Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chapter 1: Mei-jun Leaves Home

[Translator's Note: I translated Chapter 1 after already completing 2-4... not exactly sure why I skipped this chapter in the first place, perhaps because it wasn't all that dramatic compared to the others, although now looking back it would have helped since it sets up the story. I manually dated this entry November 7th although I published this entry retroactively on December 28th, 2009 so that readers can enjoy a certain order.]

Mei-jun left the old city of Chun'an on January 1949, shortly after the cross-strait steamship Taiping (太平輪) sank.

She was a 24 year old woman with short hair permed to the latest fashion, wearing flats that were easy to walk in and carrying a chubby infant bundled on her back. Two soldiers accompanied mother and son to Changzhou (常州市) in Jiangsu province, where Mei-jun's husband served as chief of military police.

It was already a time of chaos and turmoil when Mei-jun was pressed to take flight. Her words of departure to her mother were nothing out of the ordinary: "I'll be back soon." Although she knew that her thin frail mother, a woman with bound feet, stood by the doorway watching her leave, Mei-jun did not turn around to look back at her even once.

Mei-jun never looked back at Chun'an.

From Mei-jun's point of view, the deep yawning courtyard, the sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone lane, and the crystal clear Xin'an river than ran behind her old home were all as immutable as the moon and stars. A simple fact of life, for who would consider to say goodbye to the moon and stars even in a state of unrest? People die. Families scatter. Dynasties fall. But who would believe that an entire city, especially a city with over a thousand years of history like Chun'an, could possibly disappear? Mei-jun was never overly sentimental. She was smart, decisive, and resolute. All the townspeople knew that daughter of the Ying Family was a formidable woman, one who at the age of 17 could travel alone down the river to Hangzhou (杭州) and peddle off an entire boat's cargo by herself.

One time after selling all her goods at Hangzhou, Mei-jun caught a ride back with a family also heading to Chun'an, their boat full with salt. Halfway home they were stopped by soldiers looking to seize any illegal cargo. The people on the boat, their faces grey with worry, were so panic-stricken that they looked like they were going to jump ship. It dawned upon Mei-jun that the salt on this boat was mostly civilian and thus unauthorized by the government.

Mei-jun observed the panic-stricken elders, appraised the circumstance, and took ahold of the situation. She waved at everyone to listen and said, "Slow the boat down."

She ordered the workers to first quickly bring the two sacks of government salt to the front of the boat, then fetch a young buxom woman to sit at the entrance of where they stored the civilian salt. She asked the woman to take off her top, only leaving her undergarments. Like a movie director, Mei-jun instructed the woman where to sit, how to sit, and then appraised the scene, adding, "Loosen your hairpin and let down your hair."

They heaved to a stop, letting the inspection boat come closer. One by one the gun-toting soldiers leaped onto the boat. Mei-jun invited the soldiers to first examine the two sacks of salt in the front of the boat, where they checked the labels, then grabbed a few handfuls to rub and sniff for closer verification. Satisfied with the first batch, the soldiers turned towards the back of the boat, where they suddenly found themselves facing an attractive southern Jiangsu woman sitting at the doorway, seeming to be putting her clothes back on. Her torso was milky white, her back smooth and exposed. The soldiers were completely startled, and Mei-jun quickly stepped in to excuse the young woman, "We're very sorry! My sister-in-law just finished breastfeeding her baby..."

Rattled, the head inspector hastily stuttered, "We won't bother you any longer, you can go."

When the elders of Chun'an retold this story to me, Mei-jun just sat there chuckling to the side.

Mei-jun told me that the last time she left Chun'an she did something out of the ordinary - she actually turned around to look at the two stone lions flanking the city gate for many many dynasties. The day she left, the lions crouched there so reassuredly, leaving her no reason to doubt or wonder that they would continue to stay there until the end of time.

Chun'an was established by the great General He Qi for Kingdom of Wu during the period of the Three Kingdoms. At that time, Chun'an was a simple agricultural society called Shan Yue (山越), eventually developing into a small sophisticated town in the Kingdom of Wu. The famous upright official Hai Rui once served as Chun'an's county magistrate, and to honor him the people of Chun'an built a temple (海公祠) in his name. As a little girl, Mei-jun passed by this temple everyday.

Mei-jun would describe to me the furnishings in her old home: a cypress dining table that seated eight, the wood releasing wafts of fragrance that assailed your nostrils; her mother's bed, the headboard completely detailed with delicately carved flowers; the courtyard's black ceramic water urns, each all filled with tall and proud pink lotus flowers; the portraits of three generations of ancestors hung in the middle of the lobby, which despite the fact that Mei-jun could not discern who was who, she still proudly explained, "Somebody in the very last row of ancestors wearing Qing Dynasty government official robes is Great-great grandfather. He passed the triennial provincial civil-service examination and served as a liushou (留守) in Qu Zhou (衢州). He was a high government official!"

I asked her, "What does a liushou do?" She tilted her head to the side and thought for a bit, finally saying, "I'm not sure, it's probably... hm, chief of police?"

[Translator's Note: "Liushou (留守)" is historically defined as the person who runs the capital city in the emperor's absence or someone who is in charge of a provisional capital. It seems like Mei-jun's great great grandfather was indeed someone very important! I thought it was amusing that Mei-jun thought that Great-great grandfather was perhaps the chief of police, which is what her husband is. :)]


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