Excerpt from He Qifang's The Peddler

By Canaan Morse, published

He Qifang (1912-1977) was a poet, essayist and revolutionary of the Modern Period, one of the group of well-heeled but oppressed and intellectually voracious young people who, having at one point campaigned for democracy, threw their lot in with the Communist Party once the Nationalists proved themselves incompetent at solving the country's problems. He began as a poet and a creative nonfiction writer, and his first publication Record of Painted Dreams (hua meng lu) is composed of a series of brief but intense pieces of poetic prose, which in their manipulation of tense and image show a kind of sensitivity that is hard to find anywhere else in the literature of that period.

The more I listen to Wolfgang Kubin, the more his opinions unsettle me, but I agree with him in spirit on one point: the sixty years before 1949 produced an incredible amount of original, well-wrought and moving work. Most of it has fallen through and disappeared into the gap that opened up between the last generation of China students and this one, in part due to a lack of good quality translations, which damages its appeal as fashionable literature. He Qifang is an extreme example of a first-class writer who has been almost entirely forgotten.

Below is one of the shortest entries in the Record, entitled The Peddler. I'm gonna take it on faith that it's bad manners to copyright, though I do plan on publishing this later.

The handled drum in the peddler’s hand began to sound. A day in June, as the westward-tilting sun covers with light the white outer wall and the pagoda trees standing outside of it, their numberless layers of leaves deeply green. The metallic whine of the cicadas suddenly ceases, and a stillness follows—while no one knows how long this old estate has been around, it is still surprising to see travelers come this way. The outer door lies half-closed, as if pushed softly by the inattentive hand of someone going out. Yet here carrying his yellow wooden crate comes the peddler, over the grassy bank of the outlying field, turns in, passes an ancient ancestral tomb and, knowing without needing to look that this is the Liu family estate, begins rotating his lifted wrist, and the beng-beng-beng of his drum comes pulsing out.

Now he’s come to the front door, and let’s take this opportunity to get a good look at him: tall, with an oily brown, weathered face from which the curves of his skull along with a spotty white beard protrude, set beneath a broad-brimmed, sunbeaten straw hat. He is one of those rarely-met old men who have preserved both their toughness and good humor, which comes out in their bright, vigorous laughter.

He reaches out and pushes the door open. Alarmed at this lack of politeness? This is the outermost door, left unlocked during the day and only closed at night—and the peddler, who is not a rare guest in that house, knows all that perfectly well. Look at his calm, unhurried demeanor as he steps, the yellow wooden crate in his arms, through the door and into the main courtyard, paved with stones. Watch him as he walks forty or so paces across the courtyard and stops silently in front of the imposing double-doors with their rusted iron rings; the drum in his hand hoots once again...


# 1.   

Is the past tense of the first sentence deliberate?

Phil, July 16, 2008, 6:14p.m.

# 2.   

It is. I chose a past tense because it seems to me to transmit more fully the spontaneity of the first sentence, in which the drum announces the entire character of the peddler to the reader. Originally, the entire first paragraph was in past tense--in the case of the first line, so that it might be noticeable, in the case of the others, so that they might exude the feeling of timelessness I felt in the original. That being said, there are no obvious grammatical markers in the first paragraph indicating tense (but then, there rarely are in Chinese), and I've already made the switch to present tense within the rest of the paragraph, making the first sentence seem awkward. I'll leave that up, but thank you very much for pointing that out.

On another note, Dailies Lin's name is Lin Xiaohuo, literally Small Goods Lin. What do people think of the translation I use?

Canaan Morse, July 16, 2008, 8:13p.m.


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