Spring, and it’s the first day of Mingzhi’s schooling. The six-year-old walks across the paddy fields, escorted by his family butler. There is occasional chirping of crickets from the bushes along the path, and cheeping of birds on the branches above. Mingzhi glances here and there, trying to figure out where they are, the crickets and birds. He manages to spot a couple of birds and cheers, hearing his voice echo in the wideness. He giggles, staring up at his butler. The stout man remains silent, his face expressionless. Mingzhi finds another bird, a cricket and a couple of dragonflies. More cheers, more echoes, more giggles. And the same silence from his butler. No sooner, Mingzhi gives up with his game. He keeps walking. He knows he has to walk past the bridge and enter the village where the school is located. The bridge is not very far away, he notices, yet still, the route seems too long, too quiet.
‘Why can’t Eldest Sister come with me?’ He asks.
The butler does not answer.
Mingzhi begins to recite from Sanzi Jing, remembering the lines as taught by his uncle.
‘Human beings are born with the same kind nature;
Their learning process later sets them apart…’
It will be wonderful if Sister Meilian and Meifong can be there reciting with me at the school. Imagining he and his sisters sitting together in the classroom, reading the lines, Mingzhi gets excited and raises his voice, only to be hushed up by the butler.
‘We are almost there, Eldest Grand Young Master. Please behave yourself.’
After school Mingzhi rushes home, can’t wait to be his sisters’ teacher. He smoothes rice paper on his study desk and demonstrates his calligraphy skills.
Fourteen year-old Meilian and five year-old Meifong crowd forward.
‘Let’s begin from the basics,’ he lowers his voice, touches his chin, mimicking his teacher who always smoothes his whiskery white beard.
His sisters giggle. Meifong, the youngest, pats her brother’s head. Mingzhi laughs, dodging. He writes, starting with a right falling stroke, joined by a left one from the middle of the first stroke. Black ink seeps through the rice paper. The strokes stand up: two legs supporting the body. Ren, ‘human’ The girls study the strokes, trying to associate the character with that pronunciation in their daily conversation.
Then they rush after Mingzhi’s brush. He hides it behind him.
Mingzhi adds a line horizontally across the first stroke. That gives da, ‘big’: a man with both his arms stretching out wide.
He swiftly presses a dot in between the strokes, turning it into tai, ‘greatest’.
The girls observe the changes. Like magic.
Ren – Da – Tai.
They read aloud after their brother.
Taking their turns, they hold the brush for the first time. Though her hands tremble, Meilian, the eldest, manages to copy the strokes. Her lines are thin and shaky.
‘Like chicken claws,’ teases Meifong.
But she is not much better, both the legs of her ‘human’ jumble to the left. And she is fond of dots, making hundreds of them on the paper.
‘Stop it, what a waste!’
Meilian reaches for the brush. Meifong dodges her, runs brandishing the brush, splashing the black ink about the room, onto her sister and her brother. Too much. They cup a handful of ink each and chase after Meifong.
Their first lesson ends with the three black faces laughing at each other, before the asthmatic Meifong flops into a chair, coughing breathlessly. Mingzhi watches as Meilian smoothes Meifong’s chest, until her breathing eases. Mingzhi stares at the two smeared faces in front of him, almost unrecognisable. Like strangers. A sudden fear rushes over him. My sisters! I want my sisters! I want to see their smiles! Panicked, he hurries for a moist cloth and rubs his sisters’ faces with it - despite them screaming, protesting his act - until the ink is wiped away, and he looks at them, their clean, pinkish cheeks, and feels safe.
In the following days, his eldest sister Meilian waits for him to come home in the afternoons and asks him his lessons for the day. The sister and brother hide in Mingzhi’s room. Meilian listens to Mingzhi reciting poems, telling tales as told by his teacher, explaining the teachings of Confucianism.
Mingzhi notices that his eldest sister learns as fast as he does. By dusk before dinner she recites the poems together with him, and is able to explain the metaphor behind those that are too difficult for a six-year old: the solitude, the feelings of loss or resentment nicely wrapped under beautiful landscapes: the vast snowy land, the magnificent gorges, the borderless steppe, the roaring Yellow River or the quiet Yangzi Jiang. Mingzhi likes listening to his eldest sister, her voice soft and comforting. He lays his head on her lap, his cheek against the smoothness of her silk dress.
At night, lying in his bed Mingzhi stares hard at the light beams silting through the seams of the planked wall, listening to his eldest sister’s whispers from the next-door, vague, indistinct. Imagining her telling her younger sister at her bedside the story she had learned; imagining Meifong falling asleep before it ends.
Sometimes after the lights are put out, he hears his eldest sister reciting the poems by her favourite poet, Li Qingzhao, the greatest woman poet of the Song Dynasty. Mingzhi remembers Meilian once told him about the miserable life Li had led, about her marriage, the war and her second marriage. What is marriage? What is war? Why did she have to marry again? He doesn’t understand. And her sister would keep quiet whenever he asked her the questions. He thinks she doesn’t understand, too.
But most of the time, Mingzhi falls asleep before his sister stops reciting. There is always a herd of sheep walking into his dream, dotted on the vast, green steppe of Mongolia, exactly the way his eldest sister described it when they read the poems.
‘It’s beautiful, Eldest Sister,’ he would murmur and roll over, falling deep into his dreamland.
Summer, and Mingzhi is not allowed to return to the school. He feels the strange atmosphere at home. At first the servants gather in groups, whispering amongst themselves; their faces are pale and their lips tremble. And then some of them disappear one after another, returning a few days later in their bulgy red eyes, from which tears quietly stream. ‘There’s been a plague,’ his eldest sister pulls him aside, trying to explain. She says it started with the cattle: pigs, cows, oxen, chicken, ducks, die with their mouths spewing out foaming spittle and their bellies protruding; then the weakest among the children.
‘Where do the pigs and cows and oxen and chicken and ducks and the children go to when they die?’ Mingzhi asks his eldest sister. Meilian scratches her head and then shrugs her shoulder.
Mingzhi misses his school. He misses writing and reading and reciting. I can set up a school at home! He gets his ink and brush and rice paper ready in his room, waiting for his sisters to join him. He waits, and waits, but there is no sign of them. Mingzhi rushes to his sisters’ room and is surprised to see a crowd in it. He squeezes in and finds his younger sister Meifong lying unconscious in bed, his mother sitting by her side, rubbing her body with a wet cloth. Meifong vomits occasionally. Her face is as red as an over-ripe persimmon.
Mingzhi finds his eldest sister in a corner. He holds her hand tight, standing aside with her, watching their mother hold Meifong’s jaw open, forcing herbal medicine into her mouth. Excess liquid flows along the corners of Meifong’s lips, staining the pillow, spreading instantly, black against the white sheet. Mingzhi feels weak; his hand squeezes Meilian’s fingers. She lets him, does not yell.
By evening Mingzhi sees that foaming spittle start spewing from Meifong’s mouth. His mother asks Meilian to take him to his room, and sends a maid to their grandfather, asking that a doctor sent for.
The grandfather says nothing.
Late at night Mingzhi hears his mother’s cry, long and tearing. The brother and sister cling tight together in bed, weep under the blanket.
Come autumn, Mingzhi’s grandfather falls ill on the evening of the Moon Festival. The garden dinner for the family is cancelled.
In the courtyard, Mingzhi watches as his eldest sister hangs a lantern on the branch and says it’s for Meifong. They stand in silence. Moments later Meilian beckons him, preparing to lead a lantern parade around the courtyard. Candlelight, thin and soft, flickers in the colourful paper stripes. The wind is strong, clears the cloud and shakes their lanterns. They bring the fragile lanterns close to their bodies and shield the candles with their hands. Their eyes glow, reflecting the light, and their faces shine, colourful.
Before the first round ends Mingzhi shouts, ‘Let me take the lead!’
As he rushes forward Mingzhi stumbles over a stump and falls. His face is pressed into a pool of mud and his paper lantern burns off in seconds. Meilian laughs out loud. Finally, she smiles again. Mingzhi laughs, too, and he tugs at Meilian’s sleeves, pulling her onto the ground. The sister and brother sit in the muddy pool and giggle. Looking up, Mingzhi sees his eldest sister’s smiling face clean and bright, like the moon above her.
Mingzhi doesn’t know his happiness has infuriated his grandfather. In his room, the old man lies awake in bed; his head aches as he listens to the children’s laughter. He thinks about the inauspicious death of the young girl. And now, his own illness.
From the courtyard, Meilian’s laughter seems to be irritating.
Outside, Mingzhi keeps laughing as he wrestles with his sister, not knowing that his grandfather has made a decision that will change their lives.
Meilian’s wedding is scheduled for the following month: To drive away all evils and restore good fortune. Mingzhi’s grandfather happily announces the bridegroom-to-be: the eldest son of the district mandarin, thirty-eight years old; and Meilian is to be his second wife.
Meilian stops coming to Mingzhi’s room, and keeps herself to hers.
Mingzhi asks his mother, ‘What does “getting married” mean? Is Eldest Sister leaving us forever?’
His mother pats his head and sighs. There is a long silence.
‘You will know later, son, you will know.’
On the wedding day Mingzhi sees his eldest sister being led into the red-curtained sedan. The autumn wind slaps her ferociously and the silk gown clings tight to her body, lean and tremulous. Mingzhi can’t see Meilian’s face under her red headscarf, but remembers her look under the autumn moonlight. Smiling, clean and bright.
And the sedan takes her away.