Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Predawn Beijing

◎ Ji Xianlin

I’ve been in Beijing altogether for over 40 years. So I can well call myself a long-timer of Beijing. Like all other long-timers of the city, I’m supposed to be very familiar with its scenic spots and historical sites, nay, its superb attractions. But I believe there is one thing lying unknown to most of the long-time residents — the predawn hours of Beijing.

For many years, I have been in the habit of getting up before daybreak to start work at four. Instead of going out for a jog or walk, I’ll set about my work as soon as I’m out of bed. As a result, it is from inside my study that I’ve got the feel of predawn Beijing. Years ago, I hit upon a newspaper article about street cleaners in Tian’anmen Square at daybreak. It must have been a very moving scene, but what a pity I haven’t seen it with my own eyes. I can only picture it in my mind longingly.

Forty years ago, I lived downtown in Dongchang, a compound which had housed the secret service of the Ming Dynasty. There were inside it several deep spacious courtyards one leading into another. I was the sole dweller of the three innermost courtyards. My friends, calling this place too ghastly, seldom dared to come to see me in the evening whereas I myself found it quite agreeable. In summer, the moment I got out of bed before daybreak, I would smell the delicate fragrance of the giant silk trees coming from outside my window. Thereupon, I would feel refreshed and joyful, and the clumsy pen in my hand would seem to have become as agile as it could.

Several years later when I moved to the western suburbs, I kept my habit of rising at four to begin work at the window. The glittering spire atop the tower of the Beijing Exhibition Center, which I could see in the daytime through my window, would no longer be visible now in the early morning haze. Nevertheless I knew that, though invisible, it remained there intact, towering to the skies to inspire people with hope and the urge for moving ahead. At this, I would be beside myself with joy and feel as if my heart were also flying high up into the skies.

Ten years after, I moved again. In the new home of mine, I had no silk trees, nor could I get sight of the glittering spire from afar. There was, however, a lotus pond of limpid blue in front of my door. In the first few years after I moved there, lotus flowers continued to blossom on the surface of the pond. In the summertime, when day broke early at four, a vast stretch of lotus leaves looking skywards outside my window came dimly into sight while the quiet fragrance of the lotus flowers assailed my nose. All that delighted me even more than the silk trees and the glittering spire.

Is it exclusively due to the above-mentioned that I’ve developed a liking for predawn Beijing? No. For 30 years, I’ve been bogged down in the mire of meetings. To tell you the truth, with the experience accumulated over the 30 years, I’m now scared of meetings. In the daytime, there is no telling when I may be served a notice for attending a meeting. To exaggerate it a bit, that keeps me in constant suspense and makes me fidgety. Even when no meeting is to take place, I feel restless all the same. However, my experience tells that it is only during the predawn hours that I can be truly havened from any involvement in meetings. As soon as I sit at my desk before dawn, something similar to the conditioned reflex will begin to function within me: Instantly I’ll pick up my pen to play my proper part with perfect peace of mind. Then inspiration comes gushing to my mind and my memory becomes as quick as a newly-sharpened knife. I’ll feel overjoyed, almost to the point of waving my arms and stamping my feet.

In short, I love Beijing, especially predawn Beijing.