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#1 Posted : Sunday, 15 October 2017 9:14:44 AM(UTC)

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Everyone is your friend when you are successful. But only your monther is your companion at the time of failure. (Zheng Zhenduo)

In her lifetime, Mother didn’t impart any meaningful wisdom to me, nor did she give me lessons to live by, but after she died, her difficult lot, her long-suffering will, and her unstinting but silent love were intensified, and—over time—impressed themselves on me more and more. 

The Temple of Earth and I

Shi Tiesheng

               -- translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping 


                  In a number of my stories, I’ve referred to an antiquated park: in fact, this is the Temple of Earth Park. Some years ago, before tourism had developed much, it was as desolate and neglected as a wasteland. People seldom gave it a thought. 

       The Temple of Earth wasn’t far from my home, or perhaps it’s better to say my home wasn’t far from it. All in all, I felt I was related to it by fate. It had reposed there for four hundred years before my birth, and ever since, when my grandmother was a young woman, she had taken my father to live in Beijing, my family had lived near it: in more than fifty years, my family had moved several times, but always to a place in its vicinity. Each time, we moved closer to it. I often felt this was something foreordained—as if this old park were waiting especially for me: it seemed it had been waiting for four hundred years—through all the tumultuous changes of those centuries. 

       It had waited for me to be born, and then it had waited for me to be suddenly crippled in both legs during my wildly ambitious youth. In those four hundred years, it had been denuded of the colored glazes on the eaves of its old temple, the glorious vermilion of its gates and walls had faded, the high walls had collapsed, pieces of jade inlaid into the pillars had loosened and scattered, yet old dark green cypress trees surrounding the altar had become more and more serene, and everywhere, weeds and vines flourished with abandon. 

       It was about the right time for me to come here. When the park was finally ready for me—a man at loose ends—I maneuvered my wheelchair into the park for the first time. The sun—on its ancient, unchanged path—was just growing bigger, and redder. In the still rays of light suffusing the park, it was easy for a person to see the time, and easy to see his own shadow. 

       Beginning with that afternoon when I happened to go to this park, I’ve never been away from it for long. 

       I understood at once why it was there. As I said in one story, “In a densely populated city, it’s as if God painstakingly arranged for a place as serene as this.” 

       The first few years after I was crippled, I couldn’t find work: I had no future; all of a sudden, it was almost as though I couldn’t find anything. 

       And so I wheeled myself to the park almost every day: it was another world, one where I could escape this world. I wrote in one story, “With no place to go, I used to spend the whole day in the park every day: other people went to work; I went to the park. It was an abandoned park. When it was time to go to work or time to go home, people took shortcuts through the park, and it became animated for a while. Afterwards, it was still.” 

       “In the dazzling golden sunlight, the park’s wall provided shade: I wheeled myself over there, put the back of the wheelchair down, and—either sitting or lying down—I read or thought. I would break off a cypress twig and drive away the insects who didn’t know any better than I did why they had been born in this world.” “A bee like a tiny piece of mist hung on in midair; an ant was deep in thought, its head wagging and its antennae quivering, and then, all of a sudden, it must have come up with the right answer, for it turned back and scudded off; the ladybug climbed around wearily, stopped to pray for a while, and then, flapping its wings, suddenly soared to the sky; on the tree trunk there was one cicada, as lonely as an empty room; dew rolled around on the leaves of weeds, and then coalesced, weighing the leaves down until they broke into thousands of rays of golden light.” 

       “The whole park was astir with the sound of weeds, bushes, and trees growing, all shattering ceaselessly.” This was all true: the park was a wasteland, but far from going downhill. 

       Aside from some buildings that I had no way to enter, aside from the altar that I had no way to reach but could only gaze at from every possible vantage point, I had been under every tree in the park, and my chair’s wheel-prints were left on almost every meter of grass. I had spent time in this park in all seasons, all kinds of weather, and all times of the day. Sometimes, I stayed only a short time and then went home; sometimes, I stayed until the entire ground was alight with moonbeams. I don’t remember which corners of the park I was in then. For several hours in a row, I was totally absorbed in thinking about death, and just as patiently, I pondered why I had to be born. This kind of thinking went on for quite a few years until I finally understood: a person’s birth isn’t a question for debate, but is the reality handed to him by God. When God hands us this reality, he has already incidentally assured its end, so death is something one needn’t be anxious to bring about; death is a festival that is sure to befall you. After thinking this through, I felt greatly relieved: nothing would ever be so frightening again. Let me put it this way: just think, when you get up early and stay up late preparing for an exam, and suddenly it occurs to you that—just ahead—a long vacation is waiting for you, don’t you feel a little better? And aren’t you happy and grateful for this arrangement? All that’s left is the question of how to live, but this is not something you can think through in an instant, not something that you can solve once and for all: you have to think about it your whole life, however long that is. It’s a demon or a lover who is your lifelong companion. And so, for fifteen years, I had to go to this old park, go under the old trees or next to the neglected weeds or beside the dilapidated walls, sit in silence or think blankly, break through the feelings of chaotic disarray that were all around me, and peep at my soul. 

       In fifteen years, people who didn’t understand this old park had wantonly altered some of its design and structure. Fortunately, there were some things that no one could change about it—for example, when the setting sun moves to the spot inside the stone arch of the altar, its rays spread across the ground and each rough spot on the ground is resplendent in the sunshine; or at the loneliest time in the park, a flock of swallows comes out and sings, their desolate song filling the space between heaven and earth; or the footprints children make in the snow in the wintertime, always leading people to wonder who they are, what they are doing there, and where they are going; for example, the dark old cypresses: when you’re feeling melancholy, they are standing there sedately, and when you’re feeling happy, they are still standing there sedately—they’ve stood there since before you were born and will go on standing there until you are no longer in this world; or a sudden rainstorm in the park touches off a pure green and muddy earth scent, giving rise to memories of countless summer occurrences; or the autumn wind suddenly arrives, and there is an early frost, and falling leaves or tottering singing and dancing or calm and quiet sleep: the park is pervaded with an atmosphere of tranquility and a little bitterness. Atmosphere is the most difficult thing to explain. My words can’t convey this atmosphere; you have to be there and smell it for yourself. It’s hard to remember, too: only when you smell it again will it bring back all the feelings connected with it. And so I must often go back to this park.


It’s only now that I think of how difficult I made it for Mother when I went to the Temple of Earth Park alone. 

       She wasn’t the sort of mother who simply loved her son without understanding him. She knew the pain I felt, knew she shouldn’t keep me from going out, knew that if I always stayed at home it would be even harder on me, but she worried about what I would think about the whole day in that barren park. Back then, my temperament was as bad as it could be: I often left the house as if I’d gone crazy, and when I returned from the park it was also as if I were possessed, for I never said a word. Mother knew there were some things she shouldn’t ask: she would want to ask something, and in the end she wouldn’t dare, because she didn’t have any answers, either. She figured out that I wouldn’t want her to go with me, so she never asked to do so: she knew she had to give me some time to be alone, that I had to have this passage. She just didn’t know how long this process would last, nor what would lie at the end of it. Whenever I wanted to go out, she mutely helped me get ready, helped me into the wheelchair, watched me zigzag my way out of the courtyard. Back then, I never thought about what it was like for her after I left. 

       Once, after I’d left, I remembered something and turned back. I saw Mother still standing in the same place, still in the same pose as when she’d seen me off—watching me go out of the outer wall of the small courtyard. At first, she didn’t react to my coming back. When she saw me off the second time, she said, “I think it’s great to go out and move about, to go to the Temple of Earth Park to read.” Not until years later did I realize that actually Mother was comforting herself: it was a secret prayer, it was a hint to me—an entreaty and a directive. It was only after she died unexpectedly years later that I began to think of it this way. How had she gone through those long hours when I was out? She must have been restless with anguish and misgivings, as well as the most modest invocations of a mother. Now I could figure it out: during those nights after the empty daytime, during those days after sleepless nights, with her intelligence and endurance she would have thought and thought and finally she would have said to herself: “In any case, I have to let him go out. The future is his. If something happens to him in the park, I can’t do anything but accept the consequences.” During that time—and it was a period of many years—I think I must have caused my mother to prepare for the worst, but she had never told me, “Think about me.” And in fact I hadn’t thought of her. Back then, her son was still too young with no time to think of his mother. He’d been dealt a blow by fate, and all he could think of was that he was the most unfortunate person in the world; he didn’t know that the son’s misfortune was always much harder on the mother. She had a son, who in his twenties had suddenly become a paraplegic: this was her only son. She wished this had happened to her, and not to her son, but there was no way to take his place. She thought, just let him go on living, even if I die, but she was also certain that a person could not merely live: her son would have to have a path he could take toward his own happiness. And no one could guarantee that, in the end, her son would be able to find this path. With a son like this, she was predestined to suffer more than all other mothers. 

       Once I was passing the time of day with a writer friend: I asked him what his earliest motivation had been for writing. After thinking for a while, he said, “My mother. To make her proud.” I was surprised, and said nothing for a long time. When I thought back to my earliest motivation for writing stories, it didn’t seem as simple as my friend’s, but I had shared the same dream, and when I gave it careful thought, I found this dream also accounted for much of my motivation. My friend asked, “Is my motivation too vulgar?” I only shook my head. I thought, although it wasn’t necessarily vulgar, it sounded too naive. He also said, “Back then, I really just wanted to become famous, so that other people would envy my mother.” I thought he was more candid than I. I thought, he’s also more fortunate than I, because his mother is still alive. I also thought, his mother was luckier than mine. His mother didn’t have a crippled son: otherwise, it wouldn’t have been so simple. 

       When my first story was published, and then again the first time I received a prize for a story, I wished so much that my mother were still alive. I could no longer stay at home, and once more I spent the whole day at the Temple of Earth Park. I was endlessly depressed and resentful. I went through the entire park, but I couldn’t think anything through: why couldn’t Mother have lived two more years? Why, just when her son was about to strike out on his own, was she suddenly unable to hold on? Could it be that her role in this world had been only to worry about her son, but not to enjoy my small portion of happiness? When she left me in such a hurry, she was only forty-nine! At the moment, I was even consumed with hatred and disgust for the world and for God. Later, in an article called “The Silk Tree,” I wrote, “I sat among the quiet trees in the small park and closed my eyes and thought: why did God call Mother back so soon? After a long time, I heard the faint answer: ‘She was suffering too much. When God saw that she couldn’t bear it any longer, he summoned her.’ This comforted me a little, and I opened my eyes and saw the wind blowing through the trees.” The small park was the Temple of Earth Park. 

       Only then did the confusing events of the past come into focus: Mother’s tribulations and greatness finally thoroughly saturated my mind. God had probably been right. 

       I went slowly through the park: it was another mist-covered dawn, another day with the scorching sun suspended high in the sky. I was thinking of just one thing: Mother’s gone. I stopped beneath an old cypress tree, stopped on the grass and beside the dilapidated wall. It was another afternoon with insects singing everywhere. It was another twilight with birds returning to their nests. I silently repeated one sentence to myself: But Mother’s gone. I put the back of the wheelchair down, and lay down. Half-sleeping, I waited until sunset and then sat up in a trance: I sat there until the ancient altar was mantled in darkness and then gradually the moonlight floated up. Not until then did I realize: Mother couldn’t come to this park again to look for me. 

       Time after time, when I had stayed in this park too long, Mother came looking for me. She came to find me, but she didn’t want me to know. If she could just see that I was still okay in the park, she would turn around quietly and go home. I had seen her receding figure several times. I had also seen her looking all around for me—her eyesight wasn’t good—wearing glasses, as if looking for a boat on the ocean. When she hadn’t yet seen me, I had already seen her. After I saw that she’d also seen me, I didn’t look at her anymore. After a while, I would look up and see her figure receding slowly. I have no way of knowing how many times she looked for me without finding me. Once, when I was sitting amid some dense shrubs, I saw that she didn’t find me: she walked alone in the park, walked past me, walked past some places where I often stopped. She walked on, blankly and urgently. I didn’t know how long she’d been looking for me, or how much longer she’d continue looking: I didn’t know why I decided not to call out to her—but this for sure wasn’t the hide-and-seek of childhood. Perhaps this came from a grown-up son’s stubbornness and shame? But this obstinacy just left me aching with regret; I wasn’t the least bit proud of it. I really want to admonish all grown-up boys: whatever you do, don’t act stubborn around your mother, and you certainly don’t have to be shy around your mother. I know this now, but it’s too late for me. 

       Sons want to make their mothers proud: this is too true. It more or less validates the vulgar idea of “I want to be famous.” This is a complicated issue, so let’s not bother with it, anyhow. The excitement of receiving a prize for my story dimmed day by day. I began to believe that at the least I was wrong about a little something: the path I had opened for myself in magazines by using pen and paper was not at all the path Mother had looked forward to my finding. Through the years, I always went to the park, and through the years I always wondered: what was the path that Mother had hoped I would find? 

       In her lifetime, Mother didn’t impart any meaningful wisdom to me, nor did she give me lessons to live by, but after she died, her difficult lot, her long-suffering will, and her unstinting but silent love were intensified, and—over time—impressed themselves on me more and more. 

       One year, the October wind was stirring up the quiet fallen leaves. I was reading in the park, and heard two old people out for a walk say, “We never would have guessed this park was so big.” I put my book down, and thought, it was such a large park, if Mother looked for her son here, how many worried paces had she taken? In all these years, this was the first time I was aware of this: not only did every spot in this park have my wheel tracks, but they also had Mother’s footprints. 


Edited by user Sunday, 15 October 2017 11:21:16 AM(UTC)  | Reason: Not specified

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