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Soul Mountain Mabel Lee Gao Xingjian Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2000. Part travel diary, part philosophy, part love story, ‘Soul Mountain’ is an elegant, unforgettable novel that journeys deep into the heart of modern-day China.In 1982 Chinese playwright, novelist and artist Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer, the very disease that had killed his father. For six weeks Gao inhabited a transcendental state of imminent death, treating himself to the finest foods he could afford while spending time reading in an old graveyard in the Beijing suburbs. But a secondary examination revealed there was no cancer – he had won a ‘reprieve from death’ and had been thrown back into the world of the living.Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell in a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing. He travelled first to the ancient forests of central China and from there to the east coast, passing through eight provinces and seven nature reserves, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometres over a period of five months. The result of this epic voyage of discovery is ‘Soul Mountain’.Interwoven into this picaresque journey are myriad stories and countless memorable characters – from venerable Daoist masters and Buddhist monks and nuns to mythical Wild Men; deadly Qichun snakes to farting buses. Conventions are challenged, preconceptions are thwarted and the human condition, with all its foibles and triumphs, is laid bare. SOUL MOUNTAIN GAO XINGJIAN Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee Copyright (#ulink_6ccf6b85-259b-5d0b-88c3-08129c144cf9) This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the authors imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. Fourth Estate An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published as Lingshan in Taiwan by Lianjing Chubanshe in 1990 First published in English by Flamingo (Australia) in 2000 Text copyright © Gao Xingjian 1990 English language translation copyright © Mabel Lee 2000 Gao Xingjian asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication Source ISBN: 9780007119233 Ebook Edition © OCTOBER 2010 ISBN: 9780007385737 Version: 2018-10-09 Praise (#ulink_0c65da69-99f2-5dc1-967c-b94662b65604) From the international reviews for Soul Mountain: ‘Arguably [Gao’s] finest work… Soul Mountain is a quirky, thick, playful monster of a book, a bit like what one might expect if Beckett or Ionesco had traveled in China and been steeped in Chinese myths. It is not easy to say what the novel is about — and yet the marvel is that somehow it is still both engaging and elegant.’ New York Times ‘A rich soup of a book… One man’s personal and philosophical odyssey evolves against the dramatic and vibrantly physical background of Central China’s ancient forests. Part novel, part philosophical tract, the genius of Soul Mountain lies in its not attempting to offer any answers… It instead belongs to that curious genre of intellectual quest dominated by the great German writer WG Sebald. This search for self serves to set the book beyond cultures while also succeeding in presenting the Western reader with a wonderfully broad portrait of a country caught between the ancient and the modern in a most fundamental way.’ Irish Times ‘Gao’s flight to rural China to evade imprisonment inspired this dazzling autobiographical novel… Superficially, this epic picaresque resembles familiar western literary forms but its bedrock is utterly other.’ Guardian ‘An original voice unlike any contemporary writing available in English… Soul Mountain is an extraordinary product of an imagination infused with European and Chinese cultures; an exploration of individual identity in a society that exalts the collective; and a daring play with voice that plunders ancient Chinese myths, philosophy, history, folk songs and memory’ The Australian Table of Contents Cover (#u968338ee-315a-5038-b875-270207218ccb) Title Page (#u04207196-5c38-556c-9412-d233c7f16ea2) Copyright (#u1a739eca-f992-5c9e-bbce-a12cf25c804e) Praise (#u539e5db5-a95c-5a22-b252-0a39942de221) Introduction (#u5e6b76e3-970f-56a7-a4fa-a9544554cdc5) 1 (#uda027290-8100-550a-800b-a691b26e9269) 2 (#ua2b587c3-663e-575b-a408-ead16b45a8ea) 3 (#u8d684b10-4f79-574e-82f8-eb4ea6513468) 4 (#ud49445db-5341-549d-ac1f-452b747e8876) 5 (#u7c6fb0f8-33b8-5e8a-944b-9c60abb6abf5) 6 (#u48348a9e-b3c6-5f54-a1df-2f12cfaac1e5) 7 (#u3511f401-13fd-5eb7-84a0-095cc967605f) 8 (#ud0996d3b-c9a9-52f0-9c11-bb61dea4aa3b) 9 (#uc0245a3d-c576-5632-ae06-dcb198a52d66) 10 (#ucc2e0e6c-e58f-5159-8dec-824607f77416) 11 (#ub23b6944-dbd1-5300-8917-743c7a3fcbc0) 12 (#ub4398723-a243-5764-bb3b-2467b29c969f) 13 (#u243ef238-626b-55c4-aea7-4cb44976b77c) 14 (#u492e9f74-2b40-51ff-ba11-88569114e86c) 15 (#u4c09f305-ee9d-5626-8857-4670fb4925a3) 16 (#ub3ae60d6-48ad-5ea6-96dc-9c6f50cac772) 17 (#u911a3b75-0c91-5e3b-b5f6-226a34ae2f85) 18 (#u0cd89999-baa5-552f-bb11-d8b2e9aa138a) 19 (#litres_trial_promo) 20 (#litres_trial_promo) 21 (#litres_trial_promo) 22 (#litres_trial_promo) 23 (#litres_trial_promo) 24 (#litres_trial_promo) 25 (#litres_trial_promo) 26 (#litres_trial_promo) 27 (#litres_trial_promo) 28 (#litres_trial_promo) 29 (#litres_trial_promo) 30 (#litres_trial_promo) 31 (#litres_trial_promo) 32 (#litres_trial_promo) 33 (#litres_trial_promo) 34 (#litres_trial_promo) 35 (#litres_trial_promo) 36 (#litres_trial_promo) 37 (#litres_trial_promo) 38 (#litres_trial_promo) 39 (#litres_trial_promo) 40 (#litres_trial_promo) 41 (#litres_trial_promo) 42 (#litres_trial_promo) 43 (#litres_trial_promo) 44 (#litres_trial_promo) 45 (#litres_trial_promo) 46 (#litres_trial_promo) 47 (#litres_trial_promo) 48 (#litres_trial_promo) 49 (#litres_trial_promo) 50 (#litres_trial_promo) 51 (#litres_trial_promo) 52 (#litres_trial_promo) 53 (#litres_trial_promo) 54 (#litres_trial_promo) 55 (#litres_trial_promo) 56 (#litres_trial_promo) 57 (#litres_trial_promo) 58 (#litres_trial_promo) 59 (#litres_trial_promo) 60 (#litres_trial_promo) 61 (#litres_trial_promo) 62 (#litres_trial_promo) 63 (#litres_trial_promo) 64 (#litres_trial_promo) 65 (#litres_trial_promo) 66 (#litres_trial_promo) 67 (#litres_trial_promo) 68 (#litres_trial_promo) 69 (#litres_trial_promo) 70 (#litres_trial_promo) 71 (#litres_trial_promo) 72 (#litres_trial_promo) 73 (#litres_trial_promo) 74 (#litres_trial_promo) 75 (#litres_trial_promo) 76 (#litres_trial_promo) 77 (#litres_trial_promo) 78 (#litres_trial_promo) 79 (#litres_trial_promo) 80 (#litres_trial_promo) 81 (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading (#litres_trial_promo) Appendix (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Introduction (#ulink_8c0ba376-defb-59d5-a4ff-eefb8c9327d7) Gao Xingjian was born on 4 January 1940 in war-torn China soon after the beginning of the Japanese invasion. He completed secondary and tertiary studies in the People’s Republic of China (established in 1949 after the Communist victory in the civil war against the Nationalists), graduating with a major in French from the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute in 1962. Gao Xingjian came to national and international prominence as a writer and critic during the early 1980s for his experimental works of drama, fiction and theory that contravened the guidelines established by the ideologues of the Chinese Communist Party. At the time, China was just beginning to emerge from the throes of the Cultural Revolution (1966—1976), a decade during which the self of the individual was virtually annihilated from intellectual and creative activities. Basic human instincts, sensitivities, thinking, perceptions and judgements were repressed and stunted, and extreme forms of socialist-realist and romantic-revolutionary representations of reality became the compulsory basis of all creative endeavours: literature and the arts therefore became representations of a distorted reality. The end of the Cultural Revolution and the implementation of considerably more liberal policies meant that Gao Xingjian was able to publish, despite continuing aftershocks from those times. It also meant that he was able to travel abroad as a member of two writers’ delegations — in 1979 to France, and in 1980 to Italy. From 1980 to 1987, he published short stories, novellas, critical essays and plays in various literary journals, as well as four books: A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction (1981), a novella A Pigeon Called Red Beak (1985), Collected Plays of Gao Xingjian (1985), and In Search of a Modern Form of Dramatic Representation (1987). In addition, three of his plays were staged at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre: Absolute Signal (1982), Bus Stop (1983) and Wild Man (1985). However, events in Gao Xingjian’s life during those few years made him resolve to fully commit himself to the creative expression of his own reality, and no authority other than that of his self would again be allowed to dictate his judgements of that reality. In 1987, when Gao Xingjian left China to take up a D.A.A.D fellowship in Germany, he did not intend to return. He had taken with him the most important thing in his life: the manuscript of a novel he had begun in Beijing in the summer of 1982. This novel was Lingshan which he subsequently completed in September 1989 in Paris (where he now resides and has French citizenship) and published in Taipei in 1990. Goran Malmqvist, whose translations of ten of Gao Xingjian’s plays were published as a set by the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1994, published the Swedish version of the novel as Andarnas berg, in 1992; and Noël and Liliane Dutrait’s French version, La Montagne de l’âme, was published in 1995. For the English version, the title Soul Mountain has been used. Soul Mountain is a literary response to the devastation of the self of the individual by the primitive human urge for the warmth and security of an other, or others, in other words by socialized life. The existence of an other resolves the problem of loneliness but brings with it anxieties for the individual, for inherent in any relationship is, inevitably, some form of power struggle. This is the existential dilemma confronting the individual, in relationships with parents, partners, family, friends and larger collective groups. Human history abounds with cases of the individual being induced by force or ideological persuasion to submit to the power of the collective; the surrender of the self to the collective eventually becomes habit, norm convention and tradition, and this phenomenon is not unique to any one culture. In traditional China, the philosophy of Confucius was developed into an autocratic ideology alongside infrastructures that allowed it to permeate all levels of society, and the individual after birth was conditioned to be subservient to a clearly defined hierarchy of authorities. Unless intent on challenging those authorities and facing the consequences, nonconformists had the possibility of living the life of the recluse or taking temporary or long-term refuge in Buddhist monasteries or Daoist retreats, although as institutionalized orders, they too constitute collectives. Alternatively, the nonconformist could remain in conventional society and survive by feigning madness or could achieve freedom, transcendence and self-realization in literary and artistic creation. However, these options were gradually eroded in China from the early years of the twentieth century as self-sacrifice was promoted first in the name of patriotism and then also in the name of the communist revolution which promised equality and social justice. Self-sacrifice became an entrenched habit that facilitated, aided and abetted the extremes of social conformity demanded by the Cultural Revolution which was engineered by sophisticated modern strategies for ideological control. Writers and artists for whom creation was the expression of the self were relentlessly and effectively silenced. During the 1960s and 1970s, Gao Xingjian’s irrepressible urge for artistic self-expression resulted in several hundred works of prose, plays and poems. He was aware that what he wrote could not be published, and that even as unpublished works they could be used as evidence against him for failing to comply with prescribed guidelines. To hide his writings became increasingly difficult, and he finally burnt all of them during the height of the Cultural Revolution rather than face the consequences of having them found. As noted above, Gao Xingjian was able to publish a substantial number of works during the 1980s, but not without considerable anxiety. The publication of A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction in 1981 resulted in his being criticized for promoting modernist ideas borrowed from the decadent capitalist West and he was placed under surveillance. Nonetheless, his debut as a playwright occurred in 1982 and took Beijing by storm: Absolute Signal was staged over a hundred times to packed performances at the Beijing People’s Arts Theatre. However, those were politically ambiguous times and in the following year, 1983, a ban was placed on the performance of Bus Stop, although one special performance was ordered so that criticisms could be written up. As the author, Gao Xingjian was singled out for criticism during the “oppose spiritual pollution” campaign of that year, and he was banned from publishing: a senior Party member had declared Bus Stop “the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People’s Republic”. It was at this time, during a routine health check, that he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that had killed his father a couple of years earlier. He resigned himself to imminent death until a later X-ray revealed that a wrong diagnosis had been made. He returned from the transcendent tranquillity he had experienced at the brink of death to the reality of life and the rumour that he was to be sent to the notorious prison farms of Qinghai province. He made a quick decision to flee Beijing immediately, and taking an advance royalty on his proposed novel, he absconded to the remote forest regions of Sichuan province and then wandered along the Yangtze River from its source down to the coast. By the time the “oppose spiritual pollution” campaign had subsided and it was safe for his return to Beijing, he had travelled for ten months over 15,000 kilometres of China. These events of 1983 form the autobiographical substance of Soul Mountain, the story of one man’s quest for inner peace and freedom. Gao Xingjian’s brush with death had dislodged many forgotten fragments of his past and he recaptures these as well as his emotional experience of confronting death in Soul Mountain. Keeping his whereabouts secret, his travels take him to the Qiang, Miao and the Yi districts located on the fringes of Han Chinese civilization and he considers their traditions and practices with the curiosity of an archaeologist, historian and writer. His excursions into several nature reserves allow him to ponder the individual’s place in nature; and his visits to Buddhist and Daoist institutions confirm that these are not places for him. Although he admires the forest ranger living the life of a virtual recluse and the solitary Buddhist monk-cum-itinerant doctor, he realizes that he still craves the warmth of human society, despite its anxieties. For the author, who has an obsessive need for self-expression, Soul Mountain poses the question: when deprived of human communication, will not the individual be condemned to the existence of the Wild Man in the forests of Shennongjia, the Big Foot of America or the Yeti of the Himalayas? The autobiographical dimensions of Soul Mountain are richly overlaid with an exploration of various forms of human relationships and their implications for the individual. A rigorous and critical analysis of the self of one man is achieved by dissecting the authorial self into the singular pronouns, “I”, “you”, “she” and “he”, who together constitute the composite protagonist. On his solitary journey, the protagonist seeks to alleviate his acute loneliness and creates “you” so that he will have someone to talk to. The “you”, who is a reflection of “I”, naturally experiences the same loneliness and creates “she” for companionship. The creation of an unnamed “she” allows the author to project himself with immense freedom into the psyche of women. The lengthy journey draws the “you” and the “I” too closely together and reduces the analytical distance sought by the author, so he allows “you” to walk away, and the back of “you” walking away becomes “he” … and there are yet further changes. The author, on his long journey as a political refugee from Beijing, employs the strategy of storytelling to disperse his loneliness, and at the same time reconstructs his personal past as well the impact of the Cultural Revolution on both the human and physical ecology of China. Through the characters who are projections of his self, the author engages in intimate conversations with anonymous others to tell the stories of many different types of people who populate China, but yet who in the final analysis can be found in all societies and cultures. Gao Xingjian is a writer with an artists sensitivity and an intense and continuing curiosity for experimentation with language and other expressive forms; and he is acutely aware of the challenge to the writer, and to literary genres, in the visual-image-oriented world of modern times. Through the publication of the novel Lingshan in 1990, he has exorcised lingering remnants of homesickness and has succeeded in devoting himself singlemindedly to a creative life. Since 1987, full productions of his plays have been staged in Paris, Bordeaux, Avignon, Stockholm, Hamburg, New York, Taipei, Hong Kong, Vienna, Veroli, Poznan, Cluj, and have been performed in small theatres and workshops in Tokyo, Kobe, Edinburgh, Sydney, and Benin. However, since 1987, his only publication in China has been Taowang (Absconding), a play about three people who escape to a disused warehouse after the tanks roll into Tiananmen in the early hours of 4 June 1989. Absconding was reproduced in newspapers and magazines and criticized as a pornographic and immoral work fabricated by the writer Gao Xingjian who was not in Beijing at the time. On the other hand, the American group that had commissioned the play requested changes, insisting that the student demonstrators be portrayed as heroic figures. He declined to make any changes and withdrew the play. Living in Paris, Gao Xingjian mainly supports himself through painting the large black and white Chinese ink-paintings for which he is well known. To date he has held thirty solo exhibitions in various galleries throughout Europe, as well as Beijing (prior to 1987), New York, Taipei and Hong Kong; and his works have been collected in several galleries in Europe and America. Most of Gao Xingjian’s recent writings have been published in Chinese in Taipei and Hong Kong. A significant number of these have also been published in French, and are now beginning to appear in English. Some of his recent plays were first written in French and then Chinese. In 1992 Gao Xingjian was honoured by the French with the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His play in French Le Somnambule won the Prix Communauté français de Belgique in 1994, and his novel La Montagne de l’âme was awarded the Prix du Nouvel An chinois by a French panel of judges in 1997. In early 2000, a second edition of La Montagne de l’âme went into print simultaneously with the French version of his second novel, Yige ten de shengjing which was published last year in Taipei. Noël and Liliane Dutraits French version is called Le Livre de seul homme, my English version will be called One Man’s Bible. Mabel Lee April 2000 Mabel Lee was born Mabel Hunt in Warialda, northern New South Wales, and attended Parramatta High School. A graduate of the University of Sydney (BA with First Class Honours and PhD), she was a member of the academic staff of her alma mater from 1966 until January 2000. She is co-editor of the University of Sydney East Asian Series which publishes the work of Australian scholars on Asia, and the University of Sydney World Literature Series which sees literature as an activity that is shared by all peoples of the world. Mabel Lee retains a close association with the University of Sydney as Honorary Associate Professor in Chinese Studies. 1 (#ulink_176e2ad0-cc63-53a6-8d8a-91296b896e8b) The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town in the South. In the bus station, which is littered with ice-block wrappers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while. People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place. They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn’t need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place travelled by river in black canopy boats and overland in hired carts, or by foot if they didn’t have the money. Of course at that time there were no buses and no bus stations. Nowadays, as long as they are still able to travel, they flock back home, even from the other side of the Pacific, arriving in cars or big air-conditioned coaches. The rich, the famous and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn’t love the home of their ancestors? They don’t intend to stay so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. When friends meet they don’t just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, but rather they shout the person’s name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common, but not for women. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can’t help taking a second look. The one with her back to you is wearing an indigo-print headscarf. This type of scarf, and how it’s tied, dates back many generations but is seldom seen these days. You find yourself walking towards them. The scarf is knotted under her chin and the two ends point up. She has a beautiful face. Her features are delicate, so is her slim body. You pass close by them. They have been holding hands all this time, both have red coarse hands and strong fingers. Both are probably recent brides back seeing relatives and friends, or visiting parents. Here, the word xifu means one’s own daughter-in-law and using it like rustic Northerners to refer to any young married woman will immediately incur angry abuse. On the other hand, a married woman calls her own husband laogong, yet your laogong and my laogong are both used. People here speak with a unique intonation even though they are descendants of the same legendary emperor and are of the same culture and race. You can’t explain why you’re here. It happened that you were on a train and this person mentioned a place called Lingshan. He was sitting opposite and your cup was next to his. As the train moved, the lids on the cups clattered against one another. If the lids kept on clattering or clattered and then stopped, that would have been the end of it. However, whenever you and he were about to separate the cups, the clattering would stop, and as soon as you and he looked away the clattering would start again. He and you reached out, but again the clattering stopped. The two of you laughed at the same instant, put the cups well apart, and started a conversation. You asked him where he was going. “Lingshan.” “What?” “Lingshan, ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain.” You’d been to lots of places, visited lots of famous mountains, but had never heard of this place. Your friend opposite had closed his eyes and was dozing. Like anyone else, you couldn’t help being curious and naturally wanted to know which famous places you’d missed on your travels. Also, you liked doing things properly and it was annoying that there was a place you’ve never even heard of. You asked him about the location of Lingshan. “At the source of the You River,” he said, opening his eyes. You didn’t know this You River either, but was embarrassed about asking and gave an ambiguous nod which could have meant either “I see, thanks” or “Oh, I know the place”. This satisfied your desire for superiority, but not your curiosity. After a while you asked how to get there and the route up the mountain. “Take the train to Wuyizhen, then go upstream by boat on the You River.” “What’s there? Scenery? Temples? Historic sites?” you asked, trying to be casual. “It’s all virgin wilderness.” “Ancient forests?” “Of course, but not just ancient forests.” “What about Wild Men?” you said, joking. He laughed without any sarcasm, and didn’t seem to be making fun of himself which intrigued you even more. You had to find out more about him. “Are you an ecologist? A biologist? An anthropologist? An archaeologist?” He shook his head each time then said, “I’m more interested in living people.” “So you’re doing research on folk customs? You’re a sociologist? An ethnographer? An ethnologist? A journalist, perhaps? An adventurer?” “I’m an amateur in all of these.” The two of you started laughing. “I’m an expert amateur in all of these!” The laughing made you and him cheerful. He lit a cigarette and couldn’t stop talking as he told you about the wonders of Lingshan. Afterwards, at your request, he tore up his empty cigarette box and drew a map of the route up Lingshan. In the North it is already late autumn but the summer heat hasn’t completely subsided. Before sunset, it is still quite hot in the sun and sweat starts running down your back. You leave the station to have a look around. There’s nothing nearby except for the little inn across the road. It’s an old-style two-storey building with a wooden shopfront. Upstairs the floorboards creak badly but worse still is the grime on the pillow and sleeping mat. If you wanted to have a wash, you’d have to wait till it was dark to strip off” and pour water over yourself in the damp and narrow courtyard. This is a stopover for the village peddlers and craftsmen. It’s well before dark, so there’s plenty of time to find somewhere clean. You walk down the road looking around the little town, hoping to find some indication, a billboard or a poster, or just the name “Lingshan” to tell you you’re on the right track and haven’t been tricked into making this long excursion. You look everywhere but don’t find anything. There were no tourists like you amongst the other passengers who got off the bus. Of course you’re not that sort of tourist, it’s just what you’re wearing: strong sensible sports shoes and a backpack with shoulder straps, no-one else is dressed like you. But this isn’t one of the tourist spots frequented by newlyweds and retirees. Those places have been transformed by tourism, coaches are parked everywhere and tourist maps are on sale. Tourist hats, tourist T-shirts, tourist singlets and tourist handkerchiefs printed with the name of the place are in all the little shops and stalls, and the name of the place is used in the trade names of all the “foreign exchange currency only” hotels for foreigners, the “locals with references only” hostels and sanatoriums, and of course the small private hotels competing for customers. You haven’t come to enjoy yourself in one of those places on the sunny side of a mountain where people congregate just to look at and jostle one another and to add to the litter of melon rind, fruit peel, soft drink bottles, cans, cartons, sandwich wrappings and cigarette butts. Sooner or later this place will also boom but you’re here before they put up the gaudy pavilions and terraces, before the reporters come with their cameras and before the celebrities come to put up plaques with their calligraphy. You can’t help feeling rather pleased with yourself, and yet you’re anxious. There’s no sign of anything here for tourists, have you made a blunder? You’re only going by the map on the cigarette box in your shirt pocket, what if the expert amateur you met on the train had only heard about the place on his travels? How do you know he wasn’t just making it all up? You’ve never seen the place mentioned in travel accounts and it’s not listed in the most up-to-date travel guides. Of course, it isn’t hard to find places like Lingtai, Lingqiu, Lingyan and even Lingshan on provincial maps and you know very well that in the histories and classics, Lingshan appears in works dating back to the ancient shamanistic work Classic of the Mountains and Seas and the old geographical gazetteer Annotated Water Classic. It was also at Lingshan that Buddha enlightened the Venerable Mahakashyapa. You’re not stupid, so just use your brains, first find this place Wuyizhen on the cigarette box, for this is how you’ll get to Lingshan. You return to the bus station and go into the waiting room. The busiest place in this small town is now deserted. The ticket window and the parcel window are boarded up from the inside so knocking is useless. There’s no-one to ask so you can only go through the lists of stops above the ticket window: Zhang Village, Sandy Flat, Cement Factory, Old Hut, Golden Horse, Good Harvest, Hood Waters, Dragon Bay, Peach Blossom Hollow … the names keep getting better, but the place you want isn’t there. This is just a small town but there are several routes and quite a few buses go through. The busiest route, with five or six buses a day, is to Cement Factory but that’s definitely not a tourist route. The route with the fewest buses, one a day, is sure to go to the furthest destination and it turns out that Wuyizhen is the last stop. There’s nothing special about the name, it’s just like any other place name and there’s nothing magical about it. Still, you seem to have found one end of a hopeless tangle and while you’re not ecstatic, you’re certainly relieved. You’ll need to buy a ticket in the morning an hour before departure and you know from experience that with mountain buses like this, which run once a day, just to get on will be a fight. Unless you’re prepared to do battle, you’ll just have to queue up early. But, right now, you’ve lots of time, although your backpack’s a nuisance. As you amble along the road timber trucks go by noisily sounding their horns. In the town the noise worsens as trucks, some with trailers, blast their horns and conductors hang out of windows loudly banging the sides of the buses to hasten the pedestrians off the road. The old buildings on both sides stand flush with the road and all have wooden shopfronts. The downstairs is for business and upstairs there is washing hung out to dry — nappies, bras, underpants with patched crotches, floral-print bedspreads — like flags of all the nations, flaping in the noise and dust of the traffic. The concrete telegraph poles along the street are pasted at eye level with all sorts of posters. One for curing body odour catches your attention. This is not because you’ve got body odour but because of the fancy language and the words in brackets after “body odour”. Body odour (known also as scent of the immortals) is a disgusting condition with an awful, nauseating smell. It often affects social relationships and can delay life’s major event: marriage. It disadvantages young men and women at job interviews or when they try to enlist, therefore inflicting much suffering and anguish. By using a new total treatment, we can instantly eradicate the odour with a rate of up to 97.53% success. For joy in life and future happiness, we welcome you to come and rid yourself of it… After that you come to a stone bridge: no body odour here, just a cool, refreshing breeze. The bridge spanning the broad river has a bitumen surface but the carved monkeys on the worn stone posts testify to its long history. You lean on the concrete railing and survey the township alongside the bridge. On both banks, black rooftops overlapping like fish-scales stretch endlessly into the distance. The valley opens out between two mountains where the upper areas of gold paddy fields are inlaid with clusters of green bamboos. The river is blue and clear as it trickles over the sandy shores, but close to the granite pylons dividing the current it becomes inky green and deep. Just past the hump of the bridge the rashing water churns loudly and white foam surfaces from whirlpools. The ten-metre-high stone embankment is stained with water levels — the new greyish-yellow lines were probably left by the recent summer floods. Can this be the You River? And does it flow down from Lingshan? The sun is about to set. The bright orange disc is infused with light but there’s no glare. You gaze into the distance at the hazy layers of jagged peaks where the two sides of the valley join. This ominous black image nibbles at the lower edges of the glowing sun which seems to be revolving. The sun turns a dark red, gender, and projects brilliant gold reflections onto the entire bend of the river: the dark blue of the water fusing with the dazzling sunlight throbs and pulsates. As the red sphere seats itself in the valley it becomes serene, awesomely beautiful, and there are sounds. You hear them, elusive, distinctly reverberating from deep in your heart and radiating outwards until the sun seems to prop itself up on its toes, stumble, then sink into the black shadows of the mountains, scattering glowing colours throughout the sky. An evening wind blows noisily by your ears and cars drive past, as usual sounding their deafening horns. You cross the bridge and see there a new dedication stone with engraved characters painted in red: “Yongning Bridge. Built in the third year of the Kaiyuan reign period of the Song Dynasty and repaired in 1962. This stone was laid in 1983.” It no doubt marks the beginning of the tourist industry here. Two food stalls stand at the end of the bridge. In the one on the left you eat a bowl of bean curd, the smooth and tasty kind with all the right ingredients. Hawkers used to sell it in the streets and lanes but it completely disappeared for quite some years and has recently been revived as family enterprises. In the stall on the right you eat two delicious sesame-coated shallot pancakes, straight off the stove and piping-hot. Then at one of the stalls, you can’t remember which, you eat a bowl of sweet yuanxiao dumplings broiled in rice wine. They are the size of large pearls. Of course, you’re not as academic about food as Mr Ma the Second who toured West Lake, but you do have a hefty appetite nevertheless. You savour this food of your ancestors and listen to customers chatting with the proprietors. They’re mostly locals and all know one another. You try using the mellifluous local accent to be friendly, you want to be one of them. You’ve lived in the city for a long time and need to feel that you have a hometown. You want a hometown so that you’ll be able to return to your childhood to recollect long lost memories. On this side of the bridge you eventually find an inn on an old cobblestone street. The wooden floors have been mopped and it’s clean enough. You are given a small single room which has a plank bed covered with a bamboo mat. The cotton blanket is a suspicious grey — either it hasn’t been washed properly or that’s the original colour. You throw aside the greasy pillow from under the bamboo mat and luckily it’s hot so you can do without the bedding. What you need right now is to off-load your luggage which has become quite heavy, wash off the dust and sweat, strip, and stretch yourself out on the bed. There’s shouting and yelling next door. They’re gambling and you can hear them picking up and throwing down the cards. A timber partition separates you and, through the holes poked into the paper covering the cracks, you make out the blurred figures of some bare-chested men. You’re not so tired that you can drop off to sleep just like that. You tap on the wall and instantly there’s loud shouting next door. They’re not shouting at you but amongst themselves — there are always winners and losers and it sounds as though the loser is trying to get out of paying. They’re openly gambling in the inn despite the public security office notice on the wall prohibiting gambling and prostitution. You decide to see if the law works. You put on some clothes, go down the corridor and knock on the half-closed door. Your knocking makes no difference, they keep shouting and yelling inside and nobody takes any notice. So you push open the door and go in. The four men sitting around the bed in the middle of the room all turn to look at you. But it’s you and not they who gets a rude shock. The men all have bits of paper stuck on their faces, on their foreheads, lips, noses and cheeks, and they look ugly and ridiculous. They aren’t laughing and are glaring at you. You’ve butted in and they’re clearly annoyed. “Oh, you’re playing cards,” you say, putting on an apologetic look. They go on playing. The long paper cards have red and black markings like mahjong and there’s a Gate of Heaven and a Prison of Hell. The winner penalizes the loser by tearing off a strip of newspaper and sticking it on a designated spot. Whether this is a prank, a way of letting off steam, or a tally, is something agreed upon by the gamblers and there is no way for outsiders to know what it’s all about. You beat a retreat, go back to your room, lie down again, and see a thick mass of black specks around the light globe. Millions of mosquitoes are waiting for the light to go out so that they can come down and feast on your blood. You quickly let down the net and are enclosed in a narrow conical space, at the top of which is a bamboo hoop. It’s been a long time since you’ve slept under a hoop like this, and you’ve long since passed the age of being able to stare at the hoop to lose yourself in reverie. Today, you can’t know what traumas tomorrow will bring. You’ve learnt through experience everything you need to know. What else are you looking for? When a man gets to middle age shouldn’t he look for a peaceful and stable existence, find a not-too-demanding sort of a job, stay in a mediocre position, become a husband and a father, set up a comfortable home, put money in the bank and add to it every month so there’ll be something for old age and a little left over for the next generation? 2 (#ulink_34bae2d1-383f-5219-ae64-3f4c79ab4f13) It is in the Qiang region halfway up Qionglai Mountain, in the border areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan highlands and the Sichuan basin, that I witness a vestige of early human civilization — the worship of fire. Fire, the bringer of civilization, has been worshipped by the early ancestors of human beings everywhere. It is sacred. The old man is sitting in front of the fire drinking liquor from a bowl. Before each sip he puts a finger into it and flicks some on the charcoals which splutter noisily and send out blue sparks. It is only then that I perceive that I too am real. “That’s for the God of the Cooking Stove, it’s thanks to him that we can eat and drink,” he says. The dancing light of the fire shines on his thin cheeks, the high bridge of his nose, and his cheekbones. He tells me he is of the Qiang nationality and that he’s from Gengda village down the mountain. I can’t ask straight out about demons and spirits, so I tell him I’m here to do some research on the folk songs of the mountain. Do traditional song masters and dancers still exist here? He says he’s one of them. The men and women all used to form a circle around the fire and dance right through to daybreak, but later on it was banned. “Why?” I know quite well but I ask. I’m being dishonest again. “It was the Cultural Revolution. They said the songs were dirty so we turned to singing Sayings of Mao Zedong songs instead.” “And what about after that?” I persist in asking. This is becoming a habit. “No-one sings those anymore. People are doing the dances again but not many of the young people can do them, I’m teaching the dances to some of them.” I ask him for a demonstration. Without any hesitation, he instantly gets to his feet and proceeds to dance and sing. His voice is low and rich, he’s got a good voice. I’m sure he’s Qiang even if the police in charge of the population register insist that he isn’t. They think anyone claiming to be Tibetan or Qiang is trying to evade birth restrictions so they can have more children. He sings song after song. He says he’s a fun-loving person, and I believe him. When he finished up as village head, he went back to being one of the mountain people, an old mountain man who likes good fun, though unfortunately he is past the age for romance. He also knows incantations, the kind hunters employ when they go into the mountains. They are called mountain blackmagic or hexes and he has no qualms about using them. He really believes they can drive wild animals into pits or get them to step into snares. They aren’t used only on animals, they’re also used against other human beings for revenge. A victim of mountain blackmagic won’t be able to find his way out of the mountains. They are like the “demon walls” I heard about as a child: when a person has been travelling for some time at night in the mountains, a wall, a cliff or a deep river appears right in front of him, so that he can’t go any further. If the spell isn’t broken the person’s feet don’t move forward and even if he keeps walking, he stays exactly where he started off. Only at daybreak does he discover that he has been going around in circles. That’s not so bad, the worst is when a person is led into a blind alley — that means death. He intones strings of incantations. It’s not slow and relaxed like when he is singing, but just nan-nan-na-na to a quick beat. I can’t understand it at all but I can feel the mystical pull of the words and a demonic, powerful atmosphere instantly permeates the room, the inside of which is black from smoke. The glow of the flames licking the iron pot of mutton stew makes his eyes glint. This is all starkly real. While you search for the route to Lingshan, I wander along the Yangtze River looking for this sort of reality. I had just gone through a crisis and then, on top of that, a doctor wrongly diagnosed me with lung cancer. Death was playing a joke on me but now that I’ve escaped the demon wall, I am secretly rejoicing. Life for me once again has a wonderful freshness. I should have left those contaminated surroundings long ago and returned to nature to look for this authentic life. In those contaminated surroundings I was taught that life was the source of literature, that literature had to be faithful to life, faithful to real life. My mistake was that I had alienated myself from life and ended up turning my back on real life. Life is not the same as manifestations of life. Real life, or in other words the basic substance of life, should be the former and not the latter. I had gone against real life because I was simply stringing together life’s manifestations, so of course I wasn’t able to accurately portray life and in the end only succeeded in distorting reality. I don’t know whether I’m now on the right track but in any case I’ve extricated myself from the bustling literary world and have also escaped from my smoke-filled room. The books piled everywhere in that room were oppressive and stifling. They expounded all sorts of truths, historical truths to truths on how to be human. I couldn’t see the point of so many truths but still got enmeshed in the net of those truths and was struggling hopelessly, like an insect caught in a spider’s web. Fortunately, the doctor who gave the wrong diagnosis saved my life. He was quite frank and got me to compare the two chest X-rays taken on two separate occasions — a blurry shadow on the left lobe of the lung had spread along the second rib to the wall of the windpipe. It wouldn’t help even to have the whole of the left lobe removed. The outcome was obvious. My father had died of lung cancer. He died within three months of it being discovered and it was this doctor who had correctly diagnosed it. I had faith in his medical expertise and he had faith in science. The chest X-rays taken at two different hospitals were identical, there was no possibility of a technical mistake. He also wrote an authorization for a sectional X-ray, the appointment was in two weeks’ time. This was nothing to get worried about, it was just to determine the extent of the tumour. My father had this done before he died. The outcome would be the same whether or not I had the X-ray, it was nothing special. That I in fact would slip through the fingers of Death can only be put down to good luck. I believe in science but I also believe in fate. I once saw a four-inch length of wood which had been collected in the Qiang region by an anthropologist during the 1930s. It was a carved statue of a person doing a handstand. The head had ink markings for the eyes, nose and mouth, and the word “longevity” had been written on the body. It was called “Wuchang Upside Down” and there was something oddly mischievous about it. I ask the Qiang retired village head whether such talismans are still around. He tells me these are called “old root”. This wooden idol has to accompany the newborn from birth to death. At death it accompanies the corpse from the house and after the burial it is placed in the wilderness to allow the spirit to return to nature. I ask him if he can get me one so that I can carry it on me. He laughs and says these are what hunters tuck into their shirts to ward off evil spirits, they wouldn’t be of any use to someone like me. “Is there an old hunter who knows about this sort of magic and can take me hunting with him?” I ask. “Grandpa Stone would be the best,” he says after thinking about it. “How can I find him?” I ask right away. “He’s in Grandpa Stone’s Hut.” “Where’s this Grandpa Stone’s Hut?” “Go another twenty li on to Silver Mine Gully then follow the creek right up to the end. There you’ll find a stone hut.” “Is that the name of the place or do you mean the hut of Grandpa Stone?” He says it’s the name of the place, that there’s in fact a stone hut, and that Grandpa Stone lives there. “Can you take me to him?” I ask. “He’s dead. He lay down on his bed and died in his sleep. He was too old, he lived to well over ninety, some even say well over a hundred. In any case, nobody’s sure about his age.” “Are any of his descendants still alive?” “In my grandfather’s generation and for as long as I can remember, he was always on his own.” “Without a wife?” “He lived on his own in Silver Mine Gully. He lived high up the gully, in the solitary hut, alone. Oh, and that rifle of his is still hanging on the wall of the hut.” I ask him what he’s trying to tell me. He says Grandpa Stone was a great hunter, a hunter who was an expert in the magical arts. There are no hunters like that these days. Everyone knows that his rifle is hanging in the hut, that it never misses its target, but nobody dares to go and take it. “Why?” I’m even more puzzled. “The route into Silver Mine Gully is cut.” “There’s no way through?” “Not anymore. Earlier on people used to mine silver there, a firm from Chengdu hired a team of workers and they began mining. Later on, after the mine was looted, everyone just left, and the plank roads they had laid either broke up or rotted.” “When did all this happen?” “When my grandfather was still alive, more than fifty years ago.” That would be about right, after all he’s already retired and has become history, real history. “So since then nobody’s ever gone there?” I become even more intrigued. “Hard to say, anyway it’s hard to get there.” “And the hut has rotted?” “Stone collapses, how can it rot?” “I was talking about the ridgepole.” “Oh, quite right.” He doesn’t want to take me there, nor does he want to find a hunter for me, so that’s why he’s leading me on like this, I think. “Then how do you know the rifle’s still hanging on the wall?” I ask, regardless. “That’s what everyone says, someone must’ve seen it. They all say that Grandpa Stone is incredible, his corpse hasn’t rotted and wild animals don’t dare to go near. He just lies there all stiff and emaciated, and his rifle is hanging there on the wall.” “Impossible,” I declare. “With the high humidity up here in the mountain, the corpse would have rotted and the rifle would have turned into a pile of rust.” “I don’t know. Anyway, people have been saying this for years.” He refuses to give in and sticks to his story. The light of the fire dances in his eyes and I seem to detect a cunning streak in them. “And you’ve never seen him?” I won’t let him off. “People who have seen him say that he seems to be asleep, that he’s emaciated, and that the rifle is hanging there on the wall above his head,” he says, unruffled. “He knew blackmagic. It’s not just that people don’t dare go there to steal his rifle, even animals don’t dare to go near.” The hunter is already myth. To talk about a mixture of history and legend is how folk stories are born. Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience. However, once related, even personal experience becomes a narrative. Reality can’t be verified and doesn’t need to be, that can be left for the “reality-of-life” experts to debate. What is important is life. Reality is simply that I am sitting by the fire in this room which is black with grime and smoke and that I see the light of the fire dancing in his eyes. Reality is myself, reality is only the perception of this instant and it can’t be related to another person. All that needs to be said is that outside, a mist is enclosing the green-blue mountain in a haze and your heart is reverberating with the rushing water of a swift-flowing stream. 3 (#ulink_cd7b072e-047f-5a0a-8228-3623e30ab426) So you arrive in Wuyizhen, on a long and narrow street inlaid with black cobblestones, and walking along this cobblestone street with its deep single-wheel rut, you suddenly enter your childhood, you seem to have spent your childhood in an old mountain town like this. The one-wheel handcarts can no longer be seen and instead of the creak of jujube axles greased with bean oil, the streets are filled with the din of bicycle bells. Cyclists here need the skills of an acrobat. With heavy hessian bags slung across the saddle, they cause loud swearing as they weave through people with carrying poles or pulling wooden carts and the hawkers under the awnings. It is loud, colourful swearing which mingles with the general din of the hawkers’ calls, bargaining, joking and laughing. You breathe in the smell of soya sauce pickles, boiled pork, raw hide, pine wood, dried rice stalks and lime as your eyes busily take in the narrow shopfronts lining the street with products of the South. There are soya bean shops, oil shops, rice shops, Chinese and Western medicine shops, silk and cotton shops, shoe shops, tea shops, butcher stalls, tailor shops, and shops selling stoves, rope, pottery, incense, candles and paper money. The shops, squashed up one against the other, are virtually unchanged from Qing Dynasty times. The smashed signboard of the Ever Prosperous Restaurant has been repaired and one of the flat-bottomed pans used for frying its speciality guotie dumplings is beaten like a gong to announce it is back in business. The wine banner is again hanging from the upstairs window of the First Class Delicacies Restaurant. The most imposing structure is the state-run department store, a newly renovated three-storey concrete building. A single display window is the size of one of the old shops but the insides of the glass windows look as if they have never been cleaned. The photographer’s shop is eye-catching: photos of women in coquettish poses and wearing awful dresses are on display. They are all local beauties and not movie poster mm stars from some place at the other end of the earth. This place really produces good-looking women, every one of them is stunning. They have their beautiful cheeks cupped in their hands and their eyes have alluring looks. They’ve been carefully coached by the photographer but they are garishly dressed. Enlargements and colour prints are available and there’s a sign saying photos can be collected in twenty days, apparently they have to be developed in the city. Had fate not otherwise decreed, you could have been born in this town, grown up, and married here. You would have married a beautiful woman like one of these, who would long since have borne you sons and daughters. At this point, you smile and quickly move off in case people imagine you’ve taken a fancy to one of the women and start getting the wrong idea. And yet it is you who are carried away by your imagination. As you look up at the balconies above the shops with their curtained windows and pots of miniature trees and flowers, you can’t help wondering about the people who live here. There’s a big apartment with an iron padlock on the door — the pillars are now crooked but the carved eaves and railings which have fallen into disrepair indicate how imposing the place was at one time. The fates of its owners and their descendants fill you with curiosity. The shop at the side sells Hong Kong style dresses and jeans, and the stockings on show have a Western woman showing off her legs on the packaging. At the front door there’s a gold-plated sign, “Ever New Technical Development Company”, but it’s not clear what sort of technical development it is. Further on is a shop with heaps of unprocessed lime, and further on still is probably a miller’s and next to that a vacant allotment where rice noodles are drying on wires strung between posts. You turn back and go into a small lane next to the hot water urn of the tea stall, then turning a corner you are again lost in memories. Within a half-closed door is a damp courtyard, overgrown with weeds, desolate and lonely, with piles of rubble in the corners. You recall the back courtyard with the crumbling wall of your childhood home. You were afraid but it had a fascination for you, for the fox fairies of story books came from there. After school, without fail, you would go off alone with some trepidation to have a look. You never saw a fox fairy but that feeling of mystery always lingered in your childhood memories. There is an old stone bench riddled with cracks and a well which is probably dry. The mid-autumn wind blows through the dry yellow weeds in the rubble and the sun is very bright. These homes with their courtyard doors shut tight all have their histories which are all like ancient stories. In winter, the north wind is howling through the lane, you are wearing new warm padded cloth shoes and are with other children stamping your feet by the wall. You can remember the words of the ditty: In moonlight thick as soup I ride out to burn incense For Luo Dajie who burnt to death For Dou Sanniang who died in a rage Sanniang picked beans But the pods were empty She married Master Ji But Master Ji was short So she married a crab The crab crossed a ditch Trod on an eel The eel complained It complained to a monk The monk said a prayer A prayer to Guanyin So Guanyin pissed The piss hit my son His belly hurt So I got an exorcist to dance The dance didn’t work But still cost heaps of money Pale withered weeds and lush green new sprouts in the roof-tiles quiver in the wind. How long is it since you’ve seen grass growing in roof-tiles? Your bare feet patter on the black cobblestone street with its deep single-wheel rut, you’ve run out of your childhood back into the present. The bare feet, the dirty black feet, patter right there in front of your eyes. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never run barefoot, what is crucial is this image in your mind. After a while you find your way out of the little lanes and make it back on the highway. This is where the bus from the county town turns around to go back. There’s a bus station by the road with a ticket window and some benches inside, this is where you got off the bus earlier on. Diagonally across the road is an inn — a row of single-storey rooms — and the whitewashed brick wall has a sign “Good Rooms Within”. It looks clean and you have to find somewhere to stay, so you go in. An old attendant is sweeping the corridor and you ask her if there’s a room. She says yes. You ask her how much further is it to Lingshan. She gives you a cold look, this is a state-run inn, she’s on a monthly state award wage and isn’t generous with words. “Number two,” she says pointing with the broom handle to a room with the door open. You take your luggage in and notice there are two beds. On one there’s someone lying on his back, one leg crossed over the other, with a copy of Unofficial Record of the Flying Fox in his hands. The title is written on the brown paper cover of the book, apparently on loan from a bookstall. You greet him and he puts down the book to give a friendly nod. “Hello.” “Staying here?” “Yes.” “Have a cigarette.” He tosses you a cigarette. “Thanks.” You sit on the empty bed opposite. It happens that he wants to chat. “How long have you been here?” “Ten or so days.” He sits up and lights himself a cigarette. “Here buying stock?” you ask, taking a guess. “I’m here for timber.” “Is it easy getting timber here?” “Have you got a quota?” he asks instead, starting to become interested. “What quota?” “A state-plan quota, of course.” “No.” “Then it’s not easy to get.” He lies down again. “Is there a timber shortage even in this forest region?” “There’s timber around but prices are different.” He can’t be bothered, he can tell you’re not in the game. “Are you waiting for cheaper prices?” “Yes,” he responds indifferently, taking up his book again to read. “You stock buyers really get to know about a lot of things.” You have to flatter him so that you can ask him some questions. “Not really.” He becomes modest. “The place Lingshan, do you know how to get there?” He doesn’t reply so you can only say you’ve come to do some sightseeing and is there anywhere worth seeing. “There’s a pavilion by the river. If you sit there you’ll get a good view of the other side of the river.” “Enjoy your rest!” you say for want of something to say. You leave your bags, find the attendant to register and set off*. The wharf is at the end of the highway. The steps, made of long slabs of rock, go down steeply for more than ten metres and moored there are several black canopy boats with their bamboo poles up. The river isn’t wide but the riverbed is, clearly it’s not the rainy season. There is a boat on the opposite bank and people are getting on and getting off. The people on the stone steps are all waiting for it to come across. Up from the wharf, on the embankment, there is a pavilion with upturned eaves and curling corners. The outside is lined with empty baskets and resting inside are farmers from the other side who were here for the market and have sold all of their goods. They are talking loudly and it sounds like the language used in the short stories of the Song Dynasty. The pavilion has been painted recently and under the eaves the dragon and phoenix design has been repainted and the two principal columns at the front are inscribed with the couplet: Sitting at rest know not to discuss the shortcomings of other people Setting out on a journey fully appreciate the beauty of the dragon river You go around to look at the two columns at the back. These words are written there: On departing do not forget to heed the duckweed waters Turn back to gaze in wonder at Lingshan amongst the phoenixes You’re intrigued. The boat is probably about to arrive as the people resting and cooling off have got up and are rushing to shoulder their carrying poles. Only an old man is left sitting in the pavilion. “Venerable elder, may I ask if these couplets …” “Are you asking about the couplets on the principal columns?” the old man corrects me. “Yes, venerable master, might I ask who wrote the couplets on the principal columns?” you say with added reverence. “The scholar Mr Chen Xianning!” His mouth opens wide, revealing sparse black teeth, as he enunciates each of the words with great precision. “I don’t know of him.” You’d best be frank about your ignorance. “At which university does this gentleman teach?” “People like you wouldn’t know, of course. He lived more than a thousand years ago.” The old man is contemptuous. “Please don’t make fun of me, venerable elder,” you say, trying to stop him ridiculing you. “You don’t need glasses, can’t you see?” he says pointing up to the beam at the top of the columns. You look up and see on the beam which hasn’t been repainted, these words written in vermilion: Erected during the Great Song Dynasty in the first month of spring in the tenth year of the Shaoxing reign period and repaired during the Great Qing Dynasty on the twenty-ninth day of the third month of the nineteenth year of the Qianlong reign period. 4 (#ulink_a81c3faf-9e3b-5638-8157-aadb0e010c2a) I set out from the hostel of the nature reserve and go back to the house of the Qiang retired village head. A big padlock is hanging on his door. This is the third time I’ve been back but again he’s not there. It seems that this door which can lead me into that mystical world has closed for me. I wander on in fine drizzling rain. It’s been a long time since I have wandered about in this sort of misty rain. I pass by the Sleeping Dragon Village Hospital, it looks deserted. The forest is quiet but there is always a stream somewhere not too far away, for I can hear the sound of trickling water. It’s been ages since I have had such freedom, I don’t have to think about anything and I let my thoughts ramble. There’s no-one on the highway, and no vehicles are in sight. As far as the eye can see it is a luxuriant green. It is the middle of spring. The big deserted compound on the side of the road is probably the headquarters of the bandit chief Song Guotai mentioned by the reserve warden last night. Forty years ago, a single mountain road for horse caravans was the only access to this place. To the north it crossed the 5000-metre-high Balang Mountains into the Qinghai-Tibetan highlands and to the south it went through the Min River valley into the Sichuan basin. The opium smugglers from the South and the salt smugglers from the North all obediently put down money here to buy passage through. This was called showing proper respect. If there was a fuss and proper respect wasn’t shown, it would be a case of arriving and not returning. They would all be sent to meet the King of Hell. It is an old timber compound. The two big heavy wooden gates are wide open and inside, surrounded on three sides by two-storey buildings, is an overgrown courtyard big enough for a caravan of thirty or forty horses. Probably in those days, as soon as the gates were closed, the eaved balconies with their wooden railings would be thick with armed bandits so that caravans thinking of stopping the night would be trapped like turtles in a jar. Even if a shoot-out took place there wouldn’t have been anywhere in the courtyard to escape the bullets. There are two sets of stairs in the courtyard. I go up. The floorboards creak noisily and I deliberately tread heavily to show my presence. However the upstairs is deserted. One after another I push open the doors to empty rooms smelling of dust and mildew. Only a dirty grey towel hanging on a wire and an old worn shoe show that the place has been lived in, but probably some years ago. When the reserve was established the supply and marketing cooperative, local produce purchasing depot, grain and oil depot, veterinary clinic as well as the village administrative office and the personnel were all relocated in the narrow hundred metres of street built by the reserve administration where there is not a trace of Song Guotai’s hundred or so men and their hundred or so rifles once housed in this compound. In those times they would lie on rush mats smoking opium and fondling their women. These women, who had been abducted, had to cook for them in the daytime and sleep in turn with them at night. At times, either because the loot wasn’t shared equally or because of a woman, fights would break out and wild rioting probably took place on the floors of this very building. “Only the bandit chief Song Guotai could keep them under control. This fellow was ruthless and cruel, and renowned for his cunning.” The warden of the reserve does political work and he is eloquent and convincing. He says his lectures to university students here for practical work range from protection of the giant panda to patriotism and that his lectures can reduce the women students to tears. He says that amongst the women the bandits abducted there was even a soldier of the Red Army. In 1936, during the Long March, when a regiment of the Red Army was passing through the Mao’ergai grasslands, one of the battalions was attacked by bandits. The ten or so girls of the laundry detachment were abducted and raped. The youngest was seventeen or eighteen and was the only one to survive. She was passed around several of the bandits and eventually an old Qiang man purchased her to be his wife. She lives in a nearby mountain land and can still recite the name of her battalion, regiment and company, as well as the name of her commanding officer who is now an important official. He’s quite excited and says of course he can’t talk about all these things to the students, then goes back to talking about the bandit chief Song Guotai. This Song Guotai started out as a junior assistant, he says, for an opium merchant. When the merchant was killed by Big Brother Chen, the bandit chief who had taken over the district, he threw in his lot with the new boss. By wheeling and dealing he soon became Big Brother’s confidante and had access to the small courtyard where Big Brother lived at the back of the compound. The small courtyard was later blown up by the Liberation Army in a mortar attack and is now a mass of trees and shrubs. But in those years it was really a Little Chongqing, a replica of the wartime capital, where Big Brother Chen and his harem debauched themselves on sex and liquor. The only man allowed to wait on him was Song Guotai. A caravan arrived from Ma’erkang full of bandits who had been eying this strip of territory where all you had to do was to sit there waiting for the loot to come to you. A fierce battle raged for two days with deaths and injuries to both sides, but before any clear victory or defeat, they held peace negotiations and sealed an agreement in blood. The gates were opened and the other party invited inside. Upstairs and downstairs two lots of bandits joined in finger-guessing games and drinking liquor. Actually it was Big Brother’s plan to get the other side drunk so that he could deal with them swiftly. He got his mistresses to flit about from table to table with their breasts exposed. It wasn’t just the other bandits, who of either side could resist? Everyone was rotten drunk. Only the two bandit chiefs were still sitting upright at the table. As pre-arranged, Big Brother snapped his fingers loudly and Song Guotai came to pour more liquor. In one swift action, faster than it takes to tell this, he snatched the rival bandit chief’s machine gun from the table and one bullet each sent the pair sprawling, Big Brother included. Then he asked: Anyone who doesn’t want to surrender? The bandits looked at one another, not one dared to utter so much as half a murmur of dissent. Song Guotai thereupon moved into Big Brother’s little courtyard and all the mistresses came into his possession. He tells all this with great drama, he isn’t boasting when he says he has the women students in tears. He goes on to say that in 1950 they came into the mountains to exterminate the bandits. The little courtyard was surrounded by two companies of soldiers. At daybreak they shouted to the bandits to put down their weapons, change their wicked ways and reform, and warned that there was a blockade of several machine guns at the main gate so no-one should try to escape. It’s as if he’d taken part in the battle himself. “What happened then?” I ask. “At first they stubbornly resisted so the little courtyard was bombarded with mortar. The surviving bandits threw down their guns and came out to surrender. Song Guotai was not amongst them. When a search was made of the little courtyard they only found a few weeping women huddled together. Everyone said the house had a secret tunnel which went up into the mountain but it was never found, and he has never shown up anywhere. It’s over forty years now, some say he’s still alive and others say he’s dead but there’s no real evidence, only theories.” He sits back into the round cane chair and tapping his fingers on the edge where his hands are resting, he begins to analyse these theories. “There are three theories about what happened to him. One is that after escaping he fled to another area, changed his name, and settled somewhere to work in the fields as a peasant. The second is that he could have been killed in the gun fight but the bandits wouldn’t admit to it. Bandits have their own set of rules — they may be embroiled in a terrible fight amongst themselves but they won’t divulge anything to an outsider. They have their own ethics, a code of bandit chivalry if you like, and yet on the other hand they are cruel and wicked. Bandits have two sides to them. The women had all been abducted but once they came into his lair, they became a part of the gang. They were abused by him and yet kept secrets for him.” He is shaking his head not because he finds it incomprehensible but because he is moved by the complexity of the human world, it seems. “Of course one can’t dismiss the third possibility that he fled onto the mountain, couldn’t get out, and starved to death.” “Do people get lost on the mountain and die there?” I ask. “Of course, and not just the peasants from elsewhere who come to dig for medicinal herbs. There are even local hunters who have died on this mountain.” “Oh?” This is even more intriguing. “Just last year a hunter went up the mountain and didn’t come back for ten or so days. It was only then that his relatives sought out the village authorities, and we were notified. We contacted the forestry police and had them send us tracker dogs. We got them to sniff his clothes and carried out the search by following them. Afterwards we found him caught in a crack in the rocks. He had died there.” “How did he come to be stuck in the crack in the rocks?” “Could’ve been anything, he probably panicked. He was hunting and hunting’s prohibited in the reserve. There’s also the case of a man killing his younger brother.” “How did this happen?” “He mistook his brother for a bear. The brothers had gone into the mountain to lay traps. There’s good money in musk. Laying traps has been modernized — a trap can be made with a small piece of wire pulled out of a steel construction cable and a person can lay several hundred in a day on the mountain. It’s impossible for us to supervise an area of this size. They’re all so greedy, it’s hopeless. The brothers went into the mountain to lay traps and in the process were separated. It would be superstitious to believe what the mountain folk say: according to them the brothers fell foul of blackmagic. The two of them bumped into each other after going in a circle around the top of the mountain. There was a heavy mist. The elder brother saw his younger brother, mistook him for a bear, and shot him with his rifle. The elder brother had killed the younger brother. He went home during the night and lay his and his brother’s rifles alongside one another by the bamboo gate of the pig pen so that his mother would see them when she got up to feed the pigs first thing in the morning. He didn’t go inside the house but went back up the mountain to where his brother lay dead and slit his own throat.” I leave the empty upstairs and stand for a while in the courtyard big enough for a whole caravan of horses, then head back to the highway. There still is no sign of people or vehicles. I look at the dark green mountain enveloped in a haze of rain and mist on the opposite side. A steep greyish-white logging chute is over there and the vegetation has been totally ravaged. Earlier on, before the highway was put through, both sides of the mountain would have been covered in thickly-wooded forest. I am becoming obsessed with getting to the primeval forest at the back of the mountain and find myself drawn to it by some inexplicable force. The light drizzle gets heavier and turns into a thin film which completely enshrouds the ridge, obscuring the mountain and gully even more. There is the rumble of thunder behind the mountain, muffled and indistinct. Suddenly, I realize that the noise of the river below the highway is much louder, there is a perpetual roar as it charges endlessly at great speed from the snowclad mountains to pour into the Min River. It possesses an intimidating and violent energy not found in rivers flowing over flat country. 5 (#ulink_49b0b41c-72ae-5968-ba83-b75804546620) It is by the pavilion that you encounter her. It is an undefinable longing, a vague hope, it is a chance meeting, a wonderful meeting. You come again at dusk to the riverside, the pounding of clothes being washed reverberates from the bottom of the pitted stone steps. She is standing near the pavilion and like you she is looking at the mountain on the other side. You can’t take your eyes off her. She stands out in this small mountain village. Her figure, poise and enigmatic expression can’t be found among the local people. You walk away but she lingers in your mind and when you return to the pavilion she is no longer there. It is already dark and in the pavilion a couple of cigarettes glow from time to time as they are smoked, people are there quietly talking and laughing. You can’t see their faces, but from their voices you guess that there are probably two men and two women. They don’t seem to be locals, who always talk loudly whether they’re flirting or being aggressive. You go up and eavesdrop. It seems they are talking about what they have had to do to get away on this excursion: deceive their parents, he to the head of the work unit, and think up all sorts of stories. Talking about it is such fun they can’t stop cackling with laughter. You’ve already passed that age and don’t have to be supervised by anyone, still you aren’t having as much fun as they are. They probably arrived in the afternoon, but as you recall there’s only the one morning bus from the county town. Anyway they probably have their own ways and means. She doesn’t seem to be among them and didn’t seem to be as cheerful as this crowd. You leave the pavilion and walk straight down along the river-bank. You no longer need to think about finding your way. There are several dozen houses by the river but only the last one, which sells cigarettes, liquor and toilet paper, has the half door-flap of the shop open. The cobblestone road swerves back towards the town and then there’s a high wall. In the weak yellow streetlight on the right, through the dark doorway, is the village administrative office. The tall buildings and large courtyard with a watchtower must once have been the residence of a rich and powerful family at one time. Further on is a vegetable plot fenced off with broken bricks and opposite is a hospital. Two lanes up is a cinema, built just a few years back, and now showing a martial arts movie. You’ve been around this small town more than once so you don’t need to go to see what time the evening session starts. The lane at the side of the hospital cuts through to the main street and comes out right opposite the big department store. You know all this perfectly, as if you’re an old resident of the town. You could even act as a guide if anyone wanted one, and you desperately need to talk with someone. You didn’t think that after dark there’d be so many people about on this small street. Only the department store has the iron door shut and the grill up and padlocked in front of the windows. Most of the shops are still open but the stalls that were out during the day have been put away and replaced by small tables and chairs or bamboo bed planks. People are out on the street eating and chatting, inside the shops watching television as they eat and chat, and silhouetted on the curtains of upstairs windows moving about. Someone is playing a flute and there are small children crying and yelling — every household is making its own nill-blast din. Songs popular a few years ago in the cities are playing on tape recorders — tenderness laced with petulant lyrics alongside the beat of heavy metal electronic music. People sit in their doorways chatting with people across the street and it is at this time that married women in singlet and shorts and plastic slippers take tubs of dirty bath water to pour into the street. Gangs of adolescent boys are everywhere, deliberately brushing against the young girls strolling hand in hand. Suddenly, you see her again, in front of a fruit stall. You walk more quickly, she’s buying pomelos, which are just coming into season. You push in front and ask how much they cost. She touches the round unripe pomelo and walks off. You say, that’s right, they’re not ripe. You catch up to her. Like to join me? You seem to hear her agree, she even gives a nod which makes her hair shake. You had been nervous, terrified of a rebuff, you hadn’t imagine she’d agree so spontaneously. You instantly relax and you keep pace with her. Are you also here because of Lingshan? You should have been able to say something smarter than that. Her hair shakes again, then you begin to chat. On your own? She doesn’t answer. The front of the hairdresser’s shop is fitted with neon lights and you see her face. It’s youthful and that slight weariness is distinctly attractive. You look at the women with their heads under the dryers and getting their hair done and say that modernization has been most rapid in this. She looks away, laughs, and you laugh with her. Her hair covers her shoulders and is black and shiny. You want to say, you have lovely hair, but think it would be going a bit too far, so you don’t say it. You walk along with her, and don’t say anything else. It’s not that you don’t want to get on closer terms with her but that you can’t think of the right words to say. You can’t help feeling embarrassed and want to get out of this dilemma as quickly as possible. May I walk with you? Again, this is really a stupid thing to say. You’re really a funny person, you seem to hear her mumbling. She looks reproachful and yet approving. However you can tell she’s trying to look cheerful, you must keep up with her quick steps. She’s not a child and you’re no teenager, you try flirting with her. I can be your guide, you say, this was built in the Ming Dynasty and goes back at least five hundred years, you’re talking about the heat-retaining wall behind the Chinese herbalist’s shop, one of the flying eaves of the gable curls upwards out of the darkness into the star-lit sky. There’s no moon tonight. In the Ming Dynasty, five hundred years ago, no, even just a few decades ago, to walk along this road at night you had to carry a lantern. If you don’t believe me you only have to go off this main street and you’ll be in pitch-black lanes. You don’t even have to go back a few decades, just take twenty or thirty paces and you’ll be back in those ancient times. While chatting you come to the front of the First Class Fragrance Teahouse where there are adults and children standing along the wall. You stand on tiptoes to look inside and stay there as well. The narrow door leads into the long teahouse where all the square tables have been put away. On the rows of benches are the backs of craning heads and right in the middle is a square table draped with a yellow-bordered red cloth: a storyteller in a robe with wide sleeves is seated on a high stool behind it. “The sun goes down, thick clouds hide the moon, and as usual the Snake Lord and his wife lead their pack of demons back to the Palace of Blue Vastness. On seeing the plump fair-skinned boys and girls and the lavish banquet of pork, beef and lamb, they are delighted. The Snake Lord says to his wife: This good fortune is due to you. Today’s birthday celebration is magnificent. One of the demons says: Today being her Ladyship’s birthday requires wind and string music and the Master of the Grotto has had to busy himself with these.” Bang! He slams his wooden clapper on the table, “Indeed, lofty aspirations produce ideas!” He puts aside the clapper and taking the drum stick strikes a few dull beats on the slack drum skin. In his other hand he takes up a tambourine threaded with metal bits which he slowly shakes so that it tinkles. Then in his old rasping voice he begins to explain: “The Snake Lord gives instructions and in all four quarters are activities which immediately transform the Palace of Blue Vastness with colourful decorations and a medley of wind and string instruments.” He suddenly raises his voice, “And, when the frog heard, it croaked loudly and the owl waved his conductor’s baton.” He deliberately imitates the recitation style used by TV performers and makes the audience roar with laughter. You look at her and both of you laugh. This is the happy face you’ve been hoping for. Shall we go in and sit down? You’ve found something to say. You lead her past wooden benches and peoples’ legs, find a bench which isn’t full and squeeze in. Just look at the storyteller trying to get the audience worked up. He’s standing up and banging his clapper again, very loudly. “The birthday salutations now begin! All the lesser demons —” he gaily hums as he turns to the left performing the actions of bowing with hands cupped together in salutation, then turns to the right to wave his hands and sing in the voice of the old seductress, “Thank you, thank you.” They’ve been telling this story for a thousand years, you say close to her ear. And they’ll still go on telling it. She seems to be your echo. Will they go on telling it for another thousand years? you ask. Mmm, she replies, pursing her lips like a cheeky child. You feel very happy. “Let’s go back to Chen Fatong. He makes it to the foot of Donggong Mountain in three days, a journey normally taking seven times seven equals forty-nine days, where he encounters the Daoist Wang. Fatong bows in salutation and says: I have a request of the Venerable Master. The Daoist Wang responds with a salutation and Fatong asks: May I ask where the Palace of Blue Vastness can be found? Why do you ask? The demons there are really fierce. Who would dare go there? My surname is Chen and my name, Fatong, means ‘comprehending Buddha’s laws’. I have come especially to capture the demons. The Daoist Master heaves a sigh and says, young boys and girls have just been sent there today, they may already be in the Snake Lord’s belly. On hearing this, Fatong exclaims, I must go quickly to their rescue!” Bang! You see the storyteller raising his drum stick in his right hand and rattling the tambourine in his left hand. His eyes open wide until they show the whites and as he recites a chant his whole body begins to shake … You smell something, a subtle fragrance in the midst of the strong smell of tobacco and sweat, it’s coming from her hair and from her. There is the cracking of melon seeds as people eat the seeds with their eyes fixed on the storyteller, who has donned a monk’s robe. He is holding a magic sword in his right hand and a dragon’s horn in his left and talking faster and faster, as if he is spitting out a string of pearls. “Laying down three times the magic tablet, one-two-three, three troop-summoning amulets instantly muster the divine troops and the generals of Lu Mountain, Mao Mountain and Longhu Mountain, o-ya-ya a-ha-ha da-gu-long-dong cang-ng-ya-ya-ya-wu-hu. Emperor of Heaven, Emperor of Earth, I am the younger brother sent by the True Lord Emperor to exterminate demons. Holding the precious magical sword and treading on the wheel of wind and fire I wheel to the right and wheel to the left —” She turns and stands up, you follow after her, stepping over people’s legs. They all glare at you. “Quick, quick, you’ve got your orders!” A roar of laughter follows the two of you. What’s the matter? Nothing. Why didn’t you want to stay? I was feeling sick. You’re sick? No, I feel better now, it’s stuffy inside. You walk outside and the people sitting on the street chatting look up at the two of you. Should we look for somewhere quiet? Yes. You lead her around a corner into a small lane, the sound of people and the lights of the street fall behind you. There are no streetlights in the lane, just the weak glow coming from the windows of the houses. She slows down and you think back to what has just happened. Don’t you think you and I are like the demons being pursued? She chuckles. Then you and she can’t stop laughing. She laughs so much that she doubles over. Her heels clatter noisily on the cobblestones. You emerge from the lane and before you are paddy fields bathed in faint glimmering light. In the hazy distance are a few buildings, you know it’s the one middle school in town. A little further off are sprawling hills beneath the grey star-lit night sky. A breeze starts up, bringing ripples of cool air which sink into the clean fragrance of the paddy rice. You draw close to her shoulder, and she doesn’t move away. Neither of you say anything but go wherever your feet take you along the greyish paths between the fields. Enjoying yourself? Yes. Don’t you think it’s wonderful? I don’t know, I can’t say, don’t ask me. You lean against her arm and she leans towards you, you look down to her, you can’t see her features but you sense her small nose and you again smell that familiar warmth. Suddenly she comes to a halt. Let’s go back, she mutters. Back where? I have to get some rest. I’ll take you back. I don’t want anyone with me. She is quite adamant. Do you have relatives or friends here? Or are you here on your own? She doesn’t answer. You don’t know where she’s from nor where she’s going back to. Still, you escort her to the main street and she walks off on her own, vanishing at the end of the street, as if in a story, as if in a dream. 6 (#ulink_1ac731bf-87e8-5de9-8bbb-308ae8516cc3) In the 2500-metre giant panda observation compound at Haiba, water drips everywhere and my bedding is damp. I’ve spent two nights here. During the daytime I wear the padded clothes issued by the camp but still feel perpetually damp. The most comfortable time is in front of the fire drinking hot soup and eating. A big aluminum pot hangs on a metal wire from a rafter in the kitchen shed and the log in the stove isn’t cut into sections but just burns its way down, sending up sparks two feet into the air and providing light. When we’re sitting around the fire a squirrel always comes and sits by the shed rotating its round eyes. It’s only at night that everyone gathers around and there’s a bit of joking. By the end of the meal it’s completely dark, the camp is surrounded by the pitch-black forest, everyone retreats into the shed and in the light of kerosene lamps is preoccupied with his own business. They’ve been deep in the mountain all year and have said all they have to say, and there’s no news. They hire a Qiang from Sleeping Dragon Pass, 2100 metres from Haiba and the last village after entering the mountain, to come every couple of days with a basket on his back filled with fresh vegetables and slabs of mutton or pork. The ranger station is even further off than the village. They only take turns to go down the mountain for a couple of days’ leave every month or every few months, to go to the ranger station for a haircut, a bath and a good meal. Their normal days off accumulate and when the time comes they take the reserve car to Chengdu to see their girlfriends or go back to their homes in other cities. For them this is the way to live. They don’t have newspapers and don’t listen to radio broadcasts. Ronald Reagan, the economic reforms, inflation, the eradication of spiritual pollution, the Hundred Flowers Movie Award, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera — that noisy world is left to the cities, for them it’s all too far away. However, a university graduate sent here to work just last year always has headphones on. It was only after I got close enough that I discovered he was learning English. And there’s also a young man who reads by the kerosene lamp. Both are studying for research postgraduate exams so that they can get away from here. There’s another man here who picks up wireless signals, locates and plots them onto an air navigation tracking chart. These are signals transmitted from giant pandas which have been captured, tagged with wireless neckbands and then returned to the forest. The old botanist with me has already spent two days wandering around in the mountains; he’s been in bed for some time but I can’t tell whether or not he’s asleep. I just can’t get warm in this damp bedding and lying here fully clothed even my brain seems to have frozen, yet down the mountain it’s May and the middle of spring. My hand comes upon a tick which has lodged itself on the inner part of my thigh. It must have crawled up my trouser leg during the day while I was walking through tall grass. It’s the size of my little fingernail and as hard as a scab. I hold onto it and rub myself but can’t pull it out. I know if I pull any harder it will break off and the head with the mouth which has a good bite on me will remain embedded and grow into my flesh. I get help from the camp worker in the bed next to me. He gets me to strip, gives my thigh a hard slap and squeezes out the blood-sucking little bastard. Tossed into the kerosene lamp it smells like the meat stuffing in a pancake. He promises to get me a bandage in the morning. It’s quiet both inside and outside the shed, but everywhere in the forest there is the sound of water dripping. A mountain wind blows from afar but doesn’t reach the mountain and instead recedes and lingers noisily in faraway valleys. Afterwards the planks above me also start dripping and seem to drip right onto my quilt. Is there rain leaking through? Mindlessly, I get up. It’s as damp inside as it is outside. So let it just drip, drip, drip … Later on, I hear a rifle discharge. It’s clear but muffled and reverberates in the valley. “Over there near White Cliff,” someone says. “Fuck. Poachers,” another person swears. Everyone is awake, or it might have been that no-one had been asleep. “See what time it is.” “Five to twelve.” Then nobody says anything. It’s as if they’re waiting for another shot, but there isn’t one. In the shattered yet suspended silence, there’s only the dripping of water outside the shed and the reverberation of the wind imprisoned in the valleys. Then you seem to hear wild animals. This world belongs to wild animals but human beings persist in interfering with it. The enclosing darkness hides anxiety and restlessness, and this night seems to be even more perilous, awakening your phobia that you are being spied upon, stalked, about to be ambushed. You can’t get the spiritual tranquillity you crave … “Beibei’s here!” “Who?” “Beibei!” the university student yells. It’s total chaos in the shed and everyone’s up and out of bed. There’s a loud snorting and grunting outside. It’s the baby panda they saved when it came fossicking for food, sick and starving! They’ve been waiting for it to come, they were certain it would come. It had already been ten days and they’d been counting the days. They said it would definitely come before the new bamboo shoots started to sprout. And here is their pet, their treasure, clawing on the timber walls. Someone opens the door a crack and slips out with a bucket of corn mush and the rest quickly troop out after him. In the murky night this huge dark grey thing lumbers about. Corn mush is quickly poured into a dish and this thing comes up to it, snorting and grunting noisily. The torches are all trained on this animal with black semicircles around its black eyes. This doesn’t worry it at all, it’s completely engrossed in eating and doesn’t look up even once. They are madly taking photos so there’s a constant glare of flashlights, and everyone takes a turn to go up to it, to call it, to tease it, and to touch its far which is as hard as pig bristle. It looks up and everyone runs to take refuge back inside the shed. It is after all a wild animal and a healthy panda can wrestle a leopard. The first time it came it chewed up the aluminum container and ate it as well as the food, and then excreted a trail of undigested aluminum pellets which they had all followed. There was a journalist who kept going on about the giant panda being as cute as a pet cat and got into the enclosure to have his photo taken with his arms around one they’d caught in the ranger station at the foot of the mountain. He got his genitals torn off and was immediately driven to Chengdu, fighting for his life. It eventually finishes eating and, grabbing a piece of sugar cane and chewing on it, saunters off towards the clumps of Cold Arrow Bamboos and bushes at the edge of the camp. “I said Beibei would come today.” “It mostly comes at this time, round about two or three.” “I heard it snorting and grunting and scratching on the wall.” “It’s good at begging for food, the cheeky devil.” “It was starving. It ate up everything in that big bucket.” “It’s fatter. I touched it.” They are very excited and go into minute details — who was first to hear, who was first to open the door, how he saw it through the crack in the door, how it followed him, how it put its head into the bucket, how it sat down next to the pan, and how it really enjoyed eating. Someone even said he’d put sugar into the corn mush and that it likes eating sweet things! Normally they scarcely speak to one another but here they are talking about Beibei as if it’s everyone’s sweetheart. I look at my watch, this whole episode took no more than ten minutes but they are raving on endlessly about it. They’ve got all the lamps on and some are even sitting up in bed. That’s just the way it is, life is monotonous and lonely on the mountain and one needs this bit of comfort. From Beibei they go on to talking about Hanhan. The rifle shot earlier on had alarmed them. Hanhan came before Beibei and was killed by a peasant called Leng Zhizhong. They had been getting Hanhan’s signals from the same location for a number of days and, thinking it was seriously ill, set out to look for it. Finally, under a fresh mound of earth in the forest they dug out Hanhan’s carcass and its neckband which was still giving signals. They organized a search with tracker dogs and got to this Leng Zhizhong’s house where they found the rolled up skin hanging under the eaves. Another panda with a neckband was Lili but its signal simply disappeared in the wilderness of the forest and was never again heard. There was no way of knowing whether it had been attacked by a leopard and its neckband chewed up or whether it had met a clever hunter who had smashed the neckband with his rifle butt. Close to daybreak two shots sound from the lower part of the compound. Their muffled echoes reverberate in the valley for a long time, stubbornly lingering like smoke in the barrel of a rifle that’s been fired. 7 (#ulink_954f83a7-e68d-555f-a967-69661eb26caf) You regret not fixing a time to see her again, you regret not chasing after her, you regret your lack of courage, not getting her to stay, not chatting her up, not being more forward, and that there will not be a wonderful liaison. To sum up, you regret losing the opportunity. You don’t suffer from insomnia but you sleep badly the whole night. You’re up early, think it’s all ridiculous and luckily you hadn’t been rash. That sort of rash behaviour damages one’s self-esteem. But then you detest yourself for being too rational. You don’t even know how to go about starting a romance, you’re so weak you’ve lost your manliness, you’ve lost the ability to take the initiative. Afterwards, however, you decide to go to the riverside to try your luck. So you’re sitting in the pavilion just as the timber merchant had suggested, sitting in the pavilion and looking at the scenery on the other bank. From early morning it’s busy at the crossing. The water level goes right up the sides of the ferry as people cram into it. As it docks, even before the ropes are tied, people fight to get ashore. People with big baskets on carrying poles and people pushing bicycles jostle one another, all shouting and swearing as they surge towards the town. The ferry shuttles back and forth and eventually brings across all the people from the other shore. This side of the crossing also turns quiet. Only you are left sitting in the pavilion, like an idiot, pretending to wait for an appointment which wasn’t made, with a woman who came and vanished, just as if you’re daydreaming. Could it be that you’re bored, that you’re fed up with your monotonous life devoid of passion and excitement and that you want to live again, to experience life again? The river-bank is suddenly bustling with activity, this time they’re all women. They crowd onto the stone steps by the water — some washing clothes and others washing vegetables and rice. A black canopy boat approaches and the fellow standing at the prow with the punt-pole shouts at the women. The women shout back but you can’t tell whether they’re flirting or quarrelling. Just then you see her again. You say you thought she’d come, that she’d return to the pavilion so you could tell her about its history. You say an old man sitting in the pavilion told you about it. He was wizened like firewood and as the words came from his parchment-like lips with a wheeze, he looked like a demon. She says she’s terrified of demons so you say that his rasping voice was like the wind blowing onto high-voltage wires. You say there are town records dating back to the Historical Records and that in early times this crossing used to be called Yu Crossing. Legend has it that when Yu the Great quelled the floods, he crossed here. On the river-bank there used to be a round carved stone with seventeen barely discernible tadpole-like ancient ideograms on it. However, as no-one was able to decipher them, when stone was needed to build the bridge they dynamited it. Then they couldn’t raise enough money and the bridge wasn’t ever built. You show her the couplet written by the famous Song Dynasty scholar. The Lingshan you seek was known to men of ancient times, however the generations of villagers who have lived here since don’t know the history of the place, don’t know about themselves. If the lives of the many generations of inhabitants of these courtyards and apartments were written up in full, without leaving anything out or any fabrications, it would really amaze writers of fiction. You ask if she believes you. Take for example the old woman sitting on the doorsill and staring blankly ahead. Her teeth have all fallen out and her wrinkled face is like a salted turnip. She’s like a mummy, there’s no movement except in her dull, lustreless, sunken eyes. But in those times, she was radiant and beautiful. For several ten li around, she ranked as the number one or number two most beautiful woman and people who saw her couldn’t help taking another look. But today who can imagine how she looked in those times, not to mention how sexy she looked after becoming the bandit’s wife? In this town the bandit chief was called Second Master. Whether he came second amongst his siblings or was honoured with the nickname to get on good terms with him is of little consequence, but everyone in town, young or old, addressed him as Second Master, partly to curry favour but more out of fear. The courtyard beyond the doorsill she’s sitting on isn’t huge but there are a series of courtyards. Back then, gold coins were brought in big cane baskets from the black canopy boats to this courtyard. She’s now staring blankly at the black canopy boats: long ago the old woman was kidnapped and taken onto one of these. At the time she was like those girls with long plaits washing clothes on the stone steps, only she had wooden clogs instead of plastic sandals, and came to the river with a basket to wash vegetables. A boat came alongside and before she realized what was happening two men had grabbed her by the arms and were dragging her into the boat. She didn’t have time to call for help because cotton wadding had been stuffed into her mouth. Before the boat had travelled five li she had been raped in turn by several bandits. In these black canopy boats which have plied the river for a thousand years, once the woven bamboo canopy was drawn, it was possible to perpetrate such crimes in broad daylight. That night she lay naked on the bare deck boards, the next night she was lighting the stove to cook at the prow of the boat… What will you talk about now? Will you talk about her and Second Master, how she became the bandit’s wife? Or will you talk about why she is always sitting on the doorsill? Back then her eyes weren’t dull like now and she always carried a woven bamboo container in her bosom and her hands were forever busily embroidering. Her plump white fingers would embroider mandarin ducks frolicking in the water or peacocks with their tails outspread. She coiled her black plaits onto the top of her head and held them with a jade and silver hair-clasp, painted her eyebrows and trimmed the hairline around her face, but no-one dared to suggest that she was attractive. People around her, of course, knew that the container had coloured silk threads on top and a pair of loaded shiny black revolvers underneath. If soldiers boarded while the boat was moored, these delicate hands which embroidered would shoot them down one at a time. While this took place, the elusive Second Master would be sure to be at home fast asleep. Second Master took a fancy to the woman and had kept her for himself, so she followed the womanly virtue of following the man she had married. Didn’t anyone in the town ever report them? Well, even rabbits don’t eat the grass growing close to the burrow. Then, miraculously, she assumed a life of her own. As for the once famous bandit chief Second Master, whose fighting prowess was unchallenged by all the bandits prowling the roadways or waterways, in the end he was killed by this woman. How? Second Master was cruel but this woman was worse — men are no match for women when it comes to being cruel. If you don’t believe me you can ask Mr Wu the teacher in the town middle school. He’s been commissioned by the new tourist office of the county to compile a chronicle of the customs, history, and stories of Wuyizhen. The director of the tourist office is the uncle of the wife of Wu’s nephew, otherwise he wouldn’t have got the job. People born and brought up in the locality all have stories to tell and he’s not the only one in town who can write. Who doesn’t want to go down in the annals of history and moreover be able to draw advance overtime payments as well as a writer’s fee? Wu is a local from a family which has been influential for generations. The clan genealogy mounted on yellow silk, confiscated and publicly burnt during the Cultural Revolution, was twelve feet long. His ancestors enjoyed power and high positions as Leader of Court Gendemen during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty and as Hanlin Academician during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. However in his father’s generation they ran into the land reforms and the re-allocation of land and, burdened by their landlord classification, suffered decades of misfortune. Now however, his elder brother, an overseas professor on the verge of retirement with whom he’d lost contact, arrived in a car to visit his hometown accompanied by the local county head and with a colour television for him. As a result the cadres in town started showing him respect. Don’t talk about all this. All right, I’ll talk about the rebellion of the Long Hairs — the Taipings. At night they came along and torched half of the main street. Previously, the main street of the town ran along the river-bank from the wharf. The present bus station is located at the end of the main street, on the old site of the Dragon King Temple. Before the Dragon King Temple was reduced to a heap of rubble, on the fifteenth day of the lunar New Year, the evening of the Lantern Festival, the best view of the lanterns was from the opera stage of the Dragon King Temple. The lantern dragons from the four villages along the river congregated there — teams of men wearing red, yellow, blue, white or black turbans depending on the dragon they performed with. At the sound of the gongs and drums, the heads in the crowd thronging the streets begin to move to the beat. The shops along the river all have their bamboo poles out with red packets of cash dangling from them, everyone wants good business during the year. The red packets of old man Qian in the rice shop diagonally opposite the Dragon King Temple are the most lucrative and two strings of five hundred crackers hang from his upstairs window. It’s among exploding crackers and in a sea of light that the lantern performers demonstrate their prowess. One after the other, the dragons wheel and somersault: it’s hardest for the performers manipulating the dragon’s head or holding the embroidered ball. And while I’m telling you this, two dragons appear — the red one from Gulaicun in the village and the black one from town led by Wu Guizi. Don’t go on with this story, don’t. But you do, and go on to tell about the black dragon and about Wu Guizi, the great performer everyone in town knows. The young women are all besotted with him and if they see him they call out, Guizi, come in for some tea, or they bring him a bowl of liquor. Improper behaviour! What? You go on with your story. Wu Guizi, performing in the lead, approaches with the black dragon. He’s covered in sweat and in front of the Dragon King Temple unbuttons his vest and tosses it to someone he knows in the crowd. There’s a black dragon tattoo on his chest and the youngsters on the street shout their approval. At this point, the red dragon from Gulaicun comes onto the scene from the other end of the street. Twenty or so youths of the same build, each charged with strength and energy, have also come to contest the first prize at old man Qian’s rice shop. Neither team will yield and both begin to perform at the same time. The red and the black dragons are lanterns lit by candles and two fiery dragons are seen prancing amongst the heads and feet of the crowd, suddenly rearing their heads and wagging their tails. Wu Guizi is performing with a ball of fire, somersaulting bare-chested on the cobblestones and turning the black dragon into a fiery circle. The red dragon also puts on a good performance — following the embroidered ball closely, it thrusts forward and back like a centipede biting into some living thing. Just as the two strings of five hundred small crackers finish, the employees let off a few hungers. The two teams of contestants, panting and dripping with sweat like eels coming out of water, charge up to grab the red packet hanging from the pole next to the counter. In one bound, it is seized by a youth from Gulaicun. How could Wu Guizi and his team take this humiliation? Loud swearing between the two teams replaces the sound of crackers and then the black and red dragons are embroiled in a fight. The onlookers can’t tell who started it but in any case both had been itching for a fight, and this his how fights often start. As usual the children and women start screaming and women who had been standing on stools at doorways to watch the fun grab their children and retreat indoors. The stools they leave behind turn into vicious weapons for both sides. The town does have a policeman but on a festival day like this people would be buying him drinks or else he’d be hanging around mahjong tables watching people play to find pretexts for extracting bribes … preserving public order isn’t free of charge after all. Civil disturbances of this nature don’t involve the law. The fight results in one death in the black dragon team and two in the red dragon team, and that’s not counting little Yingzi’s big brother who was watching. Three of his ribs were broken when, for no reason at all, someone knocked him down and stomped on him. Luckily, they managed to save his life by using dogskin plaster, a family prescription from Pockmark Tang’s which is next door to Joy of Spring Hall, the brothel with the red lanterns hanging outside. You’ve made it all up and it’s a story you could go on telling, except that she doesn’t want to listen. 8 (#ulink_b557a83f-5aa5-5d7a-a520-e24f9c53371a) In the maple and linden forest in the lower part of the camp, the old botanist who came with me onto the mountain discovers a giant metasequoia. It is a living fern fossil more than forty metres high, a solitary remnant of the ice age a million years ago, but if I look right up to the tips of the gleaming branches some tiny new leaves can be seen. There’s a huge cavernous hole in the trunk which could be a panda’s den. He tells me to climb in and have a look, saying that if it did belong to a panda it would only be inside during winter. I do as he says. The walls are covered in moss. The inside and outside of this huge tree has a green fuzz growing on it and the gnarled roots are like dragons and snakes crawling everywhere over a large area of shrubs and bushes. “Now here’s primitive ecology for you, young man,” he says striking his mountaineering pick on the trunk of the metasequoia. He calls everyone in the camp young man. He’s at least sixty, in excellent health, and gets around everywhere on the mountain using his mountaineering pick as a walking stick. “They’ve cut down every tree that can be sold for timber. If it were not for this tree cave this would have gone too. Strictly speaking, there are no primary forests here. At most these would be secondary growth forests,” he says, quite moved. He’s here collecting specimens of Cold Arrow Bamboo, the food of the giant panda. I go with him into a clump of dead Cold Arrow Bamboos which are the height of a man, but there isn’t a single live bamboo plant to be found. He says it takes a full sixty years for the Cold Arrow Bamboo to go through the cycle of flowering, seeding, dying and for the seeds to sprout, grow, and flower. According to Buddhist teachings on transmigration this would be exactly one kalpa. “Man follows earth, earth follows sky, sky follows the way, the way follows nature,” he proclaims loudly. “Don’t commit actions which go against the basic character of nature, don’t commit acts which should not be committed.” “Then what scientific value is there in saving the giant panda?” I ask. “It’s symbolic, it’s a sort of reassurance — people need to deceive themselves. We’re preoccupied with saving a species which no longer has the capacity for survival and yet on the other hand we’re charging ahead and destroying the very environment for the survival of the human species itself. Look at the Min River you came along on your way in here, the forests on both sides have been stripped bare. The Min River has turned into a black muddy river but the Yangtze is much worse yet they are going to block off” the river and construct a dam in the Three Gorges! Of course it’s romantic to indulge in wild fantasy but the place lies on a geological fault and has many documented records of landslides throughout its history. Needless to say, blocking off the river and putting up a dam will destroy the entire ecology of the Yangtze River basin but if it leads to earthquakes the population of hundreds of millions living in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze will become fish and turtles! Of course no-one will listen to an old man like me, but when people assault nature like this nature inevitably takes revenge!” I go with him through the forest, surrounded by waist-high cyrtomiums — their leaves grow out in circles and they look like huge funnels. Of an even deeper green is the edible tulip, which has seven leaves growing out in a circle. There’s an all-pervading dampness everywhere. I can’t help asking, “Are there snakes in the undergrowth?” “It’s not the season yet, it’s only in early summer when it gets warmer that they’re quite vicious.” “What about wild animals?” “It’s people and not animals that are frightening!” He tells me that as a young man he encountered three tigers on the same day. The mother and her cub walked off right past him and then the male came up to confront him. They looked at one another and when he looked away the tiger walked off. “Tigers generally don’t attack people but people are stalking tigers everywhere. In South China tigers are already extinct. If you come upon a tiger nowadays you can count yourself lucky,” he says sardonically. “Then what about the tiger-bone liquor on sale everywhere?” I ask. “It’s fake! Even museums can’t get hold of tiger bones, and over the past ten or so years not a single tiger skin has been purchased in the whole country. A person in some village in Fujian province had a tiger skeleton but it turned out to be something put together from pig and dog bones!” He roars with laughter and has to lean on his mountaineering pick to catch his breath. “In my lifetime,” he continues, “I’ve barely escaped with my life a few times but not from the claws of wild animals. Once I was captured by bandits who demanded one gold bar as ransom, thinking I was the offspring of some wealthy family. They had no way of knowing I was a poor student in the mountains doing research and that even the watch I was wearing had been borrowed from a friend. The next time was during a Japanese air raid. A bomb fell onto the house I was living in. It smashed the roof and sent tiles flying everywhere but it didn’t explode. Another time was later on when an accusation was brought against me and I was labelled a rightist and sent to a prison farm. Those were difficult times, there was nothing to eat, my body bloated up with beri-beri and I almost died. Young man, nature is not frightening, it’s people who are frightening! You just need to get to know nature and it will become friendly. This creature known as man is of course highly intelligent, he’s capable of manufacturing almost anything from rumours to test-tube babies and yet he destroys two to three species every day. This is the absurdity of man.” He’s the only person in the camp I can have a conversation with, maybe it’s because we’re both from the world of hustle and bustle. The others are in the mountains all year long, they have grown silent like the trees, and seldom speak. A few days later he went down the mountain to go home. It’s frustrating not being able to engage the others in conversation. I know that they only think of me as an inquisitive tourist. But why have I come to this mountain? Is it to experience life in a scientific research camp such as this? What does this sort of experience mean to me? If it’s just to get away from the problems I was experiencing, there are easier ways. Then maybe it’s to find another sort of life. To leave far behind the unbearably perplexing world of human beings. If I’m trying to be a recluse why do I need to interact with other people? Not knowing what one is looking for is pure agony. Too much analytical thinking, too much logic, too many meanings! Life has no logic, so why does there have to be logic to explain what it means? Also, what is logic? I think I need to break away from analytical thinking, this is the cause of all my anxieties. I ask Wu (the one who removed the tick for me) if there are other ancient forests in the vicinity. He says they used to be all around. I say this is indeed so but I want to know where I’ll now be able to find one. “Then go to White Rock, we’ve laid a track to it,” he says. I ask if it’s the track in the lower part of the camp leading into a valley. The upper part of the valley is a bare cliff and from a distance it looks like a white rock sticking out of a green sea of forest. He nods to say yes. I’ve been there. The forest looks quite forbidding and the creek is full of huge black trunks which the current didn’t carry down. “It’s also been logged,” I say. “That was before the reserve was established,” he explains. “But does the reserve have ancient forests which haven’t been desecrated by workers?” “Of course. You’ll have to go to Zheng River.” “Can I get there?” “Not you. Even with all our equipment and provisions we can’t get into the central area, it’s a huge gully with very difficult terrain! And there are 5000- to 6000-metre snowclad mountains all around.” “How can I get to see this genuine ancient forest?” “The closest spot would be at 11M 12M.” He’s referring to numbers on the aviation maps they use here. “But you wouldn’t be able to get there on your own.” He says last year two university graduates who’d just been assigned to work here set off with a bag of biscuits and a compass thinking they’d have no problems. They couldn’t get back that night. It wasn’t until the fourth day that one of them finally managed to crawl back onto the highway and was sighted by a truck convoy on its way to Qinghai. They went back down the valley to search for the other who was already unconscious from lack of food. He warns that I absolutely must not go off too far on my own and that if I really want to go and have a look at the forest I’ll have to wait until someone goes to 11M 12M to collect the signals on giant panda activity. 9 (#ulink_aaf6629d-f906-54d8-8d9a-175eeea61f22) Are you in some sort of trouble? you say, teasing her. What makes you say that? It’s obvious, a young woman coming to a place like this on her own. Aren’t you also on your own? This is a habit of mine, I like wandering around on my own, it lets me think about lots of things. But a young woman like you … Come on, it’s not just you men who think. I’m not saying that you don’t think. Actually, some men don’t think at all! You seem to be in some sort of trouble. Anyone can think, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in trouble. I’m not trying to pick a fight. Me neither. I’d like to help. Wait until I need it. Don’t you need it now? Thanks, no. I just need to be alone, I don’t want anyone upsetting me. So something is worrying you. Whatever you say. You’re suffering from depression. You’re making too much of it. Then you admit something is worrying you. Everyone has worries. But you’re looking for worries. What makes you say that? It doesn’t take a great deal of education. You’re so glib. As long as it doesn’t offend you. That’s not the same as liking it. Nevertheless, she doesn’t refuse your suggestion to go for a stroll along the river. You need to prove you are still attractive to women. She goes with you along the embankment, upstream. You need to search for happiness and she needs to search for suffering. She says she doesn’t dare look down. You say you know she’s afraid. Of what? Water. She starts laughing loudly but you can tell she’s putting it on. But you don’t dare jump, you say, deliberately going to the edge. Below the steep embankment is the surging river. What if I jump? she says. I’ll jump in and save you. You know if you say this you’ll make her happy. She says she feels dizzy, that it’d be easy to jump. She’d only have to close her eyes. Dying like this would be intoxicating and virtually painless. You say a young woman just like her from the city jumped into the river. She was younger and more naive. You’re not saying she’s complicated, just that people today aren’t significantly more intelligent than they were yesterday and yesterday is right there in front of you and me. You say it was a moonless night and the river looked darker and deeper. The wife of the ferryman Hunchback Wang Tou said afterwards that she had shoved Wang Tou and told him she heard the chain of the cable rattling. She said if only she’d got up and had a look then. Later, she heard sobbing and thought it was the wind. The sobbing must have been quite loud. It was late at night and everyone was asleep. The dogs weren’t barking so she thought it couldn’t have been someone trying to steal the boat and fell asleep again. While she was half asleep the sobbing continued for quite some time and even when she woke up she could still hear it. The wife of Hunchback Wang Tou said if someone had been there, the girl wouldn’t have taken her own life. She blamed her husband for sleeping too soundly. Usually it was like this: if there was an emergency and someone wanted to cross the river at night, they would knock on the window and shout out. What she couldn’t understand was why the girl was rattling the chains if she wanted to kill herself. Could it have been that she was trying to get the ferry to the county town so that she could get back to her parents in the city? She could have taken the noon bus from the county town. She must have been trying to avoid being found out. No-one could say for sure what she was thinking before she died. Anyway, she was a perfectly good student who had been sent from the city to work on the fields in this village. She had neither family nor friends here and was raped by the party secretary. At dawn thirty li downstream at Xiashapu, she was fished out by loggers. The upper part of her body was bare, her shirt must have caught on a branch in a bend of the river. She had left her sports shoes neatly on that rock. Later on, “Yu Crossing” was carved into the rock and painted in red and the tourists all climb on it to have their photos taken. It’s only the inscription that remains and the spirit which had suffered an unjust death has been completely forgotten. Are you listening? you ask. Go on, she replies softly. People used to die at this spot all the time, you say, and they were very often children and women. Children would dive off the rock in summer, the ones who didn’t re-surface were said to have been trying to die and had been reclaimed by parents of another life. Those forced into taking their own lives are always women — defenceless young students sent here from the city, young women who had been maltreated by mothers-in-law and husbands. Many pretty young girls have also suicided. Before the schoolteacher Mr Wu started doing his research on the town, Yu Crossing was known to the villagers as Grieving Ghost Cliff and grown-ups would always worry if their children went swimming there. Some say at midnight the ghost of a woman in white always appears. She is always singing a song they can’t identify but which sounds something like a village children’s song or a beggar girl’s flower-drum song. Of course, this is all superstition, people often frighten themselves with what they say. In fact there’s an aquatic bird here which the locals call a blue head and the academics call a blue bird, you can find references to it in Tang Dynasty poetry. Blue heads have long flowing hair according to the villagers. You must have seen them, they’re not very big and have a silver-blue body and two long dark blue plumes on the head. They’re alert, agile, and lovely to look at. She always rests in the shade under the embankment or by the thick bamboos near the bank of the river, and looks about nonchalantly. You can enjoy looking at her for as long as you like but if you make a move, she flies off. The blue head in this village is not the mythological blue bird which took food to the Queen Mother of the West as mentioned in the Classic of the Mountains and Seas, but it does have an aura of magic nonetheless. You tell her that this blue bird is like a woman, of course there are also stupid women but you’re talking about feminine intelligence, feminine sensuality. Women who fall deeply in love really suffer — men want women for pleasure, husbands want their wives to manage the home and cook, and parents want the son’s wife to continue the family line. None of these are for love. Then you start talking about Mamei. She listens intently. You say Mamei was driven to suicide in this river, this is what people say. She nods and listens child-like, so beautifully child-like. You say Mamei was betrothed but she disappeared when the mother-in-law came to fetch her. She ran away with her lover, a young village fellow. Was he a lantern dragon dancer? she asks. The lantern dragon team involved in the fighting in town was from Gulaicun downstream, this young fellow’s family was from Wangnian, fifty li upstream. He was lower than her in the clan hierarchy but was a fine youngster. Mamei’s lover had neither the money nor the means, his family had only two mu of dry land and nine portions of paddy field. In this area, people won’t starve if they work hard and have strong limbs. Of course that’s as long as there are no natural disasters and no rampaging soldiers, when these occur it’s not unknown for eighty to ninety per cent of the villagers to die. Now back to Mamei. For her lover to marry such a pretty and clever girl as Mamei, this bit of property wasn’t enough. A girl like Mamei came at a specified price: a pair of silver bracelets for the deposit, a betrothal gift of eight boxes of cakes and a dowry of two cartloads of gilded wardrobes and chests. The person who paid this price lived in Shuigang, behind what is now the photographer’s shop. The old house has long since changed owners, but we’re talking about the owner at that time. His wife kept giving birth to daughters and because he had his mind set on having a son, this wealthy man decided to take a secondary wife. It so happened that Mamei’s mother was an intelligent widow who had worked out her daughter’s future: it was better for her to become the secondary wife of a rich man than to spend her life working in the fields with a poor man. An agreement was made through a go-between. As there would not be a bridal sedan, the required sets of clothing for both the bride and her mother were to be provided. A date to fetch the girl was fixed but during the night she ran away. She just bundled up a few clothes, and in the middle of the night tapped on her lover’s window to get him to come outside. They burned with passion and she gave herself to him right there. Then, wiping the tears from their eyes, they pledged themselves to one another and agreed to run away into the mountains to eke out a living. Arm in arm they arrived at the river crossing and looked at the surging waves. However the lad vacillated and said he’d have to go home to fetch an axe and a few work tools. He was discovered by his parents. The father beat the unfilial boy with a length of wood and the mother was heartbroken but couldn’t bear to have her son leave home. In the prolonged chaos of the father’s beating and the mother’s weeping it was soon daybreak. The ferryman who was up early said he had seen a girl with a bundle. Then there was a heavy mist and as it became light, the morning mist from the river became thicker so that even the sun turned into a ball of dark red burning charcoal. The ferryman doubled his guard: bumping into another boat wouldn’t be too serious but there would be a disaster if they were rammed by a timber-float. There were crowds on the bank on their way to the markets, these markets which have been going for at least three thousand years. Amongst those on their way to these markets there were inevitably people who heard a shout which was instantly stifled in the mist. Then there was the sound of thrashing in the water. Some with sharper ears said they heard it more than once, but everyone just went on talking and nothing could be heard clearly. This is really a bustling crossing, otherwise Yu the Great wouldn’t have decided to make his crossing here. The boat was laden with vegetables, charcoal, grain, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, chrysanthemums, edible fungus, tea, eggs, people and pigs, so that the punt-pole curved and the waterline came to the top of the sides of the boat. The rock called Grieving Ghost Cliff was just a grey shadow in the white mist of the river. Some women prattled about hearing the cawing of a crow early in the morning. It’s a bad omen to hear a crow cawing. A black crow was cawing as it circled in the sky, it must have detected the aura of someone dying. When people are about to die, before they actually die, they give off an aura of death. It’s something like an aura of bad luck which can’t be detected by the eyes and ears, and can only be sensed. Do I have an aura of bad luck? she asks. You just make it hard for yourself, you have a masochistic streak. You’re deliberately teasing her. Hardly, living is such agony! You then hear her screaming again. 10 (#ulink_86eab28f-2a89-507d-9c90-1920320f3bb2) The moss on the trunks, the branches overhead, the hair-like pine lichen hanging between the branches, even the air, everything, is dripping. Big bright, transparent drops of water, drop after drop, slowly drip onto my face, down my neck, icy cold. I tread on thick, soft, downy moss, layer upon layer of it. It grows parasitically on the dead trunks of huge fallen trees, grows and dies, dies and grows, so that with every step my sodden shoes squelch. My hat, hair, down-lined jacket and trousers are wet through, my singlet is soaked in sweat and clings to me. Only my belly feels slightly warm. He has stopped just up ahead but doesn’t turn around, the three-section metal aerial at the back of his head is still swaying. As soon as I clamber over a mass of fallen trees and get close, he takes off again before I have time to catch my breath. He is not tall and is lean and agile like a monkey. He thinks it’s too much trouble to zigzag and I have no choice but to make my way straight up the mountain. Since setting out from the camp early in the morning, we’ve been going for two hours without a break and he hasn’t spoken so much as a sentence to me. It seems he’s using this strategy to put me off, thinking I’ll find it’s too hard and turn back. I struggle desperately to follow close behind but the distance between us keeps widening, so from time to time he stops and waits for me. While I catch my breath he puts up the aerial, dons his earphones, tracks the signals and makes a record in his notebook. Weather equipment has been installed in a clearing. He inspects it, takes notes, and tells me the humidity is already at saturation point. These are his first words to me all this time and may count as a sign of friendship. A little further on he beckons me to follow him into a clump of dead Cold Arrow Bamboos. Standing there is a big pen fenced with round wooden stakes taller than a man. The bolt isn’t in place and the gate is open. The pen is for trapping the pandas which are shot with an anaesthetic rifle, tagged with a transmitter neckband, and then released. He points to the camera I’ve got hanging on my neck. I hand it to him and he takes a photo of me outside the pen, thankfully not inside it. Going through the gloomy linden and maple groves, mountain birds trill in the nearby flowering catalpa bushes so there’s no sense of loneliness. Then at an altitude of two thousand seven or eight hundred metres we come into a conifer belt — patches of scattered light gradually appear and giant black hemlocks soar up, their branches arched like open umbrellas. However, at a height of thirty or forty metres they are surpassed by grey-brown dragon spruce which soar to heights of fifty or sixty metres and are majestic with their peaked crowns of grey-green new leaves. There is no longer any undergrowth and it’s possible to see quite a distance. In between the thick spruce and hemlock trunks are some round alpine azaleas. They are about four metres high and covered in masses of moist red flowers. The branches bow with the weight and, as if unable to cope with this abundance of beauty, scatter huge flowers beneath to quietly display their enduring beauty. This unadorned splendour and beauty in nature fills me with another sort of indescribable sadness. It is a sadness which is purely mine and not something inherent in nature. Up ahead and down below are huge dead trees which have been snapped by the assault of the elements. To pass by these towering crippled remains reduces me to an inner silence and the lust to express which keeps tormenting me, in the presence of this awesome splendour, is stripped of words. A cuckoo which I can’t see is calling — it’s further up then down below, to the left then to the right. It somehow keeps circling around me, as if it’s trying to make me lose my bearings, and seems to be calling out: Brother wait for me! Brother wait for me! This brings to my mind the story of the two brothers who went into the forest to sow sesame seeds. In the story the stepmother wanted to get rid of the son of the first wife but fate rebounded upon the person of her own son. I also think of the two university graduates who got lost. A feeling of disquiet grips me. He comes to a sudden halt, raises an arm to signal me, and I rush over to him. He pulls me down hard. I crouch there with him and start to get tense: then I see through a gap between the trees two large grey-white speckled birds with red feet running on the slope. When I make a quiet move, the pervading silence is instantly shattered by a disturbance in the air. “Snow cocks,” he says. In barely an instant the air seemingly congeals again and the lively grey-white speckled snow cocks with red feet seem never to have existed, making me feel that I am hallucinating, for before my eyes there are only the huge unmoving trees of the forest. My passing through here at this moment, even my very existence, is ephemeral to the point of meaninglessness. He is friendlier and no longer leaves me too far behind, he goes for a bit, stops, and waits for me to catch up. The distance between us shortens but still we don’t talk. Afterwards, he stops to look at his watch and then turns to look up at the increasing patches of sunlight. He sniffs at the air, climbs up a slope and puts out a hand to pull me up. I am puffing and panting when we finally come to an undulating plateau. Before us lies a monotone of undiluted fir forest. “We’re more than three thousand metres up, aren’t we?” I ask. He confirms this with a nod then runs to a tree on a high part of the plateau, looks back, puts on his earphones, pulls up the aerial, and rotates in all directions. I also look all around and notice the surrounding trees are of the same girth, equidistant from one another, equally straight, branch out at the same height, and are all equally fine specimens. There are no broken trunks, the trees that have died have fallen down whole, none are exempt from rigorous natural selection. There are no pine lichens, no clumps of Cold Arrow Bamboo, no small bushes. The spaces between the trees are quite large so that it’s brighter and one can see quite far. Some distance away is a white azalea bush which stuns me with its stately beauty. It has an ethereal purity and freshness and as I get closer, it seems to get taller — it is swathed in clusters of flowers with petals larger and thicker than those of the red azaleas I saw earlier. Lush white flowers are scattered beneath the bush. They have not begun to wither and are so charged with life that they exude a lust to exhibit themselves. This is pristine natural beauty. It is irrepressible, seeks no reward, and is without goal, a beauty derived neither from symbolism nor metaphor and needing neither analogies nor associations. This white azalea with the purity of snow and the lustre of jade keeps re-appearing but it is always a solitary bush and appears and disappears, here and there, among the slender cold fir trees, like the tireless hidden cuckoo which captivates one’s soul and keeps leading one towards it. I take deep breaths of the pure air of the forest, inhaling and exhaling is effortless and I feel the very depths of my soul being cleansed. The air penetrates to the soles of my feet, and my body and mind seem to enter nature’s grand cycle. I achieve a sense of joyful freedom such as I have never before experienced. A drifting mist comes, just one metre off the ground, and spreads out right before me. As I retreat, I scoop it into my hands, it is like the smoke from a stove. I start running but I am too slow. It brushes past and everything in sight becomes blurred. It suddenly disappears but the cloudy mist following behind is much more distinct, coming as drifts of swirling balls. I back away from it without realizing I am going around in a circle with it but on a slope I manage to escape from it. I turn around to suddenly discover that right below is a deep ravine. A range of magnificent indigo mountains is directly opposite, their peaks covered in white clouds, thick layers of billowing churning clouds. In the ravine, a few wisps of smoke-like cloud are rapidly dispersing. The white line below must be the rushing waters of the river flowing through the middle of the dark forest ravine. This is not the river I passed a few days ago coming into the mountains where there was a stockade village, stretches of cultivated land, and where from the mountain above there was an exquisite view of the cable bridge slung between two cliffs. This gloomy ravine is dark forest and jagged rocks, utterly devoid of anything from the human world. Looking at it sends chills down my spine. The sun comes out, suddenly illuminating the mountain range opposite. The air is so rarefied that the pine forests beneath the layers of cloud instantly turn a wonderful green which drives me into an ecstatic frenzy. It is as if a song is emerging from the depths of my soul and as the light changes there are sudden changes of colour. I run and jump about, struggling to photograph the transformations of the clouds. A grey-white cloudy mist sneaks up behind me again, completely ignoring ditches, hollows, fallen trees. I can’t get ahead of it and it unhurriedly catches up. It encloses me in its midst: images vanish from my eyes and everything is a hazy blur. But in my mind fragments of the images I have just seen linger. While in this predicament a ray of sunlight comes down over my head, illuminating the moss under my feet. Only then do I discover that underfoot is yet another strange organic plant world. It too has mountain ranges, forests, and low shrubs, and all of these sparkle brilliantly, and are a beautiful green. The moment I crouch down it is here again, that all-pervading obscuring mist and, as if by magic, instantly, everything is a grey-black blurred totality. I stand up, at a loss, and just wait there. I shout out but there is no reply. I shout out again but hear my own muffled trembling voice immediately vanish without even echoing. I am instantly filled with terror. This terror ascends from my feet and my blood freezes. I call out again, but again there is no reply. All around me are only the black shapes of the fir trees and they are all exactly the same, the hollows and slopes are all the same. I run, shout out, suddenly lurching from one side to the other, I am deranged. I must immediately calm down, return to the original spot, no, I must get my bearings. But in every direction are towering grey-black trees, I can’t distinguish anything, I have seen everything before, yet it seems I haven’t. The blood vessels in my forehead start throbbing. Clearly, nature is toying with me, toying with this unbelieving, unfearing, supercilious, insignificant being. Hey — Hello — Hey — I yell out. I did not ask the name of the person who brought me into the mountains so I can only hysterically shout out like this, like a wild animal, and the sound makes my hair stand on end. I used to think there were echoes in mountain forests, even the most wretched and lonely of echoes wouldn’t be as terrifying as this absence of echoes. Echoes here are absorbed by the heavy mists and the humidity-laden atmosphere. I realize that my shouting probably doesn’t transmit and I sink into utter despair. The grey sky silhouettes a strangely-shaped tree. The sloping trunk branches into two parts, both similar in girth and both growing straight up without further branching. It is leafless, bare, dead, and looks like a giant fish-spear pointing into the sky. This is what makes it unique. Having got here, I would be at the edge of the forest, so below the edge of the forest should be that dark ravine, at this moment enshrouded in heavy mist, a path straight to death. But I can’t leave this tree, it’s the only sign I can recognize. I scour my memory for sights I saw along the way. I have first to find identifiable images like this and not a string of images in a state of flux. I seem to recall a few and try to arrange them into sequence to serve as signposts I can follow back. But what I recall is useless, like a deck of shuffled cards and the more I try to arrange some sort of order the more scrambled it all becomes. I am absolutely exhausted and can only sit myself down on the wet moss. I have become separated from my guide just like that, lost in the three thousand metres of ancient forest in the 12M band of the aviation chart. I don’t have the chart on me, nor do I have a compass. The only thing I find in my pockets is a handful of sweets given to me a few days ago by the old botanist who has already gone down the mountain. At the time he was passing on to me what had been his experience — when you go into the mountains it’s best to take along some sweets in case you happen to get lost. I count how many I have in my trouser pocket: there are seven. I can only wait for my guide to come and find me. The stories I have heard over the past few days of people dying in the mountains all transform into bouts of terror which envelop me. At this moment I am like a fish which has fallen into terror’s net, impaled upon this giant fish-spear. Futile to struggle while impaled upon the fish-spear: it will take a miracle to change my fate. But haven’t I been waiting for this or that sort of miracle all of my life? 11 (#ulink_0e07ca3b-ec52-5d49-bab9-f8fa5493a36a) She says, later she says, she really wants to die, it would be so easy. She would stand on the high embankment, close her eyes and just jump! But if she landed on the steps of the embankment, it would be awful, she doesn’t dare imagine the sight of dying horribly with her brains splattered everywhere — it would be ghastly. Her death must be beautiful so that people will feel sorry for her, pity her, and weep for her. She says she would go along the embankment upstream, find a sandy bay and walk from the foot of the embankment into the river. Of course she wouldn’t be noticed and no-one would know, she would walk into the dark river at night. She wouldn’t take off her shoes, she doesn’t want to leave anything behind. She would just walk into the river with her shoes on, one step at a time, right into the water. By the time the water was waist high, even before it came up to her chest and breathing was hard, the fast-flowing river would suddenly have sucked her into the current and she wouldn’t be able to resurface. She would be powerless, and even if she struggled, the instinct to live wouldn’t be able to save her. At most her arms and legs would thrash about in the water for a while but it would all be quick, painless: it would be over before there was time for any pain. She would not shout. That would be futile, if she shouted she would immediately choke with water and nobody would hear anyway, much less rescue her. Thus her superfluous life would be totally obliterated. As she cannot eliminate her suffering, there is no choice but to let death resolve it. This act would resolve many things. It would be neat and it would be death with dignity, that is if she could really die with dignity like this. After dying, if her bloated corpse washed onto a sandbank downstream and started to rot in the sun, swarms of flies would settle on it. She feels sick again. Nothing is more nauseating than death. She can’t get rid of the nausea. She says nobody knows her, nobody knows her name, even the name she wrote in the hotel register is false. She says nobody in her family would be able to track her down, nobody would think she would come to a small mountain town like this. But she could imagine how it would be with her parents. Her stepmother would telephone the hospital where she works, sounding all choked up as if she had the ’flu and even as if she were crying. Naturally she would only be doing this after her father had pleaded with her. She knows if she dies her stepmother wouldn’t really weep. She is just a burden to the family, her stepmother has her own son who is already a young man. If she spends the night at home her younger brother has to put up a wire bed in the corridor to sleep. They have their eyes on her room and can’t wait for her to get married. She really doesn’t like staying in the hospital because the dormitories for the night nurses always reek of antiseptic. AH day long it is white sheets, white robes, white mosquito nets, white masks: only the eyes beneath the eyebrows are one’s own. Alcohol, pincers, tweezers, the clatter of scissors and scalpels, hands constantly being washed and arms soaking in antiseptic until the skin bleaches — first the shine goes, then the colour of the blood. The skin on the hands of people who work all year round in operating theatres is like white wax. One day she will lie there with a pair of bloodless hands on the river-bank, crawling with flies. She feels sick again. She hates her work and her family, including her father. If there are disagreements, her stepmother only has to raise her voice and her father has no opinion. Why don’t you shut up? Even if he objects he wouldn’t dare say so. Then tell me, what have you done with all your money? You’re going senile early, how can I let you hold onto any money? A single sentence can bring forth ten from my stepmother and she always talks so loudly. So he never says anything. He once touched her legs. He started touching and feeling her under the table. Her stepmother and younger brother were not at home, there were just the two of them, he had had too much to drink. She forgave him. But can’t forgive him for being so useless, she hates him for being so weak. She doesn’t have a father she can respect, a masculine father she can depend on, can be proud of. She wanted to leave this home long ago and have a little home of her own, but this is so disgusting. She takes a condom out of her trouser pocket. For him she had regularly taken the pill and he didn’t ever have to worry. She couldn’t say it was love at first sight but he was the first man bold enough to seek her love. He kissed her and she began to think about him. They bumped into each other again and made a date. He wanted her and she gave herself, breathlessly, intoxicated. She was in a daze, her heart was pounding, she was afraid yet willing. It was all so natural, good, beautiful, shy, and pure. She says she knew she wanted to love him, that he loved her. Later she would become his wife. And in the future she would become a mother, a little mother. But it made her vomit. She says it wasn’t because she was pregnant. After he made love to her, she felt this thing in his back trouser pocket. He didn’t want her to take it out but she took it out anyway. It made her vomit. That day after work, she hadn’t gone back to the dormitory and hadn’t eaten but had hurried to his place. Without letting her catch her breath, the moment she was in the door, he began kissing her and immediately made love to her. He said youth should be enjoyed, love should be enjoyed, enjoyed to the full. In his embrace, she agreed. They wouldn’t have children right away so they could enjoy themselves for a few years free of worries, earn some money and travel. They wouldn’t set up a home yet, they only needed a room like this which he already had. As long as she had him they would be wild, unrestrained, for ever and ever … before she could appreciate all this, she felt sick. She couldn’t stop the nausea and kept vomiting up bitter bile. Then she wept, became hysterical and cursed men! But she loves him, that is once loved him, but this is in the past. She loved the smell of sweat in his singlets, even after they had been washed she could smell it. But he was not worth loving, he could casually do this with any woman, men are filthy like this! The life she had just started had become soiled. It was like the sheets in her little hotel, all sorts of people sleep on them, they aren’t changed and washed and reek of men’s sweat. She should never have come to such a place! Then where will you go? you ask. She says she doesn’t know, she herself can’t understand how it was she had come here alone. Then she says she wanted to find somewhere like this where no-one knew her so that she could walk alone along the embankment upstream, not think about anything, just keep walking until she was exhausted and dropped dead on the road … You say she’s a spoilt child. I’m not! She says no-one understands her and it’s the same with you. You ask if she will go across the river with you. Over there on the other shore is Lingshan where wonderful things can be seen, where suffering and pain can be forgotten, and where one can find freedom. You try hard to entice her. She says she told her family the hospital had organized an excursion and told the hospital her father was ill and she had to look after him, and so she has leave for a few days. You say she’s really cunning. She says she’s not stupid. 12 (#ulink_6b516bf2-ace5-5af2-8717-e9cca335fc35) Before this long trip, after being diagnosed with lung cancer by the doctor, all I could do every day was to go to the park on the outskirts of the city. People said it was only in the parks that the air was slightly better in the polluted city and naturally the air was better still in the parks on the outskirts. The hill by the city wall used to be a crematorium and cemetery, and had only in recent years been turned into a park. However, the new residential area already extended to the foot of the hill which was once a cemetery, and if a fence wasn’t put up soon, the living would be building houses right onto the hill and encroaching on their domain. At the top of the hill was a desolate strip strewn with stone slabs left behind by the stone masons. Every morning elderly people from all around came to practise Taijiquan boxing or to stroll in the fresh air with their cages of pet birds. However, by nine o’clock or so when the sun was overhead they picked up their cages and went home. I could then be alone, in peace and quiet, and would take from my pocket The Book of Changes with Zhou Commentary. After reading for a while, the warm autumn sun would make me drowsy and I would stretch out on a stone slab and, with the book as a pillow, quietly begin reciting the hexagram which I had just read. In the glare of the sun, a bright blue image of the sign of that hexagram would float on my red eyelids. I hadn’t originally intended to do any reading, what if I did read one book more or one book less, whether I read or not wouldn’t make a difference, I’d still be waiting to get cremated. It was a sheer coincidence that I was reading The Book of Changes with Zhou Commentary. A childhood friend who heard of my illness came to see me and asked if there was anything he could do for me. Then he brought up the topic of qigong. He’d heard of people using qigong to cure lung cancer, he also said he knew someone who practised a form of qigong related to the Eight Trigrams and he urged me to take it up. I understood what he was getting at. Even at that stage, I should make some sort of effort. So I asked if he could get me a copy of The Book of Changes as I hadn’t read it. Two days later, he turned up with a copy of The Book of Changes with Corrections to the Zhou Commentary. Deeply moved, I took it and went on to say that when we were children I thought he’d taken the mouth organ I’d bought, wrongly accused him of taking it, and then found it. I asked if he still remembered. There was a smile on his plump round face. He was uncomfortable and said there wasn’t any point in bringing this up. It was he who was embarrassed and not me. He clearly remembered yet he was being so kind to me. It then occurred to me that I had committed wrongdoings for which people did not hold grudges against me. Was this repentance? Was this the psychological state of a person facing imminent death? I didn’t know whether, during my lifetime, others had wronged me more or I had wronged others more. I knew however that there were people such as my deceased mother who really loved me, and people such as my estranged wife who really hated me, but was there any need to settle accounts in the few days left to me? For those I had wronged my death could count as a sort of compensation and for those who had wronged me I was powerless to do anything. Life is probably a tangle of love and hate permanently knotted together. Could it have any other significance? But to hastily end it just like this was too soon. I realized that I had not lived properly. If I did have another lifetime, I would definitely live it differently, but this would require a miracle. I didn’t believe in miracles, just like I didn’t believe in fate, but when one is desperate, isn’t a miracle all that could be hoped for? Fifteen days later I arrived at the hospital for my X-ray appointment. My younger brother was anxious and insisted, against my wishes, on coming with me. I didn’t like showing my emotions to people close to me. If I were on my own it would be easier to control myself, but I couldn’t change his mind and he came anyway. A classmate from middle school was at the hospital and he took me straight to the head doctor of the X-ray section. The head doctor as usual was wearing his glasses and sitting in his swivel chair. He read the diagnosis on my medical record, examined the two chest X-rays and said that an X-ray from the side would have to be taken. He immediately wrote a note for another X-ray, and said the wet X-ray should be brought to him as soon as the image had developed. The autumn sun was splendid. It was cold inside and sitting there looking through the window at the sun shining on the grass, I thought it was even more wonderful. I had never looked at the sunshine this way before. After the side position X-ray, I sat looking at the sunshine outside while waiting by the darkroom for the film to develop. The sunshine outside the window was actually too distant from me, I should have been thinking about what was immediately to take place right here. But did I need to think a lot about that? My situation was like that of a murderer with cast-iron evidence against him waiting for the judge to pass the death sentence. All I could hope for was a miracle. Didn’t the two damn chest X-rays taken by two separate hospitals at two different times provide the evidence for condemning me to death? I didn’t know when it was, I wasn’t even aware of it, probably it was while I was staring out of the window at the sunshine, that I heard myself silently intoning, take refuge in Namo Amitofu, Buddha. I had been doing this for quite some time. It seemed I had already been praying from the time I put on my clothes and left the execution chamber, the X-ray room with the equipment for raising and lowering patients as they lay there. In the past, I would certainly have considered it preposterous to think that one day I would be praying. I used to be filled with pity when I saw old people in temples burning incense, kneeling in prayer, and quietly intoning Namo Anntorn. My pity was quite different from sympathy. If I were to verbalize this reaction, it would probably be: Ah! Pitiful wretches, they’re old and if their insignificant wishes aren’t realized, they pray that they will be realized in their hearts. However I thought it was ridiculous for a robust young man or a pretty young woman to be praying and whenever I heard young devotees intoning Namo Amitofu I would want to laugh, and clearly not without malice. I couldn’t understand how people in the prime of life could do such a stupid thing but now I have prayed, prayed devoutly, and from the depths of my heart. Fate is unyielding and humans are so frail and weak. In the face of misfortune man is nothing. While awaiting the pronouncement of the death sentence, I was in this state of nothingness, looking at the autumn sun outside the window, silently intoning Namo Amitofu, over and over, in my heart. My old schoolmate, who couldn’t wait any longer, knocked and went into the darkroom. My brother followed him in but was sent out and had to stand by the window where the X-rays came out. Soon my schoolmate also came out and went to the window to wait. They had transferred their concern for the prisoner to the documentation of his sentence, an inappropriate metaphor. Like an onlooker who had nothing to do with it, I watched as they went into the darkroom, keeping in my heart Namo Amitofu which I silently intoned over and over again. Then, suddenly I heard them shouting out in surprise: “What?” “Nothing?” “Check again!” “There’s only been this one side chest X-ray all afternoon.” The response from the darkroom was unfriendly. The two of them pegged the X-ray onto a frame and held it up for inspection. The darkroom technician also came out, looked at it, made an offhand remark, then dismissed them. Buddha said rejoice. Buddha said rejoice first replaced Namo Amitofu, then turned into more common expressions of sheer joy and elation. This was my initial psychological reaction after I had extricated myself from despair, I was really lucky. I had been blessed by Buddha and a miracle had taken place. But my joy was furtive, I did not dare to appear hasty. I was still anxious and took the wet X-ray for verification by the head doctor with the glasses. He looked at the X-ray and threw up both of his arms in grand theatrical style. “Isn’t this wonderful?” “Do I still have to have that done?” I was asking about the final X-ray. “Still have to have what done?” he berated me, he saved people’s lives and had this sort of authority. He then got me to stand in front of an X-ray machine with a projector screen and told me to take a deep breath, breathe out, turn around, turn to the left, turn to the right. “You can see it for yourself,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Have a look, have a look.” Actually I didn’t seen anything clearly, my brain was like a great blob of paste and the only thing I saw on the screen was a blurry rib cage. “There’s nothing there, is there?” he loudly berated me as if I were deliberately being a nuisance. “But then how can those other X-rays be explained?” I couldn’t stop myself asking. “If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there, it’s just vanished. How can it be explained? Colds and lung inflammation can cause a shadow and when you get better, the shadow disappears.” But I hadn’t asked him about a person’s state of mind. Could that cause a shadow? “Go and live properly, young man.” He swivelled his chair around, dismissing me. He was right, I had won a new lease of life, I was younger than a new-born baby. My brother rushed off on his bicycle, he had a meeting to attend. The sunshine was mine again, mine again to enjoy. My schoolmate and I sat on chairs by the grass and started discussing fate. It is when there is no need to discuss fate that people talk more about fate. “Fate’s a strange thing,” he said, “a purely chance phenomenon. The possible arrangement of the chromosomes can be worked out, but can it be worked out prior to falling into the womb on a particular occasion?” He talked on endlessly. He was studying genetic engineering but the findings of the experiments he wrote up in his dissertation differed from those of his supervisor who was the head of the department. When called up for a discussion with the party general-secretary of the department, he had an argument, and after graduating he was sent to raise deer on a deer-breeding farm on the Daxinganling Plateau of Inner Mongolia. Later on, after many setbacks, he managed to get a teaching position in a newly-established university in Tangshan. However, how could it have been foreseen that he would be labelled the claws and teeth of anti-revolutionary black group elements and hauled out for public criticism. He suffered for almost ten years before the verdict “case unsubstantiated” was declared. He was transferred out of Tianjin just ten days before the big earthquake of 1976. Those who had trumped up the case against him were crushed to death in a building which collapsed, it was in the middle of the night and not one of them escaped. “Within the dark chaos, naturally there is fate!” he said. For me, however, what I had to ponder was this: How should I change this life for which I had just won a reprieve? 13 (#ulink_c0e84162-7f4c-585c-9c65-39ea553bdfb0) A village lies up ahead. At the bottom of the terraced fields and the mountain, the same black bricks and tiles dot the riverside. A stream flowing right in front of the village is spanned by a long flat slab of rock. Once again you see a black cobblestone street with a deep single-wheel rut leading into the village. And again you hear the patter of bare feet on the stones, as wet footprints guide you into the village. Again, just like the one in your childhood, it’s a small lane with mud-splashed cobblestones. You discover through gaps in the cobblestones that the lapping stream flows under the street. At the gate of each house a flagstone has been lifted so that the water can be used for washing and scrubbing, and bits of green vegetable float along the glistening ripples. Behind the front gates you make out the noisy pecking and flapping of chickens squabbling over food in the courtyards. There is no-one in the lane, there are no children, nor are there any dogs about. It is strangely quiet. The sun over the tops of the houses shines onto a whitewashed heat-retaining wall and produces a lot of glare, but it’s quite cool in the lane. A mirror flashes from a lintel, the Eight Trigrams are etched around the border. When you go up and stand under the eave by the door you notice that this Eight Trigram mirror is directed at the curled roof of the heat-retaining wall opposite to deflect the evil forces emanating from it. However if you position yourself here to take a photograph, the visual contrast of colours — the golden glow of the wall in the intense sunlight, the grey-blue shadows of the lane and the black cobblestones on the road — is pleasing and gives a sense of tranquillity, while the broken tiles on the curled roof and the cracks in the brick wall evoke a feeling of nostalgia. If you reposition yourself you can photograph the door, the Eight Trigram mirror and the stone threshold, worn and shiny from the bottoms of the little children who have sat upon it, all with great authenticity yet showing no trace of the animosity existing for generations between the families living in the two houses. You tell barbaric and terrifying tales and I don’t want to hear them, she says. Then what would you like to hear about? Talk about nice people and nice happenings. Shall I talk about the zhuhuapo? I don’t want to hear about shamans. A zhuhuapo isn’t the same as a shaman, shamans are wicked old women. A zhuhuapo is a beautiful young woman. Like Second Master’s bandit wife. I don’t want to hear cruel stories like that. A zhuhuapo is charming and kind hearted. She’s walking in leather shoes on moss-covered rocks and you say she doesn’t have a hope of getting very far, so she lets you hold her hand. You’ve warned her but she slips. You grab her and draw her into your arms, saying you didn’t do this on purpose. She says you’re bad and frowns but there’s the hint of a smile at the corners of her tightly pursed lips. You can’t restrain yourself and you kiss her, her lips relax and surprise you with their tenderness. You enjoy her warmth and fragrance and say that this often happens in the mountains. She entices you and you succumb and she nestles in your arms, closes her eyes. All right, tell me then. Tell you what? Tell me about the zhuhuapo. They specialize in enticing men where the road suddenly bends on the dark side of mountains, often in pavilions on mountain tops … Have you ever seen one? Of course. She was sitting sedately on the stone bench of a pavilion built on a mountain road so that the road ran between the two stone benches of the pavilion. To go through you had to pass her. She was a young mountain woman wearing a pale blue fine-weave cotton jacket with knot-buttons running down the ribs to the waist and white binding on the collar and sleeves. A wax-dyed cloth was wound intricately into a turban on her head. You involuntarily slowed down and sat yourself on the stone bench opposite. Without turning, she casually looked you over. Her black eyebrows had been drawn with a charred willow twig and her thin lips pouted. She knew quite well that she was alluring and didn’t try to hide it. When eyes flash so provocatively it is inevitably the man who feels awkward. Anyway it was you who felt uncomfortable first and you got up to leave. But on this mountain road on the dark side of the mountain with no-one is sight, she immediately cast a spell over you. Of course you know that you must show more respect than love to this seductive and beautiful zhuhuapo and that while you can want her you mustn’t dare be rash. You say that you heard this from stone masons who were on the mountain gathering rocks. You spent a whole night drinking and talking about women with them in their work shed. You say that you couldn’t take her to such a place to stay overnight, if a woman went it would be certain disaster, only a zhuhuapo could keep those stone masons in check. They said that zhuhuapo know the meridian points of the body, an art handed down over many generations and that their delicate hands can cure complicated illnesses which men can’t, from infantile convulsions to paralysis. People also rely on their clever tongues to arrange and explain matters about marriage, death, birth and sex. When these wild flowers are encountered in the mountains they may be admired but not plucked. They said once there were three blood brothers who scoffed at this. They came upon a zhuhuapo on a mountain road and had a wicked idea. Couldn’t we three brothers deal with one woman? They talked it over, then with a shout rushed up and dragged the zhuhuapo off to a cave. She was a woman after all and couldn’t get away from these three big fellows. After the two older ones had finished, it came to the youngest brother’s turn. The zhuhuapo pleaded with him — good and evil bring good and evil retribution, you’re young, don’t copy their wicked behaviour. If you listen to me and let me escape I’ll tell you a secret recipe which you will find useful later on. When you’ve made enough money you will be able to marry a young woman and enjoy a happy life. The lad wasn’t sure if he believed her or not but he was young and, distressed at seeing the woman in such a wretched state, he let her go. Did you rape her or did you also let her go? she asks. You say you got up and started to walk away but couldn’t resist taking another look and saw the other side of her face. She had a red camellia in her hair. Light flashed from the tips of her eyebrows and the corners of her lips, and suddenly it was as if a bolt of lightning had lit up the dark mountain and valley. Your heart was on fire and started to pound, and you immediately realized you had run into a zhuhuapo. She was sitting adroitly there right in front of you, her firm breasts protruding under her light blue fine-weave cotton jacket. She had in the crook of her arm a bamboo basket covered with a new floral hand towel and the paper flowers pasted on her new blue cotton shoes stood out as clearly as papercut silhouettes on a window. Come here! She beckons. She is sitting on a rock holding her high-heel shoes in her hands and carefully testing the round pebbles with a bare foot. Her white toes wriggling in the clear stream are like plump little grubs. You don’t know how it began but suddenly you are pressing her head against the green undergrowth on the bank. She sits up and you find the hook to her bra at the back and her perfect round white breasts glow in the noon sun. You see her stiff” pink nipples and the fine blue veins below them. She calls out softly as her feet slide into the water. A black coloured bird with white toes, a shrike, is standing in the middle of the stream on a grey-brown rock. The rock is perfectly round just like a woman’s breast. The sides of the rock reflect the rippling light of the water. Both of you slide into the water. She’s upset about her skirt getting wet, not about herself, and her moist eyes sparkle like the sun’s rays reflected in the stream. You have finally captured her, a stubborn struggling wild animal, and she suddenly turns docile in your arms and begins to silently weep. The black shrike with white toes looks from one side to the other, sticking up its tail as its waxy red beak moves up and down. As soon as you approach, it flies off, skimming the water’s surface and settling on a rock ahead. It turns to look back defiantly at you, nodding its head and wagging its tail. It challenges you to approach and then flies off, but not far, and is again waiting there for you, chirping in a quiet, shrill voice. This black spirit, it’s her. Who? Her ghost. Who is she? You say she’s dead. Those bastards took her out at night for a swim in the river. When they got back they said she was missing. It was all lies but this was their story. They even said there could be an autopsy and if we didn’t believe them, a forensic expert could be called in. Her parents wouldn’t agree to an autopsy, they couldn’t take it. When their daughter died she was just sixteen. At the time you were younger than her but you knew this had all been planned. You knew they had got her to go out with them at night before, baled her up under the bridge pylons, took turns on her then later met to swap stories about their experiences. They laughed at you for being stupid and not having a go at tasting and feeling her. They had planned to get her. More than once you heard them talking dirty and mentioning her by name. You told her on the quiet she should be careful about going out with them at night, and she told you she was terrified of them. But she didn’t dare refuse and went with them. She was frightened but weren’t you also afraid? You coward! Those bastards harmed her but didn’t dare own up to it. But you didn’t dare expose them and for many years she has remained in your heart like a nightmare. Her wronged ghost will give you no peace, and appears in various manifestations, but how she looked as she emerged from under the bridge pylons that time remains unchanged. She is always in front of you, this chirping black spirit, this shrike with white toes and a red beak. You pull on chaste fronds and grab at willow roots in the cracks of the rocks to clamber ashore. She calls out. What’s up? I’ve sprained my ankle. You can’t go climbing mountains in high heels. I hadn’t planned on climbing mountains. But now that you’re in the mountains, be ready to suffer. 14 (#ulink_b710b3ec-2399-503f-8b9a-ff8ffb22fb48) Outside the upstairs widow of the old house in a twisting narrow lane are rooftops sloping at all angles, running in all directions, all adjoining and stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. Shoes are airing in the sun on the roof-tiles below the window of a little apartment poking up between two roof ridges. The room has a carved timber bed with a mosquito net and a red wooden wardrobe with a round mirror; a cane chair is next to the window and there is a bench by the door. She gets me to sit on the narrow bench. There is nowhere to move in the small room. I met her a couple of nights ago at the home of a journalist friend and we were all smoking, drinking and chatting. She wasn’t put off when it came to crude jokes and in this small mountain town, she seemed to be quite up to date. When we later discussed my request, my friend said, you’ll need a woman to take you there. She agreed straightaway and has now brought me here. She whispers into my ear in the local dialect, quickly alerting me. “When she arrives you must ask for incense. You must ask for incense and also kneel and prostrate yourself three times. This ritual must be observed.” Her voice and movements have reverted completely to that of the local women. Squashed next to her on this narrow bench, I suddenly feel quite uncomfortable. In this small county town where everyone knows everyone else couples come to places like this for illicit sex if they’re having an affair. I detect the acrid smell of preserved vegetables. Yet the room is immaculate, the floorboards in the middle of the room have been scrubbed so clean that the original colour of the timber can be seen and the wallpaper behind the door is spotless. There isn’t the space here for an urn to preserve vegetables. Her hair brushes against my face, as she says in my ear, “She’s here.” A fat, barely middle-aged woman comes in, followed by an old woman. The fat woman takes off her apron and straightens her dress which has faded from washing but is clean. She has just finished cooking downstairs. The slight and gaunt old woman who follows her into the room nods to me. My friend immediately reminds me, “Go with her.” I get to my feet and follow her to the side of the stairs where she opens an inconspicuous little door and goes in. It is a tiny room where there is a table with an incense altar dedicated to the two Daoist deities, the Venerable Lord Superior and the Great Emperor of Light, and to the bodhisattva Guanyin. Below the incense altar are offerings of cakes, fruit, water and liquor. On the wooden walls hang red banners with black borders and jagged yellow pennants, all bearing words to invoke good fortune and to dispel misfortune. Sunlight streams in through a transparent roof-tile and smoke from a single stick of incense slowly rises in the ray of light, creating an atmosphere which prohibits speech. Only then do I realize why my friend has been whispering since we came in. From a slot under the incense altar, the old woman takes out a bundle of thin incense sticks wrapped in yellow paper. As instructed earlier by my friend, I immediately put one yuan into the woman’s hand, take the incense sticks, light them from the burning paper she has put a match to in the censer, and holding them in both hands kneel on the rush cushion in front of the altar to reverently perform three prostrations. The old woman smacks her sunken lips to show her approval of my devoutness, takes the incense sticks from me and puts them into the incense altar in three lots. When I return to the room, the fat woman has prepared herself and is sitting sedately in the cane chair, her eyes closed. She is apparently the spirit medium. The old woman sits down on the far side of the bed to say something to her in a low voice, then turns to ask my friend the zodiac sign of my birth. I tell her my birthday according to the solar calendar. I can’t remember the exact date according to the lunar calendar, although I can work it out. The old woman also asks the hour of my birth and I say both of my parents are dead and there is no way of finding out. The old woman is obviously worried and has a quiet discussion with the medium. The medium says something which I understand to mean it doesn’t matter, then puts her hands on her knees, closes her eyes, and begins to meditate. On the roof-tiles outside the window where she is sitting, a pigeon settles and starts cooing. The band of shining purple feathers around its neck puff out and I realize it is a male pigeon performing his mating ritual. The medium however suddenly inhales and the bird flies off. I always feel sad when I see roof-tiles, the fish-scale overlapping shapes always conjure up childhood memories. I recall rainy weather, rainy weather when, drops of transparent water clinging to it, the spider web in the corner of the room trembles in the wind. This sets me thinking about why I have come into the world. Roof-tiles have the power of making me weak and making me succumb to inertia. I want to cry but I have already lost the ability to cry. The medium burps a couple of times: the spirit must be attaching itself to her. She keeps burping, she has so much gas that I can’t repress the urge to burp as well, however I don’t dare and keep it bottled inside — I don’t want to break our rapport and give her the idea that I’ve come to cause trouble and make fun of her. I am sincere in mind and heart although I don’t really believe it all. She can’t stop burping, and more and more frequently. Her whole body starts to convulse and she doesn’t seem to be faking it. She is convulsing, I think, probably as a result of qigong during meditation. Her body is shaking and her fingers suddenly start jabbing into the air, that is to say, at me. She has her eyes still tightly closed and the fingers of both hands all stretching out, but the two index fingers are clearly pointing at me. My back is against the timber wall and there is no place to retreat, I can only brace myself. I don’t dare look at my friend who would certainly be more reverent than me, even if she has brought me to have my fortune told. The cane chair creaks noisily with the shaking of the woman’s fat body. She is barely comprehensible as she intones incantations. She is saying something like: Within the Lingtong Chamber of Efficacy of the Queen Mother of the West and the Lords of Heaven and Earth, grows a pine tree with the power to turn the wheels of Heaven and Earth and to entirely slaughter bovine demons and snake spirits. She speaks faster and faster, and with greater urgency. This really takes considerable practice and I judge that she is fully qualified. The old woman puts her ear up next to her and after listening, says with a grave expression, “It is an unlucky year for you, you should be careful!” The medium goes on babbling but is totally incomprehensible. The old woman again explains, “She says you have encountered the White Tiger Star!” I’ve heard of White Tiger referring to a very sexy woman and that if you get involved with her it is difficult to extricate yourself. I’m actually quite keen to have the good fortune of getting involved with such a woman but what concerns me is whether I’ll be able to escape from my bad luck. The old woman shakes her head, “It will be difficult to escape from your dangerous predicament.” I don’t seem to be a lucky person, nothing lucky has ever happened to me. What I hope for is never realized and what I do not hope for often materializes. I’ve had countless disasters in my life, I’ve had involvements and troubles with women, that’s right, I’ve even been threatened, although not always by women. I don’t have real conflicts of interest with anyone, I don’t think I’m an obstacle to anyone and only hope no-one will be an obstacle for me. “Great calamities and disasters are imminent, you are surrounded by the tiny people,” the old woman adds. I know about the tiny people, they are described in the compendium of ancient Daoist writings called the Daozang. These naked tiny people known as “triple corpses” live as parasites in human bodies, hiding in the throat and thriving on the person’s mucous. When the person is dozing they sneak away to the Heavenly Court to report to the Heavenly Emperor on the wrongdoings of the person. The old woman adds that a violent person with bloody eyes wants to punish me and that even with incense and prayers I won’t be able to escape. The fat woman slides off the cane chair onto the floor and is rolling about on the floorboards. This must be why the floors are scrubbed so clean. I immediately feel that my impure thoughts have invoked her curses. She keeps cursing me, saying that there are as many as nine White Tigers surrounding me. “Then can I be saved?” I ask, looking at her. She is frothing at the mouth and the whites of her eyes are turned upwards — she has a horrible expression on her face. All of this is induced by self-hypnosis and she is already in a state of hysteria. There isn’t enough space for her to roll about in the room and her body bumps into my feet. I hastily pull them back, stand up, and looking at this woman’s fat body wildly rolling about I am gripped with fear — I don’t know if it’s fear of my own destiny or fear brought upon me by her curses. I have spent money to make fun of her and will eventually be punished. People’s relationships with one another are really frightening. The medium is still babbling away and I turn to ask the old woman what it all means. She shakes her head but doesn’t explain. I see the fat convulsing body at my feet gradually humping its back and slowly recoiling to the foot of the cane chair like an injured animal. People in fact are animals and can be quite savage when injured. And it is madness for his wretched person to allow himself to be terrorized. When people go mad they torment themselves with their own madness, it seems. She heaves a long sigh and there is a low rumbling in her throat, something like the growling of an animal. With her eyes still closed, she gropes about and gets to her feet. The old woman rushes to support her and to help her into the cane chair. I really think she has had an attack of hysteria. She had correctly sensed that I had come for a bit of fun and she wanted revenge, so she cursed me. It is the friend who brought me who is even more alarmed and she asks the old woman if a session can be arranged for her to burn incense and to pray for me. The old woman asks the medium who mutters something, her eyes still closed. “She says such a session won’t help.” “What if I buy extra incense?” I ask. My friend then asks the old woman how much it would cost. The old woman says twenty yuan. I would spend this amount on a meal for my friends, this is for myself and I immediately agree. The old woman discusses it with the medium and replies, “Even if you do this, it’s not going to help.” “Does this mean there’s no way for me to escape my bad luck?” I ask. The old woman relates what I’ve said and the medium mumbles something again. The old woman says, “That remains to be seen.” What remains to be seen? How devout I am? The cooing of the pigeon outside comes through the window. I think it’s already pounced on its mate. But here I am, still unable to get a reprieve. 15 (#ulink_6f475650-8f38-5e30-9535-58f1685f2c19) The dark cypress at the entrance to the village has been lashed by frost and the leaves have turned a deep red. Beneath it, a man with an ashen face is leaning on a hoe. You ask him the name of the village. His eyes look right at you but he doesn’t reply. You turn to her and say the fellow is a grave robber. She bursts out laughing. Once past him she says in your ear, he’s got mercury poisoning. You say he stayed in the crypt too long. There were two of them, the other one died from mercury poisoning but he survived. You say his great-grandfather did this all his life and his greatgrandfather’s great-grandfather was also in the profession. With this profession if one’s ancestors have been in it, it’s hard to wash one’s hands of it. Unlike opium smoking which results in the ruin of families and the squandering of property, grave robbing can bring huge profits for no capital. If a person is hard-hearted and is good at it, if there’s a good haul, generations afterwards will become addicted. You feel wonderful talking to her like this. She’s holding your hand, docile and compliant. You say that in the time of his great-grandfather’s greatgrandfather’s great-grandfather, the Qianlong Emperor made a tour of the area. Naturally enough, the local officials wanted to win favour and busied themselves choosing local beauties and collecting the treasures of former dynasties for the emperor. The father of his greatgrandfather’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had only two mu of poor ancestral land which he worked during the farming season. In the off-season he would boil up a few catties of sugar, add colouring, and make candy men which he’d take in the baskets of his carrying pole to hawk around the towns and villages in the area. He made a whistle the shape of a little boy’s penis and Pigsy carrying his wife on his back, but could he earn much from these? The great-grandfather’s greatgrandfather’s great-grandfather whose name was Li the Third liked to roam around all day — he wasn’t interested in learning to make candy men but he was interested in carrying a wife on his back. Whenever he saw women he’d go over to chat with them. The villagers all called him Skin Leak. One day a snake-medicine doctor arrived in the village. He had a cloth sack for snakes on his back and carried a bamboo tube, a crowbar and an iron hook as he set off to poke among the graves. It looked like fun so Li the Third went along with the doctor and helped to carry his tools. The doctor gave him a snake pill which looked like a black bean and told him to keep it in his mouth: it was very sweet but it was cooling and quenched the thirst. After going along with him for a couple of weeks it was clear that snake catching was a front and that the man actually dug up graves. It happened that the snake doctor was looking for an assistant and this was how Li the Third started getting rich. When Li the Third came back to the village he was wearing a black satin skullcap with a jade button on the top. It was old cheap stuff he’d got from Pockmark Chen’s pawnshop in Wuyizhen (this was before the old street of the town was torched by the Long Hairs). He was proud and cocky, or as the villagers put it was starting to show his mettle, and soon afterwards people were coming around to raise the matter of marriage with his father. However, he married a young widow and people didn’t know whether it was the young widow who had seduced him or whether he’d got the young widow into his clutches. Anyway, sticking up a thumb he’d boast that he, Li the Third, had visited the Joy of Spring Hall with the red lanterns in Wuyizhen. After all he’d disposed of a shiny silver ingot. He said nothing about the ingot being black from soaking in the lime and sulphur of the grave and that he had to work hard scrubbing it clean with the side of his shoe. The grave was on a rocky hill two li east of Roosting Phoenix Slope and was discovered by his mentor who noticed rain water running into a hole after a heavy bout of rain. As they poked around it became larger and after they had been digging from noon till almost dark, it was big enough for a person to go in, and of course it was he who had to go in first. He crawled and crawled and, fuck, fell right in, scaring him half out of his wits. In the mud and slush he came across quite a few pots and jars and, all in one go, smashed the whole lot. There was a bronze mirror he took from a wooden coffin which had rotted into a sloppy mess like soya-bean pulp. It was shiny and didn’t have a spot of green tarnish, just the thing for the women to use when they combed their hair. He said if he was telling even half of a lie his mother was a bitch. Unfortunately his mentor, that old bastard, took everything and only gave him a bag of silver. He’d had a raw deal but was wiser for it, now he too could work out the entrance to a grave. You arrive at the Li Family Ancestral Temple in the village. An ancient stone tablet carved with cranes, deer, pines and plum blossoms is set into the newly built buttress above the front doors. You push open the unlatched doors and immediately hear an elderly voice ask what you are doing. You say you’ve come to look around. A short, well-fed old man emerges from a room in the corridor. It would seem being the caretaker of the ancestral temple is quite a good job. The old man says the place isn’t open to outsiders and with these words starts pushing you out. You say your surname is Li and you’re a member of the clan. You’ve been abroad and are now back visiting your native village. He wrinkles his bushy white eyebrows and looks you over from head to toe. You ask if he knows that earlier on there was a grave robber in the village. The lines on his face deepen and you wince at his expression, most memories can’t help being painful. You can’t tell if he’s sifting through memories or trying to recognize you. In any case, it’s awkward looking at his contorted old face. He mumbles to himself for some time, not daring to rashly believe this clan member wearing sports shoes instead of hemp shoes. After a while he blurts: Isn’t he dead? It’s not clear who is dead but he probably means the father, not the sons and grandsons. You tell him the descendants of the Li family abroad are all rich through a stroke of good luck. He gapes at this, moves aside, bows, and reverently leads you into the hall of the ancestral temple. He seems to be an old servant of the family. He used to wear black oil-cloth shoes and was keeper of the keys, he is referring to the time before the temple was converted into a primary school. It has now been restored to the family and the primary school has been shifted elsewhere. He points at the horizontal tablet. It looks like an archaeological relic and the lacquer is peeling off, nevertheless the full implication of the calligraphy in regular script is quite clear: “Illustrious Ancestors of the Glorious Clan.” The iron hook under the tablet is for hanging the clan genealogy but that’s kept by the father of the village head and normally it isn’t brought out. You say it’s mounted on yellow silk and looks like the central scroll for a main hall. He says, quite right, quite right. In the land reform period when it was burnt, a new one was secretly made and hidden upstairs. Later on when people’s things were confiscated, the floorboards were ripped up and it was found and burnt again. The present one was made by the father of the primary schoolteacher Mao Wa’er, according to what the three Li brothers managed to piece together. Mao Wa’er already has an eight-year-old daughter and she wants to have another child. Don’t people now have to carry out family planning? If there’s a second child it means not just a penalty but also that an identity card won’t be issued! You say, is that so? You also say you’d like to have a look at the family genealogy. He says it’s sure to have you there, it’s sure to have you there, everyone in the village with the surname Li has been put in. He adds that there are only three families with other surnames in the village. These are families where there have been marriages with women of the Li family, otherwise they wouldn’t want to stay on in the village. But people with other surnames remain people with other surnames, also women are not entered in the genealogy. You say you know all this. The founder of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shirnin, had the surname Li before he became emperor. While the Li clan of the village doesn’t claim to be related to the imperial family, our ancestors do include generals and ministers of war and not just grave robbers. Leaving the temple you find yourself surrounded by a group of children who have sprung out of nowhere. They trail along after you and when you say they’re like a pack of arse worms, they break out into stupid cackling. You hold up your camera and they scurry off. The leader of the pack holds his ground and says you don’t have film in the camera and you can check by opening it up. The child is quite bright, he has a slight build and is like a pike in water leading this pack of small fry. “Hey, what’s worth seeing around here?” you ask. “The opera stage,” he answers. “What opera stage?” They run into a small lane. You follow them. A foundation stone on the corner house of the lane bears a carved inscription: “Be as bold as the rocks of Mount Tai.” You’ve never been able to work out the precise meaning of these words and even now perhaps no-one can say for sure what they mean. In any case there are associations with memories of your childhood. In this empty narrow lane, wide enough only for a person carrying a pole with a single bucket, you again hear the loud patter of bare feet on wet cobblestones. As you emerge at the end of the lane suddenly before you is a drying lot spread with rice stalks which fill the air with the clean sweet smell of freshly cut rice. On the far side of the drying lot there really is an old opera stage. The framework consists of full-length logs and the actual stage platform, which is half the height of a person, is stacked with bundles of rice stalks. This pack of little monkeys is climbing up the posts, jumping down to the drying lot, and tumbling about in the piles of rice stalks. The four posts of this open air stage hold up a large roof with upturned eaves and protruding corners. The crossbeams must once have been used to hang flags, lanterns, and the ropes used by the performers. The posts and crossbeams were once lacquered but have already peeled. Here, operas have been performed, heads have been cut off, meetings and celebrations have been held; people have also knelt and kowtowed here. At harvest time it is filled with piles of rice straw and children are always climbing up and down on it. The children who used to climb up and down here are now old or have died. It’s not clear who of those who have died have got into the genealogy. Is the genealogy put together from memory like the original one? Whether or not the genealogy exists finally makes little difference, if one doesn’t travel afar one will still have to work in the fields in order to eat. What remain are only children and rice stalks. There is a temple opposite the opera stage. Newly rebuilt on the rubble of the demolished old site, it is once again colourful and imposing. Two door gods, one green and one red, are painted on the vermilion main doors, and each holds a sword and an axe and has eyes like bronze bells. There is writing in black ink on the whitewashed wall: Huaguang Temple has been rebuilt with contributions from the people listed below. So-and-so one hundred yuan, so-and-so one hundred and twenty yuan, so-and-so fifty yuan, so-and-so sixty yuan, so-and-so two hundred yuan … The last item is: Announced by representatives of the old, middle-aged and young of Lingyan. You walk in. At the feet of Emperor Huaguang is a row of old women, some standing and some kneeling, all dressed in black tops and black trousers, and all toothless. As the ones kneeling stand up the ones standing kneel down, they are all scrambling to burn incense and pray. Emperor Huaguang has a smooth wide face with a square chin, a lucky face, and in the curling smoke of the incense looks even more benevolent. The brush, ink and inkstone in front of him on the long table make him look like a civil official carrying out public business. Above the offering table with its candle holders and incense burners hangs a red cloth with the words “Protect the Nation and Succour the People” embroidered with brightly-coloured silk threads. The black tablet above the curtains and canopy is inscribed with the words: “Communion with Heaven Makes Wishes Come True.” Alongside these words, but much smaller, are the words: “Presented by the People of Lingyan.” But you can’t make out the date of this antique. Still, you’ve confirmed that there is a place called Lingyan and you think this wonderful place must really exist, proving that you haven’t made a mistake by charging off to find Lingshan. You ask these old women. Their sunken mouths make hissing sounds but none of them can say clearly how to get to Lingyan. “Is it next to this village?” “Shishisisi …” “Not far from this village?” “Sisixixi…” “Go around a bend?” “Xixiqiqi …” “Go another two It?” “Qiqixixi …” “Five It?” “Xixiqiqi …” “Not five li but seven li?” “Xishiqishixishisi …” Is there a stone bridge? No stone bridge? Follow the creek in? Would it be better to go along the main road? It will take longer travelling by the main road? After making some detours you will understand in your heart? Once you understand in your heart you will find it as soon as you look for it? The important thing is to be sincere of heart? If your heart is sincere then your wish will be granted? Whether or not your wish is granted depends on your fate and lucky people don’t need to search for it? This means that if you wear old iron shoes you won’t find it anywhere and to look would be a total waste of time! Are you saying that this Lingyan is just an insensate rock? If I don’t say that, what should I say? If I don’t say that, is it because I shouldn’t say it or because I can’t say it? That is entirely up to you, she will be what you want her to be, if you think she is beautiful she will be beautiful, if there is evil in your heart you will only see demons. 16 (#ulink_2fda14c7-773d-540f-b867-a6228817a1f7) I arrive at Lingyan shortly before night fall after walking the whole day on mountain roads. I have come in through a long and narrow valley, the two sides of which are brown sheer rock cliffs with only some patches of dark green moss growing where there is a trickle of water. The last rays of the setting sun on the ridge at the end of the valley are red, like sheets of flames. Behind the metasequoia forest at the foot of the cliff there is a monastery built beneath the thousand-year-old ginkgo trees. It has been converted into a hostel which also takes tourists. I go through the gate. The ground is strewn with pale yellow leaves from the ginkgo trees and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. I look around downstairs and have to go out to the back courtyard on the left before I find a cook there scrubbing pots. I ask him for something to eat but without looking up he says it’s past meal time. “What time does dinner finish here?” I ask. “Six o’clock.” I show him my watch, it’s only 5.40. “It’s no use talking to me, go find the person in charge. I only cook to meal coupons.” He continues scrubbing his pots. I make another round of this huge empty building with winding corridors but still can’t find anyone, so I shout out: “Hey, is anyone on duty here?” After I shout a few times, there is a lethargic response, then footsteps, and an attendant in a regulation white jacket appears in the corridor. He takes the money for the room and a deposit for the meals and the key, opens a room and hands me the key, then leaves. Dinner is a dish of left-over vegetables and some egg soup which is quite cold. I regret not having stayed the night in the young girl’s house. It was after leaving Dragon Pond that I met her on the mountain road. It was two or three o’clock in the afternoon and the mid-autumn sun was still quite strong. She was walking slowly up ahead with two big bundles of bracken on her carrying pole. She was wearing a floral shirt and trousers and her shirt clung with sweat to the hollow of her spine. Her back was rigid and only her hips and legs moved. I was walking close behind her. She heard me coming and turned her metal-tipped pole to let me pass, but the big bundles of bracken on the pole blocked the narrow road. “It doesn’t matter, just keep going,” I said to her. Afterwards we came to a small creek and she put down the pole to take a rest. It was then that I saw her flushed cheeks with wet hairs clinging at the sides. She had thick lips. Her face was that of a child, but she had large breasts. I asked her how old she was. She said she was sixteen, without the bashfulness of a country girl meeting a stranger. “Aren’t you afraid of walking along mountain roads all on your own? There’s no-one around, not even a village in sight.” She glanced at her carrying pole with the metal tip and said, “When I set out on my own on the mountain road, I only need to take a pole. I use it to fend off wolves.” She said her home was not far off, that it was just down in the hollow. I asked if she still went to school. She said she had been to primary school, now it was her younger brother’s turn. I asked why her father didn’t let her go on with her schooling? She said her father’s dead. I asked who else was in the family. She said there was her mother. I said her load probably weighed a hundred and ten catties. She said there was no firewood around so they had to use bracken for fuel. She let me walk in front. Just over the rise I saw by the road a solitary house with a tiled roof on the slope. “That’s my home with the plum tree growing in front,” she said. The leaves of the tree have almost all fallen and the remaining few orange-red leaves trembled on the smooth, purplish-crimson branches. “This plum tree of ours is quite odd. It blossomed in spring, then again in autumn. The snow-white plum flowers all only dropped a few days ago. But this wasn’t like in spring, this time there wasn’t a single fruit,” she said. When we got to her house she wanted me to go in to have some tea. I went up the stone steps and sat on the millstone at the front door. She took the bundles of bracken on her pole to the back of the house. Before long she had removed the latch of the door and re-emerged from the hall with an earthenware pot to pour tea into a large blue-rimmed bowl. The pot had probably been sitting in the hot ashes of the stove as the tea was piping hot. Propped up in the coir bed of the hostel, I feel quite cold. The window is closed but in this upstairs room the walls are timber and the cold air comes through, it is after all a mid-autumn night in the mountains. I again recall her pouring the tea for me, her looking at me and laughing as she saw me taking the bowl in both hands. Her lips parted and I noticed her lower lip was very thick, as if it were swollen. She was still wearing her sweat-soaked shirt. “You’ll catch a cold like that,” I said to her. “That only happens with you city people, I wash in cold water even in winter. Won’t you stay the night here?” She saw me give a start and quickly added, “In summer there are lots of tourists around and we take in lodgers.” Her eyes persuaded me to follow her inside. Part of the timber wall of the hall was covered with a Fan Lihua colour picture story. I seem to have heard the story when I was young but couldn’t remember what it was about. “Do you like reading fiction?” I asked, referring to stories with episodes like these. “I’m keen on listening to opera.” I knew she was referring to the opera programs on radio. “Would you like to give your face a wash? Should I bring you a basin of hot water?” she asked. I said there was no need, I could go to the kitchen. She immediately took me to the kitchen, got a washbasin and deftly scooped water from the urn to scrub and rinse it, then ladled hot water from the pot on the stove. She brought it over and, looking at me, said, “Have a look at the room, it’s clean.” I had succumbed to her sultry eyes and had already decided to stay. “Who is it?” A woman’s dull voice came from the other side of the timber wall. “It’s a guest, Mother,” she answered loudly. Then, turning to me, she said, “She’s ill, she’s been bedridden for over a year.” I took the hot towel she handed me. She went into the room and I heard them quietly talking. Washing my face brought me to my senses and taking my backpack I went outside and sat down on the millstone in the courtyard. “What’s the cost?” I asked her when she came out. “Nothing.” I took a handful of coins from my pocket and thrust them into her hand. She frowned and stared at me. I got to the road and after I’d gone some distance, looked back. She was still standing by the millstone, clutching the handful of coins. I need to find someone I can to talk to. I get out of bed and start moving around in the room. There are noises on the floorboards next door. I knock on the wall and ask, “Is someone there?” “Who is it?” comes a man’s deep voice. “Are you also here touring the mountains?” I ask. “No, I’m here working,” he says after briefly hesitating. “Can I disturb you for a while?” “Go ahead.” I go outside and knock on his door. He opens it. Some sketches for oil paintings are on the table and windowsill. He hasn’t trimmed his hair and beard for some time, but then maybe that’s his style. “It’s really cold!” I say. “It’d be good if we could get hold of some liquor, but there’s no-one there in the shop,” he says. “It’s a hell of a place!” I swear. “But the women here,” he says, showing me a sketch of a woman with thick lips, “are really sexy.” “Are you talking about the lips?” “It’s sensuality devoid of evil.” “Do you believe that sensuality is devoid of evil?” I ask. “All women are sensual but they always give a sense of goodness, and this is essential to art,” he says. “Then don’t you believe in the existence of beauty which is not devoid of evil?” “That’s just man deceiving himself,” he says curtly. “Wouldn’t you like to go out for a walk to see the mountain at night?” I ask. “Of course, of course,” he says, “except you can’t see a thing out there. I’ve already been.” He scrutinizes those thick lips. I walk into the courtyard. The giant ginkgo trees rising from the gully block the electric lights in front of the building, turning the leaves stark white. I look around. The cliffs at the back and the sky vanish in the night mist which the lights have turned grey. Only the eaves of the building lit by the lights can be seen. Locked in this strange light, I am overcome by a slight dizziness. The gate is already shut. I find the latch and open it. Once outside, I am instantly plunged into darkness. A nearby spring gurgles. I look back after taking a few steps, the lights under the cliff are dim and grey-blue cloudy mists swirl around the mountain peak. Somewhere in the deep gully is the trembling chirping of a cricket. The gurgling of the spring intensifies and subsides. It sounds like the wind, but the wind is threading its way through the gully enshrouded in darkness. A damp mist spreads over the valley and the trunks of the distant ginkgo trees silhouetted by the light become gender. It is then that the shape of the mountain gradually manifests itself. I descend into the deep valley embraced by sheer cliffs. Behind the black mountain is a faint glow but all around me a thick darkness gradually closes in. I look up. Looming high above and looking down menacingly on me is a monstrous black form. I make out the huge head of a bald eagle which protrudes in the middle of it. The wings are folded but it looks as if it is about to take off. I can only hold my breath under the huge talons and wings of this fierce mountain deity. Further on, I enter the forest of towering metasequoias. I can see nothing at all. The darkness is so palpable that it is a wall and I’m sure if I take another step I’ll crash into it. Instinctively, I turn around. Behind, between the shadows of the trees, is the faint glow of the electric lights — a haziness, like a tangled mass of consciousness, like elusive far-away memories. It is as if I am somewhere observing the destination from which I have come. There is no road, the tangled mass of unerased consciousness floats around before my eyes. I put out my hand to verify my existence, but I can’t see it. It is only when I flick my lighter that I see my arm is raised too high, as if I were holding a flame torch. The lighter goes out even though there’s no wind. The surrounding darkness becomes even thicker, boundless. Even the intermittent chirping of the autumn insects becomes mute. My ears fill with darkness, primitive darkness. So it was that man came to worship the power of fire, and thus overcame his inner fear of darkness. I flick my lighter again but the weak dancing flame is immediately extinguished by an invisible, formless wind. In this wild darkness terror gradually consumes me, making me lose my belief in myself and my memory of direction. If you go on you will plunge into an abyss, I say to myself. I immediately turn back but I am not on the road. I try taking a few steps. A belt of weak light, like a fence among the trees, appears briefly then vanishes. I discover that I am already in the forest on the left of the road, the road should be on my right. I get my bearings, grope. I should first find that grey-black towering eagle rock. A sprawling hazy mist hangs like a curtain of smoke to the ground, a few spots of light ghmmer in it. I eventually get back to the foot of the oppressive, black, towering eagle rock only to suddenly discover that the grey-white chest in between the two folded wings is like an old woman draped in a cloak. There is no trace of kindness in her and she seems to be a shaman. Her head is bowed and her withered body can be seen under her cloak. At the foot of her cloak kneels a naked woman, and you can feel the gully down her spine. She is down on both knees desperately beseeching the demon in the black cloak. Her hands are clasped so her arms are away from her upper body and her naked torso is even more clearly revealed. Her features can’t be seen but the profile of the right side of her face is quite beautiful. Her long hair falls onto her left shoulder and arm. The front of her body is now clearer. Still on her knees, she is sitting back on her calves, her head bowed: she is a young girl, is utterly terrified, and seems to be praying, pleading. She is constantly transforming. She now reverts to the young woman, the woman with hands clasped in prayer, but as soon as you look away she becomes the young girl again, and the lines of her body are even more beautiful. The curve of the left profile of her breast appears fleetingly, then can no longer be seen. Once inside the gate, the darkness completely vanishes and I am back in the hazy grey of the electric lights. The leaves left on the old ginkgo trees growing in the gully are devoid of colour in the glow of the lights. Only the illuminated corridor and eaves are clearly defined. 17 (#ulink_7810eae2-519c-5985-b5b5-a4847b76786c) You come to the end of the village. A middle-aged woman with an apron tied over her long gown squats by the creek in front of her door, gutting fish no bigger than a finger. The blade of her knife flashes in the glow of a pine torch burning by the creek. Further on are darkening mountain shadows and only the peak shows some slight traces of the setting sun. There are no more houses in sight. You turn back, perhaps it is the pine torch which draws you there. You go up and ask if you can stay the night. “People often stop here for the night.” The woman understands what you want, glances at your companion but doesn’t ask any questions. She puts down the knife, wipes her hands on her apron and goes into the house. She lights the oil lamp in the hall and brings it along. You follow behind, the floorboards creaking beneath your feet. Upstairs is the clean smell of paddy straw, freshly harvested. “It’s empty up here, I’ll fetch some bedding. It gets cold in the mountains at night.” The woman puts the lamp on the windowsill and goes downstairs. She says she won’t stay downstairs, she says she’s afraid. And she won’t stay in the same room as you, she says she’s afraid of that too. So you leave the lamp for her, kick the paddy straw piled on the floor, and go to the adjoining room. You say you don’t like sleeping on plank beds but like rolling about in straw. She says she will sleep with her head next to yours so you will be able to talk through the wall. The wooden partition doesn’t go right to the ceiling and you can see the circle of light projected onto the rafters in her room. “This is unique,” you say. She asks for some hot water when the woman of the house returns with the bedding. The woman brings her a small wooden pail of hot water. Afterwards you hear her latching the door. You strip to the waist, throw a small towel over your shoulder and go downstairs. There is no light, probably the only kerosene lamp in the house is upstairs in her room. In the kitchen, you see the woman of the house by the stove. Her expressionless face, lit by the light of the open stove, is gentler. The burning straw crackles and you can smell the aroma of cooking rice. You take a bucket and go down to the creek. The last remnants of sunset on the mountain vanish and the haziness of dusk descends. There are spots of light in the clear rippling water — the stars are out. A few frogs are croaking. Opposite, deep in the mountain shadows, you hear children laughing on the other side of the creek. Paddy fields are over there. You seem to see a threshing lot in the mountain shadows, and the children are probably playing hide and seek. In the thick dark mountain shadows, separated by paddy fields, a big girl is laughing on the threshing lot. It’s her, she’s in the darkness opposite: a forgotten past is re-lived as one of that crowd of children one day recalls his childhood. One day the squeaky voice of the boy screaming cheeky nonsense thickened, became throaty and deep, and his bare feet pattering on the stones of the threshing lot left wet footprints as he departed from childhood to enter the big wide world. You hear the patter of bare feet on black cobblestones. A child by a pond is using his grandmother’s embroidery frame for a tugboat. At a shout from his grandmother he turns and runs off, the patter of his bare feet resounding on the cobblestones. Once again you see the back of her, her single long black plait, in a small lane. In the wet lanes of Wuyizhen the winter wind is icy. She has a bucket of water on a carrying pole and is walking with quick short steps on the cobblestones as the bucket presses on her young frail shoulder, straining her body down to the waist. The water in the bucket wobbles and splashes the black cobblestones as she comes to a halt when you call out to her. She turns to smile at you then goes on walking with more quick short steps. She is wearing purplish-red cloth shoes. In the darkness children are laughing and shouting. Their voices are loud, even if you can’t make out what it is they are shouting, and there seem to be layers of echoes. It is in this instant that everything comes back to life, Yaya … In an instant your childhood memories become stark and vivid. The roar of dive-bombing planes, then black wings suddenly swoop up and fly into the distance. You are huddled in your mother’s arms under a small sour date tree and the thorns on the branches have torn her cotton jacket, showing her plump arms. Then it’s your wet nurse. She’s carrying you. You like her cuddling you, she’s got big floppy breasts. She sprinkles salt on rice guoba toasted a delicious crunchy golden brown for you. You love spending time in her kitchen. The bright red eyes in the dark belong to the pair of white rabbits you kept. One of them was mauled in the cage by a weasel and the other one disappeared. You later found it floating in the urine pot in the lavatory in the back courtyard, its fur all dirty. In the back courtyard there was a tree growing in a heap of broken tiles and bricks, the tiles had moss growing on them. You could only see as high up as the branch which came to the top of the wall, so you didn’t know what it looked like after it grew over the wall. You only knew if you stood on your toes you could reach a hole in the trunk, and you used to throw stones into it. People said trees have feelings and tree demons are sensitive just like people and don’t like being tickled. If you poked something into the hole of the trunk, the tree would shake all over laughing, just like when you tickled her under the arms and she immediately pulled away and laughed until she was out of breath. You can always remember the time she lost a tooth: “Toothless, toothless, her name is Yaya!” She was furious with you for calling her toothless and went off in a huff. Dirt spews up like a pall of black smoke and rains down on everyone’s head, your mother scrambles to her feet, feels you, you’re all right. But then you hear a long shrill wail, it’s another woman: it doesn’t sound human. Next you are being shaken about on endless mountain roads in a tarpaulin-covered truck, squashed between the grown-ups’ legs and the luggage, rain is dripping off the end of your nose. Mother’s cunt, everyone down to push the truck. The wheels are spinning in the mud, splashing everyone in the face. Mother’s cunt, you say imitating the driver, this is the first bit of swearing you’ve picked up, you’re swearing because the mud has pulled off your shoe. Yaya … The shouting of the children is still coming from the threshing lot, they are laughing and yelling as they chase one another about. But your childhood no longer exists, and all that confront you are the dark shadows of the mountain … You come to her door and beg her to open it. She says stop making a fuss, leave things as they are, she feels good now. She needs peace, to be free of desire, she needs time, she needs to forget, she needs understanding not love, she needs to find someone she can pour out her heart to. She hopes you won’t ruin this good relationship, she’s just starting to trust you, she says she wants to keep travelling with you, to go right to Lingshan. There’s plenty of time for getting together but definitely not right now. She asks you to forgive her, she doesn’t want to, and she can’t. You say it’s something else. You’ve found a faint light coming through a crack in the wall. Someone else is upstairs apart from the two of you. You ask her to come and have a look. She says no! Stop trying to trick her, stop frightening her like this. You say there’s a light flickering in a crack in the wall. You’re quite sure there’s another room behind the wall. You come out of your room and stumble through the straw on the floorboards. You can touch the tiles of the sloping roof when you put up an arm, and further on you have to bend down. “There’s a small door,” you say, feeling your way in the dark. “What do you see?” She stays in her room. “Nothing, it’s solid timber, without any joins, oh, and there’s a lock.” “It’s really scary,” you hear her say from the other side of the door. You go back to your room and find that by putting a big bamboo tub upside-down onto a pile of straw you can stand on it and climb onto a rafter. “Quick, what can you see?” she asks anxiously. “An oil lamp burning in a small altar,” you say. “The altar is fixed to the gable and there’s a memorial tablet inside. The woman of the house must be a shaman and this is where she summons back the spirits of the dead. The spirits of living persons are possessed and they go into a trance, then the ghosts of the dead attach themselves to these persons and speak through their lips.” “Stop it!” she pleads. You hear her sliding against the wall onto the floor. You say the woman wasn’t always a shaman, when she was young she was the same as everyone else, just like any other women of her age. But when she was about twenty, when she needed to be passionately loved by a man, her husband was crushed to death. “How did he die?” she asks quietly. You say he went off at night with a cousin to illegally cut camphor in the forest of a neighbouring village. The tree was about to fall when he somehow tripped on a root and lost his bearings. The tree was creaking loudly and he should have run away from it but instead ran towards it, right where it fell. He was pulverized before he could yell out. “Are you listening?” you ask. “Yes,” she says. You say the husband’s cousin was frightened out of his wits and absconded, not daring to report the accident. The woman saw the hessian shoes hanging on the carrying pole of a man bringing charcoal down from the mountain, he was calling as he went for someone to identify a corpse. How could she not recognize the red string woven into the soles and heels of the hessian shoes she had made with her own hands? She collapsed and kept banging her head on the ground. She was frothing at the mouth as she rolled around, shouting: Let all the ghosts of the dead and the wronged all come back, let them all come back! “I also want to shout,” she says. “Then shout.” I cant. Her voice is pitifully muffled. You earnestly call out to her but she keeps saying no from the other side of the wall. Still, she wants you to go on talking. “What about?” “Her, the mad woman.” You say the women of the village couldn’t subdue her. It took several men sitting on her and twisting her arms before they managed to tie her up. From then on she became crazy and always predicted the calamities which would befall the village. She predicted that Ximao’s mother would become a widow and it really happened. “I want revenge too.” “On whom? That boyfriend of yours? Or on the woman who’s having an affair with him? Do you want him to discard her after he’s had his fun with her? Like he treated you?” “He said he loved me, that he was only having a fling with her.” “Is she younger? Is she prettier than you?” “She’s got a face full of freckles and a big mouth!” “Is she more sexy than you?” “He said she was uninhibited, that she’d do anything, he wanted me to be like her!” “How?” “Don’t be inquisitive!” “Then you know about all that went on between the two of them?” “Yes.” “Then did she know all that went on between the two of you?” “Oh, stop talking about that.” “Then what shall I talk about? Shall I talk about the shaman?” “I really want revenge!” “Just like the shaman?” “How did she get revenge?” “All the women were frightened of her curses but all the men liked chatting with her. She seduced them and then discarded them. Later on she powdered her face, installed an altar, and openly invoked ghosts and spirits. Everyone was terrified of her.” “Why did she do this?” “You have to know that at the age of six she was betrothed to an unborn child in the womb — her husband in the belly of her mother-in-law. At twelve she entered her husband’s home as a bride, when her husband was still a snotty-nosed boy. Once, right on these floorboards upstairs she was raped in the straw by her father-in-law. At the time she was just fourteen. Thereafter, she was terrified whenever there was no-one else in the house but the father-in-law and her. Later on, she tried cuddling her young husband but the boy only bit her nipples. It was hard waiting years until her husband could shoulder a carrying pole, chop wood, use the plough, and eventually reach manhood and know that he loved her. Then he was crushed to death. The parents-in-law were old and were totally dependent upon her to manage the fields and the household, and they didn’t dare to exercise any restraints on her as long as she didn’t re-marry. Both parents-in-law are now dead and the woman really believes she can communicate with the spirits. Her blessings can bring good fortune and her curses can bring disaster, so it’s reasonable for her to charge people incense money. What is most amazing is that she got a ten-year-old girl to go into a trance, then got the girl’s long-dead grandmother, whom the girl had never seen, to speak through the child’s mouth. The people who saw this were petrified …” “Come over, I’m frightened,” she pleads. 18 (#ulink_7f4586e9-d1d2-5af6-a3e2-afc2b1177b6f) On the day I arrive on the shores of Caohai, where the Wu River begins, it is overcast and bitterly cold. Recently, a small building has been constructed on the shores of the lake — it is the new ranger station of the reserve. The rock foundations have been built up high and it stands in isolation in this vast stretch of swampland. The little road to it is nothing more than slushy soft mud. The lake has receded a considerable distance but what was once lake still has a few sparse reeds growing here and there. I go up the stone stairs at the side of the building where there are several rooms with the windows open and plenty of natural light. Specimens of birds, fish and crawling insects are piled up everywhere. The chief ranger is a large man with a broad face. He plugs in the electric heater, makes tea in a big enamel pot, sits on the heater and invites me to warm myself and have some tea. He says ten or so years ago, for several hundred kilometres around this high plateau lake, the mountains were covered in forests. Twenty years ago the thick black forests came to the shores of the lake and people often encountered tigers. Now these bald hills have been stripped bare and there is a shortage of firewood for cooking, not to mention heating. Especially during the past ten years, spring and winter have become intensely cold. Frost comes early and in spring there are severe droughts. During the Cultural Revolution, the new county revolutionary committee resolved to implement a new initiative: draining off the water and converting it into fields. They mobilized one hundred thousand civilian workers from the county, blasted scores of drainage channels, and built retaining walls to reclaim this part of the lake for cultivation. But it wasn’t so easy to dry out a lake bed which had been saturated for several million years. That year there was a tornado over the lake and the locals said the Black Dragon of Caohai couldn’t stay and had flown away. The lake is now only one third of what it used to be and the surrounding area is all swampland which defies drying off or being restored to its original state. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/gao-xingjian/soul-mountain-39758521/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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