Nos. 77 & 78 (Spring & Autumn 2012)
Chinese Science Fiction: Late Qing and the Contemporary

劉慈欣 : 鄉村教師
The Village Schoolteacher
By Liu Cixin

Translated by Christopher Elford and Jiang Chenxin

HE REALIZED that the final class would have to be moved forward.

    The pain in his side surged up again, nearly knocking him unconscious. He didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, and could only move with great difficulty to the bedside window. The moonlight shone on the paper window a brilliant silver, making the small portal look like a door leading to another world, a world where everything was silvery, like a bonsai terrarium made of silver coins and snow that wasn’t cold. Quivering slightly, he raised his head to look through a hole in the window paper and all at once the mirage vanished. He saw in the distance the village where he’d spent his entire life.

    Spread out under the moonlight, the silent village looked as though it had been abandoned a century before. The houses, with the characteristic flat-topped roofs found on the Loess Plateau, were of a shape no different from the loess mounds that surrounded them. In the moonlight they were of the same tinge, as though the village had merged with the hillside. Only the old pagoda tree, standing out in front, could be seen clearly. The crows’ nests in its withered branches stood out a blacker black, like large ink drops on the deep silver tableau. The village did have its moments of beauty and warmth. At harvest time, the young men and women who had gone off to work in the city would return, and the village would fill with the sounds of their joyous laughter; every rooftop was stacked high with golden corn and children could be seen rolling about in the freshly cut hay on the threshing ground. Or there was the New Year when the gas lamps over the threshing ground burned bright and there would be several days of wild festivities, the rowing of the ‘land boat’, and the dancing of the ‘lion dance’. Of these lions not much remained save some clicking wooden skulls with the paint worn off, and a few bed-sheets, since the village could not afford to replace the coverings with proper lion skins … yet everyone had great fun. But after the 15th, the young people would all have returned to their jobs and the village had nothing to enliven it. Only at dusk, when the smoke rose from the chimneys in thin wisps, would one or two old men appear on the outskirts of the village, their faces, wrinkled like mountain hickory nuts, raised and peering eagerly at the road that led out of the mountains, till the last rays of the sun hanging from the branches of the pagoda tree faded away. By nightfall the lights in the village had long been put out. Electricity was expensive. It was now up to 1.8 yuan per kilowatt hour.

    The faint sound of a dog barking drifted through the village, as though it was talking in its sleep. He looked around at the yellow earth in the moonlight and felt suddenly that it resembled the unbroken surface of a lake. If only it really was water. The drought was in its fifth straight year. The villagers had to carry water to irrigate the land to have any harvest at all. He thought of the fields as he looked off into the distance at the tiny mountain plots. In the moonlight they looked like footprints left by some prehistoric giant passing over the mountains. On these rocky slopes, covered with brambles and artemisia, there was only space for small plots here and there. Farm machinery was out of the question; even a draft animal could barely turn a full circle on the fields, so the fields had to be tilled by hand. Last year a farm machinery company came around selling a mini- push-tractor that would function even on these palm-sized plots of land. A good enough machine, the villagers said, but you must be joking: did the salesmen know how little these tiny fields produced? Even tilling them as carefully as if one were embroidering flowers, you’d be lucky to harvest enough to feed yourself year round; in a time of drought you might not even recover the price of the seeds you planted. With fields like these, who could afford a three or four thousand yuan push-tractor, plus the two-yuan-a-litre diesel fuel you’d need to run it? How could these outsiders understand just how hard life was in the mountains?

    Several shadows passed by the windows. They squatted together at the edge of a field not too far off, for who knew what reason. He knew that they were his students. He could sense their presence when they were near him even without using his eyes. He had developed these intuitive skills over the course of his life, and they only sharpened in its final moments.

    He could even identify which of the children it was under the moonlight. He was sure that Liu Baozhu and Guo Cuihua were among them. They were locals and so were not meant to board at the school, but he had taken them in anyway. Ten years ago Liu Baozhu’s father had purchased a wife from Sichuan. The woman gave birth to Baozhu and by the time the child was five, Baozhu’s father slackened his watch on the woman. The result was that she escaped and ran away back to Sichuan, taking all the money in the house with her. After this, Baozhu’s father wasn’t himself anymore. He started gambling, and just like any old bachelor in the village, he reduced his household to but four walls and a bed. And then he started drinking. Every night he would hit the sweet potato wine hard, drinking himself into oblivion. He took his anger out on the kid, slapping him around once a day, violently beating him up every three. Just last month in the dead of night, he took a fire poker and beat Baozhu within an inch of his life. Guo Cuihua was even worse off. Her mother was respectably married—a rare occurrence in these parts—and her husband was very proud of the fact. But as all things good are short lived, as soon as the wedding festivities were over, she was discovered to be insane. That no one noticed before the wedding must have been due to the fact that she’d been drugged. Besides, what sane women would come to a place so poor that a bird wouldn’t bother to shit on it? But despite all this Cuihua was born, and with some difficulty, grew up just the same. Her mother’s illness grew worse, acting up more frequently. She hacked at people with a kitchen knife in broad daylight and tried to burn her house down in the middle of the night. More often she would just laugh darkly to herself. Her laughter made people’s hair stand on end.

    The rest of the children were from other villages, even those who lived near were separated from their homes by ten kilometres of mountain road. They had no choice but to live at the school. They would have to spend the entire term at this makeshift village school. In addition to their bedding they also brought with them a sack of rice or flour, which the children cooked together on the school’s large cooking stove. When winter came, a dozen of them would gather around the stove to watch the food pop and sizzle. The straw burning inside the stove cast an orange glow onto their faces … this was one of his most cherished memories. He would be sure to take the image into the next world with him.

    Outside of the window several tiny red sparks appeared among the children, standing out a brilliant red against the silver-grey night. They were burning incense. Then they lit spirit-money, the flames casting the children’s forms in bright orange against the silver-grey winter night. It made him think back to the stove fire, which brought to mind yet another scene. When the power went off in the schoolhouse (either because the wiring was bad, or, more often than not, because the school hadn’t been able to pay the electricity bill) and their lessons ran late, he would hold a candle to the blackboard. ‘Can you see?’ he would ask. ‘Not really!’ the kids would respond. With so little light it most certainly wasn’t easy to see clearly, but they had missed so many lessons that he had no choice but to hold classes at night. He would light another candle, holding it together with the first in his hand. ‘Still can’t see!’ they would chorus. And so he would add another candle. They still couldn’t see clearly but this time the children wouldn’t bother to shout out. They knew he would not light another candle—it would cost too much. He could see their faces drifting in and out of the circle of candlelight. They looked like little bugs struggling with all their might to throw off the darkness surrounding them.

    Children and firelight, children and firelight. Always children and firelight, always children and firelight at night. It was what this world had burned into his mind, this image, and yet he never understood exactly what it meant.

    He knew they were burning the incense and spirit-money for him. They had done it many times before, but this time he didn’t have the strength to go out and reprimand them for being superstitious. He had spent his entire life lighting the fires of science and civilization in their hearts but he knew that in a remote mountain village shrouded in ignorance, the fires he lit were small in comparison to the fires of superstition, like the candle he held against the blackboard in a freezing cold classroom deep in the mountains on a dark winter’s night. Six months earlier some villagers had taken the rafters from the already run-down school dormitory. They said they needed them to fix the old temple. When he asked how the dormers would get on without a roof over their heads they said the kids could sleep in the classroom. When he reminded them that the classroom let in drafts on all sides and asked what the children would do in the winter, they said, ‘Well, they’re all children from other villages anyway.’ He went after them with a bamboo shoulder-pole and ended up with two broken ribs in the resulting fight. A couple of decent people took him thirty kilometres to the township hospital.

    During his check-up they discovered by chance that he had cancer of the oesophagus. There was nothing strange about this, as the area was a high-risk zone for oesophageal cancer. The doctor congratulated him on his happy turn of fortune. The cancer was still in its early stages and hadn’t yet begun to spread; a simple operation would take care of it. Oesophageal cancer has a high post-operative recovery rate. He was lucky.

    He had come all the way to the city and was in the cancer ward when he asked the doctor how much the operation would cost. The doctor replied that given his situation he would be qualified to move to the poverty-relief ward and other costs could also be reduced, making the final sum not large, probably around 20,000 yuan. Seeing as he had come from a remote mountain area, the doctor explained in great detail the procedure for staying in the hospital. He listened quietly and then asked abruptly, ‘If we don’t operate, about how long do I have?’ The doctor stared at him blankly for a moment before saying, ‘About half a year.’ The doctor then looked confused as he let out a sigh of relief, as if he had been greatly reassured.

    At least he would be able to send off this year’s graduating class.

    He really couldn’t afford the 20,000 yuan. The salaries of locally-sponsored teachers were low, but since he had worked for many years and had only himself to worry about, it would be reasonable to suppose that he would have some savings. But he had spent all that money on his students, and could not remember how many times he had helped to pay tuition and other fees. Most recently it had been for Baozhu and Cuihua. Many times he had noticed that the food cooking in the pots lacked oil so he had used his own money to buy meat and lard for them … Now he had only about one-tenth of what it would take to pay for the operation.

    Following one of the wide city avenues, he walked in the direction of the train station. It was dark and the neon lights were already casting their enchanting glow across the cityscape, a gorgeous radiance that baffled him; when night fell, the tall buildings turned into giant multi-coloured lanterns. The music that drifted through the night air was frenzied and mellow by turns.
In a world that he had never been a part of, he thought back on his relatively short life. He was calm; each person had his own life to live. Returning to his primary school in the mountains twenty years ago after graduating from middle school had sealed his fate. Besides, he owed the greater part of his life to another village schoolteacher. The school he was now in charge of was the one he’d spent his childhood attending. His mother and father had died early and so the crude school was his only home. His teacher had taken him in and treated him like a son.

    Even though they were poor, his childhood had not been without love. One winter, when school let out for the holiday, his teacher brought him to his own home. His teacher’s house was far away and they had to travel down long mountain roads packed with snow. By the time they caught sight of the dim lights burning in his teacher’s village it was already midnight. It was then that they saw behind them four small green shimmering discs of light. Wolves’ eyes. At the time there were still many wolves in the mountains and one could see piles of wolf droppings near the schoolhouse. He’d been naughty once, igniting and tossing the whitish grey lumps into the classroom, filling it with heavy smoke. The children had bolted out of the classroom choking and his teacher had been very angry. Now the wolves behind them were slowly drawing close. His teacher broke off a thick tree branch and waved it in their path to block their approach, shouting for him to run into the village. He was out of his mind with fear, and could only run, could only think about the possibility of the wolves bypassing his teacher to get at him, could only think there might be other wolves. He ran, breathless, into the village, and returned with several men carrying guns to help his teacher. They discovered him lying in a frozen pool of blood, with half a leg missing and one entire arm ripped off. It was on the road to the hospital that his teacher breathed his last. He had caught a glimpse of his teacher’s eyes in the torchlight and the deep bite on the side of his cheek where a large chunk of flesh had been torn off. Although his teacher could no longer speak, he had used his eyes to communicate a most urgent and sincere concern. He understood this. He would never forget it.

    After graduating from middle school, he had given up his chance to get a good job in the township government and returned instead to this destitute mountain village, to the school his teacher had worried so much about. By then the school had already been abandoned for a number of years.

    Not long before this the Ministry of Education had announced a new policy directive. They were discontinuing the ‘locally-sponsored teachers’, with those who could pass their examinations to become ‘state-certified teachers’. When he received his teaching certificate, showing that he was now a nationally certified primary school teacher, he was happy, but merely happy, not elated as his colleagues had been. He didn’t care about the difference between locally-sponsored and state-certified. All he cared about were the children who passed through his classroom: that they might graduate and go out into the world. Whether they stayed in or left the mountains didn’t matter; their lives would always be a little different from the lives of those who had never attended a day of school.

    This desolate mountainous region was one of the poorest in the entire country. But being poor wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was how numb to their condition people had become. He remembered many years ago, when it came time to fix household farm quotas, the village began dividing up the fields and then went on to divide up other things. As for the village’s only tractor, nobody could decide how to divide the cost of fuel or arrange a time schedule for its use. Finally they settled on the only solution everyone could live with and divided up the tractor itself. Literally divided it up: you’ll take the wheels, they’ll take the axle.

    And then there was two months ago when, as part of a poverty relief effort, a factory had come to install a water pump. Since electricity was expensive they had thrown in a diesel generator and an ample supply of fuel. A nice thing that was, but as soon as they had gone, the village sold all the equipment, pump, fuel and all, for only 1,500 yuan … enough for everyone to have two hearty meals, and the New Year to be regarded as a happy one. Then there was the tannery that came to build a factory. The villagers sold the land without asking any questions. After the factory was built, the poisonous chemicals used for tanning the leather began running into the river and soon seeped into the wells. The people who drank the water broke out all over in sores. But nobody cared even then. Instead they felt very pleased with themselves for having gotten a good price for the land. The old bachelors in the village who could not afford to get married did nothing but drink and gamble all day long. They didn’t even bother to till the land and for this they had their reasons: if they were poor enough they would be given an annual relief payment by the government, and this amounted to more than what one could make in a year pounding that palm-sized clod. Without knowledge people became ignoble. Those mountains with their barren hills and bad water could make one lose heart but what really made one lose hope was the dull and lifeless gaze seen in people’s eyes.

    He was tired and sat down on the curb. Opposite him stood a luxurious restaurant, its outer wall a solid pane of glass. Magnificent hanging lamps threw their light into the street. The restaurant looked like a giant aquarium and the lavishly dressed patrons like schools of ornamental tropical fish. He saw, seated at a table by the side of the street, a fat man looking as though he was oozing grease from his face and hair, which made him look as though he were a giant ball of wax. Seated on either side of him were two tall, thin, scantily clad women. The man turned and spoke to one, causing her to burst into laughter. He joined in, while the other woman whined and punched him with her tiny fists playfully in his … Who would have thought that women could be so tall. Xiuxiu was only about half their height. He sighed; he was thinking of Xiuxiu again.

    Xiuxiu was the only one in the village who hadn’t married her way out of the mountains. Perhaps this was because she’d never been away and was afraid of the outside world. Perhaps there was some other reason. He’d been with Xiuxiu for two years till they were finally ready for marriage. Her parents were reasonable people and only asked 1,500 yuan in ‘belly pain’ money. That’s one word for dowry in the Northwest; it means that the mother should be compensated for her pain in giving birth to the girl. Then some of the men who had gone to the city to make money returned with their earnings. One Erdan, the same age as the teacher, was illiterate but clever enough, and had gone to the city and cleaned kitchen ventilator hoods door to door. He made over 10,000 a year this way. The year before, he had returned and stayed for a month, and nobody knew when and how he got together with Xiuxiu. Xiuxiu’s entire family was illiterate. On the walls of their house, which was coarsely made by filling in the gaps between wooden planks with mud, were balls of melon seeds, also stuck together with mud; there were long or short lines scratched on the walls as well—these were her father’s accounts over the years. Xiuxiu had never attended school but she’d always had a fondness for literate people, which was the reason why she was with the teacher. But Erdan changed all that with a bottle of cheap cologne and a gold-plated necklace. ‘Just because you can read doesn’t mean you’ll have enough to eat.’ Xiuxiu had said. Even though he knew that being literate one could earn enough to eat, he had to admit that in his case, he didn’t eat anywhere near as well as Erdan so he could not say anything in his own defence. Seeing this, Xiuxiu turned away, leaving behind her a lingering cloud of cheap cologne that made his nose wrinkle.

    A year after marrying Erdan, Xiuxiu died in childbirth. He remembered watching the midwife carelessly running those horribly rusty forceps through the fire before jamming them inside Xiuxiu. Xiuxiu was out of luck, her blood filled an entire copper basin and she expired on the way to the hospital. Erdan had spent nearly 30,000 on wedding preparations alone. This kind of extravagance was unheard of in the village, so he had wondered why Erdan was reluctant to pay the cost of sending Xiuxiu to the hospital to have her baby. He’d asked about the cost later—two hundred to three hundred, people said, just two hundred to three hundred. But the village had always been this way. No one ever went to the hospital to give birth. No one blamed Erdan, it was Xiuxiu’s fate, they said. He’d also heard that compared to Erdan’s mother, Xiuxiu had been lucky. Erdan’s mother had a very difficult birth and once his father learned from the midwife that it was a boy, he decided he only wanted the child. They laid Erdan’s mother across the back of a mule and had it trot in circles until the baby was squeezed out. People who were there remembered the bloody circle left in the yard.

    He sighed once he thought this far. The ignorance and despair that smothered his village was suffocating.

    But there was still hope for the children. For those children huddled together in the freezing dark looking up at the blackboard in the candlelight, he was that candle. It didn’t matter how long he could stay lit or how bright the light he gave. He would burn brightly from beginning to end.

    He stood up again and continued on. He had not gone far before he turned into a bookstore. How wonderful the city was with its bookstores still open at night. He spent all his money, save for his return fare, on books to add to the school’s meagre library. At midnight, carrying two heavy bundles of books, he boarded the train home.

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