1 The surviving alumni of Huaguang College might remember an event that happened on April 3, 1937. It was the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the college, and the celebration went on from early morning till late night, events including a tea party, a cocktail party, the unveiling of the bronze bust of the founder of the college, commemoratory speeches, and a performance of Much Ado About Nothing by the students’ amateur dramatic troupe. It was a glorious page in the history of Huaguang College, the pomp and circumstance only to be rivaled by the opening of the Du1 family ancestral temple. Who would have thought that just a few months later this prestigious college would be reduced to rubble under the Japanese army’s bombardment? To this very day the thought of that glorious moment, gone forever, makes one melancholy.
Of the details of that anniversary, the elaborately printed commemorative booklet published by the college carried a full report. The booklet had a morocco cover and the flyleaf carried an inscription, “Light of China,” personally inscribed by the then-minister of education. The last page was full of anecdotes about the event, reporting on the number of bouquets and congratulatory letters received and the quantity of cakes consumed, all personally made by the female students of the home economics department. But one event that should have been included on that page went unnoticed.
It happened during the students’ speeches. The gathering was held on the campus lawn; the sun was smiling and the soft breeze caressing. The students sat on the downy lawn in small groups of twos or threes, more in the spirit of an outing than of a formal meeting, and few took the speeches seriously. About three o’clock in the afternoon, a young man walked up the platform. He wore a faded long gown, patched at the hem, with a scarf thrown over his shoulders. His whole appearance was totally at odds with the atmosphere on campus.
The student stood silently on the platform for quite a while, then took the scarf off his neck and put it over his eyes. He then pulled the ends of the scarf to the back of his head and tied it together. He did all this slowly and methodically, as if following a ritual.
He then recited a poem, which later appeared in the mimeographed pages of the students’ magazine. It was curiously titled “The Cicada”2: “I love you, therefore I hate you/ I would rather close my eyes forever/ if you open your heart to me/ all I see is original sin.”
A girl from the English department asked her companion: “Isn’t he from your Philosophy department? What’s his name?”
“Country bumpkin,” the other curled her lips contemptuously, “he’s called Liu Dong.”
The first time I ever heard the name of Liu Dong was years later in Xiaoli’s home. There was a party that day, more or less like a poetry salon. Among the guests was a well-known avant-garde poet who had just published a long poem on love in antiquity that had set the critics raving. Xiaoli and her circle of friends were very excited and hovered round the poet, pestering him with questions about his poem, why did he choose to place it in antiquity, where did he get his inspiration and so on.
I remember the poet answering: “Inspiration flashes for a moment and disappears, like having to pee. Inspiration needs no reason for coming and going.”
I think I was the only person at the party that day who did not display any particular enthusiasm or animosity. I sat alone the whole evening, silently smoking.
Perhaps that was why the old fellow chose to pick up a conversation with me.
“Haven’t seen such a jolly gathering for a long time,” he said as he sat next to me, as if chatting with an old acquaintance. “Makes me think of my young days. . . . Do you also write poetry?” he asked me.
I looked at the old fellow and nodded silently. I wondered how he came to be there; obviously he didn’t belong to the place at all.
“Then do you know Liu Dong?”
“Who are you talking about?” I asked.
“Ah, I thought you wouldn’t know. He is a forgotten poet,” he said, disappointed.
I mentioned that I sat silently in a corner all evening. This was not because I was morose by nature, or that I despised my peers, but because I was in a dreadful mess. My writing had come to a dead end; all the old feelings that I had been able to conjure up were completely blocked. I would sit at my desk for hours at a time and not a word of poetry would drip from the tip of my pen. What’s worse, my girlfriend of many years had left me when I most needed her support and taken up with a pot-bellied artist. At the time, I was in complete despair, with no glimmer of hope in sight. I began to question whether poetry had any meaning at all in life.
Perhaps precisely because of my despondent mood at the time, the name of the forgotten poet Liu Dong stuck in my mind.
It was only after the party that I discovered that the old fellow who had spoken to me was Xiaoli’s father. I can’t be blamed for the misunderstanding. At the time, I did not know Xiaoli very well, and in the past, when she held her salons, she would either send her parents off to a movie, or lock them up in the kitchen. I still don’t know how her father managed to sneak into the party that evening. Perhaps she forgot to lock the kitchen door.
Later that night, or perhaps it was a few days afterward, I felt an overpowering urge to open up to someone, and called Xiaoli on the telephone. I thought she should at least offer some sympathy, but she cut me short: “That’s enough. For heaven’s sake don’t play this game with me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I know all the tricks the likes of you will use to get your hands on a girl. You always begin with a recital of woes and an outpouring of grief. This is the first step in a two-part plan. After the sob story, you go straight to the heart of the matter. Isn’t it true?”
“Pure nonsense! Who told you that?”
“If you really want to talk, why don’t you talk to my father? Didn’t you two get along fine at the party?”
I hung up the phone and took out a new version of the dictionary of modern Chinese poetry from my bookcase, and looked under the character “Liu.” The dictionary was heavy, it felt like it weighed five pounds, but there were only two lines under the heading “Liu Dong.”
The item ran: “Liu Dong, native of Jiangsu province (or Anhui province, by another source), date of birth unknown. Attended Huaguang College in the thirties. His poetry was influential among students at the time. In 1942 he went to south Jiangsu province to join the anti-Japanese guerrillas, was caught and killed by the Japanese in the same year. Main works: `Wild Fire,’ `Loud Blows the Bugle,’ and `Appointment in K City.'”
2 Two months later, my piece of literary reportage “Appointment in K City” was published by a major Shanghai daily. It was prominently placed, with an editor’s note saying, “This is an excellent report, truthfully revealing a spark of brightness in the life of a young poet.” This note made me feel quite guilty, not that my reportage was a pack of lies. No. To write the piece, I had held many conversations with Xiaoli’s parents, and through them, had looked up Old3 Zhou, the leader of the anti-Japanese guerrilla army that Liu Dong had joined in his day. Besides, I had pored over tons of background material and collected every scrap of Liu Dong’s poetry that I could lay hands on. Even so, like many other reporters, I discreetly used my imagination when data was not available.
Xiaoli pronounced “Appointment in K City” merely “so-so.” She said that some parts were flat, though there were passages that impressed her deeply. “Like what,” I asked her. “For instance, the part where Liu Dong recited poetry blindfolded,” she said.
It is true that a certain poet had once recited his poetry blindfolded; it had been a friend of mine who was always looking for new forms of expression; blindfolding himself was just one of his gimmicks. Once he even put a large gauze mask over his mouth and stood silently on stage for a full eight minutes without uttering a sound, then made someone else announce to the audience that what they had heard was a poem called “Heartbeat.” Regrettably no editor of a poetry magazine would agree to publish it.
Liu Dong was separated from us by a whole generation; it was unlikely that he would ever have resorted to such games. The blindfolding was an invention on my part. But the recital during the college anniversary was factual and was a turning point in Liu Dong’s life. Before that, he was just a student in the philosophy department whom no one looked at twice. He wore that tattered long gown from one year to the next, though in winter he would tie a rope around his waist, yet the only thing in his looks that had even a hint of poetry might be his pinched and frozen nose. His slovenly appearance put off even the most liberal-minded professors. As for the students from affluent families, they just called him country bumpkin to his face, and he didn’t seem to mind at all. Actually he even seemed to relish it. But when he was truly offended, he would let off a string of abuses that was definitely beyond the scope of most country bumpkins’ vocabulary in terms of obscenity.
After the poetry recital at the college celebration, things changed overnight. The students of Huaguang College discovered many short poems published by Liu Dong in newspapers and magazines. So he was a poet after all. No wonder he was different in every way. The doe-eyed girl from the English department even made advances towards him. She was from an affluent family, so everyone around them predicted that the affair would not last. Contrary to expectations, however, she was with him up through the last few years of his life, and never left his side until their final parting at the No. 3 Pier.
By the end of the year of the celebration, the two of them were fully committed to each other. She brought Liu Dong home to meet her parents. It was her father’s birthday, and although it was wartime, the house was overflowing with guests.
Liu Dong in his tattered long gown stood out like a sore thumb among the crowd of guests in their glittering finery. He was naturally the focus of attention because of his open relationship with the daughter of the family. One of the guests, through ignorance or perhaps malice, went up to him and asked where was he exhibiting his talents. Liu Dong smiled and answered: “Emptying night soil buckets.”
“Excuse me, where did you say?”
“Emptying buckets. Cleaning up other people’s shit,” Liu Dong said composedly.
The host, who was celebrating his birthday, shook with anger, the guests were dumbstruck, you could hear a pin drop. The young lady laughed, went up to Liu Dong in the glare of the public eye, and gave him a long kiss.
Later on, Xiaoli said that my reportage was “extremely vulgar,” and that it had spoiled Liu Dong’s love story. I was hurt. It is true that I am not the passionate type, and my idea of love tends toward the prosaic; friends had even pointed out that it was the reason I had never produced any work of depth. But precisely because I knew my shortcomings, I had sincerely consulted Xiaoli’s family before putting pen to paper. I asked them, what was it in Liu Dong that was worthy of a woman’s love?
“His integrity, his talents, his unswerving pursuit of his ideal.”
“And also, though he was poor, his attitude toward wealth and prestige was not born of envy but was the result of genuine lack of interest and even contempt. This is a rare quality in the really poor.”
To my question about what made Liu Dong worthy of a woman’s love, Xiaoli answered, “Love does not need a reason, just like you don’t need a reason to write poetry.”
After the incident of August 13 mentioned earlier, Huaguang College was razed to the ground by Japanese bombs, and the teachers and students were scattered hither and thither. Liu Dong and his girlfriend threw themselves into the resistance, editing newsletters, printing leaflets, visiting wounded soldiers, helping settle refugees, and reciting poetry on many occasions. At the time they were the most popular figures at the military hospitals and refugee camps. Their lives were filled with passion, but to Liu Dong it was not enough. He wanted to give up the pen for the sword and fight the enemy face to face. He would have retreated north along with the Seventh Army when the concession area in Shanghai was surrounded, but for the fact that he contracted tuberculosis in the refugee camps.
Tuberculosis kept Liu Dong in the hospital for more than a year. Perhaps it was a good thing for him, for he found time to read and think and also to write a lot of poetry. During this period, his girlfriend was by his side almost every day. Another person who often visited Liu Dong in hospital was Xiao Li’s father. They got to know each other while working in the refugee camps and became good friends. Liu Dong recovered and left the hospital during late autumn of the following year. His girlfriend brought him a brown sweater. They nearly broke up on account of the sweater.
“Take it away, I don’t want it,” Liu Dong said.
“Oh no, it’s so cold outside, you’ll catch cold,” his girlfriend said.
“I’m not going to wear it.” Liu Dong turned his back as if he didn’t even want to look at the thing.
“How many times have I told you,” he said harshly, “not to use your father’s money. When I think of where it comes from, it gives me the creeps.”
“You’re going too far,” his girlfriend said, with tears in her eyes. “Do you know how many nights I stayed up knitting it for you?”
She had reason to cry indeed. For her-she had learned to knit to make it for him-this was not just a sweater, but the token of her love.
I guess she might have had other reasons for crying, too. At the time, Liu Dong was getting letters from readers every day, mostly from young women gushing with love and admiration, and some even enclosed snapshots of themselves. Whenever Liu Dong wrote back, I’m sure his girlfriend was tortured by jealousy, although she never said anything.
Recently my friend the avant-garde poet also published a group of poems in a magazine, with a snapshot of himself attached. He boasted that he received one hundred and nine letters from female admirers posted from all twenty-eight provinces and autonomous regions of the country, except Tibet and Taiwan.
For fellow poets like the one mentioned above, I can only express admiration. I myself have never been so honored. All my readers are macho men, and if ever they write to me, it is mostly to abuse me to their hearts’ content. After the publication of “Appointment in K City,” the newspaper where it was published forwarded me a letter. The letter ran: “Let’s make an appointment to meet. Sunday is okay. I must see you. I must point out a serious mistake on a matter of principle in your article, a downright factual error.”
I assumed this was not from the pen of a lady.
3 Xiaoli’s father had also pointed out a factual error in my reportage, but it was not a matter of principle, nor was it serious. He pointed to the paragraph in my article about Liu Dong being the “most popular” figure in the military hospitals and refugee camps. “There was at least one other person more popular than Liu Dong,” he claimed, “and that is your humble servant.” At the time, he was in charge of distributing food and clothing.
“How can you say such a thing about the dead,” his wife said indignantly.
Xiao Li’s father winked at me, but didn’t defend himself. He never made a secret of the fact that he had little schooling, lacked the polish of the educated, and could hardly take in all the spiritual impact of Liu Dong’s poetry. When together, the two friends had talked about social problems, the evils of wealth, and ways to save the motherland from the Japanese occupying army, but they had never talked about poetry. As far as he could remember, Liu Dong disliked being referred to as a college man or a poet; perhaps that was the reason the two of them got along.
They were often occupied at the refugee camps until late at night, when they would retire to a street stall for a bowl of noodle soup. As time went by, the old stallkeeper recognized them and would always add a ladle of beef broth into their noodles. It was precisely at this noodle stall that they first approached the problem of joining the army. But fate had ordained that their ways would part. At first they had wanted to join Li Zongren’s Guangxi Army, but Liu was held back by tuberculosis, and they gave up the plan. Then they decided to join the guerrillas in the rear area, but something unexpected happened to Xiaoli’s father and Liu Dong set off alone.
What happened was that Xiaoli’s father had an old friend, Zhou, who had set up a guerrilla base in south Jiangsu. He needed people, and sent information to Shanghai about the secret route to reach him. On receiving the news, Liu Dong persuaded his girlfriend to stay on for the time being while he set off with his friend. As a compromise, he agreed to put on the brown sweater.
On the eve of departure, Liu Dong and his girlfriend bought a basket of crabs and asked a few friends over for a get-together at his place. Because of the secrecy of their mission, apart from the two of them and Xiao Li’s father, no other person was told the real reason for the gathering. They all took it for a poetry meeting under the moonlight with crabs for refreshment.
It seemed that Liu Dong did make a poem that night. “He was absent-minded,” Xiaoli’s father reminisced. “I asked him if he disliked crabs. He said that on the contrary, he often had crabs at home and that they even had special instruments for picking out the meat. After a while he suddenly asked me if I had paper. I grabbed a piece of newspaper and he took out a pen and started writing a poem on the edge. I glanced at it, and remember the last line was something about `Appointment’ in some city or other.”
About the circumstances of Liu Dong’s death, Xiao Li’s parents did not have much to tell me.
At the close of the crab party, Xiao Li’s father had promised to meet Liu Dong at the No. 3 Pier the next morning, but he did not make it. That same night, right after the party, he was taken in by the Japanese military police, and by the time he was out, Liu Dong was dead.
I had assumed that Old Zhou would know more about the details of events leading to Liu Dong’s death; after all, he was the founder and leader of the guerrilla army that Liu Dong had left Shanghai to join. But he had little to offer. He said that Liu Dong had only stayed for two nights in camp. At the time, the Japanese were scouring the countryside, the situation was very dangerous, and he did not have time to talk much with Liu Dong. On the third day of his arrival, Liu Dong was sent to a fishing village on the banks of the Taihu Lake to conduct anti-Japanese agitation among the natives and was killed then and there by the Japanese.
My visit with Old Zhou was a disappointment.
If not for coming across a memoir, I would not have been able to piece together that last bright spark in the life of Liu Dong. That memoir was published in the local journal of a small county in Jiangsu province. The writer had been a Japanese collaborator and had just been released during the amnesty of 1975. At the time of Liu Dong’s death, he was head of the local police station in the county town where Liu Dong was killed.
In the fifth section of his long memoir, titled “Memoirs on the inner workings of the legal system under the Wang Jingwei collaborative regime,” he mentioned the investigation of Liu Dong’s murder. The body was discovered in the wilderness about three li from Huang Village. The upper body was naked and the two hands tied together with a tattered long gown. The only wound was a deep sword thrust in the abdomen, and the words “this is the end of resisting the imperial army” were written in black ink on the chest. The skin of the corpse was white and delicate; obviously the dead man was not one of the local fishermen.
According to the memoir, the investigation was conducted in the morning. That same afternoon, a wineshop keeper from the Qiaotou township rushed to the police station to report that on the previous night two burly fellows had had food and drinks at his wineshop and left a brown woolen sweater as payment. Only in the morning did he discover that the sweater was stained with blood.
The police stationmaster said in his memoir that according to his inquiries there had been no Japanese activity in the Huang village area, and that it was a case of robbery and murder by local bandits.
I showed Old Zhou the memoir, and after some thought he said that the story was very likely. “At the time,” he said, “there was a variety of armed forces in the Taihu Lake area. Some were Japanese collaborators without advertising themselves as such; some tried to sell themselves as anti-Japanese but were really bandits who directed their forces exclusively at us. Whether the murder was committed by this lot or by the Japanese, it doesn’t make much difference. Later on the whole lot of them surrendered to the Japs and became downright traitors.”
I stayed less than half an hour at Old Zhou’s place. He was very cold; he did not offer me a drink and never as much as smiled through our conversation. If not for the intercession of Xiao Li’s father, he would never have agreed to see me at all. It was only later that I knew the reason for his reticence.
Thus Liu Dong died in the uninhabited wilderness near the Taihu Lake area. A week later, when the news reached Shanghai, his girlfriend collapsed with grief. Meanwhile Xiaoli’s father languished in the jail of the Japanese military police. It was a rotten business.
Xiaoli’s father had rented a garret in the old section of the city in south Shanghai. Before he left for the crab party at Liu Dong’s lodgings, he went and paid his bill at the landlady’s and told her he would be leaving for the country the next morning. As he was returning from the crab party, he thought to himself that this would be the last night he would spend in that little garret where he could never stretch his legs without hitting the wall. He never imagined that even this last favor would be denied him. The minute he stepped into the room, two members of the military police pounced on him.
He was put in a dark hole of a jailhouse. The room was full of people squeezed against each other on a cold cement floor. A fellow prisoner fell asleep, head against his shoulder, saliva dripping on his sleeve. He thought hard about what had gone wrong as he listened to the snoring around him. He went over all his words and movements during the last several days and finally decided that it must be Liu Dong who had gotten him into this trouble. He cursed under his breath and vowed that once he got his hands on Liu Dong he’d give him hell. Finally it was daylight, the sun peered through the iron bars of the window at the end of the wall, and Xiaoli’s father roused himself from shock and anger to prepare for the coming interrogation-the “tiger’s stool,” the “hot pepper soup” and other forms of torture. But no one interrogated him. The second day, the third day, the fourth day passed in like fashion. On the seventh day he couldn’t bear it any longer and started banging at the door.
“What are you here for?” the warden asked him, scowling.
“Why are you asking me?” Xiaoli’s father bellowed, “I’m doing the asking!”
“But you’re not on my list!”
Once out of jail, Xiaoli’s father realized that he had blamed Liu Dong unjustly. The evening when he was having crabs at Liu Dong’s place, his landlady lost a jade bracelet. She suspected her daughter-in-law, who was raising a ruckus over division of family property, but just to be on the safe side, she consulted her nephew who had a job at the military police; she wanted her tenant to be held until she had cleared up the affair of the bracelet. “Done!” said her nephew, and clapped Xiaoli’s father into the black hole of the military jail.
4 Xiaoli’s parents married about six years after Liu Dong’s death. They never told me how it came about, obviously wishing to keep the details to themselves. Thus in my article, Liu Dong’s girlfriend disappeared after their last meeting at the pier.
When Xiaoli’s father heard of Liu Dong’s death after he was out of prison, he rushed to see the girlfriend. She was on her own, having broken off relations with her family, and was on the verge of suicide. Xiao Li’s father took her by the hand and the two of them made the long and hazardous journey into the wilderness.
“I remember when I was a child, I always heard them quarreling over something,” Xiaoli later told me, “and then my mother would cry and say Liu Dong would not have treated her like that, and then father would raise his voice and say, ‘too bad you married me and if I’m not good enough for you why don’t we divorce.’ I would hide under the covers and pretend to be asleep, but I was so afraid they would divorce. Even as late as when I was in middle school, I still resented the name of Liu Dong.”
I wonder if Xiaoli’s parents still quarrel nowadays. If they do, it is certainly not within her earshot.
Nowadays, obviously, Xiaoli does not resent Liu Dong anymore. She now talks of her mother’s affair with Liu Dong as if it were a classic romance, like Romeo and Juliet or Lu You’s poem on his own story of tragic love, “Chai Tou Feng.” She told me that to this day her mother still goes to the cemetery on the Festival of Ghosts and the Double Ninth Festival and stands silently in front of an unmarked grave, then silently leaves.
“How intense their ardor was! I can’t imagine how you made it so bland in your article,” she said as she shook her head.
I said, “Perhaps it is the nature of life itself. Life cannot go on without making a living, eating and drinking, throwing out the garbage and changing diapers; people see only the sparkling ripples and forget the silent flow beneath.”
“Absolutely vulgar,” Xiaoli muttered, ignoring my defense. “It seems no man can understand what love means to a woman. I really envy my mother, at least she had had one great love; she loved with her whole being, laughed and cried and gave up everything for his sake. Such love is not to be found in our age anymore.”
“Well,” I quipped, “she married somebody else after all, and even gave birth to a hard-to-please daughter.”
“Shut up!” Xiaoli snapped at me.
Just as I had expected, the author of the letter was a man. He came over one Monday morning. He was about sixty years old, with a weather-beaten face. He introduced himself as Wang Genbao; he had been a squad leader in Old Zhou’s guerrilla army nearly half a century beforehand.
“You made a big mistake,” he said as he walked in, “you shouldn’t have written that article at all; Liu Dong is a traitor.”
“Who said so? It’s impossible!” I said as I rubbed my sleepy eyes. He had arrived two hours ahead of time. I had just gotten out of bed and my mind was not yet awake.
“It’s not a question of possibilities,” he said gravely, “I might as well tell you, I killed him with my own hands.”
After Wang Genbao had left, I called Old Zhou and asked him whether there had ever been a squad leader in his guerrilla army by the name of Wang Genbao, and that if so, could I see him immediately about an order he was supposed to have given to this same man. Wang Genbao had told me that on receiving his orders, he took a new recruit and headed for Huang Village in a little boat. The village was about thirty li by water from the guerrilla base, and by the time they arrived, the sun was high over their heads. They had orders to remain incognito on the job, so they moored their boats in the reeds outside the village and stayed put until dark. It was very cold; the wind rustled through the reeds, making a ghostly sound. The two of them were thinly clad and their fingers and toes were numb with cold.
They stole into the village after dark and crept up to a little hut at the east end of the village according to their instructions. They peeped through the window. The room was lit by an oil lamp. Liu Dong was still up. He sat at the head of the bed, writing in a notebook. The two of them stood against the wall without moving or making a sound. About an hour or so4 later, the oil lamp was turned off. Wang Genbao pried open the door with his dagger and softly pushed it. “Who’s that?” Liu Dong asked sleepily. Before he could make another sound, the two of them pounced on him in his bed, stopped up his mouth and carried him out of the village, one holding his arms, the other his feet.
“We were three li away from the village when I figured that no one could hear him, so we let him down. He looked at us in fear and asked us who we were and what we wanted. We said, why ask since you are perfectly aware of what you are guilty of, and this is the day of your death. He seemed to understand and stopped talking. We ripped off his clothes and he just stood there unmoving, never trying to scream or to run. Of course there was nowhere to run to, there were fields all around us and how could he, a scholar, outrun us? We bound up his hands with his gown as he hummed a tune. It sounded familiar, like something that kids sing in school. I think he must have lost his mind. I’ve seen a lot of manly fellows who would crumple up at the approach of death. But he was a real man. When I cut him down, he only murmured something, as if he felt he deserved to die.”
“And then you exchanged his brown sweater for food?” I asked Wang Genbao.
He was uneasy. “You must know that we had not had even a cup of hot water since morning, not to mention food. Killing a man is not easy job, quite exhausting really. After the job, we were shivering with cold and hunger. We wanted to eat at Qiaotou township, but didn’t have a cent for a meal. We figured the sweater might be worth something, so brought it along. I don’t want to hear about that sweater again, I was disciplined because of it.”
“If Liu Dong was a traitor, why did you write those words on his body?”
“I don’t know. An order is an order.”
“Are you sure that Old Zhou himself gave the order for Liu Dong’s execution?”
“Certainly. When I went into the guerrilla base, the heads were all there, but it was Old Zhou who personally gave me my orders.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. Wang Genbao and I sat face to face, looking at each other. I was still skeptical of his story. He, however, looked at me with an air of triumph. After an interval of silence, he asked me: “And now what do you have to say?”
“There is one last question, though,” I replied. “Do you know that in 1980, the Jiangsu provincial government officially recognized Liu Dong as a revolutionary martyr, and the person who made the application was none other than Old Zhou himself?”
If I used the word “thunderstruck,” Xiaoli would certainly consider it a vulgar cliché, but I could really think of no other term to describe Wang Genbao’s expression when he heard me. He gasped and stared and shook his head vigorously as if trying to shake out some explanation for what he was hearing. Pale and distraught, he exclaimed in a despairing voice: “I don’t understand. If he is a revolutionary martyr, then I am a traitor!”
I can guess the tune that Liu Dong was humming to himself before he died. It must be the poem “Appointment in K City.” I had once heard Xiaoli’s mother humming that tune. It was the tune of a children’s song with the words of the poem fitted to it. She had told me that the song was called “The Little Cowherd” and was known to every man, woman, and child forty years ago. She couldn’t tell why Liu Dong had chosen that particular tune, probably because it fit the words of his poem.
I mentioned that to write my article on Liu Dong, I had scoured the library and pored over many musty old papers to collect his writings. Fortunately his poems were all very short, never exceeding eight lines, as if he had been dragged away the minute he sat down to put pen to paper. So all his poems read like beginnings with no endings. Perhaps his mind was always bubbling with ideas, or he could not long bear the pain of wrestling with words in solitude? I could not tell.
Among Liu Dong’s writings, “Appointment in K City” was undoubtedly the most important. It was his last poem, written at a critical moment of his life. It was only five lines:
The wind blows its horn for the starry firmament, the waves splash the rocks for the drifting clouds, lingering dreams grip the fingers of night only to say See you in K City.
I asked Xiaoli’s mother what he meant by K City. “It’s a symbol,” she said, “perhaps of a particular time, or a particular place, or it might stand for a word, or anything else. You must always see Liu Dong as a fighter; his poetry is part of his struggle; apart from that, life means nothing to him. Don’t you write poetry yourself? You must know what I mean.”
“He will never understand,” Xiaoli interrupted, “people like him write poetry only to keep up with their reputation.”
In a sense Xiaoli was right. It is true I do not understand Liu Dong even though I am the only person who has ever attempted to pursue the story of his whole life. Honestly speaking, I never penetrated his inner being. He gave me the impression of being passionate and stubborn. If Xiaoli’s mother had married him, she would not have been happier than she was now.
Actually Xiaoli’s mother did not understand Liu Dong either. Only after reading my article did she realize what had happened to the woolen sweater that she had so painstakingly knitted. As to how he met his death, she will probably never know. She also knew nothing of his family-who his parents were, whether he had siblings. She did not even know Liu Dong’s exact age. She had often asked, but he always said: “The image of me in your heart is my whole being; apart from that, nothing matters.”
It seemed as if he did not want people to know.
5 “That bigmouth Wang Genbao,” Old Zhou commented, “he’s brave in battle, but just can’t observe discipline. On that particular occasion, he had exchanged Liu Dong’s sweater for food and nearly got us exposed. We gave him a demotion. And now he’s blabbing again.” I could see what he meant: what’s past is past, why dig it up again, it doesn’t do any good, either to the dead or the living, or to those who respect his memory and were still mourning him. “Which means to say that what Wang Genboa had said is all true,” I commented, although I knew that already.
I scrutinized Old Zhou as I sat on the sofa in his living room. He was a man full of surprises. The last time I had visited him, I had come full of expectations, but my expectations were dashed. This time I was braced for another chilly response, but to my surprise he was exceptionally warm. It was as if a taboo of many years had been lifted and he was glad of an opportunity to talk.
According to him, Liu Dong was escorted to their guerrilla base by their liaison from the Qiaotou township on the previous night. At the time, Zhou said, he was surprised that Xiao Li’s father did not arrive with him. He asked Liu Dong, but Liu did not have an answer. The next night, news came from the township through Shanghai that Xiao Li’s father had been arrested by the Japanese military police. The situation turned tense immediately. The Party cell of the guerrilla base convened an emergency meeting overnight and assessed the situation. One possibility, they figured, was that Liu Dong was a traitor, had betrayed Xiao Li’s father and had infiltrated the south Jiangsu guerrilla base to spy on them; another possibility was that Xiao Li’s father had confessed under torture and revealed the location of the base and that Liu Dong was a mole sent by the Japanese to work from the inside. The members of the Party cell committee decided that in order to preserve the guerrilla army, they must immediately kill Liu Dong and cut off all contact with Shanghai.
After the meeting, they closed down the liaison station of Qiaotou township and recalled all the members stationed there. At the first break of dawn, they sent Liu Dong to Huang Village while they dispatched Wang Genbao to follow on his heels with his own mission. And then the guerrilla army shifted base. For a whole week they were on the move and barely slept. They had taken every possibility into account, and had prepared for the worst.
But they never dreamed that the arrest of Xiaoli’s father had been a prank.
“It’s his own fault.” Zhou smiled bitterly, “To think of all the places where he could rent lodgings in the vastness of Shanghai, and he had to stumble on such a landlady.” Old Zhou had always taken for granted that Xiaoli’s father had died in jail, so had never tried to find out his whereabouts after the victory of the anti-Japanese war. But one day in the sixties, he was suddenly stopped in the streets by the man that he had taken for dead. Only then did he hear of the story of the landlady’s lost bracelet and his landing in jail. But Old Zhou did not reveal to Xiaoli’s father his own side of the story.
I asked Old Zhou whether they had considered other methods of dealing with Liu Dong.
“Of course we did.” he answered, “If we had had time, we could have sent someone to Shanghai to check the facts. If we had had enough men, we could have held Liu Dong in solitary confinement first. But we were caught between the collaborators’ puppet troops and the local bandits. We had neither the time nor the manpower. We made the only choice we could under the circumstances.”
He took out a photo album from a drawer and showed me a faded old photograph. Five young men stood together in a row, equally young and handsome, each wearing the same kind of army cap. Zhou told me that the photograph was taken on the banks of the Taihu Lake, and that those were the five members of the Party cell of the guerrilla army. The two standing to the left of him had died in combat, one in 1943 and one in 1944. The one on the extreme left committed suicide during the post-Liberation campaign against counterrevolutionaries. The one with an arm around his shoulders died under interrogation during the Cultural Revolution. Zhou was the only signatory on the report to the Provincial Government requesting the official martyrdom/rehabilitation of Liu Dong.
“It’s high time we learned a lesson,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Zhou looked at me, shocked. “I don’t think we did anything wrong at the time, we just did what needed to be done. You might find it hard to understand, but I’d do it again under the circumstances.”
Before leaving Zhou’s place, I asked him the question I had first asked Wang Genbao: “Why did you make Wang Genbao write those words on Liu Dong’s corpse to make people think it was done by the Japanese?”
Zhou said, “As far as history is concerned, one more martyr is always better than one more traitor.”
I told Xiaoli’s father of my conversations with Old Zhou and Wang Genbao, “Don’t tell my wife,” he said, “it will break her heart.”
He was very calm, but I could tell that he was deeply shocked and saddened. He held my hand and said repeatedly, “Thank you, thank you, you have done something for Xiaoli’s mother.” I said not to mention it. In fact I had wanted to thank him. If not for his talking to me about Liu Dong and helping me look up material and directing me to people for interviews, I would have given up the report. But he was very earnest in thanking me, as if he had his own special reasons. My guess is that because he had married Xiaoli’s mother, he always felt guilt toward Liu Dong.
We sat on a park bench during this conversation. All around us were couples embracing or lying in each other’s arms, totally oblivious of others’ presence. Xiao Li’s father gazed at them, squinting. Crow’s-feet were etched into his face. I had spent the last few days in the company of old people, and we all know the sphinx’s riddle of the baby who grows into an old man. But strange to say, when faced with an old man, it is often hard to imagine that he had once been young.
Xiaoli’s father told me that he was from a very poor background; his father was a dock worker and his mother a washerwoman. His two sisters went to work in the cotton factories in early childhood. Since he was the only son, the family scraped enough money to send him to school for a few years, but at age fifteen he also had to begin work in the cotton factory. He worked during the day and attended night school, where he learned a lot and made the acquaintance of Old Zhou. It was through Zhou that he left the factory to work in relief organizations. He said that when Liu Dong first brought Xiaoli’s mother to the refugee camp, he was struck dumb; to him she looked like a fairy princess.
“You may wonder why I bring up these old memories. I was just thinking that if not for Xiaoli’s mother, I would have gone to south Jiangsu to join Old Zhou the minute I was out of jail. If I had gone, Liu Dong would not be the only one to be rehabilitated as a revolutionary martyr.”
I also told Xiaoli’s father Old Zhou’s answer to my last question about why he had those words written over Liu Dong’s body. I said it made me think of a favorite saying of the poet friend of mine: Form is higher than content.
“Anyway, Old Zhou was right about the way it was done,” Xiaoli’s father commented, “Liu Dong died believing himself in the hands of the Japanese enemy; he could sing as he was dying, without any regrets.”
I believe he did die without any regrets. He had left for the guerrilla army like a hero on a last fatal mission, and he got what he expected. The woman who loved him probably still loved him, those who mourned him probably still mourned him, even his poetry has not been forgotten; forty years later, there are still people (like me, for instance) racking their brains over the meaning of “K.”
As for me, I had no regrets either. I was paid for my article and it was favorably reviewed. I did a service to Xiaoli’s parents and my relationship with their daughter was also going smoothly. Even my ex-girlfriend had sent me messages that she wanted to get back together.
It was on the very same night after my conversation with Xiaoli’s father that she called me. She said she’d broken up with that painter, she said she felt cheated, as if she had just woken from a bad dream. She said she needed to talk to me, right away.
I immediately thought of the “two-step plan” that Xiaoli had accused me of. Was it possible that my ex-girlfriend was coming to me with a sob story too?
6 While “Appointment in K City” was still in its heyday of publication, I persuaded Xiaoli to go with me to the No. 3 Pier. Forty years ago, Xiaoli’s mother and Liu Dong had had their last rendezvous there. I thought that if things worked out for me and Xiaoli, I would say that this was our first date.
We found the place with the map that Xiaoli’s mother had given us. If not for her map, we would have lost our way because the No.3 Pier was such an old address. The place was now the warehouse of a dockyard, surrounded by high walls on all sides with a sign painted in red to keep visitors away. As the two of us walked in, a guard jumped out from the guardhouse and spread his arms to keep us back.
“Hey hey, what are you doing? Don’t you see the sign No Visitors Allowed?”
I showed him my I.D. and said I was a poet following in the footsteps of a revolutionary martyr who was last seen here before his death.
“All right,” he said after some hesitation, “but be careful where you go.” He told us there had been an accident a few days ago: a container had fallen off the crane and three young dockworkers about our age had been crushed to death.
We walked into the pier area, carefully picking our steps. Warehouses in uniform red bricks and green tiles lined the way. That inauspicious crane towered above us about ten meters away. We stopped to contemplate its awesome majesty, but a forklift behind blared its horn for us to get out of its way. The crane rumbled into action, sounding like an air raid. As its long arm swung over us, I couldn’t help ducking my head. Seeing the container teetering at the end of the thin steel chain, I was reminded of the fragility of life itself. Since we had stumbled into this world by pure accident, our leaving it did not need any reason either.
We finally reached the riverbank. There was a dike stretching along the bank reaching beyond our view. Looking down over the dike, the muddy waters of the Huangpu River swirled beneath us. The dike was built of cut granite that over the years, under the touch of thousands of hands, had long lost its original hue.
At the time that Liu Dong started off on his way to south Jiangsu, there were no guards, no warehouses, no cranes and no containers. Only the cut granite dike stood where it had been. Of course there was also the water of the river, flowing eastward throughout the last forty years.
On that morning forty years ago, Liu Dong and Xiaoli’s mother also leaned over the dike and looked at the water beneath them. The sun had just risen and the first ray of dawn cast a bloody sheen over the waters. The grain boat going to Qiaotou township was rocking gently near the bank as the boatman slowly wiped the deck. There were several sailboats on the river, a woman’s laughter drifted over, far and clear. Liu Dong and Xiaoli’s mother nestled against each other, gazing at the scene. They forgot the past, and the immediate future. The moment seemed an eternity.
“Sir, please get on the boat.” The boatman untied the rope. “It’s time we start.”
“But my friend has not yet arrived,” said Liu Dong.
“If we wait any longer, we won’t be able to arrive at Qiaotou township tomorrow.”
Liu Dong turned around and unwound the young woman’s hands from around his shoulders. The girlish laughter again drifted over the river. “Look at me. I have one last word to say. There’s danger where I’m going. We might never meet again,” he said as he lifted her chin and held her face in the palm of one hand and softly wiped away her tears with the tips of his fingers. “Please forget me.”
“No, you must come back. I’ll wait for you. I’ll wait forever.”
Xiaoli stood beside me and started to hum a tune. In my article, I had described her mother and Liu Dong humming this tune as they parted. The boatman pushed his pole against a rock, and the boat glided away. Xiaoli’s mother followed on the bank, waving her arms. Liu Dong stood at the head of the boat, his old gown tightly wrapped around him. Suddenly, in one voice, they started singing “Appointment in K City.” The fishermen in the boats around them craned their necks to look, wondering why the young lady and the beggarly student were singing a child’s tune.
The sun was setting and its slanting rays set off Xiaoli’s face in profile. I seemed to discover for the first time her resemblance to her mother: the same arched eyebrows, the same large eyes, and the deep dimples when she smiled. She was beautiful. At that moment, I wanted to hold her in my arms.
“Do you really think that Liu Dong’s poetry is all that good?” she asked.
“No, not really.” I hesitated a moment and added, “To be honest with you, I think his poetry is lousy. After patiently reading through his two hundred surviving poems, I felt like your dad did when he was in that military jail-I wanted to give him hell.”
I know that one day people will say that of my poetry too, and they will probably not wait forty years to do so. We are not talented; our work will not even outlive our own lifespan. All that our pitiful efforts can accomplish is to enhance the real talents. They are the stars while we are the comets. We might flash for a moment, but the minute the stars appear, we are extinguished.
Just as Liu Dong had said, we can only live in the hearts of those who love us.
Perhaps that is the reason we are always looking for love.
And by the way, Xiaoli’s father never believed that Liu Dong was a poor student. His guess was that Liu probably came from a rich family.
Xiaoli’s mother said that she had never felt that way about him.
“That’s because you are a banker’s daughter,” retorted Xiaoli’s father. Whereas he could tell that Liu Dong had never lived in hovels or survived on rotten vegetable leaves as he himself had.
According to Xiaoli’s father, Liu Dong was not even his real name; his surname was not Liu at all. He recalled seeing a postal money order in Liu Dong’s drawer addressed to “Master Fu Yaozong.”
1. Du Yuesheng, then mayor of Shanghai.↩
2. Homonymous with the words “I know.”↩
3. Apart from denoting age, the term “lao” (old) is used to convey respect or endearment.↩
4. The speaker is using the old time marker “shichen,” which divides the day into 12 periods.↩
First published in Qiushui (Convergence) 1992, No. 21 (Wayland, Mass: Convergence Publications).