富春江与塞纳河 – Fuchun river scene – English

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“Is your name Zhao?”, I asked. She’s in her early twenties, with a pale oval face and a few light freckles.

She laughed, she was really smart, and got the pun rightaway. We were standing in this quiet courtyard. It was a summer afternoon, the whole little town was asleep, and the air humid and lazy. In the courtyard, there was a small two-story wood building, the old residence of Yu Dafu. It’s also the only remaining old building in Fuyang county. During the 90s wave of urban renewal, all traces of gray bricks, hanging beams, courtyards and narrow alleys have been erased, replaced with cement, mosaics, blue plexiglass buildings, and large streets. This former residence, deliberately preserved, did not keep its past appearance: it has been renovated, repainted in vivid colours. And it is a must-see for all visitors.

A portrait of Yu Dafu hangs in the room, a photo of him with his brothers; the glass windows display various versions of his books, his correspondence with Lu Xun, and a photo taken before his death, showing him old, wasted, a bushy beard above his lips. I was surprised to see a martyr certificate, issued by the Ministry of Civic Affairs in 1983 – “The heroic sacrifice of comrade Yu Dafu in the war against Japan was recognised as a revolutionary martyrdom. This special permit was issued to praise him.”

Has Yu Dafu become a comrade? I know that he died under Japanese guns: it was a sad, sorry event.  He fled from China to Kuala Lumpur, then Singapore, and settled in Sumatra, but finally failed to escape catastrophe, one month before Tokyo surrendered.

Even when taking into account his experience with leftist groups during the 30s, dead, can he be called a “comrade”? In my mind, he will always be that sentimental, strong, indulgent, anxious libertine, a mix of alcohol, semen and blood. He was immersed in his own hopes and disillusions, where would he find interest to join a concerted, collective chorus of comrades, one where you can’t tell individual faces apart.

I remember years ago reading about his “sinking” feeling. It made me intolerably excited, it had a shape, a colour, a taste, a temptation that was hard to explain. Is it because, in reality, we used to be weak and small, shy and silent, with feelings of powerlessness, that we needed to be more hedonistic in our imagination and language. A woman’s physical presence and affection is the most important means of self discovery. I have never been to Japan on a winter night, but I can imagine the qualms, grief and anger of a Chinese exchange student, his sadness and anger, his breath smelling of alcohol, his face reddening, entering a brothel, with unspeakable excitement and remorse. I remember the way Yu Dafu commonly described women —“Tall, strong, plump and fair belle”.

However, before falling in love with a “tall, strong, plump and fair belle”, Yu Dafu’s love chamber was opened by a delicate girl. It was in Fuyang city, before the collapse of the Qing dynasty. 14-year-old Yu Dafu had shaved his forehead and kept a long braided queue hanging down his back, but he was already reading works from the new school. The imperial examination system had been permanently abolished, the Chinese classics had lost their appeal and foreign schools with western education had replaced private schools. School students dressed in black-twill uniforms became the center of attention. Ancient China was going through a great revolution, the country needed to throw out the old generation and adopt the new world, discovering her identity once again.

In foreign schools, Yu Dafu and his classmates, speaking English with a Jiangnan accent, wanted to know whether foreigners also had a “Three Character Classic” or a “Hundred Family Names”; but they also started to talk about the opposite sex. In the county, there were three beautiful and fashionable girls that all the boys were obsessed with. Their family was wealthy, and they shuttled between Shanghai and the countryside, bringing fashion from a new world, and becoming symbols of modern women. Yu Dafu fell fatally in love with a girl from the Zhao family,  Her skin was a pure unblemished white and her face looked like a melon seed, bright and pleasant, with hair tied in a long braid.

Within two years, Miss Zhao captivated Yu Dafu, causing his head to sink every time he thought of her. He was troubled by his shyness and low self-esteem, and this gave rise to more desire.

The youths only had untill his graduation from school, and before he left for further studies in Hangzhou, to express themselves. On one winter night, borrowing the strength of the alcohol consumed during the farewell gathering, he went to the Zhao residence. She was the only one home, practicing calligraphy beside a lamp. He walked behind her and blew out the lamp. “Like a tide, the moonlight soaked the south-facing hall, and with a scream, she turned her head”, Yu Dafu wrote after nearly thirty years, “I looked at her almond-shaped face and black crystal-like eyes in the moonlight and with a feeling that I couldn’t hold in anymore, I extended my arms and held her shoulders.” “Both of us basked in the moonlight, uttering nothing, sometimes looking at each other and sometimes, at the moon, until her mother came home, breaking this unique, deep intoxicating feeling,” Yu Dafu wrote.

I have remembered that since reading “Sui Yang’s Autumn Worries” in middle school, Miss Zhao has stayed in my heart. Today, I went to the former residence of Yu Dafu and read “Fuchun River”, the article he wrote and continuously re-wrote. Walking along the Fuchun river for five minutes, you will reach the place where the ‘new school’ of that time used to be – which today has become a primary school. Where is Miss Zhao’s residence hall and where has her soul gone to?

Unfortunately, the almond-shaped face of the young lady in the courtyard does not belong to Miss Zhao, after graduating from university, she was assigned to the Department of Cultural Affairs and the former residence of Yu Dafu is within the scope of her job. However, she is familiar with his story. “It shouldn’t be too far, unfortunately the old house was torn down”, she said with a smile. It’s a pity. I don’t know her story, who is waiting for her?

Part Two

“Oh, Yu Dafu, I know him.” the fortune-teller beside the Emporia bridge said earnestly, that night.

He was wearing a traditional Chinese style gown and vest, sunken cheeks, golden rimmed glasses on the bridge of his nose and small, narrow eyes. The fortune-teller spoke Fuyang dialect, aligning strings of words with an amazing speed and I couldn’t quite follow him. We sat around a low stool with my left hand spread before his eyes. He took a folding fan and pointed at the lines on my palm, reminding me that I was popular with the opposite sex, and that next year was the year where my zodiac was in conflict with Tai Sui, and so, advised me not to travel east….I am skeptical yet I don’t know how to confirm or refute his advice.

He said that this fortune-telling craft had been passed down to him from his grandfather and he has been practicing for twenty years, he would not say auspicious words for money, having his own principles, and is engaged in some sort of scientific research. His clients come from as far as Guangzhou or Shenyang, some make special trips to see him and others invite him to some distant place to examine the feng sui. In the night, his words floats indefinitely. Apart from my fate, we talked about other things. He said that the only reason President Mao could escape the fifth anti-siege was because he was proficient in Qi Men Dun Jia (the art of making oneself invisible), also adding that Huang GongWang’s divination skills were amazing — I recalled that throughout Huang GongWang’s life, he often relied on fortune-telling as a living, I wonder how many lies he told, how many predictions he made, and whether his understanding of  human’s constant unforeseen circumstances were what enabled him to draw those ethereal landscapes.

Even if I had done enough to prepare myself to expect something from this fortune-teller’s wide knowledge, I would have never expected him to talk about Yu Dafu in this manner, a person from the same hometown and at least equally famous as Huang GongWang, Yu Dafu — “He was an obscene genre writer”.

Ninety years ago, Yu Dafu was indeed insulted by many people. The China of that time was still debating about whether a widow should maintain chastity after her husband’s death and not remarry or whether she should accept an arranged marriage. However, Yu Dafu was so stark in expressing his desires, he was yearning for curvaceous women, looking forward to a nature full of joy, he was only concerned about his personal pleasures and desires, rather than what happened to the nation and the plights of his time. His ideas touched the hearts of the young people, perhaps they had a wrong effect, but maybe it was also because he linked personal repression and the repression of the times together — once, when he was peeking at Japanese women who were taking a bath, he furiously shouted: “oh, motherland, why didn’t you become stronger earlier“. Yet, at the same time, his desires were wrapped in reserved, minimalistic styled writing, his endless naivety made his desires by no means unprovoking.

How should I refute the fortune-teller? Or should I just let him continue believing in the world he believes in – an obscene genre writer and President Mao who knows the art of becoming invisible.

My companion and I went to Fuchun River and convinced a fishing couple to take us out for a week, wandering around the dark surface of the lake. The free, honest waterside living is long gone, and if they were caught by the police, this would be considered an illegal way to make a living. I really like this river: spacious, calm, misty, just like its name, the rich spring. Unfortunately, tall buildings and endless flashing neon lights now line the riverside. Jiang Nan has always always a rich and populous place in the south, and it’s similar now to how it was 100 years ago, Shanghai is still a magnet for the young people here. This place though rich and populous was still missing something, the young people on the streets were going on their everyday life, playing with their iPhones in high spirits. It is difficult for them to understand the feelings of “repression” and “shyness”, they were born and raised under the bright lights of the shops on the streets. As time passes, they pass their small anxieties and longing to their companions, searching for immediate comfort.

Fuchun river’s charm was also not the same as before, how many people would still talk about the story of Huang GongWang and Yan Ziling today? In the night, the brightest signboard visible beside the river is a sign called “Seine River Coffee”……

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact [email protected]