Common People by A Yi
Imagine—if you will—that you are a large bird, hovering over the town of Jujiu on 20 April 1998. You would have seen the county’s deputy mayor, Li Yaojun, getting unexpectedly promoted to legal-political commissar; Chen Mingyi, a secondary school teacher, smashing his head on the ground outside a department store; Li Xilan’s husband heading off (and not for the first time) to Beijing to get his impotence treated; a team of migrant workers digging a pit in the road outside the park; and Feng Botao—accountant at the Linye Hostel—suggesting a game of chess to Ho Lao’er, a security guard in the local building society. And if you had been asked to arrange these disparate pieces of information in order of importance, you would probably have placed the final fact at the bottom of the pile.
[private]Feng Botao trailed behind, as he always did. Ho walked in front, both hands behind his back. He puckered his lips sardonically when he encountered someone he knew, as if to say: “Pathetic, isn’t he?” I thought this was okay; I can’t think of a way round it. The townspeople of Jujiu understood the dynamic between Feng and Ho perfectly: it was as the moon is to the earth, or the earth to the sun. Today, though, there was something unsettling about the sight of the two of them together. There was a strange, bladelike glitter to Feng’s eyes—as if he were escorting Ho down to the underworld. But no-one could tell Ho he was about to die, just like you can’t tell a driver that he’s about to have an accident.
So all passers-by passed by, and Feng and Ho made their way to the lakeside. Ho settled his corpulent form on a stool, while Feng poured a plastic bag of chess pieces onto a stone chess board and carefully set them out. This was Ho’s last chance to read the expression on Feng’s face, but he saw only humility. He told Feng to start, and his opponent dutifully moved his cannon out. Feng had lost count of how many times he had tried this opening and of how many times he had sworn to abandon it. A sense of solemn finality overwhelmed him; the presentiment that today was the last time he would play it. Fuck you, he suddenly thought. Ho responded by moving his knight forward, as usual. After a few more moves, Feng drifted into a daydream: he was walking silently through a crowd of people asking him whether he had won. He looked to Ho for an answer; his opponent gave only a knowing smile. Its flash of contempt brought a flush to Feng’s face.
After a few brisk exchanges, Feng played the move that he had rehearsed the previous evening: as Ho’s hand paused over the board, Feng set his face into an expression of magnanimous victory. “Come on,” he hurried his opponent. Ho glanced at him and gave a strange, unnerving laugh—the sound of scissors skittering over sheet iron. Feng snapped out of his trance; he had already tried out his new move, he now remembered, one Mid-Autumn Festival several years ago. The game advanced, move-for-move, exactly as it had back then; even the casualties were identical. It was as if he were stuck in a time warp.
Ho, the eternal victor, made one more move and Feng’s position disintegrated irremediably. “This is our last game,” Ho pronounced. Usually, Feng’s response was abject; today he coolly agreed: “All right.” Slightly discombobulated by Feng’s composure, Ho made a few more swift, careless moves, watched his opponent reluctantly react to them, then left without completing the checkmate. Feng sat stock-still, as if paralysed.
Ho’s bloated, maggot-like form shuffled slowly home. As he searched for his keys outside his front door, Feng caught up with him. Again, witnesses noted the glitter in Feng’s eyes, except that this time, Ho saw it too. Somehow, though, he felt he couldn’t ask if Feng was planning to kill him.
“One more game.” Feng rattled the pieces in the plastic bag. Bystanders noted Ho’s discomfort, his attempt to make excuses. But eventually, he allowed himself to be hustled inside.
Seven citizens of Jujiu witnessed Feng enter Ho’s house at five o’clock that evening; no-one saw what time he left. Ho (a widower) was discovered dead at nine o’clock by another security guard picking him up for his shift. On the street outside, a long queue of ants had formed under the lamppost; the air smelt freshly of death. Ho was lying, face down, over his dining table. The back of his head was covered with a white towel stained red in the centre, like the Japanese flag.
At eleven o’clock that evening, Feng (also a widower) quietly unlocked his own door. Hundreds of fingers seemed to be pointing at him out of the dark. He staggered backwards but they still pursued him. The valuables in his hand fell to the ground.
Feng claimed that he had left Ho’s residence at six o’clock that evening. “You should play to win,” Ho had told him, seeing him out with a pat on the shoulder. After six o’clock, he had taken his usual evening stroll around the perimeter of the park. This detail was Feng’s undoing.
“Did anyone see you?” the police interrogator asked him. “I didn’t notice,” Feng replied. “I was only thinking about chess.” “So you just kept walking around the park?” “Yes.” “How many times?” “Once or twice.” “You’re lying. They’ve dug up the concrete.” “Yes, I noticed.” “Where?”
Feng had no answer to that. For four or five days, he was forced to squat, to stand on one leg, or was deprived of sleep. Through it all, he heard only one word: “Confess.” The mesmerising quality of the repetition almost broke his childish defiance but he somehow managed to resist. Surrender, he knew, would mean death.
On the seventh day, the new Commissar, Li Yaojun, arrived to take over as chief interrogator. “Look at me,” he said. Feng slowly raised his head: a ray of cold afternoon light fell onto his forehead. He immediately looked back down. Li repeated his command. Feng tried, but failed, to avoid the Commissar’s gaze. He began to feel like a naked woman in a room full of voyeurs and his body went into spasm, rattling his chains. Li continued to lock eyes with him, like a lion with its claws poised over a victim.
Eventually, Feng broke. Though his first attempt at an admission of guilt was rather garbled—as if suffering from stage fright—the second was more audible, and the murderous sharpness in Li’s eyes melted into tenderness. “I killed Ho Lao’er,” Feng repeated. “I’ve also embezzled three thousand yuan from the state, and stolen a hundred yuan from a blind fortune teller and…” Li left the room. By the time the police interrogator had taken his place, Feng was filled with anti-climax.
“So, how did you kill Ho?” the interrogator asked. “With a kitchen knife.” “No.” “With an axe.” “No.” “With a truncheon.” “You’re getting warmer.” “A hammer.” “And where was he when you hit him?” “Standing up.” “Have another go.” “Sitting down.”
To Feng, his interrogator was like a spoilt child whose every whim he wanted to satisfy. But there were a few things Feng just couldn’t get right, such as where he had hidden the key to the building society vault or the murder weapon. However hard he tried, he couldn’t guess what he’d done with it.
The investigation dragged on for six months (confession following retraction following confession) until the untimely death of Li Xilan’s husband. On returning from his third, fruitless trip to Beijing, despairing of a cure for his impotence, he threw himself under a train. With no need to worry about her reputation any longer, Li Xilan swore—on her knees in front of the office of the district prosecutor—that Feng Botao had been with her between six and nine o’clock on the evening of 20 April.
The public prosecutor sent Feng’s file along with Li Xilan’s testimony back down to the county police, with four comments attached. First, the motive was unconvincing; second, the murder weapon had not been found; third, the confession was full of contradictions; fourth, the suspect had an alibi. That evening, Li and a few of his retainers went looking for Li Xilan. He slammed her testimony down on a table and struck it with a rifle butt. “What were you doing with Feng Botao on the evening of 20 April between six and nine?” “You know.” “What?” “Having sex.” “How d’you know it was 20 April?” “My period had just finished, I ringed the date on my calendar.” “You can go to prison for perjury.” “I’m telling the truth.” “We had this case sewn up, you whore. You’ve messed everything up. And got me in trouble with my bosses.”
At this point, Li Xilan wet herself. “Take her away,” Li said. Two policemen picked her up, one under each arm, as if she were a paraplegic. She was fully incontinent before she was released a week later. “Your evidence is worthless,” a policeman told her. “You’ve no one else to prove you were having sex that night. If anyone could say they were having sex whenever they wanted, what kind of a mess would China be in?”
Li had started out as a village cadre, slowly hauling himself up the political food-chain: to deputy village head, deputy Party secretary, village head, Party secretary, then township head, secretary of the township Party branch, head of judiciary and head of transport. Finally, aged forty-five, he had been promoted to deputy mayor of the county. He’d only got the commissar promotion because his predecessor had died not long after getting the job, and his bosses had decided to give him a chance. On taking up his new post, he had sworn that no homicide would go unsolved. He didn’t want to release Feng, but neither could he keep him locked up, so he rang the District Commissar and begged him to get public security to call a meeting to discuss the case.
“There isn’t enough evidence,” the District Commissar told him. “What’s wrong with what we’ve given you?” “He won’t get the death penalty.” “Well, give him a suspended sentence.” “He won’t get that, either.” “Just lock him up for twenty years, then. I’m sure he did it. I’d swear on my rank.”
Feng Botao, rotting in jail, had no idea that he was being bargained over like a cabbage. When he learnt that the court would be trying his case on 22 November, he was sure that this was the end. He ate his dinner and masturbated long and hard, fantasising about Li Xilan.
But a well-connected lawyer got him out before it came to that. His wrists, released of their handcuffs, felt suddenly cold. Without shackles, he felt light as a feather—as if the slightest wind might carry him off. As he left the prison, he looked up at the deep blue sky, stretching out to the horizon like a shard of curved tile. He glanced back: at the black characters on the white sign over the entrance; at the glass-tiled roof over the iron door; at the grey brick walls. A sentry box nestled amid white poplars; a green-uniformed policeman, toting a submachine gun, paced back and forth outside. Anxious to get out of his line of fire, Feng quickly got into a taxi parked nearby and collapsed, weeping, into Li Xilan’s soft chest.
On the journey home, Feng more or less kept himself together; he even noted the existence of a new furniture store and the motorbikes they passed. But he broke down as soon as he got home; the thick dust over every surface reminded him of the desolation of the past seven months. Li Xilan had him put on a saline drip, and for two days he ran a high temperature. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was vaguely aware of someone telling him he had important visitors. When the fever receded, he was convulsed by shivers. Finally, he craved food and drink: now pears, now stuffed rolls. Eventually, only the sight of Li Xilan’s breasts calmed him down.
Feng Botao slept and woke up feeling much better. A team of visitors burst in unannounced—Li Yaojun, the Chief of Public Security, the Director of Prosecutions. While Feng shrank back into his sickbed, Li seized him by the shoulder. Glancing nervously at him, Feng saw a tear forcing its way out of the Commissar’s eye. Li was gazing compassionately at him, as if Feng were a wounded younger brother home from the wars. “You’ve been wronged,” Li began, his voice husky with emotion. He produced an envelope: “This is four thousand yuan from the government, compensation for the 210 days you spent in prison.” Feng nervously touched the envelope lid. Thrusting it at him, Li quickly produced another package: “Here’s another seven thousand yuan—your salary for the last seven months.” Lost for words, Feng watched Li pull out one more envelope: “And here’s a sympathy collection that the police put together: ten thousand yuan.” When Feng tried to stagger out of bed, Li reached out a hand to steady him. “It’s too much,” Feng protested.
“Don’t be silly.” Li stuffed the third package under his pillow. “How can I ever thank you?” Feng mumbled. “Just concentrate on getting better,” Li replied. The delegation left, without touching the tea that had been poured for them. At the door, though, Li suddenly turned back around, as if he had just remembered something. “You know what reporters are like these days; always nosing about for stories for their shitty papers.” “I know,” Feng answered.
Under cover of darkness, several reporters did indeed pay Feng a visit. After ignoring them for a while, he felt he should at least open the door. “No interviews. My decision. If you write any rubbish about me, I’ll throw myself off your building.”
“We’re on your side,” one of them said.
“Get lost,” Feng replied.
Feng became very uneasy when he learnt, subsequently, that Li Yaojun had been demoted. Whenever he passed him on the street, he couldn’t look him in the eye. Feng also knew that he’d only been released because Chen Mingyi from the local secondary school had confessed to Ho’s murder, so it was Chen he really ought to thank for his survival. Bearing this in mind, Feng paid for some of the hospital treatment that Chen Mingyi’s father needed.
Chen Mingyi had been arrested in the middle of November. Three days in a row he had stolen Maotai—one of China’s most expensive spirits—from the local supermarket. On the fourth day, he was caught in the act. He was a slight, highly strung man, and the team at the police substation quickly terrified him into admitting several other thefts. After being transferred to the criminal investigations team, he swiftly confessed to Ho Lao’er’s murder as well.
According to his file, Chen Mingyi’s criminal activities began on 20 April. That day, after a meeting at the hospital, he had walked in a trancelike state to the department store, knelt outside and begun to smash his head on the pavement. People crowded around and asked what was wrong. His father’s breath smelt of urine, he told them. “So what?” they replied. “He needs dialysis.” What’s dialysis, they wanted to know. “Something that costs a lot of money.” Everyone vanished. Having driven away most of the department store’s custom, Chen proceeded to get drunk. At some point that afternoon, he watched a navy blue security van speed past, and Feng Botao and Ho Lao’er head off to the lakeside together. “Where’s his sense of dignity?” he heard Ho say.
Here was a solution, Chen felt. It was fate. He went home, washed his face, made a plan, washed his face again, then left for Ho’s house with a hammer. On his way over, he saw Feng Botao walking in the opposite direction, looking preoccupied. Ho must be on his own, Chen thought. He sat down, wrapped his shoes in plastic bags like a delivery man, put a pair of thick safety gloves on, and checked for the hammer in his pocket. Adrenaline made him meticulous. On reaching Ho’s house, he took a deep breath, opened the door and discovered Ho dozing face-down on the dining table.
“Lend me some money,” he said.
Ho twisted his fleshy head slightly to look at him, opened his eyes vaguely, and went back to sleep.
“Lend me some money,” Chen repeated.
Ho got angry: “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep? Get lost.” He lay his head back down on the table. Chen Mingyi took a few steps backwards, paused for about ten seconds, then charged forward and struck the back of Ho’s head with the hammer. Ho shuddered, then went back to sleep with a grunt. Chen Mingyi fetched a towel from the kitchen to cover his head then struck him about another dozen times until the blood began to show through.
There wasn’t much money in the house, but Chen eventually found the key to the building society vault. His next plan was to kill the duty guard and raid the vault, but halfway there, one of his trouser legs began to feel rather heavy. Was Ho tugging on his leg? he wondered, shivering. He looked down and discovered he had pissed himself. He ran home, mewling.
“Why didn’t you use a kitchen knife?” the interrogator asked him. “He would have screamed if I hadn’t killed him straight away.” “What about an axe?” “Too heavy. A hammer was quicker and easier. I thought it all through beforehand. A hammer was best for killing a big man like Ho. I needed to take him by surprise and get the job done quickly.”
Chen Mingyi, the interrogator now saw, seemed to be enjoying his confession, as if he were an actor in part. “You’d never committed a crime before.” the interrogator now asked. “Why did you decide to murder him?”
“I thought I’d need at least twenty or thirty thousand yuan. You don’t get that without murdering someone. And if you’ve decided to murder someone, you have to act fast. There’s no way back.”
“Why didn’t you kill anyone else?”
“I lost my nerve. I couldn’t sleep.”
“How about now?”
“I feel much better now, talking about it.”
Eventually, after losing his way several times, Chen Mingyi guided his interrogators to a stagnant pond. After some migrant labourers had emptied it, the police discovered a hammer and a key in the silt at the bottom. Chen Mingyi was formally arrested, quickly tried and sentenced to death.
Once Chen Mingyi had been moved to a tiny cell—five or six paces by seven or eight—on death row, his morale broke. Every day he spent with his face pressed to the bars, weeping. His grief was contagious, and soon all the other prisoners were crying in chorus. The guard thought there was something unusual about his crying: most people in the cells wept from terror, but there was a tenderness in Chen’s sobs. One sunny day, the guard led Chen Mingyi—now pale and trembling with malnutrition—to his cubicle and offered him a cup of wine. “Who are you crying for?” he asked. “My father,” Chen answered. “I heard what you did for your father,” the guard sighed. “You’re the most educated person here, too. What a waste.” “I had no choice,” Chen said. “How come?” the guard asked. “The doctor told me that uremia destroys families. Far richer families than ours had been broken by it, he said. If the urine can’t leave the system, it’ll poison the body; my father needed a kidney transplant, or second best, dialysis. If you’re lucky, the treatment costs one hundred thousand a year, two or three hundred thousand if you’re not. The school lent me a bit, and so did my relatives; even my students chipped in. But it was gone in no time.”
“So you turned to crime?” “Robbery and murder.” “Why didn’t you just let him go? We’ve all got to die some day.” “I couldn’t kill my father.” “I didn’t say kill him. I said let him go.” “Letting him die would be murder. I owe everything to my father, he even sold his own blood for me. How could I let him down? He’s only 49—younger than you.”
The prison guard took Chen Mingyi’s hand and pushed up his sleeve: “You’ve sold your blood too.”
“Even when I was at school, I already felt I could never pay my father back. Every day I read the Classic of Filial Piety. If I were the emperor of China or a prince, I thought, I could repay him like an emperor or a prince. But I was just an ordinary person. Then again, Confucius said that anyone could be filial—it didn’t matter whether they were an emperor or a beggar.”
The prison guard grunted his assent.
“Confucius also said,” Chen went on, “that as long as you were frugal, your parents would live long lives. But these days, you need money to be filial. If I only eat a bread roll every day, will that help my father get better? And Heaven is supposed to take pity on the truly filial. Do you remember that Han dynasty story about Jiangshi? He walked two miles every day to fetch river water for his mother to drink, so Heaven brought the river up to their house. Or there’s the legend about Wang Xiang, who lay down naked on the ice to catch fish for his stepmother. So Heaven cracked the ice and two red carp leapt out. I’ve dug fresh thunder god vine and researched endless Chinese medicine prescriptions, and all that’s happened is my father’s got worse.”
“But Confucius also said that sometimes it was all right to give up. Like I said, we’ve all got to die sometime. You can’t make your father immortal. You tried your best.”
“If my father had a terminal illness,” Chen answered, “then I would have given up. But he hasn’t. I couldn’t leave him in the hospital to die.”
The guard sighed. “But the Classics also say that you should respect other people’s elders like you respect your own. You shouldn’t kill other people to keep your father alive.”
Chen Mingyi slowly drank his wine. “I don’t care who I have to kill to keep my father alive.”
The execution took place on a crisp winter’s day. As he escorted Chen to the ground, the guard urged him to have a drink. Chen wanted to know how his father was. The guard rang the hospital. Eventually, a doctor picked up. “He’s dead,” he told the guard.
The guard walked out in front of the firing squad: “He’s a bit better. He’s reading the newspaper.” Tears streamed down Chen’s face.
Afterwards, the guard went to the hospital and, on making enquiries, discovered that Chen Mingyi’s father had died like a pampered pot-plant. The doctors said that, like a plant, he would have withered without nourishment. But he had been watered every day. At one point, a thin man trailing behind a rather busty woman had come and paid for some of his treatment. But after that—no one. “All good things must come to an end,” the guard thought.
So here we are, still hovering idly over Jujiu, greedily hoping for the scent of death. If we stay there long enough, we’ll see Li Yaojun getting appointed chairman of the Political Consultative Conference; an employee at the supermarket sighing that only an idiot would steal the same overpriced alcohol from the same shop for four days in a row; and Feng Botao, accountant at the Linye Hostel, happily fucking Li Xilan—day in, day out. “Where’s that ring you promised me?” Li Xilan asks one day, after they’re done. It seems that Feng Botao has forgotten. “You’re a bastard,” Li Xilan sobs. “You cheated Chen Mingyi and you’ve cheated me. You’re a bastard.”[/private]