Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Dreamlike Childhood

By Bing Xin

Whenever she looks back on the past, her childhood always seems to be a mere dream! How in those days it used to fill her heart with great pleasure to find herself the very picture of magnificent beauty when, clad in a gold-threaded naval uniform and armed with a sabre at her waist, she ambled along with a loose rein on a giant of a white horse, little knowing that she would some day be reduced to being a solitary writer wielding the pen to depict her dreams and emotions!

She was always dressed like a male child until she was ten. Before that, her father would often take her with him when he attended dinner parties arranged for the recreation of servicemen. Her father’s friends, the moment they saw her, would praise her by saying, “What a heroic little soldier! How old are you now?” Her father would end up the small talk smilingly with, “She’s my son as well as my daughter.”

She learned how to beat the drum for soldiers marching in parade and blow the bugle for fall-in. She was familiar with the mechanism of a Mauser. She also knew how to feed a big shell into the barrel of a cannon. True, the five to six years of military training she received inadvertently by the side of her father ended up in making a sprightly little soldier of her.

And what’s more, she didn’t share the same likes with ordinary girls. That was nothing unusual because, being the only little girl in the neighborhood, she had no female playmates at all. Occasionally she caught glimpses of some young country girls, dressed in bright green or red and with bound feet, trudging past below the mountain. But she had no way of knowing their day-to-day life, and nor did she give much thought to what she saw. The sabre, the horse — that was what she would like to have for lifelong company. Things about young females — how trivial and boring they seemed to her! With the boundless expanse of the ocean gleaming coldly now here and now there under the radiance of the searchlight, steadfast naval officers, standing in two rows under the light and flag, would solemnly raise their glasses in unison to drink to their motherland amidst the rattle of sabres. Fancy the very scene moving her to copious tears of joy!

Soon it was about time for her to wake up from the dream! After all, life is a dream, isn’t it?

After she returned to her native place at the age of ten, she began to dress like a girl and, through associating with her young female relatives, gradually learned the girlish ways of thinking and behaviour. For instance, silk thread of all colours was fancied for beautiful needlework; fragrant brilliant flowers should be put in the hair for decoration; dressing should be followed by taking a look in a mirror; when sitting among a crowd, a girl should speak in a soft and delicate tone; she should be lachrymose and normally somewhat petulant like a pampered child.

The new surroundings, however, were also conducive to her upbringing. But the sabre, given her by her father, was still hanging by her window. She would be struck by its cold gleam whenever she unsheathed it. Ah, the white horse, the seashore, the soldiers carrying rifles on their shoulders … how the vague memories would bring her infinite anxiety and sadness! When her young female relatives called to her from outside the window, she would refuse to leave her room. She would instead stand inside for hours, nostalgic tears trickling down in drops.

Was she overcome with regret? Maybe, but who knows! How the military life had shaped her disposition! How rhythmical and plaintive the bugle sounded from the barracks at twilight! Were tender feelings and soft passions exclusive to young girls? Imagine on a starry night on the moonlit sea, a lone soldier on duty at the watch tower, gun in hand and head up. And all was quiet under the dark sky and the sea was sound asleep. “Home beyond the sea and sky!” At a moment like this, the poet and the soldier in her would co-exist like two spectacular strands of silk twisted together!

What else could she do except weep a few futile heroic tears? She had to reconcile herself to the present way of life. How nice it would be if she could have her life to live over again! But that was mere fantasy!

Now what the ten unforgettable years has left her is a strong character. She is still fond of watching soldiers march in step and hearing the solemn and stirring call of a bugle. Nay, that’s not what she is so much fond as afraid of watching.

Whether wielding a sword on a galloping horse or holding a pen in deep thought, she is the same person. Only time has made all the difference …

Childhood! It’s an indelible dream, isn’t it?