Wuhua and Me – Yu Jian
Yu Jian is a famous Chinese poet who resides in Kunming. This essay is the best homage to the city I have ever come across. It also contains his first poem, Green Park in Summer, written in 1973. I originally translated it for the now defunct Yunnan Magazine.
Though I’ve never left, I no longer recognize my hometown
Passing through this newborn city, I feel like a returning exile
Like a ghost returning to the temple, I still know
where the Li family well is, where the Zhang family garden is
where my grandmother’s rattan chair is, where her emerald earrings are
where the curtain hanging in the darkness is. I still know
where mother’s market is, where the eaves of the city god temple are
I can still hear the wind chimes, I can still see the bats in their grey robes
the sunset over the eucalyptus lake shimmering with goldfish. I still remember
the road home, laid by the moonlight craftsman. Oh, its most splendid night is the Mid-Autumn Festival
Like the blind man the day after tomorrow, I am in the void against my will,
feeling out the sections of my hometown, like the dead reenacting past beauty.
I was born and raised in Kunming. Then I went to school, took a job, got married and had a kid all right here in Kunming. Kunming is like my own private movie, with the film forever stored in the depths of my memory. I’ve written many essays about it, but each time I write again, new details emerge. It is a deep well of memory.
One day in the distant past, I was in a courtyard house in an alley off of Wucheng Road, waiting to grow up. The sky was blue like a stretch of homespun cloth, and butterflies were coming down from it in waves. The air was full of the scent of flowers. There were flowers all over the yard, on the flowerbed, on the table, on the windowsill, on the plinth stones… The scent of flowers even wafted down from the roof; the roof tiles were full of weeds with their yellow wildflowers, and a white cat looked out to the setting sun from the miniature savannah. My family first lived in Fushou Alley off of Wucheng Road. It was a short alley that concealed for our five courtyard houses. Our house was so old that it was starting to mold, with moss crawling up the base of the walls, and the carved ornamentation covered in spider webs. I don’t know exactly when the house was built. In the courtyard was a well which contained the moon. This is the world I saw when I first opened my eyes. The white cat was my friend. It would flit back and forth on my shoulders, scrutinizing me and licking my clothes. It was a big and sleek cat. One time, it walked across the rim of my cradle with an oily fried fish in its mouth. My grandmother had put that fish on the table for me to eat later. My grandmother had covered it with a bowl, but the cat brazenly knocked the bowl over with its paw, grabbed the fish in its mouth and sauntered away. I was bawling. It could take the moon out of the well and walk around on the roof at night with the moon in its mouth. I remember one year, on the Mid-Autumn Festival, the adults were all playing mahjong in the courtyard and eating moon cakes. The cat sat there at the edge of the well with its whiskers gleaming.
Wucheng Road was a patchwork street with shops on both sides. All of the houses faced south, so the street went from east to west. The smooth surface of the street was always shining in the light of the sunrise, the sunset or the moonlight.
On rainy days, it was like there was an invisible man conducting in the sky, and the whole street, with its various raindrop sounds, was an orchestra. That’s because these were all private homes, and they all had different roofs with various heights and slopes. On some of the homes, the rain rushed off like waterfalls, with the water flying straight down to the pedestrian street below and slapping on the granite. On some of the roofs, the rain slowly trickled down from the tin roofing. In places the tin was rusted through, creating holes through which the rain dropped down like paratroopers, one after the other. When the rain flowed too fast, some families put out tin pails, wood buckets, washing basins and roof tiles to collect it. The rain made yet different sounds when it landed in these various utensils, some like pearls dropping on a jade plate, some with a simple drip-drop sound, some whooshing straight to the bottom of the barrel before settling down. Some of the eaves didn’t have gutters for rainwater, and the rain would rush right down the grooves between the tiles, creating a rattling curtain of rain, dee dah, ding dang, ding dong, whaa whaa, laa laa laa…. It was a bit like this:
Who, on this coil
can encounter the soil
the planter of crops.
Later I went around the world and saw countless broad streets, but I never saw one that shined like that. When the sun rose, the storefronts and the windows above reflected the shine. The street was lined on both sides by wooden buckets, which the peasants put out to collect the residents’ excrement. There was no septic tank on Wucheng Road, so every morning the residents would come out and dump their chamber pots into these buckets. This is gold for the peasants. When they put it back in the land, it’s the best fertilizer there is. The garbage cart would come too, with the driver ringing his bell as he ambled down the street like an old king. The horse’s hoofs clacked down the street, and wherever someone wanted to get rid of garbage, the horse would stop and catch its breath. When the horse saw someone approaching the garbage cart from an alley or doorway, it knew they wanted to dump their garbage, so it would stop on its own accord. It was really a celestial horse. It was a strong steed covered in deep maroon. The garbage cart driver was a proud man. Everyone knew this king of garbage, and the old ladies would even stuff eggs in his pockets. These eggs were all laid by the chickens they raised at home. In the darkness right before dawn, the rooster’s calls would start rising above Wucheng Road. The garbage king took good care of his cart and treated his horse well. He hung a string of jujubes on its head. The horse looked nothing like a normal horse. It held its head high like a lord. The garbage king walked Wucheng Road for a lifetime, and his territory included all the alleys shooting off to the side. I’d known him since I was a child, and later, when our family moved to the other end of the street to the railway commission alley, he still collected our garbage. One day a different man came to collect the garbage. Grandma said he’d gone home.
The prole walks on the Sunday road,
his eyes are not fixed ahead in determination
instead they hesitantly glance down at the ground
He wants to discover a leather folder that he’ll never
bend down to pick up
As noon approached, one could hear the sounds of the shops opening up. The shop doors were covered by removable wooden boards. When it was time to open, the shopkeepers would take down the boards one by one, tie them together and set them to the side. All of the boards were numbered, because each one had its particular place. I loved watching the shopkeepers take down the boards. He’d take down one board, the shop would light up, and I’d know that the light was reaching into the depths of the shop. Then he’d sweep and mop the floor, often with his first customer waiting to the side. Wucheng Road had cloth shops, animal products shops, hardware shops, an auction house, stationary shops, tailor shops as well as a Chinese medicine shop, a church, restaurants, teahouses, a movie theater, a grown-ups bookstore, a children’s bookstore, barber shops, a bath house, a photo studio and shops selling roast erkuai…. This was a street that existed for people to pass their time, to idle away their lives. There was enough here to keep you idling for a lifetime. There was no need to ever fly away. In some of the doorways you could see white haired old grannies sitting as if they’d been sitting there for a lifetime, seeing the frailty of time, the passage of time, but not moving an inch. All of the snack shops were run by old women, standing there at the doors to their homes with a big round winnowing basked covered in small piles: a pile of peanuts, a pile of scented sunflower seeds, a pile of iron-beans, a pile of pine seeds, a pile of hawthorns. Between the piles was a small glass bowl, and each snack was sold for one jiao a bowlful. There were gardens all over Wucheng Road. Each courtyard was one, and all along the street in every season you could see flowers. If they weren’t bursting out from between the roof tiles, they were sticking out of the windows of nice peoples’ homes. Sometimes you’d see the tall doors of a large courtyard tightly shut with an air of mystery. When the doors creaked open, a flock of butterflies would sputter out. One would fall to the ground, struggle for a while and then take flight. I’d capture it, caress its wings, touch the pollen on its head and let it go.
The May First Movie Theater was the liveliest stretch of the road. It was the center of Wucheng Road, where the peddlers gathered in the thickest. On the Duanwu Festival, they’d be selling mugwort everywhere. Before and after the Mid-Autumn Festival, they’d be selling pears, walnuts, steamed soybeans, peanuts and flour cakes up and down half the street. The peddlers would walk up and down the pedestrian strip, some of them with babies on their backs, bundled in embroidered baby-carriers with the babies, covered in snot, playing on the grown-ups’ backs. The mountain girls selling silk-tree flowers always brought the wild spring with them. They’d come with baskets on their backs full of the flowers, like a giant flower basket, and they’d sell them all before they could reach the movie theater. Then they’d go shopping at the cloth shops with their empty baskets on their backs. They liked to buy cloth, mostly light purple and deep red.
The sun in the afternoon
passes the furniture and enters the depths of the kitchen
illuminating the bowls and plates in the cabinet
illuminating the salt and pepper shakers on the gas stove
illuminating the square joint under the table
The light has rearranged the spectrum between objects
In that flash in the darkness
I suddenly discovered that long lost
On the main roof beam of the Chinese medicine shop hung a wheel of red string. The herbs were weighed out on a small scale and laid on scraps of rough paper before being mixed by the herbalist. When the concoction was wrapped, his hand would fly up in the air and pull down the string, tying up the bundle and cutting the string. When I was young I thought that this red string was mysterious. It floated over the herbalist’s head, one frayed end, but at any time it could neatly bundle up any prescription. It linked all kinds of prescriptions together. Every prescription had to be linked to this string, or there was no way to take it out. Check the pulses, look at the tongue, write a prescription, pay the money, carry the prescription slip inside, grab the medicine, weigh it, pour it out on the paper, wrap it up, and lastly, tie it with the string. It was as if the string was curing the illnesses, not the herbs. Once it was wrapped in that string, the medicine became magical, and any disease could be cured.
The ticket window at the May First Movie Theater was a hole slightly bigger than my head. The ticket seller sometimes dozed off inside. I knew that at this time, there weren’t many people watching movies, and I could mosey right in. I would stick closely to the black curtain along the entrance as I snuck inside while the usher snored with the flashlight in his lap. The movie was already halfway through. I would find an empty seat and look up greedily. Tunnel Warfare was playing. I’d seen this movie a hundred times, to the point where I could almost recite it from memory. When the actors appeared somewhere, before they started talking, I would say their lines in an imitation of their voices. I was most excited when I had my ticket in hand, and I’d follow the usher through the darkness to my seat. I would crawl past the knees of those open-mouthed people in the darkness, passing them one by one as the usher’s flashlight sent out a beam of light to indicate my seat. Then the lights would go out, and on the screen, another world would light up.
An eighteen year old college girl
goes to the classroom on a spring morning
Her cheeks are red, her
long legs are wrapped in a wool skirt
only revealing one wild section
A beautiful girl with her chest high
her books tucked under her elbow
Staring straight ahead, she passes through
the garden of brightly blooming flowers.
She’s in a hurry to get to class
Every year at Spring Festival my father would take us three kids to the tailor’s to get fitted for new clothes. The tailor was an old uncle with glasses. Whenever he measured me for my pants, he would pinch my waist and say, “stand up straight, kid.” That sentence affected my entire life. My pants grew longer each year, and only if I stood up straight could he get the measurements right. Later, out in the world, I would often whisper to myself, “stand up straight.” There was a similar sentence that came from my mother, one which she told me a thousand times: “Yu Jian, when you walk, hold up your head and stick out your chest.” She never told me things like “study hard and move forward every day.” She would say, “when you walk, hold up your head and stick out your chest.” Every day she would walk to the Mingde Middle School in Panlong District to teach math. She’d take her calico bag full of exercises and pencils and walk from Wucheng Road to Shuncheng Road. When we moved to Xicang Hill she would cross Green Lake. She walked to the school right up until she retired. She was never late. She was eventually certified as a high level mathematics teacher. Back then my father was young and handsome, and wore gold-rimmed glasses. He always told the tailor to use the best cloth and the latest styles for our outfits. He didn’t really have much money. At that time, no one had any money in China. He was like a phenomenological philosopher – appearance is essence. This led me to have aspirations for lofty and modern things from a young age. My father was from Sichuan, and had seen a bit of the world. He grew up in an old hut along the Tuojiang River, and was one of the last graduates to come out of Nanjing University during the Republican Era. He had come to Yunnan with the Liu and Deng Brigade, and fell in love with Wuhua District, where he spent the rest of his life.
What does your smile mean?
She asks, I say, “a smile”
She doesn’t believe me, and starts to worry
A beautiful afternoon
turns into a job in the trenches
At Honghua Bridge there was a teahouse where customers got their refills poured by a hunchback. Medicine wasn’t so great at the time, so people deformed by illnesses were a common sight. We had a term called Mazi, which were the pockmarks left behind by smallpox. In 1966, when the Revolutionary Brigade was engaged in a firefight along Wucheng Road, the hunchback came out under fire to collect empty bullet shells, and was shot to death. No one knew how old he was. He had a baby face. I never drank his tea, but I’d watched him pour it. He wasn’t just pouring, he was performing, with graceful movements as if he was pouring the finest of wines.
The night is about to begin
the crows are cawing on the sea
I think back to my youth
those silent elders
my father taken away by red guards
as he went downstairs
he pulled the curtains
Green Lake was my paradise. Almost every little alley along Wucheng Road connected to Green Lake. When I was a kid it was there that I learned how to fish and how to swim, when it was time to test into college it was there that I prepared for the exam, and when I was romancing it was there that we’d look for a place to sit. Nowadays I often go there to listen to folk music. Every day there are dozens of tiny spontaneous concerts around the lake. The fact there’s a place with such quiet groves, shining waters and scattered temples at the heart of the noisy city is really fortunate. There are lots of lakes in the world, but not many like Green Lake. In this heavily trafficked area, there are no shopping centers; instead there are countless tall green trees and lotus flowers shining their unique red in the sunlight. To have a lake in a location equivalent to downtown Manhattan would probably be inconceivable in a different cultural setting. It’s right in the center of downtown, but calm and peaceful. Right there in the city center, terrorists could destroy the World Trade Center, but they haven’t destroyed Green Lake. For local residents, Green Lake is like a church, but instead of worshipping God, they worship nature. What is nature? It is the virtue of heaven and earth, the land from which I was born, and upon which I will die. It’s the land that for poet Li Bai “unfolds before me like prose.” This church extols you to follow nature, to be nature, to be calm, contented, brazen, cool, smooth, flowing, and everything else associated with nature. If the world remains hard and unmoving, then disaster is a foregone conclusion, only the time has not arrived.
In the middle of Green Lake there is a library that looks like the Xiaoxiang Manor in Dream of a Red Mansion. It has glass windows covered in the shimmering reflection of the water, and is surrounded by willow-shaded pathways. In my youth I often went there to read. In the days of Southwestern United University, many poets and writers read there. In the library there are rattan chairs, benches, the so called “ham tables” that can be used in a classroom for taking notes, all hinds of chairs, even grass stools. The tables are long, and along the edges, everyone’s sleeves have polished them to a bright shine. Sometimes I catch the scent of Shen Congwen’s robe, and sometimes I catch the sight of Wang Zhenqi dozing off in a rattan chair. These are writers I admire, and I’ve spent years researching their masterpieces. I have gained much from my efforts. I believe that this is the most beautiful library in the world. The books are stored upstairs. You look up the book you want to read, write it out on a card, and a librarian upstairs lowers it down in a rattan basket. I had never seen that librarian, but I found him years later when I read the work of Jorge Luis Borges. It was that librarian.
What am I always afraid of
still a few dozen meters from the door
my heart begins beating rapidly
a stomach full of lies
I’m just going in there
to find a bathroom
My family moved to Xicang Hill on the west side of Green Lake in the 1980’s. My house was on the fourth floor, above the spot where poet Wen Yiduo was murdered. From my window I could see the memorial tablet that people erected there in his honor. I see this as part of my destiny with poetry. I once led a group of poets there to light red candles.
Wuhua District is named after Wuhua Mountain. In 1966 my family moved to Wuhua Mountain, where we lived in a large government complex. On Wuhua Mountain there is a tower made of steel. It was built in the Republican Era in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. It was the highest building in Kunming. Back when I was young, kids who wanted to show their bravery would climb the tower. Whoever reached the top was a real man. The tower would sway in the highland winds, as if it could fall apart at any time. Standing at the bottom of the tower, I’d hear it creaking, and my legs would go soft. I always wanted to climb it and become a real man, but I never worked up the courage. One of my classmates reached the top, and he became the boss of our class. All the boys did what he said. Many years later, I ascended the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I rode the elevator to the top and took the stairs back down. It was like I’d finally become a real man.
Yuantong Mountain is the protective screen around the paradise of Green Lake. It is thick with trees. The leopards in the zoo there would often howl in the night. One day, one of the young men in our complex captured a leopard pup out in the fields. We played with this little cat-like critter for a few days, and then we brought him to Yuantong Mountain and gave him to the zoo. I wonder how he’s doing now, if he’s still in this world. This event led to a lot of trouble. The adult leopards surrounded the farm and didn’t leave for half a year. Back then, we talked a lot about leopards, and stories were spreading everywhere about them eating people. Yuantong Mountain is covered in flowers. In springtime, the flowers turn the whole mountain red. One day I was walking under a crabapple tree, and some sentences appeared. This was in 1973, and I wrote my first poem:
I’m bathed in moonlight as I stroll through the bushes
the crickets have started up their joyful fiddles
it’s like they’re looking for mates or like they’re pouring their hearts out
this incomparably beautiful music
has pulled me into a pond of thoughts
the peaceful waters
below the shimmering ripples lies a green abyss
Sleep deeply, green park in summer
I’ll leave these sentences in your long, long dreamscape
when life belongs to me
I will paint you the most beautiful spring
Green Park in Summer, 1973
Yunnan University was built on another mountain that’s connected to Yuantong Mountain. In the forest at the front of the mountain there lives an ancient group of squirrels. I believe that they’re the last indigenous residents of Kunming. When I was studying at Yunnan University, I would often stand up on the roof of Huize Lou and watch them at play. When I was young I always knew that one day I would study at Yunnan University. Yunnan University is the pride of Kunming. When I was young I didn’t know who was teaching there, but I worshipped that university. The buildings there gave me an impression of ancient Roman temples, especially in autumn, when the tall gingko trees under the physics building would give off a golden glow, and when a breeze came, send leaves rolling all over the ground. I caught a glimpse of a scarlet baroque style building hidden behind the trees. I often felt that the building was home to those people who wrote those beautifully bound books that lined the very top shelves of the library, or at least their spirits. I’ve even seen a pale face in deep thought through a window. My classroom was in Huize Lou, on the left side of the first floor. Through the window I could see Yingqiu Yuan. Each spring, the old crabapple tree would don a red coat of flowers, and stick its head in to watch our class. Some of my classes were in another classroom across the hall. Through the window, far off in the distance, you could see the Western Hill. One teacher who taught ancient literature would look out to the hill after each few sentences, as if it was his teacher. When you’re young, you know that there’s a university waiting for you in a corner of the city, and when the time comes, you become a student there. That’s a great city.
The woman peeling an apple
cuts a slice for me in the dusk
when I grab it
I bump into her juicy hand
I met a lot of lifelong friends in Wuhua District. Among them are poets, artists, painters, musicians, etc. I often had the feeling that a “cultural renaissance” was happening here. We talked about this subject at No. 6 Shangyi Street. I remember those distant nights, when we who would become poets, writers and artists would stroll around the alleys between Wucheng Road and Green Lake, talking through the night. Sometimes I’d be sitting around at Green Lake when suddenly someone would smack my head with a stack of papers. Oh, it’s the poet Du Ning, who just finished a batch of poems and is looking all over the place for a reader. He’d open them right up and recite them on the spot. From spring to autumn, there would be someone on the second floor of one building playing the flute, someone else playing a movement by Chopin or Beethoven on an old record player, another one telling stories under a tree surrounded by astute, deer-like ears; someone would be strumming a guitar, and someone else would be playing an accordion…From whose home floats the sounds of the jade flute? It scatters in the spring wind, filling the city. This song should belong only to the heavens. How often can mortals hear this sound? It is not just an ancient legend.
Wuhua translates to ‘five glories’, but no one has figured out which five glories. I remember reading Wang Bo’s Preface to the Teng Wang Pavilion over and over again. “The land is blessed, and there are many talented people. This is where Xu Ru sojourned with Chen Fan.” Literature catalyzes imagination, but I never thought of Nanchang. I always imagined Wang Bo as a Kunminger, and that he was writing about Kunming. “The clouds of sunset take flight together with the cranes, the autumn waters are the color of the sky.” That’s Lake Dian.
Once, on a train, everyone was telling of their hometowns. The fashion of this era is to “live elsewhere.” Of eight people there, seven of them fought for glory away from home, in Shenzhen, New York, Beijing, Paris…only I said “oh, I’m from Kunming, and I’ve lived there all my life.”
Everyone was surprised. Then I told them that I’m a poet.
conceal demons that grimace
they jump out in groups
from under the piano lid
chilling the hearts of the musicians