International Writers Magazine: Life in China: Dreamscapes
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.
Matter of Great Importance
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.
There was something liberating and joyful to be out cycling early on a
winters 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
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 shis mother, who
had frightened him when he was a child by saying that if he ever visited
the familys 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 Xians 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
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 hed
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 lifes 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
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
How long can one mans 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 mans lifetime, he said, can last as long as
he wants it too.
We return to formlessness from the formlessness we have become.
I think of you waiting to die and wonder if you think of me whilst
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
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.
in the Clouds
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! Its 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
shis 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
shis leg and purr. Go away Hu zi. Im 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 shis 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
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 zis head back inside his coat a few times
when he passed fierce looking dogs that seemed to know that a cat was
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 zis 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
Alvaro Lorca was conceived in the silence of the Osier woods that run
along the undulating valleys of the Sierra Albarracin. His father boasted
that he was sure to follow his footsteps and become a master Osier cutter
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