Chinese Stories in English
A Banquet of Blades
The Renowned Blades of the World exhibition was being held on the shores of West Lake, and the lakeside teahouses were full of people who love swords and knives. My old friend, a tea aficionado famous in Hangzhou as "the Old Pot of Lion Peak," looked out at the lake in front of us and asked me, "With renowned blades gathering like clouds, why doesn't West Lake have a murderous look about it?
I didn't understand, so I leaned over and listened carefully. "China doesn't have any blades of renown these days!" he continued, sighing deeply towards the spout of the red enameled teapot from which he drank, and shaking his head rather dejectedly.
I didn't know anything about swords and knives, but men are born with a kind of curiosity about such things. I'd come to Hangzhou on business this trip and decided to take in the Renowned Blades exhibition while I was there. Those exquisitely crafted, uniquely shaped blades, famous throughout the world, had filled my dreams for two successive nights.
But I'd felt a bit ashamed in the Chinese blades exhibition area, and I think I was far from the only one to feel that way – other than hundreds of historical drawings plastered all over the walls, only a few dozen replicas of celebrated ancient blades were on display. Very few blade enthusiasts from foreign countries stopped to look. To tell the truth, the scene was totally incongruous for such a great country. The other Chinese visitors and I wanted to feast our eyes on good, renowned blades made by contemporaneous Chinese people.
"There's a party tonight at the Cliff House Tea Shop. The owner, Mr. Wang Dahe, has been a friend of mine for years. Here's the address. Go there and learn some things. If you see Wang, give him my regards. I've heard that Mr. Shen Jialun will be bringing that old blade of his tonight.”
"Really?" I trembled as I took the paper.
"There are fewer and fewer men who know and love blades these days." The Old Pot couldn't stop sighing.
Shen Jialun had kept me, the blade neophyte, awake the previous night. At the exhibition that day, with the sunlight like fire, I'd seen someone with long sideburns and wearing a Xi-Bai shirt surrounded by Chinese and foreign reporters and blade enthusiasts. The Old Pot told me it was the hugely famous Mr. Shen Jialun. He was walking along casually with a warm and gentle expression on his face. I couldn't make out his age, but he nodded his head and shuffled his feet like a hermit from ancient times.
The group moved to a nearby teahouse, and the Old Pot and I followed behind. You wouldn't believe how crowded the teahouse was. If it hadn't been for the Old Pot, I wouldn't even have had the chance to sit outside to listen. During the interview inside, questions in Japanese alternated with English as one woman translated slowly. Mr. Shen's answers carried outside through a crack in the door. They were brief and concise, philosophical in their tranquility, and spoken neither too fast nor too slow. Old Pot held the spout of his red enameled teapot up to his lips and stopped, forgetting to take a sip. I took careful note of every word Mr. Shen said:
"The Ancients used good tea to wash good blades...."
"If it's not a good blade, good tea will evaporate.”
"I've lived in the mountains for 20 years...."
"If there were no real hermits, still less would this era have come to pass.”
"A country is a man.”
"The culture of blades produces the bravest of men.”
"China no longer believes in blades.”
"Our traditions have been transformed and broken, and are now disappearing...."
"West Lake is getting softer and softer...."
"An era without swordsmen has no chivalry, and an era without chivalry has no significance.”
When I arrived at the door of the Cliff House Tea Shop at dusk, a well-favored young man wearing a traditional style gown opened the door with a smile. He bowed his head and softly asked me, "May I have your name, sir, so I can inform the owner you're here?”
"I'm a friend of the Old Pot of Lion Peak," I answered, also smiling.
He smiled and bowed his head again. "Please wait a moment." He turned and stepped gracefully away.
I stood in the entryway looking at a courtyard filled with pomegranate trees and huge statues of ancient swordsmen. Each one had a different expression, some threatening, some coolly indifferent, some frustrated and some excited. A few had scorn in their eyes while others looked upward toward the heavens and seemed to be recalling some moment of tragedy. Each of them held a long, narrow-bladed sword in a different position, hacking, cutting or stabbing. A swordsman at the front on one flank seemed about to commit hara-kiri. He had a big cloth shirt wrapped around his head, and thick, strong arms. His eyes showed the rapture of love rather than pain.
"Sir, my master was still at the teahouse a moment ago but I don't know where he's gone. Please come in.”
The young man woke me from my reverie. I followed him along a stone path deep into the woods, where an ancient-style teahouse appeared before my eyes. Beside the teahouse stood a large shrub and an even larger copper statue of an army general in a helmet and armor. Entranced by the statue's martial demeanor, I stopped to take a look.
"It's General Qi," the young man said, stopping beside me.
"Which General Qi?”
"General Qi Jiguang.”
"Oh, the hero who fought against the Jap pirates," I said, recognizing him. I still didn't completely understand, though.
"Please, sir, have a seat over here.”
As he spoke, he led me in to a seat by a table laid with a tea set. Two small china teacups on the table were still half full. The young man got another cup and filled it with dragon well tea for me, then bowed with a smile and left. The white china tea set was delicately pleasing, and as I rotated the cup I could see a picture of a little girl flying a kite on the shore of West Lake.
I remembered Old Pot's advice very clearly: When you're at the Cliff House Tea Shop, listen more and talk less. It was very quiet outside as I sat alone savoring the fine dragon well tea. I could hear the young man's footsteps on the stone path when he went out, perhaps to greet a new guest. Bamboo leaves reached in through the window and let in splotches of light from the evening sun over West Lake. A breeze came up, carrying the faint sound of some men's conversation from deeper in the woods.
I heard one of them sigh, "Miao swords have gone downhill, a national tragedy!” Another man sighed deeply, then followed with a question. "Mr. Wang, will Mr. Shen be coming tonight?"
"I hope to see him again, and to touch that old blade." I assumed the man who said that was Mr. Wang Dahe.
"If miao swords had been widely available during the Qing dynasty," Mr. Wang said, "the morale of the soldiers could certainly have been transformed."
"That makes sense!”
"I'm really happy to have good blades gathered together this evening!”
Miao swords? Are they blades developed and crafted by the Miao people? I couldn't resist stepping out of the room as I was guessing, and in the doorway I saw the young man showing a visitor in, an awe-inspiring figure with a bright, clear laugh. In his right hand he carried a shiny scabbard that looked like a black wooden pole. "My brother Wang, old man, come out here and greet your little brother! Ha, ha!"
The man stood in the middle of the stone path, looking around. He gave the stone warrior next to him a hard slap on the arm, and the young man stood off to one side laughing out loud.
There was a rustle from the woods as Mr. Wang stepped out hurriedly. He clasped his hands in front of him in greeting and roared, "My brother Tieli, long time no see!"
The two men shook hands and laughed hardily. Mr. Wang, dressed elegantly in a gray robe, pointed to a young man behind him and said to Tieli: "Mr. Hou Buzhou, the blade master from Dragon Springs."
"Brother Tieli, I've looked forward to meeting you for a long time."
"Brother Buzhou, it's my good fortune to meet you."
They each clasped their hands in front of their chests to show their regards.
Just then Wang Dahe noticed me and gave me a smile. I immediately introduced myself. He nodded in welcome and said that Old Pot would not be able to attend that evening's Banquet of Blades.
I heard Tieli ask him, "Will Mr. Shen be coming this evening?"
"There's an eighty percent chance he'll come."
"I've only touched that old sword once. I'd like to have a good go with it this evening."
"So would everyone else!"
When the three gentlemen went in and took their seats, I suddenly felt hesitant. I was a layman and feared I'd be a drag on their conversation. "Mr. Wang," I said, "the tea tastes so good in the courtyard, I think I'll go out there and enjoy it. You gentlemen continue your conversation." Mr. Wang smiled and nodded.
I'd already observed that the teahouse was a spacious building with windows in all four walls, and trees outside the windows. If they spoke in normal voices, I'd be able to hear them from outside. I went out the door and, walking clockwise around the building, I came across a boulder with these words engraved on it:
"A sword makes a man a hero."
Well stated! The author's name wasn't inscribed after the calligraphy, but a wild crane of elegant bearing was engraved below it. It suddenly came to me that this must be Mr. Wang's handwriting and drawing, since his given name, Dahe, means "Great Crane."
Tieli's voice resounded from inside the teahouse. "It'd be better not to put on this kind of exhibition. I feel lousy every time I see a famous blade from a foreign country!"
"Sheesh," Mr. Wang said, "this situation can't be changed in just a generation or two."
"Why is it like this?" Tieli seemed to be talking to himself.
"Our traditions have been broken, and there's no way our people can put their hearts into meticulous research," Hou Buzhou said. "I've heard that in the recent past, you had to show your ID and register just to buy a paring knife." He sighed.
Mr. Wang said, "Swordsmanship is a technical skill, but it's also spiritual, you know...."
Silence. Their words had revealed their frustration.
I walked forward slowly until I saw a stelae on the other side of the boulder. It was getting dark, so I went up to it quickly for a closer look. A sword was engraved on the upper part of the stelae, and below the sword it said:
"Miao swords, so called because the word means 'sprout' and the blade resembles a stalk of grain, originated more than two thousand years ago in the early years of the Western Han Dynasty [206 BCE – 24 AD]. They are of the 'head-loop' type, that is, the scabbard is worn like a pendant on a lanyard around the neck. They were one of the most renowned blades of the 'cold-weapons era' before gunpowder was invented.
"In the Three Kingdoms period [220 – 280] the miao sword technology spread to Japan. In the latter years of the Ming Dynasty [1368 – 1644], the Dwarfs [i.e., the Japanese] used these blades to cause great harm. General Qi Jiguang, showing courage in the face of deadly peril, speedily equipped his forces with these blades, racked his brains to figure out the Dwarf pirates' swordsmanship techniques, and stepped up the training for his troops. Thereafter the swordsmanship of his soldiers was vastly superior to that of the Dwarfs. They killed uncountable numbers of the enemy and resolved the Dwarf pirate problem along the coast. In 1560 General Qi Jiguang wrote "Xinxi Swordsmanship", and spread the techniques widely.
"The handle of a miao sword can be grasped with either one or two hands. In battle it can be used to attack a number of the enemy in succession with ferocious speed as the blade destroys each body and passes on. The blade turns with the swordsman with irresistible force and enormous killing power."
So Samurai swords came from China! I never would have imagined that. I shook my head repeatedly and burst out in excited laughter – the miao blades of China were really something! At that moment I hoped Mr. Shen Jialun would hurry up and get there.
It had gotten a lot darker without my realizing it. I walked a long way beside the trees and bushes without seeing anyone and without hearing anyone's voice. Then I seemed to see the young man's shadow flash through the murkiness. The lonely silence in the courtyard suddenly felt desolate and eerie.
I heard the crisp, sharp sound of several blades clashing together. I couldn't tell where the sound was coming from, so I kept moving forward quickly. I wanted to find the teahouse, but I was lost.
There was no one at all around me.
I heard the sound of clashing blades several more times.
A shadow carrying a lantern came walking toward me in the distance.
"Hey!" I hollered.
The lantern changed direction and stood motionless for a moment, then started to move toward me.
It was the young man. "I've been looking all over for you, sir," he said with a laugh. "Mr. Shen may be late, and my master and his friends are trying out their blades in the upper courtyard. Would you like to go watch?"
"I'd like to have some more tea. It's too hot out."
"Very good, sir."
I followed the young man as he lit the way with his lantern, turning several times onto small paths. As we passed a lit window, I looked in and saw two women coming to put hors d'oeuvres and drinks on a table.
"Uh, today's special guest is Mr. Shen," I said.
"Yes, that's right."
"Have you seen that old blade of his?"
The young man laughed, shaking his head in the shadowy light.
I drank three or four cups of tea as I sat alone in the tearoom, unable to get the words "miao blade" out of my mind. I noticed a bookshelf by the tea table with dozens of volumes about miao blades arranged neatly on it. Some of them were the old string-bound type. My curiosity aroused, I took down one called An Illustrated Catalog of Miao Blades.
I was stunned as soon as I turned to the title page – a venerably aged photograph lay impressively before my eyes. It was Mr. Shen Jialun! As I stared at his picture, I didn't read any arrogance or vanity in his eyes and facial expression, only calm touched with a bit of sadness.
The book contained dozens of pictures, the first of which was a miao sword. It had markings on it illustrating detailed measurements for the blade and body of the sword: This sword was about five feet, ten inches long in total, four feet eight inches for the blade and one foot two inches for the grip ; the blade was 1.7 inches wide. Miao swords were composed of three parts: a grip, a hand guard and a blade. The blade in turn was divided into three sections: the tip, the leading edge and the trailing edge. The hand guard (or blade disk) was either rounded or oval.
Leafing through the book, I saw an explanation of the techniques for holding a sword. As before, the text was accompanied by illustrations. The person holding the sword to demonstrate was Mr. Shen Jialun himself.
"Carrying the Sword: the left hand's thumb and thenar space [the area between the thumb and forefinger] are pressed against the hand guard (blade disk); the index and middle fingers sandwich the grip; the ring finger and little finger support the hand guard; the back of the blade rests on the forearm.
"One-Hand Hold: The thumb and all four fingers clasp the grip; the thenar space rests against the hand guard on the opposite side from the back of the blade.
"Two-Hand Hold: The thumb and fingers of one hand grasp the top part of the grip with the thenar space resting against the hand guard; the thumb and fingers of the other hand grasp the bottom of the grip."
After that came illustrations showing swordsmanship and footwork. A verbal description followed each picture:
"The footwork for the miao sword is mainly a chain of quick-twisting steps. In action, progressing forward requires that the rear foot bring great downward force into play, allowing the front foot to step forward as far as possible; the rear foot slides forward without leaving the ground.
"When stationary, the heels primarily remain on the ground for both agility and sturdiness; light but not floating, weighted but not weighty.
"When taking steps, both feet need to be nimble. To advance one must retreat, and to retreat one must advance. Advance and retreat become linked together in rapid, coherent movement.
"The elements of swordsmanship are: chopping, feinting, jabbing, cutting, pushing, stabbing, slicing, pricking, collapsing, hanging, cleaving, paring, striking with the sword's grip, and gyrating.
"The basic steps are: the stop-step, the false step, the archer's bow, the horse, the plug, the parallel step, the inch forward, the inch back, and the stand-alone.
"The elements of footwork are: jumping, quick-twisting (or push-pull) steps, the advance, the retreat, and the follow."
I felt like my whole body was being tugged by some mysterious force.
I slowly stretched out my arms, imagining that I was holding a miao sword.
I started to move, imitating the pictures in the book – I extended my forearm, hacking up and down, sweeping left and right, stabbing at an angle. I cut off heads and jabbed at crotches.... "Kill! Kill! Kill!" I heard myself shout.
I was really impassioned, really forceful! Once again I seemed to hear the sound of blades clanging together. I ran out to find the young man, to get him to take me to admire the men's swordsmanship, but I didn't see him.
The courtyard was lit by rows of red lanterns. The statues of swordsmen standing in the distance seemed to be covered with a layer of red paint, as though they were each martyred heroes.
I decided to go ahead on my own. The tops of the shadowy trees showed pitch-black against the dark blue sky. Some birds of the night flew away, hooting, and I was surrounded by a chilling "click-clack" sound wafting through the air. When I slowed down and tried to estimate the distance, the air felt cool against my skin. I moved along to the intermittent croaking of frogs below the stone path. The air seemed to congeal, solid enough to grasp in the hand.
The "clicking" sound in my ears suddenly disappeared. It wasn't my imagination, it was completely gone. In that moment the area around me was suffused in a strange, lonely quiet. I walked ahead, step by step, treading lightly to keep from making any noise, and followed three or four bends in the path.
All of a sudden three shadowy figures flashed by me. I was so scared I broke into a cold sweat. I held my breath and looked through a small gap between the branches. I saw a red lantern – tipped over on the grass, it looked like a wounded child. The young man sat on the ground, completely still, holding a piece of paper in his hand.
I took the paper from his cold hand and unfolded it slowly in the light from the red lantern. A few lines of calligraphy, written elegantly with a brush in a sparse hand, shone before my eyes:
"Dahe, my brother, I had wanted to go forward to reminisce about the old days, but I was helpless when the ancient blade appeared to me late at night in a dream. It said the time was at hand, and it was not willing to stay another night in this age. It was a miao sword left to us by our ancestors, exactly four hundred fifty-two years old, neither a day more nor less. This blade had killed enemies, and though it was scarred, the edge was sharp as ever.
"Our traditions have been lost, so what purpose was there for it to stay? The ancient blade had hoped I would turn it into smoke and dust in battle, but I thought it would be better to let it sleep at the bottom of the lake. The exhausted waters of West Lake will no doubt turn it to silt.
"I take my leave now, but we will meet again someday. It is our destiny."
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 204
Translated from version at http://book.ifeng.com/wenqing/detail_2014_05/08/121120_0.shtml
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