A novelist discovers the power of words over life and death—from our issue “Contagion”
Author: Lei Wei 雷伟
By day a marketing manager in a software company, by night, Lei Wei has written more than 100 short stories on Douban under the pen name Nongda Aigezi (农大矮个子) on real life topics such as work and marriage. The recurring “petty office worker” character in his stories resonates with the everyday experiences that unfold in many Chinese workplaces. He believes that fiction is a “coat” upon real life: There can be many different coats, but what’s underneath remains the same.
Mrs. Zhu’s son committed murder. He put his hands around his wife’s neck until she stopped breathing, and he hid her body in his refrigerator for 105 days. The evidence was conclusive. The public was outraged by this case and it was widely thought that Mrs. Zhu’s son should be sentenced to death.
To save her son’s life, the old lady sought help from almost every well-known lawyer in Shanghai, but none of them would touch this hot potato. Someone gave Mrs. Zhu another option—a novelist, who might be the only one who could turn things around. Mrs. Zhu was baffled. This was obviously a criminal case, so what did a novelist have to do with it? But for the sake of her son, she was willing to try anything.
She had waited for 40 minutes outside his office before she finally saw the famous novelist. He was an energetic man in his late 20s, handsome, and fashionably dressed. He sat behind a rosewood desk with a newspaper before him. Behind him was a big bookcase, on which a large number of books on sociology and psychology were carefully arranged.
The old lady explained why she had come, and tears trickled down her face.
“You want to save your son’s life, even though he has committed a capital crime,” the novelist seemed to understand.
“Yes. The situation seems hopeless, but I believe that you can do something about it. My friends recommended you, so I’m sure you have some special methods. I beg you, sir! Save my son! He will be sentenced to death in two weeks.”
The old lady was so overcome, she almost knelt down.
The novelist helped her to the sofa, and said, “This is indeed a tricky situation, but it’s not very hard to turn around. You just have to give me some information.”
Hearing this, the old lady felt as though she saw a guiding light in a dark sea. She thought that she had been given a life-preserver.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” she said.
“Tell me about your son.”
“My son…” the old lady was overcome with emotion. “He is warmhearted and filial, and as kind as a child…It was only because of a momentary impulse that he did this bad thing…”
“Stop, stop. Neither the judge nor the public likes to hear these things,” the novelist gestured her to stop, and then said, “I have no interest in the details of your son’s case and I don’t want to know whether it was his fault or not. If you want to save him, you have to follow my directions.”
Mrs. Zhu was befuddled, but since the novelist had asked, she saw no choice but to obey.
“Now tell me about your daughter-in-law. What kind of a woman was she?” The novelist asked.
After thinking for a moment, the old lady spoke in an apologetic voice, “She was a good girl. Although she was a little shy, she was obedient, and she and my son loved each other…”
The novelist stood up impatiently and paced to and fro before his desk. The poor old lady was afraid that she had done something wrong, so she got up timidly.
“You will never save your son this way,” the novelist’s tone became solemn.
“What do you mean?” The old lady was so frightened that she began to shiver, as if her son had already been sentenced to death. They stood gazing at each other, and the atmosphere was oppressive.
“How about telling me some of your daughter-in-law’s faults? If you don’t remember any of them, then I can ask you some questions.”
Mrs. Zhu nodded mechanically. They returned to opposite sides of the desk.
“Was your daughter-in-law a vain woman? How did she usually spend her money?” The novelist asked.
“She was a traditional kind of girl—beautiful and kindhearted, but sometimes she would buy extravagant things. She once saw a bag which cost 4,000 yuan, and she insisted on buying it, but my son didn’t agree, so they argued for a while. What surprised us was that she got so angry she moved back to her parents’ home, and didn’t come back until two months later.”
“Good, anything else?” The novelist looked at her, and jotted down some notes. Though Mrs. Zhu didn’t know what he was doing, she was willing to tell him all that she knew. Whenever the old lady mentioned a shortcoming of her daughter-in-law, the novelist would nod and the corners of his lips would curl upwards.
“Now you have a 30 percent chance of saving your son,” the novelist held up three fingers.
The old lady was utterly confused, overwhelmed by both happiness and surprise.
“How long had she been married to your son?”
After thinking for a moment, the old lady answered, “Three years.”
“Why didn’t they have any children?”
“I’ve asked them. They said that they wanted to enjoy their life together, so they didn’t want to have kids yet.”
“This is not good enough. Think again.”
“But it’s the truth.”
The novelist looked a little annoyed, and he prompted, “Did she have any other boyfriends? Before she and your son got married?”
Mrs. Zhu thought for a while and said uncertainly, “Three or four.”
“Very good! Since she had four boyfriends before she got married, she was definitely a promiscuous woman who had a messy private life, so no one knew whether she had any abortions before. It might be because she had too many abortions that she became infertile.”
The novelist adopted a triumphant smile, but Mrs. Zhu was so astonished that she could only stare at him with her mouth open. She sat upright, not knowing what to do.
“How did they get along?”
“Pretty well. They seldom argued and they respected each other.”
The novelist pursed his lips. Clearly, this was not the answer that he wanted.
“Think harder. Was she good to you?”
“My daughter-in-law was an only child, so she was brought up in a very good environment and treated like a princess by her family. When she first married my son, she didn’t know how to cook or do household chores, so every weekend I had to go to their apartment to do the housework. My son usually did the cooking. He commuted 10 kilometers to work and had to take care of his wife at home, so he never went to bed until 11 o’clock every night. His wife usually lay on the sofa, watched TV, and played with her phone after dinner, and she never helped my son with the housework. At first, I was resentful and tried to teach her a lesson, but my son was willing to please her and didn’t want to cause conflict in our family, so I stopped bringing it up. As long as the young people were happy, I would not meddle.”
The novelist was laughing. He stopped taking notes and said, “You have a 50 percent chance now.”
The old lady was pale and sweating.
“Did you pay for their apartment?”
“How about the wedding?”
“That too. It was held in a five-star hotel in Shanghai. Each table cost about 10,000 yuan. Together with the fee for the emcee, I spent 130,000 yuan that day.”
“Good. Anything else?”
“She didn’t bring any dowry. We provided everything—apartment, appliances, and car. She just got the marriage license and moved in. Her parents didn’t even provide the quilt for their bed when they got married.”
The novelist was nodding. In order not to leave anything out, he double-checked the details with the old lady, hoping to find out more valuable information. The old lady was afraid to conceal things from him, so she told him all that she knew.
“Now you have a 90 percent chance of saving your son.”
The novelist stood up and called out a name. An assistant wearing glasses trotted in. They whispered together and circled several words on the paper in red ink, with the assistant frequently nodding. Afterward, the novelist got a newspaper out of his filing cabinet, and the two men exchanged some opinions in a low voice.
This made the old lady feel quite uneasy, and she thought maybe she should not have come. She wanted to end this torture, so she said, “I know this is a complex case. If you are uncertain, I can go find a lawyer.”
The novelist looked and laughed. “Two hundred thousand yuan. That’s how much your son’s life is worth.”
The old lady hesitated, and tried to negotiate the price. Finally, they agreed that she should make a 20 percent down payment, and pay the rest after her son’s trial. The novelist seemed displeased, but signed the contract.
A month later, the case was heard—the judge sentenced Mrs. Zhu’s son to ten years. Mrs. Zhu was so emotional that she almost fainted in the courtroom.
Three days after the trial, Mrs. Zhu went to find the novelist to pay the rest of the fee. In between expressing her gratitude, she also wanted to ask the novelist how he did it.
“Well, if you want to know,” the novelist said arrogantly. “Do you remember the things that we talked about? I asked my employee to write an article based on it and then we posted it online. That turned the whole thing around.”
“Just an article? That easy?” The old lady felt even more mixed up.
“That’s right. Without ever going to court, I shouted ‘spare him!’ before the execution. Do you remember I asked you about the shortcomings of your daughter-in-law? I added some provocative language, and described her as an unfilial, infertile, selfish, arrogant, and vain woman, and everything changed.”
“But what did that have to do with my son’s trial?”
“Don’t you understand? Whether your son lives or dies is no longer just the judge’s decision. Behind the judge, there were tens of thousands of netizens in robes calling for justice, so you just needed to know what these people wanted to hear.
“Humans are by nature curious about these perverted, complicated family affairs, and who is right and wrong is purely a matter of opinion. Therefore, the more complications there are in the story, the more likely we are to be able to manipulate the public’s opinion. You just need to see how many people watch nighttime soap operas. We all have empathy, so whoever appears to be more pitiable will move the public to tears, and we are even willing to forgive their wrongdoings.
“We can’t overturn the existing evidence, but we can change the public’s opinion. The public doesn’t understand the law. Whether they kill or save a person depends completely on their gut feelings of the moment. When the public change their opinion toward the litigant, and when they start to sympathize with rather than hate the litigant, the judge then makes the decision they should. Although we didn’t go to court, we saved your son’s life.
“Now you understand the power of words. Words can kill a person, and they can save a person. This is what a novelist can do.”
The woman who lived near Red Star Square couldn’t sleep. Whenever she saw her husband pulling a long face and heaving deep sighs, whenever a gloomy atmosphere prevailed in her home after dinner, she knew that it was time to find someone to talk to. She was a woman who lacked self-confidence, especially in the matter of her marriage.
She didn’t know why her husband came back home with a worried look tonight, or why he didn’t say anything at dinner, so she tried her best to reflect on the day’s events. But except for the fact that she bought something online at 3 p.m., nothing special had happened that day.
Maybe that was the cause of her husband’s unhappiness. During the last two years, this couple frequently gave each other the silent treatment due to financial problems. These days, her husband treated her with indifference. He almost never asked her about work and they seldom talked. He would rather giggle while looking at his phone than talk to her in the evenings. These were all red flags that her marriage was in trouble.
Whenever these warning signs cropped up, this naive woman began looking for friends to help. This had already become a habit. Whenever she felt disappointed, or argued with her husband, she would confide in other people and seek their advice. She firmly believed that she would benefit from their suggestions.
The first people she thought of were her parents. She called her mother and told her everything. She was sure that her mother would take her side, because no parent in the world would allow their child to be wronged. She thought her parents would fly into a rage and yell at their son-in-law. But she hadn’t even finished speaking when she was interrupted by her mother, who said coldly, “Married couples should learn to tolerate each other. It is impossible for a couple to avoid conflicts. It’s just a trivial thing and it will pass.”
After that, no matter how the woman explained her grievances, her mother answered, “It will pass.”
Having heard this advice too many times, the women felt her parents were getting old. They had become more and more timid and hoped everything would stay the same. As long as their son-in-law’s actions didn’t violate any rules, they wouldn’t complain. She was not convinced by her mother at all. She was angry with her husband. So she contacted her cousin.
Her cousin was five years older and had been married for ten years. Her husband was an office worker, and she seemed to have a strange degree of control over him.
The woman repeated everything she had said to her mother. Unlike her mother, her cousin got furious. “As a wife, you have to show your power! Firstly, take control of the finances. Then learn to tame your husband. Only then can you maintain your marriage.”
The lady thought she understood, but didn’t know how do this. She had a weak character and seldom had her own ideas, so it was almost impossible for her to give orders to her husband. To save her marriage, she had to try something else.
The next morning, she invited her best friend to go shopping with her. This friend was the same age as her, but was still unwilling to get married. They wandered in the street for a long time and then went to the mall for lunch. When the woman felt the time was right, she poured out her worries. Her friend stared at her coolly. “I warned you five years ago not to get married or have kids. I’ve already told you that men are not reliable, and that a woman should take control of her own life. If I were you, I would rather be single and preserve my dignity than resign myself to such a life.”
Seeing that she was unconvinced, her friend continued. “Just last month, I went to Nepal with some new friends whom I had just met. If you think that your life is boring, I can introduce you to some new social circles, where there are lots of interesting people and interesting things happening. When you move in these circles, you will fall in love with the lifestyle.”
The woman was moved. Her head was filled with wonderful fantasies. Just imagine—a single woman waking up in a seaside hotel in Qingdao, stretching herself while viewing the vast sea; standing on the Inner Mongolian grasslands at noon, enjoying the delightful scenery of the cows and sheep roaming over the grass; in Guangzhou, for afternoon tea; inviting friends to eat hot pot in Chongqing at night. That was how you enjoyed life.
A single person was always free; you could go anywhere you liked. Married life was boring; you had to be stupid to like it. That was her best friend’s view. Thinking over these suggestions, she felt excited the whole night, as if she had already started a new life.
The next day at work, she was still so full of her fantasy that she could not concentrate. At some point, she suddenly though it would be a good idea to also get her colleagues’ advice. Maybe they could help.
At 10 a.m., she told the story triumphantly to one of her colleagues, who wore a worried frown when she finished. “Your husband is definitely having an affair,” she finally asserted.
The woman suddenly turned pale. The colleague started to help her analyze the situation. She declared that the woman’s husband stopped loving her long ago, and she should make preparations for divorce as soon as possible. She reminded the woman that she should collect evidence of her husband’s infidelity and secretly transfer some property to her own name, in case she was left with nothing.
“I’ve seen too many marriages like yours. It never turns out well for the woman,” the colleague sighed. “In fact, children are the center of a woman’s life, so no matter what, you have to get custody of your kids, even if you need to go to court.”
These words shocked the woman, for she was terrified of divorce. If she got divorced, she would have to deal with the division of property, and this seemed really inconvenient.
She was so depressed that she couldn’t eat lunch.
Now she was confused. She just had a minor conflict with her husband, but after seeking suggestions from her friends, everything seemed even more hopeless.
At 4 p.m., her mind still in turmoil, and still very angry with her husband, she picked up her phone and saw an article about how to maintain a happy marriage.
In the next half an hour, she read the article three times, and tried her best to memorize lines like, “When you have independence and confidence, you have the most important bargaining chips in a marriage. If your husband ignores you, you should not voluntarily ask for his attention, because everyone is equal in a marriage.”
Reading this, she got a vague feeling that she was approaching the truth of marriage. The marriages described in the article were just the kind she wanted to have. The article mentioned that women should learn to dress up, because this was the only way to awaken your husband’s love for you. The woman reflected on her marital life and she realized that she had indeed gotten careless about her appearance after her marriage. Maybe this was why her husband was so cold to her.
This idea cheered her up, for she had never thought that it could be so easy to get her husband’s affection back. She didn’t want to divorce, and didn’t want to compromise, and it was impossible for her to exert control over her husband. This was the best suggestion yet. Since this article had been forwarded by hundreds of thousands of women in the country, it must be able to save her marriage. She bought a lot of clothes and cosmetics from the shop recommended by the article. As she paid the fee, she imagined what it would look like to have her husband falling in love with her again.
On the bus back home, she started to watch a new TV series on her phone. The heroine’s situation seemed similar to hers. She suddenly realized she should learn from the experiences of those heroines and follow their steps to solve her marriage crisis.
Yes, individual choices always carried an element of risk—it could end in tragedy whichever way you chose. But if you made decisions according to the mainstream opinion, you were unlikely to go wrong. She started to watch TV series and read film reviews in a frenetic way, wanting to learn something from those heroines, who always appeared so honest and kind. If the marriages of her parents’ generation were constructed on morality, then as a new age woman, she had to marry for freedom and love.
She felt unsettled after dinner, so she decided to go for a walk. She walked to Red Star Square alone. The square was always busy, and every night there were countless young couples out on dates.
Five years ago, she and her husband had met here, when she was still a young, outgoing girl, and they had many similar interests. They had quickly fallen in love, gotten married, and started a family. In the past five years, she felt she had met the best man in the world and married into the most beautiful romance. They had made a solemn marriage vow to love, cherish, and support each other for life. She had chosen a husband carefully for herself, according to her own wishes, but everything became dull. Now, there was neither excitement nor surprise in her life. What went wrong?
She remembered all of their anniversaries, but he forgot them all. She knew his likes and dislikes, but that idiot didn’t take notice of anything. She gave him several hints about Valentine’s Day, and they were completely ignored. Whenever she thought of her marriage, she could only feel disappointment and helplessness.
In the past five years, she had given him everything. She raised two cute kids, she took care of her in-laws, and she kept their apartment spotless. And even that couldn’t save her marriage.
She was used to reflecting on her marriage at night. Her relationship was established on a wonderful encounter, and she didn’t know why it had become what it was. If love was boring, then why did so many people still want to fall in love? Just look at those couples dating on the square—that was what she and her husband were like when they were in love.
She was confused. It seemed that every married person was able to live with ease, so why was she alone left in misery? She had no faith, no help, and she always indulged in fantasies; she almost started crying in the square.
Cars filed past in an endless stream; pedestrians chattered happily as they passed her by. They all had a home and a destination, and only she was left alone.
She had liked all her friends’ suggestions and she was willing to try anything, but she was unable to choose, because she knew that there was no right choice. She didn’t want to resign to her parents’ advice, and her cousin’s was just bravado. Her colleague’s conclusion sounded reasonable, but it would drag her into a dark abyss. The advice she got from that article could cheer her up for a while, but it would never change her life. Her friend understood her, but she was indifferent about marriage. The TV series was the biggest lie, for it would never allow her to face reality.
It seemed that there were many options in her life, but she could choose none of them. Maybe this was the cruel and confusing truth for an ordinary person—once you chose your path, you would never be given the opportunity to turn back.
Half an hour later, the despondent woman came back home. In her hands was a bag of peaches, her husband’s favorite fruit.
-Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: “The Trial” was inspired by a real event in 2018, when a suspect was first heavily criticized, then became the “victim” after a series of “soft articles” argued in his favor. It is truly terrifying when online public opinion can rise above the law. Lots of marriages are broken by people around the couple, like in the story “Suggestions.” When they vent to their friends, who give seemingly reasonable advice, it actually pulls the marriage apart. Marriage should be a relationship between two people, even when they decide to part and never get back in touch.
Fiction: The Trial is a story from our issue, “Contagion.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.