I had some schooling when I was young, not a whole lot but enough for me to read the classics like Seven Heroes and Five Gallants or Romance of Three Kingdoms. I even memorized several pieces from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, and today I can still recite the entire stories with vivid descriptions. The audiences always compliment me on my good memory, and I myself even feel pleased with it. However, I didn’t read the original text of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which was too difficult for me. The stories I memorized were all from the entertainment papers – stories which had been translated into the vernacular and embellished with amusing lines - so hilarious!
My calligraphy was comparable, certainly no worse than that of the governmental documents, in term of the proportionality of the characters, the polish of the ink, and the uniformity of the lines and columns. I really believe that I would have made a good civil servant. I’m not bragging that I could write legal complaints, but ordinary official documents would have been a cinch for me.
Based on my ability to read and write, I should have worked for the government. That kind of job would not necessarily glorify my family or ancestors, but at least a decent one. What’s more, there is always a chance of being promoted no matter how insignificant the position one starts with. I have seen more than one very high-ranking official whose handwriting was not as good as mine. They couldn’t even give a complete speech. If they could be senior officials, there should be no reason I can‘t.
But at age 15, my family sent me to be an apprentice to a craftsman. One can succeed in any profession, and it is not a shame to be an apprentice and learn some practical skills, however, for me it was just not as good as working for the government. Once you become an artisan, you will be a craftsman for the rest of your life. You may be rich, but will never have the prestige of a senior official. However, I didn’t protest to my family and became an apprentice, because at age 15, it’s natural not to have any independent thoughts. What’s more, my parents promised to arrange a marriage for me after I completed the term of apprenticeship and start making money. Back then, I imagined that getting married would be interesting. With a few years of hard work, I would be able to make a living like an adult, and have a wife. Life seemed to be treating me fairly.
I was trained to make paper crafts. During peace time, one can easily make a living by making paper crafts. In those days, one could not die simply. I am not saying that a man in those days would go back and forth between life and death several times, what I mean to say is that when one died, the family must spend extravagantly to make the funeral as grand as possible. For example, after a man was dead, people needed paper wagons and horses to burn, which was called “Backward Heading Wagon” – not many people know this term today. This was followed by a ceremony on the third day after the death called “ The Receiving Third” Paper crafts for burning were indispensable, sedan chairs, wagons, horses and mules, chests, idols, banners, flowers, etc. If a woman died after giving birth, a paper cow and a paper chicken encasing were required. On the seventh day when Buddhist scripts were read, one needed to prepare paper buildings and warehouses, gold and silver mountains, gold bars and ingots, clothes for all seasons, flowers and plants, artifacts and wood crafts. By the time the body was about to go through the funeral procession, there would be many burning crafts needed in addition to the paper pavilions and paper shelves, and at least one boy and one girl made of paper that would be lifted aloft.. On the “fifth seventh” day, paper umbrellas would be burned and on the sixtieth day paper boats and bridges would be burnt. Not until after the sixtieth day would the dead man be able to wave farewell to our paper craftsmen. If there were just a dozen wealthy people dying in one year, we would easily make our living.
Paper craftsmen don’t serve only dead people; we also serve for the worship of celestial beings.. In olden times, the celestial beings were not treated so stingily as they are today. Take Lord Guan for example; in the past on the 24th day of the sixth month of each year, people would make yellow banners and big hats, paper children, paper horses and seven-star flags etc. Today nobody even remembers Lord Guan. If someone got smallpox, then we would be busy for the goddesses. Nine goddesses needed nine sedan chairs, one red horse and one yellow horse, and nine cloaks. There are also low status elves that needed robes, boots and hats and many other things. Today people get vaccines at the hospitals, the goddesses have no opportunity to do their magic, and therefore paper craftsmen are also having more idle time. There are many other things people prayed for and paper crafts were needed. Today these are all considered superstitions and nobody mentions it. Times have really changed.
Aside from the gods and demons, we also do some work for the living people We call it “white work” We helped people decorate their homes. In the olden days, people didn’t live in western houses. When people moved, or got married, or for other special festivities, they would want to cover the walls with white paper to make the room look fresh. The wealthy families also hired us to do the windows. People are getting poorer every day now and don’t redecorate their homes when they move. Rich people have all moved into western styled houses. The ceilings are painted with lime, just once in most lifetimes. The windows are made of glass and there is no need to use paper or linens anymore. The foreign stuff is always better, and the craftsmen have found themselves losing customers all the time. It’s not like we don’t work hard. The foreign wagons were popular, so we made foreign wagons; and when automobiles became popular, we then make automobiles. We know how to innovate. But how many families who have people die would want foreign wagons or automobiles? Compared with the big inventions, the small changes we have made are all in vain. When the tides rise even ducks can’t go across the river. There is nothing more we can do…
我幼年读过书，虽然不多，可是足够读七侠五义与三国志演义什么的。我记得好几段聊斋，到如 今还能说得很齐全动听，不但听的人都夸奖我的记性好，连我自己也觉得应该高兴。可是，我并念不懂聊斋的原文，那太深了；我所记得的几段，都是由小报上的“ 评讲聊斋”念来的——把原文变成白话，又添上些逗哏打趣，实在有个意思！
可是，当我十五岁的时候，家里教我去学徒。五行八作，行行出状元，学手艺原不是什么低搭的 事；不过比较当差稍差点劲儿罢了。学手艺，一辈子逃不出手艺人去，即使能大发财源，也高不过大官儿不是？可是我并没和家里闹别扭，就去学徒了；十五岁的 人，自然没有多少主意。况且家里老人还说，学满了艺，能挣上钱，就给我说亲事。在当时，我想象着结婚必是件有趣的事。那么，吃上二三年的苦，而后大人似的 去耍手艺挣钱，家里再有个小媳妇，大概也很下得去了。
我学的是裱糊匠。在那太平年月，裱匠是不愁没饭吃的。那时候，死一个人不象现在这么省事。 这可并不是说，老年间的人要翻来覆去的死好几回，不干脆的一下子断了气。我是说，那时候死人，丧家要拼命的花钱，一点不惜力气与金钱的讲排场。就拿与冤衣 铺有关系的事来说吧，就得花上老些个钱。人一断气，马上就得去糊“倒头车”——现在，连这个名词儿也许有好多人不晓得了。紧跟着便是“接三”，必定有些烧 活：车轿骡马，墩箱灵人，引魂幡，灵花等等。要是害月子病死的，还必须另糊一头牛，和一个鸡罩。赶到“一七”念经，又得糊楼库，金山银山，尺头元宝，四季 衣服，四季花草，古玩陈设，各样木器。及至出殡，纸亭纸架之外，还有许多烧活，至不济也得弄一对“童儿”举着。“五七”烧伞，六十天糊船桥。一个死人到六 十天后才和我们裱糊匠脱离关系。一年之中，死那么十来个有钱的人，我们便有了吃喝。
裱糊匠并不专伺候死人，我们也伺候神仙。早年间的神仙不象如今晚儿的这样寒碜，就拿关老爷 说吧，早年间每到六月二十四，人们必给他糊黄幡宝盖，马童马匹，和七星大旗什么的。现在，几乎没有人再惦记着关公了！遇上闹“天花”，我们又得为娘娘们忙 一阵。九位娘娘得糊九顶轿子，红马黄马各一匹，九份凤冠霞帔，还得预备痘哥哥痘姐姐们的袍带靴帽，和各样执事。如今，医院都施种牛痘，娘娘们无事可作，裱 糊匠也就陪着她们闲起来了。此外还有许许多多的“还愿”的事，都要糊点什么东西，可是也都随着破除迷信没人再提了。年头真是变了啊！
除了伺候神与鬼外，我们这行自然也为活人作些事。这叫作“白活”，就是给人家糊顶棚。早年 间没有洋房，每遇到搬家，娶媳妇，或别项喜事，总要把房间糊得四白落地，好显出焕然一新的气象。那大富之家，连春秋两季糊窗子也雇用我们。人是一天穷似一 天了，搬家不一定糊棚顶，而那些有钱的呢，房子改为洋式的，棚顶抹灰，一劳永逸；窗子改成玻璃的，也用不着再糊上纸或纱。什么都是洋式好，耍手艺的可就没 了饭吃。我们自己也不是不努力呀，洋车时行，我们就照样糊洋车；汽车时行，我们就糊汽车，我们知道改良。可是有几家死了人来糊一辆洋车或汽车呢？年头一旦 大改良起来，我们的小改良全算白饶，水大漫不过鸭子去，有什么法儿呢！