This is the first part of a translation of the first chapter of the 1984 novel 棋王 (‘Chess King’) by the Chinese author 阿城 (Ah Cheng).
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Nobody paid any attention to that large red slogan that had been hung up temporarily.
This slogan had been hung up quite a few times, and the letters and paper had all been twisted until it was a little bit spoiled.
The loudspeakers were playing recorded songs one after another, the singing making everyone more frantic.
I’d already seen off a few of my friends as they went to work in the countryside, and now it was my turn, and as it turned out there was no-one to see me off.
Before I was born, my parents had some stains on their record, and as soon as the Revolution started they were marked for death.
Machined-made aluminium number tags were placed on all the furniture, and so it was all sold off, as was right and proper.
Although I was alone, I couldn’t be considered an only child; I wasn’t included in the ‘stay in the city’ policy.
I roamed around like a wild wolf for more than a year, before finally deciding that I would leave.
The place we were going had wages of twenty or so dollars a month, and I was looking forward to it, striving to go, and to my surprised I got approved.
The place we were going was adjacent to another country, and whilst the struggle had got rid of class divisions, there were still international borders, so because I had a bad class background, the system wasn’t totally at ease.
I had struggled to gain trust and rights, so I was of course delighted; but what was more important was the twenty or so dollars each month – how could a person spend it all?
It was just that there was nobody to come and see me off, so I was a little impatient, and because of that I squeezed through into the carriage, hoping to find somewhere to sit down, regardless of the thousands of people on the platform saying their goodbyes.
The windows on the side of the carriage next to the platform were already crowded with educated youth from every school, all of them reaching out to speak, laugh and weep.
The windows on the other side were facing south, and the winter sunlight was coming in at an angle, coldly and cheerlessly shining on the numerous buttocks to the north.
The luggage racks on both sides were crammed full of stuff.
I walked along looking for my seat number, but found that there was a skinny student sitting alone with his hands in his sleeves, looking at the empty freight carriages to the south through the window.
My seat number was right in the same compartment as his, diagonally opposite, so I sat down and put my hands in my sleeves too.
That student eyed me up; his eyes suddenly glimmered and he asked:
“Want to play chess?”
That really made me jump, and I hastily waved my hands saying: “I can’t!”
He looked at me unbelievingly and said:
“Such slender fingers are for picking up chess pieces – you definitely can.
Let’s have a game, I’ve brought a set.”
As he said it he raised himself and took a schoolbag down from the window latch, and rummaged around inside it.
I said: “I can only play zoumari and xiangzoutian. Is nobody seeing you off?”
He’d already taken out the chess set and put it on the tea table.
But the plastic chess set wouldn’t stand up; he thought for a moment, then set it horizontally and said:
“It doesn’t matter, it’s pretty much the same. Go on, go on, you go first.”
I laughed and said: “Is no-one seeing you off? It’s heaving, how can we play chess?”
As he set up the last chess piece, he said: “Why the fuck would I want someone to see me off?
We’re going somewhere with food to eat, but everyone’s blubbing. Go on, you go first.”
I was baffled, but I still picked up a cannon, and moved it one square ahead.
Before I’d finished moving my piece, his knight jumped on it with a ‘bang’, even faster than me.
I deliberately moved the cannon another square on from that before stopping.
He quickly looked at my chin and said:
“You said you couldn’t play? This cannon-two-six opening, I happened to meet this eccentric in Zhengzhou who did it like this – I almost lost to him.
The cannon-two-five opening is an old opening, but it’s intimidating and it’s the most stable. Right? Your go.”
I didn’t know what move to make, and my hand hovered over the chessboard.
Without moving or making a sound he looked at the whole chess board, and then put his hands back in his sleeves.
It was just at that moment that the carriage went crazy.
A whole load of people swarmed in, waving outside through the glass.
I stood up, and looked through the glass at the railway platform to the north.
The people standing on it all swarmed by the carriage, all calling – it was a chaotic scene.
The train suddenly started to move; the crowd gasped, and the sound of weeping rose on all sides.
I was poked in the back by someone, and looked behind me to see him guarding the chessboard, saying:
“Nobody plays chess like you’re doing now – take your move!”
I really wasn’t in the mood to play chess, and I felt a little sad, so I said harshly:
“I’m not playing! What time is this to play chess?!”
He looked at me, stunned, and suddenly appeared to understand; his body slumped down and he didn’t say anything else.
After the train had been going for a while, it began to settle down in the carriage.
Water was being brought round, and everyone took out flasks to ask for water.
The person next to me got some water and then asked: “Who’s chess pieces are those? Put it away – I want to put my flask there.”
Looking pitiful, he asked: “Do you want to play chess?”
The guy who wanted to put down his flask said: “Well, it’s boring either way, let’s have a game.”
Then he was very happy, and hurried to set up the pieces at once.
His opponent said: “What’s it all sideways like this for? You can’t see it properly.”
He rubbed his hands and said: “It’ll do – normally when you’re watching a game of chess, isn’t the board sideways? You go first.”
The opponent picked up a piece with an air of experience, saying under his breath, “Cannon to centre block.”
He immediately jumped it with a knight.
The opponent immediately took his pawn with a knight, and he promptly used a knight to destroy his opponent’s cannon.
I found this simple opening to be boring; I’m really not interested in chess, so I turned my head.
At that moment a fellow student walked over as if looking for someone, and as soon as he saw me he said:
“Come on, come on, we’re missing one in four – we’re only missing you.”
I knew they were playing mahjong, and shook my head.
My schoolmate walked up to our compartment, and held out his hand to pull me up, suddenly saying loudly:
“Chess geek, what are you doing here? Your sister was in tears looking for you just now – I said I hadn’t seen you.
I didn’t think you’d be in the carriage for our school, without saying a word.
But lo and behold, here you are playing chess again.”
The chess geek went red, and said moodily:
“You concern yourself with everything, even me playing chess? Go on, it’s your turn.”
He urged on his opponent who was sitting beside me.
At that moment I finally tuned in, and I asked my schoolmate:
“He’s Wang Yisheng?”
My schoolmate widened his eyes, and said “You don’t know him? Oosh, you’ve led a dull life.
You don’t know about the chess geek?”
I said: “I know the chess geek is Wang Yisheng, but I didn’t know that he was Wang Yisheng.”
As I spoke, I looked carefully at this wiry student.
Wang Yisheng forced a smile, keeping his eyes on the chessboard.
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