“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

The Road to the Weeping Spring, by Li Juan

Li Juan

'Li Juan... may be as far outside of the system as Chinese writers are able to get and still publish. She lives and writes in the Altay region of Xinjiang, in western China, musing on nomadic lifestyles and the turning of the seasons. Her literary career has taken what she calls the “wild path”—“wild” being traditionally used in Chinese to refer to things outside the establishment.' – Eric Abrahamsen in "The Real Censors of China" (New York Times, June 17 2015)

A version of this story was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Pathlight magazine

The begining of this story has been edited to reflect feedback Li Juan received from Kazahk readers: the story originally characterized Osman Batyr as a "bandit chief", an evaluation most Kazakhs apparently don't agree with!

There was a time when the Osman Path was the only road to the weeping spring. Osman Batyr was the famous "King of Altay” of a century ago.

Up until then, all roads had stretched far around the edges of the vast Gobi desert. They formed a fragmented and fragile course through folding mountain ranges, connecting the faraway oasis of Altay with the grasslands and snowy mountains of the south. No one could travel across the barren centre of the desert. Without water or grass, horses would go hungry and men thirsty; it was a place of death. Only the gazelles and wild horses that bounded across the wilderness knew where to find water, but they had no words to share their secret. The breath of water, held so far within themselves, gave their eyes great depth and clarity.

Was it then that the legend of the weeping spring arose? It started as a rumour, circulating softly among the herdsmen, the promise of a miraculous spring in the centre of the Gobi desert, hidden deep within its driest reaches. Water seeped out of a crevice in the rocks and fell into puddles on the ground below; drop by drop, it fell day and night, throughout the seasons. There was a small patch of verdant grass and a few thickets of lush shrubs; water sparkled, trickling through the grass, and the sides of the marsh were overgrown with moss. It was a small but constant oasis in the desert. One man claimed to have seen such a scene with his own eyes. He had lost his way and hadn’t had a drop of water for several days; his mind was already growing dim and hazy as death approached. When he stepped onto the wet grass around the weeping spring, he broke down, racked with sobs. He drank his fill of the clear, sweet spring water, and wept.

Every time a herdsman went searching for his lambs, deep in the desert, he would become convinced the weeping spring was nearby; perhaps it was just behind the unassuming sand dune that lay ahead? Calling to his flock, he would cross peak after peak, hungry and thirsty, gazing into the distance. The wilderness was boundless and empty, but he still believed in the existence of the weeping spring.

The weeping spring was the god of the land. Its water trickled down from a place of unparalleled height and distance, each drop beating the pulse of all that lived there, each drop permeating the hard reality of life, and extending into pure, beautiful legend.

But the chaos of war swept the land and left no corner undisturbed. In the end, the identity of the weeping spring—a secret passed between the herdsmen for generations—was revealed. Its exact location, faraway in the nondescript landscape of the Gobi, was marked. Osman’s savage horse set out on the shifting desert path and advanced directly toward the spring. In those years when flames of war raged and the land was filled with smoke and dust, he travelled alone to this concealed oasis many times. He would arrive with a dagger in one hand and reins in the other to replenish his provisions and build up his strength. Then he would carry on to the north or the south, shuttling back and forth between battlefields. Did the concealed spring create the phantom that was the “Kazakh King”? To think that there was another path, besides the official roads at the time, which allowed someone to come and go freely across the wilderness. That was the legend of Osman; that was the legend of the weeping spring.

When I was very, very little, Routes 216 and 217 had not yet been built, and there were no direct bus services between Fuyun County and Urumqi (though at the time, not many people needed to travel to Fuyun, and the people who lived there didn’t have much business elsewhere). The only way to get to Urumqi was to hitch a ride on a truck carrying minerals or timber and be jolted around for days as it drove along a stretch of villages in the northeast, skirting far around the edge of the Gobi. I will never forget the nights that we spent on the road—shabby hotels with mud walls standing alone in the snow-white expanse of the desert, and the brilliant starry sky above.

So often I was lifted out of the truck by an adult and led off somewhere; my heart pulsed with a strange excitement, as if I knew I would make my life in this place. But my journey has not yet come to a halt.

That endless road, known as the “eastern route”, was only passable during the summer. In the winter it was blocked by snow, and the only way to Urumqi was the road that went by the weeping spring.

A stop at the weeping spring was undoubtedly a happy event for the drivers who took that road; whether they arrived early or late in the day, they always stayed for a night. They fetched water to wash with and built fires to make tea and cook food. After the spring, their journey would again be filled with days and nights of endless, desolate wilderness.

Later, a married couple turned up at the weeping spring after travelling all the way to Xinjiang from central China. They pitched a tent and opened a simple restaurant. Vegetables, grains, and cooking oil were all delivered by the drivers who passed through; for them, the small restaurant was just like heaven. It allowed them to spend one day of their long journey across the Gobi in civilisation.

Life was tough, but surely the solitude was the biggest test the couple faced. Several days would pass without the appearance of a single vehicle on the dirt road in front of their place. Every now and then, the man would go away for a time, hitching a ride with a passing car.

Then something happened, and the woman left with a young driver. The man didn’t wait for her and before long he had left as well. Peace returned to the weeping spring.

After some time had passed, there came another twist to the tale. The woman and the driver returned to the spring. A tent went up again and they dug a cellar underneath it. The restaurant was reopened. They raised a few chickens beside the spring, which provided meat and eggs for their simple tables.

The new restaurant also provided somewhere to sleep—even if it was only a large shared bed in the cellar—so the drivers no longer had to sleep in their narrow cabins.

Every so often, a great number of people would suddenly arrive, as if it had been prearranged. When that happened, even the benches in front of the tables were not enough for all the people, and some had to crouch down on the ground to eat. Places to sleep were even scarcer; the owner gave up her own bed, pushed tables together, even laid out sheets and bedding on the ground. The house was crammed full of sleeping bodies lying this way and that.

That year, a direct bus route was opened between Urumqi and Fuyun County, which ran once a week. Business was extremely good for the couple; the weeping spring had never been so busy. They decided to expand the restaurant.

During the summer, traffic was rerouted through the mountains and the weeping spring was deserted. The couple decided to use the time to build several new buildings.

They excavated the water hole beneath the spring and turned it into a deep pool, then dug a channel to the door of the restaurant.

The spring was small; they waited patiently the whole summer for its drops to fill the pool, and then they mixed the water with mud to make bricks. Once the bricks had dried, walls soon rose up. The couple drove a trailer to and from a place several hundred kilometres away to carry timber for frames and rafters. The roof was made of grass and thick clay.

After a summer of backbreaking work the house was finished, new tables were made and two new beds were added. They sat down to wait for the winter and the first vehicle to honk its horn and pull in outside. They waited for the door to burst open and the hubbub of people to ignite the weeping spring again.

They are still waiting.

The year after they finished the house, a new road was built across a different section of the Gobi. The road to the spring was abandoned.

That entire stretch of rugged and winding road, which ran alongside mountains and through the undulating terrain of the Gobi desert, the road that stretched through the seasons, through ancient passions and sorrows, through the slow passing of time and the depths of fear and dignity, was abandoned. It lies open and empty across the wilderness, filled with endless hunger and thirst. The ruts of long ago remain imprinted on its surface like a dream, more desolate even than lands never travelled by man.

The new road cut straight through the heart of the Gobi like the blade of a knife. Travelling the route takes only one or two days, soaring up above the wilderness without stopping for a moment. The core of the earth has shifted smoothly and subtly on its inscrutable and blameless axis to the abyss on the other side.

Has the story of the weeping spring come to an end? Do the droplets of water that fall slowly and quietly in the distance have any more meaning to give? Will there never again be cause for a road to pass it by? Will there never again be cause to exchange a hard journey and a life of struggle for the small amount of moisture that it provides? Do we take it all for granted, everything that we can have now?

Two people have stayed at that small patch of oasis. They still make mud bricks day and night by the side of the spring, and while they wait for the bricks to dry, they look up at the sky with the smiles of youth. As long as they stay there, endlessly in wait, the beautiful dream is not disturbed. When I travelled through this wild land I was drawn unconsciously to the old road to the weeping spring. The impression of the road was so vivid in the wilderness that I could clearly hear the woman speaking bravely to her lover when the two of them had nowhere to go and nowhere to shelter. “Let’s go to the weeping spring,” I heard her say, crying as she spoke.

Comments

# 1.   

I was looking online to get an idea of what the landscape between Urumqi and Fuyun (Route 216) is like. For photos, check out this blog --- and for an account of travelling this route by motorbike see this blog "At the outskirts of Urumqi I turned north onto the 216 national highway, which would take me through the heart of the Gurbantünggüt Desert, home to the furthest point on land away from any ocean, over 1600 miles..."

 Helen Wang, June 26, 2015, 12:51p.m.

# 2.   

This is a kind of new version of 守株待兔.

David, June 28, 2015, 11:56a.m.

# 3.   

Li Juan acknowledges the inspiration of the Kazakh writer Yerkex Hurmanbek:

"Her biggest inspiration to me was making me realize that I am Han Chinese, and when I describe the scenes and sights of this faraway, foreign place, no matter how close I myself might be, I’m always in the position of an outsider, standing on the sidelines, looking in, because you’re just not the same kind of people. It’s like how I really don’t like my writings on the village dances, even if at the time I was writing those things I really was full of all kinds of emotions, I really was taking it seriously and wasn’t making anything up- now that I think about it, that kind of thing just wasn’t worth writing about. As a Han Chinese, for me to write about that kind of thing- it’s just affected, much too affected. It’s so clear how different you are from them, in every way, whether it’s your mentality or your way of life, your emotions or whatever, it’s all so different, but you still go and try to wipe out all those discrepancies- that’s an extremely difficult thing to try to do and far more effort than it’s worth."

-- Li Juan in a long interview with Ou Ning, 2012

Helen Wang, July 1, 2015, 9:09a.m.

# 4.   

Glad to see a discussion about Li Juan (李娟), her writing and how she feels about her writing. When Eric Abrahamsen mentioned her in his (increasingly infamous!)The Real Censors of China, I wondered how representative she really is of a writer who is, if not working "outside" the system, is perhaps on its fringes.

Briefly put, she has won quite a number of mainstream literary awards (“人民文学奖天山文艺奖花地文学奖上海文学奖朱自清散文奖), and her Baidu Baike entry contains praise from a host of literary venerables, including Wang Anyi.

I have read only a few of her short essays about life in Xinjiang published in 《我的阿勒泰》(lit, "My Altay"). This was one of her first works published. I found it overly sentimental and pretty juvenile. Yet it got high marks from mainstream media in China, as have most of her later works.

I mention this to point out that I believe her positive "reception" is not unrelated to official government policy. She is a Han Chinese born in Sichuan, and spent much of her youth there before moving with her mother to Xinjiang. Put bluntly, she is a poster girl for the concept of a harmonious multi-ethnic Xinjiang where Han and non-Han co-exist peacefully. I have even spoken with a handful of Chinese readers who are surprised to hear that she isn't part-Kazakh.

Mind you, that doesn't mean that Li Juan has sought or enjoys the halo created for her by state media.

Regardless, the quote in the comment above (provided by Helen Wang) is especially interesting to me. It appears that Li Juan has come to realize that she is a Han on the outside looking in, and there is the danger that her writing will be perceived as "affected." That's a good word to describe what I felt when I read her earliest short pieces.

But in my mind, making the effort to understand and recreate "the Other" in one's writing is terribly important and potentially very inspiring. The key is to ensure that -- in some difficult-to-describe way -- the writing possesses a certain "authenticity."

The reason I fell in love with and translated Chi Zijian's Last Quarter of the Moon was I found a healthy dose of authenticity therein. Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han writer writing about the Tungus-speaking, reindeer-herding Evenki, and she even had the audacity to pen the entire novel in the first person, imagining herself as an Evenki woman now in her nineties.

It will be interesting to see how Li Juan develops. I look forward to reading her 《冬牧场》(lit, winter pasture), in which she follows a group of semi-nomadic Kazakhs into the deserts of southern Altay.

 Bruce, July 7, 2015, 8:57p.m.

# 5.   

Apropos to Bruce's comment above, Li Juan just told me that she actually edited the story, a couple of years ago, based on reactions from Khazak readers.

Apparently the characterization of Osman Batyr as a "bandit chief" in the first paragraph is the official view, which Khazaks aren't too happy with. Li heard from some readers that they consider him a national hero, and so she's edited the second sentence to take that into account. I'll change the story (with a note) in a bit.

It's an interesting edit, and pretty on-the-nose when it comes to the discussion of Han subjectivity. It's sort of amazing, when you consider how important the discussion of "the other" and alterity has been in some countries over the past half-century or so, and how that kind of awareness has only barely begun to penetrate in China. There's a very long conversation that will have to be had at some point.

 Eric Abrahamsen, July 27, 2015, 1:53a.m.

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