Original Chinese by Zou Jingzhi, Translated to English by Jeremy Tiang
One day at the subway station, you hear the Mendelssohn concerto in E Minor, and instinctively touch the four fingertips of your left hand—but there's nothing there. They're smooth, the calluses gone without a trace. No one would be able to tell you once played the violin, practicing eight hours a day, slowly gliding across open strings to start with, using your whole bow, over and over, the instrument squawking like an undead chicken from G string to E, then back again. Day after day, knowing all the while how far from you the music was.
The Mendelssohn continues. You can't hide from its grace and purity, any more than you can escape failure.
Next, you learned scales, shifting positions, staccato, spiccato, where to find the harmonics, how to play vibrato. From Kreutzer to Jakob Dont, those tadpole-like music notes swallowed many years, during which the vast illusion of musicianship enfolded you. You'd read the stories of Paganini, of Jascha Heifetz, of David Feodorovich Oistrakh. You felt that someday, possibly, perhaps, maybe, who knows...
You brought your violin along when you were sent to the Great Northern Waste. Amidst these vast plains, it required a sturdy pair of hands more than ever before, but you couldn't possibly speak to poverty-stricken farmers about palms or Paganini. In summer you tilled the land, in autumn harvested the wheat, and in winter spread frozen manure. When your fingers pressed on the strings, the sounds they produced weren't as lively as before. They no longer obeyed you. Bit by bit, your violin felt like a solidified dream.
Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor also feels like a dream.
At this time, art was an extravagance. On the threshing floor, going through the repetitive motions, you remembered the melody to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and hummed it quietly. Following the beat, you raised your metal flail and brought it down on the plump grains, up then down again. In an instant, it hit you fully, how far we were from the life of the imagination.
The Mendelssohn plays on, and this time round you don't need to worry about it being interrupted by a snippet from a revolutionary tune.
One evening, you were summoned from your dorm, and a stern-faced official said to you: bring your instrument, report to headquarters, you're needed to rehearse a model opera—a glorious, arduous revolutionary duty. You'll start tomorrow.
You went back to your dorm and retrieved your violin, wiping off the dust. The strings were loose, and when you tightened them, a hum rose from deep within its body, as if it was yawning after being roused. When you were done tuning, you set it down and examined your hands. The calluses were still there, but no longer on your fingertips—they were now on your palm.
In Taking Tiger Mountain, a long overture precedes the final assault, with sixteenth notes coming thick and fast. Such a vigorous piece of music certainly couldn't be undertaken by just one little violin—that'd be far too thin a sound. Instead, all the instruments take part, so you hear the scattered troops dashing through the air. But apart from the haplessness of everyone trying their utmost, there was no music, and you said this wouldn't do, perhaps all the instruments should go back to practicing scales. No one paid attention to you. An orchestra with just eleven days to rehearse an entire opera had no reason to heed such talk. And the show came together, an emotional miracle.
The Mendelssohn changes, growing more magnificent, shimmering.
It's not like you could just play Mendelssohn any time you wanted. That day, resting after the performance, you sat beneath a catalpa tree, running through some exercises. Your fingers had recovered their former power, and you began a Mendelssohn piece, sinking into it with something like hopefulness. The propaganda bureau chief, there for an inspection, happened to hear you. He asked, what kind of song are you playing on that fiddle? (He insisted on calling your violin a fiddle.) You told him. He said, who's this Mendelssohn, then? You explained. He said, ah, no wonder it sounds like some stinking bourgeois piano bar tune; if you've got nothing better to do, why not play Taking Tiger Mountain? Or a piece that tells a revolutionary story, like The Flowing River? Or better yet, learn the erhu, you'll be much closer to the people that way.
The righteousness of his bringing up the erhu and the people left you speechless. When you put your violin away, you looked at it lying flat in its case, a corpse ready for burial.
From that day, I began keeping a diary. In a corner of my bunk each day, I wrote all that was within me. No matter how late it was, even if it was just one line, I wrote. I grew mesmerized by these white pages that kept my feelings safe, words even more comforting than music notes, although they were silent, and only I could hear them. When I'd almost got through my first notebook, an educated youth from Shanghai sneaked a look. He left a note behind, stuck between the pages: your journal moved me deeply—you said many things that I've wanted to, and I hope you keep writing, but nothing too revealing. A revolutionary salute—you know who.
Thinking about it, that would make him my first reader, the first person to encourage me. I knew what he meant about being too revealing. After that, my entries often took the form of poetry. I remember only a kind of emotion, which I described at the time as 'a stark wind, white hair in the icy cold air.' Looking at it now, this line seems horribly affected.
I started with a sort of complete self-awareness, which was different from the violin. There was no score I could consult, and I never dreamed I'd be able to connect my writing with my life. It was more like a discussion, a dialogue with a blank sheet of paper, squeezing a few words from my heart each time. This flow of language could easily affect a person who wanted to say something, but couldn't get the words out.
I kept writing like this, until I left the Great Northern Waste.
Now I see this as just a beginning, one that had to do with abandoning the violin, although to this day I'm unable to claim this was what set me on my present path. That wouldn't be an honest account.
In 1977, I returned to Beijing aged twenty-five. There were all kinds of possibilities ahead of me, and to be honest, I tried many of them. For three years, I worked hard to attain a life of stable ordinariness. After that, I went back to writing, throwing my whole self into it. Those who knew me well were surprised by my dedication. In an essay about writing, I once said: anyone who still wants to write poetry after the age of thirty must be doing it for an inescapable reason. What that reason is, I still don't know, but it was something to do with my life, my very existence. I'm happy to say that anyone who writes is destined to write, and no matter what kind of life they'd ended up in, the outcome would be the same.
Decades have passed, and poetry has entered my life. I've only ever been grateful that it chose to do so.
I walk out of the subway station, and Mendelssohn disappears. Now I think about art, and how it never paused, nor could ever be interrupted. Once again, I now have no calluses on my left hand. Instead, there are fleshy pads on my right, where I grip my pen.
Zou Jingzhi is an acclaimed Chinese playwright, poet and prose writer. Extremely influential as a poet in the 1980s, he has continued to shape public opinion in China, more recently through his stage productions and screenplays, including The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar Wai) and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (dir. Zhang Yimou). He is a founding member of the theater collective Longmashe, which regularly produces his plays. Zou is a member of the Chinese Writers Association and a resident writer of the Beijing Writers Association.
Jeremy Tiang is the translator of more than ten books from Chinese, including novels by Zhang Yueran, Yeng Pway Ngon and Chan Ho-Kei. He is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Grant, an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship, and a Henry Luce Foundation Fellowship. Tiang also writes and translates plays, and is the author of the short story collection It Never Rains on National Day (Singapore Literature Prize finalist) and the novel State of Emergency. He is the Asia Literary Editor at the New York-based Asian American Writers’ Workshop.