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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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Master Nan Huai-ch’in Performs Tai Chi Ch’uan (1969)
南懷瑾先生示範太極拳 (民國58年)

 

Nanhuaijin-tai-chi-quan-1969

 

In his youth, Master Nan Huai-ch’in [Nan Huaijin] was well known for his martial arts skills, skills which he retained well into his old age, as can be seen from a number of recordings available online. In early 2012, during a memorial talk, an early recording of Master Nan performing Tai Chi Ch’uan [taijiquan] was mentioned, and described as being difficult, if not impossible, to find. The speaker, Mr Zhou Xunnan, had this to say:

 

周勳男老師:南老師拍過打太極拳的錄影帶,是有美國人要學太極拳,特別請南老師到野柳,野柳當時還很荒涼,不像現在成了觀光區,南老師就在迎接太陽剛從海邊升上來的情景下打了一套太極。他穿著長袍打,打得很漂亮。這錄影帶現在台灣大概不容易找到,因為這是傳到美國當教學用的唯一南老師展現武功的帶子。

 

Nan_Taiji_1

 

“Master Nan was recorded performing Tai Chi on videotape as an American student of his wished to learn and had specially asked Master Nan to come to Yehliu [for the shoot]. In those days, Yehliu was a rather desolate place, not at all like the tourist attraction it has become now. Master Nan greeted the sun rising from the sea with a Tai Chi form. He wore a long scholar’s robe and performed most beautifully. This recording must be very difficult to find in Taiwan nowadays because the only copy of this video of Master Nan demonstrating martial arts was sent to America for teaching purposes.”

 

Nan_Taiji_3

 

However, the recording in question, has recently been placed online courtesy of the filmmaker, Tom Davenport.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/90353185″>T’ai Chi Ch’uan 1969 from Folkstreams on Vimeo.

 

 

Mr Davenport describes the history of this recording as follows:

 

“This film was the one of the first (if not the first film) made on T’ai Chi in the USA. In 1969, very few Americans knew anything about it. I had been in Taiwan as a Chinese language student with the East West Center at the University of Hawaii and had returned for another year there as a photographer. During that year, I met Nan Huai-Jin who was a Buddhist scholar living in Taipei, and like many others from mainland China, was a refugee who had fled there in 1949 when the communists took over China. I had become interested in Zen Buddhism (Ch’an) Buddhism — an interest and a practice that has continued since — and had met Professor Nan through another American friend who had attended a seven day Ch’an retreat with him. I was about 28 years old.

 

My interest in T’ai Chi at this time was mostly as a form of meditation. Americans who were interested in modern dance were also interested in T’ai Chi, and this film was picked up by the Donnell Library in New York City which was one of main collectors of new independent films. It was my first film and was funded by the John D Rockefeller III foundation.

 

The audio track was done by my Yale Classmate Tom Johnson, who is a minimalist composer now living in France. He was experimenting with electronic “white noise” which here sounds like the sea, and used clappers and wind chimes to punctuate the white noise.

 

The film was made on 16mm black and white film and shot with an old Bell and Howell camera, that was designed as combat camera during WWII. In those days, the Nationalist Chinese were fearful of a communist invasion. We shot the film on the northeast coast about a half day from Taipei. I remember that a soldier who was guarding the coast tried to stop us, but Professor Nan knew someone high-up in the military and he talked to the soldier and eventually we got permission from him.”

 

The location where the film was shot, Yehliu [Yeliu], in northern Taiwan, now a national park, is the site of some very distinctive rock formations. The island visible in the background is Keelung Islet.

 

Nan_Taiji_2

 

Filmmaker Tom Davenport is the founder of Folkstreams. He began his Zen practice in the late 1960s and leads the Delaplane Zen Group in Northern Virginia.

 

View another short piece by Tom Davenport, ‘Bodhidharma’s Shoe’, an account of a seven-day Zen retreat.

 

View another recording of Master Nan demonstrating Tai Chi:

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Wang Hui - Peach-Blossom-Fishing-Boat-1

Peach Blossom Springs

In the Taiyuan period of the Jin Dynasty (AD 376-396), there was a man from Wuling, who was a fisherman by trade.

One day, he was fishing his way up a stream in his small wooden boat. Not paying attention to how far he’d gone, he suddenly came upon a wood of peach trees that he had never seen or heard of before. On both banks for several hundred yards there were no other kinds of trees either, and the fragrant grasses beneath their boughs, were patterned with peach blossom, and peach blossom only.

Surprised yet filled with curiosity, the fisherman went on further, determined to find out more about this wood. He found that the end of the wood and the source of the stream both came together at the foot of a cliff, and in this cliff there was a small cave, in which there seemed to be a faint light. Leaving his boat, the fisherman went in through the mouth of the cave. At first, it was very narrow, only just wide enough for a man, but after forty or fifty yards, it then widened out again, and the fisherman found himself back out in the open.

The place that the fisherman had come to was level and spacious. There were houses and cottages, all arranged in a planned order; there were fine fields and beautiful pools; there were mulberry trees, bamboo groves, and many other kinds of shrubs and trees; there were raised pathways round the fields; and the fisherman could hear the sound of chickens and dogs, in all the four directions.

Going to and fro in all of this, were people, both men and women, busy working and planting vegetables, herbs, flowers and spices. Their dress was not unlike the people who lived outside, but all of them, whether they were old people with white hair, or children with their black hair tied up in a knot, all of them wore smiles that spoke of their contentment, not only with their surroundings but also with themselves and the other people there.

When they saw the fisherman, they were amazed and asked him where he had come from. Intrigued by where that was, and what people did there, they then asked him other things about his daily life. Delighting in the fisherman’s answers and in his good company, the villagers then asked him to join them in their homes, where they put jugs of wine in front of him, killed chickens and prepared a sumptuous array of spice laden dishes in the fisherman’s honour.

When the other people in the village heard about this visitor, they also came to ask the fisherman questions. They told him that their ancestors had escaped from the wars and confusion in the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Bringing their wives and children with them, all the people of their district had reached this inaccessible place, and had never left it since. Because of this, they had lost all contact with the world outside. They asked the fisherman what dynasty it was now.

“What?” they said. They hadn’t even heard of the Han, let alone the Wei or Jin. So, the fisherman then explained to them everything he could of the world he knew, and on hearing about all these changes and upheavals in the world outside, the villagers all sighed with deep sorrow.

Afterwards, yet more villagers invited the fisherman to visit them in their homes and to talk with them more. Accepting their offers gladly, the fisherman stayed on in the village for several more days, feasting on freshly prepared food and enjoying their generous hospitality.

Finally, the time came for the fisherman to return home. Before he departed, the villagers all gathered round the fisherman and implored of him,  “Please, never speak to anyone outside, about this place or us!”

Nodding, the fisherman bade them all farewell.

Heading out through the cave, the fisherman found his small boat and then set off for home, following the same route as he had taken there. However, this time, he left marks, as he traveled home, to ensure that if he wanted to, the fisherman could find his way back to that wood of peach trees, and, in turn, the village and its people.

When the fisherman got back to the provincial town he called on the prefect and told him all about his experience. More than intrigued, the prefect at once sent for a group of men to accompany him on his own journey to this wondrous place. Yet, even though the fisherman was with the prefect and his men, they could not follow the marks he had left. Completely confused, as to which way was what, and what way was which, they had no choice but to give up their search and return to their small town.

Upon hearing of this matter, Liu Ziji, a highly reputed scholar from Nanyang, quickly offered, with the utmost enthusiasm, to go out with the fisherman and try once more to find a way back there. But this, alas, came to nothing either, for he fell ill and died.

After that, no one went to look for the stream anymore.

Tao Yuanming [陶淵明]

Translation: Gladys Yang

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The Song of Experiencing the Tao

證道歌

Yung-ch’ia Hsuan-chueh

[Yòngjiā Xuānjué]

永嘉玄覺

 

Yung-Chia

 

“There exists … a curious collection of songs composed by the southern school of the Ch’an Buddhists known as the School of Shen-hui. According to tradition, the songs were composed by a monk from Yung-chia in Chekiang called Hsuan-chueh, who was known to be alive in the year 713. But whether he was the real author of the forty-six Buddhist songs attributed to him is still uncertain.”

 

I

 

The roar of the lion is the fearless man speaking:

When the beasts hear it, their skulls crack open.

Hearing it, stampeding elephants lose their majestic powers.

Only the gods and dragons rejoice when it is heard in meditation.

 

II

 

He meditates when walking and when sitting.

Silent, speaking, moving, resting, his body is at peace.

In the face of pointed swords he remains eternally calm.

Many Kalpas ago our Master met Dipamkara, (1)

But already he was the “patient sufferer.” (2)

 

III

 

Purify the five eyes, possess the five powers.

If once you have known truth, you know the unknown.

In a mirror the body’s shape is easily discerned,

But in vain can you grasp the moon on the water.

 

IV

 

They walk alone, and they are together –

Along the road to Nirvana, the Perfect Ones

With antique minds, pure-hearted, high-spirited,

With sunken cheekbones, despised by the common people.

 

V

 

Wander the streams and oceans, cross mountains and rivers,

Search for the Way, call upon masters, desire to enter the Tao.

No sooner have you come to Ts’ao-hsi, (3)

You will know that neither birth nor death has any meaning.

 

VI

 

The moon shines on the river, pines sigh in the wind.

What happens in the quietness of eternal night?

My heart is confirmed in its pure Buddhahood.

My body is clothed in dust, dew, clouds and sunset.

 

VII

 

An alms bowl subdues a dragon, a stick defeats tigers.

The two sets of gold rings sound ling-ling.

The priest does not carry his stick to no purpose.

It is the stick of the Tathagata, (4) a holy relic.

 

VIII

 

In the forest of sandalwood, only the trees grow.

The lion runs wild in these thickets.

In the silence of the forests none dares oppose him.

The birds fly away, the animals run from him.

 

IX

 

The baby lion was ahead of the common herd.

When three years old, he roared tremendously.

Though the jackals compete with the King of the Law (5)

And shout for a hundred years, they exist to no purpose.

 

X

 

Let them slander me: I remain unmoved.

Who tries to burn the sky only wearies himself.

I drink the words of the slanderer as though they were dew.

They purge me; suddenly I enter the Ineffable.

 

If you find any virtue in evil words,
Then the slanderer becomes your spiritual guide.

Let neither offense nor slander provoke hatred in you.

How otherwise can the power of divine endurance be beheld?

 

Footnotes:

  1. One of the Buddhas of the Past.
  2. The story of the “patient sufferer” is told in the Diamond Sutra.
  3. 漕溪, Caoxi. The town where the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, was located.
  4. I.e. the Buddha.
  5. 法王, King of the Law, or Dharma.

 

Zheng_Dao_Ge

Stele at the Six Banyan Trees Temple, Guangzhou.

 

 

Notes:

 

The foregoing text, the Zhengdao Ge, was excerpted from the work “The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry” edited by Robert Payne. It is also called “The Song of Enlightenment” and is well known by its Japanese name, the Shōdōka. Its author, Chan Master Yongjia, was a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School, Huineng, and this poem occupies an important place in the literature of Zen.

 

The White Pony” was published in 1947 and subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions. It remains an excellent anthology. Payne compared his rendering with a prior translation by Walther Liebenthal, published in Monumenta Serica, VI, 1941. The footnotes have been slightly modified.

 

white_pony

‘The White Pony’ paperback edition.

 

 

The second illustration is of a stele engraved with this poem in the Six Banyan Trees Temple in Guangzhou, China.

 

Interested readers will fruitfully consult this page, which contains various different translations of the same collection of poems in its entirety, by translators such as D.T. Suzuki, and Charles Luk, among others.

永嘉玄覺 Yongjia Xuanjue (665–713) 證道歌 Zhengdao ge

 

The Chinese text may be read in beautiful calligraphy here:

憨山大師書法《永嘉證道歌》

 

Read more about Robert Payne in China here:

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Gu Temple

The Abbot

[和尚灯]

In the spring of 2003, while climbing Fengqi Mountain [凤栖山], about sixty kilometers west of Chengdu, my friends and I stumbled upon an ancient Buddhist temple hidden in a thicket of trees. Guangyan Temple [光严禅院], also known as the Gu Temple [古寺], harkens back to the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD). Built on the slopes of a mountain, the temple is divided into two parts: an upper and a lower section. In the upper section, I encountered a scene of neglect: overgrown plots of grass, and crumbling pagodas, which housed the bones of deceased Buddhists. Two halls of worship were in ruins. In contrast, the lower section was abuzz with the noise of activity generated by a long stream of worshippers and tourists. The chanting and the strong smell of incense wafting from the newly renovated halls reminded me of its recent prosperity.

The then 103-year-old Master Deng Kuan [灯宽法师] was the abbot in the Gu Temple. He lived in a spartan room at the back of the lower courtyard. Unlike those abbots in the movies, Master Deng Kuan didn’t look distinguished at all: he was short, with small eyes, and always wore a yellowish woolen hat. He had to sit by an electric heater all the time because he was extremely sensitive to cold. The master was a heavy smoker and puffed on his tobacco pipe every few minutes. At the urging of his nephew, he also took a couple of sips of milk through a straw. He was extremely hard of hearing. Each time I asked a question, I had to shout in his ear. Eventually, after much shouting, coupled with occasional interpretations by his nephew, I managed to piece together this interview.

In September of 2005, one year after this interview was completed, I read in a local newspaper that Master Deng Kuan had passed away. [Note: Liao visited the temple on a number of occasions.]

* * *

Master Deng Kuan

LIAO YIWU: Master, you look really good, very healthy.

MASTER DENG KUAN (DK): I was just hospitalized for two months in Chengdu. I’m falling apart. My body is stiff. Amitabha, Merciful Buddha. Now that I can’t move around that much, I have a lot of time for meditating and thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that have happened to me in this life. Unfortunately, I’m only lucid half of the time. Some days, I’m so out of it that I have no idea where I am, what day it is, and who is standing beside me.

Have you read anything about our temple? In the Ming dynasty [1368–1644], Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gifted this temple with an official name, “Guangyan Buddhist Temple.” Later on, Master Wu Kong [悟空祖师], Emperor Zhu’s uncle, became enlightened at this temple. If we count him as our first abbot, I’m now the eighth abbot in the past six hundred years.

I was born in 1900 when China was still under the Qing emperor Guangxu. My secular name was Chen Jingrong. Since my family was poor, my parents sent me to this temple at the age of seven so I could get fed. So that was how I started out as a monk. My teacher, Master Zu Run, was an eminent monk in the region. He was well-known for his knowledge and his righteousness. Apart from teaching me the Buddhist scriptures, he also invited scholars to the temple to teach all the young novices how to read and write. Thanks to him, I grasped the basic literacy skills in a few years.

In 1928, I walked over ninety kilometers to Chengdu to get ordained in a big temple there. Following my ordination, I was enrolled at a Buddhist school run by Master Chan An. After I graduated in 1930, I studied at two more temples, and continued to receive guidance from various eminent monks. In 1944, after a decade and a half of traveling and studying, I returned to the Gu Temple. Initially, I worked as an official greeter, coordinating daily worshipping activities. In 1947, I was promoted to be the abbot. I stayed in that position until the Communist takeover in 1949.

LIAO: Your life has spanned the entire twentieth century. If we use 1949 as a dividing line, your life is pretty much divided into two equal phases. But you seem to play down the first half of your life with only a couple of sentences.

DK: When you turn one hundred, and look back on the early part of your life, a couple of sentences are sufficient. Otherwise, I can go on for three days and three nights. I have personally benefited from the teachings of over thirty grand masters of Buddhism. You could write a whole book about every single one of them.

LIAO: Sorry for the interruption. Please go on with your story.

DK: This temple was first built during the Sui dynasty. Since then, over thirty convents and temples have been built along the Qingcheng mountain range, with Gu Temple as the main center of worship. At one time, this temple housed over a thousand monks. Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact. This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.

After 1949, the new government launched the Land Reform movement. Many former landowners in the region were targeted. Several were executed, their property seized and redistributed. One day, a government work team raided the temple. The team consisted of government officials and peasant activists. They set up a tribunal inside the temple to dispense justice. They called me a “rich temple owner” and declared that I was under arrest. My captors dragged me onto the stage, stripped me of my kasaya, and forced me to stand in front of a large crowd of villagers, with my arms pulled up behind my back in the jet-plane position. One by one, peasant activists stood up to share with the crowd about my “crimes.” I was accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people’s minds. Some even suggested investigating my past activities under the Nationalist government because I was collaborating with the rich to exploit the poor. At the end of each speech, the head of the work team would stand up and shout slogans like “Down with the evil landlord!” and “Religion is spiritual opium!” Then the whole crowd followed his lead with slogan shouting. Emotion soon ran very high: people spat at me, punched and shoved me. About thirty to forty monks were hunched over side by side with me on the stage. They were categorized as “bald lackeys of the rich landowner.” The landowner was, of course, me.

LIAO: This is the first time I heard about the term “rich monk.”

DK: It came as a shock to me as well and it was hard to cope with those unfair charges. All monks abide by the vow of poverty. In the pre-Communist days, many of us came from very poor families. Once we accepted the teachings of Buddha, we vowed to stay away from all human desires. In this vast province of Sichuan, there were over a hundred temples. No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next. Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us had ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.

LIAO: What happened after those “struggle sessions”?

DK: Soon the struggle sessions turned into public beatings. Getting spat on, slapped in the face, and kicked in the back were common occurrences. Many times the local militia would show up at the temple at random and drag me to a room for interrogation. During one interrogation in the wintertime, a village militia chief and his men stripped me of my shirts and pants, and then hung me from the ceiling. It was so painful that I passed out in about ten minutes or so. They poured cold water onto my body. When I came to, my right arm was dislocated. Even today I still experience excruciating pain when I try to raise this arm. Sometimes I was beaten up for some ridiculous reasons. One time, an official called me to his office and ordered me to turn in one hundred golden bowls that I had allegedly hidden inside the temple. The official said a junior monk had revealed the secret to the work team. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t even own a regular porcelain bowl, not to mention a bowl made of gold. When I told them that I didn’t know, they accused me of lying and hung me from a tree. Then, several villagers went to search the monks’ living quarters. Believe it or not, they did find one hundred bowls in the corner of the kitchen. To their disappointment, however, they were bowls made of pottery, not gold. Finally, I understood what the whole fuss was about. Since each bowl could hold only one jin [500 grams] of rice, we called it the “jin bowl”—which sounds the same as “gold bowls” in Chinese. The situation was truly hopeless.

By the way, during the Land Reform movement, the local government seized all the Buddhist treasures and confiscated hundreds of hectares of pristine forest and farmland from the temple. We were not alone. Temples around the whole country suffered a similar fate.

LIAO: I have checked some historical records and found that many prominent monks suffered persecution during that time. For example, Master Kuan Lin from Chengdu’s Wenshu Temple was brutally tortured by local peasants. They broke his legs and arms, and pulled his teeth out. He collapsed and passed out on the floor. His torturers thought they had killed him. Out of fear, they sent him to the hospital, and luckily the doctors were able to save his life. Master Qing Ding at Zhaojue Temple was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in 1955. That was because he had been a cadet in the Huangpu Military Academy under the Nationalist government before he became a monk. He ended up spending twenty years behind bars. Master Wei Xian, the former abbot at the Ciyun Temple near Chongqing, was arrested in 1954 for his efforts to establish a Buddhist school. He was jailed for twenty-seven years. The list goes on.

DK: The Land Reform movement was just the beginning of a series of disasters that befell the temple. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign, calling people in China to find ways to mass-produce iron and steel so China could catch up with industrialized nations like the U.S. It was also the beginning of the collectivization campaign. No household was allowed to keep any private property or to cook at home. People were ordered to eat at communal kitchens and dining halls.

I put myself at the mercy of heaven and decided to go with the flow. I registered with the local village leader, who gave me permission to lead ten monks to look for iron-containing rocks in the mountain, and to participate in the production of steel. Peasants built a makeshift furnace inside the temple. We were a bunch of laymen and had no idea what an iron-containing ore looked like or how to produce steel from those rocks. The government sent a young scientist, who gave us a quick thirty-minute crash course. Then, confident in their newly acquired knowledge, people rolled up their sleeves and worked in groups to scout the mountain for iron-containing rocks. Many villagers ended up by gathering lots of dark-colored rocks and stones, and dumped them into the furnace.

Meanwhile, the local government also called on people to donate every piece of metal they had in their homes: farm tools, cooking utensils, basins, locks, metal hoops, even women’s hair clips, and to melt them down to produce steel and iron. There was a popular slogan: To turn in one piece of metal is to wipe out a foreign imperialist. We monks didn’t even have a home, but we didn’t want to lag behind the others. We sniffed around the temple like dogs. We found incense holders, metal collection boxes, bells, and locks. We pried and hammered off the metal edges of the wooden incense tables, and even smashed and knocked down the small bronze statues on the four corners of the temple roof.

Near the entrance of the temple, there used to be a pair of royal cast-iron cauldrons given by Emperor Yongle in the Ming dynasty. None of it survived the Great Leap Forward. Since the royal cauldrons were huge, made with thick cast iron, it took over twenty strong and tough men to smash them with large sledgehammers. The loud echoes of the hammering sound could be heard miles away. Besides, melting those thick, ancient cast-iron pots was no easy job. People chopped down hundreds of big trees to fuel the furnace.

It wasn’t long before the mountain was stripped bare. When I first entered the monastery here, there were hundreds of hectares of trees, many of which were rare species, such as ginkgo, nanmu, and ancient cypress. But during those crazy years, they were all cut down. Have you seen that big thousand-year-old tree outside the temple? The tree was left untouched because it grew on a cliff and people couldn’t reach it. Nowadays, visitors have been telling me how precious and beautiful that tree is. Little do they know that there used to be seven big trees around here, each was thick enough for three people to circle around. That one left was the ugliest and quite useless. The other six were cut to feed the furnace.

It’s really hard to imagine what happened then. People were exhilarated by Chairman Mao’s lofty vision of building a strong socialist country. I was assigned the task of working the bellows to keep the fire in the furnace going. I used to practice kung fu at the crack of dawn every day to stay fit and healthy. That rigorous training helped build up my stamina. While most people were on the verge of exhaustion and some had even collapsed, I was still full of energy, working the bellows nonstop for hours in a half-squatting position beside the furnace.

LIAO: You were almost sixty years old around that time, weren’t you?

DK: Yes, I was. But even the twenty-year-olds were no match for me. Villagers secretly gave me a nickname, “The Steely Mountain Soldier.” Anyway, after days and nights of hard work, we finally saw some results—a bunch of hard irregular-shaped pig iron. Some looked like beehives, with small pieces of rocks sticking over their surfaces. We waited until those lumps became cold and solid. Then we tested their quality by hitting them with a hammer. Guess what, they immediately crumbled into small dark pieces. So did our hope.

LIAO: Since you worked so hard during the Great Leap Forward, did the villagers think that you had redeemed your past wrongdoings?

DK: Not exactly. After the steel production campaign turned into a total failure, people resumed their daily routine. At night, after eating at public kitchens, they had nothing else to do. Once again, public rallies against the bad elements were resumed as a form of entertainment. We were at the whim of the village leaders. Whenever or wherever they wanted to hold a struggle session, all of the class enemies would be at their disposal. From 1952 to 1961, I attended over three hundred struggle sessions.

In those difficult years, I constantly thought about a legendary tale relating to the Gu Temple. In 1398, when Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, died, his grandson Jianwen was crowned emperor. Jianwen’s uncle, the prince of Yan, possessed a strong military base in the north and formed a serious threat to Emperor Jianwen’s power. They engaged in a four-year armed conflict that eventually ended the reign of Jianwen. The prince of Yan usurped the throne. He called his era “Yongle” or “Perpetually Jubilant.” Emperor Yongle spent several years purging China of Jianwen’s supporters in a brutal manner. His nephew, the deposed ruler, escaped and then disappeared. Several years later, there was a rumor circulating that Jianwen had turned into a monk and was hiding inside the Gu Temple. One day, a spy dispatched by Emperor Yongle spotted the deposed emperor and relayed the news to the palace. The emperor immediately sent an assassin over. Right before the assassin arrived, Jianwen caught wind of it and disappeared. His would-be assassin found a poem written on the wall of a worship hall:

“Traversing the southwest in exile for forty long years,

gray has tainted my once dark mane.

Heaven and earth I once reigned, but now nothing remains.

Not even a hut to rest my soul.

Rivers and streams pass by silently; where do they flow?

Grass and willows turn green year after year;

this old countryman is choked with tears.”

The assassin jotted down the poem and presented it to Emperor Yongle. He read it aloud; tears streamed down his face. He waved the long sleeve of his robe and sighed: “Let my nephew go.”

LIAO: What a story. How did that relate to your predicament then?

DK: Emperor Yongle ruled China with brutality. His police and spies were planted all over the kingdom. Even so, Jianwen, his former nemesis, could find shelter inside the Gu Temple. But in Communist China, a harmless monk had nowhere to escape to.

LIAO: Chairman Mao certainly tried to wipe out the spirit of Buddha, and every other form of religion.

DK: No human being possesses the power to destroy Buddha in people’s hearts. This is because Buddha is as essential to us as the air we breathe and the water we drink. That’s where all kindness, forbearance, compassion, and wisdom originate. I would never have survived that difficult period had it not been for my belief in Buddha.

Let me tell you a story. A poor old lady named Wang lived near the temple. She secretly helped me for many years. Since I was a counterrevolutionary, she couldn’t talk with me when there were people around. While I was working in the field, she would walk past me, and stop briefly, pretending to tie her shoelaces. Then, she would bang her sickle on the ground a couple of times to get my attention. After she left, I would dash over to the place where she banged her sickle, and pick up the corn bread she had left there for me. It was in January of 1960, the onset of a nationwide famine. Many folks in the village had already died of starvation. That lady squeezed food from her tiny ration and saved it for me. She was the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. Even now, I can still remember her courage and generosity and pray for her soul.

By 1961, half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death. To reduce the number of people on the food ration roll, the local government simply deported me back to my birthplace in Chongqing County. I moved in with a distant nephew and lived the life of a peasant. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, the Red Guards took the place of the village militiamen and became my new tormentors. I worked in the rice paddies during daytime and was forced to attend public denunciation meetings at night.

LIAO: So how did you manage to survive the various political campaigns?

DK: Buddha says: “If I don’t go to hell, who will?” I had to suffer to redeem the sins of my previous life. Otherwise, the suffering could befall someone else. That was how I motivated myself to live. Eventually, I simply resigned myself to adversity.

In those years, the worst part was that all Buddhist teachings were banned. We were not allowed to pray. Sometimes I would close my eyes and silently chant some scriptures. But then some villagers found out and reported it to village officials. I ended up getting more beatings for refusing to mend my feudalistic, superstitious ways.

LIAO: As an eminent monk, it must be very hard to live without praying or reading the scriptures.

DK: It was difficult. Deep in my heart, I never gave up my belief in the benevolence of Buddha.

For a while, I thought that I would be destined to farm and lead the life of a secret monk for the rest of my life. However, after over seventeen years, the tide started to turn. One day in 1978, a friend from out of town stopped by and told me that new leaders in Beijing had relaxed the government’s religious policy. People were allowed to openly practice Buddhism.

Initially, I didn’t quite believe his words and wanted to find out myself. But I didn’t dare to tell anyone because the local government was still clinging to the old Communist doctrine, even though Chairman Mao had died two years before. If I got caught, I was sure to get myself and my nephew into trouble again. So, I waited for a couple more days. One night, after the whole village was asleep, I quietly packed my bags and left. I ran and walked for about sixty kilometers in the darkness. By noon the next day, I arrived in Chengdu, and went directly to Wenshu Temple. There, I reunited with about thirty monks who had just returned. It was quite an emotional reunion for us.

I stayed at Wenshu Temple for over three years, working as a greeter and presiding over Buddhist ceremonies. Since I was pretty good at performing the “releasing the soul from purgatory” ritual, I gradually established quite a reputation in the region. In 1984, I think it was on July 15 on the lunar calendar, I was welcomed back to the Gu Temple to continue my service to Buddha. Over ten thousand residents showed up and filled every corner of the temple. People lit firecrackers nonstop, and the smoke shrouded the temple like a thick fog, which lingered around for quite a while before drifting away. There were gongs booming and bells pealing. It was quite a festive spectacle.

LIAO: You were eighty-four years old that year. When you smelled the smoke of fireworks and saw the crowd, how did you feel?

DK: My feelings were of joy and sadness mixed. From 1949 to 1978, China experienced the longest period of retribution for sins in history. For twenty-nine years, there were no real monks in Chinese temples.

LIAO: But in those crazy years, the government still kept the Buddhism Association.

DK: The Buddhism Association was simply an empty shell. All the monks were defrocked and put under the supervision of the village party chief. In many small temples around here, lay peasants kicked the monks out and converted the temples into residential quarters.

For myself, I felt lucky that I was still alive. I didn’t have time to dwell on the past. I was already old and ailing like a candle’s flame fluttering in the wind. The temple was in disarray with dilapidated buildings and broken walls. Weeds were growing everywhere. I couldn’t find a single room without a leaking roof. Wherever I looked, I saw the tragic results of manmade damage and years of neglect.

About thirty monks and lay Buddhists joined me at the temple. We didn’t even have enough beds. Many had to sleep on the floor. Occasionally, snakes and rats would sneak under our quilts. The young monks were very scared. I would often tell them: The rats are cold too. Let them in so they can get some warmth and good sleep. Even now, rats constantly get into my quilt, and a couple of them will snuggle under my chin. They are like my kids. One time, a naughty rat dragged my rosary beads away. So I scared it with the words: “You little rascal, what do you need that rosary for? You can’t eat it. Bring it back. If you don’t, I’m going to kill you with rat poison.” It must have heard me. Not long after, the rosary beads showed up beside my bed.

LIAO: You have done a great job restoring the Gu Temple.

DK: You are too young to see what the temple was like before. It’s far from being restored. Have you ever visited the upper part of the temple?

LIAO: Yes, I have.

Relic Stupas

DK: The Receiving Hall is being reconstructed on its ruins. If you pass the crumbling Hall of Burning Candles, you will see the forest of pagodas, where generations of Buddhist monks were buried. The tall pagoda in the middle held the body of our grand master Wu Kong, the first abbot of this temple. Grand Master Wu Kong had seen through the secular world at an early age and had always wanted to be a monk. When the prince of Yan deposed Emperor Jianwen, the grand master was traveling in India and Tibet to study Buddhism. On his way back, he stopped at this temple and experienced enlightenment. He shaved his head and was ordained here. Grand Master Wu Kong read extensively and became a well-known Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He reached nirvana, and passed away while in meditation, with his body in a lotus position. His disciples consecrated the Wu Kong Pagoda to hold his body. After over 550 years, the body miraculously remained intact, with no signs of decay. It became the most precious Buddhist treasure inside the Gu Temple.

Wu Kong Stupa

LIAO: I stood in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda and noticed that the shrine lies empty now. The characters engraved on both sides of the shrine are hardly recognizable.

DK: The characters were supposed to express the grand master’s ecstatic feelings of being enlightened and coming to the realization that “all worldly things are empty and transient, like the floating clouds.” During the Land Reform movement, a leader of the local militia led a group of armed peasants into the temple in the name of “eliminating superstition.” They started in the upper section. When the militia leader stopped in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda, he seemed to have been taken over by demonic forces. He raised his rifle with its bayonet, screaming, “Kill that Buddha!” He stabbed into the preserved body of the grand master twenty or thirty times. Soon, the rest of the mob joined him. Pieces of the grand master’s body were strewn on the ground. Then he ordered his fellow militiamen to round up all of the monks and parade us on the street for several hours. After we returned to the temple, we found out that the flesh on his body had already dissolved in the soil, leaving only his bones. When the bell struck midnight, I held back my tears, went secretly up to the forest of pagodas. It was painful to see his bones scattered on the ground. I quietly gathered every single piece and carefully put them in a bamboo basket. I found a place on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. With a makeshift pulley, I managed to send the basket up and put it on the beam. I thought it was going to be safe there, but I was wrong.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards from the nearby schools launched an assault on what they called the Four Old Elements: old customs, old thinking, old habits, and old culture. They ransacked the temples, burning and destroying anything that had survived the previous political campaigns, including the worshipping halls.

Let me give you some background. In the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle had commissioned the construction of five halls of worship with glazed tile roofs. Despite their normal wear and tear, those buildings remained preserved and survived the craziness of the 1950s. One day in 1966 I snuck away from my hometown and climbed up the mountain to take a look at the temple. Before I approached the main entrance, I heard the singing of revolutionary songs. There seemed to be a lot of people in there. I walked closer and hid behind a tree. There were red flags everywhere, with the characters “Revolutionary Fighters” emblazoned on them. A large group of young people were on the roof of the Daxiong Hall—singing while pulling the glazed tiles out and then kicking them off the roof. I just stood there in a daze. After the roof had been stripped, the Red Guards began to punch holes in it. Inside the Daxiong Hall, there were eight floor-to-ceiling stone columns decorated with engravings of poems and paintings by well-known artists and calligraphers. The Red Guards tied thick ropes around the columns and pulled the ropes in unison until the columns collapsed. It was too traumatic for me. I just left.

Master Wu Kong Picture

I was told later on that the Red Guards toppled the other four halls with similar barbarous methods. When those buildings collapsed, people could feel the vibrations from far away, as if an earthquake had hit the region. Like the ancient saying goes: “No eggs can remain intact when the nest is destroyed.” As I mentioned earlier, I put the bones of Grand Master Wu Kong in a basket and hid it on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. When the hall was demolished, the basket mysteriously disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to the treasure.

Thanks to those young zealots, the whole upper section is now in total ruins. There is no way to rebuild those halls. In addition to demolishing the worshipping halls, the Red Guards also burned hundreds of royal edicts issued by emperors from various dynasties. They destroyed paintings by famous artists, as well as rare editions of books and scriptures, and smashed hundreds of Buddhist statues.

LIAO: In other words, most of the buildings we see now have been reconstructed in recent years?

DK: Since 1984, many pious Buddhist followers have begun to donate money and manpower. Little by little, we are able to build new worship halls and sculpt new Buddhist statues. It is starting to look like a temple now. Let me tell you: It will take at least 20 million yuan [US$2.4 million] just to restore half of the temple to its original scale. You know the saying: The fire burns high when everyone adds wood to it. We have set up a stone tablet, engraving the names of those who have contributed over 100 yuan [$12]. There are several thousand names on the tablet. A private entrepreneur has recently donated 30,000 yuan [US$3,500] to dedicate a jade Buddha statue in the newly built Receiving Hall. We have other revenues from the sale of incense and candles, as well as from our teahouse.

LIAO: Do monks have to pay taxes?

DK: We wouldn’t mind paying regular government taxes. But with the decline of moral values, corrupt officials, both big and small, are trying to milk what they think is a fat cow. Administratively, our temple is under the supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which is a subsidiary of the Department of United Front. Officials there are always looking out for ways to fatten their pockets. If we don’t pay money as a tribute to those “servants of the people,” they will threaten either to expel monks from the temple or to sell part of our temple to a private developer. As you know, many small temples in the area that resisted have been sold to private investors.

LIAO: You are a well-known religious figure in the community. How could they dare to do those things to you?

DK: Those Communist officials dare to do anything. Do you want to hear this? The car driven by the director of the United Front Department was paid for by the monks. He ordered each temple to contribute at least 5,000 yuan [US$625] so he could buy a luxury model. One time, the head of the county Religious Affairs Bureau visited me. I invited him to have tea at my private living quarters. He slammed the door shut, banged on the table, and pointed at my face: “You turned a deaf ear to my request. I want your temple to contribute 100,000 yuan [US$12,500] to the road construction fund.” I knew very well that the central government had already allocated funds for the road project. Local officials had embezzled a large portion of the money. They wanted the monks to fill in the funding gap.

LIAO: You could report him to the central government or sue him, couldn’t you?

DK: Monks take forbearance as a virtue. So I told the official: Monks beg alms. We rely on the kind contributions of Buddha’s followers. We’ll pay when our collection reaches the amount you have requested. He responded impatiently: Give me a deadline. I said calmly: If we can collect the sum tomorrow, we’ll give it to you tomorrow. If we have it in the indefinite future, we’ll pay you in the indefinite future. Upon hearing that, he became furious and began to swear at me with four-letter words. His loud swearing was heard by many worshippers in the temple. Several of them stormed in and eventually kicked him out. Corruption is a sin, but Buddha has mercy.

A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple. They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did “lend” some to them. You know they will never pay back. Besides, they made a mess here, with food and cigarettes butts all over the floor. Before they left, they came to the worshipping hall, put their two hands in front of their chest, palm to palm, and knelt in front of a Buddha statue, chanting, “Amitabha,” Those scoundrels, what can you do? Right now, the Religious Affairs Bureau takes charge of all Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim temples, as well as the Christian churches. The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods. Many people use the phrase “covering the sky with one palm” to describe the government power over religion.

LIAO: This is ridiculous.

DK: Throughout ancient history, no matter how incompetent the emperors were, or how corrupt and decadent the royal courts became, one never heard about officials blackmailing and harassing monks.

LIAO: This is the first time I have heard about it, too.

DK: With all of this corruption going on, I don’t know when I will be able to raise enough money to pay for the restoration. I just have to let nature take its course.

LIAO: But, Master, you have already done a great job in restoring the temple to its former glory. You are now considered a Buddhist treasure in this whole region.

DK: That’s an exaggeration. Have you seen the newly restored Scripture Building?

LIAO: I’ve seen the outside, the white walls with black tiled roof. The building reflects the simplicity of the Tang dynasty [618–907] architectural style. I was told that the name engraved on the front of the building was given by Yu Youren, a well-known politician under the Nationalist government. His handwriting was far superior to those of Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Qing emperor Kang Xi, both of whom left their marks here.

DK: Mr. Yu Youren was climbing the Qingcheng Mountain in 1944. He overheard some monks talk about a Buddhist encyclopedia. The book, published in 1372, was a compilation of well-known Buddhist writings in seven thousand volumes. [《洪武南藏》] The whole project took thirty-one years to finish. Several hundred scholars and craftsmen were involved in the editing, hand-printing, and volume-binding of the book. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered two sets, each of which weighed over three tons. One set was lost in a major fire. The second set was stored here inside the Gu Temple. This Buddhist encyclopedia and Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body were the crown jewels of this temple, attracting Buddhists and scholars from all over the nation. The legendary tales surrounding this rare book greatly piqued Mr. Yu’s curiosity. He came into the temple and spent several days poring over the book. When the former abbot asked him to write a couple of words, he raised his ink brush and with one long stroke he wrote, “Scripture Building.” His calligraphy, like a flying dragon, was later engraved on the building’s front wall.

LIAO: With your permission, may I go up to the building and take a look at the book?

DK: The book is no longer here.

LIAO: Has it been destroyed by the Red Guards?

DK: Amitabha. No. In the summer of 1951, Yao Tixin, an intellectual, was appointed the Chongqing County chief. He had read about the book in the county almanac. Shortly after his appointment, he visited the temple and went up to the Scripture Building to examine the treasure. It was in the middle of the Land Reform movement. Many monks had been banished to the countryside, and I was going through those struggle sessions. Yao emerged from the building and issued an order to his subordinates: Since the abbot has been declared an enemy of the people, the temple doesn’t have the manpower and resources to maintain custody of this rare, voluminous treasure. The building will be sealed. He then invited some experts from Chengdu to make an appraisal. After they confirmed that the books were authentic, he packed the volumes into boxes and mobilized over a hundred porters to carry those boxes on shoulder poles—three tons total—all the way to the Sichuan Provincial Library in Chengdu. It’s been there for over fifty years.

LIAO: Thank Buddha that the book was protected. Otherwise, it would not have escaped the fire of the Red Guards.

DK: County Chief Yao must have been the reincarnation of a Buddhist guardian warrior. Other government officials were not as farsighted as he was.

LIAO: During the past several hundred years, how did the monks manage to keep the book of scriptures from decaying?

DK: Once a year, all the monks in the temple would gather and bring those volumes out under the sun. Our method was quite primitive. We were not allowed to touch the pages with our hands. We used a thin bamboo sliver to carefully turn over every single page to allow the mustiness to escape. Then we would put special tobacco leaves inside the book to prevent book-eating moths. Several hundred pounds of tobacco leaves were brought in every year. Airing the book was an annual tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation.

LIAO: Now that things have gradually returned to normal and there are no more political campaigns, are you planning to move the book back?

DK: In the past, it was the crown jewel of the temple. Now, it’s a national treasure. Any request to transfer the book has to be approved by the State Council.

LIAO: Aren’t you allowed to take a peek at it?

DK: There are all sorts of rules, and I haven’t had the luck to revisit the book yet. But the rigorous system put in place has not been foolproof. A monk in Peng County managed to use 12,000 yuan [US$1,500] to bribe the curator. He then made a pirated copy of one volume and sold it overseas.

I heard he made quite a fortune. I have gathered several abbots in the region and made a plea to the provincial government, saying that the temple should own the copyright to the book. Nobody listened to us.

LIAO: I don’t think staff members at the Sichuan Provincial Library will do the book-airing ritual and put tobacco leaves inside each volume every year. I wonder what will happen to the book.

DK: Everything has its preordained fate. We just have to let it go. By the way, you sound like someone who truly possesses the mind of an intellectual. Let me give you a picture as a gift. This is the picture of the body of Grand Master Wu Kong. The photographer’s Buddhist name was Xu Kong, and he used to live in Gu township at the foot of the mountain. In the 1940s, he was the first in the region to purchase an old magnesium flash camera. He carried the camera to the temple and took a picture of Grand Master Wu Kong’s body. He then sold the picture to a newspaper and the picture got lots of attention from the public. He eventually used this picture as a passport to visit Tibet because Tibetans were pious Buddhists and they worshipped [Tantric masters such as] Grand Master Wu Kong. When the Tibetan guards saw the picture, they all prostrated themselves on the ground to show respect. Guess what, he used his special status to travel back and forth between Tibet and Sichuan Province smuggling opium. He was never caught. During the Cultural Revolution, he was persecuted for his association with the temple. Other people also reported his opium-trafficking business to the authorities. The Red Guards tortured and locked him up in solitary confinement for several years. But he never admitted that he was the photographer for Grand Master Wu Kong’s picture. The day before he died, he sent his relatives to look for me in my hometown. I did go see him. After I arrived, his eyes were wide open and he was gasping for breath. I held his hands, one of which was making a fist like a ball. He murmured to me: “Wu Kong, Wu Kong.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. He then opened his fist and handed me a tiny negative, wrapped with layers of soft tissue and cotton. Before I even had the chance to say anything to him, he was gone.

This picture has been around for sixty years. Look at Grand Master Wu Kong and how well his body was preserved—his face looked so kind and calm, his two earlobes hanging low, he looked divine.

wukong

LIAO: You have so many amazing stories. By the way, I have seen a portrait of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the hall for worship. He is not a Buddhist. Why do you put his picture up there?

DK: Without Deng Xiaoping, the temple would have been gone. He was the one who reversed Mao’s fanatical policies in the late 1970s, opened up China to the outside world, and relaxed government control over religion.

LIAO: During the past hundred years, you have experienced many ups and downs. You can’t attribute all your sufferings to karma and to the retribution of sins in our previous life, can you?

DK: I have lived for over a hundred years. I’m gradually ambling my way to the ritual of reincarnation. As a Buddhist, one needs to contain displeasure, anger, and complaining. I have tried to abide by these principles during the past decades and try not to dwell on my past. In recent years, many of the villagers who participated in torturing me have come to seek help because they are poverty-stricken and can’t send their grandchildren to school. I have given them money and support. The money is not mine. It was raised from Buddha’s followers. It’s a sin to keep the money. I remember very well what those villagers did to me in the past, but I don’t harbor any ill will toward them. When you start to blame and hate people, retribution will befall you.

Remember that local militia leader who committed the atrocities on Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body many years ago? He was so evil and full of hatred. Several years later, someone told me that the militia leader had found a big lump growing on his groin. He traveled all over in search of a cure but nobody could help. Eventually, his lower body became rotten and foul-smelling. He died a most wretched death. After he was gone, his wife and children starved to death during the famine in 1960. It was very sad. But how do you explain this phenomenon?

* * *

 Liao Yiwu [廖亦武]

The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

《中国底层访谈录》

Pantheon Books, 2008

 [Chinese characters and notes in italics added by consulting the original Chinese text.]

L2

* * *

The Tiananmen Square massacre changed my life and my way of thinking. I heard about it on the radio and was filled with despair. Terrified and helpless, I shouted out these lines:

‘Leap! Howl! Fly! Run! Freedom feels so good. Snuffing out freedom feels so good. Power will be triumphant forever, will be passed down from generation to generation forever.'”

From these lines came Liao Yiwu’s poem ‘Massacre‘. A poem that was never published in China, only recorded. A poem that he was sentenced to four years in prison for writing and placed on the government’s permanent blacklist.

…After going to prison, I saw an aspect of China I had never seen as a poet. When I entered the prison, I couldn’t even speak. There would be a group of people pressing you to the ground, completely stripped, with one foot on your face, shaving your head, and using chopsticks to fuck you in the ass. I couldn’t understand this kind of thing when I was a poet. I didn’t know of these atrocities until they happened. When I was young, I didn’t want to know. They don’t have anything to do with poetry. After experiencing this, as a person whose occupation is related to language, I lost my voice. There is no way to talk about this violence using the language of an intellectual or a poet, and there is no way to convey the grief underneath the violence. You can’t understand the malicious language in the prison, the kind of savagery that exists.

It was the most dark and preposterous side of humanity. In order to adapt to that, whether you want or not, you become a witness. When you’re sleeping between two death row inmates, what kind of a poetic sense can you have? One prisoner is telling you how he cut his wife into pieces. Another is telling you he is going to escape through the sewer. Poetry is something so different from those kinds of people. And little by little I became like them. I was transformed…

Like the Chinese writer Ai Wu [艾芜] before him, Liao had been initiated into the world of those, “whom the world has abandoned.” An overwhelming and life-changing experience that is recounted in his graphic prison memoir, ‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs‘.

The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying…

Upon release from prison, Liao found himself homeless and wandered around Sichuan and Yunnan, earning what he could as a street musician and recording the stories of those he met living on the fringes of society,

I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. I identify myself with them.

We are a deserted group of people, but we are the majority. The so-called elite don’t care about us, but we are the mainstream of society.”

These interviews with, “hustlers to drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste, the disposal of corpses, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals,” were published in Taiwan in 2001 as a multi-volume collection, entitled, ‘Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society‘. A collection from which 27 interviews were selected, translated into English and published in 2008 by Pantheon Books, under the title, ‘The Corpse Walker‘, from which the extract above comes.

In this collection, the people’s lives and stories are presented as they are, including all of their imperfections, with little to no interruption from Liao himself.

If someone writes fiction or a novel, it’s okay. But if they write in a reportage style. And if people read it, then they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination…

Through Liao’s avoidance of subjective commentary and opinion, the reader is left to engage directly with the person being interviewed, as if we are talking to them ourselves, making the experience not only more immersive and powerful but also more universal and human. In these people; the grave robber, the migrant worker, the former Red Guard, the Tiananmen father and the many others interviewed, we can, if we open our eyes, gaze upon our own shadows.

Works by Liao Yiwu

Further Reading:

Works by Liao Yiwu (English):

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, Pantheon (2008)

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, HarperCollins (2011)

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)

Articles, Essays, Extracts & Interviews (English):

Liao Yiwu Documents (Text & Audio) – Digital Archive for Chinese Studies

The Public Toilet Manager – Paris Review, Autumn, 2005

The Leper & The Corpse Walker – Paris Review, Winter, 2006

My Enemies, My Teachers – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

The Peasant Emperor and the Retired Official – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

BBC Hard Talk (Interview) – March, 2008

The Survivor – Paris Review, Summer, 2008

Voices from the Bottom Rung of Society – PEN American Center, August, 2008

Nineteen Days – Paris Review, Summer, 2009

Liao Yiwu’s Persistent Voice – The New Yorker, March, 2010

Dangerous Words (Profile) – Loud Canary, June, 2011

Liao Yiwu Unbound – The New Yorker, July, 2011

Walking out on China – NY Times, September, 2011

An Evening with Liao Yiwu (Interview/Discussion) – PEN America, September, 2011

Christianity in China: God is Red – Huffington Post, September, 2011

Writer as a Recording Device (Interview) – Artspace China, November, 2011

This Empire Must Break Apart – The Wall Street Journal, October, 2012

Freedom is a Long Process (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, October, 2012

The Book I Wrote Three Times – Huffington Post, June, 2013

Liao Yiwu in Coversation with Paul Holdengraber – New York Public Library, June, 2013

Prison of the Mind – The New Yorker, July, 2013

Liao Yiwu Howls Against the Chinese Government (Interview) – PBS Network, July, 2013

China is Liao Yiwu’s ‘Nightmare’ (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, September, 2013

“If I’m Not Speaking That Means I’m Dead” (Interview) – Sampsonia Way, January, 2014

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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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Dai Village

A Weasel & A Rare Swan’s Eggs

Forest covered the surrounding area for as far as the eye could see.

The British officials in neighbouring Burma often sent their people over to survey the land and to build roads and bridges. Thus Britons, Burmese and Indians appeared in Banana Vale with their frequent taxes and other ‘fees’ which the widowed innkeeper had to pay. To her annoyance, unlike the Han merchants and grooms, these tax collectors not only flirted with her but tried to cheat her out of her money, and this disturbed and angered her more than anything.

Then, one day, an opium trader on the border, who was a frequent guest at the woman’s inn and who’d had his eye on the well-to-do widow for a while, took it upon himself to protect her from their demands.

“You cheat! How come she has to pay so much?” he argued on her behalf with a Burmese tax collector, telling him in a foreign language, “I tell you, I’ve been to both Myitkyina and Mandalay! I know how it works! You think that just because she’s a widow, you can take advantage of her like this? Well, listen, you can’t cheat me, can you?”

“It includes some wine money too,” the Burmese tax collector was forced to admit, seeing that the opium trader knew what he was talking about.

“Wine money? Nonsense! Why should there be any wine money? Do you deliver wine? I’ll bloody sue you if you don’t! Besides, even if you did include wine money it still wouldn’t come to that much!”

The Burmese man hummed and hawed but decided not to push his luck and left with only the tax money. The woman was naturally very grateful. From then on, every time she had any trouble with foreigners, she would look for the opium trader who was always helpful and attentive. He even brought back silk for the woman and her daughters from the big cities he visited, and left part of his savings with the woman for safe keeping. Every time the opium trader stayed at the inn and had his meals there, he would say, “Let’s eat at the same table. We’re all one family, there’s no need to lay another one.”

Gradually, he became a member of the family and when he thought the time was right, he proposed to the woman. She didn’t feel upset, on the contrary, she felt that to deal with the British officials and the Burmese tax collectors she really needed someone like him around. She knew he wasn’t a simple person like her second husband, but as long as she kept her money and valuables out of his reach then he wouldn’t be able to do her much harm even if he did decide to make any trouble in the future…

So the woman agreed and he moved in with her.

After he had become the innkeeper, life became much more leisurely for the middle-aged opium addict. He spent most of his time lying in bed like a lazy snake puffing away on his pipe. When he did get up, he would put on a pair of leather slippers and shuffle off to the meadow and the vegetable garden, his pipe dangling from his lips. If he saw the woman and her daughters with sweat running down their faces as they ploughed the fields and cleared the meadow, he would do nothing except say half-heartedly that perhaps the meadow needed to be widened this year or better vegetables ought to be planted.

His work-shy nature soon became insufferable. Fed up of doing everything, the woman decided that things couldn’t go on like this…

Feeling that it was improper to complain directly, she began to moan and groan about the business instead.

Unable to understand what she was getting at, he insisted they hire a man-servant.

The woman inhaled deeply before answering coldly, “You don’t understand. Ours is a small business and we eat what we produce. Things are hard enough today – how do we know how we’re going to manage tomorrow? How can we possibly afford to hire a man-servant? We would have done it a long time ago if we’d had the money, in which case we wouldn’t have needed you here to help.”

The man’s eyes narrowed…

“But I heard that you’ve saved a lot of money.”

“How can you believe that rubbish! To hell with such rumour-mongers! You know that I’ve lost three husbands and I have had to feed and clothe their children all by myself. Yes, OK, I’ve starved myself in order to save a little here and there, but those foreign bastards tax me on everything. Like water, every penny I earn flows their way and I’m left with nothing!

He fell into a sceptical silence…

“Then you can use my money to hire a servant.”

“You’d be better off saving it for yourself,” the woman sneered, “After all, you’ll no doubt be needing it for that pipe of yours, won’t you? No, we are already lost, don’t you worry about us.”

Time passed but still nothing changed. So, one day, instead of beating around the bush, the woman asked him point-blank to help her with the work.

It didn’t go down well.

“No chance,” he snapped, folding his arms, “I tell you: my family hasn’t touched a hoe for three generations, let alone swept up dung. No, I cannot and I will not help.”

He could have been more tactful, but when he thought about the woman locking all the money away and hiding the keys he couldn’t help exploding.

The woman arched her eyebrows…

“And just who do you think your family is exactly? The royal family?”

“Haha, yes, very funny,” he sneered, “If they were, then what would I be doing here getting all worked up about your damned cheek?!”

Full of indignation he hurled his pipe into a wooden box.

“What, you’re offended?!”  the woman glared,  “Look at yourself! What kind of man do you think you are? You just lie around all day puffing away on that bloody pipe and eating all our food. With you around, my children and I are doomed! I swear, you’re just a ghost that my children and I had the hellish misfortune to run into when it was dark.”

“It’s not your bloody money I’m smoking is it!” he yelled back at the woman, pummeling the bed with his fist, “Screw you!

Oh! So you think you can frighten us with your threats, do you? I’ll have none of your yelling and banging in front of me!”

Although these arguments put a strain on their relationship for a while, they soon made their peace like any other couple, at least superficially. In spite of everything, the woman still felt that, however greedy and lazy the man might be, he was useful in dealing with foreigners. So in the end she let him have his way.

Yet, in less than six months, he had puffed away all his savings in his opium pipe. He had become more and more dependent on the drug and now smoked more than ever. He asked her for money shamelessly, saying that he knew how much money she had and smoking wouldn’t cost her much. She knew she couldn’t keep everything from him, so following his train of thought, she said, “I just want to save some money so that we can hire a servant. You don’t want me to slave away like a horse, do you? Also, look at Fusheng, he’s nearly thirteen now but he just plays around all day. What are we going to do about him? I was planning on picking an auspicious day and sending him to one of those modern schools in the city. We’ve suffered more than enough through not being able to speak another language!”

She had not actually been that keen on sending her son to school and all she really wanted to do was to save the little money that they had. But since she’d been pressed to give a reason, she had to make it sound as if she’d already made up her mind…

“Send him to modern school?!” the man spluttered with disbelief, “You can’t feed a common weasel rare swan’s eggs! How much money are you going to need for that?”

He had always found the boy, who never called him ‘Dad’, a nuisance, which he could well have done without…

“Listen,” he said, “I’ve got an idea: let the boy help you with the work. Isn’t that better than hiring someone else? Look at him: he eats so much every meal and he’s not a small child any more. If he doesn’t want to do it, just give him a damn good beating. Anyway, I don’t think he’ll end up doing any better for himself, even if he does go to school. You know what they say, ‘like father, like son’. I mean, what else is he good for besides sweeping up horse dung? No, don’t look at me like that, I’ve been thinking of telling you that for quite a while, but I knew that you would shield him! Let me tell you this: that lazy little devil has long been nothing but a poisoned thorn in my side!”

Little devil?” The woman countered, “So what? You don’t take care of him anyway! However much he may eat, you haven’t so much as provided him with a bite. I just don’t want him to sweep up dung, I want him to go to a modern school and make something of himself. Just see if you can stop me. And I’m going to send him there early next month!”

She could and would have kept her anger under control had he not been so foul-mouthed about her son.

“Anyway,” she continued, “Who are you to say that my son’s not school material? Shut your filthy mouth! I tell you: scholar-officials are not born that high and even emperors and ministers come from small cowherds. You’re not going to keep my son down. No, I know what you want: you don’t want me to spend the money on him just so that you can puff it all away in that damned pipe of yours! Well, your plan’s failed again!

Bloody hell!” the man snapped back at her, “You really are thick as shit, aren’t you? OK, go ahead, go on, send him there tomorrow, see if I care! You really think he’s going to go far in this world? Right… Of course… I’ll make sure I keep my eyes open because I can’t wait to see that!”

So, to keep his pipe burning, he quarreled with her every day. Sometimes the woman would back down and throw him a wad of notes, which he would grab from her and mutter coldly, “You don’t have to treat me like a beggar, you know? You just wait till I’m doing business again. Yes, you’ll see, just one deal will bring me in a fortune and I’ll pay you back all the money you’ve lent me with interest and not a penny less. Believe it or not, there was a time when more money passed through these fingers every day than you’ve had in your whole life!”

“Then go back to the old days and stop bloody asking me for money!”

Ha! You think I’d be sorry if I left you? I’ve been thinking of taking off for weeks!”

“Go on then! Do it! I’ll burn joss sticks to thank Heaven and Earth!”

When quarreling and fighting were of no avail, the man would now just steal. Any money lying around would disappear immediately and inevitably made the woman more vigilant than ever. Locking up every trunk and box which contained her savings, the woman moved them into her elder daughter’s room to prevent the man from finding them. She then gave the keys to the trunks and boxes to her elder daughter, who hooked them on to a belt which she wore underneath her clothes.

With no money now left lying around, he had to get his opium on credit from passing traffickers and, when desperate, he mixed the ashes with water and drank that instead. They certainly weren’t the best of days for the addict and the only way he could deal with his constant craving for opium was to drink the wine that was supposed to be for the customers and send himself into a stupor both day and night. Having had a son by him by then, the woman just ignored him, however intoxicated he was. But the rest of the children cursed him behind his back, calling him ‘the boozer’ and ‘the chimney’ and prayed for his death so that he would stop stinging them like some vicious insect.

Soon the traffickers started leaning on him heavily to pay them back their loans. Scared of what they would do to him if he didn’t, his addled mind could think of only one way out – to steal the keys to the trunks and take it out of her savings…

So, one night, when the inn was quiet and everyone was asleep, he lit his opium lamp and, fortified by wine, went to prize open the daughter’s door. In a tropical place like that, the doors and walls were made of bamboo, in order to let a breeze pass through. It didn’t take much to get the door open…

Carefully, holding his opium lamp, he crept into the room and found the girl in a deep sleep, covered only by a thin skirt that left her legs exposed. He had always loathed the girl, calling her a tramp and other names, but now staring at her lying there, he found her young figure bewitching. And when he lifted up her skirt and looked at her naked body underneath, his intoxicated state made him forget all about their kinship.

The violent urge of his flesh pushed him towards the girl’s body…

You bastard!… You drunkard!You beast!You…”

Her daughter’s loud and desperate cries woke the woman up. Immediately, she realised that the thief in their midst was at work again. Springing from her bed, she grabbed a heavy stick and called Fusheng.

Fusheng! Get up! Now! That drunken wretch is stealing our money!”

When Fusheng awoke and realised what was happening, he too jumped out of his bed and ran after his mother with a pair of scissors in his hand.

Inside the daughter’s room, the opium lamp sat on the desk gleaming with a faint, yellowish light. The woman thought that if he hadn’t stolen anything then she would just give him a mild beating and then she would let him go. But when she saw what he was actually doing, she was overcome with the most furious anger. Pulling the drunken addict off her screaming daughter, she threw him down on to the ground and gave his vital parts a severe and bloody pounding.

Fusheng, young and innocent as he was, just thought he was stealing their money, so was standing by the door, with an angry look upon his face. It was only when he saw the drunken wretch lying on the floor, groaning with his bare backside in the air, that he realised what had been going on and flew into a rage.

Rushing forward, Fusheng stabbed the man in the back repeatedly with the scissors in his hand, until the drunkard finally stopped kicking and screaming and Fusheng had assuaged his long pent-up anger at the thieving, perverted addict and his nefarious ways.

“Are you in pain?” the woman asked her daughter anxiously, stroking her hair softly.

“Y-yes,” sobbed the daughter, burying her face in her pillow, “Yes Ma, I am…”

Shaking with rage, the woman didn’t hesitate and picking the stick back up again, brought it crashing down upon the back of the man’s head. He let out a moan but soon was quiet and motionless, blood oozing out from his neck, his mouth, his back and groin. Bending down the woman examined him for a while then her face turned white with both shock and fear.

“W-what are we going to do now? The beast is d-dead…”

Tears fell from her cheeks. For an instant, her long stored hate and spite vanished and she found herself forgiving him. Gone too was her courage and her heart sank. But when she glanced at the wide-open, bloodstained, wrathful eyes of the dead addict, she came to her senses.

‘How could it be my fault?’ she thought, ‘It’s all because he couldn’t control himself!’

When she caught sight of his shamelessly exposed and bloodied privates, hatred and contempt filled her heart again. Her courage returned, she quickly tied his body up with a rope and hooked it to a shoulder pole. She asked her elder daughter to help her carry the corpse and told her son to light the way. They were to bury him in the mountains and that would be that. The woman’s heart was empty now and her only thought was to get it done as quickly as they could.

Outside, it was still pitch-black and the mountain path was slippery with rain. By the time they had reached the mountainside, the heavy downpour had become a torrent, which crashed down on the nearby forests with a terrifying sound. Thunder and lightning silver-plated the valley and the forests, and at every crack, flash and rumble they jumped with terror as if their very souls were being absorbed by the elements.

‘Is Heaven venting its anger because I killed my husband?’ the woman thought, ‘But why? Why?! I did the right thing! He was a beast! He raped his step-daughter! He wasn’t human!’

By the time they had struggled to the top of the mountain with the corpse, she felt as if she didn’t have the strength to even hold the hoe. But thinking once more about what the man had done, she immediately found what little strength did remain inside her, and started digging the grave, when…

Ma! Ma!” screamed her son and daughter, shivering with fear, “What’s that?! What’s that howling over there? Ma! It’s a leopard! A leopard!!

Dropping the hoe, the woman lost her heart and strength instantly. Pushing the corpse down the other side of the mountain, she ran home with her children as fast as they all could, and as far away from whatever beast was lurking out there in the darkness, as it was possible to be…

The next morning when the woman got up early to clean up the inn, as well as the dead man’s belongings, she felt little grief or guilt. She only felt the man had got what he deserved and that justice had been done.

Fusheng, who usually woke up late, also got up early to help his mother with the cleaning. When he saw her wrapping up the addict’s paraphernalia, Fusheng walked over and took the pipe and opium cup out of his mother’s hands.

“Ma, let me have these.”

“No!” she replied, “Listen, you won’t learn anything good through them. No, Fusheng, I really am going to send you to one of those modern schools. My son, I would be so proud of you if you worked hard and made a success of yourself.”

Usually, Fusheng would have insisted on having things his way, but today he didn’t. Like a good son, he handed them back to her.

“OK, Ma,” he nodded, “Now, let’s throw these away!”

Ai Wu

Extract from:

Banana Vale, Panda Books, 1993

Banana Vale - Ai Wu

…The mountains in western Yunnan and Burma were originally known as the Savage Mountains. Everywhere was primeval forest with not a human trace. It is not known when the Daying River rushed into the Bamo plains through the Savage Mountains and flowed into the Irrawaddy River – along whose banks a southern silk route was established. It took three or four days to travel along the road on foot.

I worked for six months at a place called Cogongrass Fields, which was situated in a small valley by the Daying River, and from where it took three or four days to get to Ganya. Ships from Bamo penetrated as far as the Burmese hinterland to which the railways reached so that exotic goods could be transported back to Bamo and thence to Yunnan. From Bamo and on into Yunnan Province, transportation of goods relied totally on horses, so some people had set up large horse ranches.

In the morning and at dusk, vendors and their horses would come to the inn for the night, creating a hubbub of noise at the otherwise lonely Cogongrass Fields. I was alone in Bamo with no means of earning a living, so, upon the introduction of a fellow provincial of mine – a sedan-chair carrier – I went back to Cogongrass Fields and became a sanitation worker and part-time shop assistant. The Ganya Flatlands, which the Daying River passed through, were rich farming land. In the slack season, groups of Dais would bring local products to sell in Bamo. My task was to take care of them and ensure they slept soundly and rested well.

Cogongrass Fields and the Daying River were under the jurisdiction of the British, so workers in charge of transportation and the repair of roads were stationed there, but the British officials made one tour of inspection to the Cogongrass fields only every two or three months. Consequently, Cogongrass Fields became a resting place for drug traffickers, smugglers and horse thieves. As I became familiar with them, we talked about everything and kept no secrets from each other. Thus, I witnessed the dark sides of society and at the same time the innate kindness of those living on the fringe.

I wrote down my experiences in the Jingpo Mountains and during my travels, compiling my stories into a collection called, ‘Journey to the South‘…

Ai Wu

March 14, 1992, Chengdu

Stillwell Road Map

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