Monday, September 21, 2009
Trying to restrain my impatience, I replied as politely, and then burst out, “Are there visitors here?” I hardly dared breathe until the old eunuch nodded.
“Yes, yes,” he said, and motioned me to come inside. I scurried through the gate.
“Is Han here?” I asked.
“He is here.”
“Ah, good.” I relaxed and breathed in the fragrant air of Varley’s courtyard. My mad dash through the streets had been worth it. I followed Chen to the main court, where wooden beams, darkened by time, held up the sloping tiled roof. An ancient pine cast its shadow across the door, blocking most of the light from the dim recesses of the inner hall. Inside, a pair of oversized cabinets stood on either side of the room, and carved chairs and several tables were pushed back to its edges. I knew from past visits that some of the tables were used for meals, some for playing Chinese games. Scrolls hung on the walls, and several pieces of porcelain gleamed from the fretwork cabinet in the corner.
The eunuch waited while I stepped over the high threshold into the room. I stole glances at him. It was difficult to tell his age, though I knew he had arrived at the palace during the time of the next to last emperor, the one most people had thought had been
poisoned by the dowager empress in 1908. Perhaps because Chen had been castrated as a boy, he seemed curiously unfinished, his face unlined, his body soft looking, his voice high-pitched. Han told Will and I that the eunuch’s father had castrated the boy himself, as sometimes happened in those days, to assure his service to the emperor and consequently to improve the family’s fortunes. Every time I saw him, I couldn’t help thinking about what had been done to him so long ago.
“I will tell the master you are here,” Chen said.
“Can’t you just slip in and tell Li Han I’m here? I don’t need to disturb Mr. Varley.”
The eunuch bowed and disappeared. I lowered myself down on one of the massive carved chairs and waited. I shifted my weight on the broad, hard, wooden seat, propped my feet upon the wooden footstool, and scanned the room. It was very still, the silence seeming to press against my ears. I concentrated on the characters on the scroll across the room, trying to decipher their meaning. I finally gave up. The unknown scholar’s calligraphy was remarkable, even to my untutored eyes, but impossible for me to read, as I had never been taught to decipher this kind of classical Chinese.
A white-robed servant with black felt shoes brought me fragrant jasmine tea in a translucent cup with no handle. I sniffed at the steaming liquid; its scent was strong.
I remember Varley once telling my mother that he prepared his tea by tossing fresh, not dried, jasmine buds into the tea leaves.
After about five minutes I heard soft footsteps on the wooden floorboards. I jumped up out of my chair, ready to greet Han, but it was Ambrose Varley who stepped into the room. “Jane?” he said. “I was surprised when Chen told me you were here.”
As always, the sight of Varley warmed and reassured me. I had known him since I was small and had always liked him. I knew my parents disapproved of his lifestyle, but they seemed to like him anyway, in spite of themselves. He was particularly partial to my mother, Della, and he once told me that my mother represented all that was good about the United States: simplicity, forthrightness, and idealism. His words made me squirm – his tones were always ironic, as if he meant much more than he said – but I nodded in agreement that my mother was admirable.
I then said to Varley, “I asked to see Li Han. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I came out to see you for myself. You’ve given me a surprise.”
I looked up at the tall American. In spite of his brown hair and light eyes, Varley never looked out of place in a Chinese setting. As usual, he wore Chinese dress, and ankle-length robe with narrow sleeves, and Chinese cloth shoes. “Please, Mr. Varley. I need to speak to Li Han,” I said.
“He’s here. Is something wrong?”
“People are upset at home. Someone caught Little Gao stealing, and Pa fired him.” I made up my mind to be frank with Varley.
He gestured for me to sit, then settled himself in the chair next to me, and, in his unhurried way, turned to face me. “How does Li Wutang feel about that?” He folded his large, shapely, and beautifully groomed hands in his lap and kept them still. He was one of the few Americans I knew who did not gesture when he talked.
I wasn’t surprised that Varley went straight to the heart of the problem. Since I could remember, he had been interested in the minutiae of my household and Han’s. He seemed to like gossip and had a good memory for names and relationships.
I said, “I’m afraid Li Wutang must be very upset. Pa should have consulted him first.”
Varley sighed. “Li Wutang might think this an affront to his whole family.” He peered at me more closely. “Why do you have to talk to Han about this now? Why not wait until later?”
I lowered my eyes. “I’m afraid to have him hear it from anyone except me. It’s between our two families, you see.”
“Do you think he’d want to see you here?”
I hunched in the chair, feeling dangerously close to tears. “I don’t know.”
“I hope you’re not in love with him. That wouldn’t do at all, you know.”
I swallowed and kept my eyes to the floor. “I’m not in love with him,” I said defensively. I couldn’t possibly tell him that I did indeed loved Han. Even an eccentric, forward thinking man like Mr. Varley would never condone that. Varley narrowed his eyes. “I take it your mother doesn’t know you are here.”
I knew this comment required no answer. I raised my eyes to Varley’s face. “May I see Han? I won’t look at the others. I don’t need to know who’s here.”
A line appeared between Varley’s dark, well-shaped brows. “What do you know about who’s here in my house?”
“Someone told me you were having one of your meetings today, and that the students would talk with a communist.”
His eyes glinted. “Someone’s been talking? That’s dangerous. Who told you?”
I bit my lip. “Please…I don’t think-“
“All right, you don’t have to tell. I assume it was Han.”
“It wasn’t!” I lied.
He flicked me a sharp look. “I hope it was someone who can be trusted. Aside from the very real danger to the students, I certainly don’t want to be kicked out of China, which I suppose is what would happened to me should this little indiscretion be found out.”
Varley raised his head and called out softly for Chen. The servant must have been waiting just outside the door, because he appeared immediately. “What does my master require?” he asked, somewhat breathless.
“Fetch Li Han from the meeting.”
Chen padded out of the room and I said, “Mr. Varley?”He looked up and waited for me to speak. “Mr. Varley, may I ask a question?”
He watched me from beneath his heavy lidded eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“Why do you help the communists with these meetings? Do you believe the communists are right?”
Varley said, “I let the students meet here because they’re very young and sincere and they need a place to vent their frustrations.”
“But do you believe they’re right?”
Varley stared down at his hands for a second, and then, raising his eyes to look at me, said, “I don’t know. Do you understand anything about Marxist theory?”
“Not much.” I tried to remember Han’s excited, often incoherent, descriptions of what the communists stood for.
“The communists want to change this country from the bottom up,” Varley said.
“Is that good?”
“I don’t know. The problems seem so deep-seated, there may not be any other way.”
“How can we know for sure?”
“We can’t. Of course, you hear the things your father has to say about the communists, don’t you?” It wasn’t really a question. Everyone knew that my father was feverishly anticommunist. “Marxist theory is the basis for the kinds of changes the students and others want to make” Mr. Varley said. “People like your parents see the same problems in China that the communists do, but they don’t approve of the Marxist solution.”
“Many people don’t approve it. I – I think I’m afraid of it.”
“You should be. It would require a clean break with the past. That’s what’s so hard to accept.” He stared across the room. “Do you see that table over there, directly under the scroll?”
I looked. “Yes.” The table was of a reddish wood, polished to a warm glow. Its lines were simple, almost austere.
“Look at the shape, the lines from top to bottom. Do you see the resemblance to the Qian Gate near the Forbidden City?” The Qian Gate was one of the main gates of the city of Peking.
I nodded and raised my hand following the lines of the table with my finger sketching a shape that was wider at the bottom than at the top. “They’re Ming, aren’t they, the table and the gate?” I paused. “Like the Ming bowl you gave my mother!”
“Good girl. Yes, they’re Ming. The Ming dynasty ended in 1644, yet no one since has come up with anything more perfect than the shape of that table. This is the past that the communists are denying. They must be very sure of what they want to do.” He stood up with a sudden graceful movement. “Han must be reluctant to leave the meeting.”
But then we heard the plopping sound of Western leather shoes on the polished boards, and in a few seconds Han stepped into the room. Like his classmates, he wore a traditional Chinese robe – to show that he was patriotic, he once explained – and Western shoes. Han did not have a distinguished face; his features were rounded and his smile brought out a dimple, but in my eyes the robe gave him height and distinction. Now, he looked at me and paled. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
I slid off the chair and stood to face him. “Please don’t be angry.” I stole a look at Ambrose Varley, and then turned back to Han. “There is trouble in both our households. Do you know about this?”
Han shook his head. “No. What is it?”
Varley walked over to the doorway. “I’ll leave you to speak in private. I’m going back to my study.” He turned at the doorway and smiled. “You two aren’t nearly as dangerous as those others.” He stepped over the threshold and padded away in his soft Chinese shoes, barely making a sound.
Han turned to me. “Tell me.”
I told him about Little Gao. “And my father didn’t say anything to your father first.” I said. “Everyone is very upset.”
Han shut his eyes with exasperation. “Always family. Why do they have so many problems?”
“So you don’t blame my father?”
“I blame all our fathers. They’re all clinging to the past, to the old ways.” He ran his hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “I feel desperate sometimes.”
I took his hand as I had when we were children. He stiffened but didn’t pull away. His palms were smooth like a man who had never seen hard labor. “Come and sit down,” I said. “I hurried over here because I was afraid that if you heard about Little Gao from your family, you would hate both me and my father.”
He shook his head. “Oh, little sister.” He always called me that. “That is so silly. We are a different generation from our parents.”
“Don’t you feel sorry for Little Gao? Or for your father?”
“Of course I feel sorry for them, especially for Little Gao, but he did steal the money, didn’t he?”
“Your grandfather is going to fuss about this, isn’t he? Won’t that make things difficult for you?”
The Li family was already being tugged in two directions. Recently, Han’s old grandfather had decreed that Han must marry the granddaughter of an old friend, the forth daughter of the Ding family. Han had complained privately about this to me and Will, and told us he feared that the family meant to force him to go through with the marriage. He said he knew his modern thinking and interest in politics were driving his grandfather’s determination to marry him off at only eighteen. Also, he told us that his father, Wutang, didn’t object to the grandfather’s plans. Han expressed sympathy with the communists. This was not only dangerous, but it went against the Li family beliefs.
Like other Chinese of his generation, Han’s father, Li Wutang, was a confused mixture of modern and traditional thought – in his case, Christian and Confucian. Han said he suspected that his father partially sympathized with his desire to be up to date, but part of Wutang understood and agreed with the grandfather’s conservatism. Han’s grandfather was a frail but stubborn old man who clung to Confucian tradition. Although his son and one of his brothers had converted to Christianity, the elder had refused to follow suit. He despised most things Western, and made no secret of his dislike and distrust of foreigners.
In turn, I loathed and feared Han’s grandfather, whom I privately called “the old spider.” Everyone knew that things were changing in China, and that the old customs were slipping away. How could Han’s old grandfather, who stuck stubbornly to tradition, make his forward thinking, modern grandson marry a girl he didn’t want to marry? Han was a good student and far too young to think of marriage. In my eyes, the old man had been selfish in sealing an agreement with old Mr. Ding when Han was born. The girl had been two years older, and the two men had agreed their families should unite. In the world in which they had grown up, this was not only the preferable way to chose mates for the young people in their families, it was the only way.
“What more can Grandfather do?” Han said. “He’s already convinced father to go ahead with my marriage. He thinks that if I’m married I won’t have time for politics. Huh! What does he know?”
We sat side by side on the carved chairs and remained silent for a moment. Marry me, I thought, and I won’t care if you talk about politics or even become a communist. Han, who was taller than me, was able to plant his feet squarely on the floor. Now, he looked down and tugged up the edge of his robe so he could admire his leather shoes. “They’re so shiny,” I said. Han and I had discussed his proposed marriage so many times that it seemed pointless to talk about it anymore.
“I polished them this morning,” Han said. “I like to polish them.”
“Old-style scholars would have made their servants polish their shoes.”
“Old-style scholars wouldn’t have worn leather shoes. We’re different now. We stride around a lot. We exercise body and mind. We don’t just sit in our studies. That’s what was wrong with the old China, you know. Scholars refused to labor. Laborers could not read or write.”
“They still can’t.”
“That’s what they’re talking about in there.” Han jerked his head in the direction of Varley’s study.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
He looked away and bit his lip. “I don’t know, but whatever I do, I’ll follow my own convictions.”
“Are you a communist?”
He threw me a stern look. “We shouldn’t be talking about these things.” His eyes softened. “I’m trying to protect you, little sister. It’s better you don’t know.”
Footsteps sounded outside, and a round face with an unruly shock of hair peered around the edge of the door. “Han? We wondered where you were.”
Han flushed. “Liang Chu, please come in. This is Jane McPherson, whose father works at the mission where my father works.”
Liang Chu stiffened. “How do you do,” he said in English. I replied in Chinese. He gave me a stiff little bow and turned to Han. “I must talk to you.” He glanced at his wristwatch that looked too big for his thin wrist. “I haven’t much time.”
“Will you excuse us Jane?” Han’s eyes pleaded for understanding.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. In Liang Chu’s presence, Han seemed almost a stranger.
“Don’t worry about Little Gao,” Han said. “That problem will sort itself out.”
As it turned out, he couldn’t have been more wrong, but of course I didn’t know that then. I stood there in Varley’s Chinese room and watched the two young men disappear through the doorway.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The servants were upset too. Amah, always scolding and shrill voiced, now railed at the cook in harsh staccato notes, hammering away at the poor man, who, as far as I knew, had done nothing wrong. I saw the Number One Boy linger in the passageway. I assumed he was afraid equally of Amah’s rough tongue and my mother’s anger. The garden boy and the gatekeeper huddled together outside in a patch of sunshine by the gate. Normally they ventured into the kitchen for bits of food and gossip.
We lived in an old courtyard house in a secluded neighborhood east of the yellow-roofed Forbidden City. Previously, our house had belonged to a Chinese family of middling means who had passed it down through several generations. They eventually sold it at a low price to a missionary board of trustees in far-off America. My family moved into the house when I was only eighteen months old, so I had known it virtually all my life. At the time, the nearby mission compound had become overcrowded, and my father had agreed to move his family. I often heard my mother say how thankful she was for the privacy.
As I quietly poked my head in the sitting room I saw my father pacing in front of the Ming bowl that had been given to my mother as a gift a few months before, the sight of it coming in and out of my view. Its beauty seemed pathetically out of place in the dim of the room and among the shabbiness of our furnishings. American chairs shrouded in faded cretonne marked the outer perimeters of the room. A tattered, almost colorless patterned rug partially covered the scuffed wooden floor. Standing upright against high ceilings - that had been designed for tall Chinese cabinets - was a Seth Thomas clock, which my mother said reminded her of her family home in America, and you could hear it ticking if the room was quiet.
That morning, Mother followed my brother Will – tall and handsome, a model student, star athlete, and our mother’s pride and joy - around the house, demanding to know why she had overheard the servants snickering about a trip to a brothel. Will, red-faced and secretive, hounded by Mother’s relentless questions, finally broke down and confessed. Mother, outraged, called my father into the room so he could hear what Will had to say: My father’s oldest friend, Donald Bauman, had taken Will to a brothel in Shanghai, and Will had bragged about it to the Number One Boy.
“They think it’s funny,” Mother spat at Will and my father. My father replied in thundering tones, saying something about Will being sorry now, but what could he have been thinking about at the time?
“It’s your friends I blame,” my mother insisted.
Amah clomped down the passageway on her bound feet, coming nearer and nearer to me. Her sharp voice was not to be denied, calling my Chinese name, instead of my English name Jane. I willed for her to be quiet so my parents would not know that I was eavesdropping.
“What?” I whispered in Chinese, knowing perfectly well Amah wanted mainly to probe for information and to vent her spleen.
“What are you doing?” Amah demanded.
“Nothing.” I moved out of the shadow of the eaves so Amah could see me better.
“Your mama is too angry.”
“I know. It’s a terrible day.” Although Amah understood English well enough, having worked for our family for years, she and I never spoke to each other in that language. I was fluent in Mandarin, the elegant northern language used in Peking.
“Aiyah,” said Amah. She lowered herself onto a concrete bench. She never seemed to feel the cold; I thought this was because she was plump. I was slender as a Chinese girl and I shivered and rocked from one foot to the other despite that fact that I was bundled in my Chinese padded jacket.
Amah grunted and pulled herself to her feet again. “Come with me to your room. We will light the coal brazier and keep you warm. We cannot have you catching cold on top of everything else.”
I was glad to seek the privacy of my room. Like the rest of the house, it had changed little from when the Chinese family had lived in it. Latticed paper windows overlooked the courtyard. Their frames, now faded, had once been painted red and green. The overhanging eaves were decorated with painted animals and flowers. There was a plum tree just outside the window. It was ancient, but it still bloomed every spring.
I didn’t want to hear my mother say harsh things to my father or abuse his friends, the Baumans, whom I liked and admired so much.
Amah sighed and grumbled about what Will had done, but my mother had made it clear that morning that there was a lot more snickering than praying going on in the kitchen, even though all the servants attended Christian church services regularly. Amah steered me into my room, and checked on the amount of coal in the brazier. Although some foreigner’s houses in Peking had central heating by then, our home was heated as the Chinese had done for centuries to keep off the chill and the icy winds of Peking winters.
Amah turned from the coal brazier and said, “Young Miss, there is far worse trouble in this household than what your brother did.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“This terrible trouble with the Li family,” Amah said.
I crossed the room to Amah’s side, and laid my hand on my nurse’s plump arm. “What terrible trouble? Tell me, quickly.” I had just seen my friend Li Han the day before, and there had been no indications of a quarrel between our families.
Amah sighed. “Yesterday, your father dismissed Little Gao from his job. He did not first consult with Li Wutang.” Little Gao was a Li family cousin.
“But why? What did Little Gao do?”
“The other missionary’s wife, Mrs. Appleton, caught him stealing money out of the box meant for poor people.”
A hand went to my mouth. The mission kept a box for contributions for feeding poor women and children and anyone else they could manage to help from Peking’s teeming, dirty streets. The missionaries feared it was a small effort, a mere drop in the bucket, but coins from the mission box filled many empty stomachs, and even saved a few lives.
“Your father was angry and shouting. But he should have talked to Li Wutang first. Now the Li family has lost much face and Li Wutang is torn. Should he be loyal to his family or to the mission?”
Father called Little Gao’s Uncle, Li Wutang, his “right-hand man.” In fact, my father was patronizing Wutang when he said this. Wutang held equal status to my father; both were ordained ministers. In those years many Protestant-American missionaries in China were making an effort to “Sinisize” their missions, so their Chinese counterparts could eventually replace them at the helm. However, out of a long habit and ingrained relationships between Caucasian and Oriental, Wutang still deferred to my father and my father let him do it.
There was an unusually close tie between our two families. My father and Wutang had worked closely together since 1912, when my father and mother had come to China for the first time together. Not only was Wutang smart, helpful, and a dedicated Christian, but his presence had given my parents a reassuring sense of continuity. Wutang’s uncle had converted to Christianity under my grandfather’s tutelage. The uncle had died, along with my grandfather, in the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Subsequently, Wutang had been baptized a Christian, as had his uncle’s son, Little Gao.
Everyone in the McPherson household, including the servants, liked Little Gao. All made allowances for him because he was mentally slow, especially now that he was over thirty. As he had never married or managed to retain more than a few characters and so couldn’t read, everyone still called him by his milk name, which meant “Little Cake.” Lately, some young men in the Li family jokingly called him “Little Telephone,” because my father employed Little Gao as messenger boy. Proud of his job, Little Gao had done it well, running and panting through the streets of Peking, clutching notes and letters in his sweaty hands – nobody would have trusted him with a verbal message. Although people laughed at Little Gao, and he, having an excellent sense of humor, laughed with them, no one who knew him made the mistake of underestimating him. He was capable of fierce family loyalty, and he had a temper. My parents often said he was more intelligent than his relatives believed.
As soon as Amah left my room, I pulled my padded jacket back on. I knew Han had gone out that morning and I knew where he was. He had gone to the house of Ambrose Varley, who agreed to allow Han and some of his classmates to secretly meet there to discuss politics. I told myself that if I were the first to tell Han about the trouble with Little Gao and my father’s insensitivity to his family, he would appreciate my act of friendship. I also wanted an excuse to see him and to discuss a sensitive matter. I wanted to show him that I was independent and I could think for myself about things, apart from the opinions of my family.
I stepped out once more into the icy air, tiptoed down the steps and crossed the courtyard. When the gatekeeper and the garden boy, hunkering down in their patch of sunlight, saw me coming, the gatekeeper jumped up and pulled open one side of the double-door gate to let me slip out into the quiet lane, or hutong. The gate creaked shut behind me, its faded red-painted surface cracked and peeling from the long exposure to the sun on the earthen south wall of the compound.
I half-walked, half-ran down the narrow hutang alley to the corner market, and negotiated the price of a ride with one of the emaciated rickshaw coolies, who were wrapped in torn blue jackets and crowded around me. I climbed into the rickshaw, which as always, rocked unsteadily on its spring seat. I told the man to take me to Dong An Market. “I will tell you where to go from there,” I said. “Hurry. I’m late.”
“Young Miss, I can only run as fast as my feet can carry me.” The coolie shifted the poles in his hands and began to jog, jolting the rickshaw over the uneven ground. I clung to the sides and willed the man to hurry. There was little traffic on this quiet back street, and I could hear the flip-flop of his straw sandals and his ragged breathing. I could also see his breath on the frosty air. We rolled and bumped through splashes of alternating sunshine and shadow, following the line of the old wattle-and-daub walls.
The coolie stopped suddenly and lowered the poles, nearly dumping me out of the rickshaw, and began to cough. He spit on the sidewalk, picked up the poles again, and waited a second or two to catch his breath before pulling the rickshaw forward again. I looked away. The man was sick. I prayed silently: Please God, don’t let me be too late to see Han, and I promise to put money in the mission box the next chance I get. Thinking about the mission box reminded me again of what first Little Gao and then my father had done. Their actions threatened the foundation of my tranquil life in Peking. I felt a surge of anger, then fear. Oh hurry, hurry, hurry, I said again to myself.
The coolie pulled me out onto the wide, macadamized Hatamen Street. Here, the rickshaw rolled smoothly, passing others with people also bundled up against the cold. For a few minutes, my rickshaw raced evenly beside another bearing a Chinese girl who didn’t look much older than me. I glanced at her curiously and saw her flour-like, pasty make-up and finely drawn, cherry-red lips. I sucked in my breath. A prostitute, I thought. Maybe like the one Will went to. The thought filled me with awe, rather than repulsion. By this act, Will was now a grown man, remote and set apart from me.
The coolie dropped the poles at the entrance to Dong An market. “It is too difficult to go through here,” he said. His eyes looked stubborn.
“All right. I’ll walk,” I said. I was feeling too rushed to argue. Besides, the coolie was right. The market was packed. If I cut directly through and came out the other side, I could easily walk the rest of the way. It would be easier than arguing with the coolie or going around the long way. I climbed down over the shafts and paid the man, then turned and plunged into the crowd.
The noise was deafening. People crowded over the frozen, rutted ground, chattering and shouting. Vendors bawled out their wares. Two men argued furiously. Someone pushed on an automobile horn, over and over.
I cautiously made my way around a camel that stood placidly chewing its cud in the sunshine, its coat roughened and shaggy because of its winter growth. The sharp stench of camel dung hit my nostrils, mingling with the smells of meat and garlic being cooked on braziers nearby. I could also smell roasting chestnuts. All these smells overlaid the constant odor of bad sanitation, to which I was so accustomed that I rarely even noticed it.
I stood on my tip-toes to get my bearing. Across the low-lying buildings, I could see the yellow roof tiles of the Forbidden City, just two blocks away, peeking over its thick, reddish walls. I pushed my way past a tangle of horse-drawn carts, whose drivers, with shocks of black hair and wearing dirt-encrusted rags, cursed at each other and pulled at the horses’ reins.
The market gave way to an open street. A legless beggar followed me for awhile, expertly steering a wheeled platform that supported his body, and whispering a litany of pleas. I dared not give him anything; I was on foot and there were many other beggars around. A signal from one would alert the rest and I would be mobbed. I had been warned countless times that Peking’s beggars were a well-organized, hierarchical group, and that most of what I gave to a beggar would be divvied up among the leaders of the organization. My father defied this conventional wisdom and gave freely, but I was afraid to.
Suddenly, I heard the deep, rhythmic boom of a drum and the high pitch of musical instruments. Shading my eyes with my hand, I peered down the street. A mass of wailing, white-robed people was making its way toward me. It was a funeral procession.
A large catafalque with embroidered curtains swung into view. I lost count at forty men straining under the weight of its red-lacquered poles. The men on foot were dressed in white – all official mourners – and plodded wearily before the coffin. Female mourners brought up the rear. The drummers and musicians came closer. Now I could hear the wailing of the paid mourners. The natural noise of the street intensified.
“Eh, a very rich man has died,” a ragged old woman said in my ear. “Just look at the size of the possession.” She smiled with delight, showing toothless gums.
A man next to her grinned and marched in place. “Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll be so rich before I die.” Both he and the woman broke into laughter.
My father had once pointed out that the desperately poor Chinese seemed to enjoy watching such displays of wealth. They were eager for amusement and full of curiosity. “The Old One Hundred Names,” he had said, using the colloquial term for the masses, “have a vivid sense of fun. We in the West could envy their gift for life.”
I enjoyed the street life too, but as Han grew older he scorned such sentiments. He brought to my attention the emaciated rickshaw coolies and filthy children. “I am ashamed,” he said. “China is neglecting her people. They are hungry, dirty, and sick. Things must change.”
The procession paused to give the bearers a rest. I ran alongside the line of mourners, looking for an opening so I could break through the crowd and be on my way. I had seen funeral processions before, and noted that this one had an unusually large number of mourners and that the coffin, that dipped and swayed above the crowd, was of the finest quality.
Hurrying down the street, I nearly stumbled over an exhausted young mother in filthy rags, nursing a half-naked baby, and guarding a scrap of paper weighted down with stones, which detailed the sad circumstances of her life. The woman grabbed at my skirt with a filthy hand. “Give money so I can eat. My baby will starve.” She tugged at my skirt to draw me closer. When she moved, the infant’s head lolled unsteadily, making me wonder if it was even alive.
I jerked away from the woman’s grasp. Everyone, including Han, told me people such as this woman also were professional beggars. I ignored the stabs of pity I felt. There was nothing I could do for this woman.
Several rickshaw coolies vied for my attention. “Young Miss, young Miss, you must not walk. You must ride. Take my rickshaw. It is best.”
I shook my head and pressed on. Swerving to avoid a man bent double by the bundle on his back, I crossed the street. The rich man’s funeral procession started forward once again. Someone threw paper money into the air to appease the spirits. Later, the dead man’s relatives would burn the paper money, so he could be as rich in heaven as he had been on earth.
By contrast with the market, Ambrose Varley’s compound was an oasis of serenity. Varley was a peculiar, quiet American, who, like our family, lived in a Chinese-style house. Unlike us, he wore Chinese dress, the ankle-length robes and brimless hats strangely suiting him. Varley’s house was filled with treasures he had collected since he had come to China years earlier. Unlike other Americans in Peking, he kept mainly to himself, refusing to attend legation parties, though he was often invited. He spoke excellent Chinese, and was criticized by many of his compatriots, as well as by the British expatriates, for “going native.”
Varley’s number-one servant, an old eunuch, was named Chen Lifu. Chen had been driven out of the Forbidden City when the last Qing emperor, the young Pu Yi, had dismissed all the eunuchs, because they were stealing too much from the imperial storehouses. Although most of these eunuchs had managed to enrich themselves at the emperor’s expense, Varley’s old Chen had managed his own money badly and lost it all. His present life apparently suited him. Together, Chen and his American master combed the antique markets for treasures. Han told me that he had met the two several times returning from their forays among the curio stalls. Han thought the eunuch very odd and frightening, and insisted the old man had the eyes of a devil.
I heard darker stories about Varley: he was said to frequent opium dens and brothels. Once, he acquired a long-term Chinese mistress, but then my father stepped in and somehow convinced the young woman of the error of her ways. Some said Ambrose Varley despised her newly Christian views and had thrown her out on the street, where she had fallen to her knees at the gate, begging to be let back in. No one knew what had become of her. Someone in the American community said it was the first time a missionary had stolen a whore away from the man who kept her, and this was widely quoted, to my father’s discomfort.
In spite of Han’s repugnance toward old Chen, he was fond of Ambrose Varley, who loaned him books and listened to him struggle to understand the world around him. Inexplicably, Varley had now taken to allowing student activists to meet in his house. Han told me the day before that an ex-student who had since joined the communists would be at Varley’s house to meet with Han and some of his classmates from Yenching University, a school established by American missionaries. The students from Yenching, outraged at what they perceived as the Chinese government’s cowardice in the face of Japanese aggression, had become progressively more politically active. Several weeks before, they had taken part in massive demonstrations on the streets of Peking, and a number of them had been beaten by policemen.
I visited Varley on a number of occasions, always in the company of Han or Will, or both. We never told my mother when we went to Varley’s house. Although Varley knew my family quite well, was usually on friendly enough terms with my parents, and had even once given my mother a valuable gift – a Ming bowl – Will and I sensed our mother would have strongly opposed our visits to his house.
Now, for the first time, I was going to Varley’s house by myself. I felt worldly and adventurous as I hurried up to the gate and pounded, announced my name, and stated proudly that I wished to see Mr. Varley.
There is a park in Beijing, east of the vanished city wall, called the Park of the Temple of the Sun, otherwise known as Ritan Park. The Temple of the Moon is at the opposite end of the city, far to the west. The Temples of Heaven and Earth lie north and south. They remain despite the burgeoning city that grows around them. The whining and the pounding of the construction that seems never to cease – a sound like the heartbeat of the changing city – are muted in these temples. The noises there are those that have existed for centuries: Chinese people talking, laughing, spitting, and arguing; Children shrieking at their games. To those raised in the west, the Chinese are not and have never been a quiet people.
From a Beijing taxi I try to see more than the vanished splendors. My granddaughter, Ruth, laughs and calls me a romantic as I point out to her the vigor, the eagerness, the Chinese-ness of today’s China. I tell her all this was better than in my day, when only a few had enough to eat and the foreigners were encroaching from every direction.
Ruth asks, “Grandma, aren’t there still a whole lot of foreigners around here? Are you sure this is so Chinese?”
I chuckle and say, “It’s not the same.”
Ruth shrugs. She looks like a typical twenty-five year old American in designer jeans wearing a T-shirt that proclaims she RACED FOR THE CURE to aid breast cancer research. “Well…” she says. “I suppose they’ve done what they have to do.”
“Not very attractive, is it?” I say.
Ruth looks pensive as she stares out the taxi window. “I wish I could see the old city walls.”
Peking’s city walls stood for over five hundred years, and then Mao came along. “Out with the old,” I say with a tinge of sarcasm. I shake my head and straighten my shoulders. “In any case, I have come full circle.”
“Not quite,” Ruth says sternly. “Not until we see Li Han.”
My cheeks feel flushed. I dart glances from one window to the other, looking out at the city that I barley recognize. We move slowly through the congested city center. I point out Beijing’s famous sites. Tiananmen Square on the one side, the Forbidden City on the other, Mao’s huge features staring down at us from the famous portrait on Tiananmen Gate. Tian An Men, the gate of heavenly peace.
“Behind those walls,” I say to Ruth. “That’s where the emperor used to live.”
“I know. I saw the movie The Last Emperor.”
“And your house?”
‘You go up that street…not that one. It’s all so changed.” The taxi moves forward again, the driver jerking the wheel suddenly and moving us into another lane.
“That street,” I say pointing. “It’s up north of there. We’ll go there soon. I want you to see everything.” It suddenly dawns on me that my courtyard house may no longer be there. New neighborhoods and tall buildings are popping up throughout the capital at lightening speed. The lines of the perfectly centered geometric grid, that was determined dynasties ago, are barley visible.
The taxi driver glances at us from his rearview mirror. He’s middle-aged with white whiskers on his chin and missing teeth. When our eyes meet he gives me an open mouthed smile. “You American?” he asks.
I answer him in Mandarin.
“You speak Chinese?” He seems genuinely impressed. He then leans on the horn and makes a gesture at the car in front of us. He turns his attention back to me.
“I lived here as a girl. My parents were American missionaries,” I say.
The driver nods then rattles off his life story as I eye his laminated picture of Mao hanging from his rearview mirror. The driver tells me that during the Cultural Revolution he was sent into the Sichuan countryside for two years then joined the army. Now he works in a State factory during the week and drives the taxi on the weekends. He brags that the people in China work very hard. He says in halting English, “Before, people suffer. Now, they like work. They choose work. They have money.”
I think: China and the Chinese are irrepressible and indestructible; despite all the horrors of the past, they survived.
After my husband Chester died I announced to my son and his wife that I was going back to China. I explained that I hadn’t seen my birthplace since 1941. All I had from my childhood was my memories and a shard from a Ming Dynasty bowl. “And,” I said, “I have unfinished business to attend to there. I need to see Li Han, an old friend.”
After I retired to my room for the night I heard loud whispering. I listened as I sat on the edge of my bed, a bed I shared with Chester for forty-two years.
“Why does she want to go back to China where, you know… that happened?” my daughter-in-law said. “Besides, she’s too old to travel. It won’t be good for her health.”
I stared at my bookshelf where I kept my large collection of books of ancient Chinese poetry. My eyes glided over the names of the poets who have warmed my heart and made love to me in my dreams – names of men like Du Fu, Li Po, and Wang Wei. I grabbed the book resting on my bedside table The Selected Poems of Li Po, a book I am able to recite by memory. I held the book to my chest, hugging it as if it had a beating heart and could tell me things about the world and love. My poetry books make me feel connected in a world where I feel so disconnected.
“So they see each other. Then what?” my son wanted to know. His words echoed in my head and tormented me.
In the taxi I feel shaky. I pull out a hand-held mirror from my purse and gaze at my reflection trying to see something of my young self. My white, slightly curly hair frames my wrinkled face. I zero in on the age spots under my eyes and audibly sigh. Ruth smiles at me. “You look great, grandma,” she says.
I throw my mirror back into my purse. “I look old and tired.”
“You have jet-lag.”
“Perhaps I should have rested first.” But the truth is I do not want to rest. I have come too far to rest. I wish I could transform myself back to the days of Peking, before my parents were murdered, when I was young, when the Ming bowl was still intact.