Butter Pancakes

By Wang Zengqi 汪曾祺[1]

Translated by Xuezhao Li and Travis Telzrow[2]

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2021)

Wang Zengqi (1920-1997)

Xiao Sheng was moving to Kouwai with Dad.

Xiao Sheng was seven going on eight. All these years he had lived with Grandma. Dad’s jobs were always unstable. For a while he built the reservoir, and then forged steel. Mom was also transferred from one job to another. Meanwhile, Grandma stayed in their hometown by herself and complained about being lonely. So when Xiao Sheng reached three, he was sent back to his hometown. There, he ate many radishes, cabbages, millet cakes, and corn cakes, and he grew taller.

Grandma seldom disciplined him. She had other things to do. She always found some scraps of fabric to sew clothes for him: unlined upper garments, pants, cotton-padded jacket, and trousers. All of his clothes were made of stitched strips of cloth, one strip cyan, another blue. They were rather clean, though. Grandma also made shoes for him. All by herself, she stuck bits of cloth together and trimmed them into the shape of a sole; she then cut shapes out of the cloth and sewed the layers together; finally she put the sole and upper together. She was always saying: “Do your toes have teeth and a mouth to rip your shoes open?” “Are your feet made of steel so that your shoes fray so easily?” She made him food as well: millet cakes, corn cakes, radishes, cabbages, scrambled eggs, and small stewed fish. He would play outdoors all day long. Whenever she was done cooking, Grandma would shout from the doorstep: “Sheng’er! Come home to eat!”

Then the canteen opened. Grandma turned in her two woks to the commune and instead brought meals back from the canteen.[3] It was really nice! White steamed buns, large pancakes, fried tofu with braised shrimp sauce, braised eggplants, pig’s head meat! The cooks in the canteen wore white clothes and hats, flitting about in the white steam released from the steamers. They knocked the rims of their woks with spatulas and yelled at each other. People grew fat, and so did the pigs. It was really nice!

Then things went downhill. It was all millet cakes and corn cakes.

Later bran appeared in the millet cakes and remnants of the stone-ground corn kernels in the corn cakes, which would hurt when swallowed. People lost weight, and so did the pigs. In the past, how difficult it was to catch a pig! But that year one hand was enough to hold its hind legs. No matter how large a pig looked, with one push it plopped onto the ground with a plonk. Pancakes stretched with bran and kernels were unsavory, but Xiao Sheng still enjoyed his meal. He was always hungry.

Grandma did not enjoy her meal. She brought the meal back from the canteen, took one half of a pancake and chewed it for a long time. All of the rest went to Xiao Sheng.

Grandma was always in bad health. Every winter, her asthma came on. It was tolerable in the daytime, but the night was tough. Lying in bed, Xiao Sheng heard Grandma coughing. After he woke up, he could still hear her coughing. He knew that Grandma had been coughing the whole night. But Grandma still got up while coughing and, coughing, she went to the canteen to bring him back breakfast—some adulterated millet cakes and corn cakes.

Last winter, Dad came back to visit Grandma. Each year when he came back, it was in the winter. He brought back half a sack of potatoes, a bunch of dried mushrooms and two jars of butter. Dad said, the potatoes had been distributed to him; the mushrooms he picked and air-dried on his own; the butter he got “through the backdoor.” Dad said, the butter was extracted from milk and was very nutritious. He asked Grandma to spread it on cakes. Grandma borrowed a wok to steam or boil the potatoes, or she baked them in the kitchen fire, giving all of them to Xiao Sheng to eat. The dried mushrooms were braised all at once during the Spring Festival. As for the butter, Grandma asked Dad to take it back: “This is precious, you should take it!” Dad insisted on leaving it to Grandma. Grandma accepted it but never ate it. She put the two jars of butter on a chest and wiped their surface with a rag from time to time. What is butter? Extracted from milk? Shining through the glass, its color was bright yellow.

Last year Little Three’s family welcomed the arrival of Little Four, and Xiao Sheng saw Little Three’s mom using pine pollen powder to treat Little Four’s heat rash. The color of butter resembled that of pine pollen powder. It’s shiny and beautiful. Grandma said it was edible. But Xiao Sheng didn’t want it. He hadn’t eaten such things before, so he was not tempted.

Grandma’s health was getting worse. Before, when she got the cakes from the canteen, she was able to walk home without a break. Now she couldn’t; when she got to the “wry-necked” willow, she had to take a rest. Grandma told elderly men and women in the village: “I’m afraid I can only survive this winter, not through next spring.” Xiao Sheng knew that this was inauspicious language. It was the kind of curse you would direct toward livestock: “Hey! Look how spiritless you are! You will only survive this winter, not through next spring!” As expected, it was hard to survive through the next spring. Elderly men and women in the village passed away one by one. There was a lumber producers’ cooperative in town. It stopped producing furniture and repairing plows and rakes, and instead started to make coffins. Many new tombs and white funeral banners appeared on the outskirts of the village. Grandma was dying and her whole body swelled up. Pressed with a finger, her skin would cave in, and it wouldn’t go back to normal for half a day. She asked someone to write a letter to her son to ask him to come home.

Dad rushed back, but Grandma had already passed away.

Dad asked the lumber cooperative to transform the chest in Grandma’s room into a coffin and bury her in it. That evening, he sat on her bed crying the whole night through.

It was Xiao Sheng’s first experience of death. He learned that “die” meant to “no longer have.” He wouldn’t have a Grandma any longer. He laid his head on a pillow, which still had the smell of Grandma’s hair on it, and cried.

Grandma had made him two pairs of shoes. After finishing the work, she said: “Try them on!” —“Wait a minute!” He answered and ran away in a flash.

Xiao Sheng woke up and put the shoes on. One pair fit well and the other was a bit too large. His bare feet touched the bottom cloth and felt the lines Grandma had sewn. He cried out “Grandma!” and burst into tears again.

Dad visited the village elders and then went home to pack up. He put the usable pots and pans into a large mesh basket, along with the two pairs of shoes that Grandma had made for Xiao Sheng. He also put in the two untouched jars of butter. He locked the door and set out on the road with Xiao Sheng.

Xiao Sheng was not familiar with his Dad. He was only used to living with Grandma. At first he wouldn’t talk. He was missing home and Grandma, missing that wry-necked willow and that couple of big white geese at Little Three’s home, missing dragonflies and katydids, missing the grasshoppers that would make a rattling sound and reveal the pink patagium under their hard green wings when they started to fly . . . Later he knew Dad better. After all, he was Dad! They took a car, then a train, later a car again. Dad was nice. Dad constantly brought up topics to get him to speak and told him lots of things about Kouwai. Xiao Sheng thus talked more and more and asked about this and that. He took a great interest in “Kouwai.”

He asked Dad what “Kouwai” was. Dad said “Kouwai” meant outside Zhangjiakou, and that it was also called “Bashang” (On the dam). “Why is it called Bashang?” He thought “ba” was a dam. Dad said that he would know after arriving there.

“Ba” turned out to be a range of mountains. The mountaintops were even, like a dam. They were huge! The car lurched upward, sluggishly, breathlessly, groaning continually. On the mountain top, hey, there was a large piece of flat land. Really flat! Both flat and large! Like the surface of evenly-rolled dough. How could it be so flat! The car went wild as soon as it got onto the ba. It ceased groaning and swooshed forward. The climate changed as soon as they got onto the ba. It was summer down there, while it felt like autumn on the ba. Suddenly, it got cold. Both up and down the ba, the surface of the ground looked as though it had been cut by a knife. Really flat! Far away there were several small hills with round tops. There were no trees at all. Back in his hometown, there were many trees. Elms, willows, scholar trees. What a place! It had no trees. Just a large strectch of flat land, green and full of grass. There was a tract of farmland. It was so large, like a piece of cloth stretched from this hill to the one over there. Just how large was it? Dad told him: there was once a farmer who went to plough it with a cow. He ploughed just once and came back with a calf born by the cow. It was already three years old!

The car arrived at a county town called Guyuan. This was their last stop. An ox cart came to fetch them. The cart looked so funny. Its wheels were like two not-quite round wooden cakes unevenly rumbling forward. He was lying on his back on the cart, underneath a large blue sky. The cart was slow and didn’t even move as quickly as he could walk. Sometimes he got down to pluck a couple of wild flowers, walked for some distance, and then crawled back onto the cart.

The crops here were also different from those inside the “Kou.” There was neither sorghum nor maize. People planted naked oats and flax. The naked oats looked clean, as if they had been washed by water and combed. The flax was holding little blue umbrellas, delicate, more like flowers planted for sightseeing than crops.

Gosh! What a vast tract of Indian aster blossoms! They had Indian aster in their hometown, but it was not so tall. The Indian aster here reached the height of a grown-up’s waist, with blue butterfly-like flowers as large as outstretched hands. They extended beyond the limit of his view. What a vast tract of Indian aster blossoms! His whole life he would never forget it. It was like living in a dream.

The ox cart moved forward until Dad said, “Here we are!” Xiao Sheng sat up and saw a stretch of potato fields. They were in bloom with pink, light purplish, blue, and white flowers. They stretched as far as the eye could see. It looked like snow was falling, with white flower petals flying in the wind like snowflakes. He felt a bit dizzy. Not far away was a line of buildings with earthen walls and glass windows. This was the “Potato Research Station” where Dad worked. Potato—tater– Solanum tuberosum. “‘Solanum tuberosum’ is the scientific name,” said Dad.

Out ran a person from a house. “Mom—!” He recognized her at first sight! Mom ran toward him and scooped him up.

Xiao Sheng was going to live here, together with Mom and Dad.

How good it would be if Grandma could be there, too!

Xiao Sheng’s Dad studied agriculture, but these past few years he was always doing other things. Grandma had asked him, “Why are you always being transferred?” Dad said: “I’m a push-over.” Other people were reluctant to come to the Potato Research Station because of its remote location. Dad was willing. Mom was a painter. Over the last several years, she drew pictures of something like a radish that was too large for two kids to move or a pea pod that could be used as a small boat with a sail hoisted up.[4] She was also willing to come with Dad to paint “potato pictures.”[5]

Mom brought them meals: real corn cakes and two big bowls of porridge. Mom said that the porridge had been cooked with grass seeds that were a little bit like millet but smaller. The porridge was green, rather thick and tasty. There was also a large plate of crucian carp, so big! Dad said that crucian carps elsewhere seldom grew over a pound, but in these waters crucian carps could grow to over a pound. They grew fat from grass seeds. After the grass seeds matured, the wind blew them into the water, and the fish fed on them. Xiao Sheng felt stuffed.

Dad said there were three reasons why Xiao Sheng was brought here. First, Grandma had died, and they no longer had any family in their hometown. Second, it was time for Xiao Sheng to go to school. After the summer holiday, he would be enrolled in a complete elementary school[6] not far from home. Third, he could eat better here. Kouwai had vast land but a sparse population, and life would be easier. One person could be allocated up to a 5-mu[7] private plot of land[8] here. They could freely dig the ground and plant something. Dad said that he and Mom had converted a piece of wasteland and planted some yams and pumpkins. Yams bloomed and pumpkins budded. It wouldn’t be long before they could be eaten.

Life was quiet at the Potato Research Station. There were only a few people here: Mom, Dad and several workers. The workers lived elsewhere. Only Xiao Sheng’s family lived at the station. It was so quiet. All day long you would hear no other sound than that of the wind blowing the ears of naked oats that resembled the rustling sound of light rain. Sometimes you could hear little swallows twittering.

Every day, wearing a straw hat, Dad went to work in the fields with the other workers. They hoed around the potatoes. Sometimes he would do some research and read books. After waking up in the morning, Mom would pick up a bunch of potato flowers with leaves from the fields and put them into a vase. She gazed at them attentively and painted them stroke by stroke. The flowers in the painting looked exactly like the real ones! Xiao Sheng went to the fields together with Mom. When he came back, his shoes and trouser legs were soaked with dew. He didn’t put on the two pairs of new shoes made by Grandma. Mom locked them inside the cupboard with those two jars of butter.

During the daytime, having nothing to do, he would go out and run about at will. It was a vast expanse of land, with open space. No matter how far you ran, so long as you looked back, you could see that line of buildings of the research station, so you wouldn’t lose your way. He went to watch the cattle, horses, and sheep in the grassland.

Sometimes he also went to work in their pumpkin and yam fields. He hoed and got half a bucket of water from the motor-pumped well to irrigate the land. It was not for fun. Xiao Sheng was waiting to eat the pumpkins and yams. His family didn’t cook at home but took meals from the team[9] canteen, which were getting worse and worse. There was no porridge with grass seeds or corn cakes any more. They ate red sorghum cakes and drank beet leaf soup. It was likely to get worse. Xiao Sheng became a bit fearful of going hungry.

He learned to pick mushrooms. At first, Mom took him to pick mushrooms a couple of times. Later, he knew how to do it himself. After a rain, when the sun came out and the air was moist and stuffy, the mushrooms would appear. The mushrooms were strange; they grew into “mushroom circles.” If you lowered your head and squinted your eyes, you could faintly see these white dots among a circle of dark black-green grasses—this was the “mushroom circle.” Perfectly round. The mushrooms grew exactly on the line of this circle of dark colored grasses, neither inside nor outside the circle. Mushroom circles appeared regularly in certain locations, and they grew there year after year. The local people all knew where the mushroom circles were.

One mushroom circle went crazy. For three days and nights, it continuously sent forth mushrooms. There seemed to be ghosts at work, terrifying to look at. Seven or eight families in the neighborhood came to pick the mushrooms, threading them on a string and hanging them under their eaves. Every family hung three to four strings, which were quite long. Local people said that the circle wouldn’t produce mushrooms next year, that it would die. Xiao Sheng also picked many mushrooms, and he was so excited, his heart beating fast. “My goodness! My goodness! So many! So many!” He was rich.

Why was he so excited? The mushrooms were edible!

He shed tears when threading the mushrooms on the strings. He thought of Grandma and how he wanted to send her two strings of mushrooms. Now he understood that Grandma had died of starvation. People do not die of starvation all of a sudden, they gradually starve to death.

The red sorghum cakes from the canteen became less and less tasty because they were mixed with bran. Same with the beet leaf soup, because no oil was added. He hated these kinds of bran-stretched red sorghum cakes and beet leaf soup without oil!

He would still run and play everywhere at will.

Suddenly things were buzzing outside the team canteen. First, an oxcart carrying sheep bricks arrived. He asked Dad what they were. Dad said: “Sheep bricks.” “What are sheep bricks?” “Sheep manure compressed and cut into bricks.” “What are they for?” “For burning.” “Can they be burnt?” “They are easily flammable! The fire blazes wildly.” Later a huge stove was built. Then they killed over ten sheep. Xiao Sheng was standing to the side watching as the sheep were killed. He had never seen sheep killed before. A whole sheep skin was stripped off without a drop of blood being spilled!

What were these for?

Dad said, there is going to be a level-three cadre meeting.[10]

“What is a level-three cadre meeting?”

“You will know after you grow up.”

The level-three cadre meeting meant level-three cadres having meals.

There were two team canteens, the southern canteen and the northern canteen, with a courtyard separating them. A shed in the courtyard allowed people to move back and forth between the two canteens on rainy days. Commune members usually ate at both canteens, but because of the level-three cadre meeting, they were crammed into the northern canteen. The southern canteen was reserved for the cadre meeting.

The meeting lasted three days and the cadres had meals there for three days. At noon on the first day, they had minced mutton and dried mushrooms oat noodles. On the second day, rice with stewed meat. On the third day, butter pancakes. Their dinners were just so-so, though.

Commune members and cadres started their meals at the same time. Commune members were in the northern canteen while cadres ate in the southern one. There were still only red sorghum cakes and beet leaf soup in the northern canteen. People there smelt the aroma from the southern canteen and said, “The minced mutton and dried mushrooms oat noodles, they smell so good!” “The rice with stewed meat, it smells so good!” “The butter pancakes smell so good!”

Xiao Sheng went to get meals from the canteen every day and also smelled the aroma from the southern canteen. He had no interest in the mutton or rice: he had seen and eaten those. But he had never ever known the smell of butter pancakes. They smelled good, and having taken in their aroma, he wanted a taste.

At home, red sorghum in his mouth, he asked Dad: “Why do they get to eat butter pancakes?”

“They have a meeting.”

“Why do people having the meeting eat butter pancakes?”

“They are cadres.”

“Why do cadres eat butter pancakes?”

“Oh my! You asked too many questions! Just eat your red sorghum cakes!”

In the middle of swallowing her red sorghum cakes, Mom suddenly stood up. She poured a small amount of white flour out of the jar and took one jar of the butter Grandma had never used from the cupboard. She opened the jar, scooped out a large serving, grabbed a handful of white sugar, added a little baking powder, and rolled out two pieces of leavened butter pancakes. She grabbed a bunch of naked oats stalks and stuffed them into the flaming stove to bake the pancakes. The butter pancakes produced an aroma just like that from the southern canteen. Mom put the butter pancakes in front of Xiao Sheng and said:

“Eat, my son! Don’t ask any more questions.”

Xiao Sheng took two bites. They were so delicious. He suddenly burst out crying and shouted: “Grandma!”

Mom’s eyes were full of tears.

Dad said: “Don’t cry. Eat it!”

Xiao Sheng ate the butter pancakes with tears streaming down his face. The tears ran into his mouth. The butter pancakes were sweet, but his tears tasted salty.


[1] “Huangyou laobing” 黄油烙饼 was first published in A Selected Collection of Wang Zengqi’s Short Stories (汪曾祺短篇小说选) (Beijing: Beijing, 1982), 170-179. The translators used the version in Wang Gan 王干, ed., A Selected Collection of Wang Zengqi’s Works (汪曾祺精选集) (Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian, 2017), 119-26. The original story can be found online here.

[2] The translators are both graduate students in East Asian Languages and Literature, The Ohio State University.

[3] In 1958, the Chinese government initiated the Great Leap Forward, which was aimed to revolutionize the countryside. Agricultural collectivism was seen as a way to promote new socialist consciousness. The commune canteen was a free dining system established to replace family kitchens. Family food supplies and cooking equipment were confiscated. But the Great Leap Forward resulted in severe famine, and commune canteens were eliminated in 1962.

[4] These were typical propaganda posters during the Great Leap Forward period. The local People’s Communes made these posters, which exaggerated their agricultural production by painting the agricultural products in an unrealistic way. It was a propaganda tool to show the superiority of communism.

[5] These were Illustrations of potatoes in some popular books about the potato.

[6] An elementary school that has six grades, different from some schools that only have three grades, which are called “incomplete elementary schools.”

[7] One mu equals 0.0667 hectares.

[8] Small plots of land allocated to commune members for private use.

[9] The basic accounting and farm production unit in the people’s commune system at that time.

[10] In China, there are two kinds of level-three cadre meetings. One is at the prefecture city level, which comprises city-level, county-level, and town-level meetings; the other is at county-level, which contains the county-level, town-level, and village-level meetings. The meeting in this story might be at the town or village level.