Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Ancient City

By Xiao Qian

It was early winter. The gloomy and low sky made one feel suffocating. A fall of snow a couple of days before had brought to the city dwellers a touch of brightness, but now what an ugly scene reigned! The raw wind sent the snow on the tiles along the eaves whirling in the air in tiny bits and adroitly making its way down the necks of the pedestrians by way of their collars. The streets had become slushy by exposure to the prankish sun, and the thawing snow was dotted with traces of footsteps.

A plane appeared out of the blue from a direction only too familiar to the local inhabitants, roaring to the alarm of everybody, on whose face was written memories of some previous horrors. Kids, who had been crawling about over ruts playing a game of small clay balls, now stopped to look up at the strange dragonfly in the sky, subconsciously feeling that something ominous was going to happen. However, they soon lowered their heads again to bury themselves in the messy game as soon as the dragonfly disappeared from view behind the treetops.

That was a grey iron bird by no means a stranger to the ancient city. Everybody knew it was a scout with a multitude of “buddies” right behind it. With its straight wings spread out, it swept past sturdy old trees, quiet tile-roofed dwellings and lakes of imperial gardens, and circled over dazzling glazed tiles. It kept flying and flying. The ancient city, like a clumsy old man sitting there with his numbed legs crossed, looked on helplessly in face of what was taking place before him.

The dark low archway of the city gate was thronged with tradesmen and pedestrians passing to and fro, each staring blankly ahead. Acting on the public warning “No discussing state affairs”, people had learned to keep their mouth closely shut. Yes, trouble seemed to be brewing. But they knew not the trouble was between whom and whom. Maybe they should store up more pickled vegetables just in case, and remember to burn joss sticks before the image of the kitchen god at home so as to get a blessing from heaven on all their folks.

As the snow began to thaw under the sun, the corners of the city wall revealed scars of war. That was something left on it by history. History had sent great men to build the wall, and history had also sent tyrants to destroy it. Again and again, it had, in time of turmoil, suffered knife-cuts and bombardment for the sake of the common people. Now, nobody could tell what kind of fate was in store. Anyway the local people were surging like a tide into the city for shelter. A perfect barometer it was indeed — another conqueror was eyeing the ancient city greedily.

The ancient city, like a clumsy old man bending low and gasping feebly, continued to watch over the group of innocent kids around him, his eyes brimming with tears.