At Dusk

By Hao Ran 浩然 [1]

Translated by Richard King

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2018)

Hao Ran, circa 1960. Source:

As the sun set over the Western Hills, evening clouds tinted the vivid green of the vegetable allotment with their peach-hued light. The little courtyard was filled with enchanting colors.

The girl came up, walking along the dike between the fields. Her bright eyes carefully scanned the vegetable patch as she took a short-handled hoe from the low wattle fence and squatted down to scuffle the soil around the autumn cucumber shoots.

Her home was just by the fence, and there were people chattering in the courtyard. She didn’t need to listen to know what they were talking about. Amused, she pursed her lip in a wry smile. Unfortunately, she was inattentive in her work, her mind swirling back and forth like turbulent waters. Images flashed before her eyes like the shapes in a kaleidoscope. Her hand slipped, and the hoe broke off a sturdy cucumber shoot. Upset and annoyed, she flung down the hoe and slumped down on a clump of grass by the dike.

The past few days she had been ill at ease.

Ever since she had graduated from high school that summer and come back home to her production team, there had been increasing numbers of visitors to the house. Before and after dinner, and during the rest time after lunch, there would be busybody neighbors dropping around. They would ramble on for ages before coming to the business of their visits—this one offering to act as a matchmaker for her, and that one wanting to fix her up with a young man. And every evening when they were finished allocating work-points and done with their meetings, there was a group of lads who would show up at the house whether they had any business there or not, talk a blue streak, giggle and laugh for all they were worth, not leaving until well into the night, and making it impossible for her to have some peace. Mother was always most solicitous to her guests, talking tirelessly with whoever turned up. And after they had gone, she would boast to Father: “Yes indeed, such a fine girl as our Yuqin is hard to come by! Youth-league member, high-school-graduate, cultured and capable, whoever gets her as a bride is laying up treasure for himself! I’m really going to have to pick and choose the right man for our Yuqin, we mustn’t be careless about this!” From time to time, the mother would summon Yuqin to her room and insistently sound her out on her opinions, embarrassing the girl with her interrogations. At first Yuqin would hurry away and hide when she heard people talking about these matters, or else she would sit off to one side with a book, reading with studied unconcern, her mouth shut tight. But as time went by, and there was more and more of the same talk, her peace of mind was disrupted. She had to face up to it, she wasn’t all that young, and since she had made up her mind to stay forever in the countryside, she would have to choose a desirable mate from among the members of the commune. The trouble was that her mother picked that moment to decide on someone, Gao Xiushan from the little hamlet to the west, and was forever urging her daughter to have a talk with him. But what was there to talk about? They hadn’t met for years and knew nothing of each other. Thoughts of love can only develop where two people’s hearts connect, how can these things be forced? If her mother was anxious, Gao Xiushan was all the more so. All day long he thought of nothing but going over to visit, but when he got there he just hung around and wouldn’t leave, and this made Yuqin feel resentment toward the boy. Her feelings were so variable, so complex that even she couldn’t explain them, and often found them ridiculous . . .

Just then, there was another loud conversation in the briefly-silent courtyard by the fence.

“You haven’t eaten yet, Auntie Chen?”

“No. Take a seat.”

“That’s okay. Yuqin home yet?”

“I heard someone hoeing in the vegetable patch, perhaps she’s fiddling about with the cucumber frames.”

As they were speaking, the slatted gate behind Yuqin creaked. She turned her head and peered out to see that the gate between the cucumber frames had opened slightly further and a head was poking in. Tangled hair, a square face, slightly freckled, a healthy red glow through the dark complexion, light eyebrows pointing upward at the ends, eyes not large but lively and spirited, a smiling mouth, lips closed only with effort . . . all in all, a mysterious and mischievous air.

Seeing that the newcomer was Gao Xiushan, Chen Yuqin was about to call out a greeting, but swallowed the words straight away and fiddled agitatedly with the cucumber shoots, pretending not to have noticed him.

Gao Xiushan saw that it was Chen Yuqin there; he slipped in sideways through the gate and stood still a way off from her, his mouth opened in a smile, his eyes fixed on the girl, motionless.

The vitality, delight, and longing in the soul of this young man so full of youthful vigour were as colourful as the little vegetable allotment before his eyes. And so it was with his feelings of love. He and Chen Yuqin lived in villages separated by a stream, and had often played together, and then went to elementary school together. Chen Yuqin had always acted superior to the lad, she could speak quite sharply, and could point out a fellow’s failings, if his socks had holes in them, if his clothes were dirty, or if he worked too slowly . . . in fact he was really a bit afraid of her. But the more afraid of her he was, the more he wanted her company, and the more he liked her. After that, Yuqin had gone to live with her aunt in town to attend high school, and they saw less of one another. Three years later, when she had come back to the countryside, he was attracted to her again as soon as he set eyes on her. He felt that in those three years, her appearance had become even more beautiful, her character even more resolute, and her attitude to work even more enthusiastic. He wanted to be close to her, and to live with her forever. Friends of his own age tried to persuade him not to waste his energy on her, telling him that many others had made great efforts without any luck, none of them getting any encouragement or warmth from that unfeeling girl. The all said Yuqin could never accept a peasant, but would marry instead into a city family. Gao Xiushan didn’t see things that way—he knew the girl and understood her to be a person with firm convictions, prepared to strike roots in the countryside and never leave. Besides, he had confidence in himself, believing he was worthy of her in every respect, and sure that he could win her love. Bolstered by these feelings, he wouldn’t lose heart, however cold the girl was toward him.

Gao Xiushan hesitated an instant, and then walked up to the girl with studied casualness. He leaned forward and said softly: “Yuqin, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you . . .”

Yuqin looked up at him. There was something in his face that was hard to fathom, a piercing light emanating from his eyes that instantly made her face flush and her heart flutter. She gestured with her hand to wave him away: “No, don’t say it. What’s got into you, Xiushan . . .?”

Gao Xiushan was taken aback, but he said: “Well, that’s okay, come around to my place this evening and we can talk about it when we meet . . .”

Chen Yuqin got even more flustered. It wasn’t so much that she’d seen her mother come up to the fence, but rather that she’d sensed it intuitively, and she felt two eyes fixed on her in amusement. She straightened up, made to leave, raising her voice in alarm: “If you’ve got something to say, you can say it somewhere there are a lot of people around! Why should I go to your house! I won’t, I won’t!”

Gao Xiushan’s heart chilled, and then all of a sudden went feverishly hot. He’d heard many caustic remarks from the girl when they were young, but they’d been children after all! And besides, those scathing comments had been in a spirit of friendship and caring, they’d never been so extreme, so unfeeling. His was a cheerful disposition, but he was not without some self-esteem. Now that self-esteem was dented, and though he wasn’t one to lose his temper, he wasn’t going to put up with it either. For a moment, he had no idea what the right thing to do was.

Sure enough, Yuqin’s mother appeared by the fence. She had long been unhappy with her daughter’s ill-mannered behavior. She was aware that young people are conscious of face and was afraid that any intervention by her would make matters worse, leaving Gao Xiushan with no easy way out. So she’d waited a while before coming out and told her daughter off as mildly as she could: “What a silly girl you are, talking a lot of nonsense, it’s just as well brother Xiushan isn’t a stranger or he might take offense. Be sure not to make any more of those inconsiderate jokes!”

The girl pouted: “You’re always poking your nose into my business!”

That was as much as the young man could put up with. Blood boiled in his whole body. He had the clear impression that this intellectual had never had any consideration for a peasant like him. He thought of a few responses of his own—what’s so great about you then? You’ve been to school for a few days and you walk around with your nose in the air. If I’d known you were going to be like this, I’d never have bothered with you! But when his angry glare fell back on the girl’s face, the words caught in his throat, and he hadn’t the nerve to speak. So he finally stamped his foot for all he was worth, spun around, and stormed out.

“Wretched brat! Is this pig-headedness or some other kind of wrong-headedness? Marriage is a free choice, whether or not you want to is up to you, but you needn’t think you’re so perfect!” Standing furious and frustrated by the fence, the mother scolded her daughter.

Chen Yuqin saw that Gao Xiushan had really taken offence and gone off in a huff. She felt a twinge of regret and hurried involuntarily toward the gate to call him back. But as she was about to call out, she saw her mother standing there and changed her mind again. Ashamed of herself but unwilling to admit it, she stood tongue-tied in the courtyard.

She was so confused she couldn’t work out how she felt. She’d always had a good impression of Gao Xiushan when they were young. He’d been lively, bold, warm-hearted, and considerate to his peers. At school he’d had a playful nature, but he would become very studious when he picked up his books and focussed intently. You could say that she had been very fond of her companion. But they’d just been children, and she’d never given a thought to taking the step toward marriage. Now after a few years apart, she was caught off guard when confronted by this business and didn’t know how to deal with it. And besides, there were some specific things the lad had done in the last while that had irritated her, making her feel that the two of them had grown apart.

A few days after Chen Yuqin had returned to the village, there had been a plan to bring together students who had come back to work in agriculture after attending upper-elementary school, and organize a voluntary junior high-school group. She’d been very enthusiastic about this idea, and given her impetuous nature, she’d wanted to get it going at full speed straight away. As Gao Xiushan had finished upper-elementary, she went to talk to him herself, and told him to get involved. He’d seemed quite keen at the time, but then he’d seemed to put it out of his mind. On the first day of the study group a notice went out that there would be a meeting the following evening to discuss details, and when the time came and the group had assembled, the only one missing was Gao Xiushan. They waited for him for ages but he didn’t show up, so Chen Yuqin rushed to his house to look for him, only to find the door closed and the lights out. She called his name from outside the house several times without getting any answer, and then angrily returned. Just as the meeting was breaking up, Gao Xiushan dashed in puffing and panting. “Damn it,” he said, “there was still lots of time after I’d eaten, so I got on with some things for my experiments, and when I got going I was so wrapped up with it the meeting slipped my mind.” One of the lads joked: “Experimenting with sleep, were you?” and all the others burst out laughing. For reasons she didn’t understand, Chen Yuqin felt her face flush; she called the meeting to a close and went home. Another time when Gao Xiushan was going into town, Chen Yuqin had ask him to go into the tailor’s and pick up some clothes she was having made, but he came back empty-handed. He said apologetically: “I noticed the supply and marketing depot was selling fertilizer and I didn’t have enough money on me, so I made it up with the money for the tailoring . . .” Chen Yuqin didn’t let him finish. She snapped: “Don’t try to fool me with stories like that. What would you want fertilizer for?” Gao Xiushan said: “Didn’t I tell you? I’m thinking of doing a bit of an experiment. I don’t know if it’s going to work, so don’t tell anyone for now. You could join me, the two of us . . .” Chen Yuqin glowered at him: “You’re so slapdash, you don’t think things through, you’ll never do anything properly!” then stalked off.

Now as Chen Yuqin was thinking more soberly, she realized it really wasn’t fair to condemn someone for little incidents like these. But it was too late for remorse, and she was tongue-tied. Seeing how livid her mother was, she could only giggle in embarrassment.

“You’re still laughing! I just don’t know what’s in that mind of yours! What is it about Xiushan that isn’t good enough for you? You tell me right now!”

Chen Yuqin bowed her head. Her mother’s interrogation was right to the point—she still didn’t know herself what was right and what wasn’t right about Gao Xiushan.

“Ask around! Who in the whole brigade doesn’t say he’s a fine young man! I insist you explain to me today what you’re thinking!”

Yuqin saw that once her mother started complaining there would be no end to it, so she spoke plainly: “Ma, you don’t need to get upset on his behalf, getting upset won’t solve anything. When the melon’s ripe it drops from the vine, you can’t rush things. Marriage is something that affects your whole life, you can’t be careless about it. We’ve been away from each other for the last few years, and no matter how fine you say he is, I have to see that with my own eyes and get to know him, don’t I?”

Her mother said: “If that’s it, I don’t feel so bad about it. Just chat with him some more, and I’m sure you’ll have no complaints.”

Chen Yuqin was blushing as she ran home. She took a couple of buckets that were hanging below the eaves of the house and set off with her carrying-pole to fetch water from the well at the entrance to the village.

It was dusk. The daytime tranquillity of the village street was gone. People were sitting on flagstones at the roadside enjoying the cooler air and chatting about the day’s news. Groups of children were playing together in the dust and pebbles of the road. Commune members returning late from the fields ambled into the village leading livestock, tools over their shoulders. The street was bustling, alive with sounds of laughter, clucking, neighing, and mooing.

Yuqin went over to the well and drew two buckets of water. She loaded them on to her carrying-pole and had just started out when suddenly she saw a cloud of yellow dust at the western end of the road. There was a deafening racket, and those on either side of the road cried out in alarm. The she saw it clearly: the tall gray horse, head back, tail aloft, hooves pounding, galloping toward them like the wind. The horse was harnessed and pulling a battered plough. The massive plough, badly damaged, crashed on the flagstones and smashed into the trees on either side of the road, bouncing up and down and raising a cloud of dust. Anxious commune-members were chasing behind the horse. Obviously the animal had shied on its way back from the fields, and they hadn’t been able to catch up with it. Now the frightened horse was in the village, galloping headlong into the main street.

People who’d been cooling off at the side of the road jumped to their feet in alarm, and the dozen or so children who had been squatting unmindfully in the road as they played were now rooted to the spot in alarm.

“Run! Run!”

“Quick! Run for your lives!”

Everyone shouted at the children for all they were worth, but this only seemed to make them even more confused. Then one by one as they realized what was happening, their eyes opened wide, at a loss for what to do, as a couple of the older ones, realizing the danger they were in, started to wail helplessly. A bloody drama was unfolding before their eyes!

The people at the roadside were paralyzed with fear. Fearful and tender women covered their eyes with their hands.

Seeing this, Yuqin flung her buckets to the ground and rushed forward, though she had no idea what to do. Restrain the horse? But it was unstoppable. Rescue the children? But there were a dozen of them, and how could she get them all away? Yes, she must pull the children away—if she only rescued one, that would be one less dead or injured. She yelled out: “Quick! Get the children!”

At that crucial moment, as life and death hung in the balance, a figure burst forth like lightning to try and restrain the horse. Before he had even reached it, the beast reared snorting back and lurched toward him like a towering wall collapsing. An iron hoof crashed into his leg as the horse leaped by him . . .

The young man lay on the ground, gravely injured. The horse was within yards of trampling the children . . .

In that instant, he launched himself once more, and sprang like a fierce tiger in front of the shying horse, arms outstretched, grasping the horse’s neck and clinging on grimly. With the extra burden on its neck, the horse neighed in anguish and used every means it could to throw him off, and was thus slowed down.

Taking advantage of this brief respite, Yuqin and some others dashed over and carried the children in their arms to the side of the road. When they turned back, the runaway horse, still carrying the young man, was pounding over the spot they had just left, kicking away the piles of earth and pebbles where the children had been playing, flecking the earth with fresh blood.

Only then did Yuqin realize that this young man, who had, regardless of his own safety, so capably and courageously restrained the horse, was none other than Gao Xiushan, whom she had so wronged. Her somber mood, relieved for an instant by the rescue of the children, became all the more intense. She joined the throng of people chasing after the runaway horse.

Gao Xiushan had been carried quite a distance hanging on to the horse’s neck. The horse was running like the wind, trying to shake him loose. His leg hurt terribly, his arms ached, he could barely breathe, and sweat poured from him like rain. All went black before his eyes, noise thundered in his brain, and his hands had no more strength in them. But then the thought flashed through is mind—not out of the street yet, still people on the road, mustn’t let go, must hold on if it kills me! His front teeth bit into his lip as he used all his life-force and just managed to cling on . . .

The people caught up to the horse, surrounded it and held it back. Gao Xiushan slumped to the ground like a stone.

The event had been an unanticipated eye-opener for Chen Yuqin. Who knew that a person who seemed so easy-going, so cheerful, could still have such courage, determination, and spirit of sacrifice! An hour earlier, she would not have dared to imagine such a thing, and if she had not seen it with her own eyes, she would not have believed anyone’s report of it, but it was a fact. Now her mother’s recent scolding echoed in her ears. She really hadn’t known him, and because of a couple of superficial things that had given her a bad impression, she hadn’t understood him or even made the effort to do so . . . She was very moved and then felt pained.

Wanting to atone for the wrong she had done him, the girl went into town herself to fetch a doctor, she put ointment on his wounds and bandaged them, only hurrying home when everything was done.

The courtyard was silent and the windows dark. Though it was clear her mother was not at home, she still called out for her. She walked an agitated circuit around the courtyard and then ran into her mother as she was heading out of the main gate. The older woman, a bamboo basket over her arm, was followed by other women.

“Ma! I couldn’t find you! Where have you been off to this time of night?”

“I was getting something for Xiushan to eat!” Her mother lifted the basket for her to see the eggs inside it, as white as blossoms.

Yuqin asked anxiously: “He’s got nobody else at home, can he make his own food?”

Her mother teased her: “Well, what can we do about that?”

Chen Yuqin thought for a moment: “Let’s move him into our place while he’s recovering!”

The mother seemed a little surprised, and stared keenly at her daughter in the pale starlight. Yuqin looked down shyly.

That evening, Gao Xiushan moved into the Chen’s house to recover from his injuries.

The mother didn’t sleep well that night. Her mind was alive with plans for the young man to eat well, stay happy, and make a speedy recovery. She got up early, and as she was opening her door, there was the young man in the main room stealthily opening the front door! Mother rushed over to hold on to him.

“For heaven’s sake! Why are you running off like this? Be a good boy, go back and lie down!”

“Take a look! I’m better now, aren’t I?” The young man hadn’t lost his cheeky sense of fun. He planned to walk around so the older woman could see he didn’t need to take more time to convalesce, but what he hadn’t reckoned on was a searing pain in his wound before he taken a few steps, and that quietened him down. He turned back into the house and lay down on the kang. “All right, I’ll do as I’m told. Look, I’m lying down now.”

Yuqin had gone down to the riverbank to soak hemp for weaving into cloth, then she fetched the doctor to change Xiushan’s dressings, had something to eat, and then hurried out to work in the fields, only returning at dusk. Her mother was hard at work preparing food for their patient. When it was ready, she told her daughter: “Hurry up and take Xiushan his meal.” Then she took off her apron and tidied up the cucumber frames. But before she’d even got started, her daughter ran out all flustered and dragged her indoors by the arm, making her quite alarmed.

“Wretched girl, what’s up with you now?”

“Quick, come and look.”

When she got into the room, the mother saw Xiushan still sleeping, with his head covered, so she called out softly: “Xiushan, Xiushan, get up and have something to eat.” She had called a few times without waking him, when he daughter, laughing, whipped back the quilt. What was there was actually one pillow on top of another.

The mother, annoyed and amused, slapped her thigh: “Well that young monkey, he just can’t stop being naughty, you’d better hurry and look for him.”

This further piece of mischief on the part of the lad did not, however, antagonize the girl in the slightest. On being instructed by her mother to go and look for Xiuahsn, she hesitated an instant, then turned and went into the main room.

First Yuqin went to the Brigade office, but there was no sign of him there. She asked some commune members she met on their way back from the fields, but none of them had seen him, and she had no idea where else to search. On her way home, she went by Gao Xiushan’s house and took a careful look at it. The gate into the courtyard was ajar, and she decided he must have come back home.

The door of the house was open a crack. She pushed it open and looked in, but there was nobody there. Then, just as she was about to leave, she heard a voice in the garden plot behind the house. The voice was soft and gentle, like words of love:

“It’s only a day since I saw you, why are you so unhappy? Do you need a drink of water? Or are you hungry? Oh, how lovely it will be when the two of you get married and have chubby little babies, The commune members won’t harm you, they’ll let your children spread everywhere, how will that be?” . . .

It was Gao Xiushan’s voice. Her heart pounded and her face flushed with prickly heat. She wanted to leave right then, but her legs would not obey her and step back, so she could neither advance nor retreat.

The intimate words in the courtyard became even softer, barely audible. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed the door open. An extraordinary sight unfolded before her like a painting.

It must have been more than ten years since she had last been in this back garden, surrounded as it was by a wall on three sides, the fourth against the house, a small enclosed yard with a couple of toon trees. Nobody ever went in, except to gather berries from the trees in spring. Now it was a different world. A narrow ditch ran through the centre of the yard, dividing it into two halves, one side planted with greens, cucumbers, and eggplant, a glowing emerald green. The other side was further divided into two smaller plots, one planted with millet, the tender shoots as densely packed as a bed of scallions, and the other filled with pots of various sizes, each with a different crop—sorghum, paddy-rice, soy-beans, and also some vigorous tomato plants, vivid red, clustered together, the fruit weighing down the vines. Now, as on the previous day, the sun was setting behind the mountains, the pink clouds of early evening glowed, and the garden was a mass of enchanting color. Gao Xiushan was sitting in front of some pots of tomato plants, a thick notebook resting on his knee, a fountain pen in his hand, staring intently at the red fruit.

Chen Yuqin took all this in, then looked around to see if anyone else was there but saw nobody. She said: “Xiushan, you weren’t resting at home to get better, how come you ran off to sit down here?”

Xiushan looked around, and seeing Yuqin, he joked: “Wasn’t there someone lying on the kang?”

“You sure know how to play tricks. Ma’s furious!”

“Can’t be helped. Am I the sort of person who can lie in bed and look at the ceiling?”

Yuqin laughed, and looked back to the scene around her: “Hey, I heard you having a cozy little chat just now, how come there’s only you here all of a sudden?”

The young man laughed and pointed to the tomatoes in their pots: “Haha, I was talking to them, these are my successors, my children . . .”

The girl blushed: “Don’t you feel embarrassed talking like that?”

“Honestly, do you know what treasures these things are?” The young man said earnestly. He pointed happily to a section of the garden: “The millet over there is called ‘doesn’t fear water.’ You know there’s a patch of land on the south marsh where you can’t grow millet because everything you plant gets soaked and dies? Well, I’ve grown some here and I water it every day, keeping it swamped all the time, to test it out. If it grows well, it will be a new strain . . .”

Yuqin was fascinated. She saw that the millet patch was indeed glistening with clear water and nodded admiringly.

Having the girl’s approval, the lad was even more pleased: “I’m trying out improving soil in these pots here, mixing rich soil with poor, yellow soil with black, sticky with sandy. Those pots of tomatoes there are a grafting experiment, a tomato on top and a potato underneath, and if that works you’ll get two crops on one plot of land for the same outlay, and you’ll have sons, and daughters as well!” he said with a grin.

Yuqin finally understood why it was that the young man had forgotten the meeting, why he’d been so focussed on buying fertilizer . . . she felt a prickle of guilt on her face, and could only nod her head silently.

“If you don’t believe me, you can dig up some of the soil and check them out!”

The girl’s heart was in turmoil, and she didn’t know what to say. She was normally so forthright, but now she had suddenly become bashful. She murmured: “I believe you, I never thought, you’re really . . .”

“No, really, there’s nothing here that I’ve come up with myself. I just tried them out after I saw reports on them in the paper.”

The girl nodded and blushed as she blurted out: “Xiushan, did you hate me at dusk yesterday when I was so mad at you?”

The young man looked up, taken aback for a moment, then straightforwardly nodded his head: “Yes.”

“Did you really hate me a lot?”


The girl smiled, a beautiful smile.

The young man was enchanted by her smile.

Autumn 1959


[1] “At Dusk” 傍晚 was first published as “Colorful Dusk” (彩色的傍晚) in the journal Mengya 萌芽 20 (1959). This version, dated Autumn 1959, is translated from the short-story collection Pearls 珍珠 (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi, 1962), 90-103.