Stories from the Bohai Sea4 min read

Ten poems by Xiao Shui – translated by Irene Chen and Judith Huang

From Spittoon Literary Magazine


Wandering Soul

He was seven that year, when his father fell down at home, he picked up the phone, not panicking at all.

His mother, a painter, remarried a retired general, while he chose to avoid enlistment through self-mutilation.

He came from Daejeon, South Korea. In the taxi he gave me an unexpected kiss, then became distant again, like a stone evaporating from a stone.

Finally leaving China, in an airport hotel, he decided to once more experience the thrill of a stranger.


Fang Xiang Middle School

The last time I saw him, he sailed from Huangdao, took me to an underground barbecue on Zhongshan road. Afterwards, we strolled around a nearby church. The distant sea was a deep blue. 

The shimmering white steamships looked like they were fastened to the sea, forever stuck there. 

Even now, when I sit in the park, I can almost hear the siren song of the fallen leaves floating on the lake.



He got off the plane before me. In this brisk winter weather, all that was discernible seemed new. The taxi eventually came to a stop in front of the seaside plaza on Second Street. A troupe of elderly street performers were unloading pipas and erhus from a pickup truck. 

From the overlooking hotel window, they seemed like miniatures, their painted faces creaseless. 


Looking Bleak

They met in Beijing, but agreed to meet in Cangzhou. 

Getting off work on Friday, he drove through the night, passing through Gu An, towards Bazhou.

Midway, on a whim, he decided that there should be 25 chapters in the story. Hence he stayed in Dacheng,

waiting for the snow to collect, then to inform her of a car breakdown, so she would come for him.


Misty Room

After having spicy hotpot in Dongzhimen, amid friends, only she proposed

to accompany him to the Airport Express line. In truth, for years they had deliberately avoided hearing anything concerning each other. 

From the end of a long platform, the train appeared like a blanched asparagus; she said,

I’m leaving for Hong Kong, so I won’t need the down payment for the apartment from my parents for a while; you can have it if you need.


Light on The Borderline

When she was discharged from the Jinzhou rehab center for the third time, there was no sign of her family. 

She walked for a long time, till she reached the main road. In the end, she married the truck driver who offered her a ride and had his children. However the story was not so simple: people are still being warned against jaywalking, or falling for handsome bad boys in their youth.


Temple of Solitary Joy

After his father’s bankruptcy and ensuing disappearance, his mother sold off their only house.

Under the debt collector’s watch, he could take nothing but the family picture on the wall. Barely two weeks had passed when his mother quietly left their little hotel for her hometown in Shaanxi. They hardly talk, and they haven’t seen each other in four years. 

This Spring Festival, he chose to stay in Tianjin, just to wander around, and so spend his 21st birthday. 



They had a secret love affair, behind the backs of their close friends, which later ended peacefully. 

He thought he would settle in Beijing, yet ended up spending a year in Shanghai before returning quickly,

only to realize that Lama Temple had become much more crowded, the tender buds from crabapple trees taking on human shapes, 

and the sticks and ash left scattered in the incense tray lining up perfectly with the universe around him.


Doomsday Phenology

Back then my family lived near the reservoir, my father a lumberjack,

my mother ran a small grocery; her trips into town to restock would sometimes keep her late,

and when her ferry reached the center of the lake, the engine switched off, we would quietly float. Countless egrets engulfed the shore,

while the submerged houses would occasionally surface, their roofs covered in soggy weeds.


In Winter

Standing by the street, he produced a lighter, hesitated a moment, 

and finally lit it. He took out his phone, capturing the heart of the flame. 

The swelling fire flickered, narrowly missing his left hand.  

He wondered how he’d ended up on Wudong Road, as sounds of water seemed to flow through the traffic. ∎


Also read Kassy Lee’s companion essay explaining Xiao Shui’s poetry and its evocations.
These poems were originally published in Issue 2 of the Spittoon Literary Magazine, which publishes writing by emerging Chinese writers with its English translation. Spittoon Literary Magazine is now available as an ebook on Amazon.
The header image is of Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the Bohai sea, from the National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons.
About the translators:
Irene Chen is a translator, writer, and editor from Harbin who enjoys reading, writing and listening to good stories.
Judith Huang is a writer, editor, and translator from Singapore who also illustrates postcards.