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Suzhou River

By Cai Jun, and translated by Frances Nichol. Reprinted with kind permission of author, translator and publisher. The Book of Shanghai, edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li, is published by Comma Press, and available here.

Read in Chinese here.

It was afternoon, and I could feel my forehead and hair warming in the rays of the sun. The light had snuck into my room, and into me. Exhaling lightly, I eventually opened my eyes. I had no idea what I’d been doing lying on the bed, with the sunlight forcing my eyelids open, dazzling me.

Where was I?

I looked at the high ceiling and the blue and white walls. Set in one of them was a balcony, and through its glass windows, the sun’s rays created a languorous atmosphere that enveloped me, making me drowsy. Eventually I stood up and began pacing back and forth. The room felt unfamiliar. In the floor-length mirror on one wall, I caught sight of a mocking face. Seeing myself marching backwards and forwards, I felt suddenly disorientated. Then I noticed the letter on the desk.

Yes, that letter. Light was spilling onto the desk and the letter reflected it, blindingly. Bending down, I saw that it was written on some kind of special paper. It looked like Duoyunxuan brand writing paper, but on further inspection it wasn’t. I picked it up gently. Still in the sun, the glossy surface of the paper shone brightly, its white light making everything swim. It took my eyes a moment to adjust before I could gradually begin to make out the characters on the page...

My C, 

I received your letter yesterday afternoon. I’m so sorry. It was out of the blue, and at first, I wanted to ignore it. But it seems I do have a faint memory of you. Yesterday evening I was bored and had basically nothing to do all night. And when I was by the window looking at the moonlight, I suddenly remembered what you look like. Yes, it was you. Every morning, you walk past, below my building, and occasionally you wave hello. But you never say anything. Maybe you won’t believe it, but I do remember your melancholy eyes. I just hope I haven’t remembered your name wrong.    

C, you might not believe this either, but just now, when I was bored, I somehow ended up pulling out a map of Shanghai. I find it hard to understand why people would come here from all over the world to build a city this big, when all I need is a little flat. No, don’t come to my home looking for me. As you know, there’s a river that flows through the centre of the city, and there are quite a few bridges crossing it. I like bridges. I trust you do too. So, let’s meet this evening at 6 o’clock and I’ll wait on the bridge that you cross every morning.

Your Z. 

Early morning, 16 December xxxx

This was clearly a letter to me from the woman. It was the first time I had seen her handwriting and it was much like I had imagined. Holding the letter, I could still detect a faint fragrance radiating from the paper. Perhaps it was a special incense she used in her room or on her body. I took a deep greedy breath through my nose so the fragrance quickly filled my chest. Where did this paper come from? For some reason, I had just been napping. I felt confused. I had to think a while before I could find the vague memory that this morning, a child delivered a letter to my door. What did the child look like? Where did they come from? I couldn’t remember. It was as if it never happened, except this piece of paper and these words were in my hands.

‘Z’. She called herself Z. The last letter of the alphabet. Maybe it had a special significance? Or was it just a coincidence? Like how she called me ‘C’. But I had another question now. Did I write a letter? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Did I write a letter to her? Maybe it was her. Maybe it wasn’t. What I was sure of, now, was that I should – no, I had to – stroll over the bridge at the time specified. The 16th – today – at 6 in the evening. It was a suggestive time, filled with unlimited possibility.

I opened the glass doors to the balcony and leaned against the railings. The balcony protruded from the wall of the building like the defensive bastion of a city wall. The railings, made of iron, curled in a pattern at the corners. Honestly, I liked my balcony. I often sat there to read, in the lazy sun, the wind blowing in all directions, lightly brushing my forehead and the pages of the book. I lived in a six-floor building with dark walls and European-style ornaments. From my second floor balcony, I looked across the street. The north/south-running road beneath was so narrow I could see almost everything that went on in the glass-fronted offices opposite. Instead I turned to look northeast, towards buildings of various shapes and styles built by Europeans. Of the many windows either tightly closed or flung wide open, I knew one was Z’s. But I couldn’t see her, so I cast my gaze beyond to the furthest thing I could see, the arse of the Bund. I call those tall buildings the arse of the Bund because I look at them from behind. That’s the perspective I’m used to.

I left the balcony and headed into another room, to the left of the narrow bedroom: my bathroom. I didn’t have much of value, except in my bathroom. There, I had something that was the envy of many: a large, pure-white steel bathtub. In the bathroom, I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and quickly shaved my beard. Then I changed into new clothes and left the flat.

The lift for my block of flats made a whirring noise whenever it moved. I stepped inside and pulled the folding door shut. Next, the lift machinery sounded and the steel chains above my head slowly pulled up, lowering me down. Through the doors I saw the second floor slowly rise and the corridor of the first floor come into view, then the downstairs lobby. I opened the doors again with some effort. The lobby was always dirty and chaotic so I quickly passed through and out onto the street. 

The sun was just about managing to penetrate between the surrounding buildings, sliced into thin strips that fell on the road and streaked across my face. I took a deep breath and thought how the narrow road squeezed between the two tall rows of buildings looked like a deep mountain valley. I made it to the junction quickly. The road here was even more crowded. Looking up at the two rows of buildings in a mishmash of styles, I felt like I’d walked into a giant labyrinth. This was the right metaphor. The city actually is a giant labyrinth. The outer roads are spacious and wide, but if you come closer into the centre, over here, they are denser, narrower and windier. You can never see to the end of any street. Instead, you face constant forks in the roads and dead ends, or you find yourself going round and round in circles. They say that some people who come here never find their way out again. Like this European walking past. His face is pale and he’s tall, but extremely thin. He looks weak enough to be taken down by a gust of wind. I’ve seen him countless times before. He passes me silently, always going in the same direction. Sometimes I see him at dusk, and other times at dawn. No-one knows his destination. Maybe his goal is to find his destination. But he can’t find it, and never will, because he’s lost. So he keeps walking the same streets, day after day, year after year. He’s already a slave to this giant labyrinth. Actually, sometimes I am too.

After my brush with the poor European, I suddenly asked myself: Where am I going? I re-read the letter Z sent me in my head. The bridge. I knew that bridge. I crossed it every morning. It has a large steel frame on top, and a deck covered with cement and asphalt. From afar, it looks like an iron net has been erected above the water. The bridge rose up in my vision, spanning my path, and the road beneath my feet morphed into a muddy river.

I’d already crossed multiple junctions. The buildings around me now were all dark grey and surrounded me from all sides. At the entrance to one tower, I saw an Indian man, maybe a Sikh, with dark skin and a large beard. His head was wrapped in a red turban. He was dignified, guarding the entrance, at work. I took a few more steps and suddenly heard the melodious rising and falling tones of a bell. It was the sound of the Custom House bell. It often woke me early in the morning, but I was fond of it. The bell had a steamy tang, reminiscent of the fog that gathers along the river banks at dawn. 

I couldn’t go any further ahead, so I crossed the narrow road and turned into a small lane between two black buildings. I’d actually never been through there before, but I had a feeling it could be a shortcut. What I didn’t know was that a lot of people lived down there, between these two huge buildings. Wearing worn-out clothes, they went about their business: scrubbing bedpans, squatting with toddlers and encouraging them to wee, playing mah-jong. Yet they didn’t seem to care about my incursion. The sides of the buildings were so high that the ground beneath probably never saw the sun at any time of year. I looked up at the sky. There was only a thin sliver left, from which a bright white light quietly fell. As I walked further inside, the alley narrowed until only one person could pass at a time. Suddenly, the light dimmed completely. The buildings joined together above my head and I entered a sort of tunnel. The narrow passageway made me feel like I’d entered someone’s house: other people were living their lives just inches above my head. I heard a burst of screams and a gang of boys squeezed past me, forcing me to turn sideways and press against someone’s wall while their boisterous noise faded away. Looking ahead, all I could make out was a small spot of light, seemingly suspended mid-air.

I finally made it out of the under-passage. Blocking my way ahead was another narrow road, but on the other side was the embankment of the Suzhou River. I inhaled greedily, and the sunlight suddenly felt brighter than ever before. I thought that I should take a look at the river before I went to the bridge. Crossing the road, I saw an older lady on a small wooden stool bathing in the sun. Her face was heavily wrinkled but she looked content, as if she were soaking in a bath of sunlight itself. A strange thought flashed through my mind: This is probably what Z will look like a few decades from now.

I climbed the embankment and leaned over the concrete railings to look at the turbid water. The sun cast a golden shimmer across the surface of the broad river, concealing its original colour. The river runs west to east and flows very gently. Today, its surface was extraordinarily calm, with just a few ripples softly disturbing the brilliant sunlight. The reflection on the surface looked like countless mirrors smashed into fragments and pieced together again. The broken, gilded reflections pierced my eyes like shards of glass. But suddenly, something about the calm Suzhou River felt off. The usual endless parade of wooden and iron boats, solitary steamers and slow-moving barges tugged in rows like train carriages: where was it? Had the boats followed the current out into the Huangpu? Or had they gone upstream to dock alongside the fields fragrant with mud on the outskirts of the city? The river was lonely without its ships, I was sure of that.

It was high tide. I didn’t know if it was water flowing back in from the Huangpu River or the branches joining the northern bank, or if it was simply the pull of the moon, but I noticed the river slowly starting to rise. Maybe the river bed had become higher due to the accumulation of sediment and rubbish over the years, but the amount the river was rising surprised me, because this was the dry season. I watched the waterline steadily climb the opposite bank and immerse the parts that had always been dry. Still, it showed no sign of stopping. Gradually, the water reached as high as the surface of the road on the other side of the embankment, and then continued to rise, still covered in a sparkling gold. I suddenly realised that the embankments would not hold it back. Sure enough, just a few minutes later, the river had risen to just a few inches below the concrete railing. It occurred to me that if I stretched my hands down, I could easily wash them in the Suzhou’s muddy waters. It reminded me of my big bathtub at home, full of water and ready for me to climb in. Now was the time for me to reach my hand down to test the temperature. 

But I didn’t want to bathe in the Suzhou River. 

I quickly left the railing and jumped down from the embankment. The old lady enjoying the sun had disappeared. Maybe she’d had a premonition. I crossed the road. Not wanting to go back into that lightless tunnel beneath the buildings, I hurried in another direction. Suddenly, I heard a sound behind me. The same sound as when my bathtub is full, and I sit down into it, and the water slowly flows over the rim. I looked back to find that the Suzhou River had now climbed to the highest point of the bank, and water was slowly spilling over the concrete railings and soaking the ground. Actually, it was more like a waterfall. A long, dark – or rather, due to the sun, seemingly golden – waterfall, cascading over the wide stretch of railing. The water brimmed over the embankment and poured onto the road the embankment was meant to protect. The Suzhou River was spreading wantonly across once dry streets. I had to get out of there. I quickly walked to the junction and then hurried south. A few steps later, I looked back. Now it was as if a full bathtub had suddenly been toppled over. The water was coursing over the road.

Rivers have their own way of being. They’re gentle, yet powerful. Calm, but passionate. Now, I was watching the Suzhou River overflowing with passion. It was expansive, rampaging through the streets, beyond its embankments. I said before that this city is like a giant labyrinth, and that countless streets join the road along the river. The difference between people and rivers, though, is that a person can only take one road at a time, while a surging river can rush along countless streets at the same time. A labyrinth presents endless possibilities, and only the river can finally make its way out. 

The racing current was already knee-high in the streets along the river bank. When the forward charge of the water reached a junction, it simply divided forces and flowed further into the city. That’s the nature of water.

When I turned the corner onto a small north/south-running road, I discovered that the Suzhou River was now behind me, chasing me – maybe because I was an eyewitness to the water’s rise. I didn’t want to be taken captive by the river, so I ran away from its source. But it surged in close pursuit, never more than a few steps behind. I couldn’t outrun the river, and eventually it caught up with me. My shoes got wet. My socks and trouser legs too. It wasn’t sunny anymore and I finally saw the true colours of the Suzhou River. Those were new trousers that the filthy water had soaked. I looked all around me in panic. Nearly all of the roads were now invaded by the deluge. The ice-cold water was almost at my shins, making me shiver. My whole body was ice-cold. I urgently needed to get home, back to my comfortable flat and, ideally, into the warmth of my coveted bathtub.

I ran in the direction of home, the tall buildings still looming high on either side of the narrow street. What before had resembled a valley, now looked like a muddy river gorge. I crossed junction after junction. Each one had become a small wharf where the river converged before flowing off in new directions. The water covered my thighs and would soon be at my waist. I really didn’t want to have to swim down the street. Suddenly, I saw the Indian doorman. He was standing like a statue, still guarding the entrance of the building. His bottom half was completely submerged in the muddy water, and yet his top half could have been in the middle of the arid deserts of western India. I wanted to beckon him to flee with me, but I was scared I would be brushed off. Nobody can tell him to move except his master. I had to leave him and get myself home.

The river water had risen to chest-height by this point. I eventually ran inside – or rather, swam inside – my building. I couldn’t take the lift, so I made for the stairs. I ran up to the second floor without stopping, finally extracting myself from the river. After dragging my wet body into the flat, I peeled off all my clothes to prevent the filthy river water messing up my home and made a beeline to the bathroom. I have already mentioned my impressive bathtub. I filled it with steaming water and slipped into the piping heat. Having been soaked in the Suzhou River, and left trembling with cold, the hot waters of the bath were my only option.

Steam quickly enveloped the bathroom. My whole body was now submerged in the hot water, with only my head exposed. I shut my eyes to enjoy it, what had just happened almost forgotten. I would have liked to dream, but I didn’t sleep in the end. Half-asleep, half-awake, I suddenly remembered Z.

How could I have forgotten about her? Z and I had agreed to meet at 6 o’clock on the bridge. I couldn’t be late. But, there had been an incident. The Suzhou River had shut off all the roads, and I couldn’t possibly swim to our date (and of course, more to the point, neither could she). But I guessed she didn’t need me to tell her that. Maybe I should have phoned her to re-arrange. But I didn’t know her number. Anyway, it didn’t matter.

I was still in the bath, soaking in these daydreams, when a blast of cold air suddenly hit my back. The bathroom door was open. I looked at my flat from the bathtub. Incredible: it was full of water. Muddy water. Water from my bath? No. A split second later, I realised that this was the water of the Suzhou River.

Evidently, the river had risen much more than I expected, as high as the second floor. Sitting in the bathtub, I felt completely at sea. The river had spread to the edges of my tub and I was naked and helpless in the face of this reality. I removed the plug from the bottom of the bath so all the hot water drained out, and then immediately replaced it tightly over the hole. I knew what was going to happen next. The steel tub was not fixed in place with cement, just connected to a drain. Before long, I noticed that the bathtub was starting to float. The bathroom was already full of the turbid water, and the buoyancy of the tub was starting to lift it. There wasn’t a drop of water in my bath now, only me, naked and alone. Looking at the rising water, I resigned myself to my fate. 

Afloat, my bathtub carried me out of the bathroom and into my bedroom. It too was full of river water, of course, and some of the wooden furniture was starting to rise with it. I noticed a thick cotton-padded coat hanging on the wall, still dry above the water, and immediately reached out to grab it and wrap it tightly around myself to keep out the cold. Now bundled in the coat, I looked out the window. The flood had reached the level of the windowsill, and the building opposite was in a similar state. From here, it looked like I was in one of those canal-side towns to the south of the Yangtze. My bathtub had become a life raft with no motor. It carried me out of my flat to the balcony, although I couldn’t actually see the balcony anymore. The water was too muddy: the iron railings were completely submerged, and I couldn’t make out a thing beneath me. The bathtub continued to drift out, and I suddenly realised that if this had been a few hours earlier, I’d have been suspended high in the air right now. The junction three floors below me had already become a river bed. I imagined that river weeds were probably starting to take root even now, and that a deep current had already established itself between the two rows of buildings.

I lay back in my tub, helpless. I couldn’t figure out if I was actually floating on water, or flying through the air. All I could do was hold on tight to my coat collar, and make sure I was wrapped up enough to stop the icy wind penetrating through to my naked body. The bathtub carried me downstream. Those dark towers still lined the banks, firm and immobile. Familiar roads had become rivers, but they were still dense and confusing. These rivers were like a labyrinth too, forever branching off and turning into dead ends. I thought I had better find an oar so I could row the bathtub like a boat and control where I was going. I had always wanted to row a boat by myself along the web of canals to the south of the Yangtze, and listen to the sound of the women’s singing through the mist as they picked water chestnuts. But I never wished to find myself navigating naked in a steel bathtub, wrapped only in a padded coat. Yet I had no choice. Shivering, I surveyed the city all around me, submerged up to the second floor in this great deluge of water. I suddenly thought of the Indian doorman – no, the Sikh – probably still guarding the door at the bottom of the river. For some reason, I began to envy him.

All of a sudden, I noticed someone swimming by my tub. It turned out to be the European from before, the one who’s lost, forever repeating himself, going round and round in circles, on a never-ending loop. He was still trying to find his destination even now, only this time he had to swim there. His technique actually looked very good. He swept past me again, silently, as before. But this time, I think I was more embarrassed than him.

My bathtub continued floating. I suddenly felt like I was lying in a cradle, in the embrace of the river, being rocked. Where would it take me?

I couldn’t see the city clearly anymore. The labyrinth-like roads – no, rivers – kept criss-crossing, reproducing themselves. The endless walls of towers passed me by. It was as if I were on a river in the deepest rainforests of the Amazon. The only difference was, the sun had gone, and the cold winds of December were whistling bleakly past. Eventually, I began to tire. I pulled the coat tighter around me and slowly closed my eyes... 

I don’t know how long had passed, but when I opened my eyes again, I seemed to remember having floated across a vast sea. My mind was hazy, in a thick fog.

I looked around and discovered that I was no longer flanked by tall buildings. Instead, I saw two long river banks. 

Where was I?

The Suzhou River.

Yes, I was on the Suzhou River. Or, to be more exact, the bathtub carrying me was floating on the Suzhou River. There was already no sign of the flood. Only the river remained, neatly trapped in its bed by the two embankments. The Suzhou River is very low during the dry season, at least three or four metres below the tops of the levees. At these times, you can even see the gravel of the river bed protruding above the water along the river banks. The flood had receded, leaving as quickly as it had come. The absurd deluge had only lasted two or three hours, rapidly rising to the second floor and then just as rapidly reverting back to its dry season state, while my bathtub and I had been swept from the submerged streets onto the course of the river. It was a pity that when the flood retreated, it left me and my bathtub adrift down here. I yearned for a barge to trundle by so I could beg the North Suzhou-accented captain to pass me a bamboo pole and pull me along, or give me hot water to drink. But there weren’t any boats about. Maybe they’d all been swept away by the flood, my bathtub the only one left.

The day was drawing in and the busy city was acting like nothing had happened. It was just another dusk. Neon lights flickered, emitting a dazzling brightness. Not a single trace was left of the devastating flood. I looked at the sleepless city, and then back at myself, pitiful, alone, floating on the current in the middle of the Suzhou River. But actually, I had a flat of my own, and a great balcony. And most importantly, I had a pure white steel bathtub where I could bathe in hot water. Today, it even saved my life. But could I even get back to my flat and my balcony? Drifting along, my heart suddenly filled with despair and tears spilled weakly from my eyes. Perhaps I really was a weak person. Either way I was really cold now. 

Cold enough to freeze, to really freeze. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to bear it much longer and would impulsively pull the plug out from the bath. Within 30 seconds, I would sink to the bottom of the Suzhou River.

What time was it? The question came to me suddenly. Naked, with nothing except this bathtub and the cotton-padded coat that covered me, I had no way to tell the time. It made me anxious. 

Suddenly, from the direction of the Bund, came the sound of a huge clock. That’s it: the Customs Building clock. My god, how I loved this bell now. I counted silently: one… two… three… four… five… six. The melodious bells tolled six times. I looked at the darkening sky and the bright moon, slowly rising. It was six o’clock. As the moon rises above the willow, there after dusk we meet. I suddenly remembered my Z.

The bathtub continued to carry me down the river when suddenly I saw a bridge ahead of me. I knew that bridge. The tall steel frame stood firmly on top, its interlocking steel bars facing me like a web. I wrapped my coat tighter around me and carefully scanned the bridge as the current drew me closer. There was a woman in a coat standing by the iron railings. The streetlights along the bridge were pale but provided enough light for me to clearly make out her face from below, on the Suzhou River.

It was Z, my Z. Yes, it was her. She seemed to be about thirty years old – seven or eight years older than me. She had long, slightly curly hair that fell childishly over her ears. She was lightly made up, and under the streetlight, I could see that she seemed to be waiting for someone. She kept looking south of the bridge.

She hadn’t broken her promise. But neither had I. We both arrived at the bridge at the agreed time. The only difference was, she was on top of the bridge, and I was floating beneath it, protected from the elements only by a cotton-padded coat. I wanted to shout ‘Good evening!’ up to the bridge. But when she discovered a white steel bathtub floating on the Suzhou River, and that the bathtub held a man curled up in a coat, how would she react? I didn’t dare think, let alone make a noise.

Suddenly, I noticed that a man had arrived on the bridge. He seemed very young and was wearing clothes I’d never seen before. He walked up to Z, as if he knew her. She turned to him, smiling. Yet he seemed a little bashful, like me. Z’s eyes flashed warmly under the streetlights. It should have been a look she gave me, but she gave it to this stranger. Naturally, I felt disappointed.

A gust of cold air blew over and I could suddenly hear their conversation on the bridge. The Suzhou River had pulled me to within five or six metres of it. It was a miracle I could hear them speak. In fact, everything I experienced that day was a miracle. I heard Z say to the man: ‘Hello. So, it turns out you like to be on time.’

The man spoke in a quiet voice, a little timidly. Stammering, he said: ‘I was really happy to get your letter. Why did you want to meet me on the bridge?’

Did Z write two letters? One to me, and the other to him? I started to lose hope. 

Z said slowly: ‘I wrote that because I remembered the sad look on your face, and I like this bridge and the Suzhou River.’

 The young man seemed to hesitate, and then said: ‘Let me tell you a strange story. Today, after I got your letter, I had a nap and had a strange dream. I dreamt that I was coming to find you, and I passed through all these old streets from twenty or thirty years ago. I came to the banks of the Suzhou River, and found it was suddenly rising. Eventually, it overflowed its banks and spilled onto the streets, turning into a heavy flood. 

I had to run home and, because I was soaked through, I took a bath. But, the water somehow came in to my flat up on the second floor. And the bathtub started to float, with me still in it. I sat in the bath, and I only had a padded coat to wrap myself in. I floated out of my block of flats and along the streets all submerged in the Suzhou River. Later on, I don’t know how long, the water receded and I ended up floating in the bath in the Suzhou River. And everything had returned to normal, except I was still in the bath, drifting on the river. Then I woke up, scared and in a cold sweat. It was very strange.’

I listened to the conversation on the bridge, shocked. I looked up to try to see the face of the man. In the soft streetlight, I finally made it out. It was my face.

I trembled all over, and watched as Z and ‘I’ left the cold railings of the bridge. They walked close together, towards the south and the ever-hedonistic lights of the city.

Now the bridge was empty. Only I remained, in my bathtub, gently floating.

Wrapped in my cotton-padded coat, gently rocked by the ripples of the Suzhou River in the dim evening light, I finally slept. I dreamt that I floated out into the Huangpu River, then further out to the mouth of the Yangtze, and then out to the sea. Forever floating, until the ends of the earth.