From the Mountains
to the Sea
The birth of a literary work resembles the growth of a tree. It requires favorable circumstances.
Firstly, there must be a seed, the Mother of All Things. Secondly, it cannot lack for soil, nor can it make do without the sunlight’s warmth, the rain’s moisture or the wind’s caress.
In the case of The Last Quarter of the Moon, however, first there was soil, and only then was there a seed. For this land that turns muddy as the ice thaws in the spring, is shaded by green trees in the summer and is covered by motley leaves in the autumn and endless snow-white in the winter, is very familiar to me.
After all, I was born and raised on this land. As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd head-shape on a thick tree trunk. Father told me that was the image of the Mountain Spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen.
I knew the Oroqen were an ethnic minority who lived on the outskirts of our mountain town. They resided in their open-top cuoluozi (teepees) where they could spy the stars at night. In the summer they fished in their birch-bark canoes, and in the winter they hunted in the mountains wearing their parka and roe-deerskin boots. They liked to go horse riding, drink liquor and sing songs. In that vast and frigid land, their small tribe was like a pristine spring trickling deep in the mountains. Full of vitality, yet solitary.
I once believed that the masses of forestry workers, those loggers, were the genuine masters of the land, while the Oroqen in their animal hides were aliens from another galaxy. Only later did I learn that before the Han came to the Greater Khingan Range, the Oroqen had long lived and multiplied on that frozen land.
Dubbed the “green treasure house,” the forest grew thick and animals abounded before it was exploited. There were very few roads and no railroad. Most paths in the wooded mountains were trodden by the nomadic hunting peoples, the Oroqen and the Evenki.
After large-scale exploitation of the forest began in the sixties, bevies of loggers were stationed in the forest and one road after another—for timber transport—appeared, along with railroad tracks. Whizzing along those roads and tracks each day were trucks and trains laden with logs bound for destinations beyond the mountains. The sound of trees falling displaced birdcalls, and chimney smoke displaced clouds.
In reality, the exploitation of nature is not wrong; when God left man to fend for himself in the mortal world, wasn’t it to force him to find the answer to survival within Nature? The problem is, God wished us to seek a harmonious form of survival, not a rapacious, destructive one.
One, two, three decades passed, and the sound of tree felling quieted but didn’t cease. Continuous exploitation and certain irresponsible, reckless actions made the virgin forest begin to display signs of aging and decline. Like an apparition, dust storms suddenly appeared at the dawn of the new century. At last, the sparse tree coverage and decimated animal population alerted us: we have exacted too much from Mother Nature!
It is the hunting peoples living in the mountain forests who have suffered the most grievously. Specifically, I mean those we call the “Last of the Nomadic Hunters”: the reindeer-herding Aoluguya Evenki.
Thanks to the media, we know all too well the story of the Aoluguya Evenki who resettled outside the mountains in 2003. But as crowds of people descended upon Genhe City, Inner Mongolia, to witness this grand moment in the civilizing process of mankind, my heart was filled with an inescapable sense of melancholy and gloom.
Just then my friend Ai Zhen mailed me a newspaper clipping, an essay in memory of the fate of Liu Ba, the Evenki painter. It recounted how she had walked forth from the mountain forest with her dazzling artistic talent, and yet eventually emotionally drained, she quit her job, returned to the forest and, deeply troubled, found her resting place in a river.
“Chi Zi, write this story. Only you can do it justice!” scribbled Ai Zhen next to the essay. She deeply understands my life and creative work, and I found her expectation and confidence in me immensely moving.
I called her right away to say that I’d been paying attention to the plight of the Evenki and collected some background materials, but I wanted to wait until the time was right before putting pen to paper.
In fact, I was waiting for news of the relocated Evenki. I had a premonition that an arduous but inevitable homeward trek would occur in the near future.
In May last year I visited Australia for a month and spent one week in Darwin where the aboriginal population is concentrated. Darwin is a small, tranquil coastal town. Each day after breakfast I’d take a book and sit in the shore-side park, enjoying the cool ocean breeze. In the park, the people I encountered the most frequently were aborigines with their petite, dry limbs, slightly protruding bellies, and swarthy skin. They gathered on the grass, drank alcohol and sang. The deep, low sound of their singing was like circling seagulls, first discernible, then lost amidst the din of the waves.
The locals told me that the government implemented many preferential policies for the aborigines, and they received a special living allowance. But in the city they squandered their money in bars and casinos. They often returned to their tribes in the mountain forests, living as before, unable to part with their old ways.
On the streets of Darwin, if the aborigines I saw weren’t snoozing on benches under the scorching sun in a bus station, then they were seated on the ground in the commercial district, painting a tribal totem on a canvas in exchange for a paltry sum. Even worse, some leaned against store entrances with their hands outstretched, begging tourists for money.
I left Darwin for the Varuna Writers House in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. After I’d stayed there ten days, I took the train back to Sydney. Just as I exited the arrival platform, right there in the spacious waiting hall I saw an aboriginal wife and husband feverishly having it out with one another. She was fat and short, he tall and gaunt. She cried and shouted, pounced on him again and again as if she’d gone mad, and used her very substantial arms to strike her husband who reeked of alcohol.
They had no luggage. The woman’s hands were empty while the man held a filthy plastic bag filled with a mushy lump of something resembling tofu dregs.
He didn’t dodge her blows or put up any resistance, letting the woman vent her anger. Very quickly a few Caucasian onlookers gathered around them, their faces expressing pity. Train station policemen came over too and they pulled the female aborigine away. But the man, who had already been hit so hard that his lip was bleeding at the corners, curled up on the floor against a column, and hung his head dejectedly.
The onlookers gradually dispersed, but since I was awaiting a publisher who hadn’t arrived on time, I had a chance to continue observing. The woman sat down against a column opposite the man and wailed, complaining loudly about something. She didn’t have a specific target for this outpouring; the expressions of the police and the passers-by who threw her a glance were disinterested. But she was speaking so plaintively, so emotionally. Her torrent seemed to harmonize with the sound of the occasional shrill train whistle.
At long last the man stood up, walked over to the woman, passed her the plastic bag, and told her to eat a little. Only then did I understand that the bag contained food. She jumped up and shoved him, and told him to get lost. But he was very patient, and over and over he approached her, placing the bag in front of her very tenderly.
This heart-wrenching scene really shook me. If only these aborigines lived among their own tribe, I thought to myself, and hadn’t come to the Neon-lit Big City, perhaps they wouldn’t have experienced this futile conflict.
Feeling a bit despondent, I left Australia and arrived in Ireland, a country with ancient roots. In the autumn of 2000, I had visited there with the China Writer’s Delegation, but just for three days. My deepest impressions were the seaside James Joyce Museum and a performance of Oscar Wilde’s famous play, Salomé, at the Queen’s Royal Theatre. It left me feeling that Ireland is a thoroughly refined country, and one that has an air of something profoundly cultural about it.
But this time around, I felt like I had arrived in an alien land. I was lodged on a very prosperous pub street in Dublin, and late each night when business reached its climax, a mass of people spilled out endlessly from the pubs onto the cobblestone street. They shouted, crooned and smooched until the wee hours of the morning. Virtually every night I was woken by the racket.
Standing at my third-floor window, watching the bawdy men and women under the dim streetlight, I kept experiencing flashbacks of the argument between the Australian aboriginal couple. That scene was so similar to the one right in front of my eyes—they are all probably bewildered beings in pain, their souls ground to bits by the gyrating wheels of modern civilization! Only people who have lost possession of their own rich inner lives exhibit this sort of behavior.
After I returned home to China I wrote a short piece, Sunset of the Aborigines, in which I expressed my sentiments:
Faced with a world that is increasingly prosperous and alien, they, former masters of this land, have become ‘people on the margins,’ a group reduced to accepting handouts and spiritual first-aid! I profoundly understand the grief and loneliness deep in their hearts.
As I leaned over on the streets of Darwin to gaze at the sacred fish, snakes, lizards and great rivers the aborigines painted on their canvasses, and saw how these skilled oil-paint brushstrokes had lost their spirituality and been reduced to empty movements, just then I clearly saw a bright orange-red setting sun, dripping with blood, sink into the vast and animated ocean.
At the same time as we tear apart the life of a living being, we portray ourselves as philanthropists lamenting its misfortune! With a clear conscience we watch them perform and display the art we once defiled just to be fed and clothed; we dissect their hearts, yet pronounce them full of dregs and insufficient warmth. The civilized cold indifference that pervades the globe—isn’t this our world’s greatest wretchedness?
I decided the time had come to go and see the state of the Aoluguya Evenki now that they had relocated out of the mountains.
After resting up for two weeks in Harbin, with the help of the government of Hulunbuir City I arrived in Inner Mongolia in August. My first stop was Hailar where I took advantage of my relationship with author Han Shaogong to make contact with Ureltu, an Evenki author long out of the public eye. Having quietly departed from the literary scene, he was off in a remote corner merrily doing cultural history research. I shared my thoughts with him, and he encouraged me to go and take a good look.
Over the next few days I drove to Manzhouli that borders Russia, and Hulu Lake, and then I cut through the Hulunbuir Grasslands and arrived at the destination of my journey, Genhe City, Inner Mongolia.
My hunch was accurate. In the settlement on the outskirts of Genhe, those brand-new, white-walled, red-roofed houses were already largely vacant. Inside the deer pens comprised of barbed wire surrounded by rows of red bricks, there wasn’t a reindeer to be seen, just a flock of lazy mountain goats wandering along weed-covered pathways.
According to the head of the Genhe City Commission, the unsuccessful rearing of reindeer in captivity and the inability of older Evenki to adapt to the new life resulted in group after group of hunters returning to the mountains. It’s said that when the reindeer were placed in the pens, they turned up their noses at their feed, and after just a few days they took ill by the twos and threes. Agitated, and in spite of the advice of the township cadres, the hunters released the reindeer and returned to the wooded mountains.
I followed in their footsteps and visited their hunting base for two days, listening to them voice their difficulties and appeals, and their songs. Just about every Evenki is an exceptional singer and can break out in song on the spot. The sound of their singing is gloomy and bleak, like a plaintive stream.
The older generation still prefers to live in their shirangju from which they can see the stars at night. They say that living in the houses outside the mountains you can’t sleep soundly. But the younger generation yearns for the more convenient lifestyle of the city. They told me they don’t want to follow reindeer all their lives in the secluded mountains.
The Evenki are not good at dissimulation, and joy and anger display clearly on their faces. When I posed a question on a taboo subject, one of the old women immediately put on a stern face and pointed at me. “Jianjian is a creep!” she said loudly.
But when I engaged in friendly banter with the same old woman, she called me “Jianjian” in a friendly way, pulled out a pinch of chewing tobacco, and stuffed it against my gums. When I jumped up, coughing from the burning sensation of the tobacco, she chortled with delight. “Jianjian is a nice person!”
During those two precious days, I drank reindeer milk tea brewed in the Evenki camp, observed the reindeer lying lazily on the forest floor after foraging for food, and my mind floated aimlessly like the pale blue threads of ascending smoke. Due to damage to the forest coverage, ‘reindeer moss’ grows ever harder to find. So even when they return to the forested mountains, the Evenki must relocate frequently. In the end, where will they and their reindeer go?
When I returned to Genhe, I heard that the mother of the painter Liu Ba had left the base in the mountains and checked into a hospital. I rushed to visit her. I didn’t dare ask her much about her daughter as she lay weakly in her hospital bed. I just wanted to silently observe the mother who had raised such a talented artist.
But just when I was about to leave, she suddenly covered her eyes with her hands. “Liu Ba adored painting,” she said in a low voice. “The day she went to the riverside, she even took a bottle of mineral water. She didn’t intend to die!”
True, Liu Ba may not have been thinking of death, but she did vanish with the current along with her beloved rainbow-coloured oils.
I suddenly had a flashback of that scene at the Sydney train station when the aborigine kept placing food in front of his wife, over and over again. The huge sense of humane tolerance and warmth displayed by members of these ethnic groups moved me infinitely, and as I walked out of the hospital, a layer of tears veiled my eyes.
I felt that I had at last found the seed for my novel. It was a weighty, fertile seed. The vast stretch of forest I possessed as a child would serve as its seedbed, and I was confident that this seed would sprout and grow in it. [end]