Proofreaders: happyBuddha, Kai, Lee, m@o, Marcia
Till Death Do Us Part chapter 26
The second time Shen Liangsheng and Ch’in Ching visited a studio for a photograph together was in early spring of the year of liberation. Ch’in Ching didn’t want to go but gave in after the other man insisted.
After the war against Japan came a civil war that lasted four years. Ch’in Ching was naturally glad that the fighting was finally coming to an end, but he was still vaguely uneasy.
The apartment in which they resided had always belonged to Ch’in Ching, but last October Shen Liangsheng suddenly wanted to transfer the property. Shen Liangsheng was the one who had made the purchase, and Ch’in Ching had long ago suggested transferring the ownership. However, due to Shen Liangsheng’s opposition, he had dropped the matter after a few attempts.
Shen Liangsheng’s sudden change in attitude naturally aroused Ch’in Ching’s curiosity, but the former only replied “better safe than sorry” suggesting that things would be fine as long as they did as he said.
Ch’in Ching understood Shen Liangsheng better than anyone after having lived together for so many years. Shen Liangsheng had been in charge of all matters small and large in the family, and Ch’in Ching had become used to this. He had a mild temper to begin with and thus did not get into arguments over having his decisions made for him. He didn’t ask too many questions about the transfer of ownership, but the issue weighed heavily on his mind.
The truth was that Shen Liangsheng had known the liberation of Tientsin was inevitable. Every cent and every dime in Ch’in Ching’s chequebook had clear origins, but this house appeared out of nowhere. For this reason, he thought it best that the property be transferred to his name.
Honestly speaking, he did not anticipate life after liberation being particularly harsh. On the other hand, there were those in Tientsin who became apprehensive and began looking for ways to escape. Most of them were those with a different political agenda than that of the Communist Party. As for the businessmen who did not dabble in politics and even those who ran their own operations, all of whom were likely to be labelled “capitalists,” many were composed – or perhaps they had accepted that there was no use in worrying. It was unbelievably difficult to leave at that point. Running might actually bring trouble where previously there was none, so it proved beneficial to stay put rather than to act.
Human beings eventually acclimate to their environment. Having stayed in Tientsin, Shen Liangsheng’s sentiment towards the city grew as time went by, and he also came to regard Ch’in Ching’s home as his own. During the war, the notion of leaving had crossed his mind more than once, but no time seemed like a good time to do so. After so many years, he finally had a place he could call home and someone with whom to share each and every day. Once his heart settled, he became more reluctant as well. Compared to venturing out into the unknown, even Shen Liangsheng couldn’t help but think, no matter how clichéd, that there was no place like home. Eventually, the chance to leave became more doubtful so that now, even if he were to go all in, it was uncertain whether it was possible. Thus, he opted to stay put and bide his time. Should worst come to worst, he would donate everything he could and give the state what it wanted, not hiding or lying about his assets. The Party was, after all, for the people; it would surely leave them a way out.
However, he did not want to share these thoughts of his with Ch’in Ching under any circumstances. The man had spent most of his life in school and had a significantly more naive worldview compared to him. And during all these years of being looked after by him, Ch’in Ching never really had to use his head for anything other than for his teaching job. Telling the schoolmaster about all this would only make him uneasy.
Afterwards, Tientsin was besieged. Lao-Chou had leased one of his properties to a general in the Kuomintang and could not get rid of the man. When he was racked with anxiety, Shen Liangsheng in turn comforted him.
“You’re right,” Lao-Chou sighed with puckered brows. “They said that they plan to surrender when the Communist army arrive and won’t engage in guerrilla…. I heard there were rumours among the ranks that they would be fine as long as they surrendered. I reckon we’ll be fine, too, if the Kuomintang is, right?”
The situation after the liberation of Tientsin was not far from Shen Liangsheng’s predictions, the policies being rather lenient. Consequently, he was still in the mood to go for a commemorative photograph with Ch’in Ching. The two men in the photograph were dressed in tunic suits, and like the one in nineteen forty-five, he had an arm around the other man, their lips curved up in sincere joy.
Initially, Ch’in Ching had been slightly troubled but settled down after several months passed peacefully. After China was completely liberated, Lao-Wu was transferred back to Tientsin to manage education affairs, and he arranged a meeting with the two men one day.
Lao-Wu had not reached fifty years of age when he left, but when he returned, his hair was already white. He was in great spirits, however, and joked with Ch’in Ching that he was still young and had a lot of fight left in him.
He had had his suspicions about the two men’s relationship all those years ago, and the puzzle pieces came together naturally after he heard neither man had married. However, he did not make any remarks and appeared rather undisturbed by this, only exclaiming, “No matter what, it’s fortunate for us to have made it and witnessed China’s liberation. Am I right, Hsiao-Ch’in?”
“Goodness. Why are you still calling me that? Look at me….” Ch’in Ching responded clumsily. He wasn’t sure what else to say as he was bombarded with emotions.
Without holding back, Shen Liangsheng pressed a reassuring hand on the schoolmaster’s shoulder before turning to Lao-Wu to discuss the more serious matters that were on his mind. In the previous month, the Administrative Council passed the ‘Provisional Regulations Governing Public-Private Jointly Operated Industrial Enterprises.’ Although Shen Liangsheng’s business was not sizable enough to meet the criteria for joint operation, he had a handful of residential and commercial properties regarding which he wanted to consult with the older man. He planned to donate them to the state without having the Party remind him so as to send a message of loyalty.
Shen Liangsheng had never discussed this with Ch’in Ching, so the latter could only listen in mild shock.
“Hsiao-Shen.” Lao-Wu had once called him ‘Mr. Shen’ but now used a totally different tone as though he were his elder. “I believe your decision is a good one.” He continued after a pause and said frankly since the three were alone, “You have to give some to get some. You’re a smart man, and our government’s an open-minded one. Rest assured. Plus, I’ll give you my word. You can come to me if you run into any trouble, and I will do my best to resolve it for you.”
Lao-Wu said “give to get,” and Shen Liangsheng could not agree more. Following the trend of forming joint operations, Shen Liangsheng swiftly dealt with this matter, and lo and behold, the result was as expected. The Party did not give him any trouble but instead praised him.
However, active donation did not mean one had to give everything away – the goal of the Party was not to transform all private property into state property. The problem was that every other unit in the Maoken building had been turned over to the government by owners who had the same intentions as Shen Liangsheng, so naturally they could no longer keep the apartments there.
Ch’in Ching was quietly packing for the move – he had been rather reserved lately. Shen Liangsheng knew what was on the man’s mind but did not say it aloud. He knew that if he did, the man would feel even worse.
“Shen….” When the packing had nearly finished, Ch’in Ching could no longer keep silent. His throat was a bit hoarse when he started to speak, so he lowered his head and coughed.
“Go see if there’s anything left in the kitchen,” Shen Liangsheng interrupted flatly, and when the man did not move, he pushed, “Go already.”
Hearing this, Ch’in Ching really did turn into the kitchen, but he couldn’t find anything else to pack. He stayed dumbly in one spot, and soon, his hands began to tremble violently.
“Ch’in Ching,” he heard the man call him from behind and turned around. He saw Shen Liangsheng at the kitchen entrance, his upright figure the same as always and his tone as calm as ever. “Do you know how old I am this year?”
Shen Liangsheng was a Dog born in nineteen ten. It was December of nineteen forty-nine, and they had met in nineteen thirty-six. Other than the two years they had not seen one another, they had been together for more than a decade.
“Ch’in Ching.” Shen Liangsheng simply stood there without approaching and asked him slowly and clearly, “At forty, a man has no doubts. Do you think these things still matter to me?”
Shen Liangsheng could say some of the most charming words when he was young, but he would no longer do so at this age. He only brought Ch’in Ching along and moved into the small house in Petite de Ceinture, living life as best he could one day after another. In fifty-two, the state began the Five-anti Movement, and many who had been capitalists prior to the liberation were affected. Shen Liangsheng, however, was not because he had received praise before and was even amongst the first to be named “Model Law-Abiding Business Owner” due to his modest restaurant ventures and honest tax payment.
On the other hand, Ch’in Ching was transferred to a newly established elementary school in Hepei District as vice principal. Lao-Wu originally wanted the schoolmaster to be principal, but the latter strongly refused saying that he had taught for half of his life and knew nothing other than teaching. Administration was out of the question, and even his title of vice principal was simply a title; he still actively taught lessons and acted as homeroom teacher for a class.
“Hsiao-Ch’in, we’re on our third game now. When is Hsiao-Shen going to be here?”
“Soon, I think. Should be on his way now.”
Lao-Wu had two daughters. The elder married early, and the younger joined the army as a medic and later died on duty. In the past several years, he had frequent interactions with the two younger men and began treating them as his own sons, constantly trying to safeguard the rest of their lives for them while he still had his position.
Although Shen Liangsheng survived the Five-anti Movement unscathed, his political makeup was questionable. Lao-Wu thought working for the state was better than running his own business and wanted to find him a position in a state-run factory through his wartime comrades. The state needed talent like him, too.
When Lao-Wu brought up his proposal at the dinner table, Shen Liangsheng did not object, only thanking the older man for the consideration. Lao-Wu, however, dismissed this saying there was no need for such polite talk between them. He confessed that Shen Liangsheng was overqualified to be a mere accountant, but a stable life was better than anything else, and working for the state would be less troublesome than running his own restaurants.
Lao-Wu found Shen Liangsheng a post at No. 1 Textiles because it was close to Tienwei Road Elementary where Ch’in Ching was teaching, only fifteen minutes away by bicycle.
In order to live closer to their workplaces, the two men also moved to a house on Tienwei Road. It was very similar to the house in which Ch’in Ching had lived in his early years, two compartments in the larger structure with a smaller one attached for storage space.
Ch’in Ching was afraid that Shen Liangsheng would not be used to living in traditional housing after having lived in Western-style mansions, but the latter only mockingly called him “worrisome.”
“Do you still remember what I told you before?”
It was in the midst of the civil war. Ch’in Ching was certainly on the communist side but became depressed, nonetheless, at the thought of Chinese people killing each other. If he had felt a sharp pain when they were fighting the Japanese, then the pain now was a dull sensation that tore at his ability to describe it.
Shen Liangsheng knew the other man’s stubbornness and didn’t bother trying to convince him with reasoning, only saying the war would have to come to an end eventually. When it did, they would find a cozy house with a nice view in the country, perhaps in Chi County, and they would have a garden and some chickens. That would be delightful.
However, the land reforms after liberation that threatened the landlord class had discouraged them from even thinking about leaving the city. Now that they actually had a yard, they couldn’t keep any chickens or ducks, but at least they could keep a few plants. They were nothing rare or exotic but were colourful nonetheless. Amongst the rhododendron, scarlet sage, and morning glory there was a date tree with a crooked trunk that reminded Ch’in Ching of the short essay by Lu Hsün: “Over the wall from my back garden you can see two trees. One is a date tree; so is the other.”
“First of all, this tree’s in our yard,” Shen Liangsheng poked fun at the schoolmaster, brows slightly furrowed. “Second of all, use your math. Where’s the second one?”
“Tsk, tsk.” Ignoring the man, Ch’in Ching remarked as he looked disappointedly at the tree. “Say, this is one ugly tree. You think it can bear any fruit?”
“If you don’t give it any love, then it definitely will not bear any for you,” Shen Liangsheng teased as he stood by the man, absentmindedly rubbing the trunk with his hand.
“Well…maybe it’s not that ugly.”
“Wow, really, Ch’in Ching?”
“Don’t ‘wow, really’ me. When my dates come, I’m not sharing any with you.”
The people of that era were simple. The neighbours liked to visit each other and chit chat and initially thought it strange that two men were living together. However, they found the situation to be quite normal after hearing that Ch’in Ching and Shen Liangsheng were cousins who both had been married but, having lost their families to the war, preferred keeping each other company as two brothers to starting new families.
Four peaceful years had passed by when the Anti-Rightist Movement began in fifty-seven. Even the average elementary school where Ch’in Ching worked had to conduct meetings, and the textile factory where Shen Liangsheng worked was actively under investigation for model rightists. There were criteria for a rightist that had no connection whatsoever to whether one was truly ‘right’ or not – you were ‘right’ if they said you were, end of story.
In the beginning, the two men were distressed, but thankfully Lao-Wu had not retired and could provide some protection that allowed them to make it out in one piece. In the second year of the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward began. Backyard furnaces were set up in the streets to melt scrap metal and make high quality steel. Eager to display their support, Shen Liangsheng and Ch’in Ching searched high and low and gave away all metal items including their pots and pans in support of this. There was no need for the kitchen tools anyway since they ate at the commune cafeteria nearby.
“What the heck can you make from those furnaces anyway? All I see are pathetic looking black lumps….” Ch’in Ching dared not say these things in public and opted to whisper them in Shen Liangsheng’s ear before bed.
“Whatever. Just let them play.”
In the end, this “play” resulted in three years of hardship. During the Three Years of Natural Disasters, the entire country had to tighten its belt. Tientsin was comparably well off in terms of material supply, but that only meant white rice porridge for dinner and unrefined grains for the other two meals.
The eldest son of Hsiao-Liu – now Lao-Liu – worked at the meat processing plant and had a secret staff benefit of sneaking a few cans of meat home. Mindful of the favours he had received from Shen Liangsheng, Lao-Liu gifted all of the cans to Ch’in Ching instead of eating them himself. When Ch’in Ching refused, he would even get testy with his childhood friend.
The truth was that the cans that the staff could smuggle home were substandard. The thick tendons could not even be bitten through or used in other dishes, so Ch’in Ching drained the fat by cooking it and ate it with cornbread, making the yellow bread a little more flavourful.
If someone had told Shen Liangsheng twenty years ago that he would be living like this, he never would have believed them. But one thing led to another, and he ended up in a present where he actually had trouble recalling his days of glamour and riches.
It was not that he wanted to avoid those memories, but rather those memories felt unreal to him – like flowers in a mirror, the moon in the water, or the mirage in a desert, they were beautiful yet so distant and transient. Now every evening the two of them would come home after work and heat up some water to wash up. In the summer, they would pull out a small table in the courtyard and eat plain porridge under the dimming twilight listening to the sounds of the neighbourhood; in the winter, they would shut the doors, bake two sweet potatoes with coal ash and eat them while they were hot. These days, on the contrary, made him feel joy and stability.
He had said he would take care of the man and spend each day with him as best as he could. This was the promise he had given, and he had kept it. It made him feel like his life had been worthwhile.
And he felt no regret.
However, neither of them knew that the series of political movements would intensify past the point of no return.
After the Cultural Revolution began, Shen Liangsheng’s background was finally exposed. There was no escaping. Lao-Wu could do nothing other than comfort Ch’in Ching. “There’ll be a way…. Don’t worry. Let me keep looking….” The old man was in his seventies. His hair had turned fully white and lay knotted near his scalp due to lack of care. After consoling the younger man, he repeated the same phrase over and over again with trembling lips, “Who would’ve thought…who would’ve thought….”
Ch’in Ching was restless, but Lao-Wu was even more so – not only for Shen Liangsheng, but for several of his wartime comrades who were subjected to struggle sessions and put into quarantine, a torturous place between life and death. But why?! They were all men who had put their lives at stake for the country! In the end…in the end….
There was nothing more he could say. Merely saying “who would’ve thought” seemed to have drained the life out of the seventy-year-old.
But he had to look for help no matter what. He would fight to protect every single one of those men. He knew there was no use in asking for favours from insignificant figures now, so he contacted all the connections he had and risked his life to ensure his message would get to the top.
Truthfully, he didn’t know if it would work, so at that point it was left to the mercy of the gods.
Shen Liangsheng had been called for interrogation twice, and on the day he was finally taken away to quarantine, Ch’in Ching was home, too. The school had closed, and the schoolmaster was also asked to go in for questioning. However, the education system had not been totally involved, and he had little relation to Shen Liangsheng on the family registry. Thus, he was not taken in for investigation.
But he would rather have been the one taken away.
He was standing at the gates watching as they took Shen Liangsheng, pushing the man along while holding his arms behind his back. Ch’in Ching wanted to tell them that they couldn’t do that to him, that he wasn’t anti-revolutionary, that he had done good…. But he could not say a thing. All he could see was the last look Shen Liangsheng struggled to give him. That one last look….
Shen Liangsheng had been mentally prepared when he was first called in for a questioning long ago. He had thought of the worst case scenario but did not speak a word of farewell to Ch’in Ching, let alone leave a will of any sort – he knew saying certain things would be equivalent to killing the man. He had decided that he would not look back, but when the time came, he couldn’t stop himself from taking one last glance.
He saw Ch’in Ching standing at the gateway, a scrawny, hunched shadow that looked like an eighty-year-old but also like a child looking at him with big, round eyes, as though he were an infant being abandoned by him. Shen Liangsheng turned away and began to weep. He was not afraid of beatings and torture, nor did he fear being killed. Rather, he was afraid that Ch’in Ching would not be able to handle this, and he wondered if the man would be able to continue to live on by himself.
He had wanted to spend the rest of his life with the man – as a companion, as a brother, as a parent, as a child – and have no regrets no matter the difficulty or pain. But in the end, it was just a simple promise that he could not keep.
After Shen Liangsheng was taken away, Ch’in Ching sat in the house for several days not eating or sleeping. In the end, it was Lao-Liu who pried open the gates and forced the schoolmaster to eat before dragging the dumb man to bed. He sat by the bed watching his friend, waiting for the man to shut his eyes before turning around and wiping at his own tears.
The suffering lasted for nearly a week before Lao-Wu received good news. The premier had signed a document himself clearly forbidding false accusations against a comrade who had helped the fight against Japan.
In reality, Lao-Wu had little hope when he asked for his message to be passed on. First of all, the premier was a busy man. Moreover, Shen Liangsheng’s donations had been decades ago, and there had been many nationalists who had done the same. He had not expected the premier to remember, but the premier really did remember every sum and every person.
When Shen Liangsheng came home after being released, Ch’in Ching did not appear cheerful, nor did he speak much. Perhaps the devastating experience had killed his ability to react. After what seemed like hours, he pushed out a screechy sound through his hoarse throat, “I heated the water…for you to wash up.”
But Shen Liangsheng only said, “Later…. Come lie down with me,” for he had bruises and wounds from the beatings, and he did not want to traumatize Ch’in Ching.
Perhaps he truly was exhausted. He had not slept properly for days and fell asleep almost immediately after reaching the bed. With quivering hands Ch’in Ching removed the man’s shoes and tucked the man in. He lay down beside the man wanting to be closer but feared he would wake the man. In the end, he curled up like a fetus beside the man. His face was still numb, but the rest of him was shaking like a leaf.
Shen Liangsheng had gone to bed in the morning, and it was the middle of the night when he awoke. He reached out blindly but did not find the man. For a split second, he thought that he was still locked up and that seeing Ch’in Ching again was just a dream. He stiffened in devastation. Then after a few moments, he realized he really was home. He really was home.
At first he thought Ch’in Ching was not in bed because he had to use the toilet, but when the man did not come back, he sensed something was off. He crept out to the other room in the dark and, with the bit of moonlight coming from the windows, he saw a figure huddling in the corner. It was Ch’in Ching hiding in the cranny like a phantom afraid of the light. The man was just crouching there, not even bothering to sit on a stool, with his head between his knees sobbing and whimpering quietly because he did not want to awaken the sleeping man. It was so quiet Shen Liangsheng did not recognize it until he came closer. It was the most heartbreaking cry he had ever heard.
Shen Liangsheng rushed towards the man, stumbling as the lights were off. When he finally made it, he reached out to grab and lift the man up, but Ch’in Ching kept shrinking into the nook as though he did not want the taller man to touch him. Only when Shen Liangsheng took a strong hold on him did he begin speaking in the same way an animal wailed moments before death, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
He felt as though he had caused nothing but misfortune for Shen Liangsheng. So many years, so many events, so much regret, it all rushed into his head and threatened to drown him. He wished he could cut himself into a thousand pieces to redeem himself, but not even his life was enough to repay the man. He regretted it with all his being. He regretted that the heavens had let the man meet him.
He regretted meeting the man.
“How could you say that?!”
The roaring exclamation was eerily loud in the silent night. Ch’in Ching froze in fright, and his tears also stopped. Certainly, the two of them had had their fair share of trivial arguments and quarrels throughout the years, but never had they truly been in a fight; Ch’in Ching had never heard Shen Liangsheng speak to him in such a way. Dumbfounded, he gaped at the man. His hair was dishevelled, and tears and snot ran down his face. The man in his fifties looked as pitiful as a five-year-old as he feebly grabbed onto a corner of Shen Liangsheng’s shirt.
“Don’t say that….” Shen Liangsheng crouched down in front of the man, his bent back making him appear ancient. He wrapped the man’s hands with his own two and patted them. He let out a soft sigh and began lecturing the man as he would a child, but his logic had apparently escaped him,
“You can’t say that. I’m too old for something like that. Don’t ever say that again.”
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
the specific type of rhododendron mentioned
morning glory (ipomoea nil)
the two date trees at the former home of Lu Xun
Confucius Analects (Chapter 4: a man has no doubts at forty)
Hengyuan Textiles (a propaganda article published in 1952 after the factory became state-run)
Land Reforms in the 1950s
Autumn Night by Lu Xun (translation)
Great Leap Forward
Great Chinese Famine (referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disaster by the Communist Party)
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang: We're almost at the end!!! >o< excited but also sad to see it end
This particular chapter might be hard to understand because of the political and historical background, so I implore you to read or at least skim through the links provided above.
Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.