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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 147-150

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A Bad Joke

Ha Jin

At last the two jokers were captured. They had not known the police were after them, so they had come to town without any suspicion. The instant they entered Everyday Hardware, a group of policemen sprang at them, pinned them to the cement floor, and handcuffed them from behind. With stupefied faces smeared by sawdust, they screamed, "You made a mistake, Comrade Policemen! We didn't steal anything!"

"Shut up!"


The police plugged their mouths with washcloths from a bucket and then hauled them out to the white van waiting on the street.

At the police station, the interrogation started immediately. It didn't go well, though, because the two peasants denied that they had spread any counterrevolutionary slander. The police chief--a bespectacled, pockmarked man--reminded them of the joke they had told. To everyone's astonishment, the tall peasant asked the chief, "Who's Deng Xiaoping? I never met him." He turned to his buddy. "Have you?"

"Uh-uh, I guess he must be a general or a big official," said the short peasant.

"Stop pretending!" the chief shouted. "Comrade Deng Xiaoping is the chairman of our Party and our country."

"Really?" the tall peasant asked. "You mean he's number one now?"


"How about Chairman Mao? We only know Chairman Mao."

"He passed away six years ago. You didn't know?"

"That so?" the short peasant cried. "I didn't know he's dead. He's the Emperor to us--no, more like a granddad. His portrait still hangs in my home."

The police officers tried hard to keep from laughing. Their chief looked thoughtful. Before the interrogation, he had thought he could easily handle the pair of yokels. Now it was obvious they were smart fellows, playing the idiot to dodge the charge. He'd better dismiss them for today--it was already late afternoon--so that he could figure out a way to make them admit their crime. He ordered the guards to take the two men away and put them into a cell. [End Page 147]

Seven weeks ago, the two peasants went to Sunlight Department Store on Peace Avenue. "Can we take a look at the rubber loafers?" the tall peasant asked at the counter, drumming his thick fingers on the glass top.

Three salesgirls were sitting on a broad window ledge, silhouetted against the traffic lights outside. They stopped chatting, and one of them got up and came over. "What size?" she asked.

"Forty-two," said the tall man.

She handed him a pair. Pointing at the price tag, she said, "Five-fifty."

"What?" the short peasant exclaimed. "Last month it was five yuan a pair. How come it's five-fifty now? Ten-percent inflation in a month? Crazy!"

"Five-fifty," said the girl, annoyed. She twitched her nose, which was in the shape of a large garlic clove.

"Too expensive for this old man," said the tall peasant, who was in his midthirties. He dropped the shoes on the counter with a thump.

As the two men walked away, the tall man spat on the floor and said loudly to his buddy, "Damn, all prices go up and only our chairman never grows."

The short man grinned and added, "Yeah, that dwarf won't change."

Hearing their words, the salesgirls tittered. The peasants turned around and took off their blue caps, waving and smiling at the girls, their swarthy faces marked with big parentheses.

Within an hour, a joke was circulating in the department store: "All prices have gone up, but Deng Xiaoping never grows." Within a day, thousands of people in our city heard the joke. Like a spook it soon began haunting offices, factories, restaurants, theaters, bathhouses, alleys, neighborhoods, train stations.

The two peasants slept well in the cell, happy for the free dinner of sorghum porridge and stewed pumpkin, but they still had no inkling of what crime they had committed. At 9 A.M., the three salesgirls arrived at the police station. One of them was ordered to repeat what she...


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