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The International Writers Magazine: Life in China: Dreamscapes

A Matter of Great Importance
Des Daly

A pale wintering sun was rising over a sharp ridge-backed mountain range that trailed off far into the hazy distance as Tang Shi rattled and bumped his bicycle along a narrow potholed road running through neat rowed rice fields. The early morning air was cold and he was glad that he had put on his thick padded jacket.
Without gloves his hands and fingers were being numbed by the cold and to try and keep them warm he alternately put one hand inside his coat pocket, holding the handle bars with other hand, until it warmed slightly then he would swap hands.

There was something liberating and joyful to be out cycling early on a winter’s morning on a clear stretch of road and Tang shi peddled as enthusiastically as his loose wooden soled shoes allowed him to. Looking across the semi-flooded rice fields at the mountain Tang shi decided that it looked more like a roll of wet bedding airing on a balcony than the sleeping blue dragon it was considered locally to resemble.

When he arrived at the narrow, latticed sided wooden bridge that led into a cemetery, he got off his bicycle, leant it against the low perimeter wall, rubbed his hands together rigorously before flapping his arms across his chest a number of times, then, curiously, he slipped off his coat and rolled it up tightly before carefully putting it inside the wicker basket attached to the front of the cycle. Then pushing the bicycle by his side Tang shi crossed over the narrow bridge and into the well tended cemetery.

Without his winter coat he immediately felt chilly but he tried to look as though he did not notice the keen-edged wind cutting through his thin cotton shirt or the goose bumps now appearing on his bare arms.

This curious behaviour with the coat could be explained by Lu Xian, Tang shi’s mother, who had frightened him when he was a child by saying that if he ever visited the family’s tomb his ancestors and the relatives of so many other people would be looking at him and he must therefore always appear to be happy, prosperous and healthy. So, mindful of Lu Xian’s advice he had taken his coat off to fool the spirits into thinking that he was not undernourished or impoverished but doing quite well.

Except for a yellow and black kitten that had been abandoned in a clump of long grass, the cemetery was deserted. Tang shi liked to be in the cemetery. He liked the way that the living could walk amongst the dead and he liked the pagoda shaped funeries. What he liked most of all was the tall cypress trees that grew throughout the cemetery to make a waving canopy high above his head - a heavenly dome of variegated whispering green.

When Tang shi reached his ancestral tomb he carefully laid his bicycle down on the gravelled path. He was greatly disturbed on this cold morning and had come to the cemetery to ask for guidance from his father and his ancestors on a matter of great importance. He began his supplication by offering a handful of white rice grains taken from a newly opened winter supply sack and afterwards poured into a shallow blue and white porcelain dish some Patchouli oil from a small flask.

The matter of great importance that was bothering Tang shi was he’d received his notification to attend a military training unit or, as the notification stated, have a good and proper reason not to. The impressive stamp and lengthy line of signatures at the bottom of the notification gave it an imperial authority that simply could not be ignored.

The dilemma of appearing to shirk his military service would certainly bring shame on Tang shi and his family; more disturbingly though, he was not in any way martial-minded and although China may well need a strong army to defend itself from the growing threat of their Japanese neighbours across the sea, he considered that his life’s efforts would be better spent by continuing, through his poetry and fiction, to promote the awakening of young people in China to social revolution.

Tang shi was, not alone at that time, in believing in the crucial significance of literature in revolutionary politics. Many other young writers thought the same and there was, in the major cities at least, a growing sense of social unrest and dissatisfaction in the air. He had been drawn to the idea of social revolution by studying the works of authors who had their works published by the ‘Crescent Moon Society’ and from reading the vernacular style poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

Kneeling at the family tomb side Tang shi closed his eyes before bringing his hands slowly together in respectful homage and started his prayers. He began by saying that ‘I am Tang shi son of Lu Xian and I have come today, Father and most honourable of ancestors, to ask for your wisest counsel. I have brought you a fine cupful of the first bag of rice opened for the winter months and a dish of the best amber coloured fragrant Patchouli oil.’

Talking this way to his Father and his ancestors seemed such a natural thing to do, yet Tang shi could not help sometimes thinking that he was really only talking to himself as death surely had a finality that had yet to be disproved. Abstract thoughts like these always seemed to distract Tang shi during solemn times and his mind wandered over a patchwork of ephemera before coming to rest on one of his favourite poems about death and the purpose of life.
‘How long can one man’s lifetime last?
In the end we return to formlessness.
I think of you waiting to die.
A thousand things cause me distress….’

( wang wei 701 -761 A.D.)
He repeated each line of the poem aloud and paused momentarily at the end of each line before reciting the poem again, only this time he added some words of his own.
‘A man’s lifetime’, he said, ‘can last as long as he wants it too.’
‘We return to formlessness from the formlessness we have become. ‘And then,
‘I think of you waiting to die and wonder if you think of me whilst I live.’
Finally, he said, ‘A thousand things cause me distress - yet only ten things bring me pleasure.’
Tang shi reflected for a moment on the words of the poem and his Daoist inspired additions, and then suddenly remembered his purpose at the cemetery.

‘Ancestors’, he continued, ‘I need to know what direction my life should take? Should I take up a rusty rice scythe, stained with the blood of the oppressed, to defend a China that is morally decadent or should I take up a pen and wield it with the power of a summer typhoon to shake China from its apathy and lassitude? That is the matter of great importance I seek your guidance on. Oh’, he continued, ‘apart from the Magnolia tree planted by Grandfather in the garden the year before he died did not produce its usual beautiful display of flowers this year and Lu Xian has asked a Feng shui geomancer to come to the house next week. In the mean time Lu Xian requested that I place a Bhat Gwa mirror on the family tomb to ward off any bad luck that may be coming our way.’

Getting up from his knees, Tang Shi wiped the soil and leaves off of the knees of his trousers, then bowing his head low, backed away from the tomb and fixed a small shiny Bhat Gwa mirror to the trunk of the nearest cypress tree. As he was setting the mirror straight, he heard a faint pitiful mewing. First of all he was afraid in case it may have been a spirit displeased with the location of the mirror, but when he heard it again he followed the sound and found the small kitten shivering in the long grass. Tang shi picked the kitten up, and said, greatly relieved, ‘Aha! It’s a kitten that speaks for the displeasure of dead and frightens the living is it? Are you lost little one? Are you hungry?’ The kitten felt the protection and warmth of Tang shi’s hands and began to purr loudly. Tang shi looked closely at the helpless kitten in his cupped hands and thought that it had the colouring of a tiger; ‘I wonder if your name is Hu zi’, he said, ‘as you have the look of a little tiger.’ Then he carefully set the kitten down in the long grass where he had picked him from and went back to the tomb.

Hu zi, however, followed Tang shi and started to rub up against Tang shi’s leg and purr. ‘Go away Hu zi. I’m busy’, said Tang shi, and shooed the kitten away with his foot. Hu zi went away only as far as the bicycle lying on its side on the path and climbed onto Tang shi’s winter coat in the basket and began kneading it with his tiny paws in readiness to lie down. When Tang shi had finished at the tomb side he went to lift his bicycle up to leave and saw Hu zi asleep on his coat and began to laugh.

Not wanting the leave the kitten in the cemetery to probably die of starvation, he decided to take it home and to try and find a good home for it. There were plenty of shops and homes overrun by vermin that be would glad of a fierce little tiger to keep down the population of mice and rats. He picked the kitten up and held it close to his face so their noses touched and said with smile ‘Alright then, Hu zi, you can come home with me, but you will have to behave yourself or Lu Xian will deal with you.’

When he had crossed back over the narrow bridge Tang shi placed the kitten carefully on the low wall and took his coat back out of the basket and put it on. He climbed on to the saddle then lifted the kitten off the wall and gently tipped him inside his coat and set off on the journey back home.

Hu zi immediately pushed his head out of the top of the coat and seemed to take great pleasure in being warm as he watched the world flash by. Tang shi had to push Hu zi’s head back inside his coat a few times when he passed fierce looking dogs that seemed to know that a cat was close by.

As Tang shi cycled his way back home, he was suddenly struck with an idea about China that was as profound as afterwards it was obvious. The idea was that China had imprisoned itself for centuries by its predilection for building walls of all sizes, shapes and locations. There was the Great Wall on its long western boundary to keep out foreign invaders from the deserts and steppes of Mongolia; there were solid crennelated walls around cities and towns to keep out bands of roving marauders and there were high tile-topped walls around houses to keep out thieves and beggars and stray dogs. This truth was, it seemed to Tang Shi, the walls had also prevented ideas and knowledge and progressive thinking from entering China much to the benefit of the elite who had the most to gain from a society based upon feudal imperialism.

The walls of China had so far proven to be quite effective in keeping out invaders, marauders, and yet, could they not also be just as impervious to the entry of ideas. But what if, thought Tang shi, ideas were germinated from inside the walls, and then surely the walls would be useless. It was now clear to Tang shi that his future firmly lay with the written word used for propagandistic purposes of literary expression and not the rice scythe and he must do all that he can to bring to an end the archaic patriarchy that China had become.

Tang shi was excited at the simplicity of the idea and the inestimable implications that it may have as a lever for bringing about social change. He began to peddle harder in case the idea would somehow disappear from his head before he could write it down.

Cycling with a light heart was easy and Tang shi reached up and stroked Hu zi’s furry head. The matter of great importance had been resolved. The way forward now was a clear shining path. He would decline his military service on the grounds that he opposed the killing of humans and devote his time to helping the weak and oppressed to become free and self determining.

© Des Daly October 2007

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