IN THE DAYS BETWEEN AUTUMN and winter last year, I went every day to buy vegetables. Twice, I was able to write a poem on the way to market, which left me both surprised and delighted. The first came when I saw the leaves falling from a French plane tree. One of the leaves fell very very slowly, holding its strangely graceful pose all the way down to the ground. I stood still to watch, but before it had touched down, I moved on so that I wouldn't seem to be staring blankly in the same place for so long. As I walked away, I turned back for one final glance. Afterward, I wrote this:
The big yellow leaf tumbles down
slowly, passing by the breeze
by the pale green sky
by the knifelike rays of the sun
and the dusty dreams of yellow-gray apartment buildings. As it falls toward the middle of the road
you can see that it means to kiss
its own shadow.
Its shadow on the ground
reaches out in welcome, reaches out
and seems also to drift to the side. The leaf moves as slowly as can be, feigning a middle-aged nonchalance, but as soon as it hits the ground
a hand baked gold by the season carefully palms its little black shadow as if catching a cricket:
"Oh, here you are!"
In the autumn sun
on the cement ground
they sleep quietly together
the leaf and its love.
Another time, I went to the vegetable market when it was already winter-time. The sun was dazzlingly bright, but there was a damp, clean smell in the air like freshly washed laundry hanging in a neat array from a bamboo pole. The colors and patterns of the padded cotton gowns of two children wobbling somewhere around my feet had a certain similarity: one was the color of salted vegetables, the other of soy pickles, and both were covered with a deep, dark oily stain formed of innumerable smaller stains across the front, resembling the proverbial embroidered sack in which Guan Gong, the god of war, keeps his beard below his chin. There was another child, cradled in someone's arms, clad in a peach-red fake serge padded gown. That precious splash of color was cradled between the accumulated dirt and grime of a whole winter and seemed all the more poignant because of the filth, like a lotus blossom rising above the muck. As for the blue of blue cotton cloth: that is our national color. Most of the blue cotton shirts you see people wearing on the streets have been mended so many times that they are a patchwork of light and shade, as if they had all been rinsed by t6e rain, leaving an eye-opening bluish green. Our China has always been a nation of patches. Even our sky was patched together by the goddess Nüwa.
A tangerine seller puts down his carrying baskets to take a rest on the side of the road, his arms crossed in front of him as he leisurely watches the passing sights, the whites of his eyes clearly outlined by the contours of his flat, round face. But, in the split second after I pass by, he lifts his head abruptly, his lips split into a gigantic circle, and his chant seems to reach for the skies: "Two for a hundred silver dollars! Two for a hundred silver dollars! Come on, fellows! I'm practically giving them away!" I often hear his song from upstairs, and yet I'm still startled out of my wits, for how could it be coming from this man? The sound is so huge, and yet just seconds earlier
he was standing and gazing quietly at the world around him. Now, he's holding his head up at an angle, his face beaming roundly like a full moon as he shouts merrily to the street, just like the Chinese in Sapajou's cartoons.1 The Chinese in foreigners' cartoons are always carefree, crafty, and lovably capable of laughing off the bitterness of their lives, so much so that it almost seems a pleasure to be swindled out of a couple extra dollars by them. And when you think about it, the delightful atmosphere of such cartoons is quite heartbreaking.
There is a Taoist monk who walks the streets begging for alms, clad in a great adept's cloak made of faded black cloth. His hair is worn in a little gray coil on the crown of his head, not unlike the massed curls of a stylish modern woman. With his squinty eyes and hair pulled back across his temples, his sallow face has something of the look of an embittered woman who's fallen on hard times. It is difficult to tell how old he might he, but because of malnutrition, his body is tall and gaunt, seemingly stuck forever in the lanky frame of a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old. He holds a length of bam-boo at an angle, beating out a slow rhythm with a mallet: "Tock . . . tock . . . tock." This, too, is a kind of clock, but one that measures a different sort of time: the time of sunlight slanting inch by inch across a lonely and ancient temple in the mountains. Time is like space: there are areas that are worth money as well as vast stretches of wasteland. Don't tell me that "time is worth more than gold." There are those who would sell their entire lives for a bowl of rice and find no takers. (They would even sell their next life, if they could, in the form of their children's and grandchildren's prospects for the future.) This Taoist monk has brought their worthless spare time into the high-speed bustle of the metropolis. Around him is a riotous profusion of advertisements, store fronts, the honking of automobile horns. He is the fabled dreamer of the dream of yellow millet, but he has awoken from his nap without actually having had the dream-and feels an altogether different kind of emptiness.2 The Taoist walks over to the door of a hardware store and prostrates himself, but naturally they have nothing to give him, so he merely makes a kowtow to no one in particular. Having clambered back
1 Sapajou (the pen name of Georgii Avksent'ievich Sapojnikoff) was a White Russian refugee who served as a cartoonist for the North China Daily News in Shanghai from the late 1920s until the 1940s.
2A Taoist parable in which a man lives an entire lifetime—brimming with intrigue, romance, worldly success, and failure-only to find upon awaking that it was all merely a dream, whose decades corresponded in the mortal world to the time it takes to cook a pot of yellow millet porridge.
up to his feet, the "tock . . tack. . . tack' resumes, and he crosses over to the cigarette stand next door and once again "makes obeisance to the earthly dust," kowtowing crookedly, his movements like the slow ooze of black water or the lazy bloom of a black chrysanthemum flower. To watch him is to feel that the dust of this world is piling ever higher, to know that not only will hopes turn to ash but anything and everything one touches will ultimately crumble to nothingness. I am rather carried away by this sentiment until I realize that if I continue to follow in his wake, he might ask me for alms as well. And with that, I hurry away.
The shopping basket of a servant woman coming back from market is full of coils of silver vermicelli noodles, like the unkempt hair of an old woman. There is another woman contentedly holding a crimson-lacquered tray piled with "longevity noodles" that are ingeniously folded into different layers, each suspended above the other. The bundle of noodles at the top is tied at the end with a peach-red strip of paper, like the red ribbon at the end of a little girl's ponytail. The pale rice-colored tresses dangle below, each strand as thick as a little snake.
Then there is the young girl who walks past holding a lidded wok. The handles on either side of the wok are threaded with blue cloth so that it is easier to carry. The indigo-colored strips of cloth look dirty but somehow make you feel that she shares an intimate bond with the wok, that "the heart connects to the hands, and the hands connect to the heart."
The hands of the apprentice in the butcher shop are swollen with cold. If your glance darts toward him as he noisily minces meat with a cleaver, it looks like he's chopping his own red, swollen fingers. A woman stands outside the counter, a prostitute who's no longer young, perhaps a madam in her own right or just doing business with a few other ladies of the same type. She still perms her hair, which sweeps behind her ears in a puffy cloud. Her face bears the traces of her former beauty, without scar or blemish, but still looks somehow pitted and uneven, and a little hesitant. She has a gold tooth, a black silk gown with rolled-up sleeves, and the loose threads of the worn sheepskin on the sleeves cling together in little petals of cloth, like white "maiden crab" chrysanthemums. She asks for a half pound of pork, but the apprentice busies himself with his mincing, and it is unclear whether he simply didn't hear what she said or is deliberately ignoring her. An uncertain smile moves across her face, and she stands outside the entrance, lifting her hands to straighten the tassels on her sleeves, revealing two golden rings and the bright red polish on her nails.
The proprietress of the butcher shop sits at a card table and lectures a relative just up from the countryside on the misdeeds of her sister-in-law. Her
hands are folded into her pockets and her too-tight cotton-padded gown and blue cotton dust apron seem to tie her body up in knots, against which she struggles mightily, stretching her neck forward, her jaundiced eyes widening with the strain. And yet this is the kind of young woman that the local newspapers would refer to as a "young woman of not inconsiderable charm": "Well, you might think that what belongs to her brother belongs to her as well and that his house is hers, too. And that might have been true before, but not anymore." Her tone is neither one of accusation nor of reproach, and her eyes hardly seem to register the presence of her relative. She speaks with a contempt as deep as the sea, and her eyes stare blankly into the distance, as if she were gazing across the ocean. Again and again, she raises her voice and lets out a shout, like spitting into the ocean and knowing full well the pointlessness of the gesture. The relative, a long-stemmed water pipe dangling from his mouth, clad in a Chinese-style short jacket and trousers, and resting one foot on a wooden bench, consoles her: "All of that should go without saying. It's not worth talking about." But she continues bitterly, "She even went and sold those two pork hides her brother had saved." She raises her face to point to the wall behind them. High up on the partition, a few hooks have been driven into the wooden planks, but now there is only a blue cloth apron hanging from the wall.
At the store next door, Shanghainese shenqu songs pour volubly from the wireless, also deliberating endlessly on the long and short of various family affairs. First, a woman speaks her piece, and then a man immediately chimes in with a loud and liquid aria of his own: "A man of my years isn't getting any younger. . . . If some untoward event should send me to the netherworld, who will be there to see me on my way?" I love to listen, my ears like fish in water, swimming in the music of his words. Turning the corner, the street suddenly becomes bleak. There is a red wall directly ahead, bricks painted in large clumsy white characters edged in blue with the name of an elementary school. Inside the campus grows a profusion of tall and desolate white trees. The gleaming white sky behind them turns the slightly slanted trunks a pale green. The radio is still playing shenqu, but the lyrics are no longer audible. I remember the lyrics from the beginning of a song cycle that I once read in a songbook: "With the first drum beat from the watchtower, the world falls quiet. . . . The tower is dark when the second watch sounds. . . . At the third watch, the tower is even more desolate. . . ." The tone of the first line is imposingly grand, and I am very fond of the majestic images it calls to mind: of the China that has come down to us from the empires of the Han and Tang, of cities lit by a multitude of lamps slowly falling quiet with the sound of a drum.
I am holding a mesh shopping bag full of cans and bottles. There are two covered ceramic bowls full of tofu and soybean paste that need to be held upright, and a big bundle of cabbage hearts that needs to be kept at an angle so that it doesn't crush the eggs underneath. In short, I can proceed only with the greatest of difficulty. Although the rays of the winter sun are weak, it is noon, and I have walked quite a distance in the sun, so that its beams are like bees buzzing unrelentingly overhead, which makes me break into an itchy sort of sweat. I am truly happy to be walking underneath a Chinese sun. And I like feeling that my hands and legs are young and strong. And all this seems to be connected together, but I don't know why. In these happy moments-the sound of the wireless, the colors of the streets-a portion of all this seems to belong to me, even if what sinks sadly to the ground is also Chinese silt. At bottom, this is China after all.
When I get home, even before I have had a chance to pile the groceries in the kitchen, I sit down at the desk. Never before have I written anything so quickly; even I'm a bit shocked. After some revision, what I have is this:
My road passes
across the land of my country.
Everywhere the chaos of my own people;
patched and patched once more, joined and joined again, a people of patched and colored clouds.
I am truly happy to bask in the sun back from market,
weighed down by my three meals for the day.
The first drumbeats from the watchtower settle all under heaven, quieting the hearts of the people;
the uneasy clamor of voices begins to sink,
sink to the bottom .
China, after all.