Fifteen years ago I chanced to charter a little boat with a bamboo canopy to sail up the River Chen. We stopped at the foot of Chest Precipice. The river here was flanked by looming black cliffs irradiated by the setting sun into a prismatic screen.In crevices half way up the cliffs, a hundred metres or so above the river were the remains of the men of old who had lived here.Countless huge beams spanned the crevices, and on these still rested big oblong wine-red chests. By an inlet in the cliff were mat sheds and a wharf. People going up the cliff for a drink or going down to the ferry all had to pass this way. It happened to be the fifth day of the fifth month, so everyone was out on the river celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival. Three beautiful dragon boats had been lowered to the water from the cave in Chest Precipice which served as boat-house. These long narrow boats had vermilion designs on their prows; their young oarsmen wore red girdles and red turbans. When drums sounded, the boats shot out like featherless arrows to the middle of the stream, unruffled by waves. The river was about one li across, and the banks were packed with spectators, shouting to spur on the rowers. Some enterprising youngsters had climbed up the back of the mountain to the cliff top, to throw down firecrackers which went off in mid air, discharging whorls of confetti and luminous dust, their explosions an antiphony to the gonging and drumming on the boats. This made me recall the past and ruminate over history.
I thought: How fantastic everything is! If Qu Yuan, a minister of the kingdom of Chu, had not been banished two thousand years ago and wandered in his frenzy to a fabulous place like this, to see such stirring sights, the scholars coming after him might not have had his glorious Nine Odes to read, and the history of Chinese literature might have been different. In those two thousand years,many races declined, grew moribund or were wiped out. This great country in the Far East was often invaded by barbarians from distant deserts in the northwest, who ran amok on sturdy horses, armed with bows, spears and halberds.(On the eve of the 1911 Revolution, it was a prince of the Manchu imperial house from the north who launched the last massacre of the Miao and other national minority people in a border town here. And after the establishment of a republic, when Yuan Shikai dreamed of making himself an emperor, two more divisions from the north fought here for more than half a year with troops from Yunnan.) And yet despite all this, the endless contention and slaughter throughout history and the dynastic changes which inflicted such calamities on the people, killing some off and forcing the survivors to grow queues or cut their queues, subject to the restrictions imposed by their new rulers, on careful consideration the people here seem basically to have had no connection with history. Judging by their methods of survival and the distractions with which they work off their feelings, there appears to be no difference between past and present. The scene before me that day may have been exactly the same as that seen by Qu Yuan two thousand years ago.
My boat moored at the foot of Chest Precipice near a dozen small fishing boats. As the fishermen had gone to join in the boat race, there were only excited women and childen on board,standing at the stern or on the canopy cheering. I was afraid some of the children, who were dancing with excitement, might capsize the little houseboats.
After sunset the light faded. By degrees both banks were swallowed up in the soft dusk. The shouts of the spectators subsided too. A purple mist covered the river and the dragon boats were lost from sight, though gonging and drumming disclosed their whereabouts. Still a babel of voices could be heard from the inlet, the crying children and vociferous women combining to induce a sense of infinitude. It was dark now, time for a meal. I had intended to wait till the dragon boats came back to rest and were hauled up into the cave as the festival ended amidst jubilant shouts. But although a long time went by, gonging and drumming still floated over the river, showing that most people were not yet willing to leave their boats and go home. By the time I finished supper and crawled out of my cabin to look round, why, a fine full moon had risen! Moonlight had silvered the cliffs and everything on the river, transforming the scene. By the wharf, fires of old hawsers or firewood had been lit. The firelight showed shadowy white figures milling around. I learned from the boatmen that they were carrying food and liquor aboard to deliver to the crews of the dragon boats. The young oarsmen had rowed all day, yet now that the spectators were scattering they wanted to keep it up, no crew willing to give up or be the first to go ashore. So those three boats would go on racing till midnight.
Mention of this brings home to me again the poverty of human language. For the truth is that no words can describe those sounds or that atmosphere. Townsfolk may be exhilarated by reading the Songs of the South, but to describe that moonlight boat race to them would be virtually labour lost. I confess that since retaining my impression of the river that night, any exciting descriptions in books strike me as nondescript, nothing to marvel at. Just as, at a different period, I witnessed so many kinds of senseless slaughter that no accounts of such things in other books can stir me.
Fifteen years later I chanced again to take a small boat up the River Chen. We would pass Chest Precipice. In the hope of reinforcing my impression of the place, I asked the skipper to moor there regardless of the hour. It was the seventh of the twelfth month, not long before New Year. The sky was overcast,a snowstorm was brewing, and it was bitterly cold. We dropped anchor at about three in the afternoon. Most of the leaves had withered on the plants and creepers on the precipice, making the mottled rock appear very gaunt. Only three or four red chests remained hanging high on the cliff. Who knows where the rest had gone? We first moored by the cave at the foot of the cliff,already thirty feet above the water because the river was so low in winter. I scrambled up along crevices in the rocks to where the dragon boats were kept; but the old boats had gone, worn out or washed away. I saw just four new boats on a stone rack, with chicken blood and feathers on their prows, showing that they had only been launched this year. Emerging from the cave I noticed five fishing boats at anchor to the left below the cliff, with some old women huddled in the prows mending their fishing nets in the biting wind. Back aboard, I felt the place too cold and dreary,and asked the boatmen to punt us to some turning where I could find some human habitations. There I went ashore to see what the villagers were doing before New Year.
At about four, dusk started to corrode the outlines of hills,rocks and trees and to occupy the corners of the buildings. I sat down along in a small eating house to warm myself by the wood fire. I stared in silence at the brightly burning log blazing merrily by my feet with a faint crackling. People kept coming and going, some saying a few words before leaving, while others sat down on the bench beside me to smoke a pipe. Some came to dry their feet, taking off their wet straw sandals to thrust their feet in the warm ashes. Looking at the faces of each, I felt strangely at home. They were decent, honest villagers who knew how to find happiness. Among them were fishermen, hunters, boatmen and artisans who wove bamboo cables. If I was not mistaken, the man sitting next to me, hands held out to the fire, with a bright thimble on his middle finger, must be the village tailor. At the Dragon Boat Festival every year, they all spent the whole day on the river enjoying the boat race. At other times, especially in the cold winter, they gathered here as if by common consent to while away the time. Every day they watched the boats rowing or sailing up and down, watched the sunset and waterfowl. At the same time, though, they had their share of success and failure,and if involved in a love affair or fight this would end up with celebrations or a vendetta. But generally speaking, their lives merged with Nature, and they placidly fulfilled their destinies like other inanimate objects, their metabolism determined by the rising and setting of the sun and moon and the changing seasons.Moreover in this process, in which men are so insignificant, these villagers seemed wiser than any philosopher.
A spell of listening to their talk disheartened me. These people who were not insensitive to Nature but came to terms with it shouldered no responsibility for history, living in this unknown place. But there were people of a different kind who would not come to terms with Nature, but devised all manner of means to control and defy it. They too lived through the changing seasons and watched the rising and setting of the sun and moon. But these were the people who gradually altered history and made history. A new sun and moon would destroy all that was old. How could we make these villagers dread the future and scrap the peace made with Nature, to summon up the energy to live with the gusto with which they rowed dragon boats? The frenzy of their enjoyment proved that this frenzy could find a new outlet, enabling them to gain ground, to lengthen their lives and spend them more happily.But how to divert their frenzy into a new struggle was a problem demanding careful consideration.
A young cripple limped in swinging a new mast-head lantern,its shade brightly polished. Many people called to him, “That’s a fine lantern, captain. So you’ve made a killing!”
Although the cripple was so young, he had the smug assurance of a veteran soldier and seemed a cut above these villagers. He put the lantern on the table and plumped himself down by the fire, his legs apart, his hands held out to the warmth.“I had foul luck,” he swore. “Cleaned me out.”
“Number Eight on your boat said you’d made a pile. You’re fooling us for fear we ask for a loan.”
“Made a pile, pah! Why should I fool you? Seventy cents an ounce it cost me, but the market price in Taoyuan was only one dollar. What with the cost of the trip, how much could I make on two hundred ounces, I ask you.”
He went on, with curses and snatches of song, to divert everyone with stories about Back River women in Taoyuan. He was holding forth cheerfully when a man came to fetch him.“Captain,” he said, “the pig trotters are done to a turn and the wine’s ready heated.” Then the cripple rubbed his hands, called“So long” and limped off with his lantern.
I learned that this young fellow was the only son of a fisherman. Three years ago the provincial recruiting officer had been struck by him and enlisted him. After three months’ training he went to the border of Jiangxi to fight the Communists. After half a year’s fighting he was the only one unwounded in his squad, and he was ordered to the rear to complement a new squad,of which he was made the leader. He trained for another three months, then went back to the front. This time he was wounded in the leg and carried to the military hospital in the provincial town, where the doctors decided his leg should be amputated.Some villagers from his home had more faith in Chenzhou sorcery than in this foreign method of amputation. So they kidnapped him from the hospital to treat him in the traditional way, applying ointment. And strange to say, in less than three months his leg had healed. By now he knew what fighting was like. He asked for his demobilization papers, and having drawn compensation for his disablement went home, where he was respectfully addressed as a captain and, as a disabled soldier, could trade in opium. This business might rake in big profits but it was illegal, forbidden by the government tax office. As it might cost you your head or might make your fortune, from every point of view it seemed a most admirable business. I asked the sole village tailor the captain’s age and learned that he was only twenty-one.
“That young fellow has good judgement and drive,” the tailor told me. “Even with his game leg he makes the trip to Changde and back every month, eating, drinking and enjoying himself—what luck! If both his legs had been crippled that would have been still better.”
“What do you mean?” asked a boatman.
“A coat must be cut according to the cloth. A poor bachelor with one game leg can still get by. If both his legs were crippled he couldn’t smuggle opium or go to Taoyuan to fool about with women!”
This crack set the company laughing.
Back on the boat I sat alone in the small icy cabin, reckoning that if you subtracted fifteen from twenty-one—the captain’s age—the result was six. I vividly remembered that evening fifteen years before, the reflection of the setting sun, the long narrow boats with their vermilion designs, the gonging and drumming, the excited shouting, and especially the children jumping up and down for joy on the nearby fishing boats. One of them must have been the lame captain whom I had met this evening. How fantastic history is! The old way to cure an ulcer was to apply some slightly toxic medicine to make it rot, then use a different medicine to heal the flesh, so that the patient was cured. In spite of the extremely bad impression the lame captain had made on me, I felt he could act as a toxin to destroy these villagers’ apathy and give them some kind of hope.
Twenty years ago, Garrison Commander Wang Zhengya of Lizhou had an ordinary groom called He Long, who during a mutiny cut off a deserter’s head with a cleaver. Now, twenty years later, two hundred thousand troops of three provinces had had to be mobilized to cope with this groom. Who could have paid any attention to this episode, or imagined how the history of mankind is written!