This is a translation of the second chapter of Liang Xiaosheng’s Floating City, which is a novel about a floating city
- You can read the first chapter here: This is a translation of the first chapter of Floating City by Liang Xiaosheng, which is a novel about a floating city….
- The first chapter of the novel starts off with the murder of a prostitute. This chapter is more representative of the tone of the book.
“Stopped before the sun came up.”
“Was there an earthquake last night?”
“What do you mean, an earthquake?”
The Woman stopped kneading the dough. She turned back to look at him. Maybe. Maybe there had been an earthquake. There were cracks running across his forehead. He looked up, his eyes running over the ceiling and then down the walls. The ceiling, nothing there. Walls looked fine, too. The gecko was meditating. The gecko was on his usual spot on the wall: on the calendar. The gecko was on his usual spot on the calendar: in the cleavage of Miss August, suckling at her inkjet breasts.
The Woman said: “You’re safe in bed. Didn’t wake you up. If it starts shaking again, don’t worry, I’ll save you. The world can’t afford to lose you — me, well, I’m willing to lay down my life so that you’ll live on.”
The Woman went back to kneading dough.
Ma Guoxiang was looking at the gecko. He forgot about the earthquake. He didn’t really care anymore. The gecko, though. The first time he’d seen the gecko had been after they’d fixed up the place. His daughter called him into her bedroom. She wanted him to crush it. He had led and prodded and invited the gecko into the main room, where he and the Woman slept. The gecko was the Guardian Spirit of the family. That’s what Ma Guoxiang always thought. The past couple years, things had changed. Ma Guoxiang had hit a run of good luck. Since the gecko came along, things had been different.
He thought for a while about ripping August down early. He knew the Guardian Spirit would appreciate Miss September. There was nothing wrong with Miss August. He’d flipped up the page and noticed that Miss September was the Guardian Spirit’s type: blonde, nice tits and no artfully placed bamboo frond or whatever to cover them up.
He believed that the Guardian Spirit had a type. He believed that the Guardian Spirit was a breast man, although he only assuming that the gecko was male. He believed that when the gecko was sending an omen of a major event, the Guardian Spirit would move to a pair of breasts. Those were Ma Guoxiang’s beliefs, in brief. Even atheists and people raised by wolves will eventually create something for themselves to believe in. They feel something is missing in their world. They feel something important is missing. They believe so that they they can fill that blank space. The Guardian Spirit filled that Ma Guoxiang’s blank space.
“Look! Look! Look!”
The Woman looked back.
“Look. What’s he doing?”
She pointed at the Guardian Spirit and laughed.
“You want to climb walls, too? Get out of bed, might be a good start.”
He suspected she might be jealous of the gecko.
He mumbled something to himself. He did not say anything to her.
He rolled onto his side and felt a faint pain at the back of his head. He reached back and his fingers found a bump.
He called for her.
The Woman was still rolling the dough. She ignored him.
“How’d I get this? Musta been an earthquake last night! “
He remembered now. He remembered the bed shaking. He’d fallen out of bed and smacked the back of his head on the corner of the bedside cupboard. It’d hurt like hell. The Woman had been sleeping tucked up against the wall. She couldn’t have fallen out of the bed like he did. She would’ve had to roll over him.
“One too many last night. All it was.”
He didn’t hear much concern in her tone.
“Who — me? You’re saying Ma Guoxiang had one too many? That’s a good one. That’s a real good one….”
He felt insulted. He felt slandered.
He was angry.
He was a man that could not have one too many.
In the room, where he and his wife lived, he had hung a duìlián
The top line was: Finest wine, mediocre bottles, or moonshine, bloodshot eyes turn to the sea and the world beyond.
The bottom line was: Imbibe at noon, drink at dusk and when it gets dark, bloodshot eyes look for anyone left standing.
Running alongside them was: Drain the bottles.
He wasn’t the type of man that drew much attention. Nobody would notice him, walking down the street. He was middle aged, short and skinny. But he could not have one too many. That was his claim to fame. One of his friends had come up with a rhyme about him: one bottle two bottle just to rinse his lips / three bottle four bottle drunk down to the drips / five bottle six bottle he’s calling for more / seven bottle eight bottle he slides out the door. He was known as a man that could drink. He wasn’t one to sing his own praises. That went for other things too. He was a modest man. He was a trustworthy man. He was a loyal man. He was a friend to all men! More importantly, he was an immune man. He was immune to the effects of alcohol.
He didn’t really like drinking. He could tolerate it. It was the culture of the banquet table that disgusted him. It seemed to him that China had entered the Age of Drunkenness. He was a man of his nation and of his age, after all — so what choice did he have? He drank. He found that his opportunities increased. He made friends with interesting people. He seemed to know everyone in the city, from top bureaucrats to the lowest of the low. He had friends that drank Maotai in hotel ballrooms and he had friends that drank cheap bottles on street corners. He knew men that worked in nearly every field or that didn’t work at all. It seemed that everyone wanted to drink with him.
The Chinese habit of banqueting is bizarre. Whether one is hosting business contacts or friends, the point is always flattery. That’s not to say that the purpose of the banquet is flattery but it begins there. The Chinese are great hosts but they are also inveterate schemers. When the hosts go around the table or tour the room, toasting their guests, it is not unusual for them to have swapped liquor for water. If it’s not water they’re drinking, they might be holding a tiny cup, far smaller than the tall glass that the guest is drinking from. If it’s liquor they’re drinking and the glass is the right size, watch them to see if they actually swallow it! Those are only the most elementary deceits that take place at a banquet. What is the point? The host creates a connection. The guest leaves happy. The host and the guest seal their friendship. The moment is recalled with fondness for years to come. Favors will be exchanged.
In the Age of Drunkenness, Ma Guoxiang’s immunity to the effects of alcohol made him a legend. He had nicknames. They called him The Funnel, Uncle Ethanol, The Unsinkable Ma Guoxiang. He was a simple man. He was not a native of the city. He was a simple man that made his living on the land. But attending banquets quickly became a lucrative sideline. At first, he played the role of the Villain at the banquets. That was fine. But there was no particular reward beyond a nice meal. He grew weary of the hosts and guests making sport of trying to drink him under the table. They were no match for him. He could crush any man alive, when it came to drinking. He thought there must be something better than playing the Villain. He started to play the role of Defender of the People. His decision to transfer from Villain to Defender of the People had unforeseen consequences.
The city’s banquets began to be increasingly restrained and civil affairs. Ma Guoxiang would always attend dressed in a neat and pressed suit, clean shaven,and his hair slicked back. There were many bullies at these banquets, who liked to patrol the room, preying on the weak. They would push shot after shot on the weaker guests. Ma Guoxiang as Defender of the People would slide over to take the shot for them. He seated himself beside those that needed protection. When the toasts came, he would rise in their place. When Uncle Ethanol was present, the bullies stayed in their seats. The rush to toast slowed down. Ma Guoxiang did not call for anyone to drink with him. He didn’t taunt anyone. He was solemn. He was dignified. If he was thirsty, he filled his own glass.
Banquets were no longer marathon multihour affairs. Banquets began to wrap up after the one hour mark. Hotel lobbies were no longer terrorized by drunken banquet guests staggering through. Banquets ended with sober handshakes. If a guest ended up drunk, it was because they wanted to get drunk. Budgets began to shrink. A host could put on a banquet for a third of what it had once cost. Ma Guoxiang’s presence guaranteed a civilized banquet. There was intense competition to invite him. Hosts went to him before the first invitations were sent out. They brought him gifts and promised favors. He did not refuse the gifts or turn down the favors — the one exception was gifts of liquor. At the end of the banquet, an envelope would be slipped in his pocket. He had a price. For business banquets, the price was at least a hundred. For private dinners, he offered a hefty discount. He told his wife that laobaixìng didn’t have it easy. They weren’t spending public money to host him. They were spending their own money, so how could he charge full price? If his schedule forced him to choose between a business or government banquet and a private party, he would invariably choose the private party. Except for a wedding banquet, private banquets were usually held so that the host could secure some favor. At this kind of banquet, with its aggressive toasting, his services were always in demand.
His fame stretched all the way to the loftiest heights of municipal politics. One day, the deputy director at the Municipal Party Committee summoned him to a meeting with the Mayor.
He wasn’t worried. He hadn’t broken any laws. What did he have to worry about? The Mayor, the Governor, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China — he’d sit down with any of them. Ma Guoxiang served the people, goddammit!
The Mayor entered the room.
The Mayor was forty-three but he looked younger. He spoke to Ma Guoxiang as if they were old friends: “Ah, you’re here.” He held out a hand.
“Been here a while.” He had met the Mayor before, actually. He had shaken his hand once, at least. He hadn’t known that it was the Mayor’s hand he was shaking. In his mind, he’d pictured the Mayor as a white haired old men. This man did not look particularly dignified. He looked like a high school PE teacher.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting.” The Mayor apologized. The Mayor made an excuse: “I was in a meeting. Party business!”
He talked the talk, at least. Ma Guoxiang hadn’t even been sure this was actually mayor. He looked at the man again. He still wasn’t sure. Ma Guoxiang wasn’t sure exactly how to address the younger man. He felt a bit nervous.
The Mayor looked him over. “Have a seat, please. Sit, sit!” The Mayor chuckled and shook his head: “You’re nothing like I pictured! I thought you’d be a big fat son of a bitch.” He reached over and rapped Ma Guoxiang’s belly with his knuckles. “How do you put it away? What’s the trick?”
“There’s no trick. Really. I explain it like a hot water bottle. You know, when it’s empty it doesn’t look like you could put much water inside. That’s how my stomach is.”
He laughed. He changed his mind about the Mayor. He was easygoing, at least. His nervousness faded.
“Have one of these.”
The Mayor held out a cigarette for him. He took out his own cigarettes. The mayor had a soft pack of Zhongnanhai. He smoked Camels in a hard pack.
He said: “Have one of these, instead. You’ll like these.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
The two men smoked. The Mayor asked: “So, you’re making some money doing this, huh?”
He said: “Not bad. I’m just going to banquets. I see these people on TV, these singing stars or whatever…. I’m not making that kind of money.”
The Mayor said: “Hey, me neither. I do all right myself but… what can you do? You’re really… immune to it?”
“That’s good to hear. I mean, if you were harming yourself somehow…. You have to look after yourself.”
He felt that the Mayor’s concern was genuine. He nodded.
“The fella I sent to get you, did he say anything about why I called you here?”
“Good. I told him not to. I worried you might not even come. You know, nowadays, some people out there, they’re not exactly in love with us. The Communist Party, I mean. I assume you’re not one of those types.”
“It all depends on the person. The way I look at it, I treat people just as well as they treat me. If you haven’t got time for Ma Guoxiang, I haven’t got time for you.”
He answered frankly.
The Mayor chuckled: “You’re a straight shooter. That’s what I heard. I heard you knocked out the Tourism Director. He’s still pissed off about that.”
The Tourism Director had brought him to a banquet held for the visit of a provincial tourism chief. The Tourism Director knew that the man could hold his liquor and he was expecting a bloodbath once the toasting got underway. Ma Guoxiang was seated right beside the Tourism Director. But before the banquet got underway, he had overheard the Tourism Director say something that had upset him. He had left the front line and retreated to the bathroom, letting the Tourism Director fend for himself. The Tourism Director’s staff had ended up getting him a room in the hotel, where he woke up late the next day, incapacitated by a brutal hangover.
The Mayor looked embarrassed to have brought it up. He said: “But the son of a bitch deserved it. You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, the way I see it. Anyways, what I wanted to tell you, what I brought you here to tell you…. You see, we’ve got this group of Japanese businessmen in town. We’re trying to set up a deal but these bastards won’t budge. Tonight is the farewell dinner. We want to keep things cordial, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring Yang Wulang back down from the mountains, if you know what I mean. I want to send them off with a dinner to remember. “
“Drink a couple of little Japs under the table? Way I see it, I’m not only representing myself here or the city — I’m representing all of China. We’ll wipe them out.” The Mayor had put him at ease. He was a modest man but he couldn’t help but get a bit carried away.
The banquet was prepared. The Japanese delegation arrived. As expected, they were not in a particularly good mood, after the tough negotiations.
The Mayor introduced him: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the God of Alcohol, the Prince of Ethanol, Mr. Ma Guoxiang. I have invited him here to help us make this a dinner to remember for our guests of honor. I propose a wager: if our God of Alcohol should give even the slightest hint of red cheeks or slurred speech, then our distinguished friends from Japan will, from this day forward, be welcomed in all of the fine establishments of this city and will, for the next twenty years, drink for free.”
The Mayor spoke with extreme solemnity. The Mayor’s plan was to have the Japanese guests concentrate their assault on Ma Guoxiang, while the old and weak were evacuated to safer territory.
The Japanese delegation formed a line in front of Ma Guoxiang. He was never allowed to set his glass down without it being immediately refilled. He downed glass after glass. He smiled. Through a translator, he let the Japanese delegation know that he was waiting for them to really start drinking. Bottles began to litter the table beside him like fallen soldiers.
The Mayor called over one of the waiters. A cassette tape was played. The waiter led the Mayor’s team and the staff in a shoutalong of the distillery workers’ song from Red Sorghum:
New wine on the ninth of ninth
Good wine from our labor, good wine!
If you drink our wine,
You’ll breathe well, you won’t cough.
If you drink our wine,
You’ll be well, your breath won’t smell.
The Mayor’s Secretary stood and went to the waiter: “What are you doing, playing that? Put on something nice.”
The Mayor pulled the Secretary over: “Sit down. I told him to play it. Gotta loosen things up in here.”
Ma Guoxiang had complete faith in the Mayor. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. He drained his bladder and returned to his seat ready for another round. The Japanese delegation watched him return.
A few of them were not yet convinced. One of them called across the table in halting Chinese: “You. Chinese. You’re always… talking big.”
The Mayor laughed and said: “Hey, China is a Third World country. We’re backwards! Even if we talk big, it’s Third World big. The Chinese people hope to learn from Japan. Maybe someday we will reach the level of your country.”
The Japanese delegation seemed to have forgotten the failures of the past week. Even if they had lost in business, they didn’t want to suffer another loss at the banquet. That would be a spiritual loss.
Whether the Japanese knew it or not, the Mayor’s solemn speech about a twenty year welcome in the city was genuine. They seemed to take it as a joke. They took it as an insult. They were willing to risk everything then. To them, this was a life and death matter. If they could not succeed, they would die for a righteous cause.
The Japanese stared across the table at their hosts. The Mayor and his team felt the hair on the back of their necks standing on end. The waitresses in the hall took a step back from the table. They knew that they were not needed then, but they stood at the ready to wade in, if the dignity of the Chinese people was in danger.
The Mayor looked calm but he feared that he had lost control of the banquet.
He said quietly to Ma Guoxiang: “We gotta be careful now. I prepared the Welcome Cards before I got here, just in case…. If they want to come all the way over here to drink for free, maybe we should let them. Might be good for international relations.”
The Mayor took an envelope from the Secretary. The Mayor opened the flap and showed Ma Guoxiang the stack of Welcome Cards inside.
Ma Guoxiang, fuming, reached into the envelope and took out a handful of the cards.
Clenching the Welcome Cards in his fist, he called: “Please, let’s all take it easy.” He sat up straight in his chair and looked at the Japanese delegation, saying: “China is not a wealthy country, it’s true, but — I’m sure you’re already aware — one thing we do run a surplus in is time. That surplus of time is perhaps one of our failings, at least in the eyes of most of the world. But let’s take advantage of it tonight. Lean back. Relax. It’s my turn to drink, isn’t it?” He gestured at the bottles on the table. “Just warming up. How many have you gentlemen had? About three, it looks like. There’s no need to hold back. Let’s get started. Bring me three bottles! Bring me three straws!”
A young waitress came to the table with three bottles of Maotai. She lined them up, opened each one. She came back with three straws and put one in each bottle.
The Japanese stared at him as if watching a sleight of hand man on a street corner, trying to figure out what the trick was.
He laughed and said: “It would be far too much trouble to drink these, glass by glass. I’m not going to just pick them up and chug them. Don’t worry. But I think I have a solution.”
With his gaze fixed on the Japanese delegation, he picked up a bottle and put his mouth to the straw. He sucked it down without taking a breath.
One of the Japanese guests took the empty bottle and shook it beside his ear, not believing what he had just seen. He held the bottle upside-down.
A few drops spilled onto the table.
The Japanese guest looked up at him.
Another of the Japanese delegation stood unsteadily and made his way around the table. The man was near blackout drunk but he still had a look of bleary cunning. The Japanese guest had decided that the Maotai must have been replaced by water. He leaned over and took a long suck from the straw. If he wasn’t already drunk and if he’d ever drunk Maotai with a straw before, he might have been fine. He sucked once and the liquor filled his mouth, burning his tongue. He staggered back, the Maotai just beginning to trickle down his numb throat.
That was the final straw. The Japanese guest turned and vomited on the floor.
Let it never be said that the Japanese are a race lacking in discretion. One of the man’s compatriots immediately kneeled down next to the vomit. The man untucked his shirt and began scooping vomit into it.
That brave, quick-witted Savior of the Japanese People, whose unbelievable good manners and decorum — anyways, he was left kneeling on the floor, unable to really move, holding up the front of his shirt, to keep the vomit from spilling out. He stayed motionless, exactly where he was, posed like a statue.
The Japanese delegation was thrown into a panic. While the Savior of the Japanese People knelt on the floor, a few of the men rushed past him and went to the side of their stricken colleague, helping him to a chair. The problem of the Savior of the Japanese People was more complicated.
The Mayor and his team looked on with concern. They were the hosts, after all, and it didn’t seem right to let their guest suffer. The banquet table emptied and the Mayor’s team and Japanese delegation both stood around the Savior of the Japanese People. He nodded once but then did not move. He made no sound. He seemed to be frozen in place. The scene was strangely moving.
The waitress that had brought the three bottles of Maotai appeared again. She was about to prove that the quick-thinking courtesy of the Savior of the Japanese People was no match for a banquet waitress. Holding a small knife in her hand, she advanced on the Savior of the Japanese People. The knife looked frighteningly sharp.
The Savior of the Japanese People’s compatriots closed ranks. One of them rushed at her and took up a sort of karate stance. One of the Japanese delegation pleased with her. It was impossible to know exactly what he said but something to effect of: Hey, we cleaned it up, so just calm down, okay?
The waitress smiled. She stepped around the members of the Japanese delegation and put the knife to the collar of the Savior of the Japanese People. With several careful strokes and the awful sound of expensive fabric being sliced, she worked the blade down from the collar and around the moist balloon of cloth that the Savior of the Japanese People was holding. With her free hand, she caught the cloth that she had cut free and bundled it into a ball….
The Savior of the Japanese People stood up and bowed deeply to the waitress, thanking her in his rudimentary Chinese.
The Mayor clapped and gave the waitress a thumbs up. She smiled charmingly and left, carrying the bundle of fabric.
The Japanese delegation began to clap, too. However, they appeared to be applauding the Savior of the Japanese People, rather than the quick-thinking waitress.
The man that had vomited came to his senses. He had sobered up. He stood and began bowing to the other members of his delegation. It was impossible to know exactly what he said but something to effect of: I have brought great shame to everyone by vomiting on the floor.
Both groups returned to the table. The banquet was saved, it seemed. The atmosphere was greatly improved. The Japanese delegation, though, still wanted more. They stood and faced the God of Alcohol and chanted for him to drink.
The Mayor whispered in Ma Guoxiang’s ear: “They’re sore losers but it’ll be even worse if we concede. I think if we take them to a draw, that’ll be the best for both sides. We don’t want to embarrass them but we’ve got to get out of here sometime tonight. If we leave on a good note, we could get some business out of them in the future.”
Even before the Mayor had spoken, Ma Guoxiang had already decided to take it to a draw. He picked up the first bottle and sucked it dry. He picked up the second bottle and sucked it dry.
The liquor was water to him. He had just sucked down three bottles of the finest Maotai, two hundred and forty a pop — sucked them dry. He was immune to the effects, so there was no particular harm. But what was the point? A man like him had labored at a distillery somewhere far away to produce that bottle and the People’s sweat and toil had paid for it. He was just going to piss it away.
He felt a twinge of disgust at himself.
But he was not finished yet. He had to keep playing the role.
He went around the table, shaking hands with the Japanese delegation, saying: “I’m drunk! Sorry, folks. I had one too many.”
The Japanese delegation applauded. Their admiration for the God of Alcohol was clear.
The Mayor shouted at the waiter to play some music.
The guttural singing came on again:
If you drink our wine,
You’ll dare go through Qingsha Kou alone.
If you drink our wine,
You won’t kowtow to the emperor
On the ninth of ninth you’ll go with me
Good wine, good wine, good wine
The Mayor shouted: “Play something else! What’s all this about ‘kowtow to the emperor’? We haven’t got an emperor anymore. Have you got ‘Ode to Friendship’ over there? Play that! After that, play ‘Pulling in the Nets’!”
“Ode to Friendship” was played and the guests and the hosts swayed in time to the music, caught up in something that could be mistaken for the spirit of friendship.
“Ode to Friendship” ended and it was replaced by “Pulling in the Nets,” which some of the Japanese delegation clapped along with. Some of them began to sing along with Japanese lyrics.
A waitress brought a tray of fruit.
The Welcome Cards had been in Ma Guoxiang’s pocket the entire time. He had planned to wait until the Japanese delegation were drunk enough and then produce the cards, letting them watch him tear them to pieces. Of course, that would not have been appropriate with the new atmosphere of friendship that had taken hold at the banquet. He handed the Welcome Cards back to the Mayor.
The Mayor had an idea what Ma Guoxiang had been planning. He hadn’t had the heart to demand the Welcome Cards back. The past few days had been hard, locked in bitter negotiations with the Japanese delegation. He wouldn’t have come to the banquet, if he hadn’t been in charge of organizing it. He was relieved, though, when Ma Guoxiang handed the Welcome Cards back to him.
The Mayor took the cards and thought for a moment before rising. He said: “I would like to address our distinguished guests one last time and express our gratitude. I hope that we have shown you our passion for reform. We are greatly indebted to you for your help thus far and I hope that our relationship can continue. The Chinese People are not perfect. We have liars. We have cheats. The Japanese People are not perfect. They can be stingy. They can be arrogant. But let us build between us a relationship of mutual trust and understanding. I made a promise and I will not go back on it. I am a man of my word. Our God of Alcohol — you beat him, fair and square. I present to you our city’s Welcome Card!”
The translator began to speak. The Japanese delegation were surprised by the Mayor’s words. They had mostly forgotten about the promises that he had made at the start of the banquet. They were moved by the Mayor’s magnanimity. They began to reconsider the contentious hardfought negotiations of the past few days.
The Japanese delegation stood and listened intently to the translation.
The delegation began to bow deeply to the Mayor. The leader of the delegation, Yamamoto Ikuo took the envelope of Welcome Cards from the Mayor. Yamamoto Ikuo began to speak.
The translator began to speak.
“Yamamoto Sensei wants to express heartfelt gratitude to the Mayor and the people of the city. Yamamoto Sensei says that the Mayor has proven himself to be a worthy adversary and a skilled negotiator. Yamamoto Sensei wishes to pay his deepest respects to the Mayor’s has consistent flexibility and self-confidence. Yamamoto Sensei also wishes to express his gratitude for this special gift, which you have bestowed on his humble delegation. He wishes to say that although he will keep the card as a souvenir of the Mayor’s cordial welcome, he would not dare use the gift and trouble the people of this fine city.”
The Mayor bowed his head and began to clap.
As “Ode to Friendship” played, the Japanese delegation and the Mayor’s team stood and began to shake hands.
The Savior of the Japanese People stepped around the table and found Ma Guoxiang. The Savior of the Japanese People’s wore his jacket over an undershirt, tucked into his trousers, no longer looking like the heroic figure that had knelt motionless, cradling his compatriot’s vomit. The White Undershirt Man wrapped his arms around him. Ma Guoxiang was not used to being hugged by another man. The fact that it was a Japanese man did not help. But Ma Guoxiang was moved. He wrapped his arms around the White Undershirt Man. The two men embraced, cheek to cheek. The White Undershirt Man slapped his back.
Ma Guoxiang couldn’t pull his face away from the White Undershirt Man. He felt a bit embarrassed. But the entire banquet had been embarrassing. He allowed himself to be swept up in the moment. The White Undershirt Man kept patting his back. Ma Guoxiang patted the White Undershirt Man’s back. He noticed that the White Undershirt Man was using his left hand. Ma Guoxiang was using his right hand. He thought to himself: What if I’m using the wrong hand? He began to pat the White Undershirt Man’s back with his left hand. He hadn’t noticed that the White Undershirt Man was left-handed.
The Mayor’s Secretary worked the room, snapping away with a camera.
The White Undershirt Man began to cry.
Ma Guoxiang was not sure exactly what he should do. The White Undershirt Man burst into tears with seemingly no provocation. How should he respond? It seemed impolite to simply ignore him. He looked around the banquet room. Except for the Mayor and the Mayor’s Secretary, the Mayor’s team were all dabbing at their eyes with tissues. The Mayor had backed away from the table and now seized the Secretary’s camera. He no longer had the obligation to cry. He worked the room, snapping pictures. The Mayor’s Secretary leaned awkwardly on the wall.
One of the waitresses that came in to tidy the table noticed the Mayor’s Secretary. The Mayor’s Secretary was trying not to laugh. The waitress wanted to laugh, too. She hurriedly stacked a few plates and carried them out of the banquet room.
Ma Guoxiang opened a packet of tissue and dipped it in a puddle of liquor on the table. He dabbed at his eyes with the tissue. Tears began to run down his cheeks. He could finally face the White Undershirt Man without shame.
The Japanese delegation’s tears were very real. They were not immune to the effects of alcohol. They were drunk. They were approaching blackout drunk. They say that when Mongolians get drunk, they sing. When North Koreans get drunk, they dance. When the Chinese get drunk, they lose control. When the Japanese get drunk, they cry. Even with those differences, Asians are completely different from Europeans. Europeans lack the culture of forced drunkenness. Europeans tend to get drunk alone. It’s hard to picture Europeans putting on a banquet like the one that the Mayor had held. It’s hard to picture Europeans pretending to drink, drinking water, switching cups, all that. Maybe it’s because liquor is more expensive over there.
The Japanese delegation paid their respects to Ma Guoxiang. The Mayor looked a bit uncomfortable.
After the Mayor saw off the delegation, the first thing he did was: loosen his tie and unbutton the top two buttons of his shirt. The second thing he did was: call for his Secretary to bring the General Manager of the hotel. The Mayor pointed out the waitress and told the General Manager about her quick thinking at the banquet. The Mayor suggested a raise.
The Mayor spoke to his team: “You weren’t bad today. You stuck with me. We might not have done things the Chinese way, but you got there eventually.” The Mayor’s team was not sure what the Mayor meant and there seemed to be a touch of ridicule in his praise.
The Mayor shook Ma Guoxiang’s hand and said: “Let’s take a walk. I’ll drive you back after.”
That is how Ma Guoxiang and the Mayor became friends.
“The hell….” He was looking at the gecko again. “I wish I knew if you were male or female.”
“You wanna eat miàntiáo or miànpiàn?”
The Woman was rolling out dough.
“Whatever. Whatever’s fine.”
“Don’t say ‘whatever.’ Tell me what you want.”
“Alright, then miànpiàn. I like the thin ones. Just in water’s fine with me.”
Suddenly, the Daughter entered the room. She screamed: “Dad! Mom! The melons are gone! They’re all gone!”
“What are you talking about, Shujuan? Running in here, like that. You’re eighteen years old! Act like it.”
The Woman was patient with the Daughter. But it was nonsense, she was sure of it. Thirteen mu of melons. How could they just disappear overnight?
The Daughter jumped onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck. She tried to speak. Her lip quivered and she seemed about to cry.
He look at the Daughter. He wondered if there might be something really wrong with her.
“Now, tell me what happened in the field?”
He asked her as calmly as he could. He knew that some of his neighbors were jealous of him. He knew that jealousy could make a man do cruel things. But if the field had been torn up, it would have had to have been a gang of men. Who could have done it? It could have been someone in the village, or maybe someone from outside the village. It could have been a buyer, who he’d refused to sell to before. They must have come and dug up the field and taken the melons. Melons were getting a good price this year, better than the last couple years….
He tried to sit up but the Daughter had her arms wrapped tight around him.
“Dad! The-the-the-field isn’t even there!”
The Daughter held onto her father like a life preserver. But she was still panicked.
How could the field not be there? How can you make a thirteen mu field of melons disappear?
He was sure there was something really wrong with her.
He had no idea what “the field isn’t even there” even meant.
He called to the kitchen: “You hear that?”
The Woman called back: “I heard.”
He said: “Go have a look for me.”
The Woman said: “Run in here, nice quiet morning. Shouting and everything.”
Still grumbling, she walked toward the door.
She took a single step through the door before she sat down in the doorway.
“How’s it look?”
Ma Guoxiang knew that something was wrong. He pushed his daughter off of him and ran to the door, hitching up his pants.
It was a quiet morning.
The Woman said, over and over again: “What a mess.”
The Daughter curled into a ball on the bed, pleading: “Dad, let’s go. We have to get into the city. We have to go.”
He was at the Woman’s side now.
“What the hell!”
He looked out of the door. He sucked in a breath of air. He did not breathe out for a long time.
He steadied himself against the door frame.
There was nothing wrong with the Daughter. She had been telling the truth. The melons were gone. The field was gone. Originally, the field hadn’t been far from the front door. One look and he could have taken in all thirteen mu of the field and the small hill that rose beyond it. There was an orchard up on the hill. There was nothing there now. The hill was gone. The orchard was gone. There was no mistake — everything was gone.
The only thing he could see was water.
The water ran to the horizon.
He looked to the right. The only thing he could see was water. He looked to the left. The only thing he could see was water. He thought about the villages that had been once been just beyond the hill. Zhaicun was gone. Xiaolijia was gone. Erwangcun was gone. Were they underwater?
He slowly turned to his right again. He said: “What the hell.”
Feilaishan was gone, too. He used to be able to see that, too. It was visible from anywhere around. Two years back, the city had developed it as a tourist destination. The mountain was gone. Donggangcun, the village at the bottom of the mountain, was gone gone, too.
He did not know exactly what he was looking at. It was water — but where had it come from?
He was looking at the ocean.
He was looking at the Pacific Ocean. He was looking at the East China Sea
The sun had risen. The ocean was dyed scarlet.
The water looked warm. Gentle.
He could see a few dolphins breaking the surface of the water.
He was afraid of heights. He was afraid of water.
He knew that, if the water had come a bit further inland, he would have drowned. Fear overcame him. He tried to steady himself but his legs had given out. He sat down beside his wife.
The Daughter came to the door, holding a bag. She said: “Mom, Dad, we have to go. Everything we need is in here. Let’s get into the city.”
“The city? I don’t even know if it’s still there.”
He hadn’t even thought about the city. He thought that Doomsday had come. He thought that they might be the last people left alive, floating on that scrap of land.
“It’s there! The highway is still there. I mean, I think it’s there….” She helped her father and mother to their feet.
“If the city’s still there, we should be okay.”
He went around to the back of the house and looked toward the city. He saw the TV tower was still standing.
Did the people over in the city know what had happened here?
“Go back in there and see if there’s anything else we need to bring. Shujuan, you start the truck.”
He called directions. His courage had returned. He began to walk toward the edge.
“Dad! What are you doing?”
The Daughter ran after him, pulling at his arm.
“Let me go. Let me go, Shujuan. I have to see for myself. I have to know what’s over there. When we get to the city, we have to let them know. I want to be able to explain it.”
“Just don’t get too close.”
The Daughter looked as if she was about to cry. She let him go. She knew she had to let him go.
He walked toward the edge and stopped, when he was five or six steps away. He could see that there was a long drop down to the surface of the water.
He saw something down below. A hand. A woman’s hand, soft and pale. The hand was clenching a tree root that looked like a rusty chain. The hand was sticking from the dirt. It was within reach.
He could not see any other part of her, except her hand.
He squatted on the edge of the earth. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was just a bird. Maybe it was a beautiful bird. Maybe it was a snake. Maybe it was a poisonous snake. He leaned back.
The hand did not move. It was not a bird. It was not a snake. The hand did not fly away. The hand did not strike at him. It was just a hand. It was a woman’s hand. Clenching a tree root that looked like a rusty chain. The hand looked like it would not release the root.
“Hey!” He shouted.
There was no response.
The sound of his voice tumbled down to the sea.
The hand did not move.
He thought that he felt the ground beneath him moving. No. The ground beneath him was moving. The ground was moving. He was sure.
He heard himself cry out.
He stood and turned to run. He could not move.
His gaze was locked on the hand.
He could not look away.
He turned back. He got down on his hands and knees and then lay down and looked over the edge.
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
He crawled forward. He thought he crawled forward. When he thought back to that moment, he was not sure.
He reached for the hand. He grabbed the hand.
“Don’t worry. I’m here.”
He wondered whose hand it was. Xiaoyuan, Zheng Baoquan’s daughter? Zhao Sheng’s new wife?
Who the fuck knew?
The ground beneath him shook.
The tree root seemed to be shaking, too.
He pulled as hard as he could. He pulled the hand as hard as he could. Finally, it came. The hand came first and then the arm. That was all that came. He waved the arm in the air, unable to open his own hand and release it. At the same time, the tree root was still locked in the woman’s hand.
The tree root brushed his face.
A red shirtsleeve slipped from the arm.
He screamed and staggered away from the edge. He turned. He ran. Finally, his fingers opened and he dropped the hand.
The ground beneath his feet began to split open.
The ground beneath his feet split open without making a sound.
The ground beneath his feet began to collapse. He ran to the truck. When he looked back, the ground that he had been standing on was gone.
He was panting.
The truck was already running. They usually used it to haul melons but now it carried the TV, the washing machine and the fridge.
“Dad, what did you see? What was there?”
“Nothing much. Nothing to see. Let’s go, Shujuan. Let’s get out of here.”
The Daughter took the driver’s seat. The Woman took the passenger seat. He went to the back of the truck.
He took out the washing machine and the fridge. He hesitated for a moment and then took the TV out, too.
He climbed into the box of the truck. Now that the appliances were gone, there was enough room for him to lay down. He stretched out for a moment and then pulled himself to the box rail and vomited over the side.
Two brief translation notes: first, pīnyīn with tone marks sometimes displays correctly and sometimes it doesn’t, and second, the Red Sorghum song, I just borrowed the translation from the film.