Written: March 22, 1924
Source: Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, Published by Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1960, 1972
Transcribed: Original transcription from coldbacon.com
HTML Markup: Mike B. for MIA, 2005
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2005). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
With her back to the north window in the slanting sunlight, Ssu-min's wife with her eight-year-old daughter, Hsiu-erh, was pasting paper money for the dead when she heard the slow, heavy footsteps of someone in cloth shoes and knew her husband was back. Paying no attention, she simply went on pasting coins. But the tread of cloth shoes drew nearer and nearer, till it finally stopped beside her. Then she could not help looking up to see Ssu-min before her, bunching his shoulders and stooping forward to fumble desperately under his cloth jacket in the inner pocket of his long gown.
By dint of twisting and turning at last he extracted his hand with a small oblong package in it, which he handed to his wife. As she took it, she smelt an indefinable fragrance rather reminiscent of olive. On the green paper wrapper was a bright golden seal with a network of tiny designs. Hsiu-erh bounded forward to seize this and look at it, but her mother promptly pushed her aside.
"Been shopping? . . ." she asked as she looked at it.
"Er—yes." He stared at the package in her hand.
The green paper wrapper was opened. Inside was a layer of very thin paper, also sunflower-green, and nor till this was unwrapped was the object itself exposed—glossy and hard, besides being sunflower-green, with another network of fine designs on it. The thin paper was a cream colour, it appeared. The indefinable fragrance rather reminiscent of olive was stronger now.
"My, this is really good soap!"
She held the soap to her nose as gingerly as if it were a child, and sniffed at it as she spoke.
"Er—yes. Just use this in future. . . ."
As he spoke, she noticed him eyeing her neck, and felt herself flushing up to her cheekbones. Sometimes when she rubbed her neck, especially behind the ears, her fingers detected a roughness; and though she knew this was the accumulated dirt of many years, she had never given it much thought. Now, under his scrutiny, she could not help blushing as she looked at this green, foreign soap with the curious scent, and this blush spread right to the tips of her ears. She mentally resolved to have a thorough wash with this soap after supper.
"There are places you can't wash clean just with honey locust pods,"1 she muttered to herself.
"Ma, can I have this?" As Hsiu-erh reached out for the sunflower-green paper, Chao-erh, the younger daughter who had been playing outside, came running in too. Mrs. Ssu-min promptly pushed them both aside, folded the thin paper in place, wrapped the green paper round it as before, then leaned over to put it on the highest shelf of the wash-stand. After one final glance, she turned back to her paper coins.
"Hsueh-cheng!" Ssu-min seemed to have remembered something. He gave a long-drawn-out shout, sitting down on a high-backed chair opposite his wife.
"Hsueh-cheng!" she helped him call.
She stopped pasting coins to listen, but not a sound could she hear. When she saw him with upturned head waiting so impatiently, she felt quite apologetic.
"Hsueh-cheng!" she called shrilly at the top of her voice.
This call proved effective, for they heard the tramp of leather shoes draw near, and Hsueh-cheng stood before her. He was in shirt sleeves, his plump round face shiny with perspiration.
"What were you doing?" she asked disapprovingly. "Why didn't you hear your father call?"
"I was practising Hexagram Boxing. . . ." He turned at once to his father and straightened up, looking at him as if to ask what he wanted.
"Hsueh-cheng, I want to ask you the meaning of o-du-fu."2
"O-du-fu? . . . Isn't it a very fierce woman?"
"What nonsense! The idea!" Ssu-min was suddenly furious. "Am I a woman, pray?"
Hsueh-cheng recoiled two steps, and stood straighter than ever. Though his father's gait sometimes reminded him of the way old men walked in Peking opera, he had never considered Ssu-min as a woman. His answer, he saw now, had been a great mistake.
"As if I didn't know o-du-fu means a very fierce woman. Would I have to ask you that?—This isn't Chinese, it's foreign devils' language, I'm telling you. What does it mean, do you know?"
"I . . . I don't know." Hsueh-cheng felt even more uneasy.
"Pab! Why do I spend all that money to send you to school if you don't even understand a little thing like this? Your school boasts that it lays equal stress on speech and comprehension, yet it hasn't taught you anything. The ones speaking this devils' language couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen, actually a little younger than you, yet they were chattering away in it, while you can't even tell me the meaning. And you have the face to answer 'I don't know.' Go and look it up for me at once!"
"Yes," answered Hsueh-cheng deep down in his throat, then respectfully withdrew.
"I don't know what students today are coming to," declared Ssu-min with emotion after a pause. "As a matter of fact, in the time of Kuang Hsu, 3 I was all in favour of opening schools; but I never foresaw how great the evils would be. What 'emancipation' and 'freedom' have we had? There is no true learning, nothing but absurdities. I've spent quite a bit of money on Hsueh-cheng, all to no purpose. It wasn't easy to get him into this half-Western, half-Chinese school, where they claim they lay equal stress on 'speaking and comprehending English.'4 You'd think all should be well. But—bah!—after one whole year of study he can't even understand o-du-fu! He must still be studying dead books. What use is such a school, I ask you? What I say is: Close the whole lot of them!"
"Yes, really, better close the whole lot of them," chimed in his wife sympathetically, pasting away at the paper money.
"There's no need for Hsiu-erh and her sister to attend any school. As Ninth Grandpa said, What's the good of girls studying?' When he opposed girls' schools I attacked him for it; but now I see the old folk were right after all. Just think, it's already in very poor taste the way women wander up and down the streets, and now they want to cut their hair as well. Nothing disgusts me so much as these short-haired schoolgirls. What I say is: There's some excuse for soldiers and bandits, but these girls are the ones who turn everything upside down. They ought to be very severely dealt with indeed. . . ."
"Yes, as if it wasn't enough for all men to look like monks, the women are imitating nuns." 5
Hsueh-cheng hurried in holding a small, fat, gilt-edged book, which he handed to his father.
"This looks like it," he said, pointing to one place. "Here. . . ."
Ssu-min took it and looked at it. He knew it was a dictionary, but the characters were very small and horizontally printed too. Frowning, he turned towards the window and screwed up his eyes to read the passage Hsueh-cheng had pointed out.
"'A society founded in the eighteenth century for mutual relief.'—No, that can't be it.—How do you pronounce this?" He pointed to the devils' word in front.
"No, no, that wasn't it." Ssu-min suddenly lost his temper again. "I told you it was bad language, a swear-word of some sort, to abuse someone of my type. Understand? Go and look it up!"
Hsueh-cheng glanced at him several times, but did not move.
"This is too puzzling. How can he make head or tail of it? You must explain things clearly to him first, before he can look it up properly." Seeing Hsueh-cheng in a quandary, his mother felt sorry for him and intervened rather indignantly on his behalf.
"It was when I was buying soap at Kuang Jun Hsiang on the main street," sighed Ssu-min, turning to her. "There were three students shopping there too. Of course, to them I must have seemed a little pernickery. I looked at five or six kinds of soap all over forty cents, and turned them down. Then I looked at some priced ten cents a cake, but it was too poor, with no scent at all. Since I thought it best to strike a happy mean, I chose that green soap at twenty-four cents a cake. The assistant was one of those supercilious young fellows with eyes on the top of his head, so he pulled a long dog's face. At that those impudent students started winking at each other and talking devils' language. I wanted to unwrap the soap and look at it before paying—for with all that foreign paper round it, how could I tell whether it was good or bad? But that supercilious young fellow not only refused, but was very unreasonable and passed some offensive remarks, at which those whipper-snappers laughed. It was the youngest of the lot who said that, looking straight at me, and the rest of them started laughing. So it must have been some bad word." He turned back to Hsueh-cheng. "Look for it in the section headed Bad Language!"
"Yes," answered Hsueh-cheng deep down in his throat, then respectfully withdrew.
"Yet they still shout 'New Culture! New Culture!' when the world's in such a state! Isn't this bad enough?" His eyes on the rafters, Ssu-min continued. "The students have no morals, society has no morals. Unless we find some panacea, China will really be finished. How pathetic she was. . . ."
"Who?" asked his wife casually, not really curious.
"A filial daughter. . . ." His eyes came round to her, and there was respect in his voice. "There were two beggars on the main street. One was a girl who looked eighteen or nineteen. Actually, it's most improper to beg at that age, but beg she did. She was with an old woman of about seventy, who had white hair and was blind. They were begging under the eaves of that clothes shop, and everybody said how filial she was. The old one was her grandmother. Whatever trifle the girl received, she gave it to her grandmother, choosing to go hungry herself. But do you think people would give alms even to such a filial daughter?"
He fixed her with his eye, as if to test her intelligence.
She made no answer, but fixed him with her eye, as if waiting for him to elucidate.
"Bah—no!" At last he supplied the answer himself. "I watched for a long time, and saw one person only give her a copper. Plenty of others gathered round, but only to jeer at them. There were two low types as well, one of whom had the impertinence to say:
"'Ah-fa! Don't be put off by the dirt on this piece of goods. If you buy two cakes of soap, and give her a good scrubbing, the result won't be bad at all!' Think, what a way to talk!"
She snorted and lowered her head. After quite a time, she asked rather casually: "Did you give her any money?"
"Did I?—No. I'd have felt ashamed to give just one or two coins. She wasn't an ordinary beggar, you know. . . ."
"Mm." Without waiting for him to finish she stood up slowly and walked to the kitchen. Dusk was gathering, and it was time for supper.
Ssu-min stood up too, and walked into the courtyard. It was lighter out than in. Hsueh-cheng was practising Hexagram Boxing in a corner by the wall. This constituted his "home education," and he used the economical method of employing the hour between day and night for this purpose. Hsueh-cheng had been boxing now for about half a year. Ssu-min nodded very slightly, as if in approval, then began to pace the courtyard with his hands behind his back. Before long, the broad leaves of the evergreen which was the only potted plant they had were swallowed up in the darkness, and stars twinkled between white clouds which looked like torn cotton. Night had fallen. Ssu-min could not repress his growing indignation. He felt called on to do great deeds, to declare war on all bad students about and on this wicked society. By degrees he grew bolder and bolder, his steps became longer and longer, and the thud of his cloth soles grew louder and louder, waking the hen and her chicks in the coop so that they cheeped in alarm.
A light appeared in the hall—the signal that supper was ready—and the whole household gathered round the table in the middle. The lamp stood at the lower end of the table, while Ssu-min sat alone at the head. His plump, round face was like Hsueh-cheng's, with the addition of two sparse whiskers. Seen through the hot vapour from the vegetable soup, he looked like the God of Wealth you find in temples. On the left sat Mrs. Ssu-min and Chao-erh, on the right Hsueh-cheng and Hsiu-erh. Chopsticks pattered like rain against the bowls. Though no one said a word, their supper table was very animated.
Chao-erh upset her bowl, spilling soup over half the table. Ssu-min opened his narrow eyes as wide as he could. Only when he saw she was going to cry did he stop glaring at her and reach out with his chopsticks for a tender morsel of cabbage he had spotted. But the tender morsel had disappeared. He looked right and left, and discovered Hsueh-cheng on the point of stuffing it into his wide-open mouth. Disappointed, Ssu-min ate a mouthful of yellowish leaves instead.
"Hsueh-cheng!" He looked at his son. "Have you found that phrase or not?"
"Which phrase?—No, not yet!"
"Pah! Look at you, not a good student and with no sense either—all you can do is eat! You should learn from that filial daughter: although she's a beggar, she still treats her grandmother very respectfully, even if it means going hungry herself. But what do you impudent students know of such things? You'll grow up like those low types. . . ."
"I've thought of one possibility, but I don't know if it's right . . . . I think, perhaps, they may have said o-du-fu-la (Chinese transliteration of 'old fool'—Translator )."
"That's right! That's it exactly! That's exactly the sound it was: o-du-fu-la. What does that mean? You belong to the same group: you must know."
"Mean?—I'm not sure what it means."
"Nonsense. Don't try to deceive me. You're all a bad lot."
"'Even thunder won't strike folk at meat,'" burst out Mrs. Ssu-min suddenly. "Why do you keep losing your temper today? Even at supper you can't stop hitting the hen while pointing at the dog. What do boys that age understand?"
"What?" Ssu-min was on the point of answering back when he saw her sunken cheeks were quivering with anger, her colour had changed, and a fearful glint had come into her eyes. He hastily changed his tune. "I'm not losing my temper. I'm just telling Hsueh-cheng to learn a little sense."
"How can he understand what's in your mind?" She looked angrier than ever. "If he had any sense, he'd long since have lit a lantern or a torch and gone out to fetch that filial daughter. You've already bought her one cake of soap: all you have to do is buy another. . . ." "Nonsense! That's what that low type said."
"I'm not so sure. If you buy another cake and give her a good scrubbing, then worship her, the whole world will be at peace."
"How can you say such a thing? What connection is there? Because I remembered you'd no soap. . . . ."
"There's a connection all right. You bought it specially for the filial daughter; so go and give her a good scrubbing. I don't deserve it. I don't want it. I don't want to share her glory."
"Really, how can you talk like that?" mumbled Ssu-min. "You women. . . ." His face was perspiring like Hsueh-cheng's after Hexagram Boxing, probably mostly because the food had been so hot.
"What about us women? We women are much better than you men. If you men aren't cursing eighteen or nineteen-year-old girl students, you're praising eighteen or nineteen-year-old girl beggars: such dirty minds you have! Scrubbing, indeed! —Disgusting!"
"Didn't you hear? That's what one of those low types said."
"Ssu-min!" A thundering voice was heard from the darkness outside.
"Tao-tung? I'm coming!"
Ssu-min knew this was Ho Tao-tung, famed for his powerful voice, and he shouted back as joyfully as a criminal newly reprieved.
"Hsueh-cheng, hurry up and light the lamp and show Uncle Ho into the library!"
Hsueh-cheng lit a candle, and ushered Tao-tong into the west room. They were followed by Pu Wei-yuan.
"I'm sorry I didn't welcome you. Excuse me." With his mouth still full of rice, Ssu-min went in and bowed with clasped hands in greeting. "Won't you join us at our simple meal? . . ."
"We've already eaten," Wei-yuan stepped forward and greeted him. "We've hurried here at this time of night because of the eighteenth essay and poem contest of the Moral Rearmament Literary League. Isn't tomorrow the seventeenth?"
"What? Is it the sixteenth today?" asked Ssu-min in surprise.
"See how absent-minded you are!" boomed Tao-tung.
"So we'll have to send something in tonight to the newspaper office, to make sure they print it tomorrow."
"I've already drafted the title of the essay. See whether you think it will do or not." As he was speaking, Tao-tung produced a slip of paper from his handkerchief and handed it to Ssu-min.
Ssu-min stepped up to the candle, unfolded the paper, and read it word by word: " We humbly suggest an essay in the name of the whole nation to beg the President to issue an order for the promotion of the Confucian classics and the worship of the mother of Mencius, 6 in order to revive this moribund world and preserve our national character.' Very good. Very good. Isn't it a little long, though?"
"That doesn't matter," answered Tao-tung loudly. "I've worked it out, and it won't cost more to advertise. But what about the title for the poem?"
"The title for the poem?" Ssu-min suddenly looked most respectful. "I've thought of one. How about The Filial Daughter? It's a true story, and she deserves to be eulogized. On the main street today. . . ."
"Oh, no, that won't do," put in Wei-yuan hastily, waving his hand to stop Ssu-min. "I saw her too. She isn't from these parts, and I couldn't understand her dialect, nor she mine. I don't know where she's from. Everyone says she's filial; but when I asked her if she could write poems, she shook her head. If she could, that would be fine." 7
"But since loyalty and filial piety are so important, it doesn't matter too much if she can't write poems. . . ."
"That isn't true. Quite otherwise." Wei-yuan raised his hands and rushed towards Ssu-min, to shake and push him. "She'd only be interesting if she could write poems."
"Let's use this title." Ssu-min pushed him aside. "Add an explanation and print it. In the first place, it will serve to eulogize her; in the second, we can use this to criticize society. What is the world coming to anyway? I watched for some time, and didn't see anybody give her a cent—people are utterly heartless! . . ."
"Aiya, Ssu-min!" Wei-yuan rushed over again. "You're cursing baldheads to a monk. I didn't give her anything because I didn't happen to have any money on me."
"Don't be so sensitive, Wei-yuan." Ssu-min pushed him aside again. "Of course you're an exception. Let me finish. There was quite a crowd around them, showing no respect, just jeering. There were two low types as well, who were even more impertinent. One of them said: 'Ah-fa! If you buy two cakes of soap and give her a good scrubbing, the result won't be bad at all!' Just think. . . ."
"Ha, ha! Two cakes of soap!" Tao-tong suddenly bellowed with laughter, nearly splitting their ear-drums. "Buy soap! Ho, ho, ho!"
"Tao-tung! Tao-tung! Don't make such a noise!" Ssu-min gave a start, panic-stricken.
"A good scrubbing! Ho, ho, ho!"
"Tao-tung!" Ssu-min looked stern. "We're discussing serious matters. Why should you make such a noise, nearly deafening everyone? Listen to me: we'll use both these titles, and send them straight to the newspaper office so that they come out without fail tomorrow. I'll have to trouble you both to take them there."
"All right, all right. Of course," agreed Wei-yuan readily.
"Ha, ha! A good scrubbing! Ho, ho!"
"Tao-tung!" shouted Ssu-min furiously.
This shout made Tao-rung stop laughing. After they had drawn up the explanation, Wei-yuan copied it on the paper and left with Tao-tung for the newspaper office. Ssu-min carried the candle to see them out, then walked back to the door of the hall feeling rather apprehensive. After some hesitation, though, he finally crossed the threshold. As he went in, his eyes fell on the small, green, oblong package of soap in the middle of the central table, the gold characters with fine designs around them glittering in the lamplight.
Hsiu-erh and Chao-erh were playing on the floor at the lower end of the table, while Hsueh-cheng sat on the right side looking up something in his dictionary. Last of all, on the high-backed chair in the shadows far from the lamp, Ssu-min discovered his wife. Her impassive face showed neither joy nor anger, and she was staring at nothing.
"A good scrubbing indeed! Disgusting!"
Faintly, Ssu-min heard Hsiu-erh's voice behind him. He turned, but she was not moving. Only Chao-erh put both small hands to her face as if to shame somebody.
This was no place for him. He blew out the candle, and went into the yard to pace up and down. Because he forgot to be quiet, the hen and her chicks started cheeping again. At once he walked more lightly, moving further away. After a long time, the lamp in the hall was transferred to the bedroom. The moonlight on the ground was like seamless white gauze, and the moon—quite full—seemed a jade disc among the bright clouds.
He felt not a little depressed, as if he, like the filial daughter. were "utterly forlorn and alone." That night he did not sleep till very late.
By the next morning, however, the soap was being honoured by being used. Getting up later than usual, he saw his wife leaning over the wash-stand rubbing her neck, with bubbles heaped up over both her ears like those emitted by great crabs The difference between these and the small white bubbles produced by honey locust pods was like that between heaven and earth. After this, an indefinable fragrance rather reminiscent of olives always emanated from Mrs. Ssu-min. Not for neatly half a year did this suddenly give place to another scent, which all who smelt it averred was like sandal-wood.
1.1 In many parts of China, honey locust pods were used for washing. They were cheaper than soap, but not so effective.
2. In Chinese this means "vicious wife."
3. I.e. 1875-1908.
4. English was taught in nearly all the new schools at that time, and learning to speak was considered as important as learning to read.
5. Monks and nuns in China shaved their heads. Hence, at the end of the Ching dynasty and later, conservatives laughed at the men who cut their queues, claiming they looked like monks.
6. A woman famous for her virtue. According to tradition, she moved house three times to avoid undesirahle companions for her son.
7. In old China, it was considered romantic for women to exchange ideas with men through the medium of poems. The fashionable courtesans could write poetry.