5/6/21

&: Opera (1, The Fiery Stallion 火焰驹)

For the last year or so, I’ve been attempting to watch every film made in the People’s Republic of China between roughly 1988 and 1992. This is easier than it sounds. Part of the appeal of watching and writing about these films is that the vast majority of them have seen no serious criticism. There’s occasionally writing in Chinese, but it’s usually confined to a few notes in a film magazine, noting the cast and the director. In English, outside of any picture screened at foreign festivals—and even including the bulk of those films—there’s rarely a single review.

There are reasons for that: the movie industry was in the doldrums and nobody was going to see these movies, let alone taking them seriously, and it was hard to find them outside of bootleg VCDs, since quite a few were rarely screened and got erratic distribution.

The other day, I went to watch an opera. I mean, I went to stream an opera online. Since I translated Jia Pingwa’s Qinqiang 秦腔 I’ve had some interest in Shaanxi’s local opera. I even went to see some productions when I was in Xi’an in the last couple years. But so, when I went to find out more about what I was about to watch, I found that nearly nothing had been written about it in English.

There are reasons for that: this is an artform with a long history, but it hasn’t made a dent in the Occidental consciousness. The academic and popular writing on Chinese opera focuses mainly on Beijing opera 京剧 and Shaoxing opera 越剧. Most writing in Chinese focuses on those two forms, too. There are complicated reasons for that, which are not worth discussing here.

So, here, my idea is to tell the story behind two popular Shaanxi opera 秦腔 dramas. These stories both appear in other operatic traditions, but best known as Shaanxi operas.

Both operas are mentioned in Jia Pingwa’s novel, so if the translation is ever released, you might find knowing about them helps your enjoyment of the book.

I think knowing the story is the only way to sit through an opera. I was watching an interview with young people about local opera in Shaanxi and the ones that didn’t care for it said about the same thing: “I have no idea what they’re singing about.” You can pick up the story as you go along, but it can be tough.

I’m not an expert on Shaanxi opera. I’m sure there will be errors.

This is another benefit of nobody having written about them extensively before: I can make errors and anyone that knows better will probably appreciate my effort enough to offer a correction, or they’ll write me off as a rank amateur without digging deeper, or they’ll write something themselves...

The first one is: The Fiery Stallion 火焰驹.

Sometimes a film version can be the best way to get a grip on the story, since they tend to simplify things and emphasize narrative to fit the form and the runtime, but the 1958 version of The Fiery Stallion is somehow more confusing than sitting through a production of the opera.

I couldn’t tell you the actual source of the opera’s narrative. Most of these are adapted from historical or traditional stories. But this one is credited to Li Shisan 李十三 (Li Fanggui 李芳桂) (1748-1810).

All of my knowledge of Li Shisan comes from Chen Zhongshi's 陈忠实 famous short story about him—"Li Shisan Turns the Millstone" 李十三推磨—which imagines him as a failed bureaucrat that becomes a passionate but impoverished writer, relying on handouts from locals. He made a living selling scripts to shadow puppet players—these were more specifically píyǐngxì 皮影戏, and even more specifically wǎnwǎnqiāng píyǐngxì 碗碗腔皮影戏, but I’m not qualified to say much more than it refers to a specific strain of Shaanxi opera popular in Weinan 渭南, which is where Li Shisan lived and worked, accompanied by a shadow play with characters made from animal hide.

The Chen Zhongshi story ends Li Shisan’s death, hounded by men acting on the Jiaqing emperor's call to root out obscenity in the arts. Whether or not that was the case, I only have the Chen Zhongshi story to go on.

The setting of The Fiery Stallion is Bianliang 汴梁, I believe, which is almost where modern day Kaifeng 开封 is (I think the changing course of the Yellow River necessitated the move, among other things, but, again, I'm not an expert), so probably sometime in the Northern Song (960-1127). One evil imperial minister—Wang Qiang 王强—is conspiring to stitch up another minister—Li Shou 李绶—by attacking his son—Li Yanrong 李彦荣.

Now, I'll pause here to say that I'm using clips from a production by the venerable Sanyi Society 三意社, filmed last year for CCTV-11, the national broadcaster's xìqǔ 戏曲 channel, devoted to opera, drama, etc.

The subtitles are my own and they tend toward glossier translations that lose a bit of the poetry of the original. The point is to get to know the story, though.


Wang Qiang has conspired to make it look as if Li Yanrong 李彦荣 has disgraced himself while fighting at the northern border, possibly defecting to the other side. Since there’s no reliable communication with the remote garrison, it’s hard to confirm the details of Li Yanrong’s campaign. He reads a proclamation that Li Shou will be imprisoned, his possessions confiscated, his house sealed, and his family expelled from the capital. Yanrong's mother—referred to throughout as just Mother Li 李母, I believe—his wife—begs for mercy, but eventually she takes Yanrong's wife—Zhou Ruiju 周瑞菊—and his younger brother—Li Yangui 李彦贵—and flees for Suzhou 苏州.

Their reason for going to Suzhou—at least several weeks’ travel away, especially as they’re on foot—is that Yangui is engaged to a young woman—Huang Guiying 黄桂—that lives there. Since the two families are joined by the engagement, Yangui hopes to be welcomed into her home.

The opera shows us the horrible journey they make, then it cuts to Huang Guiying and her maid Yunxiang 芸香 in Suzhou.


It’s one of the more famous scenes from the opera, and this duet aria is often performed as a piece by itself. When you watch it for yourself, you'll appreciate it more. But we're just telling the story here. In the opera, it introduces us to two central characters and shows us their relationship: Guiying was wasting the afternoon in her room, pining after her Yangui, but pragmatic and empathetic Yunxiang has dragged her out into the garden to show her the flowers. (In this production, it’s Ma Lulu 马路路 playing Yunxiang and I think she’s pretty great.)

Guiying is clearly still in love with Yangui, and hoping to eventually join him in the capital. She has no idea of what’s happened to him. But Guiying’s father—Huang Zhang 黄璋—has learned of the unpleasantness. He vows not to let his daughter marry the brother of a traitor. Right as he’s breaking it to his Guiying that the engagement will be called off, Yangui shows up, seeking refuge.


With his daughter and her maid listening in from the corridor, Huang Zhang breaks it to Yangui that the engagement is off. Yangui doesn’t quite get it at first. He asks how Huang Zhang could suddenly change his mind, since he had personally helped arrange the marriage.

Huang Zhang hands Yangui twenty taels of silver and tells him to get out. Not only is the engagement off, but Yangui, his mother, and his sister-in-law are left with nowhere to stay.

The section from Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden to what happens after Yangui arrives takes up more time than anything else in the opera, so I'm simplifying things greatly.


The next scene shows us Yangui in simple clothes. Here, the actor does a good job, I think, of transitioning from the smooth-cheeked dullard princeling to a man almost adjusted to life on the streets of Suzhou. He tells us about the state of himself and his family after being expelled from the capital and his former father-in-law's home. They seek refuge at a temple and he goes out on the streets of Suzhou, carrying water to earn money.

This is another scene sometimes sung as an aria, and it also gives its name to another version of the opera, performed in other traditions, called simply Selling Water 卖水.


It’s Yunxiang that spots him first. She’s out in the garden and sees him staggering up the street. None of the main characters in the opera accomplish much, but marginal figures like Yunxiang push things forward.

If not for her, Yangui might go on dragging water around town, and Guiying might go on mooning around the estate—but Yunxiang invites him into the garden and they arrange a secret rendezvous.

The two lovers and their matchmaker in the garden are unaware that their plans have been overheard by Wang Liang 王良, Huang Zhang’s right hand man. He rushes to tell Huang Zhang what he knows and the two men conspire to disrupt the meeting.

The next scene is an introduction to Ai Qian 艾谦, a horse dealer that happens to be a friend of the Li family, hanging out in Suzhou. He’s another seemingly marginal character that pushes the narrative forward. The fact that he’s a horse dealer also suggests that we’re going to find out why the opera is named The Fiery Stallion.

And back to the rendezvous.

On a moonless night, Yangui approaches, calling out to Guiying. Yunxiang—coming in Guiying’s place because she’s been kept from leaving—arrives from the other direction, calling out to Yangui.

Before they can find each other in the darkness, Wang Liang finds Yunxiang, stabs her, and drops the blade by her side. Hearing her cries, Yangui rushes over. Wang Liang emerges from the shadows and demands to know why Yangui killed the poor girl. He’s been framed!

Yangui gets trussed up and dragged off to prison. His execution date will be Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节.

It seems as if Yangui will be put to death, since his family no longer has any power, and the powerful Huang Zhang is pulling the strings. Li Yangui's mother breaks down, lamenting the injustice. But she’s overheard by Ai Qian, the horse dealer. He revealed in his first soliloquy that he owes the Li family a favor, and this seems like the perfect time to repay it.

He has a horse—the Fiery Stallion—he says, that will be able to carry him out to the northern border and back. He vows to get help.


Ai Qian takes off for the border. No matter how fast the horse is, it's going to be a long, treacherous ride, and there is always the danger that might fall into the hands of Wang Qiang's men.

We eventually get a scene of him in Li Yanrong’s camp, sorting things out, but he still has to make it back.

He still hasn’t returned by Yangui's execution date. We see Guiying, dressed in mourning clothes, seemingly on the brink of sanity, clutching a blade and preparing to end her life beside her lover. She meets Yangui's mother on the road to the execution grounds. Yangui’s mother is furious at her, suspecting that she and her father conspired to have her son executed. She slaps Guiying. But it gets sorted out eventually. They head to the execution grounds together.


This isn’t a tragedy, so you can guess how the rest of it plays out.

There's some final drama with Yangui tied to a stake, meeting his family for a final time, with Guiying taking out a dagger and trying to cut her own throat. But Ai Qian and Yanrong show up at the last moment.

Yangui is saved. Justice is restored. We have a happy ending.

My idea is that now you can go and watch the full production.

The scene of Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden is beautiful by itself, but it’s all the more impressive when you know that Guiying’s lover is in flight from the capital and that Yunxiang is doomed to be murdered in an alley by another member of the household. Guiying twirling in her mourning clothes is beautiful without context, but it’s more significant if you know that she’s concealing a dagger that she will try to use to slit her own throat at her condemned lover’s feet.

I’ve simplified the plot, but now you can pick up the subtleties.

3/21/21

&: Ruined City reading guide, second part


This is an attempt to write about Howard Goldblatt's translation of Ruined City 废都 by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, maybe notes for something more formal, maybe just a guide for myself to find stuff later, or maybe an excuse to pull out parts I like.

The first part is here.

Like I said there, this is also just something to do, a way to stay focused while reading along. I sometimes feel like when I'm not translating a book that I don't read it close enough.

This part has more ragging on the translation, too, if you're into that. I think Goldblatt tends to use very stiff, archaic language that deadens the dialogue, but I have a lot of sympathy. Since I'm only going to get one English translation of this book in my lifetime, I think criticism is fair. And I have my own translations of Jia Pingwa that you can read for yourself, so some of this criticism will hopefully help improve my own work.

Page 103 to 113. Gossip as foreplay.

This section, I believe, is the first time we hear about Zhuang Zhidie’s side business, running a bookstore.

He returns home and finds his wife and Hong Jiang 洪江 going through the store’s paperwork. It was a good month, with the arrival of a new Jin Yong 金庸 novel. But they've been unable to get in any copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the bestseller at the city’s other shops.

Hong Jiang gives Zhuang some advice:
"After running the bookstore for a year, I have a pretty good picture of the market. Writing books is not as good as selling them, and editing books is better than both. Many bookstores now edit their own books, either by buying a publishing house outright or by printing books illegally. Chapbooks are all about sex and violence, and there's no need for proofreading. With print runs in the millions, those people are getting rich. You know Xiaoshunzi on Zhuquemen Street, a stinking little shit who can barely read. Well, he hired some people to cut and paste erotic passages from other works and put out a book that made him a hundred and fifty thousand. Now he rides around in a taxi and eats exotic seafood at the Tangcheng Restaurant every day."
"I know all that," Zhuang said. "But that's not what we should be doing." / "I knew you'd say that," Hong said. "But there's something Shimu and I have talked about. A bookseller produced a martial arts novel by someone named Liu De. They're having trouble selling it and are offering it to us at half-price. I was thinking we could take it and change the cover. We can give the author's name as Jing Yong. I'm sure we'll make a bundle.
A couple interesting things here…

We once again return to the new position of the artist in the postsocialist era. Hong Jiang chides Zhuang for wanting to keep secret his role in running the bookstore, telling him that wénrén 文人 doing business is perfectly fine.

The look into the world of bookselling at the time is quite fascinating. This was a time when books were indeed big business. It was a confluence of several factors—opening up to the outside world, a massive audience, relaxation of censorship, excitement around culture. I highly recommend Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China by Shuyu Kong, which goes into more about the book business and Jia Pingwa’s own ventures in particular. When Zhuang Zhidie is talking about book sales and people selling out by including “cut and paste erotic passages” he might as well be talking about Ruined City.

Howard Goldblatt’s use of “chapbooks” strikes me as odd, but it might just be me. The original says xiǎocèzi 小册子. I always think of a chapbook as a step above a zine, which is probably what these were, I guess. These are books printed—that’s made clear by Hong Jiang—with a shūhào 书号 (equivalent to an ISBN, required to sell a book legally), suggesting that “cheap paperbacks” might be more descriptive than “chapbooks.”

Some people have described a dìtān wénxué 地摊文学, or a literature of the bookstall. Something like Lady Chatterley's Lover fits in perfect there, especially with the sort of lurid borderline pornographic covers slapped on risque classics… But also Ruined City fit in there, too, especially when people started copy and pasting erotic scenes into it! I haven’t even gotten to the erotic scenes in Ruined City yet, I realize. But there’s one right after this scene, when Zhuang and Niu Yueqing go to bed that night.

Their foreplay is gossip. How fitting! That night, it’s about Wang Ximian's wife and her younger days as a clerk at a department store.
As she went on, she reached out to touch him and found his erection. So she guided him on top of her. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 51 words.] She cried out and curled into a ball.
"So, you couldn't hold out, either," Zhuang said.
So, that’s what I mean by copy and pasting erotic scenes back into Ruined City.

Jia uses the conceit of the author censoring his own work to erase the hot stuff that he never actually wrote. It’s a brilliant way to make a book sexy without having to write out the sex, and the reader automatically slips in whatever’s on their nasty mind…

But anyways, they gossip for a while after that, and Zhuang Zhidie brings up the idea of hiring some help, thinking of Liu Yue.

The next morning, we get more gossip, this time from the dead, as Niu Yueqing’s mother, who is no longer able to tell the living from the ghosts starts sharing underworld gossip. He takes an in-law out to her husband’s grave.

It’s an interesting scene, but I don't have much to say about it.

I’d rather reproduce Zhuang Zhidie’s shopping list, left for him by Niu Yueqing:
...two catties of pork, one cattie of spare ribs, a carp, a tortoise, half a cattie of squid, half a cattie of sea cucumber, three catties of lotus roots, two catties of chives, one cattie of bean pods, one cattie of cowpeas, two catties of tomatoes, two catties of eggplant, two catties of fresh mushrooms, three catties of thick osmanthus liquor, seven bottles of Sprite, three catties of tofu, a half-cattie each of some Korean side dishes, two catties of mutton, one cattie of cured beef, five preserved eggs, one roasted chicken, one roasted duck, half a cattie each of cooked pork liver, pork belly, and smoked sausage. Also, he needed to bring from the Shuangren fu house a bottle of Wuliangye, ten bottles of beer, a pack of peanuts, dried mushrooms and wood ear, a bowl of sticky rice, a sack of red dates, and a handful of rice noodles. In addition, he had to buy a can of peas, a can of bamboo shoots, a can of cherries, a cattie of sausage, two catties of cucumbers, one ounce of thin seaweed, and three ounces of lotus seeds.
One of the many lists in Jia Pingwa’s novels… (How annoying is it to use “cattie” in a modern translation? Have you come across the term anywhere but in a translation from Chinese? What’s wrong with just using jīn 斤? Why not take a jīn as a half kilo and do the conversion? I don’t know.)

So, a lunch party is being planned…

Page 113 to 139. More feet, more gossip, more Britishisms.
At the crack of dawn, he rode over to Zhou Min's house at 8 Ludang Lane. Tang Wan'er was up, working on her hair in front of a mirror. Zhou Min was crouching beneath a grape trellis brushing his teeth. With foam still in his mouth, he was beside himself with joy when he saw Zhuang walk in.
I wonder if we could track down the address there, 8 Ludang Lane, 芦荡巷副字八号... I’m sure it would be easier to poke around on foot, but right now, all I have is Baidu Maps’ street view service.

We can get a general feel for the area. It doesn’t look like it’s changed much since the early 1990s. It feels like the sort of apartment block that Tang Wan'er and Zhou Min might have rented a place in.

But it makes me wonder why Jia decided to include that address.

When Zhuang gets there, he sees Tang Wan’er is wearing the shoes, which she has not told Zhou Min came from his mentor.

Zhuang gives her another gift: one of the bronze mirrors from Zhao Jingwu. He tells her it's from the Kaiyuan 开元 reign of the Tang dynasty, and it suits her, since her surname is Tang.

Zhuang and Tang Wan’er are left alone at the house for just a while too long, and things start to happen...
When he reached out to steady her, she fell into his arms as if on a pulley. He turned her around, and they found each other's lips; they stayed that way for a long time, breathing hard through their noses, as if glued together. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 23 words.]
Zhuang pulled away.
"Wan'er," he said, "I finally have you in my arms. I'm very fond of you."
"I'm fond of you, too," she said, as tears ran down her face. He tenderly reached out to dry them. Then he kissed them away. ... Before they knew it, their hands were roaming over each other's body; soon his hand snaked down, but her skirt was so tight, he could only tug anxiously at the waistband. She stepped back to unhook her skirt, and his hand slipped in; she was wet. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 23 words.]
"I desperately wanted to touch your feet that day when I gave you the shoes."
Chinese literature is not known for forthright descriptions of human sexuality, especially like these, which seem particularly genuine. You can see why—despite in this case the conceit of self-censorship—Ruined City became an unofficial sexual education textbook in the days before porno VCDs and the internet.

Zhuang Zhidie and Tang Wan’er make love. Many words are deleted.

She is amazed that he has taken an interest in her, a common girl from the countryside.

Finally, Zhuang scurries home to start preparing for the party.

I’m missing a few plot points here. A major one is that Zhuang plans to borrow a large sum of money from Wang Ximian to get the fake Jin Yong book printed. That’s the point of the lunch party. But it turns out Wang Ximian is already in Beijing, and his wife has arrived alone.

Also Zhao Jingwu shows up with Liu Yue. Niu Yueqing takes an immediate liking to her.

Much of this section is chit-chat—more gossip!

I feel like one of the failings of Goldblatt’s translation is the way it deals with dialogue. This is always tough. It’s harder to mark out registers in written Chinese, I would say, compared to English. It’s harder, for example, to give a feel for accents since it’s not a phonetic language…

What do I mean, though?
"Don't be in such a hurry. You've just arrived, and you haven't even had time for your sweat to dry. I won't need your help yet."
"You really are a dajie. I'm not a guest here. I was eager to come today precisely because I knew you'd have a house full of guests, and there's work to be done. Otherwise, why am I here, to enjoy the festivities?" Liu said.
The first speaker is Nue Yueqing and the second is Liu Yue. One is a cultured woman from an aristocratic family, and the other is a maid with a primary school education, freshly arrived from the countryside. Why does the register feel so formal for both speakers? In a way, it feels like Niu Yueqing is being more informal here than the translation suggests:
牛月清一把拦了,说:"决不要动手,才来乍到,汗都没退,谁要你忙活?!" 柳月说:"好姐姐,我比不得来的客人,之所以赶着今日来,就是知道人多,需要干活的,要不我凭什么来热闹?!"
Here’s an alternative:
"I don't want you to lift a finger,” Niu Yueqing said. “You just got here. The sweat's still dripping off you from the walk over. Just take it easy!"
"You really do treat me like a younger sister,” Liu Yue said, “but I'm not any more important than your guests. The main reason I was in such a rush to get here today is because I knew you'd have a house full of people. I should be helping out. I didn't come just to enjoy the party!"
I also generally have a problem with Howard Goldblatt’s archaisms. To have someone referred to as, "That little tart" is off putting. I can’t not hear it in a posh British accent. But is there anything to his choice?

First, two definitions: “a woman who dresses or behaves in a way that is considered tasteless and sexually provocative” and, marked as dated, “a prostitute.” The line in the translation is: "’That little tart is mocking me. What have I ever done to her?’" In the original, it’s: “这小肠肚蹄子,倒揶开我了,我可没得罪了她呀!” This isn’t an open-and-shut case, it turns out. We have to unravel that insult—xiǎochángdùtízi 小肠肚蹄子—before we can begin… I’m tempted to just give this one to Goldblatt and move on. But, hmm, I guess 小肠肚蹄子 is from xiǎotízi 小蹄子, “little hoof,” which is used frequently in Dream of Red Mansions 红楼梦 (I was reminded of this by 影响中的创造:贾平凹小说的独异生成, 樊娟). The origin of that phrase might be because of the resemblance between a hoof and a vulva, but that seems unlikely, and it’s probably from some northern dialect (or that’s what my brief research tells me). That doesn’t matter, though, because I’m still not sure what 小肠肚蹄子 means.
《红楼梦》中有多处“小蹄子”及其变形的骂法,王希眠老婆说唐宛儿小肠肚蹄子的说法也有了出处。其实在民间也有用蹄子来形容人的,也可以传达表粗内亲的意思,这里则有嗔怪之意。
So, this suggests the meaning is related to 嗔怪, suggesting less tart and more sulky or ungrateful or generally unpleasant in—with the 蹄子 there—a particularly feminine way. It makes sense, given the next line, dào yékāi wǒ 倒揶开我, “She’s actually mocking me!”

But I got so, so, so far away from the point that “tart” is just an archaic and strange word. But I guess 小肠肚蹄子 is possibly an equally archaic and strange word. I don’t know. But I still think Goldblatt gets the meaning wrong here, and I still hate “tart.”

It’s a pain sorting all this stuff out. I have sympathy.

The dinner party eventually gets started, with everyone trying to force Zhuang and his wife into shows of marital bliss, while his new concubine-cum-maid, and his apprentice’s wife and fresh sexual conquest look on. And the flies return...
Tang Wan'er laughed soundlessly as she cast an unhappy glance at the meddlesome Liu Yue, who was laughing merrily, her eyes on Tang, who ignored her and looked away to see a fly above a flowerpot on the windowsill. It flitted over and landed on the tip of Zhuang's ear. With a cup in his hand and his arm linked with Niu Yueqing's arm, he could only shoot the fly away by shaking his head. It stayed put. If there is such a thing as divine intervention, Wan'er mused, let the fly land on my head. To her amazement, it did just that, drawing a private smile from her as she sat motionless.
The fly ends up doing a nosedive into Niu Yueqing's cup, and Tang Wan'er offers her own to the hostess.

I’m recording that just in case I want to sum up Jia’s flies later.

As the party goes on, there’s a drinking game played, with people reciting idioms. You have to recall an idiom that begins with the last character of the one said before you. So, if it’s táng'érhuángzhī 堂而皇之, "strikingly large in physical scale," then the next one could be zhī-hū-zhě-yě 之乎者也, particles from classical language, meaning "literary jargon," and the next one could be yègōnghàolóng 叶公好龙, "professed love of what one really fears," because 也 is homophonous with 叶, and so on… Howard Goldblatt’s work is cut out for him here, and he does a great job of reforming the translated idioms so they can work in the game.

After everyone is drunk, things break down again, everyone moving off into smaller groups. Meng Yunfang tells Zhuang Zhidie about Huang Defu giving property back to the nunnery and Huiming being put in charge. Meng wants Zhuang to help out with a request from the nunnery for an apartment to be allotted to them in a nearby block. In return, Zhuang asks Meng to tell his fortune. It's not promising. He sees the sign for imprisonment.
”But luckily you have water in your karma, which, when put alongside the symbol for imprisonment 泅, means you can swim away and be rescued. However, you will be rescued only if you keep yourself afloat. If not, you could be in serious trouble."
"This is all rubbish," Zhuang responded, before getting up to refill Meng's teacup, his mind filled with trepidation.
Again, I wonder why Howard Goldblatt uses so many Britishisms! He’s an American, translating a book for an American publisher.

But anyways, that closes this section.

Page 139 to 145. Niu Yueqing's dream.

We’re still at the party, but Niu Yueqing has had too much to drink and goes to lay on her bed. She wakes up yelling and everyone crowds into the room. She doesn’t remember much of the dream, but it involved a burning bus and Zhuang Zhidie refusing to help her.

Zhou Min rushes back to the office.

His article about Zhuang is sending shockwaves through the city. Jing Xueyin has found out about it, too, and feels humiliated. Zhou realizes that he's gotten himself in trouble.

The rest of this section is a discussion about Jing Xueyin’s position in local politics and the cultural bureaucracy.

Page 145 to 156. Flutes.

This section begins with Niu Yueqing and Liu Yue going to Wang Ximian's house to pick up the money the Wangs are loaning to her. I like the details of them carrying the money back, Liu Yue walking behind Niu Yueqing, holding a rock in her hand, just in case someone tries to rob them. While returning home, they pass a billboard advertising the Zhuang Zhidie article in Xijing Magazine. Liu Yue is sent to buy a copy. When they get home, Niu Yueqing goes off to bed, then Liu Yue makes some dinner. She goes outside to get some fresh air, just as Zhuang Zhidie rolls up on his scooter.

Zhuang watches four women playing cards by the side of the road. They interrupt their game to talk to a "big-boned woman" drying persimmons outside her door. The woman playing cards explain that she sells dried persimmons dusted with talcum powder (dried persimmons have a dusting of natural sugars that come out as they dessicate).

Zhuang, for whatever reason, goes to confront her about the claim. He bullshits with her for a while, and she pops out her false teeth, prompting a jokey chat about fake eyebrows and fake breasts. As he walks away, one of the women observes that Zhuang Zhidie might be fake, too.
Zhuang overheard her comment and began to wonder. Recalling what he had done with Tang Wan'er, which seemed like a dream now, he had the nagging feeling that he might not be Zhuang Zhidie after all. If he was, how would a coward like him have the nerve to do something so daring? If he wasn't, then who was he? He paused to light a cigarette, and for the first time in his life, he noticed that the shadow of his cigarette smoke was not grayish-black, but dark red. Abruptly turning his head, he saw an elongated figure jump to the base of a wall, a sight so startling it gave him goose bumps. But when he looked closer, he realized it was his shadow, cast onto the wall by the reflection of sunlight from the opened glass door of a store. Not a man who was afraid of ghosts or the supernatural, he was nonetheless scared by his own shadow.
This strange scene of depersonalization calls to mind the parallel frequently drawn between Zhuang Zhidie and "Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly," about a man wondering if he has dreamed of being a butterfly or if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.

Zhuang Zhidie no longer feels as if he is himself, or he wonders who the hell he might be... The boundary between reality and dream start to get blurry.

He has just come from developing some pictures he took at the party. He's shocked to see that all of the backgrounds in the photographs are sharp, but the figures in them are faint and spectral. It's as if his camera has captured the liminal blurriness creeping into Zhuang's life.

As Zhuang walks into the house, Liu Yue whispers that Niu Yueqing is upset over the magazine article. Zhuang and Niu talk about the article, with him insisting most of it is nonsense, nothing but gossip.

Suddenly, Zhou Min arrives. Zhuang invites him in for dinner. He puts a cassette in his stereo. It's a hissy recording of someone playing a flute. Did I mention yet that Zhou Min often goes up to the city wall to play his xūn 埙 (a xūn is like an ocarina)? Well, he does, and that's what Zhuang recorded. He praises the playing, with Zhou Min finally admitting that it was him on the recording.

Niu Yueqing emerges and scolds him for a while, but not much is resolved.

Page 156 to 169. Pear tree, moles.

This section is one of the most surprising in the book—I mean… Jia is a writer known for his bad boy masculinity, I suppose, but the book does have what I think are fairly honest portrayals of feminine desire, as well. I think they’re honest, but I’m also not a woman, so I have no idea.

At this point, Zhou Min is suffering. He has written the article and is dealing with the fallout. And Tang Wan’er is suffering, too. She is desperately in love with Zhuang Zhidie, but he seems to be ignoring her.
That night, the moon was as bright as water. As usual, Zhou Min went to the city wall to play his xun. Wan'er shut the gate and went in to take a bath. Then, draping her nightgown over her naked body, she went out and sat on the lounge chair under the pear tree. Utterly lonely, she thought about Zhuang Zhidie: Why don't you come? Were you, like all the other men, just satisfying a sudden urge that day and put me out of your mind once it was over? ... He would not be like that. The look in his eyes when he first saw her, his timid approach, and his madly urgent behavior when they were together gave her the confidence that he was truly fond of her. ... Zhuang had started out shyly, but once he entered port, he was immensely living and tender; his many tricks and techniques had finally taught her the difference between the city and the countryside, and between one who was knowledgeable and one who was not. ... She touched herself as she followed this line of thought, until she began to moan and groan... She was writhing and squirming on the chair. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 37 words.] The chair creaked and inched slowly toward the pear tree; squinting at the moon through the branches, she fantasized that it was Zhuang's face.
Zhou Min eventually comes home, and Tang Wan'er slips out and calls Zhuang's house. She finds out Zhuang is at the Municipal People's Congress.

Zhou Min feels abandoned by Zhuang Zhidie, as well, since most of the anger about his article is coming from Jing Xueyin, and he expects Zhuang to back him up.

Tang Wan’er decides to track down Zhuang Zhidie at his hotel. This is the point where the novel is at its most pornographic, with Zhuang and Tang having sex for the first time without any constraints, in complete privacy.
When she heard him say she had a mole down there, she looked for it in the mirror, while imagining how much he loved her. The worker in Tongguan had never noticed the mole, nor had Zhou Min. Nor even had she.
"Is it good to have a mole there?" she asked.
"Good, maybe. I have one there, too." He showed her.
"That's wonderful. We'll be able to find each other no matter where we go," she said. "Is the door locked? No one will come in, will they?"
"Now you're worrying about the door? I'm not sharing with anyone, so no one will come in."
She remained in his arms.
I’ve always liked that part about the mole on her vulva.

My relationship with this book has always been twisted up with the girl that introduced this book to me. I wrote about that before:
The first copy I ever held … belonged to the first girl I fell in love with. That was many, many years ago now. I don't know how reliable these memories are. But I think I remember her copy being a first edition, published by Beijing Publishing House ... It had the cover with the crumpled ball of paper on its. I forget where the girl—and her name was Xinran—got it, but I imagine it was probably plucked from a tarp laid out at the used book market outside Kuaizaiting Park in Xuzhou. I might have the name of the park wrong, but you'd know the place I mean, if you've spent any time in Xuzhou. There used to be a zoo in the park, and, legend had it, at least, a tiger had once broken out of its pen and mauled a man. They had a used book market there, though, mostly old men selling old novels and those glossy books of nude photographs that somehow skirted anti-pornography laws. The book was carefully wrapped in an RT-Mart flier, like all of Xinran’s books.
I used to always note the small mole or freckle peeking out of her lower right eyelid, and say that it would protect her from being counterfeit.

Before I could read Chinese, she read Ruined City to me, interpreting as she went. I can’t help but think about her, re-reading this section.

Following their lovemaking, Tang Wan’er launches into a monologue that stretches on for several pages in translation, in which she explains what she wants out of her relationship with Zhuang Zhidie. She wants to marry him, but she also wants him, in the shorter term, to make sure Zhou Min is fine.

He gives his own monologue in response, where he tells her his life story in brief. It’s basically an extended excuse why he would love to marry her but can’t:
“But I have to mourn the fact that we met too late. Why didn't you come to Xijing earlier? And why didn't I meet you back in Tongguan? I've also thought about marrying you, even about how our lives would be if we were a couple. But what about reality? ... A huge storm would erupt if I were to ask for a divorce now. ... What would Niu Yueqing do? ... But I can tell that we will eventually succeed. I want you to remember this: Please wait for me. I will marry you sooner or later. You must trust me."
She nodded. "I trust you, and I will wait for you."
They make love again, then Zhuang Zhidie slips out to give his speech. Tang Wan’er lets him go, then slips out after.

Page 169 to 177. Bureaucracy.

At the start of the next section, Zhuang Zhidie runs into Huang Defu, who we last near the beginning of the book, advising the mayor, then helping out with the nunnery. Zhuang asks Huang about the plan to convert a unit in a nearby apartment block into a literary salon (I have lost track of the exact details here). He says he’ll arrange something with the mayor.

Zhuang Zhidie calls home and hears from Hong Jiang that the book they purchased the rights to is selling well.

Zhuang has a lengthy meeting with the mayor. This section is somewhat uninteresting to me, but it does give a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the literary bureaucracy rubbing up against the real bureaucracy.

The section ends with Zhuang Zhidie spraining his ankle coming downstairs.