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Banner image by Glyn Lowe

Love’s Labor

Wang Longguan set up his bicycle repair stall at a small crossroad on a side street. He was grateful to those people who let him get an official permission to set up shop, only five months after he lost his job. And he was quite satisfied with himself. As he looked at his stall, he couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction: This is not bad! My bike repair stall stands out from the crowd. You can't help feeling impressed.

Across the street was a milk stand, run by a young man called Damao. Damao struck up a conversation: "Hey, where're you coming from?" Then he moved his stand across the street to be next to the bike repair stall. Wang Longguan's stall sported a large umbrella, with the names of several beers printed on top. His toolbox sat under it, stuffed with all sorts of tools and spare parts; it made one's head spin to look in. What really drew the eye, though, was a pot of pomegranate bonsai on the box, its slender branches bent low by three huge crimson pomegranates. This bonsai had the effect of streamlining its environment, making the surrounding messiness appear somehow insignificant. Damao said he liked this large umbrella and the pomegranates, and he liked the owner, Wang Longguan. Now he had a companion and wouldn't feel lonely any more.

In just a few days, Wang Longguan learned a lot from Damao, mostly about this block. Damao himself lived on the next block but was very knowledgeable about things here. He said that he had had this stand for more than a year now, and had lately felt as if he lived in a dream. Every day, many people passed in front of him, and every day many noises poured into his ears. When he first got started, every pore in his body was acutely alive to all these people and their noises. After a while, though, he stopped seeing or hearing them, just as if everyone was sleepwalking on the streets. People were going about their business with no expressions on their faces and making no sound. It got spooky.

Wang Longguan thought about a scene full of sleepwalkers and shuddered in spite of himself. He was a sensitive man and had his moments of weakness. In the past half year, he had cried three times. They went something like this.

The first time was when he got his pink slip. He didn't have time to look for a quiet place and started crying right in front of all these people. He was grateful to those who saw him cry. They pretended they didn't see anything and just walked away. The second time he cried was when his wife ran off with a Wenzhou businessman, taking their daughter with her. He didn't blame her much, though. She had been a devoted wife and was quite pretty; she had every right to have a decent life. Then again, that Wenzhou businessman was a bit old, so the woman's future was by no means secure. He told her this, and she smiled but said nothing. The third time he cried, it's hard to say why: one day, he ran into a traffic jam on the street. In front of him was a large, brand-new sedan with a young lady at the wheel. Her wavy hair had a brilliant sheen, her cheeks were rosy, and her pointy chin was carried high. On the passenger side sat a middle-aged gentleman in a three-piece suit; he had a very dignified appearance, his hair also had a brilliant sheen. The luster of their hair—only foreigners had that kind of well-cared-for hair, though they were definitely Chinese. The traffic jam lasted twenty minutes and the gentleman and lady kept their posture the entire time, full of self-respect and dignity. Their lives must be just as hard and burnished as their posture, without a trace of weakness in them. When he came home, he sat down and, like a child making a sad face, he cried for a long time for that lady and gentleman.

Now that Damao had taken upon himself to instruct Wang Longguan and had scared him a bit, he switched to a comforting tone and said Wang's forehead had a lucky prospect. Perhaps he'd be able to run his stall on the street for many years without going nuts.

"Longguan," Damao said, "our sort go nuts sooner or later. A matter of time."

Wang Longguan replied frankly: "I'd rather it happens later."

Damao said: "In that case, I can teach you a trick . . . ."

Wang Longguan said: "What trick?"

Damao said: "In a day or so, let me take you to a bathhouse. You go in all sad-faced, and come out beaming."

It took Wang Longguan a second to understand what Damao meant. He hadn't been near a woman since his divorce and was a bit scared of them. He'd heard about the women of the bathhouses. They gave themselves to you for very little money, very businesslike in their dealings. Their clients were people exactly like Wang Longguan and Damao. Wang Longguan didn't want to look for their kind, a bit too businesslike, their desire coarse and boring. Extra money couldn't make them subtle and sensitive.

Wang Longguan said: "All right, but not for a while. Right now, I want to focus on business."

Damao continued with his instruction: "You could still score while doing business."

Damao liked to gab. He talked about everyone he knew to Wang Longguan. Once he pointed at a woman on a bike and said: "See that one, over there? She is the saddest case on this block. Works as a maid. One family in the morning, another in the afternoon. Her husband is in highway construction. Never home. She's got her in-laws to support, and her own mother. Every night she pulls out a makeshift bed and sleeps on the floor. Last year, the entire summer, I saw her in only two outfits. She switched them around. One for today, the other for the next. My mom is over sixty years old and still owns a heap of summer clothing, enough to last her a couple of weeks without repeating. For a woman to sink this low, what's the point of life?"

Wang Longguan raised his head to look at the woman. Her cheekbones were high, her chin broad, not pretty at all. It so happened that she was looking at him at that moment too. She got off her bike, walked over, and asked: "How much for a dust cap?" Wang Longguan said it was free. There was a look of gratitude on the woman's face.

After she left, Damao said: "Remember her name. It is Fan Qiumian. You noticed the way she came over, her chest out, eyes narrowed? She's interested."

Wang Longguan asked: "She couldn't be interested just for a little dust cap?"

Damao said: "Why not? Women are like that. Never mind a dust cap. A woman could fall in love for a cheap word. That's women for you!"

Every day, Wang Longguan would see Fan Qiumian. It looked as if she really was interested. Then again, she really couldn't be said to be pretty, with those high cheekbones of hers, broad chin and sallow skin. But then again, her hair was always smooth and shiny, her eyebrows plucked into a thin arch. A bit alluring. And what made it even more alluring was this: she had an extraordinarily expressive face, whether smiling or plaintive. When her face produced an expression, she threw herself into it wholeheartedly. She then looked passionate and smart, a face of bright sunshine. Her odor told Wang Longguan that she was indeed poor, but she treated matters of love with the utmost care. She worked hard to cover up the trashiness brought on by poverty. And she knew how to enjoy herself. Like a hunting dog trotting back and forth in her allotted time, she would not let pass the smallest chance for pleasure.

The moment she spotted Wang Longguan, she knew her chance had come. Her heart had been lying in wait for a long time. She knew this was a kind man, with a healthy physique, his heart filled with contradictory desires for life. Perhaps not too smart, but he knew how to cooperate. A bit sentimental perhaps. He wouldn't mind revealing real affection for a woman.

The instant Fan Qiumian began to work on her scheme, her whole person began to emit a brilliant glow. Nobody could sense there was anything going on, except Wang Longguan. Every pore in his body cheered it. After the initial excitement had passed, though, he felt a bit scared. He saw in front of him a spider web, and a female spider decking it out brilliantly, just for him.

He began to avoid that woman's gaze, sent his way every day.

Fan Qiumian sensed his hesitations and immediately changed her route so as not to pass in front of him. This was a gesture of considerable effort: to go the other way added a good half hour to her daily commute.

A week passed and Wang Longguan began to lose his cool. His eyes kept scanning the street as he worked, for he couldn't believe that the woman had given up. He thought for sure that there would be a nice long story unfolding between that woman and himself.

Damao was displeased by Wang Longguan's state. In his opinion, a woman like Fan Qiumian was only good for an occasional dally when you had nothing better to do. Damao asked him: "Are you really in love with her?" Not waiting for a reply, Damao made a gesture of disgust to indicate his total disapproval. Damao was single and had had a lot of girlfriends. His one and only yardstick for women was lovemaking. He paid great attention to their behavior in bed and believed passionately that the only real connection between a man and a woman happened in bed. Too bad he couldn't spend his entire life there. And he was yet to find a woman who made him really happy in bed. This was what he knew of women: they are concave, moist, and dark; in their dealings with men, they are careless and only halfway there. For all they want is to find a comfortable nest so that they can make babies safely.

Damao saw right away that Fan Qiumian was pulling the strings with Wang Longguan. He liked these sorts of feminine tricks but thought Fan Qiumian was not qualified to play them. She was not highborn nor pretty, had no money nor leisure. Can't even tell if she was any good at lovemaking.

Once again he voiced his disapproval to Wang Longguan: "This is a time bomb. Get it?"

In earnest, Wang Longguan said to Damao: "There is affinity between people, Damao. You may not like her, but that doesn't mean she is no good. If you say anything mean about her again, I'm going to have to kick you in the butt."

Damao tried to back off gracefully: "OK, it's your own business. If I were you, though, I'd never get into this sort of mess. Much simpler at the bathhouses."

In all seriousness, Wang Longguan sank deep into thought. He wanted a woman so badly that he really wanted to go with Damao to the bathhouses. But then again, there was more to life that's meaningful, like putting a pot of pomegranate bonsai on a box and carrying it back and forth as if it were your own precious little girl. His favorite story was "The Oil Peddler Gets the Flower Queen." He'd like to be that oil peddler in the old tale, the one who adored his beloved and put her on a pedestal. Of course when it came down to it, a man and woman would eventually end up in bed. But before that happened, Wang Longguan would rather stand watch at the crossroad every day, waiting for a certain woman to show up, for the chance to exchange a few words of double-entendre, to exchange a few glances that others wouldn't pick up, with only the two of them savoring the sweet and bitter tastes of love. This way, life itself would become more subtle, more textured, a bit more elevated and removed from the everyday, a bit more like the picture of life portrayed by the gentleman and lady in the sedan car.

Wang Longguan then buried his longing for the bathhouses and again turned his thoughts back to the woman called Fan Qiumian. She might not be pretty but she was sensitive to another's feelings. Her smile was very sweet. Although she was dark and thin, her buttocks had a nice upturn and were very eye-catching, a sure sign that she'd be good at sex.

As he wrapped his thoughts around Fan Qiumian, Wang Longguan somehow got himself stuck in a tight corner. This was what occurred to him: If Fan Qiumian was so very sexy and alluring, how could it be that she wasn't seeing a man? Perhaps she was seeing many men.

At this point, Wang Longguan was overcome by jealousy.

On a drizzly morning, he decided to take a break. His apartment was small, so he opened the window to let in some fresh air. Through the leaves of a wild plum tree, he could see into the apartment across, in which lived an old couple. They'd been there for more than a dozen years. Every day, they talked to each other endlessly, but always the same thing: "I'm here. Hey, here I am . . ." It made people laugh.

Wang Longguan lay in bed, murmured softly to himself with affection: "I'm here. Where are you?" He painted in his mind a picture of Fan Qianmian having a good time. A man and a woman. Because he was jealous, the picture was blurry. He rolled over, sighed and began painting a picture of himself and Fan Qiumian having a good time. This time the picture was very clear, and the acts were also definite and purposeful. In a fog, he saw Fan Qiumian climb down from him, headed toward the door. She looked back and said, in a soft voice that was affectionate but a bit hesitant: "I . . . I'm here."

Wang Longguan woke up with a start at this sentence. He suddenly understood that this was just how their relationship should be: close yet distant, advancing but hesitant, holding on while wanting to quit . . . In a word, like a beautiful visage half concealed behind a pipa.

He felt so elated that his spirit began dancing.

He decided that he would go work after all. By the afternoon, though it was still drizzling, Wang Longguan stood under his big umbrella with sunshine in his heart. He put his pomegranate out to be moistened by the raindrops, and he put his radio on the toolbox to get a little music. He asked Damao: "Hey, what story are they telling these days at Langui Teahouse?" Damao's milk didn't sell very well because of the rain, so he was pulling a long face and wasn't in the mood for conversation. Wang Longguan answered himself: "Perhaps they are still on 'The Oil Peddler Gets the Flower Queen.'"

This is a story about an oil peddler who lived a long long time ago. He was hardworking and good. He fell for a pretty courtesan. When he had saved enough money to pay her a visit, he handed over the price to the brothel-owner. But the courtesan happened to be quite drunk that night and didn't pay any attention to him. The oil peddler, in love, served the girl with tea and whatnots, and held her in his arms till dawn.

Damao by now had gotten a bit interested: "So you like that story? Then you must have stepped inside a brothel."

Wang Longguan didn't say anything, for he had just spotted Fan Qiumian walking down the lane. In one hand she held an umbrella, in another hand a pot of orchids. Their glances met, and there she was, in front of him. Wang Longguan eagerly greeted her: "Here you are. Where are you going? Where's your bike? Is it broken?" Fan Qiumian didn't answer him but turned to greet Damao. She said to him: "I'm heading off to work in a home. Since it's raining I thought I'd take a walk. It's not far in any case." Then she turned to Wang Longguan: "I'm very fond of this orchid. I'll put it here for it to get some rain. Please watch over it for me. I'll be back by five."

In the afternoon, the rain turned heavy at times and Wang Longguan took both pots under the umbrella for a while. First he took in the orchid, then he took in the pomegranate, in that order. Then he felt it wasn't right to have the two pots sitting on the grimy ground, so he took the radio off his toolbox to make room for the flowers. First he placed the orchid on the box; when he got to the pomegranate, it felt a bit crowded. After a little thought, he put the pomegranate back on the ground. The pomegranate was his, and it was all right to shortchange it a bit. Fan Qiumian's life was hard enough. It wouldn't be right to shortchange her.

Close to five o'clock, the rain looked like it was going to stop. Wang Longguan thought: Perfect. It's perfect for her to come back now. Her umbrella wouldn't be dripping wet, and her pants wouldn't get damp. Walking in a little drizzle with an umbrella, now that's a picture of beauty.

Now it was past five. The person Wang Longguan was waiting for hadn't shown up. By the time lights came on, still, the person he was waiting for hadn't come. The rain got stronger again, so many thin threads of rain weaving into a sheet falling coldly against the lamplight. A chilly breeze had picked up also, like a sigh. It was very melancholy.

The street was emptying.

Fan Qiumian was sitting inside a little restaurant not far away. At this point, she moved a bit and glanced at her watch. She handed over a ticket and a small pot to the service girl. The service girl was short and plump. She took the pot and the ticket and put them on the counter. She said in a low voice to the young man at the stove: "This woman must be nuts or something. She's been sitting here for a long time, an hour maybe. Who do you think she's buying this for?" The young man said: "Not for you, that's for sure." The short and plump girl said cheerily: "Me? If I were to buy something for you, I'd go for a nice big chunk of Deph chocolate. A bowl of wontons—I'm not that much of an idiot." The young man at the stove smiled a little, his eyes lingering on the girl.

In no time, the pot of wontons was in Wang Longguan's hands, and with it a lot of words of explanation. In brief, this is what Fan Qiumian said: She was very sorry that she came back late. She got delayed at her work place. She figured that Wang Longguan must be hungry so she borrowed a pot and bought some wontons for him when she happened to pass by the little restaurant. Of course she herself had had dinner already at work.

Every word was music to Wang Longguan's ears. He kept saying: "It's very nice. It's very nice." He thought it was perfect that Fan Qiumian got delayed; this way, everything would be going in a more interesting direction.

When he finished the wontons, they sat down on a bench together, savoring the evening rain. A breeze gently brushed across damp tree limbs, filling the night with lazy green murmurs, half resisting, half accepting.

Having enjoyed the evening rain, Wang Longguan packed up his stuff. One umbrella over two heads, soon they were at the door of Fan Qiumian's home. They parted with a chaste good-bye, and Fan Qiumian closed the door as his gaze followed her. Wang Longguan felt as if he lost something and said to the door: "Nice to close it. Nice."

Just as he was mumbling, the window opened and Fan Qiumian asked from inside: "What did you say was nice?" Wang Longguan said: "I said you are nice." Fan Qiumian said: "Nice, how?" Wang Longguan said: "It looks nice the way you speak from inside the window." Fan Qiumian asked again: "Why is it nice?" Wang Longguan said without thinking: "Pretty. Like in a story." Fan Qiumian kept at it, insistent: "Like who in a story?" Wang Longguan said with much affection: "Like a lady in a story, a highborn lady." Fan Qiumian gave a short and brisk chortle: "Then you'd be the gentleman in the story, right?" As she spoke those words, she closed the window and dropped the curtain.

Wang Longguan stood woodenly, chewing over the words they just exchanged. Of all they said just now, only the last few words Fan Qiumian said felt a bit wrong, just a tiny bit too slick. In his script, she should be more subtle and remain silent, or else she might have said something like: Oh, am I really that nice?

But then again, this was just a minor imperfection, nothing to get hung up on. The whole thing was quite aesthetically pleasing.

When he got back, Wang Longguan laid awake in bed for quite some time, excited. By midnight, an idea struck him: go knock on Fan Qiumian's door and sleep with her.

Of course, Fan Qiumian guarded herself carefully and wouldn't open up. Wang Longguan thought about it and backed down contentedly.

Now about Damao. You already know the sort. He wasn't really mean-spirited, but restless and gossipy. The third day after Fan Qiumian brought Wang Longguan wontons on that rainy evening, he moved his milk stand back across the lane. He told Wang Longguan that the reason he moved was because it was more trafficky there and their old place was too out of the way. But what he said to people on the other side was that he really couldn't stand the way Fan Qiumian and Wang Longguan carried on, like it's the real thing, a real romantic game, as if they were the best at it in the whole wide world. Even their faces had this rosy glow. When Damao saw a matching glow on both of their faces, he felt faint and tired.

Damao went on. Really, Wang Longguan wasn't the sophisticated sort at all. He knew, for instance, that Wang had been to the brothel. What's visiting a brothel? It is to give oneself a simple and straightforward treat. Only slightly more complicated than self-treatment. As for Fan Qiumian, what sort of woman she was, Damao could tell from a mile away. Before Wang Longguan showed up, even he and Fan Qiumian had flirted once. Fan Qiumian came to get milk, and said teasingly: "Give me two, for a pair." He replied: "You found the right person. I'm just the one to ride on top of you." Damao's hand pinched Fan Qiumian's arm, and Fan Qiumian took the milk and stepped back, complaining: "Hey, are you itching for a spanking?" Damao said: "A spanking? Nobody's done that yet." Fan Qiumian said: "I'd break your leg." Damao said: "Even with a broken leg, I'd still be on top of you." Fan Qiumian said: "Tough guy. If you're so tough, come over tonight." She turned to walk away with the milk. Damao cried: "I knew you didn't want to pay up. You never meant to pay to begin with. I didn't even really touch you. You're a mean one. All I did was to stroke your hand, not your butt, and I lose two bottles of milk for it. Dear neighbors, don't you ever do business with her. You'll sure lose out."

There were lots of people with news about the lane. Many told Damao that Fan Qiumian really was a slut; or else they said, she kept the family afloat by turning tricks. She was tough with men. Once there were eyewitnesses. A big guy stood in front of her door, begging to be let in. In the end, he got desperate and cried in a drawn-out tone: "On account of the gold ring, on account of the gold necklace that I gave you. Qiumian, please let me sleep with you one last time."

Really it's true. Lots of people saw it. Women were too embarrassed to come out but they hid behind their doors and still heard.

In the end, the door never opened. You can see just how good she's at it. A pity she isn't good-looking. Otherwise, what a fox she'd be.

Damao thought with glee: Wang Longguan, you're going to lose out on both ends, your money and your hope!

A month or two passed. On a quiet and desolate morning, Damao suddenly saw that Fan Qiumian was moving. A long train of flat-backs, seven or eight of them, on top of which bundles of junk were securely tied. Fan Qiumian was sitting on the first one. Damao called out to her.

Damao asked: "You're moving?"

Fan Qiumian nodded.

Damao glanced at her face, said: "You don't look too thrilled."

Fan Qiumian said nothing.

Damao asked: "Why don't you take the other side of the lane, a lot more room there?"

Fan Qiumian glanced at Damao.

Damao continued with great interest: "I bet Wang Longguan didn't know you're leaving? Why didn't you tell him?"

Fan Qiumian said: "Plenty people will tell him."

Damao said: "I won't."

Seeing that Fan Qiumian was about to take off again, Damao pressed her once more: "Say, where are you moving to? Doesn't look as if you are going someplace nice for an easy life."

Fan Qiumian said: "Where I go is none of your business. If you don't mind, take a message from me. Just say that I'm giving the orchid to him as a present. He can look at it when he misses me."

When Damao saw that Fan Qiumian had gone far away, he spat with contempt.

Damao's milk was sold out by noon that day. He packed up his stand and went to pay a visit to Wang Longguan. Wang was busy, his dark face was sweaty and glowing. Damao thought with conviction: Now then, this glow's seen the end of its day! Then he said to Wang Longguan:

"Longguan, I'm moving over to your side tomorrow."

Wang Longguan looked up, and Damao quickly lit a cigarette for him and said: "Have a smoke. Hey, I wanted to ask: How far has it gone between you and Fan Qiumian? That's to say, have you slept with her yet?"

Wang Longguan smiled his dumb and content smile: "Not yet." Damao asked: "Did you give her anything?" Wang Longguan said: "I'm not being stingy. But she didn't ask for anything, and I felt I couldn't very well give her much." Damao said: "It's strange then. She moved away this morning and told me to tell you that she'd like to give that orchid to you as a present, and that you are to look at it when you miss her." Wang Longguan threw down the cigarette and looked at Damao, quite confused: "What did you say? She's gone?" Damao stood up and said in a low voice: "That's right. Gone. Definitely gone." He saw Wang Longguan bent down to pick up a heavy wrench, at that split second, he broke into a run. The wrench fell at his heel with a heavy thud. He turned to shout: "You're so tough. Why don't you smash the orchid."

Thus ends the story of Wang Longguan's tender romance.

Damao felt that he should be responsible to his friend, so not only did he move back, he saw Wang Longguan through a long period of depression. First there was some time when Wang was totally silent, then for a while he was on a high. During that period, Damao put up with Wang's endless chatter, every conversation beginning from the orchid, the details of his romance tattered from repetitions, and his endlessly repeated questions:

Why did she move away? Why did she disappear without a trace?

When all was finally calm, on a sunny day with a cool breeze, Damao said to Wang Longguan: "I think you are back to normal again." Wang Longguan replied: "I'm back to normal. Even that orchid has grown a lot too." He then turned to his work. Damao asked: "Is that wild fire inside all spent?" Wang Longguan answered with truthfulness: "It's burning again—another sort of wild fire." Damao said: "Perfect. I've been itching the last couple of days as well. Why don't you come with me to a bathhouse tonight. Have a bath and relax. If you'd like a romantic game, try it out with the girls there." Wang Longguan said with depression: "You don't understand. A certain kind of people you can only bump into, but not search for. That sort of game you can't play with girls in there."

That night, Damao led Wang Longguan toward a bathhouse. Its front gate was quite small but once inside, the corridors wind around, deep and narrow. As they passed by one room, a woman stood up from the sofa and turned to leave, with her back toward them.

She was Fan Qiumian.

She took her clothes and put them on quickly as she walked toward the front desk. Tonight, Madame was in charge, and Madame asked harshly: "Where do you think you're going?"

Fan Qiumian said: "I'm feeling a bit sick. I'll be back tomorrow."

Madame said: "Sick how? I'll go with you to the clinic this minute. Master Yu is coming tonight and you have to wait for him. He's our savior. Master Yu's got taste. He only wants you."

Fan Qiumian said: "Thank you for your compliments, Madame. But I really can't stay tonight. A man I'm truly fond of just walked in. I can't stay here. I have to avoid seeing him."

Her tears came. As her tears fell, she thought: To have done all this for a man she hadn't known at all. And yet she felt no regret.