Another small piece of Xu Zhenya, which displays the kind of refined humour Butterflies writers cultivated to epitomize what they believed was the “true” spirit of literati. The happy end of the story lies in the alteration of one word in the original verse: wearing or being girdled by a jade belt was “hard to take”, now it becomes something one can’t avoid. This pun enables the protagonist to please the local magistrate while managing to keep his virtue unblemished, and suggesting that what he really means is actually closer to the original version.
Here goes the text:
The Notes taken in Nancun when land was not ploughed report that, while crossing Fujian province, Master Long Linzhou was invited to attend a banquet given by the county government. A beautiful courtesan named Jade belt was ordered to pour him wine and drink along with him. When his cup was half empty, the head of the local government raised his cup and declared: “Jade belt is the one who brings all the fun today. I would like you to reward her with a poem. During that time, the Master was enjoying an excellent reputation in all the country and he was afraid of the critics his lack of elegance could generate. However, he could not decline the invitation either, so he declaimed these brilliant verses: “Standing by the side of a pond covered with moss, the wind was fully blowing into my vest. Under the osmanthus kiosk, a thick rain was falling. I recall the words of Su Dongpo: a feeble body can’t help being girdled by a jade belt”. After hearing this, all the guests stood up and gave him a warm applause, and then left the banquet overwhelmed with joy.
He actually responded to the invitation in a very tactful way, giving the impression that he agreed to do so, whereas he was in fact declining it. Wouldn’t have he reacted this way and refused frankly, it would certainly have spoiled all the fun and the guest would have left in a bad mood. That is an example of how marvelous wording operates in a poem.
Xu Zhenya, “About Attachment”, People’s Rights, July 18th 1912
What does a – rather educated – Chinese reader would find in the literary page or supplement of a political newspaper in the early 1910s? Here is a typical example of what you could expect to read in it.
This short piece by Xu Zhenya, though maybe a bit insipid at first glance, tells actually a lot about how Butterflies writers astutely used this new space of artistic expression to discuss politics.
First, as it is almost always the case in their works, the erudite intellectual background displayed can’t go unnoticed: Li Bai, Laozi, founding myths… Nothing allusive or really byzantine for the average reader though. Then follows an ambitious philosophical perspective on the meaning of life and – this is what matters the most here – how to live a life that is meaningful. The answer given by Xu is quite unequivocal: political commitment is but the ultimate way to fulfill one’s destiny. Added to many other pieces and political essays by Xu and other Butterflies writers, this modest piece definitely invites us to read Xu’s writings in their context: the founding of the Republic and the mixt of enthousiasm and disappointment it carries, as the mere change of political regime is worthless if it lacks the spiritual strenght to trigger democratic participation. Here is, I believe, a typical answer from one of these fin-de-siècle literati who suddenly became journalists in order to make a living and also to voice out what they believed were modern ideas.
I will publish soon another text by Xu Zhenya in which he urges his fellow citizens not to yield to desperation and fight against the tempting beauty of decay – contradictory enough, that is precisely the kind of gloomy beauty he depicts with such virtuosity in his novels. By doing so, I aim at confronting Butterflies novels to their articles or essays in order to shed light on how and why these two kinds of writings might contradict each other. What do these discrepencies can tell us about the way they picture their dual identity, i.e literaris and political journalists.
Here it goes:
The king of Yue once told the king of Wu: “People live thanks to/from the land, they are attached to it ”. Laozi also said: “Human beings live between Heaven and Earth, where their lodging is”. To be attached to a place necessarily means that you belong to it. As Tao Yuanmin wrote in a poem: “What came will eventually have to go; it is the very nature of men to have an end”. And Li Bai says: “ Heaven is the host of all creatures; Time is the passing traveler of all generations”. I contend that all the people who only seek glory and wealth in this world should stop thinking like that and have the same devotion for the country and its people. The world won’t host us forever, that is why we should pay even more attention not to live in vain.
Here is the meaning of “being attached to a place”. How elegant it would be to say that we live like mayflies in this world. However, how human beings could be compared to mayflies? In the past, when Yu the Great saved the people who were crossing a river, he simply laughed loudly at the Yellow dragon who was capsizing their boat: “My fate lies in Heaven. I will devote all my energy to helping mankind. Life is but a temporary dwelling, and death is a mere return.”
We see that although it’s always the same word which is used (to be attached or to dwell ji), its meaning varies greatly. I hope that all the misanthropists could find inspiration in the words of Yu the Great and pull themselves together. I sincerely hope that they won’t read Tao Yuanming’s poems or Li Bai’s preface and let their words dishearten them.
Xu Zhenya, “An Hour of Tribulations”, The Grove of novels (Xiaoshuo congbao 小說叢報), IV.4, 1917
One of Xu Zhenya’s very few short stories written in vernacular Chinese, “An Hour of Tribulations” is arguably the most dramatic example of how emotions affect people’s minds and transform the course of their lives. The belief of Butterflies writers in the emotional nature of all human beings, often theorized in prefaces, finds a tremendously intense expression in this short story. Here, social interactions boil down to a nexus of complex and often rival emotions. Revealing the complexity of such feelings is precisely one of the most salient features of early Butterflies novels.
Here it goes:
Novels are ludicrous. Nowadays, anyone who handles an inkpot, touches a bit of ink, grasps some writing sheets and wields a brush loves writing sentimental novels. All of them deal with a talented scholar living a vagrant life, down and out, facing all kinds of unpleasant situations that never go well. And when they don’t, these novels are all bout beautiful daughters of distinguished families or forsaken widows assaulted by infinite sorrows, full of unspeakable thoughts and feelings. Their laments and wailing always end up meeting with topic places like mountains summits and profound gorges, or spring rivers and autumn islets. They also always manage to use sceneries such as “clear sky and bright moon”; “bitterly cold wind and rain”.
But truly, deep down in their heart, the characters in these novels bear all kinds of unutterable things. So how would these writers know anything about it? Let’s admit that even if all those romantic-type persons will not confess their secret feelings and hidden thoughts to anyone else, they will still always reveal some of themselves here and there, unconsciously. But what about all these mountains, waters, spring and autumn? These people didn’t just hear them and spill them out from their mouths like that, and the words would reach the writer’s ears. The same goes for all those skies, winds and rains: they didn’t happen to see them and wrote them down for the writers. What I want to say is that sentimental novels writers rely on their feelings, talent and the circumstances they encounter and just put them into words, nothing more. When what they write seems pretty realistic, people say that it really happened. As for their less convincing writings, people label them as scholar’s games. But if things really go this way, do sentimental novels still have any value?
You might as well say that. But still, unbelievable things do happen in this world, and they can throw you into the deepest confusion. Let’s take for instance this particular sentimental novel, titled An Hour of Tribulations. People of superficial knowledge would certainly deem it as typical scholar’s nonsense. Because in this world – they would argue – when something is not tragic, it has to be joyful; and what is not separated is necessarily united. Moreover, joyful is the antonym of tragic, and disunion is the opposite of union. It has been so ever since Cang Jie, who invented Chinese writing, made it crystal clear, so there is no need for his descendants to discuss it. But these people wouldn’t suspect that in the following novel, tragedy, joy, disunion and reunion are very much out of the ordinary. First of all, all of what is told here did actually happen, and the story is deprived of even the slightest fabrication. I did not personally witness it, but it was reported to me by a friend who saw everything. Secondly, all the words in the title are related to two people, one man and one woman. They were bound by official ties and were not one of these couples who meet secretly under the willows. Third, the words of the title teach us many things: first, the circumstances of the story, as it only pictures one hour of the characters’ lives, and during this little hour they experienced all different kind of feelings: the bitter taste of affliction, the excitement of joy, the sorrow of separation and the beauty of reunion. Isn’t it the most exciting and puzzling story ever published? My friend witnessed every part of it and then reported it to me. And now, let me recount what happened to him on this peculiar day:
My friend is actually a well-known person. He is the famous detective novel writer [Yu] Tianfen [俞天憤 1881-1937]. He witnessed the story during the winter of 1899. He saw everything with his own eyes, but since he doesn’t like to compose sentimental novels, he just kept it for himself, deep down his chest. He also didn’t dare to share it with his relatives. But this time, as he recently fell from the third floor to the second and nearly killed himself, he ended up immobilized in a bed for more than a month unable to go out, and was plunged into a deep depression. When I heard about it, I rushed back to our hometown of Changshu in order to bring him solace. Tianfen is actually a very philosophical person. He told me: “Nothing really matters more than all these novels I have been keeping deep down in my heart. Now that I am lying on a bed I am thinking about it. But it is too painful to stand up and seat, so I can’t write”. I comforted him by saying: “Don’t say this, after one and a half month you’ll be back on your feet again. But if you find this idle time unpleasant, why don’t you tell me the story you have in mind and I’ll just write it down for you”. Tianfen found my proposition quite suitable and this is how he began to recount, from the beginning to the end, this famous story that happened in the year 1899 (in what follows, “I” always refers to Tianfen).
In July 1899, I moved to the county town of Wuxian, in Zhejiang province, to live with relatives. By then, it was still called the Huzhou prefecture. I was living in an abandoned garden that went by the name of the Borrowed Garden. It was located just next to a river and a street, which lied in a state of complete desolation. Over the door was nailed a plate with Chinese inscriptions on the top line: fifty-four. On the other line, two Suzhou numbers were inscribed: 88. The first time I saw it I just thought it was some kind of equation, like 8 multiplied by something. But then I noticed that all the doors had numbers written on them, and so I understood that these numbers had something to do with the other numbers above. This detail might seem irrelevant, but since the entire story started with those numbers, I needed to go through these specifics in order to recount it precisely.
On the left of the garden there was a tiny residence. On its main door, the number fifty-five was written. According to my relatives, the Zhu were living there. The husband was Zhu Baolin, and his wife was Mrs. Yang, and her name was Ziying. Ziying was born in the district but graduated from the Tongzhou Normal School. Right after her marriage with Zhu Baolin, he moved to Japan to study; this was five years before. According to my parents, who somehow knew Zhu Baolin, he was a very fine and educated man. His wife Yang Ziying was the only one remaining at home, along with a maid whose name was Anwen.
I remember this day, it was in December and I had already packed my things and was ready to take leave of my relatives, as I was to go back home for the New Year. Little did I know that Heaven rebelled and made the snow fall all day long. The scenery of the garden under the snow was a delight. But all my thoughts were focused on two words, going home, and I did not have heart to think about enjoying the scene. It was about ten in the evening when I eventually reluctantly followed my relative outside to get a glimpse of the scene. Suddenly, we heard some loud crying coming from the Zhus’ house. My relative told me that he found it strange, since he’d never heard a single cry coming from their house for four or five years. Who was crying like this? And why? It was quite hard to tell. A few moments after, someone opened the door: a woman wearing a raincoat and a rain hat went out the house. She was exuding bitterness while her face was bathed in tears. Just like that, she set foot on the snow and walked towards west.
Her raincoat was black. When she was passing through the door, there was hardly any snowflake on it, but by the time she walked a bit further, all these numerous spots over there looked like thousands of pear flowers; it was of great beauty. The moment after, we could only see her walking alone on a long street, before her shadow almost disappeared. As a matter of fact, her entire body was wrapped around a thick coat made of snowflakes. I looked around myself and noticed that her footprints had already been blown away. My relative then uttered to me that she was Yang Ziying, the wife of Zhu Baolin. And he added that he didn’t know what unfortunate thing could have happened to her. I laughed at him and retorted: “this is no business of ours”. “It’s not what I meant”, he argued, “I’ve never heard a single cry in this house and look what’s just happened today, Yang Ziying rushing out the house bathed in tears”. “Where does her mother live?” I asked. “She lives on the street next to the ferry boat pier, he replied. You want to know if the boat came to town? But I’m afraid that it only stops at Huzhou.” “Exactly,” I said.
Just when we were talking, someone rushed out again the door of the Zhu residence. It was the young maid, who was brimming with tears. Leaning on the door she seemed extremely ill at ease. My relative asked her: “What happened to Lady Yang? Why did she suddenly go out with all this snow falling outside?” “Alas”, she cried, “the Master is gone.” My relative startled at this news, “Ah! Baolin passed away. I can’t believe the man I met in Tokyo three years before just left forever. When did your mistress learn it?”The maid replied: “Three or four days ago. She received a letter from Shanghai sent by my master, informing her that he was taking the Dai Shengchang ferry tonight to get back home. My mistress was overwhelmed with joy, as the two of them have had the happiest marriage, withstanding five long years of separation. And now that my master has completed his studies, he was at last coming home. My mistress, who was also an educated person, was filled with joy when she heard the word ‘graduated’. She was so excited that the next morning she woke up very early and had me prepared a couple of delicacies and warmed some wine. She even cleaned up the study herself and planted a few Indian Chinomantus in a vase so that when her husband comes home they can contemplate flowers while enjoying wine. But she’d never expected that around nine someone who looked like a sailor walked into the house holding a handbag. After putting it down, he said to my mistress: ‘Here is his bag, please take it. Your husband’s coffin was shipped from Shanghai, but Yuhudang (a lake by the South Gate of Huzhou) is closed now, so it stopped at Daochangshan’.” And after saying this, he just went off. When hearing this news, my mistress immediately bathed her face in tears. I did my best to comfort her but it would not make her stop crying. That is how she ended up going alone to the South Gate.”
At this point I interrupted here: “This sailor, did you know him? Have you opened the bag?” The maid replied: “It’s true that I am not sure about the sailor. But as for the handbag, we didn’t open it.” I went on: “This doesn’t feel right. If your master passed away, who sent the coffin? If it were by a friend, wouldn’t he make it to your house to inform you? Why would he trust a rude sailor to report his death to you?” After hearing this, the maid asked: “If it is so, what shall we do?” “You’d better lock the door and run after your mistress, and if your master is really dead, well, you should take good care of her.” She did as I said, locked the door and rushed out for Lady Yang.
At this point, it stopped snowing, but dense clouds still filled the whole sky while the westerly wind was now whirring. My relative and I entered the garden and sat in the gatehouse. “How miserable it is”, he said, “to be alone. They were such a nice match, and today because of this dreadful incident she finds herself alone in the world. How is she going live now?” I replied: “I still find that there is something weird in this whole business. If you were a friend of Zhu Baolin’s, why wouldn’t you at least inform his wife’s parents? It’s not that difficult to arrange.” Suddenly, we heard the booming sound of someone knocking on a door. I opened the window to have a glance outside and saw a handsome young man knocking on the door of the Zhu residence. I called my relative and asked him if he recognized this man. He had a look at him and, without answering me, just shouted: “Brother Baolin! You’re back!” I laughed: “What!” And then the two us flied out from the arch and walked out of the garden. My relative introduced me to him.
Baolin told my relative: “I’d never imagined that three years after we would see each other again here, back home.” And my relative added: “It was truly unexpected!” I was inwardly thinking “Yes, that is truly unexpected!” These words actually bore a double meaning. Less than half an hour before, her wife nearly killed herself out of anxiety. After a moment, Baolin said: “It’s strange, why isn’t anyone opening that door?” That was the moment I chose to ask: “You took the Dai shengchangferry, did you not? And it didn’t make it on schedule, right?” He replied: “I did take it, but it wasn’t late at all. It’s just that, when I arrived, it was snowing big flakes, and I decided to store my luggage in a friend’s house. I had a light meal and then walked back home.” My relative couldn’t bear it any longer and had to reveal him what happened. It baffled him greatly and he said to us: “I have to go to the South Gate to get her. In the meantime, if they come back, could you please explain them everything. Here, I leave you a card so that they know they can trust you.” “Perfect,” I said, “Hurry up!”
After a while, the maid came back. She looked completely confused and asked my relative: “Sir, have you seen my mistress coming back?” I passed her the card Baolin left us and told her that her master came back, but she wouldn’t believe me. After my relative assured her many times that it was true, she finally gave credit to it. “But now that my master is back home, my mistress is nowhere to be found!” She said. “I went to the pier by the lake, but there was not a single clue of where she might have gone. I also went to her parents’ home, but her mother told me that she didn’t go there. They sent someone to look for her and ordered me to first go home and wait. I am so thrilled that my master came back. But who was the guy with the handbag?” And while chatting to herself she walked into the house.
But at this moment – I don’t know if it’s much of a coincidence – another person also happened to walk into the house. Will you guess who it was? (It was) precisely that very sailor who came earlier with the handbag. As soon as she recognized him, the maid flew with anger and assaulted the sailor, who fought back vigorously with a strong Yangzhou’s accent. Fortunately Baolin showed up and, noticing that the door was already open, believed that Ziying had already came back. But the scene unraveling before his eyes while he set foot in the house was the maid fighting with an unknown man. When she saw her master, the maid almost jumped with joy, but he asked straight on if his wife came back. She just shook her head. This is the moment when my relative and I coincidentally chose to walk into the house.
After restraining the man, Baolin told us: “I walked to the South Gate but there was nothing there, not a sign of Ziying. But I easily managed to get some information from a boat master who told me that a woman wearing a raincoat rent a boat for Daochangshan. So I immediately hired him and sailed straight to the foot of the Daochangshan. I asked the people there if they saw someone. They confirmed that people came today to place a coffin in a temporary location, pending burial. They heard that it was a family living downtown, nearby the Borrowed Garden. The coffin was shipped from Shanghai. I asked if they saw a woman, and they replied that there were many women and at least three or four boats following them, but they left a while ago. Then I tried to know if they knew their name, but they did not. At this point, I didn’t know what to do so I decided to come back. I also tried to ask my family in-laws, but they didn’t have any clue either.” Then the maid said to him: “That guy over there declared that you were dead, and now he is coming back to take the handbag away.” Baolin, who after all was a wise man, asked the sailor: “But who are you? Where do you come from?” “I work as a crew member on the boat from Yangzhou. Lately we were in Shanghai, but a few days ago some Mr. Shi came to hire our boat. He wanted to ship back a coffin. We arrived here today and since he didn’t have any servant, I was given this bag as a proof of identity. I was sent to the house located at number eighty-eight, east of the Borrowed Garden, to deliver a letter. Sir, I believe you understand that as someone who has always been living in Shanghai, I am much accustomed to Western numbers. But little did I know that in your fine town, traditional Suzhou numbers are still in used. I asked for the direction all the way long, and when I finally noticed that on the plate over your door was written 88/ fifty-five, I took it for the Western number eighty-eight. It was a mistake. So I walked into the house, put off the bag, said what I had to say, and just left the place. It was not until I reached the boat that I learned the news: Lady Shi had already arrived but she never received the handbag. After asking me about this, they realized that I made a mistake and so rushed off to the mountain. They didn’t tell me to go and take back the handbag, but since this all business was getting out of hand, I decided to do so.” “I see, that explains everything! Do you know that just a few words of you were enough to cause great distress to my wife; and at this time she is still missing. Here is the handbag, take it and just go away!” The maid: “Not so fast! My mistress hasn’t come back yet, we can’t let him go free now. Besides, I know the Shi family.” And at this very moment, someone showed up at the entrance. After paying a close look at this person, Baolin realized that she was the woman he has been living away from during five years and whom he has been desperately looking for: his wife Ziying. (Tianfen’s narration ends here.)
“I stop here,” said Tianfen. “What happened after?” I asked. “You don’t have to dig too deep and explain everything.” he retorted. “You sentimental writers are only about tragedy, joy, separation and reunion. When Ziying heard the words from the sailor she almost died. I think the word ‘tragedy’ suits her pretty well. The fact that Baolin proudly came home can be characterized as ‘joyful’. And take these two people who, after having lived far from each other for five years, finally managed to reunite. Alas, a few moments before it happened, they both looked for each other in vain. That is what we can call a ‘separation’. And when they suddenly met at the main door of the house, wasn’t that a proper ‘reunion’? All these four words stick together well, and now the novelist’s hand can at last have some rest.” “Fair enough, I replied, but that day you should have asked Zhu Baolin: ‘where did your wife go?’” “I should thank you for being so thoughtful,” he said with a smile. “The day after, I haven’t left the town yet and my relative threw a farewell banquet for me, and also to welcome Baolin. He spoke about the whereabouts of his wife the day before. Just like him, she left town, went to Daochangshan, only not at the same time, so they could not have come across each other. Not to mention that Ziying took the canal to go back home, which is why she arrived after him (due to the great number of canals in Wuxing, there wasn’t any sedan chair, and the women here used to get around by boat).” “That’s perfect, now you can end the story,” I said. “But what about the title? You have to think it over.” “Well, let’s just use these four words: ‘tragedy, joy, separation and reunion’.” I nodded with a smile: “Let me just add ‘within one hour’.”