The Singer From Noonday Rest: A True Story of Chino Today

In 1921 NORA WALN, a Quaker brought up in the Grampian Hills of Pennsylvania, became the adopted daughter of an ancient family then dwelling in their large cantonment known as the House of Exile in Hopei Province.She lived within the family walls for more than two years, an experience which she recaptured in her oft-printed took, THE HOUSE OF EXILE, and during her days there she made friends with a blind ballad singer whose art and whose fate in Red China she now depicts.

THE ATLANTIC

BY NORA WALN

THE strings from his lute are in my hand. Seven pages of neat brush writing tell me in Chinese characters of one who is my friend. His clan name is Chao. For thirty-five years I have been associated with him as one of his story writers.

The Chinese Communist Party Tribunal, called the People’s Court, has found him guilty of heresy. The letter writer with his fine furred brush has used seven pages to explain his crime. I translate it with one word. He is sentenced to death. While he still lives there is an opportunity for his pardon.

I am told in detail how to come. Because I married an Englishman, formerly a commissioner in the Chinese postal service, at Shanghai it should be easily possible for me to acquire a British passport. After that there will be no bother. All will be arranged for me to fly from London Airport to the airport at Ulan Bator — the Red Gate. “Come back to visit the land that is your second homeland, where the people sing your songs,” the letter says.

On each neatly balanced page of my letter is written this: “Mao Tse-tung ten thousand years! The sun is rising in the east. China has brought forth a Mao Tse-tung.” When I first met Mao Tse-tung we were all young. It was in Changsha. He came with his two brothers to listen to the Singer from Noonday Rest in a program in which the blind young minstrel used two songs written by Mao’s brother, Mao Tse-ming.

Since the elimination of brutal members of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Tse-tung has adopted a policy traditional in China. People convicted of a crime are no longer beheaded, shot, or strangled. They are banished to work out the death sentence. This leaves the way open for return home should the prisoner repent. The Singer from Noonday Rest has been sent to Outer Mongolia. He is to be used at hard labor until life leaves his body. He is a man of sixty-three or -four with unusual vitality. Although he is blind he has been assigned as an earth carrier to the labor corps of a master builder, toiling somewhere beyond the city of white felt tents and magnificent Lama temples, which we used to call Urga and which has been renamed Ulan Bator.

The fate of the Singer from Noonday Rest is not unique. He is one of twelve thousand Chinese men, women, and children — prisoners and volunteers — who are a gift from the Chinese Communist Party to the Mongolian Communist Party. The Singer’s wife and two of their many grandsons, the identical twins, are virtuous volunteers to the gift to Mongolia. She is in her sixties. The boys are not yet fourteen. The three are counted one. They have been generously accepted as one man, or one woman, although the labor master had doubts that they would be equal in strength to one person at the prime of life. In China, we count labor in ku-li—lifting strength. There is nothing strange to me in the labor count which makes the number sent to the Red Gate twelve thousand.

The job of the twelve thousand is to help build a mighty plant for the production of atomic energy. This plant is one of many to be raised by Communist cooperation in Asia. I will be able to read about the great plan for further Eurasian unity in my newspapers, because it is on the agenda for discussion while Mao Tse-tung is at Moscow, on his second journey abroad.

As I read my letter I have the same feeling I always have about my second homeland. I am through the looking glass in Alice’s Wonderland.

THE SINGER from Noonday Rest took his working title from the name of the walled town, Noonday Rest, beside the Grand Canal in Hopei Province where he met the girl he loved and married. By stamina and the earnest development of his talents, the blind minstrel rose to the top in his profession as an entertainer. He asked high prices and got them when he was free and successful. I well remember a practice he followed, when fame and fortune were his. At the close of each engagement, before he traveled to the next place of work, he took from his earnings what he estimated he would need until paid again. The remainder he divided in two. He sent a postal order for half to his wife for use in their household at Noonday Rest. Then he searched for needy children, maimed soldiers far from their kin, and neglected elderly people. He invested his surplus for their benefit. He told me that he did not start this practice until he had a family homestead clear of debt and the endorsement of his wife, his foster father, his sons, and his daughter to this system of showing Heaven gratitude for his success.

In his personal expenditures, the Singer from Noonday Rest usually was frugal. His daily meals were simple. He often bought dinner from the cooks who go about with their charcoal kitchens swinging from a shoulder pole. His favorite garb was loose-fitting trousers and a long gown, both of blue cotton cloth, padded in winter, unlined in summer, such as is generally worn by workers in China; and even in quite cool weather he had straw sandals on his narrow bare feet.

He never bought himself silk garments. He would put on silk for New Year and other festival occasions at home when his wife insisted and when she had fine clothes ready for all her household; and he often was required to use gorgeous garments when he performed at parties given by rich merchants, before the Communists came to power, and later when the Communist government hired him to entertain visitors to China from neighboring lands. He did work for Communists and antiCommunists alike before attempts were made to dictate a rewriting of his story material. He was sometimes told to keep the embroidered silks for his work, but he left them in the dressing rooms. He traveled light, with no change of clothes, carrying his lute cradled in his left arm. He washed his garments in wayside streams or he stayed in a bathhouse while he had his garments laundered. He was a clean-looking, tidy man.

In the era when people were unafraid of one another, his warm nature attracted friends. He loved children, flowers, and gay companions. Feeling lonely when out on a work circuit, he might hire a room in a restaurant and fill it with congenial men for a merry evening. He collected plants, cuttings, seeds—jasmine from Kansu, sweet-smelling pinks from Shensi, wild peonies from Yunnan — fetching them home to plant in the garden. One of his delights was to visit Buddhist orphanages and give the little ones a surprise party. He used to take candy and a tiny gift for each child and nun. Frequently he was accompanied by other roving entertainers who were his friends — a clown, a magician, or a man with a clever question-answering pig. They performed and he told children’s stories.

When I am with my friend, I am seldom conscious that his soft brown eyes cannot see what I see. He stands tall and he moves like a confident man. I never knew him to employ a guide or use a walking stick. Striding out sometimes causes him’ to tumble. He jokes about his clumsiness. I have noticed him stop and listen in unfamiliar places. Occasionally, he would whistle, wait for the sound’s vibration, then go on. Once he told me that getting readjusted to life after he lost his sight was not easy, but when he had done it he knew that any other blind person could do as much, by wanting to.

The Singer calls himself a wife-made man. However interesting the wonderful places he visited in his work, he always was eager to get back to his wife. They have an extraordinarily happy marriage. They delight each other when together and they trust each other when apart. She was a drummer girl traveling with a roaming theatrical company when they met. They tell that they fell in love immediately. Neither had any money saved. Both had to go on working. As often as possible their paths crossed.

They were married in a Buddhist temple at Sian-fu, then had to part. They had a son, and the minstrel did not meet the child until it could walk. They had a second son. The babies traveled with their working mother. Both husband and wife have generous yet thrifty natures. She managed their family affairs, and when they could afford for her to settle, the wanderers chose to have their home in Noonday Rest.

IN THE period of their prosperity they bought a charming homestead. I often stayed in this home, working for the blind minstrel at making ballads. I have not seen the place since it was taken as a People’s Government Re-education Center for farmers. When I knew it, the homestead was high-walled. The only entrance from the Big Horse Road, which runs south to north through the town, was a wide door of solid planks, painted bright red, which was for centuries the color for joy in China. This entrance was called the Toand-from-the-World door. Within the door I found modest comfort and much happiness.

Across the entrance, inside the homestead’s outer court, there was a gay dragon screen of porcelain-faced brick in bright green and blue and gold, put there to give privacy to the family when the To-and-from-the-World door was open. They owned two courtyards, each with four small houses. The houses faced in on the courtyards, which were paved in part and had insets of trees, shrubs, and flowers. In each court a lovely stone lantern was lit with a fat candle, when there was no moonlight. A round opening called a moon gate connected the courts, and a second moon gate opened into a plot at the rear where vegetables and fruit were grown. Chickens were kept in a wired yard; fish were in a small pond and ducks swam on its waters. Beside the pond, the Singer built an arbor, planted roses to climb over it, then made a table and benches. The family often sat there in pleasant weather.

As soon as they had a home large enough to share, the Singer and his wife began taking in those they loved. When last I stayed at Noonday Rest, they had in their household the Singer’s foster father, a retired actor; their two married sons and their families; their married daughter and hers; three aged minstrels who have no known kin; and a boy named Yen who lost his family and home in a bombing at Chungking. Amid the rubble, Yen had latched on to the minstrel, who bought the little boy a wash and a meal, and left him at a restaurant table. Next morning he woke to find Yen asleep, curled tip beside his lute, on a Yangtse River steamer which was homeward bound. The vessel had come many miles downriver on the swift current during the night. What could the Singer do other than bring Yen home with him?

Both sons and the son-in-law were roving minstrels. They sent money home by postal orders. The foster father gave lessons. He had his school in a corner of the Temple of the Town Gods, where there is a fine wall against which learning actors can resound their words. The three aged minstrels gave lessons in storytelling to music. They had their school in the west house of the outer court.

The Singer and his wife have many darling grandchildren, growing up talented and lively, all musical. The household was a place where actors, minstrels, and we who wrote for the Singer and his sons were welcomed as beloved kin. Alas, Yen is tone-deaf. It is difficult to comprehend, yet true, that Yen cannot recognize the plainest melody, or tell a story in key with an instrument. But he is a born genius with the writing brush. He now has a job in Peking, and it was he who wrote the seven-page letter to me.

The magic of Yen’s writing brush is not the only magic which was in this homestead. The general sitting room was in the south-facing house of the inner court. This room had a curtained-off recess with a shelf where a small wooden bowl was kept. The bowl was blessed by a Taoist priest and given to the Singer’s wife. It was called the magic bowl, and was named for the wooden bowl in a popular children’s story of a bowl which was never full and never empty unless greedy hands destroyed its power.

Near the bowl, on the same shelf, a pot of tea was kept warm in a padded tea basket, with cups for the thirsty. The recess was curtained so that a person going in for a casual cup of tea could take money out of the magic bowl, or put money in, without the embarrassment of being seen. Many visiting actors, minstrels, and other roving entertainers used the bowl. Theirs is a profession in which luck is not steady. I saw its contents go up and go down. I never knew this little wooden bowl to be either full or empty.

WHEN first I became acquainted with the Singer from Noonday Rest it was winter, the winter of 1922. He was hired for two months in the Lin homestead, where I am an adopted daughter, to lessen the tedium of our work with his music and stories. There was much weaving to be done. The family had planted cotton seed from Egypt in fields previously used for other crops. The weather favored its growth, and civil war hampered its transport to Tientsin for sale.

Local merchants viewed our long-staple cotton with doubt. They would buy it only if woven into good cloth and dyed with native indigo. Lin men wanted to make a profit. The family council met. Lin women and girls, assisted by neighbors, would undertake the job on condition that a minstrel be provided. Uncle Keng-lin recommended the young Singer recently settled at Noonday Rest, whose name had been given him by a friend.

A messenger was sent to bring the minstrel and his wife, who would weave, and two small sons. As was then the custom in big families, the newcomers were settled in the Lin homestead; their children cared for, when the parents were busy, in the garden of children with ours. The Singer’s wife was an excellent worker. Making no mention that she was a musician, she spun and wove and helped steep indigo plants for the dye. The minstrel was in the great hall of family gathering, which had been prepared for our workroom.

We were thirty or forty that morning. Several women and girls queried the minstrel on his story material. It was agreed that he open with a fox legend or two. These are allegories in which women change into foxes and foxes change into beautiful women, often able to help men by magic. His voice carried amid the noises of our labor, without irritating loudness; but his yuech’in — shaped like a half apple — was poor. The four strings all screeched.

Several women slipped off and complained to our family elders. Uncle Keng-lin came and listened. He beckoned to me, and he sent me to his study to bring a special four-stringed p’i-p’a lute from his collection of fine musical instruments. Uncle spent his years from twenty to sixty in trade at Tientsin, dealing successfully in jute, cotton, pig bristles, and such commodities. After he returned home with a fortune, he made minstrels his life interest. I returned to our workplace with the lute. My uncle took the worthless guitar from the Singer and put into the blind man’s hands the pear-shaped p’i-p’a.

“I am lending you a partner,” he said.

Surprise flushed the minstrel’s sensitive face. He was given a while to examine the beautiful instrument with fingers and ears, then Uncle Keng-lin asked him to play. Nobody was working. We waited tensely. He started with chords, six notes to the octave, tribal music from the hills of Hunan. His fingers were strong on the rose-red strings, yet he plucked them gently. Harmony was in every note. My sister Mai-da smiled at Uncle Keng-lin and started her spinning of thread. In a few minutes the minstrel played seriously, his scale the ancient five notes with half notes and quarter notes interposed, his nostrils flaring to the music’s keening. He had felt our displeasure, and now his fear of us left him. We were perhaps cruel, yet we had reason. Thread breaks in the making when the minstrel is not capable.

He gave us Flowing Water without words, and High Mountain. Our minds knew peace. We in the great hall were industriously silent except for the steady whir of our spinning. He sang Wild Geese Alighting on a Sandy Beach, a charming folk song. My hands were moving to the faster rhythm, and I saw that others were working fast. Without asking for tea to rest his throat, he did a pien-wen narrative, in prose and verse, in the form called tai-yen-t’i, which means that he impersonated two characters. It was a dialogue that set us laughing.

Our family matriarch came to the door and looked in on us. She joined our laughter, and waited. At the story’s end, she called a halt to our toil by making a sharp noise with her clappers, the pan-ts, tied with gold cord. It was time for a refreshment break. Servants brought hot tea and tiny pastries, warm from the stove, filled with savory or sweet, steamed or deep-fried; and as they served us they inspected our work and gave advice. The Singer had three cups of tea, but refused to cat and began to strum the theme music to a fox legend.

“Content?” asked Uncle Keng-lin, turning slowly, searching us all, women and girls over the big room. “Satisfied with my minstrel?”

We were. Never did any of us, ever again, find fault with the Singer from Noonday Rest. His partner, the lute, suited him. Our helpers from neighboring homes spread the news about our entertainer, who could amuse and charm with his music and stories. Every day the number of our helpers grew. At the start of the weaving we were nearly a hundred women and girls.

In North China, the winter of 1922 was very cold. We had below-zero weather and hard driving winds. Our high-ceilinged workplace had no heat other than braziers can give. Our town did not have electricity then, nor does it yet. Our power had to come from ourselves. We were dependent upon the sun and moon for light. Candles would have been dangerous amid all that cotton. Plain weaving is monotonous. But it was a time to recall with pleasure. We were lively and gay. Without the Singer we could not have worked so cheerfully.

Dyeing and drying was begun as soon as cloth piled up. As fast as material was finished, the local merchants started coming in to view the blue cloth, feel it, measure, and fold. Lin men were well satisfied with the prices paid for the good long-staple cotton. And the Singer from Noonday Rest did business. The merchants listened to him tell his stories and the town committee hired him for the Spring Plowing Festival.

Near the end of the cloth-making, Uncle Kenglin told Mai and me to take, unnoticed, enough blue material to make a traveling dress for the lute. In the safety of Uncle’s room we cut and sewed the stolen stuff by candlelight. We finished as much of it as we could without a fitting. Then, the last day, the minstrel was asked to give the lute back to its owner that evening. Through the night Mai and I stitched. Uncle Keng-lin helped with the shaping. We lined the cover so that it would give double protection. It fitted neatly, snug but not too tight for easy putting on and off.

The final lot of material was ready for delivery to the buyers on the contracted date, the season called Ching Che — “the awakening of insects” — when people make their spring clothes. The morning after we were done, the minstrel was paid his promised fee. Then he and his family, dressed in their travel clothes, went to the ancestral altar and gave thanks for the comforts of the house. Next they went to the three eastern courtyards, where the family elders were gathered, and kowtowed. They were requested to stand up quickly, reminded that these were new times; and they were given ample blue cloth to make new clothes for the Singer’s family. Then they came to the outer court, where we lesser ones were waiting to bid them farewell.

Mai made a dramatic stir with the littlest child. She held him close in her arms while he cried to stay and she cried to keep him. We hugged and cried and laughed and begged the Singer and his wife to put off leaving until tomorrow. In two months they had become our friends, in a relationship that has tied our hearts closer and closer with every passing year.

The great double doors of our homestead had been opened wide for their departure. Rickshaw runners were ready. Down through the town, out beyond the Red Bird gate, at the Grand Canal wharf, the Lin-owned boat carrying freight and passengers could not start until the Singer from Noonday Rest and his family were aboard. That was our elders’ order to the captain.

Uncle Keng-lin came. He had the lute in its travel cover, looking chic. “Time to go,” said he firmly, putting the enchanting lute into the cradle of the Singer’s left arm. “I am lending you a lifetime partner.”

THE SINGER from Noonday Rest was twentyeight or -nine when he helped us make good cloth, dyed a clear blue. In the years since then he has been in and out of the Lin homestead, hired many times to hasten work or help celebrate great occasions; and he had many other patrons in our town. He usually could be hired in the second moon of the moon calendar year. Wherever he traveled he tried to get home to his family at Noonday Rest for the New Year month; and as that month advanced, Uncle Keng-lin would send a messenger to ask the Singer to come to us. Before we were married, my sister Mai and I, under Uncle Keng-lin’s guidance, worked for the Singer from Noonday Rest as craftswomen. Our job was to fit stories he wished to tell to the lute’s music, breaking the narratives he gave us into verse and prose, interposed with useful tunes.

We did not need to be with the Singer to be his craftworkers, but we found it helpful when we could be. He used professional letter writers to send us his story and instructions. In later years, when he was at home, Yen wrote the letters. Mai and I were lucky in that after our marriages we lived close together for ten years, at Nanking, Canton, and Tientsin; but even while I lived fifteen years in France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and England, the Singer from Noonday Rest employed me; and when I returned to Asia in 1947, I felt I had never been away.

Because I worked for him, I know where the Singer traveled. He set himself the task, after he had been staying with us in our homes at Nanking and at Canton, of visiting every one of the eighteen provinces of China, so that he could become acquainted with his land and its people. It was 1928 when he started this task. It took him twenty-three years. He revisited his birthplace and he traveled over again to places where he had been as a boy actor.

He carried no passport other than the charm of his lute’s music, the enchantment of his stories. He sold entertainment to war lords and civil governors, to merchants and to villagers; he sang in motion picture theaters and once performed standing on the wing of a fallen airplane, when his audience was a crowd of gathered farmers, their wives, and children. He was welcomed by antiCommunists and Communists, and he met no hindrances of importance during the years when parts of China were under Japanese occupation. He felt no shame when he performed, for pay, to please Japanese who spoke Chinese. By long tradition a minstrel is not a bearer of information a spy might carry. And roving entertainers look on all men as brothers.

Everywhere he went he sold his stories and he collected experiences and folk songs. He went by foot over the narrow paved ways along which the bulk of Chinese merchandise is transported by pack carriers, called ku-li. He used boats on rivers and canals, paying his fare with songs. He traveled by railway, in passenger cars and up front with engineers. He even got free lifts in airplanes.

He had an opportunity to travel with Chinese merchandise sent to Katmandu in Nepal and return with the goods for which it was exchanged. He took the offer. As a joke, the Tientsin merchant who did the business labeled the Singer exactly the same as a package. He went by the ancient pack road into Tibet, across the wonderful land where mountains touch the sky; on and on in the Himalayas, down into Nepal.

The merchant to whom he was sent in Katmandu took the Singer to places of scenic and historic interest. He learned through this man’s glowing words how the shops, the pagodas, the temples, the palaces, and the dwellings of ordinary people look. He met the minstrels of Nepal. They could not converse with words. They could talk through their musical instruments. He gathered fascinating music.

When he returned to China, he gave his story writers much work. The tales of his trip became instantly popular. He always began with the strange, beautiful, entrancing music, then he would say, “Wherever a person travels, friends await his coming. In every land live the friendly, the kind, the good.”

His lute responded to the music of Nepal as if made for it. The Singer kept his partner near him at home and abroad, day and night. He never stood it in a draft, let it burn in the hot sun, or failed to dry it carefully after traveling through rain. If the weather was extremely cold, he warmed the lute before he played. The wonderful beauty of the pear-shaped instrument was dramatic when he took off the plain cover of blue cotton cloth. Audiences used to lean forward astonished, and draw in their breath, “Ah-yi.”

Often I have seen his listeners sit as in a trance when he ended, and come to motion as from far away. He never felt himself successful with a tale unless he made his hearers live it. My sister Mai and I used to be commissioned to make for him blithe tunes to play at the moment of a hero’s right decision; gradually dwindling fragments of music for a fallen soldier’s soul to be carried to heaven on; and bitonal pieces in remotely related keys for his story characters who had a dual nature.

Sometimes he used music to frame his story, more often in the story to break it, giving his voice a rest. He always told or sent us the straightforward narrative he wished to use. for instance, in his Songs of the Long March, he sent to me at Castle Veseli in Czechoslovakia the facts about the crossing of the burning bridge, and I made it into the ballad Brave Youth, with lute music.

Every minstrel has to cultivate his powers of suggestion so as to present fiction as real; ghosts must walk naturally among ordinary people, good and evil spirits be believable, the marvelous and fantastic seem a true happening during the telling. The Singer from Noonday Rest used fewer and fewer gestures as he perfected his art. He would look up and speak, and there was a castle, a river, a star in the sky. His timing amazed me. It must be intuitive. He could not see his audiences, but he kept pace with their expectancy. He improvised during each story’s telling, lengthened or shortened, built to a climax, according to the “feel” of his listeners.

For the Singer from Noonday Rest, heroes and heroines must be men and women just and honorable and kind. Children must learn good from evil; therefore a storyteller teaches morals. He used many romantic love stories. In his treasury are stories of love between men and women, child and adult, friend and friend. He defined love to us carefully. Love enjoys, delights, enriches, is warm and faithful. That which tries to dominate, to change, to improve, or is jealous is not love. He sang again and again the famous, popular love stories which brighten the pages of Chinese history.

The Singer is a Taoist. In his storytelling violence never conquers the soul. Untruth, however powerful, does not destroy truth. He used stories from Chinese history in which emperors have boiled people in vats of oil, buried them alive, banished them to toil at digging canals or building the Great Wall until dead; through these tales he taught that the truth these people died to defend lives on. Often he employed us, for pay, to make these stories farcical with added music and ballads.

“Life for those who gather to hear an entertainer is grim enough,” he said. “I prefer to induce laughter rather than tears. There is no harm in ribald jokes which give healthy belly-shaking laughter, but the best seller, in China, is huei hsin ti wei hsiao — the humor which evokes the smile of meeting hearts.”

Fame and fortune will be his again if the minstrel will change his mind about the road he has now chosen to follow. His household are scattered, some gone here, some there. If he repents he can have a fine home in Peking, or Sian-fu; comfort for his family, honor and acclaim. If he wants to do so, he can return to China and be a star on Peking radio, or a professor at the school for training minstrels, which the People’s Government opened last year. As it is, he is forbidden to sing or play.

I can never forget the Singer from Noonday Rest.