Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chapter 5: 96 Upper Zhi Street

[Translator's Note: Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR! New decade, new beginnings, a fresh start. :)

After recently seeing several English films with Chinese subtitles, I've come to the realization that translating does not mean that we have to faithfully maintain the original sentence structures and word usage. Different languages have their own unique modes of expression, and a translator's value is his or her ability to transition certain feelings and nuances successfully such that those readers of another cultural background can understand what's being conveyed. Otherwise, we can run everything through Google Translate, case closed! Anyway, I'm going to try to employ this strategy and see whether I'm more satisfied with the results.]

It's been a few years since Mei-jun forgot who I was.

Now after accompanying her on walks, she politely turns to me and says, "Thank you, come again."

I need to reintroduce myself every few minutes, to which she first reacts with flashes of confusion and then quickly gathers herself. Civil and poised, she replies, "Hello."

Even though she cannot remember her only daughter, she strangely enough still remembers Chun'an.

One time while taking her on a drive through Taiwan's Pingtung county, she remained completely reserved, quietly taking in the mountain scenery through the car window. Suddenly, she broke out of her silence, "Straight down this road is Hai Gong Temple (海公祠), and after the bend, drive towards the river and you'll find my house."

[Translator's Note: 海公祠 is the temple erected for Hai Rui that Mei-jun walked by everyday as a child, as mentioned in Chapter 1.]

I took a peek at her from the rearview mirror, noting that although she was already eighty-four years old, she was indeed still handsome and charming.

I asked her, "Are you Ying Mei-jun?"

She happily replied, "Yes!"

"Are you from Chun'an?"

She was pleasantly surprised, "Indeed, I'm from Chun'an. How did you know?"

The sky turned dark and I tucked her into bed. She timidly asked, "Where is my father? My mother?"

I decided to make a trip to Chun'an and find Yu Nian-chun (余年春).

For Mei-jun, I searched for the old village that she would never see again.

Yu Nian-chun was of the same age and village as Mei-jun. In the few years before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese government moved and resettled millions of residents in the surrounding area. Even after going through great pains to build completely new towns and allocate compensation funds, there were still those lifelong residents who refused to yield a single inch. Yu Nian-chun had stood there with hot tears streaming down his face, knowing that he could not change this grim reality.

He recalled the manner in which the people of Chun'an were forced to relocate in 1958 and 59, how they were coerced to leave their ancestral homes, the same homes their families had lived in for thousands of years.

In 1957, Mao Zedong promoted the slogan "Surpass England, Catch Up To America" (超英趕美) and during the Eight Big Preparation Conference fervently declared that the Communist Party must "completely turnover the backward state that we've been mired in for the last hundred years, in which other countries feel like they can look down and take advantage of us. We will catch up to the world's most powerful capitalist nation: The United States of America. This is one of our responsibilities such that Chinese people do not remain unworthy compared to other races, and that we maintain our membership in the world community."

This eager line of thinking triggered rapid development plans of the Xin'an River. It was deemed that "nation's prosperity" required the relocation of three hundred thousand Chun'an townspeople, thus erasing each and every village, demolishing each and every house. Chun'an, which for thousands of years was many people's very definition of "home", had its society dismantled and villagers displaced to the most barren and remote corners of the world.

At the end, no matter where those from Chun'an resettled, local residents would always see them as a collection of unintelligible, haggard, and utterly destitute "refugees". They no longer owned fragrant cypress dining tables that seated eight, no longer had any way to convince the wary-eyed and indifferent locals that: "Hey! The bowls that I used to feed my dogs were all Song dynasty porcelains!" Those from Chun'an who had previously basked in the glory of cultivating the most erudite scholars were now degraded to miserable impoverished refugees, nameless residents who were all alone in the world, slowly picking up shattered pieces and starting over again.

If Mei-jun had not left Chun'an in 1949, she would have met the same fate as her father, mother, and even her own child. Those villagers who were forced to resettle experienced the following:

Lian Village (練村) is by and far the most renowned village in Chun'an, with 214 households, 883 residents. It is a very prosperous place that was built with the riverbank in the front and mountain range in the back, where houses boasted black walls, blue-green tiles, and carved beams. On March 1959, they informed us that we would be compensated only 1.21 yuan for a carved amoire. We would receive 0.64 yuan for a cypress dining table. Tthe demolition crew arrived at our village on April 3rd, moving day. Grandmother Shao, a hundred year old lady, sat firmly on her chair crying and howling, refusing to budge a single inch. While the demolition crew worked on dismantling the beams of her house, others went to fetch the old grandmother, carrying both her and her chair out as one unit. The house collapsed as soon as they dragged her over the threshold.

Unable to fully accept his village's fate, eighty year old Yu Nian-chun spent five years to bring his submerged village back up to the surface, one penstroke at a time. Every ancestral hall, temple, government building, every piece of open space, every irrigation canal, every street and alleyway, even every household and storefront -- where was where, who was who, what was what -- Yu Nian-chun carefully gathered all these discarded details, leaving nothing behind. He sought out Chun'an's old scattered residents and interviewed them one by one, verifying each and every account. Then, just like a city planner, he took a pen and carefully composed an intricate blueprint of old Chun'an, bringing back the features of their village that was once so swiftly wiped away.

In front of me was a scroll, a well-ordered map of old Chun'an. It was the first time I laid my eyes on Mei-jun's beloved Xin'an River.

Facing this extraordinary map, I asked, "Do you know where Mei-jun's house is?"

"Yes," said Yu Nian-chun, "96 Upper Zhi Street."

He bent over the scroll and pointed to 96 Upper Zhi Street. Ah, so it was where Mei-jun had said... on the bank of the Xin'an River.

"This is accurate, no?" I asked.

"100% accurate." The old man was completely confident. "Look at this, Mei-jun's father was named Ying Fang-gou (應芳茍). This is what the map says!"

Stooping down to take a better look, I saw that the little grid scribbled 96 Upper Zhi Street indeed boasted those three words: Ying Fang-gou.

"Hmm..." I reflected, "when Mei-jun left Chun'an in 1949, there were two stone lions sitting by the city gates. She left through the entrance that faced Hangzhou (杭州) and then never looked back. Do you have those city gates on your map?"

"Right here." The old man pointed them out with his finger.

The three meter long scroll was splayed on a narrow wooden table, barely illuminated by the sunlight filtering through an old clouded window. Observing that this simple and crude room lacked a desk, I suddenly realized that this old man created this masterpiece standing on his knees. Yu Nian-chun painstakingly recreated Chun'an one penstroke at a time, this old village sunk beneath the waves that no one but those in his and Mei-jun's generation cared to remember anymore.

I returned to my hotel located on the bank of Qiandao Lake and watched a documentary on Chun'an.

To promote tourism, local government officials hired a film company to go to the bottom of the lake and investigate the village's aftermath. Enveloped by a forest of seaweed, Chun'an was fast asleep, discarded by history and man alike.

In the lake's abyss, everything was covered in a vast veil of darkness. The dark had no boundaries, rendering the camera's lights as effective as a small flashlight, leading blindly with a humble disc of light. Among the gently quivering patches of murky algae, an old room indistinctly appeared before our eyes. Carefully chiseled flowers... thick substantial wood -- this, could this be an image of Mei-jun's long lost world with carved beams and blue-green tiles, completely untouched?

The slow crawling light failed to reveal the two stone lions, but in my heart I knew -- without a doubt they were still faithfully sitting at the city gates, right where Mei-jun turned and looked back in 1949.


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