Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Second Test

◎ He Wei

Professor Su Lin, a well-known expert on vocal music, found something very puzzling. Twenty-year-old girl Chen Yiling from the Chorus Training Class of more than 200 students had come out exceedingly well in the preliminary test, scoring high marks in vocal music, sightsinging, ear training and music theory. Her beautiful tone color and broad range, in particular, won high praise. But, to the great disappointment of everybody, she failed the second test. The professor, who had trained a large number of students, many of them now of international fame, had never seen a young girl with such a brilliant talent. And the above strange happening was something he had never known before.

The preliminary test took place in a spacious hall of antique style. Chen Yiling stood calmly before the eminent vocal music experts on the Test Committee. When she finished singing Xian Xinhai’s famous When February Comes, throngs of listeners could be seen standing entranced outside the doors and windows, and even the professors, who usually wore an air of casual indifference, could not help exchanging knowing looks at one another. As it was required of each candidate to sing a foreign song as well, Chen sang the aria Un bel di from the Italian opera Madama Butterfly. The audience were amazed by her splendid tone color and deep comprehension. Even Professor Su, known for his strict demands, also nodded his approval, his stern eyes twinkling with delight. Chen, wearing a light green woollen sweater and close-fitting brown trousers, stood there like a graceful tree on a spring morning. However, under the silent stare of so many eyes, the smiling girl appeared somewhat ill at ease.

The second test came to pass a week later. The result of this test was to determine each candidate’s fate — accepted or otherwise, and what his or her future career would be like. With most of the candidates already eliminated by the preliminary test, this second test was even more demanding in every respect. All celebrated local musicians were present. During the test almost all Test Committee members and visitors wore a harsh and nitpicking look. Nevertheless, they were all under the impression that of all the remaining candidates Chen would undoubtedly be the last one to fail the second test.

Unfortunately, the result was contrary to everybody’s expectation. When Chen’s turn came last, she sang the same two songs, but her voice was unpleasant and utterly lacklustre as if she were no longer her old self. Was it due to stage fright, nervousness or indisposition? People even suspected some sort of impropriety in her private life. They stared at each other in speechless despair and eyed her questioningly. Weariness was written all over her face. Her bright eyes now looked dejected and dull. And the corners of her otherwise playful mouth wore an expression of unspeakable anxiety. But, as a whole, she was bright, candid and trustworthy. People just could not understand what little accident, if any, had been the cause of her frustration. She smiled apologetically and disappeared out of the room.

Professor Su was obviously upset. He had always believed that to win people’s genuine love and esteem, an artist must first of all be exemplary in every way, first of all a noble-minded person. A singer was of course no exception. But a girl like Chen, who had no urge for self-improvement, would never become a successful singer. He turned in anger to look out of the window. The town had just been hit by the worst typhoon of the year. The ground outside was strewn with broken twigs and dry leaves. Fallen bamboo fences on the sodden ground. What a pitiful sight!

The Test Committee were divided in their opinions about Chen. Some held out little hope of her achieving success as a vocalist, saying that the two tests had shown her voice far from able to hold its own. Others wanted to give her an opportunity for another try. Professor Su, however, had a view of his own. He thought it important to find out the root cause of her failure in the second test. He maintained that if her failure was due to her questionable attitude towards her career and life, she should on no account be admitted no matter how highly gifted she was. That, he said, should be the first and foremost of all things to be considered.

Now what on earth was the cause of her failure?

Professor Su got Chen’s application form for enrollment from his secretary and underlined in red pencil the address she had put down on it. The photo attached to the form showed a very cute face with a pretty little mouth, lucid guitless eyes and a nose which would pucker up a little bit whenever she smiled. All that seemed to warn the professor against treating a person in a simplistic way — a person alive with thought and emotion. There must be certain practical aspects of the young girl which the simple application form made no mention of. Her failure to pass the second test might mean her life-long divorce from music and hence a permanent stifling of her musical talent. Should that be the case, the professor, whose duty it was to foster young musical talents, would never forgive himself.

The next morning, Professor Su took the first tram of the day. Thanks to the address given on the application form, he finally managed to find the secluded street in Yangshupu. The moment he stepped into the lane, he was taken aback by what he saw.

There were broken walls, charred beams of a ghastly black and scorched rags here and there among debris — all telling of the destruction wrought by the recent typhoon and the ensuing fire. Since early in the morning, some people had already been busying themselves amongst the rubble.

Professor Su, with a slip of paper in hand, was wondering where to find the address when all of a sudden he heard a child crying out randomly from an upstairs window of the opposite building, like a singer practising his voice:

“Mi—yi—yi—yi—, ma—ah—ah—ah—” The professor could not help smiling. He guessed right that the kid was Chen’s younger brother affectedly parroting his elder sister’s voice.

The professor then learned from the child that his elder sister Chen, ex-member of a PLA art troupe, was now on the administrative staff of a factory after being transferred from the army to civilian work in Shanghai. As a Youth Leaguer, she was enthusiastic and earnest. Whenever the factory or her neighborhood was in need of some help, she was always considered the right person to approach. Just a couple of days before, the neighborhood had caught fire as a result of electric wire sparking caused by the typhoon. Consequently, many families were left homeless. Chen spent a sleepless night caring for the disaster victims, which in turn affected her voice. The next day, when it occurred to her that it was the very day for the second test, she blurted out, “Oh, my!” Yet, she went to the test all the same.

That was the whole story.

“Look, she’s still busy working over there!” exclaimed the child from the window, gesticulating with his raised hand. “Let me call her! I’ll go and call her!”

“No, don’t. But just tell your sister that she’s been admitted after passing the second test! She has every qualification for being a superb singer, hasn’t she? I’ve almost made a mistake!”

The professor walked away from Chen’s house, and that very quickly. Yes, his bosom swelling with a thrill, he wanted to hurry back to let everybody know of the music student he had discovered and the whole story about her.