Love in an Age of Revolution

By Wang Xiabo
Tr. by Wang Dun and Michael Rodriguez
Chapter I / Chapter II / Chapter III

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2009)

Wang Xiaobo

Wang Xiaobo

This is a book about sexual love. Sexual love has a force of its own; however, acting spontaneously is often not permitted, which can complicate things. For example, the Summer Palace is north of my home. If there were no such direction as “north,” I would have to go south, crossing both the South and North poles, covering over forty thousand kilometers to arrive there. What I’m trying to say is this: people can indeed explain everything in a far-fetched manner, including sexual love.

Sexual love can therefore arise from most untrustworthy rationales.

The author, July 16, 1993

About this book:

In the summer of 1993, Wang Er is 42 years old, doing research work in a research institute. In the literary work of this author, Wang Er has many brothers with the same name. The author himself, when he was young, was also very often called “Wang Er;” so he is also a brother of the author with the same name. Unlike the others named Wang Er, this character Wang Er was never sent to a production team in the countryside. He is a short, sturdy, and hairy man.

Chapter I


Cover of the magazine, Golden Age

Cover of Golden Age, in which this novellas was published

When Wang Er was young, he was a worker in a tofu factory in Beijing. The factory was a big compound, which people say used to be a hometown association of some province. That is to say, when the city of Beijing was still walled and constructed of gray bricks, a group of officials and merchants of that province collected some money and built this courtyard compound for candidates from their province who came to the capital to take the imperial examinations. This was all a long time ago. The compound was a gray yard built with fine bricks and fine tiles, very old now. Originally there might have been a very high arched gate, in front of which was a dismounting stone or a hitching post or something like that. Later they were all gone. Only a cement gate with iron palings was standing there. In front of the gate was a short road for the comings and goings of trucks that transported tofu. Along the road was a stretch of iron-clad shelters for parking bicycles. When the workers came to work, they parked their bikes in the shelters. At the end of the row of shelters was a small red brick hut. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter, the air inside smelled awful. Night or day, a light like an altar lamp burned inside. That hut was a toilet. For a period of time someone drew nude pictures on the wall inside. People say they were done by Wang Er.

At the time Wang Er was a worker in the tofu factory, the winter smog of Beijing was red-purple, because this city had millions of small coal stoves emitting smog that contained sulfur dioxide. When the sunlight painstakingly penetrated the smog, some unusual colors were left in the sky. This color was very similar to the smog that Wang Er had seen when he was a child. For colors, Wang Er had an exceptionally good memory, though believe it or not, he is actually color-blind. If he had known this earlier, he wouldn’t have studied painting, which would have saved him a lot of trouble.

When Wang Er was a worker in the tofu factory, no one knew that he was color-blind, that he couldn’t become a painter. On the contrary, they only knew that the fingers of his right hand were always black, different from those of other people. This could only be explained by his always making sketches with a charcoal pencil, which no one else did. Furthermore, the nude drawings on the wall were all done with charcoal. Besides, although the naked woman on the white wall was a line drawing–just a few lines–those few lines appeared extremely skillful. Obviously, only someone who draws very often can draw like this. All these things are adequate proof that it was he who drew those pictures. After that woman was drawn, she always got along peacefully with whoever used the toilet. It was only later when someone used a pencil to add a prickly-haired organ and a name that things got serious. According to Wang Er, the one who originally drew the nude and the one who later added something are obviously not the same guy, but no one would listen to him. The walls of the toilet were repainted. But after just a few days, someone again drew such a woman in the toilet, and very soon someone again added the same things. This was indeed challenging the order. You should know, the name that guy added beside the woman’s image was “Old Lu.” Old Lu is the name of the factory leader (chairperson of the revolutionary committee). At that time, she was 45 or 46 years old and very plump. Her cheeks were as red as if she wore rouge, which she didn’t. Whenever she spoke, she sounded as if she were quarreling. Sometimes her hair stood up like a peacock’s tail. She was the boss, which means she was sent from above. People could make and sell tofu with her or without her, but no one wanted her to catch them committing an offense. At that time there was no proof that Wang Er had drawn the picture, but she had already pounced on him many times, wanting to tear his face apart. Luckily, there was always somebody nearby to hold her back. And after being held back, she would spit at Wang Er. Now if one wants to spit with accuracy, one needs a certain amount of practice and lung capacity. Old Lu did not meet these conditions, so she rarely hit Wang Er, though she did hit other people by mistake.

The picture of that woman in the toilet–half kneeling, half sitting, with her hands behind her head–was drawn right above the urinal. She resembled a bit the Little Mermaid statue that commemorates Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, but in the picture her hands are behind her head, as if she were doing her hair. That prickly-haired organ was drawn right on her belly, totally misplaced, which indicates that the person who added this daub lacked even the most basic knowledge of human anatomy. If that part of Old Lu’s body was really located so high up, it would have caused numerous difficulties in her life. Those who entered the hut to pee did so underneath her picture. After finishing their business, they would raise their heads and look at her, and shiver a little. Then they would zip up or button up their clothes and leave. I guess it must have been during a bout of shivering that the anonymous artist drew the woman–no more than five seconds in total. However, that five seconds nearly caused Wang Er a lifetime of misfortune.

When Wang Er was a worker in the tofu factory. It was 1973. At that time, the city of Beijing appeared very dull, because the city people’s clothes were old and shabby. At that time there was no such thing as “fashion.” There was no such thing as “romance.” Also, people didn’t have possessions. There was no pop music, and no movies to watch. Profoundly bored, everyone wanted to meddle in other people’s lives.


When I was a child I wanted to become a painter, but I didn’t fulfill that dream because I’m color-blind. I regularly suspected that I had various ailments, but my suspicions were invariably wrong. For example, I suspected that I had a mental disorder, sleep-walked, and so forth, but I was never right. So the correct method of questioning oneself should be this: when you want to become a painter, you should suspect that you are color-blind; when you want to become a musician, you should suspect that you are deaf; when you want to become a thinker, you should suspect that you are a moron. Lacking such disabilities, you will not wish to become those sorts of people. Of course, the reasons for my wishing to become a painter include things other than color-blindness. As for those things, I will recount them bit by bit.

One summer several years ago, we toured Europe. I was a student at the time and took advantage of summer vacation to make a tour. With me was my old lady, who was also a student. I have also been a worker, a teacher, and so forth, but I was a student the longest. We toured all sorts of places, and finally came to Belgium. In Brussels there is a modern art gallery. We didn’t understand modern art at all, but we visited the museum to show that we had culture. The gallery was built underground, like a big well. There was a spiral stairway descending from the entrance into the well. I followed the stairway down. On the left was a transparent glass wall. On the right was a snow-white wall. On the walls hung modern paintings. I came to the works of Dali. I saw in his paintings towers in the air, and humans and horses stretching long, thin legs toward the clouds. At that moment my right hand suddenly cramped, and my index finger twisted to the left and to the right. I didn’t know what was wrong with it. Later I realized that it was struggling to write the old-style character for “for.” I had had that problem before, and when I dreamed, I frequently dreamed of a red brick wall on which could be seen that character, which resembles a huge bull’s head. I sat in that gallery for half a day. I remembered something from my childhood. When I was a boy I lived in a university campus. One morning I went out from home and saw big character slogans written in white chalk all over the brick walls: “All for 1070.” I still remember clearly the way that the characters were written, even the surrounding powdery chalk spots. But at that time I couldn’t read a single character. I remember that the character “for” looked like a bull’s head, and the character “one” looked like a bull’s tail. If I think carefully of the origins of those bull heads and tails, I remember the colorful little picture books at home. I followed the brick walls and came to the eastern playing field on campus. There were lots of giants coming and going. On their heads were helmets, in their hands long lances. I still remember that the sky was purple. A noise kept descending from the heaven, as if to tear apart my eardrums. So I stopped moving, covering my ears to hold that noise out. I also remember that quite a few times people said to me, “Kid, go home, it’s dangerous here.” Generally speaking, I was very timid; when I heard “danger,” I would hide. But there were exceptions, and they were in my dreams. There was not a single dream in which I didn’t kill several people. At that moment on the field I was convinced that it was a dream scene, so I marched on into that wonderland laughing heartily. To tell the truth, later on I saw lots of commonalities between what I saw in that moment and the art of Dali. In fact, Dali didn’t come to China in 1958, so he didn’t see the Steel Production Campaign. Still, though he didn’t see the Steel Production Campaign, he must have seen something else. From this I came up with an idea about surrealism: there are some people who have time tunnels twisting back into their childhoods. Of course, such a thought cannot be spoken, for once spoken, it becomes flat and uninteresting.

In 1958, when I walked to that playing field, I encountered some bizarre structures, on top of which were many grotesque yellow chimneys oozing out purple smog. The smog rose into the sky and mixed as one color with the purple sky. This gave me the surreal idea that the sky was emitted from the chimneys. But I wasn’t Dali; I couldn’t paint the chimney-emitted sky on a canvas. Besides, there was a mysterious buzzing, as if I were surrounded by numerous flying dung beetles. Later, when I came to the arena again, the weird scenes had disappeared; only the flat square remained. This phenomenon made me feel ecstatic. I felt it was a dreamland that I alone possessed because no one else but me had heard the earsplitting sound from heaven. Following that sound, I swarmed together with a group of others toward a monstrous house. Someone pushed a spear into a hole in the front wall and brought out some strange, glowing thing. It looked somewhat like a candied fritter but also somewhat like cow dung. Even from a distance, you could feel your face get burning hot. Wild with joy, we encircled it–very much like a kind of primitive sacrificial rite. I now know that that stuff was some steel produced in the Steel Production Campaign. It was composed of fragments of a cast iron wok. My big brother was in primary school then. He and boys his own age would often charge into the houses of neighborhood peasants. After shouting “Mighty Steel Production,” they would take the peasant’s woks, throwing down a measly dime in return. The woks would be smashed into pieces on the parade ground, scattered on the ground like broken glass. After smelting, the pieces would stick to each other. But at that time I thought it was in a dream, so I became ecstatic. Although there were many people around me, I felt that only I was privileged enough to become ecstatic because, since it was a dream, the other people were unreal and only I was real. This euphoria is exactly like what Dali drew on the canvas. Afterward, when I realized that other people had also experienced the Steel Production Campaign, I felt extremely disappointed.

Later in that art gallery in Brussels, I saw in one of Dali’s painting a little stark-naked figure. He was hopping hilariously in the left lower corner–probably Dali himself. Although I have not been to Spain, I know it has lots of strange grotesque towers and carnivals of mass delirium. During the carnivals people dress up outlandishly, so maybe Dali saw some strange scenes when he was three years old and thought that he had had a weird dream, feeling a bout of silly euphoria. The concept of the carnival is not difficult to understand–a four- or five-year-old can understand it. As for the meaning of “Mighty Steel Production,” even a teenager cannot understand that. I was born in 1952. In ’58 I was six, living in a university. I couldn’t understand that the yelling, loud thing was a PA system and the mysterious buzzing thing a blast furnace, nor that “1070” meant that 10,700,000 tons of steel should be produced that year. The “giants” were college students, the long lances in their hands were shafts for making steel. As for those noisy “country-style” and “Western-style” “furnaces,” I couldn’t understand them in the least. Besides, the events of those days went on endlessly. Later, it disappeared from my memory without a trace, so it is even more like a dream. It was only when I was twenty years old and one day noticed a small scar on my forearm that I recovered it from memory completely. After watching the steel come out of the furnace, I turned back home and tripped on the edge of a pile of new steel. A fragment of a wok in a steel ingot cut my arm deeply–almost severing my forearm. It was so gory my memory couldn’t retain it. In the jargon of Freud, this is “repression.” It was repressed for more than ten years before I recalled it. Not only did I bleed a lot, but my father dragged me by my ears to the hospital. I don’t blame him. There were many kids in my family, and if every kid cut his arm, our family would have no money to eat. Later I kept on thinking about this accident: the “thing” had been “refined” in the furnace for quite a few hours, but there still remained fragments of a wok that could cut my arm. From a metallurgic perspective, the furnaces were clearly not hot enough. On this question, I consulted a professor of metallurgy: is it really possible to produce steel by using the ’58 type amateurish furnaces? At first he told me that it is possible, but not if you blast with cold air, only if you use pure oxygen and burn high quality coke instead of coal dust. In this way, the temperature for smelting steel can be reached. Later he told me that this process is impossible–if that temperature had indeed been reached, the amateurish furnaces would have burned up. The furnaces were made from some earthen material, though with bricks, not fireclay. The bizarre chimneys on the roof were made from crude pottery pipe. When people were not doing steel production, this material was used to build sewers; once the steel production began, it was elevated into the sky. As for a sense of shame, all people have that. Right after the Steel Production Campaign, people tore down all the furnaces and leveled the ground, as if nothing had ever happened. But some traces of them could still be found. Among the weeds in some remote corners of the yard, brick piles can be found. On these bricks there are congealed bubbles and black tumors, like those reefs along the seaside that grow barnacles and oyster shells, indicating that even the cool-temperature furnaces can destroy bricks. These bizarre bricks left an extremely deep impression. I also found this kind of thing in that gallery in Brussels. Actually, we all have these kind of memories, it’s just that no one mentions them and no one draws them, so we let them fade from our memories. That I remember these things shows that I have the capacity to be an artist. Besides, for someone like me who had such an absurd childhood, there’s no career more suitable than being an artist. But I didn’t succeed in becoming an artist because I am color blind. I was twenty-six before anyone found this out. Even I had not been aware of it, which indicates that I am not in fact color blind at all. At most, I am just a little color-weak. But the doctor found it out. So I didn’t go into art, turning instead to the study of mathematics.


In the tofu plant there was a tall tower. Wang Er was grinding bean curd in a room on top of that tower. Later, although he left the plant, he still dreamed of that tower. If Freud were to have his say, the implication would be too obvious. Moreover, the snow white soybean milk always flowed down from the tower top and circulated into each workshop. Soy milk for the tofu plant was like running water for a city. In fact there is no need to invoke Freud; everybody knew what the tower looked like. Somebody said that tower in our factory resembles a denjiu, which means that the tower should put on underpants. The ladder that went to the top of the tower was that kind of scaffolding that is used by people climbing chimneys, and the workers who work on the tower were all young men. The piping that transported the soy milk was all hung from the ceiling or put on the roof. By following the piping, these young men could go everywhere in the factory, just like the flowing soymilk. They seldom were on the ground. Which brings to mind a novel written by the deceased Italian writer Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees–I never feel bored when reading this writer’s works. When Old Lu saw this kind of scene (young men, especially Wang Er, on top of the pipes), she shouted at the top of her lungs for Wang Er to get down to the ground. But Wang Er paid her no attention, because on such cold days the pipes were either frozen or blocked, and he was on his way to do his job of opening up the pipes. When she saw Wang Er walking on the pipe that was above the main courtyard, she always had some slight hope that Wang Er would fall and she would catch him, but he had been walking on the pipes for years and had never fallen. Even when he accidentally lost his balance, he regained control by gliding a few extra steps like a bowler, which is far from falling down accidentally. If she could do as she wished, she would definitely pick up some coal pieces to throw at him. However, in the deep winter cold, how high can a fat lady like her cast a piece of rock when she is wearing a Chinese style cotton overcoat? The most effective deterrent she could manage was to poke at his legs with a long feather duster. In such situations, Wang Er could only withdraw to the roof. But in the workshop that was in the opposite direction, there would very quickly be people hitting the pipes as if their lives depended on it and yelling, “Why hasn’t the soymilk arrived yet?” In such situations, Old Lu could only withdraw her long duster and let him go. Even though she was the director of the plant’s revolutionary committee, she could not interfere too much lest the plant fail to produce any tofu. Whether tofu could be produced depended largely on whether Wang Er could get around to unblock the choked pipes. Wang Er had told everybody in the plant, except for Old Lu, that he had never drawn those pictures. In the beginning Wang Er could also have said this to Old Lu, but he didn’t have the guts to stand in front of her. He thought, “Anyway, she can’t catch me. So let her yell.”

Regarding this matter, there is something that needs further explanation. This guy Wang Er is short. He had already grown a thick beard by the time he was just twenty. He has wrinkles all over his face, but none of them is horizontal; all are vertical. His hair is naturally curly. His face is dark and full of pimples. It looks ferocious, and he couldn’t make a smile even if he wanted to. His eyebrows are like black matted felt. In the winter, he did his job of crawling into the pipes wearing the black leather clothes that only those people who ride motorcycles to deliver telegrams wear. He was as adept at climbing on the pipes as if he were walking on flat ground. Other people feel more or less unnatural when crawling on all fours, but he felt very comfortable and natural. He even felt natural when his feet were stretched out in front of his nose. He made his rounds on the pipes as if flying, and there wasn’t a single spot of dirt on his knees. This gave people the impression that he was some sort of cat. His strange appearance made people think that he was a lowlife. This opinion he even let himself accept, somewhat.

People say that Old Lu used to work in a higher level office. Because she agitated everybody and left them all without a moment’s peace, she was assigned to the factory as its director. During the time that she wanted to catch Wang Er, she waited early every morning at the factory gate. But if the morning was too chilly, she sat inside the janitor’s room. Wang Er rode a bicycle to work. He always saved his strength until he got to the plant’s gate, when he would fly by, ringing his bell and yelling “Clear the way! Clear the way!” When she rushed out from the janitor’s office and ordered Wang Er to stop or ordered other people to intercept him, he had already disappeared without a trace into the plant’s hallways. When she chased him to the soymilk tower, Wang Er had already climbed up the scaffold. This tower had just a hard-to-climb scaffold, but there was also spiral lifter for the soy beans. If she took the lifter up, her body would be squeezed into the zigzagged, elongated shape of a Christmas candle. So Wang Er was very safe above. As for her shouting underneath, Wang Er could pretend not to hear it. The only worry was that she might possibly catch him on the ground. But just as with a wild boar catching a hunting dog, it could never happen in open ground. The space of the factory was not open; it was laid out like a labyrinth. In the old days, there was a certain way of building houses. If everything was built with straight gates and straight paths people would say it is not right. Even in the smallest compound should have a screen wall outside its front door to increase it sinuous quality. Therefore when Wang Er went to work in the morning, if he had not yet met Old Lu and not yet gotten rid of her, he needed to pause and think about wherever there might be a dangerous turn in the terrain ahead. Supposing Old Lu was hiding behind that wall, what would his escape strategy be? He proceeded only after thinking through all such possibilities. Because such preparations were in his mind, when the seat of the bicycle was suddenly pulled back and Old Lu’s voice was heard joyfully saying, “Finally I have caught you!” he was never flustered. At such moments he usually wasn’t seated, but rode standing on the bicycle: one of his feet was on the seat, the other was on the handlebar, as if he were playing at being an acrobat. At the moment she reached out for the seat, Wang Er jumped up and, catching a horizontal pipe in the air, somersaulted up to stand on top of it, saying to someone walking below: “Mr. Xu, please take care of my bicycle.” Meanwhile Old Lu indignantly said to that certain Mr. Xu, “If I can catch Wang Er one day, I’ll be damned if I won’t take a bite out of him.” At the same time, her hair stood up from her neck to forehead, like the unfolding of the hood of a rickshaw. Everybody thinks that Old Lu is a troublemaker because her disposition is eccentric. But nobody thinks she is a bad egg. That’s because she is like a granny in her forties. That kind of person can’t be a bad egg.


In ’58, I ran out of my home alone and tumbled against a pile of “steel,” cutting my arm. When I stood up again, I saw clearly that a big crevice had opened in my forearm, and from inside some whitish and smoothly glittering thing was exposed. After quite a while it was submerged in blood. As a six year-old child, of course I couldn’t understand what it was. So later on I always thought my body inside was full of something that is smoothly whitish and sticky and resembles wet cotton. Afterwards, when I was a teenager, I wasn’t surprised by nocturnal emissions; I just thought it was that stuff flowing out. It was only later, when I began to study painting, that I read some anatomy books and realized that what I had seen was the membrane around a tendon, which only grows in a few places, not all over the body. But when my father dragged me to the university hospital and the doctor used a thick needle and coarse thread to stitch me up, I was still thinking about the fact that I was made up of wet cotton. I was so stupefied that I forgot to cry. Seeing this, the doctor was concerned and asked my father: “Old Wang, there’s nothing wrong with this kid’s mind, is there?” My father said: “No, he’s like this all the time.” Saying this, he hit me on the head, which made me cry out “Wa!” Then I saw my father excitedly rubbing his hands, saying: “See? He can cry–everything is fine.” And when I saw a crochet needle going in and out of my flesh, my wailing got louder and louder. He thought I was too loud, so he gave me another blow on my head, and the sound of my crying got lower and lower. Once again I began to think about the question of my being “wet cotton.” My father had made six children in a very short time, one right after the other–an example of “when you wash a lot of turnips too fast the mud is still there.” So, he was satisfied that one blow on my head could make me cry. This story illustrates my nature–on the outside I am stupid and seemingly simple, but inside I am sentimental and pessimistic. Despite my pessimism, I could not have expected that I was also color-blind.

The campus where I lived when I was young was very different from the Modern Art Museum in Brussels, which I visited later. The former was a huge, blocky rectangular compound, and the inside concrete buildings were also blockily rectangular, and the roads on campus made a rigid grid, lacking in poetic beauty. That Modern Art Museum in Belgium, however, was like a big well going deep underground. The gallery was like a spiral staircase encircling the brim of the well and stretching downward. At the bottom of the well were a fountain and a lovely lawn. Although these two spaces are so dissimilar, they were intertwined inseparably in my mind because of Dali and the Steel Production Campaign.

In ’58, I also saw some other spectacles. For instance, the agricultural test plots on the floodlit sports field. The lights stayed on overnight, which was said to be good for the crops. However, the lights attracted mosquitoes and moths from all around, forming a dozen swirling light beams–quite magnificent. There were also scary grand pronouncements broadcast from the loudspeakers, but these were not significant. The significant matters were the great steel production campaign and the cut on my arm. Everything in my life began from that big cut on my wrist. Later I began to study art, intending to become a painter, because nothing else could adequately express the sense of absurdity in my mind. I don’t know if Dali became a painter for the same reason. As for my being colorblind, I still hadn’t discovered that I was. What’s more, I assumed that my perception of color was superior to all other people’s. Take a carrot for example–people told me that it looked like an orange-red stick, but what I saw was different. For me it was semi-transparent, with an outer layer of a hazy violet glaze, under which was a second layer of pale yellow. And underneath that, right to the core, it was all a cold blue. According to my eyes this vision was right–of course a carrot looks cold. So I drew a carrot like this; and it invited a wide variety of interpretations. Some people said it was impressionist, some said it was the blue period of Picasso, and still others said it was decadent bourgeois art, but none of them recognized it as a carrot. In ’77 when I went for the entrance exam at the fine arts institute, the teachers made similar remarks. If I had just pretended to be thoughtful and waited on the sidelines with my mouth shut, I would probably have passed the exam. It was unfortunate that I said to them, “To my eyes a carrot is just like this.” And then one of the geniuses among them, I don’t know which one, came up with an idea–I should go to the hospital for an eye exam. When I returned from the exam, the teachers burst into laughter and drove me away. In fact, I had simply failed to recognize a few color-differentiation test cards. But I could paint a set of visual cards that nobody can recognize.

My perception of color was like this: the violet layer I saw on the outside of a carrot was ultraviolet; the inner blue was infra-red. Only that layer of pale yellow was visible. Borrowing the terminology of radio waves, one could say that the frequency range of my eyesight is very broad. And precisely because I can see everything, everything I see is just so-so. In terms of radio waves, the transmission gain of my eyes in the frequency range of visible light is inadequate–if you regard the eyes as a pair of antenna. Indeed, people like me are not fit to become painters. An ultra-violet or ultra-red painter is like an ultra-sound musician; they have no future. But my eyesight is not without its advantages. Since I can see ultra-violet, some clothing fabrics are for me almost transparent–wearing such fabrics is the same as wearing nothing to me. So in the summer I can get an eyeful of pleasure. And I don’t need to open my eyes wide; by squinting I can see even more clearly. This point needn’t be known by my wife, otherwise she will make me wear sun glasses or she will seal up my eyes with “dogskin” plaster and issue me a white cane to aid my walking, like a blind man. My artistic career was already over, not because I was color blind but because I didn’t want to paint any more. People didn’t give me a chance to paint what I really saw. If they had, they could have seen ultra-violet and ultra-red through my eyes.


Old Lu always wanted to catch Wang Er, but she never succeeded. Her greatest achievement was to catch one of his shoes. It was dangerous for Wang Er because she had hidden in a corner under the tower to wait for him. When Wang Er first saw her, she was already very close. Wang Er was compelled to jump up from his bicycle seat to grab a tread of the tower’s ladder, letting his brand-new bicycle crash to the ground. She almost caught Wang Er by his ankle, and she did manage to pull off one of his shoes. She hung the rubber army shoe on the flagpole in front of her office to celebrate her victory. She also announced that nobody could claim it except Wang Er himself. But at quitting time, he rode by on his bike, one hand on the handlebar and the other holding a long bamboo pole; with one thrust of the pole, he snagged the shoe and carried it away. It was a real fluke that Wang Er escaped intact that time, not even losing a shoe. But Wang Er feared that one day sooner or later his mouth would hit the iron ladder and be split open. He had other worries. For instance, he feared that while racing his bicycle he might hit a pregnant woman, and so on. (At that time there were quite a few of them who came to work with their protruding bellies.) So Wang Er opted to ride his bike to the neighboring winery and climb over the wall into the tofu plant. Between the winery and the tofu plant there was an alley, over which crossed was a steam pipe. Wang Er walked across the alley on the steam pipe. But there were always old fellows who strolled by with their birds in cages. They said to Wang Er. “You’re so grown up–aren’t you ashamed to be doing that?” Wang Er had to pretend not to hear them.

Finally, Wang Er was pestered beyond endurance by Old Lu’s chasing. He decided not to run any more but to push his bike slowly through the entrance. He thought to himself, “If she dares to bite me, I will beat her up.” But after Wang Er had made up his mind, Old Lu didn’t chase him any more. If they found themselves face to face at the entrance, she would not pounce on Wang Er but would instead turn her head to talk to someone else. Such a thing was really strange. Before, when Wang Er was trying his best to escape, there were a lot of “fortunatelys”: fortunately, his job was above the ground; fortunately, he was good at climbing trees and roofs; fortunately, he had been a gymnast in high school on the parallel bars, etc…, Without these fortunatelys, he would have already been caught by Old Lu. Then Wang Er realized that it was not fortunate at all: if he were not able to climb trees and roofs or use the parallel bars or escape in the air, he would have been prepared on the ground with clenched fists ready, if she dared to pull his collar, to punch her in her face until it was red. If this had been the case, his problem would have been solved–there would be no need of real fighting. All these fortunate and unfortunate suppositions–plus very complicated causalities–simply confused him.

This story of being chased happened to me. It was in 1974. The winter air was foul. Except for pornography in the toilets and a variety of political campaigns there was nothing worth recounting. And political campaigns are like the weather–how much can you say about them. At the time, the ancient city walls of Beijing had already been torn down. The old city appeared listless, lacking young people. Life as such was very boring. I was 22 years old then, with hair all over my face. Perhaps it was because of this that Old Lu was determined to catch me. During that period of time I always hid on roofs except for the several times each month that I needed to go down to the ground, say, to sign for the payroll or to go to the worker’s union to pick up movie tickets, and so on. As long as I ran into the accountant’s office and latched the door behind me, I would be safe; the danger always emerged on the road in between, because there I might run into Old Lu. Each payday there would be a crowd of people crammed at the door of the accountant’s office to see the spectacle. On those days Old Lu’s face would be several times redder than usual and her hair would seem to explode as if it had been popped in a popcorn machine. In attack mode, a baboon’s face turns red and a cobra inflates its hood. But none of this was important, and shouldn’t be acted on; the important thing was to spy out her line of attack. If her eyes were riveted on my chest, it meant that she planned to pull my collar. If her eyes looked downward, it meant that she would hold my legs. Whatever the target of her attack, what you needed to do was to confront her directly when she rushed in. In the split second of confrontation, if she raised her hands to grab my collar I shrank myself to crawl beneath her ribs. If she lowered herself to reach my legs, I would press on her shoulders to somersault over her head like jumping over a vaulting horse. Old Lu’s pursuit of Wang Er was a spectacle in our plant; it recurred several times each month. But that is something from a long time ago.

There are still more things to say about the tofu plant where I worked. It was in a small alley in the southern part of Beijing. Although the alley had been widened and paved with tar, there were still many shanties along the road. Their doors faced the alley. Although some windows had glass panes, the shabbier window frames were patched with paper. The groundsills of those houses were below the street, giving the houses the impression of being very low, and the withered grass growing on the roofs seemed to be right before your eyes. There were two very ugly cement pillars erected at the gate of our plant, inside of which there was a ferocious Old Lu lurking to catch me. All these things made me feel that I was trapped in a mistaken reincarnation. Though compared to some other people’s ordeals, mine was not the worst, I could still say that I was lacking in psychological preparation for what would happened later. When I was a child, I couldn’t have imagined such a courtyard piled with small fragments of coal and tofu being made inside. Nor could I have imagined that there would be an Old Lu who wanted to bite me.


Now I am forty years old. I am neither a painter nor a mathematician nor a tofu maker but an engineer. This is far beyond everyone’s expectations (including my family and people who knew me in the past), but not unexpected by me at all. Rewinding time back to my childhood, there was a large stretch of chicken pens in front of our door. By that time the scar on my arm had healed. Looking down from my second floor balcony all that could be seen was a large stretch of chicken pens like honeycombs, separated by all kinds of materials including plywood, galvanized iron sheets, and twigs, which were supposed to block the chickens from getting out. But whatever the time might be, you could see many chickens striding proudly outside their pens, and everywhere you could smell the smell of chicken shit, just like the smell of Camel brand unfiltered cigarettes. Besides the chickens in pens in the empty spaces in front of the apartment building, there were chickens being raised on the balconies above. There was a rooster who oftentimes took off from downstairs and flew up to the fourth floor balcony above my head. I could judge from the manner of his strutting when he would take off, so I seldom missed a flight. Usually he squatted on the ground for a little while and then jumped directly into the air and flapped his wings desperately; then he lifted himself up. According to my observations, he could overcome gravity only temporarily and was incapable of flying freely. Oftentimes he missed the balcony and fell to the ground, his wings still flapping. I was fascinated by the rooster’s flight to the balcony, but I was not aware of its implications. After almost thirty years had passed, I went to St. Louis in America and took a photo of a vertical takeoff and landing of a Hawker Siddeley Harrier fighter aircraft under that famous stainless steel arch. Not until that moment–with slight regret–did I remember that aforementioned scene. The shape of the plane was very similar to that of the rooster, and even more similar when flying. The regret came from my feeling that it ought to have been me who had invented this plane. All of this illustrates that besides climbing, there is another theme in my life: inventing. This is also my natural inclination, although up to now I have not invented anything very terrific.

When I was a child, I suffered from hunger. During that time the area in front of our house was full of chicken pens. But if you think that Chinese universities are just places full of chicken pens, you’re wrong. That period was not long, and it was not only chickens that were raised but also more than a few rabbits, because rabbits can also be killed and eaten. It was not only a period of starvation but also a period of lacking everything. But the things we lacked didn’t include money, but if you had only money you couldn’t buy anything without ration coupons, except for popsicles, which consisted of only water and sticks. Money as a thing–if it cannot buy other things–is useless. It is even too rough to be used as toilet paper; besides, that would be violating the law. Ration coupons were required even to buy vegetables. This was going too far even for my father, the most enthusiastic supporter of socialism. One day my family heard someone yelling outside the building, “Spinach without vegetable ration coupons!” My grandma sent me to buy some. I brought back a bundle of spinach taller than I, if stood upright. It could only be used to feed the rabbits, not the chickens, since it would choke the chickens to death. My grandma was a bound-feet granny from the countryside. She bit her finger, saying, “I’ve never seen spinach so tough!” Then she had a brainstorm–taking the fibers out of the spinach to make shoe soles–but that didn’t work. This indicates that my grandma also had an inclination for invention. Besides, if the stomach is empty, everyone’s mind turns to fantasies.

When I was a child there was a shortage of toilet paper. So my father put the ’58 propaganda materials into use in the bathroom, letting us use them to wipe our bottoms. A lot of this stuff was about inventions. I read these things in the bathroom and gradually grew fascinated with them. In the meantime, my brothers and sisters waited in line outside the toilet. When they couldn’t hold it any longer, they pounded on the door with their fists. But I was oblivious. Some of the inventions were so-so, for example ball-bearings made from carved wooden beads, or fertilizer made from manure boiled in a wok–no imagination at all! But there were also excellent ones. For example, this one: supposing a pig under the ordinary feeding formula gained 400 grams in weight per day; this invention claimed to allow a weight gain of 750 grams per day through an intramuscular injection of 500 grams of peanut oil plus two egg yolks. It claimed that by using this feeding formula the pig would not only be very meaty but the meat would also be tender. I thought the invention was good, but not perfect. The method should also use intramuscular injection of soy sauce and cooking wine, which would transform the pig into a huge Cantonese sausage before it met the butcher’s knife. To tell the truth, I was very distressed to wipe my bottom with these inventions. Of course, the things being used to wipe our bottoms were not only inventions but also other stuff, for example a lot of mimeographed poetry collections. In ’58, in addition to inventing things, everyone was writing poetry and attending poetry competitions. In ’58, my brother was a third grader. One night when he was too hungry to sleep, and I heard him recite a poem he had written:

Communism is–
Hard to achieve.
If you want to see it earlier,
Everybody must work harder.

He also told me that when communism arrives, the hole in the steamed corn bun will also become smaller (if the hole is too big, the bun cannot keep you from being hungry). Later I found this poem in a mimeographed poetry collection where it was marked with a note to say it was written by student Wang, a third grader of the university’s elementary school. I used my brother’s work of art as toilet paper without hesitation. Although I was only nine years old then, I thought it was lousy poetry. I only enjoyed inventing. Very early on my brother had discovered that I enjoyed inventing. He also affirmed that I had stunning talents in that respect. But up to now these talents of mine have not been brought into play.

After discussing communist steamed corn buns, my brother and I felt even hungrier, so we slipped out of our house to steal carrots from people’s fields. The young carrots were not sweet, so they were not tasty at all. From my childhood up to now, I have done only this one bad deed, and I have confessed it many times already. This serves to illustrate how pure I am.

There is still more to say about the great inventions and poetry competitions of ’58. It was not as romantic as I had imagined in childhood. For instance, inventions at that time had quotas. Our university was required to propose three thousand inventions and thirty thousand poems per month. A quota is a thing that is the sworn enemy of all romantic modes. If someone in charge ordered me to make love with my wife three times per week, I would castrate myself. With the quota removed, the great inventions and poetry competitions would be very good things. It’s a pity that the quota resulted in starvation. For a while people were eager to invent methods to end starvation. I also wracked my brain thinking about it.

When I was hungry, things turned green before my eyes. The happiest moments came before meals because I knew I was going to eat. The saddest moments came after meals because there would be no more food. Then one day (I was twelve years old), I suddenly felt uncomfortable all over my body as if I were getting sick or changing into another person. I thought it over and realized that it was because I was not hungry any more. The desire for invention waned after eating one’s fill, but I had already invented a lot of things, including a pistol that used match heads for gun powder, a crossbow made from bicycle spokes, and others. I used these weapons for hunting. Whatever I captured I cooked to eat. Once I ate a little hedgehog and then got allergic blotches all over my body like red-spot lupus. My father beat me dearly for that, too.


When I was a child, I thought that the time of my birth was ill-fated and that in the future I would encounter endless calamities. Although this was unlike a child’s way of thinking, it still proved to be true. Concerning this point, there are many things I can add. In the beginning of this novel, I called myself Wang Er and went on narrating without turning a hair. But there was one point where I had to change my voice to the first person. There is one thing that made me do this. In my childhood I went to the playground on campus and saw a purple colored sky–this I could recount in the third person until the part where I cut my arm. This is because the third person has an element of fabrication, whereas the scar on my arm is real. After getting to the part about cutting my arm, the fictitious part was over.

When I was six, I cut my arm. While I was crying I thought, “I am really unlucky. Heaven knows what other calamities are awaiting me!” And now when I play bridge, I am in the same kind of mood. Every time before I look at my hand I mumble, “Heaven knows what bad cards I’m going to get!” If I’m playing in a tournament, the other players shake their heads over this habit of mine. However, this habit doesn’t prove that I am not a gentleman; it only indicates that I am an incurable pessimist. When I was twenty-two and was chased by Old Lu in the tofu plant and hid anywhere I could, I had similar thoughts. Zhan Ba–my co-worker on the same shift–was witness. During that period I told him many times, “I will continue to have bad luck because neither good luck nor bad luck arrives singly.” It wasn’t surprising that just a few days later I gave Zhan Ba a beating, even breaking the cartilage at the tips of his ribs.

This guy Zhan Ba was pale and soft. Although he was taller than I by more than half a head, he had no strength at all. His eyes were as large as dragonflies’ eyes. His shoulders drooped toward his funnel-shaped chest. Although his voice was low, it was effeminate. His penis was childish, with a very tight foreskin. Everything there is to know about this guy I have at my fingertips. That’s because we always went together to take showers in the winery’s bathhouse. My later beating him up was also related to the bath. I had never imagined that one day I would beat him up. He was my only pal in the plant–how would other people look at me if I beat him up? It was my bad luck that caused something to happen that shouldn’t have happened.

The following is the account of Wang Er’s thrashing of Zhan Ba. In the afternoon of the day before the thrashing, when the next shift came to work, Wang Er said to Zhan Ba, “Zhan, let’s go to the winery to take a bath, you go get the soap now.” Zhan Ba didn’t utter a sound, he just got the soap and followed Wang Er. Wang Er noticed that he didn’t have a lot to say today–very suspicious. When they arrived at the dressing room of the winery’s bathhouse, after undressing, Zhan Ba let Wang Er go first. Then, after Wang had entered the bath, he hurried back to the dressing room, where he saw Zhan Ba’s hand reaching into the upper pockets of his jacket, first the left pocket, then the right one, and then taking out a half cigarette. It instantly occurred to him that Zhan Ba was searching for a charcoal pencil. Coming to this point in the story, I am unable to speak of myself as Wang Er, because the feeling I had back then can only be expressed by using the first person. As far as I know, at most one out of ten thousand people cut their forearms severely at the age of six; similarly, only one out of ten thousand people are suspected of drawing counterrevolutionary pornography and are watched by people who stealthily rummage through their pockets. This feeling of being chosen as the one out of ten thousand was like winning a mega-lottery, like a full test tube of ice water was pouring into my brain from an acupuncture point on my temple.

Of course, this search was arranged by a superior–to find the suspect’s pockets to find the charcoal pencil that had daubed the counterrevolutionary pornography. But Zhan Ba was not worthy to undertake this assignment. I was immediately indignant, but I didn’t yet think of thrashing him. It was when I saw his naked body in the bath that I suddenly felt that not hitting him wouldn’t do. The next day he again went through my pockets. By then I had developed my plan of how I was going to beat him up. I had to beat him in such a way that he wouldn’t utter a sound. I didn’t expect that my hands would go out of control, resulting in an injury diagnosable only by X-rays. Now I was the one to blame. But I didn’t get violent intentionally. When I was a boy, each time I got into a fight, I punched my opponent’s ribs, but I had never broken anything. If I had known that I might break his ribs, I would definitely not have punched him there.

When the pornography was discovered in our plant, Old Lu had yelled and cried and called the public security office to investigate. The public security office passed on the duty to the local police station. The local police station, after sending a policeman to take a look, said that this case should be resolved within the work unit. At last the company’s security department sent an old Mr. Liu to perform the investigation. His clothes were greasy. His face was red from drinking. He carried a Zeiss camera, the kind that had been mass-produced in the 1940s. He took a photograph of the men’s toilet, using a flash bulb the size of a child’s fist. This bulb was stuffed with magnesium foil like shredded paper. After the flash, the bulb turned white and opaque like a cataract patient’s eyeball. But there was no resulting photo, because when the photograph was taken he had forgotten to insert the negative plate. And it was impossible for him to take another photo because he had used up the last bulb. There were no more left, nor could one be bought anywhere. Obviously, Old Liu didn’t take Old Lu’s request seriously. I knew this Old Liu. I thought he was a thoroughgoing bastard. The only difference between him and me was that he never got into trouble in his whole life. Old Lu was really pissed off. She began to direct the investigation herself, convening all the good people (Party and Youth League members, as well as activists) of our plant. I thought that the first step in their scheme would be to seek conclusive proof of Wang Er’s guilt. This fellow Zhan Ba was among the convened.

Regarding the pornography incident, there is more to say. Supposing you were Old Lu living in that boring era, you would definitely feel vexed to death because you had nothing to wear except for a Chinese-style cotton-padded jacket and a felt overcoat and had nothing to do except carry an artificial leather bag to attend meetings. When the drawing appeared in the men’s toilet and she became the focus of attention–of course she felt agitated and wanted to do something. I could understand all this. What I couldn’t understand then was why she picked on me as a victim. Now I think it was probably because I preferred to wear disgusting black clothes, and perhaps because I wanted to become an artist. Whatever the reason, these habits clearly indicated that I was not a good person, on this point there is no doubt.


The following anecdote reveals that I was not a good man. It happened years later when I went to America to study and also did part-time work as a waiter in a restaurant. There were several weird chicks who always came to eat at the tables I served and tipped me very generously. They talked in a way I couldn’t understand. After a few days the boss no longer let me work in front, but instead put me in back washing dishes. He said that this reassignment wasn’t his doing, but was due to the majority of the customers telling him that my appearance was morally offensive. In fact I didn’t have any moral blemishes; it was just that my appearance was somewhat fierce and I had the habit of wearing black leather jackets. Wearing black leather is a habit I developed when I was a child, because black leather doesn’t show the dirt and lasts a long time. I have no intention to provoke anybody at all, but a good man would never wear black leather no matter how dirt-free and durable it is.

Before I thrashed Zhan Ba I grabbed his collar and roared “Thief!” for several minutes. This so startled the people in the bathhouse that they came out to watch. I was completely naked, with soap suds on me. Zhan Ba was ashamed, angry, and powerless–he couldn’t help slapping me several times. That fit into my plan perfectly, for when people come to blows the one who strikes first is the villain. So I began to beat Zhan Ba, but only after everyone had seen that it was Zhan Ba who struck first. Zhan Ba was half undressed. He was still wearing a woolen sweater and knitted cotton underwear with a hole in the middle. Half of his childish penis came out of that hole like a half strip of fish gut dangling from a cat’s mouth. I was ready to fight. I wore nothing. Before I hit him I had taken a quick look at him, and only then did I let fly. My first punch was to his right eye, and I blackened it. I immediately saw that having one black eye and one white eye is unattractive, so out of kindness I punched him in the left eye. This made Zhan Ba even prettier. I have some more things to say about this. First, Zhan Ba had pale skin and big eyes. Second, he had double eyelids. Last, his eyes were deep-set. Anyway, after I punched his eyes black, he became even lovelier. The winery workers cheered me on. My head was turned by my success. I forgot that in this business of fighting it is the one doing the injuring who is found at fault. I was completely naked, and as I was pounding my fists on Zhan Ba, I was so excited that my penis grew erect. That thing swelled straight and tilted like an ancient Direction Finder. (The Direction Finder is the predecessor of the compass. It is a magnetized spoon in a lacquer plate. Its handle points south–but this “Direction Finder” of mine pointed at Zhan Ba.) Later, Zhan Ba complained to me, “You hit me as if you were proud of yourself–your thing turned straight!” Of course, this was Zhan Ba’s misunderstanding of my psyche. I have a lot of pictures of ancient Greek ceramic drawings of nude athletes, and after engaging in intense sports, their penises are all erect. The thrashing of Zhan Ba was violent sport. The erection is due to the increasing secretion of adrenaline; this physical response doesn’t contain any sexual implication, nor does it imply that I am a sadist. I was also injured. My right hand developed an inflammation of the sheath surrounding one of the tendons (tenosynovitis). But I didn’t dare to mention this because it was caused by pounding my fist on another person’s flesh. The result of my violence was that Zhan Ba got notoriety for being a thief; although his going through my pockets was an assignment from the higher-ups, the higher-ups would never admit that they had ordered a search of an employee’s pockets, since this was an “undercover” assignment. I also got the reputation of being vicious and ruthless. In my view, this was fair–Zhan Ba and I were in fact squared in this incident and could resume our old friendship. But when we went to work, he sat on the toolbox doing absolutely nothing and gaped at me as if he had been raped. This made me impatient and I said, “Zhan Ba, don’t feel that only you are in the right. You need to think about me. I am a careless person, you know. If accidentally someday I put my charcoal pencil in my pocket and brought it to the factory and you found it, what would become of me? I’d be finished! I had to beat you!” What I said drew him out. He complained that I had thrashed him like a hoodlum, and all my punches were dirty. He was admitting that my beating of him was justified, he just felt it was too ruthless. I too have rational explanations for my behavior. First, what if there had been a charcoal pencil in my pocket and he had found it, the consequences would have been unimaginable, so he initiated the viciousness. Second, if he had been superior in fighting skills, I would not have been able to beat him up like that–again, it is he who should be blamed. We argued over these things. In both aspects, arguing and fighting, he could not compete with me. Afterward, he wept like someone with no backbone.

Zhan Ba’s black eyes lasted for a while after he had recovered from his injuries. During that period of time his eyelids seemed to be dotted with black decorations. If you looked carefully you could find that these black grains were dispersed from the depths of his eye sockets. I always carefully scrutinized this masterpiece of my making. By all standards, these were a pair of pretty things.

This guy Zhan Ba was fond of learning. He always asked me questions while we worked. Sometimes it was a question of geometry, sometimes of classical allusion. I always answered as best I could. Once he asked me, “What is ‘one piece of Zhan Ba keeps on poking inside?'” This baffled me. I asked him where he had seen it. He wouldn’t tell me. Then I figured it out myself–it must be from Dream of the Red Chamber! In Dream of the Red Chamber the characters for penis–ji and ba–have the “hair” radical. (I doubt the author Cao Xueqin coined the term.) Zhan Ba misread the jiba as zhanba. It was at that point that I started calling him Zhan Ba, Ah Zhan, Little Zhan, and so on. One night I listened to a Beatles song over shortwave radio. All day long at work the next day, I imitated the song with the lyrics: Zhan Zhan Zhan Zhan Zhan Zhan . . . Other people who heard me calling him Zhan Ba followed my lead and called him the same. In the beginning, Zhan Ba got pissed off every time he heard the name, and he wanted to kill me. (Obviously, he had already figured out the meaning of zhanba.) But he was never able to get close enough to me–I would grab his wrists and push him away. Then everybody called him Zhan Ba, and, reluctantly, he had no choice but to answer to it. From then on he had no other name but Zhan Ba. To my surprise, he bore me a grudge over this, and even joined the scheme to persecute me. This illustrates what a slimy little creep he was. But he disagreed with my appraisal of him. He rebuked me, saying if I would allow him to call me “Zhan Ba” at least once and I answered to it, he would acknowledge that he was a slimy little creep. I didn’t try this with him, because whether he was a slimy little creep or not, I was already in trouble. In such a situation, what’s the point in my admitting I’m a zhanba?

After I had thrashed and injured Zhan Ba, Old Lu called the police to come arrest me. But her speaking voice was too loud and her attitude was too strange, so the police had some suspicions. They didn’t come to arrest me. Instead, they went to the hospital to visit Zhan Ba. This time Zhan Ba showed the true colors as a man. He told the police that he and Wang Er were just having fun, and it was purely accidental that Wang Er injured him. He also said that he and Wang Er were buddies; if the police apprehended Wang Er he would be deeply saddened. After hearing this, the police comrades turned and went back to the station and never returned. But their withdrawal could only keep me safe for a short while because of Old Lu’s ceaseless rhetoric against me. At every meeting she would say, “Why should we cover up for Wang Er, a rascal, a violent thug, a bastard?” Because she kept on talking this way in the meetings, they couldn’t discuss the tofu production problems on the agenda. Everyone thought her pestering was unbearable. Nevertheless, she was the leader. So people began to hate me. I heard that the leaders of our plant decided to get rid of me when the opportunity arose. They would send me to labor reform or labor education, whichever was feasible. In short, they wanted to get rid of me forever. In addition, the workers no longer sympathized with me. At lunchtime I used to crawl down to the skylight of the canteen to hand down my meal tickets and lunch box; the chefs competed with each other to fill my box with food. Old Lu used to shout at them, “Don’t let him eat.” The chefs dared to retort, “Men are iron and their food is steel. How can we not let someone eat?” But then it all changed. The chefs wouldn’t give me food. Instead they said, “You’d better come down by yourself, boy; you can’t keep on hiding forever!” Fortunately, there was still Zhan Ba, who would bring me food; otherwise, I would have had nothing to eat for lunch. The truth is that I had screwed up. Being a born scoundrel, I thought that if I never committed a crime there was a chance that I could live out my entire life in peace. But if a scoundrel like me is caught, he’s doomed, like a homosexual with AIDS–he would soon be done for.

Everyone hated me, but I couldn’t afford to hate everyone because that would be “anti-human.” I couldn’t afford to hate Old Lu either because she was the leader. I could only hate the man who drew the pornography and let me be the scapegoat. I swore that I would beat him up if I ever caught him. But I didn’t have a clue who the person was. Zhan Ba said, “Stop acting, Wang Er; you know there are only two people here–you and me.” His words bewildered me, and I almost believed that I myself had drawn the picture. But I was sure I didn’t walk in my sleep. Besides, my home was far away from the plant–if I had walked in my sleep, I couldn’t possibly walk such a long distance. This puzzle perplexed me for three years. In other words, it was not resolved until ’77. In that year there was a fellow in our plant with the name “Corn Bun” who passed the entrance exam of the fine arts institute. People said that this “Corn Bun” had three perplexing features. First: people didn’t know whether he was a man or a woman. Second: people didn’t know if he could speak. Third: people didn’t know if he had black eyeballs (he was very prone to showing the whites of his eyes). Who could have thought that in our tiny tofu plant there was another person besides me who could draw pictures. Moreover, he was not color-blind. I was so surprised that I forgot to think about beating him up.


There is much more I could say regarding my relationship with Zhan Ba. I always loved him very much. This is definitely not because I am gay. I am a hairy short fellow with a husky voice. Zhan Ba was a soft, meek fellow, and he spoke with a thick nasal sound. I wanted to be with him forever–but that was impossible. Even many years later, I would always send him a postcard, no matter where I went. For example, when I was in Rome in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, I sent him a card written like this:

Dear Zhan:

I am in Rome now. My next stop is Austria.

Wang Er

I did this because Zhan Ba liked to collect stamps. There was a special difficulty for me in writing to him: I never could remember his surname. And now I’ve forgotten his surname again–maybe sometime later I’ll remember it. Of course, his surname was not Zhan. In addition, his stealthy searching of my pockets for a charcoal pencil was surely not commissioned by Old Lu. He must have been used by someone else. In this matter I understand that he might have had a motive, which would excuse him. But he was so lovable that you couldn’t help beating him up. Say a husky heavy fellow of eighty kilograms offended me, even though I would certainly get angry, my anger surely would not motivate me to beat him up. That’s because he is the opposite of loveable–you cannot beat him up.

Later on, when I returned to China from my overseas studies, no sooner did I meet Zhan Ba than he rushed at me, screaming and wanting to choke me. It was all because of the postcards–once again everyone knew he was called “Zhan Ba.” The reason that he had taken such pains to apply for medical school was to escape the tofu plant and thus be saved from the name “Zhan Ba.” But after he became a doctor, he received from me those postcards that ruined all his efforts. Now, even the young nurses just graduated from the nurses’ training school call him “Doctor Zhan.” This really upsets him. If someone let me draw a picture of Zhan Ba, I would draw him as an immature fetus. In the picture he would have a bulging forehead like that of the God of Longevity and the eyes of an old catfish that neither open nor close. Also, there would be some tissue on his neck like gills, and his hands and feet would be froglike, coiled together so they couldn’t stretch open. His whole body would curl up. And he would also have a tail, all wrapped in a transparent membrane. If he doesn’t look like this now, at least he did look like this before he came out of his mother’s womb. Every time I see Zhan Ba, I can’t help imagining his appearance in his mother’s womb. I like his appearance in his mother’s womb. I also like his appearance as it is now. I will love Zhan Ba to the end of my life.


[1]. The original Chinese version, “Geming shidai de aiqing” (革命时代的爱情) was first published in the Guangzhou-based journal Huacheng no. 3 (1994). It was later included in the collection Huangjin shidai (Beijing: Huaxia, 1994).