Liu Heng is one of contemporary China's most acclaimed and masterful writers, and with Green River Daydreams he has written "of the struggle between Western ideas and the old political system, all of it set against a supplely portrayed mountain and river landscape" (NPR's All Things Considered). Ears, the slave of a wealthy landowning family in the early twentieth century, bears witness to its spectacular corruption and decline. The family's prodigal son, Guanghan, returns from four years of study in Europe with a French engineer friend and a dream of starting a collectively run match factory, but has little interest in the bride his family has arranged for him. Her beauty and good heart have not gone unnoticed by Ears, however nor has her growing closeness to the Frenchman. Meanwhile, clashes between the Qing imperialists and the resistance are quickly becoming bloody and Guanghan's iconoclastic ideas do not remain free of suspicion for long. "[B]oth a coming-of-age story and a chronicle of the clash between forbidden love and duty." Publishers Weekly "A richly detailed realistic saga" Kirkus Reviews "A masterly blending of character and story in a compelling historical setting.... Highly recommended." Tom Cooper, Library Journal (starred review)
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There's so much to tell you that I'll just start at the beginning. Humans are strange creatures. They can't remember things right in front of their eyes and can't forget incidents that have already been squashed beneath their heels. Yes, humans are strange creatures, all of them! Don't ask me what I ate at my last meal, I couldn't tell you. If you must ask something, make it interesting. If you won't, I've got nothing to say. Listen up if you don't believe me. Now where do we begin, you little shit? I've got a dirty mouth. That doesn't bother you, does it? I could tell right off you're a good boy.
That day, I can't say what year it was, maybe 1908, but anyway, I went to the Willow Township pier to wait for the mail delivery, and since I was early, I ran over to Lucky Teahouse for a bowl of Emerald Conch tea. I took it over to a seat by the window to observe the branch of the river. Nothing but small boats coming and going, with their pigs and barrels of pickled vegetables and cormorants, and, of course, women. I was sixteen at the time, and what I liked to watch most were fights, the women's faces and tits, and, of course, their asses. What's that scowl for? I suppose you never look at stuff like that. Now you're talking. Like I said, you're a good boy. Know what folks who don't like looking at women's asses like to look at? I've got a dirty mouth, but I have to say it. They like to look at their own shit in outdoor latrines! They're nothing but maggots, so let 'em look. You and me, we're humans, and we look at interesting things. What do you say, you little bastard, am I right?
A woman was standing in a boat wiggling her ass as she worked the pole, and I started dreaming, even though it was broad daylight. It was a shameful dream. I was clinging to her nice, plump ass and swaying right along with her, until we fused into a single person. Go ahead, laugh, I don't care. I had the same dream yesterday, but this time, instead of a woman, I was holding a long-tailed fox. Couldn't say if it was male or female. Fascinating, wouldn't you say?
If I'm boring you, I'll shut up. How many people in this world can claim to have reached my age? I was born in the previous '92. Eighteen ninety-two. Figure it out for yourself. Everyone else my age, they're rotting in their graves, and if someone dug up their bones, they'd probably assume they belonged to a goat or a pig. They stopped being human a long time ago. Me, I should be content with my lot. Talk, talk, talk, it's a bad sign. When old folks talk all the time, it's a sign they're on their last legs. Heaven is rushing them along!
Boy, hand me that teacup.
Thank you. Now the spittoon.
You sure have big ears.
That means good luck.
Know what people call me?
They call me Ears.
Here, touch one. What does it feel like?
That's right, a sea cucumber.
Now, where was I? So what if I talk too much? I don't care if the dead or Heaven are happy or not, they're going to have to let me speak my piece. You youngsters have got it made. You have all the time in the world to talk. You could be a mute for a year and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. But me, every sentence spoken is one less left unsaid, so I can't waste a single day. I'm not about to let a fascinating tale like mine rot away in my belly. I've got to tell it, and you can listen or not, I don't care. I've been talking to the walls for a hell of a lot longer than a year or two.
There's a woman on the wall.
Look for yourself if you don't believe me.
You must be blind!
I don't know why I waste my time talking to you.
That's not an ass, it's a water stain from last summer's rain. Don't look with your eyes, look with your mind. If your mind is focused, you can close your eyes and still see things most people can't see with their eyes open. Guess what I see right now.
You young folks are too modest. I'm not going to tell you.
I see the word lust.
You know what lust is, don't you?
Lucky Teahouse had another specialty besides selling tea: you could get your hair combed out there. As soon as you sat down, a young fellow came over, loosened your queue, and combed out your hair while you enjoyed your tea. And if you had an itch, all you had to do was point to the spot, and the teeth of his comb would take care of it. You never had to worry about dandruff falling into your teacup, because he first rubbed sesame oil all over your scalp. Who knows where Lucky came up with the idea of providing two such unrelated services, but his customers loved walking out of the place with their hair all neat and shiny, even though that little taste of elegance cost them the price of two extra cups of tea.
The teahouse was near Willow Township's Western Avenue. Once you crossed the square in front of the pier, you were on Eastern Avenue, where just about everything was for sale. The most active exchange was in the flesh market, the female flesh market. Those men whose heads reeked of sesame oil were the prostitutes' poorest customers, and once they'd finished their business, they'd come back to the teahouse, where they'd finish off a pot of tea, wipe their mouths, and brag to anyone who'd listen what they'd done and how they'd done it, all in delicious detail. If they really got going, they'd pretend that a nearby bench was the woman and reenact the event with a flurry of arms and legs. So really, Lucky Teahouse sold more than tea and hair maintenanceit was also a place that oozed sex. If not for that, I'd have picked a cheaper place to drink my tea. I later learned that Lucky's prices were reasonable compared with the tea in the whorehouses. Longtime patrons used to say you could buy a bowl of human blood for what that tea cost. So why did those men come to Lucky Teahouse before and after visiting the whorehouses? You should know the answer to that.
They were too short of cash to drink the other tea.
Me too. I was born in the countryside as a personal slave to the family of Cao Ruqi, Old Master Cao, of Elm Township. He was a famously rich member of the gentry class, and I couldn't embarrass him by drinking cheap local Green Needle tea. I always ordered Emerald Conch, which was shipped in from another province. I ignored the lewd performances all around me and concentrated on the boats outside the window, watching those women and dreaming my own dreams. But I listened, and none of the whoring customers' filthy talk escaped me. One of them bragged about how he took a bottle of foreign liquor with him and bought the favors of Black Eagle, the highest-priced whore on Willow Township's Eastern Avenue. Without spending a penny, he screwed her seven days in a row.
Lucky himself led the outcry: You lying, fucking bastard!
The braggart defended himself: If I'm lying, I'm not a man. She loves her liquor!
Lucky said: Seven days? Maybe if you killed her first, you necrophiliac!
Everyone in the teahouse roared with laughter. Now I had no idea what a necrophiliac was, but just thinking about Black Eagle, with that face and those long legs, sent prickles up my spine.
Lucky had a sharp tongue, but he treated me with courtesy, since he knew who I was. He always refilled my cup very attentively, which made me feel like I was somebody.
He asked: Ears, how's the master of your house these days?
I answered: Thank you, sir, for asking. The old gentleman's in fine shape.
He asked: Did you make another trip to the pharmacy?
I answered: The old gentleman sent me for Korean ginseng and Chinese wolfberry.
He said: So he's still using tonics, even though summer's already here, is he?
And I said: I don't know.
He asked: Are you waiting for the mail delivery? If so, you can stop waiting. Didn't you hear? There's been an insurrection by famine victims at Duckweed Bay. For the time being, no government or commercial ships are sailing the river. Unless you're willing to wait ten days or so, you can forget about mail. Go on back to Elm Township, and when you see Old Master Cao, don't forget to give him my best wishes. And be careful, don't let him take just any old tonic. You don't want to ruin his health.
Lucky sure had a way with words. The way he talked, you'd have thought he could sit at the same table with Master Cao. Truth is, if Master Cao saw him, he might not even know who Lucky was. Lucky was a decent guy, but he had no idea why I was killing time in his teahouse. Laugh if you want, but all that lewd talk had my heart racing, and I fantasized that I'd sunk into the perfume of the Eastern Avenue female flesh market. Lucky's shout interrupted my daydream: Listen up, everybody. The teahouse was still chaotic. So Lucky repeated himself: Hey, everybody, listen up! People quieted down, and were rewarded by the sound of a horn and a succession of shouts from boat trackers, lots of them, drifting over from the Green River. A ship was coming in.
The teahouse customers rushed outside to gawk, quickly filling the pier with a blanket of wobbling heads and swaying queues. Way out in front was a pack of refugees, who'd been cowering out of sight all over Willow Township, but came running out like starving dogs when they heard the commotion. A few of the painted ladies ventured out from the brothels onto the stone steps at the entrance to Eastern Avenue. All decked out in cheap, gaudy, almost see-through satins, they wore their clothes in the fashion of well-to-do ladies from downriver, not loose and baggy like the local girls. I stepped back to get a better look at them. My greedy eyes had a mind of their own and went where they wanted, like the hands of a pickpocket.
Green River was ten feet lower than years past, exposing rocks washed white on the banks; water grasses clung to the ground like a dead man's hair. The boat trackers climbed the bank, stepping on the dead grass, all the way up to the stone steps of the pier. As the ship neared the shore, it hit bottom, sending muddy bubbles to the surface. The famine refugees, acting as if they'd spotted the Emperor, fell to their knees and shouted insanely: Something to eat, Master! Please, Master, something to eat!
It was a huge ship. Not a passenger ship and not a salt ship, nor a rice transport. It was a strange-looking thing, with a mast amidships and the prow painted like a fish head with a pair of fish eyes staring out. Have you ever been to the Green River? Now that's something with no head and no tail. It goes all the way down to the county seat, the prefecture, and from there to the provincial capital. After that it flows into some other province. I didn't know anything about an ocean back then, and I figured that no matter how far the river flowed, it was just a trough in the earth that carried water round and round and never took it anywhere else. That ship from some distant province didn't interest me at all. I was too busy prying open the troughs in the prostitutes' rear ends with my eyes when the gangplank crashed against the pier.
The gunwales were lined with coolies, nobody else.
The starving refugees quickly changed their pleas: Daddy! Daddy! Give us something to eat!
I was curious to see who that daddy of theirs was, so I jerked my head around in time to see a pair of distinguished gentlemen walking down the gangplank. One was tall, the other short, and both were dressed in black Western suits with black top hats and capes. The people on the shore scared them witless. A sea of skinny arms! That and chipped beggar's bowls. The pier looked like it was overgrown with dirty mushrooms, with no room for the men to step down. The tall one took off his hat, releasing a headful of golden hair. He had a hawk nose, the eyes of a swan, and fair skin. I don't have to tell you what we were facing there.
An authentic European.
The people on shore were jolted by the sight into opening a path. The silenced refugees moved forward with outstretched beggar's bowls, into which the European tossed some coins as he threaded his way past. The shorter man also tossed coins, but with an impatience made obvious by the way he simply flung them. The wretched recipients fought over the handout, a mass of humanity that looked more like a pack of mad dogs. When he ran out of coins, the European started handing out silver dollars. The shameless refugees responded with shouts, and you'd have to be a genius to guess what they shouted this time.
Foreign Ancestor, give your hangdog grandchild one of those!
When you get that hungry, you stop being human.
The shorter man wasn't a foreigner, but his complexion was lighter than the European's. He kept his eyes glued to me as he walked toward me, and even after he brushed past me, he turned back for another look. And I looked at him. I knew I'd seen that scowl somewhere before, but couldn't place the guy. Back then, anyone with a bit of education looked like that, especially schoolteachers, or scholars who hung out in wine houses, or students in advanced schools. One look at their faces told you that the sky was about to fall, and no one would get out alive.
But, hell, how could I have missed recognizing him?
He stopped about twenty feet from me and just stood there.
We were separated by famine victims and whores.
He said: Ears, is that you?
That's when it hit me. That sad look on his face almost had me in tears. I ran over, fell to my knees, and kowtowed, banging my head so hard the rocks sang out. I was numb and dizzy, but it didn't hurt at all. I tell you, those beggars and flesh-peddlers were scared witless.
Have you ever listened to a professional storyteller?
I always like the storyteller's last line.
We'll continue thisnext time.
I need to go out for a walk now.
I'll tell you tomorrow who he was.
There goes another airplane. I know why they built the nursing home here. They must think that all old folks are deaf, so this is peace and quiet to us. But I'm not, and that's the thirty-eighth airplane that's flown over today. When I first moved in, I was always fussing and complaining. Every time I heard an airplane, I nearly blew my stack. But I've gotten used to it, and they're just birds to me now. I watch them the same way I used to watch the boats outside Lucky Teahouse. The Green River flowed round and round until it emptied into my head.
So I'll tell you anyway. The man's name was Cao Guanghan, Second Master of the Cao household. One of his distant uncles had served the Manchu court under the Guangxu Emperor as a diplomat, and the Old Master parlayed this connection into an opportunity to send Second Master, who was always sighing and complaining about one thing or another, to school abroad. They wanted to get him out of the Elm Township valley, where he'd likely have turned into an eccentric at best and a madman at worst. He left in 1904, when he was nineteen, so he must have been twenty-three when he came home. Not only was he dressed differently, he'd fleshed out as well. But his face hadn't changed much, still had that look that made you worry what he'd do next. Ears, is that you? he said. He sounded like a man who'd just crawled out of the bowels of Hell, and would be crawling right back in before long.
Second Master was a man to be pitied.
What was that, the thirty-ninth airplane?
Ever fly in one of those birds, youngster?
Oh, I forgot to tell you something earlier. When the foreigner was walking away from the Elm Township pier, he caused quite a stir among the whores from Eastern Avenue. One of them, in a pink dress, let out a fearful cry. It wasn't Black Eagle, it was a girl called White Horse. The way she wiggled when she said her piece, you'd have thought that Sun Wukong, the magic monkey, was prodding her from behind with that golden cudgel of his.
Yes, it was the old feudal society, so what?
A woman's still a woman.
Women are wily creatures, and that much hasn't changed.
What she said was: I'll bet that's one hell of a foreign prick!
Go on, get a good night's sleep. When you come back in the morning, I hope you'll find me still alive. All the juicy parts are yet to come, and I want to make sure I get everything said. Go on, get some sleep. You don't have to blush over something a woman said.
Word for word, that's exactly what she said.
Now I'm tired.
Elm Township is located in a huge valley behind two mountain ranges. The Black River flows through it moving fast, and is so shallow it only takes rafts, no real boats or ships, no matter how light they are. There are house-sized rocks in the middle of the river, and you can hear the water crash into them. The river makes forty-nine turns through the mountains before it reaches the western edge of Willow Township and becomes a branch of the Green River.
Back then, for the convenience of rafts, there were no low bridges across the river, just a single suspension bridge. Where there was no bridge, you had to wade across. The distance from the pier to Elm Township was three miles, the road sometimes on this side of the river and sometimes on that side. People who didn't have the wherewithal to ride in a sedan chair or on horseback walked barefoot, shoes in hand, and during the summer floods, the road disappeared altogether. But so what, since traffic between Elm Township and places on the other side of the mountains was frequently disrupted anyway? People in Elm Township prospered, with food to eat and clothes to wear. What did we have to be afraid of? Compared to countless little villages and townships all up and
Excerpted from Green River Daydreams by Liu Heng. Copyright © 1993 by Liu Heng.
Translation copyright © 2001 Howard Goldblatt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.