Translated by Rachel Henson
His employees dubbed him “Mine Director Niu” as if he were the manager of a large state-owned mine rather the owner of a small independent pit. They even copied the way state mineworkers talk, dropping the word “Director” from the title, their way of feeling up to date and part of the modern world perhaps, so that when they spoke to him it was: “Mine Niu this” and “Mine Niu that.” “Niu” means “cow”, so visitors not in the mining business would momentarily draw a blank. Surely this was a coalmine? What was all this about cows? As far as Mine Niu was concerned, they could call him whatever they liked as long as it wasn’t “Mr Milk It” or some other cow-based witticism.
Mine Niu came out of his office a little after eleven and looked over the low wall towards the entrance of a nearby pit. It was a sloping shaft, the entrance set into a level place about half way up the hill. By craning his head a little, he could take in everything that was happening. The pulley rigged on the metal struts was turning, and then, as the steel tackle came to an end, out rolled six mine-carts piled high with rough-cut coal, each weighing exactly a ton when fully loaded. He loved watching the full carts shunting out of the shaft. The mules shat, the coal rolled out, and as long as it kept rolling he knew there was nothing to worry about; everything was working as normal below.
He loved the sound of coal pouring from the full carts into the long metal pans, shhh, like wind through a pinewood. It was music to him; his whole being eased at the sound; unquenchable cheerfulness lighting his face. The black stuff was in high demand right now, and as the days got colder, the queue of waiting dumper trucks grew. Day in, day out, coal would pour from the opening at the far end of the long metal pans straight into the trucks below without once touching the ground, and as the product rolled out, so the money rolled in: a ton of coal was worth between two and three hundred yuan. Large red characters above the entrance to the mineshaft proclaimed: “Black Coal Yields Gold.” The scene before him lived up to the words; the dark stuff shunting out from the mine below took on a certain lustre in his mind’s eye.
His spirits fell abruptly as a sedan drove through the main gate. He knew it was a government inspector, well before he could make out the words written on the side of the car, merely by the way it hardly slowed as it swept through the gate towards him. The fact that his pit was in a far-flung corner of the mountains didn’t stop fox-nosed officials from braving the lapsed state of the road, some of which lay along a dry river bed, to reach him. Government reps from a whole host of different departments, Health and Safety, National Resources, Environmental Protection, the Tax Department, would descend on him in turn and sometimes all at once. It didn’t make any odds where this one was from, he would still have to tug his forelock, play the fool and dance attendance. Such a visit would inevitably involve some sort of cash outlay. If he mucked it up and offended them in some way, they would do their worst, picking up on any fault with the mine, which could mean a fine upwards of ten thousand yuan.
He viewed the approaching car with dismay, beginning to panic. Trying to avoid the official was an automatic reflex; his first instinct was to hide. But it was too late to escape the premises. He turned and slipped through the nearest door, the Guard Unit office at the end of the long line of mine buildings – a row of nine south-facing rooms. His office was five rooms in, right at the centre, following the convention that the most important person at a gathering of leaders gets to sit in the middle for the photograph. A red brick patio, enclosed by a low wall, formed an open courtyard. To the south of it, the national flag flew in splendour from the top of a tall metal flagpole. This was Mine Niu’s way of making a distinction between himself and other local pit owners. It wasn’t every small pit that flew the red flag.
The car threw up a cloud of coal dust as it drove into the courtyard. He glimpsed the words “Public Security” in large characters on the car door, as it flashed past the window. What on earth were the police doing here? He didn’t dare stay hidden a moment longer and, before the car had come to a complete halt, he had charged out, bobbing and smiling, to greet the visitors. He relaxed slightly when he saw Chief Inspector Wang from the Northern District Station getting out of the car. He knew Wang. If they met out drinking they would act like old friends.
“Chief Inspector Wang! Nice to see you here!” Two white hands came together in a handshake.
The Chief Inspector didn’t return the smile. He wore his on-duty expression. “Director Niu,” he said, “you’re doing well for yourself I see.”
“Things are ticking along, but I wouldn’t say I can relax quite yet.”
The Chief Inspector withdrew his hand from Niu’s grasp. “That’s a lot of trucks you’ve got there,” he said, waving towards the long line beneath the loading station. “Surely every one of those trucks is worth a packet.”
“The challenge is digging enough coal to fill them. It doesn’t happen overnight. Please, why don’t you both come and sit down in my office.” The other person was the driver, another uniformed officer.
Once seated, the Chief Inspector began by inquiring about the security situation at the mine. All was well, Niu told him, there had been no recent incidents. The cook, an old man with short white hair, stuck his head round the door. It was nearing midday and as it looked as though the visitors would be staying for lunch, he wanted to ask Mine Niu for instructions.
“Why not slaughter a chicken,” said Niu. “Make sure you buy a large one with a bit of fat on it.”
“A hen or a cockerel?” asked the cook.
“A hen?” Niu replied, looking inquiringly at Chief Inspector Wang.
The Chief Inspector brushed the question aside, saying they shouldn’t go to any trouble. He had a job to do. He wasn’t here to eat lunch.
“That won’t do at all,” said Niu. “You’ve always looked after our concerns and we intend to treat you.”
Chief Inspector Wang had more to say. He remarked that chickens were all plumped up with hormones these days; there was nothing to get your teeth into, no taste to them at all. It was abundantly clear he didn’t want chicken. Mine Niu and the cook looked at each other uncertainly.
A pigeon landed not far from the doorway, shortly followed by another, as if something had caught their eye on ground just there.
The Chief Inspector’s eyes lit up. “Come to think of it, pigeon’s not bad,” he said. “In fact a pigeon tastes similar to how a bantam chicken used to taste.”
Taking his cue, Niu told the cook: “Go and ask who the pigeons belong to. Buy a couple. Pigeons are pretty small so get at least two of them. Make sure you pay the owner,” he emphasised.
The Chief Inspector continued inquiries about the security situation. Had any more mules been stolen, he asked. There were a couple of hundred mules at the mine, all different varieties, used to haul the coal up from underground. The mineworkers looked after them. A few months previously, a gang of masked thieves with clubs and guns got away with seven mules in the night.
Niu told the Chief Inspector he’d asked the guards to organise patrols around the clock, and the thieves hadn’t been back since.
Chief Inspector Wang expressed his approval, then asked: “Do you ever get any wild fowl on the prowl?”
“No, not really, that kind of bird is pretty rare around here.”
“How come? Other mines have flocks of them.”
“There’s no need for working girls. Most of the men are migrant workers from Sichuan or Guizhou. They’ve come out here with their wives. Think about it, there’s enough meat at home; no need for them to go hunting.”
Their talk turned to whether these feral birds were hormone-fed too, like the chicken. All skin and bone, they looked great but had no taste to them. Niu and Wang grinned like rogues, their banter easing the conversation.
The cook hesitated in the doorway, as if unwilling to speak in front of the guest, hoping the Director would step out of the office for a minute. He was empty handed so Niu knew he hadn’t managed to buy the pigeons.
“If you’ve got something to say then out with it,” he said sternly. “Chief Inspector Wang is no stranger.”
“The pigeons belong to Tang Xiaoming and he doesn’t want to sell them,” said the cook.
“You told him you’d pay him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I started at five yuan a bird and ended up offering him twenty, but he still refused.”
“That’s too little, I reckon. Twenty yuan a bird won’t do it. Offer to give him fifty or even a hundred. He won’t say no to that.”
Niu glanced at Wang as he spoke. The Chief Inspector was sitting on the sofa, apparently oblivious to what was going on.
Tang Xiaoming, the owner of the pigeons, looked after the mine’s lamp room. He allocated a numbered lamp to each miner as they went down, and collected them in again as they came up, slotting them back into the charging unit in order. This was light work compared with digging at the coalface, and he had quite a lot of free time. Instead of playing Majong or getting drunk or wandering off into the fields, he had put the time to good use, digging a vegetable garden in the spare ground in front of the lamp room, growing tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, onions and radishes. In one corner he had planted roses, cockscomb, violets and a plum. There was so much mule dung around, he had no need of chemical fertilizers.
The vegetables did very well on mule dung. It was nearly Mid-Autumn Festival and the garden was still full of plump tomatoes and shiny purple aubergines. His flowers never seemed to stop blooming, and then there were the pigeons. He had started with a pair of newly-mated birds and now had a flock of seven pairs; the original birds producing twelve offspring. He had built a comfortable roost for them out of wooden strips, set against the wall of the dormitory. Other mineworkers bought corn from the village to feed their mules so that they would work harder and bring in the money. Tang Xiaoming fed corn to his pigeons but without any ulterior motive; he didn’t sell them, he just liked pigeons. He did it for fun, he said.
After sending the miners below with their lamps each morning he would open up the pigeon roost, watching as the birds shook out their wings and launched into the sky. He loved the clap of their wings as they left the ground, and the movement of the flock through the air, especially in autumn when the sky was so high and blue and the sun so bright. The sunlight flashed from their white plumage, and as the flock came together, the rapid flicker of white wings in the sun became one vast shimmering canvas of dark and light. Tang Xiaoming watched them spellbound, transported by the sight, as if he too had grown wings and flew with the flock.
Yang, the cook, knew who the pigeons belonged to. He found Tang Xiaoming in his room shaving the head of a miner friend who shared his dormitory. He was scraping away with a safety razor as he didn’t have a cut-throat.None of the miners were keen on the hairdressing establishments in town. They didn’t know how to shave a head properly and, before you knew it, the girls were giving you a head massage, pushing the price up and making the whole thing unaffordable. His friend’s hair was pretty thick and the soapy water made everything slippery, so it wasn’t an easy job. Clumps of hair got stuck in the razor casing, dulling the blade. Tang Xiaoming took his time, undid the screw, cleaned the hair out and carried on. Yang said hello and asked him if he could buy a couple of pigeons.
Tang Xiaoming knew at once that something was up. Yang was the cook after all; he knew how to use a cleaver. Any living thing delivered to his hands, be it chicken or rabbit, pigeon or fish, would be cut up into chunks in an instant, bones included, then thrown into boiling water or tossed into a wok of hot oil. Nevertheless, he asked Yang why he wanted them.
“I’ve always fancied keeping pigeons,” Yang said.
“Don’t try it on, Mr Yang,” said Tang Xiaoming. “What do you take me for?”
So Yang explained the real reason for his visit. He had no wish to kill the pigeons and despised the Chief Inspector’s gall at such a request.
“Officials these days, who do they think they are?” he said. “They’re sick of eating animals that live on the ground and now they’re starting on the birds of the air. When they’ve eaten all the birds, what will they start on next?”
“He can eat the man in the moon for all I care, but he’s not eating my pigeons.”
“Look, he’s an official; we have to jump to it when he gives the order. If you don’t sell me some pigeons, what am I going to tell the boss?”
“What’s the problem? If you want to buy something it has to be for sale in the first place. My pigeons are not for sale. That’s not against the law, you know.”
“How about this: I’ll give you twenty yuan a bird. Go on, what do you say? If you won’t sell, I’ll leave you in peace.”
“I’m sorry but you’ll have to go back empty-handed.”
The miner cocked his melon-like head and tapped it with his finger. “This thing on my neck is newly shaven,” he shouted after Yang. “You can have it if you want.”
Yang let out a snort: “Your bony head wouldn’t make a dish.”
“Show a little mercy with that knife of yours! You can’t just cut up everything you see. Just because you can get it on a plate doesn’t mean it’s food.”
“As if you had any say in it!”
Yang was about to go back to Tang Xiaoming and offer the higher price, but Niu told him call Mr Li over. Li could go in his place. Mr Li was Mine Niu’s driver and constant companion. You could say he spent more time with the Director than the Director spent with his wife. In fact, Niu had secrets known only to Mr Li; matters not even his wife was aware of. Mr Li acted as Mine Niu’s secretary and bodyguard, and had become his most trusted advisor.
Everyone at the mine knew about their special relationship. Some called Mr Li the second-in-command behind his back. The si in siji, or “driver”, sounded like the si in sizhang, or “Bureau Chief,” so that’s what they called him. Mr Li objected, saying he was more like a groom than a Bureau Chief. But Mine Niu didn’t ride a horse, so where did the idea of a groom come in? Mr Li would convince any doubters by pointing at the Director’s car. “What do you think that is?” he would say. Then it would dawn on them: the car was a BMW, a Baoma or “Precious Horse.” The cash stuffed under the driver’s seat, usually at least ten thousand yuan, was at Mr Li’s disposal. If it became necessary to drive an important visitor into town to entertain them, Mr Li would see to the arrangements, especially if the nature of the entertainment meant it was not suitable for the Director to appear in person.
Mr Li would drive the guest to an expensive hotel and send him up to the presidential suite for a rest. He would call a few young women on the phone and line them up for the guest to choose from. When the guest had selected a girl, or sometimes two, Mr Li would pay them in advance, encouraging them to pull out their best tricks and take good care of the guest. Then he would take his leave. He would appear again when it was time to go for dinner or settle a bill. If there was a problem someone else couldn’t fix, the Director could always rely on Mr Li to sort it out.
Mr Li saw no difficulties with the task in hand. He strolled easily over to Tang Xiaoming.
“Hey Xiaoming! You look busy.”
Tang Xiaoming was more than halfway through shaving his friend’s head. He took in Mr Li’s reptilian smile and knew that either he or his pigeons were for it.
“Not really,” he said.
Mr Li took out some expensive cigarettes, tapping the bottom of the pack to nudge one out. “Take a break. Have a smoke,” he said.
“I don’t smoke, thanks.” Tang Xiaoming didn’t look up.
Mr Li offered the cigarettes to his friend. The miner did like a smoke but waved them away saying he didn’t smoke either. So Mr Li put the cigarette in his mouth and lit up. Time was ticking away. He couldn’t put off mentioning the pigeons.
“How many birds have you got in that flock of yours anyhow?” he asked.
“Not many,” said Tang Xiaoming.
“I reckon it’s quite a big flock. Time to separate them, don’t you think? How about selling a couple? I’d like to have a go at breeding them. I won’t quibble about the price. What do you say?”
Mr Li reached down to his pocket as if about to take out his money. Tang Xiaoming said nothing.
“Fifty yuan? Eighty? A hundred… two hundred? How about two hundred yuan a bird? That’s a good price. Come on, what do you say?”
“What do you want me to say?” said Tang Xiaoming, taking a tuft of hair out of the razor and throwing it on the floor. “I said I wouldn’t sell them. I still won’t sell them, however much you offer. I don’t care who asks me, the answer’s the same.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t turn down an offer like that! Earning money is the reason you came out here in the first place!”
“I must be crazy then,” said Tang Xiaoming.
“It’s only a few pigeons, for Christ’s sake, it’s not as if it’s your wife and kids!”
“That’s just it; my pigeons are my children.”
Mr Li was feeling the pressure. He frowned, giving Tang Xiaoming a stare worthy of the second-in-command.
“What’s the matter with you, Tang Xiaoming? Think what you’ve got to lose. Who gave you permission to build a pigeon roost against the wall of this dormitory? Who gave you permission to keep pigeons on this mine?”
“No one,” said Tang Xiaoming.
“Well then, it’s clearly not permitted. If you won’t see reason I’ll get security to smash up your roost and confiscate every last one of your birds, don’t think I won’t.”
Tang Xiaoming didn’t reply. The hand holding the razor shook a little. He frowned to himself. What kind of ridiculous logic is that? he thought. Does the grass need permission to grow? Does my hair need permission to grow?
His friend’s head seemed to be bleeding, the blood showing bright red against his white hair. Tang Xiaoming thought he must have cut him by mistake. He tried to wipe the blood away, but the more he wiped the more blood there seemed to be. Then he realised it was his hand that was bleeding. Blood was dripping from his thumb. His friend’s head was like a painted gourd, wet with red ink. He put the thumb in his mouth to stop the bleeding, then took it out again to have a look. It was still bleeding. He put down the razor, found a plaster and stuck it over the cut.
His friend asked: “What’s the matter? Is your hand bleeding?”
“It’s nothing,” said Tang Xiaoming.
The miner didn’t know where to direct his anger: “Oh for fuck’s sake,” he shouted, springing up from the stool and pulling off the old pair of long johns he had around his neck. “I give up, just forget it, I can’t even get my head shaved in peace!”
“Sit down will you!” ordered Tang Xiaoming with equal vehemence. “I’ve got to finish shaving you sometime so it may as well be now. I’m not going to leave you alone until you let me!” he said, grabbing his friend’s shoulder and pushing him squarely down onto the stool again.
From the violence of this outburst, Mr Li realised the strength of feeling against him; he knew it was directed at him. “You know who today’s visitor is,” he went on in a far more reasonable tone. “Chief Inspector Wang from the Northern District Station. He’s responsible for the security of our mine. He’s the one with the authority; the one wearing a gun. If he stamps his foot the whole mine collapses. We can’t risk upsetting him. Why is he here? To find fault with the mine. If we look after him well, give him a good lunch, have a drink with him, and give him something to line his pocket with, he’ll happily ignore any faults he finds. If we don’t, if we offend him in some way, then he’ll do his worst, find some little thing wrong with the mine and make us pay.”
Mr Li offered them an example. A few days previously some people from Health and Safety had paid them a visit. They had got out a load of books from the commodious boot of their small car; all hardbacks, as thick as bricks. At first they had no interest in inspecting the mine; they were here to sell Mine Niu a set of Manufacturing Safety Manuals. Each book cost more than six hundred yuan. A set of thirty would cost more than twenty thousand yuan. Niu said they were of no use to him. Then what happened? The two of them angrily demanded to see the entrance to the shaft. They pointed out the ventilator, saying it was showing fatigue, constituted a serious safety hazard, and was worth a fine of a hundred thousand yuan. On top of that, they would have to issue an order to halt work. The ventilator was patently new. It was shockingly obvious that this was a pretext. Mine Niu realised his mistake; of course there was nothing wrong with the ventilator, he just hadn’t been quick enough on the uptake.
“Okay, no problem at all, we’ll take two sets,” said Mine Niu, “one for the managers and one for the workers. We’ll read them carefully.” He drove the visitors into town, set them up in an expensive hotel, took them for a hair wash and a foot massage and then on to a karaoke night. Only then did they drop the subject of the fine and the order to halt work.
Then Mr Li turned the conversation back to Chief Inspector Wang.
“The Chief Inspector has expressed a preference for pigeon,” he said to Tang Xiaoming. “He knows you keep pigeons. What is Mine Niu supposed to do? I don’t like to insist, but surely you wouldn’t want to make things difficult for the Director?”
Tang Xiaoming had no sympathy for Li’s arguments. In fact, he felt even less inclined to cooperate.
“Keeping pigeons isn’t against the law, it’s not a crime. I won’t be intimidated by anyone. Who do they think they are, demanding my pigeons for lunch? Pigeons symbolise peace. They should be protecting them, not eating them!”
“You still don’t get it do you,” said Mr Li. “This isn’t about you and a couple of pigeons; it’s about the survival of the mine. The mine is our livelihood, the reason we have food on our plates. We have to look after its interests. If something happens to the mine we’ll all suffer. Look, you give me a couple of pigeons today, then afterwards, I’ll get you a pair of pigeons who can deliver the mail, a pair of prize winning carrier pigeons, how about that?”
Tang Xiaoming was silent for a moment, as if considering the offer, but then he said: “If you want to raise pigeons, by all means, after the police are gone, come over and take your pick, I won’t take a penny for them. But while that policeman is here I won’t allow anyone to touch a feather on their backs. I don’t care who they are.”
Just at that moment the whole flock flew back, clapping their wings as if in support of Tang Xiaoming, some landing on the eves, some on the pigeon roost and some on the ground in front of the door. Mr Li was a man used to getting things done. He wasn’t about to give up just yet.
“If you won’t give them to me, I’ll catch them myself,” he said.
“You’ll never catch one.”
Sure enough, as Mr Li approached one of the pigeons on the ground it walked out of reach, and when he went to grab it, the pigeon flew up to the eves. From there it cocked its head and peered at him as if to say: “I don’t know you. Who do you think you are?”
Tang Xiaoming had finished shaving the miner’s head. He took the old pair of green long johns from around his friend’s neck and shook them in the doorway, giving them a final upward flick. The watching pigeons spread their wings and flew into the air as one, as if obeying a signal.
The pigeons flew higher, receding into the distance above. Mr Li knew he had no chance of catching one. “Listen, Tang Xiaoming,” he said, shaking his finger at him, his face creasing into anger. “Don’t imagine you’ve still got a job here.”
“Whatever you say,” said Tang Xiaoming as Mr Li walked away. “You can tell the Chief Inspector from me, if he wants to kill my pigeons, he’ll have to kill me first!”
Mr Li reported back that Tang Xiaoming was a stubborn old bastard who refused point blank to sell his pigeons. He’d been pretty unpleasant about it too. Mine Niu couldn’t really back down in front of the Chief Inspector.
“To hell with him!” he said angrily. “Tell him, he’s got a choice, it’s the pigeons or his job. If he refuses to let me have the pigeons, he can pack his bags and go. It’s the only way to deal with him.”
Chief Inspector Wang was feeling a little uncomfortable. “This pigeon breeder, what’s his background?”
“He doesn’t have any kind of background. No one with any influence in their family would end up working down a mine.”
“How has he behaved in the past? Shall I ask Mr Zhang to pay him a call?” Mr Zhang was Chief Inspector Wang’s driver.
Niu knew very well what that meant. He said that he hadn’t had any problems with Tang Xiaoming before now.
So, in the end, the Chief Inspector didn’t get to eat pigeon for lunch. Mr Li sped over to Ma’s butcher in nearby White Grass Township and bought ten kilos of cooked mule meat, just out of the pan, so at least there was some meat on the table. Mine Niu was exceedingly apologetic. Continually refilling the Chief Inspector’s glass, he punished himself by drinking two or three cups to each one the Chief Inspector drank. He couldn’t apologise enough. After a while, his cheeks flushed with shaojiu, Chief Inspector Wang became more loquacious. His conversation mostly consisted of complaining.
He couldn’t stand the phrase: “If you have a problem, go to the police.” The public had the police to sort out their problems, but what about the police? What happened if they had a problem? It was hard enough covering his household costs: the house, arranging a job for the wife, paying the children’s school fees, not to mention the daily running costs of the station. Sooner or later he’d have orders to send officers into the community on patrol, which meant they needed cars, and cars needed petrol. Where was he supposed to get the money from?
“Chief Inspector Wang, don’t let it bother you, I’ll make sure this isn’t a wasted journey. I’ll cover your petrol costs,” said Mine Niu.
He said a quiet few words to Mr Li who went out and came back with the accountant, who passed Niu two fat envelopes. Mine Niu gave one to Chief Inspector Wang and one to Mr Zhang, saying it was merely a token of their esteem. Pinching the envelope the Chief Inspector could tell it contained between five and eight thousand yuan. He put it straight into the pocket of his uniform police jacket.
He didn’t say a word of thanks, however. Instead he remarked: “Niu, my old friend, let’s get this straight, if the car needs petrol, I can count on you. If you can’t supply me with petrol money, then you won’t mind if I drive away with your BMW and leave you with this old Santana, will you?”
“Of course, come over whenever you need petrol money.”
After seeing Chief Inspector Wang off, Niu noticed Tang Xiaoming walking away from the mine, his bedroll in one hand and a red and white woven plastic bag, probably containing his precious pigeons, in the other.
“Tang Xiaoming!” he shouted. “Stop right there!”
Tang Xiaoming turned, unsure what Mine Niu was going to say next.
“Where do you think you’re going? You’ve got a job to do.”
Tang Xiaoming looked at him doubtfully as if to say, “Didn’t you sack me?”
“Don’t just stand there. Are your pigeons in that bag? Let them out! They’ll suffocate in there.”
Tang Xiaoming squatted down and opened the bag. The pigeons took to the air in a flurry of wings and, flocking quickly together, began their ever-changing ebb and rush against the sky.
“The One Who Picks Flowers” by Liu Qingbang (translated by Lee Yew Leong) is available to read online at Read Paper Republic.
Liu Qingbang, born in Henan in 1951, spent time working in coal fields before they became the subject and setting of his journalism and eventually fiction. Spirit Wood, one of his two novellas to have received the Lao She Literature Prize, was also adapted into Li Yang’s 2003 movie Blind Shaft (recipient of the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival). He also received the Lu Xun Literature Prize for his short story “Shoes”.
Rachel Henson (www.rachelhenson.com) is a literary translator and walking artist. After graduating with a First in Chinese from Leeds University, she created Chinese Language teaching materials for Leeds and Durham Universities and assisted on "A Chinese Grammar and Workbook", published by Routledge. She then trained in Beijing Opera woman warrior role at the China Academy of Traditional Opera Theatre. She works regularly with the Royal Court Theatre’s International Playwright Programme and has published translations with Pathlight Magazine and Comma Press.