◎ Wu Guanzhong
The place where I live, known as Hui-xian-tang, used to be a well-known big restaurant in Beijing during the last years of the Qing Dynasty. With painted pillars and carved windows, it was then a splendid mansion facing the Shi-sha-hai Lake. The rooms downstairs and upstairs would be packed with literati enjoying a get-together, tradesmen negotiating business affairs, and singsong girls performing for a living. And it also witnessed numerous wedding feasts held by rich and influential families. But now, like a run-down royal palace, it has become a residential compound occupied by dozens of households with some of its members working at six or seven different organizations. Piled high with rubble here and there, the whole place is in a terrible mess with makeshift shacks, a narrow path running zigzag across it, and eaves so low as to hit the head of passers-by. I live in a one-story two-room house in the rearmost backyard backed by a small lane. As the window is high up in the wall, I can’t see anything in the lane, but I can hear a lot of noises therefrom, such as the cries of itinerant knife sharpeners, the blaring of car horns and the shouting and screaming of women. The mixed noises often disturb me in my work. Exceptionally, however, I find one voice so very pleasing. “Letters, and newspapers!—”It’s the clear, ringing voice of a young girl, uttered with a much prolonged last syllabic sound. It seems to keep echoing over the courtyard of each and every household in the neighborhood. To me, it’s music!
People who have fortune on their side will look forward to good news; people separated from their dear ones will long to hear from them. Man always lives in hopes. The personal fate, the prospects of the nation, the fast changing world—in short, all variables and uncertainties in the future—are causing great concern. Nobody knows what tomorrow has got in store for us! The postgirl delivers to us news about the unknown future and about the real state of affairs, pleasant or unpleasant. Like others, I’m eager for mail every day. How heart-warming is the cry of the postgirl coming from the small lane back of my house! As the years go by, I seem to have known her for a long time.
Later, whenever I took a stroll along the secluded small lane, I would unconsciously turn my eyes towards the green-uniformed postgirls riding green-coloured bikes, wondering which of them was the one whose familiar voice I had heard calling every day. These girls were equally beautiful! When I was young, I once entered a hospital in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, to undergo an operation for eye trouble. With both eyes bandaged, I left myself entirely in the care of a nurse. Every morning and evening, I would hear her calling me in a clear, soft voice, “Let’s take your temperature!” Gradually I became familiar with the voice. I felt grateful and well disposed towards it. In short, I fell in love with her on the sly though I didn’t even know what she looked like. The day when I had my eye bandage removed after recovery, I was eager to find out from among the many nurses the one who had attended to me, but in vain because leaving in a flurry, I failed to hear her voice again. Nevertheless, I’ve since held all white-robed nurses in high esteem. O white-robed nurses, how beautiful is the spotlessly white colour! O green-uniformed postmen and postwomen, how beautiful is the green colour signifying peace!
One snowy afternoon, when I was doing painting, I heard the familiar voice of a girl calling at a distance from the front courtyard, “Wu Guanzhong, your seal, please—!”Yes, that was the postgirl! I put down the painting brush and hurried to the front courtyard through the passageway between the makeshift shacks. Arriving at the gate, I saw hanging on the postgirl’s green bike a big postbag bulging with mail. Of course that was the last thing for her to leave behind under any circumstances. I immediately realized why, instead of going to the rearmost courtyard to deliver the letter to me in person, she had had to call me from afar at the top of her voice like a shepherdess on the grassland. It was cold and she was dressed in a cumbersome cotton-padded jacket, which was so big that she could no longer wear the green uniform over it. The big scarf round her neck concealed half of her face so that I was unable to see what she really looked like. Not knowing that I was eager to talk a few words to her, she quickly mounted her bike and left. Against the blinding white snow, both rider and bike looked especially dark. Her quickly receding figure brought to mind a raven on the wing, or rather a magpie!