BALAN, SOUTHWEST CHINA
To tell the tale of my birth, I must start not from the beginning, but from the end to my beginning. I was born twice, really. First when I tore through my mother's dark passage. The second time when the old medicine man saved me.
The young woman who gave birth to me meant to end it all, not just her life, but also mine, right at the moment of my sunrise. She was in a hurry to leap off the cliff atop Mount Balan, but I outraced her swollen legs and slipped out of her womb just as she struggled toward the edge of that fateful precipice. One was left to wonder why she did it, making herself a myth, leaping off the zenith of the mountain with me still attached to her by the rope of life, the entangled umbilical cord.
I burst through before she burst off, born in the air, hovering over it all. I imagine her flying off that rugged cliff like an eagle gliding downward, free from her nest, her moorings, her sins, or her final lament, to be forgotten by the wind that fluttered her youthful hair up as she rushed down. We, the twinned and wingless angels, free-fell. But the unthinkable happened. The hand of destiny intervened. I, the wailing newborn, falling in the wake of my mother along the face of the vine-crawling cliff, was suddenly caught in the branches of a tea tree growing out of a cave's mouth.
In one slow-motion second that could have lasted a lifetime, the umbilical cord snapped. Arrested by the two springy branches, I let out a frightful screammy ode to the strenuous tea tree. My motherthe angel of my birth, my deathand I parted in the air, blood aspill, splattering the tea leaves. I bounced, suspended aloft by the branches of the blessed tree. She plunged farther, a diminishing dot of herself, then vanished into the secrecy of the valley below, never to be seen again. Why she chose to sing her death song this early in her life, I would only come to know later. For now, I was left dangling, as dangling as one could be.
But fate intervened once more. Grace descended upon me in the shape of a scrawny village medicine man, old and faithful. When he heard me crying and saw me caught on the wind-blasted cliff, he climbed down to fetch me as a monkey would. Fortunately, he was as nimble as one, for his vocation dictated that he roam the mountain ranges from peak to peak, from valley to valley, and from cave to cave in search of the rare ginseng and scarce swallows' spit only to be found in the capricious spots reached by birds.
He flung himself down, breaking through tree branches, missing a few footholds, nearly dashing himself to death. But on that given day heaven allowed only one death. Breathlessly, he got hold of me. That was the moment I call my second birth, one given me by the grace of Buddha through the hand of one who had done his virtuous deeds day and night, caring for a village full of sick and poor. I say Buddha's grace and it was rightly so, for had another man heard me and, Buddha willing, found his heart wanting to save the little bundle, whether he was a virtuous man or not, he might never have done what the medicine man did, for in the old man's heart rang a lonesome bell of childlessness. The cry I made, the cry he heard, as he would later recount, was that cry deep in the recesses of his soul. It was not just a cry of any boy, but that of his own blood.
He was inches away when a blast of wind nearly took me away from it all again. But, one arm holding to a tree root, he reached for me, catching my tiny leg just in time to swing me into the crook of his arm. To save time, to save me, he did what no one dared do before, sliding hundreds of feet down the steep cliff, scraping his knees, his heels, nearly breaking his bones, then running home to his wife of forty years before the nocturnal mountain cats could smell our bloody trail.
The goat was chased and the milk milked. His wife fed me the milk as if it came from her own breasts. Then and there they named me Shento, the mountaintop, the zenith.
"He will soar for the sky like our sacred Mount Balan," Baba said.
"And he will rise toward the heaven like the spirit of our ancient soul," Mama said. "Can we really keep him as our own?"
"Of course. He is a gift from our beloved mountain, a reward for the deeds we have rendered."
"And he looks like he belongs in my arms," Mama crooned, stroking my cheek.
So ends the tale of my birth and begins the story of my life.
The sun waned and the moon waxed and I gradually grew to be a sturdy village boy with an appetite of a child three years older. Mama fed me with an adult-sized bamboo spoon. No birdie song needed to be sung to get me to eat. I would chow down one spoonful after another until I gave out little burps. My favorite food was sweet sticky rice cake. In our poor village where the staple diet was yams, sweet rice was rare and precious. Baba walked miles to visit patients in remote villages to earn extra money for those precious rice cakes. He went to the ancient forest, chopped down the finest bamboo poles, and made a sturdy playpen big enough for me to crawl and sleep in. Baba put the pen near his desk in the infirmary. With Mama's assistance, he saw his patients, dispensed advice, and performed acupuncture with me nearby.
Against one wall in the infirmary leaned a massive medicine cabinet containing drawers of herbal medicine that Baba sold to his patients by the ounce, and some by the pinch. The drawers were labeled with arcane Chinese inscriptions that only doctors versed in the classics would recognize. I startled Baba one day at two-and-a-half years by naming and locating ten of the most common herbs. By three I could name more than half of them. When I was four I pointed out one day that Baba had pinched the wrong herb for a particular prescription. The correction, Baba said, saved the pregnant woman from having a miscarriage. Baba and Mama were convinced that I was no ordinary boy. From then on, Baba read me classic medicinal texts and schooled me to memorize acupuncture points.
One night, lying in bed before falling asleep, I overheard Baba whisper to Mama, "Our son is destined to be the most gifted doctor these mountains will ever know. Imagine how many cures he might find for diseases with his extraordinary mind."
"No!" Mama retorted.
"No? Why would you disagree with that?"
"His destiny is beyond your narrow wish," Mama said. "One day he will lead thousands and rule millions."
"Aren't you a bit too ambitious, my dear wife?" I heard Baba say.
"Not at all. Don't you see? He suffered tragedy at birth, not unlike many emperors who rose from nothing to the golden throne."
Baba was quiet for a moment. "I did read somewhere that tragedy breeds extraordinary men."
"Yes. Unfortunately those great men were never entitled to much happiness."
"Oh, I much rather he be ordinary and live happily and long enough to see us die," said Baba.
"It is too late. His destiny began when he took his first breath off that cliff. It is already great fortune for us to have him for as long as our good Buddha allows."
That night, I broke the rule and snuggled into their bed, sleeping between them till the sun rose. But no matter how often they talked about me, they never came near the subject of my birth parents. It was as if once that taboo were broken, the ghost from my past would come to haunt our nearly perfect though simple life.
I was born the son of General Ding Long and the only grandchild of two influential families in China: the Longs, a banking dynasty, and the Xias, a military powerhouse. The two prominent families were as different as night and day.
Grandfather Xia had no education. But he walked with Chairman Mao in the Long March, a pedigree that won him the lifelong post of commander in chief of China's navy, air force, and army.
Grandfather Long, an Oxford-trained Communist economist, an oxymoron in itself, was the governor of the Bank of China. His brothers had long prospered in the capitalist colony of Hong Kong as bankers. A sophisticated financier who spoke Parisian French, perfect formal Japanese, and English with an Oxford accent, Grandfather Long preferred Savile Row-tailored suits, Cuban cigars, fine wines, Beethoven, and Shakespearesome minor sins picked up in his university days at Oxford back in the thirties. He was the only Chinese national during the Cold War years to receive, on a daily basis, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and, his favorite, the brownish-looking Financial Times of the United Kingdom.
In keeping with his image as China's top banker, he was given a classic model Mercedes-Benz, a liveried chauffeur, and China's only chef trained in Western cuisine from the kitchen of Beijing Hotel. Grandfather Long was, after all, head of one of the biggest banks in the world, second only to the almighty Federal Reserve of the United States. The balance sheet said it all. The Bank of China owned the country with all its mountains, rivers, air rights in the sky, mineral rights under the ocean floor, and everything else in between.
Grandfather Xia may have been a five-star general, but he was still grubby and rough, preferring to sleep on hard solid wood and a carved wooden pillow. Soft, spongy mattresses with springs made his back ache and shoulders sore. He often wore a pair of straw sandals, his feet's best friends during his youthful days as a messenger when he had walked rocky mountains and waded rivers for the great Chairman Mao during the infancy of China's Communist Party in Yenan, of the Shaanxi Province. He had a confessed northern peasant mentality and didn't trust flushing toilets, preferring to use night pots instead. He said that fine cigarettes were an insult to real smokers such as he, whose lung cells could only be awakened by a special type of foul-smelling tobacco from a little village near the mountains of the Himalayas; all other smoke only put his lungs to sleep.
His favorite daily wear, if he had a choice, were hand-stitched baggy linen shorts. For entertainment, nothing was better than the yee-yee-yaa-yaaing Peking Opera that he hummed along with in a guttural, off-tune voice that easily scared children. But the most shocking was his daily diet of roasted bull testicles, raw oysters, pork knuckles, and fish headsthe greasy handiwork of his private chef, a distant cousin who was originally a country butcher from his village. Everything was served in big pots and plates, in great quantities and variety, country-style home cooking, each meal a little feast that could have fed a village. He would sample each dish, burp, and give the rest to his staff, guards, and their families, the way emperors did a dynasty back. He was a king in his own court, leading the biggest army in the history of the world10 million soldiers at peacetime, which could easily double or triple from the reserve with the hint of any war. His favorite joke was that if anyone were to cause any trouble, all China needed to do was have all their men pee and their enemy would be flooded in a nasty deluge.
As different as they were, Grandfather Long and Grandfather Xia formed the north and south poles of Chairman Mao's feudal-like reign over the most populated nation on earth. Grandfather Long kept Mao from going bankrupt, at least on the books. The bank reserves were higher than ever with loans aplenty. He supported every ideological movement initiated by Mao, and gave him all his financial might. Grandfather Xia kept the chairman from going out of power. And if there were any attempts on his life, Mao never heard about it because Grandfather took care of them the old-fashioned way: He made them disappear.
My two grandfathers never saw eye to eye, even at the most intimate meetings with the aging chairman. They quarreled constantly like schoolchildren. The fights were legendary and sometimes even came close to fists. Mao's only comment on their bickering was that they reminded him of his younger third wife, the notorious Madame Mao.
Like all the emperor's trusted men, my grandfathers were loved by their ultimate leader and rewarded lavishly. They had mansions in Zhong Nan Hai, the elegant prime location in the capital city of Beijing, surrounded by scenic mountains and lakes. Their residences were walled, protected from the eyes of ordinary people and the din of the congested streets. Fashionably furnished vacation homes were also built and given to them on the long, deserted sandy beaches of Beidaihe, a government resort near the China Sea. A private train with sleeping compartments and mah-jongg rooms, staffed by a culinary chef, scurried them back and forth from the city and country as they wished.
By virtue of their ranks, they were both given the same government rations, the same number of servants, the same color TV, and an equal number of phone lines. Naturally, their properties were located on the same strip of land, constructed in the same style, and decorated in like manner, down to identical furnishings. Chairman Mao's nonpreferential treatment meant the two men were always in each other's shadow, at work or in leisure, neighbors in the city and at their beach retreats. Their relationship was so uncompromising that one refused to let the other enjoy himself and followed him around to the different locations just to irritate the other with his presence.
All things nonetheless went well except for one tiny consequence that took root, grew, and blossomed in their backyard like a willow seed dropped off by a passing swan. Hua, which meant "flower," was Grandfather Xia's only daughter. A concert pianist, she was beautiful, shy, and artistic. Grandfather Long, the banker, used to call her a pretty flower growing out of a pile of manure.
Grandfather Long's only son, Ding Long, was a young general in the army. Every chance they had, ever since they were young, Hua Xia and Ding Long had snuck into the garden separating the two homes and played together. In the summer, when the families vacationed by the sea, the two kids raked clams and caught crabs together whenever their fathers weren't around.