The layout of the wine taverns in Lu Town is quite different from those in other towns. There is always an L-shaped counter facing the street. Hot water is kept available at the counter so that it can be used to warm the yellow wine at any time. Laborers, back from work at noon or dusk, would spend 4 coppers to get a bowl of yellow wine – that was the price over 20 years ago and a bowl of wine costs 10 coppers now—where they lean over the counter, drink the warm wine and have their “happy hour“. With one more copper, you can get a dish of salted bamboo shoots or anise beans to go with the wine. If you are willing to pay over 10 coppers, you can buy a meat dish,. But most of the customers are the “Short Jackets” who cannot afford such luxuries, whereas, those who wear robes would stride to the back room, order their wine with some dishes and sit there taking their time to eat and drink.
At age 12, I started to work as a busboy at Xianheng wine tavern located at the entrance of the town. The tavern keeper said that I had a dumb looking face and was probably not smart enough to serve the “robed clientele,” and thus should only work in the front room. The “short jackets” in the front room, although usually easy going, were no less troublesome. Some wouldn’t be satisfied until they saw me scoop out the wine from the wine jar with their own eyes, to make sure that there was no water at the bottom of the pitcher. And even watched me put the pitcher in the hot water. Under such tight surveillance, it was impossible to water down the wine. Therefore, after a few days, the tavern keeper said I couldn’t even do that. Fortunately, due to the influence of my patron, the tavern keeper didn’t dismiss me but he assigned me to the insignificant task of just heating wine.
Since then, I spend all day at the counter, doing my specialized job where I couldn’t make any blunders. The thing that bothered me most was that the job was so monotonous and boring. The tavern keeper always glared at me with a fierce face, and the customers were not friendly either. Therefore, I couldn’t slack off even a little bit, except for a few laughs that Kong Yiji brought to us every time he came to the wine tavern. That’s why I can still remember him.
Kong Yiji was the only one who stood drinking while wearing a robe. He was big and tall, yet he had a wan face, often with bruises showing in his wrinkles, and had a bedraggled grizzly beard. Although he wore a robe, the robe, which was well worn out, seemed not to have been mended nor washed for a decade. He used many obscure words and archaic phrases when he spoke that his speech was unintelligible. Because of his surname Kong, someone picked a nonsensical phrase “Shang Da Ren Kong Yi Ji” from the children’s practice book and used this as a nickname for him, “Kong Yiji.”. Each time, the moment he stepped into the tavern, all the customers would look at him and start laughing. Someone would yell: “Kong Yiji, you got a new scar on your face!” He never answered them, he only spoke to the waiter behind the counter: ‘Two bowls of wine heated and a dish of anise beans.’ He then spread out 9 coppers. The customers then intentionally raised their voices: ”You must have stolen something again.” Kong Yiji with his eyes wide open: ”How can you accuse me, an innocent person without any basis?……” “What kind of innocent person? …I saw with my own eyes that you stole the books from the Hes’ and you were hung up and beaten.” Kong Yiji’s face turned red and the veins on his forehead protruded, while defending himself, said: “Stealing books is not a theft, stealing books…is an intellectuals’ business, it’s not a theft! ” Following that he blurted out those archaic phrases, such as “a nobleman sticks to his principles despite poverty” so on and so forth. The crowd would burst into laughter; and the wine tavern once again became lively and rowdy.
I learned from gossips that Kong Yiji used to go to school, but he didn’t pass any of his academic tests in his studies; nor did he learn any practical skills for earning a living. He got increasingly poorer day by day and was close to becoming a beggar. Fortunately, due to his good calligraphy, he was just able to get by, making copies of books for others. Despite this ability, he had another deficiency in his character – he was very lazy. He wouldn’t sit there working for more than a few consecutive days, and always ended up disappearing with the paper, the writing brush and the ink-slab. After a few of such instances, no one would ask him to be a copyist any more. Kong Yiji couldn’t come up with any other ideas, and resorted to stealing and pilfering things on occasion. But at our tavern, he was more credit worthy than others. He never welched on his promise to pay. Even when he was really tight in money, he would write down the debt on the chalk board and always cleared the debt within a month and was able to erase his name from the chalk board.
After half a bowl of wine, the flush on his face faded. Someone sitting by him asked ” Kong Yiji, can you really read?” Kong Yiji stared at the guy who asked him, with a look of disdain. The guy carried on ”How come you are not even the lowest scholar?” Kong Yiji looked affronted, his face turning dark, and babbled all the obscure and archaic phrases that no one could understand. At this moment, the people all broke into hilarity and the tavern was permeated with a festive air.
At these instances, I laughed along with the people, and those were the moments the tavern keeper never scolded me for laughing. The tavern keeper had also asked such questions to him many times, just to tease him. Kong Yiji knew that he couldn’t have a regular conversation with them, so he turned to the youngsters. Once, he asked me: “Have you ever gone to school?” I nodded. He then said “You have gone to school, so let me test your knowledge. Do you know how to write the character Hui as the anise in the anise beans?” I thought, a bum like him, in what role is he testing me? I turned my back, ignoring him. Kong Yiji waited for a while, then said earnestly: “You can’t, can you? Let me teach you how. Remember it. It will be useful when you become a tavern keeper. You’ll have to do the books.” I thought to myself that I was a long way from becoming a tavern keeper, and our tavern keeper never wrote down anise beans on the books. He was being ridiculous and annoying, so I answered cooly: ”Who needs you to teach? Isn’t that a Hui as in the back and forth under the grass radical?” Kong Yiji seemed excited, tapping the counter with two long nailed fingers, nodding: “Correct, there are four different ways to write the character, do you know all of them?” I became annoyed, scowled and walked away. Kong Yiji was about to write something on the counter with the nail that had been dipped in the wine. Seeing me uncaring, he sighed, looking as if he had been defeated.
There were times when the kids of the neighborhood came over after hearing the laughter from the tavern. They circled Kong Yiji. Kong would give out anise beans to them, one for each. The kids ate the beans, but stayed there, staring at the dish. Kong Yiji felt flustered. He covered the dish with his palm, bending down: ”Not many left, I don’t have many for myself.” He straightened up, took a look at the beans, shaking his head saying pedantically in his old fashion way ”Not many left, are there? There are not.” The kids would scatter with loud laughter. Kong Yiji was always so funny, but without him, the days still went on as usual.
One day, it was two or three days before the mid-autumn festival, when the tavern keeper was pouring over the accounting, he put down the chalk board, saying all of a sudden: ”It has been a while since Kong Yiji was here last time. He still owes me 19 coppers.” At that moment I realized that it indeed had been a while. A drinker said: ”How can he come, his legs were broken during his beating.” The tavern keeper said “Ah.” “He kept stealing. This time, he must have been crazy. He stole from the house of Official Ding. How does one dare to steal from him?” “And then what.” “Then what? First, he had to write a confession, and then was beaten till midnight. His legs were broken.” “And then?” “Then his legs were broken” “After his legs were broken?” ”Then what? … Who knows, he is probably dead.” The tavern keeper stopped asking, and went back to his accounting.
After the mid-autumn festival, it was getting colder every day. Winter was about to begin. Though I was by the fire all day long, I had to wear a cotton-padded jacket. It was in the early afternoon, there was not a single customer. I had my eyes closed while sitting there. Out of the blue there was a voice: “Warm a bowl of wine”. The voice was low, yet familiar. I didn’t see anybody so I got to my feet and looked out. It was Kong Yiji facing the threshold, sitting by the counter. His face was dark and taut, like a skeleton. Wearing a worn out jacket, he sat crossed legs on a reed mat which had a rope over his shoulder. He saw me and said: “Warm a bowl of wine.” The tavern keeper also stuck out his head, saying: ”Kong Yiji, you still owe me 19 coppers.” Kong Yiji owing up, replied with embarrassment, “Oh,that, I promise to pay you back next time. This time I have cash. Give me the good wine.” The tavern keeper was as usual, mocking him: ”Kong Yiji, you stole again.” This time he didn’t try to defend himself and answered simply “Don’t shame me.” “Shame you? If you didn’t steal, why were your legs beaten until broken?” Kong Yiji said in a low voice:” I fell down… I fell…” His eyes seemed to plead to the tavern keeper not to mention it. By then, there were already a few people around, they laughed along with the tavern keeper. I heated the wine, brought it out and placed on the threshold. He took out 4 coppers from the very worn out jacket, and put them in my hand. I saw his hands were muddy, thinking he must have walked here on his hands. Before long, he drank up the wine, walked out with his hands and disappearing while the people were still laughing.
Since then, I hadn’t see Kong Yiji for a long time. Around the end of the year, the tavern keeper took down the chalk board, and said ”Kong Yiji still owes me 19 coppers!” During the Dragon Boat Festival the following year, he said again, “Kong Yiji still owes me 19 coppers!” But he didn’t say it at the mid-autumn festival, and Kong Yiji hadn’t shown up at the end of the year either.
I haven’t seen him since — Kong Yiji is probably dead indeed.
Translation by Sparkling English