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孔已己(Kong Yiji)

(2010-05-25 20:25:22)





分类: 英语沙龙

Kong Yiji (translated by Julia Lovell))


The taverns in Luzhen were rather particular in their layout. Facing out to the street was a substantial bar, squared off at the corners, behind which hot water was always at the ready for warming up wine. Lunchtime or evening, when they got off work, the town’s labourers would drift in, each with their four coppers ready to buy a bowl of warmed wine (this was twenty years ago, remember; now it would cost them ten), then drink it at the bar, taking their ease. An extra copper would buy them a bowl of salted bamboo shoots, or of aniseed beans, to go with it. If their budgets stretched to ten coppers or more, a meat dish would be within their reach. But such extravagance was generally beyond the means of short-jacketed manual labourers. Only those dressed in the long scholar’s gowns that distinguished those who worked with their heads from those who worked with their hands made for a more sedate, inner room, to enjoy their wine and food sitting down.


When I was eleven, I was taken on as assistant-barman at the Universal Prosperity, at the edge of town. But the manager said I looked too dull to wait on his prized long-gowned customers, and deployed me instead around the main bar. Though I found the regulars easy enough to talk to, they were also quite capable of making life difficult for me. They would insist on watching the yellow liquor being ladled out of its jar, checking for water in the bottom of their wine kettles, hawkishly scrutinizing the progress of the kettle as it was lowered into its warming surround of hot water. Supervision as exacting as this made watering down the wine something of a challenge, and after a few days, the manager retired me from this line of work, too. Fortunately, the connection who had wangled me the position was too powerful for the manager to sack me outright; all the same, he kept my duties as tediously simple as possible—warming the wine.


All day, every day I spent behind the bar, devoting myself to this task—bored senseless, even though I never made any mistakes. The manager had a terrible temper, and out customers weren’t a particularly civil bunch either, so fun tended to be thin on the ground—except when Kong Yiji rolled up, which is why I still remember him.


Kong Yiji was the only long-gowned drinker who took his wine standing up. He was a great lanky fellow, his peaky white face pitted with scars and wrinkles and fringed by an untidy grey beard. His gown was filthy and torn, as if it hadn’t been mended or washed for over a decade. His speech was so dusty with classical constructions you could barely understand him. Kong Yiji wasn’t even his real name: it was the first few characters—kong, yi, ji—in the older primer that children used for learning to write. Kong was his surname, all right, but someone somewhere must have once rattled humorously on with yi and ji and the nick name stuck. ‘Another scar, Kong Yiji?’ the assembled company would laugh the moment he arrived in the tavern. ‘Two bowls of wine, warm, and a plate of aniseed beans,’ he would order, ignoring his hecklers and lining nine coppers up on the bar. The provocatively raucous chorus would begin once more: ‘Stealing again?’ ‘Groundless calumny…unimpeachable virtue.’ Kong Yiji’s eye would bulge with outrage. ‘well, that’s funny, because just the day before yesterday I was you getting strung up and beaten for stealing a book from the Hos.’ Kong’s face would flush scarlet, the veins on his forehead throbbing in the heat of discomfort. ‘Stealing books is no crime! Is scholarship theft?’ he would argue back, illustrating his point with a perplexing smatter of archaisms: ‘poverty and learning, oft twixt by jowl’, etcetera, etcetera. At which everyone inside (and outside) the tavern would collapse with mirth. Kong Yiji truly brought with him the gift of laughter.


Somewhere in the distant past, the story went, Kong Yiji had received a classical education, but it had never got him past even the lowest grade of the imperial civil service examination. Since he had no head for any other kind of business, he grew steadily poorer until he was on the point of having to beg for food. Fortunately, he had a good wiring hand—he could have scraped by, copying out books. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the temperament for this, or indeed any work, preferring drinking to all other occupations. And after a few days at any one job, he would simply vanish—along with the books, paper, brush and ink. Once this had happened a few times, the copying work dried up, forcing Kong Yiji to fall back on periodic acts of theft as his only means of livelihood. All the same, his standing in the tavern was better than most—he never fell seriously into debt. Though occasionally he might turn up without ready money, his name would generally be wiped from the credit slate within a month.


After half a bowl of wine, the flush had usually receded from Kong Yiji’s face, inviting bystanders to try something else: ‘ Can you really really read, Kong Yiji? A look of scorn from their victim. Next: ‘How come you never managed to pass an exam?’ This tended to hit home: his face would turn a defeated grey, as he launched into another incomprehensibly classical splutter. At which universal merriment would again prevail.


I could join in the fun without fear of rebuke from the manager. In fact, whenever Kong Yiji turned up, the manager was often the one doing the asking, just to raise a laugh. Recognizing that he’d never get the better of them, Kong Yiji concentrated his conversational efforts on any minors he encountered about the premises. ‘Ever been to school?’ he once asked me. I gave a slight nod. ‘Hmmm…here’s a quick test. How do you write aniseed?’ What right did he--a beggar—have to test me, I thought. I turned away, ignoring him. ‘You don’t know?’ Kong Yiji persevered, after a long pause. ‘I’ll show you. Don’t forget it! When you get to be manager of this place, you’ll need it for your accounts.’ Personally, I thought I was a long way off becoming a manager; and anyway, the present incumbent never included aniseed beans in the accounts. The whole thing was ridiculous. ‘Keep your characters to yourself,’ I retorted sulkily. ‘Anyway, it’s just hui 茴, the hui for return, with the grass radical on top, isn’t it?’ KongYiji euphorically tapped his overextended fingernails on the bar. ‘Just so, just so!’ he nodded. “now, you’d know all four ways of writing hui?’ I walked off, scowling. Kong Yiji sighed—his fingernail already dipped in wine, ready to scrawl the characters across the bar—at my lamentable absence of academic zeal.

Sometimes hearing the sound of laughter, the local children would scurry over to watch the fun, gathering around Kong Yiji. He would present each with a single aniseed bean, which they would gulp down; they would then remain implacably rooted to the spot, eyes fixed on the dish. ‘Hardly any left,’ an unnerved Kong would scoop to tell them, his fingers sheltering the dish. Straightening up, he would glance back at the beans shaking his head: ‘Hardly any! Are the beans multitudinous in abundance? Multitudinous in abundance they are not.’ At which his young audience would scatter hilariously.


And so it was that Kong Yiji spread joy wherever he went; though when he wasn’t around, we barely missed him.

‘I haven’t seen Kong Yiji for ages,’ the manager pronounced one day, probably a little before the Mid-autumn festival, as he took down the slate to work slowly through the accounts. ‘He still owes me nineteen coppers!’ It now dawned on me, too, that we had long been deprived of the pleasure of Kong Yiji’s company. ‘How’d you expect him to drag himself over here?’ one customer said. ‘He’s had his legs broken.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘He was stealing, as usual. But he must have been out of his mind to try it on Mr Ding, the magistrate. Just asking for trouble.’ ‘So what happened?’ ‘First, they got a confession out of him, then they beat the hell out of him and broke his legs. Past midnight it went on.’ ‘Then what happened?’ ‘well, his legs were broken’ ‘I mean after that.’ ‘Oh… Who knows? Maybe he’s dead.’ No further questions; the manager went slowly back to his accounts.


Mid-autumn Festival went by, and the wind grew colder with every day that passed; winter, it seemed, was not far off. Every day I spent huddled up next to the fire, wrapped in my padded jacket. And there I was one afternoon, with no other customers about, all ready to doze off, when a muffled but familiar voice interrupted: ‘Warm me a bowl of wine.’ I looked up: no one in sight. But when I hauled myself to my feet, I spotted Kong Yiji sitting at the foot of the bar, facing the door. He looked terrible: his face grey, gaunt, a thin, ragged cotton jacket over his shoulders, his legs crossed beneath him, sitting on a rush sack that he kept in place with a straw rope. ‘Warm me a bowl of wine,’ he repeated when he caught sight of me. ‘Is that Kong Yiji?’ the manager craned forward. ‘You still owe me nineteen coppers!’ Kong Yiji looked despondently up at him. ‘I…I’ll bring it next time. I can pay cash today, so make it a drop of the good stuff.’ ‘Stealing again, Kong Yiji?’ the manager grinned, going through the usual motions. This time, however, Kong was capable of nothing but weak protest: ‘Don’t make fun of me!’ ‘It was your stealing that got your legs broken in the first place! “I had a bad fall…just a fall…’Kong Yiji muttered, his eye beseeching the manager to close the subject. But by this point, he had already acquired an audience. I warmed the wine, carried it out and placed it on the doorsill. Drawing four coppers out of a pocket in his tattered jacket, he placed them in my hand. His own hand, I saw, was filthy from dragging himself along the ground. Soon enough, he finished his wine and then, amid further laughter from the assembled company, dragged himself off again.


After this, we were again bereft of Kong Yiji for an extended period of time. ‘Kong Yiji still owes me nineteen coppers!’ the manager said, as the year neared its end, taking the slate down again.’ Kong Yiji still owes me nineteen coppers!’ he repeated at the Dragon boat Festival, in early summer the following year. At he Mid-Autumn Festival, he said nothing more about it; nor at the end of the year.

I never saw him again—I suppose Kong Yiji really must have died. 
















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