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Sport 6: Autumn 1991

Alison Glenny — A Chinese Romantic

page 121

Alison Glenny

A Chinese Romantic

Three Poems of Wu Chen Li

The eldest of six sons, Wu Chen Li was born into a peasant family in Sichuan Province, in the time of Ch'ien-lung, second emperor of the Manchu dynasty of Ch'ing. Times were hard. The landlords were cruel and oppressive. Wu's parents were bitter, hardworking people forced to watch, each year, as their meagre harvest was expropriated in the form of taxes for the emperor's wars. Wu's father was a tyrant who extracted as much labour from his sons as he possibly could, and punished them for imagined infractions with frequent beatings. There was no money for shoes, and in winter when snow scattered the ground, Wu was sent out to dig turnips with his feet wrapped only in rags fastened with a piece of string.

On one such day, shortly before the spring thaws, Wu looked up from the dark holes left in the ground by the frozen turnips to see the first pale and lovely petals on the flowering cherry. The thought hope crystallised on a grey bough gleamed for an instant in his mind, then vanished. At that moment Wu resolved to become a poet.

A month later, when spring had turned the ground to a mush too soft to hold footprints, Wu ran away from his parents' home. For a time he wandered aimlessly through the countryside of Sichuan Province. Then, on the slopes of the Tsinling mountains, he found refuge in a Taoist monastery.

The life of a monk was solitary and contemplative. Wu helped in the kitchen and became a skilful vegetarian cook. One of the brothers taught him to read and write. The remainder of his time was spent in the forests that surrounded the monastery. For Wu, this was a time of intense identification with nature, that found expression in the series of poems ' Leaves from a Hillside in Sichuan Province':

It's true
there was a
page 122 deep
in the forest
some say
firs surrounded it;
I found my

Wu stayed only two years with the brothers. He decided to travel, making his way eventually to the great sea port of Shanghai. His first sight of the ocean, crammed with junks, sampans and foreign shipping, filled him with astonishment and a yearning to see the world. Fortunately, Sichuan province was renowned for the excellence of its cuisine, and Wu was able to obtain a job as a cook on an ocean-going ship with a cargo of silk, spices, and fine China tea. For the next year and a half he boiled, stir-fried, baked and steamed his way around the great oceans of the world. He visited Africa, Asia and Europe. Words and images jumped through his mind like rabbits, and he wrote poems on the inside of discarded tea packets, thin sheets of edible rice paper, or the empty flour bags which he cut up and sewed into tiny books.

The ship hugged the West African coast, bound for Monrovia. Wu caught his first sight of monkeys, crossing a glade by an overhead path of branches and interlacing vines. Forlorn sea creatures called manatees floated in the shallow coastal water, their long hair drifting about them and the young they clasped in their arms. The sight of them stirred a deep excitement in the soul of Wu Chen Li. He looked up from folding wonton to see a mother hippopotamus, followed by her baby, wading down to the water's edge. Between mixing noodle dough and preparing a marinade for chicken, Wu took another sheet of rice paper and moistened his brush by dipping it in ink made from the blood of cuttlefish.

It was winter when they arrived in London. While the ship stood idle at the Isle of Dogs, Wu explored the city. A diminutive figure, he stood on Cheapside beneath St Paul's and gazed with respect and awe at the cathedral's mighty dome. London, with its fogs, its monochromes, its chills rising from the river, seized his imagination. The food was terrible, and the manners of the English splendidly barbaric, like those of a savage and primitive race. Wu jumped ship. He disappeared into the river of humanity page 123that flowed through the London streets. Sometimes he travelled to the West End to see shows or visit art galleries. At night, he walked alone on the Thames Embankment. In the steamy warmth of Lyon's corner tea rooms he wrote the 'River Night Songs' on napkins, abandoned by fellow patrons:

Beneath the
black water
slips and oh!
the mist
how it
it rises
the tide.

Wu attended English classes, consolidating the smattering of words and phrases that he had acquired from shipmates in the course of his travels. He read English poetry and was unimpressed. Then, from a small bookshop in Charing Cross Road he obtained a second-hand copy of the Lyrical Ballads, containing poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge. He skipped the preface, which he found difficult reading, but was absorbed by the poems and re-read them repeatedly. Wu began to dream of a closer acquaintance with the poets whose work he admired.

The closest he came, however, was a meeting with De Quincey, to whom he sold a block of exceptionally fine hashish. The hashish provided the English opium-eater with exquisite visions, but the experience was marred by the persistent apparition of a ghostly Chinaman, whose face, encountered in the darkest chambers of his inward vision, filled him with terror.

A few weeks later, on passing De Quincey in Old Street, Wu waved and smiled in a friendly manner, but De Quincey, to his surprise, uttered a terrible shriek, jumped into a hansom carriage, and was borne away into the night.

Wu was offended by the Englishman's behaviour, but tried hard not to feel too hurt. Alone in the great city, he sometimes experienced a feeling of isolation. At times such as these he felt himself to be no more than a trace of his real self, the darker shadow adhering to the words on a printed page.

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Wu made a pilgrimage to the Lake District, in the hope of making Wordsworth's acquaintance. His head was full of things he would have liked to communicate to his fellow poet. He was, however, too shy and nervous to introduce himself to the great man. Instead he contented himself with wandering from time to time past the gate of Dove Cottage, where he would linger in the hope of catching a glimpse of Wordsworth in the parlour, deeply absorbed in the process of composition.

Alas, the poet proved an elusive presence. All Wu ever got to see was the poet's sister, Dorothy, as she whisked a fresh batch of scones from the oven.

Wu Chen Li and Dorothy Wordsworth had another encounter, which Dorothy recorded in her diary:

. . . saw the strange little oriental man again today. He greeted me as I stood by the gate & showed me a better way of spreading manure. Poor man he is all alone & there is much prejudice against him in the neighbourhood; with winter coming I fear much for his well-being. Called him back & gave him an old coat of Wm's.

Winter in the Lake District was colder than in London. Seasonal work was difficult to obtain, especially for a foreigner. When snow began to fall and his shoes had worn thin, Wu found his childhood memories of the fields in Sichuan province vividly revived. In a pile of rubbish at the back of Dove Cottage, he found an exercise book filled with crossed out rough workings of poems. On the inside covers and some blank pages at the back, he wrote his 'Odes to a Season in Grasmere'. The poems were austere and stoical. They told of grim endurance. It seemed as if winter would never end.

In winter
trees are
hillsides face
the rain
with ash and birch
I think of
hope frozen
cold dreams.

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Spring came to Grasmere at last. At Dove Cottage the flowering creeper planted by Dorothy clung to the stone walls like a pliant lover, its buds peeping shyly from behind a mass of leaves. The garden was a riot, set to a soundtrack provided by crickets and small, noisy birds. In the parlour, Coleridge , up on a holiday from Bristol, was writing his diary. The sentences came in fits and starts. In between he sucked the end of his pencil and allowed his thoughts to wander off on tangents. The previous day's entry was about caterpillars, whose behaviour he had been observing. The pain endured by the caterpillars as they metamorphosed into butterflies (or, occasionally, moths), filled him with many dark thoughts.

. . . have discovered that caterpillars will generally shift once a week1st seeking out a safe hiding place where they lie 2 or 3 days during which time they shrink and grow shorter, losing the use of their feet entirely and appear as if in great agony. . . .

Coleridge chewed his pencil and considered this entry. He added,

Did I forget that their hunger for leaves was self-love & a lust that in its next state refines itself into love?

He crossed out the last line and added,

lust? a corrupted or pure form of love? Item; WW + STCMW & SC; STC + WW?

Later, emboldened by the latest batch of laudanum he had purchased from his friend the apothecary, he went through to Wordsworth's room, and put the same proposition to his friend, who was less disgusted by it than Coleridge expected.

'Here?' Wordsworth asked dubiously.

'It's all right—Dorothy's asleep,' his friend assured him, and he closed the door firmly but quietly.

Outside the abandoned barn that had sheltered him through winter in Grasmere, Wu Chen Li came face to face with the first blossom of spring. It made him feel like humming. He sensed the rising sap in the trees. The thoughts after a long winter, joy, and snow melts, hope rises, danced through his head. He thought about going back to London. Getting some new shoes. page 126A job on a boat. He experienced a sudden longing to see the hillsides in flower in Sichuan Province. England was a bad mistake; the cooking should have warned him. He packed his meagre belongings with a sense of quiet glee.

On his way south Wu passed by Dove Cottage for the last time. He wondered what the Romantic poets were up to. Through the open door of the kitchen he could see Dorothy asleep in her chair by the stove. Her mouth was open slightly, and her snores rolled into the morning air. On top of the stove a bowl of bread dough was rising silently beneath a clean tea towel.

Wu tiptoed past the hedge to avoid waking her, but once in the lane behind the cottage he walked with a firmer step.

The road unwound before him like a ribbon. Wu settled his bag more securely across his shoulders and began to sing.