The House, the Lot
by Yu Zheng-Rong
translated by John Haymaker
The lot, not considered large, loomed high in an east corner of the village.
A ginko grew to the side, lofty and thickset, which was characteristic also of the former ginko that had grown there.
The lot, born of several generations of the Long clan leveling the land, was as before: bordered behind by the Wushao Ridge, it overlooked Longban Village, day and night keeping watch on the bend of rambling, low-rise dwellings. Early on, the majestic, towering ancestral temple had all but disappeared from the lot, which now met the eye overgrown with grass and cluttered of rubble displaying its desolation.
Old Man Long Xing-gui hobbled around the perimeter of the lot looking for a dry place to squat and put a polished brass pipe to his mouth, took a draw, and then exhaled leisurely.
“Dad, you’ve chosen a good site for building. It’s spacious and has access so cars can come and go, and getting water is convenient, too.” The son, Long Er-meng, toting a bamboo fingerling hatchery through the gate that morning, had said so.
“I know it!” Long Xing-gui gave his son a quizzical look.
The son was one of the abler fish farmers in the Five Lakes district below the Sanjang River, and this year he had usd air-freight to transport fingerlings to Gansu City in the Northwest and Gulin City in the Northwest, making earnings of more than 100,000 yuan. The old man and his son had plans: save 20,000 yuan and build the best of Western style housing in the village. After breakfast Old Man Long traipsed around the raised paths through the village fields, and what with this and that, unwittingly ended up east of the village back at the site — he knew this place well from childhood days.
Before liberation, when Old Man Long’s trousers barely hung on his waist, there had been an ancestral temple on the site rising into the clouds with stacks of upturned eaves. A pair of lions lashing their tongues stood within the bracketed colonnade at the temple gates. Long Xing-gui often cut wild herbs with his companions on the ridge behind the temple. One day when the temple gongs sounded from around front, Long Xing-gui watched Long clan descendants enter the hall, and Long Xing-gui squeezed into the group.
The temple was astonishingly silent inside. Old and young held their breath, and all eyes focused on a thin-framed, erect old man who spoke coldly; “Simpleton Long, do you know wherein you’ve erred?”
“I know!” followed a voice, and a man kneeled clomp-clump onto the floor before the elder. The old man’s eyes were lightly shut, half-open, half-closed, and he began to speak: “According to tradition, you shall suffer twenty blows.” Long Xing-gui was terrified so his legs shook, and he felt within his heart dread to within an inch of life.
After Liberation, the lot and temple became an on-site township administrative office. Later on, in the Great Leap Forward, the temple became a canteen. During the “Cultural Revolution” the stone lions were disfigured and the temple pocked with large and small holes. Then, one night in secret, the Long clan leveled it and shared among themselves the tiles and rafters, dividing the spoils among each household. Even the gingko to the front of the hall was sawed, stripped of leaves and limbs and fashioned into small planks for all named Long, one to each household.
What’s past has transpired. Now, if the lot is spruced up, won’t it be a fine site for building?
* * *
That Long Xing-gui desired to build on the site of the temple became common gossip. The Long clan of Longban Village suddenly seethed with boiling excitement, and everyone gathered without invitation at the home of Granduncle Long Mu, the senior member in the clan hierarchy.
“Granduncle Mu, you take responsibility for decision-making. Advise him, for he has money and dares to disregard the clan!” The speaker eyed the crowd, and not a few nodded at once, venting nasal hm’s in agreement.
“Call upon him to avoid matters disgracing the ancestors!” This speech was bellowed.
Granduncle Mu leaned on his walking stick as he tottered to Long Xing-gui’s home. Old Man Long sat on a stool, twisting grass rope. He hurriedly stopped his handicraft and invited Granduncle Mu to take a seat. He offered him a cigarette and asked, “Granduncle, what business have you that’s so bad you personally must come rather than send someone to inform me?”
With a look of seriousness, Granduncle Mu raised the question: “Do you desire to build to the east of the village on that piece of land?”
Long Xing-gui immediately understood Granduncle Mu’s reference, but he blinked and feigned confusion, saying, “Yes, it seems to cost you great worry! “
“On that land has always been the Ancestral Hall.”
“Hmm? Ahh! Yet these ten or twenty years, hasn’t it been in ruins?”
“In the future, though it is not certain, perhaps the temple will be rebuilt,” Granduncle Mu’s voice was clear, his eyes fixed viciously on Long Xing-gui.
Long Xing-gui first laughed, slowly drew a mouthful of smoke, and said then, “To erect a temple is archaic feudalism—”
“That piece of land belongs to the clan. No one may occupy it.” Granduncle Mu threw down the cigarette he held and stood swiftly, his taut eyes watching his adversary intently.
Long Xing-gui didn’t look up. His eyelids lifted not a whit. He reached for a tin of tobacco before him and filled his brass pipe with a pinch, and he clearly, unhurriedly articulated, “The site, the land is the government’s. If the township apportions me that site, there isn’t any can or can’t about it.”
“You, you...” Granduncle Mu, as if gagged, had no words to counter. In the past, if he spoke in the village, who dared not listen; this Long Xing-gui facing him really had pluck! Isn’t it always the case that people are heroic when money establishes might. “All in all, you’ve earned how much?” Granduncle Mu spoke resentfully as he went toward the door on his unsteady legs. Long Xing-gui said nothing, but laughed dryly and again sat on the stool, twisting rope.
* * *
Long Xing-gui worked on his home. The township approved his selling of the old lot and occupying the new site. Bricks, tiles, lime, and sand arrived at the site, and bricklayers and carpenters went through the gates, but he encountered a difficulty which was neither great nor small: he was unable to engage unskilled workers to carry brick, fetch tiles, sift lime, or shuffle cement. Long Xing-gui had no in-laws, no uncles, cousins, nor nephews, and though the village indeed had eight or nine out of ten families named Long, none were closely related.
“Long San, the master workers stand at the site with no one to pass along the bricks. Could you help out? I can offer either labor or money in exchange.” He anxiously asked for help from the villagers. Long San stared despisingly at him, his lips clamped shut. “I’m busy!”
He quickly went to another family and, seeing a half-grown child, asked, “Long Er, help me pass mortar up to the bricklayers — everyday three yuan, okay?” Long Er turned his head away: “Dad and Morn won’t permit me to go.”
Long Xing-gui went to yet another home, and yet another family head watched him from afar, bluntly banging shut the courtyard door.
Long Xing-gui had no other recourse but go to Granduncle Mu’s home. “We’re still of the same clan — please help out when there’s trouble.” He simply lowered his head and implored.
Granduncle Mu contemptuously turned away and spat out: “You still have face to call yourself Long?”
A large red cock jumped onto the dining table and tipped over a porcelain bowl. Granduncle Mu repeatedly scolded, “You bastard, no discipline, no etiquette, get away!” A broom struck the cock and the cock fled with a squawk. Granduncle Mu chased the cock through the door, yelling at the top of his lungs and the cock clucking all the while.
That night, Long Xing-gui and his son Da-lin talked about getting workers, and the father worriedly acknowledged, “This lot has always been that of the temple. If we build, I’m afraid we won’t have the villagers’ good-will.”
The son, youthful in air, had an opinion: “If we don’t have their good-will, what is to be feared? Tomorrow let’s go to the neighboring Xinchang Village and look for workers — one man, one day, thirty yuan.”
The next day, Xinchang Village scrambled to come. One day, thirty yuan — who wouldn’t take it? Long Xing-gui’s new building site was immediately astir. Workers called out, tossed bricks, hauled mortar, mixed lime, and carried water, shuttling hither and thither like a group of busy bees. The master bricklayers whisked their trowels back and forth, quick of eye and deft of hand. Long Da-lin brought along a 50-watt tape deck and slapped in a tape, increasing the hubbub. Old Man Long Xing-gui gave an inadvertent once-over to the helping construction workers — yet without seeing even one named Long.
* * *
The house was beautifully built. The style was of that type new to the peasants — three stories on one side, two on the other, with a flat pre-fab roof, a white and dark stucco surface, a large brick wall tuck-pointed and inlaid with glossy color strips. The whole structure appeared beautiful, exquisite, towering in comparison to the short, tiled dwellings of the neighboring elevation, even showing the proud airs of a crane among chickens. Following the new building’s completion, Long Xing-gui felt no comfort within his heart, but on the contrary, an increase of nervous tension. At night, he lay on his bed with no repose, the long lacquer-black nights spent cudgeling his brains in devising a plan to resolve the conflict among the clan.
A plan was at last thought out: on the occasion of the new building’s completion, treat the villagers to three movies. In the past a new film would be shown every two months, and when one was shown, the whole village turned out. On the appointed day, the projection table was set up on the site out front of the new building, and Long Xing-gui went to invite each family. Of the village elders, not one had arrived by the time the showing began. Two more movies ran, and still the elders hadn’t acquiesced to patronize.
Long Xing-gui entered an even deeper state of depression.
He even began to repent that he, at the outset, had ever selected the site of the Ancestral Hall to build on. At night he began to have nightmares, and reflecting upon them after waking, he would again break out into a cold sweat. After a few days, he didn’t dare walk alone at night, as if within the dense, impenetrable thicket of demoniacally black woods and weeds along the ravine’s high embankment, lurked the hairy black hand of an abductor.
* * *
This one day, as Long Xing-gui sat sunning himself on the balcony of his house, two cars suddenly pulled up and two cadre-types got out. Long Xing-gui hurried out the door to welcome them. A potbellied man among the party came up dashing at Long Xing-gui and enquired, “Are you the head of a fish breeding specialized household?”
“Ahh, yes! Yes!”
The cadre to the side of the portly man was Local Party Secretary Zhao. Secretary Zhao pointed to him in introduction. “Long Xing-gui, Prefectural Party Secretary Ma has come to see you.”
Long Xing-gui took it in stride once hearing it was the prefectural party secretary and animatedly clasped both hands around Secretary Ma’s extended one. He nodded like a new born chick pecking at rice as he said, “Thank you, Secretary Ma!”
The prefectural party secretary went on to the gate and looked around. Long Xing-gui was overwhelmed at this entire bestowal of favor. He was so delighted he couldn’t refrain from offering expensive cigarettes and high-quality brewed tea and carrying in a large platter of bananas and apples. He as well instructed his son to dress a chicken, catch some fish, and lay out a banquet.
“Old Long, this place is really not bad!” Secretary Ma called to a halt Long Xing-gui’s housekeeping.
“Thanks to the Party for that! It’s expended forty to fifty thousand yuan!” In a critical moment Long Xing-gui was not flustered.
“To build one house you spent forty to fifty thousand yuan these few years, you’ve earned not a little?”
“The Party’s policy is good. I have one-hundred thousand or so.”
Secretary Ma, noticing that Long Da-lin shouldered a fish net, quickly interjected, “Old Long, don’t bother. Why don’t we take a look at your fish ponds.” The sound of cars earlier had surprised the men and women, young and old of Longban Village. Some stood at the sides of their courtyard walls asking the neighbor on the other side, “Hey, who has gone to Long Xing-gui’s home?” Some went on to Granduncle Mu’s home, but not waiting for an answer each soliliquized to himself, “Xing-gui receives the scrutiny of higher ups!” Granduncle Mu said nothing; ever since the cars had arrived at Xing-gui’s home he kept watch while pretending to be intent on tidying his wood pile. At this time, those youths who had followed the cars and gone for a look-see now ran back announcing, “The Prefect has come. His name is Secretary Ma.” Prefectural Party Secretary Ma? The people felt curious.
When Long Xing-gui, talking and laughing, took the leaders out toward his fish ponds, pair after pair of flashing eyes gleamed as they dodged below the rims of the courtyard walls or behind wood piles and haystacks.
The vast tract of fish ponds was tidy and cool and fresh. The pools reflected the clear, bright sky. The fry purled and gurgled the water and a slight wind turned playful waves.
Secretary Ma looked on nodding and proposed, “Old Long, teach this fish-raising technique to each household, how about it?”
Long Xing-gui agreed, yet the feeling of being left out in the cold of late by the villagers swelled in the bottom of his heart, and though he opened his mouth to speak, no words came out. Secretary Ma then asked what troubled him. Long Xing-gui thought it over and asserted, “Nothing’s troubling, only it’s like there’s a lack... a lack of...”
“A lack of vigorous support,” the son continued in response.
“Well, that’s no problem. I came to have a photo taken with you. When necessary, it’ll be sent to the village, township, prefect, and county. I’ll be your behind-the-scenes backer and support.” Just then the party secretary pulled Long Xing-gui to his side, and the accompanying party of district newsmen snapped two photos.
News of the prefectural party secretary and Long Xing-gui’s photo session very quickly spread throughout the village. Not a few that evening gathered again at Granduncle Mu’s place, and after puffing up a roomful of cigarette smoke and drinking down a few pots of tea, one among them began, “The area housed the old local government. That means the prefectural party secretary has come from the mandarinate.”
“Tch tch! Anyone from the mandarinate having a photo taken together with Long Xing-gui brings great honor to the Long clan.”
“Putting it that way, Xing-gui’s building on the site of the temple, all said and done, brings an omen of good fortune to the Long clan.”
Granduncle Mu said nothing, but held a three-foot long tobacco pipe up to his mouth and reflected to himself about the fact that a hundred years before, the Long clan had produced a scholar, and an official from the mandarinate came personally to report the happy news. In his heart he thought, “You, Xing-gui, although did not pass an imperial exam, still attracted the attentions of the prefectural party secretary. The Long clan also receives honor.”
After a few days, Long Xing-gui pressed the photo taken together with the prefectural party secretary into a delicate frame, and reverently hung it in his home. He also sent a copy to each of the village, district, and local government offices, taking a print to Granduncle Mu’s home last. Upon seeing him, Granduncle Mu busily brushed and patted the dust from himself and spoke genially, “Xing-gui has come. Sit, please sit!” Tea and cigarettes were as well offered to him then.
Long Xing-gui showed slight embarrassment as he handed the photo to Granduncle Mu and stuttered somewhat, “The prefectural party secretary came to the village the day before, calling on me to help everybody raise fish and also to have a photo taken.”
“Oh!” Granduncle Mu received the photo in his hands, carefully looked it over, and then commented, “Secretary Ma’s face is like a moon. It really has the rich fullness of a carved Buddah.”
Long Xing-gui saw that Granduncle Mu’s attitude was greatly unlike the last time, and then getting control over his emotions, explained, “Granduncle, I, Xing-gui, built a house occupying temple land, yet I did not dishonor the clan. Please, you say a few words in front of those named Long. I still think to be of one heart and one desire together with them raising fry!”
“Well!” Granduncle Mu laid down the photo he’d been holding, thought deeply a few moments, and said then, “All right! You have honored the Long clan. We, moreover, went too far in not helping you out. This being the case, we shall treat you to a movie to congratulate you!”
The day of the movie, the screen was brought to the empty field out front of Long Xing-gui’s home. And early that evening, Granduncle Mu brought along some of the important elders of the Long clan to call on Long Xing-gui at his magnificent residence to offer congratulations. Well into the night, the lot where the projection table had been set up filled with noise and excitement.