Excerpts... Moment in Peking

Love is an immortal wound

Redjade was as happily in love as it was possible for a young girl to be. Afei was now grown to be a tall and handsome young man, well-to-do and unspoiled and very devoted to her, and she was living close to him. Few girls could find love in such ideal circumstances at the period when a girl’s whole being demanded some one to love and be loved by...

“I don’t know why I am so afraid to lose him,” she confessed to Mulan (the heroine of the novel). “Every time I am with him and our happiness is perfect, I imagine that this is too good to be true, that it cannot last forever.”

“That is because you love much,” said Mulan. “Love is an immortal wound that cannot be closed up. A person loses something, a part of her soul, when she loves someone. And she goes about looking for that lost part of her soul, for she knows that otherwise she is incomplete and cannot be at rest. It is only when she is with the person she loves that she becomes complete again in herself; but the moment he leaves, she loses that part which he has taken with him and knows no rest till she has found him once more.”

Mulan spoke so earnestly that Redjade felt she was giving expression to something more than a philosophy of love in general. She paused and in that silence Redjade, who was in the upper berth, wished she could see how Mulan looked at that moment.

“What if one does not meet her lover, or if the lover dies?” she asked at last.

“Who can know such things of the spirit?” Mulan replied. “Perhaps that part of herself never returns and becomes spirit also. The beings of the ‘bright world’ and the occult world do not seem to have dealings with one another. But if the living lover marries some one else, the yang and yin balance is somehow restored again, and the immortal wound is healed with a substitute. But it is never quite the same.”

Visiting Hangchow

After the wedding the bride was left with her husband, and after some orgies of shopping in Shanghai for silk stockings, Mulan went with Sunya and Afei and Redjade and Lilien and her mother to Hangchow, which was only four hours further by railway. They spent five beautiful days in the old house on the Lake. It was near General Yehfei’s Temple, facing the road on one side and the lake on the other, so that there were structures built into a quiet corner of the lake and enclosing part of it as a pond.

The city of Hangchow fascinated Mulan completely. It had none of the splendor of Peking; yet it was soft, enticing, exquisite. For it is a lake city, surrounded by tall mountains, capped by temples and ancient pagodas. Seeing Hangchow after Peking is like having a good cup of Hangchow tea after a heavy dinner.

Of the beauties of Peking, Mulan had always liked the Eunuch’s Bridge and the Shihshahai, its most rural aspects that remind one of the south. Here was Hangchow, the south itself, with the softness and delicacy of the south. The Kunming Lake in the New Summer Palace, built by human labor with the extravagance of the Empress Dowager, was but meant to be a small model of the West Lake, and here was the West Lake itself. Magnificent as the lake in the Summer Palace is, it compares with the West Lake as a shadow with its reality, as a doll with a living pretty young woman.

The West Lake, known always as Hsitse, the most famous ancient beauty referred to by Mencius, suggests to us always a fickle southern woman, smiling on clear, bright days and knitting her brows on cloudy, misty days; and like Hsitse, it is more enticing in the latter mood, when the lake is enveloped in mists. Magic willow-covered islands seem to float on the grayish moistness, and you do not know whether the mountains have gone up to meet the clouds or the clouds have come down to meet the mountains.

Mulan knew now that as one grow a year older, one also became one year wiser. And apart from its natural beauties, Hangchow was, and is, always the Mecca of poets and beauties. It has a tradition older than Peking, for it was the capital of the Southern Sung Dynasty before the Peking Mongol city was built – a tradition, too, more associated with literary, than with political history. Its two long embankments were built by and named after two of the greatest poets of China, Po Chuyi and Su Tungpo, of the Tang and Sung Dynasties. Poets and famous courtesans have lived, reveled, died, and been buried in Hangchow for a thousand years, and their residences and tombs are to be found everywhere. Mulan decided she wanted to come and live here when their parents were dead and they should be independent. It would be the realisation of her dream of a peaceful, humble, rural family life.

Mulan took great interest in her father’s shops and they spent several mornings talking with the shop managers who did their best to entertain them. The rest of the time was passed in idyllic laziness. At night when the lake was blanketed with a white mist, they would sit in a small boat, enjoying the soft breeze over the lake and listening to other young people in the distance singing serenades on their boats.

And one afternoon they went to the shrine of the Old Man in the Moon, the God of Matrimony, and drew slips of paper which bore oracular verse about luck at matrimony. These were printed on cheap wood blocks and the verse was undistinguished in diction and trite in phraseology. In fun Cassia drew one for Lilien, which ran like this:

The bloom at the branch’s tip nods welcome to spring.
The plum vies also with its fragrant neighbor.
Look at the busy bee working all day
For whom the “sweet,” for whom the bitter labor?

“Nobody believes in these things,” said Sunya. “The monks make all the money.” But for fun also Redjade drew one, which read as follows:

To paint the brows of love in a lady’s chamber.
Peonies on the steps breathe happiness.
Take not the real as false, the false as real.
Pass the perfume and all is emptiness.

Redjade tore up the slip with a knitting of her brows and said to Afei, “You draw one.”

“Why?” answered Afei. “Why spend a few coppers to give the monks a chance to be impertinent?” And he would not.

But Mulan could not help wondering about the oracle and the meaning of the word “perfume,” which made her think of Dim-fragrance.

Ghostly boat

That night on the Lake, Redjade was unhappy, but Afei and Sunya kept up their spirits as usual. Neither Lilien nor her mother took the oracle seriously. Redjade said that she had seen a boat in the distance with a young man and girl and heard them chattering together and then had seen it suddenly disappear in the mist leaving no trace behind. The story was told of a pair of lovers at the end of the Ming Dynasty who leaped together into the lake, and how on moonlight nights, people sometimes saw a phantom boat with this couple come out to enjoy themselves in the moonlight. The couple never grew old. They kept their Ming costumes; the man always wore pale blue and a scholar’s black cap, and the girl with her coiffure on top of her head always wore purple. She would play the flute, for she had been a sing-song girl, according to tradition.

Nobody had seen it but Redjade.

While in Hangchow they received a telegram from Lifu, who had returned from Japan and was stopping at Shanghai. Sunya telegraphed back asking Lifu to join them, but the reply said that he should hurry home to his family. So they asked him to wait in Shanghai for them and on the fifth day they went back.

Lifu met them at the station, a little thinner, but healthy-looking. That night they celebrated his homecoming at a restaurant. “What do you study? Tell us all about it?” said Mulan.

“Oh, something about cells, how they grow, and something about bugs,” said Lifu, dismissing in a sentence his chosen subject of biology, for unlike other college graduates, he refused to talk about his studies. And he asked, “What is all this about a coup d’état by the pigtailed Chang Hsun?”

“We don’t know,” said Sunya. “We only read of it in the newspapers. It must have been exciting at home. It is said that the Nanhoyuan Street went up in flames.”

“I saw in this morning’s paper that it was all over, and the Christian General’s soldiers are occupying the Temple of Heaven.”

It turned out that Lifu was better informed than the others on the recent developments in Peking. The pigtailed General had indeed staged a coup d'état, putting the boy Manchu emperor on the throne again, which lasted exactly ten days. Lifu knew that, with Yuan Shihkai dead, the real power was held by Tuan and that the defeat of the monarchist coup meant that the much hated pro-Japanese Anfu clique would come to power. He spoke of politics with more conviction and enthusiasm than of his physiology.

Touring Taishan on sedan chairs

The train journey back to Peking in July was hot, and it was decided that they should stop over at the Tseng home in Shantung to see the Taishan, the Sacred Mountain. Neither Lifu nor Afei nor Redjade had yet seen the Taishan. Mulan wanted to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain, and it was decided that they should stay at the summit overnight. They arrived at Tai-an about ten in the morning and they had two hours’ rest before the sedan-chair carriers came and urged them to go up immediately after lunch.

If any mountain in China had wide, well-paved, well-graded, and comfortable roads for ascent, it was the Sacred Mountain of Taishan.

Government and private donations had helped to maintain the broad stone pavements in good condition. Emperors for two thousand years had honored the sacred mountain; centuries of poets had sung about it and left their inscriptions on the rocks; history had enriched it with relics; and folklore and the legend of pilgrims had embellished it with an oral tradition. The road was provided with convenient resting places and landmarks, beginning from the First Gate of Heaven, near Where-Confucius-Climbed, through the Second Gate of Heaven midway, to the South Gate of Heaven at the summit.

There were seven sedan chairs and two carriers besides, who brought up their bedding for the night. The day was gray and cloudy, which made it more pleasant for all, especially for the chair carriers. Giant boulders, smoothed through ages by flowing streams, lay in wild disorder along the gullies by the roadside, half submerged in water, like huge buffaloes or hippopotamuses.

Mulan had never gone up Taishan in such gay company. It was the mountain she had seen and quarreled about with Sunya when they were children. Lifu was on his first trip, and Mulan could see the enthusiasm in his face.

From the monastery up, the view began to grow more strange and more inspiring, with green cedars lining the roads and strange rocks like crouching beasts in different postures on the distant peaks. Passing the Water-Screen Cave, they saw a flying cataract above them, spreading a silver screen of water as it fell, and wetting them with its spray. At the Cliff for Resting Horses, the sedan-chair carriers stopped for a while, and Sunya, Lifu, and Mulan walked about and looked back to the distant winding path by which they had come up. The stream in the gully was so tempting that Afei took off his socks and shoes and waded, and his example was followed by the men, while Mulan, Lilien, Redjade, and Cassia loitered on the bank.

“Come down,” Afei shouted to them.

Redjade would never have considered going down to the stream, but Lilien looked at her mother and asked if she should.

“Go in,” said Mulan, half wanting to go herself.

“I will, if you will set the example,” said Lilien.

“Come down, Whimsy. It is cooling,” said Sunya.

With a laugh, Mulan, sitting on a boulder, slipped off her shoes and socks and bared her white naked feet, so rarely exposed, and lightly dipped them in the water.

“Mulan, you are crazy,” said Cassia with a smile. “It is good and delightful,” said Mulan. “If you didn’t have bound feet, I would pull you in, too.”

Lilien joined them. Sunya came and led Mulan into the shallow stream, and Mulan laughed and limped and once almost fell, and was quickly pulled up by her husband. There was a great deal of laughter...

Pages 486-491

Peking scenes |  Love is an immortal wound | Mr Tseng’s deathbed speech
Introduction | Contents Page