An Intellect, an Idiot, and a Footman

This prose / short story was written in December 1925 by Lu Xun. The original text is available in the public domain.
Translation into English as an extracurricular exercise by FW, October 2020.



The footman always grieves about his life to others. He only wants to do so, and, frankly, it’s all he can do. One day, he meets an intellect.

“Sir!” He begins mournfully, tears in his eyes, “As you know, my life is miserable. They only give me one meal a day, and the meal would be nothing but sorghum bark, you know, the stuff even the animals in the farm don’t want — and there’s only one small bowl of it!”

— “This is indeed pitiful.” The intellect responds sympathetically.

“You don’t say!” The footman rambles on, riled up, “and the chores are endless! I get water in the morning and cook in the evening; I buy groceries during the day and grind flour at night; I do the laundry when it’s sunny and hold the umbrella when it’s not; I tend to the heater in winter and fan the master in summer… At midnights I often need to serve him on the betting table. The master never wins much, and sometimes he whips me if he’s angry from all his losing bets!”

— “Ah.” The intellect sighs, as he seems to begin to cry too.

“Sir! I don’t think I can let my life go by like this. I… I have to find a way out of this! But how?”

— “I believe that things will get better for you.”

“Is that so? I wish. But now that I’ve confessed to you about my misfortune, and you gave me your good wishes, I feel more comfortable with my life now. Maybe the heavenly principles[1] didn’t die after all.”

However, it doesn’t take a few days for him to feel miserable again, upon which point he looks for another person with whom he can vent his grievances.

“Sir!” He says, half-crying, “my room’s conditions are worse than a pit. The master treats his dog better than he treats me…”

— “What a jerk!” The listener yells in anger, and even the footman was astonished. This person is an idiot.

“Sir. They only gave me this dirty small room, it’s damp and dark, and infested with bedbugs. The dirty smells linger all night, and there’s no window …”

— “Why don’t you ask your master for a window?”

“How can I?” The footman replies.

— “So, can you take me to take a look?”

The idiot follows the footman to his shack, and begins punching one of the mud walls.

“Sir, what are you doing?” The footman shrieks in disbelief.

— “Making a window hole for you.”

“You can’t do that. My master will scold me!”

— “Who cares?” The idiot continues hitting the wall.

“Help! Somebody is destroying our house! Help! If you don’t come fast he’s about to punch a hole in the wall!” The footman starts to cry and rolls on the ground.

A group of other servants in the residence rush out, and drive the idiot away.

Upon hearing the footman’s cry for help, the master, too, steps out to inspect the situation.

“A robber wanted to destroy our house. I started to yell, and we shooed him off!” The footman reports in reverence, but also confidence.

— “You are not bad.” The master says.

On the very same day, after hearing about the thwarted robbery, several neighbours come to visit the master. Among them, the intellect.

“Sir! This time because I sounded the alarm on the intruder, I earned my master’s compliment! You said to me that things will become better, well you are really clairvoyant!” The footman says, as if glistening with hope.

“Absolutely.”, the intellect responds. He sounds very happy too.


[0] When I write about abstract situations (and translate literature from my first language), I would often like to use the present tense… This is largely an unjustified creative decision.

[1] I didn’t originally want to translate “天理” literally as I did in the text. But it’s such a Chinese concept I thought maybe this is for the better. By meaning it refers to feudal ethics, or maybe, more universally, justice.

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