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.
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.
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