The IU Arts & Humanities Council was lucky enough this week to host the Chinese-American writer Ha Jin for China Remixed, IU’s first Global Arts & Humanities Festival.
Indiana Review is proud to share a story he originally published with us in Indiana Review 17.2, Fall 1994.
“Winds and Clouds Over a Funeral” well exemplifies Ha Jin’s enduring subject, the ways in which the individual grapples with the state. In this story, he, with a sharp, unsparing eye, examines how the state encroaches on even the most personal of matters, how to bury your dead mother. — Anna Cabe, Web Editor
Sheng arrived at Gold County to work as a junior clerk in the military department at a large textile mill. Five days later, he was informed that his grandmother had passed away. The departmental chief gave him three days to attend the funeral at home. Sheng went to the bus station at noon and got on a bus bound for Dismal Fort.
He used to enjoy seeing the landscape outside the county town, especially the long reservoir that supplied water for six counties, and the large concrete dam that blocked the gorge of a valley and connected two rocky hills. In the middle of the dam stood a small house like a pillbox with loopholes. When the bus crept on the winding road along the bank, the water would flash like large fish scales in the sun. But today Sheng had no appetite for scenery. He closed his eyes and tried to take a catnap. He didn’t feel very sad, though he loved his grandmother.
Four months before, when he had returned home from the army, his grandmother had been so sick that few people thought she would survive the spring. At that time Sheng was waiting at home to be assigned a job, so he was free and could look after her. Every day he talked with and fed her; occasionally he washed her clothes. He also worked part-time. In the morning, together with a group of youngsters and old men, he loaded bricks onto trucks at a kiln. It was hard work, and in three months, he made six hundred yuan—a large sum. He gave all the money to his mother, who saved it for him—or rather for his wedding, though he didn’t have a fiancée yet. Since his father, Ding Liang, was the chairman of the commune, it wasn’t difficult for Sheng to find a full-time job in his hometown, but he preferred to go to Gold County.
Gradually, his grandmother recovered, could move about, and even began to cook for the household again. People were amazed and would say to her, “You’re lucky to have a good grandson looking after you.” She would smile and nod to agree.
In late February when she had been very ill, she had thought she was dying. One evening she had asked the entire family—her son, daughter-in- law, and grandson—to come to her bedside. She spoke to them calmly, “I’m dying. I have nothing to regret in my life. I’ve eaten whatever I wanted to eat and enjoyed a lot of ease and comfort. Death is death. When I’m dead, everything will be over for me. Don’t miss me. Don’t think of me. Just go on with your life.” She paused, then resumed. “But I have a wish. I want to be buried after I’m dead. I don’t want to be burned. Don’t take me to the crematory. I don’t want to go there. You don’t have to buy me a coffin. Just put me in a wooden box, nail it tightly, and bury it deep in the earth. Remember, deep in the earth, so that no tractor can plow me out when it turns the soil.”
“Don’t talk like this, Mom,” said Ding Liang. “You’ll be well soon.”
Yuanmin, the daughter-in-law, began sobbing.
“I want you to promise not to burn me,” the old woman insisted.
“All right, I promise,” Ding said without second thoughts.
Usually in the beginning of the year, quite a few old people died; if one could survive the spring, there would be no problem for the rest of the year. Sheng was a little surprised by his grandmother’s death in the early summer. But he didn’t take it hard, for he was a young man hardened by his four years’ service in the army, where he had seen his comrades killed in live-ammunition maneuvers. His grandmother had lived eighty years; her death was like a ripe nut that falls.
Yet his mind couldn’t help turning to the burial, because nowadays the government encouraged people to cremate the dead in order to preserve arable land. Recently an editorial in the Party’s newspaper, The People’s Daily, had said that in a hundred years there would be no land for growing crops if ground burials were not stopped. “We have to be responsible,” the article said, “not only for the dead but, more important, for the children to come. It is our duty to leave an unclogged land.”
When Sheng reached home, there were a dozen people from the neighborhood in the yard. They were busy helping the Dings prepare for the funeral, which was scheduled for the next morning, since the hot weather made it impossible for a body to stay home for long. Under an awning in front of the house lay an old black coffin on small stools; Shen was told that his grandmother’s body was inside. Two rows of wreaths with consolatory words on them stretched before the coffin, forming a fan-shaped space. His mother, red-eyed, came and secured a crepe band around his right arm with safety pins. She told him, “You grandmother didn’t suffer. This morning we found her still in bed. We called her. She didn’t answer. She was dead for a while. Just slept to death.” Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she wiped them off.
“It’s a happy ascent,” said Uncle Wang, who lived next door.
“This old woman was blessed,” said a middle-aged woman, a colleague of Yuanmin’s. “Without any suffering, such a clean, peaceful death. I hope I’ll die the same way.”
Sheng felt a little comforted. His father came and put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be too sad,” he told Sheng. “It’s time for her to go. She had a good life.”
Sheng nodded, feeling they shouldn’t be treating him as though he were a young boy. Then his father pulled him aside and said in a low voice, “I’ve told the carpentry house to prepare a coffin. They don’t make coffins for the market anymore. We borrowed this one from them.” He pointed at the old coffin. “The new one will be ready tomorrow, but they don’t have good wood, only pine and aspen. We chose pine for her.”
“That’s all right. How much does it cost?”
“About a hundred and fifty.”
Sheng knew that was cheap, at a big discount, but his parents didn’t have the money. Though they both worked, they had a large debt. Fifteen years before, Sheng’s aunt, his father’s only sister, had gone made and been sent to a mental hospital in Dalian City. Because she was unmarried at the time ad he was the only man in the family, Ding had to pay for the expenses. He borrowed the money from the commune. Not until a few months before had the debt been cleared, but the Dings had not yet recovered from many years’ straits. Now, in addition, to the coffin, there would be other expenses, such as the new clothes, cigarettes, wine, tea, candles, food, wreaths, and at least one feast.
Sheng found his mother in the kitchen and told her to the use the money he had made at the kiln. Some neighbors overheard what he had said. “Yuanmin,” an old woman praised, “what a good son you have!” Her words made Sheng blush a little,
His mother smiled and said, “His grandma died a timely death, as if she waited for her grandson to come home to look after her and make the money for her funeral.”
Sheng gave a thought to that. Somehow he felt his mother was right; it looked as though everything had mysteriously fallen into place. He turned and saw a pile of small seamed buns in a large basket. “What are these for?” he asked.
“For the kids,” his mother said. “A lot of them come to steal a bun, because your grandma lived eighty years. Their parents think the buns from us can make the kids live longer, so they tell them to come here and steal some.
Sheng remembered eating such a bun when he was ten. He picked up a dozen or so and carried them out to refill the plates at the head of the coffin.
It was getting dark. He saw on a low bench besides the coffin. Four more wreaths had been added to the rows since he came home. He noticed some clothing, perhaps his grandmother’s sheets and quilts, but they were almost torn to rags. A young woman was busy cutting the clothes with scissors. He stood up and was about to stop her, but Uncle Wang intervened, “Let her take a piece Sheng. You grandmother was a blessed woman. That’s why they want a piece of her clothes to put into their babies’ quilts, to make the kids easier to raise.”
Then the old man described to Sheng how their roof had been covered with birds that morning. Thousands of swallows, sparrows, doves, magpies, had landed on the house; even the electric wires were fully occupied. People were amazed and thought that the birds were angels who had come down to fetch the dead, and that old woman must have a lot of good works in her life.
Together with the men who were either the family’s friends or grateful to his father, Sheng was to keep vigil beside the coffin. He took out some candles and joss sticks for repelling mosquitoes. On the narrow table along the coffin were a basket of steamed bread stuffed with pork and garlic bolts, cups filled with green tea, plates containing Penny cigarettes, roasted peanuts, toffee, and haw jelly. The Dings had to be very generous on this occasion.
At seven o’clock Huang Zhi, a vice-chairman of the commune, called at the Dings. After giving his condolences, he followed the host into the inner room with a teacup in his hand. “Old Ding,” Huang said uneasily, “I heard that the Carpentry House is preparing a coffin for your mother. Is that true?”
“Well, news travels fast, doesn’t it?” Ding Liang said with a bitter smile.
“Old Ding, I don’t mean to interfere with your family affairs, but as your colleague I should advise you to think it over before you bury your mother.”
“What have you heard exactly?”
“Secretary Yang told me about the coffin. You see, you ought to think of the consequence.”
“Damn his grandmother, he’ll never leave me alone. Even if he rules heaven and earth, he can’t rule things in my household.”
“Chairman Ding, I don’t mean I agree with Secretary Yang on everything, but I do think you should take into account the political effect of your mother’s burial. You are the head of the commune. Thousands of eyes are staring at you.”
“You mean I should burn my mother?”
“I don’t mean that. In fact, I came to inform you that we’re going to have a Party meeting tonight and discuss this matter. Please come at eight.”
“A Party meeting to discuss how to get rid of my mother’s body?”
“No hard feelings, Old Ding. This is a decision made by the Party committee. I’m only here to deliver the message and make sure you will be present.”
“All right, I’ll come.”
In fact, Huang was not Ding’s enemy in the Commune Administration. He always sat on the fence. That was why he had been sent to notify Ding of the meeting, which the men of Ding’s own faction wanted to hold more eagerly than others. Secretary Yang was on bad terms with Ding and had his own men. The two factions were almost equal in power and would fight over whatever involved their interests and by any means except for assassination. As a precaution, however, the Dings would dump the edibles given to them by those who belonged to the opposite faction whenever they suspected there was poison in them.
At eight o’clock Ding arrived at the Commune Administration on Bank Street. The six other committee members were already in the conference room, waving fans and drinking tea. Ding was not afraid of such a meeting, since two men here, Wang Feng and Liu Biao, were loyal to him. Though Yang was the Party chief in the commune, he had only one man on the committee, Dong Cai, who obeyed him like a dog. The two other members, Huang Zhi and Zhang Meng, were fence-sitters and would trim their sails according to the wind.
After they had given condolences to Ding, the meeting started. While the secretary was introducing the topic, Ding was somewhat bewildered, seeing that Yang seemed uninterested in the matter. He had expected Yang to jump at him and criticize him severely for having the coffin made.
“In short,” Yang said, “I think this belongs to family affairs. We should let Old Ding decide by himself. Now everybody may express his opinion.”
Ding couldn’t understand why all of a sudden the secretary appears to be so gentle and sympathetic. Then his own man, Liu, began to speak. “I agree that it’s a private matter, and Chairman Ding has the right to decide on his own. But as the head of the commune, he ought to think of the consequences, the political effect. What will we do it lots of commune members begin to follow Chairman Ding’s example and refuse to cremate the dead?”
“I agree,” said Wang, who was also Ding’s man. “I think the political consequence is enormous. We can’t afford to let our leader make such a mistake.”
Ding was unhappy about his men’s performance. Why do they all turn against me today? he asked himself. They all have a mother. Could they burn their mothers’ bodies? I can bury my mother secretly without a ceremony. Few people will know where. I just don’t want to burn her up. I promised her not to do that.
While Ding was lost in his thoughts, Dong Cai, Yang’s man, began to speak. “I agree with Secretary Yang. I think this is a personal matter that we shouldn’t interfere with. We all have old parents. I wouldn’t have my mother cremated if she died. That would wreck my family’s fortune; at least my father would think so. No, never.”
“Thank you,” Ding said, so grateful that he couldn’t contain himself anymore. “I promised not to burn her body! Before she died, she begged me with tears not to do that. She just wanted to be buried somewhere deep in the earth. I won’t take any arable land.”
The meeting dragged on for an hour without reaching a decision. Finally, the secretary proposed a vote, not on whether or not to bury or cremate the dead but on whether or not to let Ding choose himself. The result was four to three, in favor of personal choice. Ding felt relieved.
Without saying goodnight to his men, Ding set out for home. When he turned at the corner of Old Folk Road, Wang and Liu emerged from the side entrance of the Commune Administration. They called Ding and wanted to have a word with him.
“Chairman Ding,” Liu said, “do you trust a bastard like Dong Cai or us?”
“Of course I trust you.”
“We’ve followed you for years,” Wang said. “We know you are a good, filial man. But they don’t think so. Don’t be taken in by them. They want you to make a mistake and then they’ll jump at you and rip you apart.”
“Well, how come?”
“They set a trap for you, Chairman Ding,” Liu said, his narrow eyes glittering. “If you bury your mother tomorrow morning, I’m sure they will report you to the higher-ups tomorrow afternoon. To prevent ground burials is a major political task this year, you know that. In fact, Secretary Yang didn’t want to hold tonight’s meeting. It was Wang and I who persuaded Huang Zhi and Zhang Meng to propose the meeting. The just want to see you fall into a well and then they’ll stone you to death, but we want to stop you before you fall.”
“Yes,” Wang said, “as the saying goes: ‘Loyal words jar on your eyes – bitter medicine is good for your illness.’ We don’t want to please but save you.”
Ding was shocked. He held out his hands and laid them on both Wang’s and Liu’s shoulders and said, “My friends, I just realized the true intention behind their sympathy. At the meeting I was too emotional to see through them. I’m grateful for your timely words, which made me stop before it was too late. All right, I will follow your advice.” He paused to think for a moment, then said resolutely, “Please help me arrange with the crematory for the service tomorrow morning. Do it tonight, my friends.”
Having watched Wang and Liu disappear into the dark, Ding turned and went his way home. A cicada was chirring sleepily in the clear night, and someone was piping a bamboo flute in the distance. By now, Ding knew he had no choice, and that his official career would have been ruined if he had given his mother a ground burial at this moment when the superiors were eager and ready to punish someone so as to check the trend of ground burials. But he had promised his mother. How could he convince his family that the change was reasonable? There would be little trouble with his wife, since she understood such a matter and wouldn’t insist on a ground burial; besides, the dead was his mother, not her own flesh and blood. The trouble would come from his son, who had heard him promise the old woman and might not understand how serious the matter was.
Ding was right. When he broke the new decision to the family, Sheng wouldn’t accept it. “You promised her yourself. How can she rest in peace if we burn her up?”
“Yes, it’s true I promised her,” Ding said, trying to be as calm as possible. “Remember what she said about death? She said, ‘When I am dead, everything will be over for me.’ She can’t feel anything anymore. What matters is us, the remaining ones. We have to live and work.” Reasonable as he sounded, Ding felt his voice lacking the force is should have had.
“Sheng, your dad is right,” Yuanmin said.
“No.” Shang shook his head. “A ground burial is the least thing we can do for her.” He turned to his father. “I know it may keep you from being promoted, but at worst you’ll be demoted one rank.”
“Damn it, it’s not a matter of demotion or promotion. Those bastards, they want to bury me together with your grandma. Don’t you understand? They want to destroy us!”
“Don’t yell at each other, please,” Yuanmin begged.
As the son couldn’t be persuaded, the father proposed a vote. Certainly the wife agreed with the husband, but Sheng wouldn’t give up. He mentioned his aunt in Shandong, who was also a family member and should be a voter. “That’s ridiculous,” Ding said. “Even if we send her a cable tomorrow morning, it’ll take two days to get her word back. Do you want your grandma to rot in the heat?”
Seeing that his son couldn’t answer, Ding said in a soft vice, “I’m not a dictator in our family. The minority is subordinate to the majority. That is the principle of democracy, isn’t it? Our family must unite together in a crisis like this, at least in appearance. I have sent a letter to your aunt and she may come soon. Once she’s here, I will explain everything to her. I’m sure she won’t be as stubborn as you are.”
Sheng knew it was no use arguing. Besides, he was not certain whether his father was totally unreasonable. He went out and sat on a bench beside the coffin. Several men were dozing away in the candlelight. The night had grown quiet, except that in the distance a pulverizer was humming away in the Fertilizer Plant. Sheng remembered his grandmother’s words and wondered if everything really ended when a person died. Don’t’ we have a soul? he asked himself. If we don’t, why do the wreaths say, “May the Spirit of the Departed Remain Forever?” Why do we visit those tombs of the revolutionary martyrs every spring? Why do the folk present dishes, pour wine, and burn paper money before the graves of their family members? If one has a soul, then how does it feel when the body is destroyed, burned? Does cremation hurt the soul?
Too sleepy, he couldn’t focus his mind on any of these questions, which gradually faded away. Soon he began dozing off in the starlit night, like the other men.
Early the next morning, a junior clerk in the Propaganda Department came with a camera and took some pictures of the wreaths, the coffin, the awning, the men and women in mourning. At nine o’clock two Liberation trucks and a Great Wall van pulled up in front of the Dings’. A dozen young men got off the vehicles and began to load the coffin onto the truck. All the neighbors and friends who wanted to go to the cemetery climbed on the other truck, whereas the Dings and a few women who had helped with the needlework took the van.
The crematory was on the western outskirts of Dismount Fort, on the bank of the Blue Brook. A tall chimney stood atop a knoll and spat out thin, whitish smoke whenever the furnace burned. Seeing the ghostly cloud, the old people in town would say, “They are burning a body again. That soul will come back and haunt their homes and lure their kids into the marshes.” But day by day there were more bodies burned over there, and everyone could tell the business was booming. Young people knew that was where they would have to end up, but they didn’t seem to care, since there were so many things to worry about.
The coffin was unloaded in front of the furnace house, and the body was taken out and placed in a long, narrow carriage. Sheng saw his grandmother for the first time since her death. She wore black clothes; everything was brand-new, even the felt hat, the sheets, the quilts. Her pale face appeared swollen, but she looked very calm, as though in sleep. People began to gather in a line to show their final respects for the old woman. To the Ding’s surprise, Secretary Yang, Dong Cai, and several other men of the enemy faction also turned up at the crematory. A few bluebottles were buzzing and circling above the dead face, and Yuanmin waved a handkerchief to keep them away.
Two workmen came and pushed the carriage away to the furnace. The Dings were told that the best kerosene would be used, and that if they wanted to watch, they should go to the left-hand side of the furnace and view the cremation though a small hole. Several friends and the Dings moved to the spot; then the carriage was pushed in. The worker pressed the buttons on the handles, and the body and the clothes fell on the floor of the furnace. The moment the carriage came out, flames sprang up from every direction and swallowed the clothes and body. The viewer could hardly see anything, only fire dancing and swirling before their eyes. Ding Liang could contain himself no longer and burst into a cry, “Oh, Ma, I’m sorry! I’m a bad son. Ma, you wait. Don’t go too fast.” Tears flowed down his fleshy face. His wife and son began crying too.
Their wailing seemed contagious. Within half a minute, the whole furnace room was ringing with the sound of crying, and the floor was sprinkled with tears. People were weeping and blowing their noses. Even Secretary Yang lost self-control, using a handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Some women were supporting each other with their arms while sobbing. Their faces were disfigured by the pain and sadness that suddenly prevailed among the crowd. Only the workmen, who were jaded by this kind of mourning, appeared emotionless. They were smoking quietly. One of them was wiping the ash box on a table with a towel.
Twenty minutes later, the flames grew lower and lower as the whirring in the furnace stopped. By and by, an empty chamber could be seen through the small hole. A worker opened the furnace, in which remained a layer of ashes that looked like broken clamshells. Another workman used a poker to gather everything into a large shovel. Then he poured the ashes into a sieve to get rid of the cinders. People began to move out while the dings were putting the ashes into the box of sandalwood.
The clerk raised his camera and shot half a dozen pictures, in which the Dings stood against the tall chimney and the neat rows of pines, holding the ash box that had the old woman’s portrait and names on its front. By custom, the ashes would be left at the crematory for a month, so the father and the son, who carried the box, went to the small house where the dead souls were stored temporarily. Once inside, they saw dozens of boxes on the shelves that had been set up along the walls. The floor was littered with bread, fruits, colorful paper, burned joss sticks, dog and human feces. They places the box on top of a shelf and went out for fresh air. Although the place was untidy, they felt it was bearable, since they would take the old woman home soon.
Then the whole crowd climbed on the trucks, which carried them to East Wind Inn, where Yuanmin worked as the vice-manager. There they would have the feast, for which the inn had butchered two pigs. Everybody was welcome. The food was not fancy, only plain rice and four dishes—fried eggplants, pork stewed in soy sauce, tomatoes with scrambled eggs, and cabbage salad—but there was plenty of meat and liquor. Yuanmin had paid two hundred and fifty yuan for the expenses, since she didn’t want to give a handle to the Yang faction.
Three days after Sheng had returned to Gold County, an article appeared in Evergreen News, Dismount Fort’s town paper. It was entitles “Between the Party’s Principle and a Son’s Filial Duty.” It reported on the funeral affairs in detail, describing the old woman’s wish to be buried and Chairman Ding’s integrity in upholding the Party’s policy by refusing his mother a ground burial. Though full of praise, the article had a lot of overtones. Between the lines, an explicit message was conveyed to the reader: Ding Liang was an unfilial son who had burned up his mother spite of her imploring. It went so far as to say, “Ever since the ancient times, official integrity and family duty have been on contradictory terms. Chairman Ding resolutely sacrificed his old mother to prove his loyalty to the Party and our country.”
After reading the article, Ding threw the paper down and flew into a rage. His square face turned read, and his big eyes flashed. If he could grab hold of Secretary Yang, he would strangle him. His anger wouldn’t go away even if he ate Yang’s crooked heart. Everyone had a mother, but Yang acted as if he came from a pumpkin. Let him wait, wait for the day when his old mother went west.
That night Ding held a secret meeting in the Commune Guest House on West Street. Both Wang and Liu were present. In addition to them was the head of the Propaganda Department, Zhao Bin, who was the best writer and painter in town and had recently switched sides, from the Yangs’ faction to the Dings’. After a round of Golden Orchid wine, Ding took the newspaper out of his pocket and put it on the table. He said, “Brothers, you know what’s in the paper, don’t you?”
Everybody nodded without a word. “Damn their ancestors?” Ding cursed. “They are screwing me. If I buried my mother they would report me to the higher-ups. Now my mother has been burned up, they begin bad-mouthing me. Whatever I do, they want to do me in. This world was not made for both Yang Chen and us, and he won’t share the same sky with us!”
“I thought they would relent this time, especially after you feasted them, “Liu said. “At the crematory I saw Dong Cai, the son of a snake, wiping his eyes with paper. I was amazed that he could have a sympathetic heart. Now his tears turned out to be a trick.” Liu took a bite of a chicken leg in his hand.
“We have to figure out a way to fight back,” Wang said, spitting watermelon seeds into his palm. “It seems that this time we’ll have a war of pens.”
“Young Zhao,” Ding asked, “what do you think we should do?”
“We should write articles to correct the readers’ wrong impression given by this one.” Zhao pointed at the paper on the table.
“I think we must have the commanding elevation,” said Liu, who had been a company political instructor in the army. “We shouldn’t engage them on the same paper. We’d better begin with the big papers. If we have articles published in big papers, they will be silenced automatically, because they dare not oppose a higher body’s mouthpiece.”
Ding nodded, impressed by the right idea. Then the meeting proceeded to focus on what kind of articles should be written and to what paper they should be sent. They all agreed that the emphasis should fall on the old woman’s change of mind, which had resulted from Chairman Ding’s effort to enlighten her on the Party’s concern and on the interests of future generations. The articles would be sent simultaneously to Beijing, Shenyang—the provincial capital—and Gold County. Since Zhao was a regular contributor to several newspapers, he assured Ding that he knew where to send the articles. “Brothers,” Ding said to conclude, “a good man needs three helpers, as a pavilion has at least three pillars. I’m grateful to you. If I have wealth and rank some day, I won’t forget you, my good brothers.”
That very night, Zhao Bin roused two junior clerks in his department, and together they set about writing the articles.
Sooner than anyone expected—a week later—Liao Ning Daily, the biggest provincial newspaper, published an article about the funeral. Although the contents had been changed a great deal from what Zhao had written, it provided the ammunition that the Ding Faction needed badly. The changed title was more resonant, “For the Happiness of Ten Thousand Generations.” It reported that an old progressive woman in a commune town, called Dismount Fort, had volunteered to have her body cremated after her death, even though her family had prepared an expensive coffin for her. She wanted to leave a clean world for the children to come; for her, that was the best fit for future generations. The paper also printed the picture of the Dings holding the ash box in front of the crematory.
Ding was stunned by the article. He had thought that at best the county paper might be interested in the funeral, since he had a few influential friends in the county town and he was not unknown to the local media. Now, obviously, the funeral had attracted the attention of the officials in the provincial capital. Far from the truth though this report was, it gave him what he needed at this moment: an authoritative version of the funeral affairs. Facing that, from now on, no one in the Yang faction would dare challenge his loyalty to the Party and his filialness to his mother again. All Ding needed to do now was repeat what the paper said. He ordered the writers in his faction to propagate this definitive version. From now on, all the guns must have the same caliber.
Though the external crisis was eased, the trouble within the family still persisted. Ever since the old woman died, Yuanmin had not slept well at night. She had her own worries. On the day before her mother-in-law’s death she had taken away the old woman’s key to the large red chest that contained candies, cookies, and canned fruits. Because Ding was a prominent man in town, whoever had called on him would bring a gift to his sick old mother. Sometimes a box of pastry, sometimes a bag of fruits, sometimes a chunk of cooked meat. The red chest was always full of dainties. The old woman opened it several times a day, even at night before she went to bed. That was why she had said, “I’ve eaten whatever I wanted to eat.”
Since it was not healthy to go to bed with a filled stomach, Yuanmin was determined to break the bad habit. People ate to work, what was the use of the rich food in the old woman’s stomach while she was sleeping? It would only make her fat. The night before her death, Yuanmin had said to her, “Mom, give me the key. You mustn’t stuff yourself before you go to bed. It’ll ruin your health.”
“No, what’s in the chest is mine. No, I won’t give it to you.”
Seeing it impossible to bring her around, Yuanmin just fished the key out of the jacket hung on the wall. The old woman started to cry, but Yuanmin wouldn’t give it back. Though she planned to tell her son when he came home, the old woman, tired of crying, fell asleep. In fact, she might have been heartbroken when she left this world.
Yuanmin dared not tell her husband what she had done. If he had known, he would have yelled at her, “You sent her to death!” How could she bear the blame for the rest of her life?
Though she hadn’t meant to hurt her mother-in-law, the old woman must have hated her at the last moment. If only she had known that was her last day! She would have done anything to please her and let her eat to her heart’s content. It was too late now. She didn’t love her mother-in-law a lot, but she didn’t hate her enough to hurt her. No matter how remorsefully she cried at the funeral, the harm had been done, the wounded soul would never forgive her. These days she tossed in bed for hours every night.
More frightening than that was her sister-in-law, Shufen, who would arrive in a few days. That country woman had been demented. If she found out what had happened or was unhappy about the cremation, Shufen would fly into a rage and might have a relapse. Then the Dings would have to send her to the mental hospital again. That would mean another huge debt. Yuanmin was terrified to think of it. She remembered that fifteen years before, Shufen had been here, raving, singing, swearing, laughing every day. Sometimes Shufen would run on the streets, imitating a dog’s barking, a donkey’s braying, a duck’s quacking, a sheep’s bleating, a rooster’s crowing. A lot of children followed her, throwing stones at her. At meals she would stuff herself with whatever she liked without touching anything else, and nobody dared dissuade her. Once she ate up a whole bowl of stewed ham and then blasted curses at Yuanmin because while she had been eating, Yuanmin had said, “Sister, why don’t you have some rice?” At the time, the old woman was still alive; whenever Shufen messed her pants or fell into a public latrine, the mother would wash her and the soiled clothes. But now, if she went mad again, Yuanmin would have to take care of everything. It was horrifying to imagine it. She grew so nervous she cried in front of her husband several times. Ding seemed to understand his wife’s mind, and he promised that he would handle his sister once she was here for the short visit, but that Yuanmin must not provoke her in any way. He tried to comfort his wife, saying that as Shufen hadn’t been demented by the death of her husband five years before, it was unlikely that she would relapse this time.
After reading the article in Liao Ning Daily, Sheng felt outraged. How come the whole thing was reversed now? His grandmother had never wanted to be cremated in the first place, and there had never been an “expensive coffin.” Lies, newspaper always tell lies, he said to himself. But he was mature enough to keep the anger and the questions to himself. His experience in the army had taught him that disaster always comes from the tongue.
This morning his father had telephoned him and asked him to come home to see his aunt, who had just arrived. Sheng got permission from the leaders. Having saved a weekend, he would be able to stay home for two days. He took the three o’clock train. It was only an hour’s trip.
When Sheng reached home his father was in the yard, reading The Hero and the Eagle, a chivalric novel. “Was the train crowded?” Ding asked pleasantly, and put the book into his pocket.
“No, I had a seat by the window.”
“Listen,” the father said in a low voice, “your aunt will stay here just for a few days. We’ll try to do everything to keep her undisturbed. Don’t tell her what really happened, all right?”
“I don’t want her to go mad again. Do you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then just repeat what I tell her. I know her temper better than you do.”
When Sheng stepped in the house, Shufen was helping Yuanmin cut celery in the kitchen. To Sheng’s surprise, his aunt hadn’t changed a bit: the same thick, dark hair coiled on top of her head, the same broad, chafed face, the same bulging eyes. Her laugh was hearty as her body was stout. She saw Sheng and said loudly, “Big nephew, I didn’t think you’re so tall, a big man now.”
“How are you, aunt?”
“Good, I’m good.”
Soon, dinner was ready. The family sat down at the table while Sheng was pouring White Mountain wine, first for his aunt, then for his father, his mother, and himself. Before they began to eat, Chairman Ding straightened his back a little and spoke with a broad smile. “I am very happy today. First, my sister came. I haven’t seen you for fifteen years, Shufen. This is a happy reunion. Second, I was just told that I have been promoted to vice-magistrate of Gold County.” He turned to Shufen. “I owe my luck to Mother.”
Glasses clinked and laughter filled the room while spoons and dishes jingled continuously. Sheng was overwhelmed by his father’s announcement. It was a big promotion, which would also mean a lot for himself. Now his life and future in the county town would be different. His father wouldn’t have to help him overtly. Just by having his old man in the County Administration, Sheng would become somebody in his leaders’ eyes. They wouldn’t dare ask him to buy soybean oil for them through the back door again. Instead, they would think of what to offer him on holidays. And the pretty girls in the textile mill; he would marry the prettiest of them and settle down in the big county town. He had never thought fate would favor him this way. Emboldened by the good wine, he stood up and said, “Dad, congratulations!”
They drank up. Then Ding turned to Shufen and said, “Sis, you have seen those pictures of the funeral and the newspaper. We did want to bury Mother. But she wanted to be with us forever, so we had her cremated without waiting for your word.”
“My word is worthless,” Shufen said. “You’re her son.”
“Don’t be angry with me, sis. You see, only by putting her into a small box can we take her with us wherever we go. I’m a cadre in the Party and can be sent to any part of the country. If we buried her here, we’d have to leave her in the wilderness alone. We can’t do that.”
“Brother, don’t get me wrong. You don’t need to persuade me. I can see you’ve done everything you can. The wreaths, the pictures, the articles in the papers, what else would our mother want? It was a big funeral; every part of it was big. If she was at our home village, we couldn’t do anything like that. Our mother’s soul must be happy in heaven now.”
What a relief Yuanmin experienced! Now knowing how to express it in words, she picked up a large piece of braised pig ear and put it on her sister-in-law’s plate.
“Wait a minute,” Shufen said. “I must take something home.”
Yuanmin withdrew her chopsticks with a start. Shufen went on, “I want to take all the pictures with me, to show them to our neighbors. Brother, do you remember Uncle Liu?”
“Yes, I remember that old man.”
“He died last year and had only two wreaths. Two wreaths.” She drew a pair of large circles in the air with her chopsticks. “But our mother had thirty-six. I want to show them.”
Ding laughed and assured his sister that she could have all the photographs, together with the glossy album. Yuanmin promised her that they would mail her more. Then Ding announced that the next morning Sheng would accompany his aunt to the crematory and bring the old woman back home. Though it had not been a month yet, it didn’t matter. They wanted to place the ash box in the main room so that they could worship her on holidays and set a bowl for her whenever they had a good meal.
Sheng knew that not every word his father said was true, but he was convinced that the funeral affairs had to be handled this way. Now he realized what a powerful, experienced father he had, a father who could act according to circumstances and could prosper in adversities. He felt there was a lot to learn from his old man. Again he stood up and raised his glass. “Dad, congratulations!”
Ha Jin is a celebrated Chinese-American writer whose work explores the tensions between the individual and the family, the modern and the traditional, and personal feelings and duty. He was born in Liaoning, China. He joined the Chinese army during the Cultural Revolution, but left at the age of 19 to earn a degree in American literature and then enrolled at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. After the Chinese government’s suppression of the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, he decided to remain in the United States and later became a U.S. citizen. He is the author of two collections of poetry and two collections of short fiction stories, Ocean of Words, which received the PEN/Hemingway award, and Under the Red Flag (1997), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. His novel, Waiting, won the National Book Award for fiction in 1999, as well as the PEN/Faulkner award. He also wrote the story collection The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, and two collections of poetry. He is a professor of English at Boston University.