The Christ Of Nanking
by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
It was an autumn evening. A young Chinese girl was sitting at an old table in a room of the house on the Rare Hope Street in Nanking. Resting her chin on her hands, she was listlessly chewing watermelon seeds from a tray.
There was an old lamp on the table. The dim light from the lamp created a dismal effect. The wallpaper was peeled in a corner where a dusty curtain hid a rattan bed from which the skirt of a blanket was hanging. An old chair was casually placed, as if abandoned, beyond the table. The room was meagerly furnished.
In these bleak surroundings the girl cast her cool eyes from time to time on a wall by the table as she stopped chewing the watermelon seeds. A small brass cross was hanging from a nail on the wall. On the cross a cheaply carved wooden Christ spreading his arms high in passion looked worn out in a shadowy outline. Every time the girl looked at the Christ on the cross, the sad color behind her long eyelashes changed into a lively radiance with innocent hope. However, as soon as she looked away, she sighed and resumed chewing the seeds as her shoulders drooped under her faded black satin dress.
The girl was fifteen years old and called Chinhua, Gold Blossom. Night after night, as a prostitute she received her customers in her room to help her poor father. One might see numbers of girls with her looks in the private brothels of the area, but would have difficulty in finding anyone as sweet and gentle as Gold Blossom who, unlike other prostitutes, never lied, nor complained, but always cheerfully entertained her guests in her dreadful room. When she earned a little more than usual, she was most delighted to treat her father to a cup of wine. Gold Blossom's goodness must have been natural, but it also owed much to her faith in the Catholic teachings introduced to her by her deceased mother.
One day the previous spring, a young Japanese traveler, who was sightseeing in southern China, happened to spend a night at Gold Blossom's room. Holding her on his lap, a cigar in his mouth, the Japanese man casually glanced at the cross on the wall and curiously asked her in his awkward Chinese, "Are you a Christian?"
"Yes. I was baptized at five."
"And you are doing a business like this?" At that moment his voice sounded satirical. However, Gold Blossom, still leaning her head against his arms, replied with her usual happy smile, "Unless I work at this job, both my father and I will starve."
"Is your father old?"
"Yes, he cannot walk anymore."
"But, don't you think that you may not be able to go to Heaven if you work in this kind of business?"
"No," Gold Blossom had said, looking at the cross reflectively, and continued, "I believe that Christ in the Heaven will understand my heart. Otherwise he would be no different from the police officers of Yao-chia-hsiang."
The young Japanese smiled, and taking a pair of jade earrings out of his jacket pocket he gave them to her, saying, "I bought these to take as a souvenir to Japan, but I give them to you as a token for tonight." In such cases, Gold Blossom was always confident of herself from the time when she took her first customer.
A month later, however, this devout prostitute unfortunately contracted syphilis. Hearing her sad news, her colleagues, including her friend Mountain Tea, suggested that she take opium tea; while another friend, Welcome Spring, kindly brought her left-over Koran pills and Karo rice which she had taken when she had had the same trouble. However, these treatments proved ineffective for Gold Blossom, who by then had taken no customers for a month.
One day Mountain Tea visited Gold Blossom and suggested another remedy, saying, "Since you have gotten the disease from a customer, you should give it back to another customer. Only then will you be cured." Still resting her chin on her hands, Gold Blossom looked uninterested in the beginning, but began to feel curious as she asked, "Really?"
"Yes, it's true. My older sister also suffered from the same trouble for a long time. But as soon as she gave it to one of her customers, she became better."
"What about the customer?"
"Oh, terrible. He eventually lost his eyesight."
After her friend left, Gold Blossom knelt before the cross on the wall and began to pray, "Jesus Christ in Heaven, I am engaging in this debased business to feed my father. However, I have not troubled anyone except myself so far. So I believe that I can go to Heaven if I die now. But according to my friend, unless I give this disease to a customer, I cannot continue this job. So, even if I die of starvation and only my death relieves me from my present disease, I must never share a bed with any customers. Otherwise, I will cause others to be unhappy to make myself happy. However, being a woman I may be exposed to any kind of temptation at any time. Oh, Christ in Heaven, please help and protect me. You are the only one on whom I can rely."
With her firm resolution, Gold Blossom refused to take any customers, no matter how much her colleagues urged her to resume her job. When some of her old customers visited her, she only smoked together with them, but never complied with their wishes as she repeated, "Since I have a bad disease, you may catch it if you come closer to me." When the drunken customers persisted, she even went so far as to expose herself as proof. So eventually no customers visited her, and her economic situation became worse day by day.
This evening, also, she was sitting at the table doing nothing for a long time. No customers appeared in her room. As night deepened, the only sounds she heard were crickets chirping. The cold in the fireless room attacked her like water seeping through the stone floor to her little feet in gray satin slippers. While gazing at the dim lamp light, Gold Blossom shivered as she touched her jade earrings and swallowed a yawn.
Just at that instant, the painted door to her room opened suddenly, and a strange foreigner came staggering into the room. The bursting wind was so strong that the lamplight flared up for a second to fill the small room with its strange red lights. Bathed in the light, the customer first leaned against the table, but stood up straight, and stepped backwards to rest his back against the painted door.
Flabbergasted, Gold Blossom stood up, and stared at the foreigner who appeared about thirty-five or -six years of age. Dressed in a brown suit and a deerstalker hat of the same color, the man had large eyes, a tanned complexion, high cheek bones, and a beard. The only thing she could not tell was whether he was a Caucasian or an Asian. But he looked like no one but a street drunkard with a pipe on his mouth, and the disheveled dark hair hung below his hat. He was barely holding himself up against the door.
"What do you want?" asked Gold Blossom, almost blaming him for crashing in. Shaking his head, the foreigner tried to tell her that he did not understand Chinese. Taking the pipe out of his mouth, he began to speak a few words in a fluent foreign language which she could not fathom. Now she could do nothing but shake her head as her dangling earrings gleamed in the dim light of the table lamp.
Seeing her beautiful troubled and knitted eyebrows, the visitor broke into laughter, staggered a few steps towards the table as he casually took off his hat, and sat down with a thud in the chair across the table. At that moment, she thought his face familiar. She felt that she had seen the face before, though she could not remember where. Now the foreigner was aimlessly handling the watermelon seeds in the tray as he stared at her, and began to speak with his hands. She did not understand his words, but vaguely guessed that he knew something of her business.
It was not rare that she spent nights with foreigners whose languages she did not understand. As usual, the sitting Gold Blossom began to smile amicably, and told a few jokes not understood by the visitor at all. However, the foreigner, as if he understood her, nodded at her every few words, and moved his hands rapidly, raising his laughing voice.
His breath smelled of liquor, but his red animated face brightened and filled the dismal room with manly energy which appeared to her more splendid than that of any men in Nanking including the Chinese and foreigners she had met so far. However, she still could not overcome the belief that she had seen his face before. Gazing at the dark curly hair on his forehead, she intently tried to recall her memories with an engaging smile.
"Was he the one who was riding a boat with his fat wife the other day? No his hair was more reddish. Or, might he be the one who was taking a picture at the Confucian mausoleum? No, no, he was much older. Well, another day, by the restaurant near the bridge, I saw a foreigner hitting a rickshaw man with his thick stick. But his eyes were bluer."
While Gold Blossom was thinking and wondering, the foreigner began to tap tobacco into his pipe and lighted it. Immediately, the fragrant smoke filled the air. The foreigner became quiet for a moment, and stuck his two fingers before her face as he grinned, and gestured to invite her agreement. It was quite obvious that the two fingers meant two dollars. With her firm conviction that she would not let anyone stay overnight at her place, the smiling Gold Blossom shook her head two times as she skillfully split watermelon seeds. Now insolently resting his elbows on the table, the foreigner brought his drunken face closer to her, stared at her in the dim light, and finally lifted three fingers, and waited for her answer.
Slightly moving her chair, and holding some seeds in her mouth, Gold Blossom looked perplexed. Now she knew that her visitor thought his two dollars were not enough to have her. However, it seemed almost impossible for her to explain her complex situation in his language. Now regretting her frivolous behavior, she coolly looked away from him, and shook her head negatively.
The foreign customer, still grinning, hesitated for a second, but stuck his four fingers toward her as he spoke something in his language. The confused Gold Blossom, now holding her cheeks in her hands, did not feel like smiling any more, and determined that she had no choice but to shake her head until he would give up. Meanwhile, the customer raised five fingers as if to catch something invisible.
For a long while, the two continued their argument with their hands and gestures during which time the number of the customer's fingers increased to ten, reflecting his strong wish to have her even at any cost. Even ten dollars would not change her determination. Now she was leaving the table and standing by the wall. At the sight of the ten fingers, the irritated Gold Blossom frantically shook her head, stamping her feet so hard that the cross on the wall fell with a slight metallic sound on the stone floor by her feet. Hastily stretching out one of her arms, she picked up her precious cross, and casually glanced at the face of the Christ which strangely resembled that of the foreigner across the table. "So this is the face I have been trying to recall." She pressed the cross to her bosom, and cast her surprised glance at the customer across the table.
Reflecting the lamplight, the customer, still with a grin on his hot and red face while emitting the pipe smoke from his mouth, was now constantly looking at her figure -- probably gazing at her white neck and the ears from which the jade earrings were dangling. The customer's attitude now impressed her as solemnly gentle.
Soon the customer stopped smoking, and began to speak with a smile on his slanting face. Whatever he said sounded to her like a hypnotist's whispering. Gold Blossom, completely forgetting her commendable resolution, now shyly walked to the customer as she lowered her smiling eyes while handling the cross. The customer, putting his hands in his pockets and jingling the silver coins, continued watching her with smiling eyes. As soon as his slight grin changed into a passionate gleam, he suddenly jumped up from the chair, and held her tightly in his arms. His sleeves smelled of liquor. Almost in a trance, Gold Blossom, resting her head with the dangling jade earrings on his arms, was now ecstatic with blushing cheeks to which his face was coming closer. Whether she would let this strange foreigner have her body, or refuse his kissing to avoid giving him her disease was not a question for her at that moment. Burying her lips in his beard, she only felt the surging pleasure of making love and her first burning desire filling her bosom.
Several hours later, in the room where the lamplight was extinguished, only the sound of crickets was heard and added a lonely bleakness to the breathing of the two lovers in the bed. Meanwhile, the dream of Gold Blossom rose from the dusty curtain by the bed to the roof, and ascended high into the sky above the roof.
Gold Blossom was now sitting on a sandalwood chair at a table on which various kinds of gourmet dishes were spread. Now she was tasting them one by one -- the swallow's nest, shark fins, steamed eggs, smoked carp, a whole roast pig, and so on. It was impossible to count the number of dishes on the table. And the containers were most elegant with their designs of blue lotus flowers and gold phoenixes.
Behind her were windows covered by thick brocade draperies, and the warbling sounds suggested a stream beyond the windows. She felt as if she was back at her hometown in the countryside. But she knew she must actually be in the house of Christ in a town of Heaven. From time to time, she rested her chopsticks and looked about her. She saw no one but herself and pillars with curved, coiled dragons and huge vases containing great chrysanthemums in the steaming vapor from the dishes on the table. As soon as she finished one of the dishes, another one was brought in with a delicious smell. And before she picked up her chopsticks again, the pheasant on another dish suddenly flew to the ceiling, knocking down the liquor flask on the table.
After a while she felt someone approaching behind her. Still holding her chopsticks, she turned her head around and saw, instead of the windows, a foreigner with a brass water pipe in his mouth, sitting on a heavily brocaded chair. Immediately she recognized the foreigner as the same one who had come to her room that night. The only difference was that the one behind her now had a halo suspended a foot above his head. At that instant, a large dish with steaming food appeared on the table before her. When she was about to pick up the delicious food in the dish, she remembered the foreigner behind her, and asked him over her shoulder, "Won't you come here and join me?"
"Only you will eat. If you take that food, you will be cured within the night," replied the haloed foreigner with a smile of transcendent love.
"Then, aren't you going to eat these foods?"
"Me? I don't like Chinese food. Don't you know that? Jesus Christ has never tasted any Chinese food yet." And saying this, the Christ of Nanking slowly approached her sandalwood chair and gave a gentle kiss to the cheek of the speechless Gold Blossom.
When Gold Blossom woke up from her heavenly dream, the autumn light of early morning was already spreading into her small and cold room. The warm darkness still remained in the small, boat-like bed by the dusty curtain. Gold Blossom's face with her eyes still closed seemed to be floating in the faint shadows with her round chin partly hidden by an old faded blanket. Strands of her oily disheveled hair were stuck to her colorless cheeks with the perspiration from the previous night, and her teeth as tiny as rice grains appeared between her parted lips.
Even after waking up, her mind was still wandering among the dreamy memories of chrysanthemums, watery sounds, baked pheasant, and Jesus Christ. As her bed was gradually brightened by the morning sun, the crude reality, the fact of climbing into the bed with a strange foreigner clearly came back to her hazy head. "I wonder if I have given my disease to him?" Suddenly she became depressed and began to feel it unbearable to see him again. However, being unable to see his familiar sun-tanned face was even more unbearable. Finally she slowly opened her eyes to look around her bed. She saw neither the foreigner who resembled her Christ on the cross, nor his shadow, but only herself covered by the blanket.
"So, was it also a dream?" Kicking off the soiled blanket, she jumped up on the bed. Rubbing her sleepy eyes, she opened the curtain and looked around her room which cruelly exposed the scanty features in the reality of the cold morning air; the old table, the unlighted lamp, one chair fallen over on the floor, and another facing the wall. Everything was just as it had been since last night. Moreover, she saw the small brass cross with a dull gleam among the scattered watermelon seeds on the table. Still blinking her sleepy eyes, the yawning Gold Blossom sat on the messy bed, and gazed around her room for a while.
"No, it was not a dream, after all," Gold Blossom murmured to herself, thinking of all kinds of possibilities for her foreigner. Needless to say, he must have left her while she was still asleep. But how could he leave her without saying a word of farewell after such passionate love-making? Besides she had forgotten the ten dollars from him! "I wonder if he has really left here." With a heavy heart, she started to put on her black jacket which had been thrown over the bed. Just at that moment her hands stopped as her cheeks suddenly became red with fresh blood spreading under her skin. Was that because she thought she heard the footsteps of her foreign lover? Or was it because his sweaty smell permeating the old pillow and blanket suddenly reminded her of the shameful moments of their last love-making? No, that wasn't it at all. At that instant she realized that the miracle happening to her overnight had completely cured her formidable disease. "So he was the Christ after all."
Crawling out from her bed, Gold Blossom knelt on the cold stone floor, and exchanged words with her resurrected Master, just like the beautiful Maria of Magdalene.
Later, on another spring night, the young Japanese traveler was sitting again in Gold Blossom's room under the dim lamplight.
"So, you still have the cross on the wall." At the Japanese man's slight ridicule, Gold Blossom seriously began to tell him the miraculous story of her Christ who had descended on Nanking to cure her disease.
While listening to her story the Japanese thought to himself, "I know that foreigner who is a half-American and half-Japanese. His name is something like George Murray. He boasted to one of my colleagues that he had once bought a Christian prostitute in Nanking, and stealthily left her without paying while she was sleeping. When I was in Shanghai last, I happened to stay at the same hotel with Murray. He said that he was a journalist of a certain English paper. Though good-looking, he seemed to be a mean person. Later he became insane from syphilis. Maybe he had contracted the disease from this girl. However, even today this girl still believes in such a half-breed rascal as her Jesus Christ. Should I awaken and enlighten her or let her continue to dream the old Western legend?"
After Gold Blossom finished talking, the Japanese man lighted his fragrant cigar, and asked her with deliberate sincerity, "Indeed, it is a wonderful story. And, you, haven't you ever had any trouble after that?"
Without any hesitation the radiant Gold Blossom happily replied, "No, not even once," while chewing her watermelon seeds.
End of The Christ Of Nanking by Ryunosuke Akutagawa