PAST, PRESENT; EAST, WEST
The mind is a mirror of the real world, from moment to moment. A collage of madness and nonsense. Tragic and hilarious. There is no escape from brutal conflicts in the human world or deaths in life, past or present, East or West. Yet we are always on the run. Restless runaways. At work. At home. In life. Run for our life. Whether we are exiled voluntarily today or involuntarily in ancient times, we cannot be far from the maddening crowd or win the ruthless battle of life.
The play “Runaway” by Nobel Laureate Gao.Xin.Jian was performed on stage at a Taipei university theater. He was commissioned to write the play to commemorate Tienanmen Massacre in China many years ago.
Three runaway strangers took refuge in a wet and rundown warehouse at the verge of death with Tienanmen Massacre right outside. A middle age man stopped to think for a while. Threw his clothes on the floor…..stood in front of a young woman. Embraced her. Kissed her. She fell down on her back, into his lap……A young man jumped over. Embraced her madly. Unstoppable. He pushed her into a puddle. The two entwined as one. She first moaned and then shrieked like an injured beast. The middle age man pulled away, watching the two desperately twitching bodies at the side in great sadness.
“Stop. No. You are crazy. I don’t…… I can’t……No.” She passed out.
I walked out on the play, gigantic tanks rolling over the young bodies of university students still vivid in my mind.
A handsome slender man with clean cut gray hair stood in front of an auditorium full of university students. The Nobel Laureate’s lecture in Taipei. They bombarded him with questions on success, conflicts and world peace or his homeland.
“What is the solution for conflicts?” A student jumped into his desperate question when awarded the invaluable opportunity.
“No dogma.” It is the key in ending conflicts and bringing about peace, he could not emphasize enough in his works and talks. Does it work in real life?
“Shouldn’t you do something about world peace as a Nobel Laureate? What about human rights in China?” The student grabbed a second for two more questions.
“We can only save ourselves. We are not saviors of the world.” He replied. “My only responsibility is ‘write’.”
“Don’t you miss your China homeland?” The student would not let go of his overdue privilege, until the lollipop microphone was taken away.
“I am a global citizen.” He always enjoyed the warmest homecoming on the small island of Taiwan, the other China not recognized by the world; Taiwanese like to think it is his second home. France considers him her Nobel Laureate, but China would not allow him in his homeland. He was naturalized as French and feels very much at home living in Paris. His works are mostly in Chinese with a few in French. A Western soul trapped in a Chinese body. Set free and bloomed in the West, bringing fame, wealth and the good life of material comfort and pleasure.
“A German collector offered seventy thousand Deutschmarks for the first painting I had ever sold; it never occurred to me that painting could be sold. Since then, I never have to worry about making a living; my paintings allow me to write as I please without worrying about publishing or any income.” He replied on a question about how he made it in his exile.
How fortunate! We certainly don’t have that kind of luck or talent even in our homeland’s presumed security. His name prescribes his destiny, Gao means high or aloof and Xin Jian means walk steady. Indeed, he walked steady on high to a good life of wealth and fame in exile. Even though his works are exposed to only a handful, he prefers cold literature. Is it luck or prudence that brought about his success? Aloof in the world? Stay away from Chinese authorities and culture? Or escape in ink?
We are the average Joe on the street. Can we really save ourselves and make it in our lifetime? How can we have no dogma when we are brainwashed in school, at work and in life? Most of us are not global citizens even though we have lived or traveled abroad. Even in our own country, we feel like a foreigner. Or like in exile. We want to run away. Escape.
People packed the street in front of Taipei’s Freedom Plaza formerly named Chung Jing or “neutral and just ” after Chiang Kai Shek’s other name. The Generalissimo fled the Communists with National Government and founded Republic of China on the small island of Taiwan. After his death, martial rule still continued until green Democratic Progressive Party took over the presidency and administration. Conflicts reign over the island ever since democracy becomes the keyword among Taiwanese.
(Freedom Plaza, left; Chang Kai Shek Memorial, middle;National Library, right)
Dressed in black, people protested the black box operation in legislation for Service Trade Pact with China. College students occupied the assembly hall of Legislature; they took over Premier’s Office Building and wreaked havoc when police carried them away. They managed to mobilize more than a hundred thousand people to support their cause even though democracy is not taking over and wrecking government buildings against the law. They called their protests Sunflower Movement and even advertised on International New York Times condemning police’s violence. Local media reported American government supporting the students’ plea for democracy and Taiwan’s President mutilated for his administration’s incompetency. In months it spread to Hong Kong as Umbrella Revolution like SARS epidemics, only international media gave it front page coverage right from the start.
Amidst cries of “Rescind Service Trade Act!” blasted through handheld loudspeakers, I escaped into National Library and buried in books to shut out the turmoil.
Sitting one chair away from me, a smelly man with face battered by storms in life and dressed in a torn, dish rag T shirt was reading the cover story of Asia Weekly, Hong Kong’s Protest on China’s intervention of their democratic election process. He took notes vigilantly as if working on a Ph.D. thesis. Across the desk, another was reading a newspaper article about a young British banker charged with murders of two Indonesian women in Hong Kong. Immersed in the one nightstand at a Hong Kong hotel described in chapter two of “One Man’s Bible”, Gao’s Nobel Prize winning novel in Chinese, I forgot about troubles of the world.
“She lies down facing up. Completely naked, white. Between the groins, brown hairs flourish and clump together …………. You just like her breast. Solid, very fleshy………..What a white German girl, with distinct hair………….She says she wants you. You say you want her too……………..You enter into her smooth flesh.”
“Obscene!” Someone looks over and shouts in my ears. I turn around, face all red.
It’s Su Shih. In a bamboo hat and wooden sandals, the old man with long gray beard jumps out of a painting of the poet (1037 to 1101) of Northern Sung Dynasty in Medieval China. The giant portrait hung down from the sixth floor balcony to main lobby on second floor of National Library in Taipei. Obscene by Chinese standards, regardless of Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist traditions, fabrics of Chinese mentality past or present. Yet Gao’s works “City of the Dead”, “Snow in June”, “Realm of Life and Death” and many others all revolve around Zen or Buddhist and Taoist themes, but never Confucian.
“Sex and food are human nature.” I defend with a Chinese cliché. “This obscene novel won the Nobel Prize, noblest achievement in modern times. The protagonist or author saves himself from grief over loss of loved ones with love in the moment”. I look him right in the eye. “Ten years after your first wife’s death, you still grieve over her. Who is better off?” My weapon is Su’s most famous love poem; I regret my fast tongue and apologize right away. You respond in grace,
“Words arise from the heart and gush to the mouth. Spit them out. You go against people. Swallow them, you go against yourself. I’d rather go against people, and spit out words; you are just like me.” You beam kindly, wiping off my embarrassment.
“Let me show you something.” I want to reciprocate your generosity.
We go to the sixth floor, Matteo Ricci Reading Room, foreign language extension of National Library’s Sinology center. The room commemorates an Italian Jesuit Sinologist who was in China during sixteenth century; he used Confucian concepts to preach Christianity.
“A twentieth century Frenchman calls you the friend from a thousand years ago. That’s how we all feel about you too.” I grin widely to show all my heart.
I fish out a little blue book from the shelf. On the cover is a very small beige fanshaped painting of yours, an orchid plant and a bird in ink. “L’ami qui venait de l’un mil”. The tiny print of “l’un et l’autre” appears oddly at the bottom. I open to the first chapter ,“L’un et l’autre” and translate into Chinese for you.
“When one, the living, says the other, the dead, is my friend, what does it mean? One does not know and has never known the other’s face, color of his eyes, tone of his voice or his odor when alive. The other spoke a tongue that one doesn’t speak. What he spoke is no longer spoken right now because it had changed with centuries and simple natural wear and tear of words, eroded like pebbles in torrents of the ages. What allows deciphering, after a thousand years, the trail of a human?”
“When one thinks of the other he has sometimes the presumption, temptation, insane boldness to say, because he is me. That’s not true, of course………. It is suffice, nevertheless, enlightenment of a unique identity……… for both to say in a single voice. I am you. That’s true.”
“You are ‘the other’ that the French author is referring to.”I told Su.
You are walking on a muddy path with a lot of stones, it is pouring. Dark skin women with ears drooping down to shoulders due to heavy ornaments and children clad in colorful ponchos of hand woven patterns stand by the doors; they laugh to tears and children roll on the ground. Dogs bark and roosters crow in unison in front of thatched roof and bamboo walled houses. You wave and laugh with them. Flora and fauna on both sides, just as colorful and amusing. Curious contraries of pines and coconuts stand together along the path with many kinds of palms and banana trees. The air is humid with the scent of aloeswood.
We are on the island at Ocean’s Corner and Heaven’s Edge in ancient Middle Kingdom, your final exile at the tropical island of Hainan or Sea South off the southern coast of mainland China. It had many names throughout history: “Drooping Ears”, the local women; “Vermillion Cliff”, domain of vermillion birds or spirit of the tropical island; “Shore of Pearls”, shoring banks of the island with romantic source of pearls and tortoise shells. What lovely names. A dreamland, except it was the dumping ground for unwanted troublesome statesmen that emperors or empress dowagers planned to have them falling off the edge of the world. Never to be seen again. Yet the invitation would be beautifully calligraphed with the imperial seal. It would be a reward through the graciousness of the Imperial Highness for their long and fruitful lives. Honorary posts on the Shore of Pearls.
Once Noble Empress Dowager’s favorite you used to wear silk embroidered gown and high boots plastered with cloth of black top and white bottom, merely one rank below Premier in Northern Sung Dynasty. Now a frail, old bag in vulgar apparel inching gingerly with a cane through the rain in a steaming jungle.
“I was on my way home from visiting an educated aborigine friend and then rain poured. A villager loaned me his only rain gear.” You try to explain your comical look by ancient Chinese standards. “See the ox dung on the path, I rely on them to find my way home by the cattle fold when half drunk half awake.” Proudly, you show me the stinky guideposts.
We go through brambles and thorns, whiplashed with every step. Once in a while we come across yellow tangerines or vermillion lichees that burst their skins to reveal succulent white jade flesh inside. Maroon, green, yellow and purple orchids hang from branches of towering trees strangled by lianas.
“Are we there yet?” The modern city dweller cannot keep up with old Chinese Huckleberry Finn in ancient wonderland.
“We can go elsewhere if this savage land is too rough for you.”
I nod with shame; the place is idyllic, but not for the physically less fit.