Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters


By Canaan Morse, published

From Lao She's 《四世同堂》, Chap. 14. The setting is Japanese-occupied Beijing, near the beginning of the war. Welcome 中秋.

The space of time right around the Mid-Autumn Festival is Beiping’s most beautiful season. The temperature is neither hot nor cold, and the days and nights are equally balanced. There are no winter sandstorms howling in from Mongolia, nor summer thunderstorms perversely mixed with hail. The sky is instead so high, so blue, so bright, as if it’s smiling down on the people of the city, telling them: in these days, you need fear no threat nor harm from Nature. The mountains to the North and West darken their shade of blue, and in the sunset evenings drape themselves in many-colored robes.

In peacetime, the shops, the street vendors and the fruiterers would right now be setting out arrangements of fruits that only true Beiping natives could call by name. All different kinds of grapes and pears, apples of every description, already more than one person could ever fully savor with eyes, nose or mouth; yet still they add those brindled, fragrant gourd-shaped Beiping dates, the crunchy-clearsweet white pears and larger white crabapples, crab-quinces—restricted to being savory only—and gold-starred sour apples; add to that the pillow-shaped watermelons festooned with gold ribbons and the cockscomb flowers, all ready to be arranged in offering to the moon, and it was enough to make one forget everything and go out to splash in the flavor—but, once there, lose any ability to tell which scent was more fragrant than the other, which color more pleasing, and feel a little drunk in the display of it!

And the fruit, whether in the shop or on the street, would be so beautifully arrayed, with none of the fuzz rubbed off the skin, and everything built into three-dimensional murals of breathing color. It would make the viewer feel as if those fruit vendors were really artists as well, able to make beautiful things even more so. And what’s more, they could sing! Painstakingly they construct their displays, then uncap clear voices and sing out their “fruilogies”: “Oh—just a dime to come and choose/a pile of my white pears, so tender-skinned, so sweet within, and not a worm-hole in ‘em, Oh, my soft white pears, Oh…” The notes tremble in the fragrant air and accompany the still life of grapes and apples, causing people to slow their steps, to see and smell and hear the beauty of Beijing in fall.

Just then, the fat country chestnuts buried in fine sand and caramelized sugar are shushing and shashing in the bowl of the wok, while even the smoke from the fire below is pleasant. Outside of the “Big Wine Jar” Gate, snow-white onion hearts are stir-fried together with fat pieces of lamb; a bowl of liquor, a few ounces of meat, and for thirty or forty cents you could get full and warm all over. Sorghum-red crabs tied up tight with bamboo and cried for sale along the street; while gourmets will go to Zhengyang House and use tiny wooden hammers to knock apart the furry legs.

Just then, among the splendid fruit vendors would be a few selling Rabbit Kings, regimented lines of painted bodies and powdered cheeks, with colored parasols rising from their back—some large and others small, but all delicately done; some riding tigers, others lotus blossoms, some shouldering a pole of barber’s tools or bearing up cherry-red wooden cases. Little sculpted trinkets that would plant sweet seeds in a thousand children’s hearts.

And just then, the flower fields of Fengtai would begin sending pole- after pole-load of leafy chrysanthemums up into the city, where gardeners and flower arrangers would receive them in the parks to consummate the growers’ six months of careful labor with their “Chrysanthemum Exhibitions.” In depth of their variety, in multitude of color and style, Beiping chrysanthemums have no equal under the sun.

Just then, the young students—proud and lovely as spring flowers themselves—would be coming from Tsinghua, from the lotus ponds and distilleries of Haidian down to Beihai to row on the water; the lotus petals fell away long ago, yet the green leaves still reflect coolly on the boats’ hulls and on the faces of the rowers.

And just then, those thoroughly cultured Beipingers would be finishing up their month-long preparations for sending gifts to friends and relatives. Shops set out displays of all kinds of liquor bottles as well as moon cakes with various fillings, making themselves up like new brides; even those that didn’t sell gifts would get in on the action and paste up ribbons announcing their Great Fall Sales, welcoming autumn to Beiping.

Beiping in autumn is Heaven on earth, and perhaps even a bit more glorious!

Grandfather Qi’s birthday was on the 13th of the same month. Though he never said it, the old man hoped in his heart that this year’s would be just as busy as the last…


# 1.   

An insignificant point, but I just realized that Grandfather Qi's birthday coincides this year with the CCP's. There are some funny comparisons there. Maybe I'll put another paragraph up.

 Canaan Morse, October 2, 2009, 9:09p.m.

# 2.   

Beautiful article vividly depicted not only the surroundings but the ambience of autumn in traditional Beijing with merely a few words. As a Beijinger sorrow fills my heart everytime I read articles like this, knowing that these adorable scenes has been and will probably be vanished forever. Although nowadays people tries to resurrect the traditions but it has been discontinued for too long that it just feels unduly artificial.

kzx33, October 29, 2009, 6:53p.m.


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