Gao Xingjian

One Man's Bible

Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee


It was not that he didn't remember he once had another sort of life.

But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever. In his Beijing home, confiscated by the police, he had a family photo left by his dead father: it was a happy gathering, and everyone in the big family was present. His grandfather who was still alive at the time, his hair completely white, was reclined in a rocking chair, paralyzed and unable to speak. He, the eldest son and eldest grandson of the family, the only child in the photo, was squashed between his grandparents. He was wearing slit trousers that showed his little dick, and he had on his head an American-style boat-shaped cap. At the time, the eight-year War of Resistance against the Japanese had just ended, and the Civil War had not properly started. The photograph had been taken on a bright summer day in front of the round gateway in the garden, which was full of golden chrysanthemums and purple-red cockscombs. That was what he recalled of the garden, but the photo was water-stained and had turned a grayish yellow. Behind the round gateway was a two-story, English-style building with a winding walkway below and a balustrade upstairs. It was the big house he had lived in. He recalled that there were thirteen people in the photograph-an unlucky number-his parents, his paternal uncles and aunts, and also the wife of one of the uncles. Now, apart from an aunt in America and himself, all of them and the big house had vanished from this world.

While still in China, he had revisited the old city, looking for the old courtyard compound at the back of the bank where his father had once worked. He found only a few cheaply built cement residential buildings that would have been constructed a good number of years earlier. He asked people coming in and out if such a courtyard used to be there, but no one could say for sure. He remembered that at the rear gate of the courtyard, below the stone steps, there was a lake. At Duanwu Festival, his father and his bank colleagues would crowd on the stone steps to watch the dragon-boat race. There was the pounding of big gongs and drums, as dragon boats decorated with colorful streamers came to snatch the red packets hanging from bamboo poles put out by the houses around the lake. The red packets, of course, contained money. His third uncle, youngest uncle, and youngest aunt, once took him out on a boat to fish for the two-horned water chestnuts that grew in the lake. He had never been to the opposite side of the lake, but even if he went there and looked back, from that short distance, he would not have recognized this dreamlike memory.

This family had been decimated; it was too gentle and fragile for the times. It was destined to have no progeny. After his grandfather died, his father lost his job as bank manager and the family fell into rapid decline. His second uncle, who was keen on singing Peking Opera, was the only one to work with the new government authorities, and this was on account of his Democratic Personage title.

Nevertheless, seven or eight years later he was labeled a rightist. Afterward, he grew sullen, barely spoke, and would doze off as soon as he sat down. Transformed into a listless, wizened old man, he held on for a few years, then quietly died. The members of this big family died of illness, drowned, committed suicide, went insane, or followed their husbands to prison farms and simply passed away, so that the only person left was a bastard like him. There was also his eldest aunt whose black shadow had once engulfed the whole family. She was said to have been alive and well a few years ago, but he had not seen her since that photo was taken. The husband of this aunt was a member of the Nationalist airforce. As ground personnel, he never dropped a bomb but he fled to Taiwan, where he died of some illness a few years later. He did not know how this aunt had managed to get to America, and had not bothered to find out.

However, on his tenth birthday-it was customary in those times to use the lunar calendar, so he was actually only nine-the family was a large one, and it was a big event. When he got out of bed that morning, he put on new clothes as well as a new pair of leather shoes; to have a child wear leather shoes in those days was indulgent. He also received lots of presents: a kite, a chess set, a geometrical puzzle, imported coloring pencils, a pop gun with a rubber stopper, and the Complete Collection of Grimms' Fairy Tales in two volumes with copperplate illustrations. His grandmother gave him three silver dollars wrapped in red paper: one Qing Dynasty 'dragon ocean,' one Yuan Shikai 'big bald head,' and one new silver dollar with Chiang Kaishek in full military regalia. Each of the coins made a different sound. The Chiang Kai-shek one made a tinkle, compared with the clank of the thick and heavy Yuan Shikai 'big bald head.' He put these in his little leather suitcase, together with his stamp album and his colored marbles. Afterward, the whole family went out to eat steamed crab-roe dumplings in a garden restaurant with artificial mountains and a pond full of goldfish. A big round tabletop had to be used to seat everyone. For the first time, he was the center of attention in the family and he sat next to his grandmother in the seat where his grandfather, who had recently died, would have sat. It was as if they were waiting for him to become the bastion of the family. He bit into a dumpling, and hot liquid from the filling splashed his new clothes with grease. Nobody scolded him, they simply smiled, but he was greatly embarrassed. He remembered this, probably because he had just lost his childish ignorance and was aware of becoming a grown-up, and because he felt really stupid.

He also remembered that when his grandfather died, the mourning hall was hung with layers of coffin curtains, like the backstage of an opera theater, and it was much more fun than that birthday. A troupe of monks struck clappers and gongs as they chanted sutras. He lifted the coffin curtains, ran in and out of them, and had a good time. His mother got him to put on hemp shoes and he did, under duress, but adamantly refused to tie white cloth around his forehead, because it looked ugly. It was probably his grandmother's idea. However, his father had to tie white cloth around his head even though he was dressed in a white linen Western suit. The men who came to mourn were also mosdy in suits and ties, and the women were all wearing qipao and high-heeled shoes. Among the guests was a woman who played the piano; she was a coloratura soprano and the tremble in her singing made it sound like the bleating of a lamb-of course this wasn't in the mourning hall but at the wake at home. It was the first time he'd heard singing like this and he couldn't stop laughing. His mother quietly scolded him right in his ear, but he couldn't help laughing out loud.

In his memory, the time of his grandfather's death was like a special festival, and there was an absence of grief. He thought the old man should have died much earlier. He had been paralyzed for a long time, and during the day was always reclining in the rocking chair; that he should return to heaven, sooner or later, was quite natural. Death in his grandfather's case was not frightening, but his mother's death terrified him. She had drowned in a river on a farm. Her bloated corpse was found floating in the water by peasants when they took the ducks down to the river in the morning. His mother had responded to the call of the Party to go to the farms to be reeducated. She died in the prime of life, at the age of thirty-eight, so her image in his heart was always beautiful.

A present he got as a child was a gold Parker fountain pen, given to him by Uncle Fang, one of his father's colleagues at the bank. He was playing with Uncle Fang's pen at the time and wouldn't put it down. The grown-ups all thought it was a good sign, and said the child was sure to become a writer. Uncle Fang was very generous and gave him the pen, it was not on that birthday but when he was younger, because he had written a piece about it in his diary when he was almost eight. He should have been going to school but, because he was frail and sick all the time, it was his mother who taught him to read and also to write with a brush, a stroke at a time, over the red character prototypes printed in the squares of the exercise books. He did not find it hard, and at times filled a book in a day, so his mother said it was enough of that, and got him to write a diary with a brush to save paper. Some composition booklets with small squares were bought for him and even if it took him half a day to fill a page, it counted as his assignment. His first diary piece read roughly: 'Snow falling on the ground turns it pure white, people treading on it leave dirty footprints.' His mother talked about it, and everyone in the family, as well as

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