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Iron Bull and Sick Duck

Published at 13:19:00-0800 Updated
Tags: chinese, translation


This is my translation of 《铁牛和病鸭》, by Lao She. The (rough) first draft was finished on 2020-02-15. The second draft was finished on 2020-03-04. Many thanks to Chris Stasse for helping me take this from rough draft to final version.

I chose to translate this story for the challenge of rendering the sections which deal with Sick Duck's mental landscape. As far as I am aware, I am the first person to have translated this story into English. It is not listed in the table of contents for Blades of Grass, nor in the contents of Crescent Moon and Other Stories; nor does the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture resource center list this story in its bibliography of English translations of Lao She.

Portions are marked if I'm still wrestling them. As with my translation of "Mr. Breeches", I worked with this story as published in 《老舍小说集》 ("Collected Fiction of Lao She," ed. Fang Wei, China Society Press, 2004).


Wang Mingyuan's childhood name was "Iron Pillar." At school, he was "Iron Bull." He could never get away from "iron," for he had the strength of iron in him. He didn't care for eating rocks, but a few bites from a stone would have digested normally.

Every inch of him, everywhere you looked, resembled a prize horse, and he exceeded even a horse in toughness: he was neither finicky nor temperamental. He smiled all the year round, and his two rows of teeth were straight and white, like those of a child -- but, from how forcefully his mouth moved when he talked, one had to admit those two rows of teeth, so white and clean, really could crush stones.

Those who knew him, knew the phrase "even Iron Bull has to show his teeth." It described something that was particularly tiring. Iron Bull didn't seem to know the meaning of "getting tired out," so if he was grimacing over a task, other people needn't think about performing it.

Iron Bull wouldn't read Dream of the Red Chamber -- "I can't stand that girly stuff!" -- but he never lost his temper. "Look at these," he'd say, rolling his sleeves to the elbow and smacking his meaty, muscular arms. "With guns like these, I'd be ashamed if I got mad too easily!" He'd take the opportunity to pound his chest -- thump, thump.

He aspired to peacefully do something great. He wanted to work for the benefit of others, and to succeed in a natural way -- without making a big fuss or getting violent.

From his diction and his movements, nobody could tell that Iron Bull had studied abroad and read foreign books. When he spoke, he never crammed in foreign words. When he saw foreign food, he would scratch his head (although, if it was offered, he would not eat less than anyone else.) He didn't wear foreign clothes, he couldn't dance, he didn't hold his nose if the streets were filthy, he didn't have a need to eat American oranges. In short, Iron Bull was neither nationalistic nor foreign-leaning. At the movies, to him The Burning of Red Lotus Temple wasn't much different from The Three Musketeers; all films other than "girly" ones were "not bad."

Iron Bull studied agriculture, which was deeply related to "peacefully doing something great." His general viewpoint was that to improve agriculture was to do "something great," because, no matter what political revolutions took place, people would always need to eat. Having studied farming, he cared about farmers, so he didn't talk to people using the technical terms of agricultural science. Laboratory experiments and the life of a farmer were one and the same to him, and he didn't consider himself a scholar. When he met someone who enjoyed embellishing their speech with literary allusions, he had a kind-hearted joke: "Can you discuss 'Wu Song Beats Tigers1?'"

Ever since Iron Bull returned from studying abroad, he had worked at a government farm, doing research and experiments on seed selection. The farm owed its establishment to a rare flash of inspiration by some open-minded officials, who had been concerned about suffering among the citizens. As such, it never had a reliable source of funding. Every seven or eight months, the head farmer would be replaced with another, as if head farmers came and went with the changing of the weather2. These come-and-go head farmers had different personalities but the same style, like the eight-legged essays3 of a county-level scholar4: they all went around grimacing, all the time. If it weren't for the fact that "head farmer" looked good on their official vitae, they'd have been unhappy to the point of tears -- and when even the head farmer was only there to beef up his resume, it was natural that those under him, in less lucrative positions, would be doing the same. Though the farm had been established for many years, agricultural experiments had never been carried out; if they were going to happen, the work would fall to Iron Bull.

For him, the farm set a precedent unheard of in officialdom's use of human resources: a head farmer would arrive, and would fail to dismiss Iron Bull from his post. This pattern had gone on for five or six years. Iron Bull didn't often remember the names of the head farmers, but he knew how to plead with them. To his mind, head farmers had to be pleaded with, no matter their names. "My experiments take a long time. I love my job. If you can avoid dismissing me, I would be endlessly grateful! Please come and see my work, come and see!"

The head farmer, of course, would not go and see. When he brought up funding difficulties, Iron Bull would ask him to be at ease. "I'll happily take a reduction in salary. I love my job!" And what would the head farmer do about everybody else under him? Iron Bull had an idea: "As long as I can work here, I won't just stick to my assigned job5." Though his salary really would get cut, he worked as normal, and quite happily.

On one of these occasions, he nearly came to tears. The head farmer was determined to dismiss him, and Iron Bull was relieved of his duties. The next day, he set about his experiments as normal, and moreover he dragged the head farmer to see his work, saying, "Sir, this is my life! With a few more days, I'll be able to achieve good results; this isn't something that can be completed in a day or two. Please allow me to come here and finish my experiments. I don't want anything. If I go somewhere else, I'll have to start over, and give up all my work until now. I have an affection for this place, the same as I have affection for my hands and feet: I could never get angry with them, and they'll always love me. These specimens, these instruments: they're my friends!" There were tears at the corners of his eyes, but he was smiling.

"The Calling of Matthew6" must be a true story. Otherwise, how could the head farmer have softened his heart, and retained Iron Bull? From that time onward, Iron Bull's position was more stable: despite cuts to his salary, he wouldn't leave. To his close friends he would say, "You can take away all the money, but you can't take away Iron Bull!"

He didn't remember the head farmers' names, but they all remembered his. Once in a while, they would think of him. Many of the head farmers, having attained promotions, discovered that they had consciences and wanted to do something about it. They would ask Iron Bull for support, but to such "honors" he would always reply, "Thanks for your kindness, but I love my job. It's my life!" He was unable to leave the farm, just as a child is unable to leave its mother7.

To support the farm's existence, it was necessary to give people something to stare at, so every year they would put on a farming exhibition. The other workers would be especially kind to Iron Bull when the exhibition was approaching: "You're working so hard, Mr. Wang! I'll treat you to a meal after the exhibition!"

But Iron Bull didn't care whether he was treated to meals. The exhibition was an opportunity for him to come into contact with farmers and the rest of society. He became terribly busy. Collecting supplies, drawing up plans, laying out display items, giving speeches, entertaining visitors8: he did it all. Some of the workers, embarrassed to see him laboring, would offer criticism from the sidelines to show that, though they weren't taking action, they were paying attention9. Iron Bull would wipe his brow, and say, "Thank you for telling me! Thank you for telling me!" As for the farmers who came to participate, Iron Bull hated the fact that he only had one mouth, and couldn't afford to give a thorough explanation to each person.

The officials would sit to take a commemorative picture, lined up like clay dolls in a vendor's stall, but Iron Bull didn't give a rip about sitting for pictures. The others truly admired him. After the exhibition concluded, they would say to him, "You must have tired yourself out, these last two days!" Iron Bull would smile like a little girl in a new pair of shoes.

"Naw -- there's nothing to be tired about if it only comes once a year."

"You've got such a good attitude."

Iron Bull would smile bashfully. "All you have to do is give your best effort -- I'm just fortunate to be in great shape!" And he'd roll up his sleeves to show off his arms, unable to hear the dissatisfied, bullying note in their voices. Being perennially forthright, he couldn't conceive that others would speak indirectly.

If a friend tried to explain that others meant more than they said, then he would get the picture, but all he would say is, "Who has time to think up that twisty-turny stuff? When my head hits the pillow, I'm out like a light, but I couldn't sleep if I thought that way. Keep your body healthy! Have a good build, wake up thrilled." He cracked up.

One of Iron Bull's fellow agricultural students was named Li Wen. Li had short legs, a long mouth, a thin face, and a host of anxieties.

His classmates nicknamed him "Sick Duck."

Sick Duck was a complainer.10 In his bag, he habitually carried supplement pills or other minor remedies, and he'd heave a sigh before eating.11 He was passionate about his studies, and firmly believed in the advancement of agriculture, but he couldn't get results. It wasn't that he couldn't find positions, but rather that everyone and everything seemed to have it out for him. As soon as he got a job, within half a year he'd be let go, and even when jobs and colleagues were satisfactory, the chair he sat in, or the hat he wore, or the apparatus he employed would give him trouble -- and he'd be unable to keep on working.

To Sick Duck, nothing on earth was attractive; no place was pleasing; no person was friendly. He thought that he alone was good, and all else was insufferable. Was he incompetent? No -- but, being excluded everywhere he went, he couldn't carry things out. For instance: he was about to set to work when a man nearby said, "It's cold out," and a screw loosened in Sick Duck's mind. What did the man mean by that? Was he implying that I didn't shut the door tightly? He couldn't calm himself down and get to work if he was being bullied. Sooner or later, he'd have to think up a way to avenge himself: there could be no getting along with the man who'd said it was cold.

On occasion, he'd make a friend or two, but after three months he'd become suspicious, probe more deeply, and find in them numerous flaws. Even the fact that a friend wore a blue robe could be grounds enough for a season of friendship to dissolve into quarreling. By degrees, Sick Duck came to no longer want friends. He slowly divided people into three categories: those with higher status than him; those with lower status; and those who were his equals. He also decided that he could find success if he associated only with those higher than him, paying no heed to those with whom he was equal, and controlling or commanding those below him.

With people figured out, now he had to plan for jobs. "Take it on" would become his slogan. If he couldn't find something with which to busy himself, he'd go his whole life without success. Only by taking things on himself would he be spared others' ire. If a chair gave him trouble, he'd smash the bastard! There was no other way. He couldn't let a lifetime of ambition go to waste by getting annoyed over trifles -- and to avoid annoyances, he needed status.

When there's a will, there's a way. After several years, he had become an important figure, "taking on" no small number of things. At first, he'd wanted to take everything on himself, but despite new tasks he continued to feel insecure -- there were still those who looked at him askance! -- so he'd go take on more. The more he took on, the more he had to do, and his work grew in complexity.

With different kinds of chairs at each location, each kind had its own way of frustrating people, and standardizing on a single type would take a long time. So, everywhere he went while taking things on, he painted all the chairs white, to prevent dirt from going unnoticed. What else could he do? Even with the pills in his bag, he couldn't be too vigorous -- he ought to take care of himself. Nobody will pay you any mind but yourself: that's how the world is.

Sick Duck and Iron Bull had not seen each other for several years.

The time came for the annual agricultural conference. The hall was filled with experts. In the exact center of the stage sat Sick Duck, long-haired and with a sickly complexion. His head was slumped forward, and his eyelids drooped -- exactly like a drowsy duck, though he himself wouldn't acknowledge the resemblance. His half-closed eyes betrayed disdain for those who sat in the audience. He knew well that they were his betters in academics -- yet they were down below, and he was on the stage. He was the chairman, the master: any way you sliced it, he was a Somebody, and they were so many Nobodies.

Sick Duck couldn't help feeling smug, but he exerted self-control to keep his eyes from opening fully, so that he looked as if chairing the conference was the least important thing in the world. At the same time, he couldn't let his eyes shut completely -- he had to pay attention to whether anyone in the audience was giving him dirty looks. If anyone was, Sick Duck would settle the score with them later.

It was at this moment that Sick Duck saw Iron Bull. He was moving hither and thither, busy as can be, more like someone managing a family event than a conference-goer.

Someone was presenting a dissertation on stage. Sick Duck let his eyes shut completely. Every minute or so he nodded his head, seemingly in approval of the dissertation, but actually because he was ruminating on Iron Bull. Sick Duck was unwilling to admit that he and Iron Bull had studied together. He was on stage, eyes shut in repose, while Iron Bull was offstage playing the lackey, as if it were impossible that they had been classmates. With such a distance between them, it felt like they could never have been as close as they had been.

And yet -- could he avoid acknowledging Iron Bull as his classmate? Was it better to pity Iron Bull, or praise himself? Had Iron Bull seen Sick Duck -- and consciously chosen to avoid him? Was it possible that Iron Bull was so ashamed that he was unwilling to show himself? Should Sick Duck magnanimously acknowledge Iron Bull? He couldn't decide what to do, and all the while he found the whole concept of "classmates" disagreeable---

The audience was applauding. Sick Duck's eyes sprang open. It was time for a break.

As Sick Duck approached the door of the conference hall, he saw Iron Bull ahead of him. As soon as he saw Iron Bull, Sick Duck lowered his head and sized up the situation. Should I acknowledge Iron Bull or not? Think, think! But before he could think of something, a pain shot through his right hand, as if a door had been shut on it. Pulling his hand toward him, he heard someone say:

"Ol' Li12, you're so thin -- old Li!"

Sick Duck put his hand in his pocket, and surreptitiously stretched it. With a glance, he saw that Iron Bull had a smile like a cluster bomb launched from his face. Sick Duck couldn't think of anything to say; Iron Bull was acting overly familiar, but didn't seem to bear him any ill will. "You're so thin" had aroused his self-pity.

Being anxious to speak up often leads to saying something one will regret. "Ol' Wang, let's eat together." He regretted it instantly, and hoped that the other would politely decline, but Iron Bull nodded.

"Let's chat. We haven't seen each other in years!"

Sick Duck's face turned even sicklier. It was impossible to give face to Iron Bull!

To Iron Bull, it was intriguing for two old classmates to break bread together. Sick Duck didn't see it that way. What if they began quarreling? There would be no easy way out of that! He didn't want to argue, but when friends got together, sometimes they couldn't help but do so. With the flip of a switch in one's head, avoiding an argument would be impossible -- and who could stop a switch in their head from flipping?

Iron Bull ate everything he saw. Sick Duck barely wanted anything, only taking the occasional piece of fried tofu. "Tofu's all I can eat," he said, pronouncing "tofu" in an accent neither standard nor regional. Having lived and worked all over the country, he spoke his own sort of "standard" language13, and there were many words he said strangely, so that they resembled foreign speech.

"Huh?" Iron Bull didn't understand that Sick Duck had said "tofu" until he saw the other had taken some with his chopsticks. "I'm not much for it myself; it might be better with beef, that way you could actually put on some weight ... Listen, ol' Li, you've got to look after your health. It's no good to be so thin!"

Unacceptable! Bringing that up once had made Sick Duck feel sorry for himself. To bring it up again was to belittle him! Sick Duck mentally furrowed his brow. It was no use to talk along those lines. Time to change the subject:

"Where have you been working all these years?"

"--- Farm.14 A little place. Not bad."

"Who's the head farmer there?"

Luckily, this time Iron Bull hadn't forgotten. "Zhao Cijiang."

Sick Duck gave a tiny nod and no more, for fear of straining himself. "How does he treat you?"

"There's not much to say: he does his work, I do mine. I just hope he doesn't dismiss me." To show solidarity, Iron Bull took some tofu, too.

"Best to take it," said Sick Duck. He thought this the only cheerful thing that had been said the whole time they'd been talking. "Ol' Wang, why don't you do it?"

"Of course I'll do it, but if I can't continue working, all I've done so far will have been for naught. This kind of work needs a long time to get done, or else it's like throwing money away!"15

"I meant that you should be head farmer. I can make it happen. Why not take on what's sitting there waiting for the taking? Take it on, and you can do what you want. Nuts to Zhao Cijiang!"

"Me, a head farmer..." It seemed weird to Iron Bull. "Would it be easy to replace someone who'd already been there more than half a year?"

He won't take even a little face! Don't you know how much influence I have? Looking down on me, are you? Well, I'll show you!. Sick Duck gave a small smile. "If you won't do it, that's fine. The two of us can take it on. What we have is manpower. You can help. If I say Zhao Cijiang is to have no work, then he won't have work: you'll see! Just don't mention this to anyone."

Iron Bull was baffled.

"If, once you've thought it over, you're willing to take the position, I'll give you the job," Sick Duck added.

"I just want to continue my experiments. I don't care about anything else," said Iron Bull. He couldn't think of anything else to say.

"OK." Again Sick Duck spoke in that weird way of his, like a German practicing Chinese in his sleep.

The two of them didn't sit and talk again during the whole rest of the conference. Iron Bull didn't think Sick Duck was right in the head. "He's so weak, even meeting the God of Pleasure wouldn't make him happy." With that, he forgot about Sick Duck.

Iron Bull hadn't been back at the farm for long when, as usual, there was a change of head farmer. The new one, on his first day, politely requested that Iron Bull speak with him.

"Mr. Wang, you're Mr. Li's former classmate. Please help me out. Cooperate with me. Frankly, I don't know the first thing about farming, but I have something of a connection with Mr. Li ... All I need is for you to give me a hand, Mr. Wang. Let's work together."

Iron Bull couldn't fathom how he could work with someone who was clueless. "Not right in the head!" As he thought those words, he said them aloud.

The new head farmer seemed to know exactly what Iron Bull meant. Looking glum, he said, "To be blunt, Mr. Wang, please don't say that kind of thing again. This is for your own good; it has nothing to do with me. When Mr. Li sent me here, he told me about the time you ate together, and what you said to each other. Mr. Li suggested that you were unwilling to cooperate, but that wasn't his only reason -- schoolmates should always pay attention to face. Please forgive me for being so impolite! The way I see it, if we're all friends, we ought to help each other out. As for Mr. Li, the two of us should support him. We don't have to support him, but then we might run into issues."

Iron Bull was bewildered.

The new head farmer's first order of business was to dismiss people. His second order of business was to paint all the chairs white. The first of these didn't concern Iron Bull, because he wasn't being dismissed, but he couldn't avoid it when the head farmer appointed him to do the painting. With Sick Duck considering chair-painting to be of the highest importance, selecting Iron Bull for the job was a way for the head farmer to be "cooperative."

Iron Bull wouldn't paint the chairs. He couldn't see the point of it, and anyway he didn't have time.

"This means war," the head farmer told him. "Since you're Mr. Li's old classmate, I'll do you a favor, and ask him how to handle this. If he says -- well, you know -- then I'm afraid my hands will be tied!"

"Ol' Li---" Iron Bull started to speak, but the head farmer cut him off.

"Do you mean Mr. Li? Forgive me for being direct, but Mr. Li probably wouldn't care to be called 'Old Li'."

"Fine. Mr. Li knows about my work. He studied agriculture, too. If you tell him I won't handle the painting, he'll understand that I won't do a thing. If he doesn't understand, then he's really not right in the head."

Iron Bull felt his spirits lifting. "I knew when I saw him that he looked sick. I know he's not a bad guy. How could I think otherwise, after we were classmates for so many years? If he's changed, it's because he's not healthy. I've seen many cases of people lashing out because they're not healthy. I tried to tell him that weakness of body makes you think funny. Look at me: strong of build, wake up thrilled." He started laughing. The head farmer didn't say a word.

Iron Bull was dismissed after a week.

He though it couldn't be Sick Duck's doing, so he wasn't nervous. He planned to go back to work the next day as normal, just like the first time he'd been dismissed. If the head farmer refused him entry, he'd go find Sick Duck. Surely Ol' Li, as his schoolmate, would have his back.

When he reached the farm, someone came to say, "The head farmer handed down an order. If you show your face around here tomorrow, he'll call the police on you."

Iron Bull requested to see the head farmer, but he was denied.

He went to the laboratory, and sat dully for a while. Years of blood, sweat, and tears... This couldn't be Ol' Li's fault. Doesn't he realize how important my work is? He studied agriculture, same as me. Even if I offended him, he has to forgive me -- and how could I have offended him? I can't figure it out. Li has to be crazy -- but he invited me to that dinner!

There's nothing else for it. I'll find Sick Duck, and he'll forgive me.

He grew more optimistic the longer he thought about it. A word with Sick Duck, and he'd be reinstated without question. He gazed at the things in his lab, imagining his coming success. A year or two more, and he'd be able to take his results to the farming villages, where he could apply them for real. He'd double their grain yields. He'd have peacefully done something great!

Iron Bull went for a walk around the farm. Each stalk of cereal, each plank of wood was one of his children. Back indoors, he wrote an intimate letter to Sick Duck, saying when he would come see him. He mailed the letter, and felt as if he were under a cloudless sky.

On the day he had given in the letter, he went to see Sick Duck. Sick Duck wasn't home, but Iron Bull was unwilling to leave. He thought he'd stay a while, and wait.

After four hours of waiting, a servant came to him. "Please don't wait for Master Li. We just received a telephone call saying that he had an attack of illness while traveling, and is in the hospital."

Iron Bull ran straight to the hospital. Patients were not allowed to receive visitors.

"What illness does he have?" asked Iron Bull.

"No illness at all," the porter said amiably. "Our patients aren't sick."

"Not sick? Why put someone in the hospital if he's not sick?"

"Don't ask us! But, to be honest with you, they all have something a little bit wrong with them."

Iron Bull had the porter deliver his business card. After a while, the man came back with the card, on which were penciled these words:

"Don't come again. We two cannot cooperate."

Iron Bull walked off, saying in a low voice, "Peacefully doing something great!"

Back to translation index

  1. The name of an episode from Water Margin. Will add more details when I've looked into it. https://wenku.baidu.com/view/0e5b4bb751e79b896802265e.html

  2. The actual word here is 气候, which means "climate" or "environs", but I've used "weather" instead, because "changing with the weather" is an English idiom that's readily understandable.

  3. The "eight-legged essay" was the format used in parts of the Ming and Qing imperial examination. Essays written in this style were famously stilted and stereotypical, for word count, rhyme scheme, and sentence patterns were all strictly regulated.

  4. "County-level scholar" is my translation for 秀才, a rank in the imperial examination system which was achieved by passing a county-wide exam.

  5. i.e. he would fill in for others whose positions had been cut.

  6. Gospel of Matthew 9:9-13. (The original text gave a footnoted Bible citation, and I felt I should replicate that, especially on the Web.)

  7. I've merged multiple sentences here. The whole paragraph could use one more pass.

  8. "征集,编制,陈列,讲演,招待".

  9. Given the deferential treatment which the workers show IB in the previous paragraph You're working so hard..., the concern shown here seems like it should be taken as genuine, rather than sarcasm/irony ... but then there's the part later about the other workers hinting at their dissatisfaction with Iron Bull, presumably for showing them up. Another thing to revisit.

  10. Leaving 结晶 untranslated until I decide how I might fit it in here.

  11. There's a bit of a mystery here. I originally translated this as "he never ate a meal without first heaving a sigh" which fits perfectly with the character, but Chris Stasse pointed out that the actual sentence is 未曾吃饭先叹口气. This would appear to have the opposite meaning -- "had never sighed before eating a meal" -- but I don't understand how that would fit in with the rest of Sick Duck's characterization, and syntax is odd for expressing such a meaning.

  12. "Ol'" and "old" are translations for the Chinese term of address "老", used between those familiar and friendly with each other. The character on its own can mean "old", which reminded me that English can use "ol'" or "old" for a similar purpose. Think "old bean", or as used in "That's ol' Bill for you."

  13. 表示他是走南闯北,自己另制了一份儿"国语".

  14. Lao She uses this long dash following the English literary convention common from roughly the 18th to mid-20th century, where a proper name was shown not to be relevant to the story.

  15. The original metaphor here is picturesque: 把钱打水漂, "using money as skipping stones." I'd translate that literally if English didn't have a standard metaphor.