HFS Translation Award 2007
Excerpt from My Room by Helen Foster Snow
Huang Hua took me to see Po Ku, the commissioner of Foreign Affairs, one of the opposition to Mao Tse-tung. Po Ku escorted me to the Foreign Affairs compound, to a small room of my own, with paper windows and a heavy blue padded curtain for a door. A carved square table near the window held a candle and my special teapot. Two chairs and two benches made up the rest of furnishings, except for the build-in bedroom in one corner, hung with blue cloth for privacy. This was a k’ang, or raised platform of brick, where I put my canvas cot and sleeping bag. The legs of my cot sat in four cigarette tins filled with kerosene, which did discourage crawling insects, though it seemed to have little deterrent effect on the high-jumping fleas.
The brick floor was inhabited by both competitive and communist insect life, despite the lime dust with which I covered the cracks. I put my leather saddle shoes up high every night and shook them out every morning, looking for scorpions and centipedes as well as lice and fleas. Overhead the ceiling was of sagging white cloth, and rats ran back and forth on the rafters all night, shaking the golden dust down as they raced. Under my bed was a rat trap, and when it caught one, I waked the whole compound with my screams. This was the pure, organic life – without pesticides, without chemicals, without machinery.
It is not the rat but the flea that carries the black plague – and northern Shensi was one of the few places on earth where that killer disease was still endemic. My floor was covered with fleas, all gregarious and fond of foreigners. The Chinese were not immune, but generations of exposure had created a mighty army of antibodies in their blood to protect them from disease. I never forgot that the black plague had once destroyed half the population of Christendom, and had brought into fashion in Europe a concern for cleanliness that did not seem as yet, some centuries later, to have reached China. Though my own compound thankfully suffered no plague that summer, there was one case of typhoid, one severe case of dysentery, along with plenty of the common everyday variety, and my personal bodyguard had advanced tuberculosis. TB was so common that little attention was paid to it. Probably everybody in Yenan had dysentery, but the Chinese seemed usually not much bothered by it.
RMK: Proper nouns in Wade-Giles system to Pinyin
Po Ku – Bo Gu; k’ang – kang; Shensi – Shaanxi; Yenan – Yan’an