Feng Manman

Editor’s note: Lu Xun wrote fiction and essays in the first half of the 20th century, and is claimed as a literary lion throughout the Chinese-speaking world. In this pastiche two of his well-known characters from different short stories, Ah Q and Kong Yiji, Chinese men of previous eras who fit poorly in modern China, are called into service to describe the absurd claims of today’s Communist regime. Recently Kong Yiji, whose classical education left him no options on the new China of the time, was evoked as a representation of Chinese who acquire university educations and then can’t find work. This story first appeared on Chinese social media before quickly being scrubbed.

The last time Kong Yiji was seen in the hotel in the village of Lu was in early winter. He disappeared after that and probably died. The shopkeeper erased the ledger entry that said that Kong Yiji still owed nineteen yuan. He had determined that the money would never be recovered.

I still do the tedious job of heating the wine, but most of the time I wait in boredom, because fewer and fewer people come to drink a bowl of wine that costs ten cents, let alone order a plate of fennel beans. But at the end of the year, migrant workers begin to return to Lu to celebrate the New Year, and there are gradually more and more people on the street. Some people also come in to drink a bowl of hot wine to counter the cold weather.

On this day, in the afternoon, I was heating the wine, and I heard a somewhat familiar voice at the big counter:  “Two bowls of hot wine, and I also want a plate of braised beef!” As he spoke, he placed thirty cents on the counter. When I looked up, I saw a tall young man in his twenties. His skin was dark and a little purple. He had obviously worked in the sun for a long time. He had a round face with big eyes.

Although I hadn’t seen him for many years, I immediately recognized the man: he was the same Runtu who used to hold a steel fork to strike under the bright moon! I called out “Brother Runtu,” and he immediately recognized me and said with excitement and joy, “Master!” People in the hotel heard our conversation and came over: “Hey, look, Brother Runtu is back home!” “The money was so generous, I thought it was Zhang Jie!” “How did Brother Runtu get rich?” Runtu and I had a lot to talk about, but he had to answer the questions of his neighbors first.

Brother Runtu said that he delivers food in Shanghai, and has earned 1 million in three years. Not only did he pay off his family’s debt, he also made enough to go home and build a new house. Everyone in the hotel chirped and said that they also wanted to earn 1 million in three years. “It’s so lucrative to work for a takeout business! I’ll go too, after the Chinese New Year.” “I’ll go too!” All of Lu was filled with the sounds of optimism.

Later, we finally spoke alone. Runtu was just as curious about me as I was about him, and he asked me: “Master, why do you work as a waiter in the hotel?” I quickly told him not to call me master, which filled me with shame. Everyone in Lu knows that my father is a scholar with an upstanding personality. He couldn’t stand the system where he spends all his time studying useless things. He didn’t get an official position, so he led two classes of students in the town. Tutoring is also a good source of income. But a few years ago, while he didn’t know why, he couldn’t oversee students anymore, and his income stopped immediately. And since I was almost an adult, my father relied on the relationship with the shopkeeper to let me work as a waiter in the hotel. “That’s right! Young Master…” He didn’t raise the word “father,” and he realized that it was indeed against the rules. “You should remove your gown,” Runtu said and went on to say that times have changed for the better now, and there are many ways to make money. For example, someone with a master’s degree earned overseas can earn 8 million a year by growing custard apples, an uncle from Guangxi can earn a million a year by growing hawthorns, and an eldest brother from Dandong can also earn 8 million a year by doing the same. The annual income from growing strawberries exceeds 10 million, an elder brother earns more than 4 million from raising Hu Feng, and a couple from Guangxi makes yuba and earns 700 to 800 yuan a day. More and more people in the hotel became excited when they heard Runtu’s story: these things can also be done in our Lu! Everyone rushed to tell one another, as if a picture of a beautiful new world was slowly unfolding. All of Lu was filled with the sounds of optimism.

It is a pity that Kong Yiji seems to have died. Otherwise, he would have been able to catch up with this wave of wealth-creation miracles. Maybe he would not have said “a gentleman is poor.” 

Then, Mr. Zhao walked in, and everyone was even happier and asked him: “Mr. Zhao, how much did you lose in stocks today?” Mr. Zhao opened his eyes wide, blushed, and said loudly: “It’s stock speculation, can it be called a loss? Just call it a temporary drop!” The others laughed together and replied, “Ha!” Mr. Zhao in his inattentiveness did not notice that others were picking him clean, and continued: “The market is just going through a technical correction, and the decline is just to save more energy for the future. Stocks are a bet on the future of the country! Look, our country’s economy is bright. The country is mobilizing multiple funds to rescue the market. The current stock market is full of gold!” Mr. Zhao is profoundly knowledgeable and experienced, and his words can represent the attitude of the Zhao family, and foreshadow their future attitude. And so after hearing what he said and following that approach, the atmosphere of panic among Lu’s investors was swept aside, and everyone expressed their intention to increase their positions to protect the market. Once again, all of Lu was filled with the sounds of optimism.

I asked Mr. Zhao, “Where is your Zhao family’s Ah Q, have you not seen him lately?” Everyone in Lu knew that Ah Q was an idler, a harasser of nuns, but someone who wanted to have a relationship with Mr. Zhao. He was scolded, “You are unworthy of the surname Zhao.” Ah Q often hangs out in front of the hotel, shamelessly asking for something to eat. He is even more annoying than Kong Yiji. In this cold winter, I worry that he too is dead. When I mentioned Ah Q, I thought that Mr. Zhao would answer with contempt, but I didn’t expect that he would instead smile brightly, saying “I have long seen that Ah Q is a young man with great potential. Do you know, a central official, a member of our Zhao family, found a good job for him? Now the country’s economic development depends on him!” “What does he do then?” Mr. Zhao stood up straight, as if Ah Q was standing in front of him. He cleared his throat before saying, “He blows a horn.” I was a little confused after hearing this, and I didn’t know how blowing a horn could develop the economy. But then I thought, there is no optimistic spirit in the world. When there are more people blowing their horns, the atmosphere will become full of it.