“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Backflow River, by Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa (1952- ) stands with Mo Yan and Yu Hua as one of the biggest names in contemporary Chinese literature. His fiction focuses on the lives of common people, particularly in his home province of Sha'anxi, and is well-known for being unafraid to explore the realm of the sexual.

I’ve always been a fan of Jia Pingwa’s writing – in my opinion, he’s one of the great untranslated Chinese authors. (There’s good news on that front, however: Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Ruined City is just out, and I’m working on a translation of Happy, for AmazonCrossing.) So when the China International Translation Contest 2013 offered a Jia Pingwa story, I jumped at the chance. Backflow River didn’t disappoint me. It’s a fascinating, humorous story, with a very unexpected twist at the end. Which brings me on to Jia Pingwa and his sympathetic treatment of his women protagonists: I found his portrayal of Shun Shun in this story particularly moving. She is the real hero of Backflow River, not her husband.
Jia Pingwa is said to be ‘untranslatable’. Of course, this isn’t true, though I found some of the dialect challenging, to say the least, to understand as well as to render into convincing English. Interestingly, with Backflow River, I found it was the geography that posed most difficulty: I had to resort to watching World Bank videos about Shaanxi, to get a feel for the lie of the land, and pick up one or two topographical terms.

— Nicky Harman

This translation of "Backflow River" won first prize in the English Group in the China International Translation Contest 2013.

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Backflow River had two small towns on its north side and three on the south side. If you wanted to cross the river, there was no bridge, only Dumbo’s boat. So, when people got to the river crossing, they yelled: ‘Bring the boat over, Dumbo!’ And Dumbo put down his water pipe and poled across as hard as he could. He was not as strong as he had been, but there was a hawser strung across the river which the boat was roped to, so it was unlikely to be swept downstream.

The passengers stepped on-board. Dumbo knew Shun Shun from a nearby village. Today she had a new clip in her hair, so shiny and green it looked as if a dragonfly had just alighted on her head.

Everyone started making fun of Dumbo’s teeth. The front ones were missing, which made the eyeteeth on either side look very long. There were wisecracks like: ‘Are you growing tusks?’ and ‘Most people smoke their pipe relaxing on the kang. You take yours on board. It must be because you’ve been a boatman so long. You’re such a poser! You old show-off!’ Dumbo laughed: ‘You people walk perfectly well on two legs south of the river, why are you off north to crawl around underground on all fours?’ Dumbo certainly had a sharp tongue in his head. His passengers jumped on him to shut him up, and the boat rocked violently and spun round on the water.

Above them, the sky was covered with pimply clouds. When they got to the other side, Dumbo took another suck from his pipe. As he puffed gently, teasing the strands of tobacco alight and listening to the glug-glug in the pipe bowl, he watched his passengers scrambling up the slope. The slope was covered in what looked like tufts of white flowers, though actually it was floss that had burst from the wormwood seed heads and dried out over the winter. South of the river, the cherry trees were in bloom, while here, on the north side, this ‘cotton wormwood’ floss still fluttered in the wind.

North of the river was a coal-producing region and was dotted with small pits. If you saw a shooting star at night and went looking for a meteorite where the star fell to earth, you might spot a hole slanting down into a hillock or ridge, which you could squeeze into. These holes were usually four or five li from a village, along a dark road. During the long hours of daylight, mules padded silently from them, laden with baskets of coal. The deep, hard ruts scored in the road by the occasional passing lorries or tractors made the mules slip and stumble, and the muleteers yell obscenities at them.

Their curses could be heard right up on the hillocks and ridges and if a traveller up there was a muleteer too, he always tried to shout back. But the words scrambled and buzzed in the air, so the muleteers had to content with waving greetings instead.

This particular hole in a gully bottom was different from the others. A shack had been erected next to the entrance and someone had planted a patch of pumpkins. After the plentiful rains, the leaves of the pumpkin vine were as big as heads and had grown up and over the roof of the shack. Under them sat a group of women with the lunch tins they had brought for their menfolk. It was a long wait, and they spent the time counting which of the brilliant yellow pumpkin flowers had set fruit, with tiny buds visible under the flowers petals, and which had not and were just ‘fibber’ flowers. Shun Shun stopped counting and went off to sit on her own. She unwrapped the food tin from its cloth, then wrapped it up again. Then she tried to take the cloth off again, but this time the knot was too tight and she struggled with it, pulling a face. The other women exchanged glances, and quickly changed the subject: ‘The food tins go cold before you even leave the house,’ they said.

The food tins were all the same but the contents varied. Some held red beans and rice with fried potato shreds or stewed radish. Some had laomian noodles flavoured with oil. One held four gangtou buns, split open and filled with chilli paste and green onions and topped with garlic. (‘My man’s got a big appetite,’ she said.) Liben had suffered from a stomach complaint a while ago, and Shun Shun had made him pancakes because they were soft and digestible, and had shredded zucchini into the mixture. Her pancakes came apart when she fried them and she was embarrassed to let anyone see them. She clutched the food tin to her chest, enjoying the warmth.

A safety helmet was flung out of the hole and landed on the ground with a thud. A man crawled out, followed by five or six more. Each man looked around and smiled at his wife, but it took the wife a minute or two to recognize her man – they all looked the same with their blackened clothes and faces. Shun Shun was the first to move, running over to Liben with the food tin. (The whites of Liben’s eyes were very white, much more so than the other men’s, and now they looked even whiter.) Liben reached for a pancake, leaving black fingerprints on it. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry!’ Shun Shun scolded him, and gave him a torn-off pumpkin leaf to wipe his hands on.

After the men had eaten, the women all left and the men sprawled on the ground in the sun, smoking and talking about their wives. ‘The moment I get home in the evening, mine is ladling my noodles into the bowl,’ said one. ‘I get straight onto the kang and she wipes her hands and comes running, however busy she is,’ said another. Liben gave a few snorts. What baloney, he thought to himself. When I get in, Shun Shun brings me my dinner in one hand, her other hand holding up her trousers and asks me which I’d like first… He shut his eyes and dozed. ‘What’s that “huh!” supposed to mean, Liben?’ asked the man next to him. ‘Liben? Liben!’ But Liben was fast asleep. Shouting at him made no difference so someone quietly slipped a coin into his hand, which immediately closed in a tight grip. Liben got so annoyed that they all shouted with laughter. ‘Just look at him, the old bastard!’

But there were often tears at the pithead too. You never knew when a man would come out, hauling on a rope attached to a galvanised iron tub which held, not lumps of coal, but a mangled body. Then the pithead would echo to loud weeping and wailing.

When the vine tendrils of the pumpkin plants next to the shack withered, they revealed heap after heap of ash from spirit money. Unburnt scraps of paper fluttered in the wind and stuck to people’s clothes. One landed on Liben’s trouser leg, and he spat and said: ‘You and I never fell out, and I don’t owe you money, leave me alone!’

There was a small store on the edge of the village four li away, where the coal miners bought liquor. The villagers called the miners ‘blackies’. Most blackies bought their liquor on tick – the shopkeeper chalked up each man’s name and how much he owed, on the wall. Some of the accounts were still up there but the man had long gone from this world. In that case, his debt was treated as spirit money and written off, and a cross was made against his name on the wall. There were rumours that one windy, moonless night not long ago, three blackies knocked at the store and asked for cigarettes, liquor and instant noodles. ‘On tick?’ the shopkeeper asked. ‘We’ll pay cash!’ the men said. When the shopkeeper came to count the money in the morning, he discovered it was all spirit money.

After that, the miners’ wives all pasted pictures of Guanyin on the walls of the homes they rented in the village, and burned incense to her every day. Shun Shun pushed a longevity knot or a bit of cinnabar wrapped in paper, into Liben’s breast pocket whenever he went to the pit. Liben was a bit of a show-off and, once, he unwrapped the packet to show his mates. Inside was not cinnabar but a bloody scrap of cloth. His mates took the mickey out of Liben -– they knew just what kind of blood that was. He had a go at Shun Shun when he got home but she just said that a yin-yang master had come to the village and told her that menstrual blood was the best thing to ward off evil. Liben calmed down at that, but he already had a bowl in his hand ready to hurl to the ground so he picked a broken one to smash instead.

In this particular pit, there were some blackies from the east or west of the county, but most were from north or south of the river. Of the eight from south of the river, five were dead within six years, one had a broken leg and another lay on the kang, a vegetable, unable to speak. But Liben was very much alive. He boasted to his mates that it was the lucky mole he had down there that kept him safe, but they reckoned it was down to having Shun Shun. Liben thought Shun Shun was good for him too, and he went home and took her in his arms and kissed her. Then he kissed her belly.

Shun Shun knew what that meant and, that night, she stretched out as innocent as a pussy-cat and let him have his way with her. When they had finished, she was about to get up and pour him some warm water to wash when he said: ‘Don’t you dare let it run out!’ He propped her bottom on a pillow and Shun Shun hung her head over the edge of the bed.

Shun Shun had already chosen a name, Anran, meaning ‘safe and sound’, for her future child. But another year went by and she was still not pregnant.

Then prices for coal slumped and the coal from their pit had a lot of gangue in it, which made it even harder to sell. The pit owner encouraged them to go out selling door-to-door, and offered them half of whatever they earned on each ton. Shun Shun said to Liben: ‘You’re over your stomach trouble now. I’ll go out selling for us. Two can earn more than one, and once we earn enough, we can build a new house. We should be able to go back home next year.’ ‘Then who’s going to make my dinners?’ asked Liben. ‘Old Wei’s wife.’ This woman was taking Wei’s food anyway, so Wei agreed and she agreed, and Shun Shun paid her a bit of money to take food for Liben too.

Shun Shun started by going back to their home south of the river. In other people’s fields, the paddy rice was in flower, but hers had been attacked by pests and the leaves had rusty-coloured spots all over them. It took her three days working non-stop to pick the grubs from the plants. Each time she worked from one end of the field to the other, she collected nearly half a basket full of the grubs. These she tipped out on the bank and smashed them to a pulp with a piece of wood. Her legs were covered in leaches, which fastened onto her flesh so she couldn’t pull them out. Blood streamed down her legs. ‘Hit them!’ a passer-by advised her. ‘Hit them and they’ll let go.’ Three slaps and the leeches dropped off. ‘And you think you’re going to get a crop out of that mess?’ the other said, looking at her field. Liben hadn’t made any money at the pit, the rice crop had failed, and now Shun Shun was being laughed at. She vowed to make a success of selling the coal.

Every state-owned organization in the county town had a coal-fired boiler, and people’s homes were all heated by coal, so Shun Shun went knocking door-to-door, putting on her most persuasive manner. For the first couple of months, she cycled there on her own, but it made a very long day. Then she got an old uncle of Liben’s to go with her. He was a fat man and, with him sitting behind her on the bike, Shun Shun poured with sweat. She rode into someone three times, landing the old man on the ground. He broke one of his teeth in the fall and Shun Shun promised she’d get him fitted with a gold one. They always started from the town’s east gate and the old man would cover the north part of town and Shun Shun the southern part. Before she set off, she went behind a willow tree and changed her old jacket for a loose red flowery one. She liked that jacket so much she always had to have a good look at her reflection in the river.

Shun Shun found it hard when, just as she was about to strike a deal with the boiler men, they demanded their cut. This was sometimes 500 yuan, sometimes as much as 1,000. At first, Shun Shun forked out the cash from her own pocket. Then she got wise and wrote out an invoice instead. If she sold a load of ten tons, she invoiced for 13 tons, and the boiler man got his cut that way. But when the coal was unloaded and he asked her to take him out to dinner, she said no to that. Instead, she gave him the money for a meal, threw in a packet of cigarettes and helped him with the unloading. As they worked, he eyed her up and asked: ‘Is it true that if you work in the mines for a year, you piss black pee for three years?’ ‘You spit black spit too,’ said Shun Shun. They laughed. ‘It’s the pot calling the kettle black! What we’re doing’s just as dirty!’

Shun Shun’s sales were good. Every week or so she would go back to the mine to receive her share of the takings. She stayed the night, wanting to be a good wife to Liben, but he always went off drinking at the end of his shift and staggered home blind drunk. Then he would throw a wad of notes down in front of Shun Shun: ‘Here, dammit!’ Shun Shun just smiled and pulled out her own wad of cash from her jacket pocket. Her wad was much thicker than Liben’s.

That autumn, Dumbo the ferryman started complaining that he had backache. His passengers swatted him with the soles of their shoes. The doctor said he was suffering from the damp and prescribed daily guasha scrapes at the town clinic. His son rode him there on the bicycle once, but then he said: ‘It’s only scraping your body with an ox bone. Give the money to me and I’ll do it for you every night.’ Dumbo snorted and hastily pressed his hat down on his head. He had a hundred yuan in notes stuffed inside its lining.

Thirty years ago, when Dumbo Song had just started as a ferryman, the river was in spate one day and a catfish leapt onto the boat. Dumbo caught it and took it home. His wife had just given birth to their son, so he called the child Fish. When Fish Song grew up, he went to the city and got involved in pyramid-selling. He returned to the village to farm when the government put a stop to such schemes, but he was not a good farmer, and took up gambling too. Once, he spent three days and nights in a field of maize throwing dice with his mates. He emerged with an inch of stubble on his cheeks, and kept a small moustache ever after.

‘I never see hide nor hair of you,’ said Dumbo. ‘When are you going to scrape me if you’re never home?’

At his father’s words, Fish Song deliberately rode his bicycle over a stone, nearly landing him in the road. Then he stopped in at a small store and went in to buy a munaonao. This was a wooden fork for scratching the bits of your back you couldn’t reach, so it was called a ‘filial fork’ by the people from south of the river. ‘If I’m not home,’ said Fish, ‘You can get this to do it for you instead.’

‘You shouldn’t be hanging around here, son,’ said Dumbo. ‘Why don’t you head up north and get work down a pit?’

‘Me? Go down a pit?’ said Fish. ‘Soldiers die and don’t get buried, but miners get buried before they’re dead!’

After that, Fish upped the stakes in his gambling. He sat by the highway with his mates, put a bag of money in front of him and placed bets on whether the last digit of the number plates on passing vehicles would be an odd or an even number. Whoever guessed right scooped the jackpot. Fish lost, then won. Luckily he won more times than he lost. He bought a motorbike with his winnings and spent his days puttering around the countryside, with a girl riding pillion behind. The girls’ skirts blew up in the breeze, revealing legs as pale as radishes underneath.

Folk from the county town often drove out to Backflow River, to see the current flowing backwards, and to look at the old houses on the south side. Anywhere else, the timber rotted and the walls only lasted thirty years before they crumbled, but the south-side houses were faced with brick, and inside, the mud was saturated in rice starch before being tamped smooth. People were still living in the houses over a hundred years later. There was also the Ming dynasty Dragon King Temple to visit, the Daoist temple dedicated to Kuixing, which dated from the Qing dynasty, and an old playhouse with wood and stone carvings. One day, someone got out of the car with a camera and ran around taking photos. One of the houses was brick-built but the roofing rafters had rotted and the eaves sagged. Now the roof was covered in a plastic sheet weighted down with stones, which flapped in the wind. The visitor took a picture of the board over the entrance, which was inscribed: ‘Let good deeds shine bright’. A dog, lying in the gateway, bared its teeth but did not bark. Then the visitor went round the back of the house, where there was an adobe-built cowshed with an ox standing in it. The ox was a skinny animal with a gingery coat. Its manure had turned the earth and fodder under its feet into a slurry which stank to high heaven and swarmed with flies. ‘If this ox was a man in a former life,’ said the photographer, ‘he must have been a convict to deserve this.’ Then Fish Song came running over, yelling: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

This was not Dumbo’s house at all but Fish still wouldn’t allow any pictures. The photographer turned her attention to a stone in the doorway of the cowshed instead and remarked: ‘That’s an old stone.’ ‘It’s a two-hundred-year-old laundry stone,’ said Fish. The photographer took a fancy to the smooth, flat stone and sighed at the thought of all the paddles that had beaten clothes against it. ‘Give me the stone,’ she said. ‘But Fish asked a hundred yuan for it. As he puffed and panted and heaved the stone into the car, the dog barked loudly. ‘Shouldn’t I give the money to the house owner?’ asked the photographer. ‘Forget it!’ said Fish. ‘That dog can’t talk!’

With coal not selling and the pits still working, many mines had to close or cut their coal prices. Now more people were going back south from north of the river, men with faces covered in coal dust and humping bedding rolls, or with families in tow, the women trailing behind with the children. Dumbo was kept very busy, even making trips after dark. One night, as the boat pulled in to the south shore under the bright moonlight, the last off the boat was a young woman with an infant in her arms. Dumbo knew she hadn’t been digging coal – she was evading the government’s family planning regulations. ‘What a world it is,’ he said, ‘where kids give birth to kids.’ ‘Are we supposed to give birth to old folks then?’ the young woman retorted, annoyed. Dumbo was gobsmacked.

Liben stayed put on the north side. He and a mate hatched a plan to buy the pit in the gully bottom. The pair came back to the village to raise the money, and Shun Shun made mashi shapes for their dinner, rolling them over a new straw hat to get a nice pattern on the dough. She had a delicate touch and her mashi came out like cats’ ears. ‘You’ve got the knack!’ her husband’s friend said, and Shun Shun put her head on one side and smiled quietly. The man left the kitchen and went into the yard. He said to Liben: ‘You’ve married a fine woman!’ Shun Shun would have liked to hear her husband’s answer but all she heard was a ‘Hah-hah!’

Liben told Shun Shun about the plan to buy the pit. At first, Shun Shun was alarmed and would not agree. Liben told her that the reason why accidents kept happening was that the pit equipment was no good, and there weren’t enough props, and the mine boss was a lousy, foul-mouthed manager, so the coal wasn’t selling. ‘Now that coal prices are so low,’ he went on, ‘this has got to be a good deal for us. Even if we can’t sell it now, one day it’ll sell. If we strike lucky, we’ll be mining gold not coal. We’ll be raking it in.’ ‘Do you think we can strike lucky?’ asked Shun Shun. ‘I’ve got my lucky mole down there, haven’t I?’ said Liben. Shun Shun thought about it, then agreed. ‘Whatever you say,’ she said.

Liben’s partner had 500,000 yuan to put in, and Liben needed the same. But he had only saved 100,000 yuan, and they had plans to re-build their house. He went to the credit union but they refused him a loan. ‘I’ll do you a 36th birthday,’ offered Shun Shun.

The 36th birthday was the most important in a man’s life, and it was the custom south of the river to celebrate it with a banquet for friends and family. Liben’s birthday wasn’t until the end of the year, but Shun Shun brought it forward so that they could get money gifts from relatives, and borrow from them too. But when Shun Shun broached the subject of loans at the dinner, Liben stood up and said: ‘This is not borrowing, it’s allowing everyone to invest. If you have 100,000 yuan then put that in. If you haven’t, then 50,000 or 80,000 is fine. I’ll manage it for you and next year, I’ll pay you the dividends.’ Liben told them all about the mine and painted its prospects in rosy colours. Thumping his chest, he said: ‘This mine is going to be the goose that lays the golden egg for all of you, and those eggs are going to hatch more geese, and go on and on producing.’ His words got everyone fired up. One of Shun Shun’s uncles got out 50,000 yuan on the spot. He was going to buy concrete to pave his yard, he said, but now he’d put the money into the mine instead. Where he took the lead, others followed… with uncles on both sides of their families putting in 50,000 yuan or, if they were more junior, 40,000 yuan, or 30,000…an aunt put in 60,000, three nephews 50,000 each, five female cousins 40,000 each and six nieces 30,000 each. The son and son-in-law of the godsister of Shun Shun’s mother were there too and, full of enthusiasm, begged to be allowed to join in. ‘Of course,’ said Liben. ‘You’re family.’ And the two men promised 20,000 yuan each.

Three days later, they had collected 980,000 yuan. Shun Shun sold the beam she had put aside for re-building their house, and a pair of silver bracelets, and raised another 20,000 yuan to make a round million. They wrote down every contribution in a ledger, and put the ledger in a box. Shun Shun was about to store the box on one of the roof beams when she saw a rat looking at her. Worried that it might eat the box, she hung it from the beam on a length of wire, and topped it with an old lampshade. It started to rain and the raindrops pattered anxiously on the leaves of the tree outside the house. But Shun Shun said to Liben: ‘This way, the rat’ll never climb down and get it.’

Now he had his own pit, Liben worked as hard as he could. He extended the mineshafts, strengthened the pit props and took on new blackies. He was so rushed he didn’t even give himself time to finish peeing, and the crotch of his trousers was permanently damp. Shun Shun got the old uncle to carry on selling door-to-door while she went to work at the mine. She set up a big stove for cooking dinners at the site, so that the wives didn’t need to bring food from home every day. Now the women had time on their hands, they could help with moving and loading the coal. Shun Shun didn’t like the hillside behind the mine being covered only with wormwood so she transplanted a peach tree from south of the river. She kept it well watered in the hopes that it would survive.

The peach tree lived, but Shun Shun lost so much weight over the year that her long, loose red flowery jacket flapped around her skinny frame and whenever there was a puff of wind, people said: ‘Mind you don’t get carried off to heaven!’

When he got back to their rented home at night, of course Liben still wanted to do it and Shun Shun gave herself to him even though she didn’t want to. Her eyes stared into the darkness and she strained her ears anxiously in case dogs barked or someone rang the phone on the kang table to say there had been an accident at the pit.

Payday was the end of the month, and they got the day off. The blackies went off drinking. Shun Shun took a bunch of women up the hillside to pick clumps of ‘meadow ears’. Afterwards, the rest went home, shouting and laughing, to make dumplings and wonton, but Shun Shun stayed behind. She sat and looked at her peach tree. In the few days since her last visit, spring had been and gone, and the peach blossom lay all over the ground.

Before long, it was Chinese New Year and they went back south of the river. ‘Let’s invite the family to a meal on the fifth of the first month,’ said Liben. Everyone who had put in money turned up, in the expectation of getting their dividends. But half way through the meal, Liben spoke up. First he drank a toast to them all, then he told them that the coal from their pit still wasn’t selling and three men had been injured. Although they had survived, he had had to spend 230,000 yuan on their hospital fees and compensation. In short, the pit had made a loss. The guests looked at each other, then at Shun Shun, but she just sat there dazed. ‘There are always risks in doing business,’ Liben went on. ‘If you’re willing to keep the pit going, you’ll get mega bonuses next year, but you’ll each need to put in another 30,000.’ ‘You’ve lost our hard-earned savings and you’ve got the cheek to demand more?’ protested one of the uncles. ‘Look, we’re all family,’ said Liben. ‘If you don’t want to put in more, then I’m not forcing you, but then that’s your shares gone.’

Shun Shun didn’t know what to say but she had to go along with Liben. There was uproar amongst their relatives, none of whom wanted to put more money in. They blamed themselves for having dreamed of getting rich in the first place. They should never have listened to Liben. He was just a blackie. However did they imagine he’d make a pit boss? And with a twist of their buttocks, they were out of their chairs and on their feet. Then they left without even finishing their meal.

Shun Shun’s relatives wanted no more to do with her. She didn’t stop crying till the fifteenth of the first month.

On the sixteenth, the village head was holding a banquet to celebrate his grandson’s one-month birthday. Fish Song was in charge of invitations. At noon on the fifteenth, he stood on the main road at the entrance to the village, stopping passers-by: ‘The village head’s celebrating his grandson’s one-month birthday and you’re invited.’ ‘We’ll bring a gift, then’ said some. Others didn’t say either way. Instead they asked: ‘Why are you so keen? Is it because the village head’s put you in charge of building the canal culvert?’ ‘I’m not interested in piddling sums like that,’ said Fish. ‘But you’re putting yourself out for his grandson.’ ‘Well, that daughter-in-law of his…but then I’d never go for a bit of rough like that, would I?’ said Fish with a laugh.

Fish Song went off on his motorbike to another intersection. The road was blocked by an old man and two young oxen which were meandering along. Fish tooted his horn but the man took no notice. The ox on the left immediately moved over to the right, and Fish swore: ‘You’re dumber than an ox! That ox knows to keep to the right!’ Just then, Shun Shun was passing. ‘The man’s deaf, why are you swearing at him?’ Fish told her about the party: ‘You must go!’ he said. ‘Why?’ said Shun Shun. ‘He’s not family.’ ‘Because he’s the village head,’ said Fish. ‘You and Liben, your tree tops are up north, but your roots are south of the river!’

Shun Shun went home and discussed it with Liben. Liben said he wasn’t going: ‘We’ll never get any return on our gift,’ he said. Shun Shun knew he was suffering, and bowed her head in silence. But the next day, she went anyway, on her own, with a gift, and spent a long time happily cradling the baby in her arms.

Weddings, funerals and other family events were the way villagers kept up good relations with each other. People lent a hand and gave gifts, showing willing even if they had been squabbling the day before. Most of the villagers attended this party but still a few did not. The village head looked agitated. ‘Did you tell everyone?’ he asked Fish. ‘I’ll go and call them again,’ said Fish.

He stood at the crossroads outside the gate and shouted his news once more. More came from some households, but they were children, not adults. And some people came with a gift and left straightaway. ‘Going so soon?’ asked Fish. ‘We’ve given our gift.’ ‘Then you must have some food!’ But the people on their way out said: ‘’No thanks. And if he wants to know why, tell him to work it out himself!’

It was summer by now and all night long in the leafy villages south of the river, the air was filled with the chirring of cicadas and the thunderous croaking of frogs. North of the river, however, the grass on the hillocks and ridges was barely six inches tall, and there were as many horse flies as house flies, pursuing people and biting them through their clothes.

At the pit, business was neither good nor bad. Liben’s partner did his sums and suggested they buy another pit. Liben discussed it with Shun Shun but this time she was firmly against it. They couldn’t raise any more money, she said. ‘We’ll sell our house,’ said Liben. Shun Shun was furious. When they married, Liben had moved in with Shun Shun’s family, and now she said: ‘That house was left to me by my mum and dad! Just leave it alone!’ So the partner took his dividend, and half the money they’d originally used to buy the pit and went off on his own.

With most of the money gone, they couldn’t pay the blackies’ wages. Until that point, everyone had been on good terms, but now there were furious arguments. When these ended in deadlock, thirty safety helmets were stolen. Shun Shun found out that the thief was from a neighbouring village. She went after him and demanded the helmets back. ‘It’s not stealing,’ said the man, ‘it’s in lieu of wages.’ ‘Brother, let me give you something else instead,’ said Shun Shun. ‘Give me the helmets back. Otherwise you’ve got us over a barrel. We can’t make the blackies go down the pit without them, can we?’ She took the man to their home and pointed to the five-drawer chest. ‘Take that instead.’ When the chest had gone, Shun Shun flung herself to the floor and kowtowed to the spirits of her parents. They had both died long before. All she had left were their photographs which hung on the wall. She burst into floods of tears.

She put the helmets into a couple of sacks and started off back, carrying one sack at a time, then going back for the other. Finally, pouring with grimy sweat and her hair falling over her face (somewhere on the way she had lost her hair clip), she got to Dumbo’s boat. ‘Ai-ya!’ exclaimed Dumbo. ‘Slimming must be in fashion, Shun Shun, you’ve certainly lost a lot of weight.’ ‘You’re saying I’m so skinny and black, I don’t look human anymore?’ asked Shun Shun. She hardly dared get on the boat in case she saw her reflection in the water.

Only four months later, however, coal sales suddenly took off and prices soared. They did not have to sell door-to-door any more, they had coal carts queuing up in front of every pit, ready to pay cash on the nail. The buyers came laden with bags of money.

Liben was taken by surprise and Shun Shun was stunned. At night they shut their door, and sat on the kang counting the notes. They licked their fingers and counted and counted but their spittle had dried up before they finished. ‘Are we dreaming?’ asked Shun Shun. ‘I’ll pinch your face for you,’ said Liben. And he did, so hard that Shun Shun yelled in pain. Liben threw himself on top of her. ‘Let’s put the money away first!’ said Shun Shun, but Liben was going to do it on top of the money. Money had given him a hard time for most of his life, and now he was going to show it who was master. Shun Shun had come on a few days before, so a lot of the notes were dyed red.

North of the river was sheep country and there were restaurants serving lamb stew in town. Liben insisted on taking Shun Shun out for a meal. On their way Shun said she saw someone giving them an evil look. She hoped they weren’t going to get robbed. ‘Just keep walking,’ said Liben. ‘The more nervous you look, the more thieves know you’ve got something to steal.’ ‘Shun Shun was still worried: ‘Is it safe keeping all our money under the kang?’ Liben ignored her and unbuttoned his coat, saying: ‘I’m so hot!’ Shun Shun almost laughed, but did not. She thought to herself: Money certainly heats you up.

They went into a restaurant and asked for a private room. It had no windows, the lights were dim and the ceiling was pitch black. ‘Get a woman!’ Liben roared. The restaurant owner came in looking suspicious. ‘The woman with the tray, get her to come and put a bigger wattage light bulb in!’ said Liben. ‘She’s called a waitress,’ said the owner. Halfway through the meal, Liben discovered a fly in his soup. ‘Waitress, how come there’s a fly in my soup?’ he asked accusingly. ‘We’re slaughtering sheep all day long, of course there’ll be flies,’ she said. Shun Shun looked up and realized that the light bulb cable was covered in flies. The whole ceiling was black with them.

It was not a good dinner, but the room dividers were thin wooden partitions and they overheard something interesting: the diners next door were talking about the national economic reforms. They were saying that reforms in South China had really taken off – the financial budget of the smallest towns there was more than that of a county town in the North-West. They also said central government economic policies were now favouring the North West, the number of basic construction projects being funded had shot up, and everyone should get on board as ‘our region’s going to be reinvigorated. Shun Shun didn’t understand ‘reinvigorated’ but she did understand it meant they’d sell more coal.

Liben suddenly launched into a tirade against his former partner.

‘It’s a shame he’s gone now that the coal’s selling,’ said Shun Shun.

‘He’s got an uncle who’s a county town cadre,’ said Liben. ‘He must have known about this policy a long time, that’s why he wanted out. Did you know, he’s just bought three new pits?’

Liben was furious that Shun Shun had stopped him buying more pits back then, and Shun Shun was sorry too, but you can’t turn the clock back. At least they still had this pit, that was enough, wasn’t it? ‘It’s never enough!’ said Liben. ‘When the wind gets up, you get more winnowing shovels! Next time there’s a decision to make, you listen to me!’

So Liben decided to go and buy a few more pits. But wherever he went, the prices had shot up to five times their previous levels, and were continuing to rise. The first time he asked the price of one pit, it was 5 million yuan, then a few days later, it was 8 million. By the time he made up his mind to buy, the price was 12 million. Liben could not, of course, raise that kind of money, so he came home and got blind drunk. When Shun Shun tried to console him, he kicked a stool so hard he broke the leg.

‘Are you crazy?’ said Shun Shun.

‘Coal’s crazy! North of the river’s crazy!’ said Liben.

People swarmed north from the south side of the river, and Dumbo had to make five times more trips across the river than before. He got his son Fish to put up a shack on the riverbank, brought his bedding over, got himself a stove and hardly ever went back home. Every couple of weeks, Fish brought him some rice and noodles and vegetables. But then Dumbo noticed his takings diminishing. He had been stashing the rolls of notes inside the lining of an old pair of shoes, which he hid in the wheat straw in one corner of the mattress. Somehow, his son must have discovered it. He accused Fish, who yelled back: ‘What do you need all that money for? I’m your son, are you telling me I can’t have any?’

Lying in his shack at night, Dumbo listened to the night birds calling in the reeds and thought: More than likely my son’ll sell my house. Am I going to end up dying in this shack? He couldn’t sleep, and got up to smoke a pipe sitting in his doorway. There were clouds of fireflies, like a shower of stars falling around him, winking and blinking, dimming and dying.

The 24th of June was the Birthday of the Lotuses. The three towns on the south bank grew paddy rice, and each of their villages had a lotus pond. The birthday celebrations were a way of wishing the lotuses good growth. Lotuses, like paddy rice, were thirsty plants, and if they grew well, so would the rice. Liben took a trip home. He had just lit a joss stick at the pond edge when the village head came hurrying up. ‘Get down to the ferry landing, quick as you can!’ he shouted. ‘A big official is about to cross the river!’

There were a dozen or so people waiting at the ferry landing. Most were wearing the usual cotton jackets but five were dressed neatly in suits and ties. Dumbo grabbed the village head. ‘How big are these officials?’ he asked. ‘City head and county head. You keep that boat steady.’ ‘What a lot of clothes they’re wearing!’ exclaimed Dumbo. He recognized suits and ties as official garb. His blackie passengers wore suit-style jackets but without ties, and they wore old cloth shoes on their feet, so it wasn’t surprising that they didn’t look good in them.

Out on the middle of the river, the city head said to the county head: ‘You need to build a bridge over this river.’ ‘It’s all planned,’ said the county head. Dumbo said to himself: Huh! If they build a bridge, that’ll be the end of my ferry. The thought made him pause in his strokes, and the current began to drag the boat downstream so he had to pole hurriedly to get back on course. As he did so, he wondered how they would build a bridge across such a big river. The county head probably thought it would happen on his say-so. A few years back, the county government had built a winery, and made the peasants south of the river turn all their land over to grapes, promising them that sales of grapes would make them wildly rich. But at the grape harvest, there were no buyers, and the farmers brought the fruit to the county government buildings, and dumped cartload after cartload at the entrance gate. The next year they dug up all the vineyards. Would the county government really build such a big bridge just to make it easier to carry coal? Dumbo couldn’t see it happening.

They arrived at the north bank and the officials disembarked. They were greeted by an orderly line-up of people and cars. The county head made the introductions: this was Mr so-and-so, this was Mr such-and-such. All of them were mine owners. From a distance, Dumbo could see Liben among them, but Shun Shun was with a bunch of people coming down the slope to get on the boat. They wanted to go back south of the river.

‘Your boat’s getting on a bit,’ Shun Shun said to Dumbo. ‘You need a new boat.’

‘She’s got a few years left in her yet,’ said Dumbo.

Shun Shun was also going home for the Birthday of the Lotuses. Although she had money now and didn’t depend on the crops from the family farm, she still insisted on giving the lotuses their birthday treat. There was something else she had been thinking about too: had their pomegranate tree flowered? Pomegranates had so many seeds, she wanted to pay her respects to the tree, in the hopes that this year she would get pregnant.

Towards evening, the village families made a wheat berry porridge and carried it out to the lotuses on the edge of the pond. There they ladled dollops of porridge onto the leaves and gazed at the lotus flowers in bloom here and there. At his home, Fish Song said ‘I’m eating now,’ and served himself a full bowl. As he did so, a villager came into his courtyard and demanded repayment on debts Fish owed him.

Fish sped up the ladder to get over the courtyard wall and make his escape, but the newcomer kicked the ladder over and Fish fell to the ground. ‘It’s only 10,000 yuan,’ he told him. ‘I’ll get it for you.’ He went into the main room of his house, came out with a knife in his hand, and there and then carved a great gash in the flesh of his leg. ‘I’m not eating that,’ said his creditor. ‘I’m not trying to get out of paying back my debt.’ said Fish. ‘This slit’s for you to poke, like I’m a woman.’ The man boxed first one of his ears, then the other. Fish had stars before his eyes. There seemed to be three creditors, then two, but then his eyes cleared and he saw there was only one. Enraged, he ran at him with the knife.

The creditor lived to tell the tale, so Fish only got two years in prison.

When he came out, there were far fewer people living in the village. He couldn’t find a wife because even the women had gone off north. There, he heard, people were rolling in money, pits were going for 20 or 30 million and Liben had four of them, making him the richest man in the south bank three towns.

All the primary schools in the three towns came cap-in-hand to Liben. He gave one school 100,000 yuan, and another 150,000. The third said that if he gave them 200,000, they would name the school after him, and Liben agreed. A party of over a hundred schoolchildren led by the head teacher, took a large inscribed tablet over the river to the pit. By now, the mine had a big building in which Liben had a palatial office decorated with a statue of Lord Guan cast in bronze, the god of brotherhood and of wealth. The inscription tablet was duly mounted on the wall but then it fell down and snapped in half. Shun Shun felt this meant that the tablet was too big a thing for Liben. ‘You hardly know how to read and write,’ she told him. ‘Why on earth should they name a school after you?’ So Liben changed his mind.

Meanwhile Fish Song was encouraging the village head to get Liben to tarmac the road into the village, since he had so much money. ‘If he gives 170,000 or 180,000, and we two are in charge, we can each take a cut of 30 or 40,000,’ he said. The village head had other ideas however: ‘What about if we get the village government to take out a loan and use it to buy a pit?’ He and Fish went off north of the river to scout, but pits were going for as much as 35 million and they didn’t have the money. So they went to Liben but he wouldn’t see them at first. He kept them waiting until the village head began to swear in rage, but Fish said: ‘I’ll ask Liben for the money myself, I’m not afraid of losing face.’ He worked on Shun Shun, to get her to talk Liben around. ‘We shouldn’t go offending the villagers,’ Shun Shun told her husband. ‘Especially not the village head.’ So Liben agreed to receive the village head and Fish in his office.

Liben was sitting on his sofa, but didn’t offer his visitors a seat, nor did he hand out cigarettes. As soon as they mentioned surfacing the road, Liben picked up the phone. He made one call to the accounts office, telling them to get such-and-such a department in the city administration to cough up 20 million straightaway, and another call to ask the county head’s secretary whether the county head was coming to inspect the day after tomorrow morning or afternoon, and would he like a whole roast lamb for dinner or would he prefer dog? Liben recommended dog meat washed down with spirits for winter-time. Then he turned to his visitors: ‘It’s just to tarmac the road, is it?’ And he took 200,000 yuan from the drawer. Then he told Fish to go back south of the river and look and see if the three towns had any hundred-year-old osmansthus trees. If so, he was to buy one and get it here. Liben wanted it planted at the entrance to the office building. Fish could claim his expenses on his return. Fish agreed, then asked: ‘You still have four pits?’ ‘I sold two,’ said Liben. ‘One pit is 35 million!’ said Fish. ‘You’re set up for life. And money brings in more money.’ ‘Nonsense,’ said Liben. ‘The buyer sold it on straightaway, for 40 million.’ Fish and the village head were secretly kicking themselves for not having grabbed their opportunity to buy a pit. So now, they had to watch other people eating meat while all they had was rank-tasting, greasy soup. It served them right, they thought.

The village street was tarmacked and Fish made a profit of 30,000. He also bought two osmanthus trees for Liben. Each tree cost 10,000 yuan but he said they cost 20,000, so he cleared 20,000 on those. With the money, he set up a shop in the village and stocked it with luxury goods. Ordinary people couldn’t afford stuff like that. His customers were the pit owners who came over from the north side.

Liben dropped by a few times, buying things like mountain ginseng, young deer antler, branded liquor and cigarettes and Pu’er Tea. There was a craze for Pu’er Tea, and Liben filled the boot of his car with boxes and drove off to the county town.

Liben had ambitions to become either a People’s Congress representative, or a member of the County People's Political Consultative Conference, so on one visit he asked Fish if he could get his hands on qianqian meat. Qianqian meat was a much-sought-after luxury, specially prepared donkey penis, served in slices that looked like copper cash. ‘That’s a difficult one!’ said Fish. ‘But I’ll get you some, come what may!’ South of the river, Fish went 50 li east to a small town called Fengyang where they produced qianqian meat and bought a big donkey stallion, then watched as it was killed and the penis cut off. He got five penises, thinking that there were four top officials, each with their own team, in the county town government. Each would get one penis, and that left one for Fish himself.

When Liben came to pick up the meat, Fish bragged about the fine big donkey stallions they had come from. Other people only got penises cut from donkeys that had died from some disease. These penises had been cut from live donkeys and had cost 15,000 yuan each. He showed Liben the packages. Each one was labelled: Secretary, County Head, Director, Chairman. The last was labelled ‘Me’. ‘Who’s me?’ asked Liben. ‘That’s for me,’ said Fish. ‘Not if I can help it!’ said Liben, and pocketed the fifth package.

Liben duly became a member of the CPPCC and went to regular meetings in the county town. There were plenty of people ready to help him smarten up his image, and Liben gradually acquired expensive tastes, for designer-label suits, shoes and belts. Then he got himself a fancy, imported watch too. Of course, he got Shun Shun suitcases full of fashionable outfits, but she didn’t feel very comfortable in them – she never knew where to put her hands when she went out. Liben told her he was buying her some high heels too but Shun Shun drew the line there. ‘No,’ she said. ‘How can I walk or work in such thin heels?’ But Liben bought them anyway, and not just one pair but five, and insisted she should wear them.

Liben told Shun Shun a story: a pit-owner worth hundreds of millions of yuan carried on dressing just as scruffily as he’d always done. One time, a famous singer from Beijing was performing in the city and someone offered to procure her for him. For 10,000 yuan he could have her for the night. The pit-owner paid up, went to her hotel and knocked on the door. But when the singer opened up and saw someone who looked like a peasant, dressed in tatty, dirty-looking clothes, she threw the wallet in his face and shut the door on him.

Liben said scornfully that the pit-owner gave industrialists a bad name but Shun Shun thought to herself: If the singer hadn’t taken a dislike to him, would she have done it with him?

Shun Shun wore her high heels but she couldn’t stand straight and her bottom stuck out and the first day she got terrible blisters. She went home, took them off and pointed accusingly at them: ‘Hey, shoes, you hurt me!’ But she still had to wear them, for Liben, so she bought plasters and filled her pockets with them.

When they did it in bed, Liben started to try different positions, but it didn’t feel right to Shun Shun. ‘What do you think you’re up to?’ she asked. ‘Hurry up and finish.’ Liben climbed off her, and sat at the table drinking his liquor. He threw the ashtray across the room too. Shun Shun felt a bit guilty and coaxed him back to bed. But Liben couldn’t get it up. Shun Shun said: ‘Don’t blame me.’ Liben complained that Shun Shun just lay there like a corpse when they did it. ‘You know the way women do ‘bed moans’?’ he said. ‘You’ve got to do that, it makes me feel really good.’ So Shun Shun went ‘Bed! Bed!’ in a low voice. Liben gave her a punch, got dressed and went out.

This was the first time Liben had hit Shun Shun and she felt very aggrieved. She’d give him a good telling-off when he came back. But Liben didn’t come back for five days and by that time Shun Shun wasn’t angry anymore and had started to find fault with herself. It’s my fault, she thought, I haven’t given birth even once, I haven’t been able to give him a proper family. She went looking for him at his company office. He didn’t show her up in front of everyone, he just said he was off to the city in the afternoon on business, and she should go home. This time he was away for a month.

Fish’s shop was doing well. A few times he took home treats, and once he took three chickens and killed them and got his dad to make soup. ‘What’s the point of buying so many things?’ Dumbo said. ‘Just spend your money,’ said Fish. ‘We’ve got plenty of it.’ He got out a cigarette for Dumbo, and took the old man’s water pipe away and dropped it in the river. Dumbo was aggrieved, and went and dredged in the river for it, and finally retrieved it.

‘Now you’ve got money, save it,’ he told his son. ‘And if you can’t save it, give it to me to save. When you’ve got enough, you can get yourself a wife.’ Dumbo was in a hurry for Fish to marry, but Fish wasn’t, which led to a few rows between them.

The village head’s brother, a young man with a huge paunch, worked in the local town government. ‘He’s the same age as you,’ said Dumbo, ‘and his kid’s in primary school already.’ ‘It’s easy enough to have a kid!’ said Fish. Dumbo’s lips twitched in disapproval: ‘You’re over thirty and you haven’t even got a belly to show for it. Look how beefy the village head’s brother is.’ ‘The clever ones get to give other people a big belly. The stupid ones can only make their own bellies big,’ said Fish. Dumbo was so angry that he refused to talk to his son after that.

Fish Song began to put less effort into running his business. He was forever running off north of the river, taking three or four young girls with him each trip. Every time Dumbo ferried his son and the girls across the river, he was filled with excitement and poled with gusto. His son had finally got the right idea, he thought. He’d got to know so many girls now, maybe he was even dating one of them. He secretly sized them up and gave his son his opinions: ‘The one in red, with the nice figure, is good. Don’t go for that tall, skinny one, whatever you do, tall, skinny ones are no good for child-bearing.’ ‘Forget it!’ said Fish. He took his girls north of the river and brought them back a few days later, then after a few days, he went north again with more girls.

The Qing Ming Festival came round and Shun Shun prodded Liben into going back to the village south of the river to sweep the graves of their departed parents. They took incense sticks, spirit money, fruit and wine and knelt down before the gravestones to make their offerings. The spirit money was printed just like real Chinese currency, except that the denominations were astronomical – 100 million yuan and a billion yuan. ‘However are they going to spend big notes like that?’ said Shun Shun. ‘If my dad buys himself a bowl of grass jelly in the market, he needs small change.’ And she took out a real 100 yuan note, and slapped it against the spirit money, first one side then the other. As the spirit money notes caught alight, Liben said: ‘Mum, Dad! I’m a CPPCC member now. That gives me so much clout, you wouldn’t understand even if I tried explaining! I’m like Mr Xu, the county head back in the old days.’

Mr Xu was deputy county head during the Republic, before 1949, and Shun Shun had often heard her dad talk about him. He was the most important official to have come out of the three towns, and used to go around dressed in a tunic suit with four pockets and a mandarin collar, a fedora hat with a brim, and a walking cane over one arm.

The driver overheard Liben and word soon got around both south and north of the river until it reached the county town. At the next CPPCC meeting, the chairman said to Liben: ‘How could you compare a CPPCC member to a puppet county head?’ He looked so severe that Liben rushed to explain: ‘You heard that, Mr Chairman? I was just shooting my mouth off to the spirits of my departed parents!’ The Chairman burst out laughing, and let the matter drop.

Fish Song worked for Liben’s company now. He was in charge of purchasing gifts, such as clothes, cigarettes and liquor, watches, jade and even furniture. He did not necessarily buy the best, but he certainly got the most stylish and the most expensive, and delivered them personally. When delivering to the residential compounds of the county party committee and government, he always made sure the gift went to the right person, and delivered it with the utmost discretion. Liben had complete trust in Fish, and began to take him along whenever he went out. Fish was always alert to Liben’s needs: if he was going up in the lift, he’d trot in front of him to press the button. If Liben went to the toilet, he was at the door holding out toilet paper for him. If Liben took his guests to a nightclub, Fish made sure to rustle up batches of hostesses to sit with them and keep them entertained. Fish made himself indispensable. The minute anything happened, Liben would turn and look at Fish, and Fish would respond: ‘I’m right here, guv…’

This particular Spring Festival, neither Shun Shun nor Liben went back home. The southern custom on the last day of the old year was to hang red lanterns at the house entrances and on family graves too, to show there were people in residence and the spirits of the departed were part of the family still. So Liben sent Fish in their stead. Fish bought the biggest, brightest lanterns to hang at the entrance to Shun Shun’s family home and on the family’s graves, before going to the shack on the riverbank to see his dad. Dumbo was drinking from a bottle of corn liquor he had bought, and Fish joined him, getting so drunk that he spewed it all up and Dumbo had to spend half the night wiping him down.

Back north of the river, Fish spoke to Liben: ‘You should do up that old house,’ he suggested. ‘Even though no one’s living there, it could be made into an imposing building which brings honour to your ancestors and prosperity to your descendants. If you don’t show the village how much you’ve achieved, you’re hiding your light under a bushel.’ Liben agreed, and put Fish in charge of the project.

‘I can rebuild that house like a memorial hall,’ Fish said to Liben and Shun Shun.

So Fish followed the river up into the hills, where he bought the finest quality timber. Then he couldn’t get the transport to bring it down, so he had the pieces lashed together and floated them down river. When he retrieved them from the riverbank at the village, he had lost three cross-beams. When he bought the bricks, he got the bricklayers to grind them smooth first. Each man was only allowed to do ten bricks a day and each brick had to have perfect corners and smooth surfaces. Then he got all the builders together and wined and dined them lavishly. He bought in twenty litres of chilli noodles alone.

The re-building was in full swing, when the county head gave Liben a special task. Most of the top people in the county government had not had a promotion for more than a decade and so they called in a yin-yang master to assess whether the county town was favourably located. The master said that when they built the expressway, they shouldn’t have made any opening in the range of hills to the south of the town. Now that they had, they should build a temple or a pagoda there to boost its fengshui. It was of course impossible for the County Party Secretary to build a temple or a pagoda, so he asked Liben to do it. The county government, he told him, would set aside a favourably-positioned piece of land which Liben could have cheap.

When Fish heard, he was really sore that Liben had not told him about such an important project, or put him in charge of it, and he drowned his sorrows in drink.

His drinking bout took place in the village head’s house and, when he’d had a skinful, he went off to see how his own building project was progressing. It was a windy day and he tripped and fell, landing under the pomegranate tree in the courtyard. He got a nasty gash on his face from the branches and, in a fit of rage, ordered the tree to be felled. Around noon the same day, with the timber frame and the roof beams and the sheaves of thatching straw in place and the builders half-way through daubing the thatch with mud, Fish suddenly discovered that one of the pillar pedestals had not been properly carved. In a furious rage, he told them to replace it with a new one. To do that, they had to lever the pillar out. They set to with four crowbars while one man held the bottom of the pillar firm. He had many years’ experience in building refurbishment, but unfortunately at the crucial moment he was shaken by a coughing fit, and the base of the pillar tilted sideways. They heard a loud crack from the roof beams above. There were shouts of: ‘Out! Quick!’ The men levering the pillar out of the pedestal got out but the other man was crushed to death as the roof collapsed.

As soon as the accident happened, Fish was instantly sober, and afraid. He decided to do a runner. ‘I’ll just go and give the boss a ring,’ he told the builders, and walked away, phone to his ear. He kept walking, looking back to check, until he got to the edge of the village, when he began to run.

Dumbo only found out that someone had been killed on the site when he ferried Liben and Shun Shun across the river. He wanted to go along with them to the site, but Liben said: ‘There’s no point you coming. Why let on that that useless article is your flesh and blood?’ After they had gone, Dumbo felt so flustered that his head swam and he nearly fell head first into the river.

In the afternoon, Dumbo decided to go to Shun Shun’s house. Liben was organizing the funeral, while Shun Shun sat in the courtyard, weeping. Liben held back his tears. He gave the family of the dead man 500,000 yuan so that he could be laid properly to rest, but insisted that the building must go on. Not only that, but the house must be built better than before. Dumbo ran back and forth apologizing profusely to Liben until Shun Shun said: ‘It’s nothing to do with you!’ ‘He’s my son!’ cried Dumbo. He smacked himself in the face, then went off to carry bricks and tiles until grimy sweat poured off him.

Shun Shun didn’t go back north of the river for a while. The accident had provoked a lot of sneering in the village and she preferred to stay for a few days and mend fences with her neighbours. She left off her brightly-coloured clothes and certainly didn’t wear her high heels when she went visiting. Four days later, a wedding was to be held in the village. As it happened, it was market day, and Shun Shun had gone to buy cigarettes and liquor for the builders, and fruit candies to hand out to the children. When all the candies had been distributed, she tidied herself up and prepared to go and join the wedding banquet. The wife of the village head’s younger brother came along, pulling her child by the hand: ‘Ask your rich auntie for some candy!’ she told him. ‘Rich auntie! Rich auntie!’ cried the kid, but Shun Shun had no candy left. She went red in the face with embarrassment. ‘When your rich auntie went selling coal door-to-door and complained of backache, I used to give it a rub for her, said the mother, ‘and now she hasn’t even got a bit of candy for you!’ Shun Shun dug in her pocket and pulled out a 100-yuan note to give the child.

When she got to the wedding, the family wanted her to sit down at the feast, but Shun Shun wasn’t having that. She shot straight into the kitchen, washed the vegetables, rinsed the rice and even carried the slops to pour into the pig trough. There was a table set up on the steps to the main building, where everyone was leaving gifts. ‘Have you left a gift, Shun Shun?’ asked the village head. ‘Not yet,’ she said. She went up, the slop pail in one hand, and put down a 500-yuan note. ‘500 yuan!’ announced the gift recorder, impressed. The other guests, however, said: ‘What’s 500 yuan to her?’ Shun Shun went back into the kitchen, and the village head followed her. ‘It doesn’t matter how rich you are, you can’t offend people like that,’ he scolded her, frowning. ‘What?’ said Shun Shun. ‘You’ve lived in the village, haven’t you? Everyone else has given 50 yuan, and now you come along and give 500 yuan, you’ve raised the bar much too high for other people!’ Shun Shun didn’t argue with the village head but at dinner she couldn’t get her food down and left without finishing.

Liben still liked his liquor, but did not have a good head for it anymore. He got drunk on very little, and regularly had to be carried home in the small hours. Shun Shun always got so angry with the men who brought him home that they started leaving him outside the door, however drunk he was. They just knocked as hard as they could and then made themselves scarce. When Liben sobered up, he accused Shun Shun of giving him a bad name by getting angry with the men who carried him home. ‘Why shouldn’t I drink when I’m out at dinner?’ he said. ‘Don’t poke your nose into my affairs!’ They had a fierce row, which Shun Shun lost. She tried hard to control Liben, but he carried on drinking just as before, with the only difference that when he was drunk, he stayed out all night.

After that, if Liben didn’t come home at night, it meant he was out drinking. As time went by, Shun Shun thought to herself: Why should I be stuck at home all day doing nothing? She went a few times to the company offices but Liben wouldn’t let her work. It was demeaning, he said, for the wife of the boss to work. Shun Shun could see his point, so she went back home, still with nothing to do, except straighten her hair after she’d permed it and perm her hair when she’d straightened it, and try out different moisturizers on her face. One day the wife of the sales manager came to visit and recommended laying slices of cucumber on her face to keep the wrinkles at bay. So Shun Shun immediately sliced cucumbers and the pair of them lay on the bed, their faces covered in cucumber slices. As they chatted, the woman suddenly said: ‘Does the boss never come home to sleep?’ ‘He’s busy,’ said Shun Shun. But she wondered how the woman knew that Liben was rarely at home. ‘Well at least you can sleep soundly,’ said the woman, ‘Because he’s not always asking for it.’ ‘He’s too old to be asking for it,’ said Shun Shun. ‘He hasn’t asked for it in ages.’ ‘But men and women are different,’ said the woman. Why was she bringing this up? Shun Shun wondered. Had Liben been messing around? What she actually said was: ‘Let him mess around if he wants, at least it gives me an easy life.’ And she laughed gently.

Shun Shun felt she was definitely getting old. There were white streaks in her hair and she was beginning to get flabby around the waist. Unsurprisingly she didn’t sleep well at night. She used to sit up smoking a couple of cigarettes, and never got more than four or five hours’ sleep in a night. She demanded that Liben hand over their savings for her to look after. ‘I’ll just look after the savings!’ she told him. What she felt was that looking after their savings was the best way of looking after the family.

North of the river, there was a market every three days. One day Shun Shun saw a woman selling a litter of puppies. A white puppy with black feet whimpered at her, making a soft sound like a cat mewing, and Shun Shun thought it was so sweet, she bought it. Shun Shun already had a lot of shopping so the woman sent her daughter to carry the puppy home for her. The daughter was a lively, pretty little girl and the pair of them chatted all the way. Her name was Miao Miao. ‘I really like you,’ said Shun Shun. ‘I’m going to give you a new name, Anran. When she got home, she gave Anran dinner.

As time went by, the puppy grew fast. Shun Shun phoned Anran almost every day and Anran would come over. They spent time talking and eating, and when the girl left, Shun Shun often gave her a present like a silk scarf or a pair of leather shoes. Anran wanted to call Shun Shun ‘Auntie,’ but Shun Shun said: ‘Call me Big Sister.’

Liben came home one day and met Anran. ‘I didn’t know there were such pretty girls north of the river,’ he said. ‘She can come and work for me in the office.’ Shun Shun was not happy about this as she wanted to keep Anran with her, but eventually she said: ‘If you really like her, then at least pay her a monthly wage.’

Finally one night, the dogs barked outside. As soon as Shun Shun heard footsteps, she knew Liben had come home. She was in such a hurry to open the door, she put her slippers on the wrong foot and it was only when she’d opened up that she discovered her jacket was inside-out. Liben was drunk again but this time there was no one behind him. ‘Did no one bring you home?’ asked Shun Shun. ‘Uh,’ said Liben, and vomited down her front. ‘Really! They should have brought you!’ She helped Liben inside the house and onto the bed. She tried to get his clothes off but Liben was uncooperative and just fell asleep. Shun Shun did not – the alcohol fumes made her head swim and Liben snored thunderously. Besides, she was excited. It was good that he had come back, better to sleep as a couple than alone. She dropped off, then woke up to pull the covers over Liben, then again to boil water for Liben to drink. Holding the cup between her hands, she blew on the boiling water and looked out of the window. There was an eclipse that night, and only a sliver of ‘dog-eaten’ moon could be seen. The few glimmers of moonlight shone as brilliantly as silver hairpins. The mines north of the river had turned into a new town and people poured in from all over, hoping to make their fortune. Every time Liben walked down the street, people stopped to greet him. Those from south of the river were especially keen to work in his company. Liben didn’t want them in his company offices because they knew his background too well, and they might be hard to manage. If they wanted work, they could go down the pits. The south side men weren’t interested in digging coal but they didn’t give up, they sent their wives to nag him. As soon as he appeared, the women flocked around him and the townsfolk said: ‘This pit owner must be Tripitaka, he attracts so many white-bone demons!’

Liben was still particular about how he looked but he was putting on weight all the same. When he accompanied the head of the county government’s Industry Department on inspections, the pair of them had paunches sticking out in front. ‘When you stand upright, can you see your little guy?’ the head asked one day. ‘I haven’t seen him for two years,’ said Liben. ‘You better lose weight then,’ said the other, and Liben decided he would. Along the road, the telegraph poles all had leaflets from unlicensed STD clinics stuck on them. ‘You haven’t got an STD, have you?’ asked the official. ‘Why would I have an STD?’ ‘All company bosses do,’ said the official. ‘And they make sure we officials get one too. Share and share alike!’ And the two burst out laughing.

Fish Song stayed away for two years, but things didn’t go well and when the fuss about the accident died down, he ventured back south of the river. He didn’t have the face to present himself to Liben and Shun Shun in person but he dreamed up another way of making money out of Liben: he found a slow-witted vagrant and got two accomplices to put the man to work at Liben’s pit. After two weeks, he got into the pit himself and pushed the vagrant into a deep hole at the coal face, then damaged a couple of the pit props so that there was a coal fall and the man was crushed to death. When Liben heard that someone had died at his mine, he was terrified that the county Safety Inspection Department might try to pin the responsibility on him. That would not look good for his position on the CPPCC. He first hushed up the news then surreptitiously contacted the dead man’s family and offered to do a deal. Immediately, Fish Song sent one of his accomplices, posing as the vagrant’s elder brother, to Liben’s office to demand compensation of a million yuan. Liben jibbed at that, but he paid up 700,000 yuan.

When the body was taken back south, Shun Shun’s uncle discovered it was Fish who had buried it on a hillside. He told Liben. Realizing that Fish was up to his old tricks again, Liben exploded with rage and swore to get revenge. He was about to go to the police but when Shun Shun heard, she went to his office and scolded him roundly. ‘You know what kind of a man you’re handing in, don’t you?’ They spent an anxious night discussing different ways of dealing with the problem. When it got light, Shun Shun made Liben a bowlful of poached eggs. ‘If you have a full stomach, your head will be clearer,’ she said. In her view, they should drop any idea of revenge or even of reporting it, in case the whole thing blew up in their face. ‘Mud sticks,’ she said. ‘Let’s just calm down. We can absorb the loss this time.’

Liben listened to her, and got his anger under control. But not long after, he fell ill.

To distract Liben, Shun Shun had taken him with her to pick wild chrysanthemum flowers on Moonlight Ridge to the north-west of the mines. They were in full bloom there, and although each flower was tiny and undistinguished, they covered the hillside in a dense, glittering gold carpet, a magnificent sight. Liben picked and picked until his side hurt – but he thought it was just a stitch and took no notice. Back home, he had an infusion of the chrysanthemum flowers and got diarrhoea. When the anti-diarrheal remedy didn’t work, he went to hospital. After three days there, the diarrhoea stopped and Shun Shun said: ‘Why don’t you get that back of yours looked at too, while you’re about it?’ The doctor examined the X-ray and pointed out a dark shadow in the chest area. It looked like cancer, breast cancer. Liben was outraged. ‘A grown man like me, with cancer? Breast cancer?!’

Liben went to the provincial hospital, which confirmed the diagnosis of breast cancer. He was operated on one evening soon after. Shun Shun sat outside the operating theatre waiting, but she could not sit still. She went down to the hospital garden and wept and wept until it grew dark. It was pitch-dark, with not a star in the sky. Her hands clasped together, Shun Shun said to herself: If only a star will come out, it means he’ll get better. She looked up and stared at the sky, but after half an hour she still could not see a star. It was time to go back upstairs but she had not given up hope. As she went, she carried on searching the sky, and finally, as she got to the hospital doors, she saw a tiny prick of light and gave a cry of relief. The operating theatre was on the tenth floor but she sped all the way up without pausing for breath.

When Liben came round and could talk, the first thing he said was: ‘How long have I got?’ ‘We caught it early,’ said the doctor, ‘and the majority recover from this form of cancer.’ ‘Then I’m one of the “majority”!’ said Liben. Shun Shun was happy that Liben was so confident. ‘Of course you’ll get better,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a lucky mole down there, haven’t you?’ Liben actually got Shun Shun to bring over a mirror, and looked at himself. ‘I can’t die,’ he said. ‘We haven’t finished the building in the county town yet. You go and buy an apartment in the provincial city, one that’s nicely done up, and I’ll go and live there and have my chemo, when I’m out of hospital. But don’t tell anyone, keep this under wraps for at least three months. I’ll be back in three months!’

Shun Shun bought the apartment and when Liben was out of hospital, she looked after him there. After a couple of weeks, however, he sent her back north to deal with company business, which had piled up. Shun Shun didn’t want to go and Liben had to force her. So she got him a nurse and made the driver stay too, and she went back north of the river.

When Shun Shun suddenly turned up at their company offices, the staff didn’t know what to think. She told them that Liben had gone abroad to do some on-the-spot investigation. She went three times to the pit, once to the sales department and once to the finance office, as well as once to the building site in the county town. She was strict and conscientious, and nothing escaped her. Then, when she had finished, she announced that she would be giving out bonuses and awards. These were three times more generous than Liben gave. She felt that you could never have too many people earning money, but conversely too much money could harm you.

When Shun Shun had finished her work at the company offices, she went home and began to teach Anran. Anran knew about Liben’s illness and asked Shun Shun when she was going back to the city. ‘I’m not going,’ said Shun Shun, ‘So I’d like you to go.’ Every evening, she instructed Anran on Liben’s habits and his moods, what clothes he liked to wear, what he liked to eat, and how to cook for him. She gave her cookery lessons, taught her how to stir-fry dishes and how to make soup, how to fold Liben’s clothes and how to arrange the room, even how to stand and sit and smile. One day, Shun Shun told her about bathing him. ‘He’s got an old injury on his back,’ she said, ‘So don’t scrub it too hard. And he snores when he’s asleep, so don’t let him bury his head.’ ‘Why are you telling me all this?’ asked Anran. ‘You should know what this is about!’ was Shun Shun’s reply.

Two months later, Shun Shun got the driver to come and fetch Anran and take her to the provincial city. Before they left, she tidied Anran’s fringe and said: ‘You’re so pretty!’ But after the car set off, tears trickled down her cheeks.

Liben stayed in the city. Three months went by, then five months, and he had still not come back. But Shun Shun phoned him a couple of times a week, first to ask him how he was progressing, then to ask how Anran was shaping up, and finally to report on the company. Liben was aware that the coal sales had fallen off again, and were about to drop even lower. In the past, the queue of coal trucks snaked away down the road, now they were lucky to get three in a day.

Liben asked what this was all about.

‘I don’t know!’ said Shun Shun.

‘Is there a problem with the managers?’ asked Liben.

‘No, every company’s got the same problem.’

Liben tried to read the newspaper, but there were a lot of characters he didn’t know, so he got Anran to read it aloud. The papers were full of the fiscal crisis in America and Europe. All over the world, the economy was in recession and even China was affected. During one of his visits to the hospital for chemotherapy, he met a girl whose mother was having chemo too, and they struck up a conversation. The girl had an office job in the mainland branch of a Taiwan company. ‘Is there really a recession?’ Liben asked. ‘I don’t know about other companies,’ said the girl, ‘but we sell top-of-the-range soy sauce and I know our sales this year are only a third of previous years.’

In one phone call at the end of the month, Shun Shun told Liben a dozen companies had shut their mines. ‘Should we shut our pits down?’ she asked. ‘Or just shut one down? Every ton we sell, we make a loss, and on that basis we shouldn’t sell any coal, and if we stop selling, we shouldn’t dig any more out.’

‘We can’t close them down!’ said Liben down the phone. ‘I’m not sick, my health’s improving every day. Haven’t I got that lucky mole? Keep on digging!’

With the two pits still working, the coal piled up in great heaps. There was no money coming in, and everything they had was being ploughed back into the pit. Finally, all their money had turned into coal and the gully was covered in heaps of it.

It had been a dry autumn the previous year but, as this summer began, there were three torrential rainstorms, the worst one lasting three days and four nights. The coal in the gully was washed away, layer by layer, until the great heaps were flattened, and then turned into hollows. Shun Shun got a taxi to take her there. When she saw what had happened, she cursed and swore… and then she finally laughed. ‘Fine, fine, at least Liben’s going to get better.’ And she began to think of their house in the village south of the river.

The Backflow River ferryboat still made the crossing even though it was ramshackle and leaky now. The passengers used to say: ‘Dumbo, you really ought to get a new boat.’ ‘Yes I should,’ said Dumbo. ‘Then why don’t you?’ they asked. ‘The last few years the government keeps saying they’re going to build a bridge and they haven’t built it yet. I certainly can’t afford a new boat, can I?’

There were fewer people going from south to north now, and more going in the opposite direction.

After the storms, the river was in full spate. The boat took in so much water, it could not make the crossing. On the north bank, crowds of people gathered, hoping to cross over to the south. But although they could see the boat on the other side and shouted as loud as they could: ‘Dumbo! Bring the boat over!’, there was no sign of the ferryman.

Dumbo wasn’t in his shack, which had been demolished three months ago. In fact, he was back in his old home in the village, asleep and dreaming that he had collected a large basket of hens’ eggs.

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