Misfortune by Huina Zheng

Monday, September 25, 2023
Huina Zheng's character tells the tragic story of her two cousins, one of whom was foretold to bring good fortune to the family, the other bad - but can their fortune trump their upbringing?

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After my cousin Pan was born, my uncle had his fortune told and learned that Pan would bring misfortune to the family.

My parents worked in a town and didn't have time to care for me, so I was raised by my grandma, who lived with my uncle. Pan was the same age as me, born in the mid-80s in China. His family was one of the few wealthy families in the village. My uncle set up a small workshop at home, hiring several village girls to make toys. I envied Pan's material abundance - although his father disliked him, he still had various toys, snacks, and even pocket money.

According to the family planning policy, people with a rural hukou, or registered residence, could have a second child if their first was a daughter; if it was a son, they were not allowed to have a second child, or they had to pay a fine. My uncle had money.

Four years later, Pan's younger brother Bin was born. This time, the fortune teller said Bin would bring fortune to his parents. My uncle was ecstatic and spoiled Bin, giving him whatever he wanted. Bin often bought the giant lollipops I craved, but he only gave one to me once. Needless to say, at the dinner table, my aunt made everything he liked. My uncle often proudly said, "Bin can eat a whole chicken for a meal." Because he ate a lot, Bin was the only obese person on my paternal side of the family. He could have been a handsome man - his mother was the most beautiful girl in the village and he inherited his mother's facial features, but he weighed more than two hundred pounds.

I lived with my parents after I was six, but every summer I would go back and play with Pan and Bin.

Because their parents didn't make demands on them, or push them to study, neither Pan nor Bin studied well. The year I went to college, Pan joined the army; and Bin dropped out after middle school. Pan retired from the army a year later and returned home because of kidney stones. He got involved with a group of lottery players.

"If Pan goes on like this, sooner or later he will get into serious trouble," my father sighed.

"Why didn't his parents talk to him?" I asked.

"Your uncle doesn't like Pan, believing he will bring bad luck to the family. Your aunt feels sorry for Pan for not being liked by his father, so she indulges him."

My father was right to be worried.

Pan helped collect lottery bets and made the bets himself. Sometimes he borrowed money from Bin, who worked as a security guard in a bustling town since the age of sixteen. Pan even washed Bin's underwear to please his brother. My uncle's small workshop had begun to decline - his semi-automated workshop was no longer as efficient as assembly line operations. But my uncle still had money, so he helped Pan run to become village head. The daughter of a restaurant owner fell in love with the handsome Pan. Pan would have power if the election succeeded, and if he married that girl, he would have money. Pan's future looked so bright.

But all the seemingly bright illusions were shattered overnight: Pan killed a man, a villager in his forties who liked gambling and took drugs. Pan went to his house when canvassing votes, and the man asked him for 5,000 yuan; otherwise, he would report Pan to the police for molesting his wife. His wife looked old and ugly, with a lot of white hair and wrinkles around her eyes.

I had kept thinking for many years: Pan was only 26 years old, young and handsome. People wouldn't believe he had molested that woman. Why should he bother with such a ridiculous excuse for blackmail?

But Pan was naïve, or to put it bluntly, stupid. He was easily frightened by others' threats. Usually, people would first think about the evidence, but it probably never occurred to him that that man didn't have any proof. What's more, he might fear rumors would ruin his election. He was so desperate that he turned to everyone to borrow money, yet he failed to scrape together the money. It was his fault. Pan used to gamble and owed lots of money. My uncle helped him pay off the debt, so he wouldn't lend him money anymore, not to mention that he disliked Pan. Pan frantically called me many times to borrow money, but I refused.

Desperate, he went to the man's house to argue, which evolved into a fight. Pan pushed him, and his head hit the wall and died.

"You don't kill a man by pushing him!" I exclaimed after my father explained the details to me.

"The man had an underlying disease and was in poor health after taking drugs for many years, so he collapsed as soon as he was pushed," he said.

No one had expected things to turn out like this. Pan was sentenced to life imprisonment. Bin became the only hope for his family. He should have taken responsibility, grown up, and brought hope and happiness to his parents through his own efforts. But Bin was a spoiled baby. Devastated by his brother's tragedy, he just wanted to start over, and left home to work in Dongguan. He might become one of the tens of thousands of rural wage earners, and one day he might bring a girl back to get married and birth a child for his parents to take care of, and then the couple would return to the big city to work. But things never happened that way with Bin.

Two or three years later, Bin returned and said he had sprained his waist while unloading. My aunt asked him to take a good rest at home. Bin had stayed at home ever since.

Initially, he helped wash vegetables and slaughter chickens, ran errands, and worked a shift when my uncle's workshop was short of manpower. He also worked in a handbag factory nearby for two years. His craftsmanship was said to be so good that he could have apprentices. But he resigned and returned home. I asked my father why, and he said, "Bin is too fat and can't do heavy work, or his back would hurt. He is a half-useless worker to the factory." But was his back injury so serious? Perhaps only he knew the truth. All it took for a person to sink was an excuse.

He only woke up after noon, and hung out with friends until midnight. The nightlife of the young in my hometown was like this: playing cards and mahjong in the evening and then going for a midnight snack, like porridge, barbecue, and beer. His friends knew he had no money, but he could drink and tell jokes, and they liked to invite him and didn't need him to pay. Every relative of mine had a disappointed expression when talking about Bin, saying that even if his friends didn't mind him eating and drinking for free, he should have dignity.

In May last year, he said he would work after the Dragon Boat Festival. Yet he never made it.

My uncle was walloped because of Pan. He had a stroke and kidney bleeding. Worse, he didn't have medical insurance or social security. In the last five years, my father lent him money for medical treatment whenever he was sick. Later, he suffered from uremia, had no money for dialysis, had a second stroke, and died after a month.

When he was still awake, he knew that he would die soon and asked my father to see him. He told my father, "I wish I had a daughter instead of two sons. Your daughter is so filial that she cares for you and your wife even after she is married. But look at me. I have two sons, but I have to worry about them."

That was ironic. People in my region prefer sons; many would give away their daughters to have a son. My parents don't have rural household registration, so they couldn't have another child because I am a daughter. Shortly after I was born, persuaded by my grandma, my mother thought about giving me away to have a son. My father opposed it, keeping a close eye on my mother, afraid she would give me away when he was not home. When I was a child, my mother liked to ask me, "Do you want me to give you a brother?" I was vigilant and always said, "I only want a sister. If it is a brother, I will beat him every day."

Pan performed well while in prison, and his sentence was reduced to 25 years. When he comes out, he will be 51 years old. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and had an operation funded by the state. I never heard of the prison asking my uncle for money. My uncle had been thinking about helping Pan make a living, hoping that after he was released from jail, Pan could re-open his small workshop, which he shut down during the pandemic. Unfortunately, he wouldn't live to see it.

My uncle passed away last November. Bin left home to work again. This year, during the Qingming Festival, he returned home and did not go back to the factory. My father suspected the factory had fired him. No one knew how long he would stay at home again.

When my father talked about Bin, he was always pessimistic, "His family is such a mess. Look at him! No girls would want to marry him." My mother once said her company was hiring, providing free food and accommodation, and she should introduce Bin to the manager. My father said, "Bin is so lazy. If you introduce him, it will ruin your reputation."

My aunt worked in the canteen of a handbag factory, with a low salary. She could still feed her son. But she didn't have medical insurance or social security. Once she got sick, the family's economic pillar would collapse, and the prospects were bleak.

I once told a friend about the tragedy of Pan and Bin, and she asked, "Have you ever regretted not lending Pan the 5,000 yuan he once needed to get himself out of trouble? 5,000 yuan was less than a month's salary." I understood what she meant - if I had lent him the money, perhaps the subsequent misfortunes would not have happened.

I replied, "No. I never regretted."

These tragedies were caused by Pan and Bin themselves, and no one else should be blamed. Perhaps the fortune teller was right from the start that Pan would bring misfortune to the family, but I tended not to accept this statement.

Perhaps these tragedies were caused by my uncle's parenting. My uncle gave his sons lots of pocket money at a young age and allowed them to drop out of middle school. They burned their textbooks as firewood at the end of each semester and watched TV or played video games until late at night. My father usually only gave me money when I clarified what I would use it for. He wanted me to go to college, and I studied until after eleven o'clock.

Or maybe my father was strict with me because he understood how prejudiced China's patriarchal society is against women. He knew all the mistreatment and injustice I would endure as a girl, and he wanted me to excel and have a different future. If Pan and Bin were daughters, would their life be rewritten? I had no idea. I lamented for their misfortune and raged for their servility.


  1. Is this a fiction or memoir?
    Either way, probably for most of us readers, it is a fascinating look into a very different culture :-) !
    I suspect that Uncle’s reaction to the prophecies in regards to his parenting was very much a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    I feel so badly for this family’s misfortunes.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. A rather bleak and joyless tale of contemporary China and social norms and paradoxes. Grim in the telling. An interesting view of a vastly different culture.

  3. Powerful and thought-provoking to say the least. “ I lamented for their misfortune and raged for their servility.” … What an ending.
    — David Henson