The city lost to heaven
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Patrick Holland
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I write tonight in a hotel room supplied by two congenial governments, having sent away the evening's inevitable prostitute. My window looks across an ocean of stray light. Chaotic currents updrift into the satellite maps I know of Beijing, where the light hovers above the landmass in meaningful, portentous colours. There are no stars.
Officially, I am part of a disembodied team of ‘foreign experts' here to advise the Central Committee on preparations for the Olympics: my fields are noise and light pollution. My true reason for returning to China was to find a girl I left here in her first year of study at Beijing Foreign Language University, with whom I lost contact, and with whom I shared the most extraordinary few moments I shall ever live. Hao Xue's name means plenty of snow. It was given her by the weather on the day of her birth. She might be a diplomat or translator by now, and I worried that she might be far from Beijing, the city she had introduced me to three years ago.
I dropped my bags at the hotel and took a bus to the university. I walked off the ragged commercial street, past a pair of civil guards into an avenue of Chinese pines and sycamores. At the administration office I called a reluctant middle-aged woman to the desk. The university's records said two girls and one boy named Hao Xue had graduated last year. The woman told me they did not keep track of students after graduation. Was there any other way of searching? I told her that Hao Xue was from the hutongs; that she had been on scholarship. The woman told me China might have a million girls called Hao Xue; a quarter of them probably lived in Beijing.
With the administrator's impossible numbers in mind, I asked after Hao Xue at our favourite alleyway restaurant behind the university. I retraced our old paths, muddy and broken paved, where leather-skinned peasants sold produce out of wooden carts under floodlights on even the coldest nights. I did not take the bus to Xicheng and walk to where it happened; though I felt sure I could have found the place, even after so many years. Beijing deceives you into believing it may be familiar. The eye and ear are trapped by concrete monoliths, bleating advertisements, incessant traffic and the light that strays upward from half-cut-off and bare fixtures rendering the heavens all but invisible. The imagination is allowed no latitude and is supplanted by the logical and illusory concentric circles that exist in maps, and the city conceals its gigantic depths in a kind of shadow.
I walked to another part of the central city, the old market streets behind Tiananmen Square, and remembered her skipping like a child across the place where Mao Zedong announced the birth of a new China, escaping from there into the labyrinth that is old Beijing, the hutongs that were once her home.
Despite the dark skin of the south-westerner, which is not admired, Hao Xue passed the unofficial beauty requirement at the university. Her complexion came from her mother who was of the Naxi people of Yunnan. Her mother and father came to Beijing as migrant workers. They slept in human piles in the subway and train stations. Her father carried coal in the hutongs and the hutong people took pity on his pregnant wife – so Hao Xue had many old nannies who became aunts when a munitions factory drew her parents to work and an accident there made her an orphan.
Before she went to university, Hao Xue was the product of a strange, communal and now unobtainable education that nurtured her gifts. She could draw as many Chinese characters at twelve, as the seventy-year-old compound calligrapher. She began to grasp the grammar of any language after perusing a single page and could speak and even sing in native accents after they were spoken to her. I had witnessed her recite Rumi to the amazement of Iranian students. After our nightly study sessions, Hao Xue told me stories from her mother's Dongba religious tradition: a pair of lovers leapt off Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and did not die; not so much as a pine cone could be removed from the forest without the approval of priests; one, or maybe five thousand years ago, people saw a tiger leap across a gorge two miles above the Yangtze.
I had seen Tiger-leaping Gorge. No animal could cross it unless it flew. Perhaps the witnesses had seen a large hawk? Or perhaps the tiger had merely jumped from shelf to shelf down the rock face? I offered Hao Xue these possibilities. She disapproved of my doubt and gave me a furrowbrowed look, as momentarily sincere as a child.
I did not want to appear over rational. I told her stories from my own Catholic tradition: of the Incorruptibles and the scars that would not heal on the face of the Black Madonna of Cz¸estochowa. I had a King James Bible mailed for her. She read the New Testament in a night. I asked her whether she believed what it said.
‘It's a great work of literature,' I said. ‘The greatest.'
‘You told me you were Catholic.'
‘I admire the tradition, and the intellectual rigor of the Church.'
So I avoided the question of faith. I explained the dignity I saw in Catholicism and Orthodoxy as compared with Evangelicalism and the Pentecostals. ‘But the stories are true,' said Hao Xue. She had seen through my attempt at distraction and cared nothing for schisms and politics.
‘How do you know?'
She looked out the window. I too turned to the pines that bent in the wind that came unbroken out of Mongolia, blowing the desert into the city. ‘The sound of the words. The voice. It's beautiful. Whatever is most beautiful is true. Can't you hear it?'
I knew if anyone could hear a resonance in printed words so distantly translated it would be her. I told her of the original Greek codex, how the sayings attributed to Christ are said to reveal characteristics of the Aramaic language spoken in Palestine two millennia ago. Hao Xue smiled. And the bending pines meant we should stay inside and talk further in the warmth granted by exposed hot water pipes and jasmine tea.