At last the two jokers were captured. They didn't know the police were after them, so they had come to town without any suspicion. The instant they entered Everyday Hardware, a group of policemen sprang at them, pinned them to the cement floor, and handcuffed them from behind. With stupefied faces smeared by sawdust, they screamed, "You're making a mistake, Comrade Policemen! We didn't steal anything!"

"Shut up!"


The police plugged their mouths with washcloths from a bucket and then hauled them out to the white van waiting on the street.

At the city's police station the interrogation started immediately. It didn't go well, though, because the two peasants denied that they had spread any counterrevolutionary slander. The police chief, a bespectacled, pockmarked man, reminded them of the joke they had told. To everyone's astonishment, the tall peasant asked the chief, "Who's Deng Xiaoping? I never met him." He turned to his buddy. "Have you?"

"Uh-uh. I guess he must be a general or a big official," said the short peasant.

"Stop pretending!" the chief shouted. "Comrade Deng Xiaoping is the chairman of our Party and our country."

"Really?" the tall peasant asked. "You mean he's number one now?"


"How about Chairman Mao? We only know Chairman Mao."

"He passed away six years ago. You didn't know?"

"Are you sure?" the short peasant cried. "I didn't know he's dead. He's the Emperor to us--no, more like a granddad. His portrait still hangs in my home."

The police officers tried hard to refrain from laughing. The chief looked thoughtful. Before the interrogation, he had thought he could easily handle this pair of yokels. Now it was obvious they were smart fellows, playing the fool to dodge the charge. He'd better dismiss them for today--it was already late afternoon--so that he could figure out a way to make them admit their crime. He ordered the guards to take the two away and put them in a cell.

Seven weeks ago, the two peasants had gone to Sunlight Department Store on Peace Avenue. "Can we take a look at the rubber loafers?" the tall peasant asked at the counter, drumming his thick fingers on the glass top.

Three salesgirls were sitting on a broad window ledge, silhouetted against the traffic lights on the street. They stopped chatting and one of them got up and came over. "What size? " she asked.

"Forty-two," said the tall man.

She handed him a pair. Pointing at the price tag, she said, "Five-fifty."

"What?" the short peasant exclaimed. "Last month it was five yuan a pair. How come it's five-fifty now? Ten percent inflation in a month? Crazy!"

"Five-fifty," said the girl, annoyed. She twitched her nose, which had the shape of a large garlic clove.

"Too expensive for this old man," said the tall peasant, who was in his mid-thirties. He dropped the shoes on the counter with a thump.

As the two men walked away, the tall one spat on the floor and said loudly to his buddy, "Damn, all the prices go up--only our chairman never grows."

The short man grinned. "Yeah, that dwarf won't change."

Hearing their words, the salesgirls all tittered. The peasants turned around and took off their blue caps, waving and smiling at the girls, their swarthy faces marked with big parentheses.

Within an hour, a joke was circulating in the department store: "All the prices go up, but Deng Xiaoping never grows." Within a day, thousands of people in our city had heard the joke. Like a spook it soon began haunting offices, factories, restaurants, theaters, bathhouses, alleys, neighborhoods, train stations.

The two peasants slept well in the cell, happy for the free dinner of sorghum porridge and stewed pumpkin, but they still had no inkling of what crime they had committed. At 9:00 A.M. the three salesgirls arrived at the police station. One of them was ordered to repeat what she had heard the jokers say. She pointed at the tall man's concave face and testified, "He said, 'All the prices go up, but Deng Xiaoping never grows.'"

"Goddamn it!" the man shouted and slapped his knee, his slanty eyes flashing. "I never heard of him. How could I ever come up with that weird name?"

The short man cut in, "We never mentioned him. We said, 'Our chairman never will change.'"

"What did you say exactly?" asked the bald policeman in harge of the team of detectives.

The tall peasant replied, "'All the prices go up and only our chairman never grows.' I meant our Chairman Lou--of our commune."

The short peasant added, "Dwarf Lou is an awful man. We all hate him. He wouldn't let us have more than one and a half yuan for a day's work,'cause he wants to use the money to build a reservoir for catfish and big-headed carp. What can little shrimps like us get from a reservoir? Not even fish droppings. Everybody knows all the fish will end up in the officials' bellies. If you don't believe me, you go check and see if Chairman Lou is a dwarf." He gave a broad grin, displaying his carious teeth.

A few men and women chuckled, but they turned silent at the sight of the interrogators' somber faces.

The chief asked the salesgirls to recall the original words of the joke. To his bewilderment, they remembered that the tall peasant had indeed said "our chairman never grows." In fact, when they relayed the words to others, they hadn't mentioned peng Xiaoping either. Somehow in the process of dissemination, the joke had changed into its present monstrous form. Could this whole thing have originated from a misinterpretation? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

The interrogators were at a loss now. How could they determine when and where the joke had shed its original ambiguity and acquired its definitive meaning? It was unlikely that their superiors would accept misinterpretation as the explanation for what had happened. The crime was already a fait accompli. And how could there be a crime without a criminal? Even though a deliberate misinterpreter might never be identified, someone had to be responsible for the final version of the joke. So, how should they proceed with the interrogation?

Again the chief had the peasants returned to the cell. He then sent a jeep to their commune to fetch Chairman Lou.

Everybody was impressed by Chairman Lou's good looks: a round forehead, ivory teeth, curved brows, large eyes shaded by miniature fans of lashes. What a handsome and intelligent face he had! If he were not three foot two, you could easily have taken him for a movie star. In addition, he had dignified manners, and his voice sounded so elegant that anyone could tell he was well educated. Small wonder that even with such a deformed physique he could govern a large commune. At noon he met with the police chief and said, "Look, Comrade Chief, you ought to punish the two hooligans, teach them an indelible lesson. Else how can I lead thirty-one thousand people? In the countryside no leader can afford to be the butt of ridicule."

"I can sympathize with that," said the chief. "In fact, last week the provincial governor called our city and asked about this case. Probably Beijing already knows of it too."

At 2:1O P.M. the interrogation resumed. A few minutes after they sat down in the room, the two peasants insisted that they were wronged and should be released. They declared they both came from poor families and always loved the Party and the socialist motherland, though they had not been active in political studies and were ignorant of current affairs. They promised the chief that they would take great pains to educate themselves and would never make trouble again. The first thing they'd do after their release, they said, was buy a radio so that they could keep up with news.

The chief waved his hand to cut them off. "You still refuse responsibility for the slander against Chairman Deng? Then how could I let you go? Your attitude is not right."

"Heavens!" the short peasant wailed. "This is a misunderstanding. Comrade Policeman, please--"

"That's irrelevant," the chief said. "Look at it this way. Say a sentence in a book can be read in different ways and some people get a reactionary meaning out of it. Now, who should be responsible for the reading--the writer or the reader?"

"Mmm... probably the writer," said the tall man.

"Correct. All the evidence shows you two coauthored the slander, so you have to answer for all the consequences."

"Does this mean you won't let us go home?" asked the short man.


"How long are you going to jail us?"

"It depends--a month, maybe life."

"What?" the tall peasant shouted. "I haven't thatched my house for the winter yet. My kids will freeze to death if you keep ne in--"

"You still don't get it!" Chairman Lou bellowed and slapped the tabletop with his fleshy hand. "You both should feel lucky that you're still alive. How many people were executed because they spread counterrevolutionary rumors? Keep your butts in prison here, and remold yourselves into new men. I'll have your families informed of where to send your underwear, if you have any."

In amazement, all eyes turned to look at the little man standing on an upholstered chair. Unshod, his large feet were in violet woolen socks.

The chief ordered the guards, "Send them to the City Prison and put them among the political criminals." He took off his glasses, smirking and wiping the lenses on the sleeve of his shirt. True, he couldn't pass a definite sentence on the jokers, because the length of their imprisonment would depend on how long the Provincial Administration was interested in this case.

"Chairman Lou, have mercy, please," begged the tall man.

Lou said, "It serves you right. See if you dare to be so creative again."

"I do it to your little ancestors, Dwarf Lou! " the short peasant yelled, stamping his feet. Four policemen walked up, grabbed the prisoners, and hauled them away.
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Excerpted from The Bridegroom by Ha Jin. Copyright © 2000 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.