Father was not a mountain, nor is this the story of a mountain. The mountain facing the village looked exactly like a great conflagration. Last night’s rain did not extinguish the mountain but it did drench our spirits. Father, who was dripping wet, did not die at the beginning of the mists. The mists shifted the mountain further away. But we heard Father open fire, and the firing brought the mountain nearer again.
No one believed that Father was not a weakling. He was gaunt and swarthy, and was one of only a couple of teachers at the Shenlou Township Primary School who taught Chinese language and literature. He was the epitome of the bookish scholar, but had an air of arrogance too. After his wife ran off with another man, Father shut himself at home for a whole week. Everyone was saying he’d died, but then he came out and, without a word, went on a binge and drank the whole village dry. When it got to midnight, he went around banging on everyone’s doors, scaring them so they locked themselves in. Father had to prop himself in a doorway to sleep. People could hear Father cursing and swearing, snorting and snoring. He wouldn’t return to the land of the living till the next morning, when the dew soaked him. From then on, people sneered at Father, regardless of whether he was behaving normally. Father could not shake off their taunts but he had heard the fear with which everyone talked about the mountain. From that formidable, forested giant, there blew an ill wind that chilled people to the bone. No one dared go there, or so it was said. Every time Father went to the mountain forest, the fear that lurked all around froze, motionless. It was as if a dull light had torn gashes in the air. I’m not afraid, said Father. His voice, boosted by the drink, had outgrown him. Almost everyone reckoned Father was mad, when he took his hunting rifle, walked the narrow alleys between the flattened graves, waded the river, and came to the fringes of the mountain forest. He wandered around until midnight but never fired his gun. In the daytime, even more contempt came at him, partly from people’s chilly glances, partly from himself. Father felt humiliated. He tried his best to keep going but he was increasingly anxious. The mountain forest couldn’t possibly be more hostile than human beings. Finally one day, Father’s eyes filled with moonlight, he saw it was about to rain and, without a word, he left, crossed the river to the opposite bank and plunged into the unfathomable gloom of the mountain forest.
In the mist, the mountain was almost motionless, emerging with faltering slowness. No one realized that Father had somehow gone to the mountain. Father plunged through the exuberant undergrowth, confronting packs of wild beasts, filled with fearful astonishment. With his predicament, this story begins. His bullets were used up, his gun barrels were smoking, packs of wild animals stared him down and he dared not make a sound. They were so close that if he’d made the slightest movement Father would have lost his life. As Father related proudly, the stand-off only came to an end when a voice from somewhere shouted “Hey!” and that “Hey!” saved him. The scared beasts scattered in all directions, crashing through branches and over tussocks. In his panic, Father spotted the monkey in the distance.
“Where have you come from?” Father asked.
No one has verified the mountain’s ferocity, still less whether Father really went up the mountain. But none of that matters now. Even if they all gloried in the mountain’s menace and mocked Father, he did not care two hoots. His face glowed with the immense pride of a humble man whose dream has come true. It was as if a lantern has suddenly illuminated it. The face of someone who wants to fire up people who have grown dully indifferent. Father said: It’s a miracle. The hum of voices grew and filled the house to bursting but no one wanted to listen to Father. It’s a miracle, Father said. Outside the window, a wind blew hard, keen as a knife blade. The noise broke a hole, scattered the voices, and only then did they hear what Father was saying. No one could keep a straight face; they all burst out laughing. The monkey said “Hey!” said Father. The monkey spoke human language, it was a miracle. There was no shadow of a doubt in his expression. His face stood out among these identical faces like a patch of newly-ploughed earth on a vast plain. People were flabbergasted. They stood rooted to the spot, the commotion congealing in the air three feet above their heads. Just a moment later, they all burst out laughing again. The laughter was intended to show Father up as a liar, but he really had brought the monkey back from the mountain forest with him.
For years, no one had seen a monkey, alive or dead. For hundreds of li around, nothing remained of monkeys except the word and its utterance.
News of the miraculous monkey’s capture leaked out. I mean, look at the birds wheeling in the sky, listen to the jostling of the leaves in the trees; it must have been the footsteps of the wind that sent the news to the neighbours. That day, as Father remembers it, the village streets were packed with people, and there was a hum of sound. The scoffers paid no attention but as the numbers gradually increased, even they began to feel they were being stubborn and, one by one, they crowded around. There were so many people that, in order to keep the numbers down, Father sold entrance tickets at his courtyard gate. He charged everyone ten kuai, let them in and drew the drawstring tight. Even so, there were as many of them as before. It was more like a zoo than a home, people said. Until late at night, they jabbed holes in the darkness with their flaming torches and flashlights, every dogged face illuminated. Billows of sound rose and fell, all jumbled up with the barks of dogs and the cries of birds, so it was hard to distinguish human language. This immense racket burned down in the flames to a mere crackling.
Father rubbed his eyes hard and saw how the night wind made the tongues of flame and the beams of light convulse. There was a low murmur from a scattering of stars, as if all living creatures had fallen silent. Then a sudden hush, as the clamour of the crowds hung suspended in the air, and innumerable eyes scraped away like a blunt knife blade. No one closed their eyes, they stared at the cage with the monkey huddled inside. Father drank his liquor and planted himself under the eaves, looking up at the people crowded around. Everyone opened their eyes and stared through the bars. A sour smell came from the straw bedding. There was a constant stream of spectators for several days, their inquisitiveness undiminished whatever the weather. But the monkey never varied its performance. It relapsed into what seemed like deep thought, its eyes tight shut, ignoring everyone. Even when people stretched their arms through the bars of the cage, it was not stirred into panic. Gradually, people’s enthusiasm cooled, their faces drooped in the firelight, and they looked despondent. Some got angry. They used their cultured human language to make animal honking noises. Then they took the road, and their inevitable disappointments, home. The angry ones made sure to ask Father for their money back before they left. The peasants who’d scoffed at Father just asked for half the ticket price back. After allowing their ridicule to waver, they were now ramping it up a notch. They counted the remaining half as the zoo entry ticket – they’d seen the monkey, after all.
This was a setback for Father. He lost a lot of sleep over it and became more taciturn than ever. For many days, neither he nor the wind that burst through the door, went out of the house. But when it rained, he could not keep hold of the wind, and released it. Tufts of wind scraped at Father’s face, almost splitting it open. He was as puny as before, the villagers could see that. Their mockery was not like before – they could get right to the heart of his feelings just by shooting him an indifferent glance or looking down and pursing their lips. Most of the time, Father was distracted and silent. Sometimes, he took a drink to give him some liquid courage, and made vain attempts to convince them: That monkey said “Hey!” – the monkey spoke human language, it was a miracle. My bullets were used up, my gun barrels were smoking, I was scared of the bear, I didn’t dare make a sound. Just at that moment, there was a voice from somewhere, and that was the end of the stand-off. The voice said “Hey!” and that saved my life.
By this time, Father had almost lost his indomitable, fiery vigour. His throat was strained and hoarse, and echoed with unchanging anxiety.
That’s how badly this story began. Everyone got what Father meant straightaway and, even if he didn’t succeed in convincing them, at least it gave people a kind of amusement. They listened as he talked, over-stressing each word, and they laughed in all the right places. Some, who had not heard the story before, came looking for him mainly out of curiosity, and smiled in a dignified way as they listened to him. As they left, they did not forget to offer him cut-price courtesies. For a few, mockery wasn’t enough and they challenged Father outright: Why don’t you teach it to speak? That was what they said, every time Father finished his explanation: Why don’t you teach it to speak? Father understood where they were coming from, so he kept his mouth shut. And their mockery inspired him: he would stop trying and failing to convince them he’d heard that “Hey!” He did something different instead.
When Father kept telling the villagers, I heard the monkey say “Hey!” quite clearly, it was an attempt to wash away past humiliations. It made his listeners laugh at first, but eventually they got fed up with it. They could not even be bothered to mock him. It got to the point where, when they spotted Father in the distance, they’d be off before he could open his mouth.
The first day of every month clove the month before from the month that followed, with a single chop. The glow from the light bulb made shadows dance on the walls. Father was awake all night. He chose this day to stop trying, and failing, to convince them he had heard that “Hey!” He did something different. He stubbornly repeated the same jerky movements, knocked out the same words, teasing the monkey in different ways. Father was so impatient that he didn’t give himself a minute’s respite, just tried and exhausted every trick he knew, but the monkey wouldn’t make a sound. Father felt a chill of anxiety but still would not give up. He changed tactics. He ignored the monkey for days on end, and allowed it to become weak and befuddled, until it was gasping for breath and barely alive. Then he got its food out and tried to entice the monkey to say the sound it had made at the start. “Hey!” The monkey looked at him, panting, and then it rolled its eyes, mouth agape, its breath cooling for a long moment, and fell head over heels, ker-plonk, to the floor. Father tried to revive it, cupping his hands and frantically breathing hot air into its mouth to try and ease its hunger. He didn’t allow himself to be defeated and stiffened his resolve, but he was discouraged. He had to come to terms with the fact that the monkey, though constantly seeming on the verge of success, had not actually pronounced a single syllable. Father was first furious, then sorrowful, and eventually let the whole business drop.
He dropped it as suddenly as he had started it. The wellspring of his hopes had dried up. Night after night, Father tossed and turned in his bed, listening to the animals of the village – the dogs barking, the cocks crowing, the oxen bellowing and the donkeys braying – but he could not sleep. He had long ago stopped bothering about the monkey. He acted the way he used to, eating, walking, sleeping, smoking and drinking as if there was still hope, but the ground felt like cotton wool beneath his feet, his face was deadly pale and bloodless, and he wore a dazed expression. During the long nights when there was nothing for him to do, he drank alone, staggering around wherever the mood took him and bumping into things. From then on, if you took a look, you could see that the monkey in the cage throwing itself around in the same way Father did. At first, Father thought it was faint from hunger, but then when he stood still, the monkey stood still too, and pulled just the same weird face to match Father’s. The monkey was a superlative mimic. It could not only do throwaway gestures like these, but also gave wonderfully clever imitations of the whole subtle range of human emotions.
Now that Father had stopped repeating, “I quite clearly heard the monkey say ‘Hey!’” the villagers smiled, offered cut-price courtesies, and went away. The monkey would imitate them too, hands clasped behind its back, eyes forward as it walked – until it bumped into the cage bars, making the people laugh out loud.
The villagers’ comments behind Father’s back passed from one mouth to the next, of course distorted and flippant, dripping into his soul and eating away at his self-respect. Father drank himself into a stupor, grabbing an iron rod to jab the monkey. The monkey did likewise, grabbing a pretend rod to jab Father back. Father felt ashamed. Waves of heat came up through his feet, he burned with anxiety and began to hop up and down frantically, unable to put his feet on the ground. The energy beneath his hand was so great that it was as if the entire weight borne by his feet was pressing on his hand. At this, the monkey felt pain, and retreated to the corner of the cage for several nights licking away the trickles of blood. Every night, Father heard the sound of its wounds healing over, like the sound of bamboo shoots breaking through the soil. It filled him with unease. The sounds grew louder every night and kept waking him. He switched on the light, the beam swept down like the wing of a bird, and Father saw the monkey gripping a piece of iron, just like himself, and attacking the bars of the cage. Father felt he would soon drown in the sounds and the light beams.
Around 1995, power cuts were common in the village. There was no definite explanation but the villagers guessed that there was not enough power to share with the city and the newly-built factories. Every time there was a power cut, Father would light a candle, and its little glow turned bright yellow as the darkness pressed on it, as if Father was breathing out a sigh. Before bed, he blew out the flame, and slept the whole night, waking when it was light outside. One of those dawns, Father saw that his whole stock of candles had burned down to the wick. He thought he was dreaming, then thought he must have been mistaken and put it out of his mind. But this happened several times, and the burnt-out wicks even charred black holes in the table. So at night, although there was no power cut, Father turned off his electricity and lit a new candle. Then he ate his dinner, blew out the candle, got into bed and pretended to go to sleep. For a long time there was no movement. Then, around midnight, when he was nodding off, there was a whooshing sound and a flame flared up, tearing the night apart. Illuminated in the flame was the monkey’s face, like a bud ready to burst. Before the blaze could die down, it leaned towards the candles on the table, and those unlit wicks, in a single hungry impulse, became one with the flame, and there was candlelight. Before long, Father got up, sat down at the table and looked at the monkey. He realised that the monkey was staring back at him and at the candlelight, whereupon Father sighed, took the matches back from the monkey and lit his cigarette. Father then put the matches down on the table, got another cigarette out, leaned into the candle, inhaled, then handed the cigarette through the bars to the monkey. The animal drew on his cigarette and puffed out just as if it had been doing it for years. It put the cigarette in its mouth and inhaled, then instantly expelled a single puff of smoke. The monkey’s face broke the surface of the candlelight and turned a glistening yellow. At that instant, Father looked at it and once more believed that this was the monkey that had said “Hey!”
The people of the township all said Father was a damned good teacher. For hundreds of li around, there were few people with a reputation to match, even though Father had neglected his studies for many years. Diffidently, Father searched his memory – the classroom (the width of the back of a knife blade), the pupils staring at him, the dust dancing in the sunlight that filtered in. As if he merely wanted to fabricate some memories, Father cut open the river of his recollections and pulled out yellowing exercise books. He would use these to teach the monkey to speak. But even though it was very intelligent, it was only a monkey, with a monkey’s abilities. Even if it were the world’s wisest monkey, it would never be wiser than a stupid human. Father expended all his energies trying to teach the monkey but despite repeated efforts, the creature could not produce any real sound, only a faint chirp when it tried as hard as it could. As syllables went, the chirp had absolutely no shape to it. Rather than bash his head against a brick wall, Father decided to work on this sound and teach the monkey to write characters. There exists an onomatopoeic character to describe this sound, pronounced “zhi”. The monkey’s pronunciation of it had always been, in a certain sense, more precise than that of human beings who had to use human study models to learn it. In this case, all Father had to do was to teach the monkey how to write the character and tell it the meaning. In just a few months, thanks to Father’s tireless tuition and its own unremitting efforts, the monkey learned to write its first character. It was a horribly wonky character but Father’s enthusiasm was not dampened. Gradually, after persisting for decades, Father taught the monkey to recognise and write 3,500 of the most common Chinese characters. The trouble was, apart from the “zhi”, the monkey never managed to make any more sounds, and Father could never be sure if it understood the meaning of the characters. Perhaps because he was getting older, every time Father taught the monkey a character, he forgot it within a few days. It was as if the monkey was not learning it from Father but physically stealing it from him. So Father decided to get out his old books to burn as fuel and keep himself warm. When Father came back into the room with some kindling in his arms, the monkey was hunkered down in its cage, leafing through one of the books, a well-thumbed copy of Monkey’s Journey to the West. As it turned the pages, they fluttered like birds. Watching this burst of energy, Father really believed that it could read the story. But later, as he watched it scanning the sentences, he saw its amazement at coming across the characters it had learnt elsewhere. It was the kind of surprise we calendar dates feel when we jump out of our calendar line-up into another, only to find a mirror image of ourselves: same date, different calendar.
The days passed and winters came and went. Father felt the flames leap in his heart until his body crackled. Even though he’d been unable to get the monkey to speak, at least he’d stopped other people’s mouths. Then one day the monkey vanished. Father had turned out the light and gone to sleep when, as the half-moon sank low in the night sky, the monkey succeeded in opening the cage and escaped.
That night, I suddenly realized I was a grown-up. I shouted to Father but he just turned over and went back to dreamland. When the morning sunshine brought the light slipping in, Father saw the cage standing there with its door hanging open. He inspected its padlock. There was a piece of iron poked through the keyhole, a piece that had been ground down over more than ten years until it was a hair-fine wire. Father gulped in shock, then let out a gut-wrenching bellow. The cry seemed to tear his throat apart: aiai-yeeyee. No words. From that moment on, Father was speechless.
After the night of the monkey’s disappearance, Father never put a foot out of doors. He lay in bed all day, and did not sleep a wink at night. His gaze gradually lost all human purpose. I watched over him day and night, but could not prevent Father wasting away. People began to spread nasty rumours that he’d died. You can take a horse to water, as they say. Actually, we really had run short of water. I went to the river to get some and looked at the darkly inscrutable mountain on the other side, shorn of all its forest. People had chopped the trees down and scythed the grass. Just a few stumps remained standing, as if someone had patched the slopes. With the forest retreating day by day, people talked of seeing fleeing pheasants, hares, boars, roe deer and even bears, but the one thing they did not see was a monkey. No one knew how Father had managed to capture his monkey. It was as if it had burst on him like a thunderstorm. People cut down the trees and filled in the gullies and built highways on the mountain. The tarmac pierced through one village after another, but instead of bringing prosperity, the roads only added to the desolation. Father shut himself indoors and, before many years were up, he’d been forgotten. People had no more time for teasing anyway, since most of the young and fit had been swept up on a tide and exchanged a life in the fields for toil and suffering in the cities. They dreamed that the streets were paved with gold and they left, never to come back, not even in their coffins. Cities with names like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou groaned under the weight of their rebelliousness, their lives, loves and offspring. A small number of the better-off moved their families lock, stock and barrel to a nearby county town. Lonely old folk were left behind to wander the villages like ghosts. If you went to our village, you would certainly see these tattered old people. In a few more years, they would be gone too. The courtyards and the roofs would be completely smothered in weeds. By the light of the setting sun, the wind ran and ran, making the leaves swish in the trees, then the sounds died away and spread silently over the dismal, dew-drenched wilderness. Dark and draughty houses crouched, like wild beasts waiting their chance to take back these millennial communities.
The years went by and the village was completely overgrown. Father was still immersed in a fantasy world, somewhere between reality and illusion. He wasn’t worried, he didn’t harbour any hopes. Even though there were no villagers around, their mockery was still there, not getting any bigger but not deflating. At the same time, Father found it difficult to rebut these attempts to humiliate him. He knew that even without the villagers, there would be others. It was as if the villagers’ humiliating taunts were not bestowed by them but rather something he went out looking for, to store carefully away and bring out occasionally during his long life, to bolster his failing courage. Since the night of the monkey’s disappearance, Father had not put a foot out of doors. He lay in bed all day, and did not sleep a wink at night. His gaze gradually lost all human purpose. In the depths of these nights, Father grew thinner and his face was a waxy yellow. I knew I could not coax Father out of his mood so I just kept busy. I washed his clothes, got his dinner and generally looked after him. Father went really crazy and, on top of everything else, he started peeing and crapping in the bed. He threw off his clothes, and the bedding went on the floor. His body was collapsing in on him. The minute his foot touched the floor, he jumped up onto a chair, or the table, or the bed, reaching for the electric cables, as excited as if they were tree branches in the spring wind. I had no idea what his illness was, all I could do was adopt new tactics and appease him. I tried to encourage him to come to terms with it but he took no notice of me. He no longer talked, just mimed what he wanted, like a mute. He was like Father except that he had to wait for human beings to work out how to vocalize the sentences he wanted to utter. When I saw the huge efforts he made in his stubborn but unsuccessful attempts to speak, I knew he was definitely a mute. Every time I argued with Father, I was not sure (as I still am not) whether this was a real argument, because he ‘talked’ to me in fierce gestures. He flailed his arms madly, but all he could spit out were dessicated sounds, just as if he’d swallowed back the words he wanted to say, leaving only the bone-cracking sounds of crunched sentences.
These memories always remind me of Father teaching me to talk and read and write. I’ve always been suspicious about humans’ motives in inventing the written word. Language has not only failed to make human communication simpler, it has complicated it. Clumsy linguistic formulations are rarely appropriate, let alone true. They just sound alluring. For instance, the name that Father chose for me. When people call me by that name, it gives solid form to an image, but that image is not the real me. I am not my name. Words are just a heap of lifeless corpses. Language forces words to model reality or objects but the minute humans speak, the meaning has been distorted. I found out, in time, that life is a terrible thing, that people use each other through language. I always think that language is an exercise in futility, rather than a gift bestowed on humans. Behind language’s back, humans get up to all sorts of antics, but they don’t realize that language has tricked them. When someone expresses themselves in language, their listener applies their own understanding to what has been said, then replies in their own language. This creates a double distortion of the original meaning. Thus, there are always misunderstandings in human linguistic exchanges. It is true that languages might be able to interact with other languages, but they are of no use to humans trying to bridge the gap with each other. Yet at the same time, these two systems are mutually interdependent. Without ideas, there is nothing to express in language. Then there is what is passed down vertically through the generations, a different situation. Although vocabularies from antiquity have evolved and multiplied, they have not lost their innate, unfettered nature. The history that vocabularies record constitutes an independent realm of language; the history understood by an individual is no more than that person’s history. And since everyone’s understanding is different, the history that depends on the survival of language is mediated through the understanding of numberless individuals, and may result in numberless different histories. Human beings mistakenly believe that these histories are one and the same history. So, in chronological terms, the horizontal exchange of language and its vertical proliferation is a stubbornly resistant, branched network that is both erroneous and perfectly precise.
Day turns to night turns to day, and the world goes on. Rampant, lush undergrowth has submerged the village, blocking out the sunlight. Irrepressible creepers snake up the walls and into the houses, turning their interiors green. Father is shriveling up day by day, living a very different life, and ageing with the rapidity of a fast-rewind button trying to ambush time. His dried-up skin is a mass of wrinkles. His back becomes terribly hunched and, when he walks, his gait is grotesque. His hair and beard grow slow and long, until fine hair hides half his face. There, a pair of eyes take you by surprise. They are muddy but they are the right size for his line of sight and are constantly searching for the formula that can spring him from this entrapping civilization into wildness. Not many days later, I hear the sound of the woodcutters at work. One by one, the trees are felled, letting the light in inch by inch. The day father disappears, I have gone to the township to buy some things I need. Perhaps I take too long, because when I get home, Father has left. Table and chairs lie broken all over the floor. I search for half the night but find no trace. A few days later, I hear the sound of woodcutters outside and, as the trees fall, the light doesn’t just come in, it floods the house. Not many months later, the village is back to its former desolate self. Hiding in my room, I hear the woodcutters talking outside. They’re talking about my father. They say he left by jumping out of the window. He gave them a lot of trouble but they caught him. They say he’s now in the county town.
I arrive in the county town. There are no rugged mountain roads here, any steep slopes are human-made (in the form of vertically-rising walls). I’ve never been in such a flat place. The sensation of walking on such flat ground is astonishing, as if I’m going to sprain my ankle with every step I take. I look for the place that woodcutters told me about, but the townsfolk say Father has gone to a bigger city. I make the long journey, trudging on foot through towns and provincial capitals until I come to the city they call Beijing. Its houses are really tall, and sharply angular, with no gentle transitions, like ill-designed cuboids, or perhaps you could say, shapes sucked dry of desire. All the houses are squeezed together but in orderly layers. The people are restless, crowded cheek by jowl. With considerable difficulty, I find a bunch of addresses people have given me, but I do not find Father. I figure they were telling me lies – I can’t stand human beings, either their vices or their jokes. I sit down outside the railings around the zoo and can’t hide my sorrow. I peer through the crowds and focus on each of the beasts. It all looks normal, but then suddenly I spy Father through the bars. I’m stuck in an enormous crowd and can only see him from a distance. He’s stuck inside the cage, hunched over and crawling up and down. I almost don’t recognize him. Father always told me: You see, humans are only monkeys painfully standing upright. I didn’t believe him, not until I’d lived human life for a bit myself. And here’s Father, fighting failure painfully hunched over, and apparently succeeding as a monkey. I don’t know if he recognizes me. Then he calls, waving at me, his arm looking like it’s pulling down a call that hovers in mid-air, as if plucking a peach. He almost splits himself apart, pouring a lifetime’s energy into that call: “Hey!”
I can write all this down, because finally Father taught me how to read and write. I didn’t know what to write, so I wrote Father, this Father that I call Father.
Before Father taught me to read and write, he chose a name for me. To do that, he went through every one of his treasured books. Finally he found inspiration in a book called Monkey’s Journey to the West, and took my name from the monkey in the story with a human face. The monkey was called Great-Sage Sun. “Your name is One-Sage Sun,” said my father. Ever after that, when people heard my name, they asked me: “Why didn’t he just call you Great-Sage Sun, straight up?” Of course, I’m quite sure that readers all know about me by now, but you don’t know about my name. You see, my father had taken the character for “Great”, 大, and removed the character for human, 人, leaving only the 一, One. That was because, at that point, Father didn’t know that I’d turned into a human being.