“A Small Incident”: Echoes of China’s Tragic Yue Yue Case from Almost a Century Ago

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The mother of two-year-old girl Wang Yue, also called Yue Yue, cries outside the Intensive Care Unit where he daughter is being treated in Guangzhou, China Guangdong October 19, 2011. (Photo: ImagineChina / AP)

In the week since Wang Yue, the two-year-old girl better known as Yue Yue, was hit by not one but two vans, then ignored by 18 people before finally being rescued by a scrap picker, the Chinese public has agonized over how such a thing could happen, how the suffering of a helpless innocent could be ignored by so many. Several explanations have emerged, ranging from fears of legal liability to a belief that economic reforms have led to a decline in the sort of selfless behavior promoted in under Mao. Of course, bystanders refusing to help is an issue known the world over, though that truth has thankfully not prevented serious discussion of what happened in that market in Foshan last week, and what can be done to reduce the likelihood of such incidents in the future. The cities of Shenzhen and Shanghai are considering Good Samaritan laws, the Guangzhou-based Information Times reported Tuesday, and Yue Yue’s case could help their passage.

(Update: The Associated Press reports Wang Yue died early Friday.)

Will Yue Yue’s case make any difference? Lu Xun, one of China’s greatest modern writers, raises a similar possibility in a short story from nearly a century ago. The 1920 piece, from his collection Call to Arms, is titled “A Small Incident,” and it describes a man who hires a rickshaw that collides with an old woman. I ‘ve posted a 1972 translation by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang below the jump. It is just 700 words long, but like Yue Yue’s case it raises questions of responsibility, morality, money, liability and the hope that a sad incident will lead to change.

A Small Incident

by Lu Xun

Six years have slipped by since I came from the country to the capital. During that time the number of so-called affairs of state I have witnessed or heard about is far from small, but none of them made much impression. If asked to define their influence on me, I can only say they made my bad temper worse. Frankly speaking, they taught me to take a poorer view of people every day.

One small incident, however, which struck me as significant and jolted me out of my irritability, remains fixed even now in my memory.

It was the winter of 1917, a strong north wind was blustering, but the exigencies of earning my living forced me to be up and out early. I met scarcely a soul on the road, but eventually managed to hire a rickshaw to take me to S- Gate. Presently the wind dropped a little, having blown away the drifts of dust on the road to leave a clean broad highway, and the rickshaw man quickened his pace. We were just approaching S- Gate when we knocked into someone who slowly toppled over.

It was a grey-haired woman in ragged clothes. She had stepped out abruptly from the roadside in front of us, and although the rickshaw man had swerved, her tattered padded waistcoat, unbuttoned and billowing in the wind, had caught on the shaft. Luckily the rickshaw man had slowed down, otherwise she would certainly have had a bad fall and it might have been a serious accident.

She huddled there on the ground, and the rickshaw man stopped. As I did not believe the old woman was hurt and as no one else had seen us, I thought this halt of his uncalled for, liable to land him in trouble and hold me up.

“It’s all right,” I said. “Go on.”

He paid no attention — he may not have heard — but set down the shafts, took the old woman’s arm and gently helped up.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I hurt myself falling.”

I thought: I saw how slowly you fell, how could you be hurt? Putting on an act like this is simply disgusting. The rickshaw man asked for trouble, and now he’s got it. He’ll have to find his own way out.

But the rickshaw man did not hesitate for a minute after hearing the old woman’s answer. Still holding her arm, he helped her slowly forward. Rather puzzled by this I looked ahead and saw a police station. Because of the high wind, there was no one outside. It was there that the rickshaw man was taking the old woman.

Suddenly I had the strange sensation that his dusty retreating figure had in that instant grown larger. Indeed, the further he walked the larger he loomed, until I had to look up to him. At the same time he seemed gradually to be exerting a pressure on me which threatened to overpower the small self hidden under my fur-lined gown.

Almost paralyzed at that juncture I sat there motionless, my mind a blank, until a police man came out. Then I got down from the rickshaw.

The policemen came up to me and said, “Get another rickshaw. He can’t take you any further.”

On the spur of the moment I pulled a handful of coppers from my coat pocket and handed them to the policeman. “Please give him this,” I said.

The wind had dropped completely, but the road was still quiet. As I walked along thinking, I hardly dared to think about myself. Quite apart from what had happened earlier, what had I meant by that handful of coppers? Was it a reward? Who was I to judge the rickshaw man? I could give myself no answer.

Even now, this incident keeps coming back to me. It keeps distressing me and makes me try to think about myself. The politics and the fighting of those years have slipped my mind as completely as the classics I read as a child. Yet this small incident keeps coming back to me, often more vivid than in actual life, teaching me shame, spurring me on to reform, and imbuing me with fresh courage and fresh hope.

July 1920