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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Shaona is the protagonist of this story. She is new to the kindergarten, in her second week there. Three weeks earlier, her parents had a baby boy, but she does not understand the physical process that led to it: Shaona believes what her grandmother told her, that"babies were dug out...

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  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
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Shaona is the protagonist of this story. She is new to the kindergarten, in her second week there. Three weeks earlier, her parents had a baby boy, but she does not understand the physical process that led to it: Shaona believes what her grandmother told her, that"babies were dug out from pumpkin fields in the countryside.’’ Because she had never tasted the purslane before, Shaona is excited to hear that the children will have sautéed purslanes for dinner once they have collected them from the field, and she plans to pick some for her parents if they are good. This leads to her disappointment when she realizes that the teacher has taken the harvest away and kept it for herself.

Shaona is nervous in the kindergarten. After she gets Dabin in trouble with the teacher by telling on him, she tries to make amends by offering him some of the peanuts that her parents gave her, hoping to avoid more trouble from him. She shies away from the merry-go-round where the boys play, remembering that the one time she'd played on it at length she felt sick for days afterward.

She is good-looking but also strong-headed. After being elected queen while the children are playing court, because she was judged "most handsome’’ among the girls, she walks away from the game because the boy playing the king is weak, and she cannot stand taking orders from him.

When Teacher Shen takes the children's clothes away to clean them, Shaona finds that her peanuts, which her parents gave to her, have disappeared from her sweater pocket. She feels heartbroken, aware that the teacher must have confiscated the peanuts, but she does not say anything about them.

Later, though, when the other children are chasing a rabbit, she urinates into the bag of purslanes that have been collected. It is not just an act of impulse, because she is crafty enough to quit at some point so that there will be enough dry plants to cover over the wet ones. Shaona, who is naïve in the beginning of the story when she is listening to Teacher Shen on the telephone, ends up being vengeful and sneaky, driven to take action against her teacher but careful to keep her action a secret. As a result of her devious action, she does not feel like a baby anymore: she plays soldier with the boys that evening, and is sure that she will no longer cry at night.

Other Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920

Aili is a classmate of Shaona. She is first mentioned because her snoring keeps Shaona awake at night. Later, Shaona quits the "court'' game that she is playing with the other children, deciding that she does not want to play the queen anymore. When she does, Aili steps in as vice queen to "keep the court from disintegrating.’’

Uncle Chang
An old, bald man who keeps watch over the turnip field. He allows Teacher Shen to bring her class into the field to pick purslane weeds from between the turnips, but he still keeps a strict eye on the students, making sure that the turnips will not be disturbed. As they leave, Uncle Chang is paid off with a large part of the harvest, almost a third of the purslanes that had been picked. The next day, when the class returns to pick purslanes again, Uncle Chang is absent from his post, and they destroy the turnip crop while chasing after a rabbit.

Dabin, described as a "rambunctious" boy, becomes a threat to Shaona during the story. He is competitive, showing off how many purslanes he picked while playing cool about their value: he tells the other children that they taste awful even as the children are excited about picking them. When the teacher catches him fighting with another child, Shaona is the one to point out that Dabin started the fight. He is taken inside and locked in a closet. Later, fearing what he might do to her in revenge, Shaona offers him some of the peanuts that her parents gave her. He takes them and then insists that she will have to continue to be nice to him: ‘‘Remember to save lots of goodies for me, got it?’’ he tells Shaona menacingly. On the playground, she is afraid to go near the merry-go-round that Dabin and another boy, Luwen, are playing on.

Dun is a weak, "mousy'' boy that the girls in the class do not respect. He is, however, the only boy willing to play with them. When they play "court," he has the part of the king and Shaona is the queen, but she soon quits the game because ‘‘she felt silly calling him 'Your Majesty' and hated having to obey his orders.’’

One of the boys in the class, Luwen is mentioned a few times in the company of Dabin. He and Dabin play on the merry-go-round, pretending to shoot their toy guns at things. Later, after the children have tried to catch a rabbit, Luwen tops Dabin's claim to have touched the rabbit before it escaped by bragging that he tasted wild rabbit once when his uncle caught two of them.

Dr. Niu
At the beginning of the story, Teacher Shen is on the phone with Dr. Niu, asking for more time to pay her bill and begging the doctor not to let anyone know that she has had an abortion. He does not appear in the story, nor are his words quoted directly.

Teacher Shen
The teacher is a complex adult whom the story's protagonist, Shaona, studies, at first with confusion and then later with anger. The teacher is in desperate need of money, and she is willing to use her children and bribe other officials in order to avoid starvation for herself and her elderly mother. She is young, and rumor has it that she is recently divorced from her husband, who was sentenced to thirteen years in jail for embezzlement.

In the story's opening lines, Shaona hears Teacher Shen on the telephone with Dr. Niu. She talks about having an abortion and about being unable to come up with the money that she owes. Shaona does not understand what she is talking about. Later, Teacher Shen takes her class of kindergartners to the school's turnip field. She tries to get them excited about picking the purslane weeds that grow between the turnips, promising them a delicious meal of purslanes that night. Even the children who have had purslanes but have not liked them are competitive about picking them. Shaona sees Teacher Shen giving some of the purslanes to Uncle Chang, not realizing that this is a bribe for letting them into the field to pick them, and she sees the teacher leave that evening with the rest of the purslanes. The teacher is either selling the plants that the students picked, in order to pay the debt she owes, or she is eating them herself because her debt to the doctor has depleted her food money. She betrays the children by not giving them the delicious meal they worked for.

A mark of the teacher's desperation is that she steals peanuts that Shaona's parents have given her.
The following day, she takes the children back to the turnip field when Uncle Chang is not there. The fields are being irrigated, and it is unlikely that he would allow them to endanger the turnip plants if he knew they were there. The teacher loses all concern about the turnips when someone sees a rabbit and there is a chance of catching it: she tells them to catch it, even though it means tramping the turnips into the mud.

Weilan is a tough, scrawny girl who fights with Dabin and sticks up for the teacher. When he says that purslanes do not taste good, she says,"Teacher Shen told us it tastes great,’’ which leads to a bout of obscenities that ends with him pushing and kicking her.

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Critical Essays