Short story writer Hu Yuesheng offers a modern update on the wuxia novel
Bai Mei was cooking in the kitchen. There was something not quite ordinary about her technique. She chopped scallions while she heated the sesame oil, waiting for the moment it sizzled to give the wok a vigorous shake. At the same time, she threw a handful of chopped scallions in the air. Each green ringlet met a drop of oil in the air, where it fried for two seconds before falling into the porcelain bowl Bai Mei had ready in her hands, brimming with noodles and seasoning.
The hot oil created a watery mist on the cold noodles. By the time she covered it with a poached egg and brought it to Mr. Qi, they were no longer hot enough to burn the mouth.
Mr. Qi glanced at the poached egg, frowned, and scolded, “I did not order an egg with my meal, Bai Mei.”
“Just eat,” Bai Mei replied. “I won’t charge you extra.”
“That’s no good. You have a hard enough time making a profit.”
“Save your breath,” Bai Mei took the pot and scrubbed it thoroughly in the sink while sulking. “Look at yourself, subsisting on such simple meals at your age. I’m fed up with cooking scallion oil noodles all day.”
Mr. Qi rasped a dry laugh that resembled the sound of a snake spitting, crinkled up his eyes, and said to Bai Mei, who was facing away from him back in the kitchen: “Such is the nature of Thousand-Arm Bodhisattva: a potty mouth and a kind heart.”
Bai Mei’s nickname was indeed Thousand-Arm Bodhisattva, and she was certainly no ordinary person. She was now plump and middle-aged, but she had been a remarkable beauty three decades ago. Back then, Bai Mei had been a powerful figure in the top ranks of the jianghu, the underworld of heroes and outlaws. She was proficient in every kind of concealed weapon under the sun and even founded the Qianshouge School of martial arts. With this style, aptly named to evoke the 1,000 arms of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, Bai Mei had amassed quite the large group of disciples. However, just when she was getting up and running, she suddenly disappeared from the martial arts scene. It was rumored that she’d fallen in love with a man for whom she’d given up everything and retired from the underworld.
Next people heard, Bai Mei was living outside an inconspicuous old compound. The “Thousand-Arm Bodhisattva” was now a cook, and “Qianshouge” had become the name of a restaurant, and they’d put down the roots on the corner of a street.
Something equally remarkable was that the inhabitants of this neighborhood all had a background in the jianghu, had all known each other in their youth and eventually moved to this area, as though a magnet was attracting them all. Mr. Qi was one. Back in the day, his extensive knowledge of poisons had earned him the moniker of “Ghost Pharmacist.” Then, he lost a bet with a fearsome character with whom he had been playing a game of “guess the poison.” So overwhelming was his defeat, he made an exit from the martial world and started eking out a living from selling folk medical prescriptions to customers.
“You’ve got a really good heart,” he insisted to Bai Mei’s back. “Better than so many others in this world.”
Just as he was talking, a middle-aged man came in. He was short and chubby and wore a brand-name jacket and jeans. The jacket fit him in a way that seemed to embrace his round, fat belly. The jeans looked stretched and wrinkled. The man stood there at the entrance of the restaurant, with his whole body covered in greasy sweat. A golden, somewhat garish necklace adorned his neck.
“Sit anywhere. What do you want to eat?”
Bai Mei knew him. The man was known as “Iron Rod,” and she had met him in her youth. At that time, he had practiced Vajra combat arts, and his body was sinewy. Nowadays, he had grown so stout that his appearance had changed quite a bit. She still didn’t like him, though. Even now that he’d come to her restaurant for a meal, she greeted him coldly.
Iron Rod placed an order of Dongpo pork shoulder, braised prawns, and stir-fried chili pepper and shredded pork, plus a plate of peanuts and a beer, all in one go. Bai Mei said it was too much for one person. He told her just to bring the food, he was the one paying. He glanced at Mr. Qi in the corner with his bowl of noodles. Iron Rod raised his chin and said, “Mr. Qi, come and join us.”
Mr. Qi grunted vaguely and ignored him.
“Huh? What a weird ol…”
Thump! Before he could finish the words “old man,” Bai Mei had cut him short by placing a plate of peanuts and beer before him on the table.
“That was fast, Bai Mei. Hey, our construction brigade is recruiting cooks, don’t you want to think about it?”
“No need to fret,” Bai Mei sprinkled a handful of salt and a spoonful of soy sauce on the prawns. “Us small business folks cannot play in your big boss league.”
“Don’t talk like that. Aren’t we old friends?” Iron Rod sipped from his beer. “Our construction team treats people right. We always pay on time, and it’s much easier than managing your own business. When the benefits are good, we take everyone on a big, fun holiday, either in the country or abroad. We stay in big hotels, the kind that cost you one thousand yuan a night.”
“All that money just to sleep? Or do you become an immortal too?”
“Ah, look at me talking like that.” Iron Rod put down his chopsticks, slapped himself and said, “See, I almost forgot that you’re a Bodhisattva, not someone who’s never seen the world.”
Bai Mei paid no attention to him and started cooking her own meal.
Iron Rod peeked into the kitchen sideways and saw Bai Mei standing in front of the stove holding the pot. The almost imperceptible movement of her buttocks under the dress at unison with her hands in motion made it so that he couldn’t help licking his lips.
“You’re right, Bai Mei. No matter how high-end a hotel is, ultimately it makes no difference. The decoration may be tasteful; but I’m a vulgar guy who doesn’t get to really appreciate anything. The bed may be so comfortable, but I’ll pour myself a drink and fall asleep and I won’t know anything. But, if you must insist, do you want to know what money buys? Service, that’s what it gets you, and a damn good one at that. All the staff around you is smiling, even the auntie who’s there doing the cleaning. When you enter the door, someone’s there to help you with your luggage, and there are complimentary alcoholic drinks and snacks waiting for you in your room. They use that kind of big dining car, yes, exactly like the one from the movies, and they serve you food, light a cigarette for you. Just about the only thing they don’t do is carry you around.”
“Carry you around?” Bai Mei put his order of pork shoulder and shrimp in front of him and said, “Do you consider yourself an emperor or a corpse?”
Iron Rod couldn’t hold the beer in his mouth and nearly sprayed the table. Old Mr. Qi couldn’t hold back either and laughed out loud. As if brought in by the old man’s eccentric laughter, another customer came into the restaurant.
He was also a regular, and the other customers recognized him. His name was Shao Yan, and he’d also once been a character of the underworld, where he earned the nickname of “Solitary Sword” as a chivalrous swordsman who was brave enough to fight single-handed. Nowadays he held office in the municipal government and, despite being the same age as Iron Rod, he had finely chiseled features. His face was fair and clear, just like a man of letters. He walked into the restaurant and looked up carefully at the menu hanging on the wall, taking his sweet time. “I’d like the shrimp…” he started to say, but after checking the price list at the back, he changed his mind and said: “I’ll have the vegetarian wonton.”
Having finally placed his order, he quietly walked to the seat by the door and sat down, looking at the street outside the store.
“Hey, Sword Trickster!” Iron Rod shouted. “Long time no see.”
Shao Yan did not seem too keen to acknowledge Iron Rod’s presence and merely emitted a low “M-hm.”
“I heard that your wife is having a second child. Boy or girl?” Iron Rod kept rattling on.
“Boy,” Shao Yan replied.
“Oh, that’s got to be hard. When it comes to buying stuff for kids these days, it’s best not to spend any money at all, because once you open your purse, you just can’t keep track of the expenses. Right after giving birth, my wife bought two cans of imported milk powder. Each of those things weighed about a pound, and for three thousand a pop? Well that’s pricey enough already. When I opened one of the cans there was a bag inside, and when I opened the bag, it was just a bunch of smaller bags inside. At the time I wondered, isn’t this just milk powder? If only you buy a few more cans, you’ll have spent enough to buy a whole cow.”
Shao Yan replied, “One’s bound to spend some money, but you’re exaggerating a bit much.”
“Can’t really say that now, can you?” Iron Rod picked a piece of pork shoulder and gnawed on it, making his lips shiny with grease. “You’ve got two kids and a loan to repay, and once you’re done with that? Just think about it. When your sons grow up and want to wife up, you’ll have to buy them a house each, and then you’ll have to repay that loan, too. Not easy.”
“Once they’re all grown up it’s none of my business.”
“It’s one thing to say that now, but is that really so?”
“So what do you then suggest?” Shao Yan asked back. He didn’t look happy.
“If you ask me, there is one thing that can solve every single problem in this world.” Fuelled by alcohol, Iron Rod raised his head and a finger with great merriment. “If you’ve got money, no problem is an actual problem. Wanna buy the best house and go to the best school? No problem. Wanna drive the most luxurious car and hug the most beautiful women? No problem.”
“What’s the matter with you recently?” Shao Yan asked, turning his head with a twisted mouth. “Have you lost money?”
“I’m just reasoning with you.” Iron Rod raised his head again and his cheeks flushed. “I’ve known you for ten years and I still don’t understand you. When you used to walk all on your own in the jianghu, you had such an appetite for life. I regarded you as a master; you exerted your strength and worked hard. You sharpened your horns and were ready to fight to the bitter end. Then you sat in your office and what happened to your motivation? All gone. What are you now? You’ve been stuck as a section chief for how long already? Your subordinates that used to sit beneath your ass are all now using your head as a bench. Does that piss you off, huh?”
“Oh, my, you sure know a great deal. Why, I don’t look good to you? Well then, you’ll have to come to our unit and poke around. Would you like to use your fists to ask our director to give you his position?”
“So you think I’m illiterate? That I don’t know the ropes, huh?” Iron Rod threw his chopsticks on the table. “In the past, when you took part in a fight, your sword was so powerful that I couldn’t ever beat you. I was so angry I trained day and night, every day. However, by the time I finished my martial arts training you said that you wanted to be an office worker and laid down your sword. I went to your unit to find you, but the security guard didn’t let me in, so I had to content myself with seeing you from afar, always in the shadow of your boss. Such a yes-man you are, every bit like a flunkey. I’m angry for you! You, a legend, wasting your life away at that place, don’t dare say this, don’t have the guts to do that. You sure got your iron rice bowl, but is it interesting?”
“Interesting? Is whatever you’re doing interesting?” Shao Yan also threw his chopsticks on the table. “Why don’t you take a good look at your current self, King of Vajra? You fat hog!”
“Alright then! All of you lot are so noble and virtuous, right? Every single one of you. Okay then, why don’t you all take a page from Qing Xuzi? Don’t argue with others, don’t rob others, don’t strive to make money. Watch heaven and earth, take your wife and children with you, hell, take the whole family. Eat your green vegetables and tofu, let your wife croak from some illness and then starve yourself to death…”
Before Iron Rod could finish his tirade, he heard a whistling noise and felt a gust of wind flying past his ear. A fruit knife was now embedded in the door frame behind him. When he looked ahead again, he saw Bai Mei standing at the door of her kitchen, pale-faced and slowly drawing back the hand with which she’d hurled the knife.
The quarrel came to an abrupt end. The atmosphere suddenly quieted down and became heavy, until a young man walked into the restaurant asking, “Are you still open?”
Bai Mei stood there in a daze, unable to regain her senses just yet. Mr. Qi cleared his throat twice, then hurriedly replied: “Indeed. What would you like to eat?”
“How about a bowl of scallion oil noodles?” he asked, gently stroking the door frame with the fruit knife wedged in it. “What a pity, a whole section of trimming in Chinese cedar with some beautiful patterns.”
Bai Mei turned around and retreated to her kitchen. Iron Rod and Shao Yan exchanged glances in dismay and then shrunk back to their respective positions. In the silence, only the intermittent sounds of diners chomping and sipping on their soup bowls was discernible. The youth sat among them, looking around with great interest in his surroundings. He was not from those parts; he’d never visited the restaurant before, and nobody recognized him.
Mr. Qi let out a sigh and turned to the young man, “You don’t live near here, now, do you?”
“No, just passing by.” The young man smiled and added, “But I used to live here a while ago.”
Mr. Qi nodded thoughtfully and glanced toward the kitchen. Bai Mei was leaning over the stove, pouring herself a glass of baijiu that she emptied at one gulp.
Old Mr. Qi said, “Not a lot of outsiders come to this restaurant. In fact, it’s not often that you’ll find the place so crowded. That’s it, everyone’s going to drink some—my treat.”
The youth declined. “That’s really kind of you, but I have to go soon, so I’ll pass.”
In a flash, Bai Mei came out and brought the noodles to the young man, who said “thanks” and looked up at her. She hurriedly turned her head away, and a teardrop fell down and trickled down her face.
Old Mr Qi said, “Bai Mei, the children of the jianghu are all temperamental folks. You can hardly expect them to think before they speak. Don’t take it to heart. Why, today’s truly a rare occasion. How about I treat everyone to a drink?”
“Ghost Pharmacist, nobody else other than you would dare to drink spirits you offer them,” said Bai Mei. “If you’d like to booze some, I have a jug of wine here from my dowry. It’s pretty unpleasant to drink, it has no fixed price in the menu and I can’t sell it off. If you all want to drink, I’ll bring it out.”
Shao Yan remained silent. Iron Rod tapped his fingers increasingly faster on the table board, until he could not bear the dead silence any longer. Then he waved his hand and said impatiently, “Bring it here, bring it here.”
The wine was brought in straight out from the cellar. They removed its faded red cloth and gouged its seal. A sweet scent came from the jug, strong enough to intoxicate anyone who caught a whiff of it. The party of four gathered at the table of the square table, with Bai Mei placing four bowls on the wooden surface and filling them to the rim with liquor straight from the jar. She picked one of the bowls herself and said she ought to drink first as a sign of respect. The three men looked up at her and clinked their bowls before pouring the content down their gullets without as much as a blink.
“Drinking from a bowl, now that’s a fine thing to do!” Iron Rod let out a laugh and, unwilling to be outdone, filled up another bowl and sang praise of the liquor. “Good one!” Shao Yan and old Mr Qi followed suit. Shao Yan looked pale and then flushed from the more-than-abundant serving he’d poured himself. Despite his age, Mr Qi drank slowly, yet finished his bowl.
“You guys sure know how to kick up a row. From now on, if you’re feeling rowdy, just drink some wine. Act your age. Got it?” Mr. Qi sighed.
After three rounds, everyone was already slightly drunk and nodded in agreement. Mr Qi added, “Any disagreements in the future we’ll resolve outside. Nobody’s going to stop you. What’s with the slander of Qing Xuzi, though? That was just you talking out of your ass. No need to say that. Don’t forget why you moved to this place to begin with.”
Everyone was struck dumb. Iron Rod slowly raised his head, looked at Bai Mei, and timidly said: “I didn’t mean it.”
Bai Mei shook her head. “It’s not your fault.”
Iron Rod said, “Back then, I really admired Qing Xuzi and all of you too. I knew how powerful you all are, and I was no match for you. But I heard that Qing Xuzi surpassed you all. Later on, when he retired and faded away, it took me a long time to trace his new whereabouts. I followed him without even realizing it. I wanted to move somewhere close to him, wherever he was. I figured if I did that, I could learn a few things.
Shao Yan looked at Iron Rod. “Qing Xuzi was the strongest among us all, not only when it came to martial arts. Didn’t all of us move here for the same reasons you just mentioned? Take me, for instance. Every time I think of him, I think of myself as a coward —you’re right. My job is suppressing my inner fire. There’s no passion, no interest; I feel muddleheaded. I am just like those who drift and live without purpose. However, I am far inferior to Qing Xuzi. I’m not brave enough to let go. Every time I think of my wife and my children, the thoughts of that remote world where I held a sword instantly vanish like smoke in thin air.”
“Back to the topic, though, I seem to remember I once saw Qing Xuzi’s wife. She was a beauty. They had a kid, didn’t they?” Iron Rod turned and asked Mr Qi. “What was her illness, actually? I remember they sought your help.”
“Most likely a congenital deficiency.” Mr. Qi glanced at Bai Mei, seemingly reluctant to talk any further.
Bai Mei took a drink, raising her bowl so that it would cover her face and the streaming tears.
“Hey, I’m just a potty mouth.” Iron Rod said, sipping on his wine. “I actually don’t have an opinion on Qing Xuzi. I just felt that, as a man, he should go out and look for a job instead of sitting at home all day long pondering all that useless stuff and letting his wife busy herself with so much; that’s not proper. I’m a vulgar man, that’s the way I think of it. I reckon Qing Xuzi was so famous at that moment, even if all he’d done was just taking pupils in, he’d still have made a lot of money. With that kind of money, maybe his wife would have got a few more years.”
Bai Mei shook her head again and said, “When his wife was gravely ill, I helped take care of her.”
Everyone looked at Bai Mei in unison, seemingly eager for her to keep talking.
“Marvelous, that’s what she was. She was a marvelous woman, and I will never be a match for her.” Bai Mei suddenly let out a brief laugh, but it was hard to tell whether it was joyful or self-deprecating. Her head was shaking. She was already drunk. “Do you all think I never asked her that question? She answered a long time ago, and it was precisely because of her answer that I realized for the first time how far-removed I was from Qing Xuzi, as far as the sun. She said that nobody could enter Qing Xuzi’s world, because what he did was his calling; a passion that had already consumed his life. Of course, he could have engaged in other things to make money. But, she loved him so dearly she did not have the heart to make such a legend to stoop to doing that.”
Everyone stared at her in a daze, momentarily forgetting to drink.
Bai Mei lowered her head and looked at her reflection in her drink. “She was right except for a very small detail —it was not just his passion that filled Qing Xuzi’s world. In his heart of hearts, his wife reigned entirely. This is what truly filled his heart. No matter whether she lived or died, there was no space left for other people in his heart.
Old Mr Qi glanced at Bai Mei, sighed and murmured, “Bai Mei, I admire you. You’ve got yourself a really good heart. Better than so many other people in this world.”
It was after dusk. The banquet was dispersed. The youth who’d been eating noodles was long gone. There was a ten yuan note left beneath his bowl. When Bai Mei woke up from her stupor, she went to collect the bowls. Old Mr Qi was dozing off at the table, and she looked for a blanket to cover him with. As she did this, a thought crossed her mind and she asked the old man, “Didn’t the young guy who ordered the noodles remind you of someone?”
“Who would that be?”
“I can’t quite remember” Bai Mei said, gazing into the boundless night.
That young man was already far away. Under the dark sky, he was also looking in the direction of the Qianshouge restaurant. He remembered that his father had once said that he’d chosen to stand on the sky to stare at the world in this life, and that this was lonelier than standing on the ground to look up at the world. All worldly affairs are easy to know, much like differentiating poisons is merely a matter of thorough reading and pondering. To dodge hidden weapons, you only need to know your enemy’s habits. Attacking the bearer of a Vajra was as easy as finding a tiny weakness in their defenses, and defeating a swordsman only requires you to be familiar with the way of swordsmanship. Just like there is always a way to make money, there’s always a path to fame. However, up in the heavens things were different. Up there in the sky, humankind becomes aware of the infinity of heaven and earth. They realize that the deepest beauty is hidden in the innermost soul, but that it’s sorrowfully fated to vanish. In the sky, human beings are full of curiosity and passion, pure and incomparably insignificant, yet free. Such is the most original, natural, and beautiful state of a soul.
He had always admired his father, even many years after his father’s death.
Hu Yuesheng 胡月生
Born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, in 1992, Hu Yuesheng works as an urban and rural planner by day. She describes herself as loving the city, the countryside, and the people who live on this land. Hu writes short stories and draws comics, and has since published two short story collections, Goodbye, Jianghu (《再见江湖》) and A Flash Back of How We Got Married (《关于结婚的一场倒叙》), on the digital publishing platform Douban.