# Chen Huansheng Goes Downtown by Gao Xiaosheng

I once had a pen name, Chen Huansheng.
——Mr. Huang

# One

The “Funnel Household Head” Chen Huansheng, today leisurely goes up to the city.

Just as a cold wave passed, the weather improved, a gentle breeze blew, the sun was warm, Chen Huansheng had a full stomach, dressed in new clothes, carrying a clean travel bag filled with things. Perhaps it was his strength or the light bag, swinging back and forth, as if he was carrying a bundle of grass, not worrying at all. Tall and with long legs, the thirty miles to the city could not withstand his swaying. Despite usually not taking a vehicle even when carrying a heavy load, today it was like he was empty-handed, especially since the sun was high and arriving in the city too early. He deliberately slowed down, strolling leisurely along the way.

Why did he go to the city? He went to the city to do business. After storing the rice, finishing sowing the wheat, selling surplus grain and hay, and distributing food and fuel, during this free time, he went out to earn some money to buy odds and ends. With the free market opened, he didn’t engage in speculation but sold a bit of agricultural products in a straightforward manner.

What did he sell? Oil ropes1. Made from his own flour and oil, handmade by himself. Made and sold on the same day, crispy and fragrant, fresher and tastier than the stores. The bag was packed neatly, some with five rolls per bag, some with ten rolls, looking nice and clean. In total six pounds, selling all of them, would earn a steady three yuan.

What did he plan to do with the money? He planned to buy a brand new, good-looking hat. Honestly, after the age of three, in the past forty-five years, he had never bought a hat. Before liberation, he was poor and couldn’t afford it; after liberation, as a young man, he didn’t need it. Since the “Cultural Revolution,” when he couldn’t even get enough to eat, dressing up was not a priority. Even though he was getting older, he was afraid of catching a cold. Being helpless, luckily someone gave him a “Funnel Household Head” hat; hence, he had no choice but to wear it without spending any money. After the division in ‘78, the hat disappeared. At that time, he felt a lightness on his head, not realizing the cold. This year seemed to be harsher, with two severe cold spells, making him shiver and sneeze, making life difficult. He needed to buy a hat. Luckily, this was not a big deal, and with these few bucks, he would make the money back in one trip to the city.

Chen Huansheng was carefree, his spirit and attitude were different from last year. He was accustomed to tough days, now things were looking up, and he believed they would only get better. Was he not satisfied? He was more than satisfied. With some flesh on his body and a smile on his face, there were times at midnight when he woke up, thinking about having rice and clothes at home, feeling like a real family. This made him excited, unable to sleep, urging his wife to chat and gossip with him.

Speaking of chatting, it touched upon Chen Huansheng’s shortcomings. He could talk to his wife frequently, but he often remained silent around others. It was not that he didn’t want to talk, but he had nothing to say. Other people could talk endlessly and he admired that. He did not understand how others came across so many new things, or thought of so many unique ideas, or had such strange experiences, or remembered so many intriguing stories, or narrated them so convincingly. He was helpless, suffering from an inability to inquire. After a stroll, he’d come back only saying, “The streets were crowded today” or “sparse,” “there were pigs in the pigsty,” “cabbages were discounted but wouldn’t sell”… just ordinary things. His experiences were similar to most people in the village, neither exceptional nor interesting to anyone. It was just bland talk, nothing worth mentioning. He couldn’t understand books; watching plays and listening to stories, he couldn’t remember them. After watching “Journey to the West,” his wife asked him to narrate, but all he said was, “Sun Wukong was the most ruthless, as he killed them all.” Unsatisfied, she then asked who White Bone Spirit was, and he replied, “It was a demon transformed.” His son, cleverly, clarified, “White Bone Spirit did not transform into a demon, she transformed into a demon from a White Bone Spirit.” At least he wasn’t entirely wrong. He couldn’t come up with fresh ideas, like farming; all he could say was, “To plant wheat, you need to break the soil with a hoe.”

Like this, the business of selling oil ropes was not his invention. Many people had already done it for some time, and he learned from everyone about the materials used, processing, packaging, prices, profits, the best places, times to buy, and good sales locations. If he boasted to others, wouldn’t that be a joke? Even the harsh ones would taunt him, “Hey! Even the ‘Funnel Household Head’ is now selling oil ropes, what news!” It was better to stay quiet.

Nowadays, for this reason, he always felt shorter than others. During leisure evenings, people gathered to chat, but he only listened and never spoke. Others also avoided looking at him while speaking, knowing he wouldn’t answer, making it seem like he didn’t exist. He had no choice but to feel inferior and envious. He didn’t know the term “spiritual life,” but after his life improved, he longed for it. Wherever there was something to listen to, he liked to go there, wherever there was a performance, he liked to watch. If there was nothing to listen to or watch, he found it dull. Once, during a casual conversation, an expert posed a question, “Who do you admire the most in our team?” He couldn’t help but respond, “Lulong Fei is the fiercest.” When asked why, as a storyteller, he was fierce, he said, “I admire him for being able to tell stories, I respect his mouth.” This brought about loud laughter from the others.

Hence, he felt embarrassed, realizing he didn’t know how to speak, being laughed at by others. It was better to keep silent.

# Two

Of course, Chen Huansheng’s desire had nothing to do with the bigger picture. It just lingered near his head, only raising its head sometimes during awkward moments, creating a little hope for himself. For example, while selling oil ropes in the city now, all he could think about was the new hat.

Despite slowing down his pace, when he reached the county town, it was not even six o’clock in the evening. Not in a rush to do business, he first found a tea stall, paid a penny for a cup of hot tea, nibbled on a few pieces of dried pancakes he had brought for his dinner, filled his stomach, and then headed towards the train station. Walking along the streets, he wandered into a department store, inquiring if they had the hat he wanted to buy and how much it cost. After checking three stores, he found one that he liked. Suddenly, he remembered he had forgotten to bring money. He had thought of selling the oil ropes to make a profit and then buy the hat, but didn’t expect the store to close before the ropes were sold. So, even if he made money, he could only buy the hat the next day. However, he didn’t usually stay in the city overnight, with no relatives or family, he always returned by night, and it was clear he couldn’t buy the hat this time, facing a few days with a bare head.

Feeling a bit disappointed, he noticed his head feeling even colder. It was close to eight o’clock when he reached the train station. Although it was still early, since he was there, he chose a spot, opened his bag, displayed his goods, and set up his stall. The station was crowded, but Chen Huansheng knew it wouldn’t be easy to find customers as they were all full from dinner, unlikely to buy his oil ropes unless children pestered their parents. Only when passengers arrived or departed by train, would he be able to make some sales. He knew there was a train at 9:40 pm and another at 10:30 pm. By those times, the oil ropes would surely be sold out because it was close to midnight, and shops were closing; food places were limited, and passengers would be hungry, naturally eager to buy. If he couldn’t sell out by 10:30 pm, there was another train at 11:20 pm, but that was too late, and he would rather keep a few for himself than wait, avoiding a sleepless night.

As expected, Chen Huansheng’s oil ropes were sold out after 10:30 pm. Passengers getting off the trains rushed to buy, in a frenzy, reaching out their hands to grab, making him feel dizzy. After selling, upon calculating, he found that he was short three cents. Dizzy from the rush, fearing he had miscalculated, he carefully recalculated, but still found a three-cent shortage. It seemed someone had slyly taken the oil ropes without paying. He sighed, accepting his misfortune. He already knew that you couldn’t report the sale of oil ropes to the authorities, and those who purchased them were doing it discreetly and wouldn’t pay openly, so some magic was required. He was always cautious, yet he still lost some, it was like being outnumbered. He had no choice but to accept it, at least he made a three yuan profit.

Another sigh, and he thought of heading back victorious. Who knew when he stood up, his legs felt weak, his knees shaking, feeling weak all over. He was startled, was he getting sick? During the business, he was too focused to notice, now that his heart settled, he felt unwell. Initially, he thought his throat was hoarse from bargaining, now feeling a fire rising in his throat; touching his forehead, it was indeed burning up, a cold breeze making his scalp uncomfortable. Helpless, he thought of finding a cup of hot tea to quench his thirst. The tea stall was closed, and he remembered a water supply spot at the station, despite the hygiene concerns, as most passengers brought their own cups, leaving the cups aside to save effort. Regardless, he didn’t care about hygiene, cupping his hands under the flowing hot water from the faucet and drank. The water was scalding, but with his hands being hot too, he could endure it. After a few sips, he felt a little better. However, the thought of going home seemed extremely difficult. Normally, those thirty miles seemed bearable, but now they seemed like ten thousand miles away, making it hard to embark on the journey.

Finding a place to sit down, he endured the discomfort, feeling that his plight was entirely due to forgetting to bring money to buy the hat first, ultimately catching a cold. One wrong move and he had lost everything; unable to move forward or backward, it was truly embarrassing. If things worsened, with no one he knew around, delaying medical attention could mean risking his life. Yet, thinking again, Chen Huansheng was a dignified man, living an honest life, with no guilt in his heart. Spending a few years leisurely would be beneficial, there was no need to rush. Thinking about this, Chen Huansheng felt relieved. His mouth was dry, unable to laugh aloud, but the corners of his mouth curled into a smile. He raised his right hand, lightly patted his right leg with it, sighed, and lay down on the chair.

# Three

Waking up from a deep sleep, Chen Huansheng found himself in broad daylight. His body felt weak, his mind foggy, and his eyelids heavy. With an itchy throat, he coughed a few times lazily without bothering to open his eyes. Turning over, he felt a tremor throughout his body, as if his heart was being pulled by a string, causing him discomfort. A touch confirmed that he was lying on a large, coarse rattan bed. Startled, he quickly straightened himself out, closed his eyes, trying to figure out how he ended up there. Amidst confusion, he gradually recollected the encounter with the County Party Secretary, Wu, and his car, slowly connecting the dots.

Fortune seemed to favor Chen Huansheng that year. Whenever he faced emergencies, there was always a lifesaver. Running a high fever and passing out briefly, a Jeep arrived at the station, carrying County Secretary Wu heading to a meeting in the provincial capital the next day. Arriving at the station at 11:40 PM, Wu decided to wait and noticed Chen Huansheng, asleep in the waiting room. Recognizing him from his two-month stay at Chen Huansheng’s production team in the fall, Wu was amused and approached him. Upon nudging him, Wu discovered a flattened bundle beneath him, fearing that something might have been stolen. Chen Huansheng didn’t wake up despite the nudges. Being used to playful antics with farmers, Wu playfully pinched his nose, only to realize that Chen Huansheng was sick. Wu helped him up, eventually waking him up.

Unaware of these events, Chen Huansheng vaguely remembered nodding at Wu’s inquiry upon encountering him. His recollections were foggy, but he managed to piece together the intervention from Wu and the driver, escorting him to a clinic, assessing medications and offering accommodations for rest. Chen Huansheng was moved by Wu’s kindness, considering their relationship merely casual. Reflecting on a shared meal at his house during Wu’s stint at the village, Chen Huansheng appreciated Wu’s commitment to the grassroots.

Feeling touched, Chen Huansheng’s eyes moistened as he looked around the immaculate room he was in. Unwilling to dirty the pristine bedding, he dressed quietly, careful not to make a sound, feeling like a thief on the run. Examining the luxurious furnishings, he marveled at the grandeur, hesitant to even sit on the elaborate chairs. Quietly tiptoeing out, he felt indebted towards Wu Secretary for the extravagant hospitality.

Stepping into the corridor with freezing feet, he noticed others wearing shoes, prompting him to do the same. Noticing the lavish treatment, he realized the luxurious room likely incurred a substantial fee. Concerned about the cost, Chen Huansheng approached the front desk to settle the bill.

Approaching the girl engrossed in a newspaper, Chen Huansheng inquired about the room charge. After a brief exchange, he was informed of the five yuan fee for a night. Flustered by the unexpected expense, Chen Huansheng’s heart raced. Feeling uneasy, he unintentionally blurted out, “I arrived here in the middle of the night!” The girl, recognizing his mistake, sternly remarked that regardless of the arrival time, a full day’s fee was applicable until noon.

Aware of his blunder, Chen Huansheng reluctantly paid the fee and retrieved his belongings. Reflecting on his costly mistake, he quietly reentered the room. Overcoming his initial reservations, he confidently sat on the exquisite chair, savoring a stale cake and hot water.

Comfortable and relieved, Chen Huansheng felt refreshed, as if he had sweated out his worries. Reflecting on his purchase of tranquility, he mulled over his fate, treating it as a mere insurance against misfortune.

After finishing the biscuit, he felt a pang of guilt again, why spend five yuan! The hat he set his eyes on at the department store last night was clearly priced at two yuan and five jiao each, so why did he have to spend the money for two hats after sleeping for one night? Even Shen Wanshan2 has to live frugally; as a member of the agricultural cooperative, he only earned seventy cents per work point last year. Working seven days for one night and still losing money is ridiculous! From midnight yesterday to now, only about seven to eight hours have passed. He almost has to work one day’s worth of work every hour. It’s really unfortunate. His bones couldn’t stand lying on that kind of bed! Now that he can’t afford anything else, the landlady said he could stay until noon. That’s fine, he’ll sleep until noon then, making the best of the situation. Yes, that’s the idea.

Chen Huansheng is indeed a forward-thinking person. Once he has made up his mind, he will go for it. But just now, after breaking a sweat and eating, he didn’t feel comfortable. Wanting to wash his face with a towel, but there was none. So, he used a fancy embroidered handkerchief to scrub his face dry. Without taking off his clothes, he pulled the blanket over his head to rest. This time he doesn’t care if he dirties something, he spent five yuan. Even if the room turns into a pigsty, it’s not worth it! But he couldn’t sleep. He remembered Secretary Wu. This kind person probably just wanted to show concern for him, didn’t expect that he couldn’t handle such high-class attention. But people are busy catching trains, how could they think of everything! Everything is strange. He can only blame himself for not buying a hat earlier, getting a cold, unable to walk, running into Secretary Wu, staying at the guesthouse, and spending all the profit from the oil rope, eroding more than one dollar of his capital… Should he buy the hat or not? He decided firmly: He must buy it, not buying it would only bring bad luck!

Thinking about the oil rope made him feel hungry again. That piece of stale biscuit couldn’t satisfy him enough. Unfortunately, business was so good last night that all the oil ropes were sold out. If only a few bags were left, that would have been better. Now it’s already getting late. If he stayed in bed longer, he would only get hungrier. He doesn’t have food stamps. Where would he go for lunch! When he couldn’t walk due to hunger later, should he stay another night here? He panicked, kicked off the blanket, grabbed his travel bag, and left. Although this place is good, it’s not somewhere to stay for long. Even though he still has two or three hours left, he can’t take them with him. He reluctantly decided to leave.

As he walked out the door, he had no other thoughts but heading straight to the department store to buy a hat with the remaining money from the oil rope, which he promptly wore on his head and left.

Along the way, admiring the wild scenery, it was easy to walk through. As he neared his home, he suddenly realized that this trip has almost wiped out all his capital and profit. He’s about to face his wife and can’t settle the bill. He must come up with a plan to handle her. What should he say? Should he say he lost it? No, he never gambles. Should he say he spent it all? No, he’s not a glutton. Should he say it was stolen from him? No, he wasn’t careful and would still get scolded. Should he say he gave it to a young girl? No, his wife would become suspicious… What should he do?

Chen Huansheng pondered and answered himself, pondering left and right, none of the ideas seemed right. Suddenly, a bright idea struck him. He slapped his thigh and exclaimed joyfully, “I got it.” He realized that this trip to downtown, with all its memorable experiences, made the five yuan worth every penny. He finally had something to be proud of. He would surely boast about this to everyone. Who else in the entire brigade has ridden Secretary Wu’s car? Who else has stayed in a deluxe room for five yuan a night? He can tell everyone, let’s see who dares to say he has nothing to boast! Let’s see who dares to look down on him, hm! His spirits lifted, he felt taller in an instant. His wife was no longer a concern to him. He found a way to deal with her. As long as he mentions Secretary Wu and says that the five yuan was given by Secretary Wu and it was Secretary Wu who allowed him to spend it, his wife would surely comply. Ah, there are rare moments when everything goes right. He spent a mere five yuan and bought himself spiritual satisfaction. He truly struck a good bargain, feeling happy as he briskly walked back home.

Indeed, from that day on, Chen Huansheng’s status significantly improved. Not only did people in the village want to hear him speak, but the attitude of the brigade cadres towards him became much friendlier. And whenever he walked down the street, there were always people pointing at him, telling others, “He rode in Secretary Wu’s car,” or, “He stayed in a deluxe room for five yuan a day”…The procurement officer from the commune machinery factory once ran into him, patted his shoulder and said, “I’m not that lucky, I can’t even get a room in the guesthouse every now and then, let alone a room like that.”

From then on, Chen Huansheng always felt confident, and he approached tasks with much more vigor than before.

Yifan Public Welfare Library Proofread

  1. Oil Rope: A type of fried dough twist, a traditional Chinese snack. 

  2. Shen Wanshan: A character from the Chinese novel “The Water Margin,” known for his frugality.