Brush Strokes




When a drunken, uniformed security official burst into a Shenzhen home in October, the homeowner, Yang Wu, fled to the next room in terror.

The official then raped Yang’s wife as he cowered nearby. For failing to even try to prevent the assault, he has been roundly pilloried in the media for being “cowardly” or “nuoruo, 懦弱”. Yang has earned rebuke as China’s ‘most cowardly husband’.

The character “ruo” shows two bows, one next to the other. The two short strokes inside the lower left curve show the vibration of the string after the arrow has left the bow, indicating spent force.

“Nuo” is more complicated: variations are often pronounced “ru” which can mean child or Confucian scholar (scholars were traditionally regarded as weaklings).

The right side of the character, 需means “to need, want,” and the three strokes on the left symbolise a heart. Perhaps a person who is “nuo” may “need heart” though this is not spelled out by Li Leyi in his masterly Tracing the Roots of Chinese Characters.

Put together, the word denotes a picture of a lack of strength, or heart.

Why didn’t Yang protect his wife? Reports in Nanfang Daily say theirs was a love match, and Yang has been devastated by guilt since the attack. He has also said he feels powerless in the face of indifference from both police and courts towards a struggling migrant worker family. Nanfang Daily reports that the local police knew the official was prone to drunken violence but did nothing.

“I really wanted to get out and cut down the bastard with a knife,” said Yang. “What was the point? He would only have beaten me to death.”

Yang earns Rmb1,000 a month from his appliance repair shop in Baoan district and has four children and an elderly mother to support. “What will happen to them if I’m in jail for murder? I can’t let this family break into pieces,” he said.

Others have shown Yang more sympathy, pointing out the family is part of one of the more vulnerable groups in society but was attacked by one of the most powerful, a man in uniform. Yang’s response was awful but not entirely unexpected, they say.

“Instead of condemning Yang as ‘the most cowardly husband’, we should make sincere efforts to establish a fair and just society to improve the life of the poor and the weak: that is, people like Yang,” the Beijing News wrote.

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