[p] Feng Zikai's Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

     In a Chinese course, some years ago, I wrote an essay about the minutiae of a long walk I took in Taipei. After reading my error-riddled but honest essay, my close friend and "Taiwanese brother," the artist Luo Jr-Shin, thoughtfully sent me a Chinese essay by Feng Zikai. It took me a long time to read the essay, but very little time to understand once I finally reached the end. The gentle but significant thud of recognition I had with the author felt akin to those extra-ordinary moments when you unexpectedly run into a friend at a train station, thousands of miles from home. I dreamt of translating the work and anticipated a day when my Chinese would be learned enough to make the attempt.

      A number of years passed--and much Chinese study--when I decided I would take on the translation of this humble essay. Translations come in all different forms and qualities, but they do share one thing in common: they are only representations of the original.  Since I read the work, I have had the strong urge to share the story, but more than that, to share Zikai's honest and bare tenderness. An honest and tender heart is one of the most unifying and normal features of the human, yet I find these features to be mostly absent in literature and letters (not to mention in public life, in general).  While the tone may be lost in translation, I hope I maintained the significance of the work. 

     I do feel the need to share more about Feng Zikai, but I will save that for another day. For now I will just humbly present to you, after many years of Chinese study, my first personal translation. A big thank you to my editor for this work, Jacqueline Ruei Ji.

 

*please find the original Chinese version below the translation

 

Avoiding Rain in the Mountains

豐子愷 (Feng ZiKai)    1935

 

     The other day I went sightseeing with two young ladies to the mountains of the Western Lake when, all of a sudden, it started to rain. As we rushed to find shelter, we saw a small temple and, next to its gate, three houses forming a small village. One of these houses had a small tea shop that also sold joss sticks. We quickly ran inside the tea house, and, although it was small, they still asked one dime for a pot of tea. At a time like this, even if they asked for two dimes for a single pot, we would not have bemoaned the price.

     Steeping more, the tea grew lighter; the rain grew harder the longer it fell. While I initially felt a sense of disappointment upon encountering rain on our mountain walk, there was something in the emptiness and depth of the rain’s patter in the mountains; this hindering rain’s atmosphere was more intriguing than a sunny mountain scene. “The power of the mountain’s hazy mist*”; I now knew the meaning of these words. The girls did not feel the same way—there they sat inside the little tea hut, looking dejected and busy blaming the heavens. I had no way to communicate and share my experiences to lift their mood—besides, I was unwilling to be the kind of adult who attempts to make the young see through a grown-up’s eyes.

     The tea master was sitting at the door, drawing his bow on a huqin. Besides the sound of the rain outside, his playing was all we could hear. The song he was playing was “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” and although he wasn’t wholly in tune, there was a fluency to his rhythm. As he sat there near the tea house’s entry, it seemed he played in place of the radio to attract customers. It was a pity he only played for a short time before stopping. With the absence of the music, we only heard the clamoring of the unending rain. In an effort to console the two girls, I got up and approached the tea master with the intention of borrowing his huqin. “Excuse me, would you mind if I fiddle around with your huqin?” He graciously handed his instrument over to me.

     The two girls were delighted when I returned to the house with huqin in hand. “You can play . . . you can play!?” I sat down and I played for them. While my technique was unpracticed, I did play the right notes.

"Three Variations on Plum Blossoms." The recordings of Chinese guqin master Wu Jinglüe (1907-1987)

     When I was a child, there lived a certain firewood vendor by the name of Zhai in a house near ours. I asked him to teach me the song “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms.” Besides this neighbor, whom we knew as Ah Qing, I asked the big burly tailor Da Han, another neighbor across the alley, to teach me the Chinese scales on the huqin. Ah Qing’s teaching style was quite special—he’d only play “Three Variations on Plum Blossoms” for you to hear; there would be no lessons on the song’s score. While he didn’t know the scales, he truly knew the instrument. When he played, it was if I could only “gaze to the sea and sigh”; I was never able to play as he did.

     When I later learned that Da Han could read music, I asked him to teach me. He wrote down the major and minor scales on a sheet of paper, and with him and with those scales, I would learn the rudiments of the huqin. Half of my ability to play comes from my brief experiences with learning the violin. Yet, the other half is based off of those lessons with the burly Da Han.

     In the mountain tea house, near the window, I calmly played the huqin because, “haste brings mistakes.” Drawing the bow, I played all types of western pop songs as the two girls sang along. How similar we were to the street musicians of West Lake! Our performance attracted the attention of the villagers, who came to watch us play.

The title track to the 1934 Chinese film, "Song of the Fisherman."

     One of the girls sang “Song of the Fisherman” and demanded I accompany her. And so I played along. As I played, the village youngsters who had joined us started to sing in unison. For a brief moment in time, this barren hill, enveloped in a never-ending and noisy rain, became extremely warm. I was once a music teacher for seven to eight years, I’ve accompanied a four-part choral group on piano, I’ve played Beethoven’s Sonatas. Yet, in my whole life, I have never experienced the joy that I felt in music on this day.

     Two empty rickshaws pulled by and I signaled them for me and my guests. I paid for the tea, returned the huqin, bid my farewells to the village youngsters, and stepped into the car. In front of me, the cart’s oil-cloth cover blocked my view of the rain-possessed mountain. With the taste of those fleeting moments still lingering in my mind, I thought of the significance of this compelling instrument.

     The heaviness of the piano is like a coffin. The cost of the violin can be thousands of dollars. As refined as the violin is, how many people in the world are able to enjoy it? With the huqin, one needs just two or three dimes for an instrument. While it is true that the huqin’s range is not as wide as the violin’s, nor might its sound be as graceful, as long as it’s well built, it’s plenty to play folk songs. This instrument is extremely popular among the people: the barber shops have one, the tailors have one, the boats on the river even have one . . . one is here, too, at the three-house village. If we were able to create enough meaningful and simple music such as the “Song of the Fisherman,” then I dare say its influence in artistic education would be greater than the music classes in school.

     When I left the three-house village, the youngsters, reluctant to see me go, came to send me off. This reluctance I too felt. Trying to soften my leaving, I told them, “See you again next week!” even though in reality I was already afraid I’d never again in this life visit this three-house village, never sit at that tea house, never again draw my bow on that huqin. If there wasn’t that opportunity with the huqin, then how would the youngsters of the village look at this passing stranger? Would they have been reluctant to let me go? Would I feel this bittersweet sadness on leaving these people I met by chance?

     There’s an old saying, “music teaches harmony.” In my seven or eight years of teaching music, I had no substantial proof for this saying. Yet, unexpectedly, on this day, in a nearly empty little hamlet, I found my proof.

 

*A line from the poetry of Su Dong Po

 

 

   

山中避雨  

    前天同了兩女孩到西湖山中遊玩,天忽下雨。我們倉皇奔走,看見前方有一小廟,廟門口有三家村,其中一家是開小茶店而帶賣香燭的。我們趨之如歸,茶店雖小,茶也要一角錢一壺。但在這時候,即使兩角錢一壺我們也不嫌貴了。

       茶越沖越淡,雨越落越大。最初因遊山遇雨,覺得掃興;這時候山中阻雨的一種寂寥而深沉的趣味牽引了我的感興,反覺得比晴天遊山趣味更好。所謂「山色空濛雨亦奇」,我於此體會了這種境界的好處。然而兩個女孩子不解這種趣味,她們坐在這小茶店裡躲雨,只是怨天尤人,苦悶萬狀。我無法把我所體驗的境界為她們說明,也不願使她們「大人化」而體驗我所感的趣味。

       茶博士坐在門口拉胡琴。除雨聲外,這是我們當時所聞的唯一的聲音。拉的是梅花三弄,雖然音階摸得不大正確,拍子還拉得不錯。這好像是因為顧客稀少,他坐在門口拉這曲胡琴來代替收音機作廣告的。可惜他拉了一會就罷,使我們所聞的只是嘈雜而冗長的雨聲。為了安慰兩個女孩子,我就去向茶博士借胡琴。「你的胡琴借我弄弄好不好?」他很客氣地把胡琴遞給我。

       我借了胡琴回茶店,兩個女孩很歡喜。「你會拉的?你會拉的?」我就拉給她們看。手法雖生,音階還摸得正。因為我小時候曾經請我家鄰近的柴主人阿慶教過梅花三弄,又請對面衖裡一個裁縫司務大漢教過胡琴上的工尺。阿慶的教法很特別,他只是拉梅花三弄給你聽,卻不教你工尺的曲譜。他拉得很熟,但他不知工尺。我對他的拉奏望洋興嘆,始終學他不來。後來知道大漢識字,就請教他。他把小工調,正工調的音階位置寫了一張給我,我的胡琴拉奏由此入門。現在所以能夠摸出正確的音階者,一半由於以前略有摸Violin的經驗,一半仍是根基於大漢的教授的。在山中小茶店裡的雨窗下,我用胡琴從容地〈因為快了要拉錯〉拉了種種西洋小曲。兩女孩和著歌唱,好像是西湖上賣唱的。引得三家村裡的人都來看。一個女孩唱著漁光曲,要我用胡琴去和她。我和著她拉,三家村裡的青年們也齊唱起來,一時把這苦雨荒山鬧得十分溫暖。我曾經吃過七、八年音樂教師飯,曾經用piano伴奏過混聲四部合唱,曾經彈過Beethoven的Sonata。但是,有生以來,沒有嘗過今日般的音樂的趣味。

       兩部空黃包車拉過,被我們雇定了。我付了茶錢,還了胡琴,辭別三家村的青年們,坐上車子。油布遮蓋我面前,看不見雨景。我回味剛才的經驗,覺得胡琴這種樂器很有意思。piano笨重如棺材,violin要數十百元一具。製造雖精,世間有幾人能夠享用呢?胡琴只要兩三角錢一把,雖然音域沒有violin之廣,也儘夠演奏尋常小曲。堆然音色不比violin優美,裝配得法,其發音也還可聽。這種樂器在我國民間很流行,剃頭店裡有之,裁縫店裡有之,江北船上有之,三家村裡有之。倘能多造幾個簡易而高尚的胡琴曲,使像漁光曲一般地流行於民間,其藝術陶冶的效果恐比學校的音樂課廣大得多呢。我離去三家村時,村裡的青年們都送我上車,表示惜別。我也覺得有些兒依依。〈曾經搪塞他們說:「下星期再來!」其實恐怕我此生不會再到這三家村裡去吃茶且拉胡琴了。〉若沒有胡琴的因緣,三家村裡的青年對於我這路人有何惜別之情,而我又有何依依於這些萍水相逢的人呢?古語云:「樂以教和。」我做了七、八年音樂教師沒有實證過這句話,不料這天在這荒村中實證了。

 

                                                                                             豐子愷, 1935