Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from “Ruined City” by Jia Pingwa (tr. Howard Goldblatt)

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.

When originally published in 1993, Ruined City (Fei Du) was promptly banned by China’s State Publishing Administration, ostensibly for its explicit sexual content. Since then, award-winning author Jia Pingwa’s vivid portrayal of contemporary China’s social and economic transformation has become a classic, viewed by critics and scholars of Chinese literature as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. Howard Goldblatt’s deft translation now gives English-speaking readers their first chance to enjoy this masterpiece of social satire by one of China’s most provocative writers.

While eroticism, exoticism, and esoteric minutiae—the “pornography” that earned the opprobrium of Chinese officials—pervade Ruined City, this tale of a famous contemporary writer’s sexual and legal imbroglios is an incisive portrait of politics and culture in a rapidly changing China. In a narrative that ranges from political allegory to parody, Jia Pingwa tracks his antihero Zhuang Zhidie through progressively more involved and inevitably disappointing sexual liaisons. Set in a modern metropolis rife with power politics, corruption, and capitalist schemes, the novel evokes an unrequited romantic longing for China’s premodern, rural past, even as unfolding events caution against the trap of nostalgia. Amid comedy and chaos, the author subtly injects his concerns about the place of intellectual seriousness, censorship, and artistic integrity in the changing conditions of Chinese society.

Rich with detailed description and vivid imagery, Ruined City transports readers into a world abounding with the absurdities and harshness of modern life.

Here below is an excerpt used by permission of the University of Oklahoma Press. Click here for more information about Ruined City, released in bookstores this week.

Over the next few days, Zhou Min left early in the morning and returned home late at night, not straying from the magazine. At home he had little time for Tang Wan’er. Always itching to go somewhere, she complained that they hadn’t been to the Sheraton Dance Club for a long time, but he kept putting her off. She told him that Zhuang Laoshi had opened a bookstore to the left of the Forest of Steles Museum and said they should go check it out, see what sort of books they stocked, and show Zhuang Laoshi that they cared about what he was doing. Zhou replied impatiently, “I don’t have time for that. You can go if you want.” He did nothing but play the xun on the city wall and sleep. Upset, she ignored him. When he left for work in the morning, instead of going out on her own, she stayed home and tended to her appearance, putting on perfumed rouge and painting her brows thin and smooth. She kept her ears pricked, thinking it was Zhuang coming to see her every time the metal ring on the door made a noise. When they had made love that first time, she was elated that the barrier between them had been removed. As she thought about how she was now his, her face burned and she got hot all over from arousal; when she saw how the people passing by the door outside looked indifferently at the pear tree, she laughed coldly as her anger rose: Just you wait, one of these days you’ll know what I mean to Zhuang Zhidie. Then I’ll watch you come fawning over me and embarrass you until you look for a place to hide. But it had been so long, and Zhuang had not shown up again, so she vented her anger on herself by mussing her hair and by pressing her lips on the mirror and the door to leave red circles. 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? Did you simply want the memory of another woman added to your list of conquests? Or, as a writer, did you merely use me as material for something you were writing? She thought some more, and as she savored the memory of that day, she retracted her earlier thoughts. 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. Her first sexual encounter had been with a manual laborer, who had forced her down on the bed, and that had led to their marriage. After the wedding, she was his land and he was her plow; she had to submit to him whenever he felt like cultivating his land. He would climb on with no preamble and finish before she felt a thing. With Zhou Min, she naturally enjoyed what she hadn’t had with her first man, but Zhou was, after all, a small-town character who could never compare with a Xijing celebrity. Zhuang had started out shyly, but once he entered port, he was immensely loving 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 came to know what makes a real man and a real woman. She touched herself as she followed this line of thought, until she began to moan and groan, calling out to Zhuang. She was writhing and squirming on the chair. 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. As she flicked her tongue, she wrapped her legs around Zhuang until she was up against the tree trunk, where she moved, rocking the tree and swaying the moon, until one final, forceful push of her body before she went limp. Three or four pear leaves circled above her and then settled onto her body. Exhausted, she remained in the chair, lost in thought, so weak it felt as if all her bones had been removed.

“You’re still up?” Zhou Min remarked when he returned from playing the xun.

“Yes.” Without getting up, she brushed the leaves off her body and adjusted her nightgown to cover her legs. Zhou cast a bored look at the moon. “The moon is pretty tonight.”

“Yes,” she said, wondering what Zhuang was doing at that moment. Was he reading in his study or was he already in bed? Zhuang-ge, she said silently, I must be away from you for now, for I have to be with another soul under these eaves. Keep your door open so the wind can blow in your direction and maybe startle you awake, possibly because of the soft noise. But don’t move, my Zhuang Zhidie. Close your eyes and let us begin our conversation.

When Zhou saw her still lying there after he had washed his face in the kitchen, he said, “Why aren’t you coming to bed?”

“Stop annoying me!” she said angrily. “You talk too much. Go to bed if you want.” She shuffled in her slippers out to the gate.

“Are you going out? It’s late,” he said.

“I can’t sleep. I’m going to buy some ice cream at the street corner.” “In your nightgown? ”In her simple white nightgown, she disappeared through the gate and walked out to the lane. Instead of buying ice cream, she borrowed the store’s phone and called Zhuang’s house. Liu Yue answered. When she asked who was calling, Tang Wan’er wondered why Liu could not recognize her voice. She asked after Zhuang and his wife.

“Ah, it’s you.” Liu Yue was happy to hear Wan’er’s voice. “It’s late. Are you all right?”

“Everything is fine,” Wan’er said. “I was just wondering if there’s any heavy-duty work that needs to be done at your house, like bringing charcoal home, carrying rice or noodles back, or changing the liquid gas tank. Zhou Min is strong, he can do all those things.” Then she heard Liu Yue call for Niu Yueqing, who asked who was on the phone. Liu Yue told her about Wan’er and her offer, and Niu Yueqing picked up the phone.

“You’re so considerate, Wan’er. Thank you very much. Why haven’t you come to see us?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t want to bother you while Zhuang Laoshi is writing.”

“He’s not home. He’s attending the Municipal People’s Congress. He won’t be back for ten days. Come on over.”

“I will.” Feeling better, she wondered if it would be easier if she went to see him. After putting down the phone, she kicked herself for not asking where the meeting was being held.

Zhou Min came home early the following evening, and began writing something after dinner. She went up to take a look, but he covered it with his hands, so she walked away and moved the TV into the bedroom to kill some time before going to bed. She saw that there was a special report on the meeting of the Municipal People’s Congress. Seeing Zhuang Zhidie on the screen, sitting on the stage, she fantasized how wonderful it would be if she were Mrs. Zhuang Zhidie. When the news reached Tongguan, where people saw Zhuang on TV, they would be talking about her, and anyone who knew her would no longer be critical. Instead they would be speech- less with envy. What would the worker who was deprived of a wife say? If he knew she was with Zhou Min, he’d come after him because Zhou was no better than him in terms of status and reputation. But if she were Mrs. Zhuang, the worker would be so ashamed of his unworthiness that he would ask for a divorce on his own. This train of thought prompted her to touch herself again, and soon she was wet. When Zhou was finished, he put away his pen and paper and came into the bedroom. But they had nothing to say to one another; they turned off the lights and went to sleep. She was in the habit of sleeping naked and curling up like a kitten in his arms. He had complained about the uncomfortable sleeping arrangement and wanted to sleep in separate cocoons. She objected vehemently. On this night, though, she made a cocoon for herself, and was startled awake when she realized that he had climbed out of his cocoon and wriggled into hers.

“I’m tired.” She pushed his hands away.

Deflated, he stopped and returned to his side, but now, unable to sleep, he sat up and sighed. She ignored him, so he turned on the light and picked up a book, then threw it to the floor and sobbed, which disgusted her even more.

“Idiot. Why are you crying in the middle of the night?”

“I have so much on my mind, and yet, instead of comforting me, you pick a fight. People say a man’s home is his safe harbor, but this broken ship comes home to be battered by the wind and waves.”

“You call this home? Women depend on their men. I followed you here, abandoning a stable life, my child, my reputation, and a job. But we’re always on the move, with no idea how we’ll make it through the next day. The road ahead is shrouded in darkness. How can this be called home? And I’m always being scrutinized. The other day, when Wang Ximian’s wife humiliated me in front of everyone, you didn’t so much as let out a fart, let alone defend me. Now you want me to comfort you? Recently, you’ve left early and come home late every day, leaving me alone here with no one to talk to. Who’s here to comfort me?”

“I shoulder all my troubles because I don’t want you to worry, and yet you’re unhappy with me.”

“What troubles could you possibly have? You’re a literary figure now, with a carefree life.”

He told her about the trouble caused by his article. “If we were still in Tongguan, I would get my buddies to beat up that woman, but that tactic won’t work here. Zhuang Laoshi helped me get the job at the magazine, but now that there’s trouble, he’s a no-show. He insisted it wasn’t a romance so he could please both sides, but that woman is a force to be reckoned with. If I pressure him, he might say that what I wrote was simply not true. In the end, he could turn out to be the one who made me and then broke me.”

Apprehensive about what she was hearing, she got up to pour him a glass of water, noticing that he did look gaunt. But she was annoyed when he put his arms around her. An uncharitable thought flashed through her mind: That wouldn’t be so bad. If he lost his standing in Xijing’s literary scene, she would have more opportunity to be with Zhuang Zhidie. She struggled out of his arms and went back to her cocoon.

“Don’t blame Zhuang Laoshi. He probably has his own problems.”

“I just hope he doesn’t abandon me. But I’ve thought about it and planned my own way out.”

“What is it?”

“For now I’ll follow his plan to say that what I wrote was true, but that it was a generalization, not about a particular woman. If he sides with her and claims that what I wrote was false, then I’ll say I got my material from him. I will have my interview notes as proof that I simply wrote down what I heard.”

“But you never interviewed him. You got your material from gossip.” “I know what to do,” Zhou assured her.

She did not respond, but her heart was racing as she turned off the light and slipped down into her cocoon.

Zhou Min rushed off to the magazine early the next morning, while Wan’er snapped on the TV, for she knew there would be a rebroadcast of the news from the night before.

Zhuang’s face appeared again. After memorizing the location of the meeting, the Gudu Hotel outside the south gate, she made herself up nicely and headed for the hotel. As expected, the entrance was decorated with colorful flags and an enormous red satin banner hung from the rooftop: “We Warmly Welcome the Representatives to the Municipal People’s Congress.” The main entrance was locked, while men with “Security” armbands guarded a side door. No one but the attendees was allowed through. Over the metal railings, she could see a row of vehicles out in the yard where the representatives were taking an after-lunch stroll. Some were picking their teeth as they took coupons to the guardhouse for cigarettes. On this side of the railing, a crowd was in an uproar over something. Intrigued by the noisy scene, she tried to push her way through, when someone stepped on her heel. She stopped unhappily to wipe her shoe with a tissue. Then she saw three greasy-haired women and a rough-looking man pressed up against the railing. The man was holding a sheet of white paper over his head: “We plead with the People’s Representatives to hear our grievance.” Under the large print was some text in small characters explaining their grievance. The three women got down on their knees when they saw the representatives in the yard. “We want to see the mayor. Let us meet with the mayor,” they shouted tearfully. The security men came up to drag them away, but the women held onto the railing; their shirts rose up to expose filthy dark bellies and shriveled nipples.

“Why won’t the mayor see us?” they demanded. “If the officials refuse to help the people, they should go home and help their wives take care of the children. I’ll bang my head against this railing if you don’t let go of me.”

They let go of her. “Go ahead, make a scene. We’ll see what sort of storm you can kick up.” They walked off to the side to smoke.

As Wan’er looked on, more and more people crowded up. Many of the men had their eyes on her instead of the protestors, and she knew she looked more beautiful than ever in contrast to the three ugly women. Unburdened by shyness, she calmly slunk over to the side door. The guard did not stop her until she had stepped inside.

“Where’s your card, comrade?”

“I’m not one of the representatives. I’m here to see Zhuang Zhidie.”

“I’m sorry, but the rules of the meeting do not allow non-attendees in.

I’ll get someone to bring him out to see you.” He relayed the information. Before many minutes had passed, Zhuang walked up.

“Ah, what a surprise!” he said happily. “Take me inside. I need to talk to you.”

Zhuang said something to the guard and then led her into the yard.

“You’re too conspicuous,” he said. “I’ll go up first. It’s room 703. Don’t go to the wrong room.” He spun around, and, without looking back, entered the building. She followed him to the room. He shut the door and lifted her up. Quickly realizing what he had in mind, she did not resist; instead, she wrapped her legs around him. With her arms around his neck, she appeared to be sitting on his hands.

“You were so cautious a while ago, but now you’re getting a little crazy.” He just laughed. “I can’t get you out of my mind. I even dreamed about you last night. Guess what happened? I was climbing a mountain the whole night with you on my back.”

“You must be exhausted.”

He laid her on the bed and touched her all over, like kneading dough.

She giggled.

“I can’t move. If I did, I’d drip all over the bed.”

Aroused, he swallowed hard and started undressing her. She stood up and did it for him, saying she wanted to wash off the sweaty smell from the walk. Zhuang went into the bathroom to fill the tub for her, while he calmly took off his clothes to wait by the bed. When his patience had worn thin, he opened the door and found her standing naked in the tub, her long hair falling over her shoulders, holding the showerhead in one hand and cupping her breast with the other. He rushed up to her, and she went limp as she dropped the showerhead. With her head lying against the side of the tub, and her hair spread across the floor, she let him leave four bite marks on her neck.

“Don’t get my hair wet,” she cautioned.

He got up, turned off the water, carried her over to the bed, and laid her down. She took a long look into a large mirror on the wall above the head of the bed. “Look at you,” she said with a laugh. “Is that what a writer looks like?”

“What should a writer look like?”

“More refined.”

“Very well, then.” He lifted her legs to gaze at her down below, so embarrassing her that she tried to fight him off. “Don’t. Stop that.” But she was unable to say more as she felt something leak out. So he put a blanket under her head so she could see herself in the mirror and covered her mouth with his when she began to moan. They were both breathing hard.

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.

“We had sex the moment we came in the room, as eager as a couple of teenagers. Actually, I came to the meeting to talk to you about something. Zhou Min’s article has caused you trouble, hasn’t it?”

“So you know about that? I told him not to tell you. I didn’t want you to worry, since there’s nothing you can do. Why did he have to tell you?”

Repeating what Zhou Min had told her, she asked if it was true. He nodded.

“I may live with him,” she said, “but I’m yours. You’d better watch out for him.”

“What about him? Does he know about us?”

He fell silent when she told him about Zhou’s plan B. A derisive laugh escaped from him.

“Are you upset with him? Are you going to punish him? I came to tell you this so you could be on guard, not for you to punish him. Zhou Min is smart, and sometimes he can be too smart for his own good, but he’s not a bad person.”

“I know that,” he said.

Her cheeks twitched as tears streamed down her face, prompting him to ask her what was wrong.

“Maybe we’re destined for each other, or maybe the karmic connection between Zhou Min and me is broken. But I can’t stop thinking about you. I’ve never wanted someone so much in my life, not even as a teenager. I’m so preoccupied I can’t do anything. Now I know what’s meant by sleeping in the same bed but having different dreams.”

“It’s been like that for me, too,” Zhuang said. “Don’t cry. It’s bad for you at a time like this. Stop crying, won’t you?” He dried her eyes tenderly, as if she were a child.

“I’ll listen to you. I won’t cry. But I must tell you what’s on my mind or I’ll die from holding it in. The bolder I become in order to be with you, the more it frightens me. How can I keep going like this, always afraid? Zhuang-ge, I want to marry you. I mean it. I want to marry you.” She went on without waiting for his reaction. “I want to marry you; I want us to be husband and wife for the rest of our lives. I’m not good at anything in particular. I don’t have residency in Xijing, let alone social standing, and I probably wouldn’t be as good at taking care of you as Niu Yueqing is. But I can say that I’d make you a happy man, because I can sense that you’re different from most men. You’re a writer who needs to be on the lookout for creative inspiration, while most people, including your wife, can only tend to your physical needs; they lack the ability to constantly change themselves to bring you something new. I realized the moment I met you that you are the serious type. I could see that you were despondent, and I understood why you seemed dispirited even when you smiled. Why do you find me attractive? I guess there are many reasons, and one of them exposes the fact that you are sexually repressed. I don’t think I’m a bad woman who is intent upon seducing you and breaking up your family; nor do I have designs on your property and fame. What is it, then? Maybe people would say that you’re a man who prefers the new to the old and that I’m a wanton woman with loose morals. But that’s not true. All humans are born with a desire to pursue beauty. For a writer, it’s simply an expression of creativity to abandon the old for the new, something impossible for the average woman to understand. That’s why Niu Yueqing said she wouldn’t want to marry a writer in her next life. I’m confident that I’m better than other women in this respect. I know that I can constantly adjust myself to fit your need for new, fresh experiences. That doesn’t mean I would erase myself in the process; on the contrary, it would make my life more interesting and enjoyable. Conversely, you would never tire of new experiences while I’m enjoying life. The purpose of a woman’s existence is to contribute to beauty, and once that’s accomplished, you will have an even greater ability to display your talent. I get excited when I think about all this; I’m so keyed up, but I often wonder if it’s even possible. I wouldn’t be so confident if I hadn’t met you. You’re a ray of sunlight that has made me shine brightly. Am I getting fanciful? Am I overselling myself? Sometimes I remind myself that you’re married and that your wife is a pretty and a capable woman. Worse yet, you are so famous that you’re not Zhuang Zhidie for yourself any longer; you belong to all of society, and even a hint of something out of the ordinary can create trouble. Can you take that risk? Could you bear up under that sort of trouble? If it came, my love for you would be your downfall. So after that first day, I told myself that it was a one-time fling and that I mustn’t allow myself to get in any deeper, and I should just treat you as a friend when we met again. But I can’t control myself. Zhuang-ge, don’t laugh at me for saying this. Let me finish. How this will end, whether or not you want to marry me, is beyond my control. I just want to tell you to your face, because it will make me feel so much better.” She lay motionless, face down, when she finished. Her revelation had caught Zhuang by surprise, but it only made her more endearing. He took her in his arms and looked into her eyes. A sudden sadness sent his tears flowing.

“I wouldn’t dare laugh at you, Wan’er. I can only thank you. You’ve had all of this on your mind, but do you know how unsettled I’ve been? When I first arrived in this city a decade ago and saw that wonderful clock tower, I vowed to make a name for myself. I worked hard to achieve a bit of fame, but at great cost. I often thought that Xijing, this big city, meant nothing to me. What here truly belonged to me? Nothing but my name, that was all. My name, and yet it was often used by others. When I went out, there were people who worshipped me and fawned over me, but I didn’t understand what I had done to deserve their attention. Were they mistaken? Was it simply because of the articles I’d written? What were they, anyway? I knew I had made a name for myself without achieving much. I wanted to write something I was happy with, but I couldn’t, not at the moment. That made me ashamed, something others mistook as a sign of modesty. What did I have to be modest about? I was tormented by a pain I couldn’t share with anyone, since no one would have understood. Meng Yunfang is my best friend, but I couldn’t talk to him about this because he said I complained too much. Niu Yueqing is a good wife, and in other people’s view I should thank my lucky stars to have found a wife like her. But she’s not someone I can share my thoughts with, either. I was often depressed, so naturally I didn’t talk much at home, which made her wonder what was wrong with me. As a result, she griped about trivial household matters. It was my fault that we quarreled. The more we fought, the less we communicated with each other. Just think, how was I supposed to write something good under those circumstances? With no inspiration, I felt anxious. I blamed others and I blamed my fate, so I wound up agitated and irritated. I wondered if I had used up all my talent and was finished. My health had suffered for a year or more. My nerves were shot, and my sex drive was nearly nonexistent. That was when I met you. I can honestly say that I’ve known a fair number of women, but they were all mere acquaintances. Some of the people around me take delight in talking about sexual indulgence, but it’s not something I condone, for I can’t imagine how anyone can do that without an emotional attachment. I would rather masturbate than have random sex and just walk away. I don’t know why my heart stirred when I met you, and I have no idea where I found the nerve to do what I did. I think you’re wonderful. You hold an attraction I can’t describe. It’s like cadence to sound or flame to fire. You’re a real woman. What I’m most grateful for is your acceptance of my love. You make me feel like a man again when we’re together. You stir up surging passions inside me, making me feel that I’m not finished yet, that I still have some good stories left to write. 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? I don’t like it when my fame becomes a burden, but I have to think of my reputation. A huge storm would erupt if I were to ask for a divorce now. What would people in leadership positions, or my friends and family, think of me? What would Niu Yueqing do? Unlike ordinary people, the trouble for me would not end in two weeks or even two months. Wan’er, I’m telling you this so you can understand how difficult this is for me. I’m not trying to sweet-talk you; I’m just telling you what’s on my mind. 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.” He kissed her. “Give me a smile.”

She did. They collapsed onto the bed again, and he climbed on top of her. “Can you do it again?” she asked.

“I can, and I will.”

Then they heard someone calling out in the hallway, “Time for the meeting. It’s meeting time.”

He checked his watch; it was five past two. “We can’t,” he whispered. So they got up and quickly dressed.

“I’m the first speaker at the afternoon session.”

“Who would imagine that you’d be giving an important talk just moments after you’ve had sex? When you appear on TV tonight, many people will see you and say, ‘Look, that’s my idol, Zhuang Zhidie.’ But not me, for I’ll be saying to myself that I know how big that thing in his pants is.”

He bit her neck playfully. “I’ll leave first,” he said. “You wait till the hallway is empty.”

After he left, she brushed her hair, redrew her brows, and touched up her lipstick, then straightened up the bed. She waited until all was quiet outside before slipping out like a leaf on the wind.

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

Jia Pingwa is a Chinese novelist and short story writer. His novels include Shang State, White Night, I Am a Farmer, and Shaanxi Opera, which won the Mao Dun Literature Prize.

Howard Goldblatt is an award-winning translator of numerous works of contemporary Chinese literature, including seven novels by Mo Yan, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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