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JIAMING TANG | Yang Zhu's Letters

To Yang Zhu, the Devil

Our village had a man who liked to watch people die. His name was Yang Zhu, and he’d appear in the clinic in a western-style suit and a bag on one arm. The doctor hated turning people away so he let the man stay if the patients didn’t object. A few did, but most enjoyed the man’s company. He kept candy in his bag and told stories about the old days. War and famine were his favorite topics, but he also talked about soldiers and their weapons. My aunt was in the clinic when the man-made his visits. She was hooked to an IV like all the other patients, and listened while he talked about his Mama. My aunt said it was a good story, but there was something strange about the man’s face. It lit up when he got to the part where his Mama’s belly—which had shrunken from famine—burst while eating too much rice. She became very afraid of him after that, and started having nightmares.

There was another incident.

A man named Backwards Foot lost his wife after she fell down the temple stairs. It was a bad fall, and she died before we got her to the clinic. A rumor began to spread at this time, about how Yang Zhu was there but didn’t help. He simply watched. He watched and followed the monks who brought her to the clinic, and stared when Backwards Foot appeared—wailing. I wasn’t there when this happened, but my friend Heng Bao was, and he described Yang Zhu’s face as “smiling, like a mother at her children.”

We started joking that Yang Zhu was the devil after that. Whenever someone died, he’d show up with his candy bag and a western suit. Pregnant women started avoiding him, and youngsters dared each other to enter his home. I was one of these youngsters, and in the fall of 1983—two years before I went to America—I met Yang Zhu in his bungalow by the market.

It was a small house, very neat but with few items of furniture. There were no chairs so I sat on a cot. It was hard as bricks but the blanket was soft; Yang Zhu told me it was silk material, and that a relative sent it from Vietnam. He gave me tea and crackers and fanned himself with a sheath of papers. He was at ease, I could tell, and his small, black, lashless eyes watched me while I examined the pictures in his room. They were taped to the walls in an irregular fashion and depicted all kinds of people. Men, women, children, farmers, fishermen.

“I knew those people,” Yang Zhu said.

He started talking about them, about each man or woman or child’s story. In his words, they all “left” the village. One woman—a laborer—was hit by a car. Her husband (standing beside her) went to Fuzhou and never returned. A number of the pictured were smuggled overseas—including his wife and daughter. He pointed at them, they hung above the window facing the street. I looked closer and saw an ugly woman. She was skeletal, with fish belly skin, a long face, and alarmingly straight teeth. The daughter, too, was ugly—to say she looked like her mother was an understatement.

“I haven’t seen them in years. At first we spoke on the phone, sent pictures. But now even those have vanished…”

“They don’t call you anymore?”

“No, it’s troublesome. They don’t want to and neither do I.”

He smiled, I didn’t. And he continued.

“The fact is calling’s expensive. I’d rather my wife spend money on more practical things. I told her, and she sent me gifts. American shirts, pants, belts, shoes. But I had no use for those. So one day I called and asked for pictures. Letters.”

Yang Zhu opened a drawer. Among the knick-knacks inside, the screws, the nails, the pencils, the joss sticks, were bundles and bundles of papers. Beneath each was a picture of his wife. She was usually in a restaurant, standing arms akimbo with a hat over her head, but a few depicted her in different locations.

In one, she stands in a park with cheap sunglasses and a hand over one hip.

In another, she sits on a mattress with laundry piled over the pillow.

A third picture shows her standing at a church. She wears a dress that’s too big for her, and lipstick the color of raw meat.

I looked at the pictures without knowing what to say. I must’ve muttered some words of praise and asked some questions, but for the most part I was bored. But then Yang Zhu showed me her letters, and a chill went up my spine.

They weren’t letters at all. Instead they were scribbles on faded sheets of paper. Some had drawings on them (of faces, of bodies, of trees), and others had numbers instead of words. The only consistent image was that of two names, written poorly. One was Yang Zhu’s, the other was his wife’s.

“She never went to school,” Yang Zhu said. “But she knows how to write our names. I taught her, when we were married. To this day she doesn’t know anything else. Even numbers are difficult. Still, I wanted to see her writing. It helped me imagine her. Even now, after the letters have stopped, I can pull one of these out” (he points at the papers on the cot) “and see her again…”


Jiaming Tang is the son of immigrants. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: AGNI, Lit Hub, Salt Hill, Epiphany Lit Mag, and Cosmonauts Avenue. He was runner-up in Cosmonauts Avenue's 2019 Fiction Contest, and is nonfiction editor of The Black Warrior Review.

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