Neighbors of Mine
WE fox-trotted and one-stepped away the hours from ten until two in the morning to the animated syncopation of the Nanking Community Club Jazz Orchestra. Then I read an affirmative answer in my husband’s eyes to the question I sent him over my partner’s shoulder. A few seconds later, having donned practical shoes and covered my dress with an all-enveloping coat, I slipped out of the back door to find him sauntering leisurely along the path with the forbearing manner men have of rubbing in the fact that it takes wives longer to make themselves presentable than it does husbands.
A word from our chauffeur to an armed sentinel and we turned into the Big Horse Road to glide five miles over smooth asphalt cleared of traffic and guarded at intervals of twenty yards by a double row of soldiers with drawn bayonets. Such is the custom in this country of civil wars when government officials go abroad. Tight in my hand I held the precious red card of invitation to attend service at the Confucian temple, from the gentle little old civil governor who — such is fate — was in control of affairs in Kiangsi Province fourteen years ago when my husband held a post there, and was returned to office again just a year before we came.
After the first mile our motor fell into line behind the cars of the civil and military governors and their many attendants. We rode past shuttered shops and closed compounds — without even a stray dog to remind one of the beehive this road is ordinarily — to the gates of the temple where the Government comes to pay homage to the greatness of Confucius each year before dawn on his birthday.
Within the great red gates the civil and military governors, each with one hundred attendants, took their places on red-silk cushions laid to the right and left sides of the lowest level of the oblong courtyard, which is composed of three flagged squares with double steps of carved marble leading from one to the other and finally to the temple building wherein stands the tablet to Confucius.
On the level square nearest the sacred room were hung a myriad of colored lanterns in different shapes. Here also were two great wire baskets on high standards, heaped with knots of wood.
Massed in the centre of the square were sixty kinds of ancient musical instruments — bells small as buttercups, bells of silver, bells of porcelain, and one great bell of metal the same width as the maker’s height; tiny drums and one great drum of dull red, the size of a hogshead; curious hollowed logs of highly polished old wood with one side open and set with strings of catgut. To the left of the musical instruments were sixty boys wearing long blue-cotton coats and mortarboard hats; on the right stood a withered old man, crier of the temple, famous beyond the province for the musical resonance of his voice.
Silence lay like a benediction over the temple grounds. We had all found our places. Then a voice from the lower level chanted the request for permission to pay homage to the Sage, The voice of the crier repeated the request. The drums broke into a thunderous roar that died through the bells, the stringed instruments, and the high soprano of the choir boys, who held the note long after the other music had ceased.
Three times this was repeated. Then the crier sang out the answer bidding the supplicants come.
A match was set to the baskets of wood, and flame darted skyward. The aged man with the gentle face slowly climbed three long flights of stairs, supported by officials and preceded by bearers of flaming torches of braided bamboo, to perform the first ritual of worship — t he sacrifice of an ox before the tablet altar.
The civil governor, attended by his officials in the long embroidered robes of the Sung dynasty, returned to his cushion on the lowest, level. Again he took up the cry, which was repeated as before through crier, drums, bells, stringed instruments, and choir boys, and answered by the crier. Five times in all he came up the long stairs and to t he altar table, performing the intricate ritual, ending with the sipping of a cup of tea, which has been invented by man since the death of the Sage.
The military governor, who is of Western education, remained on the lowest level throughout the service. At intervals I found myself wondering what thoughts stirred under his blue plumed hat.
When the last rite had been performed we stood with bowed heads for several moments of silence. Then silvery music played on the air, and the crier led the choir boys in a soft soprano chant in which they beat time with sixty-one long feathers from the golden pheasant.
One by one the lanterns were extinguished. The servants who had helped in any way in work about the temple went forward to receive the white slips of paper that entitled each to a share of the sacrificial meat on presentation to the temple butcher before noon. The civil governor, pale from two hours of worship, came and spoke to us and took my husband to the room where refreshments of tea and cake were laid. I, being only a woman and thus not served with men, according to custom, was free to wander about the temple, where dawn was breaking.
These are some of the teachings of the Sage which I read on the tablets of red with gold-inlaid characters: —
Better do a kindness near at home than walk a thousand miles to burn incense.
A man of noble mind seeks to perfect the good in others and not their evil.
The inferior man always embellishes his mistakes.
If on self-examination I find I am not upright, shall I not be in fear even of a beggar? If I examine myself and find that I am upright, I will go forward unafraid against thousands and tens of thousands.
To see the right and not do it is cowardice.
Sincerity is the way of God; study it wisely, inquire into it searchingly, reflect upon it carefully, discriminate about it accurately, and practise it wisely.
When Fan Che asked Confucius, ' What is humanity? ‘ the master answered, ‘To love mend When he asked, ' What is knowledge?’ the answer was, ‘To know men.’
He who desires to know men must first know God.
Why should God speak in words? The four seasons follow in their course and all things come to life.
‘ Remember well the tasks of the household — your father’s thin rice gruel, which he likes steaming hot at seven in the morning. Match Faithful Duck — she is lazy and may slight the pounding of the linen to snowy whiteness in the stream every third day. Be careful that the small children do not wander beyond the Dragon Screen. In the second drawer of the chest in my room there are fresh candles to burn before the Fox Spirit Altar.’ Mrs. Lui Pin Fan gave last directions to her daughter from her sedan chair after she had been lifted to the shoulders of the four bearers. ‘Also be thoughtful of the comfort of our Western guest.’
‘Yes, yes, sweet mother. I shall earnestly do as thou hast taught me. Let thy heart rest, and enjoy thy visit with my maternal grandparents,’ was Hsing-o’s answer.
‘Come, my wife, we must start.’ Mr. Lui leaned from his chair.
‘I lu ping on! (A road of peace!)’ chorused children and servants as the two chairs were borne away to the train that Mrs. Lui was to take from the junction three miles distant.
Hsing-o had been my instructress in the arts of her language, Mandarin, for several years, and now that my husband was absent on business at the same time that her mother was to make her annual visit to the house of her pa rents I had been invited to spend the time in the Lui Pin Fan dwelling.
At mention of a Fox Spirit Altar a dozen questions burned on my tongue. A little time before, I had received from a friend in England an exquisitely written book entitled Lady into Fox, but the mention of candles for the Fox Spirit Altar was the first intimation I had of any relations between fox spirits and Chinese households. Only by holding my mouth close shut did I resist impertinent probing into something sacred to the family of which I was a guest.
Five days of my visit passed. Shyly the children became my friends and vied with each other in keeping in the air the small red balls I had brought, by skillfully kicking them alternately with heel and toe. The servants tested the material in my garments and tried on my hats. Faithful Duck asked my age, and offered to show me how to make myself beautiful by dyeing my hair and treating it with slippery-elm juice to make it lie back smooth and dark. The wives of Hsing-o’s paternal uncle questioned me about my home and awkwardly attempted to use the knives and forks for which I sent to amuse them. The women spent hours in open wonderment that I should say I was not lonely in the dwelling where I was the only wife.
I learned nothing of the Fox Spirit Tablet Altar until the morning of the sixth day, when Hsing-o said simply, ‘Would you like to come with me to light fresh candles before the Fox Spirit Altar?’
I saw a reassuring smile pass from Mr. Lui to Hsing-o as we left the Well of Heaven Courtyard, where we had all been reading.
‘This is the Fu Sin Sut (Fox Spirit House),’ Hsing-o said, pushing open the door of a room off the Jade Fountain Courtyard. ‘My father saw that you were interested when mother spoke of the candles, but I waited until we knew you better to bring you here.’
The room was immaculately clean and bare of ornament, save a simple tablet above a tablet altar. On the table were arranged dishes of fruit, eggs, and two bouquets of flowers. Hsing-o cleared away the old wax and placed fresh candles in the holders.
‘We keep incense burning here on ordinary days — candles are only for special festivals. To-day is the Festival of Awakening Insects.’
‘Do many families have tablets to the Fox Spirit?’
‘All the homes I know except one — the household of our maternal greatuncle, Wu. He is a stubborn man and has new ideas — he does not hold with superstitions, as he says. He has had a lot of trouble, though — one son an imbecile, one dead in a storm at sea, and three wives who are barren.’
‘Do you think that he would have been saved these afflictions if he had paid homage to the Fox Spirit?’
‘I do not know.’ Hsing-o looked at me coldly. ‘ I only know that we in our family believe that the Fox Spirit often troubles householders — sometimes inhabiting the body of a woman so that she cannot bear children, sometimes causing young children to run away into the wilderness, sometimes doing little mischiefs like turning milk sour. We burn candles and give fruit and eggs, that our house may continue in peace.’
Hsing-o is my instructress in Mandarin. I am her guest. In the bitter school of lost friendships I have long since learned to be silent unless my opinion is requested.
At the Feast of the Formation of Heaven and Earth the four wives of Wong Hsu honored me with an invitation to accompany them to worship at the Temple of Illuminous Light. As arranged, I met them at. the place where the ‘Street of the Convenient Bridge for Mother’ turns into the country highway. Their eyes shone with excitement as they greeted me — the rarity of their excursions beyond the walls of their home makes of each trip an adventure.
I caught the gleam of the gold pin crossing the knot of Mai-Hng’s hair; she is the third wife and to her belongs the honor of having borne the family seven sons. Then my bearers fell into the fifth place in the procession — just back of the wives and in front of the four amahs who accompanied them.
We swung along at a smart pace over the flagged road, which tradition says was laid fifteen hundred years ago, between neatly squared-off paddyfields where the plants were in different stages of growth. Some were bent low with ripe harvest; others showed but an emerald-green mist above brown mud. In several inundated plots men followed, knee-deep in oozy slime, behind buffalo-drawn ploughs. Huge water-buffaloes pastured on the borders of grass around the paddy-fields. A brown-skinned boy lay on the back of one of these beasts, steering the herd away from spots not intended for their grazing. Two rosy-cheeked country girls worked a treadmill, with broad bare feet, drawing water from the canal. Fluffy white clouds floated in the sky. At the entrance to the temple a pair of neat black-and-white magpies were noisily coaxing their young to venture from a nest on the pink wall.
We entered the temple gates under the huge abacus, with the warning, ‘As ye live, so shall it be counted,’ in gilt characters above it. We went, without tarrying, past the stalls wherein are depicted in statues sinners receiving punishment in eighteen hells of the lower world. The wives of Hsu lead careful, virtuous lives, and have no concern with these hells.
We went directly to the building containing the image to Wen-ch’ang (God of Literature). The eldest son of the household — born of the third wife — is a student in a university in far America. The four women prayed in turn for his success. True love shone in their faces as they united in hope for him. They went through the ritual of three times knocking the head on the prayer bench and repeating a formal prayer mechanically from custom, but each one spoke of the young man, whom I have never seen, as she came back to a place near me.
We went next to the Goddess of Mercy, where the youngest wife, who awaits the birth of a child, left a little shoe at the foot of the altar. The wives prayed, each in turn, that it would be a girl.
‘We have been blessed with many sons,’the second wife explained. ‘And when they are with us a few years they go into the world of men. We do so want a baby girl — a girl is sweet, don’t you think?’
At the altars of the Gods of Wealth and of War they burned incense, that prosperity might continue in their household and peace come to the land.
The amahs prayed always after their mistresses, but went first through the courtyards, pressing a passage through the crowded places; for a busy mart of trade had sprung up to catch the eye of worshipers. Temporary booths with innumerable fancies: brown pots of spiced ginger, blue bowls of salted watermelon-seeds, ready-cut silk coats, strips of bright embroidery, artificial flowers for the hair, snuff bottles with designs painted inside, gilt images of the gods, pink imitation-porcelain washbasins, balloons for children, alarm clocks, chow dogs, little tables at which to sit and sip tea, a Punch and Judy and a peep show, a weather-beaten old man telling fortunes. Above the babble of voices rang the whine of beggars. One tugged at my garment: ‘Peace be with you, old grandmother — and could you spare a coin? ‘
We dropped coppers in her dirty hand and hastened to our waiting chairs.
‘I like the temple best on ordinary days when there is no noisy market,’ the second wife said, as we rested in the cool of the Well of Heaven Courtyard, in the women’s quarters of her home.
‘In life there must be room for all,’ the first wife chided gently.
‘I prefer the activity of feast days,’ put in the fourth wife, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘ It is nice to have a change from the ordinary quiet of our daily life.’
As twilight fell on the fifteenth of the Chrysanthemum Moon, which three years ago coincided with the second of September according to the Western calendar, we drifted down the Yangtze on a Chinese junk. Our skipper played the boat’s single sail so as to keep us to a course just off the right of midstream, safe from collision with swift-moving modern steam-craft. The orb of the sun had disappeared below the horizon, but the lingering rays of light touched widespread sails of skiffs like ours, making them wings of pure gold, warmed the nearer hills with rose, turned distant ranges to violet, and made deep pools of purple of the evergreen groves that surround the ancient temples on the naked mountain-sides.
Thus we journeyed through a superworld where the kindly light of departing day enfolded hill, plain, and river in a caress of beauty that veiled all the pain of poverty, the filth of unsanitation, and the selfishness of man’s struggle for survival.
With the coming of night, lanterns glimmered from country hamlets. We were nearing a village when we first saw dozens of lotus blossoms, each with a burning candle in its golden heart, floating serenely on the water’s surface.
‘The candles will burn the flowers, won’t they, amah?’ my little daughter asked.
‘The flowers are made of wax, like the candles — use your eyes, Small One. You know that real lotus blossoms are not red, heliotrope, orange, pale blue, and green like these. To-day is the Festival for Friendless Children. According to the religion of my people, it is the time of special prayers for babies who have no parents or for little ones who are not treated kindly by those to whom God has entrusted them. It is the custom on the eve of this festival to light candles in the hearts of flowers of wax and set them afloat as a covenant that we will be good to all children.’
‘I should like to light one, amah. Perhaps it. would help me to remember to be kind and to share my sweets with Roselynd — even though she makes me angry by always choosing my own favorite chocolate peppermint. She is only three and she has n’t any Mummy.'
Amah — always reserved, when I am present, in sharing her beliefs with my child — moved her hands nervously as she put the flame to the candle that the skipper’s wife brought her. I felt her searching eyes upon me, but I continued to gaze into the distance; and a few seconds later two blossoms with flaming hearts — symbolizing the promise of my old nurse and my child to be kind always to little children — drifted downstream.
Long after amah and my daughter had gone to bed, I watched candle-lit lotus blossoms float out in dozens from wayside towns, and sometimes singly from lone mud-dwellings.
Sung Fan Che had journeyed to the mountain of Kui-hwa-shan, in the province of Nganhwei, to the Monastery of Morning Dew, — a journey consuming six weeks, just at the height of the tea harvest when he was most needed at home, — to secure for his grandmother a garment bearing the seal of Ti-tsang-wang (God of the Underworld), to ensure her soul safe passage through the Land of Shades. This gossip was carried to me by little Martha Chun, the six-year-old daughter of a Chinese woman who was my classmate at Swarthmore.
A few days later I received an oblong red envelope containing a red card with characters brushed in gilt, bidding me to have tea with Mrs. Sung on Fifth day al. four o’clock. Mrs. Sung’s acquaintances, friends, and family always look upon an invitation from her as a summons from a ruling empress, to be accepted regardless of any previous engagement, and demanding one’s very best attire. I treasure every audience I ever had with her, and I have always felt that my favor in her sight hung on a very slim thread.
I had heard that she was dying. She sat propped erect among embroidered cushions on the same bed where in her youth she had given birth to nine sons and five daughters. From the Courtyard of Peonies outside her room came the voices of her two great-great-great-grandchildren at play. In her face and on her slender hands, beneath the rich satin cuffs of her coat, was chiseled the story of ninety-three years of vigorous life. Worn as she was from the ravages of fever, her voice vibrated with force as she bade me sit where she could see me as we talked. I began to discredit the statement of the doctors that her recovery was impossible.
‘Shang-ti’s summons has come for me,’ she said simply, and then she abruptly turned the conversation into channels of local gossip.
For an hour, perhaps, we sipped tea, ate the kernels of watermelon seeds, and talked small nothings. Then her great-granddaughter, a woman of thirty who had come from her home in Peking to be with Mrs. Sung, entered the room, bearing in her hand a Christian Bible in Chinese characters.
‘Grandmother, won’t you listen to the Eternal Truth before it is too late? You are a good woman, but you break my heart by continuing to cling to heathen ways. Won’t you let me read to you?’ she pleaded brokenly.
‘All faiths are one to the Giver of Life,’ the old woman replied, smiling gently upon her great-granddaughter. ‘Read to me, since it will give you comfort, but do not be troubled. When you have lived as long as I have, and have seen this world and the one beyond bridged as often as I have by what we call life and death, you will cease to weary yourself with many questions — you will only trust. I shall pass the happier, wrapped in the cloak that your father brought me, because it is the faith of my age to wear it.’
At dawn this morning she pushed open the gates of eternity, her earthly body wrapped in the garment bearing the seal of Ti-tsang-wang, which had been secured for her from the Monastery of Morning Dew.
I come of a line of Plain Friends, and I grew to young-womanhood in Pennsylvania, never having attended worship other than that of the Quaker meetinghouse. I married an Englishman bred to the ritual of the High Church. My husband is in government service in China, and of necessity I have had to find my friends among these my neighbors of whom I have written. I have no bond with these women save the bond of proximity — and the kinship which women have in their need of companionship with each other. Naturally my friendships are with women who are wives, mothers, homemakers; and I can truthfully say that I have come to the place where I feel no racial difference. I am puzzled at what I consider their queer ways; they, in turn, often find me odd.
As the years pass I find myself filled more and more with the certainty that the Divine Father draws men and women toward Him as naturally as the flowers are drawn toward the sun. The complications of many varied rituals no longer trouble me.
This evening, as I write, a river woman is making her evening prayer before the miniature altar on her sampan, anchored in the Pearl River, two hundred feet from my verandah. I know that she prays for the safe return of her husband, who has gone into the interior on business, because I talked with her half an hour ago — just such a prayer as I often make, except that the outer observances of her religion are different from mine.