Those who lived in the same street as Wang Er well knew how he had made his fortune.
From no one knows when he had operated a cooked meat stall in the corridor of the Baoquantang Apothecary. His meat was stewed and soaked with gravy. He stayed at home in the morning and did business in the afternoon.
His house was on a slope by the river in the back street, cut off from the other houses. It was a rather shabby place with broken brick walls, a thatched roof and a mud floor. However, it was quite spacious, clean and neat, and rather cool in the summer. There were three rooms in the house. The central one served as the sitting room. Overhead on the wall above stone mill was his five-character motto: “Heaven, Earth, Emperor, Parent, Teacher.” Of the two side rooms, one was the kitchen as well as the workshop, and the other the bedroom for the whole family: his wife, his son, his daughter and himself only, as his parents had both passed away. The house was always so quiet. Hardly any noise could be heard from within. From the other houses in the back street, there was ceaseless uproar: a man beating his wife while clutching at her hair, a woman thrashing her child with a pair of coal tongs, an old woman muttering curses against whoever had stolen her egg-laying hen as she chopped away on the wooden block with a kitchen knife. Such noises were never heard from Wang Er’s household. The Wangs were early risers. Before daybreak, Wang Er was up getting the foodstuff ready, making a fire and cooking food. His wife ground beans soon after she had done her hair. Every day a good deal of homemade, gravy-soaked dried beancurd was sold from Wang Er’s stall. After grinding the beans, the woman helped stoke the fire, her round face aglow in the firelight. The air around was permeated with a spiced fragrance that came from the Wang family. Later, when Wang Er raised a small donkey, his wife no longer needed to go round and round, pushing the mill; the beast did the job instead. All she had to do was to pour bowlfuls of beans into the hole of the millstone and add little water soon afterwards. This gave her plenty of time to do her mending and sewing, a busy job in a family of four. Wang Er’s son resembled his mother, with his round face, his eyes often in slits when he smiled. His young sister took after her father, having big eyes and a narrow face. The brother had studied in an old-fashioned private school. When he was able to keep accounts, he quitted school and attended to the donkey, taking it to the river to drink and letting it roll on the grass. When he got older, he helped his father with the business and his sister took over his job of grazing the donkey.
Every afternoon, when classes were over and every household washed rice for supper, Wang Er began to prepare his stall. Why did he select such a location as the baoquantang Apothecary? Perhaps because it was well situated, not far from either East Street or West Street, or the other lanes in the vicinity. Perhaps he chose it because that traditional Chinese medicine store had a spacious corridor, with quite some distance from the counter to the entrance, or perhaps because there were few customers who came to the store to have their prescriptions filled in the evening and the food stall would not interfere with their business. He had someone put in a few good words to the proprietor of the store, and he himself called on the proprietor to express his gratitude. This had occurred many years before. The equipment of his stall, called shengcai by the local people, was kept against the wall in the back passage of the store, right under the poster of Marshal Zhao which hung from the second beam of the house. Wang Er’s shengcai was comprised of two long planks, two three-legged high stools (with two legs at one end and one leg in the middle of the other) and several boxes with a glass-paned front. Before he was ready to do business, Wang Er set down his stools, put couple of planks steadily on them, and placed the glass boxes in a row. In the boxes were melon seeds, pumpkin seeds, fried salty peas, deep-fried peas, brittle deep-fried broad beans and spiced peanuts. At the other side of the planks were the hot foods such as dried beancurd with gravy, beef, cattail-bag meat and pig’s head meat. As a rule, people in this region did not eat beef. Those who did seldom had it steamed or braised in soya-bean sauce. They just bought some at the stalls where the beef was cooked in salt and spice and covered with red leaven. It was piled high in a box. When purchased, the slab of beef was cut into slices on the spot and placed on the customer’s plate. On top was a sprinkle of garlic leaf bits followed by a spoonful of hot pepper paste.
Cattail-bag meat seemed to be the specialty of the county. Each cattail bag was about three by one and a half inches. It was hined with thin sheets of beancurd and filled quite full with small bits of meat mixed with water chestnut powder. Afterwards, the bag was tied in the middle with a hemp string, forming the shape of gourd. When the bag was opened after being cooked, the meat was still in the shape of a gourd with a trace of the cattail bag on the surface. Cut into slices, it really whetted one’s appetite.
Pig’s head meat was sold after being sorted into three parts: snout, ear and face. The face was also referred to as the “big fat”. The customer could select whichever part he wished. At dusk, Wang Er’s business came to a climax. He was busy cutting meat with a kitchen knife, receiving money from the customers and wrapping different varieties of deep-fried, fried and salted peas and melon seeds. Hardly did he have breather. After nine o’clock, when the kerosene in his two high-screened lamps was nearly consumed, and when the bottoms of the meat trays and pea boxes became visible, his wife turned up and brought him his supper. Then he washed his face with a hot towel and had his meal. After supper, there was still a little business to attend to. Therefore he was in no hurry to put away his shengcai. He would then pour himself a cup of hot tea, seat himself in a chair inside the shop and listen to people gossip while throwing glances at the stall. Whenever he saw someone coming, he rose to get ready a few plates of meat or wrap up peas and seeds for a short while. All his customers were familiar acquaintances. What time they came and what they wanted was as clear to hime as daylight.
The shops and stalls in this street knew well enough how business was going on in other shops and stalls. Business had been bad in the past few years. With some shops things fared better, but all they could do was just keep business going. In the grips of a recession, the shelves of other stores grew bare. Deliveries were halted and finally, the owners were compelled to sell their shengcai and close up shop. Wang Er’s business, to the contrary, grew more and more prosperous. He expanded his stall and increased the number of boxes of peas, seeds and enamel trays of hot food. During the busy hours every evening, a crowd of people would stand in front of his stall. On rainy or snowy days an even greater number of people would come to buy his food. Seeing his customers standing outside under their umbrellas made him uneasy. Then, after he had someone throw in nice words to the shop owner and paid the rent, he moved his stall next door to the Yuanchang Tobacco Shop.
The Yuanchang was an old retail and wholesale shop selling tobacco smoked exclusively in long-stemmed pipes. The tobacco from this area was all peeled in thin slices. The operator placed the tobacco leaves on a specially made wooden table clamped tight with ropes and wooden wedges. Then he stood with the table between his two legs and peeled the tobacco using a big knife whose edge was about five inches. The workers all wore white cloth trousers. During their work, the trousers would be stained yellow. Even after work, when they had shed the work clothes, the yellow colour could be seen all over their bodies. Even their hair was yellow. The handicraft workers usually had on them the colour characteristic of their occupations. Dye-house workers all had blue fingertips and grain-mill workers had white eyebrows. Before, the Yuanchang had employed four workers. Every day adults and children would come to see the four tobacco peelers working. By and by the number of workers was reduced to three, two, and then one. Even the last one was later dismissed. The shop owner made a living by selling cigarettes, matches and small packs of tea. He also bought at wholesale prices two kinds of tobacco to be smoked in water pipes and long-stemmed pipes, and resold them at retail prices. The previously bright shop somehow looked sombre, and the gold characters on the lintel appeared languid. Even the counter seemed bigger and emptier.
After Wang Er moved in, he occupied half of the shop, where the original tobacco-peeling tables once had been placed. He used to set up his stall from east to west at the Baoquantang. But now his stall at the Yuanchang was from north to south. What had once been a stall was now half a shop. With one wooden plank added to the two he already possessed, his present stall was now a terrific L-shaped counter. There was more variety in the food he had for sale. In addition to the gravy-soaked dried beancurd, beef, pig’s head meat and cattail bags, in spring he sold a wild bird called sandgrouse. This was a migratory bird with a long beak and long legs. As it arrived when the peach blossom bloomed, some scholar had named it “Peach Blossom Sandrouse.” Wang sold quails,too. When winter set in, he put up a long glass frame with gilded characters on red written inside: “Delicious stewed mutton jelly and spiced rabbit’s meat served today.” In these residential quarters, mutton was not cooked in the home; it was all bought from stalls. The mutton was stewed with salt. Later it was frozen solid, sliced and mixed with bits of garlic leaves, hot pepper paste and the essential carrot shreds (said to be best for driving away the strong smell of mutton). Soya-bean sauce and vinegar were added at home. Rabbit’s meat was cooked the same way as beef, with salt and spices, and later dyed with red leaven.
When the New Year came, various spring couplets appeared in the street. Some were specially designed with the shop’s name. The Baoquantang  had the couplet “Heaven bless common people; may all live long!” designed by the shop owner, a bagong.  Some big shops, like the draper’s, posted rather ambitious couplets: “We follow Zigong  in career and imitate Taozhu  in trade.” The most popular was: “A thriving business miles and miles round; a large fortune all over the country.” For shops which operated on a small margin of profit, the couplets would be modest. One of them read: “May our business thrive like grass in the blooming spring and our financial resources grow like mushrooms after the rain.” The last one would be most appropriate for Wang Er’s business, which was more than a stall and less than a shop. However, it had never occurred to Wang Er that he should put up a couplet like this. Besides where would he put it? The space where he had established his stall belonged to the Yuanchang. But his business was indeed like grass in the blooming spring and mushrooms after rain.
The most conspicuous indication of his prosperity was a puffing gas lamp which replaced his high-screened kerosene lamp. In those days gas lamps were used only in old-fashioned private banks and silk and satin shops. What a sight to see a gas lamp above Wang Er’s delicatessen stall! By contrast, the kerosene lamp above the counter of Yuanchang Cigarette Shop looked all the dimmer.
Wang Er’s rise to fortune could also be perceived from his other activities. He could now afford to listen to pingtan  whenever he liked. Listening to pingtan was his favourite pastime. Of all the notices and posters in the street, what attracted him most were those announcing pingtan events. They were usually written in thick Chinese ink on sheets of yellow paper measuring three inches by four feet, which read: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Outlaws of the Marsh or Anecdotes of General Yue Fei by special invitation of so-and-so from Yangzhou at a certain Teahouse: performances given every day rain or shine as from a certain date.” In those days going to a pingtan teahouse involved some consideration. Firstly it was an expensive pastime. Secondly it was also a time-consuming entertainment. Last but not least the pingtan audience generally enjoyed relatively high social status. People might talk if a deli vendor frequented the pingtan teahouse. But in recent years, Wang Er did not feel out of place sitting among the audience. He did not fear gossip anymore and went wherever it pleased him, either to the Little Fairyland or Five Willow Garden teahouses to listen to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, or Anecdotes of General Yue Fei. In the summer when the days were long he went more often, dressed in a long gown made of thin cotton or linen, with a string of cash around him. The matinee started at one o’clock. At nearly four o’clock the story-teller or ballad-singer would stop, usually at a point which was a critical juncture of the plot. A waiter of the teahouse would shout: “Please come early tomorrow!” Then the audience gradually rose to leave. At this time of the day, Wang Er still had time to do his business. Wang Er was busy all day long except for the few hours in the afternoon. The second indication of his prosperity was that during the Chinese New Year he never hesitated to stake money playing paijiu.  Wang Er never gambled except for the first five days of the New Year. Gambling was not prohibited during that time. It could be seen in any store. So from the first day on, the shop gate was closed. It was rather dark inside. Behind the counter of the Baoquantang, there was a narrow passage where people offered sacrifices to Shennong.  As there was a skylight overhead, it was fairly bright there. After the table in front trait of Shennong was pulled out, the tiles and dice were poured onto the table. Those who played mahjong were of similar social status, but the paijiu players might be from all walks of life. Except for Mr Tao and an apprentice named Chen, all clerks of the Baoquantang took part. So did the rent collector and the live-fish seller who had a scar on his left eye. Some pupils nicknamed him Bayan Har Mountain,  and the name stuck and spread. Everyone in the street called him Bayan Har Mountain, though some people, Wang Er for one, hardly knew the full story.
The stakes they laid were neither high nor low, about ten strings of cash for one game. Ten strings of cash equalled three silver dollars. For higher stakes, one string of cash was divided into three parts; 300 wen, 300 wen, and 400 wen. If he got eight spots, he won double, or 600 wen; if he got nine spots, heaven spots, or earth spots, he won the whole string of 1,000 wen. Wang Er often played this game. When he staked five strings of cash on one throw, his heart did not race, and his hands did not tremble. But when the rent collector staked as much as 500 wen, his hands trembled uncontrollably. When Wang Er had won quite lot of money, he offered to be the dealer. Strangely enough, with paijiu players, the more money one had, the more arrogant one became. More often than not, Wang Er was the winner.
After Wang Er had moved his stall to the Yuanchang Tobacco Shop next door, at nine o’clock every evening he would still go to the Baoquantang with a cup of tea in his hands and sit for an hour or so. His son had grown up and could alone manage to serve the small number of customers who might turn up in the evening.
The Baoquantang was an apothecary with moderate shop front. For some reason, the shop owner never employed local people. All his employees from manager to water carrier came from Huaicheng. Every year they took a one-month vacation in turn during which time they were allowed to go home to be with their families. For the other eleven months they lived in the shop and their wives were “widowed” for the same period of time. All the clerks in the shop were addressed as “Mr.” Among them, the guanshi, manager, had the highest position, and also a lifelong position. The dismissal of a guanshi was rare. Only when the old guanshi had died could a new one be hired. A guanshi was entitled “person shares,” also known as “labour shares.” He had the right to draw dividends at the end of the year like a shareholder. Consequently he was industrious and loyal to the business. He shouldered all the responsibilities in the shop as the shop owner hardly made an appearance. As was the usual practice, he lived alone in a room behind the portrait of Shennong. The general accounts book, money and precious medicines such as rhinoceros horn, antelope and musk were all locked in this room, and the key was kept in his pocket. Ginseng and pilose antler were not regarded as precious. At mealtimes the manager would sit in the last seat, the seat for the host, indicating that he played host to everyone present on behalf of the shop owner. Few people were able to rise to the post of manager. There were just a few apothecaries in the whole county. The manager of the Baoquantang was surnamed Lu.
Clerks of the second rank were called daoshang, whose job was to cut Chinese traditional medicine into slices or shreds and “drip” bolus.  There was a great amount of medicine to be cut at the drugstore every day. Whether the yinpian  looked neat and beautiful or not directly affected business. An adept eye could tell by merely glancing at the yinpian what level the daoshang was. A daoshang was a skilled clerk earning the highest salary and the best reputaion in the store. As a rule he sat at the second of the “honoured” seats, the first being always vacant unless there was a guest present. During festivals and on the birthday of the Founder of Medicine (said to be Sun Simao, rather than Shennong) wine was served at mealtimes. When the manager raised the cup, the daoshang would drink the first mouthful before the others followed suit. The daoshang of Baoquantang was the best medicine cutter in the county. Should he lose his temper and threaten to resign, he would soon receive letters of appointment from other apothecaries. Nevertheless, conceited and headstrong as he might be, he hardly ever got angry. His surname was Xu. The other employees were called tongshi. The tone of the term was somewhat queer, the stress being laid on the first character. They made out prescriptions and kept accounts. They were but common clerks and might be dismissed any year. Bef one was dismissed, the manager did not say anything. He only arranged a dinner party in the last month of the year to express gratitude to everyone for their hard work in the past year. Whoever was invited to sit at the head seat would then roll his bedding and go to work elsewhere. Of course, he had already had an inkling and did not really get fired without a moment’s notice. Those dismissed had such a presentiment after the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some of them had already signed agreements with other apothecaries at an earlier date. They quitted rather smartly. Others, however, would ask some people to mediate and linger in the store for another year. Those who stayed would always make a sort of self-criticism and pledge to work to the best of their ability, but “twice-baked cakes are not good to eat.” One who hung on to his place after being discharged could lose face and lower his position. Mr Tao of the Baoquantang was three times on the verge of sitting at the head seat. He had a persistent cough and asthma and was anything but shrewd. He was not fired after all because some of his colleagues had helped patch things up. To him dismissal meant unemployment. Who would accept a man coughing and spitting now and then? Another reason why he remained employed was that he too had his strong points. He never went home. Although in his forties, he did not have to perform the duty of rearing offspring, for he was not married. What he had to do now was to be all the more diligent and all the more prudent. Whenever he was seized with fits of asthma, on being asked, “So you are not too well these days, Mr Tao, eh?” he would answer in the midst of his coughs, As a matter of fact, I… I’m quite well…quite…well.” Then he was wheezing again.
As it was, apart from the cooks and water-carriers, the store had virtually four ranks of people: guanshi, daoshang, tongshi and xianggong.
After being trained for three years and one solar term, the few xianggongs at the Baoquantang had completed their apprenticeships and left. The one at work now was named Chen. He had a big head, large eyes and thick lips. His voice was harsh and slurring.
He rose earlier than anyone else in the shop. The first thing in the morning, he emptied and brushed all the chamberpots of his fellow clerks, and then left them in the toilet. After that, he swept the floor, cleaned tables, chairs and the counter, dusted the furniture and opened the doors. Doors in this area were all made of planks about one foot wide, fitted in the slots of frames and thresholds. Chen pulled down the planks one after another and set them upright against the wall in the order of E1, E2, E3, E4, W1, W2, W3, W4.  Another task he did was expose medicine to the sun. At sunrise he placed the medicine cut and dripped by Mr Xu onto a round shallow basket, placed it on his head, climbed up a ladder and laid it down on the flat roof. Towards evening he went there again to take it back. This was his happiest moment of the day. He had a chance to look around from this high spot. He saw the roofs of many shops and houses which were pitch black. He saw green trees in the distance and slow-moving sails behind the trees. He saw pigeons. He saw drifting and fluttering kites. He saw, too, miraculous clouds on July evenings, mysterious, flexible and varying in colour. They were grey, white, yellow, tangerine, or with gold lining. They kept changing, taking the shape of a lion, tiger, horse, or dog. Chen at that time was really happy and relaxed. Apart from that moment, the days appeared to him routine and monotonous. Still another task was to pound medicine. He walked back and forth on a wooden board placed in a boat-shaped iron trough. If it was pepper, he sneezed continually. He also had to cut paper. He used a large curved knife to cut stacks of white paper into squares of different sizes to wrap the medicine. Still another task was to print wrapping paper. He had two more routine tasks during the day. In the morning, he rolled many paper spills for smoking water-pipes. He turned the coin rack upside down and rolled paper spills on it one after another. Although no one in the Baoquantang smoked a water pipe, it had somehow become a practice to get them ready every day in case some outsiders needed them. In the afternoon Chen cleaned the lamp-chimneys. More than ten oil lamps were used in the shop, and all the lamp-chimneys had to be rubbed once a day. In the evening Chen spread poultices on pieces of cloth. He was doing that from the time when people began to light oil lamps to the time that Wang Er came over to sit and chat. After ten he placed the chamberpots under the clerks’ beds and blew out the lamps. After latching the door, he could make his bed and sleep. The clerks slept in the back side rooms, but Chen slept alone in the sitting room. After he laid down the bed-board and unrolled his bedding, the small world was entirely his now. Before he slept, he would always recite a few passages from Medical Recipes in Jingles. Those working at the apothecary had to know something about medicine. Families of limited means could not go to the doctor when someone was sick. Thus, if someone came to the apothecary to state the symptoms of an illness, the staff had to be able to say at once, “Drink a dose of bupleurum,” “Take three doses of Huoxiangzhengqiwan,”  or “Apply some Qilisan”.  Sometimes he sat in his quilt and thought about his family, about his mother who had been widowed for many years, and about a Spring Festival picture of a unicorn and a boy, which had hung behind the door for many years. He thought and thought until he got tired. He began to snore heavily as soon as his head touched the pillow.
Xianggong Chen had been learning the trade for over a year now. He had burnt joss-sticks thirty times before Marshal Zhao and Shennong. It was his routine work on the first and the fifteenth of every month. Marshal Zhao rode on a black tiger with a golden whip in his hand. On his right and left side was an eight-inch-long couplet in gilded characters against a black background: “Golden whip in hand, he is coming with treasures; black tiger under his legs, he is bringing us riches.” Shennong wore long hair and curly whiskers. He was stark-naked apart from a wreath of large leaves round his waist. He had long fingernails and toenails. He was seated on a rock with one hand clutching a head of glossy ganoderma. Chen was familiar with these two idols and was most pious when burning joss-sticks.
Chen frequently got beatings, as was common with apprentices. But Chen seemed to be beaten more than was his due. In most cases he was thrashed because he had committed errors such as cutting paper aslant, or breaking a lamp-chimney while rubbing it. The boy did not seem clever. His memory was poor and his movements slow. He was most frequently thrashed by Mr Lu. Not that Mr Lu had an exceptionally quick temper, but that thrashing was for the good of the boy, for making him somebody in the world. One day he got a thorough beating. When descending the stairs after getting the medicine back from exposure to the sun, he missed a step and upset a whole round basket of alismatis into the sewer. It was Mr Xu who beat him this time. Mr Xu gave him a sound beating by means of a wooden door latch. The boy screamed with pain, “Oh, my! My! I won’t do it again. Oh, my! It’s all my fault,” And nobody could persuade Mr Xu to stop the beating. Everyone knew how he was. The more you tried to stop him, the more fiercely he would beat the boy. What’s more, it was a big blunder the boy had committed. (Alismatis was not really precious, but cutting it was time-consuming for it had to be cut into copper-shaped round pieces of equal thickness. After some time, it was Lao Zhu, the cook, who managed to stop the beating. As everybody knew, Lao Zhu was honest and upright by nature and in the employment of the store the longest. He went to work the earliest of all but hardly ever had good meal. What he had was just the remaining soup and juice mixed with some rice crust after everyone else had eaten. His fellow clerks all looked at him in awe. He seized the door latch from Mr Xu’s hand and remarked, “He is as much flesh and blood as everyone else.”
Chen did not even dare to cry when he was being flogged. In the evening, after the door was shut, he sobbed for quite a long while. He said to his mother who was in the distant hometown: “Mum, I’ve had another beating. Don’t worry, Mum. Just two more years’ of beating and I will be able to make you a living.”
Wang Er came to the Baoquantang every day because the place was full of bustle and excitement. Other stores were deserted after nine o’clock with just an accountant balancing the books and an apprentice taking catnaps. But at the Baoquantang there was a large assembly of people, all homeless bachelors. Among those present were also a few frequent visitors such as qiangyuan, the rent collector, Bayan Har Mountain, the live-fish seller, Lao Bing who lit and prepared opium for others, and a man named Zhang Han, who was a relative and hanger-on of the Lian family, who owned the Wanshun Sauce and Pickle Shop opposite the Baoquantang. Zhang Han’s full name was Zhang Hanxuan. He was frequently referred to as Zhang Han perhaps because since he had been reduced to sponging on others, the character xuan  did not befit him. Zhang Han was seventy now. He was a spitting image of Voltaire, with a tapering face and a pointed nose. He had worked as assistant to a ranking official in his younger days, having been to many places and having really seen the world. He was a know-all. Take tobacco-smoking for example. He would tell you that there were five kinds: water-pipe, long-stem pipe, snuff, “refined” tobacco(vs. opium) and Chao tobacco.  The last variety was never found in these regions. For alcohol-drinking, he could give a list of names like Shandong yellow, number one red, lotus white … For tea-drinking. he would mention the Longjing of Shifeng  and the Biluochun of Yunnan  was made in a jar and how the tea cup for the Gongfu Tea  of Fujian was even smaller than the tiny handleless wine cup, and that the tea was so strong that three small cups of it were sufficient to go with an entire leg of stewed pork. He was most familliar with Zibuyu , and Stories of Autumn Rainy Nights.  He could tell many ghost stories. He knew how people released venomous insects in Yunnan and how people in the western part of Hunan drove standing corpses home. He had seen with his own eyes drought ghosts, walking corpses and fox spirits. He could not only give detailed description of them but tell exactly when and where he had seen them. He knew people of all ranks. He had knowledge, too, of witchcraft fortune-telling, astrology and physiognomy. For he had read physiognomy by the Hemp-clothed Daoist Priest and Physiognomy of Willow Village and could tell people’s fortunes from Qimendunjia, Liurenke of Lingqijing.  He never made his appearance until about nine o’clock (What he did in the daytime was anybody’s guess.) People were elated from the moment he came, and he did almost all the talking the whole evening. He was a great story-teller. His stories all followed a logical sequence, with an introduction, development, transition and summing-up. He spoke in a rhythmical tone, rising and falling, with modulation and cadence. His descriptions were vivid and lifelike. Just like pingtan actor, he would stop at a most critical juncture and leisurely puff at his pipe. The anxious listeners would ask over and over again, “What happened then? “ “What happened later?” This was also a happy time for Xianggong Chen. He listened while spreading ointment. When he was too much absorbed in listening, the bamboo stick would stay too long on the oil paper and would waste a sheet of ointment. The moment he realized this, he would hurriedly tuck the sheet of ointment stealthily into his pocket. Nobody would discover it, and nobody would beat him for it.
One day Zhang Han talked of predestination. He said that Zhu Hongwu, Shen Wanshan and Fan Dan were all born at the first cock-crow of the second earthly branch of the same day of the same month of the same year.” But following the cock-crow, “ he went on to say, “their destinies fell into three different classes. High and lofty was Zhu Hongwu, who became an emperor; beneath was Shen Wanshan, who turned out one of the wealthiest businessmen; doomed to death was Fan Dan the pauper, who died of cold and starvation.” He added that those who were able to develop their abilities to the fullest and were thoroughly accomplished in their careers all had unusual appearances or special talents. Liu Bang, founder and first emperor of the Han Dynasty, had seventy-two black moles on his buttocks – who else had that? Zhu Yuanzhang, founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, had a most striking appearance from birth – his temples, cheekbones and chin all protruding like five mountains on earth rising upward. Was there another who resembled him? Fan Kuai could eat the whole of a pig’s leg raw. Zhang Yide of Yan  slept with his eyes open. Even common traders with capital luck all possessed special qualities. It is the extraordinary person who accomplishes extraordinary things. To this, everybody nodded in agreement.
Zhang Han took a few strong puffs at his long-stemmed pipe. Then he turned to Wang Er, the thread of his discourse suddenly altered: “Take Wang Er, he must also possess some special gift that accounts for his prosperity and fortune.
Wang Er was quite at a loss at the term “special gift”.
“It means unusual quality that is different from everybody else’s. Do tell us about yours.”
“Speak up!” “Out with it!” Everyone encouraged him.
Despite the small fortune he had amassed, Wang Er was conscious of his own status and had never dared to appear arrogant or self-important. At the others’ repeated pleadings, he said sincerely, “Perhaps just this. I separate passing my water from moving my bowel.” Fearing he had not made himself understood, he explain, “In the lavatory, I always pass water first, and then have a bowel movement.”
At this Zhang Han clapped and shouted: “So! Feces and urine don’t come out together. That is something uncommon.”
This said, it was past ten thirty. Everyone rose to their feet and bade good night to one another. It was time to latch the doors. Mr Lu glanced towards the counter, only to find Xianggong Chen missing. “Xianggong Chen! Xianggong Chen!” he cried a few times. There was no response.
By this time Xianggong Chen was in the lavatory. Mr Tao found him crouching there when he went himself. However it wasn’t the usual time for either of them to move his bowels.
Revised May 20, 1980
Translated by Gong Huanmin
This alludes to the unbreakable feudal order of old China. back
Equipment for doing business, meaning “amassing fortunes.” back
God of Wealth in Chinese folklore. back
Meaning “the hall of all blessings.” back
A person who passed the highest degree of imperial examination in the Qing Dynasty. back
One of Confucius’ student, a wealthy merchant in the times of the Spring and Autumn Period. back
A contemporary of Zigong who prospered in trade. back
Story-telling and ballad-singing in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, dialect. back
A game with domino-like tiles. back
A person said to have been the inventor of agriculture and medicine. back
Bayan Har has the same sounds as “a scar on the eye.” back
12 spots on one tile and 8 on the other. back
8 spots on one tile and 2 on the other. back
Shares with which one does not have to contribute to the fund. back
Drip bolus onto a liquid coolant to be rapidly solidified. back
Processed medicine cut into slices or shreds to be drunk after it is stewed. back
Guanshi, daoshang, tongshi and xianggong: manager, pharmacologist, junior clerk, and apprentice. back
E, W: referring to east and west respectively. back
Huoxiangzhengqiwan: pills with agastache rugosa as the main ingredient. back
Qilisan: a common Chinese medicine used to care for injuries and kill pain. back
Xuan: imposing or impressive appearance. back
Chao tobacco: a kind of tobacco produced in Chaoan in Guangdong Province. back
Longjing of Shifeng: a famous green tea of Hangzhou. back
Biluochun: helically curved green tea of Suzhou. back
Gongfu: Time-taking. back
Zibuyu: a collection of ghost stories in twenty-four volumes written by Yuan Mei of the Qing Dynasty. back
Stories of Autumn Rainy Nights: Similar stories about ghosts and spirits. back
Qimendunjia, Liurenke, Lingqijing: superstitious books used to foretell luck, evil, woe and felicity. back
Yan: present-day Hebei Province. back