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City Stained Rouge

Underwood is the flagship magazine for Underwood Press LLC. 

It’s about the craft.

It always has been.  Compelling stories that are well told.

We are a micro press.  And we are a craft press.  We have Vandercooks in our bones, a Chandler & Price in the garage, and Heidleberg Windmills in our dreams.  Letterpress printing is our past and our future.  The ink that gives life to the machines stains our fingers and runs in our blood…

The inaugural issue of Underwood is out now and features. amongst many other fine, fine things, City Stained Rouge; a new short story by J H Martin.

You can read the first issue of Underwood here.

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Photograph by Fan Ho (何藩)

The Ventriloquist

IN THE YEAR of Keng Shen, I happened to visit Yangchow. One evening a friend introduced me to a famous ventriloquist named Kuo Mao-erh. I invited Kuo and my friend to my quarters at the inn, where we dined and drank together until a late hour. After the meal, Kuo agreed to favour us with a display of his talents. A large silk screen was placed to the right of our table. Kuo took his position in the shadows behind the screen, while my friend and I sat in pleasant anticipation…

A long silence is broken suddenly by voices; two men are meeting on the road. The greetings are loud and boisterous. One of the men, older than the other, invites the young man to his house. They walk down a rough road, enter a gate and cross a small courtyard to a house. A door slams shut. Wine is poured. The two men talk and joke.

The young men protests. “Too much drink,” he pleads. The other laughs. More wine is poured. Cups clink. The wine is sipped and guzzled. The guest gets to his feet. He moves unsteadily and his host assists him to the gate. Laughter. Goodbyes. The young man staggers down the road. The gate is closed. The bolt slips into place.

The young man stumbles along. He slips, sprawling to the ground. Silence. A second set of footsteps approaches. The newcomer’s foot strikes something soft. A curse. A drunken groan. The newcomer reaches down, assisting the drunken man to his feet. He helps the man walk down the road.

They halt. The drunken man is half-dragged forward, then propped against a wall. The other steps back. “Ho! Watchman! Open the city gates!” No reply. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Others join in. Still more dogs add to the chorus – some young, others old; some close by, others a long way off.

The watchman shuffles along the wall. He climbs down. A large gate swings open. The newcomer assists the drunken man along. At a house, they pause. The newcomer pounds on the gate. Nothing stirs. He pounds again. Louder. The gate creaks open. A man curses. Wrong house. More dogs join in the barking.

The drunken man is helped to a second house. The newcomer pounds again. The gate opens. A young woman thanks the man for helping her husband home. The man chides the drunkard and then he takes his leave. The gate closes. The bolt slides into place.

The young woman, panting, struggles with her drunken husband. She drags, pushes, cajoles him across the courtyard and on into the house. She helps him into bed.

“Tea!” he moans.

The woman goes into the kitchen. A fire crackles; the tea hisses and it steams. It is poured into a cup. The woman returns to the bedroom. The drunken man has passed out. He snores. His snores rise and fall with a thunderous din. The woman sighs. She grumbles. She returns to the kitchen where she pours the tea back into the pot. Back to the bedroom. She blows out the lamp. She slips off her clothes. Now there are two sets of snores.

A temple gong breaks up the serenade of snores. The hour of the Rat. A cow moos. The bed creaks. The young man groans. He vomits, groans again, then he vomits again. “Tea!” he wails. The woman snores on. He mutters. Curses. The bed creaks a second time. Once again – two sets of snores rise up.

The cocks crow. First one, and then another, and finally many others, each one crowing in a different key. The bed creaks. The woman yawns. She pulls her slippers from next to the bed. They squish. She shakes them and a slippery, watery bile plops onto the stone floor. An angry cry. Curses. The woman reaches over; finds a second pair. She gets up, dresses and goes into the kitchen. Kettles clack, fire crackles and food is sliced and chopped.

Outside a pounding, on the gate. “Almost dawn,” a voice shouts out. “Get that lazy son of mine up. It’s time to slaughter the pigs.”

The woman shakes her husband. He grumbles, dresses and leaves the house to accompany his father to the pig pens. Food is thrown in for the swine. Grunting and squabbling, they fight over the slops. Sounds of slurping and of gulping. Water being drawn up from a well. Water being poured into a kettle. A fire crackles. Later, water boils.

A pig now squeals. The young man grunts and curses. The squeals grow louder. “Tie him good!” the old man warns. A knife is being sharpened on a whetstone. Now an axe. A desperate final squeal – cut off midway. Silence. The soft sound of blood flowing. Now an axe chopping bones. Now a knife slicing meat. Finally, meat being washed.

“Dawn,” the old man announces, “Time to set up the counter.”

Silence.

In time, there are sounds, distant at first, then growing nearer. The shuffling of feet. Loud voices rise. “I’ll have the ribs.” “How much?” “Did you save the feet?” “No, too much!” “Where’s the kidney and the liver?” “No, not that cut.” “When was the pig slaughtered? Last week?”

Coins clatter on the wooden counter. “Where is the head?” More coins clatter. “Some pork for a roast?” Fresh meat slaps against the wood. “Yes! That’s the piece.”

The sounds grow in intensity. Many voices join in. The voices and the sounds all blend – cutting, chopping, the clatter of coins, questions, answers, laughter, cries, insults – until they are all running together in a great, unintelligible jumble. Then…

Nothing.

Silence.

At last the act of the ventriloquist is finished.

Master of the East Pavilion

Translated by Gene Z. Hanrahan

50 Great Oriental Stories, Bantam, 1965

‘Master of the East Pavilion’ is a nom de plume, which has successfully cloaked the identity of the author ever since this tale was written; shortly before the end of the nineteenth century.

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Liu Hai

The Silver Ingot

When Chin saw that two of his sons did not believe him, he was all the more eager to get at the truth. So he asked his way to the village he had been told of in the dream, and there sure enough lived a Mr Wang. Knocking at the door and entering, Chin saw that bright candles were lit in the hall and sacrifices had been set out for the gods. When he asked the reason for this, the servants went to find their master; and presently Mr Wang appeared, greeted the old man and invited him to be seated. Then he asked Chin what had brought him here.

“Something is puzzling me,” said Chin, “and I have come to see if you can shed any light on it. But I notice that you are offering sacrifices today. May I ask the reason?”

“Recently my wife fell ill,” replied Wang, “and I consulted a fortune-teller, who declared that she would get better if her bed were moved. Yesterday, still ailing, she thought she saw eight big fellows in white gowns and red belts. ‘We used to be in the Chin family,’ they told her, ‘but we have done with them now and come to you.’ Having said this they crawled under the bed; and my wife broke into a cold sweat, after which she felt better. When we moved the bed, there in the dust we found eight great silver ingots bound round the middle with red cord. We have no idea where these have come from; but since Heaven has been so kind to us we have bought offerings to sacrifice. Now you have come to question me, perhaps you know something about this?”

Stamping his feet, Chin answered, “It took me a lifetime to save up that silver. Last night I had a dream too, and when I woke the silver had vanished. But in the dream my ingots mentioned your name and address; that’s how I found my way here. It is the will of Heaven; I can’t complain. But if I could see them once more I should feel better.”

“That is easy,” said Mr Wang.

He left the room, smiling, and returned with four serving boys each of whom was carrying a tray bearing two ingots fastened with red cord – the selfsame ingots Chin had treasured.

The old man’s eyes nearly started from his head, but there was nothing he could do. Big tears rolled down his cheeks as he stroked the silver.

“Fate must be against me,” he said, “if I am not allowed to keep these.”

Though Wang ordered the boys to put the ingots away again, he felt rather sorry for the old man. So he got out three taels of loose silver, put them in a packet and offered it to Chin as a parting gift. Chin, however, was unwilling to take it.

“I have been too luckless to keep my own,” protested the old man, “how can I take yours?”

He declined again and again, until Wang pushed the silver up his sleeve. Wanting to give it back, Chin fumbled for the packet but could not find it. He blushed with confusion. And finally since Wang insisted that he accept it, he bowed and left.

Upon reaching home he told his sons what had happened, and they sighed. He also mentioned Mr Wang’s kindness in giving him three taels as a parting gift; but when he searched in his sleeve he could not find the silver, and was forced to conclude that he must have dropped it on the way home.

In fact, while Chin was modestly refusing the silver Wang had thrust the packet through a hole in the lining of his sleeve; and by the time the old man felt for it to return it, it had already dropped out and rolled under the door sill. Later when the floor was swept, Wang got it back.

So it seems that each bite or sup we take is preordained. Chin, who was not destined to possess money, could not even keep three taels, let alone eight hundred. But Wang, who was destined to possess it, could not get rid of three taels. Thus, regardless of either man’s intention, a have became a have-not and a have-not became a have.

Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang

50 Great Oriental Stories,  Bantam Books, 1965

The Silver Ingot, from The Tangerines and the Tortoise Shell, is part of the Feng and Lin collection of hua pen literature; written between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. During that period, professional storytellers improved upon traditional tales, later transcribing them and handing them down as hua pen or ‘storytellers scripts’.

Liu Haichan

Liu Hai (刘海), in the painting above, was a fabled 10th-century Chinese alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from the Chan Chu (蟾蜍) – the three legged money toad sitting upon his shoulder – and became an immortal.

According to Chinese legend, the Chan Chu, or, Jin Chan (金蟾), was the wife of one of the Eight Immortals. However, when she was caught stealing one of the peaches of immortality, she was punished and turned into a toad.

Greedy by nature, she has a constant craving for money, and whenever people see her in their dreams, there is always a bed of money surrounding her.

According to the Chinese philosophical system of Feng Shui, the Chan Chu helps to attract and protect wealth, and also guards against bad luck. Because the Chan Chu symbolizes the flow of money, a statue of the Chan Chu should never face the main door (“outward”), nor should it ever be kept “in the bathroom, bedroom, dining room or kitchen”.

Liu Hai and Jin Chan by a Waterfall

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

 

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.” (from the preface to Forever China)

 

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

 

China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:

 

I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

 

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

 

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.

 

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

 

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.   Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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In travelling through Ireland a stranger is very frequently puzzled by the singular ways, and especially by the idiomatic equivocation characteristic of every Irish peasant. Some years back, more particularly, these men were certainly originals quite unlike any other people whatever. Many an hour of curious entertainment has been afforded me by their eccentricities; yet though always fond of prying into the remote sources of these national peculiarities, I must frankly confess that, with all my pains, I never was able to develop half of them, except by one sweeping observation namely, that the brains and tongues of the Irish are somehow differently formed or furnished from those of other people.

One general hint which I beg to impress upon all travellers in Hibernia, is the following: that if they shew a disposition towards kindness, together with a moderate familiarity, and affect to be inquisitive, whether so or not, the Irish peasant will outdo them tenfold in every one of these dispositions. But if a man is haughty and overbearing, he had better take care of himself.

I have often heard it remarked and complained of by travellers and strangers, that they never could get a true answer from any Irish peasant as to distances when on a journey. For many years I myself thought it most unaccountable. If you meet a peasant on your journey and ask him how far, for instance, to Ballinrobe? he will probably say it is “three short miles.” You travel on, and are informed by the next peasant you meet, that it is “five long miles.” On you go, and the next will tell “your honour” it is “four miles, or about that same.” The fourth will swear “if your honour stops at three miles you’ll never get there!” But on pointing to a town just before you, and inquiring what place that is, he replies,

Oh! plaze your honour, that’s Ballinrobe, sure enough!”

Why, you said it was more than three miles off!”

Oh yes! to be sure and sartain, that’s from my own cabin, plaze your honour. We’re no scholards in this country. Arrah! how can we tell any distance, plaze your honour, but from our own little cabins? Nobody but the schoolmaster knows that, plaze your honour.”

Thus is the mystery unravelled. When you ask any peasant the distance of the place you require, he never computes it from where you then are, but from his own cabin; so that if you asked 20, in all probability you would have as many different answers, and not one of them correct. But it is to be observed, that frequently you can get no reply at all, unless you understand Irish.

In parts of Kerry and Mayo, however, I have met with peasants who speak Latin not badly. On the election of Sir John Brown for the County of Mayo, Counsellor Thomas Moore and I went down as his counsel. The weather was desperately severe. At a solitary inn, where we were obliged to stop for horses, we requested dinner, upon which the waiter laid a cloth that certainly exhibited every species of dirt ever invented. We called, and remonstrating with him, ordered a clean cloth. He was a low, fat fellow, with a countenance perfectly immovable, and seeming to have scarcely a single muscle in it. He nodded, and on our return to the room, which we had quitted during the interval, we found, instead of a clean cloth, that he had only folded up the filthy one into the thickness of a cushion. We now scolded away in good earnest. He looked at us with the greatest sang froid; and said sententiously: “Nemo me impune lacessit.

He kept his word; when we had proceeded about four miles in deep snow, and through a desperate night, on a bleak road, one of the wheels came off the carriage and down we went! We were at least two miles from any house. The driver cursed in Irish Michael the waiter, who, he said, had put a new wheel upon the carriage, which had turned out to be an old one, and had broken to pieces. We had to march through the snow to a wretched cottage, and sit up all night to get a genuine new wheel ready for the morning.

The Irish peasant also never answers any question directly: in some districts, if you ask him where such a gentleman’s house is, he will point and reply, “Does your honour see that large house there all amongst the trees, with a green field before it?” You answer, “Yes.” “Well,says he, “plaze your honour that’s not it. But do you see the big brick house with the cowhouses by the side of that same, and a pond of water?” “Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it. But, if you plaze, look quite to the right of that same house, and you’ll see the top of a castle amongst the trees there, with a road going down to it betune the bushes.”

Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it neither; but if your honour will come down this bit of a road a couple of miles I’ll shew it you sure enough and if your honour’s in a hurry I can run on hot foot and tell the squire your honour’s galloping after me. Ah! who shall I tell the squire, plaze your honour, is coming to see him? He’s my own landlord, God save his honour day and night!”

Read more from the Personal Sketches and Recollections of Jonah Barrington (1827) here.

Download a PDF file from the Internet Archive here.

Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) was an Irish judge, politician and writer. His memoirs contain “scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. His Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background.” However, they must be taken with a large grain of salt…

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