Translation: Yu Hua's "A History of Two People"

Here is the translation I've written for my final Contemporary Chinese Paper, a previously untranslated short story by the author, Yu Hua, reprinted here for your reading pleasure. The original Chinese text follows.

A History of Two People by Yu Hua

In August of 1930, the boy named Tan Bo and the girl named Lanhua together sat on the steps where the bright sun was unable to reach. Behind their figures loomed a vermilion red doorway, upon whose copper knobs was inscribed the shape of a lion. Tan Bo was the young master of the house and Lanhua was the daughter of the maidservant, but they would often sit together in this manner. The tiresome, honking noises of Mrs. Tan would always rise up behind them. All the while, her maidservant would repeat the same noises as she busied herself around the house. There they were, two children sitting together as they whispered to each other about their dreams.

Tan Bo often found himself needing to go pee in the midst of his dreams. He would look all throughout the setting of the dream for a chamber pot. As he would start towards the south-facing side room, he would feel a wave of trepidation pass over him. In reality, there was always a chamber pot in front of his bed, but in his dream the chamber pot had vanished. The endless search made Tan Bo’s dreams painful to endure. Afterwards, he would come out onto a street with beggars passing by all around him, having arrived there by rickshaw. At last, it was so intolerable for Tan Bo that he finally peed all over the street. From hereafter, the dream faded away. As the sky began to glow with the light of daybreak, a gray and gloomy secret rested on his window. The street in the middle of his dreams played the part of his wooden bed. Tan Bo would wake to feel his soft mattress radiating moist warmth. After all this had taken place, the setting was quickly completely transformed. When the boy opened both eyes with bewilderment, he reflected painfully on what happened in his dream, finally allowing his consciousness to enter into a state of perfect clarity. At that moment, he was full of shame for having really peed his bed. As the window paper turned bright white with the dawn’s early light, there began a time where he closed both his eyes again and immediately fell into a deep, deep sleep.

“And what about you?” inquired the boy, brimming with nervous energy. Obviously, he hoped for the girl to share some common experience with his dream. However, the girl declined to face his inquiry, instead expressing her embarrassment by covering her eyes with both hands as was normally her way.

“Haven’t you experienced anything of the same sort?” the boy continued to insist on an answer. In front of their sitting place was a secluded alleyway in which blackened brick walls had been laid on either side. In the future days of their lives, the bricks would become overgrown with shy, echoing grasses, quietly swaying in the wind. “Speak.” The boy began to grow overbearing. The girl’s face blushed red with shame. Her head hung down as she related the circumstances of her own dream. In her own dreams, she was also tormented by needing to pee and searching everywhere for a chamber pot.

“Do you also end up peeing in the street?”

The boy was full of excitement. However, the girl shook her head, telling him that she would always finally find a chamber pot.

This discrepancy made the boy feel a wave of shame pass over him. He hopefully lifted up his head to gaze above the high walls and to the sky beyond. There he could see the clouds floating by and he perceived that as the sunshine fell upon the height of the wall it caused a glittering of light. He thought: why would she find the chamber pot while he was eternally damned to be unable to do so.

This single thought made his heart burn with envy.

Afterwards he asked: “when you woke up did you find your mattress wet?”

The girl nodded her head. The conclusion was still the same.

* * * * * *

In November of 1939, the Tan Bo of seventeen years old no longer sat on the old stone steps with the Lanhua of sixteen years. Tan Bo now wore a student’s black suit. In his hand he held a Lu Xun novel and a collection of Hu Shi’s poetry. As he busied himself going to and from school and he was always trembling with excitement and anticipation. Lanhua had followed in her mother’s occupation. Wearing a tattered flower patterned coat, she busied herself around the chatter made by Mrs. Tan. Every so often, the Lanhua and Tan Bo would make small talk with each other.

Tan Bo of seventeen years old was full of pubescent passion and sometimes he would suddenly bar Lanhua’s way and with his eyebrows dancing in his forehead, begin talking about social progress. Lanhua would just bow her head without speaking. After all, their relationship couldn’t be as simple as when they were two innocent children. Or perhaps, Lanhua had begun to think of Tan Bo as the young master. However deeply rooted Tan Bo’s feelings of love and equality, it was difficult to see the distance that had gradually driven them apart.

On that last day of November, as she would often do, Lanhua took a cleaning rag and scrubbed the vermilion red furniture. Tan Bo sat in front of the window, reading a line of poetry about flying birds by Tagore . As Lanhua scrubbed the furniture she tried her best not to make any noise. Every so often, she glanced towards Tan Bo with eyes trembling. In her heart, she wished that this tranquillity would never be disturbed. However, reading poetry eventually became tiresome and when Tan Bo closed the book he was reading, he inevitably wanted to talk.

As a seventeen year old, he would quite often dream of sitting aboard a ship rocked by stormy waves. There was a kind of lusty desire to leave home that even during his clear headed times would still be intensely strong. He began to relate to her the dreams that had made him so anxious of late. “I am thinking of going to Yan’an,” he told her.

She was confused by him. It was clear to see that Yan’an’s two characters left a blank in her mind. He had not really wanted to make her understand his plans, only to know what the circumstances of her dreams were of late. This was the habit they had developed since that August of 1930. She recalled the embarrassment of 1930. Afterwards, she told him of any of her recent dreams analogous to his own. But unlike him, she did not dream of herself in a boat. Instead, she dreamed of being held up by four people in a sedan chair. In her role, she wore beautiful cloth shoes. The sedan chair was carried through every street inside the city. As he finished listening, he chuckled a little, saying:

“Your dreams and mine are not the same.”

At that time, the Japanese had already occupied the city in which they resided. He continued to speak, “you are only thinking of getting married.”

* * * * * *

In April of 1950, Tan Bo returned to the home he had left ten years before. Now he was a regimental commander of a cultural work regiment of the triumphant People’s Liberation Army, waist adorned with a leather belt and his legs wrapped in the cloth wrappings of a soldier. At this moment, the whole country was liberated and Tan Bo asked to be transferred so that he could return home to pay a visit.

Lanhua was still as before he left home, only she was no longer his mother’s servant and now she was beginning to enjoy living her own life. Tan Bo’s house had been divided up so that now part of the home belonged to Lanhua. Tan Bo walked into the setting of the house looking handsome, brave and prosperous and it left Lanhua with a profound impression. However, by that time, Lanhua already had amassed sons and daughters and lost her slender figure of before. Her now thick waist decried her previous beauty.

Beforehand, Lanhua had dreamed of this scene of Tan Bo’s return. To her surprise, reality and her dream were one and the same. That is why that noon, while Lanhua’s husband was away, she told Tan Bo of her dream.

“It was just this way that you returned,” Lanhua said.

Lanhua was no longer bashful when she answered questions. After all, she was the mother of her children. As she narrated the story of her dream, she spoke with neither the slightest bit of feeling or emotion. As she spoke, it was as casually as the simple act of describing a bowl on the kitchen floor. Her tone of voice was completely ordinary.

As he listened, Tan Bo remembered that he had a dream on the road home. In his dream, Lanhua appeared before him, except she was still in the image of the time when she was still a maiden.

“I also dreamed of you,” Tan Bo said. But he had just seen how Lanhua had become so much thicker and he didn’t want to waste his words describing her past beauty. As far as his dream was concerned with her, he would forever conceal the memory.

* * * * * *

December 1972. Tan Bo’s dishearteningly bowed head made his “counter-revolutionary” status known. His mother had just died, he had come to settle her affairs.

At this point, Lanhua’s children, for all intents and purposes, had become adults. Lanhua as before, remained without any particular kind of occupation. As Tan Bo walked into the house, Lanhua was washing plastics sheets to make some extra money to support the family. Tan Bo wore a tattered black cotton padded jacket. As he walked by Lanhua, pausing for a time, his heart was quivering as he nervously smiled at her.

Lanhua watched him make softly make an “oh” sound.

Thereupon he carefully oriented himself towards the inside of his mother’s room, walking inside. After a little while, Lanhua knocked on the room of the door, and asked him:

“What do you need me for?” Tan Bo looked around the room and saw that it was kept quite neat and tidy. He didn’t know what he should say.

It had been Lanhua who tried to inform him of the news of his mother’s death.

At that time, the two people lacked dreams to chat about.

* * * * * *

October 1985. The long since retired Tan Bo would sit all day in the courtyard basking in the light of the sun. As autumn set it, all he feared was the cold.

Lanhua has already become a white haired old woman, but she was still as healthy as ever. Now she was surrounded with grandchildren. Surrounded by them, she found that as the years went by she didn’t feel the least bit tired. At the same time, she continued to go to and from the room busying herself with household chores.

Later on, she took a basket of clothing over to a cement slab and began to scrub at the clothes.

Tan Bo squinted at her, his eyes almost sewn shut. He watched how her arms, still full of strength, swayed as she worked. While he listened to the sound of the “swish-swish” of her scrubbing, his worried heart sadly asked Lanhua.

He had recently dreamed of himself walking across a bridge, when the bridge suddenly collapsed. As he was walking past the house, a tile fell, flying down towards his head.

Translators Post-Script

This previously not yet translated short story by Yu Hua presented insights and challenges to his body of work. Written after his major short story collections and before his major novels, “The History of Two People” charts a similar course to his best selling novel “To Live”. Tan Bo, the protagonist of the story, is not dissimilar to “To Live”’s Fugui.. I might even go far as to suggest that “A History of Two People” might be considered Yu Hua’s outline for “To Live” from which he greatly strayed, in the course of writing the novel. The story contains the most basic elements on which Yu Hua wrote “To Live”: the passage through modern Chinese history, the protagonist’s high-class upbringing, the role in the revolution (Fugui was conscripted by accident, contrasted to Tan Bo declaring his desire to go to Yan’an), the hardship endured (the Cultural Revolution).It is important to also appreciate also the references to Lu Xun, Hu Shi and Rabindranath Tagore. This story is an experiment of sorts, dipping between bouts of the poetic, the historical and Yu Hua’s simple prose.



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