Ramblings: Please imagine as if I am kowtowing to each and every one of you in apology. I will explain my absence a bit more at the end of chapter. If you’re reading this, then I sincerely to thank you for your patience with me thus far. Since this has been long overdue, I’m sure you’re all anxious to read the chapter. Go right ahead.
T/N: It has been a long while since I’ve gone back to the novel, so my translation may appear more clunky and verbose than usual. I apologize.
Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 20: The tutoring resumes
Now that my living arrangements are settled, I can finally begin my research at the Cakuri Monastery. Rajiva has already told all the monks in the temple, from the gate guard, the watchperson over the main halls to the scriptures’ archivist, to allow me to roam around freely.
The daily flow of pilgrims visiting the temple would find themselves witnessing a peculiar sight: A Han woman in Kuchan clothing holding a strange book and using a strange tool to draw on it. Every now and then she would pull out a strange roll to measure this and that. To top it off, the reputed grand master throughout the Western Regions, Kumarajiva, has ordered all the monks in the temple to not obstruct that woman’s “work”.
While I measure and sketch, I would often get to see Rajiva. This is the first time I get to observe his daily work in the temple. When he is not talking and lecturing to disciples about the scriptures, he can be found greeting monks who pilgrimaged from the nearby countries and even from faraway places in the Central Plains. Rajiva also goes out to meet with the masses and promote his Mahayana teachings from time to time.
His morning mantras begin when I am still asleep, but luckily, I get to see his afternoon mantras from 4 to 5 o’clock. When the bell rings, all the monks would congregate in the main hall. Rajiva would put on his robes, perform with the monks the ceremonial salutation and lighting of incense before the Buddha statues, place himself on the highest seat and begin the mantra chant. Several hundred monks would chant in unison in Sanskrit. The cadence of their voices would echo around the hall, intermingled with the sounds of the temple blocks being struck. Your souls would feel as if they are being cleansed amidst that pure and ethereal sound.
My precious Northface backpack has returned. Not much is missing, not even the Atlas silk scarf. As I recall the day Rajiva gave me the scarf as a birthday present, his face red from embarrassment, I giggle at the memory and on a whim, put on the scarf around my neck. There are only a few things gone, like a sketchpad I had not used and a couple of pencils and erasers, but all of my sketches remain intact. Nothing worth getting upset for. I guess that Pusyseda must have taken them [the missing items] out to play with. To be able to regain these treasures after a decade and preserved in such good conditions, what more could I ask for.
In the evening, Rajiva arrives to treat my wounds as usual. Seeing the scarf, he stills for a second, then a small smile appears at the corner of his mouth. Rajiva asks that I resume being his Han teacher. The first book he wants me to teach is Sima Qian’s Records1. I thus begin my series of lectures with the great mythological legends, “The Annals of Five Emperors”2. I have always loved to teach. Since I major in history, I often went to museums and asked to be a tour guide free of charge. I’ve always felt rewarded when the visitors listened to my stories with rapt attention.
1 Tàishǐgōng shū (Records of the Grand Historian), or simply Shǐjì (Scribe’s Records) – a monumental record on the history of China, spanning over 2000 years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Wu of Han. The chapters are organized into five categories: Annals, Tables, Treatises, Hereditary Houses, and Ranked Biographies.
2 Referring to the 1st volume of the Annals. The Five Emperors are a group of mythological rulers or deities in ancient northern China who in later history have been assigned dates in a period from circa 2852 BCE to 2070 BCE.
My current audience consists of only one person, but the education level of this audience is very high. The audience is listening in total concentration and often nods in gestures of praise at me. I feel as if I am transported back to the time when I was his tutor a few months prior [in my time], and while the student is the same person, a period of ten years has passed. Now, I can no longer lightly knock on his head in reprimand, nor can I pretend to scowl in seriousness while teaching. Actually, it is even worse now, because the teacher would often steal glances at the student’s handsome face, a face sculpted like a Greek statue. That face is so bewitching that the teacher would often lose focus, her eyes lost in some faraway place and the sound of her voice would slowly fade. Then she would suddenly ‘wake up’, face as red as a tomato and pretend to drink water, pretend to clear her throat, find the fan, go to the washroom, and so forth.
One day at the Cakuri Monastery, I get to observe Rajiva hosts a festival for Guanyin. Guanyin is translated from the bodhisattva’s Sanskrit name [Avalokitasvara]. Technically it should have been translated as Guanzizai [to match the literal meaning] but after Buddhism reached the Central Plains, the Han mistransliterated it as Guanshiyin. During the Tang dynasty, in order to avoid naming taboo of the state with the usage of the same character(s) in Emperor Taizong’s given name (which was Li Shi Min), the bodhisattva’s name was shortened to Guanyin.
At first, I do not realize that the festival is for Guanyin, the same one that later spread to the Central Plains, because Guanyin’s Sanskrit name is very hard to remember. But when I see the statue of the bodhisattva, I immediately understand. During this time, Guanyin was not depicted in the familiar form of the Goddess of Mercy, but in the form of a mighty man with a long thin moustache, like the depictions found in Mogao and Dunhuang caves and the paintings from the Northern and Southern dynasties. But perhaps because Guanyin possesses the power to grant children and is the personification of compassion and kindness, the image of a female goddess is more befitting?
The festival lasts seven days. Since it is a public prayer festival, the lay can also participate. The novitiates would write the names of deceased family members onto wooden plaques, pass them to their masters, who will then place them before the altar. Then together with everyone, Rajiva place the flowers and incense sticks on Guanyin’s altar and kowtow three times. Each gesture of his is tempered and elegant. After that, Rajiva moves to sit on the highest seat and gently shakes the copper bell in his hand. The crisp sound echoes far and wide. A moment later, the entire hall turns silent.
* [T/N: Forgive me for the tenses in this paragraph. It was hard to translate.]
His gaze would then sweep around the entire hall. Shrouded in the smoke from the incense, with his high forehead, shining eyes and compassionate face that can see through everyone’s soul, Rajiva looks like a god who has descended to the earthly realm. When he begins to speak, his voice is confident and strong—a voice that resonates throughout the entire hall:
“Self-awareness and liberation are signs of wisdom. Helping someone become self-aware and liberated is a sign of compassion. Avalokitasvara who possesses great wisdom and compassion is always watching over the people. He gives out advice and assistance based on abilities, character and wishes, which differ from person to person. From there on, He helps beings subtract sorrows and multiply joys, helps them lead a quiet life free from worries and fears.”
The monks kowtow in reply and begin to chant mantras in unison. The lay people who stand beside me also bend down to kowtow, which I immediately follow. After that, Rajiva would read a verse from the scriptures, and the monks would repeat after him, creating a uniformed chant that resounds in your heart, flows outward into the air and upward into the blue sky.
That day, the monastery gives out blessings* to everyone who visits, which are personally handed out by Rajiva. The queue extends all the way to the main gate of the temple. I move forward inch by inch and keep craning my neck to see the front. Rajiva’s mouth chants mantra, one hand gives out the carefully wrapped portion to each person, the other hand gently taps his long staff on each person’s head and wishes upon them good fortune*. Everyone smiles brightly in return.
* In this case, refers to the food being given out, but it doesn’t actually mean food. English doesn’t contain a word that can truly encapsulate the meanings of “lộc”. In some ways, it can mean “good fortune/luck”, can also mean “wealth”, but in the context of Eastern religions, it refers to a blessing of sorts from the higher beings. If anyone knows a better word, please leave me a comment below.
I have to stand in line for two hours before it is my turn. My stomach growls all the while. Rajiva is surprised to see me. There is a hint of a smile in his eyes. He turns to the side, whispers something to his disciple, then places the portion into my hands. I smile back, clasp my hands in salute and bow my head to receive the well-wishes. The staff taps on my head. I can smell the scent of sandalwood permeating the air. When I lift my head and look at Rajiva, I find a serene face looking back at me, an ethereal being that does not belong to this earthly world. For some reason, my heartrate begins to speed up.
Just as I am about to leave the line, the novitiate from earlier returns to Rajiva’s side and gives him a cluster of grapes. Rajiva receives it with a smile and hands it over to me. Grape is the most widely cultivated fruit in Kucha so it is not hard to obtain. I glance around and seeing that no one is protesting my special gift, accept it with a bow and move away.
I dare not eat the grapes and instead wrap them in a piece of paper to put in my backpack.
When he returns later in the evening, Rajiva appears a bit tired but otherwise in great spirits. He has to stay behind to give blessings for four hours straight and hasn’t eating anything the whole day. Worried, I take out the grapes from my backpack. I want to offer them to him but don’t know how to convince him to take them [the sun has set and he thus cannot consume food].
Rajiva watches me carefully. When he sees me unwrapping the paper and revealing the grapes, he is momentarily surprised. But then, without me saying a word, he breaks off a grape and puts it in his mouth.
Smiling at me, he says: “Very sweet!”
His actions give me pause. After a moment, I break off a grape as well. It is indeed very sweet, sweeter than all the grapes I’ve ever had before…
We sit across from each other enjoying the grapes. I suddenly remember a common tongue twister: “When eating grapes, do not spit out the skins. When not eating grapes, do spit out the skins.” * With a grin on my face, I try to teach Rajiva the sentences. His Han still carries the Kuchan accent, making it difficult for him to pronounce the string of words correctly. I hold my sides in laughter the entire time. Such a happy moment it is. If only time can forever remain in this very moment…
* You can see why it’s a tongue-twister here:
吃葡萄不吐葡萄皮 / chī pútao bù tǔ pútao pí,
不吃葡萄倒吐葡萄皮 / bù chī pútao dáo tǔ pútao pí
The festival tires out Rajiva every day, but he still faithfully shows up at my place during the evenings. I put the lessons on hold for now and try to find ways to get him relaxed. There are times when I want to give him a massage, but it is merely a thought I dare not carry out.
On the last evening of the festival, the whole temple is set alight by the little oil lamps on everyone’s hands. Rajiva stands in front of the statue of Buddha, bows down in ceremony and lights up his lamp. Then one by one in descending rank, each monk would receive the flame from the previous monk’s lamp to light his own, and pretty soon, the entire hall is illuminated by bursts of light like stars in the sky. I also have my own lamp. It feels like the light can see right through my very soul. Amidst this sacred atmosphere, Rajiva looks like the patron god of light, a being of great intelligence who will guide each praying soul, who will drop the wooden plaques with names of the deceased into the bonfire. The chanting of mantras begins, rises up into the air and pours into my ears. The scene moves me deeply. I feel as if tears will fall any second.
Later, even after several days have passed since the festival ended, I am still reminiscing about that sacred and solemn scene. Once again I am awed by the spiritual connection that religion provides. Perhaps that is why religions have existed since the very beginning of humankind. And I believe that religions will continue to exist alongside humans until we cease to be. Everyone seeks spiritual meaning at various points in life, particularly during times of suffering and sorrows. Buddhism was able to spread its roots in the Central Plains during the Northern and Southern Dynasties [420 to 589 CE] because it was a time of great chaos.
When I tell Rajiva these thoughts, he smiles at me in agreement. I am unable to memorize Buddhist scriptures and thus can only discuss the religion with him through the lens of history and philosophy. There are times when he can’t seem to comprehend the words I use, but after a moment, his quick mind would provide him with his own interpretation. Those times we get to spend together are so short. When the morning comes and he has to return to the temple, I can’t help but feel upset. Einstein’s theory of relativity has never been truer.
I continue with my research and sketching in the temple. Sometimes, when I’m hunkered down just outside the main hall measuring, Rajiva would step inside to speak to his disciples. When I’m inside the hall copying the murals on the wall, he would come in with a group of monks to discuss scriptures, motioning me to continue with my work and pay them no heed. When I’m standing on my tiptoes trying to measure the height of a pagoda, the shadow of a tall, thin figure would come closer, take my measuring tape and raise it above my head. When I’m feeling thirsty, a little monk would immediately bring me water without asking, and I would then catch a glimpse of brown kasaya robes I know too well exiting the door…
I cannot continue like this! Nowadays, every time I see Rajiva, my heart would start beating erratically without reason. During the days where I can’t see him, I am like a lost soul, unable to concentrate on anything I do. At night, when I lay my head on his pillow, cover myself with his blanket*, I am filled with an indescribable happy feeling. When I enter the temple [to continue the research], my hand is drawing but my eyes are following his footsteps one by one, until he catches sight of me and smiles back.
*her room used to be his for those who may have forgotten
I know very well what these signs mean. If I continue to look at that bewitching face, continue to hear his voice, I will fall into an abyss and unable to, wouldn’t want to, escape. Ai Qing dear, you can have feelings for anyone, but not for him. He is not your cup of tea. Between you and him is a distance of 1650 years. And the most important thing is, he will forever remain a monk while you, sooner or later, will have to return to your own life in the 21st century…
After two long months dallying around, my research at the Cakuri Monastery reaches its end at last. And after much hesitation, I finally decide to tell him my decision at the conclusion of our next lesson.
That evening, I teach Rajiva volume 61 in Sima Qian’s Records titled “Biography of Bo Yi”: Bo Yi and his brother Shu Qi protested the violent slaughter known as the Battle of Muye1 by refusing to eat the Five Grains2 of Zhou. They retired to the Shouyang Mountain and lived on fiddlehead ferns, until they were reminded that these plants too now belonged to Zhou, at which point they starved themselves to death. Under the quill of the Grand Historian Sima Qian, these brothers were praised for staying steadfast to their moral convictions. The “Biography of Bo Yi” is a short chapter, but the story itself represents Sima Qian’s own moralization of history.
1 circa. 1046 BCE, leading to the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty.
2 a group of 5 farmed crops that were of symbolic/mythological importance in ancient China, though which crops are in that group vary; also a figure of speech to mean all grains or staple crops
“But is Bo Yi and Shu Qi’s foolish righteousness worth imitating? At that time, the territory has been conquered by the Zhou. They vowed to not eat the Five Grains of Zhou and went off to live on a mountain to eat wild plants, but those plants were still the produce of Zhou. The Shouyang Mountain they lived on was within Zhou’s territory, and when they died in the end, it was also the Zhou who buried them.”
I let out a long sigh before continuing, “Every one of us will experience difficult situations in life, and in those moments of hardships, we all have to make a decision: Continue to live or follow Bo Yi and Shu Qi’s example by choosing to starve rather than bend their principles. If it was me, I’d choose to live. Because only by staying alive can I fulfill my ambitions. What about the commentaries of the later generations? By then I would be long dead, why would it matter what they think of me?”
I stare at Rajiva for a long moment, thinking about that turning point in his fate eleven years from now. When that time comes, his heart would no doubt have to undergo much suffering and pain. “That’s why, Rajiva, when you encounter difficulties later on, you must think about your ambitions, your goals in life, and use that as motivation to live.” I will not be here in eleven years and so can only give him this vague advice.
“People write books and compose poetry during times of adversities to convey their thoughts and feelings. Xibo (King Wen of Zhou) during his imprisonment in Youli interpreted the hexagrams of Zhou Yi [the core of I Ching]; Confucius while stranded in the states of Chen and Cai put together the Spring and Autumn Annals; Qu Yuan in his exile composed Li Sao; blind Zuo Qiuming wrote Guoyu [Discourses of the States]; Sun Tzu who lost his leg drafted the Art of War; Lü Buwei who was banished to the remote Shu region compiled Lü’s Spring and Autumn (Annals); Han Fei during his imprisonment in Qin lamented through his essays “Solitary Indignation” and “Five Vermin” [later part of the book Han Feizi]; and the 300 poems in the Classic of Poetry were largely written by masters during their trying times. All of those authors had frustrations and sorrows they could not express at the time, so they wrote down their thoughts and passed them on to later generations to read,” Rajiva holds his gaze on me as he borrows the words of Sima Qian to respond.
* [T/N: there’s too much going on here so I’m choosing not to annotate who each person is or what they wrote]
The two of us continue to stare at each other as the air around us quietens. Something unnameable grows in between us. His face eventually colours with reddish spots. He looks away. The expression I saw on his face is a mixture of various emotions intertwined together: slight embarrassment, a note of melancholy and a hint of…regret.
Rajiva, you actually don’t need me to teach you. The excerpt you just quoted is Sima Qian’s “Autobiographical Afterword”—the last chapter of the Records of the Grand Historian. I believe that if I ask you to recite the entire Records, you would be able to. So why do you still want me to continue with the lectures? My heart suddenly picks up its pace, as if it wants to jump out of my ribcage. I can guess why. It’s because you want to be able to see me every day, so you acted as if you have never read the Records, isn’t that right? But…but…
I squeeze my eyes closed, trying with all my might to control my rapid heartbeat, and speak to him in what I hope is a calm tone: “I won’t be going to the temple tomorrow. I have finished my sketches already. Do you know any group of merchants that will be setting off to Chang’an soon? If you don’t know, I can find out on my own.”
He stays silent for a few minutes, then says: “Right now in the Central Plains is a time of chaos, of endless wars between the Han and the Hu. You are all by yourself, so why do you insist on travelling to that dangerous place? Kucha may be a small kingdom, but at the very least it is much safer, why don’t you-”
“Rajiva,” I gently interrupt him, “Your ambition in life is to help all beings achieve self-liberation. To fulfill that ambition, would you be willing to go to the Central Plains during this dangerous time?”
“I am the same.” Gazing at the Records of the Grand Historian, the life’s work of Sima Qian, I continue, “I also have my own ambition. I once told you, my dream is to write a historical record, to note down all the events, to restore the historical truth.”
The Sixteen Kingdoms is known as one of the most chaotic periods in the history of China. Shi Hu and his son of Later Zhao killed Han people for sport, and within twenty years they have already slaughtered hundreds of thousands. Ran Min [an ethnic Han] ended the Zhao and began the extermination of the Jie people [Shi Hu was an ethnic Jie], even those who bore the slightest resemblance to the Jie. Northern China in those twenty years was brutal everywhere. Even if you give me nuclear weapon, I still wouldn’t have the guts to travel to such a period. Fortunately, that was a time before Rajiva was born.
In this period, Former Qin has taken Liangzhou and Liaodong and in essence has unified northern China. Fu Jian is the emperor I most admire during the Sixteen Kingdoms period. I really want to observe the Former Qin he currently rules over, for in ten years, with his defeat in the Waterloo* Battle of Feishui, his Former Qin will quickly unravel and the North will descend into various civil wars once again.
* A battle in Belgium in 1815 in which the British and Prussians defeated the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. The name has become a general term to mean a decisive, final defeat.
I look at Rajiva and hope my firm gaze will speak for itself. He stares at me, then turns his head around and casts his unsettled gaze on the oil lamp. He tells me in a voice as light as air: “I will arrange it for you.”
I continue on with the lesson and Rajiva continues to listen. As if I do not know what he is thinking, I keep on pretending and pretending…
Our lesson eventually ends. Like usual, Rajiva quietly leaves the room. Just as I am about to sigh in relief, the door swings open again.
“Do you remember the Kizil Caves?” he asks in his usual calm tone, “Ten years have passed since you told me a cave temple would be built there, and now there are more than a dozen caves.”
“I will be going there in seven days for a Buddhist festival,” he looks at me with shining eyes, “Would you like to come along?”
I…I…of course I want to go! He knows well the things that attract my attention. If I go there, I will be able to identify the grottoes, ascertain the time it took to dig and build those caves, and also be able to copy the frescos that became lost due to decay and human activity. These are all valuable historical information to record. I cannot resist the temptation. If I put it [going to Chang’an] off for a few days, it should be no problem, right? I should still have enough time, right?
Seeing my nod, he smiles brightly, “Then we will set off in seven days.”
In my last post, I said this blog will be on semi-hiatus until May. It is now August…Quite unforgivable, if I say so myself.
Why was I absent for so long? It’s a long story, one I’m not sure you even want to hear the details of. The short version is that I’ve had a series of personal problems cropping up the past couple of months, making me unable to write. I lost the will to do many hobbies and projects actually. It was mostly my own issues and feelings I guess. Many times I wanted to at least post an update so you guys are not left hanging, but I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know when I’d be able to finish ch.20. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to quit this project, because if I do, it’d weigh too heavily as a failure on my part, another dent in my shortfalls in life, and I wasn’t having it.
In the past couple of weeks I picked up on reading again and was inspired to write once more. So I spent my time writing a couple fanfics (not related to FBFY), got positive response, which lifted my spirits considerably. It’s not to say that I only write to seek self-validation from others, but sometimes hearing encouraging words never hurt. Then there was a holiday, I didn’t have to work, so I had Sat-Mon off. I picked up where I left of in my translation of ch.20, worked during the week, then spent the entire Friday night yesterday until 2am to finish the rest of the chapter. Went to sleep, woke up with a fresh mind to edit, and here I am.
What does it mean for FBFY from now on? I’m not entirely sure. Because here’s another thing that made me hesitant to pick up translating: FBFY is getting republished in Vietnam this month, under a title closer to the original! Incredibly exciting news since the first and last edition went out of print before I could get a copy of Volume I. However, the downside is that this edition will be translated from Xiao Chun’s revised version. Xiao Chun rewrote the entire novel some time ago (I’m not 100% sure on the timeline) and even wrote a bonus side story. This is the version the Vietnamese publisher is using.
From what I’ve heard here and there, there are some extensive changes made to the novel. This is both exciting and scary. As a writer myself, I know a rewrite will probably be much better for the novel as a whole, but as a translator, this is bad news. It means everything I’ve done so far may have been for naught.
I’m definitely ordering the books, already gave my mom a heads-up so she knows, but then I’ll have to wait for her to ship it to me, so the earliest I can my hands on it is September. Unless someone uploads an ebook version. So here is what I’m going to do: I will probably still translate ch.21 and post it up within the next couple of weeks, but I’ll then have to go on hiatus again to wait for the newer version. Might as well since school is starting again and I need time to sort myself out. Once I get my hands on the books (online or hard copy), I’ll read them, see what the changes are, and post an update for you guys. At that point I’ll decide on whether to continue translating from the old version or the newer version (the thought of restarting this project makes me want to cry already T_T).
What do you guys think? I’ve said before that this translation project is a symbiotic relationship. Your opinions as readers count too. So tell me your thoughts below!