New Year's Sacrifice by Lu Xun
The complete works is arranged chronologically and I've now reached a later anthology, Hesitation, and the stories in this are much more interesting to me. The first, 'New Year's Sacrifice', concerns the life of a woman known only as Xianglin's wife. She comes to a house offered as a servant, already widowed aged about 25. Her husband, ten years her junior, has died. She thrives in her new house and works hard, particularly around the time of sacrifice. But one day her old mother-in-law (who apparently 'owns' her) organises her capture, and she is carried back to the village in the mountains where she comes from. Her earnings are taken from her and she is thrown into a bridal chair and married off to another man in a remote area. However, because she is used to another life in an educated man's household, she puts up a fight. She bashes her head against the altar, curses and swears. Eventually though, she can do nothing but acquiesce, and a year later she seems content with a new son.
Later, though, she reappears at the educated man's house. Her husband has died and her son has been carried off by a wolf. Because she is perceived now to be unlucky she is taken on with apprehension, and forbidden to touch any of the sacrifice paraphernalia for fear of annoying the ancestors. This causes her distress, and she is ridiculed for endlessly repeating the story of her stupidity of allowing her child to be carried off by a wolf. Eventually someone tells her that even in the afterlife she will be punished as both her husbands will want her and they will tear her in half. To prevent this she uses all her earnings to buy a 'threshold' so that she will be trodden on by the population which will prevent future punishment. Believing herself to be purified by this, she is even more distressed when again she is prevented from having anything to do with the sacrifice.
Eventually she is dismissed and becomes a beggar - which is when she is first encountered in the story. She asks the narrator, who is a frequent visitor to the educated man's house, if he knows what happens to the soul after death, and whether she is likely to encounter other people who have died. He says he doesn't know, and worries about his answer. The next day, the eve of the New Year Sacrifice, she is found dead. The story ends with the narrator returning to the city leaving the 'good burghers' to their new year celebrations.