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The Tofu-Maker

By Shen Fuyu
Translated By Jeremy Tiang

Last week, Astra House released Shen Fuyu's The Artisans, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. Shen's fifteen vignettes bring to life the skilled workers of his rural Chinese hometown, offering a portrait of a rapidly disappearing way of life. In the excerpt below, he remembers his childhood encounters with the town's stern tofu-maker.

The tofu-maker cared more than anyone in Shen Village about reputation and placed a lot of emphasis on ritual. He taught me my first lesson on the importance of table manners.

I was six years old at the time, and someone in the village was having a milestone birthday. According to custom, every family would send one person to each of the five celebration meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the day of, and breakfast and lunch the following day. I went along to one of these, probably because all the grown-ups were busy, and was seated next to the tofu-maker.

Grown-ups ate in a roundabout way. They kept stopping to toast back and forth, and it took forever to get through a meal. I was done with my food before long, placed my chopsticks on the table, and headed for the door, eager to get back to playing. The tofu-maker shouted, “Hey, Fishy, get back here. You’re not going anywhere.” 

“What is it?” I didn’t know why he was looking so stern, but came back slowly to my seat.

“You can’t just drop your chopsticks after a meal. Hold them together, like this, in both hands, flat sides out. Starting with me, go round the table and tell everyone to enjoy their meal. When you’re done, put the chopsticks across your bowl, not upright. That shows you’ve finished eating, and you’re waiting for everyone else. If the grown-ups are still eating, you can’t go. When the grownups stand, take your chopsticks and put them on the table. That’s the rules. If you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t be allowed at the dinner table.”

Everyone at the table was nodding along with the tofu-maker’s words. Kids ought to be taught the rules from an early age. That’s basic etiquette, which you need to learn to be a respectable person.

Seeing how solemnly everyone was taking this, I felt alarmed. I picked up my chopsticks, placed them across my bowl, and sat there quietly, listening to them talk about things I didn’t understand. I stayed there for the rest of the meal. From then on, I knew that the tofu-maker was a serious, upright person who never joked around. I’d seen tofu-makers in other villages hawking their wares. Before you got anywhere near them, you’d hear them shouting, “Tofu! Tofu, oh!” but ours never shouted. He rode along sedately on his Model 28 “Eternity” bicycle, with two large wooden buckets hanging off the back rack, one on either side. Every once in a while, he rang his bell a couple of times. This, too, was unhurried. When people heard the bell, they knew the tofu-maker had arrived.

“Around the time we were in second grade, Buckethead and I beat a snake to death.”

I often went to the tofu-maker’s house. His son Buckethead was my good friend. I was afraid the tofu-maker would yell at me, so I never dared go inside. Instead, I would clack a couple of stones together some distance away, signaling to Buckethead to sneak out.

Around the time we were in second grade, Buckethead and I beat a snake to death, a white one. We’d heard that snake meat was delicious, but we’d never tasted it. We carried the dead snake into the wilderness, gathered some branches, lit a fire, and hung the snake over it from a wooden pole. The branches hadn’t been seasoned, so they released huge quantities of smoke, which attracted the attention of the bamboo-weaver in the pig shed. When he saw what we were doing, he gasped, snatched the snake away and flung it aside, then stamped out the fire that had taken us so much effort to make, roaring at us all the while. Buckethead and I ran. My father and Buckethead’s father—the strict tofu-maker—went all the way there to look at the mess we’d left. The tofu-maker said, “Our Buckethead is a troublemaker. This must have been his idea.” My father said, “You don’t need to cover for Fishy. You think I don’t know what he’s like? Every time there’s mischief, he’s involved somehow. You have to beat kids at least once every three days, or they’ll start raising hell.” Both men were throwing their own sons under the bus, to prove they weren’t the sort to deflect blame, otherwise they’d never be able to hold their heads up high. The upshot was, Buckethead and I both got a good thrashing.

After the snake-eating incident, the grown-ups began calling us “soul-lacking dull-wits,” which meant something like “foolhardy idiots.” The tofu-maker instructed Buckethead: no more playing with that soul-lacking dull-wit Fishy. To be fair, I had indeed been the one who’d instigated the snake-eating. Buckethead was just following my lead.

For this and many other reasons, I was not fond of the stern, inflexible tofu-maker. Not liking him didn’t do me any good, though. At the New Year, we still had to ask him for help. Not just my family—every household in the village needed him.

As far back as I can remember, it was customary to serve three dishes on the last day of the year: tofu with vegetables, pork bones, and fish on a platter. The fish wasn’t there to be eaten, it was just an auspicious display, because the word for “fish” sounded like the one for “prosperity.” It was put away untouched at the end of the meal, to be served on the second day of the New Year when relatives came to visit. Everyone got a large chunk of pork bone. When that was eaten, you weren’t allowed to look like you wanted more. Us children usually got the biggest pieces to start with, and if we stared too long, our parents or even grandparents might offer us their portions, which would be unseemly.

So of these three dishes, tofu was the only one we could eat as much of as we wanted. If we finished our serving, there was always more available. Every household made their own tofu, a bucketful at a time. The day before, we’d put the soybeans in water. Then when Buckethead shouted, “Fishy, it’s your family’s turn,” Mom and I would heft the bucket of soaked beans to his house. 

“You can’t stop a member of your own family from beating a child; only outsiders can intervene.”

The tofu-maker’s home had two rooms filled with tofu-making equipment.

First was the grinding. Ladle by ladle, we poured the beans into the mill. Then Mom and I would turn the millstone by pushing on a wooden handle. “Slow down, slow down, no need to run so fast. You have to pace yourself,” the tofu-maker would yell as he removed the leather cap from the top of the mill and trickled water in.

By the time we were done, I’d be too exhausted to move a muscle. Now it was the tofu-maker’s turn. He’d set two wooden sticks flat in a cross shape and put a metal ring around them, and hang that from the rafters. A square of muslin got tied to the four ends of the sticks, creating a little cradle that the bean slurry was poured into. The tofu-maker manipulated the two sticks, twisting them back and forth, so the white soy milk poured into an earthenware urn below, first quickly and then more slowly. Finally, only bean mash was left in the muslin, a round glob of the stuff. This didn’t get thrown away—cooked with salt, it made a good accompaniment to congee.

The soy milk from the urn was scooped into a pot. Normally, this was enough for a family—it was a really big pot. We had to bring our own firewood, and the tofu-maker’s wife kept an eye on it as it cooked. When it had boiled long enough, it was poured into another urn, for the tofu-maker to brine.

Brining was the most important step—whether a batch of tofu turned out good or bad depended entirely on this. The tofu-maker held a scoop of brining liquid in his left hand, and a long-handled ladle in his right, with which he kept stirring the soy milk, slowly dribbling the brine in. Sometimes he stirred more quickly, sometimes more slowly. Bit by bit, the soy milk began to coagulate in the urn, and you could see yellowish liquid around the curds.

“It’s done!” the tofu-maker would call out.

Next to the urn was a square platform with a trough on all four sides, and a wooden spout on the innermost side leading down to a wooden bucket.

Mom and the tofu-maker’s wife would place a large sheet of thick gauze flat over the platform, holding on to the corners. The tofu-maker scooped the curds onto this cloth, and when he was done, its four corners were brought together and tied to form a bundle. A heavy wooden lid went over this, and rocks were piled on top. It was then left alone. A yellowish liquid would trickle down the spout into the bucket. When the dribbling stopped, the process was complete.

Move aside the rocks, lift the wooden lid and untie the bundle, and inside would be a huge block of tofu. The tofu-maker got out his special knife, slashed horizontally then vertically, as if he was drawing a chessboard, and when he was done, the tofu would be in blocks. These went into a bucket of clear water and would last you till the fifteenth day of the New Year. I couldn’t wait. Back home that evening, I’d put a piece of tofu on my plate, sprinkle it with soy sauce, pick it up with chopsticks, and shove it in my mouth. Then I’d reach for another piece.

A few days before the New Year, the tofu-maker would be busy making tofu for every household in Shen Village. This was a completely voluntary service he provided. In return, everyone in Shen Village would, at some point in the coming year, pick a day when the tofu-maker was free to invite him over for a meal. This would be a special dinner, with him as the guest of honor. Anyone else who was there, whether it was the village head or another prominent figure, could only take a secondary seat. This was when the tofu-maker was at his grandest. He normally didn’t touch a drop of alcohol, but on these occasions he would allow himself two drinks. Just two, so as to avoid greed and drunkenness.

“From then on, Buckethead no longer played with me. ”

Usually, the tofu-maker smoked instead of drinking. His pipe was specially made, long and coarse with a copper bowl and mouthpiece, joined with a mottled bamboo stem. The whole thing was a meter long—I’m not sure why, maybe because it looked cool. The way he lit his pipe was also interesting: he did it with a dry hemp stalk. Our village was full of these, and you could pluck one pretty much anywhere. Almost every household grew hemp, spun it, wove it, and turned it into fabric. In the summer, we wore clothes of hemp linen. If you stuck one of these hemp stalks into an oil lamp or the stove so it caught fire, you could take it out and blow out the flame, and it would keep smoldering for up to an hour. Everyone also grew their own tobacco. The quality wasn’t bad—fragrant with a bit of a kick. More refined folk rolled their tobacco leaves in a square of white paper and held it between their fingers. The tofu-maker kept his in a gray cloth bag, from which he would pull out a pinch, just enough to fill the bowl of his pipe. With the long pipe hanging from his lips, he’d touch the lit hemp stalk to the tobacco, breathe in, and expel smoke from his nose. Then he’d move the mouthpiece aside, raise his head, and let out a long exhale into the void. As the smoke swirled above his head, a smile of satisfaction spread across his face. Generally, after he’d taken a couple of puffs, all the tobacco would be reduced to ash. When he blew hard into the pipe, the ash would arc through the air and land on the ground. If he didn’t blow, but rather lifted one leg and tapped the bowl on the sole of his shoe, that meant he was done smoking and ready to do some work. Having tipped out the ash, he’d tuck the pipe back into his belt.

Once, Buckethead stole his father’s pipe. While the tofu-maker was busy making tofu, Buckethead and I hid behind the house, playing at smoking. We were in middle school then, even better friends than before, and more mischievous. Tobacco was easy to get hold of—the blacksmith had some drying on a bamboo tray on his roof. We didn’t know how to light it with a hemp stalk, but I’d stolen some matches from our stove at home. We put the tobacco into the bowl, and while Buckethead puffed, I lit it for him. Then I smoked, and he returned the favor. We kept choking and coughing, and our eyes were streaming, but afterward we were grinning foolishly with bliss. The tobacco wasn’t completely burned out when we tipped it out, and the pile of hay it landed on caught on fire. Buckethead and I made a run for it. A mute guy was standing nearby, and he saw the whole thing. As the hay burned, he got a copper basin from his home and banged frantically on it. This alerted the whole village, and they rushed over with brooms and water buckets. They stopped the fire before it could spread, so only the small heap of hay by the blacksmith’s house was burned down.

The tofu-maker strung Buckethead up and beat him half to death. I only heard about this later, because my father had also tied me up and hung me by my arms from the rafters. He whipped me with a hemp rope, but only managed a couple of lashes before the blacksmith and bamboo-weaver grabbed hold of him—Grandpa had sent for them. You can’t stop a member of your own family from beating a child; only outsiders can intervene. The blacksmith and bamboo-weaver were Dad’s elders. One of them pulled him aside, and the other untied me and set me free.

“Are you trying to beat him to death? It’s not like he’s a bandit or murderer,” the blacksmith rebuked my father.

After that vicious beating, my father starved me for a day. From then on, Buckethead no longer played with me. Soon, we’d graduated from middle school. I transferred elsewhere for high school, while Buckethead was sent by the tofu-maker to work as a welder at a factory in Wuxi.

I was busy studying for my college entrance exams when Buckethead died. He was eighteen, the same age as me. I heard the cause was a boiler explosion. When the tofu-maker rushed over there, the foreman told him Buckethead’s work had nothing to do with the boiler, but he was fiddling around with it for fun, and it blew up. He wasn’t even eligible for a cent of compensation. A pointless death.

By the time the tofu-maker got back to Shen Village from Wuxi, it was the small hours. At the village entrance, something glowed by the side of the road—probably a discarded cigarette butt. Exhausted from his long walk, the tofu-maker got out his pipe, filled it with tobacco, bent over, and touched the bowl to the flame. He inhaled a few times, but couldn’t get it to light. Losing his temper, he smashed the pipe into the fire. “I’ll beat you to death, you stupid thing!”

The flame skimmed along the ground for a bit before soaring into the air and vanishing. It was a will-o’-the-wisp.

Two days after he got home, the tofu-maker fell ill. No one knew what his illness was, and he refused to get treated. Two months later, he died. Buckethead’s ashes were sent back from Wuxi. Now father and son are buried in the same place, behind the northwest corner of their house.

Excerpted from The Artisans by Shen Fuyu. Copyright © 2022 by Shen Fuyu. Translation copyright © 2022 by Jeremy Tiang. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Published Jan 10, 2022   Copyright 2022 Shen Fuyu

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