Read The Boat to Redemption Online

Authors: Su Tong

Tags: #FIC019000, #FIC051000

The Boat to Redemption

Also by Su Tong

Raise the Red Lantern
(a novella collection)

My Life as Emperor


Mad Woman on the Bridge
(a short-story collection)


This edition first published in hardcover in the United States in 2011 by

The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

141 Wooster Street

NewYork, NY 10012

For bulk and special sales, please contact [email protected]

First published in China in 2009 by the People’s Literature Publishing House

This translation first published in Great Britain in 2010 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © 2009 by Su Tong

English translation copyright © 2010 by Howard Goldblatt

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known
or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by
a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review
written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

ISBN: 978-1-59020-878-6


live on dry land, in houses. But my father and I live on a barge. Nothing surprising about that, since we are boat people;
the terra firma does not belong to us.

Everyone knows that the Sunnyside Fleet plies the waters of the Golden Sparrow River all year round, so life for Father and
me hardly differs from that of fish: whether heading upriver or down, most of our time is spent on the water. It’s been eleven
years. I’m still young and strong, but my father, a rash and careless man, is sinking inexorably into the realm of the aged.

Ever since the autumn he has been exhibiting strange symptoms, some age-related, some not. The pupils of his eyes are shrinking
and becoming increasingly cloudy – sort of fish-like. He hardly ever sleeps any more; from morning to night he observes life
on the shore through fish eyes filled with dejection, occasionally managing to doze a bit in the early morning hours, as he
fills the cabin with a faint fishy odour, the earthy smell of a carp, at times especially heavy – even worse, I think, than
a dead fish on a line. Sighs of torment escape from his mouth one minute and transparent bubbles merrily appear the next.
I’ve noticed spots on the backs of his hands and along his spine; a few are brown or dark red, but most glisten like silver,
and it’s these that are beginning
to worry me. I can’t help thinking that my father will soon grow scales on his body. He has lived an extraordinary life, and
I’m afraid he’s on the verge of turning into a fish.

Anyone who lives on the banks of the Golden Sparrow River is familiar with the martyr Deng Shaoxiang. Hers is a name that
appeals to all, refined or common, a stirring musical note in the region’s revolutionary history. My father’s fate is tied
up with the ghost of Deng Shaoxiang. For Ku Wenxuan, my father, was once Deng Shaoxiang’s son. Please note that I said ‘once’.
I had no choice, I had to say it, however inconsequential a word it might seem to you. You see, it is the key to unlocking
the story of my father’s life.

The heroic deeds of underground Party member Deng Shaoxiang, of which there is both a long and a short version, are known
to all local residents. The succinct version has been etched on a granite memorial stone and erected at the Milltown chess
pavilion where she was killed. Each year, on tomb-sweeping day, children from throughout the region come to Milltown – on
foot for those who live nearby and by boat or tractor for those coming long distances – and when they reach the pier they
are greeted by road signs that point to a hexagonal chess pavilion to the southwest:

Tomb-sweeping, straight ahead three hundred yards

Straight ahead one hundred yards

Straight ahead thirty yards

In fact there’s no need to bother with the signs, since on tomb-sweeping day a banner with a conspicuous slogan stretching
across the top of the pavilion is visible from the pier:


The memorial stone, some two metres high and a metre wide, stands inside the pavilion, and while the homage is virtually identical
to all commemorations of martyrs, children are expected to commit it to memory before returning home, so they can use it in
school essays. But what visitors find most impressive is the bas relief on the back of the stone: it is the image of a woman
with a basket on her back, awesome anger in her eyes as she gazes to the southeast; and if you look carefully, you can see
a child’s head poking up over the edge of the basket, a tiny round head. Look even closer and you can see a little tuft of

Every place has its legends. Deng Shaoxiang’s legend is a bewildering one. The most popular version has it that her father
owned a coffin shop in the town of Phoenix, which earned her, his only child, the nickname Coffin Girl. Just how she strode
on to the path of revolution is a bone of contention. Hometown people say she developed a loathing for evil people and evil
deeds in childhood, and constantly sought ways to better herself. While other girls sought riches over poverty, she sought
poverty over riches. She had uncommonly good looks, her family was well off, and yet she fell in love with an impoverished
fruit-grower who sold Chinese bayberries at the school entrance. But when we sift the sands of gossip to find a kernel of
truth, we see that this version reveals only selected facts about her life and is little more than propaganda: that is, she
chose her path for love, for an ideal. A second version of events, once popular in and around her husband’s birthplace of
Nine Dragons Hill, tells a different story. Soon after eloping to Nine Dragons Hill with her peasant lover, so the story goes,
she had a change of heart, unhappy with a life of tending fruit trees and enduring the taunts of the muddle-headed
rustics around her. At first, she voiced her unhappiness only to her husband. But before long, her in-laws suffered from her
tirades too, and the arguments grew so violent that one day she simply stamped her foot and marched off to join the revolution.
Most people felt that this account had the air of marketplace gossip and made Deng Shaoxiang appear unsavoury. Had she joined
the revolution simply because of unrealistic aspirations? Had she become a revolutionary out of pettiness? This version of
events made the rounds for a while, like an evil wind, but it was relatively short-lived. A team of investigators was sent
to stamp out the rumour. Three public-criticism sessions were called, at which one of Deng Shaoxiang’s sisters-in-law plus
the wife of a landlord and two ageing rich peasants were openly criticized. From then on, even among the poor peasants of
Nine Dragons Hill, no one dared spread such talk.

People from both Deng Shaoxiang’s hometown of Phoenix and her husband’s hometown of Nine Dragons Hill found what she had done
unimaginable. Who wouldn’t? This frail young woman took on the perilous task of smuggling guns and ammunition to guerrilla
fighters who, like her, moved stealthily up and down the banks of the Golden Sparrow River during a reign of terror. It was
a role for which she was supremely gifted and well placed. The Phoenix coffin shop was an ideal operations base. News of a
death in the area always travelled first to her father’s shop, and whenever there was a need to bring weapons to the fighters,
she would return to her parents’ home, secrete the weapons and ammunition in a corpse-filled coffin, then dress in funeral
garb and wail all the way to the cemetery. Once the coffin was in the ground, her mission was accomplished. The rest was up
to the guerrillas. And so people said that Deng Shaoxiang relied upon three treasures to carry out her staggering task: a
coffin, a corpse and a cemetery.

The mission that day was relatively easy: she was to travel
to the Milltown chess pavilion and deliver five pistols to an underground comrade known only as the Chess King. Disdaining
the enemy, she chose not to find out if there’d been any recent deaths in the Milltown area, and neglected to learn the location
of the Milltown cemetery. She merely confirmed the name of the contact and where he was supposed to be. For the first time,
she chose a basket containing a child instead of a coffin to deliver the weapons. She could not have known that this departure
from her three treasures would seal her doom: she would not return from Milltown.

After secreting the five pistols in the baby’s swaddling clothes, Deng Shaoxiang hoisted the basket on to her back and boarded
a coal barge for the trip to Milltown. At the pier she asked for directions to the chess pavilion.

‘That is where men play Chinese chess,’ a man said, pointing southwest to a six-sided pavilion. ‘What business does a woman
have there? Do you play?’

She patted the basket on her back. ‘Me, play chess? No, the baby’s father is watching the Chess King play, and I’ve come for

Deng Shaoxiang stepped into the pavilion, where two men in long robes were in the middle of a game. One, a police commander
in disguise, had a cultured look, exactly what she’d expected of the Chess King. The other, a fair-skinned, keen-eyed man
wearing glasses, was peering around. Not knowing which of the two was her contact, she fixed her gaze on the chessboard and
uttered the secret phrase: ‘It’s going to rain. Time to come home and bring in the corn.’

One of the men looked into the sky; the other coolly sized up Deng Shaoxiang, picked up a chess piece and placed it on his
opponent’s square. ‘The corn is in already,’ he said. ‘Now it’s time to take his general!’

Though the secret phrase had been answered correctly, Deng
Shaoxiang did not put down her basket. Seeing the chaotic setup on the board, she suspected that the men did not in fact know
how to play. ‘How will you do that?’ she asked guardedly.

Momentarily stumped for a reply, the police commander glanced at the other man, forcing himself to remain calm, and said,
‘Yes, how will you do that? Tell me.’

The second man gave Deng a sideways glance, his mind racing. ‘Remove the chariot and jump on the steed,’ he said. ‘But the
cannon, ah, what to do with that?’ As he spoke, he let his gaze travel downwards, a salacious glint in his eyes. Then he burst
out laughing. ‘You are very clever, Coffin Girl, but do you know what the cannon is doing? It’s aimed at you!’

Deng blanched and began edging her way out of the pavilion. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘do what you want. I shouldn’t have spoken.
Who am I, a woman, to comment on how men play chess?’

But it was too late, for a gang of men sitting outside the tea shop across the way rushed over, as if attacking an enemy bastion.
Deng stopped at the pavilion steps, seeing that she was surrounded, and stood still. ‘Well, well,’ she said. ‘So many men
to deal with a single woman. You should be ashamed of yourselves.’ Her calm demeanour in the face of danger stunned them all.
But her concern about her appearance nearly cost her her life on the spot. Seeing her reach into her bundle, the nervous policemen
drew their weapons. But what she took out was a compact – she opened it, looked into the tiny mirror and began to powder her
face. ‘
not worried,’ she said. ‘So why should you be? All I ask is for a few moments to powder my face before you kill me. Too bad
I don’t know how to use the weapons I’ve brought. If I did, I’d at least take one of you with me.’

Stung by the rebuke, a policeman ran up and snatched the compact out of her hand. So she reached back into her bundle and
took out a comb. That too was taken from her. Then they took her basket. ‘Hold on,’ she said as she ran after it. ‘You’ll
scare my
baby!’ Pushing her way past the policeman, she bent down to kiss the baby in the basket. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘If you won’t
let me comb my hair, then I’m ready. You can shoot me now.’

With a sneer, the commander said, ‘What do you take us for, a bunch of empty coffins, telling us what we can and can’t do?
First you smuggle guns, then you tell us to shoot you. Well, you’re not getting off that easily.’ He signalled to a man outside
the pavilion, who ran up with a pole and banged it against an overhead beam, knocking down a cloud of dust and a rope. A noose
dangled from the end. With hideous grins, the men clapped their hands.

Momentarily taken aback, Deng Shaoxiang gazed at the beam and at the rope swaying in the autumn breeze like a ghostly pendulum.
Those who heard her last words would remember them all their lives. ‘So instead of shooting me, you’re going to hang me, is
that it? Go ahead if that’s what you want. All I ask is that you don’t leave me with my tongue hanging out. That’s hideous.
You have a pole. Well, if my tongue hangs out, push it back in.’

After the martyr’s death, the weapons hidden in the basket were removed. But what to do with the baby? Eventually someone
– no one knows who – put the baby back into the basket, and someone else – also unknown – took it down to the river. Having
heard that boat people were known for plucking children out of the river, he left the basket on the steps of the pier. But
no boats came and there were no boat people to claim the child. What came was the water. The river rose that night and swept
the mysterious basket from dry land.

Water carried Deng Shaoxiang’s legacy downriver, floating from wave to wave. People on the bank who ran after the nearly-new
basket spotted a clump of water grasses, like a tow rope, carrying the basket along in fits and starts, disappearing and reappearing,
as if warning off anyone who might try to catch it. Ultimately the basket floated to a spot near the town of Horsebridge.
Tired from
its travels, it twirled once or twice before falling into the net of Feng Four, a fisherman. Driven by curiosity, Feng reached
into the net and scooped it up. Inside he discovered an infant who looked strangely like an immortal, naked but for clumps
of grass draped across his yellow skin, which was dotted with beads of water. When he picked the boy up he heard the sound
of sloshing water. And there, at the bottom of the basket, hidden beneath some gourds, was a large red carp, which flipped
into the air before slipping beneath the surface of the river.

My father was once that boy in the relief sculpture on the back of the memorial stone. The person who scooped the basket out
of the Golden Sparrow River, the fisherman Feng Four, lived for many years after Liberation, and it was he who pointed out
my father in the Horsebridge orphanage. What he recognized after the passage of time was not the face of the mystical child,
but the birthmark on his backside. Seven orphan boys, all about the same age, were brought into the sunlight by attendants
and told to expose their backsides for inspection. Filled with the importance of his task, Feng Four walked back and forth
behind the boys. After eliminating four who bore no resemblance, he painstakingly examined the green birthmarks on the backsides
of the remaining three little boys, his hand held high, twitching nervously; everyone present held their breath in anxious
anticipation. Finally his hand landed on the bottom of the tiniest and scrawniest of the three. ‘It’s this one,’ he said.
‘The one with a fish-shaped birthmark. It’s him, I know it is!’

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