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These things I may tell you, My Sister. I could not speak thus even to one of my own people, for she could not understand the far countries where my husband lived for twelve years. Neither could I talk freely to one of the alien women who do not know my people and the manner of life we have had since the time of the ancient empire. But you? You have lived among us all your years. Although you belong to those other lands where my husband studied his western books, you will understand. I speak the truth. I have named you My Sister. I will tell you everything.
You know that for five hundred years my revered ancestors have lived in this age-old city of the Middle Kingdom. Not one of the august ones was modern; nor did he have a desire to change himself. They all lived in quietness and dignity, confident of their rectitude. Thus did my parents rear me in all the honored traditions. I never dreamed I could wish to be different. Without thinking on the matter it seemed to me that as I was, so were all those who were really people. If I heard faintly, as from the distance outside the courtyard walls, of women not like myself, women who came and went freely like men, I did not consider them. I went, as I was taught, in the approved ways of my ancestors. Nothing from the outside ever touched me. I desired nothing. But now the day has come when I watch eagerly these strange creatures—these modern women—seeking how I may become like them. Not, My Sister, for my own sake, but for my husband's.
He does not find me fair! It is because he has crossed the Four Seas to the other and outer countries, and he has learned in those remote places to love new things and new ways.
My mother is a wise woman. When at the age of ten I ceased to be a child and became a maiden, she said to me these words,
"A woman before men should maintain a flowerlike silence and should withdraw herself at the earliest moment that is possible without confusion."
I remembered what she said, therefore, when I stood before my husband. I bowed my head and placed my two hands before me. I answered him nothing when he spoke to me. But oh, I fear he finds my silence dull!
When I examine my mind for something to interest him, it is suddenly as barren as rice-fields after the harvest. When I am alone at my embroidery, I think of many delicately beautiful things to say to him. I will tell him how I love him. Not, you mind, in the brazen words copied from the rapacious West. But in hidden words like these,
"My lord, did you mark this day how the dawn began? It was as if the dull earth leaped to meet the sun. Darkness. Then a mighty lift of light like a burst of music! My dear lord, I am thy dull earth, waiting."
Or this, when he sails upon the Lotus Lake in the evening,
"What if the pale wan waters should never feel how the moon draws them? What if the wave should never again be touched to life by its light? Oh, my lord, guard thyself, and return to me safely, lest I be that pale wan thing without thee!"
But when he comes in, wearing the strange foreign dress, I cannot speak these things. Can it be that I am married to a foreigner? His words are few and carelessly spoken, and his eyes slide too hastily over me, even though I wear my peach-colored satin and have pearls in my freshly bound hair.
This is my sorrow. I have been married a bare month, and I am not beautiful in his eyes.
Three days have I pondered now, My Sister. I must use cunning and seek for a way to turn my husband's eyes to me. Do I not come of many generations of women who found favor in the eyes of their lords? There have been none lacking in beauty for a hundred years save only one, and that one Kwei-mei in the age of Sung, who was pitted with smallpox at the age of three years. Yet it is written that even she had eyes like black jewels and a voice which shook men's hearts like wind in the bamboos in spring. Her husband held her so dear that though he had six concubines suitable to his wealth and rank, none of them did he love so well as he loved her. And my ancestress, Yang Kwei-fei—she who bore upon her wrist a white bird—held the very empire in the scented palms of her hands, since the emperor, the Son of Heaven, was mad with her beauty. I, therefore, the least of these honorable ones, must yet have their blood in my blood, and their bones are my bones.
I have examined myself in my bronze mirror. It is nothing for my sake but only for his when I tell you I see that there are others less fair than I. I see that my eyes are clearly defined, the white from the black; I see that my ears are small and delicately pressed to my head, so that the rings of jade and gold cling close; I see that my mouth is small also, and makes the approved curve in the oval of my face. I wish only that I were not so pale, and that the line of my brows were carried an eighth of an inch further toward the temples. I correct my paleness with a touch of rose upon my palms rubbed against my cheeks. A brush dipped in black perfects my brows.
I am fair enough then, and prepared for him. But the instant his eyes fall on me I perceive that he observes nothing, neither lips nor brows. His thoughts are wandering over the earth, over the sea, everywhere except where I stand waiting for him!
When the geomancer had set the day for my marriage, when the red lacquered boxes were packed to the brim, when scarlet flowered satin quilts were heaped high on the tables, and the wedding cakes piled like pagodas, my mother bade me come to her room. I washed my hands and smoothed my hair freshly and entered her apartments. She had seated herself in her black carved chair and was sipping her tea. Her long, silver-bound bamboo pipe leaned against the wall beside her. I stood before her with my head drooping, not presuming to meet her eyes. Nevertheless I felt her keen gaze covering my face, my body, my feet. Its sharp warmth penetrated to my very heart through the silence. At last she bade me sit. She toyed with watermelon seeds from a dish on the table beside her, her face quiet in its accustomed expression of inscrutable sadness. My mother was wise.
"Kwei-lan, my daughter," she said, "you are about to marry the man to whom you were betrothed before you were born. Your father and his were brother-friends. They swore to unite themselves through their children. Your betrothed was then six years of age. You were born within the circle of that year. Thus you were destined. You have been reared for this end.
"Through these seventeen years of your life I have had this hour of your marriage in mind. In everything I have taught you I have considered two persons, the mother of your husband and your husband. For her sake I have taught you how to prepare and to present tea to an elder; how to stand in an elder's presence; how to listen in silence while an elder speaks whether in praise or blame; in all things I have taught you to submit yourself as a flower submits to sun and rain alike.
"For your husband I have taught you how to decorate your person, how to speak to him with eyes and expression but without words, how to—but these things you will understand when the hour comes and you are alone with him.
"Therefore, you are well versed in all the duties of a gentlewoman. The preparation of sweetmeats and delicate foods you understand, so that you may tempt your husband's appetite and set his thoughts upon your value. Never cease to beguile him with your ingenuity in different dishes.
"The manners and etiquette of aristocratic life—how to enter and leave the presence of your superiors, how to speak to your inferiors, how to enter your sedan, how to greet his mother in the presence of others—these things you know. The behavior of a hostess, the subtlety of smiles, the art of hair decoration with jewels and flowers, the painting of your lips and fingernails, the use of scent upon your person, the cunning of shoes upon your little feet—ah, me, those feet of yours and all the tears they have cost! But I know of none so small in your generation. My own were scarcely more tiny at your age. I only hope that the family of Li have paid heed to my messages and have bound as closely the feet of their daughter, the betrothed of your brother, my son. But I am fearful of it because I hear she is learned in the Four Books, and learning has never accompanied beauty in women. I must send word to the go-between again regarding the matter.
"As for you, my child, if my daughter-in-law equals you, I shall not complain over-much. You have been taught to play that ancient harp whose strings have been swept by generations of our women for the delight of their lords. Your fingers are skillful, and your nails are long. You have even been taught the most famous verses of the old poets, and you can sing them sweetly to your harp. I cannot see how even your mother-in-law will find anything lacking in my work. Unless you should bear no son! But I will go to the temple and present the goddess with a gift, should you pass the first year without conception."
My blood rose to my face. I cannot remember when I did not know of birth and motherhood. The desire for sons in a household like ours, where my father had three concubines whose sole interest was in the conceiving and bearing of children, was too ordinary to contain any mystery. Yet the thought of this for myself—but my mother did not even see my hot cheeks. She sat absorbed in meditation and fell to toying again with the watermelon seeds.
"There is only one thing," she said finally, "he has been abroad to foreign lands. He has even studied foreign medicines. I do not know—but enough! Time reveals all. You are dismissed."CHAPTER 2
I could not remember when my mother had spoken so many words, My Sister. Indeed, she seldom spoke, except to correct or to command. This was right, for no one else in our women's apartments was equal to her, the First Lady, in position or native ability. You have seen my mother, My Sister? She is very thin, you remember, and her face seems carved from ivory for its pallor and its calm. I have heard it said that in her youth before she was wed, she possessed the great beauty of moth eyebrows and lips of the delicacy of the coral-colored buds of the quince tree. Even yet her face, fleshless though it is, preserves the clear oval of the paintings of the ancient women. As for her eyes, the Fourth Lady has a clever tongue, and she said of them once,
"The First Lady's eyes are sad jewels, black pearls, dying from over-much knowledge of sorrow."
Ah, my mother!
There was none like her in my childhood. She understood many things and moved with a habitual, quiet dignity which kept the concubines and their children all fearful in her presence. But the servants disliked while they admired her. I used to hear them grumbling because they could not so much as steal the fragments in the kitchen without her discerning the matter. Yet she never reproved them loudly as the concubines did when they were angry. When my mother saw that which did not please her, few words dropped from her lips; but those words were pointed with scorn, and they fell upon the guilty one like sharp ice upon the flesh.
To my brother and to me she was kind, but still formal and undemonstrative, as indeed was proper for one in her position in the family. Of her six children, four were taken in early childhood by the cruelty of the gods, and she therefore valued her only son, my brother. As long as she had given my father one living son he could have no legal ground for complaint against her.
She was, moreover, secretly very proud of her son for his own sake. You have seen my brother? He is like my mother, thin of body, delicate-boned, tall and straight as a young bamboo tree. As little children we were ever together, and he it was who first taught me to brush the ink over the characters outlined in my primer. But he was a boy and I only a girl, and when he was nine and I six years of age, he was taken out of the women's apartments into those where my father lived. We seldom met then, for as he grew older he considered it shameful to visit among the women; and moreover, my mother did not encourage it.
I, of course, was never allowed in the courts where the men lived. When first they separated my brother from the women I crept once in the dusk of the evening to the round moon-gate that opened into the men's apartments; and leaning against the wall opposite it, I peered into the courts beyond, hoping to see my brother perhaps in the garden. But I saw only men-servants, hurrying to and fro with bowls of steaming food. When they opened the doors into my father's halls, shouts of laughter streamed out, and mingled with it was the thin high singing of a woman's voice. When the heavy doors shut there was only silence over the garden.
I stood for a long time listening for the laughter of the feasters, wondering wistfully if my brother were then in the midst of the gayety, when suddenly I felt my arm pulled sharply. It was Wang Da Ma, my mother's chief servant, and she cried,
"Now will I tell your mother if I see this again! Who has ever seen before such an immodest maid to go peeping at the men!"
I dared not speak more than a whispered excuse for shame.
"I sought my brother only."
But she answered firmly,
"Your brother now is also a man."
Therefore I seldom saw him again.
But I heard that he loved study and early became proficient in the Four Books and the Five Classics, so that my father at last heeded his beseeching and allowed him to go to a foreign school in Peking. At the time of my marriage he was studying in the National University in Peking, and in his letters home he constantly asked to be allowed to go to America. At first my parents would not hear to such a thing, nor did my mother ever agree to it. But my father disliked trouble, and I could see that in the end my brother might prevail by importuning.
In the two vacations he spent at home before I went away, he spoke much of a book he called "science." My mother felt this to be unfortunate, for she could see no use for this western knowledge in the life of a Chinese gentleman. The last time he came home he wore the clothes of a foreigner, and my mother was much displeased. When he came into the room, somber and foreign-looking, my mother struck her stick on the floor and cried,
"What is this? What is this? Do not dare to present yourself to me in such an absurd costume!"
He was obliged therefore to put on his own clothes, although he was angry and delayed for two days until my father laughed at him and commanded him. My mother was right. In Chinese clothes my brother appeared stately and a scholar. With his legs exposed in the foreign dress, he resembled nothing seen or heard of in our family.
But even on those two visits he seldom talked with me. I know nothing of the books he loved, for I could not spare the time from the many things necessary to fit me for marriage to pursue further the classics.
Of his own marriage of course we never spoke. It would not have been fitting between a young man and woman. Only I knew through eavesdropping servants that he was rebellious against it and would not marry, although my mother had tried three times to set the wedding date. Each time he had persuaded my father to postpone the matter until he had had further study. And I knew of course that he was betrothed to the second daughter of the house of Li, a family well established in the city in wealth and position. Three generations previous to ours the head of the house of Li and the head of our house ruled as governors in adjoining counties in the same province.
Of course we had not seen his betrothed. The affair had been arranged by my father before my brother was a year old. Therefore it would not have been proper for our families to have any coming and going before my brother's marriage took place. Indeed, nothing was even spoken concerning the betrothed except once when I heard Wang Da Ma gossiping to the other servants thus,
"It is a pity that the daughter of Li is three years older than our young lord. A husband should be superior even in age. But the family is old and rich and—" Then she saw me and fell silent to her work.
I could not understand why my brother refused to marry. The first concubine laughed when she heard of it and cried,
"In Peking it must be he has found a beautiful Manchu!"
But I did not believe my brother loved anything except his books.
I grew up therefore alone in the courtyards of the women.
Excerpted from East Wind: West Wind by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1930 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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