◎ Ye Shengtao
I took a wooden boat from Chongqing to Hankou.
Of course I know it is risky to travel by wooden boat. With countless shoals and reefs to negotiate, accidents may happen any time. To complicate matters, there are bandits lurking around — those pitiful fellow countrymen who, unable to ward off starvation by farming or soldiering or whatnot, have been reduced to the disreputable business as a last resort. I’ll be in a real fix if they should rob me of, say, my bedding or clothes.
Now, on reflection, I realize that in the days before steamers and aircraft came into use, people used to travel by wooden boat up and down the Sichuan section of the Yangtse River. Even today, many continue to do so, and statistics will invariably show a higher percentage of people travelling by wooden boat than by steamer or aircraft. Why shouldn’t I do the same? Why should I think it beneath myself to travel by wooden boat? As for safety, is it less dangerous to travel by steamer or aircraft? Going on foot seems to be the best choice, but a tile falling off the eaves of somebody’s house might prove equally disastrous to foot passengers. Enjoying absolute safety is humanly impossible.
It stands to reason that I can go by steamer or aircraft if I care to. I can simply go around fishing for help or personal connections, or just buy a “black” ticket. But I’ll have to pay more than the regular price for a “black” ticket, which I can ill afford and which I disdain to do. And the very word “black” generates in me a feeling of repulsion. “Black” signifies fraud or illegal practice. Buying a “black” ticket is as good as getting involved in a fraud or an illegal practice. If it is beyond one’s capacity to single-handedly stem the prevailing social evils, one should at least be self-disciplined so as not to make matters worse. All this is undoubtedly the pedantic view of a bookish person — a view which must sound ridiculous to all sensible gentlemen.
Some people have told me from their own experience that soliciting help or seeking personal connections is something as difficult as hunting for a job. You may be kept cooling your heels in a janitor’s office or a reception room before an interview is granted. Hearing that you are trying to get a steamer or air ticket, the much sought-after interviewer may reply in a cold and indifferent manner, “Ali, that’s difficult … Come see me next week …” Thereupon you seem to see a ray of hope, and you may also feel totally uncertain of success. All you can do is wait until then. After making you don’t know how many visits, there eventually appear signs of a positive outcome. Then you have to go here and there to get a signature or a seal, meet with all sorts of cold reception and wait for all sorts of summonses — all for the purpose of obtaining a useful certificate to buy a ticket with. Once with a ticket in hand, your status automatically changes. You can now call yourself the employee of a certain government office or a certain official’s secretary. You can call yourself so-and-so or so-and-so’s father. You can either keep your original name or have it changed. In short, you must temporarily break off relations with your old self. The funniest thing is when you try to pass for a soldier of a certain army unit, you must not only have your name changed, but also wear a grey-cloth cotton-padded army uniform with a leather belt around your waist. All that kills my idea of soliciting help or seeking personal connections. I disdain to go humbly begging for a job even when I am starving, let alone to go asking for other people’s help in getting me a mere ticket. Neither is it necessary for me to go to all that trouble, nor should I bother other people for that matter. Going around is hard in the city of Chongqing. You have to queue up for at least 30 minutes or more to get on a bus. It would really be too much for me to go about for the ticket every day. As to the temporary divorce from my old self and the concealing of my identity, I hate to usurp all those designations though other people may think otherwise. I’m neither a government employee, nor a secretary, nor so-and-so, nor so-and-so’s father. I am myself. I am just an ordinary man with no urge to do better, so I hate to change places with anybody else, whether for a while or for good. To change places just for the sake of a trip would make me feel like being deprived. Wouldn’t it be sinful for me to wear the grey-cloth cotton-padded army uniform for nothing more than making a single trip? Though many other people violate the taboo, I for my part cannot bear to do the same. This again is the impractical view of a bookish person.
It was with this impractical view that I decided to take a wooden boat. It is absolutely true that a wooden boat cannot compare with a steamer, much less an airplane. But there is no need for soliciting help or seeking personal connections, nor the need for the so-called “black” ticket. All you need to do is contact the transport company, or go direct to the wharf to look for a wooden boat. Once you have located it, you will know what the fare is from Chongqing to Hankou, and every dollar will be paid for what it is worth, no more, no less. I find the wooden boat super in this respect. I am saved the humiliation of begging for help or the need of confronting the nasty look on somebody’s face. I can travel with my true identity. This is something quite beyond the majority of those travelling by steamer or aircraft. I am proud of it.
After I had made up my mind, two friends of mine, in spite of the difficult boat journey all the way from Li Jia Tuo and Bai Bin respectively, came to dissuade me from taking the wooden boat out of concern and respect for me. They enumerated various reasons against my decision as well as various possible mishaps, advising me in the end to re-consider the matter. I felt very grateful to them, and of course refrained from showing any reluctance to re-consider the matter. By way of allaying their anxiety, I said jokingly, “A good guy always enjoys Heaven’s protection.” Now, the subsequent news of my safe arrival in Hankou must have set their minds at rest.