The Kiss (Yi Wen) by Shi Tuo, 1946

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by Shi Tuo, 1946

"The Kiss" ("Yi wen") was published in Shi Tuo's collection Records of Orchard City (Guoyuan cheng ji; 1946). The setting of the story is the large market town of Orchard City, a fictional place meant to symbolize Chinese city life. The city itself, with its streets, its shops and other buildings, its pagoda, and its typical denizens, appears to be the central character of the story. The narrator does not intrude on the story, but he is perceptive and nostalgic, even though he is not certain of the exact years in which the events of the story take place.

Anyone familiar with modern Chinese history, however, realizes that the first part of the story begins just after the Chinese Revolution of 1911-12, when the Qing dynasty gave way to a republic and the common people thought that they were the "masters of old China." The second part must be about 13 or 14 years later. At the end of the first part, Sister Liu is 17 years old when she leaves Orchard City as the concubine, or secondary wife, of a wealthy government official. When she returns, she has just entered middle age, suggesting perhaps that she is 30 or 31. Thus, the second part takes place in about 1925 or 1926, just before Chiang Kai-shek began his final push to unify China and create a Nationalist government.

Apart from his nostalgia, the narrator is objective and presents only what he has seen or been able to presume on the basis of general knowledge. He is sensitive to the city and to its streets and buildings, as well as to the lives of the inhabitants. The narrator recalls the "good times" just before the revolution of 1911-12, "when life was simple and easy." He recalls the New Year's Eve Lantern Festival (Dengjie) and the Turtle Mountain (Bieh-shan) lanterns. He recalls the birthday of the city god (Cheng Huang) and the songs of the Peking Opera. He also remembers the bronze coins of the Qing dynasty. Round with square holes in the center, they were symbols of heaven and earth.

The narrator is especially sensitive to the sounds of the city and makes use of onomatopoeic words. The hammer of the tinsmith goes "Bong! Bong! Bong!" and the hammer of the coppersmith "Tang! Tang! Tang!" The carters' donkeys bray, and the bells the donkeys wear sound " huang-lang. " Various noises issue from a tavern, including the clamor of waiters and the sounds of "drinking games." The narrator even imagines that he hears the druggist's pestle being worked in the mortar, the sound amounting to saying, "medicine in, sickness out, medicine in, sickness out."

After Orchard City itself Sister Liu (liu means "lovely") is the most important character. She is 17, attractive, obedient, and helpful to her mother, who is the widow of a yamen runner, a yamen being the office of the city magistrate, a civil officer charged with administration of the law. Since the age of 12 Sister Liu has run her mother's snack stand at the intersection across from the tinsmith's shop. Mother Liu makes her living mainly as a go-between and wheeler-dealer, whether the deal is legal or illegal. Indeed, the narrator asserts that she is "the same type" as the notorious Mother Wang of the popular Chinese novels The Water Margin (Shui-hu chuan) and The Golden Lotus, the English title of Gin Ping Mei. Two other important characters are the tinsmith's apprentice, Tigerfish (Hu Yu), and the nameless assistant to the local magistrate.

According to the narrator youth begins to assert its sexuality at about the age of 17, and so it is appropriate that the tinsmith's apprentice is named Tigerfish. To the Chinese a tiger is not only courageous and the king of beasts, but it also is a creature of yang, that is, a bearer of the male principle. The name Hu Yu is significant in another way, for yu (fish) is associated with sexuality, the expression "fish and water come together" signifying sexual intercourse.

Tigerfish has secretly fallen for Sister Liu, and one day when his master is away, Tigerfish sees his opportunity to display his feelings to her. He obtains some pig bristles from the butcher, and when he sees the girl with her head buried in her needlework, he slips up behind her, thrusts the bristles down her collar, and runs away. She chases him into the shop, where they grapple, at the same time laughing together. When Tigerfish suddenly embraces and kisses her, Sister Liu turns red with shame and flees in search of a place to hide. She arrives home to find that her mother has already been informed of the incident. Her mother chastises her, saying that she has tried to raise her daughter properly. She does not want her daughter "spoiled" by such a one as Tigerfish, a tinsmith's apprentice.

Actually, the mother's ambition as a widow with a daughter is to discover a rich and lecherous old man of high social standing who will reward her handsomely for giving him a virgin concubine. In the old China such a concubine was a secondary wife with a status below the primary wife, and a man was allowed as many concubines as he could afford. The mother finds a suitable man in the secretary to the magistrate of Orchard City. Soon after the marriage, however, Sister Liu's husband is transferred to another city, and the family moves away. After Sister Liu and her mother leave Orchard City, their friends discuss her and her mother's good fortune.

The themes of the story begin to become clear. Adults often feel a nostalgia for the past, especially for the days of their youth. At the beginning of the first part, the narrator addresses the reader, pleading that he "try to imagine the good times in Orchard City." In the second part it is nostalgia that prompts Sister Liu, now apparently a wealthy widow and her own person, to return to Orchard City. The passing of time brings change, of course, and after a long period of time the changes may appear shocking and discouraging.

Such is the case with Sister Liu. The busiest part of the city is no longer the street intersection she knew as a girl when she tended her mother's stand. The busy area is now at the railroad station on the edge of the city. She learns that time can also dim a person's memory and that "fate can often play with people, as a playful kiss from a young man changed her and her mother's lives so dramatically. Further, she learn that fate played with the life of Tigerfish, who, because his master went bankrupt and lost his shop, never became a tinsmith.

Now a husband and father, Tigerfish pulls a ricksha transporting people from the train station to the inner city. Although she recognizes Tigerfish despite the change in his appearance, he does not recognize her. Her nostalgia leads her to inquire of him if the city's pagoda, a towerlike Buddhist shrine, still stands and if its fox-fairy, a fox that could disguise itself as an attractive woman and thus take advantage of men, still inhabits it. Sister Liu learns that Master Kui, the former political boss of the city, has been toppled from power, that the society leader Twelfth Beauty has lost her teeth but still continues to abuse people, and that the carter who used to sing lyrics from the Peking Opera hanged himself. Shocked, disappointed, and dismayed by her visit, Sister Liu flees back to her place of residence.

"The Kiss" is a parable-like story. Its meaning is tied to Chinese history and culture, from which it derives its credibility, its truth to life. By way of comparison and contrast, the reader of "The Kiss" might read Anton Chekhov's story of the same title.

—Richard P. Benton