Communist folk tales: 《水缸的秘密》- The secret of the water jug

It’s Communism Week at CRP. All this week, we’re learning Chinese through the lens of historical and modern CCP propaganda, speeches, stories, essays and songs.

Quick reminder: To maintain a polite, language learning-focused environment, political comments – positive, negative, or neutral – are not allowed, and will be deleted. Dinner table rules, please.

We’ve really made the rounds on Communist folk tales this week: we’ve had a story about Zhu De, founder of the Red Army, one about socialist boy scout Lei Feng, and now, we’re going to read one about the man himself, Chairman Mao (毛主席). I didn’t start out the week intending to illustrate a point, but a theme has definitely emerged. Taken as a whole, these stories underscore the friendly, paternalistic role that China’s founding fathers were painted into at the time, described in populist stories as approachable, proletarian helpers of the common folk. Today’s tale really drives that one home.

We also get a taste of the exaggeration that often surrounds autocratic leaders. The last bit of the story describes Mao as “tall and stalwart”. Mao Zedong was around 5’8″ (1.72-1.75m), not a short man, but not an exceptionally tall one either.

Some language stuff

The way characters are named in this story is quite Chinese: they’re mostly referred to by their title or place in society. First, the characters: we’ve got Auntie Yang (杨大娘). 大娘 means “wife of father’s elder brother”, but it can also just be used as a polite way to refer to an older woman, and it’s unclear which definition is being used here. We’ve also got Second Brother’s Wife (二婶), and same deal: 婶 means “wife of father’s younger brother”, but can also just be a polite form of address. The thing is, in Chinese societies, especially rural communities, the difference doesn’t really demand clarification.

We’ve also got 代耕队长 dài gēng duì zhǎng. When a farming family doesn’t have enough human labor to cultivate their fields, especially when a farmer has to go away to fight a war during harvest season, a 代耕 is a laborer that farms in their stead. 队, as you probably know means “team” and 长 means “captain” or “leader” or “chief”. So, 代耕队长 is the head of the team helping this family farm their land in the absence of the male head of household (in this case, the eldest son).

And of course, there’s Chairman Mao (毛泽东).

Some other points:

怎么回事? zěn me huí shì – Means “How can that be?” or “What’s going on here?”

下地 xià dì – To go down to the fields (usually to farm).

两竿 liáng gān – 竿 literally means “pole”, like a rod or staff. But it’s also used to describe how far the sun has risen or set. It’s not a standard measurement, it’s more of a generalized measure, so “两竿 from the mountains” means that the sun isn’t very far above the mountains (either rising or setting).

接着 jiē zhe – Means “after that…”, or “And then…”

丢了个眼色 diū le ge yǎn sè – To shoot someone a knowing look, or to give them a wink.

撞个满怀 zhuàng ge mǎn huái – 撞 means to “run into” or “bump up against”, 满 means “full” or “fully”, and 怀, in this case, means “(a person’s) chest”. Altogether, this means to “bump someone full in the chest”, or in better English, to “run smack into someone”.

非…不可 fēi … bù kě – This means “must”, “have no choice but to”, or “to insist on doing”, like “弟弟要妈妈抱不可“, or “little brother insists on having mother hold him”. This sentence structure underpins a popular Chinese meme about Facebook. The English word “Facebook” sounds a lot like the Chinese phrase 非死不可: “insist on dropping dead”. So, Facebook is sometimes jokingly referred to this way within China.






“没有啊,”代耕队长也感到奇怪, “真有这样的事?”









Show English translation »
Aunt Yang was from a Red Army family. After her elder son went to join the Red Army, there was one less laborer at home, so she had to look after everything herself.

One night in July 1933, Aunt Yang had finished irrigating the vegetable garden, and returned home to fetch water for cooking. She had just picked up the carrying pole, when she noticed that the water jug was [already] full. Auntie thought this was strange: two days ago the water jug was full, yesterday the water jug was full, and now today the water jug was full again. How could this be? She asked her son, “Did you fetch water this afternoon?”

Her 11-year-old son shook his head and said, “I didn’t fetch it.”

The more Auntie Yang thought about it the more strange it seemed, so she ran to the field and asked the head contract laborer: “The water jug in my rooms, they’re full every day. Did you send someone to fetch water for our family?”

“I didn’t,” the head contract laborer also thought this was strange, “Did that really happen?”

Just as he said this, Second Brother’s Wife walked over carrying a vegetable basket and said: “Yes, the water jug in my room also fills up as soon as it goes dry, I don’t know who’s doing these good deeds.”

The head contract laborer smiled and said, “Chairman Mao encourages us to investigate and research, you two should look into it!”

Auntie Yang and Second Brother’s Wife thought what he said made sense, so they discussed it for a bit, and then each went back to their home.

The second day, Auntie Yang wiped the table, washed the clothes, and before the afternoon had come, all the water in the full water jug had been used up. She purposefully didn’t go fetch any more, nor did she go to the fields to work, but took up a pair of shoe soles, and sitting by the door with Second Brothers Wife, began to stitch the soles. The two of them listened with all four ears for any sounds of movement, and with two pairs of eyes looked about in all directions, sewing while “investigating”.

When the sun [had sunk close] to the western mountains, Auntie Yang suddenly heard the back door of the house make a sound, and soon after she heard the iron hook of the water pot clang. Pleasantly excited, they shot each other a knowing look, and shouted in unison, “We’ve got him this time!” As they spoke they stood up and ran into the house.

As soon as Auntie Yang entered the house, she almost ran smack into the person who was fetching water. She lifted her head up to look, and saw this person was tall and stalwart, wearing the uniform of the Red Army, and was smiling at her and Second Brother’s Wife. Looking at that pair of big, bright eyes, she thought he seemed a little familiar, but she couldn’t remember where she’d seen him before. [But] Second Brother’s Wife recognized him: “Ah! If it isn’t Chairman Mao!”

Second Brother’s Wife pulled Chairman Mao into a seat, and Auntie Yang quickly brought some tea and said, “Chairman Mao, you haven’t been [in town] long, but everywhere you go, you are caring and considerate towards the common people, tell us how can we ever thank you!”

Chairman Mao drank his tea, and chatted with the two [ladies] from Red Army families about their daily lives, asking them: “Are there any difficulties in your lives? Is your [roof] leaking water? How’s your children’s primary schoolwork?” They talked until darkness swept over the sky, and then Chairman Mao once again made to go fetch water, insisting on filling the water jugs again. Auntie Yang couldn’t talk him out of it, and she had to agree.

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