A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find
We were overwhelmed by a letter from the provincial governor's office. It praised our TV series Wu Song Beat the Tiger
. The governor was impressed by the hero, who fought the tiger single-handedly and punched it to death. The letter read: "We ought to create more heroic characters of this kind as role models for the revolutionary masses to follow. You, writers and artists, are the engineers of the human soul. You have a noble task on your hands, which is to strengthen people's hearts and instill into them the spirit that fears neither heaven nor earth." But the last paragraph of the letter pointed out a weakness in the key episode, which was that the tiger looked fake and didn't present an authentic challenge to the hero. The governor wondered if we could improve this section, so that our province might send the series to Beijing before the end of the year.
That evening we had a meeting and decided to reshoot the tiger-fighting scene. Everybody was excited, because if the series was sent to the capital, it meant we'd compete for a national prize. We decided to let Wang Huping take the part of the hero again, since the governor had been impressed with him in the first version. He was more than happy to do it. Now the problem was the tiger. First, a real animal would cost a fortune. Second, how could we shoot a scene with such a dangerous animal?
With the governor's letter in hand, we obtained a grant from the Municipal Administration without difficulty. Four men were dispatched to Jilin Province to bring back a tiger just caught on Ever White Mountain. By law we were not allowed to acquire a protected animal, but we got papers that said we needed it for our city's zoo.
A week later, the four men returned with a gorgeous Siberian tiger.
We all went to see the animal, which was being held in a cage in the backyard of our office building. It was a male, weighing over three hundred pounds. Its eyes glowed with a cold, brown light, and its scarlet tongue seemed wet with blood. What a thick coat it had, golden and glossy! Its black stripes would ripple whenever it shook its head or stretched its neck. I was amazed at how small its ears were, not much larger than a dog's. But it smelled awful, like ammonia.
We were told to feed it ten pounds of mutton a day. This was expensive, but if we wanted to keep it in good shape, we had no choice.
Wang Huping seemed a little unnerved by the tiger. Who wouldn't be? But Huping was a grand fellow: tall, muscular, straight-shouldered, and with dreamy eyes that would sparkle when he smiled. I would say he was the most handsome young man in our Muji City, just as his nickname, Prince, suggested. A girl told me that whenever he was nearby, her eyes would turn watery. Another girl said that whenever he spoke to her, her heart would pound and her face would burn with a tickle. I don't know if any of that was true.
A few days before the shooting, Director Yu, who used to be a lecturer at a cinema school in Shanghai, gave Huping a small book to read. It was The Old Man and the Sea
, by an American author, whose name has just escaped me.
The director told Huping, "A man's not born to be defeated, not by a shark or a tiger."
"I understand," said Huping.
That was what I liked most about him. He wasn't just handsome, like a flowered pillowcase without solid stuff in it; he studied serious books and was learned, different from most of us, who merely read picture books and comics. If he didn't like a novel, he would say, "Well, this isn't literature." What's more, he was skilled in kung fu, particularly mantis boxing. One night last winter, he was on his way back to his dorm when four thugs stopped him and demanded he give them his wallet. He gave them a beating instead. He felled them with his bare hands and then dragged the ringleader to a nearby militia headquarters. For that, he got written about in the newspapers. Later, he was voted an outstanding actor.
The morning of the shooting was a little windy and overcast. Two Liberation trucks took us four miles out of the city, to the edge of an oak wood. We unloaded the tiger cage, mounted the camera on the tripod, and set up the scene by placing a few large rocks here and there and pulling out some tall grass to make the flattish ground more visible. A few people gathered around Huping and helped him with his costume and makeup. Near the cage stood two men, each toting a tranquilizer gun.
Director Yu was pacing back and forth behind the camera. A scene like this couldn't be repeated; we had to get everything right on the first take.
The medic took out a stout jar of White Flame and poured a full bowl of it. Without a word, Huping raised the liquor with both hands and drank it up in a long swallow. People watched him silently. He looked radiant in the shifting sunlight. A black mosquito landed on his jaw, but he didn't bother to slap at it.
When everything was ready, one man shot a tranquilizer dart into the tiger's rump. Holding his forefinger before Huping's face, Director Yu said in a high-pitched voice, "Try to get into the character. Remember, once you are in the scene, you are no longer Wang Huping. You are the hero, a true tiger-fighter, a killer."
"I'll remember that," Huping said, punching his left palm with his right fist. He wore high leather boots and a short cudgel slung across his back.
Director Yu's gaze swept through the crowd, and he asked loudly if everyone was ready. A few people nodded.
"Action!" he cried.
The door of the cage was lifted up. The tiger rushed out, vigorously shaking its body. It opened its mouth, and four long canine teeth glinted. It began walking in circles and sniffing at the ground while Huping, with firm steps, began to approach it. The animal roared and pranced, but our hero took the cudgel from his back and went forward resolutely. When he was within ten feet of the tiger, the snarling beast suddenly sprang at him, but with all his might Huping struck its head with his cudgel. The blow staggered the tiger a little, yet it came back and lunged at him again. Huping leaped aside and hit its flank. This blow sent the animal tumbling a few feet away. Huping followed it, striking its back and head. The tiger turned around with a menacing look. Then they were in a real melee.
With a crack the front half of the cudgel flew away. Huping dropped the remaining half, just as Wu Song does in the story. The beast rushed forward, reached for Huping's leg, and ripped his pants, then jumped up, snapping at his throat. Our hero knocked the animal aside with his fist, but its attack threw Huping off balance--he tottered and almost fell.
"Keep engaging it!" Director Yu shouted at him.
I stood behind a large elm, hugging my ribs.
"Closer, closer!" the director ordered the cameraman.
Huping kicked the tiger in the side. The animal reeled around and sprang at him again. Huping dodged the attack and punched the tiger's neck.
Now the drug began taking effect; the tiger wobbled a little and fell to its haunches. It lurched to its feet, but after a few steps it collapsed. Our hero jumped on its back, punching its head with all his strength. The tiger, as if dead, no longer reacted to the beating, only its tail lashing the grass now and again. Still Huping pulled and pushed its huge head, forcing its lips and teeth to scrape the dirt.
"Cut!" Director Yu called, and walked over to Huping as two men helped him up from the unconscious animal.
The director said, "I guess we didn't time it well. The tiger passed out too soon."
"I killed him! I'm the number-one tiger-fighter!" Huping shouted. With his fists balled at his flanks, he began laughing huskily and stamping his feet.
People ran up to him and tried to calm him down. But he wouldn't stop laughing. "I killed him! I killed him!" he yelled, his eyes ablaze.
The medic poured some water into the bowl and took out a sedative tablet. He made Huping take the medicine.
"Good wine, good wine!" Huping said after drinking the water. He wiped his lips with his forearm.
Then, to our astonishment, he burst out singing like a hero in a revolutionary model opera:
My spirit rushing toward the Milky Way,
With my determination and bravery
I shall eradicate every vermin from earth. . . .
A young woman snickered. Two men clutched Huping's arms and dragged him away while he was babbling about plucking out the tiger's heart, liver, and lungs. They put him into the back of a truck.
"He's punch-drunk," said Secretary Feng. "Tough job--I don't blame him."
The tiger was lifted back into its cage. Director Yu wasn't happy about the botched scene. According to the classic story, which our audience would know well, the hero is supposed to ride the tiger for a while, bring it down, and punch its head hundreds of times until it breathes its last. The scene we had just shot missed the final struggle, so we would have to try again.
But Huping was in no condition to work. For the rest of the day he laughed or giggled at random. Whenever someone came into sight he'd shout, "Hey, I killed the tiger!" We worried about him, so we called in a pedicab and sent him to the hospital for a checkup.
The diagnosis was mild schizophrenia, and the doctor insisted that Huping be hospitalized.
What should we do about the fight scene? Get another tiger-fighter? Not so easy. Where on earth could we find a fellow as handsome and strapping as our Prince? We looked through a pile of movie and TV magazines in the hopes of finding someone who resembled him, but most of the young actors we saw were mere palefaced boys; few had the stature and spirit of a hero.
Somehow the prefecture's Propaganda Department heard about the governor's interest in our TV series. Its deputy director phoned, saying we should complete the revision as early as possible. It was already mid-September, and trees were dropping leaves. Soon frost and snow would change the color of the landscape and make it impossible to duplicate the setting.
Because it was unlikely that we would find a substitute for Huping, some people suggested using him again.
Quite a few of us opposed this idea; those who supported it didn't seem to care that a man's life was at risk. In private, some of us--clerks, assistants, actors--complained about the classic novel that contains the tiger-fighting episode. Why would an author write such a difficult scene? It's impossible for any man to ride a tiger and then beat it to death bare-handed. The story is a pure fabrication that has misled readers for hundreds of years. It may have been easy for the writer to describe it on paper, but in reality, how could we create such a hero?
Full of anxiety, Director Yu suffered a case of inflamed eyes--they turned into curved slits between red, doughy lids. He'd wear sunglasses whenever he went out of the office building. He told us, "We must finish the scene! It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"
One night he even dreamed he himself wrestled the tiger to the ground, and his elbow inflicted a bruise on his wife's chest.
We were worried, too. Our company couldn't afford to feed the tiger for long; besides, we had no place to shelter it for the coming winter.
The following week, Secretary Feng held a staff meeting with us. We discussed the predicament at some length.
Gradually it became clear that if we couldn't find a substitute, we might have to use Huping again. The proponents of this idea argued their position logically and convinced us, its opponents, that this was the only way to get the job done.
At the end of the meeting, Director Yu stressed that this time everything had to be accurately designed and calculated. The tranquilizer dart should carry a smaller dose so that the tiger would remain on its feet long enough for our hero to ride it a while. Also, we would have to be more careful not to let the beast hurt him.
To our relief, when the leaders broached the plan with Huping, he eagerly agreed to fight the tiger again. He said that he'd live up to their expectations and that he felt fine now, ready for work. "I'm a tiger-fighter," he declared. His voice was quite hoarse, and his eyes glittered.
"Yes, you are," agreed Secretary Feng. "All the provincial leaders are watching you, Huping. Try to do a good job this time."
So we trucked the tiger to the site the next morning. The weather happened to be similar to that of the previous time: a little overcast, the sun peeking through the gray clouds now and then. I identified the elm and the spot where the fight had taken place before. Huping sat on a boulder with a short cudgel across his naked back while the medic was massaging his shoulders. After a tranquilizer dart was shot into the tiger's thigh, Huping rose to his feet and downed a bowl of White Flame in two gulps.
Director Yu went over to give him instructions, saying, "Don't lose your head. When I shout, 'On the tiger!' you get on its back, ride it for a while, then bring it down. Until it stops moving, keep punching its head."
"All right." Huping nodded, his gaze fixed on the caged animal.
In the distance, on the hillside, a few cows were grazing, the west wind occasionally blowing their voices to us.
The tiger was let out. It pranced around, bursting with life. It opened its mouth threateningly. It began eyeing the distant cows.
"Roll the camera!" shouted Director Yu.
As Huping was approaching the tiger, it growled and rushed toward him. Our hero seemed stunned. He stopped and raised the cudgel, but the beast just pounced on him and pawed at his shoulder. With a heartrending cry, Huping dropped his weapon and ran toward us. The tiger followed, but having been caged for weeks, it couldn't run fast. We scattered in every direction, and even the camera crew deserted their equipment. Huping jumped, caught a limb of the elm, and climbed up the tree. The animal leaped and ripped off Huping's left boot, and instantly a patch of blood appeared on his white sock.
"Save me!" he yelled, climbing higher. The beast was pacing below the tree, snarling and roaring.
"Give it another shot!" Director Yu cried.
Another dart hit the tiger's shoulder. In no time it started tottering, moving zigzag under the elm.
We watched fearfully while Huping yelled for help. He was so piteous.
The tiger fell. Director Yu was outraged and couldn't help calling Huping names. Two men quietly carried the cage over to the motionless animal.
"Idiot!" Director Yu cursed.
The medic wiggled his fingers at Huping. "Come down now, let me dress
"The tiger's gone," a woman said to him.
"Help me!" he yelled.
"It can't hurt you anymore."
No matter how many comforting words we used, he wouldn't come down from the tree. He squatted up there, weeping like a small boy. The crotch of his pants was wet.
We couldn't wait for him like this forever. So Secretary Feng, his face puffy and glum, said to a man, "Give him a shot, not too strong."
From a range of five feet a dart was fired into Huping's right buttock.
"Ow!" he cried.
A few men assembled under the elm to catch him, but he didn't fall. As the drug began affecting him, he turned to embrace the tree trunk and began descending slowly. A moment later the men grabbed his arms and legs and carried him away.
One of them said, "He's so hot. Must be running a fever."
"Phew! Smelly!" said another.
Now that our hero was gone, what could we do? At last it began to sink in that the tiger was too fierce for any man to tackle. Somebody suggested having the beast gelded so as to bring the animal closer to the human level. We gave a thought to that and even talked to a pig castrator, but he didn't trust tranquilizers and wouldn't do the job unless the tiger was tied up. Somehow the Choice Herb Store heard about our situation and sent an old pharmacist over to buy the tiger's testicles, which the man said were a sought-after remedy for impotence and premature ejaculation. In his words, "They give you a tiger's spirit and energy."
But finally realizing that the crux of our problem was the hero, not the tiger, we decided against castrating the animal. Without a man who physically resembled Huping, we could get nowhere, even with a tamed tiger. Then someone suggested that we find a tiger skin and have it worn by a man. In other words, shoot the last part of the scene with a fake animal. This seemed feasible, but I had my doubts. As the set clerk, whose job it is to make sure that all the details match those in the previous shooting, I thought that we couldn't possibly get a skin identical to the real tiger's. After I expressed my misgivings, people fell silent for a long time.
Finally Director Yu said, "Why don't we have the tiger put down and use its skin?"
"Maybe we should do that," agreed Old Min, who was also in the series, playing a bad official.
Secretary Feng was uncertain whether Huping could still fill his role. Director Yu assured him, saying, "That shouldn't be a problem. Is he still
a man if he can't even fight a dead tiger?"
People cracked up.
Then it occurred to us that the tiger was a protected animal and that we might get into trouble with the law if we had it killed. Director Yu told us not to worry. He was going to talk with a friend of his in the Municipal Administration.
Old Min agreed to wear the tiger's skin and fight with Huping. He was good at this kind of horseplay.
Two days later, our plan was approved. So we had the tiger shot by a militiaman with a semiautomatic rifle. The man had been instructed not to damage the animal's head, so he aimed at its chest. He fired six shots into the tiger, but it simply refused to die--it sat on its haunches, panting, its tongue hanging out of the corner of its mouth while blood streamed down its front legs. Its eyes were half closed, as though it were sleepy. Even when it had finally fallen down, people waited for some time before opening the cage.
To stay clear of anybody who might be involved with the black market, we sold the whole carcass to the state-owned Red Arrow Pharmaceutical Factory for forty-eight hundred yuan, a little more than we had paid for the live tiger. But that same evening we got a call from the manager of the factory, who complained that one of the tiger's hind legs was missing. We assured him that when the carcass left our company, it was intact. Apparently en route someone had hacked off the leg to get a piece of tiger bone, which is a kind of treasure in Chinese medicine, often used to strengthen the physique, relieve rheumatic pains, and ease palpitations caused by fright. The factory refused to pay the full price unless we delivered the missing leg. But how on earth could we recover it? Secretary Feng haggled hard in vain, and they docked five hundred yuan from the original figure.
This time there was no need to persuade our hero. Just at the mention of beating a fake tiger, Huping got excited, itching to have a go. He declared, "I'm still a tiger-fighter. I'll whip him!"
Because the shooting could be repeated from now on, there wasn't much preparation. We set out for the woods in just one truck. Old Min sat in the cab with a young actress who was allergic to the smog and wore a large gauze mask. On the way, Huping grinned at us, gnashed his teeth, and made hisses through his nose. His eyes radiated a hard light. That spooked me, and I avoided looking at him.
When we arrived at the place and got off the vehicle, he began glaring at Old Min. The look on his face suggested intense malice. It made me feel awful, because he used to be such a good-hearted man, gentle and sweet. That was another reason why the girls had called him Prince.
Old Min changed his mind and refused to play the tiger. Director Yu and Secretary Feng tried to persuade him, but he simply wouldn't do it, saying,
"He thinks he's a real tiger-killer and can have his way with me. No, I won't give him the chance."
"Please, he won't hurt you," begged Director Yu.
"Look at his eyes--they give me goose bumps. No, I won't have anything
to do with him."
Desperate, Secretary Feng shouted at us, "Who'd like to play the tiger?"
There was no response, only a grasshopper snapping its whitish wings in the air. Then an explosion was heard from the distant mountain, where granite was being quarried.
Director Yu added, "Come on, it will be fun, a great experience." Seeing nobody step forward, he went on, "I'll treat whoever takes the part to an eight-course dinner."
"Where will you take him?" asked the young truck driver, Little Dou.
"Four Seas Garden."
"You really mean it?"
"Of course--on my word of honor."
"Then I'll try. I've never been in a movie, though."
"You know the story Wu Song Beat the Tiger
, don't you?"
"Just imagine yourself as the tiger being beaten by the hero. Crawl and roll about, keep shaking your head until I say, 'Die.' Then you fall down and begin to die slowly."
"All right, I'll give it a shot."
Huping was already in his outfit, but this time not wearing the cudgel. They wrapped the small driver in the tiger's skin and tied the strings around his belly. Director Yu said to him, "Don't be scared. Try to be natural. He'll wrestle with you bare-handed. This tiger skin is so thick that nothing can hurt you."
"No problem." The driver spat on the ground, then pulled on the tiger's head.
The director raised his hand, an unlit cigarette between his index and middle fingers. "Action!" he called.
The tiger crawled into the grass, wandering with ease. Its rump swayed a little. Huping leaped on its back and began riding it around, shouting,
"Kill!" Gripping its forelock with his left hand, he hit the tiger hard on the head with his right fist.
"Oh, Mama!" the tiger squealed. "He's killing me!"
Huping kept punching until the tiger staggered, then collapsed. Just as we were about to intervene, Director Yu motioned for us not to move. Old Min laughed boisterously, bending forward and holding the swell of his belly with both hands. "Oh my! Oh my!" he kept saying.
Meanwhile, Huping was slapping the tiger's face and spat on it as well.
The animal screamed, "Spare me! Spare me, Grandpa!"
"He's hurting him," said Secretary Feng.
"It's all right," Director Yu assured him, then turned to the crew. "Keep the camera rolling."
I said, "If he cripples Little Dou, it'll cost us lots."
"Don't put such a jinx on us!" the director snapped at me. I held my tongue.
Finally, Huping got off the motionless tiger, but then he started in ferociously kicking its flank, head, neck, face. His boots produced muffled thuds as he cursed, "Kill this paper tiger! I'm going to finish him off!"
How frightened we were! The driver wasn't making a sound at this point. Huping stepped aside and, picking up a rock as large as a melon, muttered, "Let me smash this fake."
We ran over and grabbed him.
"Stop it!" the medic yelled at our hero. "You've already beaten the crap out of Little Dou!"
Huping wouldn't listen and struggled to reach the tiger. It took five men to restrain him, wrench the rock from his hands, and haul him away. He shouted, "I killed another tiger! I'm a real tiger-fighter!"
"Shut up!" Director Yu said. "You couldn't handle a tiger, so we gave you a man."
Hurriedly, we removed the animal skin from the driver, who was unconscious. His lips were cut open; his mouth and eyes were bleeding.
Old Min, still unable to stop chuckling, poured some cold water on Little Dou's face. A moment later Little Dou came to, moaning, "Help . . . save me . . ."
The medic began bandaging him, insisting we had to send him to the hospital without delay. But who could drive the truck? Secretary Feng rubbed his hands and said, "Damn, look at this mess!"
A young man was dispatched to look for a phone in order to call our company to have them send out the other driver. In the meantime, Little Dou's wounds stopped bleeding, and he was able to answer some questions, but he couldn't help groaning every few seconds. Old Min waved a leafy twig over Little Dou's face to keep mosquitoes and flies away. Tired and bored, Huping was alone in the cab, napping. Except for the two leaders, who were in the bushes talking, we all lounged on the grass, drinking soda and smoking cigarettes.
Not until an hour later did the other driver arrive by bicycle. At the sight of him some of us shouted, "Long live Chairman Mao!" although the great leader had passed away five years before.
The moment we arrived at the hospital, we rushed Little Dou to the emergency room. While the doctor was stitching him up, the medic and I escorted Huping back to the mental ward. On the way, Huping said tearfully,
"I swear I didn't know Little Dou was in the tiger."
After a good deal of editing, the fake-tiger part matched the rest of the scene, more or less. Many leaders of our prefecture saw the new part and praised it, even though the camera shakes like crazy. Several TV stations in the Northeast have begun rebroadcasting the series. We're told that it will be shown in Beijing soon, and we're hopeful it will win a prize.
Director Yu has promised to throw a seafood party if our series makes the finals, and to ask the Municipal Administration to give us all a raise if it receives an award.
Both the driver and Huping are still in the hospital. I was assigned to visit them once a week on behalf of our company. The doctor said that Little Dou, who suffered a concussion, would recuperate soon, but Huping wasn't doing so well. The hospital plans to have him transferred to a mental home when a bed is available there.
Yesterday, after lunch, I went to see our patients with a string bag of Red Jade apples. I found the driver in the ward's recreation room, sitting alone over a chessboard. He looked fine, although the scars on his upper lip, where the stitches were, still seemed to bother him, especially when he opened his mouth.
"How are you today, Little Dou?" I asked.
"I'm all right. Thanks for coming." His voice was smoother, as though it belonged to another man.
"Does your head still hurt?"
"Sometimes it rings like a beehive. My temples ache at night."
"The doc said you could leave the hospital soon."
"Hope they'll let me drive the truck again."
His words filled me with pity, because the other driver had just taken an apprentice who was likely to replace Little Dou eventually. So I gave him all the apples, even though he was supposed to have only half of them. He's a bachelor without any family here, whereas Huping has two elder sisters who live in town.
I found Huping in his room. He looked well physically but no longer possessed any princely charm. He had just returned from kung fu exercises and was panting a little. He wiped his face with a grimy white towel. The backs of his hands were flecked with tiny scars, scabs, and cracks, which must have resulted from hitting sandbags. I told him that we had received over three hundred fan letters addressed to him. I didn't reveal that more than ninety percent of them were from young women and girls, some of whom had mailed him sweetmeats, chocolates, raisins, books, fountain pens, fancy diaries, and even photos of themselves. How come when a man becomes a poor wretch he's all the more splendid to the public?
Huping grinned like an imbecile. "So people still think I'm a tiger-fighter?"
"Yes, they do," I said and turned my head away. Beyond the double-paned window, the yard was clear and white. A group of children were building a snowman, his neck encircled by an orange scarf. Their mouths puffed out warm air, and their shouts rose like sparrows' twitterings. They wore their coats unbuttoned. They looked happy.
Huping stroked his stubbly chin and grinned again. "Well," he said, "I am a tiger-killer."
Excerpted from The Bridegroom by Ha Jin. Copyright © 2001 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.