By Jia Pingwa, translated by Christopher Payne. Reprinted by kind permission of Sinoist Books
Read in Chinese here.
Youthfulness brings with it a certain vitality, similar to what I imagine a wild hare possesses as it spends its days bounding across the countryside, either in search of food, fleeing some ferocious predator, or perhaps just racing as it is wont to do, carefree and happy. It doesn’t seem to know tiredness, nor feel the ache in its bones, no matter how hard it might run. At least, that’s what I imagine. I’m past sixty now and I feel a heaviness that once wasn’t there. I feel it especially when I go for mountain walks. The trail stretches out, winding its way through the mountains until I come to the halfway point and see the sign urging rest. I obey as though it were a command. And then I smoke. Naturally.
My daughter keeps telling me to stop; she chides me for smoking even more now I’m older. But I’ve smoked for forty years, probably a whole field’s-worth of tobacco, so I don’t know if I could stop. And maybe I shouldn’t. In the ancient past, it was often the tribesman most adept at keeping the fires burning who was considered to be the most reliable, the most trustworthy in the whole tribe. Fire was life. Now… if that was the case, then perhaps I too have kept the faith, I’ve kept the fire burning, after all.
I know I’m old. I know, too, that with age comes a longing for the past, a chance to relive memories. To think of what was. These memories, of course, don’t come easily, they pass by like trees on the roadside, more a blur, a fleeting shape, almost intangible. But they are there, the trees, if only visible through the smoke… the smoke giving them form itself.
This book, which in Chinese was published as Laosheng, meaning ‘old life’, emerged from these wispy trees; it curled its way up through the smoke.
My birth certificate lists my home, my hukou, as the village of Dongjie in Dihua Township, Danfeng County, Shaanxi, but in truth I was born in the town of Jinpen, about twenty-five li from Dongjie. As country villages go, Jinpen wasn’t all that small. In 1952, it was home to a PLA garrison, which had been formed out of the guerrilla bands that had been active in southern Shaanxi prior to the Revolution. The platoon commander was my maternal uncle, and they were stationed in what used to be the home of a former landlord by the name of Li. My mother’s sister had invited her – and her sizeable stomach – to live with her in the army compound. Nineteen days later, in heavy rain that seemed to pour from the heavens with a vengeance, I was born.
In those days, Dihua was gripped with fervour for land reform, and I learnt much later that my family received quite a bit of land. My uncle, my father’s eldest brother, was a political activist, quite an enthusiastic one at that, and it wasn’t long before he was recruited to be a Party cadre in the town. As a result, my childhood years were filled with stories about the activities of Shaanxi’s guerrilla troops before the Revolution, and the early efforts at land reform when I was very small.
When I was thirteen, I finished elementary schooling. The plan was for me to travel some fifteen li away to attend middle school, but before I could, the Cultural Revolution erupted and I had little choice but to drop out and start farming with the rest of my family. Two factions emerged in Dihua, both committed to the Cultural Revolution, but each often in conflict with the other. I witnessed these conflicts first-hand: those arguing that reason (wendou) should be used to further the revolution, and others advocating coercive, physical violence (wudou). Later, my father, who was a teacher, was accused of being a counterrevolutionary. Therefore I became known as a child of one of the five enemies of the people – landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists. I learnt then of the hypocrisy of the world. And, moreover, I experienced what it meant for simple farmers to live under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the strictness by which they would be forcibly reformed and become unified in thought and action.
Afterwards, by chance, I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Xi’an, and then to work, and write. For more than ten years I spent time in the region’s highest mountains, walking through its deepest valleys. And then that was over. The Reform and Opening-Up period began. It was unlike anything that had come before; it was as though the heavens had been turned upside down. And I went with the ups and downs until I arrived here, an old man.
This is my past, my life of sixty years, my fate. However, I often think about how I ended up with this life, this destiny. From one mountain to the next, there’s a path that stretches behind me, but when I stop for a moment under the sun and look back at what has brought me here, all I can see, or rather all that’s left, is the shadow of my footprints; I can’t really see from where I’ve come. Perhaps that’s by design, my shadow is just my tail, busily wiping clean any and all traces of my passage through this world; or might we say that fate leaves no trace whatsoever? If that were true, then it wouldn’t matter if the road was real or imaginary, it would still be a road, a path we’ve travelled. My only concern, then, would be whether or not I walked it. That is, did I even come by any such road, real or imagined?
Three years ago, I returned to Dihua, on the eve of the lunar New Year. I visited my ancestors’ graves and lit a lantern to remember them. This is an important custom in the countryside, and if lanterns aren’t lit for some graves, it means there is no one left in the family to light them. I remember kneeling down in front of them, lighting a candle, and then the darkness that hung around me grew even denser. It seemed as though the only light in the entire world was the one emanating from the small candle I held. But… my grandfather’s visage, my grandmother’s too, as well as the forms of my father and mother, they were all so clear! There in the darkness, I could see them.
We always curse the darkness and blame it for obscuring the world in front of us, for preventing us from seeing things clearly. In the distant past, the world and everything in it was whole; it was just that we lacked the eyes to see it. On that evening I came to realise something: it’s common to speak of life and death as being somewhere. We have heaven, we have hell, but that night, I understood both life and death inhabit the same place. We should acknowledge and appreciate that we come from somewhere – a place – that’s where our first breath comes from, from there we draw our lives. And when death comes to call, it is to somewhere we escape to and that becomes our grave, our resting place. Everything comes from this somewhere and the many vagaries of life happen in its vicinity, special things, too, we’re born here and then when we die, we cross over to the other side, or we’re born on the other side and cross over here… to somewhere… and in such cases, it means our first breath comes from the other side… and we float to here… are reborn here… we leave the bardo and return to it, only to be born again, over and over. The place where my ancestors are buried isn’t all that far from the town. It’s on the slope of a mountain, one used for grazing cattle. It’s not only my family that’s buried on this slope, but numerous others as well. The mountain is important to my family and many others, to my hometown it’s sacred. You could also say that it is from this Oxhead Mountain that we’re born, and it is to it that we return. It’s a sort of acupuncture point, I suppose, a place where qi emanates, clear and yet opaque, auspicious and yet fiendish. Can you imagine how many lives have come barrelling out of it, the many sounds and colours into this world?
From Dihua I returned to Xi’an and for a long time I remained silent, uncommunicative, often shut up in my study doing very little, except for smoking. And there, in those clouds of tobacco that blanketed my study and swirled about my head, I recalled the past decades, time seemed to flutter by, unstable, fleeting, surging in great waves of reminisce… the changes wrought on society over the past hundred years, the wars, the chaos, the droughts and famines, revolution, political movements upon movements, then the reforms and to a time of relative plenty, of safety, of people living as people. Then my thoughts drifted to my grandfather and what he had done with his life. I wondered how he had lived, and how his son had come into this world, my father and his life, and the lives of the many townspeople from the place we called home. My thoughts turned… churned… and brought me to the present, to my life and my future, to my children and grandchildren and the lives they lived… the lives they would live in the days to come, would this be what brings glory, honour and respect to life, or would it bring shame and sin? There had been so many changes, the vicissitudes of life lived, the ebb and flow, without end, so much came to me, especially when I closed my eyes, then everything seemed to unwind in front of me, even those things I didn’t wish to think about… my mind raced from things I had spoken of many times before, to things I didn’t want to talk about. To think of something is to be able to talk about it, and much of this stuff I’d written in my books, but for those things I’d not thought of before, had not spoken about before, I was sixty now… a not insignificant moment in one’s life… and I thought, how could I not have thought and spoken of these things before now!
All of this… this is what The Mountain Whisperer was for, that was its intent.
When I began this book, the words flowed easily from my hand; I was in my element. In those early days, I never once thought that I would become so bogged down, so sluggish as though some unseen agent was plotting against me, preventing me from finishing. Three times I put my pen down, unable to continue. I strained and tortured myself trying to find a means by which local history could return to literature, how narrative could grow in the spaces between words. The story I wanted to tell needed a certain form of elasticity, a certain flavour, but it was proving difficult to get what was in my mind down on the page in front of me. During this struggle, I found myself thumbing through Pathways Through the Mountains and Seas, an old favourite I’d been returning to more and more frequently these past few years. Now, it is also true that Pathways is fixated on geography, on numerous mountain ranges, on rivers flowing into other waterways, on the flora and fauna that supposedly populated these multiple and varied terrains; but looked at from a different perspective, one can see the book is about the entirety of China itself. The mountains and rivers the book describes still exist, it’s just that, perhaps, the ancient world was inhabited by many more fantastical creatures, amazing and terrifying in all their beauty, nestled among equally fantastical trees and mountains. Or perhaps the fantasy has not left us altogether. After all, there is still much of wonder in nature; the animals, birds, fish, insects, flowers and trees can still make us gasp in surprise.
There are many myths in Pathways Through the Mountains and Seas; you could say it was a time of myths. Or perhaps the book is being truthful, who’s to say? As for the stories we tell today, might later generations look back on our tales and regard them as rather simple, basic? While reading Pathways, I took many trips to Qinling. The best aspect of Xi’an is its proximity to Qinling. An hour’s drive gets one into the mountains, and the mountains themselves are as deep as the sea. Across the many ridges one can see numerous, small thatched cottages, places that would take the better part of a day to reach, perhaps longer. There are about a thousand men residing in the mountains, devoting themselves to spiritual endeavours. Qinling attracts them, you see, it always has, perhaps always will.
On one trip, I called on such a man. He’d been living in a mountain cave for more than five years, and while he didn’t refuse my visit, he wasn’t altogether welcoming, either. In fact, it was more that he ignored me as though I were some small, wild creature skittering about, or a wisp of cloud blowing through on the wind. I remember he sat at the entrance to his cave, unmoving, his eyes transfixed on the far-off horizon, on the countless number of mountains and peaks strewn disorderly towards the edge of the Earth. I asked him if he was looking out to the setting sun, but he said he wasn’t, it was the river he was looking at. I was surprised at his answer, and responded with another question: “But alongside the rivers and deep down in the valleys, your eyes are directed towards the tops of the mountains. How can you see anything else?” He told me then that all the rivers began there, high up in the mountains. Once again, his answer stunned me, and when I returned home later that day, I took brush to paper and started painting.
Each time I write a new novel, I paint a wall scroll, accompanied by calligraphy, as a way to further stimulate my mind, to encourage myself as it were. On this occasion, the title of the painting I produced was ‘Traversing the Mountains and Streams’. The rivers in my picture didn’t flow through valleys as I had often painted before. No, in this work they gushed forth violently from the mountain peaks, just as the old hermit had told me.
Not long after, I found myself in Qinling again. This time I paid a visit to another old man who lived in the area, someone whom I knew well, a family relative. He told me a great deal about the hermit, about how he was incredibly well known throughout the region. In the six or seven hamlets that dotted the hills, he was held in particularly high regard, accorded a certain prestige and respect. He was also famed these past dozen years or so for his services on both happy and sad occasions. In fact, so valued was his skill at handling such affairs, that even though his legs had more or less failed him and it had become increasingly difficult to trek up and down the mountains, this didn’t stop feuding families from sending men to come and collect him in a sedan chair so that he could preside over the dispute and seek a resolution.
When I next saw him, I asked how he’d earned such respect among the villagers, how he’d acquired such a reputation for rectitude. He simply replied that he’d only said what was just and right. His answer prompted another question from me: How could he so easily see what was just and right? His answer stuck with me: A man lacking in selfish bias cannot be wrong, even if he were to commit a mistake. At this point, I recognised this man as my teacher. After all, weren’t the stories I wrote my own particular experience of being? About good moral conduct? Not long after, I picked up my pen again and continued with The Mountain Whisperer. It was the fourth start, but unlike the previous ones that ended up with me putting down my pen, I didn’t encounter any more writer’s block. Three months later, the manuscript was complete.
Four stories constitute The Mountain Whisperer, each of them focusing on a different period in the past. Interspersed within the stories are sections taken from Pathways Through the Mountains and Seas, which records the history of the mountains and waterways, as I mentioned above. The Mountain Whisperer does much the same; it records the history I had seen, heard about and experienced first-hand. The former book begins by describing first the hills, and then the rivers. The Mountain Whisperer starts with certain towns and the vagaries of history in which the locals are enmeshed. Pathways limns geography, my book describes people.
From one perspective, it could be said that literature is a form of memory, which means it’s intimately connected to our lived experiences. Should an author, say, wish to write in a highly realistic way, then special care needs to be taken to ensure that connection to lived experiences is as accurate as possible. However, memory doesn’t always work that way; in truth, it’s more likely that it pits me against you, my memories failing to mesh with yours. When literature narrativises memory, it is representing life, and this representation must determine how things are written. In The Mountain Whisperer, I grapple with the connections between people and society, people and the physical world around them, people and people, which are all very complicated and entangled relationships; some are pure and warm, others are confused and filled with bitterness, and even more are riddled with cruelty, bloodiness, ugliness and great absurdity.
I know this all seems very remote, or at least something that is gradually growing distant. It’s in our character to easily forget the bad when good circumstances are visited on us. Wealth can make people think less of the times when they had to grasp at straws, at anything and everything just to keep going, but over these past many decades, this is how we’ve lived, this is how we’ve come to be here, this is our background. We’ve grown from bitter soil into bitter vegetables. The Mountain Whisperer consciously grapples with these things, with the circumstances of the nation, the world and the people who reside in it.
It’s not important for me to look upon history with a certain form of jocularity, although this type of narration and the means by which it presents the real does have the habit of returning in different guises, intentional or not. In the recent past when famine struck, elm bark and corn husks were used as meat substitutes; they looked like meat, too, but were they really? The vegetarian restaurants you now find in most temples don’t sell real vegetarian fare, or at least, that is one way of looking at it for they often use tofu and radishes and mould them into chicken strips with a pork-like flavour, so while Buddhism pays particular attention to not destroying what lives – that is, they don’t wish to kill with their hands – you could say that in their hearts they are committing murder, and isn’t that perhaps even more against the law? When writing reality, an author needs to be sincere, but nowadays that is often done by means of mirthful banter, or ridiculing the real and adorning their stories with a decorated reality, which means sincerely arriving at a real representation of life is increasingly difficult. To truly confront the real, we need to be genuine, and that genuineness situates us in what is real.
What an author writes will always be different from other writers; we each take our own paths to build the worlds we present in the form of a narrative. Like building a fire, the more wood is added to the blaze, the higher the flames. But the deeper the water flows, the more tranquil its surface. Flames lick and burn, they consume fuel voraciously. People and wild beasts can be seen clearly in the flames, and upon close inspection the ripples in the sea can suggest the true depth of the water, but it is only the boatman who really knows what to look for.
I once saw the paintings of Qi Baishi in Beijing. At first, people sneered at his whimsical approach and considered it much inferior to his contemporaries, but many years later, tastes changed and his true talent was recognised. This, in turn, led many to imitate him, but these imitators struggled with their approach: should they employ a more freehand style in what traditional aesthetics refers to as the xieyi, or should they use the gongbi style, which is more realistic, more controlled? To this dilemma, Qi Baishi had an answer: imitation had to be “somewhere between similarity and dissimilarity”. Now, if this were possible, who might be able to achieve it? Where was this in-betweenness he speaks of? Perhaps only Qi Baishi could truly grasp this facet of what he had said. Another artist from an earlier era, Bada Shanren, once said that painting the real, or the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, or trying to surpass these elements and paint the fantastical, the division between the metaphysical and the natural world was just a point situated in a circle. But then, where is this circle and where is the point within it? Knowledge of this is what differentiates great art from that which is not. Gazing at a mountain is to see the mountain, and the same holds true for gazing at a river. But the opposite is also true: the mountain and the river are not what one sees, and yet they still are. The reasoning behind this only becomes apparent with age and experience; these are the two things life is brewed in.
This is why the Chinese edition is called Laosheng, or perhaps it’s because the central character lives such a long life, or maybe I’ve simply borrowed a character from opera, or it’s a eulogy, or a curse. Age is a thief, but not death. That is, time loathes those who hang on for far too long. From another point of view, there is the old truism which says the older people are the less they enjoy idle gossip, rumours and lies. In each story in this novel, there is a character whose name possesses the word lao, which means ‘old’. The word for ‘life’, sheng, is also used in each story to name a central character. This was deliberate on my part. As we live, as the days pass, the sun rises to meet the Buddha, it sets to meet the devil. Wind blows until it’s tired, flowers bloom and then close, these are the times we live in, we’re a product of these times, which is to say the trials and tribulations we endure, the muddy paths we traverse, this is what life is.
My old hometown, Dihua, is on the southern slopes of Qinling. The sky is very blue there, and at the same time, there are often white, billowy clouds that hang in the air, like great balls drifting through the sky, or handfuls of cotton freshly picked. There are many valleys there, too, and rivers run through most of them. The water is so clean that it’s perfectly safe to drink. But the greatest, deepest impression my hometown has made on me, the thing I find most difficult to imagine, are the many roads and paths that now crisscross the region, some narrow, others empty, they stretch chaotically through the mountains like a rope winding its way around nature. At times, you can’t help but wonder who might’ve cast a net over the area, or who was holding onto the end of the rope, or its beginning, who it was that was dragging you, pulling you through the hills and valleys. As the mountain paths are revealed, so too is the character of Commander Kuang San in The Mountain Whisperer.
The commander is a long-lived character in the book, his later years being spent enjoying wealth and splendour, a very high position indeed. But it is the mountain whisperer who is even longer-lived than Kuang San. In Qinling I saw so many ancient trees, the cassias with large, yellowish leaves that draped down their trunks like finely woven baskets, as well as gingko trees with trunks so wide it would take four men to wrap their arms around them. I also saw the people who lived in the mountains, often busily rebuilding homes and there within their compounds planting many saplings. There are times when life can surprise and amaze you, and there are other times when it is cruel and vile. The mountain whisperer is like a spectre wafting across Qinling, decades upon decades, winding his way through the affairs of this world without obvious reason, without clear intent or form, solitarily observing the lives as lived but never delving in too deeply, never becoming too involved. Then, finally, death visits him. Everyone dies, and so too does every age. We see the world rise to great heights and then we see it fall. The mountain whisperer sang songs of mourning, and those same songs welcomed him into the netherworld.
After finishing The Mountain Whisperer in the winter of 2013, I locked it away in a desk drawer for six months. I didn’t seek to have it published, nor would I let anyone read it. I smoked, and the clouds of burning tobacco wafted around my head. I didn’t know what to think of the book I’d written. Were there parts that I simply had to write, other parts I should’ve left alone, or were there still parts I hadn’t yet included? What can be remembered is what’s etched in one’s mind, and one shouldn’t easily tamper with these things. But should you write these things down on the page, it does come with a certain feeling of relief, as well as a feeling of anguish. Reflecting on The Mountain Whisperer engulfed in my smoke-filled room, opaque within the haze, it is both about the past revolution, and also my farewell to it. The land is suffused with faeces, but its foul odour is not carried on the wind. The faeces, moreover, serves to nourish the land, enriching and enhancing the farmers’ yields. On this planet we call home, there is no mother to curse and complain about the difficulties of childbirth. They do not begrudge the excruciating pain of bringing a child into this world; rather they see it as a blessing, a great fortune.
Therefore, on 21 March 2014, according to the Gregorian calendar, what would have been the twenty-first of the second month on our old Chinese calendar, I celebrated my birthday. The Mountain Whisperer was my birthday present. I completed this afterword on the same day.