Crows, by Cao Wenxuan
Cao Wenxuan, often compared to Hans Christian Anderson, is one of China's best-loved authors of children's fiction. This year has seen two of his novels published in English: Bronze and Sunflower (published in the UK) and Dawang Tome: The Amber Tiles (published in the USA). He is also the featured author this month in the Writing Chinese project at Leeds University, where you can find a brand new translation of his short story, A Very Special Pigeon.
It’s a pleasure to read Cao Wenxuan’s work. He’s a wonderful storyteller and has a beautiful style of writing. He's particularly famous for his children's books, though he says his writing is for all ages. To quote from a couple of reviews of his award-winning novel Bronze and Sunflower: “vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page … a masterclass in the pictures words can paint” (Ann Morgan), “reminded me at times of the Laura Wilder books … this story came as a welcome breath of fresh air, full of hope and a reminder that warmth and generosity can make for powerful storytelling just as much as angst and dystopia” (Zoe Toft). – Helen Wang
This essay was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of Pathlight magazine.
In China, the crow has always had rather a bad reputation. It’s a sinister bird, a harbinger of misfortune. In Chinese films it’s always there in the bleak wilderness, or the shadow-strewn graveyard, or on the branch of a lone gnarled tree behind an old residence. The moment it utters that single cry, so shrill and hoarse, a sense of danger, of terror, rushes through us.
Exactly what it is about the crow we can’t say for sure. But it’s one of those things that we feel very distant from, to the extent that perhaps none of us could describe accurately its physique, the look in its eyes, or the way it flies or walks. Instead, we have an impression of a mass of pure black, of a chill, dark spirit drifting on the horizon.
As a boy, I became aware at a very early age of a feeling, a need to protect ourselves from the treacherousness of crows. And so, whenever I came across one standing on top of a windmill or flying silently out of the woods, I would immediately spit on the ground and close my eyes.
When I was in sixth grade, I pulled from my father’s bookshelf a copy of Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold, and found the story “Flight to the Moon”, in which Yi the archer shoots all the birds until there are only crows left, and then has to shoot them too in order to make zhajiang noodles for Chang’e, his beautiful wife. The story made my skin crawl, made me feel sick to my stomach. Was crow meat edible? Chang’e may have eaten crow-meat zhajiang noodles every day without bristling or gagging like me, but it seemed she wasn’t very happy about it: “Crow-meat zhajiang noodles again! Who on earth eats only crow-meat zhajiang noodles all year round?” When I read about Chang’e abandoning Yi, leaving home and flying off to the moon, I completely understood why: how could anyone bear to eat nothing but crow-meat zhajiang noodles? To be honest, at the time I didn’t have much sympathy for Yi, who was left all alone. How much sympathy can you have for a man who’s made his beautiful wife eat crow-meat zhajiang noodles all year long?
To cut a long story short, I’ve always had a rather bad feeling about crows.
Then, in October 1993 I went to Tokyo University to give a series of lectures. I was there for eighteen months, and it was during that time that my impression of crows changed.
It seems that the crow doesn’t have such a bad image in Japanese culture. I heard that in Japanese folklore there were moving stories about crows rescuing princes. And in these stories the crow is a good bird, a brave and wise bird. Clearly, the Japanese don’t have a problem with crows, unlike the Chinese, who can’t see a crow without fearing the worst. For the Japanese, a crow is just a bird, a regular kind of bird, and there’s nothing particularly good or bad about it. They treat these spirits of darkness like any other bird, entirely normally.
At first, I was very disconcerted to see crows flying all over the place in Tokyo. Why were these birds allowed the freedom to do as they liked? And when I heard one caw shortly before I was due to give my first lecture, my heart sank. I had set out from my accommodation in my sharply pressed Western-style suit, attaché case under my arm – I was quite the picture. I had been telling myself that this first lecture needed to be good, really good. I had been building up my confidence. Then, about a hundred metres from my accommodation, I heard a rasp across the clear sky, and was aware of a black shadow slipping in front of the sun above me. Before I could glance up, there was another rasp, this time by my ear, and a crow flashed before my eyes and flew off into the forest. I barely knew what was happening, and instinctively spat on the ground, just as I had done as a child. For the next few days I was anxious, until I was sure that the lecture had been fine.
I couldn’t avoid the crows in Tokyo, and as the days and months passed, my initial sensitivity was gradually dulled, and my prejudice towards crows steadily reduced.
For a start, the crows in Tokyo are neither wary nor afraid of people, which means that you can’t keep your distance. They are everywhere: whatever you are looking at it, they seem to be in the picture. If we wanted to go shopping in Kichijōji, we had to go through Inokashira Park, which is a big base camp for crows. There are so many of them, and they are so brazen in the way they sweep across the ground, and peck for food around your feet. It’s impossible to wave them away. The crow walks with a swagger, as though demanding your attention: You think you know me? Take a closer look.
Reading a crow is an entirely passive activity, but it has its rewards, not least the casting aside of all sorts of cultural associations. It’s not easy to see beyond the bird that has been the symbol of Nazism and appreciate its aesthetic beauty.
And that black is truly black! As black as ink, as black as lacquer, as black as the dark night unlit by moon and stars. Yet, there is a sheen to it, and when the crow takes flight, it shimmers like satin in sunlight. Its beak, of the same hard material as the ox’s horn, looks majestic. And those eyes make you feel that your earlier impression was simply unjustified: two brown-black eyes, tiny beans, shiny beads, without a hint of malevolence or hatred. On the contrary, there is an innocence, a warmth, even a degree of the affinity that one finds only in the good, kind eyes of the elderly. Now, what if we were to picture this same crow, standing, black as can be, in the glistening snow? Or, this same crow, black as can be, weaving through a shower of cherry blossom? How would we respond then? When the crow steps forward, it doesn’t walk, it skips. In the past I thought that crows waddled along like ducks, but I discovered that instead of taking steps, the crow skips along with quite a sense of rhythm. And if the crow is startled when pecking at food, it will cock its head and look up with a slightly idiotic expression.
It’s particularly rewarding to watch crows fly. There are always flocks of pigeons and wild ducks flying above Inokashira Park. Watching the pigeons fly was mesmerising (as a boy, I would lose myself watching pigeons), but there were also elements of performance. They flew, and wheeled in the air, and rose and fell as suddenly as a whirlwind, and were so reluctant to take a rest that you felt they were showing off. By contrast, watching the wild ducks flying was monotonous. They flew in straight lines, in perfect formation, without exception, and with their long necks and short bodies, it was not easy to see any beauty in their flying. And their descent could only be described as clumsy: when they landed on water, they did so with the grace and elegance of bricks, splatting and glugging one after another.
But crows don’t fly like pigeons, and they certainly don’t fly like wild ducks. There is no wheeling about in the sky and no interest in showing off. Crows just want to fly, and they fly well and with style. What they like best, it seems, is flying with purpose: from one tree to another, from the TV aerial to the top of the electricity pole, from the ground up to the tree, or from the tree down to the ground. Between take-off and landing, a crow will stretch out its wings in its own unaffected way. But when a crow mid-flight decides at the last minute to change its destination, that’s when you’ll discover how different it is from the wild duck with its stiff, cramped manoeuvres. You’ll marvel at how the crow weaves through the narrowest of gaps between branches and slips between leaves with as little effort as a sheet of paper on the breeze, leaving no trace of its passage.
The crow’s wings are remarkable. Its wonderful flying ability seems to lie in its long wings, which are out of all proportion with its body. Sometimes, when it is standing on the ground, a crow will spread its wings and afford you a full view. The wings are so black and so elegant that you can appreciate why beautiful young girls in ancient tales are described as having eyebrows black as crows’ wings reaching to their temples. It’s a very vivid description.
The tenacious Tokyo crows compelled me to change my opinion of these birds. I realised that my observation of crows over the previous decades had been extremely cursory and that my prejudice betrayed a lack of personal responsibility.
It’s true that crows are naughty, mischievous birds. There’s a place in Inokashira Park where people leave their bicycles under the trees. Most of the bikes have been abandoned. Crows come and land on the saddles, cock their heads to check the coast is clear, then start pecking at the seats, and keep pecking until they have pulled out all the foam stuffing. When they find there is nothing left inside, they move on to peck at another saddle, never tiring of this pleasure. Some bikes that are parked there temporarily also get pecked at. When the owners return and see what has happened, they swear at them: “Bastards!” And the crows fly off noisily. But it’s not long before they are back to attend to unfinished business. People have short memories, it seems, and there are often bikes parked there. What’s more, the crows are always flying off with things they’ve picked up in their beaks. I saw several crows fly up into the trees or onto someone’s roof with ring-pull cans that had been dropped on the ground. They’d check them over, as though hoping there might be a drop of alcohol left. Once, a crow found a piece of white silk somewhere and was flying about over Inokashira. The white silk unfurled and everyone down on the ground looked up to watch it. Another time, when I was walking down the road on my way back from giving a lecture at Tokyo U., I happened to look up and see a completely black crow with a tomato in its beak, as red and shiny as a ruby, flying across the blue sky. On that occasion, the crow did seem to be putting on a performance. It flew around for a long time, as though not wanting to land. It was a truly beautiful scene, the colours all perfect together. Afterwards, when the crow eventually flew off into the woods in the park, for a moment it felt as though part of the landscape between heaven and earth had been destroyed.
When spring arrived, I discovered something else: that crows are an emotional breed. Spring is their mating season, and during this time the crows in Inokashira lost their usual stately composure, and flew about the branches, creating a terrific commotion with their cawing and flapping. It was as though they were seized with an obsession or mania, flying about, chasing through the woods, unable to distinguish night from day, neither eating or drinking. Then, one day, when I was sitting on a bench in Inokashira Park watching them, I noticed that they all looked thinner and weaker than before, as though each bird was little more than a pair of wings. I was shocked by the exhaustion and hopelessness in their eyes. Occasionally, there’d be a skirmish, and the sky would fill with black feathers. One poor crow was so exhausted it fell off its branch. It staggered to its feet in a daze, beat its wings and flew back to the branch. Seeing such mental and physical exhaustion, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for them.
For almost the entire spring, they lived life to the full, burning up their energy, wearing down their spirit. It was not until summer was approaching, when the trees were lush with green and the ground was covered with fresh shoots, that they began to calm down.
Of course, crows can also be infuriating. In my case, their tireless racket often left me without a moment’s peace in which to write. There was an electricity pole not far from my accommodation with a crow that could sustain a constant cawing from morning till night. I felt like taking a bamboo cane outside and shooing all the crows away. But I was afraid that my Japanese neighbours might see me and start saying that the Chinese treat crows badly. I was very tempted, but eventually abandoned the idea. How many times was my train of thought broken? When I couldn’t get back on track, and my mind went blank, in the end, I gave up and started listening to the different sounds the crows made. I discovered that they weren’t all the same: some went “wa”, some went “ah”, and the one on the electricity pole went “wu ah, wu ah”. When a Japanese friend turned up, I asked,
“Do you understand what the crows are saying?”
“No,” she smiled, “do you?”
“No,” I smiled back, “they’re speaking Japanese!” And she laughed out loud.
The Inokashira crows caused a significant delay in my writing, and that’s a fact.
The Japanese indulgence of crows has only made matters worse. The bird population has increased, and now just the matter of crows pecking through rubbish bags or messily rootling through rubbish bins is quite a headache. The crows come flying out of the forest first thing in the morning looking for food, and instead of flying towards the outskirts of the city, they circle above the centre. When they spot an empty alleyway, down they go. With two or three jabs they can peck open a rubbish bag left out for collection. The result is rubbish strewn all over the place. On Japanese television there are dedicated discussions, which are often very amusing, about how to deal with crows. The Japanese are very ingenious, and come up with all kinds of amazing ideas. Some of these are shown on television: they start off being very effective, but crows are smart, and when they’ve tackled a new method a few times, and worked it out, they cruelly mock the humans’ efforts. It’s hilarious to watch.
In Japan, it seems there are two types of crows: city crows and country crows. The city crows peck at rubbish bags, and the country crows steal the farmers’ fruit. For a while there was a television programme following some country crows: how they were stealing fruit, the ideas the farmer came up with, and how the crows got their own back. The crows descended into the vineyard like an army of paratroopers, and started stripping the grapes from the vines. The elderly farmer shooed them away by beating on an enamel basin, but as soon as he left, they were back again. The farmer had no choice but to stand guard in the vineyard. But he had a plan. He was deliberately wearing a brown jacket to create a signal for the crows: if they associated the farmer with the brown jacket, then they would associate the brown jacket with the farmer. He lay down and pretended to be asleep. When the crows came, he leapt to his feet. The idea was that this would signal to the crows that when he was lying down, he wasn’t necessarily asleep. The farmer tried it a few times, and saw that it worked. Then came the part of the plan where – like a cicada leaving its shell – he slipped out of his jacket, wrapped it around a scarecrow, lay the scarecrow down in the vineyard and went home. But the crows were too intelligent, and saw straight through this cunning trick. They flew about in the sky for a long time, making a racket, then, testing whether it was safe to descend, discharged a shit into the “farmer’s” face. They dived low, then quickly soared upwards, and repeated this several times. They soon realised it was a ruse – the real farmer did not have such patience – and descended in such a maelstrom that the vine frames started swaying. They ate their fill, then perched on the vine frames, and did not fly off until the sun was going down in the west. The next day, when the old farmer looked at the vineyard with only a few grapes left on the vines, he was almost in tears. After that, he reached for his rifle, though he never opened fire on the crows.
Shortly before we left Japan, I went to Inokashira Park again with my family. The cherry blossom was just out. All we could see were the crows flying about the crowds of people who had come to admire the cherry blossom. It certainly made a lively spring scene.
I returned to Beijing, and when I had settled in, I set about writing again. But for the first few days I couldn’t write anything.
“Why can’t I write?” I asked my wife.
“Because there’s no crow calling from the top of the electricity pole outside,” she said.
Reminded of the Inokashira crows with which I seemed to have become so familiar, I went outside and looked up at the sky. The sky over Beijing was empty. There was not a single crow.
It was not until dusk that I finally saw any crows. They were flying high, very high, as though unwilling to come any closer. I knew that these crows had probably flown a long way, and that they had been looking for food in the fields on the outskirts of the city where there were no people, and that they were now on their way back to their homes in the city. Their homes would not be among the ordinary people, but safe within the enclosed grounds of Zhongnanhai and the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where people couldn’t hurt them or frighten them.
Then, one day, when I was reading some Yuan dynasty drama, the characters gong ya (“palace crows”) caught my eye. Was it preposterous, I wondered, to imagine that that’s exactly what those crows were?