A Bad Debt

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of “A Bad Debt” (杨三的故事) by Ah Ning 阿宁, translated by Wu Jian and Jenn Marie Nunes, as part of our online publication series. The story appears below, but is best read online at:

http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/a-bad-debt/

My thanks to Ah Ning for allowing us to publish this translation and to the two translators for sharing their work with the MCLC community.

Kirk A. Denton, editor

A Bad Debt

By Ah Ning [1]

Translated by Wu Jian and Jenn Marie Nunes


MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2016)


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Author Ah Ning 阿宁

Although things had just started looking up for Zhang Wanhe, he was nevertheless in for a good shock when he stepped through Yang San’s doorway. He hadn’t thought his home would be so shabby. The whole place reeked of defiant neglect.

The courtyard was littered with chicken dung, although there were only two or three chickens, pecking their way around a broken jar. Not far away lounged a half-grown pig, watching his diligent fowl friends with an air of distain. There was a bit of leaf dangling from the pig’s snout, which he hadn’t bothered to lick up, as if he knew there was no shortage, every day he’d be given his fill. A little ways away from the animal were two boys, one about five, the other slightly older. They had tied two ropes to the legs of an upturned stool, and the little one was on all fours, pretending to be a horse pulling the stool like a wagon. His brother was whipping him with a willow twig to make him work harder. As the stranger entered, they stopped their game, and dully glanced in his direction.

Zhang Wanhe slowly picked his way across the courtyard, careful to avoid the chicken dung on his way into the house. Aside from a long low chest, a platform built of mud bricks, and a few gigantic jars, the house was otherwise bare. The kang was furnished with only a half-sized mat, on which Yang San was sleeping. His woman was perched on the edge of the kang, holding the front of her shirt up to her face as she examined it for lice. The moment she saw someone come in, she hastened to cover herself up, forgetting her shirt already had a huge hole in it and her belly was still on display. Zhang Wanhe kept his eyes averted. The sight of the woman’s blackish, dirt-caked stomach made him feel sick. Before marriage, she’d had some good looks to recommend herself, he recalled, with a fair face and two lotus root arms. Once, the villagers were laboring at the reservoir and a breeze had blown up the girl’s blouse, revealing her fair white flesh, and Zhang Wanhe’s heart had skipped a beat. Who would have thought that over the years a pretty girl like that could be reduced to the creature he was looking at now? The woman grinned at him unabashedly, and he felt his skin prickle with goose bumps.

“Is Old Yang home?” Zhang Wanhe asked, pulling himself together.

The woman turned and gave her husband a nudge. “Wake up. We have a visitor.”

Yang San rolled over and yelled, “Damn you! Leave me alone!”

The woman gave Zhang Wanhe an apologetic look. “Couldn’t wake him up,” she said.

Zhang Wanhe took a few steps closer to the kang.

“Try again.”

The woman gave Yang San a harder push, finally getting his attention.

“Can’t even get a nap without you goddamn ruining it!”

“Look who’s here,” she said.

Yang San pulled himself up. When he saw Zhang Wanhe, he hurriedly hopped to the ground.

“Brother Zhang, what brought you here? I was just thinking about paying you a visit. How is Auntie? And Uncle is still in good health, I dare say?”

Then he turned to his woman. “What are you waiting for, stupid, go pour brother Zhang a cup of tea.”

The woman hopped right down and produced a mug from the chest. Seeing how filthy it was, Zhang Wanhe hastily refused.

“Don’t bother. Don’t bother. I’m not thirsty.”

Yang San immediately understood, telling his wife, “Brother Zhang likes things clean. Look at that mug of yours. It’s even dirtier than a pig trough. Can’t you clean it up a bit?”

The woman started wiping the mug with her shirt, which only increased Zhang Wanhe’s alarm. During the rest of his stay he was on guard against the mug, fearful Yang San would insist on offering him tea.

Zhang Wanhe had come to collect a debt.


One fine morning the previous spring, Zhang Wanhe had just come back from working in town when he ran into Yang San and several others lolling in the sun at the entrance to the village.

“Old Yang,” he greeted the man, “what have you been doing all winter?”

“What’s there to do in the winter? Killing time.”

Another one of the village idlers grinned.

 “Sunning himself by day and humping his woman by night. That’s what Old Yang does. Those poor bones of his have gone hollow from too much shagging.”

A guffaw arose from the group.

“If all you do is lie around in the sun and bang your women, when do you expect to see good days?” asked Zhang Wanhe.

“You’re a fool,” the idler replied. “Always busy working in the town. Aren’t you afraid your kang will turn cold? For the little money you make in town, you leave your woman hungry. If it weren’t for those visits I’ve been paying her, she’d have long divorced you.”

Another guffaw.

“You fools keep talking nonsense. You’ll regret it one day,” Zhang Wanhe predicted.

“It’s not as if we don’t want to get rich,” said Yang San. “Just the other day, I went to my uncle’s village to discuss business with him. We talked about bringing sweet potatoes to Shanxi to trade for white potatoes. Two jin white for one jin sweet. That was the plan. But we didn’t have the money to start with, so we dropped the whole thing.

“Brother Zhang,” he went on, “you’re a rich man now. Would you loan me some money so I can get a little business going? I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”

Still riding high from the not insubstantial earnings he had that winter, Zhang Wanhe readily agreed.

“How much?”

“Not much. Five thousand will do.”

“Five thousand’s too much. I only have three thousand to spare. You’ll have to come up with the rest somewhere else.”

“Brother, I owe you big.” Yang San thanked Zhang Wanhe with a bow. “When I get rich, I won’t forget this favor.”

When Zhang Wanhe got home, he told his wife about the loan. She jumped on him right away, saying he might as well have flushed the money down the toilet.

Surprised, Zhang Wanhe replied, “But Yang San said he would pay me back as soon as he’s got the money.”

“We’ll see about that. You won’t get a damn penny!”

“Listen to yourself, woman! Nobody borrows money in broad daylight and then just doesn’t return it!”

A few days later, Zhang Wanhe ran into Yang San on the street and inquired about his sweet potato business.

“I lost it all!” exclaimed Yang San, smacking his thigh emphatically. “When I finally got the sweet potatoes there, the prices had already come down. For every jin of white potatoes, I had to pay one jin, two liang of sweet potatoes. But I couldn’t just bring them back, could I? That would be even worse business.”

“How much did you lose?” Zhang Wanhe asked.

“Including food and everything, me and my uncle, we lost three thousand each.”

Just exactly the sum of the loan.

“Then what are you going to do about the money you borrowed?” Zhang Wanhe asked, concerned.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be long. After the autumn harvest, I’ll sell the grain and then I’ll definitely be able to pay you back.”

Zhang Wanhe thought about it. That seemed the only choice.

“Don’t forget,” he cautioned.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Yang San reassured him.

The autumn harvest came, and Zhang Wanhe went by Yang San’s place to take a look. There had been a drought that year, which had affected every corn field, and Yang San’s were the hardest hit. Seeing Zhang Wanhe poking around, Yang San knew what was on his mind.

He went up to his creditor and said, “Can’t pay you back this year. You’ll have to wait until next year. You can see how my crops are doing.”

“Next year, then,” said Zhang Wanhe.

When he told his wife, she looked smug.

“Told you so,” she said.

“I’ll get the money back next year no matter what his harvest looks like,” he replied in a decisive tone.

“If you can get that money back, I’ll walk on my hands,” his wife retorted.


When next autumn came around, the wheat was harvested, everybody had submitted their share to the public grain supply center, and yet still Yang San hadn’t repaid the money. It was time for Zhang Wanhe to go and collect.

After a little chitchat, Zhang Wanhe cut to the chase.

“Now you have no problem paying me back the money you borrowed last year, I assume?”

“Big Brother,” Zhang San said, his head hanging, “would you be so kind as to give me a few extra days? The wheat harvest wasn’t great this year, so I’m thinking about taking on some extra work. My second uncle heads a construction team that builds houses all around the county. I’ll go work for him, and afterward I’ll definitely pay you back.”

Then he turned to the wife. “Big Brother’s here, and you still haven’t made us anything to eat or got our drinks ready!”

“Don’t bother!” Zhang Wanhe cried out in panic. “I’ve already eaten!”

“You heard me! Go prepare the meal,” Yang San yelled at his wife.

“Please don’t! I really have eaten.”

“If you’ve eaten, let’s have a drink. Tell you what, booze is good stuff. It can make you forget whatever’s troubling you.”

“Really, please don’t bother! If you insist, then I’ll be going,” Zhang Wanhe replied.

“No booze then. But do have some tea,” Yang San turned to his wife again. “Look what you got Big Brother! It’s just plain water!”

“There’s no tea in this house!” his wife protested.

“If there’s no tea, can’t you toss a little sugar in it? Go find some brown sugar for Big Brother.”

The woman wiped her dirty hands against her pants and fished a suspiciously dark hunk of sugar out of the cabinet. It looked as if it had been in there for ages. Zhang Wanhe could smell it was off from across the room.

He held his breath and said, “Okay, I’ll be leaving then.”

Yang San and his woman, looking immensely reluctant to let him go, escorted Zhang Wanhe all the way to the gate of the yard.

Once back in the house, the couple had a good laugh.

“That sugar of yours really scared him off,” said the husband.

“Rich people like him all have a thing about cleanliness. Next time, I’ll just pull the same trick,” replied the wife.


Even after Zhang Wanhe got home, the ripe odor of Yang San’s house lingered in his nostrils.

“Got the money back?” his wife asked.

“No, Yang San said he would pay me later.”

“And you believed that? Then you just wait at home for him to bring you the money.”

“Yang San said he’s going to spend a few days working for a construction team and pay me back with what he earns.”

“Pfft, you’re a moron! Still waiting for him to return the money. You’ve been fooled!”

A few days later, Zhang Wanhe saw Yang San on the street again.

“Old Yang, didn’t you say you were working construction? What are you doing here?”

Smiling, Yang San replied, “Couldn’t go. Too much to do at home!”

Zhang Wanhe frowned. If Yang San wasn’t working with the construction team, then there was no way he could pay Zhang Wanhe back.

“When are you going to pay me back that money?” he asked.

“Just give me a couple more days, and then let’s talk!”

Zhang Wanhe could do nothing but wait. He and some of the other villagers went into town to pick up some work, only returning when things became busy again in the fields. As soon as his wife saw him, she brought up the loan, informing him that Yang San’s wife had given birth to yet another child. They would have to pay a hefty fine for violating the family planning policies, meaning it would take even longer for Zhang Wanhe to get his money back.

Her nagging got on Zhang Wanhe’s nerves. He took the nine hundred yuan he had made in town and slapped it on the table, declaring, “I make the money! Who the hell do you think you are to tell me who I can lend it to!”

His wife, exhausted from laboring to keep everything around the house in order while Zhang Wanhe was away, spat back, “Sure you make the money, but you think everyone else is just lazing around the house? You ran off and left all the chores and farm work to me, and now you’re accusing me of not making money? Alright then! From now on, you take care of the chores.”

Zhang Wanhe hung his head at that.

“You are such a fool!” his wife continued. “You throw away three thousand yuan and expect people to be hush-hush about it!”

“Stop nagging already. I’ll go get the money right now!”

And he left for Yang San’s house.


The scent of urine was stronger than ever at Yang San’s. Zhang Wanhe pushed open the door to see diapers strewn all over the place. Obviously unwashed, stained yellow and brown, the diapers stank so that Zhang Wanhe practically choked. He entered holding his breath.

Yang San’s woman was seated squarely on the kang, the baby clamped to one sagging tit. Zhang Wanhe quickly averted his eyes, only to see Yang San lolling on the bed.

“Old Yang’s still in bed at this hour?”

The woman smirked, turned and punched her husband in the side.

“Get up, you lazy fool. We’ve got company!”

“Who?” Yang San asked, rubbing his eyes.

“See for yourself,” said his wife, who then turned to Zhang Wanhe. “Look at my little girl. Isn’t she a cutie?”

Zhang Wanhe swept his eyes over the two, stealing a quick look at the woman’s filthy breast. He was curious. How could Yang San still desire a woman like this enough to produce so many kids?

“Pretty,” he replied automatically.

“Now that we’ve got a girl, the family is complete.” She looked proud.

Seeing that Yang San still hadn’t moved, Zhang Wanhe went up to poke the man himself.

“Old Yang, it’s me!” he said.

Yang San finally climbed down from the kang, saying, “Hey, Brother Zhang, it’s you! I have been meaning to pay you a visit. Look, my woman bore me a girl!”

“Didn’t you have the birth prevention surgery a couple of years ago? Where did this one come from?”

“We sure know what we’re about,” Yang San gloated. “This woman of mine, I tell you, she’s worth more than gold.”

The woman glowed at the compliment.

“I might not be as rich as you are, but wait until my children have grown up. I wager my family will become the most powerful in the village. I’m thinking about having another boy next year. We did the surgery, so they can’t blame us if we have as many as we please. It’s the hospital’s fault. With three sons and one daughter, who around here would dare take advantage of me.”

“Congratulations,” Zhang Wanhe offered. “So I’m here to see about the loan. When are you going to return my money? I’m short of cash myself these days.”

“I planned to pay you back, but I didn’t expect another baby to come along. Just the other day, the village head came by to charge us a fine for having more kids. I reasoned with him half a day. I said, we had the surgery and you’re still fining us? Does that make any sense? We did everything the government asked, but my woman got pregnant anyway. Heaven obviously wanted me to have a big family. How can you punish us?”

Zhang Wanhe was in no mood for his nonsense and returned to the point. “I plan to have my house renovated this year. I wouldn’t push you like this if I didn’t need the money. Things aren’t much easier for me. Cut me some slack, would you?” He was almost pleading.

“You must be kidding me, Brother Zhang. There’re only a couple families in the village doing better than you. Other than Old Liu with the leather factory in town, and Old Zhao running that flour plant in the village, who else is there? Maybe you’re not number one or number two, but you’re at least number three or four. What’s three thousand yuan to you!”

Then, before Zhang Wanhe had a chance to speak, he gave his woman a look, and yelled, “Why haven’t you got Brother Zhang some water, you lazy woman!”

His woman unplugged her nipple from the child’s mouth and, with her breast still hanging out, got down to pour some water. She grabbed a generous handful of brown sugar and stirred it into the bowl. Zhang Wanhe frowned as he took the water and put it to the side.

“Brother Zhang, drink it before it gets cold,” the woman urged.

“I’m not thirsty.”

“Please do drink some. Sugared water takes off the inner fire,” the woman pressed.

They went back and forth like that until Zhang Wanhe was ready to make his escape, but he didn’t want to leave without the money. He had no choice but to take a sip from the bowl. He had barely tasted it when he started to gag. With great difficulty, he forced himself to swallow the wretched stuff.

“Old Yang,” Zhang Wanhe spoke again. “Everybody has their own problems, you know yours, but you don’t know everybody else’s. When I loaned you that money it was because I genuinely wanted to help you, but now all this time has gone by. I never thought it would turn into a bad debt like this.”

“What bad debt?” Yang San got defensive at once. “I never said I wouldn’t pay you back. Be careful what you say about people! I am a man of his word, a man of his name, and it’s not as if I’m going to skip town. What are you afraid of? You think so little of me!”

“Then you’ll pay me back soon,” Zhang Wanhe pressed.

Yang San smiled shrewdly. “When I have the money, I’ll pay you back.”

“When would that be?”

“How am I supposed to know? Anyway, when I have it, I’ll pay you back.”

“Let’s settle on a date. Otherwise you’ll never have any money, no matter how many times I come by you’ll say you have no money. Isn’t that the same as never returning it?”

“I’m not saying I won’t return it, those are your words.”

“But that’s what you meant.”

“It is not what I meant.”

“What did you mean, then?”

“You’re better educated that I am. Surely you know what I meant.”

Zhang Wanhe didn’t know what he meant.

“Old Yang,” he beseeched. “You and I, our families have no old grudges against each other. I loaned you the money to help you out. You wouldn’t cheat a good-hearted man, would you?”

“I know you are a good-hearted man. But I was just enjoying the sun that day, and you swooped in with that lecture about how lazing in the sun was no good and I needed to pull myself up by my bootstraps. If you hadn’t said that, would I have gone into the sweet potato business? If I hadn’t done that, would I have lost that money? Would I have even got myself into debt with you? You were making good money, what should you care if I’m spending my time lying around in the sun or not?

Zhang Wanhe snapped back, “Are you blaming me for having helped you?”

“Why don’t you go figure out whether you’re the one to blame.”

“Old Yang, what are you talking about! I had nothing but good intentions. I helped you out of kindness, and this is what you’re thinking? Is there no reason in that mind of yours at all?”

Yang San put on a forgiving look. “Alright, alright. I am not saying you were out to get me. But look at how petty you are. Is three thousand yuan really worth the fuss? I’ll pay you back as soon as I’m less hard up. Okay? Can we leave it at that?”

Zhang Wanhe had to leave it at that.

When he got home and told his wife, she said it served him right.

“You earn a little money and the next thing you’re waving it all around town. If you’re not to blame, who is? Go on with your little charity and see where you end up.”

Zhang Wanhe was at a loss.


A few days later, Zhang Wanhe was taking care of some business in town when he ran into Yang San’s uncle, driving a cart along the road. Zhang Wanhe brought up the matter of the loan with him.

“When did you loan him this three thousand?” Yang San’s uncle asked.

“It was when you went together to Shanxi to trade sweet potatoes.”

Yang San’s uncle looked surprised. “When did we go to Shanxi to trade sweet potatoes?”

“He sure sold that story well. He said he wanted to go along with you to Shanxi to trade some sweet potatoes and asked me for a loan. Said he would pay me back the second he made the sale.”

“You were tricked for sure. And what were you even doing lending him money? He’s my nephew, and I don’t lend him a penny! Lending him money does him no good! Whatever he can get his hands on, he squanders it right away.”

The man talked almost as if it was Zhang Wanhe’s fault.

“You better go get the money back quick. The sooner the better, or you’ll never see it again. Normally, as his uncle, I should pay you back what he doesn’t. But if I pay back the thousand he owes today, tomorrow he’ll borrow ten thousand. You better go find him!”

“How could I expect you to pay his debts? I’ll go ask him again.”

Zhang Wanhe returned to Yang San’s home the very same evening.

This time, Yang San didn’t even offer him a seat. He rested his head on the piled quilt, assessing Zhang Wanhe through narrowed eyes. His two boys were playing on the kang, one toying with himself. The younger one, noting with interest what his brother was up to, made his way over from his side of the kang. He watched as his brother’s pecker happily sprang to attention, but when it promptly sprayed him with a jet of urine, he immediately began to cry.

“What the hell are you crying about?” his father bellowed.

“He peed on me,” the little one replied.

“Why don’t you just pee on him back, you useless brat!”

“I got no pee now,” the boy defended himself, holding up his own little birdie in proof.

Their mother intervened. “The kang is all soaked with pee. One more drop and it’ll collapse. Stop talking nonsense to the kids! Be a good father for once, will you!”

“Why me? The kids are peeing all over the kang, and I don’t see you doing anything about it.”

“Are you blind? It was right under your nose.”

Seeing the couple was too busy fighting to pay any attention to him, Zhang Wanhe helped himself to a seat on the floor, fished out a cigarette and lit it.

Yang San’s woman was still berating him. “You turn a deaf ear to everything going on under this roof and do nothing but lie on that kang like a dead man. Look at you lounging with that cigarette, who do you think you are?”

Zhang Wanhe knew that last remark was also directed at him, but he decided to play dumb.

“Old Yang, when are you going to pay back my money?” He demanded.

Hardly had the words dropped out of his mouth when the woman pinched the sleeping baby’s behind, instantly eliciting a loud cry.

“She’s hungry. Why don’t you pick her up and nurse her already,” Yang San said.

“She won’t die! Didn’t she just eat? Not a moment’s peace! Eat, eat, eat, you do nothing but eat!” As she spoke, the woman picked up the baby and plugged a nipple into her mouth. “Here you go. Eat! Day after day, you don’t even know how sick of it I am.”

That was more than Zhang Wanhe could bear. He rose from the floor, and said, “Old Yang, just give me the money and be done with it.”

“Didn’t we say after a few days?”

“Hasn’t it already been months? I really need the money.”

“Truth be told, I really want to pay you back. I just don’t have it. Open the chest and see for yourself. If you find any money in there, then call me any name you like.”

“You can call yourself anything you want, just give me the money.”

Yang San stretched himself out on the kang. “I don’t have any money, you find something of value in this house, you take it!”

Zhang Wanhe, deciding he really didn’t deserve any pity, genuinely appraised the contents of the room, but he saw nothing worth real money. Besides a wok, a giant jar, a thermos bottle, a mug, and a few bowls, everything else was made of earth. He wasn’t willing to make off with a family’s kitchenware.

Yang San, seeing the situation register on Zhang Wanhe’s face, said, “Don’t be polite, you see something you like, just take it.”

“You are such a devil! What on earth did you do with the money?”

“What do you mean what did I do with it? Lost it on the potato business.”

“I saw your uncle, and he told me there was never any potato business. So tell me, what did you do with that three thousand.”

“There’s no point in asking, then. In any case, the money’s gone.”

“Old Yang, the wretchedness of your home is all because you’re both so lazy and haven’t done one honest day’s work in your whole life. If it were someone else, I’d feel pity, but not for you two. I don’t care if you have it or not, you’ve got to return my money, one way or another. How could I just give my hard-earned money away like that? Whatever your situation is, you have got to pay me back.”

“Brother Zhang, I really don’t have the money. But here’s an idea. Why don’t you spend a night with my woman and we’ll call it even.”

Zhang Wanhe jumped to his feet, spat on the ground, and turned to leave without a word. He could hear the woman giggling behind him, and felt himself break out in goose bumps. As he reached the gate, he heard Yang San’s laughter mingle with hers, a shameless, mocking sound.

Zhang Wanhe was furious. He started to tell others in the village about the couple’s deceitful conduct, and immediately found his own sentiment echoed back at him. It turned out Yang San had been borrowing money all around the village. The loans ranged from twenty to thirty yuan all the way up to eight thousand, but regardless of the amount, nobody ever got their money back. Everyone told him: you really should have asked around before you made a sizable loan to that man.

Hearing that, Zhang Wanhe hung his head without a word. All these years he had been working away from home. Little did he know Yang San had turned into that kind of person. Well, he thought to himself, I might as well have thrown the money out the window.


Zhang Wanhe struck a deal in the autumn. He bought a pile of cable waste from a state-owned factory, which he planned to sell to a private copper smelter in Zhang Village. While the smelter had originally agreed to purchase Zhang Wanhe’s copper, they subsequently landed a good supply of scrap copper from elsewhere. Now the factory would only take his cable, which was harder to process, for 20% less than the original deal. Zhang Wanhe didn’t want to compromise, and the cable, weighing dozens of tons, was scattered all over his yard. Now he was really short on cash.

His wife scolded him daily, calling him a blockhead. If he wasn’t flushing his money down the toilet, then he was losing it in business. Out of pure desperation Zhang Wanhe returned once again to Yang San’s house.

The harvest had been good this year, and even Yang San’s share was significant. He must have some money, Zhang Wanhe thought, filled with hope.

Yang San was drinking on the kang, snacking on a plate of pig head meat and a bowl of cucumber salad along with the wine. He was enjoying the food and drink all by himself, completely ignoring the two boys, eyes fixed on the dishes, drooling profusely. He didn’t bother to lift his eyes when his creditor came in.

“Old Yang, look at you with that wine. You’re really living the life!”

Yang San grunted and then snarled at the kids.

“What are you looking at?! Get your asses out of here before I lose it! Haven’t I given you each a bite of meat! If I give you anymore, will there even be anything left in the bowl?!”

“Don’t take it out on the kids, old Yang. You know why I’m here. I heard you’ve had a good harvest and sold a lot of grain. How about returning that money.”

“Somebody has done his homework.”

“Old Yang, just come take a look at my yard. I really lost a fortune on this cable waste business. There’s still tons of it rusting all over the place. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so desperate for the money. Just have some mercy on an old friend, would you?”

“Oh, I know about your situation. I really want to pay you back, but there just isn’t any money. Harvest was good this year, but not good enough for me to save anything. You can go ask around the village. I don’t have the money to pay anyone back. It’s really nothing personal.”

“Old Yang, I’m really in trouble. Can you at least pay some of the money back for now, say, two thousand?”

“Nope.”

“How about one thousand?”

Yang San shook his head like a rattle drum.

“Five hundred then.”

“I am going to save you some breath. I don’t even have a hundred for you.”

“You cannot borrow money and not return it!”

Yang San threw down his chopsticks. “Who said I wouldn’t return it! I just don’t have the money. What can I do when I don’t have the money? I was willing to pay you back by letting my woman sleep with you. But you wouldn’t take her. You don’t want me to sell my kids, do you?”

“What nonsense is that?”

“Good thing you know that’s nonsense too. This is the new society. You can’t exploit a poor fellow by forcing him to sell his kids now, can you?”

“People should have more reason in the new society as well. Aren’t you exploiting me by not paying me back my money?”

“I just don’t have the money. Sue me if you like. If you come again, I will drag one of my kids to town and peddle him around. Let’s see what happens then. Even the mayor wouldn’t like that. He might get into big trouble over it.”

Zhang Wanhe shook with anger.

“Fine! I don’t believe there isn’t someone who can make you pay your debts! You think I’m going to back down? Let’s just see how long you can get away with it.”

With that, Zhang Wanhe got on his bike and rode all the way to town.


It was noon break, and the town seat was quiet, the government offices all empty. Zhang Wanhe waited at the entrance to the government building until he got hungry. He found a restaurant, had a bowl of noodles, and returned to find the staff back at work. He went to the government office first, but the people there told him this was not within their scope of responsibility and he should go to the police.

At the police station, the officer on duty asked, “When you loaned him the money, did you put it in writing?”

Zhang Wanhe said no.

“Does the man own up to the loan?”

“He does. But he just won’t pay me back.”

“Did you agree on when he should pay you back?”

“He said he was going to Shanxi to sell sweet potatoes and would pay me back with the money from that, but later I learned it was all a scam.”

The man thought for a while and said, “Since he’s not denying the loan, there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s not within our jurisdiction.”

“Who can do something about it then?”

“Go to the town government, and see if they know what to do.”

Zhang Wanhe rushed back to the government office, and carefully recounted what he had been told at the police station. The people in the office said there was really nothing they could do about it either, and he should try his luck with the village officials.

Zhang Wanhe had no choice but to go back to the village.

He paid a visit to the village head, who crushed his hopes right away.

“Since he never said he wouldn’t pay you back and just needs more time, what can we do?”

“He says he needs more time,” Zhang Wanhe said, “but really he doesn’t plan to pay me back.”

“We still can’t do anything. Why don’t you talk to Secretary Liu? Maybe he has a better idea.”

Zhang Wanhe went to see Secretary Liu.

“This is not my job, go to the village head,” said Secretary Liu.

“But he said to talk to you.”

“My hands are tied too. You should have talked to me before you loaned him the money. What can we do now? Arrest him? It’s barely a crime. Criticize him? Like he would listen. What do you expect from us? Why don’t you tell me what to do?”

Zhang Wanhe didn’t know what to say to that.

Secretary Liu continued, “Listen, forget your three thousand, he borrowed eighty yuan from me the year before last year, and I haven’t seen any of that money yet. And he’s still behind with the fines for the family planning violation. We haven’t been able to do anything about that either. It’s darn hard being a village official these days.”

Hearing this, Zhang Wanhe figured there was nothing to be done and returned home.

But the more he thought about it, the more frustrated he got. It was his money, so why did it look like he was the one in the wrong? In a fit of anger, he went to see Yang San’s father.

Yang San’s father was almost seventy years old, living by himself in a shabby little cottage. The story immediately threw the old man into a coughing fit so severe his eyes began to water. It was too much for Zhang Wanhe.

“Forget about the money,” he said in haste. “If he doesn’t return it, he doesn’t return it. I just thought I should let you know, so you can rein him in a little. If he keeps on like this, I am afraid he’ll come to a bad end.”

The old man nodded through the coughing.

“Wanhe,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll deal with the scoundrel tomorrow. I’ll give that dirty thief a thrashing.”

“Take it easy, my old friend. Just have a little talk with him. You can’t really manage a grown-up son anyway. And I wouldn’t want it to affect your health.”

So saying, he left the old man to himself. Once he got home, he told his wife what had happened, and she carped, “It’s just three thousand yuan. Why would you bring the old man into this? What if it was too much for him?”

“Haven’t you been the one nagging away about getting the money back?”

“I just wanted you to be smarter with money in the future. I never asked you to take it to his father, and at his age! If something bad were to happen to him, wouldn’t that be terrible?”

Zhang Wanhe suddenly felt anxious.

The couple had a restless night. The next morning, Yang San barged into their house to confront Zhang Wanhe.

“It’s me who borrowed the money. What are you doing bothering my old man? I’ve heard of a son paying the debt for his father, but never the other way around. That was some cheap move you pulled. Mark my words, if anything happens to my old man, you won’t get away with it.”

“If you had just paid me back, I wouldn’t have had anything to bother your father about.”

“You want to kill my father over this debt? I’m telling you, this is the new society, not the old one before the liberation.”

“The new society shouldn’t tolerate deadbeats either.”

“Sue me. Drop the police on me, if you can.”

“You don’t think I can? I’ll go to the county government tomorrow. There must be something they can do to people like you.”

“Zhang Wanhe, you really need to learn, my friend. You would be surprised how things turn out. It’s a small world, just pray you don’t fall into my hands someday.”

Zhang Wanhe was confused.

“What makes you think I’ll fall into your hands?”

“You never know! Think about Yan Laosi. Hadn’t he seen better days than you? Then the land reform happened, and all of a sudden the poorest in the village rose up to struggle against him. He looked down on people, and then what happened? Funny how you can spend thirty years living on the east bank, and then the river changes course and you’re spending the next thirty years on the west bank. You just watch your back and pray the land reform won’t happen again.”

With that, Yang San swaggered away, leaving Zhang Wanhe with nothing to say for a long time.

Notes:

[1] Ah Ning’s 阿宁 “A Bad Debt” (杨三的故事) was first published in Dangdai ren (当代人) no. 1 (1996), and then reprinted in Xiaoshuo yuebao (小说月报) no. 4 (1996) and in Yijiujiuliu nian Zhongguo duanpian xiaoshuo jingxuan(1996中国短篇小说精选) (Wuhan: Changjiang, 1996).

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