Age 18

By Eric Abrahamsen, published November 8, 2007, 9:10p.m.

My previous post on niubi was actually prompted by a bit of reading I’ve been doing: Feng Tang’s 十八岁给我一个姑娘 (which I persist in calling Given a Girl at Age 18, though I think he prefers ‘Chick’). Here’s the first couple pages of the book, which I held on to until after I’d posted on niubi, as a kind of fig leaf for the brazen cop-out at the end of the third paragraph below. Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I can’t help it.

Zhu Shang

Long before I moved into this building, I’d heard Old Lecher Kong Jianguo talk about Zhu Shang’s mother. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo said that she was his one true passion. The first time I met Zhu Shang I made a decision: I would do everything I could to spend the rest of my life with her.

When you’re only eighteen years old you’ve got no sense of time. ‘The rest of your life’ so often means forever.

Private Schooling

“You’re still young, you don’t understand. But this is important; this is very important. Just think, when you’ve gotten to my age you’re going to ask yourself: During my life, from the time when I was small, did I ever meet a girl like that? One who had a face, a body, or a style that made you instantly hard, that made you determined to have her? And then… no matter if they cut your thing off, no matter if they chop it up, no matter if they haul you off and throw you in the slammer. A girl like that is your one true passion. Take the people on the street here. Only one in a thousand will ever think to ask themselves that question. Of a thousand who ask the question, only one will answer in the affirmative. Of a thousand who answer in the affirmative, only one will finally succeed. And that one person, after he succeeds, will suddenly feel that it was all a god-damned waste of time. But still – you’ve got to search, you’ve got to strive. That’s willpower. That’s idealism. That’s niubi.”

Old Lecher Kong Jianguo and I had the above conversation on a spring afternoon. We were leaning against a big scholar tree, the cicada buzz rising and falling, reminding us that time still crawled on. Cooler air moved over us occasionally but still the sun was brutal, crashing onto the barren ground in waves and kicking up the parched dust. Green-fleshed caterpillars called ‘hanged ghosts’ had spun long threads from the chewed-up tree leaves and hung there, their meaty bodies twisting in the breeze. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo had just woken from a nap. He was bare-chested, still brawny but with a burgeoning gut and a deep belly button. The slanting knife-scar on his face showed pale and kindly. His ‘Most Excellent Brand’ army pants were secured with a leather belt which bore four worn holes, chronicling the expansion of his belly like growth rings: the innermost hole was from a summer years ago, the next from a winter years ago, the next from last winter, and the outermost marked the present state of affairs. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo took all his noon naps laying on his left side, and the bamboo sleeping mat had left clear prints on the left side of his body and thin strips of bamboo stuck to his skin. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo’s hair was a complete mess. After he’d said his piece he lit a Great Qianmen cigarette and took a long drag, wrinkling his brow.

My father said he’d attended a private school when he was young. They made him memorize the Three Character Classic, the Hundred Surnames, the Thousand Masters’ Poems, the Four Books and the Five Classics as if they were force-feeding a goose. He memorized them all, and didn’t understand a word. It wasn’t until he was much older that he began to recall them and gradually arrived at some realizations, like a cow chewing its cud from the day before. My father was very pleased with himself when he was writing reports at his work unit, and was able to sneak in a few phrases like “To think how all antiquity, has floated down the stream and gone!”. His female colleagues under twenty-five and over fifty all thought he was very literary and learned.

I didn’t understand a word of what Old Lecher Kong Jianguo said to me. I had also just awoken from a nap, and was only thinking of how to pass the long hours before dinnertime. I thought Old Lecher Kong Jianguo was being uncharacteristically solemn. Just say what you mean, what’s with the rhetorical questions, the parallelism, the earnestness? He sounded like a language teacher. Sure, I knew what it was like to have an itch, or something I was desperate to do: for instance having to pee so bad I ran down the street on my tippy-toes looking for a toilet, or when I was five years old and yearning for the sachima biscuits on top of the wardrobe, or when it was my fifteenth birthday and I wanted a pair of white leather high-top Nike basketball shoes with a blue swoop on them.

It’s only thinking about it now that I get the shivers: if it weren’t for my private schooling with Kong Jianguo, my one true passions might never have been anything more than a toilet when I needed to go, sachima biscuits, or a pair of leather high-top Nikes.

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Comments

# 1.   

Hey Eric, I just read your translation. I especially loved what you did with this sentence:

"His ‘Most Excellent Brand’ army pants were secured with a leather belt which bore four worn holes, chronicling the expansion of his belly like growth rings: the innermost hole was from a summer years ago, the next from a winter years ago, the next from last winter, and the outermost marked the present state of affairs."

Well-chosen excerpt, too. It comes together so well in that last paragraph (though "one true passions" should be "true passions" or something similarly plural?):

"It’s only thinking about it now that I get the shivers: if it weren’t for my private schooling with Kong Jianguo, my one true passions might never have been anything more than a toilet when I needed to go, sachima biscuits, or a pair of leather high-top Nikes."

Btw, I haven't read this in Chinese - what are the characters for "Old Lecher Kong Jianguo"? 老流氓孔建国? 流氓大王孔建国?My imagination runs riot.

Also, what are sachima biscuits? Sounds like something Satchmo would have eaten on a musical tour of Satsuma.

Hungry for more of those sachima biscuits, -C

 Cindy Carter, November 12, 2007, 11:11a.m.

# 2.   

Thanks! Glad you liked it.

This passage had a couple of tough nuts in it, both of which you picked up on. Beside the Notorious Niubi, which I copped out on, Old Lecher Kong Jianguo was 老流氓孔建国. 流氓 is a pain most of the time, but here its 色狼 element was strong enough that I felt (mostly) justified in going straight to 'lecher'.

'One true passion' is 绝代的尤物, which gave me the most trouble here. 尤物 usually specifically means a woman, but it can also mean an object (including woman-as-object), and here Feng Tang was clearly using it in a broader sense. Still, I'm not happy with this rendering, and you're right about the plural.

Sachima biscuits are the nastiest goddamned thing ever to pass themselves off as snacks. They're a Manchu thing (I assumed the Chinese name, 萨其马, was a transliteration of a foreign word, and I guess I was half right), though the Beijingers claim them, lord knows why. They're basically what you'd get if you removed all flavor from a Rice Krispy Treat and then left it to dry in the sun for six months.

 Eric Abrahamsen, November 12, 2007, 11:26p.m.

# 3.   

I liked the "Old Lecher Kong Jianguo" translation, because we immediately knew who this old man is (and what he is about!). Only concern was that if he appeared too often later in the book - and again, I haven't read the Chinese version - the nickname might become tedious with repetition.

I mention this because I had a similar issue with a character in Guo Xiaolu's "Village of Stone": a stationmaster known to one and all as the "Old Crippled Son of the Sea". Fortunately, he only made a brief appearance, and I was able to shorten his nickname down to "Son of the Sea", or better yet, "the stationmaster". I would have felt nasty calling him more or less "the gimp" in every other sentence, even though the other villagers would have.

Yu Hua's fiction brings up a similar issue: instead of using "he", "she" or "them", Yu Hua often uses his characters' full names. And how many times does the reader need to see Li "Baldy" Guangtou appear in the first page, time and again, chapter and verse? To avoid this annoyance, I used "Baldy" in my short excerpt.

But if we use western names or nicknames based on the meaning of the characters, readers might be misled into thinking that the characters are not Chinese at all. Many readers of Xiaolu's novel assumed that the female protagonist "Coral" (删红)was Chinese, while her boyfriend "Red" (朱子) was western (when he was, in fact, Chinese).

Names and place names give translators the most frequent headaches, I think.

-C

 Cindy Carter, November 13, 2007, 12:40a.m.

# 4.   

I find that's an issue with most of what I read in Chinese – there's a much higher tolerance for repetition of names, and really repetition in general. A character's name will be written out in full three times in one sentence (where English would still be using pronouns linked to name mentions two paragraphs earlier), or a slightly unusual word will be used in two different contexts, in close enough proximity that a reader in English would be bothered by the resonance. One of those odd little differences...

 Eric Abrahamsen, November 13, 2007, 3:01a.m.

# 5.   

You're absolutely right, Eric. Read 红楼梦 and you'll find the names 宝玉、黛玉 etc repeated numerous times in one chapter.

Paul, November 19, 2007, 12:08a.m.

# 6.   

My GF has recently been raving about Feng Tang. She discovered his stuff online and has been absorbed day and night. She tells me that I should aspire to be just like him. So when is this guy gonna get translated already so I can make the transformation?

Tom Carter, June 16, 2010, 10:53p.m.

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