Translated from the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang.
Around age six or seven I composed a musical invention: to the sounds of car horns I hummed a tune in counterpoint. Together these two sounds defined the metropolis for me. As dream became reality, the proliferating noises of the metropolis (particularly the sounds of drills and jackhammers) tormented me to madness; after many long nights of fleeting sleep, I ultimately concluded that to the children of our agricultural empire, the so-called metropolis, the great city, has had little relation to their verbal creativity.
Beijing at the turn of 1960 still seemed like a large village; early in the morning, one could even hear a rooster crow. It lived nearby with the Gong family on a small plot of land in their enclosed courtyard where, besides squash and bean vines, one could find a chicken coop; the proud, solitary rooster would herald the dawn each day, waking me up, its crows projecting out like a singer’s vocal exercises, listeners following it with hearts in their mouths, climbing the scale up into the clouds until it unexpectedly stopped, leaving them suspended in midair. The Gong family also raised a lone turkey, the guttural ge ge ge calls echoed out from within the swaying flesh hanging from its neck, making the animal seem like an asthmatic old geezer. In fact, the turkey was strong and robust, and as tame as it was docile, letting all of us kids take turns riding on its back, strutting forward with head held high.
I flip over, wanting to return to my dragon sleep, sparrows flap flapping on the roof tiles, ji ji zha zha chattering away, the hollow echoes of pecking on the iron drainpipes. Among the flock, one chirps out the shrillest, its wings fluttering with intense vigor. Winter—the boiler room workers begin to add more coal for heat, hot water circulates through the heating pipes, hua hua hua burbles along with the si si sibilants of the ventilation to a sudden clash of warm and cold air that pi pa! bursts with a clang. It felt like being caught in an enormous digestive excretion system.
The movement of people below, a confusion of footsteps clearly distinguishable: male heavy, female lighter, street workers chaotic, office workers steady, sluggish elders pause, children as a rule vary—some prance and skip about, some drag their feet on the dirt, shoes worn down. The rush of bicycles magnifies the early morning silence: spokes whistle in the wind, tires fly with dust and stones, chains keng keng keng rub against their guards, bells ring out, a deafening gong splits the air.
I flip over again, still listening into the distance—a horse snorts, iron hooves slip on the asphalt; the cart-driver shouts out rebukes, his whip slashes through the air, the shaft of the cart jolts and creaks. The No. 14 bus sails by, motor rumbling, tu tu tu spurting out clouds of exhaust, pneumatic doors open and close with a hiss, the ticket collector lazily announces, “This is Liu Hai-er Hutong….”
Around 7:25, the head teacher Mr. Li passes through Three Never Old Hutong. Tall and thin, upright as a pencil, eyes never askance, meteoric strides forging ahead, the tuo tuo echo of his black leather shoes. With a soft clearing of his throat and a quick turn of his head, he hocks out a loogie. The instant I hear Mr. Li’s footsteps and his phlegm-hocking I hop out of bed in a flurry.
Whether sick or just pretending to be sick, I’d linger in bed. Around 8:30, Xiao Li the mailman would arrive on his bicycle to deliver the newspaper and mail. He squeezed the brakes and hopped off, popping the kickstand with his foot, and languorously yelled, “X Y Z registered mail, come stamp your chop.”
The sun comes up and the hawking cries of the street peddlers rise and fall in endless waves, faint threads drifting away. The uniqueness of Beijing’s hawking cries certainly has been shaped by the depths and breadths, the curves and bends, of the hutongs—for the daily news of commerce to spread door to door, the singsong cries must be stretched and pulled along the lengths and widths of more than seven twists and eight turns. Beijingers talk in quick, equivocal garbles, and the cries serve as a corrective for the local dialect: each tone slowly lengthens, each word fully valued, like candied haw-fruit pierced together in a line, flowing out crisp and melodious in patterned rhymes. Excessive lung power is crucial, the power to propel and exchange air without changing the sound, keep steady, then shift to a higher octave, halt without dropping, and extend the rhyme. In his essay “Sounds of the City,” the popular early twentieth-century novelist Zhang Henshui wrote, “I, too, have walked the quays from the south to the north, listening to the cries of the street peddlers, and no other place can surpass such songs as those in Beiping. Beiping’s hawking cries, so intricate and yet harmonious, no matter day or night, freezing or sweltering, move listeners to their very core.”
Rags I’ll buy, old rags worn, shoes worn, socks I’ll buy…. This ragman’s use of anastrophe demonstrates the self-confidence of society’s lowest rung; it is a self-confidence that in a flash can be transformed into the self-poise of an empire: A-bombs I’ll buy….
Then there’s the unmatchable talent that Beijing natives have for clever, silver-tongued chatter. For instance, the cry of the pantao peach seller: “Not the ones pricked by First Lady, nor the ones embroidered by Second Lady, these are Third Lady’s stroll through the garden lightly padded on flat-capped peaches….!”
Stinky bean curd, fermented bean curd, Wang Zhihe’s timeless stinky bean curd…. Advertising lingo simple and clear, brand and stock list in perfect order. There is a local saying: “Yell what you sell”—this ancient way of doing business discloses the plain, unassuming side of Beijing natives, to cheat neither elder nor child, at most a little boast, which is of course the basic function of advertising: “Ice-cold watermelon, crisp flesh-firm pulp—” “Radishes sweeter than pears, if spicy hot money’s returned—” “Sipping honey persimmons, big as a lion’s head—”
The hawking cries are often sung with instrumental accompaniment, for example: to sell fried sesame dough twists use a woodblock bangzi; for a monkey performance use a daluo gong; to collect rags use a little drum; to sell iced plum juice use two little copper bowls, one on top of the other held in one hand, fingers clink them chuan chuan chuan, while crying out, “Icy cold cups…!” And then there’s the street barbers with their “tuning fork,” banging it with an iron plate, the humming metal making you dazed, momentarily restrained, and no matter if your hair’s short or long, they shave your head bald as a gourd, then talk later. “Sharpen your scissors, hone your cleaver—,” the knife sharpener hollers while swinging the “iron head,” five sheets of galvanized iron strung together, hua la hua la clatter racket.
From down below emerges the most moving of hawking cries: “Popsicles, three fen for one, five fen for the other— .” The ones for three fen were haw-fruit and red-bean pops; the five fen ones milk pops. With only two fen in my pocket, I figured I could haggle with the old lady peddler for a defective one or half a haw-fruit pop.
After listening to Hou Baolin’s comic xiangsheng crosstalk “Service Manners” on the radio, Yifan and I leap into Liuhai Hutong’s sundry shop and begin to imitate a sketch, singing, “Buy sell sell buy, harmonious air breeds more wealth, stand at the counter with a beaming smile, don’t drift off, don’t space out, how can you not get rich if you buy and sell like this….” With the song unfinished, we get cut off and chased back out.
More than anything else, mosquitoes craved to be a part of our lives. Mosquitoes—swipe at one, swipe at another—resistance proves futile. Some tried to use fans, incense coils, or DDVP to keep them at bay—all to no avail. Summer nights filled with the steady drone of mosquitoes. Their strange, swerving buzz contains a metallic bite, a hidden bitterness mixed with menace, that magnified ten-thousand fold would approximate the scream of a guided missile pursuing its target. A variety of repellents cropped up at the decisive moment, but the mosquitoes quickly adapted, to the point that they seemed like drug addicts, immortals floating high in the clouds and mist, emitting an intoxicating murmur. A cartoon once appeared in the Beijing Evening News: four mosquito coils smoldered at the foot of a bed on which a man lay dead from smoke inhalation, while a single mosquito nonchalantly pierced the tip of his nose.
I wielded a flyswatter in front of the corner shop at Luo’er Hutong and, using a rotting fish head as a lure, swatted flies down. With bamboo tongs I pinched a few of the dead bodies and dropped them into a glass bottle, counted then counted again, only about two-thirds through finishing my assignment, a school-wide regulation that forced each student to kill at least fifty flies each day. A swarm of the insects descended and dove, flying low like Japanese kamikaze fighters, straight into the fish head, not hesitating to smash their bodies to smithereens.
Summers belonged to the crickets and cicadas. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer once wrote in a poem: “the frenzied sewing-machine pedaling of crickets.” And this is exactly how one of these little tailors sewed up the days and nights of my childhood, letting my dream-soul wander. In the hundred-flower depths around Huguo Temple I bought a cricket, placed it in a clay jar, and used a piece of hemp straw to tease open its jaws, whereupon the cricket rubbed its wings and released a sonorous chirp, thinking its moment of triumph had come. One day the clay jar wasn’t covered tightly and the cricket disappeared. I rushed about in a frantic search, tossing and flipping things over to no avail—the cricket had found some hidden nook in our home and pedaled its sewing machine with a relentless urgency.
Around early July, after the Minor Heat of the eleventh solar term, cicada nymphs emerge from the earth, their cries filling the air: zhi liao zhi liao zhi liao! Golden cicadas, scientific name Tibicen linnei, commonly known as the annual cicada. Jean-Henri Fabre wrote in his study of insects Souvenirs Entomologiques: “Not content with carrying an instrument called the cymbal in a cavity behind his wings, the cicada increases its power by means of a sounding-board under his chest. Indeed, there is one kind of cicada who sacrifices a great deal in order to give full play to his musical tastes. He carries such an enormous sounding-board that there is hardly any room left for his vital organs, which are squeezed into a tiny corner.”(1) In fact, cicadas are pure noisemakers. They overturn heaven and earth with their ruckus, spreading chaos through Beijing, the intensity of their calls growing with the heat, distressing hearts and disrupting thoughts. With other children in our building, we’d venture forth to glue-stick the bugs. First, we’d mix flour and water to make a glutinous paste, then mold this mixture onto the end of a bamboo stick and, with the instrument in hand, carefully climb up to the fork of a large tree. One by one we’d cover cicadas with the glue, their bodies quivering, to clamor no more.
By the Mid-Autumn Festival, cicadas withdraw from the stage and katydids take their place in the limelight. The peddlers who sell katydids on the streets today have no need to hawk their wares—the insects’ calls serve as the most persuasive advertisement. Compared to the call of the cicada, a katydid’s sounds ten-times sweeter to the ear. Katydids are also pleasant to look at, like extraterrestrials—blue face, pink abdomen, purple wings. Kept in a bamboo cage—heart content, thoughts calm—it will live a perfectly happy life and sing to the skies till the Great Snow of the twenty-first solar term.
After joining the Young Pioneers of China, the highest rank I could ever attain terminated at leader of a small squad (one-bar armband), a source of deep humiliation for me as even my younger brother became captain of a squadron (two-bars). By a stroke of good fortune, however, I was chosen to be a drummer, and so could run wild with joy. This elation was obviously connected to my deep love of the Soviet film “Fate of the Drummer-Boy.” The father of Seriozha Batashov, the drummer boy, is an engineer who is arrested and imprisoned for losing some top-secret documents. A spy pretending to be an old Red Army soldier swoops onto the scene. Batashov ultimately discovers the soldier’s true identity and fights the enemy to the end….
I played one of those small military-band drums, leather strap slung diagonally across the body, each hand grasping a drumstick, white gloves white shirt white slacks, along with a red scarf—me: the drummer boy Zhao Zhenkai, how glorious his name. Drumming looks easy; only a drummer really knows how difficult it is to play, the complex rhythmic changes tapped out with the crisp, ringing dexterity of a galloping steed. My problem is that I lacked coordination, tending to this and losing sight of that, my hands like two lame donkeys turning a millstone. Guided by the spirit of Pavel Korchagin in Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, I sweated tirelessly to learn the basics, usually without drumsticks, just using pencils or my fingers; I became possessed, tapping on desks on doors on windows on dustpans, even on public busses—dongdong daladala dong—and after about three weeks of practicing, the two lame donkeys finally parted from the millstone, though they still limped and stumbled along.
Accompanying the drumbeats, I followed Pavel Korchagin in raising my class consciousness. I discovered streets teeming with suspicious individuals, our residential complex a virtual spy headquarters. With a drummer’s arrogance, I never greeted anyone who seemed a potential enemy. One day while walking on Huoguosi Snack Street I saw the “rightist” Big Brother Pang glancing back and forth with a flustered expression, and knew he must be meeting a secret agent from Taiwan. I hid behind a tree, followed him down an alley. As he climbed the stairs, I observed that his back pocket bulged with, no doubt, a pistol….
A week remained until the procession ceremony and I practiced to the bitter end, drumming even in my dreams. The two lame donkeys finally became one, trotting along, though still far from a galloping horse.
On the day of the ceremony, as I stood ready and waiting, instrument weighing me down, I suddenly heard a drum tap, then another—listening again, it was actually my beating heart. At the signal, the three other drummers and I started to tap out a rhythm and walk forward, onto the stage. But on the steps up to the platform, my little drum began to slip and loosen, and with a crash fell to the ground, causing the whole audience to erupt with laughter. With humiliating haste, I picked up the drum and began to beat it furiously with my fist, leading the other little drums astray, into total disarray. And so the fate of one drummer came to an end.
A small textile factory operated across from Three Never Old Hutong No. 1, nothing out of the ordinary with their goings on. But when I was eleven I can recall a big-character poster pasted up on a wall inside the factory that exposed Director Shua of immoral behavior. I wandered over with a few other kids from our building to see the tittering crowds. At the time there were still many words I couldn’t recognize to read, and even if recognized, couldn’t understand. For instance, the word “breast” is composed of two characters ru (乳) and fang (房), the latter meaning “room,” and so seeing ru fang on that poster made me wonder: Exactly where is this secret room concealed on the human body?
In the mid-sixties, during the Grasp Revolution and Promote Production initiative, textile factories began to expand, their new buildings squeezed into streets along with piles of sediment that formed detours for walkers and bicyclists. All the opened skylight windows of the factories seemed like a hundred loudspeakers directing propaganda at us. At home on sweltering summer days, once the windows of the textile factory by us were opened one needed to shout to talk. Every Friday the factory closed, the quiet oddly disconcerting as if something were amiss, sleep proved difficult, and each household longed for the factory to open again immediately. As if the racket of the spinning machines wasn’t enough, the factory’s two loudspeaker systems played a constant stream of high-pitched revolutionary slogans.
Yifan started to learn Japanese, teaching himself as he translated Japanese reference material. He told me that noise is measured in decibels against an international safe standard, and that the noise of the textile factory exceeded the standard by ninety to hundred decibels, easily causing hearing loss and even eventual deafness with continuous exposure. Yifan wrote a letter of complaint, but to whom could he send it? To involve yourself with such unpleasantness disturbed the Great Path of the Revolution. Fortunately, the first victims of hearing loss ended up being the old grannies of the Little Feet Neighborhood Patrol; each of them became slightly deaf, hardly able to hear a thing above the turbulent noise—and so we sang at the top of our lungs, recited poems, debated heatedly. The noise turned into our protective shield.
One night, in the early days of the so-called “cultural revolution,” a classmate and I cycled by Ping’anli (“Peaceful Safety”) Lane. Night deepened into stillness, and as if out of nowhere, ten or more donkeys suddenly appeared with a peasant in the lead, herding them westward. My friend told me that a drove of donkeys passed along here every day, entering the city in the middle of the night, through the red gate in the east, and on to their destination, the zoo. I froze; then asked him what exactly for. He laughed and said that they were being sent to the slaughter, the next day’s fodder for the tigers, leopards, wolves. A long time after this incident, I tossed and turned late into the night, listening for the disordered clip-clop-clip-clop of those donkey hooves on the pavement. They must have sensed their coming doom, just like that drummer boy, falling into step, embracing the will to die.
(1) Translator’s note: From Fabre’s Book of Insects, retold from Alexander Texeira de Mattos’ translation of Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques by Mrs. Rodolph Stawell (Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 1998).↩