Translation by Mabel Lee
The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning you arrive in this mountain county town in the South.
In the bus station littered with ice-lollipop papers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while.
People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place. They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn’t need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place, of course at the time this bus station didn’t exist and probably there weren’t any buses, travelled by river in the black canopy boats and overland in hired carts or by foot if they didn’t have the money. Nowadays, as long as they are still able to travel they flock back home, even from the other side of the Pacific, arriving in cars or big air-conditioned coaches. The rich, the famous, and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn’t love the home of their ancestors? Of course they don’t intend to stay so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. Here, when friends meet they don’t just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, they shout the person’s name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common but not for women, who don’t do this. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can’t help taking a second look. The one with her back to you is wearing an indigo-print head scarf. This type of scarf, and how it’s tied, dates back many generations but is seldom seen nowadays. You find yourself walking towards them. The scarf is tied under her chin and the two ends point up. She has a beautiful face. Her features are delicate, so is her slim body. You pass close by them. They have been holding hands all this time, both have red coarse hands and strong fingers. Both are probably recent brides back seeing relatives and friends, or visiting parents. Here, the word xifu means one’s own daughter-in-law and using it like rustic Northerners to refer to any young married woman will immediately incur angry abuse. On the other hand, a married woman calls her own husband laogong yet your laogong, and my laogong are also used. People here speak with a unique intonation even though they are descendants of the same legendary emperors and are of the same culture and race.
You yourself can’t explain why you’re here. It happened that you were on a train and this person mentioned a place called Lingshan. He was sitting opposite and your cup was next to his. As the train moved, the lids on the cups clattered against one another. If the lids kept on clattering or clattered and then stopped, that would have been the end of it. However, whenever you and he were about to separate the cups, the clattering would stop, and as soon as you and he looked away the clattering would start again. He and you reached out, but again the clattering stopped. The two of you laughed at the same instant, put the cups well apart, and started a conversation. You ask him where he is going.
"Lingshan, ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain."
You’ve been to lots of places, visited lots of famous mountains, but have never heard of this place.
Your friend opposite has closed his eyes and is dozing. Like anyone else, you can’t help being curious and naturally want to know which famous places you’ve missed on your travels. Also, you like doing things properly and it’s annoying that there’s a place you haven’t even heard about. You ask him about the location of Lingshan.
"At the source of the You River," he says opening his eyes.
You don’t know this You River, either, but are embarrassed about asking and give an ambiguous nod which can mean either "I see, thanks" or "Oh, I know the place." This satisfies your desire for superiority but not your curiosity. After a while you ask how to get there and the route up the mountain.
"Take the train to Wuyizhen, then go upstream by boat on the You River."
"What’s there? Scenery? Temples? Historic sites?" you ask, trying to be casual.
"It’s all virgin wilderness."
"Of course, but not just ancient forests."
"What about Wild Men?" you say, joking.
He laughs but without any sarcasm, and he doesn’t seem to be making fun of himself which intrigues you even more. You have to find out more about him.
"Are you an ecologist? A biologist? An anthropologist? An archaeologist?"
He shakes his head each time then says, "I’m more interested in living people."
"So you’re doing research on folk customs? You’re a sociologist? An ethnographer? An ethnologist? A journalist, perhaps? An adventurer?"
"I’m an amateur in all of these."
The two of you start laughing.
"I’m an expert amateur in all of these!"
The laughing makes you and him cheerful. He lights a cigarette and can’t stop as he tells you about the wonders of Lingshan. Afterwards, at your request, he tears up his empty cigarette box and draws a map of the route up Lingshan.
In the North, it is already late autumn. Here, however, the summer heat hasn’t completely subsided. Before sunset, it is still quite hot in the sun and sweat starts running down your back. You leave the station to look around. There’s nothing nearby except for the little inn across the road. It’s an old style building with a wooden shopfront and an upstairs. Upstairs the floorboards creak badly but worse still is the grime on the pillow and sleeping mat. To wash, you’d have to wait till it was dark to strip off and pour water over yourself in the damp narrow courtyard. This is a stopover for the village peddlers and craftsmen.
It’s well before dark, so there’s plenty of time to find somewhere clean. You walk down the road with your backpack to look over the little town, hoping to find some indication, a billboard or a poster, or just the name "Lingshan" to tell you you’re on the right track and haven’t been tricked into making this long excursion. You look everywhere but don’t find anything. There were no tourists like you amongst the other passengers who got off the bus. Of course you’re not that sort of tourist, it’s just what you’re wearing: strong sensible sports shoes and a backpack with shoulder straps, no-one else is dressed like you. Of course, this isn’t one of the tourist spots frequented by newlyweds and retirees. Those places have been transformed by tourism, coaches are parked everywhere and tourist maps are on sale. Tourist hats, tourist T-shirts, tourist singlets and tourist handkerchiefs bearing the name of the place are in all the little shops and stalls, and the name of the place is used in the trade names of all the "foreign exchange currency only" hotels for foreigners, the "locals with references only" hostels and sanatoriums, and of course the small private hotels competing for customers. You haven’t come to enjoy yourself in one of those places on the sunny side of a mountain where people congregate just to look at and jostle one another, and to add to the litter of melon rind, fruit peel, soft drink bottles, cans, cartons, sandwich wrappings and cigarette butts. Sooner or later this place will also boom but you’re here before they put up the gaudy pavilions and terraces, before the reporters come with their cameras, and before the celebrities come to put up plaques with their calligraphy. You can’t help feeling rather pleased with yourself yet you’re anxious. There’s no sign of anything here for tourists, have you made a blunder? You’re only going by the map on the cigarette box in your shirt pocket, what if the expert amateur you met on the train had only heard about the place on his travels? How do you know he wasn’t just making it all up? You haven’t ever seen the place mentioned in travel accounts and it’s not listed in the most up to date travel manuals. Of course, it isn’t hard to find places like Lingtai, Lingqiu, Lingyan and even Lingshan on provincial maps and you know very well that in the histories and classics, Lingshan appears in works dating back to the ancient shamanistic work Classic of the Mountains and Seas, and the old geographical gazetteer Annotated Water Classic. It was also at Lingshan that Buddha enlightened the Venerable Mahakashyapa. You’re not stupid, so just use your brains, first find this place Wuyizhen on the cigarette box, for this is how you’ll get to Lingshan.
You return to the bus station and go into the waiting room. The busiest place in this small town is now deserted. The ticket window and the parcel window are boarded up from the inside so knocking is useless. There’s nowhere to ask so you can only go through the lists of stops above the ticket window: Zhang Village, Sandy Flat, Cement Factory, Old Hut, Golden Horse, Good Harvest, Flood Waters, Dragon Bay, Peach Blossom Hollow … the names keep getting better, but the place you want isn’t there. This is just a small town but there are several routes and quite a few buses go through. The busiest route, with five or six buses a day, is to Cement Factory but that’s definitely not a tourist route. The route with the fewest buses, one a day, is sure to go to the furthest destination: it turns out that Wuyizhen is the last stop. There’s nothing special about the name, it’s just like any other place name and there’s nothing magical about it. Still, you seem to have found one end of a hopeless tangle, you may not be ecstatic but you’re certainly relieved. You’ll need to buy a ticket in the morning an hour before departure and you know from experience that with mountain buses like this, which run once a day, just to get on will be a fight. Unless you’re prepared to do battle, you’ll just have to get into the queue early.
But, right now, you’ve got lots of time, although your backpack’s a nuisance. As you amble along the road timber trucks go by noisily sounding their horns. In the town the noise is worse still as trucks, some with trailers, blast on their horns and conductors hang out of windows loudly banging the sides of the buses to get pedestrians off the road.
The old buildings on both sides stand flush with the road and all have wooden shopfronts. The downstairs is for business and upstairs, washing hung out to dry—nappies, bras, underpants with patched crotches, floral-print bedspreads—like flags of all the nations, flap in the noise and dust of the traffic. The concrete telegraph poles along the street are pasted at eye level with all sorts of posters. One for curing body odour catches your attention. This is not because you’ve got body odour but because of the fancy language and the words in brackets after "body odour".
Body odour (known also as scent of the immortals) is a disgusting condition with an awful, nauseating smell. It often affects social relationships and can delay life’s major event: marriage. It disadvantages young men and women at job interviews or when they try to enlist, therefore inflicting much suffering and anguish. By using a new total treatment, we can instantly eradicate the odour with a rate of up to 97.53% success. For joy in life and future happiness, we welcome you to come and rid yourself of it …
After that you come to a stone bridge: no body odour here and there’s a cool, refreshing breeze. The bridge spanning the broad river has a bitumen surface but the carved monkeys on the worn stone posts testify to its long history. You lean on the concrete railing and survey the township alongside the bridge. On both banks, black roof-tops overlapping like fish-scales stretch endlessly into the distance. The valley opens out between two mountains where the upper areas of gold paddy fields are inlaid with clusters of green bamboos. The river is blue and clear as it leisurely trickles over the sandy shores but close to the granite pylons dividing the current it becomes inky green and deep. Just past the hump of the bridge the rushing water churns loudly and white foam surfaces from whirlpools. The ten-metre high stone embankment is stained with water levels: the new greyish-yellow lines were probably left by the recent summer floods. Can this be the You River? And does it flow down from Lingshan?
The sun is about to set. The bright orange disc is infused with light but there’s no glare. You gaze into the distance at the hazy layers of jagged peaks where the two sides of the valley join. This ominous black image nibbles at the lower edges of the glowing sun which seems to be revolving. The sun turns a dark red, gentler, and projects brilliant gold reflections onto the entire bend of the river: the dark blue of the water fusing with the dazzling sunlight throbs and pulsates. As the red disc seats itself in the valley it becomes serene, awesomely beautiful, and there are sounds. You hear sounds, elusive, distinctly reverberating from deep in your heart and radiating outwards until the sun seems to prop itself up on its toes, stumble, then sink into the black shadows of the mountains, scattering glowing colours throughout the sky. An evening wind blows noisily by your ears and cars drive past, as usual sounding their deafening horns. You cross the bridge and see there a new stone with engraved characters painted in red: "Yongning Bridge. Built in the third year of the Kaiyuan reign period of the Song Dynasty and repaired in 1962. This stone was laid in 1983." It no doubt marks the beginning of the tourist industry here.
Two food stalls stand at the end of the bridge. In the one on the left you eat a bowl of beancurd, the smooth and tasty kind with all the right ingredients. Hawkers used to sell it in the streets and lanes; it completely disappeared some time ago but has now revived as family enterprises. In the stall on the right you eat two delicious sesame-coated shallot pancakes, straight off the stove and piping-hot. Then at one of the stalls, you can’t remember which one, you eat a bowl of sweet yuanxiao dumplings broiled in rice wine: they are the size of large pearls. Of course, you’re not as academic about food as Mr Ma the Second who toured West Lake but you do have a hefty appetite. You savour this food of your ancestors and listen to customers chatting with the proprietors. They’re mostly locals and all know one another. You try using the mellifluous local accent to be friendly, you want to be one of them. You’ve lived in the city for a long time and need to feel that you have a hometown. You want a hometown so that you’ll be able return to your childhood to recollect long lost memories.
On this side of the bridge you eventually find an inn on an old cobblestone street. The wooden floors have been mopped and it’s clean enough. You get a small single room which has a plank bed with a bamboo mat on it. The cotton blanket is a suspicious grey, either it hasn’t been washed properly or that’s the original colour. You throw aside the greasy pillow from under the bamboo mat and luckily it’s hot so you can do without the bedding. What you need right now is to off-load your luggage which has become quite heavy, wash off the dust and sweat, strip, and stretch yourself out on the bed. There’s shouting and yelling next door. They’re gambling and you can hear them picking up and throwing down the cards. A timber partition separates you and, through the holes poked into the paper covering the cracks, you make out the blurred figures of some bare-chested men. You’re not so tired that you can drop off to sleep just like that. You tap on the wall and instantly there’s loud shouting next door. They’re not shouting at you but amongst themselves: there are always winners and losers and the loser is trying to get out of paying. They’re openly gambling in the inn despite the Public Security Office notice on the wall prohibiting gambling and prostitution: you decide to check whether the law has any effect. You put on some clothes, go down the corridor and knock on the half-closed door. Your knocking makes no difference, they keep shouting and yelling inside and nobody takes notice. So you push open the door and go in. The four men sitting around the bed in the middle of the room all turn to look at you. But it’s you and not they who gets a rude shock. The men all have bits of paper stuck on their faces, on the forehead, lips, nose and cheeks, and they look ugly and ridiculous. They aren’t laughing and are glaring at you. You’ve butted in and they’re clearly annoyed.
"Oh, you’re playing cards," you say, putting on an apologetic look.
They go on with their game. The long paper cards have red and black markings like mahjong, there’s a Gate of Heaven and a Prison of Hell. The winner penalizes the loser by tearing off a strip of newspaper and sticking it on a designated spot. Whether this is a prank, a way of letting off steam, or a tally, is agreed upon by the gamblers and there is no way for outsiders to know what it’s all about.
You beat a retreat, go back to your room, lie down again, and see a thick mass of black specks around the light globe. Millions of mosquitoes are waiting for the light to go out so that they can come down to feast on your blood. You quickly let down the mosquito net and are enclosed in a narrow conical space, at the top of which is a bamboo hoop. It’s been a long time since you’ve slept under a hoop like this, and you’ve long since passed the age of being able to stare at the hoop to lose yourself in reverie. Today, you can’t know what traumas tomorrow will bring. You’ve learnt through experience everything you need to know. What else are you looking for? When a man gets to middle age shouldn’t he be looking for a peaceful and stable existence, find a not-too-demanding sort of a job, stay in a mediocre position, become a husband and a father, set up a comfortable home, put money in the bank and add to it every month so there’ll be something for old age and a little left over for the next generation?
It is in the Qiang region halfway up Qionglai Mountain, in the border areas of the Qinghai-Tibetan highlands and the Sichuan basin, that I witness a vestige of early human civilization, the worship of fire. Fire, the bringer of civilization, has been worshipped by the early ancestors of humans beings everywhere. It is sacred. He is sitting in front of the fire drinking liquor from a bowl. Before each sip he puts a finger into it and flicks some on the charcoals which splutter noisily and send out blue sparks. It is only then that I perceive that I too am real.
"That’s for the God of the Cooking Stove, it’s thanks to him that we can eat and drink," he says.
The dancing light of the fire shines on his thin cheeks, the high bridge of his nose, and his cheekbones. He tells me he is of the Qiang nationality and that he’s from Gengda village down the mountain. I can’t ask straight out about demons and spirits, so I tell him I’m here to do some research on the folk-songs of the mountain. Do traditional song masters and dancers still exist here? He says he’s one of them. The men and women all used to form a circle around the fire and dance right through to daybreak, but later on it was banned.
"Why?" I know quite well but I ask. I’m being dishonest again.
"It was the Cultural Revolution. They said the songs were dirty so we changed to singing Sayings of Mao Zedong songs instead."
"And what about after that?" I persist in asking. This is becoming a habit.
"No-one sings those anymore. People are doing the dances again but not many of the young people can do them, I’m teaching the dances to some of them."
I ask him for a demonstration. Without hesitation, he instantly gets to his feet and proceeds to dance and sing. His voice is low and rich, he’s got a good voice. I’m sure he’s Qiang even if the police in charge of the population register insist that he isn’t. They think anyone claiming to be Tibetan or Qiang is trying to evade birth restrictions and have more children.
He sings song after song. He says he’s a fun-loving person, I believe him. When he finished up as village head, he went back to being one of the mountain people, an old mountain man who likes good fun, unfortunately he is past the age for romance.
He also knows incantations, the kind hunters use when they go into the mountains. They are called mountain black-magic or hexes and he has no qualms about using them. He really believes they can drive wild animals into pits or get them to step into snares. They aren’t used only on animals, they’re also used against other humans beings for revenge. A victim of mountain black-magic won’t be able to find his way out of the mountains. They are like the "demon walls" I heard about as a child: when someone has been travelling for some time at night in the mountains, a wall, a cliff or a deep river appears right in front of him, so that he can’t go any further. If the spell isn’t broken the person’s feet don’t move forward and even if he keeps walking, he stays exactly where he started off. Only at daybreak does he discover that he has been going around in circles. That’s not so bad, the worst is when a person is led into a blind-alley: that means death.
He intones strings of incantations. It’s not slow and relaxed like when he is singing, but just nan-nan-na-na to a quick beat. I can’t understand it at all but I can feel the mystical pull of the words, a demonic awesome atmosphere instantly permeates the room, the inside of which is black from smoke. The glow of the flames licking the iron pot of mutton stew make his eyes glint. This is all starkly real.
While you search for the route to Lingshan, I wander along the Yangtze River looking for this sort of reality. I had just gone through a crisis and then, on top of that, a doctor wrongly diagnosed me with lung cancer. Death was playing a joke on me but now that I’ve escaped the demon wall, I am secretly rejoicing. Life for me once again has a wonderful freshness. I should have left those contaminated surroundings long ago and returned to nature to look for this authentic life.
In those contaminated surroundings I was taught that life was the source of literature, that literature had to be faithful to life, faithful to real life. My mistake was that I had alienated myself from life and ended up turning my back on real life. However, real life is not the same as manifestations of life. Real life, or in other words the basic substance of life, should be the former and not the latter. I had gone against real life because I was simply stringing together life’s manifestations, so of course I wasn’t able to accurately portray life and in the end only succeeded in distorting reality.
I don’t know whether I’m now on the right track but in any case I’ve extricated myself from the bustling literary world and also escaped from my smoke-filled room. The books piled everywhere in that room were oppressive and stifling. They expounded all sorts of truths, historical truths to truths on how to be human. I couldn’t see the point of so many truths but still got enmeshed in the net of those truths and was struggling hopelessly, like an insect caught in a spider’s web. Fortunately, the doctor who gave the wrong diagnosis saved my life. He was quite frank and got me to compare the two chest X-rays taken on two separate occasions: a blurry shadow on the left lobe of the lung had spread along the second rib to the wall of the windpipe. It wouldn’t help even to have the whole of the left lobe removed. The outcome was obvious. My father had died of lung cancer. He died within three months of it being discovered and it was this doctor who had correctly diagnosed it. I had faith in his medical expertise and he had faith in science. The chest X-rays taken at two different hospitals were identical, there was no possibility of a technical mistake. He also wrote an authorization for a sectional X-ray, the appointment was in half a month’s time. This was nothing to get worried about, it was just to determine the extent of the tumour. My father had this done before he died. The outcome would be the same whether or not I had the X-ray, it was nothing special. That I in fact would slip through the fingers of Death can only be put down to good luck. I believe in science but I also believe in fate.
I once saw a four-inch length of wood which had been collected in the Qiang region by an anthropologist during the 1930s. It was a carved statue of a person doing a handstand. The head had ink markings for the eyes, nose and mouth, and the word "longevity" was written on the body. It was called "Wuchang Upside Down" and there was something oddly mischievous about it. I ask the retired village head whether such talismans are still around. He tells me these are called "old root". This wooden idol has to accompany the newborn from birth to death. At death it accompanies the corpse from the house and after the burial it is placed in the wilderness to allow the spirit to return to nature. I ask him if he can get me one so that I can carry it on me. He laughs and says these are what hunters tuck into their shirts to ward off evil spirits, they wouldn’t be of any use to someone like me.
"Is there an old hunter who knows about this sort of magic and can take me hunting with him?" I ask.
"Grandpa Stone would be the best," he says after thinking about it.
"How can I find him?" I ask right away.
"He’s in Grandpa Stone’s Hut."
"Where’s this Grandpa Stone’s Hut."
"Go another twenty li on to Silver Mine Gully then follow the creek right up to the end. There you’ll find a stone hut."
"Is that the name of the place or do you mean the hut of Grandpa Stone?"
He says it’s the name of the place, that there’s in fact a stone hut, and that Grandpa Stone lives there.
"Can you take me to him?" I go on to ask.
"He’s dead. He lay down on his bed and died in his sleep. He was too old, he lived to well over ninety, some even say well over a hundred. In any case, nobody’s sure about his age."
"Are any of his descendants still alive?" I can’t help asking.
"In my grandfather’s generation and for as long as I can remember, he was always on his own."
"Without a wife?"
"He lived on his own in Silver Mine Gully. He lived high up the gully, in the solitary hut, alone. Oh, and that rifle of his is still hanging on the wall of the hut."
I ask him what he’s trying to tell me.
He says Grandpa Stone was a fantastic hunter, a hunter who was an expert in the magical arts. There are no hunters like that nowadays. Everyone knows that his rifle is hanging in the hut, that it never misses the target, but nobody dares to go and take it.
"Why?" I’m even more puzzled.
"The route into Silver Mine Gully is cut."
"There’s no way through?"
"Not anymore. Earlier on people used to mine silver there, a firm from Chengdu hired a team of workers and they began mining. Later on, after the mine was looted, everyone just left. The plank roads they laid either broke up or rotted."
"When did all this happen."
"When my grandfather was still alive, more than fifty years ago."
That would be about right, after all he’s already retired and has become history, real history.
"So since then nobody’s ever gone there?" I become even more intrigued.
"Hard to say, anyway it’s hard to get there."
"And the hut has rotted?"
"Stone collapses, how can it rot?"
"I was talking about the ridgepole."
"Oh, quite right."
He doesn’t want to take me there, nor does he want to find a hunter for me, so he’s leading me on like this, I think.
"Then how do you know the rifle’s still hanging on the wall?" I ask, regardless.
"That’s what everyone says, someone must’ve seen it. They all say that Grandpa Stone is incredible, his corpse hasn’t rotted and wild animals don’t dare to go near. He just lies there all stiff and emaciated, and his rifle is hanging there on the wall."
"Impossible. With the high humidity up here in the mountain, the corpse would have rotted and the rifle would have turned into a pile of rust," I argue.
"I don’t know. Anyway, people have been saying this for years." He refuses to give in and sticks to his story. The light of the fire dances in his eyes and I seem to detect a cunningness in them.
"And you’ve never seen him?" I won’t let him off.
"People who have seen him say that he seems to be asleep, that he’s emaciated, and that the rifle is hanging there on the wall above his head," he goes on unruffled. "He knew black-magic. It’s not just that people don’t dare go there to steal his rifle, even animals don’t dare to go near."
The hunter is already myth. To talk about a mixture of history and legend is how folk stories are born. Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience. However, once related, even personal experience becomes a narrative. Reality can’t be verified and doesn’t need to be, that can be left for the reality of life experts to debate. What is important is life. Reality is simply that I am sitting by the fire in this room which is black with grime and smoke and that I see the light of the fire dancing in his eyes. Reality is myself, reality is only the perception of this instant and it can’t be related to another person. All that needs to be said is that outside, a mist is enclosing the green-blue mountain in a haze and your heart is reverberating with the rushing water of a swift-flowing stream.