Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Enjoying the Moon

By Ye Shengtao

People living in the small alleyways of Shanghai pay little attention to the waxing and waning, or the visibility, of the moon. The so-called “courtyards” in their houses are generally smaller than three metres square. And each room is illuminated by an electric bulb of at least 16 watts. Such a living environment is of course inconvenient for you to enjoy the moonlight. When you go out for a walk towards the evening, you’ll see street lamps lit up one after another though it is not yet quite dark. Moon or no moon simply means the appearance of one extra street lamp or that one of the street lamps has gone wrong and ceased to give out light. Nobody cares.

Last summer, I complained that I could seldom hear the singing of cicadas. Now I’m sorry I haven’t seen the moon for a long time. I remember how late one night I happened to wake up to find no more blaring of the radio from the window of the opposite house, no more clatter of next door’s mahjong tiles and that all lights in the neighbourhood had been put out. A creamy white ray of light streamed in through my southern window to cast the shadow of the window lattice on my quilt. I was somewhat surprised. Then, when it dawned on me that it was the moon, I immediately looked out of the window, curious to have a look at it. But, unfortunately, it was soon hidden by clouds.

People from Peiping often wonder why Shanghailanders should choose to live in such a lousy place. They say life here is so full of tension, the air so foul, and trees so scarce, and so on and so forth. I wonder if the apparent loss of moonlight might as well be listed among their reasons for staying away from this city. But I would think otherwise, for it doesn’t make sense to call enjoyment of moonlight one of the requisites of life. Open heart and wide vision do not necessarily come of watching the moon. The same can be achieved in self-cultivation, and that in a more practical way, by looking earthward instead of skyward. Nevertheless, I’m not opposed to watching the moon. I only mean it doesn’t matter at all if you see no moon.

The moonlight I once enjoyed watching in the suburbs of Fuzhou, round a bend of the Min River, was the best I have ever seen. Over there, one night as I leaned on an upstairs railing and gazed into the distance, I was amazed to see the surging tidal water in the River sparkling like silver in the moonlight. The mountains along the river banks, enveloped in a thin mist, appeared quite different from what we had been accustomed to see. The moon was hanging leisurely high up in the sky. A wide sandy beach lay stretching all the way from the riverside to where I lived, showing a vast expanse of white in the moonlight, with slight undertones of green. Suddenly the sweet fragrance of tuberoses wafted up from somewhere. It might be the sweet fragrance of the moon, I thought. I stood lost in reverie. It was not until fifteen minutes later that, turning round to see my own shadow on the plaster wall, I finally returned to my old self.

Of course it will bring me great pleasure to see the same brilliant moonlight a few more times even though I’ve said, “It doesn’t matter at all if you see no moon.”