The lane, in terms of the art of urban architecture, is like a piece of prose of gentle gracefulness or a painting of classic elegance and simplicity.
Often tucked away in a small town south of the Yangtse River, the lane, like a maiden of ancient times hidden away in a secluded boudoir, is reluctant to make its appearance in public. You’ll never have an opportunity to see it and savour its gentle poise until you have become truly attached to the small town after living there for a long time. The lane has nothing in common with the mean rural alleys, which are narrow and low-lying, muddy and bumpy, overgrown with wild weeds and lined here and there with manure vats. Nor has it anything in common with lilong (meaning alleys) in Shanghai, which are literally packed with dwellings and their residents. Over there, you’ll see vendors hawking their wares here and there. From time to time, women are seen emerging from inside some dingy small gates and shuffling languidly in their slippers towards a laohuzao, the shop specializing in selling boiled water, their hair dishevelled like windblown withered grass in autumn, their eyes blood-shot, their faces betraying traces of overnight make-up. Nor had the lane anything in common with hutong (also meaning alleys) in North China, which are dusty on every side, especially when a wind rises.
The lane, though cut off from the hustle and bustle of busy cities, does not taste of the countryside at all. It is long and deep, so it will take you a long while to walk patiently and quietly through it from end to end. It is also so winding that it seems to be a blind alley when you look far ahead, but if you keep walking until you take a turning, you’ll find it again lying endless and still more quiet. There is nothing but stillness there. At any hour of day, you can even distinctly hear in the dusk-like quiet your own footsteps. On either side of the lane stand enclosing walls of medium height, which, moss-covered and hung with clusters of fresh green wistaria, look almost like screens of primitive simplicity. Inside the walls are residents’ gardens with dense groves of tall bamboos as well as soft sounds of nature. In spring, beautiful peach and apricot blossoms atop the walls, like graceful girls waving their red sleeves, will sway hospitably to beckon the pedestrians. You’ll find the doors in the walls close shut without a soul in sight because they are back doors to some households. Occasionally, you may come upon a dog lying there, which, however, never gives a bark at you.
The charm of the lane lies in its absolute serenity. No matter who you are, if you loiter around in the lane for a while, your mind will become as unruffled as the ancient well at the end of the lane. There you will experience a kind of peaceful calmness rather than gloomy sternness. There reigns peace and quiet in the midst of noisy bustle. It is a world of its own on earth. It may be a modern version of Wu Yi Xiang, a special residential area of nobility in the Jin Dynasty southeast of today’s Nanjing, where each family, secluded behind closed doors, has its own covered-up story of joys and sorrows, and rise and decline. When the sun is setting, swallows will fly low over wild flowers and grass on their way to their nests. The all-pervading and all-purifying atmosphere of water-like placidness makes one forget all cares and worries.
Aren’t you weighed down with cares in this life of hard toil and exhausted physically and mentally? I would like to advise you often to take a walk in the lane in your off-duty hours. That is the best way to take a rest. It will dissipate your fatigue and relieve your nervous tension. When you are fidgety or depressed, go to the lane and wander around reciting or composing poems with your hands crossed behind your back. You will then suddenly fall into a bright mood and enjoy inner peace, forgetting both yourself and the external world. Don’t you have a sweetheart? Let me suggest that, instead of accompanying her on a visit to a famous park or scenic spot, you take her with you for a stroll in the lane at dawn or dusk. Over there, you two can chat freely and with even deeper affection, free from greedy sidelong glances or malicious squints such as you often meet with in busy streets. Suddenly, at a creaking sound, there may appear a figure by a door — usually an unsophisticated young girl. She will, at the sight of you, withdraw coyly into the house.
The lane is a safe haven for those struggling in the turbulent sea of humans to enjoy a sense of security. It is a heavenly abode in the midst of confusion. Unlike the erstwhile plank-paved path used exclusively by the imperial family for their vehicles to move on smoothly, the lane is a place for the common people to roam about leisurely.
Those who strive after fame and gain, and haggle over every penny, please go to the downtown area! Those who are sharp-tongued and quarrelsome, please go to the teahouse or restaurant! Those who love deafening gongs and drums as well as noisy wind and string instruments, please go to the opera house or theatre! Those who are given to profound meditation and a quiet life without worldly desires, welcome to the lane!