Novels of Wu Woyao (1867-1910)

in English Translation

Sea of Regret and A Strange Case of Nine Murders:

Translated with Introduction by Douglas and Edel Lancashire.

These two novels by a contemporary of Li Boyuan reflect changes in personal and family life. The first is a love story set against the background of social upheaval generated by the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the second shows the dire consequences that can flow from superstition and family feuding. The author is particularly concerned with the decline in personal and family mores.

Sea of Regret

Chapter Six

A disastrous conflagration in Tianjin.

Severe illness causes a stay in Jiningzhou.

AS WE HAVE already noted, Dihua stayed ten days at the Zhang Family Inn, and because of her anxiety over her mother's illness and her lack of knowledge over whether Bohe was alive or dead, combined with the cramped nature of the rooms in the inn, she exuded an air of depression, which pervaded the whole of her room. Sometimes she would go into the courtyard to stretch her legs, only to be met with the stench of excrement left by horses and mules - a stench which, in the stillness of the night, penetrated her living quarters. When to this was added the sorrow in her heart, it is not surprising she was unable to get a good night's sleep. But on this first night aboard the boat, she found that, although the boat was small and moored alongside the river's edge, the air was clean and fresh; and now that she had opened up Bohe's quilt and was using his pillow, she was suddenly engulfed in romantic thoughts. Her heart was overtaken by joy, and she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. She did not waken until early dawn.

When she sat up she saw that her mother was still sleeping. Cool early morning air rose from the surface of the water. Sitting with her legs crossed, she drew the padded coverlet over them and indulged in daydreaming. She allowed her mind to wander back to the romantic thoughts that had filled it the night before, and wondered whether her heart's desires would ever be attained. If indeed they could, she thought she would gladly endure any suffering that might in future come her way.

What distressed her most, of course, was her lack of knowledge as to Bohe's whereabouts. Although she was concerned over his welfare, she thought he would probably be even more concerned over hers. If he were beset with difficulties, and also afflicted with anxiety over her, she could only hope he would not fall ill through worry.

Suddenly she thought back to her childhood, when she had studied the Book of Mencius, and come across the following lines: "When Heaven is about to lay a heavy duty on a person, it must first test his will; try his sinews; cause him to endure physical hunger, and impoverish him."(1) Although Bohe was only just eighteen, he had already experienced the pain of homelessness, and there was no knowing what else was in store for him along the endless road that stretched before him. Surely indescribable glory and honour would eventually be his and his wife's, and she would share in his good fortune and happiness. Thinking thus, she again felt comforted, and stroked the pillow and quilt, assured they would see each other again.

A Strange Case of Nine Murders

NOW AFTER Guixing and Tianlai had parted, Guixing instructed a family servant to hire men to carry his luggage to his home. He then went for a stroll on the streets and, by chance, found himself walking along Saddle Street. There he saw a great number of people gathered round a doorway watching something. When he took a look, he noticed a freshly painted notice-board hanging on the door on which was written: "Ma Banxian of Jiangxi province. Specialist in the oracles of the Book of Lucky Stars. Expert in fortune-telling and geomancy."

When Guixing saw this, he said to himself. "I didnít notice this when I last walked past here. This man must have just arrived. Why not consult him?" At this, he stepped forward; made his way through the crowd, and passed through the doorway. In the room he found a fortune-teller's table, behind which sat a man wearing a skull-cap. He was dressed in a long, blue, cotton gown, over which he wore a sky-blue ceremonial jacket, faced on either side of its front with down, and the neck of which supported an upright collar of stiffened jade-blue silk. The manís face was dark and emaciated and ended in a pointed chin, On his lip there grew a moustache, golden yellow in colour, and looking for all the world like down-strokes in calligraphy. A pair of spectacles, held in a tortoiseshell frame with brass footings, graced his nose, and resting in his left hand was a three-foot long bamboo pipe on which he drew, clouds of smoke exhaling from his nostrils. His right hand held a folding fan made of white paper attached to brown bamboo ribs. Only partly unfolded, the man barely waved it as he rocked his body. Behind the lenses of his spectacles his triangular-shaped eyes flickered.

Guixing went up to him, and, saluting the man with folded hands, said: "I would like to speak to you, sir."

Hearing himself addressed, Ma Banxian stretched himself; laid aside his pipe with his left hand; removed the spectacles from his nose, and said: "Please do." As he spoke, he looked Guixing up and down. What he saw was a delicate white face; a pair of small round eyes; thin lips; high cheek-bones, and prominent nostrils. The man wore a small, round skull-cap made of fine black cloth, on the top of which was a blue knob the size of a walnut. (According to Cantonese custom, the knob on a hat has to be blue rather than white when a person is dressed for mourning.) The rim of the hat was decorated in front with a sky-blue jewel. Over his body he wore a long gown of finely woven, delicate blue cloth, and in his hand he held a palace-style silk fan. His feet were shod with white mourning shoes embroidered with flowers in the style worn in the capital. The soles were a good inch thick, so that he appeared to float as he moved.

Having looked him over, Ma Banxian quickly determined what to do. He began by bending his head and drawing out a stool from beneath the table, saying: "Please sit down."

Guixing sat down unceremoniously, and said: "I presume, sir, that this is your first visit to our mean area. It's a privilege to have someone with so much talent and skill. I've come to ask you to work out my horoscope."

"In that case, " said Ma Banxian, "may I know the date of your birth?"

Guixing gave him, successively, the pairs of characters indicating the year, month, day and hour of his birth.

Banxian put on his spectacles; picked up his brush-pen and wrote it all down. He laid the information out in four columns, held his head to one side as he scrutinised them for a while, and then did some calculating with his fingers. He then put down his pen; removed his spectacles; stroked his beard; coughed, and, fixing Guixing with his eyes, said: "You were born at a most auspicious moment. I have seldom come across anything to equal it in the more than twenty years that I have been telling fortunes in the region of rivers and lakes!

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