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星期五, 19 4 月, 2024
HomeModern Chinese EssaysAge-old Stories~《古老的故事》(司马中原) with English Translations

Age-old Stories~《古老的故事》(司马中原) with English Translations

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Age-old Stories


译/张梦井 杜耀文


It’s better at night, when we all sit together in a wooden hut in the mountains with towering trees around. Long before we came to this world in the times which are too far back to see even by dispelling away the cold clouds of history, these trees had already sprouted against the wind and frost. Can human stories be regarded as being old in their ears? Man’s life is always short. In Li Bai’s poem we can find the following two lines:

“Or the grey locks mourned in lofty chambers’ mirrors bright / There dawn of silken jet, and dusk of snow?”[1]

[1] Taken from Li Bai’s poem For the moment, Drinking wine.


Perhaps you have some perplexing experiences. For example, seeing an object several times older than you, like a darkened wooden bed with carvings, a rusty coin of the past dynasty covered with verdigris, a house different from modern ones in styles and decoration, you may probe into the lost age to relate and describe it with your feelers. And sometimes strange imaginations float in your min like bubbles. The several age-old stories are all stemmed from there and gradually grew up.



The above-mentioned can be tentatively regarded as the prologue of a story, then we slowly light up a candle light, let it illuminate our faces. Do you see those old things displayed in the wooden house? And the darkened bronze candlesticks dyed with many spots of candle tears? How many candles have sobbed in the wind before the window? The old-typed striking clock with carvings is tick-tacking with the time. It is too old to gasp for breath.


During ordinary times the old stories we hear are mostly told by old men with white brow and white beard. Holding long pipes, clicking them and puffing out smoke, they would tell these stories with their faces wrapped in a thick smoke. It seems as if they are not quite true. But any old man has his young days, dreamed, loved and burned like a candle. The same is true of things. How can you find the gloss of a painting when it was just painted, which has already become greyish yellow? Similarly the age of our golden times and the merry youth will also become dark with the drifting of times, becoming other old stories. Thus all the old things are natural and there is absolutely nothing to be laughed at. Can a wise man laugh at things he originated in?



Of course not, for the earnest and blazing lustre in your eyes can make me feel somewhat at ease when telling these stories. I cannot be counted as an old man, but at least I feel a heavy burden of life. Someone says that those who often dream of future are all young men. Recent years I often dream of past events, which may be the sign of my being aged. However, when I appreciate my own experience, I feel both relieved and easy, for the revelation that the several old things brought to us are abundant.



At a rainy winter night several years ago, I read of many poems of recollection in a magazine specially devoted to chess-playing. It was said that the author was a chess fan, but I prefer to call him a poet, for the poems he composed possessed high and desolate artistic conception. Among the traditional poems by contemporary writers, there are the works that carry a lot of weight. I have never seen the writer, not even know his real name. I only know the old river bands, toppling sound of turbid waves, misty distant forest and the reddish setting sun revealed in his poems. In the thatched cottage of the wine shop, the chess-fonder host takes chess board as chopping block and the pieces in the chess board as pieces of fish scale.



Presently the scene changes, showing a yard with tender willow branches hanging on walls and thickly grown with trailing grass. The misty spring rain is falling rather than drifting. A young couple who are fond of antiques, calligraphy and painting and even chess-playing have composed the life into poems. But before I know it, willows are dead and flowers fallen.They all became vivid past events. While I was sitting lonely at a cold night, and listening to the north wind shaking the windows and wiping the dust off alone, I felt the taste was just like strong wine used to drench the sorrow!


In a rainy spring just before the Pure Brightness[2] when I went to graveyard to pay respect to a dead friend of mine, I saw a grey-haired old lady sitting before her husband’s grave with a basket about her, in which was an unfinished woolen sweater and some knitting wool, conveniences and water. She cut the grass on the grave carefully with a pair of common scissors. Thus I stopped there in curiosity, watching her doing that the whole day. It seems that she was not cutting he grass but cutting her own recollection… who can think the old things as being so remote? In practical life, man can meet with this sort of concealed and old stories at any time.

[2] The fifth solar term; according to traditional Chinese custom, it is the day to pay respect to the dead.


In another rainy spring evening, I was strolling in Daxi Town with a girl who was deeply fond of antiques. Seeing the interesting ancient street and the irregular houses left over in the last dynasty, she said that she used to go to school there when she was a child. And after school when she passed by the street, she often stopped and watched how the old carpenter was carving desks and chairs and painting wooden furniture. But now the old carpenter had been replaced by a young one, while the clouds, dragons and phoenix and the patterns of characters be carved were still the same as the old man had done. It seems as though there was a long, deep river connecting the two lives.



Holding an umbrella, she took me to see some still old and collapsed ancestral hall. The carved beams and pillars fell into the wild grass and the names of ancestry of various generations with illustrious official titles were also half hidden in the annihilation of the courtyard, exposing to the rain water. However, the Dahan Stream at the foot of the cliff was still flowing as before. She said nothing to explain and affirm anything. Her smile unfolded in the endless rain of spring, showing some mood of desolation of late spring…



Further ago, a friend of mine told me that in the suburb there was an old man who sold sesame-seed cakes. His wife had long passed away, leaving him a son. Besides bustling about his business from dawn to dusk, he had to bring up his son, as a father and a mother as well. The days were passing like an arrow. At least those living in poverty do not have such a pleasant feeling. When the son was studying abroad, the cake peddler father was spending his last days. After the son had gone, he wrote home one or two time each year, telling his father that he had married, had a job, bought a car, purchased a house… with all the scenes of his marriage and career included in a coloured album. When the old man was dying, he held that album tightly drawn according to his dreams, but who will pay respect to his grave?



The candle light is flickering. Is it true that there is some desolation and hoarseness in my voice? What’s the difference to talk about other’s matters and to talk about matters of my own? Things new contain the old and similarly old things shine with fresh things. In that way, they irregularly spread themselves out, casting light upon each other. Isn’t every respect of human life a transparent mirror, reflecting different features of human life? Our ancestors used to meditate generously on the past, they wrote: “Uncorroded is the broken halberd, recovered from the sands. Once washed, it proves a relic of the Han,”[3] which seems too ancient and too passionate. If it can be brought here and mix both the modern and the ancient into one, maybe we can wake back to reality still better.

[3] The Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu’s poem Red Cliff.



When I dream of the lotus-seed porridge and chant poems over a flickering oil lamp, I seem to hear my footsteps on the floor when I was young.



How was your first poem written then?

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