THE  MAN  FROM  HERO  LAND

By W.M. Achrya

 

“Seeking not beauty of sound

but music that is what it is

for reasons of its own.”[1]

 

Sun Yi-ning contemplated the poetic quote. She selected a sheet of paper, laid it out on the desk in front of her, chose a suitable brush and began rubbing the stick of ink on the wet ink stone. When the amount and quality of the ink was to her satisfaction, she dipped the brush in it, held her sleeve out of the way and drew the first stroke of the first character. The second stroke followed, the next one, and the next...

Oblivious to the noises outside, she noticed nothing until her maid, who had burst into her study at a run, stopped in front of the desk and dropped to her knees.

“Mistress Sun,” the girl gasped, “Judge Lu is... wants... there is a guard...”

The brush stopped, shivered and dropped a black blot of ink on the almost blank page.

The woman put down the brush and calmly asked the maid:

“Is anything wrong?”

“There is a guard at the gate, my lady,” the girl brought out. “With a message from Judge Lu. He says that the Judge wants to see you without delay!”

The maid would not rise from her kneeling position. Again and again she touched her forehead to the floor, murmuring: “Forgive me, forgive me.”

“Speak on,” her mistress told her.

“Please, forgive me for spoiling your calligraphy. The sheet is ruined and it is my fault.”

“Not at all,” the older woman said. “My focus was deficient and I let my energy waver.”

She went about the business of clearing her desk followed by the maid’s incredulous stare.

 

District Judge Lu shared a surname with one the dreaded mythical Judges of the Underworld, but, as Imperial officials went, he was sensible, fair and scrupulously honest. Sun Yi-ning, a middle-aged widow and a wealthy merchant in her own right, knew him mostly as a quiet neighbour and a good customer. After running a quick inventory in her mind she concluded that he ought to have no complaint or law suit to summon her about. More curious than worried, she told the maid to accompany her, and followed the guard to the Judge’s house.

 

“Please, sit, Mistress Sun,” said the Judge, motioning for her to rise from the prescribed kneeling posture on the floor in front of his desk.

The seat that he offered her was at an angle to his desk, in a position only slightly below his own. It was an unusual way to treat a mere woman, and Sun Yi-ning wondered just what the Judge wanted from her. It had to be rather special, she imagined.

 

“I have just received some of last Autumn’s Anxi Oolong,” the Judge said as the servant came in with the tea. “I should like your opinion on it.”

The tea was excellent; preparing it, drinking and commenting on it kept them busy for quite some time. Eventually, with un-feminine directness, Sun Yi-ning addressed the Judge:

“However delicious the tea, Judge Lu, I do believe that you did not have your simple neighbour brought here by a guard just to sample it.”

“That is correct, Mistress Sun,” replied the Judge. “The province authorities have asked a favour of me, and I believe that you are just the right person to be of service to them.”

The idea of Judge Lu owing her a favour appealed to her. She nodded for him to continue.

“I believe that you have regular business dealings with England,” he said.

“That is correct, Judge Lu,” she said.

“You are even said to be fluent in the language.”

“Your servant has some rudiments of it.”

“Excellent. Our town is to receive a long-term visitor from the Land of Heroes.[2]

Sun looked at him inquiringly.

“I understand that he is what they term a ‘missionary’, someone sent abroad to propagate the Christian religion.”

“Does he know anything of the Chinese language?”

“Nothing at all.”

“So why on Earth does he want to come here? He would be much better off staying closer to Hong-Kong.”

“I gather that this is precisely the point. He imagines that he will be suffering more for his faith here in the Sichuan countryside.”

“An interesting view.”

“Actually, with the current anti-foreign unrest in the cities, the authorities also prefer to see him here, out of harm’s way.”

“The unrest may spread, and there are always individual fanatics ready to attack a ‘foreign devil’.”

“That is why I think you will make a suitable host. My reports say that you are an accomplished adept of wu-shu.”

“Your servant has some little skill in unarmed combat. My father saw fit to have his unworthy daughter trained not to be a burden when our trade caravans were attacked by bandits.”

 

They drank some more tea. As an afterthought, Sun suggested:

“The foreigner may be confused or offended by his host being a woman.”

“I gather that those people lack our sense of decency,” the Judge answered.

Sun kept her thoughts on the subject to herself, and Judge Lu went on:

“If he does find it confusing, neither the province administration nor I will mind him being kept somewhat off balance. Besides, your presence will be less conspicuous than that of obvious bodyguards. We may even track down some of those anti-foreign fanatics.”

 

Oh, that’s it, she thought. A decoy in a game of politics.

Aloud, she thanked the Judge profusely for entrusting her with this challenging task, and begged with conventional politeness to be forgiven for having taken up so much of his valuable time.

Judge Lu dismissed her with something almost resembling a smile.

 

--- --- ---

 

Judge Lu sat in the host’s place in the Ancient Bamboo Grove pavillion. The building belonged to the outer part of the Sun family compound, with the lady of the house occupying the inner appartments. The foreign guest would live outside the inner gates, served by the Sun household staff, with Judge Lu’s guards occupying a hut across the courtyard.

Sun Yi-ning stood on the porch, ready to receive the guest. Several servants at the gate were looking out for his arrival.

 

At long last Sun’s maid came running: “They are coming, my lady, they are here!”

First, the Prefect’s horseman arrived. He tossed the reins to Sun’s groom, dismounted and ran inside to notify Judge Lu. He handed over a document bearing an official seal, touched his forehead to the floor, and was back in the saddle and off at a gallop in a matter of moments.

Meanwhile, a simple, dusty sedan chair stopped at the gate and the bearers put down their burden. The maid, well trained to her mistress’ vagaries, gave orders for water to be brought out to them.

 

A man stepped out of the sedan chair, wavered, accepted a servant’s supporting hand on his elbow as if leaning on a piece of furniture. Sun eyed him curiously, but with a carefully neutral face, when he made his way across the courtyard to the pavillion.

The man was tall, slim, almost emaciated, his garments of unrelieved black making him appear thinner still. The only detail of his apparel that was not uniformly black was the ecclesiastic collar, somehow kept meticulously white during what must have been a harrowing journey across oceans, up the stream a huge river, finally over dry, hot country.

He wore a round-crowned hat with a wide brim, unusual but no more bizarre-looking than an Imperial administrator’s official cap.

His face, on the other hand... Sun was reminded of the pinkish white faces of the Demon Guardian statues in the local temple. And, yes, she had met English people before, and understood why the Chinese called foreigners ‘long-noses’, but this one, really...
She berated herself that at her age she could not cover her mouth with her sleeve to hide a giggle, so her face remained carefully impassive, but somewhere inside her a fourteen-year-old snickered at the uncommonly large protuberance in the middle of the foreigner’s pale face. It was finely etched, though, and the lips below it were shapely by any standards.

 

Sun took a few steps forward and looked straight at the Englishman.

“Welcome to Sichuan Province,”  she said in his own language. “Your host and interpreter is at your service. My name is Sun Yi-ning, I am called Mistress Sun.”

At the relief of hearing a familiar language, something in his hazel eyes briefly betrayed his exhaustion by the long journey. Then his face became a well-schooled mask again.

“The pleasure is mine, Mistress Sun,” he said with a slight, well-practiced bow. “I am Reverend Obadiah Slope. It’s very kind of you to receive me.”

She returned his bow, but with one hand wrapped about her other fist in front of her.

“District Judge Lu is in charge of your credentials,” she went on. “He is waiting for you to be presented to him.”

 

Sun motioned for the Reverend to precede her into the pavillion. He took off his hat, revealing a head of dark hair plastered closely to his scalp like a shiny cap. Inside the pavillion he stopped, very properly, in the middle of the room in front of the Judge, but only to repeat his restrained bow.

In court language and at a formal pitch, Sun pronounced the conventional formula for introducing a respected visitor to an Imperial official. Then, in English, she murmured to Slope: “It is customary to kneel before the Emperor’s representatives.”

The Reverend repeated his bow once more and, looking directly at Judge Lu, he said:

“I bend my knee to no-one except God.”

It flashed through Sun’s mind that it might be the last thing Slope or she ever got to say. Then she translated.

The Judge’s guards stepped forward, staffs and chains at the ready. Judge Lu waved them back.

“Surely the foreigner would kneel before his Emperor. Ask him.”

Sun translated.

“No, Your Honour,” said the Reverend, again looking straight at the judge. “I should bow deeply to my Queen, but not kneel.”

While Sun was translating the sentence, the Reverend bowed deeply with practiced ease and elegance. Whether he was demonstrating a bow appropriate for British Royalty, or showing his respect to Judge Lu, was a matter of interpretation. The Judge, however, appeared content.

 

After another few expressions of courtesy the Judge said to Slope:

“I have been told that you know nothing of our language.”

“Unfortunately, that is correct, Your Honour.”

“One would believe that knowledge of the language would be a prerequisite for teaching the Emperor’s subjects about your religion.”

“My superiors expect me, and I agree with them, to remedy that lack after my arrival in China.”

“My superiors,” the Judge quipped, “and I agree with them, consider Mistress Sun the proper person to aid you. We all hope that she will be successful.”

Slope’s only reply was a brief bow to the Judge and to Sun.

“Once we are able to converse without an interpreter,” resumed Judge Lu, “I shall be happy to discuss the prospects of your missionary work with you, Teacher Shi. Until then...”

 

Judge Lu concluded the audience by rising from his seat. With guards preceding and following him, he swept out of the pavillion between Slope’s deep bow and Sun on her knees, touching her forehead to the floor.

 

“Mistress Sun,” Slope addressed her when the Judge had left.

She turned to him attentively.

“How did the Judge refer to me at the end? I didn’t hear him mention my name.”

“Our tongues don’t easily wrap around English names, Reverend Slope,” Sun smiled. “The Judge has given you a Chinese surname, Shi. He addressed you as Teacher Shi, so obviously he accepts that you are here to teach people about your faith.”

“And you?”

“You will not find me an easy convert, Reverend. Or a passive listener to your sermons.”

“Good. I consider faith to be a matter of rational insight, not emotional affectation. And rationality thrives on debate.”

“Not now, though. You must be tired after your journey. You should rest.”

The slight bow of his head told her that she was right.

“There is tea and snacks in your bedroom,” Sun indicated an inner door. “We should discuss your practical arrangements, but we can do that just as well over dinner, in about an hour.”

“Thank you, Mistress Sun. Is there... well... is there a bell?”

“My servant will call you and show you the way.”

 

--- --- ---

 

Reverend Slope followed the maid across two courtyards, through remarkable round gates in the walls separating the outer buildings from the inner appartments, through what he assumed to be a formal garden, but where the scent of herbs also made him think of an apothecary.

The sun was setting and the call of the crickets was at some moments almost deafening. Those must be huge crickets, Slope thought incongruously, his mind, still muzzy from the long journey and the impact of the unfamiliar surroundings, reluctant to separate the important from the inconsequential.

 

Sun Yi-ning was waiting for him in the doorway of her private dining room. As he had noted before, she was wearing trousers – still, her attire had nothing indecent to it. The loose trousers and straight-cut tunic in solid-coloured dark green brocade were not designed to display or seduce; in fact, they revealed much less of the female figure than the conventional laced bodices which were considered the only decent thing for English women to wear.

 

Two servants were bustling about the round table, adding yet more dishes to what appeared to be a large banquet.

Sun invited him inside, gestured to a seat and said, with a sing-song inflection: “Qing zuo.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“Please, have a seat,” she said, and repeated, “qing zuo.”

At his tired nod, she said: “No, I don’t intend to begin your lessons directly. But you should at least notice a new Chinese expression every day.”

“I shall do my best.”

He was exhausted, but at the same time relieved to be far away from his familiar world of complex intrigue. The tasks ahead of him were challenging, but at the same time simple, straightforward. Learning to communicate in Chinese. Learning the customs of the land.

More immediately, learning how to feed himself.

 

Among the plethora of dishes on the dining table, he looked for cutlery, and found none.

Neither could he see any dining plates or glasses. There were the small earless tea cups that he recognised from the tea set in his bedroom and from meals during his journey; somewhat larger bowls, one for each diner; but not the knives and forks that he had been hoping for in a house where the mistress was fluent in English.

“There are no knives or forks,” he murmured, his tired mind prompting him to child-like honesty.

“Judge Lu wishes for you to become familiar with our way of life as soon as possible,” Sun explained. “I’m certain that you agree. Hence,” she held up two slender objects covered in cloisonné and tipped with ivory, “chopsticks. Kuaizi.”

She took both chopsticks in her right hand, used the ivory tips to pick up a piece of vegetable from one of the platters and transfer it smoothly to her bowl.

He fumbled with his own chopsticks, trying to imitate her. He wedged them between his fingers in a way that he thought resembled hers and attempted to pick up a mushroom. It slipped and fell onto the polished table, followed by one of his chopsticks.

 

Sun watched him without even a hint of a smile.

“I apologise,” she said. “In setting a formal table, I forgot that these would not be very convenient.”

After a few syllables from her, one of the servants brought two pairs of plain bamboo chopsticks and removed the offending decorative ones.

Then she demonstrated, slowly and clearly, one step at a time, how to hold one chopstick steady with the thumb and to move the other, pincer-like, with the fingers.

He emulated her, trying to observe details that might be relevant, but not quite succeeding. Before he could pull back, Sun took hold of his hand and directed his fingers to get a better grip on the unfamiliar implements. Then she let go without the slightest sign of flirtatious delay.

“Try this way,” she said matter-of-factly.

Slowly, deliberately, putting down the chopsticks often to rest his hand, he managed to taste several of the dishes while even making an attempt at conversation.

“Are we really supposed to begin eating?” he asked. “You must be expecting other guests.”

“No other guests,” she said. “Why?”

“This looks like a banquet, there are so many dishes.”

“Oh, it is a formal feast. It is customary to celebrate a special occasion, like welcoming an honoured guest, by lots of different dishes.”

“Is it not wasteful?”

“First of all, look at the various meat dishes. All different parts of a duck, including the neck and the stomach. Nothing goes to waste. And the vegetables... see, there are at least three different ways of preparing mangold. Of course we can’t eat all of the food. If we did, I’d lose face by having provided too little of it. But my staff will enjoy the leftovers.”

 

Slope had noticed a platter of small slices of meat cooked in a rich-looking reddish brown gravy. He helped himself, put a piece of the meat into his mouth – and Sun heard him gasp. He suppressed a choking noise, swallowed bravely, but could not check the tears trickling from his eyes. He dropped his chopsticks.

“Water... please,” he gasped.

“No water,” Sun said. She piled some plain rice into a fresh bowl and put a short porcelain spoon in his hand. “Eat this,” she directed.

“Water,” he brought out with still more urgency.

“You must not drink water now,” she explained. “Water would only spread the capsicum all over your mouth and throat. Plain rice will neutralise it.”

She called out another rapid order and a servant brought a small plate of soft, shiny whitish cubes.

“This is plain bean curd,” Sun said, “another neutralising agent.”

Slope ate a few pieces of the curd with his spoon and slowly recovered his power of speech.

“What was that, liquid fire?” he asked.

“Sichuan pepper. Our cooking is famous for it. Believe me, once you have become used to it, you will enjoy the taste. This dish is medium hot, not very extreme.”

“Become used to it? I am sorry, but that may take some time.”

 

Over the soup that concluded the meal, the merchant and her foreign guest discussed his accomodation and daily routine. Sun explained his wishes to the staff and made a point of telling them to come to her any time there was a risk of misunderstanding.

 

Very soon Reverend Slope bid his hostess good night and let a servant show him the way back to the Ancient Bamboo Grove pavillion. He even feared that he would be too exhausted to sleep. He wrote a brief entry in his diary, said his evening prayers, a pleasantly familiar routine in these new surroundings, and resigned himself to a night of tossing to and fro.

He heard the crickets in the garden, louder and louder, softer and softer, then louder again. Then he heard nothing at all. He was fast asleep.

 

--- --- ---

 

“You said that Judge Lu had given me a surname,” Slope inquired some time later.

They were walking in the town market, the Reverend’s appearance causing a minor sensation among the locals. As it was known that the foreigner was under the protection of Judge Lu, no-one dared to actually bother them.

“Yes. There are a few hundred surnames in existence at all, so not everyone with the same surname is related. There is no Shi family in our town, either.”

“How about a Christian... well... what we’d call a Christian name?”

“A given name. A person can have several during his lifetime. You have a child’s name, a student’s name, a scholar’s name, some poets even assume new names as the mood strikes them. And most men also have nicknames given by their peers.”

“So... how do you keep track of everyone’s names?”

“Given names are never used by casual acquaintances. Among peers who are close friends, yes. But between men and women, only by siblings or lovers.”

“Yet people introduce themselves by their full name. How would someone like me acquire a given name?”

“People get names from their parents, teachers or friends,” Sun said. “You have no parents here, and as yet few friends. Do you wish me to give you a name?”

“You have been very helpful and very patient. If my plan succeeds, it will be thanks to you. Yes, I should be honoured.”

“I have already given it some thought,” she went on, “but not enough. You need a propitious name to help you achieve your goal.”

 

They had left the market and were walking along a narrow lane bordered by brick walls, with the back entrances of several houses opening on it. The hay was being brought in and there were piles of it here and there in the lane.

Two men had appeared from around a corner and were walking towards them. They looked like grooms or field hands, musculous and shirtless, one of them carrying a sickle, the other one a short flail.

Something made Sun give them a second look – and her mental alarm signal, honed by years of riding with a merchants’ caravan in her youth, went off.

She gave Slope a shove and, as the flail man was raising his weapon to strike at the foreigner, she aimed a quick, hard spinning kick at the attacker’s head. He fell over like a log and lay still.

His comrade with the sickle looked a little less convinced now, but he did attempt to circle her to get at the Reverend.

Sun dropped into a fighting crouch, hands at the ready, looking for an opening, but she did not relish the odds of bare-handed taking on a young, strong opponent armed with a viciously sharp blade.

Slope was not a fighting man. His weapons of choice had always been words and tactics, not fists or knives. Still, Sun was a lady and was risking her life for his sake. Desperate, he looked around for a way to help her.

Behind the assaillant’s back, he picked up a rake from a pile of hay and, clumsily, made as if to strike at the man.

“No!”

To the bandit it sounded like wu-shu fighter’s focusing breath, but the Englishman recognised an urgent order.

Not leaving her opponent with her eyes, Sun quickly beckoned with the fingers of her left hand. Slope tossed her the rake. She caught it deftly and exhaled hugely with relief. She had a way of keeping a distance between herself and the sickle.

The rest happened quickly.

The attacker was strong, but not fast enough for a knife fighter. Sun disarmed him with a vicious blow of the rake to his knuckles, another blow almost broke his wrist, a slash of the rake’s teeth bloodied his face and chest.

 

Slope and Sun looked at the bandit’s retreating back as he ran away from them along the lane.

They were both breathing heavily, Sun from the exertion, the Reverend from the excitement.

Sun went to put the rake back on the pile of hay. Slope noticed that she was limping.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

She grimaced briefly. “A pulled muscle in my thigh,” she said. “I’m no opera acrobat, and I’m not twenty anymore, either.”

In spite of himself, Slope blushed furiously at the mention of the physical detail.

 

Attracted by the noise of the recent scuffle, two of the Judge’s guards appeared at the end of the lane.

“What is going on?” one of them ventured to ask, unsure what tone to use to the two unlikely-looking characters in front of him.

“There has been a disturbance,” Sun announced coolly. “We need to see Judge Lu as soon as possible. I am his neighbour, Mistress Sun.”

“You may want to bring this along,” she added, nudging the unconscious bandit with her foot.

 

--- --- ---

 

Mistress Sun had suggested a given name for him, An-bai. It evoked the sound of his Christian name and she thought it appropriate to the purpose of his sojourn in China.

She did not manage to translate it in full, but ‘an’ meant ‘peace, peaceful, tranquil’ and ‘bai’ had to do with brightness or clarity.
He felt flattered and a little puzzled that this heathen merchant woman understood his motives so well. She knew what a missionary was, yet she had not given him a name alluding at proclamation and conquest. Yes, he had realised that the familiar bustle of British ecclesiastical intrigue distracted him from recognising the Lord’s true intentions. The light, the clarity of God’s purpose with his life, leading to peace within himself, that was what he was searching for in these foreign lands.

 

Mistress Sun had also offered him some clothing that had been her father’s. The loose-fitting trousers and long tunics, she said, would be more comfortable in this climate.

He felt almost boorish as he made it very clear to her that comfort had nothing to do with the purpose of his stay in China.

She debated relentlessly, though. In order to preach his faith and lead Chinese people to understand it, she said, he had to understand them. According to him, true faith was a matter of intellectual insight, she said, but did he really think that understanding and insight only happened from the neck up? Sensing how to move in Chinese clothing would surely prove helpful.

He wondered idly and frivolously if there really was something to the Eastern tales of re-incarnation. Then this woman might well have been a Jesuit in a previous life.

The feel of the smooth, heavy silk on his skin was like nothing he had ever experienced before.  

 

A maidservant came to take him to her mistress for his usual morning language lesson. By now he could find his way about the compound, and much of the town, very well on his own – but the demands of good manners and social convention were as strict here as in England. He understood and respected that, even found it reassuring in many ways.

 

They arrived on the porch outside Sun Yi-ning’s study and the maid made to knock and announce Slope. He stopped her with an urgent gesture of his hand.

There was music.

It sounded like several harps playing in concord, melodies interlacing and complementing each other. Before his inner eye the Reverend saw a mountain stream bounding over pebbles and rocks, cascading in a waterfall among green rushes, spreading to a pool beside a flowery meadow, a weeping-willow dipping its branches in the pure, clear water; a pang of sorrow and loss was felt and tempered with peaceful insight.

 

Many simple Christians imagined that angels played harps in Heaven, where souls of the faithful lived in eternal bliss. The Reverend knew otherwise – faith was a matter of intellect, of analytic understanding, of eliminating false conjenctures and arriving at the One Truth. And there was certainly no Heavenly Host plying their harps on the other side of that carved lacquer door.

But – was he possibly being prompted to eliminate a false conjencture of his own? Obadiah Slope did not lean towards mysticism, but he sensed something at hearing the music. It might be a different kind of gift from God: music itself, a power in its own right, offering him an opportunity at contemplation, reconciliation, peace.

 

He looked questioningly at the maid.

“Qin,” she replied softly.

He recognised the name of a musical instrument. The previous day’s lesson had taught him to ask his next question: 

“How many?”

The maid seemed puzzled, but she answered: “One instrument.”

They waited silently outside the door until the music ended.

 

Sun Yi-ning carefully put away the instrument in its case and said to her student:

“I have a gift for you.”

She picked up a brocade-covered box from her desk and handed it to Slope. He received it properly, with both hands, bowing to her and expressing formal thanks.

 

She watched the Reverend as he opened the box and examined its contents. She had always loved this brocade robe of her father’s, a deep midnight blue with black buttons and trim, resembling a scholar’s tunic. It fitted the Englishman very well – her father had been an extremely tall man. Slope’s hair had grown a little longer and he had either run out of the substance that had kept it plastered to his head, or simply given up its use. Now the hair framed his face in a way that did not quite match the scholarly tunic, but it complemented his prominent nose, his appearance no longer bird-like. The overall effect was undeniably pleasant, she thought.  

 

The box contained a large block of carnelian, carved into the form of a dog. The carnelian alluded at fire; Sun had taught him that the year of his birth was, in Chinese tradition, a year of the Fire Dog. He cared nothing for astrology, it was a superstition that could be dangerous to simple minds, but the Chinese obviously set great store by it. What Sun told him about a typical Fire Dog personality sounded rather well fitting; also, in all honesty, it gave him some food for thought.

Carved in the bottom end of the carnelian block were some Chinese characters in mirror image. He glanced at Sun, saw her encouraging nod, dipped the seal in the small bowl of red ink paste on her desk and made an impression of it on a discarded scrap of paper.

 

He studied it closely and recognised the characters that his hostess had told him constituted his Chinese name: Shi An-bai.[3]

Sun took the opportunity to begin their usual language drill:

“What is your honourable name?”

“Your simple pupil's surname is Shi, the given name An-bai.”

 

He might find the light of peace here, he thought.

 

 

 

THE END



[1] From the  preface to Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Song-ling (1640-1715)

 (translation: John Minford)

 

[2] Yinguo = “Brave country”, ‘England’ in Chinese

[3] Shi (3rd tone) = one of the traditional “Hundred Families” surnames, (may also mean ‘history’) ;
An = peace/ful, tranquil (as in Tien An Men, Gate of Heavenly Peace), quiet; Bai = white, pure, bright