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from the April 2008 issue

Wang Hanfang

At the time, young wives in our village didn't have regular names. Add the word "xiao"–young–in front of their maiden names, that's how they'd be called: "Xiao Qian," "Xiao Sun," "Xiao Ma." After they had borne children, it would then be all right to call them "so-and-so's ma," such as "Xiaomei's ma," "Liu Ping's ma." Only Wang Hanfang, everybody called her by her own name.

Wang Hanfang was Sun Shaozhou's wife.

Sun Shaozhou's father was Sun the First. He and his brother, Sun the Second, were the only ones in Liu Village with the surname Sun. The brothers divided their inheritance, each getting a three-room brick house. The houses stood adjacent to each other, separated only by a narrow alleyway leading to the back, with Sun the First to the east, Sun the Second to the west. The brothers were both good workers and well respected as master farmhands in the village. Sun the First was the shrewder of the two but he had a more delicate constitution; Sun the Second was slower, even stuttered a bit, but he had a powerful physique. Although they ran their households separately, they were always at the ready to come to each other's aid. At the time, just to give one example, I was boarding with Sun the Second because his oldest daughter Sun Xiaze was a good friend of mine.1 A rumor spread about the village that the Suns were taking advantage of me, since allegedly I didn't eat much–those city folk from Shanghai, don't they all have stomachs the size of cats'? They ignored such ridiculous rumors, letting villagers say whatever they would. One day, we were all digging out silt from the riverbed, and Sun Shaozhou was doing the loading. When he got to me, Sun Shaozhou shoved a huge clump of dirt into my bushel and said: "Now if Xiao Wang couldn't put away two bowls of rice at dinner, of course she couldn't hold up this bushel." The demonstration subtly helped clear his uncle's name, an incident that also showed Sun Shaozhou to be quite a sharp fellow.

Just so, the children of Sun the First and Sun the Second had respectively inherited their fathers' personalities. Sun the First had only one son, Sun Shaozhou, who was tall and fair-skinned, handsome and glowing with health and vigor. He was known in the village as "the Wizard." Sun the Second had a bigger family with two sons and two daughters, all big-eyed and bushy-browed, with an excellent appetite for food and work, quite a lively bunch. Both families were decent people, adults and children alike enjoying perfect reputations in the village. This is why outsiders like the Suns were able to settle down in a big village dominated by a single clan and still earn a good name. Their houses, standing tall on the wide and flat terrace, were neater and more stately than most other houses in the village. Their yards were always swept spotless and kept bright and shiny, one side piled high with firewood and the other side housing the chicken coop. They built the pigsty next to the cook room, which itself faced the west wing. In front of each house was a huge scholartree, planted a long time ago for the two sons by their forefathers, now grown to the same size and height. On summer evenings, each family placed a large cutting board under their tree around which the entire family sat for dinner, consisting of rice and sweet potato porridge, cornbread, salted soybeans, pickled garlic, and salted radish with red hot peppers. Should someone happen by from below the terrace, adults and children would call out in unison, "Come join us," chopsticks banging on the rims of their bowls, indicating the thick porridge inside.

As a child, Sun Shaozhou spent a few years with an old-style tutor and then went on to town for junior high school. That was around the mid 1950s, when Wang Hanfang was his classmate at the high school. A village girl at that time going to school in town indicated that Wang Hanfang came from an enlightened family. Her brother, Wang Hanming, sometimes would come visit her in the village. He was also a graduate from junior high, and a very handsome youth. Fairer than his sister, Wang Hanming had his glossy black hair cut in a student style, a few strands tossed over his forehead, which made his eyes that much brighter. He spoke a fluent Mandarin, which, around here, was called "the Standard." He was a talker, liked to hang out with the Educated Youths crowd, and specially enjoyed telling the story of his near enlistment in the army a few years ago. Apparently there was a southerner in charge of recruiting who was very keen on having him, but it couldn't be arranged because there was a little something in Wang Hanming's family background.2 When the southerner was about to ship out with his new recruits, Wang Hanming went stealthily to see him off at the pier. He didn't mean to be seen by the southerner, but the man spotted him right away. He came running over, and the two fell into each other's arms and gave way to tears. Wang Hanming was deeply nostalgic about that moment. Twice he repeated: We fell into each other's arms and gave way to tears.

Wang Hanfang was not as fair nor as handsome as her brother. She had a sallow complexion and a few freckles. Her hair was brownish in color and not too thick. Her features were less striking than her brother's, whose brows and eyes were as if lined in black ink. Their faces were also shaped differently: Wang Hanming's was oval, a perfect match for his bright eyes and narrow nose; Wang Hanfang's was rounder, and with her pale brows and muted eyes, she looked quite a bit younger than her actual age. Appearances aside, brother and sister shared a bearing rarely seen in the countryside: both had a refinement about them, which made them seem alike. Wang Hanming's youth made him seem a bit restless. Wang Hanfang, in contrast, was steadier and carried herself with poise and confidence. This made her seem more like a teacher than a farm wife. She even walked like a teacher, with her long stride, her back straight and shoulders square. Such posture was in principle unsuited for farm labor, but it didn't seem to prevent her from handling all sorts of work. Her petite physique was well proportioned and lithe, her every laboring movement graceful and pleasing to the eye. That is to say, whether she was cutting wheat, binding hay, shouldering the hoe, or carrying a basket, she moved as if in a dance performance on stage or on screen, yet her graceful movement never impeded the practical purpose of whatever she was doing. She was in fact the highest earning female peasant in the village, always earning the full 8.5 points.3 Having borne two daughters and one son hadn't coarsened her or made her careless. She'd never pull up her shirt to nurse them at the edge of the field, nor did she let her children play with her "mama" in public, "mama" meaning breasts. She never cursed, nor talked idly, nor gossiped with other women. None of this meant that she was prideful or thought herself better than others. Instead, she was always amiable and affectionate toward others. Here again she was like a teacher.

Sun Shaozhou and Wang Hanfang began dating of their own accord, a freedom of choice that was unusual for their time. For all its modernity, the relationship did not risk impropriety because both of them were reasonable and not given to frivolity. They were not like another free-loving couple sometime later, Yingchun and Xiaoniu, who were caught at the edge of the field by other villagers. Yingchun was kicked out of her own house and ran helter-skelter to Xiaoniu, the whole affair turning into a rowdy spectacle. When Sun Shaozhou and Wang Hanfang decided on each other, they asked a go-between to talk to their parents, who were also reasonable people. The parents found nothing objectionable in such a match of good kids. All went smoothly and steadily for the couple, and they were soon married. Although the wedding followed the old tradition, Wang Hanfang behaved in a novel way. Once, when people were talking about the misery of brides at old-style weddings, Sun Shaozhou piped up: That's because the bride puts on airs. When Wang Hanfang and I got married, the first thing she did when she got to our house was to dive into the kitchen and give my mother a hand. Who could've picked on her? Having had three children together, Sun Shaozhou still remembered events of that day, a sure sign that he really appreciated it. Sometimes, Sun Shaozhou also reminisced about their time together as classmates when the two shared a desk. Wang Hanfang had a full set of stationary which she kept meticulously neat, not letting anyone use it, except him, Sun Shaozhou. That was probably the beginning of their new-style courtship.

The two fought at times, usually with Sun Shaozhou doing a good deal of yelling, half to benefit the ears of others, as if to demonstrate that he was Wang Hanfang's husband. Things never really looked that serious, more like playacting. Wang Hanfang would look somewhat embarrassed, her face flushed, all the while maintaining her composure, smiling patiently and yielding: all right, all right, all right! No one thought that this sort of thing meant they were not getting along. Instead, they seemed like a loving couple. Even for the most loving couples, however, there were of course times when real swords were drawn. After all, they were man and wife, not houseguests. Also, life was hard then, with a large family of elders and the children to care for. Some squabbling was inevitable. In such cases, the two would always settle matters out of other people's view. My good friend Sun Xiaze, cousin of Sun Shaozhou, would occasionally tell me that her cousin was beating up on his wife behind closed doors. She would for her part quietly strike back. All one could hear was the thump, thump of tables and chairs being knocked around in the house. It did get out of hand once and Wang Hanfang couldn't get out of bed. Sun, a bandage on his brow, went and asked the team leader for sick leave for his wife, saying that Wang Hanfang had stomach trouble. A day later, Wang Hanfang was back at work in the field.

All three of Wang Hanfang's children were gentle like their parents. The two girls babysat their little brother while playing quietly on the terrace in front of the house. All three had Wang Hanfang's pale eyebrows, muted eyes, and fine brownish hair, especially the young boy, whose hair was soft and downy like that of a newly hatched baby chick. Wang Hanfang never yelled at her children but always spoke to them gently. In the eyes of the villagers, including those of Second Aunt—her mother-in-law's own sister-in-law—Wang Hanfang spoilt her kids. One day, for instance, an ice-cream peddler happened to come through. Wang Hanfang actually counted out six fen4 to buy two Popsicles for her kids, a sum that could otherwise buy a whole pound of salt or a huge cake of baking soda. Two freshly laid eggs were worth six fen. So what if Wang Hanfang earned the most of all the women, a whole 8.5 points? What were ten points worth? Only thirty-five fen! Never mind the expense, how could she spoil her kids so? Take this Popsicle, something that couldn't fill your stomach or quench your thirst. It melts, that's about all it does, melts into thin air. It really is too extravagant. Her mother-in-law couldn't very well lecture her for fear of embarrassing her own son. But Second Aunt had no such qualms. Lecture her she must, in part because she didn't approve and in part because she simply didn't want to spend her own money on a Popsicle for her youngest son. There was her youngest, snoring away, taking a midday nap under the big tree, while under the other big tree, the three kids sat on stools in a circle, taking turns licking the Popsicles, catching the dripping in a mug, their heads brushing against one another. Second Aunt said: If you must melt Popsicles, go melt them inside your house! Don't you dare bother my Faze! Faze was her youngest, and though one year younger than Wang Hanfang's second child, they still had to call him uncle. Faze was a willful child and especially nervy on account of his mother's protectiveness. Sometimes he'd tease older kids. By the time they got mad and started after him, he'd run home. As the older kids chased him to his front door, Faze would disappear inside the house and out would come his mother, saying, Let my son be. You're students and he's a peasant. What could you do to him?

Wang Hanfang was not so partial, and seen from this angle, she really didn't spoil her children after all. If her children lost out to others, she'd always try to see if they were at fault. When their grandma wanted to argue with other kids' parents, Wang Hanfang would always stop her, saying, By the time we adults get into a tiff, the kids are back playing with one another again. So will you let them play or not? If the situation was particularly messy, or involved a close relative like Second Aunt, who was especially protective, then Wang Hanfang would grab her own children, take them home, and close the front door behind them. Although this gesture suggested retreat, the other parents felt the pressure. Thus, some would say that Wang Hanfang was underhanded. That may be so, but she would never quarrel with others.

From the time she was a young girl and even now after three children, Wang Hanfang kept her self-respect. She hadn't changed much, her figure as slender as ever. The way she walked down the country road with her back straight, she still carried herself like a teacher. So it was with her husband, who still impressed with his fair complexion, his tall and lean physique. After so many years, husband and wife had kept the look of an ideal couple. The wear and tear of a hard life had of course aged them, but since their spirit hadn't dissipated, their outward appearance didn't collapse. Perhaps it was their education and self-cultivation that had given them a staying power against the abrasions of life. True enough, they were a country couple, unused to the lovey-dovey ways; their life was one of daily necessities. Even so, however one looks at it, Wang Hanfang and Sun Shaozhou were a loving couple, harmonious and well suited to each other.

As I said earlier, their three children had Wang Hanfang's pale brows and muted eyes. But the two girls, especially the younger girl, had something of their father as well. It was mostly in the shape of the younger girl's face, a perfect oval like Sun Shaozhou's, but more delicate, with a hint of her uncle Wang Hanming. Clearly this second girl would grow up to be quite a beauty. She had Sun Shaozhou's eyes, slightly heavy-lidded, and as she was prone to crying, they were always a touch pink, like the eyelids of actresses who carefully dab a touch of rouge on their upper lids so that their eyes look the more radiant. She also had Sun Shaozhou's mouth, finely curved with a rather long meridian line above the upper lip. Only because she was still a kid, her beauty wouldn't be noticed for a while yet. Her older sister also had the oval face of their father, but her features had much more of her mother's stamp. Also, she had her mother's exact air, which is to say, she was poised. And like her mother, her figure was lithe and her posture upright. Because of this upright carriage and poised air, she looked older than her years and the women of the village had taken to calling her "Little Wang Hanfang." Indeed, she was a little Wang Hanfang, as she serenely played with her younger sister and brother. After school, she'd take her basket to gather waterweeds from the marsh for the pigs. At dusk, a line of children could be seen walking along the village road, their backs bent under the weight of the loaded baskets. The last rays of daylight cast their laboring bodies into silhouettes against the darkening sky. Among them, there was one with longer legs and arms, her short hair swinging back and forth as she walked leaning forward. That would be her. Once, when it was getting dark, one of the kids who went with her came running back from the marsh to Sun Shaozhou's house, saying that Little Wang Hanfang was too tired to lug back the waterweeds. She was crying by the marsh! Sun Shaozhou set off immediately to the marsh to meet her. When lights came on and people were already starting their dinner, they could see two figures on the village road, one big and one small. The big one was carrying a basket full of waterweeds and holding the small one's hand. The small one hung her head low, shedding tears all along the way. As they walked slowly along the road and up the terrace, people realized then that this was only a child, barely eleven years old and still in school.

When Little Wang Hanfang graduated from elementary school, she went to town for junior high. She lived at home in order to save on room and board, leaving early in the morning and coming back late at night, carrying two buns and a jar of salted radish with her for lunch. It was ten li from the village to the school in town, about an hour's walk for an adult traveling empty-handed. For a child carrying a bookbag and lunch, the journey took more than an hour. Luckily, a village child didn't mind an early rising. After she got up, Little Wang Hanfang would still have time to help her Grandma water the vegetable garden, then head off to school. When she returned in the evening, it was already dark enough for lights to have come on. The little sister and brother left behind got pretty lonely once their older sister went to town for school. One day I came back from town at dusk and saw the two little ones hand-in-hand at the entrance to the village. I told them to go home, as it was getting dark and their grandma might be worried. They wouldn't budge. There was nothing I could do but let them be. About half an hour later, I saw all three children coming back together, the oldest carrying the youngest on her back, the middle one holding the bookbag for her sister, following in close train all the way home.

By now, my sister had gotten out of the countryside and worked in a factory in town making farm machinery. She was dating a junior high schoolteacher who had come from Shanghai. My sister would sometimes ask this teacher to bring letters or other things to me via Little Wang Hanfang. The child always carefully slid the letters into her textbook which she then placed in her bookbag. If there were other things, she'd wrap them up in her clean food wrapper and give them to me as soon as she got back. Sometimes, if it was only an oral message, she'd then write it down on a scrap of paper and carefully relay it to me while following her written note. She became our little messenger during this period and no matter how important the item, we could always trust it to her, never worrying that she might forget or lose something. The fact is that she never made one single mistake.

One Sunday, my sister and her Shanghai teacher friend came to the village to visit me. When Wang Hanfang heard of it, she sent her daughter to invite her teacher home for dinner. The invitation came a little too late as they had already started eating at Sun the Second's house, where I was boarding. The child went back to report it, and after a little while, Wang Hanfang, Sun Shaozhou and the child returned together to pay their respects to the young girl's teacher. They stood respectfully by the dinner table, offering gratitude to the teacher and thanking him for teaching their child. The Shanghainese was actually nothing more than a physical education teacher, having only one session per week with the children. He was not responsible for the girl's particular class, nor did he teach any of the major subjects. Still, there they were, earnestly paying their respects to him. The Shanghainese, who was in fact quite unenthusiastic about his job, was moved by their sincerity and courtesy. He said lots of nice things about the child and promised her parents that he would take good care of her, and so on.

During autumn harvest, school let out for the season. Wheat in the southern lowland was not yet ripe, but over the hills the family's soybeans were ready for the sickle. Wang Hanfang and her daughter made a pot of tea and carried it to the field. They used beanstalks to build a small shelter so that the tea wouldn't become too warm under the sun. Mother and daughter then set about harvesting beans, their backs rhythmically moving up and down. The daughter had grown shoulder high to her mother, the two looking almost like sisters. She had inherited her mother's physical grace, and no matter how hard the labor, she always looked graceful. The sickles were freshly sharpened. As soon as the rim of the blade met the stalks, the pods cracked open, plump soybeans spilling out of the pods baked dry by the sun.

1The story is set during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when high school graduates known as "Educated Youths" from the cities were sent down to work alongside peasants. Some boarded with local families, for which the families were given government subsidy.

2Each peasant belonged to the commune, and his or her daily labor earned specific points, which were paid with grain or cash at harvest time.

3During this period in China, individuals were identified with a "class background" according to the family's financial status before the Communist takeover in 1949; those with the most assets were labeled "class enemies." The Wang family must have been well off before 1949, which would explain why Hanming could not enlist in the army, a much coveted situation at the time.

4Six fen, in current exchange rate, is less than one cent in UC currency.

Translation of "Wang Hanfang." Copyright Wang Anyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Hu Ying. All rights reserved.

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