Writer Ban Yu explores a clash of values in a northeastern factory town
Author: Ban Yu 班宇
Born in 1986, Ban Yu has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Northeastern University in his home city of Shenyang, Liaoning province. A rising literary star focused on short stories, Ban has published two critically acclaimed and popular anthologies, A Happy Excursion and Winter Swimming. His protagonists are working-class individuals—a factory worker, a gambler, a man who has lost his job—whose voices often go unheard as they go through life inevitably affected by the era. Ban Yu’s short stories have been published in a number of literary magazines, and he was named “Most Promising Newcomer” at the 2019 Chinese Literature Media Awards, as well as “New Writer of the Year” by GQ magazine. “District Champ” was originally published in an online anthology of the same name on Douban.com.
There were around 300 people working in the coil shop, and perhaps a quarter of them knew Li Qi. But Li Qi knew them all by name, and could even tell you the habits of a few.
Zhao Yuqun, the dispatcher, always kept two packs of cigarettes in his pockets. He would “warmly” hand out the cheaper ones to the workers at break time, but would secretly light up the expensive ones when he went to use the bathroom. Zhao Xiaoyang, who worked in the paint group, broke off a small piece of soap from the bar outside of the bathrooms every few days, and when she got home, she would dip this small fragment in water and stick it onto her own soap, which was stored in her tool case. Gradually, her soap came to resemble a small rock sculpture—its form was unique, and it would never be used up.
Li Qi was annoyed by all of this, but he couldn’t do anything about it. After all, his own life was a mess. He had graduated from the factory’s technical school a few years before, but he still made mistakes at work and had to be guided by others. In the beginning, the workshop assigned Li Qi to a mentor, whose surname was Zhu. Old Zhu wore a pair of tinted glasses and he was a mid-level engineer. Although he stumbled over his words when he spoke, he was skilled.
After six months of teaching Li Qi, Old Zhu invited him to dinner one day. Tossing off a cup of baijiu, Old Zhu finally opened his mouth and asked, “Do you know how much money I’ve lost in the last six months?” The factory had a rule—the cost of the parts broken by apprentices and the substandard products they made was deducted from the salary of their masters.
To save face, Old Zhu didn’t tell Li Qi about this, but he was finally unable to take it anymore. His children had to go to school and his wife wasn’t in good health. Li Qi actually knew of the rule, but he never brought it up with Old Zhu so he could muddle through for as long as possible.
Now that Old Zhu had brought it up, he felt he had to take the hint. So, the next day Li Qi told the workshop that he no longer needed a master to teach him, because no matter how long he had trained, he still couldn’t learn the skills. He couldn’t become a skilled worker and it was better for him to work as an assistant in the shop.
The human resources representative of the coil shop, who had just been promoted to this position, was called Wang Yueling. She was the daughter of the former chief of the security department, and she had been married once. A few months after their marriage, her husband went to the south to explore opportunities in the clothing business. He stayed there for a long time, and at first, he would call back once in a while. He told her that he had been reaching out to different clothing factories in order to build good business relationships. This way, he would be able to get a discount on their goods.
However, as time went on, they talked less and less, and eventually Wang Yueling couldn’t reach him at all. He just disappeared. Wang Yueling’s family became anxious, so they asked around and found out he had met a woman who was a factory worker from Hunan and they were already living together.
The ex-security chief’s family was furious, and Wang Yueling’s husband knew he had to face the music sometime. One Spring Festival, he brought a lot of presents to Wang Yueling’s home, even more presents than when he’d come to ask permission to marry her, and kowtowed to his in-laws with tears streaming down his cheeks and sharp rebukes for himself. This went on for three days, and Wang Yueling just sat on her bed and watched, like she was at a play.
On the morning of the fourth day, they went to the civil affairs bureau to get the divorce certificate, and went their separate ways. The old chief knew that this show was put on so both families could save face. In fact, he didn’t have too many hard feelings for his former son-in-law, but he felt deep sympathy for his daughter. After all, she had to continue living her life, and a divorce might damage her reputation.
When Li Qi told Wang Yueling about his situation, Wang Yueling was stuck. All of the assistants working in the shop were women; it would be awkward to put a young man like Li Qi in their midst. Trust Li Qi to come up with such an idea! But if she didn’t reassign him, Old Zhu had to keep training him, and while she couldn’t help Old Zhu with his economic situation, she couldn’t very well be the one to push him off the cliff.
Li Qi realized that Wang Yueling was stuck, so he smiled candidly and said, “I’m not picky. I’ll do whatever you assign me to do.” Hearing this, Wang Yueling scoffed to herself, “You don’t have any skills, so where am I supposed to assign you?” Out loud, she just said, “Let me think about it.”
It was September, and the weather was turning cold. Breaths of cool wind came from the north, and the poplar leaves turned yellow and fell. The ground was carpeted by those golden leaves, which crunched when people walked on them, and this was a very pleasant feeling.
The factory was divided into several areas, and each workshop was responsible for cleaning their own area. Old Zhu no longer dared to give Li Qi any work, so he was assigned to do cleaning with a few female workers. Every day Li Qi filled the sack to the brim with yellow leaves, carried it outside of the factory, and poured the leaves into the trash bins. Then he brought the empty sack back, and continued filling it with leaves.
This was trivial work, but it took Li Qi a long time. It was so tiring to sweep the ground and take away the trash that his forehead was always covered in sweat. Holding her mug, Wang Yueling looked out of her office window, and she happened to see Li Qi putting his hands into the sack. He pressed down hard on the leaves, so he could compress them and fill the sack with more. This way, he might not need to go outside the factory so many times.
Whenever Li Qi pressed down on the leaves, a cloud of dirty ashes would rise from the sack and hit his face. Li Qi didn’t wear a mask, so had to quickly turned his head to avoid it, but it still made his face crinkle up and he had to spit several times. Wang Yueling was amused, but she started to rethink her decision. In her eyes, it was pitiful and embarrassing work for a man. A man who worked in the factory had to master a skill.
Li Qi couldn’t stand it either. When he worked with Old Zhu, the worst he had to endure was a few words of criticism every day. Inside the factory, there was no wind or rain, and sometimes there was even a chance to sneak off for a cigarette or a break. During the lunch break, he could play cards with his coworkers, and time flew—he didn’t need to do anything complicated.
However, now all of his colleagues were married women, and he had nothing in common with them, and worse still, he was covered with dirt from head to foot every day. Li Qi felt this was unjust, because he used to be a worker who brought his lunchbox to the factory to muddle through the day. Somehow, he had muddled his way into this.
At closing time, a crowd formed at the factory gate. Thousands of bikes seemed to appear out of thin air and converge on the exit, but they didn’t cause chaos. People wheeled their bikes slowly in small groups, chatting and saying farewell. Li Qi looked around and spotted Wang Yueling. He caught up with her and said hello, panting heavily. Wang Yueling nodded in response and they walked side by side. Li Qi suddenly asked, “Do you have any plans tonight? How about having dinner together?”
Wang Yueling realized that Li Qi wanted to ask a favor and he wanted a new job, so she feigned ignorance and said, “Why? I can’t today, I told my mom I’d be home for dinner.” Li Qi was embarrassed, so he mumbled, “I just want to have some sautéed pork tenderloin at the Fengwei Restaurant, and eating alone is boring. Let’s go another time when you’re free.”
Wang Yueling was a frank person, so she immediately shot back, “So it’s more interesting to go there with me? What do you mean?” Li Qi was not a good talker, so instead of giving a quick comeback, he just smiled stiffly. They were both embarrassed, but luckily, they had already walked out of the gate, so they simply said goodbye to each other, got on their bikes, and parted.
A few days later, the poplars had become bare and their leaves had almost all fallen, and Li Qi was almost done sweeping them. Li Qi felt that every day passed like a year, but he had no way of improving his situation. He felt embarrassed about the way Wang Yueling had mocked him the last time, so he was afraid to ask for her help again.
Instead, he told his worries to the married women who did cleaning with him, and they were all eager to offer him advice. Some suggested he should resign; it was boring to work in a factory and it would be better for him to go into business, where he could earn lots of money without getting tired. Others thought he should stay in the factory, because it was state-owned and there wasn’t much pressure. They said that he could bring some gifts to the vice-director of the workshop, get assigned to a new department, and learn some new skills—driving the forklift, perhaps.
Some also teased him, “It’s not so easy to ask for the vice-director’s help. You’d better try and sleep with Wang Yueling. You know she is single now. Take her to bed, and you can get whatever job you want.” Li Qi thought over all of these suggestions carefully, but none of them were helpful. At this moment, Wang Yueling came to find him.
Li Qi was nervous when he walked into Wang Yueling’s office, because he had no idea why she sought him out. He put his hands in his pockets and moistened his dry lips with his tongue, and appeared to be all ears. Wang Yueling asked, “Are you a fast runner?” Li Qi was still at a loss, so instead of answering, he asked, warily, “What do you mean?”
Wang Yueling laughed and said, “Look how scared you are! It’s because you wanted to talk about your job that you came to see me last time, right? I thought about it. We are going to hold a sports meet, and if you’re good at sports, you can enter your name for the races. If you get a prize, the director might pay attention to you and you might get the chance to organize cultural activities and sports events in the logistics department. It’s a good job.”
Li Qi became overjoyed, since everyone wanted to work in an office. Therefore, without even thinking about his athletic ability, he agreed. “No problem, I can do it. I’m thin, but I’ve got stamina. I even won a prize in Tiexi district when I was younger! You can enter my name for the 1,500-meter race. I haven’t run in a few years, but I’ll practice and claim glory for our workshop.” Wang Yueling was delighted, so she immediately helped Li Qi to fill out the registration form and said, “You have to work hard. The sports meet will start at the end of the month. Try to be the champion!”
Although Li Qi was exhilarated, he still remembered to express his thanks to Wang Yueling, so he invited her to have dinner together. Wang Yueling saw how excited Li Qi was, and felt she had done something really useful for him, so she finally agreed to go to the Fengwei Restaurant for sautéed pork tenderloin.
At dinner, Li Qi generously ordered four dishes, soup, and a few bottles of beer, which he opened with his teeth. Sitting on the chair with his legs splayed, Li Qi raised the bottle to his mouth and downed the beer in one go. Wang Yueling didn’t drink beer, so she ate her dinner while listening to Li Qi babble on about his childhood and the odd habits of the other workers.
Wang Yueling didn’t pay much attention to him at the start, but she was gradually attracted by his stories, and even started to admire his observational skills and memory. When Li Qi’s appetite was satisfied, he became bored of talking about other people, so he narrowed his eyes and asked Wang Yueling, “You’re divorced. Why don’t you find a new boyfriend?”
Wang Yueling wasn’t bothered by the question, and answered, “Why do I have to find a new boyfriend? It’s just as good to be single.” Throwing his head back and leaning into his chair, Li Qi said, “Don’t overthink it! You can easily get married again!” This time his words irritated Wang Yueling. She thought, “Whether I get married or not is none of your business! Who gives you the right to tell me what to do?” Her expression suddenly darkened and she grabbed her bag to leave. Li Qi realized that he had said something inappropriate, so he said something nice to soothe her.
By the time they left the restaurant, it was around 9 p.m., and Li Qi insisted on escorting Wang Yueling back home. He felt genuine regret for annoying his benefactor, so he apologized all the way to her home. Wang Yueling had already forgiven him, but she wore a frozen look. She didn’t know why. Even though she was no longer sad, her expression had frozen like ice—it would not melt, nor soften.
Wang Yueling’s feelings were still conflicted by the time she went to bed. Workers’ enthusiasm for the sports meet was not high, so she had asked Li Qi to take part simply to make up the numbers. As for the possibility of transferring to the logistic department, she had made that up on the spot. She never thought Li Qi would take it seriously. How was it possible? Her father had to beg all of his connections even to get her own job. How could Li Qi get a decent job by winning the race? He was so naive!
Li Qi took it seriously. The next day during lunch break, he put on his red-striped vest and white shorts, like a real athlete, and started his training in an open area on the factory campus. First, he measured the distance between the shop and the canteen, which was about 200 meters. If he ran four laps, it would be 1,500 meters. Then he started to warm up—he not only stretched his arms and legs, but also grunted occasionally to encourage himself.
The bell for lunch rang, and workers all filed out of the shop with their lunchboxes to get their meal. Li Qi began to jog slowly back and forth while smelling the delicious food. His old mentor Zhu saw him and was confused, but he had a vague feeling that he was somehow responsible, so he kept his head down and stayed as far away as he could.
Wang Yueling didn’t leave her office until after the lunch rush had passed. She did this intentionally to keep herself separate from the workers, and ate whatever was left instead of scrambling for tasty dishes with the others. As soon as she left the workshop, she met Li Qi, who was doing his practice run.
Li Qi’s forehead was already covered in sweat, which reflected the bright golden rays in the sunlight and gave off a fresh smell completely unlike the smell of the lubricant in the shop. His vest and shorts made him look neat and healthy, and as he ran to greet her, panting heavily, Wang Yueling felt a little dizzy. She couldn’t stand still, so she raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. She asked him whether he had eaten lunch yet, and Li Qi declared, “No, I’m not eating lunch. I don’t have much time, and it’s more important for me to get back into shape.”
Li Qi’s training was effective, in a way. At least, it let almost everyone in the workshop know that there was a person who decided to practice running rather than eat during the lunch break. They saw him running circles around them and dashing off to the distance, raising a cloud of dust. He wasn’t attracted by the smell of stewed green beans and braised eggplants, and he could fully master his body, and these qualities helped him win much admiration. In the history of the workshop, no one had ever paid so much attention to the forthcoming sports meet.
Seeing this, Wang Yueling felt more guilty than ever, and she wanted to tell Li Qi the truth—that even if you won a prize, it was still impossible for you to get what you want. Unfortunately, she wasn’t brave enough, so instead, she told herself that it was unnecessary to tell him. “He should be able to understand. If he can’t, then that’s his problem,” Wang Yueling always told herself.
As the day of the sports meet approached, the workers began to feel that Li Qi had suddenly gotten more agile. He could run faster than anyone. He nimbly jogged through the crowd and didn’t even pause to greet his fellow workers. They could only hear his heavy breaths coming nearer and nearer. As Li Qi became thinner and more tanned, he also grew stronger. It seemed that he was growing out of the wilderness, for he looked untamed, persevering, and self-contained.
As time went on, Li Qi attracted an audience, most of whom were his former colleagues. Every day, they squatted at the entrance of the workshop with their lunchboxes, stuffing lunch into their mouths while watching Li Qi run, and they would make comments. Sometimes they would also tease him, “Don’t work so hard! You won’t win!” Li Qi ran past them like the wind, and there wasn’t enough time for him to get angry, so he would only look back and shout, “Piss off!”
Wang Yueling also watched, but she watched from her office window. Sometimes she was so absorbed in watching Li Qi running round and round that she forgot to have lunch. She kept asking herself, “Am I the bad guy? What if he really gets a prize?” She even considered whether she should do something to make it up to him, so that she wouldn’t feel so guilty. However, she couldn’t come up with any ideas, so she gave up after a while.
The workers had a half-day off on the day before the sports meet in order to prepare. A great number of bamboo sticks, colorful flags, and gongs and drums were delivered to the factory on tricycles. All the participants were running and jumping and warming up in the open area. Everyone was excited, and the gloomy factory seemed to come alive. The director of the workshop promised a big reward to workers who won a prize at the meet.
Wang Yueling was busy in her office—writing reports, getting the equipment ready, and double-checking the registration form. At this time, Li Qi strutted into her office and sat down. Wearing a dazzling smile, he said, “Tomorrow if I win, you have to bring some water to the finish line to welcome me. I’ll be thirsty after the race.”
Wang Yueling had a lot of work to do, so she was annoyed and said, “There’ll be staff working at the finish line. They’ll offer you water.”
Li Qi stood up and walked around Wang Yueling’s desk, and then he bent toward her until his mouth almost touched her face. He put on a serious expression and said, “I won’t drink other people’s water. You have to offer me water. It has to be you!”
His warm breath brushed against her cheek and it filled into her collar, making her feel warm and itchy. She wanted to indulge herself in the moment, but forced herself to clear her mind. She shuddered and took a step back, and then she shouted, “What’s wrong with you!”
Hearing this, Li Qi twisted his mouth. He realized that Wang Yueling didn’t want to continue their conversation, so he straightened up and snorted. As he turned back to leave, he sneered, “Every day you stand in your office and watch me run. You didn’t think I knew? You’re just pretending! Acting like a virgin when you’ve already been divorced. Well, keep acting!”
Wang Yueling was struck dumb, her mind reeling from the shock. It took her a long time to regain her composure. In the beginning, she was so irritated that she even started to tremble. Then she felt that she was wronged, deeply wronged. But she was unable to cry, so she just stood still with a pile of forms in her hands.
Seeing that his remarks struck home, Li Qi was overwhelmed by the pleasure of revenge. He was so excited that his body began to quiver, though his legs were still stiff. Walking out of Wang Yueling’s office, Li Qi quickened his pace until he started to run down the corridor. He ran out of the workshop and stretched his body. In the gentle breeze and the brilliant sunlight, he made a final sprint before the race—he opened his arms and dashed toward the colorful flag that had just been raised.
The weather was bad on the day of the sports meet. Gusts of chilly wind came and went. It wasn’t until noon that the weather improved. The 1,500-meter race was the first event in the afternoon, the workers of each shop were already sitting in their lanes, neatly dressed, striking bamboo clappers and shouting slogans for morale. Li Qi was in Lane 5. He was crouched on the ground with his eyes slightly closed, his whole being apparently concentrated in the moment.
The gun sounded, and everyone dashed out, including Li Qi, who was faster and more confident than anyone. When they rounded the first curve, everyone started to merge into the inner lanes, except for Li Qi. He still ran in the outer lane, looking vigorous and persistent. One lap later, Li Qi was still in his own lane, and he lagged more than 10 meters behind the fastest runners. His colleagues were all shouting, “Move to the inner lanes!”
Li Qi didn’t seem to hear their suggestions, and he ran like there was no one around him. He felt that his legs were getting stiff, and they were losing feeling and strength, and this was the same feeling he had when he walked out of Wang Yueling’s office the previous day. He was scared and hurt and he panted heavily. His disappointment and frustration didn’t surge through him and change into motivation, as he had imagined; his dream had turned sour.
The only thing he could do now was run mechanically; he was like a machine that had just been serviced—running stably and smoothly. Screwing up his eyes, Li Qi ran forward, and he felt that the world before his eyes had turned black. He dreamed about his future, feeling that he was about to fly.
At this time, Wang Yueling was walking to the finish line with two bottles of water in her hands. She had not been able to sleep all night, and her eyes were bloodshot. As soon as she got up in the morning, she resolved to bring some water to Li Qi that afternoon. She didn’t have any special reason, but she just wanted to tell him, she really hadn’t been acting.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: The anthology District Champ was my earliest work, and it was because of these stories that I began to set my stories in the industrial districts of the Northeast in the 1990s. At the time, the industrial age notions were fully integrated with traditional livelihoods, and change was constantly taking place—some inspiring, others bleak. In “District Champ,” the factory serves as the background where workers are the protagonists. All the other stories in the book take place here.