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Short Story: "With This Finger and Thumb" by Zunun Qadiri

Updated: Jan 9

This is a translation of "Ikki Barmiqim Bilen", a short story by Zunun Qadiri written in 1947. It was translated by Michael Fiddler as part of the Advanced Uyghur class taught at CESSI, who we have now partnered with for two summers. We thank both for having us share this with everyone!

ikki barmiqim bilen
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With This Finger and Thumb

Zunun Qadiri, 1947

In the days when Generals Yang and Jin ruled the land, the “Black Buddha” of Urumchi was famous for his wealth. With as much land and rental properties as he owned, he was more or less the boss of all the “Buddhas” in Xinjiang. The managers of his wealth had turned him into a big, rich moneylender who thought himself superior to all other living moneylenders. For this reason, they found it embarrassing to lend money to unimportant people, instead making their loans unreservedly to would-be officials who went to the court looking to acquire titles as county magistrate, county chief, and local bureaucrat. As a result, many officials looking to buy titles who came to Urumchi to request an appointment from the general ended up staying at the Black Buddha’s hotel for several years and becoming his debtors.

Lying around for ten years waiting is not an easy thing. These fellows passed their days smoking opium, and in their drugged state all sorts of thoughts passed through their heads, both sour and sweet. Some among them were short-sighted cowards who became immersed in fearful thoughts as they lay next to the twinkling oil lamp sucking opium: “My debts are growing like a mountain. They are crushing me with their ever-increasing weight. The interest is growing month by month. Ay, I’ve fallen into a spider’s web, am I going to meet my end if I entangle myself like this? Yes, of course, if I don’t get the title soon, or if I don’t get it at all, I’ll be crushed under this debt-mountain. Why are the officials at the general’s yamen office still not satisfied with my bribes? Will there be no end to the bribes, begging, and kowtowing? And if I do get the title, will I even make enough to cover my debt…?”

But not all of them were short-sighted. Some of the more intelligent would-be officials who could see the long game thought otherwise: “If I get the magistrateship in a bigger city, oh, that would be good fortune indeed. Even though my debt is as heavy as the Tianshan mountains, I’ll be able to pay it off in less than six months. If I can be a magistrate for two years, I’ll have a fortune that I’ll be able to pass on for generations. Some time will be needed to take account of all the gold, silver, yuanbao and money, carpets, and household goods like samovars and so on that need to be passed through back-door channels on all sides. Managing to get the position can take longer than the actual managing of the city. A like-minded partner is necessary to handle all of this. To find a friend like that, I should obviously look among the local beg officials, those respected flatterers…”

Those who thought in this way, according to the reality of those times, were the sort of men who were capable of imposing all kinds of maltreatment, oppression, and thievery upon the people, who were wrapped in the chains of oppression and barbarism. So we cannot say this was just a matter of empty thoughts. For they had friends who were experienced in such things, and many title merchants had reaped the profits of the magistrateships. Everywhere they went, the pot and the ladle both got oiled, so to speak.

One day, one of the Black Buddha’s short-sighted debtors somehow got chosen for the magistrateship of Kashgar. When the announcement of the magistrateship reached the hands of this new magistrate, his hands trembled with excitement. He read over the announcement again and again. He rubbed his blurry eyes several times. He walked around his musty-smelling hotel room a handful of times out of sheer joy. For quite some time the dirty curtain that served as a door for the new magistrate’s hotel room had not been touched by a single hand other than his. Humans aside, even the mangy dogs that came begging for scraps had quit sniffing at this curtain. But today, in front of the room that had been ruled by silence and sadness, the sound of firecrackers rings out, set off by friends who came to congratulate him. Celebratory messages written on red paper are being pasted on the walls. The sagging, melancholy curtain is dancing non-stop at the hands of the guests who have come to congratulate him.

Nobody doubted that it was a great man staying in that celebratory room, into whose hands the fate of Kashgar had been placed. With just that one announcement of “Congratulations!” in his hands, the pathetic little man who for so long lay wriggling like a worm in that musty room has been turned into such a powerful person that now, if he wishes, he can knead the people of Kashgar into a ball and kick them, and if he wishes, can stretch them out into hand-pulled leghmen noodles.

As he had now been turned into a great, respectable man, the new magistrate took out as many loans from the Black Buddha as he pleased, and set out on the road to Kashgar in a light two-wheeled carriage. As he passed Kucha, he met thirty-some wagons bound for Urumchi, loaded with all sorts of luggage and household goods. He asked the wagon-drivers as he went, “Whose goods are these?”

The wagon-drivers replied, “They belong to a magistrate who is stepping down from his post.”

Surprised at this, the new magistrate continued on his way. Because he was a short-sighted man, it had never occurred to him that one could accrue so much wealth in just two years of being magistrate. As he passed Aksu, he met another ten-plus wagons carrying more of the old magistrate’s goods. Passing Maralbéshi, the old magistrate and the new magistrate met on the road. The old magistrate had loaded gold, silver, carpets, and silk goods onto a carriage with seven horses harnessed to it, and sat in a little palanquin on top of it all. On an endless pile of satin mattresses, he sat sucking smoke from his pipe and letting out rotten-smelling belches. As for the new magistrate, he sat yawning atop a light carriage drawn by a single skinny horse that fluttered in the wind like a flying lantern kite.

The new magistrate thought there must be some secret in the way the old magistrate had acquired so much wealth in just two years. He dreamed that he too could become rich quickly if he learned it. So he approached the old magistrate and began to ask humbly, “Oh your venerable lordship, if it does not bring you trouble, I would like to ask you something.”

“Indeed, what else would you like to ask from me?” said the departing magistrate with a liberal dose of sarcasm. The sarcasm was expressed in the word ‘else.’ It conveyed the sense of, ‘You have already taken my wealth-producing position from me, what else do you want to ask from me?’ However, not comprehending that the old magistrate resented him and was thus speaking less than sincerely, out of a desperate desire to acquire wealth himself, the new magistrate went ahead and asked what secret there was to be learned: “What I wanted to ask of you, your lordship, is, what method does one use to acquire so much wealth in such a short time?”

The old magistrate took his pipe out of his mouth, shrugged one shoulder a bit, and showed his opium-yellowed teeth. “I did it,” he said, assuming a proud expression and holding up a finger and thumb, said, “with this finger and thumb.”

“Such wealth was gained merely by the strength of two fingers, my lord…? It seems to me there must be some secret to it.”

“You idiot! It’s not like I’m some kind of magician or sorcerer. What does a ‘secret’ have to do with it?”

“Yes of course, sir, you’re right. But, well, where might we say the essence of the thing lies?”

“What an incredibly short-minded fellow you are. If the wisdom you possess is not even sufficient for this, why on earth did you decide to vie for a magistrate-ship?”

“Ah yes, my talented sir, but if you teach this to us, we shall never forget the help you have shown,” the new magistrate said, and folded his body in a deep bow.

“You must take the liberty of imagining the people in the place you govern as sheep in your pen, or your milk cow.”

“Ah yes, indeed, of course. But, um, well, how exactly does one slaughter the sheep, or how does one milk the cow? If you can do me this favor, your lordship, well, that’s the thing.”

“For example, if one comes in holding his head high and I point my index finger at him and say, ‘You’re a bad man,’ he will be afraid of me, and he’ll bring all the wealth he has to my door and give it to me unsparingly. And if I give a thumbs-up to someone and say, “You’re a good man,” he too will carry his finest goods to my house in an attempt to flatter me. So there you have it; the deed is done with just this finger and thumb.”

“Ah, I see, great sir, it turns out no great amount of wisdom is needed.”

The old and new magistrates bid each other farewell and went their separate ways. The huge wheels on the old one’s heavy wagon turned slowly. As for the new one, the wheels of his light carriage rolled out of sight, turning quickly.

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