
“You haven’t seen him at his best,” Ch’in Ching continued the topic and stood up as though to present her with a treasure. “Hold on, I’ll get the photograph for you….”
The truth was that Liu Ying had seen the photograph several times, and moreover, there was little to see, anyway. During the raids in the Cultural Revolution, they feared keeping any photographs and burned even the photograph they had taken after liberation. The only one they could not bear to burn was the one taken after the victory against Japan, so they tucked it away in a tin box and buried it in the yard. Old film was easily corrupted, and the humidity underground was even worse for it. The faces on the photograph were so blurry that the young Shen Liangsheng’s face could not be distinguished.
Learning from his childhood friend’s behaviour, Ch’in Ching wanted to act like a kidult and show off his belongings. Liu Ying naturally would not ruin the fun and began looking even though she had seen it before.
“I must say even this wasn’t his best….” Ch’in Ching had shown the photograph to the youngsters, but he had feared letting something slip. But now he no longer cared, or perhaps he had eventually forgotten about the need for secrecy. As he held the old photograph, he became immersed in nostalgia. “The first time I met Grandpa Shen…no, that was the second time…you know the Great Theatre of China, right? That day, I was going to watch a show, but there were more people than sardines in a can, and I couldn’t get a ticket…then I was standing by the road, thinking I’d see what would happen…and then….”
Liu Ying listened attentively. It was a story of the distant past, but because of Ch’in Ching’s talent, the story was brought to life. The packed crowds of people, the neon lights on the buildings, the man in white tuxedo, everything seemed to dance by before her very eyes. The girl had a soft heart and felt the tears welling up. Taking advantage of a pause in the story, she excused herself to check on the kettle in the kitchen and left the room.
In the kitchen, she tried her best to push back the tears as she didn’t want to cause more trouble for her grandpa. It was when she settled down that she realized something was amiss, and when she thought about it a little more…. Wait a second, if Grandpa Shen and Grandpa Ch’in were cousins, how could they have only met in their twenties?
In that moment, it was as if an entire new world opened up to her. For a minute, she stood in a daze, and the next thing she knew, she began sobbing. Afraid that the men in the room would hear her, she immediately slapped a hand over her own mouth. For some reason, she felt horrible, and she cried so hard that she squatted down and could not get up.
Sitting by the bed looking at the photograph, Ch’in Ching did not hear any sounds from the kitchen. He didn’t even realize Liu Ying had used the kettle as an excuse as he was totally absorbed in his memories. He etched out Shen Liangsheng’s young complexion while gently brushing the man’s presently bony face.
He was so good-looking…when he came to the school looking for Ch’in Ching, he made the class of girls starry-eyed just by standing there…but nobody could say he wasn’t good-looking now.
With a tender smile, Ch’in Ching tucked the blanket for Shen Liangsheng. He still thought every single person in the world put together was not enough to compare with this man before him.
No matter when, his dear Shen-keke would be the best-looking one, and no one could ever compare.
New Year’s Eve, nineteen eighty-three, for the first time since liberation China broadcasted a live year-end concert. By then, black and white television sets were fairly widespread in the big cities, but colour television sets were still few. The colour set in Ch’in Ching’s home was given to Lao-Wu’s wife by her eldest daughter. Lao-Wu was older and had not lived past the Cultural Revolution, but his wife was quite a few years younger and pulled through. Moreover, Lao-Wu’s early on, so the family was better-off than others. Lao-Wu had treated Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng like sons, but they called Mrs. Wu “Big Sis.” They were not successful in hiding Shen Liangsheng’s illness from Big Sis, and the woman instructed her daughter to bring the colour television set to Ch’in Ching’s house. The meaning behind this was obvious and Ch’in Ching could not easily refuse, but he had no time to watch it.
But the New Year’s was different, especially when Shen Liangsheng appeared very energetic that day. The man slept until the evening, and when he awoke and heard there was a live concert, he sat up a little and leaned on Ch’in Ching. The two of them turned on the television and watched the festivities.
Lao-Liu had wanted to bring the year-end supper to Ch’in Ching’s house, but the latter refused fervently, saying that the Lius should celebrate together and leave the two of them some peace and quiet. Therefore, Lao-Liu delivered the New Year’s dishes and left, thinking he would come on New Year’s morning to wish them a good year.
The clock on the wall slowly ticked to nine o’clock, but Shen Liangsheng was still awake watching the concert with Ch’in Ching. When the crosstalk performance began, he pulled a smile.
With the man in his arms, Ch’in Ching easily caught the smile and guessed the meaning behind it. Going along with it, he leaned into the man’s ear and asked shamelessly, “Shen-keke, who do you think is better, them or me?”
Shen Liangsheng still had the smile about his lips as he looked over slightly. He then nodded weakly as though to say “You are better.”
Ch’in Ching giggled in delight and was about to continue when Shen Liangsheng pulled his hand over and began writing on his palm with what strength he could muster.
As Ch’in Ching waited patiently for the man to finish, the smile on his face deepened. He pushed back the words that were about to escape his lips and closed his hand around that of the man, locking into his own palm the word “” that the man had written along with the lifetime that they had shared together.
The clock slowly ticked past ten o’clock, and Shen Liangsheng had finally grown tired and fallen asleep in Ch’in Ching’s arms. Ch’in Ching gently laid him flat on the bed before lying down next to the man, hands still connected. It did not even occur to him to turn off the television. He drifted into slumber with the man beside him, not letting the celebration from the television set or even the thunderous firecrackers at midnight awake them.
When Ch’in Ching awoke again it was already bright outside, but Shen Liangsheng was not beside him. He thought it strange that the man was missing even though they had been sleeping together just now.
Confused, he left the bed and put on his shoes before heading outside. Only when he left the house and the yard did he find himself wearing a blue short-sleeve shirt, not feeling cold at all – it was already summer.
The scenery outside the yard was nothing out of the ordinary: a rather narrow mile-long hut’ongwith residential units on either side. Strangely, he did not see a single neighbour, only the dazzling sunlight raining down on the street silently yet so intensely that he had to look away.
It was then that Ch’in Ching knew he was dreaming, but even though it was a dream, he had to find the man. Just as he came to this realization, he glimpsed a familiar figure in front of him – it was none other than Shen Liangsheng.
Ch’in Ching hurried after the man and called his name, but Shen Liangsheng did not answer and only kept pushing forward.
The mile-long hut’ong seemed to stretch on forever in the dream. He watched as the figure that appeared pale white under the blaring light slipped farther and farther away, but even when it became smaller than a needle point, he could still see it.
Ch’in Ching was, however, on pins and needles, afraid that the silhouette would vanish in the blink of an eye. Therefore, he dashed after it. He ran until his shoes flew off, until he was panting so hard he could no longer call his name.
At last, Shen Liangsheng seemed to have noticed someone had been following him and stopped to look. He frowned when he saw Ch’in Ching and began shooing him away like a mean old man would a stray cat or dog, “Go back! Don’t follow me! Quick, go back!”
Just now Ch’in Ching was in such a hurry he could not cry, but now that Shen Liangsheng was chasing him away, he broke out in tears and began sobbing like a pitiful child trying to win back the adult’s love.
Unable to bear this, Shen Liangsheng turned and took a few steps towards the man, but he did not close the distance. He looked at the crying man, at a loss of what to do.
“Shen Liangsheng….” Not getting any response from the man, Ch’in Ching realized the tears were of no use and began calling the man’s name between sobs. He wanted to say something else but didn’t know exactly what. In the end, after choking on his sobs for a while, he blurted out, “I love you, Shen Liangsheng.”
It was a strange yet fantastical dream.
When he spoke the words “I love you,” the dream seemed to come to a complete standstill. The two men stood frozen in spot. Then, they both burst out in laughter.
He reached out a hand while he began walking towards him.
With every step, they seemed to become one year younger so that when they stood face to face, what each man saw was a youthful face.
Strangely yet fantastically, they had not only become younger, but their attire had changed, too. They looked like characters out of a wuhsia story. Ch’in Ching was wearing a long blue robe as would a common student. Shen Liangsheng, on the other hand, was in elaborate dress, an ink-coloured robe embroidered with silver clouds along the hems, but he appeared more like a vicious deity rather than an elegant noble because of his cold complexion that carried not wrath but death.
However, Ch’in Ching was not afraid, nor did he find their attire bizarre. Rather, he leaned in mischievously as he always had and reached for the man’s hand.
Shen Liangsheng did not seem surprised, either, and took Ch’in Ching’s hand before leading him forward along the path.
Under the blinding summer sun, they walked side by side until the end of this mile, and they would keep going –
To where they had come from.
Till the end of time.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Struggle session. The victims were made to wear boards with their name and the criminal offence of "anti-revolutionarist" along with other humiliating words and drawings, and then paraded in front of the public.
Bottom right: victim getting hair cut
Struggle session where victims had to wear tall hats in addition to the boards. "To wear a tall hat" has become an idiom in its own right.
Execution of the serious "offenders"
Cattail leaf fan on top of a folding stool
The Temple of Great Compassion, the field and stone lions
Google maps showing the route from the temple to Liberation Bridge. Note the Hutong District where the Lius live and the Ch’üanyeh Bazaar mentioned in chapter 1.
The bitter germ separated from the seed white using a hollow needle
On the reason why the plants were uprooted:
Having plants could have been used as evidence of being counter-revolutionary because: 1) it meant the owner had free time to care for the plants (free time should be dedicated to helping the country/community); 2) having beautiful flowers was disrespectful towards those not fortunate enough to have flowers (everyone should be equal; there should be no competition); 3) decorative flowers could be seen as a symptom of bourgeois tendencies; 4) if the plants were edible it would create inequality in the food distribution among households. _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang says: Please comment down below telling me how many tissues you used in the reading of this chapter <3
On another note, I will go back to translating Brother and possibly picking up the prequel to this story (for now I will call it "Live To Suffer") along the way. The prequel is about half the length of TDDUP but will take me more time to translate as the author chose an even more sophisticated style than the one in TDDUP. It takes place in Ancient China and depicts what could be seen as Shen Liangsheng and Ch'in Ching's previous lives.
I'd like to thank Marcia, my editor, my motivation and most importantly, my 伯樂. She has kindly agreed to help me with the prequel project as well, and I really look forward to it. Thank you to all of the people who have helped throughout this project! And of course, thank you, the readers! Hope to see you in future projects!
On another note, I will be in Singapore from July 13th to 20th! Do I have any fans out there? :D