Truth Is Stranger than Fiction
Old Mrs. Man went from the oil-press to the mill. Work had stopped there, because the stream was too low to turn the waterwheel festooned with fading green waterweeds, and there were white bird-droppings on the millstone. The slack winter season had come, that was evident, when virtually all work stopped. But the first snowfall had brought an intimation of spring. The snow by the embankment of Long Lake had been melting for some days, and the lake had risen to the entrance of the lock. Workers came to report that there was now enough water to turn the mill. At New Year every family needed several loads of glutinous rice to make sticky-rice-cakes. Young brides paying New Year calls on relatives had to take rice-cakes and sweet wine made from glutinous rice. So the old lady had come to have a look round and help the man keeping an eye on the mill. Taking a broom she swept away the cobwebs in nooks and crannies and on the millstone, then oiled the steel rim of the axle and hung in place the long sieve which had been kept in a corner. While doing this she told a hired hand to fetch a crate of glutinous rice, to test whether the mill was in working order.
When he had left she picked up a portable stove from one side of the mill to warm her hands, and walked out to the embankment to have a look. She decided, after trying out the mill,to go to the end of the village to see Dongsheng’s mother. Three days ago he had left to escort some merchants, and strange to say had not come back. Twenty to thirty li was no great distance,there were normally no wolves or tigers there, and the going was so smooth that he could not lose his way even in the dark. Had something got into his eyes and made him fall into a wayside pit,the mouth of a long extinct volcano? Or had he been hunting deer or hares and rolled into a quagmire under the snow, to be sucked to his death? If so, he should have left tracks on the snow. The only other possibility was that he had made up his mind to join the army, but was afraid his widowed mother’s tears might soften his heart and hold him back; so he had taken this chance to slip away. However, his job in the Security Bureau meant that he was already a member of the local armed forces, and if he wanted to join a military college it would be only too easy. In those parts it was generally some outside factor which goaded young fellows into leaving home: loss of face during a quarrel; inability to pay a gambling debt; or love for a girl impossible to marry. So finding it hard to stick it out any longer they ran away, in company or singly, to escape from their wretchedness at home and make a fresh start elsewhere. Yet Dongsheng had none of these problems.The secretary of the bureau, going to the manor-house to report his absence, had declared it most unlikely that he had run away to join the army. He did wonder, though, if Qiaoxiu’s disappearance and the lack of news of her for half a month had something to do with it. Dongsheng was an honest lad. Although he had kept quiet about his feelings, he might have screwed up the courage to fetch her back. He might even have sworn not to return without her, which would explain why he had vanished. Of course this was only the secretary’s guess; he had no evidence. But because of this, far-fetched rumours circulated throughout the village: at Red Crag Dongsheng had met Qiaoxiu who had run away from the Man famlily, and discovered that she meant to go to Changde with the suona player from Zhongzhai. For fear he might make trouble by blabbing, her lover and she had tied him up and thrown him into the river. Although this could not be proved, the rumour reached old Mrs. Man and upset her, not that she fully believed it. She must call on Dongsheng’s mother to comfort her. Before setting out she filled a little basket with twenty big eggs.
Of the two hundred-odd families in Gaoxian, apart from the Yangs and the Duans, the Mans were the largest. And the old lady’s family was the chief one in their clan. They owned fields near the village and orchards on the hills. The clan also had an oil-press, a mill and other properties, and they put in different managers every three years. In addition they ran a small grocery selling government salt in the market square five li away, but its turnover was small, and it simply served as a rest-house for them when they went to the fair there. The previous manager had died at about forty, and his place was now taken by this spry old lady in her sixties. Nearly twenty years had passed since her husband died, leaving her two sons and two daughters. Both girls had left home to get married. Her elder son was the recently married captain who headed the Security Bureau; the younger was a second-year student in the junior middle school in the county town. Both brothers were honest youngsters. The elder, having attended the village school for only three years, was not much influenced by Confucianism. As a propertied young landowner who had to defend the district, he naturally liked shooting and cudgel fighting. In his home there were hired hands, hounds and guns, and with a guest staying there he had hunted all winter long to pass the time.
His mother, born in a poor family, had simple tastes and was hardworking and thrifty. Since the family property had been built up by generations of thrifty, hardworking forbears, they kept up some of the traditional ways. Her clothes were patched and mended but always spotless. Her trim underclothes and outer clothes gave off a faint fragrance of hay and the acidity of the rice gruel with which they had been starched. Her carefully dressed hair and neatly shod feet showed her senior status and were characteristic of old-fashioned village women. All she did appeared to have no connection with books, yet conformed to the expectations of the men of old, especially as regards her disposition. Knowing that money comes and goes, she showed concern for relatives and neighbours and was not parsimonious.By giving away part of one’s property one could keep the larger part. She was friends with all the villagers, even those unrelated to her, and if any family had a funeral or wedding, if a baby died or a son had a long illness, she would call on the mistress of the house and share her grief or joy. Then, secretly, she would send someone to deliver a few measures of rice or a couple of catties of lump sugar, thinking this her neighbourly duty. And all this she did completely spontaneously.
None of the household had fixed religious beliefs. On the altar in the middle of the hall were offerings to Heaven and Earth and the ancestral tablets. They also sacrificed there to the Year God and the Tutelary God. In the kitchen was the God of the Hearth, while the pigsty, cowshed and barns had their different deities too. Every morning and evening without fail the old lady washed her hands to bow before them with lighted incense. On the first and fifteenth of every month, she fasted to express her gratitude and pray that no harm would come to the family or to their livestock. During the festivals in different seasons she observed the appropriate rites to pay homage to the spirits, fasted to purify her mind or killed a pig to redeem a vow,unquestioningly following all the old customs. Before New Year,auspicious gold paper coins and congratulatory couplets were pasted on all the doors, on the pigsty and cowshed. And money and rice were prepared as gifts for relatives and neighbours. If someone came sheepishly to ask for a loan, and the sum was not excessive, she always gave it.
As the family had so much property, people were needed to manage it. Apart from the guards of the Security Bureau responsible for keeping order in the village, they had three or four hired hands, and a steward who was a close relative. With the copious by-products of the oil-press and mill, they generally raised four sleek and sturdy oxen, a styful of fat pigs, a dozen goats, thirty to fifty hens and ducks, a dozen cotes of pigeons,and several watchdogs. In the centre of their courtyard grew a large walnut tree; they kept two golden pheasants in a coop, and two lop-eared foreign rabbits, while in the bamboo grove behind the house stood several beehives. Although outside affairs were handled by the young men of the clan, it was old Mrs. Man who kept track of their income and expenditure at home and outside,the amounts spent on gifts to relatives and the amount of their debts. She kept these figures in mind, and needed no account book to reel them all off at a moment’s notice.
Regarding daily household affairs, the old lady was a realist; in her spiritual life she was a worshipper of idols; yet regarding her children, she was an idealist. She faced up to the present, yet placed her hope in the future. Her elder son had the strength to defend their home, the virility to father two sons and two daughters, and she should live to arrange her grandsons’marriages, one to a girl in town, another to one in the country.One granddaughter too should have a husband in town, the other one in the country. As her second son was studying in the provincial capital, she thought he had better follow the custom of free choice there and find himself a girl student, who could come and teach in their clan’s primary school and play the harmonium and sing. Or the young couple could stay in town to teach. It was up to her son to decide. But he said he preferred to wait ten years to get married. As for Dongsheng, she should help find him a wife too when he grew up, and give him a few mu of hilly land for his own.
The old lady’s dream was quite healthy, quite uncertain too considering that place and time. As the saying goes, man proposes, Heaven disposes. For storeyed buildings rationally constructed could collapse suddenly like snow or ice if Heaven so willed, then flow off with the melted snow into the stream,past the stone embankment and under the bridge into the mighty river—and that was the end of them. Because this small community was built on the same foundation as the whole country, the countryside was being bankrupted, and the county and provincial governments depended largely on the opium tax to keep going. The same applied to Gaoxian’s Security Bureau with its thirty old-fashioned rifles. It provided escorts for small opium dealers, and most of its revenue came from the ten yuan levied on each load of opium. The custom was to send a man with a visiting card to escort these merchants to the district border. Once across it, they were the responsibility of the bureau in the next district.
The old lady saw a hired hand bringing two half crates of grain from the manor-house. He headed straight for the mill,followed by two people. One was a stranger, the other was Dongsheng’s mother whom she wanted to see to hear what news she had. Before greetings could be exchanged, she saw that Mother Yang looked most upset. She hurried towards her, “Aunt,is your Dongsheng back? I was just going to call on you.”
Mother Yang’s shoes were covered with slush. Dispirited and fearful, she seemed to have shrunk. She swore softly, “Buddha!I’m really out of luck!”
The old lady deduced that there was bad news. She asked the strange visitor, “Brother, are you from Xinchang?”
The hired hand hastily put in, “Brother Jimao, this is the captain’s mother. Tell her all about it. Don’t be afraid, and don’t hold anything back.”
Realizing that something serious had happened, the old lady led them all into the mill.
Cold and flustered, the messenger started stuttering. Not until he had cleared his throat could he explain his errand. He said that Dongsheng, missing for three days, had reached Red Crag ten li away when a small band of horsemen, headed by two of the Tian brothers from their village, had barred the way and kidnapped him as well as the two opium dealers. First they had taken them to Jimao’s small eating house at the foot of the hill, to warm up there before going up the hill—where to he didn’t know. Jimao recognized Dongsheng, who was smiling as if this was nothing serious. But yesterday at the fair he heard that Dongsheng had not returned to Gaoxian and the captain had sent to find out what had happened to him. So he realized Dongsheng was being kept prisoner. Among the kidnappers, apart from the Tian brothers whom he knew, he had seen a strapping fellow in his twenties who resembled the suona player from Zhongzhai, generally known as Fifth Brother. With his suona and a mauser on his back, he looked a formidable figure. Dongsheng had smiled at him and at Jimao,but it was a cryptic smile. Jimao begged the old lady not to let anyone know he had brought this news, or the Tian brothers might burn down his house in revenge. If he didn’t bring the news,though, he was afraid he might be involved as they had gone to his shop to warm themselves. The escape back of the two opium dealers bore out the truth of his story.
By the afternoon the whole of Gaoxian knew this. The captain considered it a great loss of face. He at once called an emergency meeting in the Security Bureau, to discuss whether to settle the matter privately or to notify the county. A spirited youngster of the Man clan said, “Red Crag comes under the captain’s jurisdiction. By acting like that, the Tian family have as good as challenged his authority. Settling it privately means sending an intermediary to discuss how much ransom money the Mans must pay. We’ve already lost face enough. And if we create a precedent, showing weakness, the same thing may happen again.Besides, one of that band was the fellow from Zhongzhai who carried off young Qiaoxiu. How dare he show up again to make fresh trouble? He’s spat in the face of us Gaoxian people.” There was reason in what he said. The captain and secretary, having weighed the pros and cons, proposed mobilizing the militia and notifying the county that they were going to hunt down these bandits. The captain went to the county town in person to report this, and asked the county head to lead a force to that area to speed things up, making an example of one as a warning to many.The county head, a demobilized officer, was on good terms with the captain; and being young and eager for action he had been meaning to stay with him to have some hunting. The next morning he mounted his big new sedan chair and accompanied the captain back to Gaoxian, taking a platoon of guards. He put up in the captain’s house, while the thirty guardsmen were billeted on the lower floor of the Security Bureau. The village at once became lively.
After the news spread that the county head had gone to Gaoxian to pacify the district, the captain sent scouts to Tian Family Stockade at Red Crag. They came back to report that the Tian brothers had gone up to Tiger Cave that morning taking four guns, several loads of commodities, five or six loads of rice cakes, three bushels of rice, a bucket of oil and over a dozen men with some twenty swords and spears. Over thirty people had gone, including Dongsheng, Qiaoxiu and the suona player from Zhongzhai. Dongsheng looked haggard and one of his feet was bare. The Tian brothers had cracked jokes to boost the villagers’morale. “We don’t have to be afraid if the county head comes. We can hold that upper and lower cave even against heavenly troops.They’d soon be tired of cricking their necks looking up. Once all the fat hens hereabouts have been eaten, the county head will go back in his sedan chair to his yamen—he can’t do a thing to our sixth Brother.”
The county head was well aware that the men in the mining district near the border were a wild troublesome lot, hard to control with a display of force. His idea had been to exploit their fear of officials and, while ostensibly suppressing bandits, to stay with some of the local gentry, enjoy a few feasts and then hold a meeting to settle the dispute. The ringleaders would have to hand over Dongsheng and the opium, or he could behead some unlucky villager (maybe one who had broken the law a few years before, or simply some pauper who had done nothing wrong) to hang his head in the market place as a warning. At another meeting he would impose a levy on each village for pacifying the countryside and to pay for ammunition, feasts and straw sandals for his guards. He would also select a couple of loads of the local gentry’s sausages and bacon, as well as several dozen plump hens and big roosters. In addition he would demand a hundred or so ounces of rare herbal medicine to cure his wife’s heart disease.Then with triumphant bugling his guards would march back to the yamen. His secretary would write a news release for the subsidized provincial paper, announcing when the county head had sallied forth, when he had returned victorious after fearlessly leading a fierce attack on the bandits. The county head would also report this as if it were the truth to the provincial government,referring to himself as “this humble official” while blowing his own trumpet. To add a touch of variety he could also publish an account in the name of some village representatives. In this way he could kill three birds with one stone: saving trouble, having a good time, and making a name and a profit. If all went well and his luck held, this might lead to his speedy promotion.
But the Tian Brothers are no fools: they were well aware of his intentions. However, though the Tian brothers understood the county head’s psychology, they overlooked his determination not to lose face, as well as that of the captain.
Five hours after the scouts reported back, over a hundred Gaoxian militiamen were ordered to set out with weapons and rations to surround and wipe out the bandits in Tiger Cave. The county head himself would direct this campaign. His arrival had thrown the village and the captain into a commotion of feverish excitement. Two women were especially on edge. Not knowing what to do, they hid themselves in the mill, hearts thumping behind a gap in the low wall as they watched in silence while the troops marched off. One was Dongsheng’s old mother, afraid that her son, forced to flee to Tiger Cave, might be killed in the confusion with the robbers, leaving her nothing to live for. The other was the captain’s old mother, who thought it most unwise to make enemies of the Tians over such a trifle. Here he’d raised troops and brought those guardsmen from town to eat them out of house and home, frightening the villagers and scaring away even the hens and dogs. He should have sent a friend to negotiate and spend a little money to settle the matter—that would have saved her worry. The new bride beside them, still looking shy,did not know what to say or think. The captain had mounted his white mule, and with a loaded mauser over one shoulder was riding off behind the county head, when suddenly he remembered his widowed mother’s frailty and love for him and her far sightedness. He galloped back to the mill.
“Don’t worry about me, mum. A big force like ours can’t be worsted.”
But when he saw the tears in the narrowed eyes of the two wrinkled old ladies, and the dread in his bride’s black eyes, he realized that more than this was preying on his mother’s mind. Rather flustered he stuttered, “Mother, it’s all right! We shan’t kill people at random. We’re all kinsmen, not enemies, and the county head says if they just hand over Dongsheng and … a small fine will settle the business. I’m not such a fool as to kill a man to start an endless feud!”
“For goodness’ sake be careful, we don’t want trouble!” the old lady urged him. “You’re not like the county head who can get away with murder. If it comes to the worst, he can just clear out.But this is your home, where your dad and grandad are buried;so mind you don’t bungle things! This rumpus you’ve raised is breaking my heart. I’ll pray to your father and Buddha to protect you, and vow to kill two pigs if you come back safe and sound!”
His bride, young and inexperienced, just admired his heroism.
As the troops set out for Tiger Cave, the womenfolk, children and old men stood in front of their gates, on the ridges of the fields or in the temple court to watch the excitement. The contrast between the rowdy troops and the quiet village after snow made a vivid impression on them. It did not seem an uncalled-for raid but a seasonable and enjoyable hunt.
Tiger Cave, twenty li east of Gaoxian, was just about two li from the boundary of the ninth district in that county. The Tians, a big clan there, several generations earlier had produced a senior licentiate and a lieutenant, and since the Republic a battalion commander. One branch had also managed the cinnabar mine at Monkey Flat for two years. In the country these titles and the power that went with them were quite considerable, so that some of the sons of this clan gave up farming to attend the middle school in the county town; others left the fields and took to the hills, losing interest in the land and books but dreaming of reaping without sowing. First they took sickles to reap the crops of others; then, as the civil wars dragged on and society degenerated, they learned to use firearms and resorted to armed robbery. Some young ruffians unable to stay in their village started cultivating the barren hills in Gaoxian district. The richest soil in Gaoxian was in the village where the Mans lived, with its well irrigated paddy field and hills on four sides growing tea, tung trees, catalpa and varnish trees. Five li along the highway was a big market. Held on the days with a three, six or nine in them,it was a mart for the mountain produce, sundries, salt, cloth, tea and varnish from fifty li around, affecting the livelihood of many people. So Gaoxian, favoured by providence, was the envy of other villages. And the big, powerful Man clan naturally aroused most resentment. Tiger Cave was on the poorest height in this district, in the lower reaches of the Wuchao River which dwindled in the winter until its channel was nothing but boulders and weeds. It was flanked by two dark cliffs where some scrub grew,and sheer precipices bare of vegetation. Tiger Cave comprised an upper and lower cave nearly a thousand feet above the river,a fantastic natural barrier with only a cleft in the rock giving access to it. One cave was dry and carpeted with white sand. In the other was a fountain which never dried up and cascaded out as a small waterfall. The two caves between them could hold about a thousand people, but normally the villagers only came here after the tenth month to make saltpetre for gunpowder or firecrackers. In troubled times, when they had to flee their homes,the women and children of two villages in this district brought grain and cooking vessels to shelter here until the danger was past. One such refugee gave birth to a child here, and since he turned out well a Temple of the Goddess was built in the dry cave. Village women who wanted a son would clamber up here to the statues of the goddess, which were handsomely decked out with embroidered silk robes. Quite a few pilgrims came here to light incense and make offerings. Still it was too dangerous, this beautiful, desolate height. Gazing down into the distance from the cave entrance, sometimes nothing could be seen but mist shrouding the trees and rocks. The plash of the fountain and the cries of strange birds made pilgrims feel cut off from the world of men.
Once the Tians had occupied both caves and blocked the pathway up, the place became an inaccessible stronghold. Some trees and creepers grew in the crevices of nearby hills, so that squirrels or monkeys could bound up, but this was impossible for any man.
The Tians’ original scheme had been to rob the opium dealers, then let Dongsheng go back to report this to the wealthy Mans, who they reckoned would not want trouble. Then they could exchange their loot for two or three guns, with no serious consequences. But as Dongsheng had run into the suona player who had taken Qiaoxiu to the Tian family, they had kept him prisoner while they sent a man to negotiate for the guns, after which they meant to escape to the Guizhou border and release Dongsheng. But this clever plan had miscarried. The captain,to save face, had made a great show of strength and brought the county head to capture bandits. That forced them to change their tactics. Unable to sit at home waiting to be trapped, they had fled to Tiger Cave to take it easy there till the captain was worn out and ready to negotiate.
The local militia blocked both ends of the precipice to starve the Tians out. But the men in the cave took it easy—they couldn’t care less. Gongs and drums sounded every day, with shouts and roars of laughter. Why should they be afraid of a protracted blockade? They knew fatigue and hunger would soon force the government troops and the Gaoxian villagers to admit defeat. The terrain was advantageous to the defenders, rendering quite useless the modern firearms below. Besides, the besiegers had to take cover in the undergrowth and rocks from the bullets and stones discharged at them from above. It was in many ways like Homer’s siege of Troy; but even if some strategist had thought of hiding warriors in a big wooden horse, there was no way of getting it into the cave.
The county head first stayed behind a great pile of stones some distance away, directing operations. After some hundred volleys had been fired, the gonging and drumming above sounded even more jubilant. At dusk when a strong wind gusted through the valley, they had to halt the attack and send soldiers to fell pine trees and erect shelters. Fires were lit to cook a meal, and so the night passed.
The next day they decided to send thirty guards to Red Crag three li away, to scale the opposite mountain and from there fire straight into the cave. The gonging and drumming were silenced for a while, but then the attackers suddenly discovered that the entrance was blocked by three statues in red brocade robes. The gonging and drumming started up again. Although their shots hit the target, this failed to dampen this savage, boisterous display of derision. The cave’s defenders had modern weapons too, and fired back a dozen shots. The captain recognized the sound of mausers and other guns much in demand at that time. There were five of them too, one more than his scouts had reported.
The captain had sheep and pigs killed for the troops,entertained the county head with bacon, game and maotai liquor,and sent home for tiger skins and wild cat skins for his camp bed.By the fourth day, however, the county head had lost all interest in hunting, and as the Tian brothers had anticipated the “excitement”of capturing bandits was completely replaced by “fatigue”. He announced that he must hurry back to town to preside over a meeting on cleaning up the countryside; but the bandits, caught in a trap, must sooner or later surrender. A small body of men should be stationed on the road below, and good plans must be made to guard both ends of the cliff and the highway to Red Crag; then no matter how stubborn the bandits were, they would soon capitulate.He assembled the Gaoxian men and harangued them on strategy for an hour and a half, even quoting semi-incomprehensible sentences from Sun Zi’s Art of War lifted out of context, to show his wisdom and erudition in this field. He then mounted his sedan chair, escorted by thirty shivering local troops. The chair-bearers staggered under the weight of the local products, and big vats of rice wine and of mushroom oil presented him by the captain,as well as a pile of gifts from the local people and his corpulent body weighing a hundred and forty catties. And so they returned in triumph to the county town.
The captain, left in command, adopted his adviser’s plan,followed Sun Zi’s maxim not to lose heart after one defeat and kept up his blockade.
By the seventh day, the militia from other villages in the Gaoxian district had finished most of their rations, and as it would soon be New Year and all had things to see to, they asked leave to go home. Just then, however, the county head sent strict orders: “Tiger Cave must be taken within ten days. I shall hold you responsible for any delay.” To the captain this last sentence was a hard kick in the back making him frantic and angry. His spirits sank. By over-reacting to a small provocation he had really landed himself in serious trouble. He bitterly regretted not having consulted his mother in advance. Now he was riding a tiger and could not dismount.
The secretary of the bureau and I, with bedding-rolls on our backs, went to Red Crag to watch the battle for Tiger Cave. We watched first for quite a time from the river bank, then climbed up the opposite hill for a better view. The whole scene seemed laid out for a landscape painter rather than for bloodshed. Actually there were about thirty defenders full of vitality trapped in the two caves. If the blockade continued they would eventually all starve to death. Yet day and night gonging, drumming and laughter sounded there. The scene moved the secretary to propose that men should climb the mountain from the back, as the summit,he reckoned, was less than a hundred and fifty steps above the cave entrance. There were plenty of stone masons in the village;why not send a couple up there to hew out steps down some crevice to the entrance, so as to mount an offensive from above?Someone could be sent to parley, in an attempt to come to terms with their chief.
Sure enough, two masons set to work. Seven or eight days later, it was just possible to clamber down the steps cut from the top by grasping the creepers in crevices of the rocks. So guards were posted on the summit, to prevent the men in the cave escaping that way. In just nine days the steps down the precipice reached within ten yards of the upper cave, enabling them to hear people talking inside. The captain plucked up his courage and slid down a rope from the top to the edge of a rock, calling out that he had come to negotiate. If they would agree to hand over their hostages, the opium and their guns, he guaranteed the safety of all the rest. The men in the cave were willing to give up the hostages and opium, but not their guns. Because if they gave these up in return for temporary immunity, that would jeopardize their future.The Tian brothers as ringleaders and the suona player who had abducted Qiaoxiu were especially afraid that the captain would not let them off. If they refused to surrender their guns that was bound to worry him, because he knew how the villagers’ minds worked. This whole business had arisen from their resentment.If he thwarted them now by snatching this hunk of meat from their jaws, that would so anger them that they might take more drastic action, then escape to the border thirty li away. Later the secretary from the bureau discussed the problem with the man from Zhongzhai, but the stalemate remained insoluble. He simply confirmed that Qiaoxiu was indeed being kept in the cave as security for the suona player; but when he called her name she did not answer.
Finally Dongsheng’s mother, Mother Yang, tied a thick hemp rope round her waist and, taking two new sets of clothes, a pair of shoes and two pounds of rice-cakes, clutching creepers she clambered slowly down to above the mouth of the cave to call back her son’s soul.
“Dongsheng, Dongsheng! Are you still there?”
She heard someone in the cave pass on the message,“Dongsheng, your ma has come. She’s calling you.”
Presently Dongsheng, their captive, crawled to the mouth of the cave. Raising his head he called nervously yet joyfully, “Ma!I’m still alive, ma, neither cold nor hungry. Don’t you worry.” His faint voice was full of affection.
With tears in her eyes Mother Yang cried tremulously,“You’re still alive, Dongsheng, but you’ve had me worried to death! What crime did your dad commit in some earlier life that this should happen to you? Beg them to let you go!” Overcome by grief she called to Qiaoxiu and the Tian brothers, “Qiaoxiu,you little wretch! Do a good deed now and put in a word for me!Brothers Tian, there’s no feud between our families. The Yangs have only this boy to carry on their line. Why not lay up treasure in Heaven by letting him go? Qiaoxiu, the Mans brought you up for sixteen years, treating you as their own child. But before your wings are strong, you want to fly away!”
Qiaoxiu was too ashamed to reply but Tian Number Two called from the mouth of the cave, “Mother Yang, get your captain to give us a way out! We’re all from these parts, why should he try to kill us all off? He says he’s going to starve us. I don’t believe it. We’ve enough to eat here for another half year. Take my word for it, we know who’s our enemy and who is not. The Mans on the strength of their powerful connections got the county magistrate to come to Red Crag to make a clean sweep. All he succeeded in doing was making a clean sweep of the village’s chickens and ducks, then back he went in his big sedan chair to his yamen. For each Tian that dies we’ll kill two Mans. We don’t want to run away even though we can. We’re waiting to see how long he can keep this up.”
“That’s a score to settle between yourselves. Why drag my boy into it?”
“Don’t worry, Mother Yang, we aren’t going to touch a hair of your Dongsheng’s head. Ask him if he’s gone cold or hungry.Whoever started this trouble will have to end it. It’s up to the captain!”
At a loss, Mother Yang threw down the few things she had brought, then had to leave in despair. Her place was soon taken by some village dolts armed with stout bamboos to one end of which they had tied gunpowder mixed with hot peppers. After setting light to these, they dangled them into the cave. In no time, poisonous smoke and flames belched in, and the valley reverberated with fearful explosions. However, the men in the cave improvised a wooden fork with which they shoved the bamboos aside, so that still louder explosions shook the valley.But quite obviously this invention was no more effective than a children’s game.
Attackers and defenders had racked their peasant brains filled with romantic old notions, and had used up the stock of wisdom amassed by their forbears in long centuries of fishing,hunting and farming. Yet neither side would give way or admit defeat. After holding out for seventeen days, because the cave’s few defenders were worn out by keeping watch in turn, one foggy morning some sturdy Gaoxian villagers, intrepid as hunters, broke into the cave. It was too late for the fourteen defenders to escape to the upper cave; they could only withdraw inside. But although their retreat was cut off they would not surrender, because one of the attackers had died of his wounds. The masons from Gaoxian now built a stone wall to seal off the narrow opening of the cave,and took it in turn to stand guard there. Meanwhile men from the valley had carried up a winnowing-fan and made a hole in the stone wall. They had prepared twenty to thirty pounds of pepper and a dozen pounds of sulphur, which they burned slowly to produce poisonous smoke, fanning this into the cave. All such tactics, based on their experience of fishing and hunting, were carried out with excitement. As there was no water in the cave,after half a day all the fourteen villagers inside were asphyxiated.Three days later, when the poisonous fumes had dispersed, one of the captain’s men went in and discovered the fourteen corpses on the ground along with over twenty enormous white rats, each weighing over ten catties, as fat as piglets. He cut off the dead men’s hands and carried back one crate of hands and four crates of rats to the Gaoxian Security Bureau. The white hands were hung on the walnut tree in front of the bureau for all to see. And the village women and children stood on the ridge of the field some distance away to eye them with fearful curiosity. Early the next morning the captain took these trophies to the county town to report his victory.
Five days after the capture of the dry cave, the captain’s men broke into the upper cave, forcing the people inside to flee to the back. But this time the situation was very different, as both sides were well aware. The structure of this cave was remarkable.Less than fifty feet from the entrance was a rock about ten feet high, over which one had to climb to get further in. The spring inside flowed the whole year round, but the interior was warm and dry, providing excellent shelter. The cave was so big and dark that looking down from the high rock the entrance was clearly visible. The faeces of the people there flowed out with the spring water, making it undrinkable for the men occupying the entrance, who had to fetch water each day from the stream down below. Dongsheng and Qiaoxiu were both in the cave. Since it was impossible here to use poison gas, the besiegers had to wait for some change to take place. So they built another wall sealing off the cave’s interior. The captain and a dozen or so of his men guarded the entrance, waiting at their ease to wear the enemy out.
Mother Yang made another journey, forty li there and back, to climb up to the cave and plead for Dongsheng’s release. Balked, she went back to the village, her heart aching with apprehension.The secretary boldly volunteered to enter the cave and risk his life to make peace; but again this attempt came to nothing. To show that he was ready to bide his time, the captain sent home for a gramophone and played records of opera music outside the cave to entertain his men. In response to this provocation, inside the cave, in addition to gonging and drumming, the suona blared out The Sheep on the Hill and Snow Whirls over the Countryside.The man from Zhongzhai, when he carried Qiaoxiu off, had taken good care of the instrument handed down to him by his forbears.
But it was clear which side had the upper hand. And now the county head sent an inspector with orders that not one of these vicious bandits should be allowed to escape, as well as some empty words of encouragement. This made it even more imperative for Captain Man to devise means to wipe them out,to win a reward and get his name in the papers. The men in the cave knew there was no hope for them. Desperation made them more stubborn. The Tian brothers wanted to vent their anger on Dongsheng by strangling him; but Qiaoxiu interceded, saying that they had brought this on themselves and shouldn’t take out their anger on anyone else, not if they were brave fellows. So luckily Dongsheng was spared.
Before the two caves were occupied and the summit of the mountain sealed off, it would have been possible to escape by leaving everything heavy behind and slipping out through a cleft in the rocks. But as they had boasted that they could hold out for half a year to wear out the Mans of Gaoxian, to have run away would have lost face for the Tians, making them unable to hold up their heads in future. Besides, they had been confident that their position was impregnable. Thus emboldened they had underestimated the enemy. Two weeks later, after a council to analyse their mistake, sixteen youngsters carrying opium in their girdles slipped out through a crevice by night and fled. They meant to take refuge down river, exchange their opium for guns,then come back to rescue their comrades. The rest pricked their fingers and drank wine mixed with blood, swearing to be true to each other through thick and thin and to man their posts till their last breath. Since the lower cave was lost and more than half of their force was gone, by now there were only eight people,counting Qiaoxiu and Dongsheng, left in the upper cave. Despite the wall built at the entrance which separated them from the enemy, they had to be on their guard, and six men in two shifts took turn to keep watch. Qiaoxiu and Dongsheng, however, had no duties and could wander about as they pleased.
Dongsheng and Qiaoxiu had been on the best of terms, and having shared the same trials for the last month they had much to talk about. Dongsheng told her of all that had happened in the village after her flight, from the events in the Man family to the afternoon on which he left the Temple of the God of Medicine,and his life in the cave this month. To Qiaoxiu it seemed even more fantastic and moving than any romantic opera. This last month, compared to the seventeen previous years of her life,really appeared like a dream. She could still hardly credit that it was true.
After hearing him out Qiaoxiu sighed, “Dongsheng, we’ve both landed in trouble. Well, this is fate. No one will come to our rescue.”
Luckily Dongsheng was an intelligent lad, and seeing a thread of light through a crack in the rock gave him a sudden idea.He said, “Qiaoxiu, if nobody comes to our rescue we must find a way out ourselves. Let’s talk it over secretly with Fifth Brother.What’s the point of staying here to die together? There’s only one way to escape with our lives.”
“They’ve all drunk wine mixed with blood, sworn to live or die together. Any talk of escape and you’ll be knifed through the heart!”
“The two of you are lovers, you can ask him. Let them be heroes, we’ll crawl out like reptiles on the sly!”
Qiaoxiu found a chance to broach this to Fifth Brother when he was blowing his suona to pass the time. He was too staggered to speak. She said, “Kill me if you like, and I won’t make a sound. I’m willing to live or die with you in this cave, to shed our blood together. If you don’t want me to die, or to die yourself, do Dongsheng a good turn and let him go—he’s Mother Yang’s only son. Those who do good are rewarded—Heaven has eyes!”
The Zhongzhai man was thinking, “Dongsheng’s fifteen,you’re seventeen, I’m twenty-one. None of us ought to die. But it’s all predestined, we can’t escape our fate.”
“Fifth Brother,” Qiaoxiu begged, “think it over and let me know what you decide. If you want to die, we can die together. If you want to live, I’ll go with you.”
He answered softly with a sigh, “I want to live, but they won’t let me. Heaven won’t let me.”
They dropped the subject then. But the idea kept flaring up to disturb the young man’s mind.
That evening, Fifth Brother and two other men were on guard. For a month they had not seen the sun, had lived in suspense with death staring them in the face, on ever shorter rations. So everyone was worn out. The two other guards fell asleep, but the man from Zhongzhai was too excited to sleep as he thought over what Qiaoxiu had said. After all this time in the cave, they had stopped lighting their lantern, because they had no need for lamplight and wanted to save what little was left of the paraffin they had brought. One could only tell people’s whereabouts by their soft breathing or by groping around. The guards were close to the entrance, while the others slept further in nearly ten yards away. Fifth Brother heard from their breathing that Qiaoxiu and Dongsheng were near by. He crawled softly over and shook them awake.
“Dongsheng, Dongsheng, look sharp! Go down the cliff, taking your sister with you. Have a heart and put in a good word for her so that the captain doesn’t punish her! It was the Tian brothers and I who started this; nobody else was involved. After drinking blood wine I can’t sell out my friends. I’ll die with them in this cave. Qiaoxiu’s still young, and she’s in the family way.Let her live to bear me a son. Have a heart and help her!”
Captain Man was dozing by the mouth of the cave, wrapped in a badger skin, when suddenly he heard what sounded like someone scrabbling desperately at the wall. Then a voice quavered, “Captain, captain, be quick! Take out some stones to save me! Be quick, save my life!”
The captain alerted his men and called back softly,“Dongsheng, is that you? Tell me, are you ghost or man?”
“Hurry! It’s me. Hearty and hale from whiskers to tail!” This last phrase, used by village boys playing with crickets, made all chuckle in spite of their tension.
A small opening was made in the stone wall. Then the prisoners were pulled out—first Qiaoxiu, who had left Gaoxian less than fifty days ago. Before Dongsheng could say anything,they heard bedlam break out inside as if everyone there had gone mad. Obviously, the escape of Dongsheng and Qiaoxiu had been discovered and the man from Zhongzhai, the traitor, had been set upon by the rest. Heavy crashes were punctuated by his screams.At twenty-one he was done for. In the stillness of the night, the echoes from the cave struck dread into their hearts. In frantic haste they blocked up the hole in the wall and listened to the fighting inside. After a long, long time, amidst the groans deep in the cave they heard someone cursing. His voice though faint was clear: “You fellow Man, remember! The day will come when our Tian Number Nine settles scores with you.”
The next morning the spring water flowing out of the cave was red. Two militiamen ventured in to reconnoitre. They discovered that the previous night, in a fit of madness, the men there had fought to the death, hacking each other with daggers.Apparently not until Tian Number One was heavily wounded had he realized that his assailant in the dark was his brother—then he had plunged his dagger through his own heart. His younger brother, wounded, had crawled to the nearby spring to drink and had died leaning over the side. They searched high and low for Qiaoxiu’s lover, the suona player from Zhongzhai, and finally found that he had been thrown into a crevice of the cliff to die.The captain made his men clean up the cave and load up what was left of the opium and ten hands. Qiaoxiu and Dongsheng,their two captives who had escaped from the cave, were hardly recognizable as human beings. Dongsheng was still carrying the suona. Having sealed up the cave, the captain led his force back to Gaoxian. The next day he would take these ten fearfully white clenched hands to the county town to report his success, and would hale the two captives to the court to stand trial.
While these clusters of hands were hanging, as the custom was, from the walnut tree in front of the Security Bureau,where all the villagers old and young had gathered to watch the excitement, Dongsheng and Qiaoxiu were warming themselves by a brazier in an annex of the manor-house. They had changed into clean clothes. Sitting there, they were cross-examined by the old lady, Mother Yang, the secretary, the captain, his younger brother,and me—their guest. Though Dongsheng was worn out, his trials did not seem to have quenched his youthful fire, for he smiled as he described all that had happened. When he noticed his mother fixing her eyes on him, hot tears streaming down her cheeks, he sprang to his feet and stepped forward.
“See, mother! Aren’t I back, whiskers, tail and all?”
“You’re back safe and sound, but so many of the Tian family have died! What past crimes brought this trouble on us all?”
Qiaoxiu thought of the Zhongzhai suona player, thought of her future, and lowered her head and wept.
“Don’t cry, Qiaoxiu,” said old Mrs. Man. “I’ll look after you.Tomorrow the captain will take you to the county court and stand surety for you. Then he’ll bring you back to help me mind the mill. Now that the snow has melted, the stream is halfway up the dike, and people will want rice husked for New Year. It’s better to end a feud than to start another. Next year I shall sacrifice for seven days to expiate the sins of the men so unjustly killed, as well as the man from Zhongzhai.”
When the secretary, captain and I passed the Security Bureau, the captain said to him softly, “Their ninth brother got away—he was nowhere to be found in either cave.” The secretary answered reassuringly, “It’s better to end a feud than to start another. The old lady’s going to hold masses for seven days and nights to save their souls. Better let him off!”
With New Year at hand I moved back from the Temple of the God of Medicine to the Man manor-house, where I stayed in the same room. Again it was Qiaoxiu, carrying new bedding redolent of hay and dried fruit, who followed the old lady in silence into the room. In the copper brazier in the middle of it, sparks were sputtering again and a small kettle was singing on its side. I deliberately stood by the brazier again to warm my hands as I looked round. I saw her making up my bed in silence, and recalled what had happened in this room when I first arrived over a month ago. So, just as before, I said, “Thank you, old lady. I’ve put you to too much trouble, and this elder sister too.” But somehow or other my throat was too choked with grief to go on. And now I discovered a change in the room. Last time, when the old lady was holding a wedding feast for her son and Qiaoxiu was preparing to run away, their hearts were filled with excitement over the present and hope for the future; but the sudden changes of the last forty days had overwhelmed them both with unspeakable grief which could never be remedied, and which they would carry with them into their grave. On the surface, though, this room was unchanged, except that the old lady no longer wore a big red flower in her hair, while on Qiaoxiu’s thick plait was a small white mourning ribbon.
Only sixteen years had passed since Qiaoxiu’s mother had been drowned in the lake, a millstone tied to her neck, and now Qiaoxiu was expecting a child herself. And the suona player from Zhongzhai, who had abducted her, when only twenty-one and full of life, had vanished from the earth. Yet he would live on in a more significant way in seventeen-year-old Qiaoxiu’s life, and in this family’s future good fortune or misfortune.
I have never read any “romance” as preposterous or fantastic as these events in which I had taken part. Nor can I imagine any life more natural or closer to human nature—these events seemed entirely inevitable.
To the Man manor-house that New Year came villagers leading sheep, carrying wine and presenting auspicious tablets.The tablet above the front gate inscribed “Delighting in Virtue and Charity” was moved to the inner gate and replaced by “The Good Live at Peace, the Evil Are Rooted Out”. But the day that this tablet was put up, old Mrs. Man fasted and stayed in the mill with Qiaoxiu to husk rice.
Beiping, October 1947