The Red Sorghum of Nanjing


At the end of it, Nanjing disarmed us in an unconsolable way.  We may have never discovered its musicality and the greatness of life’s poetry if we stuck to its interpretation of a future-looking Chinese megalopolis that straddles the Yangtze River delta.  I might have completely missed a lyrical description and imminent approximation of art like how Mo Yan, the Nobel laureate had described a certain Chinese field in his novel Red Sorghum.

“As I stand amid the dense hybrid sorghum, I think of surpassingly beautiful scenes that will never appear again.  In the deep autumn of the eight month under a high, magnificent clear sky, the land is covered by sorghum that forms a glittering sea of blood.”

It was on an Saturday morning that my wife and I decided to have a morning walk at the Xuan Wu Lake island which as the tourist brochure said, a sanctuary of a hundred types of birds in Jiangshu province. We learned from a big tablet on that wall as we entered from the west side of the park that the place was named after water god by Taoists from an ancient dynasty legend.  According to legend, the dragon, seen in the lake, looked like a tortoise and a snake and was named Xuanwu, meaning black tortoise.

It was not a field of sorghum, far from it, but it was a place surrounded by a body of placid water, the Xuan Wu Lake, and with the five islets connected through quaint bridges.  This place amidst the high concentration of millions of people of city residents and migrant workers, is undoubtedly an oasis.

As we spent a summer morning here, what set it truly apart was the people who were there at that time of the day.  There were elderly men and women who were preoccupied with their morning rituals, not the ablution on the water’s edges but their musical kinesthetic expression of what living and life’s natural rhythm truly mean for them. There were three scenes that captured this, I would call “red sorghum fields. All brought us back to different sensations and deeper appreciation of what it means to grow old in the patina and landscape of woundedness and great promise.

The first was a group of elderly musicians performing in one of the garden pavilions quietly situated among the weeping willows and decades-old maple trees. We were just among the ten spectators who sat in the few benches that surround that small pavilion with the traditional Chinese roof tiles.  The performers, seven of them were focused and insouciant to the people around them.  They rendered Chinese songs.  Surprisingly, their group had percussion, plucked strings, woodwind and bowed string instruments.    One woman in her simple white blouse played a pipa.  Another man in his late 70’s played a souna which is a traditional trumpet.   Two women just wearing a white loose dress played the erhu which is a Chinese violin.  One played a gehu, a four-stringed large fiddle and another short elderly man played the bangu, which is a single headed frame drum.  There was a lead woman playing the xiao, a notched flute.  They sat on a bench in small circle and as the music wafted through the air, people kept streaming in and just listened in silence.  So suddenly we became around twenty there, some young joggers and a Caucasian couple.  Their music had the stubborn appeal of ancient stories, maybe from the Song Dynasty that once ruled this place.  It was magical yet it contained a subtlety of resilience in the hands of oppression and foreign invaders. I felt there was an atavistic attraction to its short notes and unfamiliar melody. It was a kind of music that conveyed both the ephemerality and unbearable lightness of each moment.  One piece was at first painfully slow traversing the contours of sorrow, then its movement increased and there was a sense of rabid suspense in the cadence of the music that finally climaxed in an exclamation of triumph. It was like perceiving a soul that is pierced at the same time being healed in a field covered with deep green salve grasses. There was a piece that was perpetually haunting, maybe a lamentation, yet a sense of joy and redemption still lingered even when a long silence came at the end of the piece.  I would say, it was a curt moment when the water surrounding that island came to experience sadness and be in oneness with that profound pause.  There was another piece sung by the one playing the gehu.   In her thin, non-resonant voice, wanting to communicate a deep struggle and an existence that is unsettled by life’s vagaries, just brought my senses to a different level of listening experience.  I totally became connected with the performance as the language of music talked to me in that ancient of ways.  The essence of notes and seeming oblivion of other equally attractive sounds around the island became enormously palpable.

We crossed an arched unpainted short bridge with vines creeping through its wooden body, having seen the tea houses, varied-sized pagodas, other pavilions and secret gardens.  We came to a section called Autumn Chrysanthemum of Liang Islet. Here we witnessed around twenty elderly men and women doing Tai Chi, the ancient martial arts.  They were doing the exercise as we watched them from an elevated platform under a cypress tree.  In their loose white shirts and trousers and flat-soled shoes, we perceived that there was some form of breathing pattern, fluid movement and deeper awareness and even graceful meditation intriguingly happening.  They were pushing their hands to the air and as if picking fresh oranges from that space with their balanced postures.   In silence we watched them as they calmly and clearly made their almost synchronized moves.  In serenity, we sensed as if the elements and forces of nature were being tapped by the flowing and dancing movements of their flexible hands and nimble feet.  They blended with the morning breeze.  They touched the imaginary points in the universe in a gentle communion of the visible and the invisible.  Bai Juyi, an ancient Chinese poet during the Tang dynasty captured this moment in his translated poem “On the Lake”.

Two monks sit facing, playing chess in the mountain,
The bamboo shadow on the board is dark and clear.
Not a person sees the bamboo shadow,
One sometimes hears the pieces being moved.

Yes, their shadows were almost all penumbra to the naked eyed.  To pin them at that moment was almost impossible as they moved in circular and harmonious fashion. Anything that interfered that silence of movement can be considered blasphemous in that solemn space.

Before ending our morning stroll, we came upon another group of elderly couples.  They were doing ballroom dancing in that open paved part of the park near the ancient walls that separated the city.  The music was familiar as it was from the Cascades of the 60’s, who is a favorite of my parents.  They were unabashedly dancing to the music of the “Last Leaf”.  My wife told me there was no time anymore after that long walk across the islands and we had a train to catch up.  I pleaded with her for even fifteen minutes more, because I fully know the lyrics.  I was amazed too by the dancing of the many couples there.  We watched them moved around the space as the music blared.

The last leaf clings to the bough
Just one leaf, that’s all there is now
And my last hope live with that lonely leaf, lonely leaf
With the last leaf that clings to the bough

Watching those couples dancing as partners, there was the feeling of thrill as we marveled at the synchronicity of their footsteps.  As their bony hands held each other, we saw their seriousness and their ineffable happiness etched in their wrinkled faces.  The music was quite loud, maybe because some of them may have already difficulty in hearing.  They persisted in dancing appreciative of the claps of people watching them. They wore colorful dresses, the women mostly in red floral skirts and some in cheongsam green.  They danced gracefully as if they were high school teens in their prom.  

With all those three scenes, the “red sorghums” of Nanjing, I was just transported to an experience of seeing old age came alive as a grand celebration of the simple things in life. It was an artist’s landscape of the music, the vibrant health, the Asian camaraderie, the expression of touch and affection, the calmness of the emerald lotus plants that float along the banks, and those morning small non-motorized boats docked with their wooden paddles resting across the boats’ sleepy lengths.   It was those moments of philosophical reflections with some Chinese sayings written on stone markers under those gingko trees.  Those Nanjing residents I saw were actually offsprings of those who greatly suffered the Nanjing Massacre in the 1940’s or toddlers themselves during that brutal occupation. They were the wounded elderly people who lived through it all even during the Cultural Revolution and yet they survived, resilience plastered over their character, eager to face the morning.  Presently, they want to be counted as movers and contributors to the life of a city that struggles the dichotomy of maintaining its past glory or reliving its painful history vis-a-vis that of pushing harder its competitiveness in the global arena of further technological advances and financial dominance.

As we exited the Xuanwu Gate which is part of the ancient Nanjing City Wall, my wife and I with our hands held together, smiled to each other.  A feeling of joy filled us that beautiful morning.  It was not just the fresh summer breeze in a bustling city of Nanjing. It was surely more than that.  It was a red sorghum for both of us.  It was the promise of going old together and making memories together.  As our fast train left for Shanghai with the Purple Mountain in the background, I remembered my favorite Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, the author of Soul Mountain.  He penned these last words from his “Wandering Heart” poem.

You may as well recreate
A weightless nature
A Garden of Eden in your heart
Where you can wander leisurely
To your heart’s delight


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