29. Under The Scholar Tree
She ushers me under the scholar tree and motions for me to sit. She is a small woman, her hair is loose and greying but well cared for. She reminds me vaguely of my grandmother and her religious brushing of her hair. I smile politely and sit down. May follows suit, sitting besides me. She looks out of place with her dirty blond hair and blue eyes. I breath in deeply. I never expected to be back here. The teahouse is under the embrace of a tall canopy of trees, low wooden square tables are placed around, bamboo chairs that give off a sweet aroma.
It's 1985 and I am back in Sichuan, visiting with a British friend. By now, I have embraced London, made my home there. London confused and scared me at first. I remember being lost in the train systems, unable to understand common English expressions, bewildered by the sea of English faces and signs all around me. Though my English was strong, nothing prepares you for the actual experience of being in an English speaking country. My scant experiences with the sailors in China had barely prepared me for fluent conversations. My thirst for knowledge has by no means been sated by my new life. I continued to read incessantly. I still fondly page through Little Woman, the first book I ever read in English. My ability to read English had benefited me greatly in China, and would continue to help me improve my English in London. The more I read, the more my English improved. I would sometimes read lines in books out loud, when alone, pretending I was the one engaged in the conversation:
“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine!” (Pride and Prejudice.)
And so I have made my home there though sometimes I feel I left my heart in China. China is becoming very different from when I moved, stains completely erased. The teahouses have opened back up, the standards of living have improved. Slowly the taint of the past is vanishing. As I look around, the people seem more at ease, I even catch a few smiles. This is quite different from the China I left.
I too am different. England has given me a chance at freedom untasted in China. Comfort and leisure is no longer something that I have to mentally convince myself is morally wrong. When I first moved there and had moments to myself, moments to sit, I almost had a physical aversion to it. Mao had taught us that we must always be trying to work to build a better China. This was the purpose of our lives, and now my purpose was altered. I've come to love stolen moments of leisure like this, though I've never quite been able to shake the feeling that they are indeed stolen.
Simple things have become extremely important to me. For example I have developed an extreme love of flowers. I remember ripping them out in Sichuan, tearing out the roots, dirt caked beneath my fingers. Mao urged us to rip out any plant life that could be deemed 'bourgeoise.” Now, I can't help but smile every time I see a patch of especially beautiful flowers. I sit under the scholar tree and take in the lush green shade of its pods, the moment to sit underneath it and simply breath.
But I've kept many things inside, blocking out many memories. I don't want to confront my past. In China we had all learned how to be actors and actresses, hoping to play our cards right. I remember when Mao died and those around me sobbed hysterically. I still wonder how many of those tears were real, how convincing my own acting had been. Tears are left unshed.
But now I am in this little Sichuan teahouse. May makes a few comments on how charming the atmosphere is. We make polite conversation as the woman begins to fill our cups with a kettle from two feet away, steaming jasmine tea. I stare at the steam dancing in front of me in white wisps. An old man is playing 'majiang', Chinese chess. I stare at him closely, as if looking at a ghost.
He smiles at me, revealing an almost toothless grin.
“You play?” He asks
“No.” I reply truthfully.
I may have once, but tea houses were banned along with chess during the Cultural Revolution. If I ever knew, I've forgotten how. I avert my eyes. I told May that this visit might be hard for me.
The last time that I was here was in 1966 and I wasn't ordering tea. I remember being with the other students as they had yelled “Leave this bourgeoise place!!” to the customers, the old men playing chess. I remember my shock at how these elders were treated, my refuse to act with such aggression. But gentleness was considered bourgeoise along with teahouses and chess. And yet here I am in the teahouse again, the epitome of 'bourgeoise.' Those sitting in a teahouse drinking tea, chatting and playing chess are not out making revolution, they aren't out building a stronger China.
I look down at my clothing, a simple black dress and patent leather shoes. The last time I was here I was a teenager dressed in trousers, covered in patches to look 'proletarian.” My hair hangs loose around my face, the last time I was here it was in two plaits, not a hair out of place. Soon it would be cut off by my grandmother, never to be adorned with silk flowers by her again.
The old man playing chess addresses me again. “Would you like to learn?”
“Yes..your friend too?” May nods at me encouragingly.
The old man gives me an eager look, taking a puff from his long stemmed pipe over a plate of nuts and melon seeds. I am elated by this simple fact..I am really truly in the very same teahouse that so many years ago I pasted slogans on the walls of. I feel a wave of guilt, remembering asking a man quite like the man in front of me if he would go home.
My face must have given me away my troubled thoughts.
“Miss, are you alright?” Croaks the old man
“I'm fine..It's just..when I was younger myself and many other students, we invaded this tea house. We..we closed this place down. We were young..we..”
I feel May take my hand and squeeze it firmly for reassurance.
The man takes another puff at his pipe. He nods“Then you never got a chance to learn how to play Maijang, did you?”
I grin, widely. “No, I guess I never did.”
I take a sip of the jasmine tea, savoring its pungent flavor, feeling a cloud of steam against my face as I tip my cup towards my mouth. I place the cup and saucer down, careful not to burn my fingers. I grin again and sit down next to the old man.
He begins to point each of the characters, the elephant, the soldier etc. May is enraptured, I can tell she is taking in every instruction, rapt. I listen, politely. But my head is elsewhere. I think of when when Lin Bao called for everything that represented old culture to be destroyed.
All around me people are drinking tea and playing chess. A waiter is shuffling around the bamboo seats pouring hot water from a kettle, which he pours from feet away. His aim is accurate and pinpointed, hot water tumbling into the pale yellow tea cups.
This is one of the happiest moments of my life, I decide. For who are we without our culture? Who are we without our teahouses, our libraries, our chess games and old men?
“You ready?” He asks.
I am a wonderful Maijong player.
Jung Chang would not begin to write Wild Swans for two more years. Her mother visited her in London and told her the stories of her and her grandmother (as stated in epilogue). She would then reconcile with her past and begin to write Wild Swans. This fictional scene happens two years before this, as the 'lost chapter.” Jung Chang did in fact invade a teahouse in her youth , a scene she describes in her bool. And in 1985 she revisited it with an English friend, after it had re-opened. The book Wild Swans makes the briefest of mentions to this visit, simply stating that she revisited it and it was the one of the happiest days of her life. I chose to imagine her scene at the teahouse and explore some of the thoughts she must have been thinking about the scene at hand and her experiences in London. I imagine what a shock it must have been to suddenly be in London, like discovering a new world. Jung Chang says that she chose to avoid thinking about the China she had left behind. However, her past would continue to catch up with her. I wrote this scene imagining how it would be like to reconnect with her past in ways that had been once deemed illegal by the Cultural Revolution.The Cultural Revolution was all about 'out with the old, in with the new.” However, I believe that without our pasts we have no definition of our present. I believe Jung Chang would say the same, leaving an amazing legacy in the form of Wild Swans.