Essay: 《丑石》The Ugly Rock by Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa (贾平凹) is one of China’s modern literary greats, and in this short story, it shows. I don’t know how this guy crammed so many insights on the human condition into a few paragraphs about a rock, but he undeniably did.

Jia Pingwa (贾平凹) is one of China’s modern literary greats, and in this short story, it shows. I don’t know how this guy crammed so many insights on the human condition into a few paragraphs about a rock, but he undeniably did.

I’ve read one of Jia Pingwa’s more recent works,《自在独行》Walking Alone Freely, which was pretty solid, but I still haven’t read his most famous novel, 《废都》 Ruined City, which was banned for 13 years in China due to sexual content.

Anyway, I couldn’t love this little story any more. In it, you’ll sympathize with an inanimate object, wonder at the glory of the night sky, shake your head at your own small-mindedness, and wonder whether or not this constitutes satirical commentary on the art world or a jab at those who judge by appearances.

Some language stuff

The difficult language here mostly isn’t grammatically difficult, it’s just referencing stuff we don’t see in daily life outside of China, so it’s hard to imagine the scene, or it’s colloquial Chinese that doesn’t show up in the dictionary.

想以它垒山墙 – In paragraph two, the narrator is talking about ways the ugly rock was to be used, and he mentions that uncle “wanted to use it to lay (垒) the gables (山墙)”. I had to look up pictures of 山墙-style gables to understand what they were talking about, because western gables don’t require stone. Take a look, makes a lot more sense if you do.

洗一台石磨 – Same kind of thing here: this says, “to wash a millstone”. But “washing a millstone” doesn’t make sense in context. Turns out 洗 in this case does not mean “wash”. The process of making a millstone involves carving a pit out of rock and rinsing it off as you go. So, in the context of the story, this means “to make a millstone”.

我们这些做孩子的 – Colloquial Chinese, meaning “we kids”.

每每到了十五的夜晚 – Literally, “Every time it reached the 15 night.” Took me a sec to figure out what he meant by 十五, since he doesn’t say 十五日, or 十五天, but in context, he’s talking about the night of the full moon, so the “15” is in reference to the 15th of the month, or the middle of the month, around which time the full moon appears.

丑得不能再丑的丑石 – Also colloquial phrasing. Let’s break this one down real quick:

丑 – Ugly
得 – To the point that
不能 – Could not
再 – Again
丑的 – Ugly
丑石 – Ugly rock.

That’s a whole lot of ugly. This is equivalent to the English phrase “An ugly rock so ugly that it couldn’t be uglier.” You can use this phrasing with many different descriptors. “美不能再美” = “Couldn’t be more beautiful”, or “普通不能再普通” = “Couldn’t be more ordinary”.

以丑为美 – This construction is little difficult because both 以 and 为 have so many meanings in Chinese. In this case 以 means “on the basis of”, and 为 is “to be”. In English, we’d probably flip this around: “To attain beauty through ugliness”, or “To be beautiful because of one’s ugliness”.

If you want more Jia Pingwa, you can pick up Ruined City in Chinese or English.

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Ruined City in Chinese or English.

Show English translation »
I often think regretfully of that ugly rock outside the door of our home: it lay there darkly, looking like a cow; no one knew when it had been left there, and no one paid it any attention. It was only in harvest season, when wheat was spread before the door, that grandma would always say: That ugly rock, takes up all the [space on the] ground, we should move it before long.

And so, [when] my uncle was building a house [there], he wanted to use it to lay the gables, but was troubled that it was uneven, it had no edges and corners, and wasn’t flat; he [could have] used a chisel to break it open, but was too lazy to expend that much effort, and because the riverbank wasn’t far away, he could carry a rock back from there on his shoulders, and any one of [those rocks by the river] were better than it. [Once] the house was built, [uncle was] laying the stairs, and [for this purpose he] also didn’t see it as [suitable]. One year, a stonemason came to fashion a millstone for our family, and grandma said again: How about you use that ugly rock, and save [yourself the effort] of bringing one from far away. The stonemason gave it a look over, shook his head, disliking the smooth quality of the stone, which wasn’t of much use.

It wasn’t fine like marble, which could be engraved with letters and flowers, and it wasn’t as smooth as limestone, which could be used to wash cloth, it lay there silently, the shade of the scholartrees didn’t cover it, and flowers wouldn’t grow at its side. Weeds [sprouted] out in profusion, branches and tendrils all over, and slowly, it rusted over with green moss and black stripes. We kids also began to hate it, and we once banded together to move it away, but we weren’t strong enough; so sometimes we would curse it, or avoid it, but we had no choice, we had to allow it to stay there.

What comforted us a little was that the top of the rock had a pit in it neither large nor small, which would fill up with water on a rainy day. Often three days after a rain had passed, the ground was already dry, but the pit in that rock still had water in it, and the birds would go there to drink. Whenever it reached the middle night of the month, we would watch the full moon come out, and climb on top of it, to gaze up at the sky; grandma always yelled [at us], afraid we would fall off. Naturally it happened, and I smashed open my knee.

Everyone cursed it as an ugly rock, an ugly rock so ugly it couldn’t be uglier.

Finally one day, an astronomer came to the village. He passed in front of our house, and suddenly saw this stone, and his gaze was immediately drawn to it. He didn’t keep walking, but stopped there; and later, many more people arrived, saying this was a meteorite, which had fallen from the sky and had already been here for two or three hundred years, that it was a praiseworthy thing. Soon a car came, and carefully took it away.

This shocked us all! As it turned out, this strange and ugly rock was from the heavens! It had mended the sky [NOTE: A reference to a mythological story in which a goddess uses molten rocks to mend a tear in the sky], it had burned in the firmament, had sparkled with light, our ancestors may have looked upon it, it had given them radiance, hope, yearning; but it fell here, in the filth, in the weeds, and lay there several hundred years?!

Grandma said: “You couldn’t tell by looking at it! So unique, yet it couldn’t brace a gable, or be used to make stairs?”

“It’s too ugly,” the astronomer said.

“Yes, too ugly.”

“But this is its beauty!” the astronomer said, “It’s beauty comes from its ugliness.”

“Beauty from ugliness?”

“Yes, when ugliness reaches its extreme, it also reaches the extreme of beauty. Precisely because it isn’t average stone, of course it can’t [be used to] make a wall, or [be used to] make stairs, and can’t be carved or wash cloth. It’s not made to do those things, so it often suffers common ridicule.”

Grandma’s face reddened, my face reddened also.

I felt my own humiliation, and felt the rock’s greatness. I even resented it for silently enduring everything for years, and I deeply felt the greatness of its lonely existence unbent for having been misunderstood.

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