I Study a Small Book and at the Same Time a Big Book
My reliable recollections of my childhood date back to about the time when I was two. Up to the age of four, I was as plump and sturdy as a piglet. When I turned four, Mother taught me to read characters printed on squares of paper while Granny, her mother, fed me sweets. By the time I knew six hundred characters I had worms, which made me so thin and pale that all I could eat every day was chicken liver steamed with herbal medicine. I was then going with my elder sisters to a dame-school. As the teacher was related to us and I was so small, I spent less time studying at my desk than sitting on her lap playing.
When I was six and my younger brother was two, we both came down with measles. That was in the sixth lunar month, and day and night we suffered from such fearful heat that we could not lie down to sleep, because that set us coughing and wheezing. We could not be carried either, as that made us ache all over. I remember us being encased in bamboo matting like two spring rolls, and set to stand in a cool, shady part of the room. The family had ready two little coffins for us on the verandah. But luckily we both recovered. Then a strapping Miao nursemaid was found for my younger brother and she took such good care of him that he grew very sturdy. But I was completely altered by this illness. I never fattened up again, but turned into a wizened little monkey.
By six I was going alone to a private school every day. I had my share of the harsh treatment then usually meted out to school children. But as by then I knew quite a few characters and had always had an uncommonly good memory, I got off much more lightly than the others. The next year I switched to a different private school and tagged along with a few rather older boys,learning from these young rascals how to cope with old-fashioned teachers and escape from books to commune with Nature. My life that year laid the foundation for my whole subsequent character and feelings. I used to play truant, then told lies to cover up for it and escape punishment. This infuriated my father, who once threatened that if I played truant or lied again he would chop off one of my fingers. Undismayed by this threat, I never missed a chance to stay away from school. When I learned to look at everything in the world with my own eyes and went to live in a different society, I had already lost all interest in school.
My father doted on me, and for a while I was the central figure in our family. If I had some small ailment, the whole household would stay up at my bedside to nurse me, and everyone was willing to carry me. In those days we were quite well-to do, and materially I believe I was much better off than most of our relatives’ children. My father dreamed of becoming a general himself, but had higher hopes of me. Apparently he saw quite early on that I was not cut out to be a soldier, and so he never hoped I would be a general, but he told me many stories about his own father’s daring exploits and what had happened to him as an officer during the Boxers’ Rebellion. He believed that whatever I took up, I should rate higher than a general. My father was the first to praise my intelligence. But he was cut to his soldierly heart by the discovery that I kept playing truant to wander about in the sun with a band of small ruffians, and there was no way of curbing me or of stopping me from telling crafty lies. At the same time my little brother, four years my junior, had been so well cared for by his Miao nurse that he was a remarkably strong child,behaved with impressive dignity and coolness and showed great self-respect; so when I disappointed the family, they lavished their care on him. Later, indeed, he lived up to their expectations,becoming an infantry colonel at twenty-two. My father served in the army in Mongolia, the northeast and Tibet, but in the twentieth year of the Republic (1931) he was still only a colonel, and army doctor for the local minority troops. By the time he became superintendent of a traditional Chinese hospital, he transferred his hopes of promotion to being a general to my younger brother.Finally a minor illness carried him off at home.
Having found freedom outside, I felt irked by the family’s care for me, and so when they left me to my own devices that suited me better. It was my cousin Zhang who incited me to play truant and took me into the sunshine to watch the marvellous light, the fabulous colours and all the forms of life in our universe. To start with he took me to play in his family’s orange and pomelo orchard, then to all the hills around, to the playgrounds of rough boys and to the bank of the river. He taught me to tell lies, one kind to the family, another kind to the teacher,and got me to chase around with him everywhere. When we went to school, to stop us from swimming in the river during the midday break, our teacher used to write the character “big” (大) in vermilion on the palms of our hands. But holding that hand up in the air, we still splashed about in the river for several hours.This method was thought up by that cousin too. I was a volatile child, highly impressionable. And the beauty of my life as a boy was closely bound up with water. My school was virtually on the river bank. It was water that opened my eyes to loveliness and taught me to think for myself. And it was that rascally cousin of mine who introduced me to the river.
Looking back, I can see that as a child I was not completely lacking in self-respect. I was no dunce. Of all my cousins and brothers at that time, the only one smarter than me was probably Zhang. I was smarter than all the rest. But after Cousin Zhang taught me to play truant I lost all desire to shine. No matter how they disciplined me, I was so averse to studying that I seemed a hopeless case to my teachers, family and relatives. All that I excelled at in those days was telling all sorts of lies. I just had to run away from school to freedom, then had to avoid punishment.So the first thing I learned and practised was making up lies of every kind according to my different circumstances. I needed the constant stimulus of new sounds, new colours, new scents.I needed to learn about life outside my own. And I had to learn directly from life, not from any good books or good precepts. It was probably for this reason that my record of truancy at school was higher than anyone else’s.
After I left the private school to attend a new-style primary school, I went on learning from life outside. And later, when I left home to fend for myself, I didn’t learn much from the different jobs I did. Twenty years later I was “discontented with the present situation but fascinated by the light and colours of our world,thoroughly sceptical about all conventions and old concepts, yet often filled with dreams of the future”. These characteristics were no doubt the result of my habit of playing truant as a boy. And,obviously, this influenced my later writing.
After I acquired this habit of playing truant, I gave no thought to anything else but devising means to escape school.
If the weather was too bad to play in the hills and there was nowhere else to go, I would ramble off alone to the temples outside town. There were about thirty of these public buildings:temples, guild-halls and ancestral temples. As they had spacious grounds, many artisans and craftsmen made use of them. You could generally find men on the verandahs of the main halls twisting ropes, weaving bamboo mats or making joss-sticks, and I would watch them at work. If chess was being played I would watch the game. I watched people boxing and even slanging matches, to hear how curses were exchanged and how disputes were settled. Being a truant I had to go to places where no one knew me, in other words to temples relatively far from town. As a stranger there I could listen to all that was said, watch all that was done; and when there was nothing left to hear or see I would devise how to go home.
I had to take a basket of books to school. In it were a dozen or so dog-eared books ranging from reading manuals and primers to The Analects of Confucius, The Book of Songs and The Book of History, which we had to memorize. This basket was quite heavy.And it would have been stupid for a boy playing truant to carry such a basket with him. Only children with no sense did this.Because when people spotted them, they knew what they were up to and the older folk might say, “Playing truant, eh? Run home for a spanking. Don’t fool around here.” Children without a basket escaped such lectures. So we hit on the way of hiding our school baskets in the Tutelary God’s Temple; though it had no caretaker,we didn’t have to worry that they might be stolen. We children had a healthy respect for the Tutelary God, and trusted his wooden effigy to take good care of our baskets in his shrine. Often five to eight of them were hidden there, to be picked up by the owners when the time came—no one meddled with anyone else’s. I left my basket there more times than I can remember, almost certainly more often than any other child.
If our family or teacher discovered us playing truant, we were in for a beating at home as well as at school. Our teacher would make us move our stools in front of the tablet of Confucius and bend over him to be beaten. After this punishment we had to bow to the tablet to show our penitence. Often we were penalized by having to kneel till a stick of incense burnt out. Once forced to kneel in a corner of the schoolroom, I would remember different past events and my fancy would take wings, flying off to all sorts of exciting happenings. According to the season of the year, I conjured up pictures of mandarin fish flailing about when caught,a skyful of kites, golden orioles singing in the hills, trees laden with fruit. Held spellbound by these visions, I often forgot the pain of being beaten as well as the time, until I was told to get up.So, far from having any sense of grievance, I was glad of these punishments which enabled me, when cut off from Nature, to give free rein to my fancy.
At home, naturally, they had no inkling of this and blamed the teacher for being too lenient; so they transferred me again to a different school. Of course I could not protest about these transfers. In fact, thinking back, I am grateful to my parents,because the previous school had been so close that although I often made a detour that didn’t really help, and if I went so far that I arrived late, I had no excuse. My new school was really a long, long way from our home, so that without making any detours I passed all sorts of fascinating places. On the way I could see the needle shop, in front of which there was always an old man in big spectacles, his head lowered over the needles he was sharpening. I could see the umbrella shop, its door always open, with a dozen apprentices hard at work making umbrellas—that was fun to watch. Then there was the shoe shop, where in hot weather the fat cobbler with a tuft of hair on his naked, grimy belly fixed the uppers to the shoe soles. There was the barber’s shop too, where there was always someone holding a small wooden basin stolidly in his hands and getting his head shaved.In the dyeing works, hefty Miao workers, standing high up and holding on to a rafter straddled a stone press shaped like a cradle,which they rocked from left to right to press the cloth beneath it. There were three Miao beancurd shops too. There slim Miao women with flashing white teeth, in colourful turbans, sang softly to soothe the Miao babies tied to their backs while with bright red copper spoons they ladled out bean milk. I passed a bean flour works too, and while still some way off would hear the creaking of the millstone pulled by a mule. The roof was covered with white vermicelli spread out to dry. Other places I had to pass were butcher’s shops, where the pork of freshly killed pigs was still quivering. Then there was the shop which made funerary objects and hired out bridal sedan chairs. In it were the white faced ghost Life-Is-Transient, blue-faced devils, fish and dragons,sedan chairs, boy and girl attendants of fairies … You could see how many people were getting married or buried that day, how many purchases had been ordered and made, what new designs there were. By loitering long enough you could also see how they applied the gilt and colouring. I liked to stand there for hours.
I loved all these sights, and from them I learned a great deal.
Each day I set off for school with my basket holding a dozen or so dog-eared books. At home I had to wear shoes, but once out of the gate I took them off and carried them, going to school barefoot. There was always time to spare no matter what happened, so I’d make a detour for fun down different streets. If I went through the west city I could see the gaol, from which early in the morning shackled convicts were led out past the yamen to work in a quarry. If I passed the execution ground, and nobody had yet carried away the bodies of those executed the previous day, wild dogs would have savaged the corpses and dragged them into a brook. I would go over to look at the ravaged remains, pick up a pebble to rap a filthy head, or poke it with a stick to see whether it would move. If wild dogs were still scrapping there, I would first fill my basket with stones to throw at them, and just watch from a distance before moving on.
When I reached the brook, if it happened to be in spate I would roll up my trouser legs, hold my basket on my head with one hand while with the other I hitched up my trousers to wade past the city wall till the water was up to my knees. My school was near the North Gate. I started out from the West Gate then went through the South Gate to go straight down the main street.On the river flat by the South Gate I might see an ox being slaughtered, and if in luck could watch how the poor, honest beast was felled to the ground. Because I watched a little every day, I soon knew the whole procedure and exact position of the oxen’s viscera. A little further on was Side Street, with shops selling mats, where at any hour of the day you could see old people sitting outside cutting up bamboo splints with thick-backed steel knives, while two children squatted on the ground weaving mats.(This was done by our school gate too, so that I still know more about this handicraft than I do about writing.) There were smithies too with iron furnaces and bellows inside. The doors were always open, and if you went early enough you could see a boy plying the bellows, his whole body rocking back and forth. As the bellows roared, the furnace belched out acrid smoke and red flames. When the red-hot iron was pulled out and placed on the anvil, the little fellow brandished his thin-handled hammer, raising it over his shoulder to swing it down so vigorously that sparks flew in all directions. Sometimes he made a knife, sometimes a farming tool.At other times the same small apprentice would stand on a bench with a chisel to pare off the rust from the knife not yet dipped in water, or insert a sliver of steel into the molten metal. As time went by I gained an accurate knowledge of the whole process of forging any iron implement. There was also a small eating house in Side Street. In front of its door stood a big bamboo cylinder chockfull of bamboo chopsticks; and on the counter were jars of salted fish and pickles to tempt customers. They seemed to be saying, “Eat me! Just go ahead. Have a treat!” Each time I had a good look, and really felt satisfied. It was like the saying, “Pass a butcher’s and munch away.”
What I liked best was wet weather. If it drizzled and I was in cloth shoes, even if it was mid-winter, I could take off my shoes and socks on the pretext that I didn’t want to wet them and had better go barefoot. Best of all, though, was after a downpour of rain had flooded the streets and made water brim over many of the gutters so that most people could not pass. Then barefoot I waded through the deepest puddles. If the river was in spate,wood, furniture, pumpkins and other things always drifted down from upstream, and I’d hurry to the bridge to watch the fun. There were bound to be people already there, a long rope tied round their waists, watching the river and waiting. When a large tree or something worth salvaging came floating down, they would leap on to the tree or next to the floating object, fasten the rope to it, then swim swiftly to the bank further down. Men on the bank would help them ashore, tug up the rope or fasten it to a rock or big tree, while others took their turn watching by the bridgehead.I loved to watch the fishermen in the water, fish the size of the palm of your hand jumping in their nets. Whenever the river rose,you could see all these fascinating things. Our family rule was that when it rained we had to wear hobnailed boots, but I hated the clumsy things. It was good to listen to their clumping sound late at night in the street, but I had no use at all for them in the daytime.
In the fourth month, if it drizzled, crickets chirped all over the hills and the ridges of the fields, making you wild with joy. At such times I lost all interest in school and could not sit still. By hook or by crook I had to run off to catch crickets. Sometimes I had nothing to put them in, so wherever I went I would catch first one, then another, holding them in my hands till I heard a third. In our parts crickets appear in spring and in autumn. In spring most of them hide in the grass of muddy fields; in autumn they can be found in the cracks of rocks or the rubble scattered near houses.Now that they were in the mud, after catching two I could always drive out a third, and if it was bigger than my earlier catches I’d let those go so as to grab a new one, doing this over and over so that in a whole day I only caught two crickets. When white cooking smoke wreathed the roofs in town and paraffin vendors’bells sounded in the streets—about three in the afternoon—I would hurry to the shop of an old carpenter who specialized in wood-carving, and accost him cheerfully:
“Master, master! I’ve caught a real champion today!”
The carpenter would pretend to take no interest. Still sitting on his high stool fiddling with his tool and not looking at me he would say, “Nothing doing, unless we make a wager.”
I suggested, “If I lose, suppose I whet your knife for you?”
“Oh no, not again. You ruined my chisel last time you sharpened it.”
That was indeed the case. Having spoiled his chisel I could hardly insist on whetting his knife. I proposed,
“How about this, master. Lend me an earthen pot so that I can see which of these crickets is the better.” I said this very coaxingly as he looked so indifferent, because if he didn’t agree I’d be in a fix.
After a moment’s thought, the carpenter replied rather grudgingly, “If I lend you a pot you must give me the loser for hiring it.”
I agreed readily, “Fine.”
Only then did he leave his tool and fetch me a jar. In no time at all I had only one cricket left. Seeing that it wasn’t a bad one,he proposed, “Let’s have a match. If you win, I’ll lend you this jar for a day; if you lose, you give me this cricket. Fair enough?”This was just what I wanted, so I consented. Then the carpenter went inside and fetched a cricket to fight mine. After a few bouts of course my cricket was worsted. As usual, his cricket was one I had lost to him the previous day. Seeing how downcast I looked,he knew that I recognized it; and for fear I might smash the jar in a fit of temper he hastily put it away.
With an encouraging smile at me he said, “Come back again tomorrow, little brother. Go further afield and you should catch better ones. Come back again tomorrow!”
Without a word, smiling wanly, I left his shop and went home.
After running about all day through fields soggy after the rain, I was usually covered with mud when I got back. One glance at me and my parents knew what I’d been up to; so needless to say once again I had to kneel while a stick of incense was burnt,then I was shut in an empty room, not allowed to cry, not allowed to eat anything. Before long, though, naturally my elder sister brought me some food. Having eaten this in secret, I would fall asleep, worn out, in that bare, chilly room where rats scuttled to and fro. And how I got put to bed I never knew.
Though I was punished like that at home and couldn’t escape a thrashing at school, I still played truant whenever I felt like it,completely unchastened by these experiences.
Sometimes, playing truant, I just went up the hills to steal plums or loquats from the orchards there. When the owners came after me, cursing, with long bamboo poles, I would fly away with my loot, singing folk-songs to annoy them. Though so small I was a good runner and didn’t mind what thatched hut I dashed into; so nobody could catch me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these escapades.
But if I didn’t play truant, I was punished less than my classmates. For though I never studied hard, I was always able to recite the lesson. I often read a text through several times at the last moment, then managed to rattle it off without missing out a word. Owing apparently to this small aptitude, I was not treated as a bad student, which increased my contempt for school. At home,they couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to get on by working hard and using my brain, while I couldn’t understand why they just wanted me to study and wouldn’t let me play. Learning struck me as too easy—what was so extraordinary about memorizing characters? It was those others whose customary behaviour was so extraordinary. Why did a mule have to be blindfolded to push a millstone? Why did a knife, coming out of the furnace red-hot,harden when dipped in water? How did craftsmen carve wood into Buddhist statues, and how did they manage to give them that thin gold coating? How did the blacksmith’s apprentice make such a round hole in a sheet of copper and carve the designs so symmetrically? There were too many enigmas like these.
My mind was full of questions, to which I had to find the answers myself. There was so much I wanted to know, so little I knew, I sometimes felt rather worried. And so I ran wild all day,looking around, listening and smelling about. Though at that time unable to put into words the smell of a dead snake, rotten grass, the butcher’s body, or the kiln where bowls were burnt after rain,I could easily recognize each. The cry of bats, the sigh of an ox when a butcher cut its throat, the hiss of a big yellow-throated snake hiding in a hole in the fields, the faint plopping of fish jumping in the river at night, all sounded quite distinctive and I remembered them clearly. So when I went home at night I used to have endless extraordinary dreams. Even now, nearly twenty years later, these dreams often disturb my sleep and carry me back to the void of my “past”, carry me into a world of fantasy.
The world before me was vast enough, yet I seemed to need one still vaster. I had to use the knowledge picked up in the first to verify my suspicions about the second. Had to make comparisons to distinguish good people from bad. After questioning others and using my own imagination, I had to see the many things and happenings in the world which struck me as novel. So whenever I could I played truant; when unable to do that I could only dream.
It was commonly said there that a boy who ran wild must be fairly tough to chase all over the place. If you did that, there was always the chance of running into a wild dog or a vicious character. Unless you could ward off their attacks, it wasn’t easy to roam the countryside freely. A boy who ran wild had to carry a knife as well as a sharpened bamboo tucked in his belt, which could at a pinch be drawn as a weapon. When you ventured far afield to watch a puppet-show, you had to be all the more prepared for a fight. If you were able to roam off on your own,someone might come up to challenge you to a fight. If too many young rascals ganged up on you, you could pick one of roughly your own strength and challenge him:
“Want a fight? Come on. I’ll take you on.”
Then that boy would step forward alone. If he knocked you down, it served you right; you had to lie there and let him beat you up. If you knocked him down, it served him right; after you had beaten him to your satisfaction you could move about freely and nobody would chase you. At most they might say, “Wait till next time.”
But if you were a cissy, wherever you went—even as one of a group—you would be singled out and challenged to fight. If you accepted you’d be licked; if you refused, both the enemy and your own mates would laugh at you—it wasn’t worth it.
Thanks to the guts I inherited from my father, though small I roamed far and wide quite fearlessly. When others ganged up on me and I had to fight, I could choose a boy about my own size and nearly always got the better of him because I was smart and agile. If luck was against me and I got thrown, I had a trick of rolling over to topple my opponent. Only once was I worsted, not by a boy but a brute of a dog which knocked me down then bit my hand. I was afraid of no one anywhere. I changed schools a number of times, and in all of them I had classmates who played truant and more friends than I could count, so we didn’t get into fights. But ever since being knocked down by that brute of a dog,I have been afraid of dogs. (Even more afraid of certain two legged dogs.)
The men in those parts thought nothing of fighting duels in the street with knives or carrying-poles. When that happened,mothers whose children were outside simply warned them to keep out of the way, calling, “Stand clear, little bastard! Don’t get too close.” Although it was not uncommon for the local troops to kill each other in fights, secret assassinations were frowned upon.Those pugnacious fellows formed a group of their own there.Broad-minded, magnanimous, modest and helpful to others, they avenged their friends, had a strong sense of right, were open handed and mostly extremely filial. But men like these were moulded by their time, and not long after the establishment of the Republic they gradually disappeared. Although some young army officers retained something of their style, the free and easy ways which had distinguished them were gradually curtailed by army discipline.
I had three uncles on my father’s side who lived in the country about forty li south of town. It was a place called Huangluo Fort, which produced intrepid men and savage beasts.My father was nearly carried off by a tiger there when he was three. When I was about four, the first day that I went there I saw four villagers carrying a dead tiger to town. That made an indelible impression on me.
I also had a cousin on my mother’s side who lived at Changning Post ten li north of town. Ten li beyond that was Miao territory. That cousin had a ruddy complexion and was a soldier in the garrison fort. When I was four he took me there for three days, and twenty years later I still remember the sound of drums and bugles in that small fort at dawn.
This soldier had some influence with the Miao people and could easily send to fetch them. Each time he came to town he invariably brought me a pair of fighting cockerels or some other gift. He would tell me stories about the Miao when he came, so that I never wanted to let him leave. I liked him, finding him more interesting than those uncles in the country.