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Shifu, You'll Do Anything
for a Laugh
Ding Shikou, or Ten Mouth Ding, had worked at the Municipal Farm Equipment Factory for forty-three years and was a month away from mandatory retirement age when he was abruptly laid off. Now if you put shi (+), the word for ten, inside a kou (??), the word for mouth, you get the word tian (??), for field. The family name Ding can mean a strapping young man. As long as a strapping young man has a field to tend, he'll never have to worry about having food on the table and clothes on his back. That was his farmer father's cherished wish for his son when he named him. But Ding Shikou was not destined to own land; instead he found work in a factory, which led to a far better life than he'd have had as a farmer. He was enormously grateful to the society that had brought him so much happiness, and was determined to pay it back through hard work. Decades of exhausting labor had bent him over, and even though he wasn't yet sixty, he had the look of a man in his seventies.
One morning, like all other workday mornings, he rode to the factory on his 1960s black and obstinate, clunky Grand Defense bicycle, which presented quite a sight among all the sleek lightweight bikes on the street. Young cyclists, male and female, first gave him curious stares, then steered clear of him, the way a fancy sedan gets out of the way of a lumbering tank. As soon as he pedaled through the factory gate, he saw a group of people clustered around the bulletin board. The voices of a couple of women rose above the general buzz, like hens about to lay eggs. His heart fluttered as he realized that what the workers feared most had finally happened.
He parked his bike and took a look around, exchanging a meaningful glance with old Qin Tou, the gateman. Then, with a heavy sigh, he slowly walked over to join the crowd. His heart was heavy, but not too heavy. After word of imminent layoffs at the factory had gotten out, he went to see the factory manager, a refined middle-aged man, who graciously invited him to sit on the light-green lambskin sofa. Then he asked his secretary to bring them tea. As Ding held the glass of scalding liquid and smelled its jasmine fragrance, he was engulfed in gratitude, and suddenly found himself tongue-tied. After smoothing out his high-quality suit and sitting up straight on the opposite sofa, the factory manager said with a little laugh:
"Ding Shifu, I know why you're here. After several years of financial setbacks here at the factory, layoffs have become unavoidable. But you're a veteran worker, a provincial model worker, a shifu master worker and even if we're down to the last man, that man will be you."
People were crowding up to the bulletin board, and from his vantage point behind them, Ding Shikou caught a glimpse of three large sheets of paper filled with writing. Over the past few decades, his name had appeared on that bulletin board several times a year, and always on red paper; those were the times he had been honored as an advanced or model worker. He tried to elbow his way up front, but was jostled so badly by the youngsters that he wound up moving backward. Amid all the curses and grumbling, a woman burst out crying. He knew at once it was Wang Dalan, the warehouse storekeeper. She'd started out as a punch-press operator, but had mangled one of her hands in an accident, and when gangrene set in they'd had to amputate it to save her life. Since it was a job-related injury, the factory kept her on as a storekeeper.
Just then a white Jeep Cherokee drove in the gate honking its horn, seizing the attention of the people fighting to read the layoff list; they all turned to stare at the Jeep, which looked as if it had just come back from a long, muddy trip. The clamor died down as dazed expressions showed on the people's faces. The Jeep looked a little dazed too, its horn suddenly silent, the engine sputtering, the tailpipe spitting out puffs of exhaust. It was like a wild beast that sensed danger. Its gray eyes stared as they fearfully sized up the situation. At roughly the same time it decided to back out through the gate a chorus of shouts erupted from the workers, whose legs got the message, and in no time the Jeep was surrounded. It tried to break free, lurching forward and backward a time or two, but it was too late. A tall, muscular young man with a purple face Ding Shikou saw that it was his apprentice, Lü Xiaohu bent down, opened the car door, and jerked the assistant manager in charge of supply and marketing right out of his seat. Curses rained down on the man's head, translucent gobs of spittle splattered on his face, which by then was a ghostly white. His greasy hair fell down over his eyes as he clasped his hands in front of his chest, bent low at the waist, and bowed, first to Lü Xiaohu, then to the rest of the crowd. His lips were moving, but whatever he was trying to say was drowned out by the threatening noises around him. Ding couldn't make out a single word, but there was no mistaking the wretched look on the man's face, like a thief who'd been caught in the act. The next thing he saw was Lü Xiaohu reach out to grab the assistant manager's colorful necktie, which looked like a newlyweds' quilt, and jerk it straight down; the assistant manager disappeared from view, as if he'd fallen down a well.
A pair of police cars stormed up to the compound, sirens blaring. This threw such a scare into Ding Shikou, whose heart was racing, that all he could think of was getting the hell out of there; too bad he couldn't get his legs to follow orders. Finding it impossible to drive through the gate, the police parked their cars outside the compound and poured out of the cars; there were seven of them in all four fat ones and three skinny ones. Armed with batons, handcuffs, walkie-talkies, pistols, bullets, tear gas, and a battery-powered bullhorn, the seven cops took a few unhurried steps, then stopped just outside the gate to form a cordon, as if to seal off the factory gate as an escape route. A closer look showed that they probably weren't going to seal off the factory, after all. One of the cops, who was getting along in years, raised the bullhorn to his mouth and ordered the workers to disperse, which they did. Like a wolf exposed in the field when sorghum stalks are cut down, the assistant manager for supply and marketing popped into view. He was sprawled on the ground, facedown, protecting his head with his hands, his rear end sticking up in the air, looking like a frightened ostrich. The cop handed his bullhorn to the man beside him and walked up to the cowering assistant manager; he reached down and took hold of the man's collar with his thumb and two fingers, as if to lift him to his feet, but the assistant manager looked as though he was trying to dig a hole for himself. His suit coat separated itself from him, forming a little tent. Now Ding could hear what he was shouting:
"Don't blame me, good people. I've just returned from Hainan Island, and I don't know a thing. You can't blame me for this...."
Without letting go of the man's coat, the policeman nudged his leg with the tip of his shoe. "Get up," he said, "right now!"
The assistant manager got to his feet, and when he saw that the person he'd gotten up for was a policeman, his phlegm-splattered face suddenly became the color of a dirt roadway. His legs buckled, and the only reason he didn't crumple to the ground again was that the policeman was still holding him by the collar.
Before long, the factory manager drove up in his red VW Santana, followed by the vice mayor for industry in a black Audi. The factory manager was sweating, his eyes tear-filled; after bowing deeply three times to the workers, he confessed to them that he was powerless in an unfeeling market that was taking a factory with a glorious history down the road to financial disaster, and that if they kept losing money, they'd have to close up shop. He wrapped up his tale of woe by calling attention to old Ding. After recapping old Ding's glorious career, he told them he had no choice but to lay him off, even though old Ding was scheduled to retire in a month.
Like a man who has been awakened from a dream, old Ding turned to look at the red sheets of paper tacked up on the bulletin board. There, right at the top of the lay-off list, in alphabetical order, he spotted his own name. He circled his fellow workers, with the look of a child searching for his mother; but all he saw was a sea of identical dull gray faces. Suddenly light-headed, he squatted down on his haunches; when that proved too tiring, he sat down on the ground. He hadn't been sitting there long before he burst into tears. His loud wails were far more infectious than those of the females in the crowd, and as his fellow workers' faces darkened, they too began to cry. Through tear-clouded eyes he watched Vice Mayor Ma, that agreeable, friendly man, walk toward him in the company of the factory manager. Flustered by the sight, he stopped crying, propped himself up by his hands, and got shakily to his feet. The vice mayor reached out and shook his grimy hand. Old Ding marveled over the softness of the man's hand, like dough, not a bone anywhere. When he thrust out his other hand, the vice mayor reached out with his free hand to take it. Four hands were tightly clasped as he heard the vice mayor say:
"Comrade Ding, I thank you on behalf of the municipal government and Party Committee."
Ding's nose began to ache and the tears gushed again.
"Come see me anytime," the vice mayor said.
Originally, the Municipal Farm Equipment Factory had been a capitalist operation called Prosperity Metalworks, which
Excerpted from SHIFU, YOU'LL DO ANYTHING FOR A LAUGH by Mo Yan. Copyright © 2001 by Mo Yan.
Translation copyright © 2001 Howard Goldblatt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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