Cell Phone

Liu Zhenyun

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

Yan Shouyi had a friend named Fei Mo. Throughout his twenties and thirties, Yan had had lots of friends, people he'd hung out with just about every day. Their get-togethers were as lively as a steamy, boiling hot-pot. But now that his fortieth birthday had passed, he was down to this one male friend, sort of like a hotel lobby at two in the morning, where a lone guest sits bent low over a cup of coffee. Yan Shouyi was struck by the thought that back when his days were packed with excitement, his friends were always talking, though his brain had since been purged of every word they'd ever said; now he had one friend, and he couldn't say what the two of them talked about.

Fei Mo had been born in 1954, the year of the horse, which made him three years older than Yan Shouyi. He was fat, short and fat. A university professor born and raised in Beijing, he wore thick glasses and an unlined Chinese jacket the year round, adding a muffler in the winter. His speech was a mixture of classical and colloquial, reminding Yan Shouyi of an old-school intellectual from the 1920s and 1930s. Fei Mo and a maternal uncle of Yan Shouyi's wife, Yu Wenjuan, had been university classmates. Yan had met him six years earlier, during the "hundred-day" celebration of this uncle's infant son, where the guests were treated to a hot-pot meal. At this first meeting, Yan assumed that Fei wasn't much of a talker, since he didn't say a word as he focused on the task of dipping the shaved meat into the boiling water and then in the spicy sauce, until his fat face was beaded with sweat. No one at the table paid him any attention, as their conversation ranged from political jokes to dirty jokes and eventually to hot-pots themselves, starting with Beijing hot-pots, moving from there to Chongqing hot-pots, and then to Sichuan hot-pots; Yan Shouyi concluded that the origin of the hot-pot had to be Sichuan, since the province itself was a basin, just like the pots. At that point, Mo Fei removed his glasses and wiped his sweaty face before launching into a leisurely exposition, during which he kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling, not on the faces of the other guests. He did not deal with the origin of the hot pot right away, but started out talking about barbarian tribes, citing the classics. From there he moved to Genghis Khan, and from there to the Qin dynasty and the hot pot helmets the soldiers wore. A hot pot was involved in the Qin dynasty's annihilation of the Six Dynasties, he claimed. The others assumed that would bring things to a close, but Fei Mo skipped through the centuries down to the Qing . . . and then he began talking about ceramics in primitive societies. From ceramics he moved on to the discovery of iron, and from there to the emergence of bronze implements. A simple leap from bronze implements back to hot-pots brought that discussion to a close so he could move on to the difference between nomadic and farming peoples, and how the Manchus united the two . . .

"Don't forget to eat while you're listening," Yu Wenjuan's uncle called out.

To everyone's surprise, this simple comment sent Fei Mo back to the meat in front of him and brought his monologue to an end, leaving the Manchus in limbo and hot-pots up in the air; it was as if, except for Fei Mo, everyone else at the table was only interested in gobbling up the food. The same thing happened often after that. Whether at a meeting or a dinner party, the conversation could be about flora or dinnerware, and Fei Mo could lead the discussion into new areas. And then someone would say something that offended him, and that would bring the talk to a screeching halt. Taking note of the man's eclecticism and the pleasure he took in lecturing, Yan offered him a job as an idea man for "Straight Talk," since that was just what was needed for a TV talk show dealing with daily life. With so much to talk about, Yan was not worried that Fei Mo might be out of his element. Where a time commitment was concerned, he wouldn't have to give up his university professorship, and needed only go to the station with suggestions and pointers when he wasn't in class. For a minimum of conversation he would be paid a handsome monthly salary. But to Yan's surprise, Fei Mo turned down the first two invitations to join the show.

"I'm not much of a talker."

By this time, they had become friends.

"If you're not much of a talker, then the rest of China's population might as well give up breathing."

Fei Mo glared at Yan Shouyi.

"That's not what I meant by 'not much of a talker.' "

Yan Shouyi realized that he was referring to willingness, not ability.

"How come?"

"Talking has its own values. For me it's not a meal ticket."

"You hold lectures at the university. Doesn't that make it your meal ticket?"

Again Fei Mo glared at Shouyi.

"They're different—education and entertainment. With one you impart knowledge, while the other is self-mocking; one is Confucius, the other is an actor. Got it?"

That cleared things up for Yan Shouyi, who let it drop for the moment. But two months later, he was back with another offer. During that period, he'd thought often about Fei Mo, and had laughed every time, just as his father had laughed back in 1968 when he thought of Old Niu while they were out peddling onions. And that—thinking about someone other than himself—was a new experience for Yan Shouyi:

"Old Fei, this is my 'third call at the thatched cottage,' if you know what I mean. I realize you consider us beneath you and would find it impossible to have an intelligent discussion with us. But you ought to consider the matter of influence. I'm not asking you for myself."

That surprised Fei Mo.

"For whom then?"

"For the common people of this world. You cannot continue to allow the rest of us to live in ignorance. You would be selfish if you spread knowledge only within the confines of the university."

Fei Mo giggled like a child. He pointed at Yan Shouyi.

"Since the day we met, this is the first funny thing you've said."

But, he went on:

"That doesn't mean I'm willing to sully my reputation just because you uttered one sensible comment."

"I asked you to join us not merely to get you to help me on the show."

This too surprised Fei Mo.

"Why then?"

"The show is unimportant, I'm just using that as an excuse. What I really want is to spend more time with you."

Fei Mo stared at Yan Shouyi. Then he sighed.

"I always thought you only knew how to fawn over people. Who'd have thought you could be so conscientious? I figured you were interested only in fame and fortune, and I'm surprised that you have at least a vague idea of what friendship means."

And so Yan Shouyi managed to talk Fei Mo into joining the "Straight Talk" team. At first he put no pressure on him, letting him show up when he felt like it; and there was always a generous remuneration waiting for him at the end of the month. After a while, Fei Mo grew uncomfortable with the situation and came on his own with ideas for the program.

"Go home and rest, Old Fei. We can take care of things around here."

"I thought you were a decent, honest man, not a schemer," Fei Mo replied. "A man is not rewarded for nothing. Even that little bit of money makes me uncomfortable. Yan Shouyi, it's not fair to kill someone with a dull knife."

Once Fei Mo joined the program's brain trust, "Straight Talk" underwent a change. As they say, once an academic, always an academic. At first, Yan was concerned that Fei Mo could not abandon his professorial ways and that the relationship between the university and the TV station would be, as Fei Mo had predicted, a contrast between highbrow and popular culture, that there would be two distinct ways of saying the same thing. But he'd underestimated Fei, who was, as they say, at home both in the kitchen and in the hallway, capable of moving from the profound to the mundane as easily as flicking a switch. He spoke and acted with slow deliberation, and Yan Shouyi never tried to speed him up. Over the years, Fei gave birth to several shows, all winners. One, "A Letter from Confucius," dealt with roadside propaganda posters, ignoring the mistakes in grammar and concentrating on an analysis of the contents, most of which were as empty as the look in a moron's gaping eyes. Another was called "Clinton in Grade School." Clinton was still U.S. president at the time, and news of the Lewinsky affair had just broken. Refusing to come clean, Clinton explained how, back in grade school, he had not done well in English, and as a result could not see how putting a particular noun and verb together conveyed the meaning that he and the women had had a sexual relationship. Yet another series was called "The Craze in Studying Languages," and dealt with Chinese trying to learn "crazy English." The English went crazy long before the people did. There were other, more emotional, themes. For instance, during a conversation with Yan Shouyi the year before, the show "Making a Phone Call" had been born. In it, the time in 1969 when Yan Shouyi had accompanied Lü Guihua into town to make a phone call was cited. A simple phone call to check up on someone two hundred li away, just to show she was thinking about him, wound up as an expression of concern for great numbers of people, above ground and down in the mines. "Loneliness, that's what it was all about," Fei Mo said. At the beginning and end of the program, the show's musical group played a rock version of "Niu Sanjin and Lü Guihua," the lines that had been broadcast over the PA system at Number Three Mine all those years before. Each of these was a big hit with the viewers, and the ratings for "Straight Talk" took off. At one of the cast meetings, Yan Shouyi said:

"It's the cultural component that sets 'Straight Talk' apart from other shows. Know why our ratings go up each year, while those for other shows decline? It's because Old Fei looks at the world and has things to say, while the others say things merely to cover up their ignorance.

"I say that from now on, instead of calling him Old Fei we use the more respectful Fei Lao."

Fei Mo looked out the window and sighed.

"Those who know me say I'm melancholy, those who don't wonder what it is I seek."

The others at the meeting felt like laughing at this classical allusion, but held back.

As time passed, Yan discovered that Fei shared some of the petty traits of otherwise cultured people. At meetings or in restaurants, as a TV host with a recognizable face, Yan always drew a crowd of people wanting to say hello or take a picture with him or get an autograph; they ignored Fei Mo. Who cared if the man had a bellyful of wisdom and allusions? Dinner conversations always excluded Fei Mo when Yan Shouyi was around, and much of the time it was nearly impossible for him to get a word in edgewise. Yan always tried his best to shoehorn Fei Mo into the conversation:

"This is Professor Fei, head of the 'Straight Talk' brain trust. He's behind every show and every idea. I'm just his mouthpiece."

A bit surprised by this information, the people would turn to Fei. "How nice to meet you," they'd say. But once the "nice to meet you"s were dispensed with, they returned to the mouthpiece like moths drawn to a lamp, turning their backs on the fount of ideas. They were unable to discern the source of the light, something that invariably plunged Fei Mo into a funk for the rest of the evening. Once the meeting had ended or the meal was over and they were back in the car, Yan at the wheel with Fei sitting sullenly beside him, the funk would settle around both men.

"Fei Lao," Yan Shouyi explained to him once, "don't let it get you down. You're Confucius, I'm just an actor.

"I was going to ask you to give them some hints on living until I realized they didn't care. Like it or not, that's the cultural level of our people. Since even the great Lu Xun threw up his hands in despair over such people, don't waste your time on them."

Fei Mo stared silently out the window.

On one occasion, Fei Mo dreamed up a program called "Notebooks." His thesis was that individual jottings paint a more reliable picture of the past than official histories or newspaper articles, and the plan was to have members of the audience from each generation read from their notebooks during tapings of the show. Here is how he put it in the original script: You might be in Hell, you might also be in Heaven. No one can lift you out of Hell and into Heaven. You can, however, let your Heaven become a living Hell. But the "Straight Talk" producer decided to ignore the script, elaborating instead on the idea by introducing notebook computers, thanks to the promised support of a computer company to the tune of half a million RMB. A link between the two concepts was impossible to find, which made things somewhat awkward. But the notebook computers were displayed, and the topic suffered no observable bruising, except that Fei Mo wordlessly shook his head the whole time. After the meeting, the computer company CEO invited Yan Shouyi to dinner; Yan asked Fei Mo to come along, since the original idea had been his. The meal went off without a hitch. The CEO was a fan of Dream of the Red Chamber, and even though Fei Mo was a professor of sociology, he was a worthy authority on the classical novel. Though the two men approached Dream from different angles, they quickly settled on something to talk about: She Yue takes a bath. Does the hero of the novel, Jia Baoyu, join her in her bath, and if so, how far does that "joining" go? The two men wrangled till they were red in the face. Yan Shouyi stayed out of the debate. Fei Mo's face glowed throughout the meal. But when  they were about to leave, a problem arose as the CEO handed Shouyi a notebook computer.

"Mr. Yan," he said, "this is for you."

He then took pains to point out the programs. Completely forgotten was Fei Mo, who stood off to the side, silently smoking a cigarette and staring at a mural entitled "The Qin Emperor on an Outing." Yan was amazed by the CEO's insensitivity. You don't give a gift to one person when you've invited two to dinner. Besides, what difference can a few thousand make to someone who's invested half a million? Not that a few thousand would have made a difference to Fei Mo, Yan Shouyi assumed, but slighting him like that was an obvious affront to his dignity. Chairman Mao proclaimed that Dream of the Red Chamber is an encyclopedia, and you haven't understood a word of it. And yet, since it had been given to Yan as a gift, it would have been unwise to hand it over to Fei Mo. After dinner, the CEO invited them—this time Fei Mo was included—to tour the company offices.

"Let's all go have a look. I've got a painting of 'Qin Keqing Sleeping in the Spring' hanging in my office."

Fei Mo turned away from the restaurant mural and stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray.

"You two go ahead, I have things to do."

Yan Shouyi sensed that a tour would likely have been even more awkward for Fei Mo, but what he said then actually made things worse:

"Sure, I'll do all the running around, so Fei Lao can go back to the station and work out program details."

Fei Mo abruptly turned hostile, shouting.

"There's nothing to work out. There'll be no program!"

A shock ran through the restaurant. Yan Shouyi was as surprised as anyone.

"Why not?" he stammered.

Fei Mo's face showed his anger.

"Too commercial, overblown. Not in the spirit of 'Straight Talk.'"

He stood up, retrieved his coat from the coat rack, wrapped a muffler around his neck, and walked out. This time, in Yan Shouyi's opinion, Fei Mo had gone too far, and should not be disregarding the general good over a personal slight. He'd overlooked the big picture. If they dropped the planned program, they could watch half a million go down the drain. But in the end, Yan chose to honor Fei's decision. Since "Notebooks" had not yet been born, he let it die in the womb; it hadn't entered Heaven, so might as well consign it to Hell. But Daduan, or "Big Duan," the show's producer, complained:

"You indulge him too much! Day in and day out, it's Fei Lao this and Fei Lao that. You've put him on a pedestal, and now look where that's gotten us."

"That's part of what makes Fei Lao such a charmer. I used to find intellectuals insufferable for their lack of an independent spirit. But the way I see it now, the only person here worthy of emulation is Fei Lao. Go home and read your Records of the Historian and ask yourself why Liu Bang's adviser Xiao He went out at night to bring Han Xin back into the fold."

Yan Shouyi did not divulge to Big Duan what was really on his mind. The main reason he'd been so acquiescent was that in only a few short years he and Fei Mo had become close friends, men who kept no secrets from one another. Prior to reaching the age of forty, Yan had not grasped the importance of friendships, but after his fortieth birthday, he understood the pitfalls of having no one with whom to share ideas and grew to appreciate how important friends were. Fei Mo, who often put on airs, revealed his true character only when he was alone with Yan Shouyi. When they were drinking, he became a different man. If it was just the two of them, he did all the talking and Shouyi the listening. He wouldn't stop till he was nearly foaming at the mouth. But once, when they'd been drinking heavily, he abruptly shut up, as if a plug had been pulled. After a long pause, a new connection was made, and he turned sappy and sentimental. Pointing to his own mouth, he said:

"Blather."

He pointed a second time.

"Except for spewing blather, I don't know what else this thing's good for."

Yan Shouyi consoled him in a tone of voice he'd learned from Fei Mo himself:

"Don't say that, Fei Lao. It may seem like blather to you, but what you pick from between your teeth is enough for us to live on for a lifetime."

Ignoring Yan's comment, Fei Mo went on:

"A mouth that produces blather is evidence of a mind that's depressed."

His face was quickly wetted by tears, and Yan said nothing for a long while.

When he was feeling dejected, Yan looked forward to heart-to-heart talks with Fei Mo. Things he would not tell his wife, he'd tell Fei Mo, even things in his life he could not stop from doing. He would never, for instance, reveal anything about his sex life to anyone but Fei Mo.

Needless to say, Fei Mo had his happy moments, particularly when he was with members of the "Straight Talk" team. Everyone associated with the program, more than a dozen in all, from Yan Shouyi down to the young woman who answered the phone, treated Fei Mo with unalloyed respect. Society at large might not have recognized the man's importance, but these people did, and they learned to listen even to what went unsaid when he spoke. He could look beneath the surface and grasp the essence of things. It was as if the meaning of life was revealed only in the tiny corner of the world he occupied. As time passed, members of the team began to talk like him, including the way he drew out each word. A simple comment by him would travel in a circle, head east and then backtrack to the west, seeming to go one way but really going the other, or, as they say, pointing to dogs and screaming at chickens. When he was in a good mood, he was almost childlike. He'd walk into the office with his briefcase under his arm, and one of the new members of the production team, Xiao Ma, a recent college graduate, would look up from her computer and say teasingly:

"Tea."

Fei Mo would put down his briefcase and waddle over to steep a cup of tea for Xiao Ma, like a student might do for his teacher.

At first, he came to the office once a week. But that gradually increased to twice a week, then three times, as if it was the only place where he could escape the icy confines of society at large and find a bit of warmth.

On the morning of February eleventh, Yan Shouyi pulled up in front of Fei Mo's building to take him to a studio taping. Normally, when they were on their way to a meeting of the "Straight Talk" team, Fei Mo's jowly face would be all smiles, and Yan would be slavishly deferential, taking the briefcase and opening the car door for him, to the old man's immense satisfaction. But on this day, when he emerged from the building, he wore a pained look and ignored Yan's attempts to take his briefcase and open the car door for him. Yan could see that his friend had not spent a pleasant night. Fei Mo's wife, Li Yan, was a travel agent who was no more understanding of the world around her than most people. Not realizing the importance of her husband, she regularly put him in a foul mood with her argumentative nature. This knowledge led Yan Shouyi to another discovery: in addition to pettiness, so often encountered in cultured people, Fei Mo had a penchant for taking his anger out on others. The program had suffered, for instance, because of his anger over the computer company CEO's slight. So whenever he and his wife had a fight, others suffered. Seeing him sit there glowering, Yan Shouyi drove cautiously out of the compound. Then, once they'd left the area, he asked guardedly:

"Fei Lao, shall we take the sexy route, via Pingan Road, or the sensible route, on Fourth Ring?"

Fei Mo ignored him and stared out the window, and Yan was wise enough to hold his tongue and just drive. But once they were on the Fourth Ring highway, Fei Mo began to vent, as expected:

"Old Yan, I keep telling you to sit down and read a book when you're not working. A lack of knowledge is a sure path to screw-ups."

Yan Shouyi stared straight ahead, puzzled.

"What did I do now?"

"Did you watch last night's show?"

The previous night's "Straight Talk" had been called "Things We Didn't Invent," another of Fei Mo's ideas, focusing on the indolent, slothful nature of the Chinese, a civilization with five thousand years of history that was blessed with only one talent: in-fighting. Prior to the Song dynasty, they had invented gunpowder and the compass; but from the Song to the present day, they'd invented nothing, not the washing machine, not the refrigerator, not the automobile, and not the airplane, though they were shameless enough to use them all. Yan Shouyi had been at a restaurant the night before and missed the show. He looked at Fei Mo and shook his head.

"There was a real screw-up, are you aware of that? Instead of giving your best when you should, you save it for a time when it's not needed. I was watching last night, the one show I didn't keep a close eye on, and, sure enough, there was a problem. How could you say that Newton invented the steam engine?"

Yan Shouyi was stumped.

"He didn't? Then who did?"

"Watt. You've heard of him, haven't you?"

Yan Shouyi realized he'd made a mistake, but that didn't alter the fact that peace had not reigned at Fei Mo's place the night before. Watt or Newton—at any other time, Fei Mo would not have made such a big deal out of it, and he'd have said so. But today that was not somewhere he wanted to go. He acknowledged his mistake:

"It's my fault. I don't know either one of them."

"You think you can say mea culpa, and that does it? My name appears on the script. People in the know are well aware of your intellectual inadequacies. But everyone else must think it was something I made up."

At that moment, Yan Shouyi remembered something a lot more important than Watt or Newton. Ignoring Fei Mo, he flipped his right-turn blinker to get out of the line of traffic, then sped from the fast lane over to the curb, where he stopped in a temporary parking zone. Fei Mo stared at him.

"What was that all about?"

"I left my cell phone at home."

If anything, Fei Mo's mood worsened.

"So what! We have a show to tape, forget the phone. I have plans for this afternoon."

Yan Shouyi clutched the steering wheel with both hands.

"Yu Wenjuan's home today."

Now Fei Mo knew what this was all about. Yan was afraid his wife would find his cell phone, and that could spell trouble.

Forgetting he was supposed to be in a bad mood, he pointed at Yan and said:

"I'm telling you that insulting Watt was no accident. Your mind's been elsewhere the past few days. Your conscience is bothering you. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but the way you're out catting around all the time is bound to get you in trouble sooner or later."

He stared at him again.

"What makes you think that the 'she-devil' will pick this day to call you?"

Yan Shouyi poked the steering wheel with his finger.

"I don't 'think' anything. I just want to be prepared."

Fei Mo took out his cell phone.

"Call her on my phone. That should take care of it. There's no need to go back home."

"I'd still rather have it with me. I might mess up while I'm in the middle of a taping."

As they made a U-turn on the flyover, Fei Mo displayed his annoyance:

"Those people you hang around with, I could put it nicely by calling them 'sweeties,' but the truth of the matter is they're tattered shoes—sluts."

"Trouble, nothing but trouble comes of messing with tattered shoes."

*

Yan Shouyi told Fei Mo to wait in the car while he ran upstairs. When he reached his flat, he stopped, took a deep breath to calm himself, opened the door, and strolled in. He had left his cell phone on the shoe cupboard on his way out the door, but it wasn't there now. His heart skipped a beat. He walked into the living room, where Wenjuan was practicing qigong to music on the stereo. The sight returned his heartbeat to normal.

Her eyes closed, Yu Wenjuan asked:

"What are doing back so soon?"

"I forgot some papers."

He went over to the coffee table and riffled through some documents. Then, papers in hand, he checked his pockets and said, as if it were an afterthought:

"Oh, and I also forgot my cell phone."

He picked the phone up off the sofa near where Wenjuan was standing.

"You had three calls a while ago," she said. "One from the station to get you moving, since the audience was already filing in. One from a reporter who wants to interview you. And one from a woman called Wu Yue."

"Got it," he said as he walked to the door.

Now her eyes were open. "Who is she? She hadn't expected me to pick up the phone. What's she to you to find it OK to talk like she did?"

Another skipped heartbeat, but Shouyi forced himself to answer calmly:

"Oh, her. She works for a publishing house. She's always badgering me to write my autobiography. She studied with Zhang Xiaoquan. She always talks like that."

Zhang Xiaoquan had been one of Yan Shouyi's college classmates. This sort of thing had happened before. Anytime he was involved with something or someone he had trouble explaining away, all he had to do was mention the name of a friend to bring an end to Wenjuan's questions. He opened the door and left the flat.

If only he'd known that this time things would be different.

translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

Used by permission of Merwin Asia. Cell Phone will be out in bookstores in Feb 2011.



Read the original in Chinese, Simplified

Read the translation in Chinese, Traditional

Read translator’s note

Liu Zhenyun was born in Henan province, China in 1958. His award-winning short stories have explored life in China's state-owned companies and bureacratic offices, but his most celebrated novel, My Name is Liu Yuejin, tells the story of a migrant worker who has his bag (containing all his worldly possessions) stolen in Beijing. Liu's cold humor, his broad familiarity with the many facets of urban society, and his modern sensibilities have made him a favorite among Chinese readers.

Howard Goldblatt is a contributing editor at Asymptote. Authors he has translated from the Chinese include virtually all major contemporary novelists. Recent translations include Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Su Tong's Boat to Redemption, and, with Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters, all winners of the Man Asian Literary Prize. He and his wife divide their time between South Bend, Indiana, and Boulder, Colorado.


Cell Phone began as a joint project between Liu Zhenyun, one of the country's most respected novelists, and Feng Xiaogang, creator of the cinematic blockbuster and China's most successful director of mainstream films. The co-written script for the movie spawned the novel, both of which appeared at the end of 2003. While observing friends at a party kept busy answering cell phones, Liu noted the camouflage and pretenses employed in many of the conversations, which seemed to hold deep secrets, and he sensed that these instruments of ubiquitous communication could be a double-edged sword, capable of linking practical utility to moral expedience. That is the core issue of Liu's novel, whose light-hearted, often comical tone lays a thin veil over the author's evocation of the cost of technology's incursion into urban life and the concomitant loss of privacy, already in short supply in Chinese society.

While any novel set in contemporary China adds to our understanding and appreciation of the country and its citizens, Cell Phone illustrates the complicated nature of life in a market economy experiencing growing pains; the moral dilemmas facing many of its urban residents; and, of course, the universal problem of technological advances outdistancing people's ability to adapt to them. It is a comic novel about events and phenomena with serious consequences. Given its genesis as a film script, Cell Phone is especially notable for its crisp, idiomatic dialogue and lively, engaging characters. The mix of Chinese traditions and social practices with entertainment-generated traces of modernity has made Cell Phone among the most appealing Chinese novels in recent years.