Ma Ping by pengxiang

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									                                   Ma Ping
                              Dramatis Personae

It is customary in China, for the family name (surname) to appear before the given
name. Thus Deng Xiaoping, the great politician of recent years, his family were
Dengs and his parents gave him the personal name of Xiaoping. I have adopted this
method in my own story.

Ma Ping's Family:
Bai Qiang: Ma Ping's and Ma Shipeng's aunt, very strict and concerned about
his education. She has been married twice and has four sons, her favourite
being Bai Hui (who doesn't come into this story). (As a child, she is known as Li
Li Jiangtao: Bai Qiang’s and Ma Rong’s father and Ma Ping’s maternal
Li Jincai: Bai Qiang’s and Ma Rong’s mother and Ma Ping’s maternal
Ma Baozhong: Ma Xingjian’s father and Ma Ping’s paternal grandfather.
Ma Hui: Ma Ping's little brother.
Ma Ling: Ma Ping’s favourite sister, fourteen years old, who lives with her
parents in the countryside. She loves her brother very much and is an
excellent cook.
Ma Lingxia: Ma Xingjian’s mother and Ma Ping’s paternal grandmother.
Ma Ping: an eleven year old Hui (Moslem) boy, who has moved to the tiny
city from the poor countryside so that he can receive a good education in the
Number One Middle School. His elder brother runs a meatballs restaurant
near the centre, and the child is expected to help out when he isn’t studying.
He has a phenomenal talent as an artist, which he is just discovering, but he
keeps this a secret at the beginning, as he knows his family won’t approve of
the time it takes him: they want him to become a scholar or a teacher when
he’s older. He wants to be an artist, as much as he understands he wants to
become anything. He has a great deal of empathy for others, which is closely
connected to his artistic ability.
Ma Rong: Ma Ping’s mother and Bai Qiang’s younger sister. (As a child she is
known as Li Rongrong)
Ma Shipeng: Ma Ping’s twenty-two year old brother. He is a kind man, loves
his brother very much, and wants to support his education. He is named after
his uncle, who died in the Cultural Revolution before he was born and who
was also a gifted artist.
Ma Xingjian: Ma Ping’s father. It is hard for the parents to provide the money
for their children’s education, but they are determined that Ma Ping will
succeed for all of them as he seems, with Ma Hui, to be the cleverest.

An Xueping: Lecturer at Beijing Normal University who visits Guyuan at the
end of Part One and becomes a central character in Part Two.
An Zheping: An Xueping's dead son, a musical genius.
Chen Baoqing: a school friend of Ma Ping's at Guyuan Middle School.
Deng Qin: (also known as Teacher Deng) Ma Ping’s English and
Chinese/calligraphy teacher in Guyuan (Part One). He is strict and mostly
traditional in his methods, which means he uses a lot of recitation, imitation,
rote-learning and testing. He is tortured by the memory of his brother who
died in the Cultural Revolution for drawing seditious pictures of politicians of
the time.

The Ding Family: (Part One)
Ding Fuxin: (see Ding Pengcheng) Ding Pengcheng’s younger brother, the
father’s favourite, because he is always top of his class without any apparent
Ding Jie: Ding Pengcheng's aunt (part one). She only comes into the Prologue
to Part One.
Ding Li: Ding Pengcheng's grandfather and Yangching's father. He only
comes into the prologue in Part One.
Ding Pengcheng: also eleven, who goes to Ma Ping’s school and is in the
same grade but not the same class. He is not a clever boy like Ma Ping. He
also suffers from being physically unattractive and from a bullying father.
Ding Xiaohua: Ding Yangching's mother.
Ding Yan: Ding Pengcheng’s and Ding Fuxin’s mother. She is rather afraid of
her powerful and cold husband and finds it difficult to stick up for her older
son against her husband’s frequent unkindnesses.
Ding Yangching: Ding Pengcheng's father. He is strict and devoted to study.
He believes that children who don’t succeed are lazy rather than incapable.

Gao Jiangtao - Ma Ping's headmaster in Guyuan (part one). He is a forward-
looking educator, and wants things to change in China. His methods are less
Confucian, more humanitarian.
Han Yongchun: a teacher in Ma Ping's Xi'an school (part two).
Huang Hongmei: a young helper in the meatballs restaurant, fond of Ma
Shipeng, who finds Bai Qiang’s authority rather trying.
Li Peidong: Ma Ping's headteacher (part two).
Ma Li Rui: (no relation to Ma Ping) a beautiful woman whom Ma Ping
admires. She has been into the restaurant before this story begins and he
wants to draw her very much. Her daughter is called Ma Rui.
Ma Rui: Ma Li Rui's young daughter.

Tian: (known as Little Tian): a friend of Chen Baoqing and Ma Ping at the
Guyuan school.
Wang Guoyi: Ma Ping's calligraphy teacher in Xi'an in Part Two.
Wang Qing: Bai Qiang's best friend in Guyuan.
Wu Lian: a teacher at the teachers' college in Guyuan, whose son, Wu Ying is
Xu Xiaojia: an eighteen year old student at the Xi'an school (Part Two) who
tries to take advantage of Ma Ping.
Yang Le: a pretty unhappy woman who comes into the meatballs restaurant
Zhang Chen Hui: the Guyuan school-bully (Part One) two grades higher than
Ma Ping.
Zhang Luxia: a kind girl at Ma Ping's school in Xi'an in Part Two
Zhao Bin: A nationally famous calligrapher who visits Ma Ping in Xi'an (Part

Prologue: March, 1969
Li Qiang, eleven years old, is sitting on a hollow tree-stump with her younger
sister, Li Rongrong, nine, kicking her heels and looking out towards the new
day. Both are wrapped in thick, grubby jackets, trousers torn and frayed,
scrappy shoes and bright, bobble hats fending off the cold wind of an early
morning in this deserted landscape. The sun has just risen above the horizon
and in the spring freshness the child can see a long way. There, far below her
is where the Ding family lives. There are four of them, the parents and the
two children, a boy and a girl. Ding Jie is a nice girl. She has long brown hair
and ugly freckles! Mr. Ding is an old man. He has grey hair and shuffles when
he walks but he is kind. Rongrong laughed at him last week and he was not
even cross with her. He just smiled at her and patted her head. He looked sad.
And there, on the right, down towards the valley, old Farmer Ma is goading
an ox drawing a cart towards the lower field that leads to his house. His
conical hat glints momentarily in the sunlight, and his staff can be heard even
at this distance, clacking on the axle. But still the ancient animal only ambles
with a lumbering gait, its bones protruding like washer-boards from its
haunches. She stares after it, her heels slowing until they are still. She looks
out at the valley beyond and the hills which frame it in her vision, sandy, dry
and ancient, never-changing, relentless. Little is growing beyond gorse and
some wheat on the terraced hills. To the right, the sorghum crop is ruined
again, the soil past its ability to yield any more. And there beyond the
mountains is The Town, but she’s never been there, and neither has
Rongrong. The nearest she’s got was one Spring Festival when fires were lit
on the brooding hillsides and people came from all over the area to feast and
celebrate and jump over the fires into the new year. Her father swung her
onto his shoulders and they marched for hours towards the glow until in the
very distance, almost beyond her imagination, were some twinkling lights
within grand town-walls.
‘That’s Guyuan!’ said her father, turning to get half a look at her. She sat up
and strained her eyes to see.
‘Guyuan? Wow!’
‘What’s it like there?’ she asked.
‘Like?’ He paused. ‘Oh,’ and his normally mild tones took on shadows and
secrets, as if the question had released possibilities like birds from cages. Li
Qiang felt a frisson of delicious fear in her stomach.
‘Yes, like.’
‘They say that the giant’s relatives live there. They’re smaller of course and
look like you and me, but they’re really giants.’
Li Qiang’s eyes grew larger with delight. Her father had told her once about
how Dongyue Mountain was originally formed. An old giant was trekking
across the vastness of the desert and needed somewhere to rest his weary
head, so he built a great pile of earth for a pillow and laid down for a rest, and

there he is, sleeping still and who knows when he’s going to wake? She
doesn’t know whether it’s true, but it sounds true!

‘I’m hungry,’ says Li Rongrong with a pout. Li Qiang is startled at the
‘You’re always hungry,’ she comments flatly, her voice suggesting she hears
this rather too often to take notice of it, so without looking at her, she stares
ahead as the old ox turns slowly into the new field.
‘But I am!’ the child’s tone takes on a whining note, and Li Qiang turns to her
then and pushes her sharply off balance so that she falls back into the dry,
dusty soil and begins to cry.
‘So is everyone, you selfish little thing! Oh don’t cry. Rongrong, don’t cry.’
Li Qiang jumps down from the sprawled stump and runs behind it to comfort
her sister. ‘I’m sorry I pushed you. Of course you’re hungry. It’s just that we
all are and it makes us angry. And we have to help our parents. If you go on
about being hungry all the time, it makes it harder for them.’
‘Why?’ asks the little girl, looking up trustingly into her sister’s face as she
scrambles to her feet with her hand in Li Qiang’s.
‘Because it just does. So, let’s see if there’s anything for breakfast, and if there
isn’t, don’t start again, O.K.?’
‘Yes,’ says Li Rongrong, subdued, looking at her elder sibling, and realising
for the first time how sad she is, and this new knowledge making her grip her
hand more firmly. I’ll never complain again, she says to herself, forcing
herself to skip beside her sister. I’ll be a good child and help everyone.
‘Chairman Mao says we must help each other, doesn’t he, Big Sister?’
‘Yes, he does. He’s our Great Leader. He tells us that we must help everyone
to make China a great country in the future.’
These words are familiar to both girls, like an incantation, and therefore

Their mother, Li Jincai, steadies herself as she moves about the tiny kitchen. It
is dark and cold and there is so little fuel for the stove again today. She checks
the metal canister in the corner and replaces the top with a clatter. Li Jiangtao
stands watching her from the door.
‘All used up?’ he says flatly.
Her answer is an almost imperceptible nod. ‘I’ll climb to the well again. Your
feet can’t take all that weight.’
He smiles at her kindness.
‘Ask Ma to help you.’
‘I’m always asking him. It’s not right. And anyway, it’s not safe to ask him.
Last week, you know what happened to Old Ding. Well, if it can happen to
him, it can happen to anyone.’

‘Ding’s family isn’t missing anyone. Yet.’ The word hangs on the air in an
accusing silence.
Li Jincai looks at her husband for the first time, a warning in her eyes, and
fear in her heart as if to say: 'Don’t say the next part. Please don’t say it. If you
say it, it’s true and there’s nothing we can do about it, but if you don’t say it,
maybe it isn’t true'.
Her only response is a muted sob and a slight tremor in her throat.
‘Well!’ and she turns away again, placing the wok on the stove, for something
to do, rather than to suggest she might use it. She looks into the hemp sack on
the floor, and notes again with relief, that there is still a little rice left. And
then without being able to stop herself: ‘He’ll come back. After the
Revolution. He’ll come back, Brother Tian. They can’t keep him forever.
They’ll realise, they’ll know…’ But now, having broken that particular silence,
Li Jincai feels trapped in a hollow of misery. ‘Oh!’ she exclaims bitterly, ‘don’t
just stand there, getting under my feet, go out and check on our plot again!
Maybe there’s something we can salvage.’ Li Jiangtao understands and
shuffles across to his wife and squeezes her shoulder gently. She is instantly
warmed by his gesture, and feels stronger. She places her hand over his.

And from the hollow gloom of the morning the children arrive back,
breathless with excitement. ‘Look, look!’ exclaims Li Qiang. ‘We’ve found a
couple of potatoes. They were on the pathway. Farmer Ma must have
dropped them when he was taking them across the valley to sell! Can we
keep them, can we, can we?’ Li Rongrong, all dimples and eager happiness,
jumps up gleefully by her sister’s side.
The parents smile at the children’s ardour, and the relief that today they will
eat a meal together as a family should, although when Li Jincai looks at the
spoils, she sees that one of the potatoes is rotten and probably inedible.

Across the valley Farmer Ma closes the latch on the wooden gate, enclosing
his old ox in the yard. He sighs as he looks at what remains of his land. It
used to cover as far as the eye could see in one direction at least, and then it
was split up when his sister got married, and then that was taken away when
she was found to be a capitalist-roader last year. All that land repossessed and
then redistributed to the Number Two collective. Yes, I can see the fairness of
it now, although I didn’t at the time, but with those bloody townies camped
out now, and having to feed them into the bargain, well, it does seem a bit
much. Well, I’m lucky to have any land at all, although of course, it isn’t
formally mine anymore, but I was allowed to stay with my family on it, so
that’s something. There isn’t enough harvest to keep extra people in potatoes
and rice, though, and the sorghum’s crap these days. And those bloody

townies really are stupid as well. Fancy them coming all the way from Xi’an
as well. But Mao knows best. He has a plan. He says these intellectuals need
to be re-educated in the countryside. Well, he must know. But they’re bloody
useless here. That idiot yesterday with his ideas for allowing some of the land
to lie fallow in rotation sometimes, what the hell does he know? As if we’ve
got the land to spare for that. Him and his fancy ideas! I wouldn’t be
surprised if he isn’t some sort of class traitor. That’s why they’re sent here. To
show them the real China. That’s what Mao says. And now they’re spending
time planting the crops Mao tells them to, but they don’t seem to be growing
as well as we all expected. And we still have to feed them. Oh, it’s such a
fucking muddle. We’ll just have to work harder.

Our Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao Zedong, will sort it all out for us.

‘Ma Baozhong!’ calls his wife from the hut-door. ‘Are you going to spend the
whole morning dreaming? Come on in and get your breakfast.’
He nods at her in reply, and slowly ambles up the pathway to the door,
standing his staff against the porchway. His feet are caked in dust and as he
removes his thick, worn boots, he cracks them against the brick wall of their
small house, and the dust swirls in a cloud around him.
‘Where are our visitors?’ he asks truculently.
‘Most of them went out to dig over Penyang way.’
‘Good bloody riddance. Let’s hope they go missing on the way back.’
‘Now, husband, you know you shouldn’t speak like that. Come on in and I’ll
get you some rice.’
Ma Baozhong sighs and takes his place heavily at the wooden table in the
centre of the interior. He notes with pleasure that the stove is lit, but also that
the stock of fuel is very low. Almost at this thought, with a pair of heavy
metal tongs, his wife extracts the unburnt clumps of charred wood from the
stove, laying them on the stone floor beside the heater to cool.
‘Where’s Ma Xingjian?’ he asks, looking away from the implications of what
he has just witnessed. The child enters the room at that point, pushing
through the curtain, and sits down at the table, greeting his parents formally.
Ma Xingjian is a skinny boy, whose emaciated little body is surprisingly wiry
and strong. His hair is thin and soft, like down still, and sometimes, in a
moment of reflection, Ma Lingxia smiles at her memories of his babyhood.
When he was born he had a plumage of hair, lustrous and silky-soft. When
her sister, who delivered the child, handed him to her, Ma Lingxia thought
she had never seen anything as beautiful. Even Ma Shipeng…But anyway,
little Xingjian sits upright and eager, looking fresh despite his shabby clothes
and grimy hands and face. It’s his eyes of course, his mother realises, as she
looks closely at him, his eyes, which shine with the brightness of un-

disappointed youth, a life stretching out before him like a golden mu. Lucky
that he still doesn’t understand, she thinks gratefully.

Ma Lingxia places a bowl of steaming broth in front of her family and then
stands a little back from the table as is the custom in Hui families, in order to
be ready to serve them with anything they might need. Except there isn’t
anything else to serve them with these days. Ma Xingjian stirs the mess
reluctantly with his spoon because he realises it’s likely to be simply a little
rice in a lot of water. But at least it’s hot. Ma Baozhong warns his son with his
eyes to say nothing, and starts to eat his with assumed relish. His wife isn’t
fooled, but she’s touched that he’s trying anyway.
‘You know the ox has to go, don’t you?’ she says suddenly.
Ma Xingjian looks at his father with fear in his eyes. The number of times
they’ve discussed it, and always ending up shouting at each other.
‘Listen, wife, I don’t want to talk about this again!’
‘My dear, I know you don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.’
‘That beast’s for Ma Shipeng when he gets home.’
Ma Xingjian looks warily from parent to parent. Pain is etched on each of
their faces. He knows he’s never going to see his brother again. Why don’t
they know it? You don’t get dragged away like that by those red-guard
people and then come home again. Look at what happened to Wang Qi. He
was never seen again. And I was nine. He looks at his parents. They are older
too. Being nine was ages ago. I remember being really frightened. Mother told
us to hide in the big cupboard behind some blankets and boxes. Someone told
Father they were coming for Ma Shipeng. Ma Xingjian blanks out his parents’
raised voices. They were taking a lot of people away then. It seemed to get
better and then they came for Ma Shipeng. He was such a brave boy. Fifteen
and so full of life. So clever. Father always said he would be the cleverest of
all. He was good with his hands too. And he used to draw these portraits of
the family. Really talented. They never found that one in my schoolbag. Still
got it somewhere. And those people just came to the house one night and
took him away. Took his pictures as well and told him that he was showing
bourgeois sentiments, whatever they are. Said he was a traitor. And when
Father tried to stop them, they said they’d be back for him too, but they never
came. We expected it every night, every day. But nothing. Every knock at the
door, every time we heard a stranger was in the valley, we thought the time
had come. We had all these plans, places to escape to. Some of the people
went into the caves up the mountains. I haven’t seen Wang Wenzi for ages.
‘Eat up, dreamer,’ his mother says, looking at him affectionately. He looks
from parent to parent. A ceasefire? ‘Plenty to do outside today,’ his mother
‘What about the ox?’ he asks.
 ‘We’re not selling it!’ His father looks coldly across the table at his wife.

‘Husband, it’s been four years! We have to sell it. It’s getting too old to do the
work anyway and you know it, and by the time…Well, at least if we sell it
‘I said NO, woman. What do I have to do? I said no, and I mean no! And let
that be an end to it!’

On the other side of the valley, Ding Yangching and his sister Ding Jie are
cowering next to the stove when they come for their father. The family has
just been eating a little rice in a bowl of hot water. It’s the first time for days
they’ve all had some rice. Ding Jie is full of glee. She smiles at her beloved
older brother to see how pleased he was too, to share it with him. Her brave
brother. Oh, how she loves him. But he doesn’t look pleased. She wonders
what can be the matter. He is staring at their father. She turns to look at him
too. His eyes are wide with fear. Her lips begin to tremble as they always do
when she is frightened.
‘Children, I can hear them!’ their father says, his voice trembling. ‘Go and
hide. Wife, they will surely take me away this time.’
His wife is dazed. She has heard nothing and sits stupidly staring at him.
‘Hide children!’ he says again, more urgently this time. ‘ you are the man
now. It is up to you!’ Both children dive for cover by the stove, where there is
a space between it and the wall. Ding Xiaohua has fitted a curtain in front of
the space, and cleared it for just such a time as this. There is just enough room
for the children to hide safely.
The knock comes.
No one moves.
Again, a knock.
‘Open up in the name of the Revolution. Open up in the name of our beloved
Leader, Mao Zedong!’
Any hesitation now means much worse treatment. Ding Li opens the door,
smiling desperately at whoever might be there.
‘You are welcome!’ he says, and the sounds of several feet marching in can be
‘I trust we are,’ says a harsh young voice. It has a cruel ring to it.
DingYangching thinks he can recognise the tone, but he can’t quite place it.
He knows there are three of them from the different footsteps on the concrete
floor. ‘Where are the children?’ says the one who called from outside. ‘I asked
you a question,’ he says again, impatiently. ‘Do I have to ask the question
again? Are your children here? We know you have two children.’ Ding
Yangching can hear the beating of his own heart so loudly, he is afraid they
will hear it too.

‘I said answer me!’ the voice screams this time, and suddenly, a stinging slap
makes the father cry out in pain.
‘The children are with their aunt!’ says the father.
Ding Jie begins to sob and her brother claps his hand over her mouth.
There is a silence from outside the curtain.
‘Well, then,’ a young woman’s voice says cunningly, and her voice seems to
be getting closer, ‘as there are no children here, you won’t mind answering a
few questions, will you?’ It is the voice of Wang Dongting. She only lives
down the road, the little boy thinks to himself. How can she behave like this?
His father has always been kind to her. Last summer he gave her family some
rice when they had none left.
‘I am always happy to answer questions from our beloved Leader’s Red
Guards,’ says Ding Li, a tremor in his voice, which threatens to unravel Ding
Yangching’s resolve to stay hidden. But how can he own up now? Surely his
father will be in greater peril if he does. He suppresses a sob and at the same
time clamps his hand more firmly around his sister’s mouth. She sits
completely immobile, making not a sound anyway.
‘This time, we are going to give you a chance,’ says Wang Dongting. ‘You are
going to fetch for us all your capitalist possessions, and we are going to make
a fire outside and burn them.’
‘Outside?’ says the leader. ‘I don’t think so. I think we’re going to burn
everything inside the house!’
‘No, please!’ pleads Ding Xiaohua, crying. Another slap. Another scream!
‘Go and fetch all the illegal items in your house. Begin with this room. Don’t
touch all the cooking implements, of course. These are necessary for you to
cook with. In Mao Zedong’s great China, there is plenty of food for all his
citizens. But you don’t need this!’ he continues, and something smashes on
the floor. A cry from the children’s mother causes them to cling together in
the near-darkness of their prison. Maybe it’s the picture of their grandparents.
‘Your blood is shed for China, so why are you weeping?’ says the third voice,
one which the children have never heard before. Ding Yangching is aware,
however, that it is Wang Dingtong he fears most, because he knows her. Her
betrayal is the most terrifying thing of all. She used to go to the same school
as he, but when the schools were closed she was one of the students who
denounced the teachers and helped to destroy the school. At the time he had
laughed with the others. Now it wasn’t funny anymore.
‘I said GO!’ says the leader furiously, and they hear their parents stumbling
around, knocking into the scant furniture, pulling items from cupboards and
smashing them on the floor. The din of the destruction is so fierce, that both
children cower closer together, covering their ears. Muffled cries. Smashing
crockery, breaking pictures, clanking of utensils, then some silence. Ding
Yangching uncovers his ears and hears some distant footsteps. They must be
in his room now, the one he shares with his sister. There is a terrible crash and

he realises that they are destroying the special table that his grandmother
gave to him before she died. She was his favourite relative, his grandmother.
She always thought he was clever. She poured her love into him, and before
she died, she spoke to him. ‘Look after my table,’ she said. ‘And you can do
your homework at that table. That’s what your grandfather did and his father
as well. And always remember to study hard so that your family can be
proud of you in the future.’

Cries of glee from the visitors. ‘Bring that thing in here!’ says Wang Dingtong.
He doesn’t hear his parents anymore. Where are they? What have the guards
done to them? ‘And put it in the middle of the floor. When we burn it, I want
you to watch it and learn from your mistakes.’
‘Yes,’ says the third guard. ‘We haven’t heard you say sorry for your actions.
A good citizen always says sorry.’ A pause. And then a bellowing: ‘Say sorry!’
from Wang Dingtong. There is a groaning sound from the father and a heavy
thump on the ground.
Ding Yangching begs his father in his silence, say sorry, say sorry and then
you are safe. But not a sound. Please Daddy, say sorry. Ding Jie has tears
running silently down her cheeks, but she doesn’t know this. She only knows
that in her whole life she has never been so lonely or afraid. Why can’t Ding
Yangching do something? He is her beloved brother. He must do something.
Why doesn’t her father speak?
‘You hit him too hard!’ says the leader, his voice less confident than before.
‘I hit him as he deserved to be hit,’ replies Wang Dingtong. ‘He didn’t say
sorry. If he is dead, then it is his own fault for provoking me to do it. He
didn’t obey us. He didn’t obey our beloved Chairman, Mao Zedong. He
deserves to die.’
Murmurs of agreement.
‘What about the woman?’
‘What about her?’ says Wang Dingtong. ‘Set fire to this rubbish. We have
other business to do.’
Sounds of matches striking, a rattle of liquid from a deep container, then a
gush of flames.
‘And the children?’
‘The son and daughter of capitalist roaders. Why should we care about them?’
shouts Wang Dingtong above the noise.
A door banging. Smoke belching. Flames surging. Their mother coughing.
They cough.
But no one moves. How long it takes for Ding Xiaohua to rescue her children
isn’t known. It happens, however, and at last the three of them are outside.
‘Father! Father!’ calls Ding Yangching desperately, making as if to run back
into the burning building, realising at that moment that he has wet himself.

‘No no!’ shrieks Ding Xiaohua, because she has seen what they have done to
her husband, and it is something no child should see. He stops dead in his
shame. His sister looks at him with an expression he cannot understand. It
might be disgust.

‘Reading’s important!’ says Ma Baozhong, chivvying his son on to try harder.
He only has the one book, Mao’s Little Red Book. Someone brought it back for
him last time he was in Guyuan. Probably Li, he’s a helpful bloke. Ma
Xingjian is sitting at the table, candle lit, poring over the small volume. He
wants to go outside, not sit in this gloomy place.
‘Other boys don’t have to read,’ he remarks sullenly, remembering a
conversation with Bai Hui down in the valley. Bai Hui’s says if Mao wants us
to read he’d not have taken the schools away. The village school hasn’t been
open for two years now, ever since that terrible teacher was killed. What was
his name again? And if Mao doesn’t want it open…
‘What does this character say?’
‘Guo,’ replies Ma Xingjian tentatively.
‘Yes, country. Our glorious China. And this one…?’
‘中国 Zhongguo!’1
‘Indeed. Our Motherland. Can’t you see how important it is to read?’
Ma Xingjian isn’t sure. Bai Hui has found a good place to swing from a tree,
and some rope left over from some townies when they left last summer.
Before the new lot came. And anyway, look at what happened to Old Ding
only the other day.
‘Come on now, pay attention. These are the words of Chairman Mao. You
must study them.’

There wasn’t much to eat after all, and Li Qiang is still hungry. There’s Old
Ma, she thinks, as she sits on the tree-stump again, swinging her legs. And
Xingjian. He used to be a nice boy until he got in with that Zhang Guo. Nasty
he is. Father says stay away from him and he’s right. The boy’s a menace.
He’s reading to the boy. Or the boy is reading. I wonder whether he should.

There’s little to do now the school is closed. And she used to love it. Every
day except Sunday they would all traipse down into the valley. Took a while,
mind, but it was worth it when you got there. Last summer, the kids still
played in the old building, but most of it had been wrecked. They said they
had to wreck it, the guards, and teach Mr. Gao a lesson. Kneeling down, head
bent, arms raised behind his back. Apparently being a teacher is a bad thing,
    Zhongguo = China, literally, Middle Kingdom. Zhong means middle. Guo, country or kingdom.

but we didn’t know it at the time. Teachers were asking questions and Father
says that’s not allowed anymore and if we get an education we’ll ask
questions, so it’s better if we don’t. For our own safety. So maybe I should tell
Xingjian to tell his father.

The sun is up above her now and she watches as a small crowd of townies
turn the corner up the pathway to her own house and realises that they’re
home and she’d better tell her mother.

She jumps off the stump, which creaks in temper, and runs towards the house.

Chapter One: Saturday, 1st March.
There is a small city in the northwest of China, which has just been granted
city-status, having reached the 50,000 mark in population in 2002. It is a dusty,
dry place, surrounded by sandy hills, achieving greenness only for six weeks
in the year, at which time the city is elevated in aesthetic status from desert to
a water-colour postcard. Most of its adult citizens are vendors, farmers and
small-industry workers. There is now a small teachers college whose students
are certificated to teach a range of subjects, the most popular being English.
Many of its foreign-language graduates go back to their poor villages in order
to make a difference to the next generation as well as to be useful to their
parents and extended families. It is an action characterized by self-sacrifice
and a burning desire to be both an active part of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door
policy (which first allowed foreigners in to influence and teach in the poorer
parts of China in 1989) and to keep the closely traditional ties with duty to
family. With the Beijing Olympics approaching this year, all the citizens are
aware of a changing China. Next year China becomes the most important
country in the world. Everyone is looking at them and surely they are
impressed with everything they see. Who would have thought that China
would host the Olympics? In cities and towns across the country there are
neon signs calculating the countdown to the great occasion. People talk about
it in schools, in offices, on trains and buses, in homes and townhalls and in the
fields. This is the greatest thing to have happened in China since the founding
of the People’s Republic. This greatest moment is for Guyuan personified in
their single foreign teacher, the object of much interest and speculation.

On this particular morning, Ma Ping, a winsome little boy of 11, sits in the
meatballs restaurant, leaning his head on his hand, staring ahead as the
customers come and go. It’s quiet now, a late winter’s Saturday, the weather
conceding only a hint of light. He’s thinking and his concentration renders
him older than his eleven years, a distance playing about his features - a black
and white photograph in a family-album. First he is considering his new
school, then his parents and finally what he has to do today. Another two

months until he can visit his parents. His father has promised to teach him
how to use a lathe and, well, two months! Who knows if that time will ever
come? Adults are always saying later when he thinks it should be now. He
sighs. And school? How is he ever going to learn all the new vocabulary for
English and those awful characters for his Chinese test on Monday? Ma
Shipeng smiles at him from the curtain partitioning off the kitchen. What a
dreamer he is. How much he reminds him of himself at that age. And by all
reports, he’s most like the uncle he never net, also called Ma Shipeng. All
dreams and wishes and burning regrets. With a sudden rush of tenderness, he
walks over and ruffles the lad’s hair.
‘Come on, sleepy-head!’ he says. ‘There’s work to do.’
‘Mm,’ Ma Ping replies distantly. And that brings him abruptly to his third
thought: when can he have any time for himself - to sit and watch and draw?

Suddenly there’s a crash in the kitchen, which makes them both jump. Ma
Shipeng rushes back into the kitchen and a loud dialogue ensues. Ma Ping is
about to get up and clean some tables when he slips back into his reverie,
head on hand, bright dark eyes looking within at life’s possibilities and
finding them far more interesting than cleaning tables. The shadows of the
dull day cause a trick of the light, which turns the entrance to the restaurant
creamy blue, and the little boy watches transfixed by its beauty.
‘Ma Ping, you’re worse than useless today!’ his older brother admonishes him
with a laugh, as he appears suddenly by his side. ‘Where is your head today?’
‘On my shoulders, last time I looked!’ the child replies cheekily, getting up
and stacking bowls at a neighbouring table. Ma Shipeng smiles. Such a clever
little boy! He was never like that. Ma Ping will go far. He will study and
maybe one day go to the college in the city and become a teacher. What a
lovely thought! What an honour for the family.

His aunt emerges from the kitchen carrying a heavy basin of steaming
leftovers in drab water. She edges through the curtain at the entrance, walks
carefully over the icy pavement, crouches and pours the liquid in a lumpy
stream into the gutter. Bai Qiang is 45 years old and neatly diminutive, yet
containing within her small frame a power and magnitude, which generally
ensure that no one crosses her path with malicious intent. Bai Qiang is a force
to be reckoned with, Ma Shipeng says (discretely, but with pride). His aunt
has buried two husbands, and her four children are doing well in Xi’an in
business and administration. All sons! What a lucky woman to have so many
sons. All bright. All healthy. All supporting their mother. Her sister certainly
hasn’t done so well, but as family, it’s her duty to help at this time. It’s so
difficult to get reliable staff and it’s important that the business succeeds,
especially if it has partly to support Ma Ping’s education.

She puts down the dish and wipes her forehead with the back of her hand.
Her unruly curly hair is drawn back into a bun, but wisps of it escape and
frame her face, giving her a deceptively frail appearance. Look more closely,
and you will see the determination in her eyes, large and round with soft
curling lashes, which lend her underlying austerity a rare beauty.

Then she marches back in through the curtain. ‘Ma Ping, come on now! Ma
Shipeng says you’ve not been doing much today. We brought you here to
help, as well as to help you, and don’t you forget it. My sons didn’t become
successful men by staring into space all day. Now think on!’ She sails through
to the kitchen, leaving behind her indelible trail of authority. Ma Shipeng
looks wistfully at his little brother, trying to indicate he wasn’t actually
complaining, but Ma Ping doesn’t need the reassurance. He knows what Aunt
Bai is like. He stacks a pile of crockery and sweeps them into the kitchen
where he finds his aunt supervising a worker, Huang Hongmei, and she’s
looking decidedly uncomfortable at the interference. He dumps the crockery
and makes a hasty exit to avoid being coerced into more duties.

It’s still quiet, so he crosses the restaurant floor, and climbs upstairs to his
sleeping area, a small storing and living space that he shares with his brother,
a tiny coal stove in the centre, grimy with age and use, and make-shift
curtains at the window strung on a wire, and a battered cupboard, ostensibly
for clothes but which now has all sorts of mechanical parts for a motorbike
that Ma Shipeng never quite finished repairing. Ma Ping kneels down by the
bunk-beds, where he drags out a pile of drawings and books, dusty and
grimy from their long acquaintance with the unswept floor, and retrieves two
volumes – an English primer and a book of Chinese characters to copy - grabs
a piece of paper from the shelf by the window and races downstairs all
galvanized now to begin studying.

‘Ma Ping!’ comes the unmistakable voice from the kitchen.
‘Yes, Aunt?’ he says in a voice trying to suggest submission and pleasure at
being called.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Studying, Aunt!’ he says, quickly opening his books and spreading them on
the cleaned table before him. Ma Shipeng nods in an exaggerated gesture of
complicity at him, suggesting this is the desired response.
‘Hrumph!’ A clatter in the kitchen.
‘Aunt, what’s ‘aunt’ in English? I would like to say ‘I have one aunt in
Silence! Ma Shipeng starts to laugh (discretely) at this point. What a clever
child he is. He’d never have thought of that himself.
‘I don’t know!’ comes back the reply, short and sharp.

‘Oh, I thought you knew a lot, Aunt!’ he says, taking what he thinks is his cue
from his elder brother, but Ma Shipeng shakes his head and wags his finger at
‘No, Little Brother!’ he admonishes him. ‘That was rude. Apologise to our
aunt, please!’
‘Sorry, Aunt, I was being disrespectful,’ he calls out, slightly mutinously, and
then, resting his head on his hand, he turns to the homework chapter in his
English primer. His aunt appears at the kitchen doorway, but seeing him
apparently absorbed in his study, retreats with a small smile on her face.
What a rascal he is! Just like her Bai Hui.

Just after ten o’clock, a group of four men in Mao caps, with cigarettes
dangling from mouths and fingers, push the curtain aside and sit down
noisily, laughing and making much of their free time from their small
business down the road. The men organize the shipment of exotic fruits to
their small city, such delights as pineapples, calabash, pumpkins, lotus
seedpods, carambola and persimmons. A few years ago they started a
collective, buying a rickety old lorry between them, borrowing from relatives
and working long, tiring and sometimes unrewarding hours, to the point now
when they have enough funds to buy a new small lorry and to take turns in
driving, or distributing. They are pleased with their lot. All of them are
married and have children. All of them are happy to spend some time
together not working and not with their wives. One calls for tea. Loudly. Ma
Ping jumps up to fetch the kettle, but finds it empty. He bites his lip in
consternation. If his aunt finds out he neglected the tea, there’ll be no break
for him this afternoon. He strolls into the kitchen whistling a tune to deflect
suspicion. Bai Qiang looks up from washing the onions and regards him
‘Ma Ping!’ she says. She doesn’t need to say anymore.
‘I didn’t mean to…’ he says all of a rush, holding up the kettle in an impotent
gesture. So much for keeping it secret. He mentally admonishes himself to try
harder next time.
‘Fill it at once!’ she says annoyed. That boy!
‘Yes, Aunt!’ he replies and sticks the nozzle of the kettle under the free-
standing tap causing it to gush the water all over the floor, dowsing Bai
Qiang’s legs in the process.
‘I’ll tell you this Boy,’ she says, the emphasising of his gender a common trick
in her repertoire. Ma Ping gulps.
‘Yes, Aunt?’
‘You’re a lazy Boy.’
‘Yes, Aunt.’

But she doesn’t finish as the child has filled the kettle now and rushed
through the curtain to the restaurant, clumping it on the hob next to the
counter to boil.

‘Hurry up, boy!’ says one of the men, gesturing towards him with an
impatient hand.
‘I forgot the tea,’ explains Ma Shipeng, and Ma Ping throws his elder brother
a look of such warmth and gratitude, the man is touched.
The men return to their boisterous chatter, telling anecdotes about life on the
road, and what his wife said to her cousin and how his wife has ideas above
her station, and if only they knew how hard we men work. All day. Day-in,
day-out. With never a thought for ourselves, just thinking of our families. All
agree and sit nodding their heads in grave reflection, until another further
stokes the fire of perceived injustices by telling a story of the unfairness of life,
and especially that aspect which seems to have picked on him specifically.
The narrator’s efforts are rewarded with assenting grunts and affirming nods
of the head. These are comfortable stories, told between friends, and each
feels a security in such familiarities.

Ma Ping watches them awhile then sits back at the central range, which has
heated up to quite a fug. He brings out his English primer. I am sitting down. I
am reading. I am working. I am listening. I am speaking. He sighs. It’s just too
‘What you doing, laddie?’ asks one of the men, reaching across and taking Ma
Ping’s book from the edge of the stove and rifling through the pages.
‘English,’ the child replies shyly, looking down. He gets off his stool and
approaches the table to retrieve the book.
‘English, eh? I studied English,’ says the man, peering through his glasses
closely at the book. Ma Ping hopes he doesn’t do too much of the driving for
the company. He then has visions of the man crashing the vehicle and all the
fruit rolling out onto the highway. He smiles.
‘Yeah, I was good too,’ the man continues. ‘I-er am-er speaking-er. Right?’
Ma Ping bites his lip and nods his head slightly, wishing to be neither
untruthful nor disrespectful.
‘See!’ he says, clapping the little boy on the back. The other men laugh not
unkindly at the little fellow standing rather crestfallen before them. ‘Give him
his book, Tian!’ one of them says. Ma Ping takes back the book and retires to
another spot in the restaurant where he hopes he won’t be interrupted. The
men continue with their conversations. Then the child remembers the tea, and
hurries over to the kettle which is steaming heavily, places four little plastic
refillable cups each into a cup-holder, pinches a small amount of jasmine
leaves into each one, and carries them to the table, returning to the counter for
the kettle and then filling the men’s cups with the hot liquid.

‘Thanker you!’ the bespectacled man says, and they all laugh. Ma Shipeng
looks at his brother’s discomfort. Poor little lad, but the men mean no harm,
and he’s going to have to toughen up if he’s going to cope with life in the city.

Huang Hongmei appears through the curtain with a tray on which are
balanced four large portions of meatball-noodles. She deposits it heavily on
the table, slopping some of the soupy liquid over the edges of the bowls. The
men reach across and relieve the tray of one bowl each, wiping the table, and
then cracking the pairs of chopsticks smack on the tabletop to divide them.
One man adds some vinegar to his portion and begins to mix the result with
his chopsticks before dexterously manipulating them to bring the largest
possible portion to his mouth, slurping the results, which are audible
throughout the premises. Good food, he thinks as he nods his head in
satisfaction at his comrades. They nod and begin eating with relish.

Ma Ping returns to his books at the other end of the restaurant. He has that
sad look again, Ma Shipeng realises. An aching sensation flutters in his heart:
his little brother is unhappy. He hadn’t realised until this moment. The little
chap has done such a good job of hiding it. Always first out of bed in the
morning, lighting the stove, whistling to himself and fetching some bread
from the corner. He has never been asked to do any of this, he simply does it.
Ma Shipeng has taken this as a sign of Ma Ping’s delight in being there, but
with a sudden inner jolt, he realises that this actually means the opposite. He
bites his lip in a gesture reminiscent of his little brother’s, and goes up to him.
‘How’s it going, eh?’ He stands behind the child and lays his hand on his
shoulder in a warm caress, looking down to his books. Ma Ping nods
wordlessly, and then Ma Shipeng knows as a certainty that the child is
holding back his tears.
‘They meant nothing by it,’ he says gently, gripping the lad’s shoulder kindly.
More vigorous nodding. Wordless.
‘I talked to Teacher Deng the other day?’ A new kind of awareness takes the
boy. His body becomes taut with attention.
‘He says you’ve made a good start to the class. He is especially pleased with
your English, and he says your Chinese characters are elegant. Elegant, eh!’
‘Really?’ Ma Ping looks round, tears forgotten, all eager smiles.
‘Yes, and he says that when our parents come, he wants to see them.’
‘Really?’ The child is so easily pleased, Ma Shipeng thinks gratefully.
‘Yes, so you’d better work hard and make us all proud one day.’
‘Father will be proud of me?’
‘Yes, of course! And Mother too!’
‘And Father says, he’s going to show me how to use a lathe.’ He is looking up
at Ma Shipeng now with such innocent wonderment, the man removes his
hand abruptly from the child’s shoulder.

‘Yes, so you start working my lad and no more of this day-dreaming,’ he says
rather gruffly. But Ma Ping is not fooled and his wide smile follows him back
to a close scrutiny of the book.

Three more customers enter, a man, his wife and their son, and Ma Ping
doesn’t wait for his brother to tell the kitchen but does it himself. He
recognises the pretty woman as Yang Le and the man and boy as her husband
and son. He makes the new customers some tea, which he delivers with a
courteous smile, before returning to his books. The adults nod at him in
acknowledgement and continue with their conversation. The boy stares over
at the son, as if sizing him up.
‘I don’t know how we are to do it,’ says Yang Le, toying with her chopsticks,
tapping them on the table in evident discontent.
‘We have no choice, you know that, wife!’ replies her husband in repressed
Ma Ping looks up, not so much at the sounds they are making - which are
hard to distinguish anyway above the noise at the men’s table as they finish
their meal, drink more tea and begin to play the fingers game raucously – but
at the atmosphere, which suddenly seems taut and uncomfortable. He sees
the woman gesticulating quietly at her husband, and perceives the set
expression on his face. The boy sits between them passively, looking from one
to the other and making not a sound. She looks tired and what a pretty face
she has. Like that lovely woman with her little girl weeks ago. She hasn’t been
back yet. Ma Ping wonders whether she will come into the restaurant today.
He wonders that every day. He gets up and goes to the stove to stoke it, but in
actual fact only wants to see what is happening at the couple’s table.
‘I tell you, wife, it is our duty!’
Slowly she nods her head. Obedient.
‘I know, husband. Of course it is, but it still…’
‘Still nothing. I am surprised at you. Brother Li told us he could no longer
take care of her because of Li Caihong. You know this already.’
‘Yes, it’s just that you are away so much and, well, you know how she feels
about me. And then there’s Yang Baoqing to think of,’ she adds, indicating the
boy, who looks up as if accused of something.
‘I like Li Xiaolin,’ he begins, but neither adult is listening. Ma Ping watches
how they fail to see the child or hear him. The son begins to kick his legs in a
desultory manner. Ma Ping tries to catch his eye, but the child is looking
down at his feet, absorbed apparently, by a stain on the floor.
‘Then maybe you ought to try harder. She is my aunt,’ the father continues,
and Ma Ping looks down at his books again, half seeing them.
‘Yes, husband.’ She takes a sip of her tea and Ma Ping immediately gets up
from his seat and fetches the kettle from the men’s table, hefting it over, and

offering the woman a top-up. She pushes her cup closer to him and smiles
gratefully at him.
‘Xiexie’, she says softly.
‘Bukerqi’, he replies, delighted, leaving the kettle should they need it later. He
sits back at his table, his books forgotten, leaning on his hand and watching
the pretty woman. Her hair is a rich brown colour. She has probably dyed it,
he thinks. She has nice eyes, round and rich and brown and kind. Her
movements are elegant, soft, gentle and dainty. As she raises her head to say
something to her husband he sees the oval of her face, her delicately-carved
chin, and something stirs in him. He can’t take his eyes off her face. She seems
sad and that hurts him, he realises. He wants to help her, make her face smile,
her eyes twinkle at him. The man is drinking his tea, his expression distant.
But Ma Ping doesn’t see him. He wishes he had some paper with him: the
woman’s movements intoxicate him and he wants to draw so badly his
fingers ache with it. If she goes now, he’ll not have a chance again maybe.
This evening he’ll have to try to draw her from memory. If he lets her face
fade, then he’ll never find another like it. He frowns as if trying to force her
likeness into his mind, with the pressure of a jack-in-the-box.

‘MA PING!’ His aunt is standing next to him and he had no idea she was even
close. He jumps up.
‘Yes, Aunt?’ he licks his lips.
‘Move those bowls, Boy!’ she replies, indicating the now vacated men’s table.
Ma Ping hadn’t noticed them leave and he is rather surprised at the depth of
his concentration. He jumps up and starts to stack the crockery. He looks
round to catch another glimpse of the woman, and then carries the pile into
the kitchen to where his aunt follows him. As he puts down the stack of
crockery, he turns and finds her blocking his way.
‘I’m going to give you a warning,’ she says coldly. ‘You pull your weight
here, sonny, otherwise we’ll send you back.’ A pause, then: ‘Ma Shipeng!’
The young man appears through the curtains. ‘I just told your brother, if he
doesn’t shape up, he’s out!’
Ma Ping nods dejectedly. Ma Shipeng looks at him reassuringly.
‘Aunt, I think you're right.’
Ma Ping looks up at his brother in shock. He stands between his relatives,
strung between them like a bead on a chain, to be rolled hither and thither.
His chin sets hard and his eyes glitter.
‘Well, I don’t think so!’ the little boy says to the older woman, who is shocked
at the tone in his voice. She nearly softens because it is Bai Hui speaking, her
favourite son, but then she sees the determination in his chin and she is
‘You'll do what you're told. You’re a naughty boy. You do NOT contradict
your elders and betters!’ she fumes. Ma Shipeng nods his head.

‘It isn’t right, little brother,’ he agrees. Ma Ping’s frown deepens. Ma Shipeng
is his champion. He always sticks up for him. Ma Ping’s face sets mutinously
and he jerks his head onto his hand, staring ahead.
‘No, it’s not right, Aunt,’ continues Ma Shipeng. ‘Indeed he shouldn’t
contradict you, but I’m not sure you know all the facts. I'm sorry, I should
have told you before. You see, this little lad has made a big impression at his
new school.’ He pats Ma Ping’s shoulder as he speaks and the child relaxes
the tension in his body, and turns his head to look at his brother.
‘Meaning?’ Bai Qiang is almost tapping her foot in impatience.
‘Teacher Deng says he is most promising, and that he’ll make a scholar out of
him yet!’
‘A scholar, eh?’ Bai Qiang narrows her eyes at Ma Ping and he stands like a
rabbit in headlights at the force of their incision. ‘Our lad a scholar, eh?’ She
tries on the word again for size and finds she likes it. ‘A scholar!’ this time
more a statement than a query. She likes that even better and smiles at him.
Ma Ping is so relieved he feels clamminess on his hands and wipes them
nervously on his sides.
‘But he’ll have to work, won’t he? Mm.’ She pauses. ‘I want him to study at
weekends for three hours. Both days. And that’s in addition to his homework.
So, no work in the restaurant. Can you manage without him then?’
‘They’re often our busiest times,’ Ma Shipeng says slowly, ‘but I think we can.
Huang Hongmei can make up the time.’
‘You’ll need to pay her, and she’s slovenly.’ Ma Shipeng says nothing.
‘Yes.’ Pause. ‘Well, we’ll just need to manage, won’t we? Other families do it.’
‘That’s settled, then.’
Ma Ping watches his elders, feeling his life drifting around and away from
him. So much work. At least in the restaurant he can meet people and pick
them out of his memory later to draw. If he must always sit upstairs in that
poky little garret he’ll get awfully lonely too.
As ever sensitive to his favourite relative, Ma Shipeng realizes again that Ma
Ping isn’t happy.
‘And when the restaurant’s not busy, I’ll come and help you,’ he offers.
Ma Ping smiles gratefully, but wonders how much help his elder brother will
be, given his lack of knowledge of English, or indeed calligraphy, his current
‘Thanks,’ he says in a small voice.
‘Well, no time like the present,’ she says. ‘Go on, then, lad. And be grateful for
the opportunity we’re giving you. And one day we’ll expect you to support
us as we've supported you.’
Ma Ping nods his head obediently, and slouches off upstairs to begin the new
regime. Ma Shipeng watches him go, carrying his books with a sloping gait
and hunched shoulders, and wonders if he’s doing the right thing. Ah well,

no time to think about that now. He has work to do. Bai Qiang has returned to
the kitchen and he has to clear the tables for the next customers.

Ma Ping sits upstairs on the window-ledge, looking down on the street below,
where he now has a huge desire to be. He sees the small family leave the
restaurant, and without being aware of what he’s doing, he takes the paper
and pencil by his side, rests it on his legs, and begins to draw what he sees –
the father striding ahead, angular strokes, intentional movements, the
mother’s hair escaping its confinement, head down, hands drawn together in
front of her, white knuckles, dejection in every contour, and then the son
trailing behind, and Ma Ping draws his suddenly upturned-face, smiling and
waving at the artist he’s leaving behind. It’s a picture of rare skill and
complex structure, but to Ma Ping it’s simply a moment he wants to keep. His
pencil moves effortlessly, Ma Ping looking up, almost as if for inspiration in
the air around him, and then bending again to the task. An hour passes in
perfect synthesis of child and task. Only when he’s satisfied, does he leave his
window-seat and push the paper under the bunks so that it won’t be found.
He retrieves his books and begins to study, sensing guilt for wasting time, but
principally for always hiding something so precious from the world,
especially from Ma Shipeng and his beloved sister, Ma Ling.
‘I am speaking Engerlish. I am writing Engerlish. I am reading Engerlish,’ he recites
from the book.
‘That’s right!’ says Ma Shipeng come to check on him. The little boy feels even
guiltier now. Five minutes before and it would have been a very different
‘Are you all right?’ the man asks.
Ma Ping nods his head in such a way that Ma Shipeng knows he isn’t.
‘Can I help you?’
‘No. No one can help me,’ says the child in a tone of such melodrama that his
brother smiles.
‘Hey, I’m sure it’s not as bad as that. I know that six hours a weekend extra
seems like quite a lot, but if you’re to get on, you have to do it, you know.’
Ma Ping sighs.
‘Well, you’d better let me get on, then,’ he says in a resigned tone. Ma Shipeng
goes downstairs with the intention of making his brother an especially meaty
meatball noodles for lunch.

An hour later, Ma Ping is sitting in the restaurant by the stove and tucking
into a huge bowl of meatball noodles. He is rarely given such a large portion
and he is grateful. The morning seems to have been unusually busy and he’s
very hungry. He observes the customers now. Over there in the corner there
are two men and two women, obviously wives and husbands and friends. He
doesn’t recognise any of them and his interest flickers across the room to two

boys who are sitting with their father. One of them is about his age. His ears
stick out a lot and Ma Ping smiles at himself to think that this is one
characteristic, which his drawing can easily cope with. He hugs this secret in
glee to himself, recognizing that only a few minutes will be necessary to
capture his likeness. Then he looks again and watches the father interacting
with his children. The child with sticking-out ears seems to be upset about
something. Ma Ping leaves his food and goes to the table to offer them tea,
which the father accepts. The children decline, but the child with such
interesting features smiles at Ma Ping. The boy fetches the kettle, and as he
pours the tea for the father, asks the children’s names.
‘They are Ding Pengcheng,’ the father replies, indicating his son with sticking-
out ears, and the younger child he introduces as Ding Fuxin. I am Ding
‘Hi!’ says Ma Ping, speaking to all three, but leaving the smile of his greeting
with Ding Pengcheng.
‘How old are you?’ he asks the boy.
‘He’s eleven,’ says Ding Yangching, interrupting his son as he is about to
‘Ma Ping!’ calls his brother. ‘Don’t bother the customers, and come and eat
your noodles.’
Ma Ping leaves the table with a final smile at Ding Pengcheng, thinking that
up-close, perhaps he isn’t so easy to draw after all: there are flecks of colour in
his eyes which would be difficult to capture even if he had proper crayons or
paints. How wonderful to have some crayons or paints, but he’ll never be able
to afford those. He continues to eat, but his eyes are constantly fixed on the
threesome. Ding Pengcheng certainly looks worried about something, but the
younger brother looks almost smug, his mouth straightened out in a
suggestion of superiority, his eyebrows raised too. Ma Ping finishes his
noodles, placing the children in a box in his mind for later.

‘I’m going out!’ announces Bai Qiang half an hour later. ‘We need some
onions and Chinese lettuce. And I could do with some fresh air. Working in
that kitchen all the time is hardly good for my health. I think that’s something
we need to talk about, Ma Shipeng. You ought to pull your weight in there
sometimes. I can teach you.’
It’s not a matter for discussion, so Ma Shipeng merely nods at her retreating
figure. Ma Ping is cleaning the big, round table. He is very quiet. There are
only two customers in the restaurant.
‘What’s on your mind, brother?’
‘Oh, nothing!’
‘Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday. What’s going on with you?’
‘I need some money.’
‘Money? What do you need money for?’

‘Oh, just stuff.’
‘What stuff, eh?’ Ma Shipeng grins. His brother is so cute! He walks over to
him and ruffles his hair, a gesture of affection between them. Ma Ping stands,
head down, forlorn. He seems too readily crestfallen, so instead of teasing
him further, Ma Shipeng motions him to a seat.
‘How much?’
‘I don’t know, but I can find out!’ Ma Ping says eagerly, looking up into his
brother’s eyes, his own glistening with tears.
Ma Shipeng shakes his head. ‘I’m worried about you,’ he begins.
‘Don’t be!’ says Ma Ping, now buoyed by the possibility of buying some
crayons or even paints. ‘I’m fine. If I can tell you how much later, can you
give me the money? I don’t think it’s very much.’
‘Well, we’re supposed to be saving every mao at the moment. You heard what
Aunt said.’
Again the dejected sagging of the shoulders. Ma Shipeng sighs.
‘All right, but not much mind, and that’s all this month, do you understand?’
‘Oh yes! Yes! Thank you! Thank you!’ and Ma Ping rushes around the
restaurant cleaning as he goes, as other customers drift in and out.

Ma Ping presses his face against the glass container next to the wall in the
new underground supermarket, which has been paid for through
sponsorship at its new status as a city in the province. There are palettes and
brushes and crayons and pencils and pens and ink-bottles, green, red, black,
blue, purple. His eyes grow large with excitement and an onlooker might be
touched at the way his whole body tenses with wonder and fervour, as if he
were looking at a full circus-stadium. He’s seen one once, a circus, come to the
city for ten days with elephants and a tiger, daredevil riders, trapeze artists
and posters everywhere. It was awesome. He hadn’t the money to go in, of
course, but he climbed the rickety fence they erected and looked on for as
long as his bony bottom could stand the discomfort. But this sight was even
more exciting.
‘Ni yao zhige ma?’2 snaps an assistant.
‘Wo zhi kankan!’3 he replies quickly.
The assistant loses interest and moves over towards a couple that seems a
more likely prospect.

Ma Ping’s heart sinks. One brush of anything like good quality, over ten
yuan. How can he ask his brother for that? And the palettes, well, they’re
completely out of his league, although there’s one there, with a bright blue,
red, orange, yellow and black selection, for only six yuan. Six yuan and ten.

    Ni yao zhige ma? You want something?
    Wo zhi kankan. I’m just looking.

Sixteen! It’s ridiculous. He could, he supposes, buy a cheaper brush, but that
one at four yuan looks dreadful, as if it would leave hairs all over the paper.
No, it’s not possible. He looks at neighbouring offers, but finds the same
prices everywhere. He could bargain, of course, but most assistants won’t do
that with children. They just demand the money, or you don’t get the goods.
He turns away and starts for home.

‘Sixteen yuan! What do you want to buy, a palace?’
Ma Ping shakes his head wordlessly, mouth downturned again.
‘What am I going to do with you, eh?’ Ma Shipeng looks at him a long
moment, and then reaches into his pocket. ‘Well, don’t tell your aunt, but we
had a huge run when she was out. Praise be to Allah that Huang Hongmei
was here. We made a packet! Go on.’ He proffers twenty yuan at the child,
and is heartened by the way in which his little brother’s whole body changes
into delight.
‘I only asked for…Oh, thank you!’ And he hugs the man right there in the
restaurant, reaching his arms right round the man’s waist. Their few
customers look up and grin with pleasure at the sight, then bend back over
the noodles and eat.

Ma Ping is experimenting, although the light is not good, but he can’t bear not
to be painting. For the last hour since finishing in the restaurant, he has been
upstairs, Aunt Bai having unexpectedly had to leave as one of her sons was
coming home that evening. The single bulb in the garret gives out so little
illumination, but he has arranged the small table underneath the light and is
trying out shapes and combinations, a gesture here turning into a bird’s wing
there, a shoulder, a profile. That woman’s profile, the one who came into the
restaurant a few weeks ago with her little daughter, who was always playing
with the chopsticks. The face he has sought through his dreams, through his
pencil sketches, through his mind’s eye, but has not been able to capture.
Now he is finding her face again in the swirls of colour and shadow, and he
takes his last sheet of paper, pushing the others away from the surface,
disregarding them as they float away in a parabola of neglect, and begins to
discover her likeness anew.

It is thrilling for him as he manipulates the brush in different directions and
instincts that her face begins to appear before him. It seems like magic. He has
never felt like this before; as if something takes ahold of him, holds him
gently in its grasp and breathes her portrait through his brush. He can do no
wrong, make no false turn, illuminate no dubious shadow. He is not in his
garret at all. He isn’t really anywhere at all: his eyes, if you were to look into
them, are glazed and glittering; he stares ahead at the paper, absorbed, as if he
is himself the paper and the brush, the colours, the mood of her smile, the

sadness in her eyes, her tiredness, and her listless spirit. And now, there she
is, looking at him, lovingly, wistfully even. He is surprised at the expression
on her face; he meant to draw her as he remembered her exactly, but this
woman staring out at him isn’t the person he once saw: it is as if he has sat
with her for many hours and listened to the stories of her life, so he knows
her, each mood, each sigh, each glance, each desire. As if she has nothing in
her which he hasn’t seen. And now as he looks at the portrait he has no sense
whether it has materialized in seconds or hours. All he knows is that there
comes a point when he breaks out of his trance, sees the picture is complete,
and feels sick and dizzy. He is aware of neither his feelings about what he has
achieved nor the insights leading to it, only that he feels restless in himself, as
if he isn’t quite inside his own body, but has to get used to his hands, his feet,
the feel of his mouth, of his blinking eyes again. When he flexes his fingers,
they feel stiff and unyielding. He stacks the paper with the new picture on the
top, on the wardrobe, and then quickly undresses and gets into bed.

He falls asleep immediately into a dreamless state and doesn’t hear Ma
Shipeng only a few minutes later as he comes to bed too. He looks down at
his younger brother, and watches as the little boy twitches and murmurs in
his sleep. Such a serious little child. Ma Shipeng cannot help but be worried.
Why did he need that money? He undresses, hoping the child isn’t in some
sort of trouble. Perhaps he should talk to their parents about him when they
come at the end of next month. Or maybe, Ma Ping needs to see them before
then, have a bit of a break. Six hours every weekend is a lot more work for the
child. Such pressure is put on young people these days in their education, he
thinks to himself. It can’t all be necessary.

Ma Shipeng gets into bed and lies there, hands behind head in his usual
sleeping position, but sleep doesn’t come easily tonight. He is looking into the
future. China may be developing, but so is competition. What was good
enough now isn’t going to be enough in times to come. Deng may say his
brother is clever, but is he going to be clever enough? He bites his lip and turns
over restlessly, knowing he won’t find the answer that night. Anyway, there’s
a full restaurant tomorrow and work to be done. Time to sleep.

Chapter Two. Wednesday, 5th March: Lei Feng Day4

 Li Feng Day is dedicated to a young man in the Cultural Revolution who performed many deeds for
others, not thinking of himself, but only the needs of the people around him. He also preached this kind
of behaviour to others, setting a daily example himself. He was acknowledged by Mao as a model
Chinese citizen, one others should emulate. As a result, many young people tried conspicuously to
behave in this way, and since the Revolution, there has been an annual Lei Feng Day when young
people are expected to perform useful acts for others. One traditional way of showing the Lei Feng
spirit is to clean dormitories, houses, the streets and so on.

Number One Middle School is built in a slight valley surrounded by the beige
hills and dust, which characterize this desert-area of northwest China. It is a
modern building in white with blue awnings, in the tradition of many a
modern building in China – white, clean, angular and functional - an arresting
sight with arched windows supported and decorated with criss-cross metal
strips. The campus won an architectural prize for its sweeping façade a few
years ago and there is a plaque to commemorate this honour. Built on three
floors around a central promenade - like a smaller model of the architecture of
private houses, built on three sides around a courtyard - this school is home
to nearly three thousand children during daylight-hours. During breaks and
lunchtime, children can walk around the campus, or take up various activities
behind the main building where there is an expanse of land for sports and
public meetings. On the walls on each floor are pictures of famous Chinese
politicians, historical and literary figures and heroes. In addition, a portrait of
Marx adorns the outside of Ma Ping’s classroom where he sits now waiting
for his first lesson to begin. English. Inside the classroom are some maxims in
the language: ‘Always try your best!’ ‘Practice makes perfect!’ ‘Never give up!’ ‘A
good beginning is half the battle: begin carefully!’

Teacher Deng is standing regally on the platform in front of the blackboard.
‘What day is today?’ he asks in English.
‘Today is Lei Feng Day!’ reply the children in unison.
‘Good!’ Then he goes on in Chinese:
‘And why do we celebrate Lei Feng Day?’
A babble of voices, reciting the correct answer but not in unity, breaks out,
and Teacher Deng allows it to take its course before holding up his hands for
‘Quite right!’ he says, nodding. ‘Lei Feng was a great hero of the Revolution.
He made great sacrifices for his country. He taught us that a good life is lived
for others, not for our own selfish ends. We must try to do the same. We must
work for others, not for ourselves. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Sir!’ chorus the children.
‘Tell me one act which Lei Feng did for others.’
Hands go up.
‘Tian, you!’
Little Tian stands up and tells the class that Lei Feng was a great hero of the
Revolution and made great sacrifices for others. For example, he gave his last
piece of bread to an old man who was starving.
‘Good, Tian! Now another child.’
Hands go up.
‘Yes, Chen.’
‘Lei Feng sacrificed himself to the good of society and one day when he was
crossing a river, he found a man trying to pull his cow and cart across, but the

cart was stuck. So he spent a long time helping the farmer to dig the animal
out of its hole. He had to push with his shoulder, but he wasn’t very strong
because he hadn’t eaten for a long time, so when the work was done, he felt
very ill and faint, but he still accompanied the man and cow back to the
farmstead to check they arrived safely and when they got there, he wouldn’t
accept any food because he knew they were very poor too.’
‘Good, Chen. Any more?’
And so on, for about fifteen minutes and then Mr. Deng switches into the
English lesson that the students have been expecting.

He asks the children to recite their previous lesson. Ma Ping, sitting in the
third row in a class of seventy-two children, mouths the new verbs.
‘Ma, stand up!’ says the teacher suddenly. The children are silent, and Ma
Ping almost jumps up.
‘Yes, Sir?’
‘You aren’t speaking properly. Speak properly. I am speaking-er Engerlish.
Ma Ping repeats, blushing.
‘Correct. Sit down please, and next time, do it properly!’
‘Yes, Sir!’ he sits down quickly.
‘Turn to page 31 in your ‘Junior English for China’ books please. Lesson
Thirty Two.’
The lesson progresses.

At break, Ma Ping stands at the periphery and kicks his heels. He doesn’t
have any particular friends yet, although some of the boys are quite friendly
to him and promise they will recommend his brother’s restaurant to friends
and family. Children sit on walls and talk, or play mahjongg, or chase each
other across the yard, or stand in doorways and watch the world go by.
There’s that Zhang Chen Hui, one to be avoided Ma Ping thinks, as he ambles
round the perimeter. The older lad is surrounded by the usual gang of
hangers-on and Ma Ping shivers at the thought of any encounters with him.
He’s heard that that Wu boy has been sent away for getting into trouble with
him5. Good thing too, but he wonders why Zhang is still around. As he turns
the corner to walk towards the back of the school, he bumps into Ding
Pengcheng from the restaurant the previous weekend.
‘Hi!’ he says, in great glee. ‘Hey!’ he adds then as he notices the child’s tear-
stained face. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Oh yes, I mean I will be. You’re the boy from the restaurant, aren’t you?’

  This incident is written about in a series of tales set in Guyuan called 'Festival Stories', which recount
the lives of about twenty people in the small city, each of the six tales set on a Festival Day - the whole
volume covering one year in their lives. Ma Ping comes into the final two stories of the cycle.

‘Yes, Ma Ping,’ he says, feeling that for the first time in this city he has met a
friend. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks, feeling pity for this ungainly,
unprepossessing child beside him. The child is scrawny as well as ugly, not
only his ears sticking out to an alarming degree, but his left eye revealing a
slight squint Ma Ping hasn’t noticed before, and a thinness that suggests
illness. His hair is bushy and sticks out at unusual angles from his bony head.
And the child limps a little too. Ma Ping wonders why.
‘I got my test results this morning,’ he offers as explanation.
‘Oh, I see,’ nods Ma Ping, looking down and tracing his toe in the dust
aimlessly. ‘Which test?’
‘Oh!’ The tone has deepened. Failing Chinese is serious stuff. Then with an
intuition beyond his years, Ma Ping connects the child’s silence, the father’s
ready replies for others, and Ding Pengcheng’s worried looks last time they
met, and says: ‘Will your father beat you?’
‘Oh yes!’ says the child matter-of-factly. ‘He wants me to do well and he
thinks I’m lazy, but I’m not, you know. I do try my best, although Father
doesn’t believe me, but I’m not clever, you see, not in things like Chinese and
English.’ He looks into Ma Ping’s face as if he might in one appeal, absorb
from his features the abilities he lacks. ‘Are you clever?’
‘They say I am,’ replies Ma Ping simply, without guile. ‘But I don’t like work
‘Me neither. But however hard I try, it just doesn’t get easier for me. How do
you do it?’
‘I don’t know. I just do it. It’s easy, isn’t it?’
Ding Pengcheng sighs.
‘Not for me it isn’t. Hey, could you help me with Chinese? You’re good at it,
aren’t you? And we’re in the same grade, aren’t we? Would you help me with
‘I don’t know if I have time.’
‘But we could study together and that would be much easier. And more fun,’
he finishes shyly. He looks down and scuffs his feet in the dust. Ma Ping looks
at the top of his head. He has a double crown and tufts of hair sticking out at
ungainly angles. A pleasure to draw perhaps.
‘All right, but my family’s very strict about studying. We’d have to convince
them it’s good for my study, otherwise they’ll think we’re wasting time. And
so far I’ve been nearly top in Chinese, and if that stops, we certainly won’t be
able to study together anymore. What are you good at?’
‘History,’ replies Ding Pengcheng immediately. ‘I came third last time. There
are 68 in my class. My father was very pleased.’ He looks at Ma Ping now
openly. ‘Can you do history?’
‘If I have to. Maybe I could do with some help. What else?’
‘Maths, if I work really hard.’

‘I can’t get on so well with Maths. What about English?’
‘I’m terrible at that. Can’t remember a thing.’
‘Well,’ said Ma Ping, thoughtfully. ‘I’ll help you with English and Chinese
and you help me with Maths and History. Deal?’
The two boys shake hands on the moment and the bell goes for Geography.
‘Come home with me after school, can you?’ Ma Ping asks.
‘Yes, for a short while. And my father’ll want to see you too.’
They begin to walk into the building.
‘Will your father be very angry? Perhaps if I come home with you, he can’t hit
‘Then he’ll hit me afterwards,’ the child rejoins calmly.

After lunch, Ding Pengcheng recalls some of the conversation with his family.
‘So who is this Ma Ping anyway? His brother works in a restaurant, doesn’t
‘Yes, Father, but he’s a clever scholar. Mr. Deng, his class teacher, says he is
very bright indeed, especially in Chinese and English, my two bad subjects.’
Ding Yangching considers this a moment.
‘Mm, well, I suppose we can give it a trial. Where will you study?’
‘His place probably. He has a space upstairs he says and we won’t be
‘Mm. Tell his brother I want to see him.’
‘But he’s busy, Father.’
‘And I’m not? Tell him he comes to see me or the arrangement’s off.’
‘Yes, Father.’
‘And dry your eyes, boy, I hardly touched you.’
‘No, Father.’
‘And stand up straight, will you? I noticed earlier you were slouching again.
You have a bad leg but you have to overcome it and it will never get better if
you slouch!’ And then in a softer tone:
‘I punish you for your own good, child. I want to be proud of you, for you to
be successful and a great man. If you always give up at the first hurdle, what
kind of man will you become, eh? It’s my duty to teach you your duty.’
Ding Pengcheng nods mutely.

Ma Ping recounts his experience with his brother:
‘A study partner, eh? Good idea. Is he a clever boy?’
‘He’s good at History and Maths.’
‘Well, that’ll help. And you think it’ll be good for you.’
‘I think it’ll be better for him, but I think he can help me in Maths. I never
seem to understand Maths.’

‘Well, I’ll ask your aunt, but I think it sounds fine. And you make sure you
spend your time studying, not messing around. I know what boys are like. I
was one myself once.’ Ma Shipeng smiles and ruffles the lad’s hair.

‘So your father wants to see my brother,’ Ma Ping muses with his new friend
as they stand on the tarmac in front of the school. ‘But didn’t you tell him he’s
busy all the time? The restaurant is open until 11 o’clock at night and opens in
the morning at 8.30. There isn’t any spare time.’
Ding Pengcheng nods his head miserably.
‘Yes, I know, I told him, but, well, my father…’ The sentence is unspoken.
‘Perhaps my aunt…’ begins Ma Ping. ‘If she’s in a good mood,’ he adds,

They separate, Ma Ping to the third floor and Ding Pengcheng to the second.
Instead of seeing all the children sitting neatly in their chairs, facing the front
when he arrives at his classroom, Ma Ping encounters only a babble of
conversation with students out of their seats talking excitedly, which Mr.
Deng does nothing to prevent. Ma Ping looks around in confusion.
‘Ah, so you have chosen to come into class this afternoon, Ma?’ he says, but
without rancour. He likes this dreamy boy who has a look of another world
about him. The child could be a great scholar, but something is preventing
him. Maybe he just needs to settle down in his new environment. He wants to
see the parents when they come visiting. He must impress on them the
importance of studying.

‘Sorry, Sir,’ Ma Ping says worriedly, but when he looks at Teacher Deng he
sees a smile. He is surprised at such leniency, and promises himself that he
will make Teacher Deng very proud of him by the end of this term. What a
kind man he is and how lucky he is to have him as his class-teacher. He
smiles back hugely, and Deng is momentarily touched. What a lovely son for
a father, he thinks.
‘Class, now please be quiet.’ Instantly there is quiet and all the students face
the front obediently.
‘What day is it today?’
The class choruses the answer.
‘And therefore this afternoon, lessons are suspended and instead we will be
engaged in the kind of work which Lei Feng did every day of his short life.
He helped others. This afternoon, you are going to help the school.’
Children look at each other inquisitively and excitedly.
‘This afternoon, boys and girls, you will sweep snow and clean the school.
Every classroom must be a model of hygiene, which Lei Feng would have
appreciated. The playground and grounds of our great school must be swept
and tidied, fit for him to visit in his spirit, should he choose to. This afternoon

you have an opportunity to do something for others and feel what Lei Feng
must have felt.’
He looks at his children with affection.
‘I know you will do a good job!’
The students smile happily at their beloved teacher’s praise.
‘So, first, go to the caretaker’s room and fetch some sweeps, brushes and any
other helpful tools, and then go to where you are most needed, children. Try
to be very adult about this. If you see something, which needs doing, do it. If
you see someone struggling with their task, help them.’ Children throughout
the classroom look at each other and nod in agreement.
‘So, let’s go!’ He sweeps his hand in an arc towards the door, and the children
rush out in an eager flood.
Ma Ping falls into step with two classmates, Tian and Chen. ‘This is better
than Maths!’ he says, smiling. They agree and go out into the winter sunshine

Later that evening, a hint of sunset blushing the horizon, Bai Qiang and Ma
Ping approach Ding’s house, which is situated near the centre of town, down
an alley-way only containing two other residences. It is a chilly evening, but
the promise of snow is greeted with pleasure by the farmers, as snow at this
time of the year can often produce a fruitful harvest later. The great front-
door to the courtyard is cast in heavy metal with an emblem of a dragon
breathing swathes of red and yellow metal from its nostrils. She takes the
brass ring-handle and attempts to turn it. It’s a cumbersome operation, and
she struggles with it with both hands several times before she hits the right
resonance, and it cranks round, the door creaking open like a scream. No
chance of getting in here unheralded, she thinks to herself. ‘Smarten up, Boy,’
she says to Ma Ping, who is dressed in his best clothes for the visit. She yanks
him to face her in the courtyard, and brushes his hair down with her fingers,
straightening his shoulders and checking for scuffs and other marks. As soon
as Bai Qiang heard this afternoon where the Dings live, she delegated her
later afternoon duties to a fractious Huang Hongmei, and checked the boy’s
cupboard for a clean suit. Now it seems to be rather ill-fitting.
‘Don’t squirm, Boy!’ she says, pulling him this way and that until finally he’s
shaken enough to show his irritation. ‘I just want you to make a good
impression. We may only run a restaurant, but my sons are businessmen!’ she
says with asperity. ‘Come on!’ and she takes his hand and approaches the
main room in the courtyard.
Mr. Ding is already standing in waiting on the top step to the sitting room,
with his wife, Ding Yan, and younger son Ding Fuxin and Ding Pengcheng
arranged in a neat tableau below him.
‘Good evening!’ says Bai Qiang, rather at a loss at this staged formality.
Ding inclines his head.

‘Come in, come in!’ he says, gesturing inside. The visitors approach. ‘I was
expecting your brother, child,’ he says, looking at Bai Qiang appraisingly. ‘My
wife!’ he says finally, stopping their progress. ‘Ding Yan. My son Ding
Pengcheng, and younger child, Ding Fuxin. Please come in.’ They nod at each
other. The father doesn’t acknowledge Ma Ping. Finally the visitors enter the

It is a tastefully decorated space, airy and comfortable. The floor is tiled in
large white china-squares, and their surface adorned with two heavy Chinese
silk rugs. Ma Ping and Bai Qiang are motioned to the sofa, Bai Qiang
conscious of her shoes and hoping that Ma Ping’s are not trailing in dirt. She
looks around hastily, but luckily, there seems no trace of anything. The two
Ding children sit on separate chairs framing the doorway. Ding Yan and Ding
Yangching sit together on a sofa facing their guests, one of the silk carpets
between them. It depicts some Chinese warriors vanquishing a masked horse-
back rider. Ma Ping looks around the room and notices a large, dark-jade
chess-set in a glass cabinet near the room’s only window. It shines with
wealth, but Ma Ping doesn’t like the shadows it casts and looks away quickly.
He sits upright, uncomfortable, muted. Suddenly he notices a pawn on the
floor by the cabinet, and he squirms with indecision. It lies on its side, its
angular featureless face turned to the side. Ma Ping looks up to see if anyone
else has noticed, but everyone’s attention is elsewhere, so he decides it is safe
to say nothing.

Bai Qiang is looking around too and notices the opulence of the sofa-covers.
Over a hundred yuan each, she thinks to herself – easily that much - and goes
through the room mentally ticking off the price of each item.
‘Tea. Would you like tea?’ asks Ding Yan, getting up immediately.
‘Oh no, that’s fine, thank you’, replies Bai Qiang with customary reluctance.
‘Please, you have walked a long way. Please have some tea.’
‘Well, thank you,’ she says, nodding.
Mrs. Ding hurries into the kitchen to prepare the beverage.
A nod from Ding brings his elder son to her side, offering melon and
sunflower-seeds, some boiled sweets and oranges.
She takes a few sunflower seeds and begins to crack them between her teeth.
She is about to let a shell fall from her lips, when she sees the younger boy
crack the seed, retrieve the nut before putting it in his mouth, and then
deposit the shell in a little bowl by his side. She hastily retraces her actions,
and places the shell in a bowl she finds by her side, then smiles at her host,
who sits, regarding her and her nephew with a cold gaze.

‘Tell me something about the boy’s family,’ Ding Yangching says, rather
curtly Bai Qiang senses.

‘His family? He has two brothers, Ma Hui, and Ma Shipeng, whom you’ve
already met who runs the restaurant, and a sister, Ma Ling, who presently
studies at the local Middle School.’
‘And why is Ma Ping not studying there?’
‘It was felt that his education would be better served in the city’, she replies.
‘And his parents?’
‘Both farmers,’ she replies.
‘I see,’ he says, as if he has heard something significant.
‘My sons are all businessmen,’ she says, but he doesn’t even look at her when
she says this. She is disconcerted and doesn’t know what to say next, yet she
feels she is expected to speak.

She is then particularly struck by a jade Buddha squatting on an ornate inlaid
table near her. The figure is a foot high in light green jade. Its smooth
creaminess begs to be touched, which she does unconsciously.
‘Ah, you’ve noticed that, Mrs. Bai,’ Ding says soothingly, as if conferring the
favour of his particular insights, and as if he has forgiven her for some earlier
infraction of a rule she didn’t know existed. ‘A family heirloom and much the
most significant item in the room. You will have noticed, of course, the
terracotta facsimiles.’ Bai Qiang looks at the glass cabinet screwed to the wall
opposite her and behind and above her host’s head, containing several
soldiers and their horses. ‘I fancy myself a bit of a collector, you know,’ he
continues. ‘When I travel to Xi’an, I try as often as I can to visit our historical
heritage. I am a bit of a historian.’ His sentences are clipped yet fluent,
suggesting many such occasions when he has spoken about his pastime.

Bai Qiang nods mutely. She had not been nervous about this visit, even when
told where the family lived, but now, in the face of this educated man, his
prosperous family and refined manners, she feels out of her depth.

Ding Yan enters the room with the tea and porcelain cups all on a cloth-
covered tray in inlaid silver. She places it on a small ivory-inlaid table by her
husband’s side of the sofa, and then proceeds to pour the tea for her visitor
first, then her husband, then Ma Ping, then her older and finally her younger
son. She then pours out a cup for herself and sits down.
‘And what do you do?’ Bai Qiang says, addressing Ding Yangching
hestitantly using the formal term for ‘you’, which Ding takes for subservience,
and which seals his contempt for her.
‘I am a business man.’
‘Indeed, indeed!’ she says, and Ma Ping wishes himself far away. He looks at
Ding Pengcheng and smiles, but the other lad seems too wound up to smile,
as if thinking that if he moves a muscle, he’ll displace something in the

‘My sons are businessmen, as I think I mentioned,’ Bai Qiang adds inevitably.
‘Indeed?’ the man replies without interest, but a small smile that suggests
he’d already anticipated her words.
‘You have a beautiful home, Mrs. Ding,’ she says, turning to the woman who
has, up to this point, not said anything referring to the purpose of their visit.
‘Thank you,’ she says, looking at her husband. ‘We like it, don’t we?’

‘We do! Now, Mrs. Bai, I know you are a busy woman in your restaurant.
And we are here to discuss the boys’ education. I hear Ma Ping is good at
Chinese and English.’
Bai Qiang is surprised at the abrupt change of subject. Of course, the man is
very busy, but it is hardly customary to bring up the point of the meeting so
‘At Chinese, Teacher Deng says he is one of the best in his class,’ she replies
Ding raises his eyebrows at her change of tone, and then nods without
speaking, looking at the boy as if to gauge the accuracy of his aunt’s words.
Ma Ping squirms under the attention, and for the first time, he has misgivings
about working with the man’s son.
‘What are you studying in Chinese?’ he addresses Ma Ping directly now for
the first time.
‘Li Bai.’
‘Ah, the great Li Bai. Quote something!’
‘Bai ri yi shan jin!’ he begins, but Ding laughs.
‘Every student can recite that one!’ He pauses. ‘Even Ding Pengcheng knows
that!’ Bai Qiang is furious but only Ma Ping sees her tightening her fist by his
‘Of course that is true, Ding Yangching,’ she says with a small smile, coming
to her nephew’s rescue with a sense of pride and dignity, ‘but his putonghua
is supposed to be adequate. That you must agree with.’
‘Yes, I grant you, his use of putonghua is acceptable for a country child. Better
than my son’s - much as I try to remind him. In this house, only puntonghua
is spoken, of course.’
‘Of course Mr. Ding,’ Bai Qiang replies, flushing because in their house
Putonghua is rarely spoken, and neither is it by their customers. She suddenly
feels unequal to the occasion and the flat with its ornate furniture and general
opulence. These people are clearly a cut above them and know it. She both
respects and reviles them for it.
‘And you say he’s good at English.’
‘His teacher tells me so,’ she replies without warmth.
Ma Ping looks up at his aunt, and sees how a wisp of hair has escaped from
her bun and is catching the light of the lamp on the table beside the Buddha,
giving her an aura that is arresting.

‘Ma Ping, listen!’ his aunt admonishes him in a sibilant whisper, jogging him
with her elbow.
He jerks into awareness.
‘Does he often dream away his time like this?’ Ding asks, eyebrows raised
‘Sorry, Mr. Ding,’ Ma Ping says, hanging his head. ‘It was the light, you see.’
Then stops abruptly. That’s certainly nothing they’ll want to hear.
‘What are you babbling about, Boy?’ Bai Qiang hisses at him, jerking him in
the ribs to pay attention.
‘Nothing, Aunt,’ he says, adopting his aunt’s style of address, hoping to
placate. It seems to have the opposite effect, though. Ding Yangching
immediately says that he will need time to think about it. After all, the
education of his own son must come before the education of a stranger’s son.
The tone in which this is spoken is dismissive, and Bai Qiang says in a lather
of dissatisfaction:
‘I am sure you must be very busy, Ding Yangching.’ She begins to stand up
and Ma Ping gladly does the same. Everyone rises, cups poised awkwardly in
hands, sentences left unspoken, but which still permeate the air as if
articulated. ‘We will take our leave now,’ Bai Qiang finishes regally. ‘I hope
you will come to a decision soon. If this is going to happen, then we hope it
can happen without delay.’

And then, suddenly, a thought occurs to her, which makes her sit down again
promptly. At which the rest of the assembly must also sit. Cups are rattled
onto tables, hands folded, toes tap. Ma Ping wonders what’s going to happen
‘Your son is considered good at Maths and History, is that right?’ she says,
looking straight at Ding Yangching.
‘Er, yes,’ replies the man, a little shaken by the change of dynamic and more
resolute tone. He only now replaces the cup on the table. As a gesture it was
meant to connote power and authority in the situation, but now it seems out
of joint with that authority. Bai Qiang continues:
‘Because of course, we must also decide whether this arrangement will be
good for my nephew. He is, after all, the scholar of the family. This word,
Ding Yangching, was used by Teacher Deng himself. ‘A scholar,’ he said. So
we must decide too. I wonder if perhaps you could tell us about his scores in
Maths and History.’

There is an uncomfortable pause. To deny this outright would be a breach of
etiquette, and no one must accuse him of that, Ding reflects. He sits back in
his chair, weighing up the situation. As long as no one knows about it from
his business acquaintances, then it should be all right. Who knows, the boy
might actually be clever. It would be a weight off his mind if Pengcheng could

get something right in Chinese and English for a change. Something less for
him to worry about.

‘Let’s give it a try then,’ he says with a consciousness of being gracious. Bai
Qiang stands up then and thanks Ding Yan for her hospitality and the tea,
nods at the two boys, says to Ding Yangching that she can find her own way
out, thank you and that she expects to see Ding Pengcheng punctually after
school the following day. And Happy Lei Feng Day to you all!

Once out of the courtyard she storms ahead. Ma Ping has experienced his
aunt angry a few times, but rarely like this.
‘And just who does he think he is, lording it over us?’ she raves, pulling him
along the street at a mighty rate. ‘Capitalist Roader! Landlord-type! How I
despise them! I thought we’d got rid of those in the Revolution! How dare he?
I mean, how dare he think about our family in that way? And that son of his
that you’re so fond of, he’s got to be the ugliest child in the world. Those ears, I
mean if they were yours, I’d have them operated on or cut off altogether! I bet
they could afford it. I bet they could afford a beautiful son, but look what
they’ve got! Don’t they do those operations now in Xi’an? Plastic surgery, they
call it. Bai Hui’s mother-in-law had a scar removed. It can be done. Fancy
walking around looking like that. Poor child. And what a horrible father he
is!’ Her strides match her fury, and Ma Ping feels quite exhausted with it all.
But her final comment he can certainly agree with.

‘He beats him, Aunt,’ Ma Ping says sadly, as the woman slows down a little
and they settle to a normal pace.
‘Well, sometimes boys need that,’ she muses. ‘My Bai Hui often needed a
beating to tell him what was right. But it depends, I suppose. Everything in
balance, my boy!’ she concludes elliptically. ‘Come on, let’s get you home.
Homework to do tonight?’
‘Yes, Aunt. Geography and English.’
‘Well, you’ll be wanting a good meal before all that. Extra meatballs for you.
And Ping…”
‘Yes, Aunt?’
‘Don’t you let anyone put you down. You’re just as good as anyone else. Your
brother works hard and is a good man.’
‘I know that, Aunt.’
‘And my family, well, we’re a lucky bunch,’ she says. ‘All in business, you
‘Yes, Aunt, I know.’ Ma Ping smiles and scuffs his toes into the dust as he is
released from her hand and skips a little to the side of her as they walk along.

‘I want to be proud of you too, my nephew,’ she says in a softer tone. He is
taken with the tone of her voice and looks up at her, taking her hand, which
he squeezes.
‘You’re very good to me, Aunt. Me and Ma Shipeng.’
‘It’s my duty!’ she exclaims gruffly, but reaches over and ruffles his hair
anyway. Together, companionably, they walk home to a warm restaurant and
a bowl of welcome noodles.

Chapter Three. Saturday, March 8th: International Women’s Day.
Ma Ping is standing in the bus-station. It’s only seven in the morning and
before he came out he had to scrub the restaurant floor, polish the tables and
carry in two large containers of malt vinegar from the pavement outside to
the kitchen. He stands hugging himself against the morning chill and moving
restlessly from foot to foot as he waits. Bai Qiang isn’t coming in to the
restaurant today because of some festival or other. She’s off up to the college
new hall this afternoon and this morning she’s going to spend it in going
round to a friend in town and drinking tea and gossiping, whereas no doubt
he will have to study as soon as he’s fetched his parents from the bus-station.
His parents are only coming for two days and he has to spend most of it
studying. He looks around him at the crowded square, people already
bustling around with luggage, shouting and waving to relatives and friends.
And suddenly in the tumult of faces he sees his mother and father pushing
against the crowd. Their bus must have come through the back way.

‘Baba! Mama!’ he shouts and rushes over to meet them, his discontent entirely
forgotten. And then an even greater surprise because Ma Ling is standing
there and surely she’s taller. Ma Ping exclaims with great delight and takes
both her hands. She grins broadly. ‘How are you, little brother?’ she asks in
her soft and low voice. Ma Ping is always soothed by the very sound of her
voice. He turns to pick up his mother’s bag and sighing with deep
contentment and taking her hand, he begins to lead his sister out of the
station. The two then chatter excitedly.

‘And his own father and mother, what of them?’ Ma Xingjian says with a
twinkle in his eye, taking his wife’s arm and following their two children.
And at this point you might see a resemblance to both his sons in Ma
Xingjian’s expression, both slightly rueful but also animated. His face is
careworn and he looks quite a bit older than his forty-nine years, his hair
already tending to grey, and his face lined with creases. Although his gait and
features might lead you to suspect that here is a man who has suffered too
much, the light from inside him is bright and radiates confidence that others
are touched by.

She knows what his words mean. He tries to hide it, but it’s pointless. Ma
Ping is his favourite child, always has been. If Ma Hui had done that, walked
away without properly acknowledging his parents, Ma Xingjian would have
had him on half-rations for at least a day. She smiles at his indulgence. Ma
Rong limps quietly beside her husband. Her gait is due to an accident on their
land one day when a sick cow hit out at her, toppling her into the hard-
cracked soil so that she broke a bone in her hip. Bai Qiang asked her sons to
contribute to her hospital treatment, and they did, but the break was a bad
one. She should have gone down to Xi’an or up to Yinchuan but risked
treatment in their own Number One Hospital. They set the bone incorrectly
and she has limped ever since. She doesn’t tell her family about the pain or
the swellings, the times when she cries to stand when she first gets out of bed
in the mornings. After all there are good days too. She looks up at Ma
Xingjian as he watches his favourite child chatter excitedly with their
daughter. Ma Ling is growing quickly now. In just a few years they will have
to start marrying her off. Choices of husband are limited in their village, but
Farmer Wang’s son is a decent sort. A poor family but a good one. She makes
a mental note to discuss it with her husband and his family when they have a
private moment.

‘Well, how’s it going, Ping?’ Ma Ling asks happily, holding her favourite
person’s hand. ‘I’ve missed you!’ Her oval-shaped face reveals a perfect
symmetry, this beauty further enhanced by her complete unconsciousness of
it. Her bright dark eyes, with their long, long lashes are captivating and for a
moment, Ma Ping realises it.
‘Yeah, well, me too, I guess,’ he says, with exaggerated reluctance, but Ma
Ling knows him well and smiles, thinking nothing has changed.
‘They have me studying at the weekend, both mornings three hours. And
working in the restaurant the rest of the time. I never have time to do
anything I want to do.’
‘And what are you going to do with spare time?’ his sister replies, laughing
and shaking his hand a little.
‘Things!’ he says, jolting her back, as his lower lip begins to pout and he starts
to scuff his feet along the dusty track.
‘Hey, come on, grumble-face!’ Ma Ling cajoles him. It almost doesn’t work
and at this she is really surprised.
‘Are you all right, Ping?’ she adds, turning to him.
He looks at her now, glancing nervously behind them to judge the distance
between them and their parents. They are safe.
‘I have a secret,’ he blurts out. Then kicks himself. He wanted to save this
nugget until they were alone together, perhaps in the garret upstairs, where
he could unpack it out of the velvet of his imagination, and show her some of
his pictures. And he wanted to work up to this grand revelation all day,

sowing seeds of interest in her so that she would have to ask him and pester
him until he reluctantly gave in. Now he’s blown it. But her initial response
thrills him nonetheless.
‘Really?’ she says and it’s obvious she’s enthralled. A secret. Wow! She hasn’t
heard one of those for, well, must be years now. Not since Aunt Bai told her
about that necklace she lost in the street, the one Bai Guotai had given her
when they got married. She was sworn to secrecy. Recalling it more closely,
though, Ma Ling remembers that the secret made her awkward with Bai
Guotai. Every time she was with him she would blush and stammer, worried
that she would betray the secret, guarding her every word, until she would
dread even meeting the man. It was only after he died that Bai Qiang told her,
quite by chance, that she’d found the necklace in her jewellery-box the next
week after all. Ma Ling frowns.
‘Well, perhaps it should remain a secret,’ she says slowly. Ma Ping looks up at
her as if her words can’t really suggest what they clearly do. ‘I mean,’ she
goes on, ‘if I know something I shouldn’t, perhaps it’ll be a bad thing.’
‘But, sister…’ Ma Ping begins in protest, but by this time they are at their
street, and Ma Ling turns to talk to their parents.

Ma Ping’s spirit is quashed. For days he has been deciding that he must tell
his sister about his drawing and that he wants to become an artist when he
grows up, and now, here she is rejecting him. This is a contingency he’d never
envisaged, his sister not wanting to know something about his life. She
always wants to know. Well, if she doesn’t want to know, she doesn’t. He can
keep secrets. He doesn’t have to tell anyone. He doesn’t really want to
anyway. It’d only make it more difficult for him. Better to keep it to himself.
But a little part of his heart is cold now, hard, sharp. Her indifference is like a
sliver of ice in his soul.

‘Here we are, then!’ Ma Ling says, pushing through the curtain into the
restaurant. It is empty of customers at this time, for which Ma Ping is grateful.
‘Ma Ling, get our family some tea,’ says Ma Shipeng coming forward from
the kitchen. ‘Welcome, Father and Mother. Hello Ma Ling. How are you all?
How was the journey?’
‘I’ll get the tea, Brother,’ says Ma Ping, hastily, and trudges into the kitchen to
fill the kettle, returning with it to the hob in the restaurant’s main room. He
watches his family from a distance, seeing his mother’s tired face and her
attempts to be cheerful when she’s probably not well again. Her limp seems
worse to him. His father seems healthy, however, and so does Ma Ling. But
he must make the tea.
‘Fine,’ replies Ma Xingjian to his oldest son with his customary twinkle. ‘Oh,
but I could do with sitting down again. Those buses from Xiji, well, honestly,
they’re so dirty and uncomfortable.’

‘Well, husband, if you will insist on smoking in such a confined area…’ Ma
Rong leaves the sentence unfinished. ‘Honestly, Ma Shipeng, the fug at the
back, well, it was awful. I’ve told him, time and time again! But does he
listen? Listen! Men never listen, you know!’
Ma Xingjian smiles.
‘I’m doing my best now, dear!’ he says wryly. ‘All I can do in the
circumstances,’ he adds sotto voce. Ma Shipeng looks at both his parents with
affection. Just the same!
‘And you, Ma Ling? How are your studies going?’
‘Fine. We have a new English teacher, Mrs. Wang. She is very good. I like
‘Good. Ma Ping’s English teacher is nice, isn’t he?’ Ma Shipeng addresses his
brother who has returned to the table to wait for the kettle to boil.
‘He’s all right,’ says the boy without a smile.
‘You said yesterday he was really nice to you this week.’
The adults shake their heads at the moodiness of youth.
‘But you’re studying hard.’
‘Yes, Father.’
‘And we understand from your brother and Aunt Bai that you are having
someone over to help you.’
‘I help him with English and Chinese and he helps me with Maths and
History. Well, I’m all right at History really. Mostly just Maths. We’ve only
just started,’ he adds, as if this might prevent further interrogation. He is
‘And what’s he like, this boy?’
‘His name’s Ding Pengcheng and he has one brother, younger. His father isn’t
very nice.’
‘Ma Ping, be careful what you say! Don’t talk about your elders like that.’
‘But he isn’t, Father. He beats his son. All the time.’
The adults look at each other then questioningly at Ma Shipeng who shrugs
his shoulders.
‘You’ll have to ask Aunt,’ he replies. ‘I haven’t met him. I know Aunt wasn’t
struck with him, but I can’t say any more than that.’
‘Well, we’ll ask. We’re staying with her in the city tonight. Time enough for
‘Yes,’ continues Ma Rong. ‘And she’s taking me to the college here this
afternoon. Apparently something’s going on for International Women’s Day.
You coming, Ma Ling?’
‘Of course, mother, if I may.’
‘Yes, and Ma Ping?’

‘I’m not a woman!’ he replies in high dudgeon, which makes them all laugh
but him. ‘The water’s boiled,’ he adds and moves across the room towards the
shelf where the cups are stored. The china ones today.
‘What’s the matter with him?’ Ma Ling whispers to her older brother. Their
parents look on. Ma Shipeng shrugs his shoulders wordlessly.
‘Tea,’ says the child flatly as he returns, placing four cups on the table, each
one containing a tiny pinch of tea-leaves. He returns for the kettle and then
pours first for his father, then his mother, his brother and Ma Ling.
‘Aren’t you having any?’ asks Ma Ling.
‘No, I have to study now!’
‘But you’ve not had any breakfast,’ Ma Shipeng protests.
‘I’m not hungry. I have a lot to do today. Ding Pengcheng is coming over
later, so I want to get started and check I know what to do. It’s English and
Chinese this morning. My turn, you see.’ And all this in a flat voice, recounted
like a shopping list. ‘I’ll see you later!’ he says and makes for the stairs. The
family-group looks at him surprised, checking their sense with each other that
there is something awry.
‘You see why I called you, Father?’ says Ma Shipeng when they think Ma
Ping’s out of earshot.
‘Yes, I do indeed,’ says the older man sipping his tea reflectively. ‘Do you
think he’s not well?’
‘He’s eating us out of house and home,’ Ma Shipeng says with a smile.
‘He always did have a healthy appetite, that one!’ his mother says
affectionately. ‘Well, if he’s eating well there can’t be much wrong with him.’
Ma Xingjian looks across at his wife. ‘Food isn’t everything, you know,’ he
says, but in his voice there is a tone of challenge, a little game they play, the
two of them. She states, he refutes and an argument is born.
‘My mother always said…’
‘Your mother was always saying if I recall.’
‘Yes, well, she had a lot to say,’ Ma Rong rejoins with a consciousness of wit.
Ma Shipeng smiles, but Ma Ling isn’t amused.
 ‘But you see, he hasn’t eaten this morning you said. Perhaps he isn’t all right,’
she says. ‘I’m worried,’ and her statement impacts loudly into their bantering.
‘Yes, I think we all are.’ Her father speaks calmly and matter-of-factly with a
sharp glance at Ma Ling for her presumption.
‘I’m going to see him. I’ll find out,’ she says, ignoring the protest of Ma
Shipeng to let him study, or her parents flurry of indecision, getting up and
walking up the stairs, which curve toward their summit. As her heels tap on
the concrete, she hears hurried movements up above, as if Ma Ping is
retreating from the top. When she arrives in the garret, he is already sitting
full-length on the window-will looking out on the streets below, apparently
absorbed in thought, arms folded.
‘We’re worried about you,’ she begins.

‘Well don’t be!’
‘Ma Ping, why are you being like this? Aren’t you pleased to see me? And
mother’s really worried now because you haven’t eaten. Come downstairs
and I’ll make you some special meatballs.’
Ma Ping half turns his head towards her at this, and his mouth waters in
anticipation, but he turns back after all, not wanting her to see his tears.
She knows anyway. She always knows.
‘I am interested in your secret, you know. It’s just…’
‘Just what?’ Ma Ping says now, turning fully to her, almost in order to show
her his emotion. Two tears glisten in the sunlight.
‘Oh, dear Ping, what is it?’ She rushes to his side and embraces his thin body
warmly whilst he’s still sitting down. He snuggles into her closely, putting his
arms around her, his head against her small breasts, feeling safe, loved, still.
Then she holds him at arms’ length, leaning down towards him, feeling a rush
of tenderness that takes her by surprise, as if he is her own child, rather than
her little brother. ‘Come on, little one. What’s going on? Why are you so sad?
Don’t you like it here? Is Ma Shipeng not treating you well?’
‘Yes, he’s always nice to me. He sticks up for me with Aunt Bai when she’s
crabby.’ Ma Ling gives a little giggle, putting her hand in front of her mouth
at his free comments. ‘And I like my school. Teacher Deng is really good.’ He
smiles shakily. ‘It’s just…’
‘Just what?’
‘It’s just…’ He stops and turns away from her again, looking blankly down to
the streets. A man with a cart full of Chinese cabbages, onions and carrots is
wheeling his arduous way along the line of Ma Ping’s vision. He sees the
ways in which the light refracts off the man’s shadow on the dusty street,
particularly at the potholes. Then the man is gone and Ma Ping sighs, turning
to Ma Ling again.
‘Can I really have some special meatballs?’ he asks, feeling encouraged by the
sight of the man, conscious of a sudden desire to draw what he has just seen.
He shakes his head, trying to free himself of the urge, but is unsuccessful.

‘Of course!’ says his sister, delighted at his change of mood. She smiles
joyfully at him. ‘You just wait. They’ll be the best you’ve ever tasted. Give me
half an hour, and I’ll call you. Do you want to come downstairs now? Mother
and father would love to talk to you.’
‘No, I’ll study, if that’s all right. Tell them I’m studying so I had better have
peace and quiet.’
Ma Ling smiles at such a grown-up concept coming from the mouth of her
little brother, ruffles his hair and returns downstairs, happy now.

Ma Ping knows he must be quick, so he takes his two new brushes, a thin one
for detail and a fatter one for broader strokes, runs them momentarily under

the single tap in the corner - from where the water dribbles down into the
drain, leaking in droplets on the wall on its way down - takes a jar of water to
the table in the centre of the room, gropes under the bunks for the palette and
some paper, and arranges them all on the table. He draws the stool up, and
then sits, looking at the paper in such absorption you’d have thought that a
picture was already dwelling there in the blemishes and creases. For minutes
Ma Ping stares in full concentration at the blank sheet, and then, almost
without being conscious of it, he takes the fatter brush in his right hand,
poises it a moment above the palette, dips it into the brown and begins.

There is no single explanation, which tells us how Ma Ping can develop a
blank sheet of paper into the work of art that ensues. Perhaps it is to be
understood through his intense concentration, in which he is no longer
conscious of anything at all in the room, in the restaurant below, in the world
outside, but what is developing in front of him. Maybe it is that what is
outside is really inside him, just waiting for pictorial representation to clothe
in metaphor what already exists. Or perhaps it is Ma Ping’s profound
memory for the detail in the vegetable-seller’s distant profile, his expression,
his effort at wheeling this heavy load, the tone and exact colour of the man’s
shabby breeches, greasy jacket, or indeed his cap. On the other hand, perhaps
it is Ma Ping’s emotional insights, which lend the rendition of a man he has
never met a sadness, a revelation of hardship, of stoicism. Whatever the
explanation, Ma Ping synthesizes what he sees with what he perceives
without consciousness and the result is a scene of peculiar insight and life.
The man’s effort is clear in the brushwork, as are both his delight in motion
and his struggle to make the required effort. You can feel the wind battling
against him in the angles of his lapels, in his frantic attempts to retain his cap
by cycling one-handed, plastering the cap against his head with the other, and
in a tasseled ornament he has hanging from the handlebars swinging to and
fro in a jagged frenzy. So clear is the momentum, both of the bicycle and the
man’s mood, it is as if the picture captures not only the two-dimensional
present, but the moments before and after as well, so that the man and his
journey are rendered multi-dimensional. That this is the work of an eleven-
year old child is hardly credible. But Ma Ping is the artist, and not the critic,
and so his relationship to his work is overwhelming and yet at the same time
superficial and almost casual. He only knows that there is something he must
do. He doesn’t really know what it is, and yet this unknown is becoming
stronger every day.

He jolts to awareness when he hears his sister’s call, knocking over the jar of
water, but luckily away from his painting. He feels a little dazed and slightly
sick with the effort of it, as if he is drained, just like the previous time at night
when he drew the little family leaving the restaurant, his mind and his

feelings reeling with emptiness. But when he looks at what he has done he is
surprised by its accuracy and his nausea is forgotten. He smiles and bites his
lip. Perhaps he really has talent and can become an artist. Maybe if he can
only find the right way to tell his family, then he can spend some time

‘Are you coming, Ma Ping?’ his sister calls again. He hurries to mop up the
water, and then present himself downstairs.
‘I’m sorry it’s taken so long,’ Ma Ling greets him as he emerges into the
restaurant, a few early customers already seated and eating. ‘But our mother
wanted to eat before going to Aunt Bai’s, and father and Ma Shipeng have
gone to buy some vegetables. There was a man parked down the street earlier
with his cart, so they went out and started talking. They’ll probably be ages.
You know what baba’s like comparing prices and asking about everyone’s life
histories. Come on, sit down!’
All this in a rush. ‘What time is it, anyway?’ he asks her, as he tucks into the
large meatballs and plate of noodles, highly spiced just as he likes it. He
smiles over at her with his mouth drooling noodles. Ma Ling smiles with
pleasure at his contentment. He seems like a different boy now, she thinks.
Her parents shouldn’t worry. He’s fine.
‘It’s nearly ten o’clock.’
‘Really?’ he exclaims. ‘How can…?’ Then he’s silent, feeling rather strange.
How can so much time have elapsed? He looks down at his plate of noodles,
his chopsticks poised motionless.
‘You all right?’ Ma Ling asks him, wondering whether in fact he is after all.
‘Oh yes. I was just thinking about what I was doing upstairs.’
This might be a good time to tell her.
‘English, wasn’t it?’
‘Well, actually…’
‘Because if you want me to help you with English, I can.’
He sighs. Later would have to do. Then two customers come up wanting to
pay, and Ma Ling’s attention is focused elsewhere. Actually now isn’t such a
good idea. She comes back to him again.
‘All right. Maybe later you can help me. Ding Pengcheng should be arriving
anytime now.’
‘How are the noodles? You haven’t said how the noodles are.’
‘They’re great!’
‘Well, eat up, then,’ she admonishes him jokingly.
He eats with relish. His sister is probably the best cook in the family, he thinks
to himself. At that moment, Ding Pengcheng pushes through the curtain, his
hair even more chaotic than usual, and the sight of him makes Ma Ping smile.
‘Hi!’ the visitor says shyly, especially when he sees the young woman
standing next to his friend. She must be his older sister. Ma Ping’s spoken

about her a lot. He still seems uncomfortable, Ma Ping realises, and he
wonders what he can do about that.

‘Hello!’ he says. ‘You‘re keen! Ding Pengcheng, meet my sister, Ma Ling.’
‘Hello,’ he says, lowering his head a little.
‘Hi!’ she says laughing at his shyness. ‘You must be Ding Pengcheng. Well,
my little brother’s already got a couple a hours studying in this morning.
You’re obviously a good influence.’
‘Thank you,’ he says awkwardly. He doesn’t know what to call her, so he
looks at her a moment, offers his hand in greeting and then withdraws it
when he realises, too late, that the moment has passed.
She laughs again, and he is mortified. Ma Ping watches him, confused. ‘Ma
Ling isn’t being unkind,’ he says.
This of course, makes it worse and Ding Pengcheng is wishing himself far
away. He blushes unevenly across his face.
‘Would you like me to fetch you some noodles, Ding Pengcheng?’ she asks
him quite formerly to dissipate the difficulty of the moment.
‘Um, yes, please,’ he says, grateful to be given a way out of having to stand
with her all the time. He sits himself down opposite his friend, just like a
regular customer now, which feels a lot safer. At least if she’s fetching
noodles, she can’t be looking at his ugly face, or pitying his limp, or
comparing her straight-limbed brother’s handsomeness with his deformities,
can she?

Ma Ping looks into his face with an open candour it is probably better Ding
Pengcheng doesn’t witness. ‘My sister likes you,’ he says encouragingly.
The little boy looks at Ma Ping quickly and then lowers his head and blushes
again. She is pretty, his sister. And she’s kind too. No one at his house smiles
at him like that. Not even his mother. She’s too concerned with making sure
Father’s all right. He remembers once when his aunt, Wang Jie, looked at him
with love in her eyes, she didn’t last the winter out. She took the all kindness
of the world to the grave with her, and many a night Ding Pengcheng would
cry into his pillow that now he was alone in the world, because he could
detect no one whose feelings for him were familiar in their warmth and
All this Ma Ping sees without analyzing.
‘Don’t be sad. We like you in this house,’ he says gently.
May Allah be merciful, thinks Ding Pengcheng, and keep his feelings from
showing so clearly on his face.
‘I’m fine!’ he says shakily, and rather in awe of Ma Ping’s insight, but
banishes his vulnerability at the sight of Ma Ling bearing a steaming bowl of
meatball noodles towards him.

‘Thank you, Ma Ling,’ he says with greater confidence now. She smiles at
him. He has sweet eyes, she thinks, as she watches him tucking with relish
into her noodles.
‘Well, I’d better go. Huang Hongmei will give in her notice if I don’t hurry
back. Ah there’s father!’
Both children rise at the sight of Ma Xingjian who enters the restaurant before
Ma Shipeng, who goes straight into the kitchen to carry the vegetables before
he drops them all.
‘My father,’ says Ma Ping happily to his friend.
‘And you’re Ding Pengcheng, my son’s new friend. You’re hair’s rather wild.’
‘Yes, sir, it is.’ Ding Pengcheng looks down. Ma Ping realises for the first time
that these words hurt his friend and makes a mental note never to describe his
physical features to him again.
‘He’s awfully good at Maths, Father,’ he says quickly.
‘I’m sure he is,’ says Ma Xingjian. ‘So you’re going to help my son and he’s
going to help you. Sit down, sit down! And eat, eat, eat!’
Both boys comply and bend their heads to the task.
‘Yes, sir,’ Ding Pengcheng lisps through the noodles.
‘Well, you make sure you both work hard. I am sure your father wants to be
proud of you too,’ Ma Xingjian finishes, but on a note which quite dismays
Ding Pengcheng. And he realises of course that Ma Xingjian is yet another
potential spy for his father and so he must be very careful with him too.
Acquaintances with most people don’t last long on that initial level of trust.
Quite soon Ding Pengcheng will realise that this is yet another person against
whom he has to guard his true feelings.
‘We’ll work hard, I promise, sir,’ says the child evenly, looking up into the
man’s face with a semblance of sincere seriousness.

Ma Ping isn’t fooled but he suddenly has the sense that his friend doesn’t like
his father. What a strange thought! He feels uncomfortable, and looks from
one to the other as if to surmise what has just happened between them, but he
can’t make it out. ‘Come on, greedy-guts!’ he says jokingly to the boy, and
they both push in their bowls into the middle of the small table, and get up to
leave the room.
‘And I’ll have those bowls out here,’ calls Ma Ling from the kitchen with
uncanny acumen. ‘Do you think I’m your servant?’
‘Not a bad idea, that!’ Ma Ping whispers to his friend and they both hoot with
‘Get on with you!’ says Ma Xingjian, patting his son on the shoulder.
‘It’s International Women’s Day today!’ says Ma Ling again from the kitchen.
‘And I’ve got a lot to do before I go out this afternoon.
‘So?’ shouts Ma Ping happily. ‘I don’t see why women should have a special
day. Men don’t have a special day.’

Ma Ling appears in the doorway to the kitchen, drying her hands on her
‘No, that’s because the other 364 days already belong to you!’
‘Huh!’ sneers Ma Ping. ‘Come on. We men have to study!’ And he leads Ding
Pengcheng up the stairs, laughing and joking with him all the way.
Ma Ling retreats into the kitchen, wondering whether she should have said
that in front of her father, and he stands admiring his young son and hearing
his retreating footsteps. Such a clever boy!

It’s two o’clock and quite busy in the restaurant. Bai Qiang arrived fifteen
minutes ago and is sitting drinking tea with Ma Xingjian and Ma Ping.
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right this afternoon, brother-in-law?’ she asks,
without any sense that he should deny it.
His answer is a smile. He knows her well and he also knows that she doesn’t
always respect him. Strange woman. Not his type at all. So different from her
sister. Ma Rong emerges from the kitchen and sees the two of them
companionably drinking tea together. This cheers her, as she has long
acknowledged to herself that the two of them don’t always get on. Well, Bai
Qiang always has been outspoken. Ma Ling is a little like that too. It’s not a
good thing in a woman. She really ought to speak to her daughter about it.
No man will want to marry her if she always says just what she thinks,
forgetting her own sister’s success in that area. She’s a good girl, though.
After she had a chat with Ma Ping, he seems much more cheerful. And
everything’s sorted in the kitchen for the afternoon. Huang Hongmei knows
exactly what to do and Ma Shipeng will be helping out.

‘Come on, then,’ says Bai Qiang, seeing her sister’s eagerness to be off. ‘Ma
Ping, I think you’ll enjoy it, you know.’
Ma Ping doesn’t reply. His father’s exhortations to accompany his mother and
aunt are still ringing in his ears. He wonders how many other sons will have
to be there. Ding Pengcheng is at least allowed to study! Not many sons have
to spend their time with a lot of women, he surmises. But he doesn’t really
mind. He remembers it last year because he was staying for a while with his
brother then too – there was lots of dancing on the stage by professional
dancers, and some music, some singers and some games. And last year, they
gave out presents for the women – things like soap and washing powder and
liquid. It was fun because lots of the presents were wrapped in glittery paper.
He remembers he took some of the paper home last year and kept it. He still
has some of it up in the garret. One piece particularly drew him. It was a
spangled silver sheet of shininess, stars gleaming in red and blue and purple
and yellow and orange and green from its lustrous surface. So beautiful was
it, that Ma Ping had slept with it under his pillow for weeks, sometimes
looking at it first thing in the morning to lighten up the day until it was

inadvertently cleared away in a tidy-up. He missed that sheet of paper
because the light of it was a reminder of hope and beauty.

‘Are we going or what?’ asks Bai Qiang with less patience this time, adjusting
her white cap6. Ma Rong takes Ma Ping’s hand and together with Ma Ling
they leave the restaurant. They cross the road and arrive straight away into
Government Street where the college is situated. There are many women and
children walking along the road now, bicycles dodging the crowds, tinkling
their bells, cart-riders traveling in the opposite direction announcing their
wares loudly to a small world. The trees lining this particular street are
beginning to green, leaves fluttering in the breeze. Ma Ping squints up against
the sun and sees how the shimmering canopy dances the light back and forth,
in and out. Why does he have to go to this stupid Women’s Day thing

‘Hey, stop dawdling, Boy!’ Bai Qiang takes his other hand and pulls him
faster. Ma Rong feels for the little lad, but says nothing. It’s probably better
not to. She exchanges a rueful look with Ma Ling who is wandering behind.

They turn in at the college-gates and everywhere there are notices, posters,
banners, declaiming the day. From every side-street and track, women are
emerging onto the main route towards the Deng Xiaoping Hall where the
celebrations are going to be held. Ma Ping keeps looking around but doesn’t
see anyone particular he wants to spend time with. He smiles back at his
sister who winks at him. She knows what it’s like to have the pointed
attention of their aunt and doesn’t entirely envy him the experience!

They pass the bicycle sheds on the right, the dormitories on the left, long,
concrete, drab buildings, spotted in front with small plots of land in which
clumps of plants attempt to push through and shake off, the dust of the city in
a vain attempt at aesthetic harmony. And then at last, the Deng Xiaoping
Building, a smart, white structure with imposing awnings, giant arched
windows framed in bright blue, steps leading up to the ornate entrance in
traditional Chinese-style architecture, the curved architraves painted in red
and green. It’s an impressive combination of traditional and modern.
‘It was sponsored by the Beijing government directly, you know,’ says Bai
Qiang to her sister.
‘Really?’ Ma Rong responds, truly interested. It’s lovely to think that the
government hasn’t forgotten them. ‘How wonderful!’ she enthuses.
‘Yes, as a contribution to education in Ningxia Province. Well, you know they
want to develop the poorer northwest.’

    Married Hui women wear white caps always when they go out and sometimes in the house too.

‘There are new buildings everywhere,’ Ma Ping adds.

Indeed building is happening everywhere in this area of China now, and in
his own city there is plenty of evidence of that. Ma Ping looks up at the
building as they approach it. He likes the look of it because it is solid and
imposing. It reminds him both of settings in ancient Chinese myths and
legends that he devoured as a child, and of modern cities he’s caught
glimpses of on the few occasions he’s seen a television-programme. Maybe
the afternoon won’t be so bad after all. This is the first time he’s seen the
building up close and now he’s interested to see inside.

The crowd now condenses to allow them to pass through the ornate wooden
and stained-glass portal into the interior, which is large and rather forbidding,
an open space that is too open, somehow. More emptiness than structure. On
both sides of the room there are large arched windows letting in prodigious
volumes of light, but instead of these warming the interior, they seem only to
point out its emptiness and do little to heat the space. Stools are arranged
around a central aisleway leading up to the imposing stage (with steps on
both sides) whose curtains in deep burgundy-red are open. Despite the
number of stools, however, there are too few to fill the space between the
entrance and the stage, and thus the interior remains like a storage-setting,
which is being temporarily redeployed as a meeting place. On the stage, so far
away, are three tables joined together and seats behind them. On the central
table is a large microphone, which a steward in a dark suit is just beginning to
test, the noise and squealings blaring out at an almost unbearable level. Ma
Ping holds his hands to his ears and shivers a little at the change in
temperature from the outside and looks up into the subtle gloom of the
arches. He shivers again, feeing as if someone has walked over his grave.
‘I don’t like it!’ he mouths above the cacophony to Ma Ling who is similarly
‘No, nor do I?’ she mouths back, covering her own ears.
‘It’s beautiful!’ shouts Bai Qiang, clearly impressed with the grandeur,
looking around her and feeling just a little like an empress surveying her
domain. She laughs at herself and turns to Ma Rong. ‘Like a palace, isn’t it?’
Her raised voice bounces into the sudden silence and she repeats her
impression rather self-consciously.
‘But it’s empty and cold!’ says Ma Ping in confusion.
‘Tush, tush, child. What do you know?’ says Bai Qiang dismissively. ‘If our
wonderful Beijing government gives us the money for such a building then
we must be grateful and not behave like spoilt brats.’ She nods her head at
herself. ‘Now I need to find Wang Qing. You all sit over there,’ she orders,
indicating some stools near the back, and the group moves over to its
designated space and sits down. Ma Ping and his sister raise their eyebrows at

each other and smile at their enduring complicity. And as they sit and wait
for the afternoon to begin, they look around at their fellow citizens. ‘There’s
that foreigner sitting with Yi Hongmei,’ says Ma Ping to his sister. ‘They’re
always together now. She’s teaching her English. I heard Ma Shipeng say that
she doesn’t want to get married. Weird. Probably caught it off that foreigner.
They’re a funny lot anyway. Always saying please and thank you. Just once is
quite enough for anyone!’

‘Do you think so?’ asks Ma Ling in a mischievous tone, but then continues
quickly to dispel any reproach: ‘Who’s that, then?’ She indicates a woman
walking alone down the aisleway to find a place at the front no doubt.
‘That’s Ho Yanhui.’ He stops. ‘Ma Shipeng says she’s a bad woman!’
‘Really? Why?’ Ma Ling is delighted to find so much scandal on her short
‘Well, she did something bad without her husband. That’s all I know. I
wonder what it could have been.’
Ma Ling giggles and puts her hand in front of her mouth. She hasn’t a clue
but she feels such pleasure at the thought of such wickedness in a small place
like this. Her mother often says that city-life is corrupt. Better to stick to
countryside values, she says.

The afternoon turns out to be more enjoyable than their first entrance into the
vast interior might have suggested. There are speeches of course: there always
are at such gatherings, but most of them don’t last too long and lots of people
don’t even listen anyway, as is the custom at public oratory, so that doesn’t
matter. Ma Ping sits and makes faces at his sister through the most boring
parts so that even his mother admonishes him. At one point it transpires that
one of the speakers is discussing the rights of women and who in the
audience doesn’t think this is an important moment in history for the women
of China, and from Ma Ping’s corner of the vast auditorium, comes a sound of
booming laughter, laughter projected as if from a gun-barrel, fierce and
jagged and terrifyingly loud! Bai Qiang elbows him viciously at the
interruption, but the hall erupts in laughter with him, all turning to look. Ma
Ping hasn’t listened to a word of the speech, and sits there grinning from ear
to ear: it’s just that Ma Ling’s gargoyle impression is quite the funniest he’s
ever seen. How’s a boy supposed not to laugh at such an ugly sister? Ma Ling
is mortified and such public visibility ensures her acquiescence for the
duration of the speeches. She bows her head to be rid of their heavy scrutiny.
Gradually people turn back to the stage, chatting about what he’s just done.
Ma Ping isn’t a bit vanquished. He thinks the whole thing an enormous joke.
He’s only disappointed to find his ally muted in this way and tries on various
occasions to make her laugh, leaning across towards her, curving behind his
aunt’s back on one occasion and contorting his facial features with his hands

into all sorts of masks, at the same time avoiding the woman’s smacking
hands on his back and sides. But to no avail. His sister will not be swayed,
assiduously avoiding his appeals.

And then it’s time for the games. They’re quite good. ‘Musical Chairs’ is the
best one. He and Ma Ling aren’t out for ages in the second round. The music’s
so loud and strident as the sound system hasn’t been properly synchronised,
that his ears start to hurt, but it’s good fun anyway. There are lots of children
there and they all play happily together, young and old.

Bai Qiang, Ma Rong and Wang Qing sit at the back chatting happily about the
great good fortune of living in a developing China and saying how much
better everything is now than it was. So many more opportunities for the
young. Ma Ping drifts round them, but on hearing their views about
education decides now is the time to play.

He is walking towards Ma Ling who has met another girl from the
countryside she used to know in junior school, when he sees the Beautiful
Lady who came to the restaurant several weeks ago with her little girl, Ma
Rui. His heart beats painfully, and at once, the vast emptiness around and in
him dissipates and the world reduces, or expands, only to contain the three of
them. She is really so radiant. How can she be so perfect? She seems to glide
towards him, and then, a miracle, she smiles at him. She remembers him.
‘Hello young man. I was wondering when I would see you again.’
‘You were…I er…’
He gets no further.
‘Ice-lolly!’ demands Ma Rui, tugging at her mother’s sleeve.
‘Would you like one too?’ she asks him.
‘Um, I er…’
She laughs. A laugh of singular magic because it separates him from all other
people but her. Only she is real. Only he can really see her.
‘Yes, please.’
‘Come with me and we’ll buy some for the girl you are with too. Is she your
‘Yes, her name is Ma Ling.’
‘What a pretty name! Is she a nice sister?’
‘Of course!’ says Ma Ping. ‘She’s the best sister in the world. Doesn’t Ma Rui
have a little brother?’
‘Yes, Binbin. He has a cold this afternoon, so I left him with my mother.’

They edge through the crowds, which to Ma Ping appear to melt away at his
companion’s approach.

‘Three please,’ she says to the woman whom Ma Ping recognises as Wu Lian,
the mother of that child who got sent away. He finds himself staring at her,
her careworn face, her untidy hair, her large eyes set in a dark lonely place
somewhere within. He feels a sudden rush of pain, which he cannot account
for and finds, inexplicably, tears in his eyes. His breathing suddenly becomes
staggered and he turns away. The two women exchange mystified glances.
Ma Li Rui buys the ice-lollies and hands over the two yuan, quickly passing
one of the treats down to her little girl who stands impatiently bobbing up
and down at her side all the while. ‘All in a good cause,’ says Wu Lian with a
brittle smile, repaying her mother the change.

‘Hey, little one,’ says Ma Li Rui. ‘Here you are. Go and give this one to your
‘Thank you.’ The boy looks up at her in embarrassment. He cannot account
for his behaviour, he just knows he doesn’t want to look at Wu Lian again. He
is almost relieved to turn away from the Beautiful Lady.
‘Here you are,’ he says to Ma Ling as he reaches her side. As ever, aware of
his moods, she detects something in his voice. ‘Oh and this one’s for you!’ he
adds, passing his own ice-lolly to Zhao Zhe, his sister’s friend. He turns away
before either of them can say anything to him, and looks for the lady again.
And there she is, facing him. She is waiting for him! His relief is so great, that
he feels he can do anything now. Study twelve hours a day, scrub floors until
his hands bleed, fight evil demons to the death, endure terrible sufferings. His
smile is an utter delight to all those who, at that moment, might have
perceived it. But there is a great hustle and bustle in the hall, and only Ma Li
Rui is looking. She is deeply touched by his joy, recognizing from that
moment on, just how much the little boy loves her. Something tender stirs in
her heart for him. What a sweet child he is.

‘We’re going now, Boy!’ says Bai Qiang suddenly, arriving at his side with his
sister and mother. ‘Who is this?’
‘Um, oh, she’s…’ and he stops. She’s the Beautiful Woman, but he can hardly
introduce her like that.
‘My name is Ma Li Rui and this is my daughter, Ma Rui. My husband, Ma
Fengyin, runs the English language bookstore down the road.’
‘Ah yes,’ says Bai Qiang in a tone implying that’s not all he does. Ma Li Rui
retreats from her initial openness. Ma Ping wonders what can have been
meant in the few words spoken. The Beautiful Woman is unhappy now. No,
she’s insulted and afraid. He feels it almost physically, when she steps back a
little and takes her daughter’s hand.
‘I am Bai Qiang, Ma Ping’s aunt. This is his mother, Ma Rong, and the boy’s
sister, Ma Ling. They are visiting the city for the weekend.’
‘How nice,’ Ma Li Rui answers flatly.

‘Did you buy us the ice-lollies?’ Ma Ling says, smiling up at the pretty
‘Yes, child.’
‘Thank you,’ she says, simply.
‘Well, you must all have a lot to do, so I’ll let you go,’ Ma Li Rui says in the
customary conferring of busyness on others in order to take one’s own leave.
She reaches for Ma Rui’s hand and turns to leave.
‘Perhaps,’ she says, turning back to Ma Ping, ‘if you would like some discount
on our English books, I could ask my husband.’
‘I’m sure that’s very kind, Ma Li Rui,’ says Bai Qiang, ‘but we pay full price,
thank you.’
‘Well,’ and the lady smiles at the confused little boy. ‘Drop in when you’re
passing. You’re very welcome. And you too,’ she says to Ma Ling. ‘Perhaps
there are some books you need for your study. Good day.’
And that’s it. She leaves and Ma Ping is left watching her retreat, sensing in
her movements a dejectedness that hurts him.
‘Come on, let’s be going home. It’s time to eat.’ Bai Qiang sweeps her hand in
a gesture suggesting they should follow and sets off at a good pace towards
home. As they walk the women talk about their afternoon and compare the
prizes this year – towels and mops - with last year’s booty – washing powder
and liquid - and decide this year’s was better on average.

Ma Rong looks round now and again, but Ma Ping’s so clearly away with the
fairies, she doesn’t attempt to break the spell. What a little dreamer he is. One
day, and soon, he’s going to have to be more realistic about life. He’s going to
have to learn about responsibilities and duty. This makes her feel a little sad,
but on the other hand, to survive in today’s developing China, he has to be a
more reliable and willing child. And it’s her duty to teach him about this. She
must speak to Ma Xingjian about it when there is a moment.

Ma Ping trails behind them all, his mind and heart full of impressions,
feelings, motives and plans. He scarcely thinks about the afternoon except for
the part she has deigned to share with him. He feels a peace he has never
known. As into a swathe of corn in his father’s field, he sinks into the golden
future of his imagination, in which Ma Li Rui is his mother, or older sister
perhaps, looking after him and never cross with him and not pushing him too
hard to study. And most of all, she just loves him. Unconditionally.

He doesn’t walk home, he floats.

Chapter Four, Thursday, 13th March
 ‘Ping, I want to tell you a story.’
‘Yes, sir?’

‘Many, many years ago, before you were born, I had a brother. A younger brother.’
There is a pause and Teacher Deng turns towards the window, almost as if he has
finished and is now looking out at the crowds of milling children on their way home
for lunch.
Ma Ping sits awkwardly.
‘A brother, sir?’ he offers hopefully. He didn’t know Teacher Deng had a brother. Ma
Shipeng told him he didn’t have any family at all now. His wife and child had died
some years ago. Something about when his son was born.
‘A brother, yes. I bet you didn’t know that, did you?’
‘No sir. I didn’t know. Where does he live now, then?’
‘He doesn’t live anywhere. He’s dead.’

Ma Ping lies on his bunk in the gloom of a late evening, remembering. His
stomach is comfortably full of noodles, and he was served them in bed too, a
most unusual treat. But then it has been a most unusual day…

 ‘Come on, sleepyhead. Time for school!’ Ma Shipeng shakes him awake.
Ma Ping springs youthfully out of bed with an agility that his older brother
envies. He might be mumbling in his sleep but it’s clearly not disturbing him.
Teacher Deng doesn’t miss much, and Ma Ping has been late once already,
and so he must be quick. He dresses speedily and rushes downstairs, grateful
to find that Huang Hongmei has come early and is making some noodles for
both of them. He tucks into his greedily and afterwards with a cheerful wave,
and a shout of thanks to the kind woman, he departs for a favourite place. Ma
Shipeng and Huang Hongmei smile indulgently at his haste and eagerness.
What a good student he’s becoming. Ma Shipeng resumes his noodle-eating
with relish and smiles momentarily at the cook, but doesn’t notice her shy
blushes in response. He’s a good boy really. Yes, he’s moody, but there are
many burdens on a young student these days. He’s glad his parents came
over, though, and he’s promised to keep them closely in touch with the
child’s progress, but he doesn’t feel there’s going to be much to worry about
now. He had some settling-in problems, but who wouldn’t? Mm, these
noodles could do with some…
Huang Hongmei passes him the vinegar.
‘Mm. Thank you,’ he mutters looking at her pretty eyes.

When he arrives slightly early, Ma Ping notices Teacher Deng striding
purposefully into the building where his classroom is situated. He seems
authoritative, vigilant. Ma Ping feels a slight chill at his favourite teacher’s
unaccustomed stance. There’s something in the air. All the children can feel it.
They stand in clusters, discussing what’s going on. That it’s unlike Teacher
Deng to keep them in suspense is the consensus amongst the children who
have been in his class for a longer time than Ma Ping.

‘It’s going to be a half-day holiday, perhaps,’ says Little Tian, who always
hopes for holidays. He’s not a clever student and often is the victim of
Teacher Deng’s sarcasm. It isn’t that he’s stupid, just undisciplined. It’s also
true that no amount of threatening behaviour is going to change him. His
mother has reconciled herself, his father less so. Teacher Deng often smacks
him with the ruler on the hands, but the action doesn’t seem to communicate
with his capacity to focus: Little Tian is a scatterbrain. It’s official. His manner,
though, is often quite serious, and sometimes he’s called Lao Tian 7 as a joke.
He has glasses too, which add to this impression, making him appear the
studious and thoughtful one of any group. It is also probably the reason why
adults treat him more harshly than they might someone whose appearance
leads them less to suspect a scholarly nature.

‘I don’t think that would make him act so weird,’ says Ding Pengcheng
slowly, hoping against hope there isn’t a special scholarship in the offing.
That would be a disaster for him. They’d be nothing but study for him then,
plus a beating at the end of it when he didn’t succeed.
‘I wonder if someone’s coming to visit,’ says Ma Ping.
‘What makes you say that, Ma?’ asks Chen Baoqing turning to the new boy
and realising there might be something in what he says. He offers Ma Ping a
sweet, which the boy accepts gratefully, knowing that at last he is being
accepted within the community. Chen Baoqing is a stocky boy, whose
appearance, like Tian’s, is deceptive. He is stocky, but sensitive and quiet. He
likes studying and has the reputation of being clever and popular with
teachers. Many students envy him this status, but not always in a kindly way.
He is grudgingly respected, but not popular. However, on the few occasions
when others have been foolish enough to challenge him physically, he has
always won. He makes few friends and during his years of schooling, only
Little Tian has stayed the course. The child admires the stronger lad, looking
up to him, wanting to emulate him. Chen keeps Tian focused, treating him
rather like a little brother. Tian is grateful: he has no brothers and sisters and
his mother is dead, died when he was born. He is a lonely child and without
Chen feels inadequate, less. Chen never makes him feel small, his coining of
the title Little Tian, actually making the child feel safe rather than derided.

‘Just a thought,’ replies Ma Ping. ‘Hey, come on you lot, we’d better go back
to class. See you later, Ding Pengcheng.’
The three boys go back to their classroom, leaving a rather worried and
solitary Ding Pengcheng outside. He feels reluctant to venture inside,

 Lao Tian, literally Old Tian. Lao precedes a name as a mark of respect. Old-age is much prized,
particularly in the countryside, in China. As you can see from the choices of politicians and leaders
over the ages, China venerates age.

suspecting so strongly he’ll hear something to his disadvantage, he considers
not going in at all. A flicker of resentment passes through him as he realises
that this sensation is his daily burden. When it isn’t something at school he
has to be careful of, then it’s what happens in conversations with his father.
And when it isn’t in conversation with him directly, it’s what other people
might say when they visit, or even when his father goes out drinking. He
shouldn’t drink so much either. It’s a bad thing for a Hui man. Ding
Pengcheng sighs deeply, and with heavy steps follows his friends into the
building to confront his fate.

‘So, when these people arrive from Beijing, we have to welcome them. And
the school wants the students to do some performances for them. This is such
an opportunity, children, such an honour. I hope you feel it. I hope you are
proud. And every one of us must try his best.’

Ma Ping sits near the front, looking up adoringly at his teacher. What could
he possibly do to honour these great visitors? Coming all the way from
Beijing as well. Where the Olympic Games are happening in 2008. Such a
wonderful chance for China. To be open to the world! He gasps in his
imagination, drinking in the wonder of it and his face is suffused with a joy
he knows will only be grounded when he can paint. He wrenches himself
back to the present to find Teacher Deng looking at him quizzically. He smiles
seraphically and the teacher frowns, wondering what is happening in the
child. He has only seen that sort of abstraction once before, and he never
wanted to see it again. Suddenly, for the teacher, it all makes sense. Ping’s
abstractions, his lapses of concentration, his incisive intelligence, his
emotional, or at least, psychological, maturity.

‘Ma! Pay attention!’ Teacher Deng’s voice is sharp.
Ma Ping is confused now. The initial expression on teacher Deng’s face was
one of love. As a loved child he knows love when he sees it freely bestowed
like that. And then suddenly, this expression was transmuted into concern. It
is a startling revelation to him, that this wonderful adult, this clever and
brilliant man, this man whom he trusts and venerates almost beyond any, is
worried about him. Ma Ping sits back on his stool, resting against the desk
behind. What could there be to worry about with him? But that concerns him
little. His gratification at being the object of such kindness is almost too much
for his little soul to contain.
‘And when they arrive next month, we have to make them feel welcome. I
want us all to make this class and our school the best in our new city. They
are coming here and it is a great honour to us. We must think of some ideas to

show them how pleased we are they have come here and not Penyang or
Haiyuan. Do you understand?’
A chorus of assent.
‘So, does anyone have any suggestions?’
A babble of excited chatter, then hands raised, all eager intent, facing the front
with their devotion and enthusiasm.
‘A pageant, sir’, says one.
‘Some speeches.’
‘A play.’
‘Some posters.’8
‘Some presents.’
‘We can say our lessons for them.’
Laughter at that.
‘Thank you, Tian. I’m not sure yours would necessarily impress anyone or last
long enough.’
Eruptions of laughter.
Tian blushes, but he knows that Teacher Deng doesn’t mean it unkindly. He
just wanted to contribute. Chen smiles at him in approval at his suggestion:
that’s enough for him.

The discussion takes another few turns and then Mr. Deng asks them to talk
about it at home with their parents and come back tomorrow with some new
suggestions. But he thanks them for the suggestions they have already made,
excepting Tian’s, which everyone laughs kindly at and the child feels warm.

Soon time to go home for lunch thinks Ma Ping as the Chinese lessons drones
on for another half an hour. Then at last the bell goes, homework is set, and
they are free.
‘Ma,’ says Teacher Deng. ‘Could you stay behind please?’
Ma Ping sits, as if rooted to the spot. No teacher has ever asked him to remain
behind before. Whatever can be the matter? He feels his throat turning dry,
and his stomach churning painfully. The other children look enquiringly at
him and Teacher Deng, but they get no information from that, and although
their progress out of the class is slowed down by their interest, at last the final
curious face disappears from view, and the two are alone. Ma has stood up
out of respect now, but the man indicates him to sit down by gesturing with
both hands in downward motions. It is an exaggerated gesture, however, and
Ma Ping feels its extremity, wishing he could just go home. He is certain he
has done something wrong, but he doesn’t know what it might possibly be.

 Posters, always red, are a traditional way in China to broadcast something, to make known opinions.
The calligraphy on these posters is vital to the impression of the meanings. Skilled calligraphy is a
highly-prized art-form in China.

‘Poster, eh?’ begins Teacher Deng.
‘Sir?’ Ma Ping shakes his head. What can the man mean?
‘You suggested a poster for the welcome to the Beijing dignitaries.’
‘Oh yes, sir.’ Ma Ping gulps a little. Something alerts him to the man’s tone
and he looks up at him with a frown.
‘Ping, I want to tell you a story.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Ma Ping is looking up at him unblinkingly, and the man is touched
by the child’s obvious sincerity and sweet nature.
‘Many many years ago, before you were born, I had a brother. A younger
brother.’ There is a pause and the teacher turns towards the window, almost
as if he has finished and is now looking out at the crowds of milling children
on their way home for lunch.
Ma Ping sits awkwardly.
‘A brother, sir?’ he offers hopefully. He didn’t know Teacher Deng had a
brother. Ma Shipeng told him he didn’t have any family at all now. His wife
and child had died some years ago. Something about when his son was born.
‘A brother, yes. I bet you didn’t know that, did you?’
‘No sir. I didn’t know. Where does he live now, then?’
‘He doesn’t live anywhere. He’s dead.’
 ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that, sir.’

Teacher Deng sighs and nods his head slowly. To find the right words is
important. He doesn’t want to crush him, this special child. He knows what
he knows about him,
it’s as simple as that. He can see his own brother in every whim that passes
        across the child’s
face. Every breath of meaning that the child says, every glimmer of his eyes:
        when those
clouds obliterate the sun for glimmers of moments, Teacher Deng knows. He
        feels no sense
that he might be wrong. And he instantly recognises his duty to the child. He
        turns to face the
boy, and then, he crosses determinedly to the cupboard next to the teacher’s
‘You did these!’ he exclaims, pulling out some large crinkly sheets of red
paper covered in black brushstrokes (which were the previous week’s
classwork) and laying them out on his desk.
‘Come here, Ping!’
Ma Ping immediately jumps up and hurries to obey.
‘Look at these!’
Ma Ping begins to feel faint. So he is in trouble after all.
‘They’re mine, sir.’

‘I know they’re yours. They couldn’t be anyone else’s.’
‘Look, I really tried my best. I’m sorry if…’
They’re brilliant! They are the most elegant examples of calligraphy I have
ever seen. And I don’t just mean in a school, by an eleven-year old child, I
mean anywhere.’
‘I didn’t cheat, honestly.’
‘Ping,’ Teacher Deng’s voice is soft and gentle. ‘I know that.’ Teacher Deng
looks down at the work again, an expression of respect on his careworn face.

Ma Ping stands close to his side now, and looks up at him, waiting innocently
for whatever the teacher has to say next. He catches the man’s expression and
feels enormously vindicated by it. So he’s not in trouble then. What is going

That look again, thinks Deng Qin, that openness to experience that his brother
had. Exactly the same trust in reality, that ability to unify what is inside and
outside. And in his case it led to him following wicked thoughts and
dangerous subversive activities. This child must not fall into the same trap.

‘Sit down, Ping.’ The child rushes back round the desk again and off the
platform to his own seat in the third row. Deng Qing laughs at his literal mind,
his eagerness to obey. Now to find the words. He realises that showing the
child his own calligraphy is simply a delaying tactic in order to find a form of
words that might convince him. He can order him, but he wants to reason
with him.

He approaches Ma Ping’s desk. He thought there was something about the
child the first time his older brother brought him in to look around the school
and for him to decide whether he wanted to teach him. Ma Ping has a far-
away quality. Some people think that such distancing means an inner
coldness, but it’s really quite the opposite in his case. Just like this brother. It’s
a closeness with the world, with the destiny of others, that is too near to be
healthy. And Teacher Deng has to save him from this fate.

‘My brother. Little Xiaobin. Always the most intelligent of the family. My
father loved him best and always indulged him in his hobbies and interests.’
‘Oh’, he replies mutely.
‘But you see, he was special. Special in a way you are.’
‘My brother was a great artist. So clever. He could draw anything.’
At these words, Ma Ping’s heart sinks. So he’s going to ask him to stop
drawing. Well, he can’t. It’s as simple as that! But how does he know about it?
He feels afraid of his teacher for the first time. It is a fear, which doesn’t

recognise physical consequences, only possible future problems, future pain,
future loss. He looks up at him still, but his eyes are guarded now, and that
sliver of coldness his sister began a few days ago when she didn’t ask him
about his secret, skewers a little further into his heart. A shadow obscures the
light of his insights and his abilities.

‘Ma Ping?’ As ever sensitive to the boy’s mood, Deng Qin looks at him
‘I’m listening, sir,’ he replies accommodatingly, but the man isn’t fully
satisfied. He continues anyway. He can’t keep the boy much longer.
‘My brother was an artist. Lived for art. Did nothing else and would have
nothing else. Times were hard, admittedly, but he wouldn’t live like other
children. And then one day he drew a picture and was reported to the
authorities.’ Ma Ping watches the man’s face, how his emotion travels like
clouds over a landscape trailing contours like meanings. ‘It was a wicked
picture, but he was so far gone in his artistic world, he lost contact with

‘Reported? What was the matter with the picture? Was it badly done?’
Deng Qin smiles.
‘Well, badly done in some people’s eyes. You see my brother drew someone,
but his drawing was, well, it wasn’t flattering. It didn’t show the correct
respect, but Deng Xiaobin said he drew what he saw, not what others saw.
And he said he had to draw it, he had no choice. No one understood that. I did.
And I knew that his desire to paint, to put it all down, I knew it was wrong. I
mean I didn’t know it was wrong at the time so much. But afterwards, then I
knew it made sense. Oh dear…’
He stops and looks closely at Ma Ping’s rapt expression, but this conversation
isn’t going quite how he wants and so he changes tactics.

‘China is a developing country, Ma Ping. You know that. We all know that.
You could become a classical scholar, do you realise? Teach the history, art
and culture of our great nation. To keep our China pure in the future. We
need people to retain the culture. Do you know what I’m talking about?’ Ma
Ping turns his attention back again to the teacher.
‘Yes sir, but calligraphy’s a part of it all, isn’t it? We’re always told that. You
said ....’ he stops when he sees the muscles in Deng Qin’s face grow taut. Then
he has an idea.
‘Do you want me to do some calligraphy for the visitors? Is that it?’ Why is
the man talking about his brother then?
In fact this had been on Deng Qin’s mind, but he early dismissed it in the
conversation, realising it was more likely to focus the boy’s unnatural

‘Er no, I think that should be done by a special person hired for the occasion,’
he stammers, thinking of a quick excuse. ‘It’s a very important event in our
history. If we let a child do it, it doesn’t show the right respect.’
‘But you said…’ Ma Ping stops abruptly seeing Teacher Deng’s exasperation.
‘I like calligraphy, Teacher Deng,’ he adds with the first time in any
conversation with his teacher, a tone of resentment. ‘It’s…’ he casts around for
a suitable word: ‘soothing.’
‘Soothing.’ Deng Qin’s flat voice repeats the word, as if trying to find out how
he can connect it to what he wants to say. A dangerous word, ‘soothing’. He is
more than ever convinced his instincts about Ma Ping are correct. What kind
of child is it that is comforted by art? Art is a dangerous opiate and not for
healthy children like Ma Ping.

Deng Qin shakes his head and makes one final effort.
‘My brother couldn’t cope with his ability. He was a genius, you see. And you
do see, Ma, don’t tell me you don’t!’
Ma Ping is struck by the use of his family name. It suggests an alienation,
even trouble in store. He bites his lip in consternation. How has this
conversation happened? His fear becomes physical. He recognises that his
idol has the capacity for ruthlessness. That, if pushed hard enough, he could
become cruel. He gulps painfully and his eyes show their feeling clearly,
transparent to his soul. Teacher Deng almost baulks at the vulnerability
before him.
‘But you said others didn’t like this drawing. I don’t understand.’ And then a
flash of inspiration: ‘What happened to him?’
‘He died, I told you.’

There is a pause, painful for both of them. Teacher Deng is aware that what he
is about to say is a terrible thing. Although the truth, it doesn’t mean it should
be spoken, and maybe never to a child. His heart beats bumpily and his
breathing becomes a little laboured. Ma Ping witnesses all this without
understanding any of the emotional background. He recognises that his
teacher cares about him, but he also feels that his teacher’s love has become a
burden. And behind it all is a sense that this man isn’t safe. He doesn’t know
how he knows, he doesn’t know why, he just knows. And against this person,
he must now guard himself.

‘He killed himself.’ The words are like screams, chalk scraped bloody on the
blackboard. The little boy looks up, horror-struck at what his teacher has said,
pushing back his stool as he jumps to his feet.
‘What do you mean? What do you mean, killed himself?’ His voice is high-
pitched and panicky. He almost trips over a stool in the aisleway in his bid to
put distance between himself and this reality. Killed himself. Killed himself?

Ma Ping understands these words, he realises. They aren’t an idea, they are a
tangible reality. Teacher Deng’s brother killed himself because he couldn’t
bear to be parted from his art. He died because he wanted to paint. And
suddenly, Ma Ping sees his own future. He’s going to die because no one will
let him draw and Teacher Deng is warning him. His eyes widen in horror and
without a word, he dashes past the bewildered man and out of the door,
banging it behind him, oblivious to his teacher’s exhortations to return.

Once outside, he runs behind the building and is violently sick against the
wall, but there are no witnesses. He walks a little away from the vomit and
stands with his back against the wall, bending down, hands grasping below
his knees and gasping for breath. He is white with shock and begins to shake
in every limb. ‘I’m not going to die!’ he says to himself, slowly at first, and
then more quickly, like a mantra. ‘I won’t be beaten by anyone. They can’t
stop me. They can’t make me kill myself. And they can’t stop me painting,
either! They can’t stop me painting. They can’t stop me painting!’ After a few
minutes, he raises himself and makes for home, hardly conscious of the way
through the congestion of bicycles and pedestrians who always block the
streets at this time of day.

He pushes through the curtain into the crowded restaurant, unaware of how
ill he appears. His face is drawn and pale, his eyes wide with shock and fear,
his lips parted dryly.
‘Whatever’s the matter with you?’ Huang Hongmei asks with concern, as she
passes him with a heavily laden tray, which she presents to the table of
customers nearest the door. A howling wind blasts into the room, but no one
thinks to shut the door.
‘Nothing,’ he says wearily. ‘I think I’ll just go upstairs for a bit,’ and he makes
straight for the stairs.
‘But don’t you want…?’ but he’s disappeared.

Afternoon shadows deepen as Ma Shipeng looks down at his sleeping brother.
Ma Ping is clearly heavily unconscious, but he is twitching and calling out
vague mutterings, none of which are intelligible. He strokes the boy’s hair
back from his forehead and doesn’t notice Huang Hongmei’s entrance into
the room.
‘Is he all right now?’
Ma Shipeng starts and smiles at her kind concern.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we should take him to the hospital. I shouldn’t
really have let him sleep, but he looked awful, didn’t he? Did he say anything
before he came upstairs?’

‘No, I told you he didn’t. He just came in, looked like death and rushed
upstairs. And then you went up and that was only five minutes after, and he
was already asleep, you said.’ Huang Hongmei bends over the boy, but sees
nothing revealing. ‘Look, I’d better go back downstairs, the customers’ll be
wondering what’s going on.’
Ma Shipeng sits down on a stool next to his brother’s bunk, and waits.

‘Oh yes, of course, Mr. Deng. How kind of you to come.’ Huang Hongmei
doesn’t really know what to do.
‘Please sit down, sir, and I’ll fetch you some tea.’ She hurries away to do it,
and at that moment, Ma Shipeng emerges from the stairs. He steps forward
briskly to accept the teacher’s outstretched hand of welcome.
‘How kind! How kind!’
‘I thought Ping must be ill.’
‘Yes, it’s a curious thing, but he came back from school late at lunchtime and
looked so ill, I wondered whether he was being bullied. He just went upstairs
without anything to eat and fell asleep. I haven’t really been able to rouse him.
I must admit I haven’t tried very hard.’
Deng Qin grows pale.
‘No, no, I want to assure you. I mean…’
Ma Shipeng is surprised by the man’s manner. He seems unsure of himself.
Huang Hongmei brings their visitor a glass of tea, the jasmine leaves
expanding greenly.
‘He isn’t being bullied.’ He starts again. ‘Something did happen at lunchtime,
but it wasn’t…’ He pauses for a moment. ‘I talked to him, Ma Shipeng. I am
concerned about him. I told him a story about my own family that upset him.
It may have been wrong to tell him.’
‘We are all grateful in my family for what you are doing for Ma Ping. He
thinks so highly of you. Always talking about you,’ Ma Shipeng finishes
garrulously in a manner which reminds the older man of their younger
brothers. And then as if the teacher’s final words have only just impacted on
him, he adds: ‘You’re worried about him?’
‘Yes, he’s such an artistic child and I feel that, well, quite frankly, he’s
dreaming his life away and perhaps this will interfere with his studies. His
calligraphy you know, it’s outstanding.’
‘I don’t think I follow…’
‘Outstanding. I mean unusual. I mean tiancai.’10

    Bukerqi = don’t mention it!
    Tiancai = genius

‘Tiancai? Our Ping?’ Ma Shipeng laughs uproariously at this and the few
customers in the restaurant turn to look, but seeing nothing of any particular
interest, quickly turn back again to their meals.
‘Oh come on! I mean, sorry, with respect, but this is Ping we’re talking about
it.’ Ma Shipeng ends his sentence less certain than when he began it for Deng
Qin’s expression is truly concerned. ‘Why does this worry you?’ he then asks
‘Because, and I may be wrong of course, because perhaps it will cause Ma
Ping to lose sight of reality. And then he will stop studying, or he will be so
different from others, that he can no longer play a useful role in society.’

‘Of course that he is such a good calligrapher in one sense is wonderful. But
you see, Ma Shipeng, I have seen where this can lead. A child becomes so
involved in this single aspect of his character that he gets it out of proportion.
With this talent he could become famous, I have no doubt of that, but
honestly, I think the price is too high.’

In a sense this is too much for Ma Shipeng to deal with. He ought to talk
about this to his parents before making any decisions.
‘You think it could cause him harm?’ he asks after a few moments’ reflection.
‘I do.’
And suddenly, Ma Ping rattles downstairs into the restaurant from the
stairway where he has heard the conversation:
‘What’s he doing here?’ he says, standing between the two seated men,
looking from one to the other.
‘Ma PING!’ says his brother, scandalized at such behaviour, rising to his feet
and smacking Ma Ping soundly on the side of his head. ‘How…’
‘Don’t worry. I see you’ve woken up, Ma Ping.’
The boy recovers his balance and looks wide-eyed and with some
undisguised hostility at his teacher. Because of his favourite’s rejection, which
he cannot accept is anything other than proof that the child is emotionally
precarious, the teacher leans forward to the boy’s brother and says softly, ‘As
I said, it leads to emotional imbalance. How much more proof do you need?’
Ma Ping shakes his head.
‘You can’t make me do it. I won’t kill myself.’ He turns tail, then, and runs
back upstairs.
‘He’s delirious,’ says Deng Qin. ‘I think you should get the doctor. But you do
see what I mean?’
‘I’ve never seen him like that. What story did you tell him to frighten him so?’
Ma Shipeng enquires with unusual perception.
‘Look, the issue here is that your brother is suffering an emotional state which
is dangerous. I know a little about these things. I studied at Xi’an, xibei

daxue11, you know. And it’s caused by his artistic abilities, probably triggered
by moving here. He’s been under a lot of strain. I can make sure at school that
he concentrates on his studies and at home, you too can help him.’
‘And you think that’s what he needs?’
‘Oh yes, I think study and exercise are the answers here. A healthy mind in a
healthy body, that’s what we need.’
Ma Shipeng strokes his chin reflectively. ‘He’s having help and giving help to
Ding Pengcheng for his studies. Do you know him?’
‘Ugly lad?’
‘Yes. Is that a good idea?’
‘I think it is,’ he says slowly, as if trying the idea on for size. ‘The father’s
rather a strange one, but Ding Pengcheng is quite a good student, although
not as good as his father wants him to be. He’s very straightforward, though,
no hidden depths in him.’

There is another pause, which borders on awkward, until Teacher Deng
breaks it.
‘You must be busy, so I’ll go.’ He gets to his feet, pushing his hands on the
table for leverage. He suddenly feels old.
‘Do you want to see him?’ Ma Shipeng asks him.
‘Er no, I think we’ll just pretend today didn’t happen.’
‘Yes, that’s probably best,’ says the other, relieved. ‘I am very sorry he was so
rude to you, and after you’d taken all that trouble to come and visit him. He
ought to be very grateful. I know I am.’
‘Don’t think about it. As I say, let’s start tomorrow with a clean slate.’
‘You’re very kind. I’ll say goodbye then,’ he says, holding open the plastic
slats hanging at the entrance and serving as a barrier against the high winds.
Deng Qin passes through them and then is gone.

Ma Ping is sitting in the window seat, looking down as usual at the streets
below. He sees Deng leave, and draws his head back quickly from view, but
when he ventures to look again, he sees nothing in Deng’s stance, which
might suggest he wanted to see him. He leans his head back against the wall
in relief that another encounter is not going to happen today. And in that
position of relaxation Ma Shipeng finds him a moment later.
‘And what do you think you were playing at? I have never been so ashamed
in my life! Get up!’
Ma Ping swallows again, and feels just as he did in the classroom that
morning. He stands up shakily, and realises perhaps he can be sick again after
all. His face begins to grow pale and he sways a little on his feet.

     Xibei daxue = Northwest University.

As always, Ma Shipeng is sensitive to his brother, and reaches forward just in
time to catch the child when he falls limply into his arms.
‘Oh, Ping, whatever is going on with you? You little genius!’ he says to the
child’s unconscious body, feeling the power of the word for the first and last
time. My brother, the genius! Who’d have ever thought it? It ought to be a
secret if this is the effect it has on him. Poor little mite. He carries the child to
his bunk.

‘You should have called me straightaway!’ snaps Bai Qiang, holding her hand
to Ma Ping’s pale forehead with uncharacteristic gentleness. ‘Now tell me
again, exactly, what happened at school and then afterwards.’
Ma Shipeng sighs and retells the story in great detail, what people said, how
people looked, up to the moment before he sent Huang Hongmei to fetch her.
‘Hrumph!’ she emotes, sitting back on her stool.
‘And you?’ she says to the boy lying swathed in blankets. ‘What have you got
to say for yourself and for causing all this fuss?’
‘Ma Ping looks up at her with intense guilessness. Before that, she saw the
situation almost as that of a naughty little boy being excessively pandered to
by doting adults. Another Little Emperor, China doesn’t need! However, now,
as she sees him lying there, unmoving, apparently unperturbed, she perceives
more deeply his vulnerability. Dim memories are dredged unwillingly from
their troubled sleep and suddenly she is riven with fears for the child.
Vulnerabilities disturb her in ways she doesn’t understand. Always have. Her
own or other people’s, it makes no difference. And at no time in the past has
she ever cared about her nephew more. She feels a possessive protectiveness
towards him, and tucks the blankets in and around him with some
brusqueness, which causes him to dodge her fingers as they tuck and nip and
‘You just rest and get better, then we’ll see,’ she says, smoothing the results of
her efforts with several pats of some strength!

Ma Shipeng can hardly believe what he’s hearing or seeing. His aunt being
indulgent? He had expected at least a beating for the poor lad, and although
he would have been sympathetic, he can’t surely be allowed to get away with
cheeking a teacher like that? What a strange world it’s becoming these days.
His little brother being a tiancai and his aunt all motherly. Doesn’t make sense
at all.

‘How do you feel now, eh?’ she asks him again.
‘Better, thank you, Aunt Bai.’

She nods. ‘Well, you stay there this evening and Huang Hongmei can bring
you some noodles a little later. All right?’
‘Yes, Aunt. I am very sorry to be a nuisance. And I didn’t mean to be rude to
Teacher Deng either.’
‘I know, dear. Don’t worry about it. You get a little more sleep and then you
can eat later. How does that sound?’
Ma Ping smiles absently, his eyelids closing.
‘Let’s leave him in peace,’ says Bai Qiang getting up and leading her older
nephew out of the room.
‘And he said a tiancai, did he? He really said that?’ Bai Qiang says with a
smile, turning to him at the foot of the stairs.
‘Yes. Our little Ping, a, well a rather gifted little boy apparently.’
‘Mm. We need to be careful’ she says, sitting down at the nearest unoccupied
table. ‘I think study and exercise are good ideas, though. Teacher Deng’s a
clever man. He knows what he’s about.’ She shakes her head with a smile.
‘What, Aunt?’
‘Well, little Ping, eh. Who’d have thought it? But I think we need to keep this
to ourselves.’
Ma Shipeng automatically goes to tables stacking up crockery, placing a large
pile beside her on his way to the kitchen. Huang Hongmei enters the main
room, looking at Ma Shipeng with a smile, but noticing the aunt, turns away
to deliver some malted cabbage to new customers.
‘Any chance of some help?’ she asks. ‘How’s Ping?’
‘He’s fine, you carry on with your work!’ admonishes Bai Qiang. Huang
Hongmei moves behind the woman and raises her eyebrows at her nephew.
Ma Shipeng turns his incipient laughter into a cough.
‘And Mother and Father?’ he asks, turning his aunt’s attention away from
their cook.
‘I don’t think we need to worry them, do you?’ she replies looking back
sternly towards Huang Hongmei’s retreating form as the young woman
pushes aside the curtain into the kitchen.
‘No, let’s keep it to ourselves,’ she reiterates, turning back again. ‘We don’t
want them worrying unnecessarily, do we? Come on now, stop dawdling,
let’s get on!’

Ma Ping climbs the stairs stealthily from where he has been eavesdropping
and slips back into bed. He lies with his arms behind his head and looks up at
the ceiling, listening a while to the murmurings and muted movements below.
He’d better hide his drawings or they’re bound to take them away. And then
he needs to organize some time when he can be thought to be studying, but
he’s really painting. But he needs to study well otherwise they’ll get
suspicious. It’s a growing ‘they’ now, containing almost everyone he knows,
he realises with some trepidation. He goes through all his family and friends,

and then he lights on the one person who might understand after all. He is
suffused with relief…

And now he lies tranquilly, looking up at the ceiling with a smile. Such an
important day. Then he turns over and falls almost immediately into a
healing sleep.

Chapter Five: Sunday, 16th March.
Ma Ping sits up eagerly in bed, instantly awake, instantly aware of what
today might bring. Ma Shipeng looks round at him from the basin of water
he’s using to wash himself.
‘You’re a happy one today!’ he says with a laugh, rubbing his face dry with
the small hand-towel.
Ma Ping smiles covetously in reply, dashes over to the basin, shivering at the
cold, his teeth chattering, but in exaggeration, flopping his limbs about as if
they are hanging off him, rather than attached to him. Ma Shipeng watches
him delighted at his pleasure this cold morning. The boy splashes about a bit,
but without much success, managing merely to splash water all over the floor
and walls. There’s an animal boisterousness in him, a skittishness, as if
everything is tinged with wonderful possibilities. The child skips about the
room retrieving clothes from unlikely places and finds a pair of Dracula teeth
on the window-sill: he’d forgotten about them. He puts them on covertly,
turns to his brother and advances menacingly, raising his arms and walking
like a zombie. Ma Shipeng laughs out loud. Well, whatever ordeal he was
going through last week, he seems to have recovered.

‘Get on with you!’ he admonishes with a smile, and then snaps the wet towel
at his brother’s legs. Ma Ping shrieks with delight and the two of them start
chasing each other round the small garret, as far as such an activity is possible
in such a restricted space. Ma Ping dives below his brother’s arms at one point
and clod-hops down the stairs, almost knocking Huang Hongmei over in his
desire to reach a safer vantage-point. And then Ma Shipeng ricochets into her
too and she is sent flying. Ma Ping is standing at the other end of the
restaurant by this time, and looks on a little worried, although unable to
suppress a laugh. Suddenly he feels a stinging pain on the side of his head.
‘You get that stove sorted out, Boy, and don’t stand around making a
nuisance of yourself.’
Ma Ping acknowledges his aunt’s presence with a small grunt, and goes out
into the outhouse beyond the kitchen, rubbing his ear. He is still smiling,
though. When he comes back in with the coal, his brother is sitting with
Huang Hongmei in the corner and clearly worried about her. He bends
towards her in order to hear her soft voice better.

‘And you can get on as well, my girl,’ Bai Qiang admonishes the younger
woman, who instantly jumps to her feet and scuttles past her striking hands
into the kitchen.
‘And what are you staring at?’ she addresses Ma Shipeng.
‘Nothing at all, Aunt,’ he says and then turns away hastily to rearrange some
dishes on the table behind him, because Ma Ping is standing behind his aunt
menacingly baring his Dracula-fangs at her and swaying with his arms raised.
‘What are you doing?’ she says as she turns and knocks into him. ‘You get on,
now. I don’t know what’s the matter with everyone this morning. Dear me, if
it was left to you two…’ and she leaves the sentence unfinished as if the
articulation of it is too horrible to imagine.
‘Sorry, Aunt,’ he mumbles.
‘And remember your putonghua12, Boy. Stop muttering.
Ma Ping clamps his lips in a rigid straight line, praying that she won’t ask him
to say any more. And then he catches Ma Shipeng looking at him from the
other side of the room, and he knows he has to get out of there. He dashes
past his aunt, and through the curtain to the front door, nearly spitting out the
fangs as he reaches the pavement on the other side.
‘The boy’s mad!’ Aunt Bai says, but not seriously. There is a twinkle in her
eyes as she begins to sweep the floor.

Ma Ping realises that his dash for freedom gives him a few minutes before he
has to return, so he sprints across the road, packing his fangs in his pocket,
avoiding a heavily laden tricycle, Huang Weiping wending its early way to
set up a stall, the same one he drew the previous week selling luxury fruits,
and he feels he wants to call out a greeting to the man with the determined
face, but the moment passes, he runs in the other direction and as quickly as
he can up the adjoining street, dodging carts and people and vendors and
little children and their guardians, until at last he reaches the shop he’s come
to see. He knew she wouldn’t be there yet, but he’s still disappointed to find
she isn’t, the metal shutters down, a solid block of silver, a moat around his
hopes, and head drooping, he turns back the way he has just come,
desultorily kicking pebbles out of his path. He ambles along, seeing little. He
reaches the end of the road, and turns towards the left where the restaurant is
situated on the other side. He stops short, though, when he sees his aunt
putting out washing on a line she has strung between the telegraph poles
framing their restaurant.

‘And where do you think you’ve been?’ she asks him, obscuring her tones, a
clothes-peg in her mouth as with both arms, she pegs sheets to the line.

  Putonghua = standard Mandarin, compulsory in all schools and by aspiring families, also spoken at
home rather than the local dialect.

‘Remember your putonghua,’ Ma Ping says, with a huge grin, feeling the
moment exactly right, knowing his aunt’s love for him, knowing that he can
take this freedom with her at this moment in this place. She looks at him
momentarily astounded at his cheek. His dimples are exposed by the pose of
his mouth, sucking his lips in a little, top lip obscuring his lower one. His eyes
are sparkling and suddenly she remembers moments from her past when her
sister would say something inflammatory just so that she would chase her,
with her eyes sparkling just like that. Even if she caught the girl and smacked
her, little Rongrong seemed to think it was still worthwhile and would laugh
and laugh, ducking out of reach, diving through impossibly small gaps and
escaping. Until the next time, that is. Bai Qiang smiles tenderly at her past,
then reaches out to swipe the little monster in her present, misses, and the
sheet she is fastening flutters to the ground.

‘Now look what you’ve made me do!’ she says, only a little exasperated.
He rushes up to help her, no sense of being in trouble, just wanting to help
her. She’s so good to his family. All the time she spends with them, helping
them, hours and hours of her time. She always stands up for his family. They
stand end to end of the line, joining her past and his present, he fastening one
corner of the sheet, she the other, and then he looks at her full in the face and
his love for her is so clear, she doesn’t know what to say. Momentarily, she
sees in him what his teacher perceives, a specialness, a loveliness, a
perception, which goes beyond her own familial bias, and reaches out
towards a sense of how wonderful it is that he is alive at all, or that any child
is. She closes and opens her eyes at him in a lingering gesture of warmth. He
is suffused by it. She nods her head, brusquely, then stoops to the washing
basket, retrieves it, and goes inside.

Ma Ping kicks around a couple of stones on the pavement for a while, until
his aunt calls him in. He looks longingly up the road again, and then pushes
through the curtain to face the morning inside.

‘12 11s are 143,’ says Ma Ping, sitting on the window-sill and looking out at
the street as it becomes busier.
‘Ping!’ says Ding Pengcheng with a slight whine in his voice. ‘Come on,
you’re supposed to be listening. I can’t help you if you don’t listen. It’s 132.’
‘Oh, is it?’ Ma Ping answers vaguely. ‘Hey, look at that man down there?’
‘Ping!’ Again the same whining tone, but he leans over the window-sill and
looks anyway. There is a man who is trying to pick up a huge white sack,
probably vegetables, and stack it on his shoulder. He gets it so far and then
the load topples back down. Then as both boys watch, he levers it so far -

there is a moment when he seems suspended, neither is the weight going up
any further, or going down - when suddenly the man loses his balance and
falls backwards. The boys roar with laughter, clapping each other on the
shoulders, before Ding Pengcheng falls back onto the floor, and Ma Ping
collapses in a heap on the window-sill.

‘What’s going on here?’ asks Ma Shipeng suddenly. Instantly the boys recover
themselves. ‘Your Aunt Bai is going to be coming up soon to see if you’ve
done enough for a break. Now don’t let us down, Ping. And Ding Pengcheng,
your father wouldn’t be happy with you wasting your time here, now would
he? Do you want me to have a talk with him later when he picks you up?’
Ding Pengcheng blinks rapidly as he always does when he’s nervous.
‘No, sir. Please don’t, sir!’ he hangs his head in despair. Another day ruined,
and so early too.
‘Well, both of you, get on with it. You’ve got at least another hour before
anything to eat. All right?’
‘Yes, Ma Shipeng!’ they chorus dully.

Ding Pengcheng sits on the stool by the table and opens his Maths book to a
new page. He is crying. Ma Ping looks at him, all their laughter so quickly
‘I’m sorry, Pengcheng,’ he says in a conciliatory tone. He feels a deep pity for
the boy.
‘It’s all right for you!’ Ding Pengcheng says bitterly. ‘No one beats you.’
‘I’ve been beaten,’ says Ma Ping, matter-of-factly.
‘Yes, but not often and not hard, and not most days.’ The child sits and stares
ahead. ‘Come on, Ma, we’ve got work to do. You heard what your brother
said. Your aunt’s on the warpath. And I don’t want to think what will happen
if she has a word about me to Father and says I am a poor student.’ He is pale
and Ma Ping feels another rush of tenderness for his friend because he has
something to look forward to only that afternoon, and his friend has so little.
He looks at him for a moment considering whether he should tell him his
secret, but some instinct draws him back from it.
‘O.K., 12 11s is 132. Right?’
‘Good! And what about 13 5s?’
Ma Ping bites his lip.
‘Great! Oh, maybe you’re learning after all. And maybe we can have a break

The restaurant is filling up when Ding Yangching arrives with his wife and
younger son for lunch. The group of fruit-distributors is in again, playing
finger-games noisily in the corner, laughing and carousing loudly. Ding

Yangching chooses a table at the other extreme of the restaurant. Ma Ping
stands at the bottom of the stairs, watching the interaction between two
people, one he loves so much, the other who fills him full of bitterness and

‘So you’re the brother,’ Ding Pengcheng is saying abruptly to Ma Shipeng,
who begins to shake his head slowly in incomprehension, and then it clicks.
‘Ah yes, Ma Ping is my brother. They’re upstairs at the moment studying.’
Ma Ping pulls himself quickly against the wall of the stairs so that he might
not be seen.
‘What are they saying?’ asks Ding Pengcheng in a heavy whisper.
‘Ssh!’ Ma Ping admonishes him, his finger on his lips. ‘Quiet and listen!’
‘So I should hope,’ replies Ding Yangching dryly. Ding Yan is sitting opposite
her husband, looking at him nervously. She knows he is very close to
discontinuing the arrangement with the studying, but as she looks around,
she sees friendly faces, kindness, and in the child’s older brother a typical
countryside openness, simplicity and lack of guile. He’s an honest man: she
can tell that at a glance. Yes, his manners aren’t very fancy and he’s probably
never traveled outside the city, but he’s a kind man and he loves his brother:
he’s financing his education, which is the duty of every good Hui brother.
Sometimes, she dares to think, her husband is too quick to condemn. She
covers this thought instantly with an admonishment to Ding Fuxin who is
making fun of a little boy sitting at a neighbouring table with his parents. The
child is dressed in a traditional red silk suit with an ornate silk cap in bright
red. He’s very small and not yet adept with his chopsticks and throws his
chopsticks with a clatter onto the floor. Instantly, his parents stop eating and
all their attention is focused on the child. The mother hastily takes a new pair
of chopsticks for the child and cajoles him into trying again, but he refuses,
his face contorting with rage. So, the father takes to feeding him himself, and
his mother strokes the boy’s head. The restaurant all turns to the table and
watches the debacle. Slowly, the boy is pacified, but while he is being calmed,
he hits out at his father trying to feed him, and the man’s only reaction is
embarrassment rather than annoyance.

Meanwhile Ding Yan is furious with her son, but doesn’t want to show it in
front of her husband. Her eyes stalk him menacingly, however, until he
notices her attention and blushes. His mother isn’t usually angry. He’s in
trouble. He stops watching the next table and sits quietly, waiting.
Ding Yangching shakes his head in disapproval at the parents.

‘Little Emperor13!’ he scorns. ‘Good job they’re only supposed to have one
child, that lot!’
Some heads nod at this and opinions are exchanged about the way in which
these parents are ruining China. The parents are clearly aware of what is
being said, and by the expressions on their faces, you can tell it hurts them,
but it doesn’t stop their indulgence of the child. He now refuses to feed
himself at all, and the mother seats him on her lap and feeds him herself.

Ding Yangching shakes his head.
‘He’ll come to no good, that one,’ he says in a loud voice, and there are
assenting mutters throughout the restaurant. He turns his head back to the
assembled group.
‘And is your aunt here?’ he asks imperiously.
‘She is, yes,’ says Ma Shipeng dryly.
There is an unspoken request from Ding Yangching in the air, but Ma Shipeng
refuses to acknowledge it, keeping his smile fixed carefully in its place.
‘Well, can we see her?’
‘Yes, I’ll tell her you’re here and then she will come and see you as soon as she
can. Would you like a large dish of noodles or small?’ he asks the man.
‘I’ll have large, and small for my wife and son. You’ve seen them before,
haven’t you?’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘This is Ding Yan, my wife.’
She nods her head meekly at his words.
‘And Fuxin, my son. He’s the clever one in the family. So, when your aunt’s
ready,’ he finishes.
Ma Shipeng smiles calmly, and goes back into the kitchen.

‘No,’ hisses Ding Pengcheng. ‘We’re supposed to be studying. If we go down
now without being asked, Father’ll get angry with me.’
But it’s too late. Ma Ping advances into the room.
‘Hello, sir,’ he says to the boy’s father, with that habitual openness, by which
anyone with any love of children would be utterly charmed. His smile is

  Han Little Emperors. This is an allusion to the fact that the one-child policy in China restricts all Han
Chinese (the major racial group, comprising a vast majority of the population) living in cities to one
child, and that the children of such marriages, especially boys, are spoilt to a ridiculous degree, so that
they become extremely difficult to manage. In the countryside, Han parents may have two children, the
rationale being that more labour is needed on the land. In cities, however, the one-child policy is rigidly
adhered to, and thus many parents want boys and when they have a boy, they spoil him unmercifully.
Ding Yangching’s comment alludes to the fact that strictures against the minorities in terms of numbers
of children are less strict. Hui people for example, can have more than one child without paying fines,
or getting into any form of State trouble. The effects of this discrimination are complex, however, as
Hui people often live in the poorest areas in the Northwest of the country, and the more children they
have, the more this poverty-cycle is perpetuated, not only in terms of economic factors, but also the
effect on educational possibilities for the children.

seraphic. He has such a prospect of joy this afternoon that he has almost an
aura of it around him. Ding Yangching is charmed despite himself.
‘Ah, it’s you, young man. Not studying?’
Ding Yan nods her head in greeting.
‘Ding Pengcheng wanted to. He’s so keen, but I had to stop for a moment.
He’s so quick at Maths, it makes my head spin. I wish I could do it like him.
He’s been explaining lots of stuff and it’s getting better. I think he’s awfully
Ding Yangching smiles in a lofty way, as if to say, well, what a nice boy, but
he doesn’t really understand much, does he? Family will out! The man is
mollified and he smiles at the child. Then out of the corner of his eye he sees
Ding Pengcheng limping up to the table.
‘Good afternoon, Father,’ he says, his eyes only slightly avoiding his father’s
penetrating gaze.
‘Sit down, Boy!’ he says, and the child seats himself next to his mother with
his little brother on the other side. Ma Ping notices how the one tone of boy 14
sounds so different from his mouth than when Aunt Bai is annoyed with him.
When she says it, he can still hear the love, like a cushion under a fall, but
with Ding , there is only a harsh landing onto stones and rocks, which make
his spirits bleed.

‘I think you’ve done enough this morning,’ the man pronounces. ‘Ma Ping
tells me you’ve worked hard.’
Ding Pengcheng bites his lip in confusion.
‘Um, yes. We were doing Maths.’
‘And what about English?’
‘We did that for three hours yesterday morning, sir,’ says Ma Ping gently, his
eyes fixed warmly on the man’s growing frown. It smoothes down, almost in
response to the child’s softness. Ding Yan notices this ability and is awed by it.
How can a child do this? But Ma Ping doesn’t know quite what he does, he
simply does it. Like his absorption in art, there are moments when everything
fits into place, like a living jigsaw, the pieces of his life melding into meaning.
His particular gifts consist in being able to represent such insights, although
he is possessed of no conscious wisdom. At these times, he is simply able to
glide through mishap and awkwardness like a penguin that on land is so
unseemly, but once in the water is to a rock as molten lava. He transmutes
event into destiny, becoming the synchronicity of the universe itself: that is
his genius.

  Nanhaizi = boy, but often just the first character nan is used. It has a rising tone, which can make it
appear peremptory when expressed in a particular way.

The father smiles at him without the usual sarcasm and boundaries. In that
moment he feels his inner boundaries corroding, dissolving into acquiescence,
but then he is instantly on his guard. He doesn’t know what about. He knows
that he feels humble in the boy’s presence and this makes him afraid. He is
afraid of humility, because it shows weakness and weakness must be
eradicated. He doesn’t understand that he stands like an exhibit in a living
museum of Ma Ping’s insights.
‘Be quiet, child!’ he says suddenly to his younger son, who is playing with his
chopsticks on the table in front of him.
‘Father, are we going to see our aunt this afternoon?’
‘We are!’ says Ding Yangching abruptly, as if the change of subject is
unwelcome. ‘And perhaps Ma Ping would like to come along as well.’ He
wasn’t aware that he was going to say this, and instantly regrets it. He is,
however, conscious of conferring a great honour on the child, and certainly
his own children are surprised.
‘Oh, er, how kind of you!’ Ma Ping enthuses. ‘Um, but I have some studying
to do this afternoon, and if I don’t do it now I’ll get behind and of course, I
mustn’t do that, must I?’

He is no longer the wise little child, who sees too far beyond his years, he is
just a frightened and desperate little boy who perceives his magic-time being
taken away by the wicked sorcerer without any chance of redemption. He
stands immobilised by the thought and time stops for him. He stares at Ding
Yangching without blinking for what seems so long. Please don’t let him
argue with me. Please. Please! I don’t want to go with them.
‘You should take a leaf out of his book, Pengcheng,’ says Ding Yangching
with a nod of recommendation to the boy and raising his eyebrows at his son.
‘Yes, sir!’ he says, looking quizzically at Ma Ping. He didn’t mention anything
about having any more studying to do before. But, of course, he’s lying, isn’t
he? He doesn’t have any studying to do at all: he just doesn’t want to spend
more time with me, does he? He looks down at the table disconsolately. Oh,
why must I be so ugly and stupid?
Ma Ping, unusually, misses his friend’s expression in his euphoria at being so
easily let off the hook. And anyway, Huang Hongmei approaches the table
with a tray of noodles, one also for Ma Ping, who consents to join them
willingly for now.

‘And you can clear up that table before you go,’ says Bai Qiang as a parting
shot as she goes into the kitchen with a heavy tray of crockery and chopsticks,
but Ma Ping uses the opportunity to dash up the stairs, retrieve the rolled-up
sheet of painted paper in its cardboard roll, and ricocheting downstairs again,

bursts with all his youthful vitality out into the warmth of an early spring
afternoon. His heart is beating fit to burst. Dodging a tricycle here, and a
couple of pedestrians there, he runs swiftly over the road and into
Government Street, nearly tipping over a small stall of vegetables, a few
onions and peppers rolling into the dust as he hares past. Huang Weiping
shakes his head at the retreating figure (that calls an apology over his
shoulder, but doesn’t stop for even a moment) bending low into the dust to
retrieve his wares. That Ma Ping is a little devil. He wonders idly, if his
brother knows where he is. And where is he going at this time with that
carboard-roll with the paper inside?

A few yards before the shop, the child stops, panting breathlessly, biting his
lip, his little chest heaving painfully. He slows down his breathing
deliberately. It won’t do if he can’t say a proper greeting to The Beautiful
Lady. For a minute he forces himself to stand quietly, calming himself down,
oblivious of the crowds around him, the calls from vendors, selling their
wares from bicycles as they cruise the streets looking for customers, or from
stall-holders, or the eager chatter from college-students arm-in-arm walking
in a body towards the market-place.

Then, slowly, his breathing pacified, but not the beating of his heart, he
approaches the shop. He gulps at the door-handle, his pressure on it feeling
slippery and unco-ordinated. He pushes open the door. And there she is,
sitting at the little table at the back, helping Ma Rui on with her scarlet jacket.
The shop is comfortably warm, the heat from the stove radiating a
friendliness and welcome that Ma Ping feels is especially for him. There are
two students standing near the bookcases at the side towards the back,
chatting eagerly about a possible purchase. She is wearing her white cap, and
a wisp of hair has escaped it and curls down to her shoulder. As she sits and
ministers to her child, the light sparkles in her hair, and against the wall
behind creates an aura of yellow around her figure. He looks at her, unable to
hide his absorption and then she raises her head and looks at him. He turns
away and focuses his attention on a stack of books near the door, turning red,
and knowing it. He kicks his heels, feeling clumsy. Whatever can I say to her?
She won’t want me to bother her now. Oh, but she’s so beautiful!

‘Have you come to buy something, Ma Ping?’ she says. ‘I’m glad to see you.’
She is standing close by her side and he hadn’t even noticed that she was
approaching him.
‘Er no, I, um, I just wanted to…’ She’s glad to see him!

A student approaches Ma Li Rui to pay for a Band Four15 examination primer,
and during the transaction Ma Ping finds his hands horribly awkward and his
feet clumsy and in the way. He looks down at his scuffed shoes. I should have
cleaned them, he thinks self-reproachfully.

Ma Rui approaches the older boy and looks up at him.
‘What are you doing here? You’re the boy my mummy bought that ice-lolly
for!’ she claims, taking his hand in hers. Ma Ping smiles at her. She is so
trusting. A lovely person. Like her mother. He scans her face for similarities
and finds it in her turn of her mouth and the delicate dimples in her cheeks.
‘What did you want?’ Ma Li Rui continues gently, noticing with pleasure his
kindness to her daughter. And she warms to him again as she did the
previous week. ‘And what’s that under your arm?’ she asks him. ‘Ma Rui,
don’t bother him!’
‘Oh, she isn’t!’ says Ma Ping, and at that Ma Rui looks triumphantly at her
mother as if to say, see, he likes me. He wants to play with me! She tugs at his
hand and he follows her to the back of the shop to show him her first
counting book. She has just begun kindergarten and she has a colouring-book
with all the lovely numbers in different colours. Ma Ping sits down on the
stool, carefully placing his roll of paper on the shelf behind him and Ma Rui
climbs instantly onto his lap. Ma Li Rui is enchanted. Her daughter is usually
so diffident around strangers. What a charmer this child is! She bestows on
him a look of fondness it is only a pity he doesn’t witness. He bends over the
child as she shows him her facility with reading numbers and he praises her
kindly. She glows with pleasure.
‘Can he be in our family?’ says Ma Rui, and both the others laugh. There is a
tinkle at the door as it opens to allow another customer in.
‘Ah, Yi Hongmei,’ says Ma Li Rui. ‘Have you come for that book you
‘Yes,’ replies the young woman. ‘And how is Ma Rui today? And Ma Binbin?’
‘I’m fine!’ says Ma Rui categorically, as she nudges Ma Ping to pay her
attention, as she turns the page again. He laughs, despite his nervousness.
‘And so is Ma Binbin, thank you for asking, Yi Hongmei. How is your English
‘Oh, slowly, I’m afraid. I’m not a good student, but Anna is a good teacher, so
we are making progress.’
‘She seems very kind, so that’s good. That’ll be 78 yuan.’
‘Oh dear, that’s rather expensive,’ says Yi Hongmei, but takes out a hundred
yuan note and hands it to Ma Li Rui, who opens the till and retrieves the

  Band Four and also Band Six = the names given to levels of examination, which all Chinese students
of English are required to pass if they want to enhance their career options. Many bookshops rely on
the revenue for such primers, and they are widely bought, particularly by students whose expertise is
felt to be lacking.

change, handing it over, but her attention already drifting back to the tableau
beside her.
‘Please give my best wishes to your mother,’ says Ma Li Rui to complete the
transaction, turning back to Yi Hongmei, and then the customer is gone with
a tinkle of the doorbell. Ma Ping is studying the book closely, but his every
nerve is taut with awareness of Ma Li Rui’s presence.

She is reaching across behind him for the roll of paper. He looks up a moment
and then again concentrates on the book. He hears the paper being unrolled,
every crinkle, every crease as it brings his drawing towards the light. Towards
his doom.

But there is silence. No response at all. Oh, this is much worse! Ma Rui takes
his finger and pulls it towards different numbers on the page.
‘Wu,’ she says, as his finger alights on a five.
‘Mm’, he says abstractedly.
‘Oh, Ma Ping!’ she says at last, and he looks up into her face, his own a study
in tension, but then he sees her expression and his own features light up with
thousands of years of insight and relief that life has such realities in it. Ma Rui
is momentarily distracted from her book, but her mother’s expression doesn’t
concern her, so she pulls Ma Ping’s roughly towards another number.
‘Shi!’16 she pronounces in her heavy Guyuanese accent, the ‘sh’ sound losing
the softness and instead having a sibilant ‘s’ instead.

He stares at Ma Li Rui. Her eyes are now turned to the picture in front of her,
a portrait of herself drawn from the largeness of this child’s love for her, and
she feels tears forming in her eyes. She is speechless in the presence of his
vision of her, and feels humbled in its wakefulness. The boy has captured
what she recognises about herself, her large Hui eyes, and their curling lashes,
her slightly dimpled cheeks. All her features she can recognise with delight,
but then as she looks closely, she realises that he has seen into her, as a pond
becomes clear when the ripples have subsided. And she sees her own sadness
mirrored back to her, and with eyes of anguish she turns to the little boy.
‘How did you…?’ Her tears spill over at this point. Ma Rui catches the mood,
and instantly becomes tearful herself, wriggles down off Ma Ping’s knees and
runs over to her mother and buries her head into the woman’s knees.
Ma Ping is appalled at her reaction. He meant it to show his love, his
admiration. Why is she reacting like this?
He picks the discarded picture from the floor by her side, and rolls it up
‘I’ll er, I’ll um…’

     Shi = ten.

She straightens up immediately, disengaging herself from her daughter’s
clinging hands.
‘Hush now, Ma Rui,’ she admonishes her, and settles her down again with
her book. Ma Rui is about to remonstrate, but sees her mother’s expression,
and is immediately subdued, taking a crayon and drawing in the blank
‘Shi!’ she says again, harshly, peremptorily, checking quickly that such
naughtiness has escape checking this time. It has. Her mother is staring at the
nice boy. She turns back to her numbers and begins to recite her lesson.

‘How did you do this?’ Ma Li Rui says, sitting down on a chair by one of the
bookcases. She draws the child close to her and stands him in front of her legs,
from where he looks at her wonderingly.
‘I wanted to please you,’ he begins sadly, and she is touched anew by his pure
love. She reaches out and strokes his hair back from his forehead. Her fingers
feel warm through to his soul, and he wants to throw himself into her arms
and beg her to look after him forever, to put school and study and Ding
Pengcheng and the poor child’s cruel father all behind him. Just for one day.
Just for today, look after me, and let me stay here. Don’t make me go back.

Her eyes are shining with tears as he looks up into her face.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, feeling as if his heart will break.
‘It’s just the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. No one has ever given
me a present like this.’
Ma Ping stands stupidly, unable to think, move, even feel. So, does she like it
or not? But why is she crying? He can never paint again if that’s the effect his
work has on others. He is lost now in his own little world of self-abnegation
and confusion about how he might endure such a life, when he realises she is
speaking again.
‘No one told me you could do this.’
‘No one knows. Well, not really. Teacher Deng has an idea, but he doesn’t
want me to do it.’

Ma Li Rui looks automatically over at her daughter to check what she’s doing
and then turns back to the earnest little fellow standing so solemn in front of
her, like a child called upon to perform a lesson he hasn’t prepared. She sees
every fibre of him yearning for her acceptance of his gift, and she wonders if
anyone has ever cared so much about her opinion. This causes her to close her
eyes against the loneliness that threatens to overwhelm her, and she suddenly
draws Ma Ping close to her in an embrace. Her arms enfold him as the sun
breathes hope into the earth, and for moments, Ma Ping only knows that this
is happiness. She holds him tightly and kisses the top of his head. Her tears
fall on his bushy hair, and he feels them through to his scalp like blessings.

Mastering her emotion, she gently pushes him away.
‘You’re a very special boy,’ she says to him, lovingly and warmly. Ma Rui
looks up at this point, wondering whether this concerns her, but although
there are some strong emotions happening, she doesn’t think they matter to
her, so she turns the page and continues with her studying.

Ma Ping feels almost lightheaded now. She reaches out her hand for the
‘You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he says, conscious of a feeling of unease
that he should tell anything, which collaborates in a lie. But after what
Teacher Deng said the other day, he has to be particularly careful, doesn’t he?
‘Have you done any more?’ she asks, looking at it again, this time with
greater dispassion.
‘Not of you, no.’
‘No, I mean any more pictures.’
‘Yes, why? Are you going to tell?’
He stands there, vulnerable and impaled on her power.
‘I think you should say. This picture is brilliant. They’d be so proud.’
‘No they wouldn’t. Teacher Deng…’ And he gets no further, instead he begins
to cry.
Ma Li Rui sighs, softly, putting her head a little on one side to gauge his deep
worry, smiling a little at the furrows on his brow.
‘Well, I won’t say anything for the moment.’ She looks from the picture to the
child and frowns in concentration at what she is seeing. ‘But this is just
amazing, Ping.’ She shakes her head in wonderment at the contours, his
capturing not only of her physical features, but her inner self too.
He smiles a smile to lighten the darkness of a dungeon. Her use of his given
name is a singular act of intimacy and fondness, and at last he knows that she
cares about him. That he is special to her. On that he can last for many a
boring day of study and drill and repetition. And his teacher spying on him
every moment in class as well.

Whatever happens after today, at this moment, he is perfectly, perfectly

Chapter Six: March 21st
If you look closely at the far horizon in the early spring morning, there is a
pinkish hue, like a brush of a moth’s wing, so delicate, it is hard to believe it
lends the houses, hills and people definition and outline. Yet it’s elusive. If
you stare too long at the colour itself, it fades, and you are left with only a
memory of pink in a landscape of relentless sand. At some distance, Farmer
Ma tends his great ox, swishing his stick at its bony flanks, the animal

swaying its large head as it ambles forward to its designated workplace for
the day. The figures lend the hills perspective, as their uniformity stretches
away into the unseen distances of a dryly-tired landscape. The sky is a breath
of whiteness, dreaming of clouds to heal the parched earth, to wash away the
doubts and despairs of a people resigned to poverty. The few trees stand
witness in this land to its promise of water, stand in judgement over its
failures, stand as doorkeepers to a more fertile valley of imagination. And
Dongyue Mountain slumbers restlessly on.

Ma Ping holds the painting away from him, cocking his head to one side,
slightly narrowing his eyes. He likes it and smiles. He sighs heavily with
satisfaction, wondering what the time is. He looks again at the painting. That
bit with the ox is good: I like the tail swishing. Even at this distance you can
see it. He nods again, biting his lip. Where to put it until it’s properly dry? It
must be time to go to school now. It’s good - this time to study before school!
He smirks, with barely a consciousness of self-deceit. The top of the high
cupboard should do, with a comment to Ma Shipeng about not disturbing
some homework or something, but he doesn’t usually go up there during the
day: he’s far too busy.

He picks up his schoolbag and clatters downstairs. Huang Hongmei is
cleaning tables and smiles at him as he runs past her into the kitchen. Bai
Qiang is wiping her hands on a cloth at the sink, and shakes her head at him.
‘I was just coming up for you!’ she says, and he gulps with the realization of
what a few moments can mean.
‘Oh, well, I’m here, and anyway, when I study, I really need peace and quiet.’
Bai Qiang looks at him closely. He reddens under her scrutiny and turns his
face away, grabbing with his mind the steaming plate of noodles on the
‘For me!’ he exclaims with a genuine glee.
‘Yes, go on, take them. And don’t tramp your muddy boots all over this floor.
Did you clean them after school yesterday?’
‘Um, no aunt. Sorry.’ He grins at her with conscious charm and pushes aside
the curtain into the restaurant. She shakes her head and carries on preparing
some onions for the breakfast and mid-morning rush.
Ma Shipeng has come back from wherever he was, and is offering Huang
Hongmei a cup of tea. Strange. She hasn’t been there long this morning.
Rather early for a break, isn’t it? Ma Ping shrugs and takes his noodles to the
stove, puts them on the hot metallic surface, eases off his schoolbag from his
back, sits down, takes up the chopsticks, cracks them apart, and delves into
his breakfast with relish.

‘Ma Shipeng,’ he calls out, ‘I’ve put a big piece of paper on the top of the
cupboard. It’s a bit wet. We had to do some special homework. Can you please
not touch it?’
‘You see it’s for school,’ Ma Ping continues, feeling worried now and unable
to stop. ‘And if it gets messed up, well Mr. Deng…’
‘I said O.K., silly!’ replies his brother, turning back to his companion and
shaking his head at the incomprehensibility of youth.
Ma Ping has lost his appetite now, and his chopsticks clatter on the stove-top
as he pushes his stool back and, picking up his bag, shouts a zai jian17 and
rushes through the curtain into a day which isn’t tinged with pink at all, but
grey and subdued.

Today he’ll go and meet Ding Pengcheng and they’ll walk to school together.
He kicks a stone ahead of him for several metres, his eyes turned down to the
pot-holes in the road and turns into a side-street, a short-cut to Pengcheng’s
home. Tunelessly he whistles as he walks, kicking stones and pebbles,
reflecting on his picture from this morning. He is pleased with it, so pleased
with it maybe he can offer it to the Beautiful Lady. Perhaps if it isn’t a portrait,
she won’t cry. He doesn’t think he can bear to see her cry. Last time, it was as
if someone had taken a knife and wielded it without mercy at his soul. He felt
the rips and gougings in all his memories, in all his needs and desires and
dreams and felt it in his heart until he thought he would rather have no heart
at all.

Suddenly, he’s aware of a cry. Before he is conscious it is Pengcheng’s, he is
running towards the noise. He doesn’t reason. He moves with the agility of a
wish and before he knows anything really, he has struck out at the gaggle of
limbs, ripping those, which don’t belong, away from his friend. He is the
avenging angel – it is a sight to behold: passionate, his eyes flaring with fury,
he pummels the bully with his fists. Although much slighter than the larger
boy, his passion leaves any witness in no doubt who will win. Momentarily,
Ma Ping is shocked to see it’s Zhang Chen Hui tumbling in the dust, but he
ignores his misgivings, and rushes to help his friend. Ding Pengcheng is
crying, and Ma Ping is aware of being a little irritated by that. He turns to
Zhang Chen Hui.
‘You pick on someone your own size, Zhang!’ he says, his mouth trembling
with anger.
Zhang’s eyes flash with hatred. He picks himself up from the ground,
brushing off the dust, keeping his eyes closely on Ma Ping’s who doesn’t
flinch, but wants to. ‘I’ll get you for this!’

     Zai jian = goodbye.

‘No you won’t!’ says Ma Ping, slightly less sure of his ground, but holding
onto it, suddenly reminded incongruously of Farmer Ma’s ox lumbering its
way to duty. He helps Pengcheng to his feet.
‘And I’ll get you too, you little bastard!’ Zhang pokes his finger impotently at
the ungainly child cowering slightly behind his friend. ‘You see if I don’t.
There won’t be a bloody corner for you to hide in and…’
‘Get LOST!’ screams Ma Ping with such force that even Zhang is surprised by
it. Ma Ping picks up a rock and levels it in his hand, weighing it up, looking at
Zhang through narrowed eyes.
‘NOW!’ Ma Ping is even surprised at his own rage. He feels a loathing of his
own deceit, of being forced to hide his drawing, like this morning. Of Mr.
Deng. In fact this hatred can encompass everyone: his aunt who never lets
him be and his brother for sitting around with that Huang woman instead of
talking to him, and forcing him to tell lies about his drawing. And his sister
for not caring about his secret. For not caring enough about him. This
realization brings the tears to his eyes. He hates everything. He levels the rock
and throws it. It glances off Zhang’s temple. The bully is thrown back in
horror, and immediately turns tail and runs away shouting imprecations
against the pair of them, and holding his hand to his face to prevent the flow
of blood. Ma Ping stands in the amphitheatre of his own defeat, shaking,
feeling as if he is surrounded by disapprobation, by disappointment, by
dislike, and then he begins to cry.

Ding Pengcheng is horrified. What on earth has happened here? He is more
terrified of Ma Ping’s behaviour than of the bully’s. Zhang Chen Hui has
always been a nasty boy. Nothing new there! But this! He swallows
uncomfortably. He sees Ma Ping looking at him closely and drops his eyes at
what he recognises there: accusations, disquiet – and something else that the
unfortunate child cannot bear. It’s disgust.

‘Are you all right?’ Ding Pengcheng asks tentatively, knowing he must seize
back Ma Ping’s good opinion, but not knowing how.
Ma Ping nods his head slowly.
‘Yes, fine. Stop fussing!’
‘I’m not fussing. You were really brave,’ he says, trying hard to establish
contact. He realises, with a sharp shock that he’s afraid of his only friend now,
and the realization is bitter and lonely.
‘Sorry,’ he mutters submissively. ‘Thank you for coming to my rescue.’
‘Oh, stop going on about it, will you!’ Ma Ping is angrily brushing his tears
away, striding ahead in front of the poor lad, who tries, grotesquely, to trot to
keep up with him, but his loping stride isn’t a match for his friend. Ma Ping
seems to be sailing along, but Pengcheng recognises hatred when he’s near it,

and this brings tears to his eyes, scalding tears of self-pity, but also anger,
which he pushes down, down, lest he show it and further antagonize Ma Ping.

He feels so utterly alone now. He was always so proud that this clever boy
wanted anything to do with him at all, so the loss of his regard is too much for
him, and he falls back slightly, his mouth set in a frown, looking ahead at Ma
Ping wistfully. The young artist knows this, but cannot stop striding his anger
away. Ding Pengcheng continues to limp faithfully in his wake. A glimmer of
pity touches Ma Ping unaware, and he slows down, allowing the other to
reach his side gratefully, feeling that he’s being given another chance
although he doesn’t know quite why Ma Ping was angry with him about in
the first place, or why he is now relenting.

Ma Ping stops and turns to him. His tears have left smears on his face and
Ding Pengcheng wants to tell him, but doesn’t want the child snapping at him
again, so remains silent, waiting for him to speak first, so he can follow his
‘What’s first lesson for you?’ Ma Ping begins, as they approach the school-
‘Maths,’ Ding Pengcheng replies gratefully.
‘I’ve got English with Teacher Deng. I’m on duty today.’
‘Really? That’s an honour.’
‘Can I, um…’ Pengcheng hesitates, ‘see you after exercises?’
‘Well, you usually do!’ says Ma Ping rather acerbically.
Ding Pengcheng smiles nervously and retreats again.
‘We’d better go, then,’ he says glumly.
Ma Ping immediately starts walking away towards his classroom. Ding
Pengcheng looks after him, tears forming in his eyes, desperately wanting to
shout something after him that will make his old friend come back. But Ma
Ping is entering the building. The ugly child wishes he could be anywhere but
here. He scuffs his feet into the dust and looks up, tears brimming. His heart
hardens. Just another person he can no longer trust. With the
acknowledgement of this truth, his burden is strangely eased a little: he can be
as he was before and nothing has changed. Feelings of resentment simmer
now, and slowly, he walks into class.

‘Who’s on duty today?’
‘I am, Sir, says Ma Ping, looking straight ahead.
‘Then make your report, Ma,’ says Deng, his eyes narrowing at the sight of his
favourite’s surly tones, and detecting the traces of tears on his face.
‘Today only one student is absent. His name is Zhang …’
‘Her name is…’ interrupts Teacher Deng.

‘Her name is,’ Ma Ping says, insinuating into the corrected syllable a degree of
contempt, which the teacher has never heard from him before.
‘Zhang Mingmei. The weather today is warm for Spring. It is…’ and he stops.
He’s at home again, sitting in his beloved window-seat, looking at his
wonderful picture, with hues of pink. And suddenly, his anger, his hatred
and all the feelings of the past quarter of an hour, dissipate, and he feels such
anguish at his treatment of his friend, and his feelings about his family. He
begins to cry, noiselessly, but copiously. His breathing staggers and abruptly,
he sits down, laying his head on his arms and sobbing without any thought of
where he is. The despair he feels reaches unknown places within that frighten
the little boy. He didn’t know feelings like this were possible.

And as he sobs, he sees all the things he ever cared about receding before him,
tantalizing him with their presence, before disappearing forever. He sees his
parents waving goodbye to their hopes for their scholar-son, just as in a
tableau, arms raised in valediction at the isolated railway-station in Guyuan:
his aunt is standing without waving, her mouth set in defiance, his sister
weeping with the inevitability of his departure, little Ma Hui standing silent,
looking forlornly on, and various family and friends gathered to mourn his
leaving; his stern grandmother, Li Jincai, with her black Hui cap and long
black robes stands quietly next to her husband, Li Jiangtao, who raises his
hand once only in farewell; and there’s Teacher Deng standing at the edge of
the family-group, his wise face saddened but stoical; and in the distance is his
headmaster as well, Old Gao. And there’s Ma Li Rui too, not waving, just
watching calmly, without expression. And Gao is just staring, distant, cold as
the train starts to pull away from the platform. And his brother is nowhere to
be seen at all. Ma Ping is overwhelmed with a sense of loss and the realization
that he will never see any of them again. As the train moves slowly, oh so
slowly, out of the station, he desperately seeks a window from which he can
wave to his past life, running up and down the corridor in a vain attempt, but
passengers are standing in his way surrounded by their luggage and he is too
shy to ask them to move, and it’s too late anyway. And so the opportunity is
lost and he is alone.

And then he feels Ding Pengcheng’s despair as well, the despair he has caused
him, as he stands alone in the playground unable to muster the courage to be
angry with him. And then in a different tableau, he sees The Beautiful Lady
again, crying at what he tried to do for her, when all he wanted to do was
love her. His gift is a curse, not a blessing. He wishes he‘d never found out he
could paint at all. His little fists thump the desk.

Teacher Deng is horrified at such a public spectacle. Obliquely aware of the
possibility of his own implication in Ping’s feelings, he asks the monitor to

take over the lesson, number 35, and going over to Ma Ping’s desk, he puts
his arm around the child and asks him to go with him. The children stare,
particularly in their surprise that their teacher isn’t angry with Ma Ping, but
then it’s clear the child is his favourite, everyone says so. But fancy Teacher
Deng not giving the child a lecture! Any other child and he would have
reprimanded him fiercely. Perhaps he’ll do it outside instead.

Ma Ping stumbles to his feet, hardly knowing what he’s doing, and together
they leave the room. The monitor drones on and the children rush to the
window to see what’s going to happen, but they are disappointed when the
monitor reminds them of their duty, and they file dejectedly back to their
places. Anyway, Teacher Deng and Ma Ping have gone to the teacher’s room
on the next floor. Little Tian and Chen Baoqing exchange worried glances,
each trying to signal with their facial expressions what the other might know.
A shrug of the shoulders from each convinces them they’ll have to wait. The
monitor shouts at the class to be silent and the lesson resumes with the
recitation in unison of the questions and answers from this part of the course.

Upstairs Ma Ping is still crying, but more fitfully now. He is shown to a chair.
No one else is in the room and it’s warm and comfortable. Teacher Deng sits
next to him on a padded stool and draws it up to the lad’s legs.
‘What’s going on, Ma? You were crying like a girl. Whatever possessed you?
Have you no pride, boy?’
Back to ‘boy’ and the family-name again, Ma Ping thinks, but it doesn’t bother
him. He doubts if anything will again.
‘Ping.’ The single syllable is like a caress, and the child begins to cry again,
despite his teacher’s deprecations of his tears. He thought he’d cried himself
out, but the delicacy of his feelings is so precarious, that the slightest kindness
reduces him at once to this quivering state.
‘Dear Ping, are you ill?’
A shake of the head in answer. Another audible sob.
‘Can you tell me why you’re crying?’
Another shake of the head, but less certain this time. He sniffs a couple of
times and the teacher gives him a piece of coarse tissue. Ping blows his nose
noisily and then plays with the tissue awkwardly, not knowing what to do
with his hands. Teacher Deng looks at the confirmation of his fears and feels,
strangely, a small relief in the vindication.
‘Did something happen at home?’
Another shake, but even smaller.
‘So something happened at home?’
A more vigorous shake.
‘Look, Ma, I’m not playing guessing games with you. Now did something
happen at home or not?’

Ma Ping looks up at this point, straight into his teacher’s eyes, and the man is
momentarily jolted by the strength of the child’s feelings. His eyes are full of
tears, and the man can see pleading as well as anger in them. He shifts
uncomfortably on his stool and decides to try another tactic.
‘No. Sir!’ Ma Ping says, just audibly.
Head droops again.
Teacher Deng stokes his chin thoughtfully.
‘I know that what happened last week was difficult for you.’
The head flashes up at this, but instantly turns down again. Teacher Deng
feels encouraged.
‘And I’m sure that it must seem unfair to you. You know, about your abilities.
‘Zhang Chen Hui hit my friend on the way to school and I punched him and
he fell and I was glad!’ Ma Ping interrupts him suddenly, all in a rush, as if
the words are tumbling out of him. He looks straight at his teacher now, his
eyes flashing hatred. ‘I hate him. He’s a bully.’
‘Oh! And that’s all?’
Ma Ping snorts with derision.
‘Isn’t that enough?’

But this is going too far and as the words escape him, he knows he has been
rude. Again. Last time, his teacher forgave him. This time?
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, not adding the word, sir, instinctively approaching
Teacher Deng as the man who loves this child, who will forgive him, if he is
loved in return. Ma Ping knows this without knowing, and looks imploringly
into the man’s eyes. He recognises that somewhere in their relationship is a
bargain, that the man will only love him if he is something he wants him to be.
This knowledge, subliminal and obscure, acts nevertheless as a check on the
child’s openness.
Teacher Deng sighs.
‘Where did this happen?’
‘Near Ding Pengcheng’s house. But I sorted him, Sir, and I don’t think he’ll do
it again. And I was angry with Ding Pengcheng too, and I don’t know why
now. But he was stupid the way he just lay there on the ground. It was
pathetic. And…’
‘All right, enough, Ma. It’s time we got back to class.’ Teacher Deng frowns as
he gets to his feet. Maybe the child is disturbed. He needs stricter controls. He
needs to have a schedule he can stick to. All this anger and superfluous
emotion. No, he knows he’s right now. The child needs a careful taking in
hand. He needs to talk to the headteacher and also to the boy’s parents.
Perhaps he should have insisted on talking to them before.
‘Right Ma, get back to your lessons now and I’ll be there in one moment.’

Ma Ping leaves the room to return to class, leaving a thoughtful teacher
behind him.

School-exercises take place every day at 9.50. at the school. All the children go
out onto the school’s large square, where a tannoy-system is wired up to all
four corners, and music blares out to encourage the children’s vigour and
uniform movements. Deng Qin and Gao Jiang Tao, the headteacher, are
standing on the balcony overlooking the parade. Mr. Gao is a small man with
bright, sharp eyes, wearing his habitual dark suit and tie, which is shabby
with age. His shrewdness consists in being able always to see a longer-term
perspective than many of his colleagues, and indeed his family. Working or
living with him can be frustrating, but over time, people realise the soundness
of his judgement and his peaceable nature. He is much admired as a wise
scholar and a shrewd man.

Ma Ping stretches out his arms listlessly at the opening invitation of the music,
and then bends to his task obediently. Gao Jiang Tao watches him carefully.
‘He’s been an averagely good student, hasn’t he, Deng?’ He turns to the taller
man with an enquiring gaze.
‘Well, I wouldn’t call him average, Sir,’ the man replies with a small smile and
a consciousness of his own insights, keeping his own eyes studiously on the
child below.
Gao smiles and nods his head.
‘I see,’ he says elliptically. ‘Well, I would suggest a lot of exercise fresh air,
study, and his family’s love. I think that’s the formula, don’t you?’
There is a pause.
‘Perhaps, Sir.’
Gao raises his eyebrows. Below, the music changes into a more strident tone,
and the students raise their hands quickly above their heads, clap once and
then dip down to clap them at the ground, repeating the whole exercise many
times. Ma Ping’s own contribution is now not listless, but indeed, he seems to
have picked up quite a pace. Gao studies him carefully. That funny little lad
next to him. The one with the limp.
‘Who’s that?’ he asks his companion, pointing down into the crowd.
‘Ah, that’s er, Ding, Sir. The one Ma protected in the fight. He’s in Wang’s
‘Mm. Ugly little sod, isn’t he?’
Deng laughs as he watches Ding Pengcheng lurching to the music, unable to
be agile like the others, his clumsiness never more apparent than at this time
of day at school.

‘So, we’re agreed, then,’ Gao says, merely for emphasis. He is used to having
his own way in any decision of this kind. He has come to trust his own way of
doing things. He has found that it usually works.
‘About what, Sir?’ Teacher Deng prevaricates.
Gao raises his eyebrows at the mild-mannered teacher before him, but his
actions only confirm the headteacher’s own suspicions about his colleague’s
Deng sees the raised eyebrows.
‘Er, yes Sir,’ he says mutedly. Both know that the other disagrees, but nothing
will be said. It is as if a law has been passed and events will now take that
inevitable pathway.

‘I don’t think I can carry on much longer,’ shouts Ding Pengcheng across to
Ma Ping breathlessly as they near the end of their exercises for that day.
‘Me neither!’ replies his friend, swinging his arms in harmony with the others,
and noting Pengcheng’s discontinuity with the others in his line.
Ding Pengcheng feels elated. His friend is back again. His earlier resolves are
shelved, but there is a tiny shadow between him and Ma Ping. It is eating
slowly into his feelings about him, casting a doubt where before there had
been no thought at all. But he’s happy for now. He lopes into the final section
of their exercises, almost relishing his disjointed actions. Ma Ping smiles at
him, and, as can happen through this child regard, Ding Pengcheng feels
loved in his deformity. As if it simply isn’t there for Ma Ping. His friend can
laugh at him like no other, because in his laughter, there is love, there is
humanity, there is kindness and acceptance. It is the laughter of a flock of
swallows dipping and diving effortlessly towards the sun on a hot day in

The tannoy stops abruptly. They have five minutes before the bell. ‘Next
class?’ Ding Pengcheng asks cheerfully.
‘Chinese now!’ Ma Ping groans and his friend smiles.
‘We’ve been through all that work,’ he says, ‘so don’t worry. You did a good
job the other day, remember? And that stuff about the Tang Dynasty is not
that difficult.’
‘No, I suppose you’re right, and thanks, Pengcheng. I am sorry about this
morning.’ Embarrassed, he kicks his heels in the dust.
‘Sorry?’ Ding Pengcheng’s cup of happiness threatens to overflow. ‘Oh no,’ he
gushes. ‘You helped me.’ He can’t remember when he has felt this happy
‘Oh, you know,’ says Ma Ping, not really clear now about what has happened
that morning. It all seems so far away. And anyway, better not to think of it.
The idea of being entirely alone grips him again and he pushes the thought
away consciously with ideas about Chinese and facing Teacher Deng.

Especially as he saw him talking to Mr. Gao. But Mr. Gao is a good man. A
wise man. Ma Ping smiles shakily at his friend, who is touched with what he
thinks is Ma Ping’s contrition and he pats him gruffly on the arm. ‘You’ll be
fine!’ he says, as if he is the great champion conferring possibility, graciously,
on his friend.

Ma Ping arranges to walk home with him for lunch, and then Little Tian and
Chen Baoqing wander over from their exercise-squares, greet Ding and walk
off with Ma Ping into the building. They are all eager to find out what
happened before, and there hasn’t been a chance to discover what occurred
after he left with teacher Deng, but Ma Ping is evasive and both boys,
sensitive to their new friend, don’t push him too hard.

Ding Pengcheng smiles after them, turning to the computer building where
his lesson takes place, until he sees Zhang Chen Hui staring at him from a
near wall. He is standing alone. Just looking. Nothing else. Calmly watching.
His arms folded, his feet crossed in ease and contempt. This cold deadliness
chills Ding Pengcheng to the bone. He stops for a moment, but then hastens
on his way as he hears the bell.

Ma Ping listens attentively to the class. His classmates are still wondering
what happened to him and several of them chatter, casting glances at him
every now and again, but as Mr. Deng is impenetrable and Ma Ping is silent,
no one is the wiser. Gradually, the lesson is underway. Ma Ping begins to
thaw towards Teacher Deng. The man tells such a good story. He listens
enthralled at the man’s diction, his clear putonghua, his erudition. He closes
his eyes in bliss. He loves to hear such stories. They stir his blood and make
him eager to express his own creativity. He is swept away to a timeless place
where maidens and fighters are held in thrall by wicked spirits and saved
only at the last moment by the gods. Ah, such adventures. Ma Ping opens his
eyes to close scrutiny from Teacher Deng.
‘Ma Ping? Your answer?’
Ma Ping shakes his head. ‘Sorry, Sir, I wasn’t listening. I mean I was listening.
I mean…’ The children laugh, wondering what the teacher will do now.
Teacher Deng shakes his head at the child.
‘Ma, I asked you why the fighter is wrong to challenge the god.’
‘But he’s not wrong, sir!’ Ma Ping answers bewilderingly, then seeing Teacher
Deng’s face and hearing the snickers of his classmates, he realises that’s the
wrong answer.
‘Well, I mean…’
‘Just pay attention, Ma,’ he says dismissively, convinced now that the child
really is in trouble and that Gao is wrong. Why will that man never listen he
thinks to himself in exasperation. Oh well, he sighs, at least he can’t say I

didn’t warn him. But this superficial dismissal doesn’t give voice to his real
feelings, and deep down he is very worried about the child, but his worry is
also cast in his own ego and he feels resentment that his superior
understanding is not acknowledged by those who should know better.

Ma Ping wonders, almost dispassionately, what is wrong with his teacher.
Something has changed in relation to him, but he can’t quite make out what it
is. Anyway, it hardly matters now. The stories are starting again, and he is
carried away on a fresh tide of history, dipping and diving effortlessly like
those swallows in summer into the lives of people he will never know, but
who are as real to him as his own self, and who will people his drawings and
his imagination long after the lesson itself has been forgotten.

Chapter Seven: Monday, March 24th
Ma Ping must clean up the classroom after school today. Like most Middle
School classrooms in China, his is oblong in shape, the door opening from the
long corridor in to near the platform from where the teachers always stands
and delivers the lesson. Ma Ping stands on the platform and tries out a few
‘Please sit down, Class!’
‘Today we have an examination. Please take out your pens and write your
student number at the top. Hurry now! No noise!’

He smiles to himself and looks at his domain. Thirty five double-desks
arranged in two precise rows, space to walk either side and an aisleway down
the middle, something he walks now, swinging an imaginary cane behind his
back as he imagines invigilating an examination, snapping at this or that child
as she or he tries to cheat. He walks up the middle aisleway towards the back,
past the storage-cupboards on the left and the windows on the right,
admiring as always the magnificent picture on the back wall of The Great
Wall near Beijing, with the slogan: ‘Together we can change the world!’
emblazoned across the bottom. He turns back again to face the classroom.
There’s a pupil talking to his deskmate, trying to discover an answer. Ma Ping
rushes forward to admonish him, smacking his cane onto the desk as a
warning, and at once, the children are silent and bend to their task again.

Now, Ma Ping sighs and returns to the present, where the classroom is
disheveled and dirty after the tramping of seventy children for a whole day.
He traipses to the blackboard and rubs off Teacher Deng’s writing, hastily,
swathes of chalk-dust rising and making him cough. He replaces the eraser on
the rim of the blackboard, and goes at last to the corner of the room by the
window at the front, retrieves the heavy mop and bucket - which he has

already filled with water from the latrines down the corridor - and begins his
real work.

He slops the mop liberally in the area behind the teacher’s desk, singing as he
goes, swishing from side to side, a picture of youthful content. He hops onto
the platform, dragging the now-filthy mop with him, sees its dirt and pokes it
into the bucket, sloshing the water all over the floor. In actual fact, he quite
likes these occasions. After all, he’s alone, free with his thoughts and feelings,
and can put the day to rest as well as work off some of his youthful energy.
As spring is advancing, the day is still clear and clean, the light fulsome and
languid. Ma Ping is happy. Then pushing the bucket of water with his foot,
dipping his mop into it, he squeezes it heavily in twirling motions on the grid
at the top and then slops it back onto the floor of the platform again. The
sounds become a rhythmic beating, like his own heart, reassuring and full. He
glides past the blackboard, which covers nearly a whole length of the room,
whistling, singing and kicking his heels a little. Then, he skips off the
platform, and retrieves the bucket from near the classroom door. He returns
to his mop, repeating the process of cleaning the instrument, and gliding
down the aisleways like the prow of a ship charting new seas.

And so he might have gone on for a good quarter of an hour more, had he not
skipped and jumped too high, lost his balance and pushed over the bucket in
landing awkwardly. It ricochets against the side of a cupboard near the back
of the classroom, and a door opens, creaking weirdly. The water drains away
in a soaking parabola round his feet and under the desks and stools.

He stoops down to retrieve the bucket, and as he does so, he spies some
materials in the cupboard, which he now realises ought to have been locked.
As the cleaner for the week, he ought to fetch the man with the key, Janitor
Wang. He opens the door widely, looking in, his eyes growing larger with
every moment of slow perusal. Reams of red poster-paper, paint brushes of
all thicknesses and textures, paints, oil and water, resins, tubes of mixers. All
in proud, shiny plumpness, just waiting to be used by someone who loves
them. And the black one, sleek and slinky, yearning to be used. It can’t hurt to
bring it out a little into the light, screw off the tightly-capped top, squeeze it a
little to bring it into to the world, turn it around in the brightness of the late
afternoon and see how the colour shines then. And it can’t do any harm at all,
surely, to dip a brush in water, test it gently in a colour and dip it to the paper.
And then it can’t do any harm to try a new brush and see the effect, just to see
the effect, that’s all. Not intending any harm. And perhaps if he can do that,
then he can try out a design. Something for the Beijing visitors, maybe.
Something to the effect of, ‘Eastern Prosperity: Western Development’, with
the name of the school written lengthwise across the top, and the visitors’

organisation across the bottom - diagonally opposite. He’s not sure he has the
characters quite right. Let’s try again. He sweeps another sheet of crackling
red paper onto the desk, smooths it down, dips the pen, and swirls the
meanings from his new brush.

Mop and fallen bucket forgotten, he tries out different designs, practicing
characters, discarding numerous papers until there is one he is happy with: he
steps away from it a little, as is his custom in appraising something he has
drawn, his head a little to one side. He blinks slowly, feeling strange again, as
he does sometimes when he creates something significant. His little soul
somehow yearns for what he has accomplished, as if he wants to reach out
and take it inside himself. It feels connected to him so that its obvious
separateness dawns in him as pain, and he swallows with a constricted throat.
Through his mind rush images of fighters and maidens, of evil gods and good
ones. He sees banners proclaiming destiny and fortune, heralded on hills by
mighty swordsmen surrounded by dust and fame and magic, riding towards
their glory. His eyes are full of tears, drops of history, falling on an arid sand.

A clashing of keys jolts him out of his reverie. To be discovered now would
mean shame, and likely expulsion. Hastily he gathers all the brushes he has
used and pushes them under the desk-lid, clears away the rolls of red paper
into the cupboard, scrunching up the old ones. But even his urgency cannot
make him clear away the wet paper on which stands calligraphy to charm the
very gods he has dreamt of all his life and now expressed on this paper,
bringing together all his hopes and dreams and beliefs and love of life and
action and myth and legend and fable. There it sits, both his glory and his

He quickly picks up the mop and dives forward with it into another area of
the room, just as Janitor Wang dips his head round the door. ‘What you doing
here, Ma?’ he asks gruffly.

Janitor Wang is an irascible man. A man with moods. Catch him on a bad day
and nothing goes right and for Ma Ping to lose his calligraphy and be
discovered in his occupation would be disastrous. Luckily, the little boy has
never been one of those to be cheeky to the man, always maintaining a polite
and almost shy distance from a man whose rough face and hands he respects.
He doesn’t know it, but the man rather likes this rather sweet little boy,
because he always says please and thank you. Old-fashioned manners. Got it
from that foreigner probably, but she smiled at him once too and he likes her
face. Once he was clearing up the yard and she passed on her bike and she
waved at him. But his aunt’s a good woman too. That Bai family is a

respectable family, and he doesn’t mind admitting it. Four sons in business in
Xi’an, no less.

‘Well, Ma?’
‘Just clearing up, Sir.’
He likes the ‘sir’.
‘Well, just make sure you do. And that cupboard at the back, it should be
locked. Why isn’t it locked?’
‘Oh yes, you’re right,’ says Ma, thinking he might get away with it. But the
red paper on the desk. What about that?
The man shuffles into the room, his keys jangling from his hand. He stops,
shaking his head.
‘And what’s this?’ he asks, frostily, his hand approaching the paper to pick it
‘Oh sir, oh sir!’ shouts Ma Ping suddenly. ‘Please sir, please sir?’
‘What the…?’ Janitor Wang drops his hand and turns to see the child writhing
on the ground.
‘Oh, sir, sir!’ Ma Ping calls out, running out of inspiration. The man
approaches the child and bends down.
‘Get up, you stupid boy!’ He pulls Ma Ping roughly to his feet. ‘What are you
playing at?’
‘Oh, I’ve got this pain,’ Ma Ping says through clenched teeth, looking all the
time at the untouched paper, to which Janitor Wang is showing his back. He
bites his lip and breathes heavily. Janitor Wang looks askance at him,
brushing at his clothes heavily, dust clouding up from the child’s trousers.
His rough, calloused hands catch threads in the boy’s clothes, and they snag,
pulling the material awry.
‘Haven’t done much of a job with the cleaning, my lad,’ he says, looking at the
strange child. ‘I don’t know what they teaches you these days. When I was a
lad, we knows something about cleaning and making a place good. You young
‘uns, you don’t have a clue about nothing, do you?’ He shakes his head.
‘Oh, no sir, and by the way, sir,’ Ma Ping continues hurriedly, ‘I have to take
that paper home,’ he says, indicating the paper at the back, ‘but I mustn’t
touch it before it’s dry.’
‘Hrumph,’ is the only response, as the janitor’s interest is now clearly on the
state of the class.
‘Just what have you been doing here?’ he asks in irritation, looking about the
room in scorn. ‘It’s quarter to seven, boy!’ He shakes his head. ‘Does your
parents know where you are?’
Ma Ping is horrified at the time.
‘What!’ he says, biting his lip.
‘Oh, get home with you. I’ll finish off here.’ He mutters something inaudible.
Boys! More trouble than they’re worth. He shouldn’t, by rights, be doing this

boy’s work for him, but he knows the score! If he doesn’t and he has to stay
and supervise the stupid little brat, then he’ll miss his cousin coming over
from Penyang this evening, won’t he, and he wants to win some more money
off him playing cards. The man’s an imbecile!

Ma Ping’s response to the man’s apparent generosity is that his eyes widen in
pleasurable shock, but only for a moment. He knows what trouble is in store
for him at home now.
‘Oh thank you, thank you!’ he says, quickly. And dipping to the back of the
classroom, he takes the now dry red-paper, rolls it up loosely and, grabbing a
cardboard roll from the few which are strewn about near the cupboard door,
hastily stuffing the rest back onto the shelves, snatching his schoolbag from
his desk, and running past the man who has already begun to mop the floor,
Ma Ping throws him a grateful look, and hurtles out of the door. ‘Zai jian!’ he
calls back over his shoulder as he runs away.

‘Bloody kids!’ Janitor Wang mutters. But a slow nodding of the head is his
only answer to the young child who has already disappeared. He wearily
starts to mop the parts that the boy has so conspicuously missed. What time is
it anyway? Ah, well there’s still time. Whatever are young people coming to?
In his day, everyone knew his place. He shakes his head half in anger, half in
amused recollection of his own wild youth and plods about the floor wiping
down its surfaces with the grimy mop.

Ma Ping comes downstairs.
‘Where have you been?’ screams his aunt, who has been waiting for him
nervously, and later fractiously. She is standing at the foot of the stairs where
he ran, diving upstairs, and then immediately returned to face the music. She
lands him a heavy smack on the side of his head, which sends him toppling
over into the main room of the restaurant. There are a few customers at this
time of the evening, who look a moment and then turn away again, bending
to their noodles, chatting about their days, wondering about the weather now
that it seems to have turned so warm so suddenly. Ma Ping notices Yang Le,
the pretty woman he drew a while ago when she was there with her cross
husband and young son, by herself and she looks sad, but he’s in pain and
tries hard not to cry. He scrambles to his feet to face his aunt again. He knows
that now she has struck him, her anger will be dissipated but she will expect
him to be contrite.
‘Sorry, Aunt!’ he says, hanging his head.
Ma Shipeng emerges from the kitchen.

‘Where have you been?’ he echoes their aunt. They stand together and he sees
them as the line of his opposition. The two people he loves so much, from
whom he must hide his deepest and most important secret. And suddenly he
knows that this is a great strain. And that it is a burden he no longer wants.

‘I’m the cleaner at school this week,’ he says in explanation, tired, weary even.
‘Oh, and that accounts for that cardboard roll of red paper you so hurriedly
escaped with upstairs just now, does it? Funny sort of cleaning, that!’
Ma Ping’s world stops. Why did he do it? Why did he bring it home? Why
didn’t he just tear it up? But he knows that’s a silly notion. He could never
destroy something like that. Its torn pieces would rip his flesh away. He
shakes his head at the enormity of the thought.
‘Go and get it!’
‘But Aunt!’
‘You heard what I said,’ she says furiously at his reluctance.
He turns away with an expression of such terror, that Ma Shipeng is struck by
it. ‘You know, Aunt, I’m sure Ma Ping is sorry he’s late,’ he offers in
‘I just want to see it, that’s all’ she says in clipped tones, and then a softer one
to the older brother when Ma Ping has gone up the stairs, ‘this is exactly what
Teacher Deng warned us about. Have you already forgotten?’ Her whisper is
sibilant but also afraid, and Ma Shipeng knows he is beaten.

Ma Ping pulls the paper carefully from the cardboard and unrolls it gingerly.
Red poster-paper is notoriously fragile and a slight pressure at the wrong
point can result in a long tear. He gulps, pushing down the bile that threatens
to erupt from him. He feels pale, sickly, terrified. His head and hands are
clammy to the touch. He holds the paper at its extremities for fear of staining
its surface with his sweat. He begins to shake. I must destroy it. I must
destroy it now. His vision clouds and he feels faint. He sees the calligraphy
swimming before his eyes, its life draining from it like a distortion of time. He
is trembling. I must take it and destroy it. Rip it from one end to the other. I
‘Ping, Ping, whatever is it?’
His brother’s voice. He hasn’t heard him approach. He drops the paper which
rolls itself back up into a tube, fluttering to the dusty floor.

‘I don’t care anymore,’ he says. ‘I don’t care anymore. I just don’t care
anymore. Take it away from me, then. I don’t care. You can take it away. You
can take it all away. You can beat me. You can punish me. You can do
anything you like. I don’t care anymore. If you want to make a big heap and
burn them all, you can do that as well.’ He gasps, his breath coming in painful
motions, his throat closing.

‘Ma Ping, quiet, child! Quiet, child!’
It’s his aunt’s voice. Her arm is going around him and preventing him from
‘Look at this,’ says her voice, wonderingly, as she removes her arm from
around him, and unfurls the paper carefully. ‘Oh, by all that’s sacred, look at
this, Shipeng!’
There is a tiny rustling of paper.
‘Oh Ping, oh my dear child. Did you do this?’
Ma Ping cannot answer. He is beyond words. He pulls away from her slightly
and she releases him to sit down heavily on the window-sill from where he
hears the conversation and the movements as if from a great distance.

‘I can’t believe our Ping did this. I know what Teacher Deng said, that he’s a
genius. But I didn’t realise…have you ever…?’ His aunt’s voice trails off.
Ma Shipeng merely says no, and Ma Ping can feel that they are both looking
at him, but he doesn’t feel threatened anymore by their scrutiny. He even
dares to look up. Both adults are standing with expressions he has never seen
before. His aunt’s hair is swathing her face and she is clearly too warm for
comfort, but it is her eyes that he can’t fathom, an expression that is both sad
and happy. He can’t articulate even to himself what it is, but he feels her awe
and is shocked. His brother’s expression is different. There is pity there. Why
does he pity me? Why is no one angry with me?

‘Ma Shipeng, go down into the restaurant. I want to talk to your brother.’
The man looks as if he wants to disobey, but the desire is covered over with
his usual conformity and he smiles at his little brother, nods at him and
retreats down the stairs.

Now I’m for it. Oh why does life have to be so awful?

‘Ma Ping, did you steal that paper?’ Bai Qiang begins, her voice stern.
He is so surprised by that approach that he blurts out ‘Yes, Aunt’, before he
can even think about it.
‘I thought so.’
‘And two or more pieces at school. And the cardboard roll. You see this locker
was open and I was cleaning and…’
Well, you’ll have to make reparation. You can work off your debt here at the
restaurant and I will buy some expensive paper tomorrow and replace it. I’ll
give it to Mr. Deng. He has to know.’
‘Yes, Aunt.’
He sits there defeated. All his dreams fading before his ability can flower. His
potential withered at the root. He closes his eyes and the tears seep through

and fall down his cheeks unheeded. Then when he opens them, they flood,
obscuring his vision completely. He wipes the wetness away with the back of
his hand and looks into the eyes of his aunt.
‘I’m not an educated woman, really,’ she says slowly.
And again, Ma Ping is thrown off balance by her comment. What does she

Why doesn’t she just hit me again and get it over with?

‘When I was a girl, you see, there wasn’t much education. We didn’t have the
same chances.’
There is a pause. She isn’t angry, he realises. What a dear woman she is! She
isn’t angry!
‘And we wanted one, you see. I’ve told you about it before. During the
Revolution. You know.’
Ma Ping smiles and nods at her. He feels deeply moved by her personal
revelations. He knows this is a rare moment because she hates to talk about
The Revolution. Her mouth begins to tremble a little at the corner. Just a
whisper of movement, but it’s enough to make him say:
‘I’m so sorry, Aunt,’ his own mouth trembling in accord.
‘Now, now, don’t you start again, Boy! I’m just saying, education is important.
And that’s why we go on about it so much. We do it because we love you.
You are the scholar, you see. We have a scholar in our family. Teacher Deng
said so.’ Her voice is gruff but full of pride, and her eyes soft. In their contrast,
Ma Ping knows he is loved, deeply loved and he hangs his head. He doesn’t
know if he feels shame or gladness. He knows he feels tired.

She has stopped talking and is looking out of the window. Alert as ever to the
feelings of others, he follows her line of vision and looks out too. The streets
are receding in the dusk. It’s a beautiful evening, that pink glow back again
that lends the landscape a soft durability. Huang Weiping, who is a kind
vegetable-seller, really, the one who always gives him any left-over fruit like a
persimmon or an orange, is cycling past, his cart empty of vegetables, but that
little beggar-girl Bai Mei is sitting in the back, leaning forward with the
momentum of their journey and she’s smiling. Ma Ping feels somehow
reassured by the scene, and finds himself emboldened to ask:
‘Aunt, must I give it all up?’
His anguished face is touching and she looks at him closely in the evening
light. The moments of her consideration are long and Ma Ping looks at her
anxiously. His very life waits on her next words and his heart beats bumpily.

‘I don’t know, my child. I don’t know.’

There is silence for a moment, as both recognise consider where that leaves
them. Neither realises quite the full significance, however, of the choice Ma
Ping makes when he pulls himself off the window-seat and goes to the
cupboard, stretching up and retrieving all his paintings. He wants the burden
to cease in his life. It is one that he has carried for so long, and paid for
heavily in the last few weeks. And that’s too onerous for a child who wants to
play and dream and be just like any other child. In the act of giving the
painting up to his aunt, he knows he is making a sacrifice: his art for his life.
It’s not something he wants, but he feels an enormous relief as if he is
reprieved from death itself. He steps back from her receiving hands as if from
a platform on which he has conferred an honour, but one that has drained
him to the lees.

And for his aunt, the moment is powerful in its unexpectedness. The sheer
volume of her nephew’s creativity shocks her. She is both panic-stricken and
awed as she rifles through them, a landscape here, a portrait there. And there
she is herself, in all her contradictory glory. Her irascible temper, her deep
kindness, her untidy hair and beautiful countenance, her ambition for him
and the family, her resentment at so much hard work. It’s all there and for the
first time, Bai Qiang sees herself fully in a single moment. She gasps, laying it
down on the central table.

‘Oh, Ping. Oh my darling child!’ She sits down and stares ahead. She is jolted
not only by the portrait itself, but by its brilliant insight. Bai Qiang isn’t a
woman to dissemble. She knows herself well. She knows that she’s crabby
and difficult, and that she’s loyal and hardworking. She knows that her
nephew deeply loves her and his portrait is an avowal of love. She looks over
at it again, lying face-upwards, her own eyes glistening with life and hope.
The face is one of the victor, not the vanquished. Its strong lines suggest
strength and agility of mind. She shakes her head, and a powerful emotion
hits her, somewhere between loss and gain. She sees Li Rongrong running
through the fields of their childhoods, happily unaware of the sinister
shadows taking away all they hold dear. For her whole life, Bai Qiang has
been aware, has known, has been responsible.

Now, tears glisten in her eyes. Such open emotion is so unusual in his aunt,
and yet, Ma Ping, as he stands close by her side, protecting her, is not afraid.
He stitches together this moment with the one when Ma Li Rui cried, and for
the first time he realises the healing power of his art and he knows that Ma Li
Rui loves his drawing of her. He feels a deep quiet within him, a well of
goodwill and ease, a spring of hope. But he senses his aunt’s deep sadness as
well and knows that this state of being is actually, his aunt. All of his aunt.
That instead of parts of her being with him, her anger, her sharp kindness, her

humour, her tenderness, her acerbity, all of her is now present with him. He
takes her gently by the hand. She silently nods her head at his contact.

‘No, Ping. You don’t have to give this up. But you have to study.’

These two sentences permeate his consciousness like the songs of swallows at
on summer eaves.

‘When I was a child, once, when the schools were closed, I must have been ten
years old, I met Teacher Gao. Yes, your headmaster, that’s right. I saw him
sitting on an old log. He was just sitting there. He looked terrible. I greeted
him in the old manner, because he had been my teacher, and a good man. He
was kind to our family during the Revolution. Not like those Wangs. I sat
down beside him. He smiled at me. His face was grey and lined. We didn’t
speak to each other, but we sat there. It was the first time I had been silent for
days. Do you know what I mean?’
She looks at her nephew, but doesn’t require an answer. He is mystified and
not sure what she’s trying to say.
‘I remember it was a clear evening, like tonight really. Oh, I don’t know what
I mean. He was a good man. That’s all.’

She finishes abruptly, almost as if she is slightly angry, and Ma Ping frowns a
little in incomprehension.
‘So, no, you won’t have to give it up, but your education matters more. Do
you understand?’
He nods his head, not understanding at all, but not feeling threatened by her
‘You’ll work off your debt as soon as you get home from school and you are
going to write an apology to Teacher Deng this every evening and give it to
him in the morning.’
‘Oh no, Aunt, he’ll…’
‘You’ll do as I say, child, and that’s an end of it.’
Ma Ping sighs but is silent.

‘Now,’ she continues. ‘You’ll write the self-criticism, and then clear up this
mess. Honestly, how you two can live like this!’ she admonishes him, flicking
her hand over the table beside her, tut-tutting as she speaks and draws the
dust after her fingers, shaking it off in irritation. ‘Put those drawings over
there on the cupboard and I’ll tell Ma Shipeng to leave them alone. But you
don’t touch them again either without permission. I’ll be checking up on you.
Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Aunt!’

‘Well, get to it, then. And when you’re finished come and show me and get
something to eat. You can help Huang Hongmei with clearing up tonight.’

She pats his shoulder as she rises heavily from her chair, the weight of the
evening and its legacy lying flatly on her spirit. She leaves the garret then and
Ma Ping hears her move steadily down the narrow steps into the busy
restaurant below.

To Respected and Honourable Teacher Deng.
I took some red paper from the cupboard this evening when I was cleaning the

Pen in hand he wonders what to write next. He’s not really sorry, but he must
say he is sorry. He then realises that if he says the locker is open, then Janitor
Wang will get into trouble and this evening, that man has been very kind to
him. He chews the end of his pen as the light recedes in the little room. He
also realises that the dirty brushes are hidden in his desk. Oh dear, that looks
like stealing. Whatever can he do? He bends his head to his task again.

Will it be enough to placate him, he wonders, a few minutes later. He gets to
his feet and starts to tidy the room, but in a desultory way, his stomach
grumbling with hunger and the practical worries of the following day crowd
in upon him. He is suddenly very tired and feels drawn by the evening’s
events. He takes the paper then and goes downstairs. His brother and aunt
are sitting close together talking. The restaurant is unusually quiet for the
time of day, although the unhappy woman, Yang Le is still there, sitting in the
corner and he is grateful for that. And that means less clearing up to do too!
He knows his brother and aunt are talking about him and feels weary at the
exposure of every hope and need. He sighs as he approaches them. He looks
around at Yang Le.

She smiles at him and he smiles back palely. She has finished her food but is
not stirring. Perhaps she wants some tea. She is staring ahead now, her face a
blank mask. He bites his lip. He hands his aunt the piece of paper, and she
takes it.
‘Fetch my glasses, Ping,’ she orders him. ‘They’re over there on the counter.’
He fetches them, going nearer to Yang Le’s table and she looks at him again,
smiling sweetly. He returns the glasses to his aunt and as she begins to read
the letter, he walks over to the counter, carefully eases a plastic cup from a
stack of them under the grubby formica top, and then goes over to the kettle,
containing ready-made tea, standing on the hob, pours a stream of golden
liquid into the cup and carries it carefully over to the sad woman. She is
surprised by his thoughtfulness, and covers her emotion with a short, Xiexie.

‘It’ll do!’ says his aunt, leaning towards him, holding out the paper,
wondering what he’s doing now, and he returns promptly to her side. He
takes the proffered sheet.
‘Now, you put that in an envelope. There’s one in the storeroom in the small
cupboard, and then you come back here and eat.’
He stands stupefied, surprised to be successful on his first attempt, but then,
conversely realising that this brings him closer to his inevitable encounter
with his teacher the following day. He tramps to the outhouse, finds the
envelope and folds the paper carefully, placing it in the paper-folds. He’ll
fetch it in the morning, so leaves it on the top of the little cupboard and
returns to the restaurant to eat his supper. Yang Le has left already, and he
registers a small feeling of regret. Bai Qiang is busying herself with clearing
up the crockery on a table where a party of men has just left and pushes her
way through the curtain with a heavy load. Ma Shipeng he already passed on
his way back through the kitchen, where Huang Hongmei is preparing his
supper now. He walks aimlessly around the restaurant, from table to table,
kicking his toe into a table leg and listening to the resonance.

Then he looks into the full-length mirror, which hangs on the restaurant’s left
side as you come through the door. What he sees makes him stop in his
tracks. For a moment he has a glimpse of himself before he recognises what
he is looking at. His eyes are dark and glowing with life. His face is pale, in a
contrast so severe with the rest of his little countenance, it gives an ethereal
cast to his features and makes him appear ageless, with momentarily that
aura of beauty which he saw around Ma Li Rui. His mouth, always red and
full, suggests a strength and vulnerability he cannot see in himself, but detects
so sensitively in the rest of the world and which motivates him to recreate so
obsessively. Perhaps it is because of this paradox that the moments before he
recognises himself are timeless. He sees in that face the world he struggles to
represent. This vision is the incarnation of his artistic insight. He sees Ma Li
Rui in her pain and beauty. He sees his aunt’s indomitable spirit. He sees Ma
Shipeng’s fierce loyalty and kind smile. He senses Ma Ling joyously
recognizing him and valuing him. He also perceives Ding Pengcheng’s pain
and fear. He hears the boy’s father’s admonitions and hints of his own sense
of failure. He watches his aunt as a child sitting on a bough with a younger
Gao, his grey hair bright black then, silently ticking their lives away to this
moment, with an uncanny sense that perhaps they are still sitting there,
waiting for something to happen. He feels thousands of years of grinding toil
and the songs of his ancestors’ cadences declaring their presence. He lurches
forward when what he is perceiving becomes one with his own reflection.

‘Come on, you!’ says Huang Hongmei, bearing his bowl of steaming noodles
and placing them on the surface next to the stove’s hot lid. ‘What are you
doing there?’ She laughs as she sets down the bowl carefully. He turns,
slightly giddy, but aware of his hunger once more. He sits down.

‘Xiexie!’ he says. She smiles at him and ruffles his hair. ‘Your aunt says you
have to clear up the restaurant with me tonight. Have you been a naughty
Ma Ping looks at her seriously, considering the question, and his reflection
makes her laugh. He isn’t at all like her brothers, she thinks to herself.
‘She thinks I have been,’ he answers slowly. ‘Perhaps a little.’
He looks up at her, his eyebrows raised, giving him such an innocent
expression she smiles at him, shaking her head.
‘Well, you take your time, dear,’ she says. ‘We haven’t been that busy this
evening,’ and she returns to the kitchen, leaving Ma Ping as a darkening
shadow in the dusk of the day.

Outside the restaurant, a gentle sprinkling of rain darkens the pavements and
roads, and the day descends, once again, into chilly night.

Chapter Eight: Tuesday, March 25th.
To Respected and Honourable Teacher Deng.
I took some red paper and a cardboard roll from the cupboard this evening when I was
cleaning the classroom. I am sorry for my action. I am going to pay for the three
sheets of paper. I also used some brushes and I will wash them and replace them. They
are in my desk. My aunt has asked me to write this self-criticism. She is very angry
with me. I am sorry for my action. I hope you are not angry with me. I will never do it
Ma Ping.

‘Get on with you, Ping,’ Ma Shipeng says, as he sees his brother dawdling by
the front door reading something. ‘Is that your letter? Let’s see.’
He takes the paper from Ma Ping and peruses it.
‘Not bad, little brother.’
‘It’s all right for you!’ Ma Ping answers grumpily. ‘You don’t have to go to
school anymore. Mr. Deng’s going to kill me!’
‘Don’t be silly!’
‘He is!’
Ma Shipeng smiles down at him, and cuffs him gently on the side of the head.
‘Get along with you now. You don’t want to add lateness to thieving, do

Ma Ping looks up in a aggrieved manner at his brother’s apparently callous
remark, giving him a look of such scorn, Ma Shipeng has to swallow a laugh.
‘He’ll just use the stick a couple of times. That needn’t worry you. I’ve had a
lot worse. I remember once…’
‘I’m going,’ says Ma Ping petulantly, pushing through the curtain, meeting
his aunt coming in.
‘You’re late!’ are her first words as she stops and looks at him appraisingly.
Ma Ping feels like being rude to her too, but enough of the previous day’s
events remain for him to bite his tongue.
‘Yes, Aunt!’
‘Well, go on then! What are you standing here for?’
He clicks with exasperation.
‘I’ve read his letter’, says Ma Shipeng to his retreating back. ‘It’s good!’
‘So it should be! Now get!’ Ma Ping faces her with an expression as if to say,
what do you think I am doing? but his aunt’s eyes flash at him sharply.
‘And don’t forget to give Teacher Deng the letter straightaway!’ she calls after
Ma Ping tramps up the pavement, muttering, crossing the road and narrowly
missing Huang Weiping’s cart, containing both Bai Mei and Meimei this
morning. Huang Weiping waves at him.
‘Watch where you’re going!’ he says with a laugh. The two little girls laugh at
him too, swerving in the road. Huang Weiping then calls out: ‘I’ve got some
really fresh pineapples this morning. You ask your aunt if she wants one!’

Ma Ping doesn’t reply. This morning’s going to be a disaster and everyone’s
making fun of me. Why can’t they be nice to me? Stupid letter! I don’t see why
I should give it to him. If I get there early enough, perhaps I can just hide the
brushes. Perhaps I can…Why didn’t I just ask Janitor Wang to lock them up?
He thinks I’m doing something for the visitors. Oh, I’m so stupid! He kicks at a
stone savagely, and it ricochets off the wall by his side, bouncing with angry

And in such spirits, Ma Ping eventually enters the school campus.
Immediately Little Tian and Chen Baoqing run up to him.
‘Hi, Ma! How are you this morning?’
‘Fine,’ says the child, his voice betraying his mood.
The two boys look at each other silently, Little Tian raising his eyebrows, and
mouthing a question.
‘And there’s nothing wrong with me. Stop whispering!’ Ma Ping says angrily.
Little Tian starts to apologise, but Chen stops him, laying his hand on his arm.
‘Let him be, if he’s going to be like that!’ Ma Ping turns away and starts
walking towards class, up the stairs to the third floor. He stops. Teacher Deng

is coming out of the classroom door; this means he’s been in their classroom.
This means he knows.
Ma Ping turns back and starts to kick his heels along the corridor.
‘What’s the matter with you, these days?’ says Chen Baoqing, coming up to
his side. Ma Ping is grateful that the boys have followed him.
‘You’re always in a mood.’
‘I’m not!’ he replies.
Chen shrugs and says coldly:
‘Well, we both think you are. You’re really getting on our nerves. What was
all that with Teacher Deng anyway? And why do you never tell us what
you’re doing anymore?’
‘Yeah,’ Little Tian joins in. ‘We’re supposed to be your friends, but you never
trust us. Come on, Chen, let’s go outside and play basketball.’

The two boys turn away and Ma Ping knows he can follow them if he wants,
but he doesn’t want to anymore. He knows he has to face Teacher Deng. If he
doesn’t, his aunt is sure to find out. He turns to walk to the corridor where the
teachers sit in the morning, drinking tea before class sometimes, if they arrive
early enough. He feels sick.
‘Ma Ping!’ calls a voice.
‘What, Ding Pengcheng?’
The boy limps as quickly as he can over to his friend, the one who protected
him, who must, therefore, care about him. He’s seen Zhang this morning
already, but the older boy just stared at him hard as he limped by and the
wagged his finger at him. Not a word spoken, but a look of menace more
deadly than words. And now he’s been thinking about what Ma Ping did for
him and realises that no one has ever done anything like it. The way he strode
in and punched that bully! It was magnificent. How much he admires his
friend now. All of this shows in his face and is not lost on Ma Ping, but its
visibility is inauspicious. Not this morning. Not today of all days. Leave me

‘I’m going to see Teacher Deng!’ is Ma Ping’s only greeting, his face toneless.
‘What’s going on?’ It is as if someone has punctured Ding Pengcheng’s hopes
and they are gasping for air.
‘Going on?’
He feels Ma Ping’s coldness. His hope withers.
‘You’d better go, then. Are we studying this afternoon after school, or not?’
‘Yes, of course,’ says Ma Ping, more gently, realising he has hurt his friend.
Oh, but it’s too much! He can’t look after everyone. He knows he should say
something reassuring but he can’t bring himself to.
‘See you later,’ he adds instead.

Just as he enters the building, he looks back and sees Ding, Chen and Tian
together. No doubt saying what a bad person he is. Well, let them. He doesn’t
need them anyway.

He walks up the stairs to the teachers’ room, but sees Teacher Deng coming
‘Can I speak to you, sir?’
‘Yes. What is it, Ma?’
M Ping reaches into his pocket and pulls out the now crumpled letter in its
grubby envelope and hands it to his teacher. Why isn’t the teacher already
cross with me? He’s already been in the classroom. He always inspects
everything. What’s going on?

The bewildered little boy stands aside as a group of children from Grade One
push past, laughing and joking with each other. He feels a pang of self-pity,
then he turns his sad face to his teacher’s stern one, and watches him closely
as he peruses the letter. The only emotion the man shows is a compression of
his lips. Ma Ping knows he’s angry, and awaits the outcome with a sense of
‘What am I to do with you, Ma?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
There is a pause.
‘And you put some brushes in a desk?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Come with me, then and we’ll find them. I think you’re going to have to
write more than this self-criticism to me. Come on!’
His tones are clipped. Although his words are mild, Ma Ping knows that the
man is disappointed. Everyone is disappointed this morning. Nobody likes
me. Avoiding the crush of people as the hour approaches 7.45 (starting time),
they walk through to the classroom, which the monitor has now unlocked

‘Outside!’ Teacher Deng orders the few early arrivers. Their wide-eyed
interest bores into Ma Ping as he enters the classroom behind his teacher.
Whisperings start and his face flames with agitation, anger and
embarrassment. They leave, talking animatedly. He hears comments like:
‘what’s going on with Teacher Deng?’ ‘Is Ma in trouble?’ ‘He’s been in trouble
ever since her arrived from the country.’ ‘Country kid. No wonder!’

Ma Ping stands facing the classroom, his head drooped in shame.
‘I came in to assess how much work there is to b done for the visitors in the
middle of next month. I noticed some disarray.’
Ma Ping isn’t surprised by this.

‘Where did you say the brushes were?’ the teacher continues sternly.
‘In that desk, sir.’
‘There’s nothing there.’
Ma Ping’s stomach lurches. If someone else has stolen them, it’ll cost so much
to replace them. Maybe they’re in the next desk. He quickly goes over and
rummages around in the neighbouring furniture, but there’s no sign of any
brushes, or even the smears of paint he might have expected.

‘Well?’ The interrogative hangs accusingly in the air.
‘I don’t understand, sir. They were here.’
Teacher Deng looks at him skeptically.
‘I was wrong about you, Ma. I thought you were an honest boy.’ The man is
deeply disturbed, more so than can be accounted for by the petty stealing of a
couple of crushes and some painting-paper.
‘I am, sir. I…’ But he stops, his innate candour rising to accuse him. ‘They
were here. They were here last night,’ he finishes weakly.
‘We’ll see about that. Come with me. As if I don’t have enough to do, Ma,
with these visitors coming!’ He looks accusingly at the boy, his past rising to
meet him. First stealing, and then what? What will he do next? Just like this
‘Where are we…?’
‘Just come.’ The teacher stalks out of the door, swept along by his righteous
indignation, gliding through the crowds like predator through a flurry of fish.
Ma Ping follows trembling in his wake. Why did I ever come to this horrible
place? I want my mum! A moment reveals Ma Li Rui to him in his
imagination, but even she can’t save him. Where is he taking me?

Teacher Deng exhorts the boy to follow him every few steps, keeping his own
eyes ahead, thinking rapidly. First the boy deceived him. Just like this brother.
Unstable and paid for it with his life.

‘Come on Ma!’ he says roughly, turning the corner. He has to stop this child
and he has to stop him today. It doesn’t matter what he does, but he will save
this child from a fate worse than death.

All at once, Ma Ping knows where they are going. To Janitor Wang’s office on
the first floor. The bell suddenly drones, loudly, insistently, reminding
students of their duty, and all at once, the corridors are awash with roaring
waves of children. But Teacher Deng never wavers. He strides ahead with all
the urgency of justice, Ma Ping trailing after him as quickly as he can,
reluctant though he is.

They reach the man’s door and Teacher Deng knocks perfunctorily, but opens
it without waiting for an answer.
‘Ah, Teacher Deng,’ says Janitor Wang, hastily getting out of his seat, where
he has been perusing the local daily paper amidst a fug of grey cigarette
smoke. The crisp rustle of the paper is in deep contrast to the staleness of the
tiny room. Its four walls are adorned with various pictures cut from
newspapers, of cars and of faces of local dignitaries, as well as a timetable of
some sort. Ma Ping can’t make out what it is. The small stove is unlit now that
the weather is improving. The level of disarray is profound, and even he is
aware of the teacher’s slight disdain. Immediately, the janitor grabs a cloth
from the tiny desk in front of the chair arraigned with papers, a carburetor
and a packet of biscuits and wipes the surface of a spare stool, to which he
points his guest. Teacher Deng remains standing in eloquent impatience. Ma
Ping is staring at the desk, momentarily fascinated by the shapes these
disparate objects create, the shadows that fall between, the man himself in the
midst of such chaos, but it’s only a fleeting impression and lost to the words
about to be spoken.

‘Wang, Ma here tells me he was painting in the classroom yesterday. Why
was the locker unlocked?’
‘I doesn’t know about that, sir,’ the man replies steadily. He’s been expecting
this and Ma Ping watches his face as it tells his story, the mouth moving
deliberately and with precision because he’s speaking to a teacher, and a
senior one at that.
‘Well, Wang, it’s your business to know.’
‘It won’t happen again, sir.’
‘It’d better not. And Ma says he put some brushes under the desk.’
‘Yes, sir, that’s right.’
Ma Ping looks at him. He feels a wash of relief glow in him.
‘I washes them, you see. I puts them in the water and washes them. There’s
bloody paint all over the desk as well but it’s mainly still wet, it’s easy to
remove and I spends ages doing that for him, the little bastard. And I bet he’s
not grateful. They never are,’ he finishes cryptically.’ Ma Ping hangs his head.

‘And that water,’ the janitor continues, ‘if I’ve asked those bloody plumbers to
come once, I’ve asked them a million times. And every time I gets on the
phone, well, they pretend I’ve never spoke to them before. They’re here,’ he
finishes abruptly.

And he reaches up to a narrow shelf above the desk and retrieves the four
brushes. ‘I laids them on some paper too so they dries nice.’ He nods his head
at the teacher, expecting some approbation, but receiving none, mutters a
little to himself. He launches himself again.

‘That calligraphy, now that was class! He’s a clever lad, this one. I mena, I
can’t read much, but I can tell what I can tell! Lazy, but clever,’ and in an
attempt to foster his authority in his own room, he cuffs at Ma Ping lightly on
the side of the head. The child ducks, however, and the man misses, lurching
slightly forward and has to steady himself on the edge of the desk. ‘Where is
he going to hang his stuff, then?’ he says, flashing a look of annoyance at the

Teacher Deng looks quickly at Ma Ping, who avoids his eyes, and back again
to the janitor who doesn’t notice the sudden heightening of tension.
‘Hang his what? What are you babbling about, man?’
‘Calligraphy?’ The teacher’s voice is dangerous, Ma Ping knows, but Wang
doesn’t and he rattles on.
‘Yeah, last night, when he’s doing all this stuff and that’s why he hasn’t
cleaned the floor. And it takes me bloody ages to clear it up. It’s not as if I
haven’t got enough to do as it is, what with all that stuff happening soon, all
those visitors and that.’ He shakes his head. ‘Artists!’ he says, and spits a
gobbet of phlegm onto the concrete floor between them, as if his word and his
gesture explain everything. ‘He says he’s doing this calligraphy for them
visitors from Beijing!’
‘Ma?’ Teacher Deng turns to the boy, his eyes icy. It’s even worse than he
thought. He feels anger as well as worry bubbling up in him now.
Ma Ping shakes his head and starts to say something, changes his mind, tries
something else, fails, and is then silent. His head bends in weary submission.

‘Wang, take these brushes to the classroom and put them back in the
cupboard. Ma, go to Gao’s office.’ The teacher hands the janitor the
equipment abruptly into his barely outstretched hand.
‘I’ve got this lot coming at ten, Teacher Deng’ he whines. ‘You know, that lot
from the ministry about the visit. I’ve got a room to clear out. They was in
there last night and made a right mess, but no, I have to clean it out.’
‘It is your job, Wang. And the sooner you get going, the quicker you can
‘Yeah, well, I needs to start that job now.’
‘You’ve got a set of brushes to take back to the classroom first,’ the teacher
says, barely concealing his anger. ‘And Ma, do as you’re told,’ he finishes to
the boy who has been watching the exchange wondering quite how he can
leave the room during such an altercation. To stay seems rude. To leave seems
to draw attention to him and this frightens him now. He knows how much
trouble is in store for him.
‘Yes, sir,’ comes the soft, defeated voice and he leaves the room. Voices are
raised behind him for a few moments, but then Wang strides angrily past him,
smacking him on the back of the head as he goes past.

Ma Ping rubs his head and walks the now-empty corridors up to the third
floor. He thinks about running away, but they’d catch him. They always do.
He goes to the headmaster’s office. Mr. Gao, the man his aunt says was
younger once when they sat together on the broken bough of a tree. He stands
and waits.
The door opens and Mr. Gao almost walks into him.
‘What on…? Oh it’s you, Ma.’
Ma Ping gulps at being recognised.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Mr. Deng told me to come. I was naughty, sir.’
‘Come in!’ he says. ‘I need to see some people this morning, but I have five
minutes.’ He opens the door loudly and walks straight in. Mr. Gao wonders
at himself. He doesn’t really have five minutes, but there’s something about
this boy. Something intriguing. Something out of the normal run. A bit like
his aunt, perhaps. She always was a strong-minded woman. Too strong for
his liking! And these blessed visitors! What a lot of trouble it’s turning out to
be, for all the good it will probably do, but it’s he who has to take all the
responsibility, of course, and his fault if it all goes wrong. And there will be
those just waiting to point the finger. His methods aren’t popular, but his
results are good.

‘Naughty, how?’ he asks abruptly, as he returns to sit behind his desk and
looks closely at the boy standing awkwardly inside the door, looking around
at this inner sanctum he doubts many students have ever seen. Mr. Gao lights
a cigarette and puffs a waft of blue smoke in the boy’s direction, which, for
the moment, obscures him from Ma Ping’s view. The child looks around.
Certificates cover the walls, photographs too, Marx, Lenin, Lei Feng, Mao
Zedong. He recognises them, and then there’s that other one. He can’t
remember. Deng Xiaoping, of course. Deng! But that doesn’t make sense. The
name ricochets him back to the present and he looks at Mr. Gao, who is
appraising him silently.
‘What did you do, I said?’
‘I stole some red poster-paper from the locker in my classroom and made
some calligraphy on them. The locker was open, sir, but I know I shouldn’t
have. I wrote a self-criticism but I didn’t say I lied to Janitor Wang.’
He stops but Headteacher Gao is confused.
‘What does Wang have to do with this? And come over here.’
‘He’s the janitor, sir.’
‘I know he’s the janitor!’ Mr. Gao almost smiles but catches himself. ‘Why did
you lie to him?’
‘He found me with the paper and I said I was doing it for the Beijing visit so
that he wouldn’t take it away.’ Ma stands in front of him now and looks up

earnestly into his eyes. It’s his eyes that seal it for the headteacher. They are so
startlingly alive. Mr. Gao is unusually moved.
‘And aren’t you?’ His voice is softer than he means it to be.
‘No, sir?’
‘Why not? I’ve heard you’re very good.’
‘No sir,’ says the child conventionally.
‘Well, I’ve heard different.’ The voice retrieves its usual veneer of authority.
There is a knock at the door.
‘Come in, Deng,’ Gao calls out. Teacher Deng enters, expecting to launch into
an invective against Ma Ping, but instead is confronted with the child and the
headteacher clearly in discussion, rather than anything angrier. Teacher Deng
is disconcerted by this turn of events, and hesitates for a moment.
‘I sent him to you, sir, because he is a disobedient child,’ he begins. ‘We’ve
spoken about this and I am sure…’
‘Why isn’t he doing some calligraphy work for the visitors?’
Teacher Deng is entirely thrown off balance by this question.
‘Well, sir, as we discussed…’
He let the sentence hang, hoping to deflect Gao’s loquacity.
‘Just how good is he?’
‘He is good,’ says Teacher Deng as if that isn’t the point. And to him it isn’t.
This boy is getting out of hand. The child’s on his way to ruin. And he’s
getting deceitful and naughty with it. Why won’t anyone listen to him about
this Ma? First his aunt and family and now this do-gooder with his modern
ideas about education. It all breaks down without discipline. This child has to
learn. And he will teach him. Headteacher or no headteacher, Deng knows it’s
his responsibility and no one is going to get in the way of his responsibility.
‘Yes, he’s good,’ he continues, ‘but he is also a disobedient boy.’ His lips are
pursed with anger, and Ma Ping looks at him, for the first time, feeling
physically afraid of his teacher.

‘Yes, it sounds as if he is, Deng.’ Gao’s tone of voice and its effect on Teacher
Deng mystifies Ma Ping. He realises that his teacher is angry with the man,
but he cannot work out why. The child looks about him again, resigning his
fate to the discussion between the two men. Marx looks down on him from
his imposing height, his beard full and redolent of age and wisdom. He has
nice eyes. I bet he never got into scrapes like me. I bet when he was a little boy,
everyone thought he was going to grow up into a famous man and were kind
to him because of it. Well, one day I’m going to be famous and then they’ll be
sorry they were unkind to me!

These reflections don’t make him happy, of course. He feels a dull bitterness
seeping into him and looks up again at his two elders, pointing the tip of his
toe into the place where one of the teacher’s desk-legs meets the floor. Teacher

Deng nudges him sharply to desist so Ma Ping takes to looking round the
room again. He registers the water-heater with its hot and cold taps. He likes
playing with those and he’s thirsty. There are puddles on the concrete floor
where the cleaner-on-duty has been generous with his mop-work. Ma Ping
sighs. That’s where all this began: with a mop.

‘So, let’s see his work.’ Mr. Gao’s voice is low and calm.
‘We did some class work last week. I can show you those.’ Teacher Deng’s
voice is neutral, but Ma Ping feels the undertones and shivers. He turns to
look at the man, and sees that his face is tight with emotion. How can Mr. Gao
not see it? His face, in contrast is quiet, and when he slightly inclines his head
towards the child, Ma Ping notices that his expression is warm, not angry at
all. His aunt’s recollections come back to him. Staring in the mirror the
previous day comes back to him. Seeing them together, his aunt and this man,
and wondering where they are, all flood back to his mind’s eye and intrude
painfully on this present moment. Up to this point, Ma Ping can be angry at
the world, see it in opposition, feel himself aggrieved and that no one
understands him. But Gao’s kindness, his aunt’s understanding, his liberation
from the burden of his secret, complicate things, and even now, he is being
given a chance to use his gift publicly. This new perspective seems somehow
insolubly connected to the vision he had of his aunt and Gao sitting together
on that bough, before he was ever born, she swinging her legs, and he
stooped forward, like a bent old man, his head lowered, neither speaking, but
intensely communicating something of value. He doesn’t know what the
thing of value is, but it must be important because his aunt has remembered it
for years. He is transfixed by that moment, which is also now.

Ma Ping looks up at the headteacher with a sudden flash of respect and
insight. He will submit to his authority, whatever it is. He trusts him and with
a sudden lurch of sickness in his stomach, he realises he doesn’t trust his
teacher with the same blind faith anymore. Something dies within him and he
feels lonely with the loss of it. However, this new feeling has the effect of both
freeing and worrying him. He doesn’t know what to do with his feelings of
betrayal from this man, but no longer does he feel he owes him any loyalty.
His aunt’s wishes for his future are right, and Teacher Deng’s are wrong. This
new certainty gives him a buoyancy he hasn’t felt in a while. And in the same
moment, he regrets his unkindness to Ding Pengcheng and his tetchiness with
his brother. He resolves to make it up to them.

‘So we’re agreed, then,’ Gao says, bringing Ma back again, moving from
behind his desk and going past them. ‘Bring his work and we’ll see. And Ma,’
he says, stopping and pulling him on the shoulder round to face him. ‘You are

never to disobey your teachers again. Is that clear?’ His eyes are sharp and Ma
Ping drops his in response.
‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I won’t do it again. And I’ll clean the classroom better
than it’s ever… he begins with enthusiasm.’
‘See to it, Deng! I am sure you know what to do.’ The headteacher interrupts
the boy, opening the door and leaving the room. Deng has bowed his head,
but Ma Ping knows it isn’t with humility. When he raises it again, he is
looking at the child with open distaste.
Throughout the interview with Headteacher Gao, Teacher Deng has stood,
rigid with anger, the muscles of his face pulling awkwardly at a show of
respect. He understands but of course, no one listens to him. No one ever
listened to him. And this brilliant boy, for all his genius, is a liar and a cheat,
just like this brother! Well, he’s not going to become the coward his brother
became. Shaming the whole family for generations. When his wife had borne
him a son, and before they both died, they talked of what names they should
give to their only child. Xiaobin was mentioned by his wife, and Deng
remembers with great sorrow how he shouted at his wife he never wanted
that name mentioned again between them, and it was, at least in his memory,
the last words he spoke to his wife. His brother even destroyed that.

‘You are going to learn, Ma,’ Teacher Deng says, slowly and deliberately. ‘I
am going to teach you the difference between right and wrong. I am going to
save you from this curse that afflicts you. No one else seems to realise how
serious it is. Well, I do. You’re a naturally honest child, but this art corrupts
you. I won’t allow that to happen. I’ve seen it happen before. And that child
died. I won’t allow to happen to you.’
His voice is controlled, but Ma Ping feels the anger there, and another
emotion, which he can’t trace. He shrinks back into himself, afraid of what is
going to happen.
‘And I took all that trouble to go and explain to your family and you were
rude to me. Remember? So rude. Any other student, and you’d have been
expelled, but no, instead we cosset you and spoil you like a little emperor.
And are you grateful? No. No, you’re not grateful.’ And then the multiplicity
of emotions he feels cohere into rage and he lunges at the boy and holds him
up to his face with his fist gripping his lapels, and continues only centimetres
away: ‘And now I find you’ve gone behind my back. My back. And I was the
only one who really cares for you. And you steal and you don’t clean the
room - your duty, Ma’! He worries him back and forth, a dog exulting with a
bone. ‘And then to add insult to injury, the headteacher seems to think we
should encourage you in all this. Well, you’ve gone too far, as far as I’m
concerned.’ He shakes him off and the child falls back, stumbling back onto
his hands on the concrete floor.

‘Well, what have you to say for yourself?’
‘Nothing, sir.’
Ma Ping climbs awkwardly to his feet.
‘And we decided that you were going to study, not dabble!’ He spits out the
last word like a disgusting morsel of food, bending down to look into the
child’s face so that the last word explodes into it. Ma Ping closes his eyes
against the monstrous intrusion. Something doesn’t make sense to him at all.
Such anger. Such animosity. He is struck by its similarity to Zhang’s facial
expression when he was beating Ding. And now he stares in disbelief because
Teacher Deng reaches over the headteacher’s desk and seizes the long stick
for punishing difficult students and to remind them of the school’s authority.
He must get through to the child, even though everyone else doesn’t
appreciate the urgency.

‘Put out your hands,’ he says coldly, steeling himself to the blows. Teacher
Deng is trembling but doesn’t allow it to show. The man is standing before
Ma Ping, testing the switch on his own hand. His eyes widen at what is going
to happen. He looks up imploringly into the man’s face, but his pleas crash
like a bird against a window, the shock momentarily stunning him.
Automatically, he stretches out his palms. He can’t prevent them trembling,
but he bites his lip harder as the first stroke bites into his hand, and then the
next and the next. He is entirely mute except for an initial squeak when the
first impact occurs. The swish of the wood as it hurtles towards injuring him,
is now the only sound in the room. Ma Ping thinks he might fall, or at least be
sick, but then it stops. But although the pressure of the blows has gone, it is
replaced with waves of pain, screaming welts of anger. Deng replaces the
stick on the table.

‘Get out of here and clean your face, there’s blood all over your lips. And then
come to class. You’re late and you’ve made me late too. You’d better be good
today, Ma. None of your stupid nonsense. Otherwise there’s plenty more
where that came from. I won’t have you throwing your life away, do you see?
I won’t have you being a casualty of your own weakness and the weakness of
your aunt and family. Someone has to stand up for what’s right. And I won’t
have you disobeying me!’ Teacher Deng leans on the window-sill, wishing the
window were open as he feels nauseous at what he has done.

‘My aunt isn’t weak,’ Ma Ping mutters, although his words are garbled now
through his tears. Mr. Deng turns abruptly and leaves.
‘Yes sir. No sir,’ says Ma Ping to an empty room, and then he breaks down
and weeps, his hands throbbing with hot pain, but he stands silently, still,
moments passing like waves of nausea, lurching from one thought to another,

until his head is swirling with too much and he stumbles out of the room,
shutting the door carefully behind him with his fists. He hurries to the toilets
and turns on the water, gratefully allowing the wetness to take away the pain.
There is an initial lurch of sensation as the water gushes onto the welted digits,
but that passes eventually, and the coolness eases his inner pain as well.
‘Ping!’ says a voice. The child turns and there is Ding Pengcheng. ‘What’s
going on?’ Ma Ping shakes his head in answer, but shows the young boy his
hands. Ding Pengcheng gasps in shock. Who did that? Not Zhang?’
Ma Ping shakes his head again, the tears leaking through. He holds his hands
down by his sides, but is careful they don’t touch anything around him. They
hang like dead birds.
‘No. Deng.’
‘Deng? But you’re his favourite student. Everyone says so.’
‘Not anymore I’m not. And what are you doing out of class, anyway?’
‘Mr. Wang asked me to run a message. I’d better go, I guess. See you later.
Are you all right? Is that why you were funny this morning?’
Ma Ping knows there is some falseness in agreeing, but he nods his head and
that seems to satisfy Ding Pengcheng, who turns and limps hastily away
down the corridor.

When, a few moments later, Ma Ping slips into the back of the classroom, not
a child looks round. This is so unusual that he knows Teacher Deng has told
the children about his bad behaviour. He sits down by Ho, but the boy
doesn’t even acknowledge his presence. Ma Ping hasn’t been treated to this
particular punishment before, so has no idea what’s happening. But gradually,
he realises that no one is speaking to him at all. No one is even looking at him.
It’s as if he doesn’t exist. When he puts his hand up to answer a question,
Teacher Deng looks through him. When he tries to write, he finds he can’t and
he’s worried that he’ll be punished for that too, but soon realises that no one
is going to take notice of anything he does and he needn’t be concerned. He
endures another half an hour of this before the bell and at the end of class,
when their homework has been set, Teacher Deng almost looks as if he’s
going to acknowledge his presence, and Ma Ping’s heart thumps with hope,
but no, he passes over him again and asks his deskmate to retell the
instructions for the task.

‘Class is over!’ he says, his usual valedictory phrase, and the children rush
from their seats to go out into the warm spring air before their ten-minute
exercise period. Ma Ping doesn’t move. He realises that there is no point in
trying to elicit anyone’s sympathy today. He knows he’s been naughty, but
this is a strange punishment. He looks up at Deng riffling through his papers
on the teacher’s desk, and then shuffling them together to put into his
briefcase. He notices the child then, sitting, third row from the front, just

staring ahead. He is momentarily struck by his pathos, but then his heart
hardens, and he reassures himself that sometimes he has to be cruel to be kind.

‘Go outside, Ma,’ he says, all softness erased from his voice. Ma Ping stands
obediently and walks up to the desk, his hands smarting unbearably. He
wants to say something. He wants to put things back the way they were. He
wants never to have drawn a picture in his life. He wants never to have met
Ma Li Rui or her daughter. Or Yang Le. Or Ding Pengcheng and his cruel
father. He wants never to have disappointed his teacher.

He wants to speak.

‘Sir, I…’
But Teacher Deng’s eyes focus on his and the child turns away, beaten.
‘Ma Ping!’
He turns again, a puppet on a string.
‘Yes sir.’
There is a moment’s silence. ‘The headteacher wants you to do some
calligraphy for the Beijing visitors.’
‘Yes sir.’
‘I’ll show him that work you did last time during class. If it’s not good enough
I will supervise you to do some more. Outside school hours, of course.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Off you go!’
‘Yes, sir.’

He sits on the wall outside the classroom. Pupils are talking about him in
groups, little gaggles of gossip. There’s Zhang as well. No doubt he’ll be
delighted. He’s with his cronies and they’re snickering about something And
Chen and Tian. Even they aren’t speaking to me. He shouts over to them.
They look over a moment as if considering, then at each other and around the
playground, but turn away at last, absorbing themselves into one of the many
cliques that always surface at breaktime.

Ding Pengcheng approaches him.
‘What’s going on?’ he asks his friend, feeling suddenly powerful, gratified
that his friend is suffering a little. He doesn’t reason it to himself, he just feels
a warm glow.
‘No one in my class is allowed to speak to me, it seems,’ he says, putting a
brave face on it.
‘I don’t really know. I think it’s because I stole some paper from the

‘That’s nothing. Happens every day,’ says Ding Pengcheng mystified. ‘You
must have done something else.’
‘I don’t know. Lao Gao seemed all right about it.’
‘They took you to Gao?’ Ding Pengcheng’s voice rises incredulously.
‘Yes, and you don’t have to tell the whole school!’ hisses Ma Ping angrily.
‘How are your hands?’ his friend asks him, changing the subject to give him
time to think, wondering what he’s actually done. Certainly the boy isn’t
telling him the truth, but then he rarely seems to these days. Ding Pengcheng
feels his sympathy receding.
‘They hurt a lot,’ says Ma Ping.
‘So what else happened?’ he asks eagerly.
‘Oh, just some stuff about Beijing.’
‘Yes, I’m going to do some stuff for the Beijing visit.’
‘And that’s why Deng beat you?’ Ding Pengcheng’s voice reveals his
‘Oh, not really. Look, can we talk about something else?’ but at that point, a
huge mechanized bell rings nasally, and Ding runs back to his square for
exercises. Ma Ping looks round at him and is surprised to see how closely he’s
placed himself with Zhang Chen Hui. And the bully is going over to talk to
him, and thumbing in his direction. Ma Ping feels the cold touch of dread, but
bends to his exercises and tries to put it all out of his mind. There’s nothing
more that anyone can do to him today after all. He wonders what his aunt
will make of it all.

That is, if he tells her.

Chapter Nine: Tuesday, April 1st.
A day like any other. But one day closer to those visitors. And one more day
on which he has to practise his calligraphy with Teacher Deng after school.
Practise his classigraphy! Huh! It’s obvious to Ma Ping, that the man doesn’t
have a clue about it. It’s such a waste of time. The one he did that got him into
all that trouble last week, is much the best thing he’s done, but no, Teacher
Deng insists it has to be done the way he was taught when he was a child.
When he had an education, that is. As he never ceases to tell the children how
lucky they are to have an education and how they all take it for granted and
in his time, blah, blah, blah…
‘Happy Birthday, Ping,’ says his brother, turning from the washbasin and
wiping his hands with a flannel. ‘I’ve been up an hour already! Come on,
hurry up!’
So, it’s my birthday too. Ma Ping swings his legs out of bed and rests them on
the floor prior to pulling himself to his feet. He sits, dejectedly, arms resting
on his knees, his head drooping. He’s tired. Last night he seemed to be awake

for hours, only fleetingly dreaming of banners and paintbrushes, red posters
and long marches.
‘I’ve got a headache.’
‘No you haven’t. Come on, Ping. Get a move-on. Aunt says there’s someone
coming from Beijing today. Wang Qing and she are going to see if they can
find them.’
‘Beijing? To this restaurant. The person’s coming all the way from Beijing to
our restaurant?’ His former languor is dissipated at once.
‘No, they’re not coming here, silly, but well, they might pass it, Aunt says.
And she doesn’t want to miss it. It’s not everyday we get a visitor from
Beijing, is it? We missed last time Zhang Fengjun came to see his uncle. And
we’re getting your visitors next week as well. Quite the metropolis Guyuan’s
‘They’re not my visitors,’ he says sharply. ‘Who is coming, then?’
‘Don’t know, now get a move-on!’
‘What’s it got to do with me, anyway? I’m tired.’ He falls backwards onto the
bed with an exaggerated gesture of exhaustion.
‘Aunt wants the restaurant all cleaned. You know that already. Next week,
this place is going to be like the Forbidden Palace. Now get up, or do I have to
tickle you?’ he approaches menacingly.
Ma Ping giggles despite himself, sitting up on the bed. ‘More like
Government Street before the street cleaners get to it on Wednesdays, I’d have
‘Now, don’t you let our aunt hear you saying that!’ Ma Shipeng laughs at his
brother’s wit. He is a clever little fellow.
‘So, twelve18 today, eh?’
Ma Ping looks up at him with a smirk as he pulls on his school-trousers.
‘Well, if you want to be thirteen, I suggest you put your trousers on the right
Ma Ping looks down at himself and blushes. He’s always doing this. Once he
went to school with them on back-to-front and everyone laughed. They still
refer to it now. He frowns, but his poor mood is shaken off for the moment.
Ma Shipeng isn’t happy, however. He looks across at the child who was
brought here for his education, for his welfare, to give him a better life, and he
knows that the child is unhappy instead. He clears his throat.
‘How are your hands today?’
Ma Ping doesn’t answer, merely holds them out, bowing his head and turning
it away. They are slightly swollen, and the redness is still livid. Ma Shipeng
peers at them closely, turning them over gently in his palms.

 Many Chinese people count age differently from Westerners, calling a new-born a one-year old. So
Ma Ping’s age is likely to be eleven by Western reckoning.

He shakes his head and releases them, sighing. What Deng did wasn’t right.
Not right at all. But he is the teacher. It is up to him, after all.
‘Do they still hurt?’ he asks.
‘No,’ Ma Ping says softly, but Ma Shipeng knows there are many different
kinds of pain. He ruffles the child’s hair. ‘Come on, then, get yourself
downstairs and I’ll get you some noodles.’ He turns and leaves the garret.
‘Thanks,’ Ma Ping answers, busying himself with his school-uniform top in
blue and white, turning out the collar and appraising himself in the cracked
and discoloured mirror balanced on the top of the shelves.
‘Come on!’ shouts Ma Shipeng from below. ‘You’re needed down here.’
‘All right!’ he shouts back, tramping across the floor to find his shoes, which
he discovers in scruffy abandonment underneath the washbasin. They need
more than a clean, they need resoling and restitching as well. He hopes his
aunt doesn’t notice: she’s so fussy about those things. He squeezes them on
without untying the laces, flattening the heel inside so that he has to wedge
them on with the help of his fingers, but this makes him yelp. At last he’s
‘Do I have to come and get you?’ Ma Shipeng shouts up to him again.
‘I’m coming, for goodness’ sake! What’s all the hurry?’
He rattles down the stairs, two at a time, and almost falls into the restaurant-
room. He stops in surprise. His aunt and his brother are standing near the
staircase, staring at him.
‘What’s wrong now?’ he asks, a belligerence coming quickly into his manner.
‘Look who’s here!’ Ma Shipeng exclaims. Why is his aunt smiling like that?
And then the two of them part, and there he is, standing as bright as life’s
‘Oh, Father!’ he calls out, and rushes forward. ‘What are you doing here?’ He
throws himself into his arms and the man pats him awkwardly on the back as
his son clings to him.
‘Did you know about this?’ he asks his brother who merely smiles in reply
and raises his eyebrows with good humour. It’s so good to see the little chap
‘Happy Birthday, my son,’ says the man gravely, pushing him away to take a
better look at him.
‘Grown again! What are they feeding you, eh?’ His eyes twinkle with his
customary mirth and Ma Ping is warmed by it.
‘Well, there’s a welcome, and no mistake, and he gets fed the same as the rest
of us!’ Bai Qiang says dryly, and walks over to the counter. Nothing much
wrong with a lad who loves his father like that, though, she reasons, and she
sets about heating the water for her brother-in-law’s tea. He might not be her
sort, Ma Xingjian, but he’s a good man. Gets things round the right way.
‘Your father’s been traveling all night,’ she says in her wave of approval, as if
to warn both brothers not to bother him. ‘He had to come to Guyuan anyway,

but this way he gets to see you too! Isn’t that fortunate! Now, you go into the
kitchen and finish the breakfast for all of us. Ma Shipeng, bring in some coal
for the stove. You sit down, now, Ma Xingjian.’ The man duly takes a seat
near the stove.

‘Aunt?’ says Ma Ping, hesitating at the curtain through to the kitchen, biting
his lip and looking across at his father.
‘Yes, Boy, what is it? You still here?’
‘Now that Father’s here, can I come home for lunch?’
‘What! And disappoint Ding Pengcheng?’ she says gruffly. She explains to his
father that he has an invitation for lunch at his friend’s house.
‘But I don’t have to go now, do I?’ he begs.
‘Yes, you do. You can’t just change your plans because this suits you better.’
Ma Ping pouts.
‘MA PING!’ thunders his aunt.
‘Yes, Aunt.’
‘And you make sure you’re polite too, and say thank you!’
‘Yes, aunt.’
‘Now go into the kitchen as I told you before.’
‘Yes, aunt!’

The noodles are already bubbling away in the kitchen, and Ma Ping shifts the
pans to avoid the concentrated heat, and begins to stir the meats and spices in
the wok, blending them carefully. It’s not fair, having to go to Ding
Pengcheng’s house when my father’s home. And it’s my birthday. I ought to
be able to do what I want on my own birthday! The spoon remains for a
moment suspended above the cooking pots.

Then he stops, and walks over to the curtain to the restaurant, carefully
pulling it aside and peering into the restaurant, where he sees his father is still
there, sitting and drinking tea, sipping it slowly as he always does, reminding
him in a moment of Yang Le last week. She appeared sad, though, taking her
time, but his father doesn’t, he’s just tired. Ma Xingjian looks up at that
moment, and Ma Ping releases the curtain quickly and returns to his cooking.
He loves his father very much. Perhaps he ought to just do as he’s told. He
stirs the pot slowly, musing.

He hears his aunt and father talking quietly and knows it’s about him. Or
maybe it’s about business. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if his father is able to
make some money, and then perhaps Ma Ling can come and study in the city
too! But he doesn’t mind what they’re talking about this morning: he knows
they care about him. He dips the wooden spoon, old and split along its grain,
into the soup-mixture, and raises it to his lips. It’s scalding hot and he spits it

out, fanning his lips with his spare hand. Ma Shipeng enters the kitchen and
bends over the child from behind, smelling the savoury aromas.
‘Some more oil. Just a little,’ he suggests, and Ma Ping puts down the spoon
and reaches for the corked bottle, unstoppering it with a little pop, and
pouring the contents fractionally into the hissing wok.
He starts to whistle, and Ma Shipeng is reassured by his ability to bounce
back all the time. He just hopes it lasts.

English first lesson. The children are excited this morning. April Fools Day is
just the excuse they need for a bit of fun. As Ma Ping enters the classroom,
Chen Baoqing and Little Tian turn to greet him. The silence lasted only two
days last week, much to Ma Ping’s relief, but in his heart, he is bitter with his
teacher and dreads every encounter now. He thinks he feels fear of the man,
but actually, he is afraid of his own capacity to hate him.
‘Happy Birthday, Ping,’ says Little Tian.
‘Yes, have a good one!’ Chen Baoqing agrees. Other children crowd round
and wish him many happy returns of the day. His clash with Teacher Deng
does seem to have enhanced his reputation in a way his fight with Zhang
never did. Although Ma Ping doesn’t understand their reasoning, he is glad
not to be the centre of disapproval anymore.
‘My father came over. He arrived this morning with the night-bus,’ he says
with a glow of pleasure. ‘He’s got business in Guyuan,’ he ends importantly.
‘Wow!’ Then everyone agrees that his father would be mad to make so much
of an effort just to come and see him, but Ma Ping knows they are only joking
and enters into the spirit of it. Chen Baoqing claps him on the back. ‘April
Fool! What a day to be born on.’
‘Strikes me as very suitable,’ says Little Tian, and swerves as Ma Ping aims a
friendly swipe at his head. The other boys laugh in a friendly manner.
‘And Aunt Bai says there’s someone from Beijing coming to Guyuan today?’
Ma Ping says. ‘You know anything about it, Chen Baoqing?’
‘Yeah, that’s my uncle, Zhang Fengjun. You know, the one who came over
when my granddad was ill.’ The children nod at each other mutely. Everyone
knows this is a sore subject with Chen Baoqing, whose grandfather, Chen Hui,
died just after the previous Moon Festival.
‘He’ll be staying with us.’
‘Really!’ The children are impressed and store up this piece of gossip to tell
their families when they get home. It’s quite something to have a visitor from
Beijing, and not staying in a hotel either. Although that new Postal Hotel built
last year is as good as any. That foreigner says the Postal Hotel is just like
ones in Xi’an or Yinchuan and she should know. She travels everywhere.

Things are looking up in Guyuan. Perhaps Chen’s uncle knows their visitors
next week. They’re from Beijing too. Perhaps Chen Baoqing can ask him.
‘No, it’s a big place, Beijing. He won’t know them. Why should he? He’s a
business man.’
‘Beijing’s bigger than Guyuan at any rate,’ says Little Tian, backing up his
friend as usual, nodding his head with satisfaction at the far-reaching wisdom
of his answer.
‘How big?’ asks Ma Ping, with a knowing wink at Chen Baoqing.
Little Tian hesitates.
‘Very very big!’ he says, and turns the subject.

They start debating what they should do to play tricks today. They deliberate
between telling Teacher Deng there’s a message from another teacher at the
other side of the school, or that they are on the previous lesson in the book.
Ho Dongfang notices Ma Ping looking at his hands and rubbing them gently,
and suggests instead something a little less dangerous. The latter option he
will know about straight away and he might be angry if they send him to the
other end of the school. They then have to decide who’s going to start it.

Teacher Deng himself enters. Everyone scrambles to their places amidst a
cacophony of clatterings and bangings of stools and desks.
‘Nimen hao!’19
‘Ni hao!’
More clatterings as the children sit.
‘Open your English books to Lesson 39.’
‘Sir!’ says Chen Baoqing, rising to his feet as the children scramble to find the
right page.
‘Yes, Chen?’
‘Sir, we’ve got Chinese first lesson today.’
‘Yes, sir,’ chorus a few others, looking up from their ‘Junior English for China’
‘Really?’ says the teacher, with a slight smirk. ‘But I was sure it was English
first lesson.’
‘Oh no, Sir,’ says Tian, with his most seraphic smile. ‘It’s Chinese.’
‘Well, well, well,’ says the teacher with a big smile, such that all the students
know he is aware of what’s happening, but is prepared to go along with it
anyway. Some of them wriggle in their seats with the delight of it all. Deng

   Nimen hao: hello (addressed to more than one person); ni hao: hello (addressed to one person); zuo:
sit down!
   ‘Junior English for China’ and ‘Senior English for China’ are the standard books for English-
language teaching in Middle schools across China. In recent years they take more account of oral and
listening skills.

Qin looks at Ma Ping, but the child is playing no part in this charade. He has
turned to Lesson 39 and is waiting for the lesson to begin.
Teacher Deng clears his throat.
‘Very funny, students,’ he says with a forced smile, and the children burst out
laughing at their wit, looking at each other with pleasure. Ho Dongfang turns
to Ma Ping and digs him in the ribs, but the child doesn’t acknowledge the
moment any more than simply smiling at him dutifully and turning back to
his studies. He begins to mouth the phrases for the coming lesson.

At lunchtime, Ping waits for Ding Pengcheng so they can walk to his friend’s
home together. He sees the lad in the middle of the crowd, his distinctive gait
making him difficult to miss.
‘Hi! Happy birthday! Fool!’
‘Cheers!’ Ma Ping says sarcastically. ‘My father came over.’
‘Oh, really! How nice!’ Ding Pengcheng says, but his voice is suddenly flat
and without enthusiasm. Ma Ping looks at him appraisingly, but gathers that
the child is simply in one of his moods.
‘Are you seeing Deng after school?’
‘Yeah. Zhang Fengjun’s coming from Beijing. You know, Chen’s uncle. Have
you heard that?’
‘Heard it? You’d better believe it.’ Ding Pengcheng starts scuffing the toe of
his shoe into the dust, kicking a little pebble, following it up with his next
steps and finding it again. ‘My father’s going to meet him. They’ve got this
business thing going.’
‘He’s coming to see your father!’ Ma Ping exclaims, impressed.
‘Well, amongst others, apparently.’
‘So, what are they going to be talking about?’
‘I don’t know!’ the child responds mutinously. ‘You don’t expect my father to
tell me, do you?’ He turns away in irritation.
‘Sorry, Ding. I didn’t mean to…’
‘Oh, let’s go home. You’re coming round to ours, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but…’
‘Well come on then if you’re coming!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I got the ninth place in Maths. Ninth. I was first last time. What’s my father
going to say?’
‘Oh, Pengcheng. I’m so sorry.’ He makes as if to pat him on the arm, but Ding
Pengcheng shakes off any such gesture with a scowl.
‘We’ll have that visitor, anyway, so it won’t happen this lunchtime at least.’
The poor lad hangs his head and lopes off in the direction of his home. Ma
Ping follows reluctantly, wishing he had never agreed to this birthday ‘treat’

in the first place, or that his aunt and brother had thought it such a good idea.
Especially with his father there, but then he won’t be home for lunch either,
apparently. He wonders momentarily at his aunt’s generosity. Usually she’s
such a stickler for protocol, which might demand his presence on such a day
as this.

‘Wait for me!’ he calls out to the disappearing figure of his friend in the hurly-
burly of the lunchtime rush inside and outside the school-grounds. It’s as if a
million bicycles have erupted into existence, for a short period only, before
they all retreat behind walls under lock and key, just waiting to emerge onto
the dusty streets again where they carry their owners - mostly school-children
- through the milling throngs, back to school from lunch, tannoys blaring out
form the school’s megaphones, announcing this or that event later today or
this week.

They walk slowly to Ding Pengcheng’s home, down the dusty alleyway just
as a short burst of spring rain trickles around them into the gutters, making
the earth give off a damp and sweet smell, which Ma Ping delights in. He well
recalls his feelings on his earlier visit to this house, however, and can’t
prevent a shiver of apprehension on encountering the boy’s father again. He
has a sudden insight into just how difficult his friend’s life is.
‘It’s kind of you to invite me,’ he says gently to the figure limping quickly
now in front of him, approaching the big metal gates of his house.
‘Mm,’ replies Ding Pengcheng absently, applying himself to the heavy portal
and creaking it open.

They enter the courtyard and walk over towards the sitting room, situated to
the left of the centre of the three-sided building, which overlooks an orchard
of apple trees. His mother emerges through the sitting-room curtain, looking
fraught, her hair in wisps around her face, carrying a large, empty bottle of
Baijou21. She says hello to the boys.
‘We’ll eat in the other room today,’ she announces. ‘Happy Birthday, Ma Ping.
The men are busy in there,’ and almost on cue, the sounds of raised voices can
be heard from within: Ganbei!22 And the clinking of tiny cups.

   Baijou is a clear rice-wine, very strong, sometimes as much as 90% proof, traditionally drunk by
men at banquets, business-meetings, etc.. Very often men are urged to drink it to prove their
companionability and masculinity. It is often felt rude to refuse the host’s profferings. It seals deals and
agreements in business and more informal groups.
   ‘Ganbei’ is the traditional toast, literally ‘bottoms up!’ suggesting that the liquor should be drunk in a
single gulp. Not to do so is also considered impolite or unmanly. Orthodox Hui people do not drink
alcohol on any occasion but less orthodox, often younger generation, Hui men, do. Pressure is fierce to
encourage the drinking of baijou in social gatherings.

Ding Pengcheng is relieved and follows his mother obediently into the
kitchen, where the stove is warm against the chill of the day’s unexpected rain,
which sprinkles hope and refreshes a parched city. He sits down on a stool
near the stove, gesturing Ma Ping to do the same. He sits and looks around
him. A cooker stands in shiny newness in the corner. He hasn’t seen one that
modern before. It’s sleek. And a wok and a pot are sizzling merrily on it. The
cooker’s just like the ones in the advertisements he saw one afternoon after
school recently on Chen Baoqing’s television, showing all the latest kitchen
equipment for modern mothers in Beijing. He looks across at Ding Yan with
new respect, but she is dithering round trying to find something, and doesn’t
catch his admiring glance. He is struck by her expression. Like Yang Le’s. Like
Ma Li Rui’s when his aunt met her that afternoon on Lei Feng Day. The
expression worries him, and further subdues his sense of there being any
pleasure for him here.

‘What’s for lunch?’ Ding Pengcheng asks, breaking into his thoughts, and
looking up at his mother, who is now fetching a new bottle of baijou from the
shelf above her head near the window.
‘I’m all behind this morning, dear,’ she says, quickly going to the cooker,
opening the pot of boiling noodles, her face avoiding the sudden waft of
steam and stirring them quickly, almost absent-mindedly. At that Ding Fuxin
enters the room. ‘I’m hungry,’ he announces, throwing a look, not entirely
welcoming, at their visitor. ‘Hello, Ma’, he says in a tone reminiscent of his
‘Well, you’ll have to wait!’ says Ding Pengcheng triumphantly, conscious of
snubbing him.
‘I wonder what dad’ll say when he finds out about your Maths test, then,’ the
younger boy leans over and hisses in his brother’s ear, at the same time
helping himself to some bread on the counter by the sink. ‘We’ll see how
you’re feeling then.’
‘Shut up!’ Ding Pengcheng snaps back. ‘And how do you know anyway?’ His
voice is low as he keeps an eye on his mother’s movements. She has gone to a
cupboard on the other side of the large kitchen and is rifling through some
packets there.
‘Zhang told me!’
‘Zhang Chen Hui?’ Ding Pengcheng instantly looks over at his mother again
and drops his voice, repeating the name softly.
‘The very same!’
Ma Ping looks at the antagonism between the two boys, unable to understand
‘Well, how did he know?’ still in a whisper.
‘I guess the whole school knows how stupid you are now.’

Their mother passes him on her way out with a tray on which she has placed
some biscuits, some bread, and the baijou. Her steps retreat behind the curtain.
‘I’m NOT!’ thunders the poor child now, jumping to his feet, and thumping
his brother smartly on the side of his head.
‘Mama!’ calls the little teller of bad tidings, falling to the tiled floor with a
‘Shut up, Ding Fuxin,’ hisses Ma Ping, rising to his friend’s defence. ‘Your
father has important guests. And it’s my birthday.’.
The younger child reacts as if he is surprised at the boy’s intervention. Then,
he picks up the stool and shrugs his shoulders.
‘Anyway, he’ll soon know.’ He sits down again, a small smile playing on his
Ma Ping looks angrily at him, but the younger boy tears off a piece of bread
and nonchalantly puts it into his mouth, chewing with apparent relish. ‘He
always knows everything,’ he adds triumphantly.

Ding Pengcheng gulps back his tears as his mother returns, looking more
worried than before. Ma Ping wonders what can be the matter. The tones of
the men rise as if to greet her re-entry and recede again, but the effect on both
his sons is a sobering one. Both cease their hostilities for the moment and look
around the room vaguely as if to find occupation there. Ding Yan goes to the
cooker and begins to stir the contents of their lunch, and then fetches four
bowls into which she ladles a generous amount of noodles from a large, silver
colander-spoon before picking up a spankingly new wooden spoon from a
china vase on the window-sill and slopping some meat-soup from the wok
into each bowl.
‘Ding Fuxin, the chopsticks,’ she says over her shoulder. The child gets up
with a smirk at his older brother and goes to the drawer where the shining
ivory chopsticks and smaller items of silver cutlery are kept, and puts a pair
at each place on the table at the far corner. As he lays down his brother’s
implements, he crashes them loudly and the sound severs the awkward
silence. Ma Ping jumps, but Ding Pengcheng doesn’t move a muscle.
‘All right,’ she says to her younger son, bearing the first two bowls to the table.
‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you two, but that’ll do. Now!’ Suddenly
there is a tremendous roar from the neighbouring room, and calls of Ganbei!
Ganbei! are heard. Ma Ping watches Ding Yan as they begin to eat. She casts
nervous glances over to the wall they share with the next room, almost as if
she expects something to erupt through it and so she doesn’t notice the
atmosphere at the table.

The meal progresses.

Her sons are silently passing messages of their campaign across the table like
soldiers mounting a new initiative. But it is an old war, this one, and his
mother pays no heed. Ma Ping looks at first from one to the other, and then
simply sits in the no-man’s land between them, feeling isolated and miserable.
He realises, however, that it’ll soon be over and he can return to school. And
no Teacher Deng this afternoon. Just History and Biology. Not his favourite
subjects, but better than English and Chinese these days. And Maths is getting
better too, thanks to Ding Pengcheng. But that thought is uncomfortable so he
contents himself with imagining what his aunt might cook him for his tea.
Maybe long-life noodles23 because it’s his birthday.

‘I hope you enjoyed it,’ says Ding Yan, watching the boy as Ma Ping scrapes
his bowl clean, lifting it to his face and shoveling in the last remnants of the
‘Mm, delicious. Thank you,’ he says, putting down his bowl, smiling at her
and balancing the chopsticks on top. ‘Nice chopsticks,’ he says, picking them
up again, running his thumb and digit finger appraisingly up and down,
enjoying the cool ivory smoothness.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘And you two?’ she asks her sons, casting nervous
glances over to the wall.
‘Thanks,’ says Ding Fuxin, as if he has other things on his mind. He leaves the
table and goes outside into the courtyard.
‘Yes, thanks, mother. Come on, let’s go outside,’ says Ding Pengcheng. Mrs.
Ding pushes back a wisp of hair underneath her white cap, rises from the
table, stacks the bowls and takes them over to the sink-counter. Ma Ping
thanks Ding Yan again and follows his friend outside.

The air is compressed with the threat of thunder later. The apple trees in the
orchard are grey with dust, with here and there, a droplet of water casting the
light in an entirely different hue. The dust has coated the leaves with a blend
of silt, which renders them into moulds for a sculpture. Ma Ping watches how
the soft wind seems in one moment to breathe life into them, the next to leave
them hollow. The change from animation to a dark motionlessness occurs in
the blink of an eye, and he stands fascinated by it.

There are sounds of mumbled voices from the sitting room. Ma Ping wonders
what’s going on. The Ding brothers are talking angrily at each other over the
other side of the courtyard, but Ma Ping has no desire to join them. He sits
beneath the shade of an apple tree, watching it from the inside, and is

   Long-life noodles are customarily eaten on someone’s birthday to wish the person a long and fruitful
life. It is particularly a custom in the countryside and although traditionally Hui people don’t celebrate
birthdays with great ceremony, the barriers between traditional Hui, Han and less traditional Hui
families are breaking down in terms of everyday customs such as these.

delighted by the shimmering and rustling. A droplet falls on his upturned
face and he receives it with a thrill at its coolness.

The curtain to the sitting room is suddenly wrenched open.
‘Ding Yan!’ calls his friend’s father, holding on to the doorframe and lurching
slightly forward.
Ding Yan appears quickly in front of the steps.
‘Yes, husband.’
‘Baijou, woman. I told you to keep bringing the baijou.’
‘Yes, of course.’
She turns away, her face red, and her husband begins to retreat behind the
curtain again. His two sons have approached the sitting room now, Ding
Fuxin with a repressed delight, and his elder brother, with very different
‘No, no, no, no!’ implores Ding Yangching slurringly, as a man emerges
through the curtain, someone vaguely familiar, a man in a dark suit, a slinky
suit. He wears shiny glasses, and carries a white handkerchief in his top
pocket, very much in the western style. Ma Ping is impressed. He must be
Zhang Fengjun from Beijing.
‘I have other business to do here,’ says the younger man rather impatiently,
Ma Ping thinks. ‘You’re not the only man I must see today, Ding. And I think
it’s time I went.’
‘Just another toast! Just one more. We can drink to the deal.’
‘We’ve already done that,’ he says dryly.
‘Oh, those lot, they don’t know what they’re missing,’ Ding Yangching says,
gesturing towards the sitting room with his arm, almost overbalancing and
then regaining his balance by lurching back and clapping the other on the
shoulder. Zhang Fengjun’s mouth tightens a little.
Another man pushes through the curtain.
‘Father!’ says Ma Ping astounded.
‘Ma Ping. What are you doing here?’
Another man, clearly another worker like this father, comes out into the
courtyard, and then another, a man in a suit this time, but Ma Ping takes no
notice. He’s both pleased and worried to see his father here amongst these
Ma Xingjian walks down the steps and nods at his son, resting his hand on his
‘So, these are the Dings. I had no idea it was the same family,’ he says. ‘I hear
you’re helping my son,’ he says to Ding Pengcheng, who approaches him
‘Yes, sir.’
‘With his Maths, isn’t it?’
Ding Fuxin snorts and covers it with a cough.

‘That’s Ma Ping!’ says Ding Yangching to Zhang Fengjun irrelevantly. ‘He
says hello to his father. That’s what some sons do, you know. They say hello
to their fathers. It must be nice, must be really, really nice, to have sons who
say hello to their fathers!’
‘Good afternoon, Father,’ says Ding Pengcheng quietly.
‘Good afternoon, Father,’ repeats Ding Fuxin, both boys standing at the
bottom of the steps looking up at him. He sways a little and smiles
munificently at them. Zhang Fengjun takes this opportunity to make his
apologies to leave. Just then, Ding Yan approaches with a new bottle of baijou,
which she’s hurried to their neighbours to borrow, as they had already run
‘A tray. On a tray!’ Ding Yangching shouts at his wife. ‘On a tray. It’s easy to
do. You put it on a tray!’ He rolls down the steps, and takes the bottle roughly
from her hands, but then seems to lose heart and it hangs by his side,
forgotten. He turns to Zhang Fengjun, who is edging his way from the group
and two of the other men join them. Ma Ping looks at Ding Yan, her
expression bereft of hope. She stands framed in her own sorrow by the apple-
trees, where the breeze has stopped blowing.

‘Father, why are you here?’ Ma Ping says, turning to him and looking back at
the group of men, as if to suggest that their very presence ought to dissuade
his father from being here. Ding Pengcheng and his brother are standing near
the group of men, neither listening, but waiting. Ding Yan has retreated back
into the kitchen.
‘Business, son. You’ll understand one day.’
‘But that man, Father…’
‘Hush now! Don’t speak in that manner. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Father.’
‘Now, I’ve done a good deal today for the family.’
Hope surges in Ma Ping.
‘Can Ma Ling come here, then?’
Ma Xingjian looks in bemusement at his son.
‘Ma Ling? What are you on about? Ma Ling come here!’ And he laughs out
loud. ‘What a son I have,’ he says to himself. ‘He asks if the child can come
here!’ He shakes his head as if at a private joke.
‘What deal, then?’
His only answer is his father’s shaking of his head.
‘Hush now. Off you go back to your friends. You’ve picked a right one, there,’
he says, gesturing with a smirk towards Ding Pengcheng who even now is
limping over to the wall surrounding the small orchard and is sitting on it,

Ma Ping wants to defend him, but has never felt less like doing so. He looks at
Ding Pengcheng sitting listlessly and knows absolutely, and for always, that
he doesn’t like the boy. He wishes he’d never met him. It’s not a revelation
he’s comfortable with. He pities him. He wishes his life were easier, but he
doesn’t like him: there’s something defeated about the child, something
turned inward. When he’s around, Ma Ping feels constrained. It isn’t anything
at all to do with his physical deformities, it’s as if the real deformities are
within, shriveling up all good impulses and rendering all reality around him
tawdry and hopeless.

‘We’re going!’ says Ma Xingjian to his host, and then, without further
deliberation, making his farewells to the other men and acknowledging Ding
Pengcheng, he and Ma Ping leave the courtyard to repeated and loud calls
from Ding Yangching to come again. Ding Yan follows the guests to the
courtyard-gate and Ma Xingjian thanks her courteously for her hospitality.
Ma Ping calls out his thanks to Ding Pengcheng and that he’ll see him at
school probably. Ding Yan smiles wanly at both her guests and clanks the
great metal gates shut behind them.

‘Phew! I’m glad that’s over.’ Ma Ping sighs heavily, turning away and leaning
back against the gate in an exaggerated gesture of relief.
‘I thought he was your friend.’
‘So did I.’
Ma Ping heaves himself off the gate and they begin to walk together in a
direction which will lead them directly to his school. The child is delighted
that his father is accompanying him.
‘Father?’ he begins.
‘I don’t like Ding Yangching.’
Ma Xingjian looks at his son with pride in his eyes, which he tries to hide.
‘I don’t want to hear you speaking like that about your elders. You know I
don’t like that. I should beat you for speaking in that way.’
‘I know. I wouldn’t have said it, Father, but well…’ The little boy doesn’t
know how to express his feelings. He tries again. He is dimly aware of being
surprised that his father is allowing him to.
‘He isn’t a nice man.’
His father raises his eyebrows.
‘Now you leave that to your father,’ he says. And then he sees his son’s
intelligently enquiring eyes, looking up at him, trusting and yet also
somehow wise. He is moved. He finds himself for the first time admiring the
child for his perspicacity. He takes his hand and Ma Ping tries to ignore the
discomfort. Together they walk a little further up the alleyway.
‘Son, there are many kinds of people in this world.’

Ma Ping looks up at him, feeling the stillness and the peace between them.
‘And Allah teaches us to bear many things.’
Ma Ping nods as if he understands. They stop, father and son, looking deeply
at each other for a moment. Then they walk on, Ma Xingjian with a smile of
pride in his most beloved child and Ma Ping sensing a great love for his wise
father. Such a good man. Everyone says so.
‘In our lives, Ping, we must meet many people. We must work with them, do
business with them. We must tolerate them. Do you understand?’
‘I think so.’
His father smiles.
‘I wonder what you do understand. I hear you’re rather an artist.’
Ma Ping stops, appalled, and looks up at his father. If he says he must give it
‘Yes, Father,’ is all he says, however.
‘Your aunt seems to think you’re a real tiancai. Do you agree?’
‘No, father.’
They walk on.

Ma Xingjian smiles at his son’s modesty because he knows it’s sincere. The
answer impresses him. He has seen his son’s work and knows it is beyond his
understanding. It is beyond anything he has ever seen or heard of. It frightens
him a little, but he’s not a man to be put off by fear.
‘There have been some troubles with Teacher Deng, I understand.’
In a sweet gesture of trust, Ma Ping stops in their dusty alleyway and presents
his palms to his father’s inspection, looking up at him with candour in his
eyes. The submission of the gesture is not lost on the man, whose brow
darkens, but he says nothing. They walk on.
‘We’ll have to work out something,’ he says, his voice trembling. Then he
smiles. ‘Come on, let’s get you to school,’ he says and with that, they change
the subject.

‘You’re home early!’ says his aunt much later that afternoon as he pushes
aside the curtain. The restaurant is hugely busy, the discarded tissues, broken
chopsticks, spills and scraps of food on the floor heavily attesting to that fact.
Men are playing finger-games raucously and with evident pleasure across the
room. The noise is deafening.
‘Yes, Teacher Deng had something important to do24 after school so I’m free.’
He shouts and smiles with glee. ‘A great birthday, Aunt. Where’s Father?’

  A very common way for people in the northwest of China to change plans is simply to say that they
have something important to do. The implication that the other activity is more important is not ever
taken as a slur. The vagueness of the reason is also quite in keeping with traditional customs.

‘He had work to do,’ his aunt answers dismissively. ‘Now you listen to me,
young man. Don’t stand about getting under everyone’s feet. There’s work to
be done and then you can do your homework. We’re rushed off our feet here.’
Ma Ping throws his bag onto the floor behind the counter and is about to go
into the kitchen, when his aunt cries out:
‘Not in there, you silly boy! Here. Wipe down these tables. Oh,’ and then she
shakes her head in irritability. ‘Oh, why don’t you just go upstairs and do
your homework instead? I’ll manage down here.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I suppose so!’ She seems both irascible and smiling, a state he is well
used to. He smirks happily at her, retrieves his bag and races up the stairs.
He rushes down again.
‘Aunt! Aunt!’ he says, his face wreathed in smiles. A few customers turn to
look at the excitement, but see nothing to merit it, and turn away again.
‘What now?’ she says, her smile now tinged with triumph. ‘You like it!’
‘Oh Aunt, you’re so good to me!’ and he makes as if to hug her.
‘Get on with you!’ she says, pushing at him, so that he can’t come any nearer.
‘And now, I’ll be able to keep an eye on you all the time!’ she says with a
smirk. ‘And don’t you forget it!’ He laughs merrily at her joke. What a
‘Thank you! Thank you!’ he says, and he dashes upstairs again.

On the wall of the garret is his painting of his aunt, framed in a gold-
lacquered surround. It stands where the light can best capture it. Ma Ping is
transfixed by it, because it’s his, because his aunt approves, and because
suddenly a golden future opens itself to his imagination, one in which he
really is an artist. He sits on his bunk, leafing through the pages of this
particular narrative, drinking it in, weaving dreams and hopes and possible
realities. And then, happily, eventually, he opens his History book and begins
to study. It’s all making sense today. This History stuff is pretty easy really. It
occurs to him that perhaps he doesn’t need Ding Pengcheng’s help anymore,
but he pushes the thought away and focuses all his attention on his book.

Time passes.

Later, he decides to go and help in the restaurant after all. With a final look at
his picture, he jumps downstairs but finds it’s not so busy. Ma Shipeng
quickly asks him to play pick-up-sticks with some discarded chopsticks and a
toothpick to lever them with. Ma Ping is delighted. He can’t remember when
he’s played it last. Ma Shipeng stands on the side of the counter looking out
into the room so that he can keep his eye on customers’ needs, and Ma Ping
faces him and soon becomes totally absorbed in the game. So much so that he
misses his brother’s looks of tender joy at his younger sibling’s absorption

and laughter. He’s seen the picture and loves what it implies for his brother’s
future. Customers come up to the counter to pay and gradually, subliminally,
Ma Ping becomes aware that the chatter in the restaurant is stilling.
‘Got you!’ he shouts exultingly as Ma Shipeng makes a chopstick quiver
whilst trying to dislodge it with his toothpick. ‘Another one to me!’ He grins
in gleeful triumph.
Another customer comes to pay and as he leaves, Ma Shipeng follows him to
the door and locks it after him.
‘What are you doing? It’s not time to close.’
‘No, but, well, we’re closing early.’ And then in a louder voice: ‘All clear
Ma Ping looks at his brother and then round at the kitchen from where
someone is pushing through the curtain. His father emerges.
‘What are you doing in there?’
His mouth falls open as the next five figures enter the restaurant-room, three
bearing bowls, pots of steaming meatballs noodles and various other dishes,
and two walking slowly in front. The first is his maternal grandfather, Li
Jiangtao, walking slowly with the aid of a stick. His hair is grayer than Ma
Ping remembers, and his beard bushier somehow.
‘Lost your tongue, boy?’ the old man asks, raising his eyebrows and shaking
his stick at him. Everyone laughs at the child’s discomfiture.
‘No, grandfather.’ The old man nods his head. He is followed by his wife, Li
Jincao, her grey hair tucked neatly under her cap, her lined face sallow, but
her eyes fiercely bright.
‘A kiss for your old grandmother!’ she demands, and bends down to present
her cheek to Ma Ping who kisses it quickly.
‘Hello Grandmother!’ he says, biting his lip. Then he looks round at his little
brother. It really is Ma Hui. He wasn’t imagining it. And Ma Ling. He grasps
her hand roughly with pleasure.
‘When did you all…?’ Then sentence is left unfinished as he looks around,
unable to take it all in.
Huang Hongmei carries a bowl of steaming egg and tomato, placing it on the
central table.

‘Don’t stand there with your mouth open, Boy!’ says Bai Qiang. ‘Help your
grandmother to a seat.’
His grandmother, however, waves him off.
‘No, no! Let him help Ma Rong. Help your mother, boy!’

He rushes to obey, still blinking rapidly in his amazement, grinning from ear
to ear, taking a big bowl of long-life noodles from his mother’s hands, and
looking with love at his sister and younger brother. He gasps with the heat of
the bowl against his hands and rushes to the large round table in the middle

of the restaurant indicated by Ma Shipeng where he deposits it heavily with a
rattle, slopping some of the contents onto the table.
‘Careful, butterfingers!’ admonishes Bai Qiang. ‘Please, Father, sit here!’ She
motions her father gently to his place, taking his elbow and supporting his
progress. ‘And mother, you sit here, next to Father. Ma Xingjian, would you
mind sitting here?’ She helps him to a seat with her usual busyness. He smiles
at her fussing over everyone, but it is with a new respect. He has seen how
much his sons admire her and how much she loves his favourite child. He
motions to his wife to sit next to him.
‘And you here, Ma Shipeng. Huang Hongmei, you may join us.’
The young cook smiles in gratitude, blushing, taking her side shyly beside Ma
Shipeng. ‘Anyway, I think there’s something you want to need to discuss with
your grandparents and parents, isn’t there, Ma Shipeng?’
He blushes and looks down at the food, then at Huang Hongmei and finally
at his grandfather who is looking at him with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Ma Ling, put that dish over here and go and fetch the qiezi.’25 Qiezi, thinks
Ma Ping rapturously. His favourite! Lovely Ma Ling hurries to obey. ‘Ma Hui,
where’s the bread?’
‘Sorry, Aunt!’ says the little boy and runs into the kitchen to retrieve it. His
movements are fluent and quick, and Ma Rong watches him with pride. He
almost immediately returns.
‘You can sit here,’ his aunt guides him.
‘And Ma Ping, this is your place,’ and she indicates the seat opposite the door
to the restaurant.26
Ma Ping swells with pride as he takes the top seat next to his grandfather on
one side and his father on the other.
‘Well, I never did!’ says Li Jincao with asperity. ‘Whatever next! In my day…’
‘In my day, we had no food to celebrate our birthdays, wife. Let’s enjoy this
one,’ says her husband, patting her hand. She is slightly mollified, but looks
askance at her grandson now and again at him enjoying such a privilege.

His eyes are moist with wonder and happiness. He sits down and surveys his
whole family, looking round slowly, one at a time, as if to gather them into
the folds of his memory, gently wrapping them in the silken cloth of his
imagination, storing them away, so that later he might bring their likenesses
out into the present where he can look at them afresh. He blinks with tears.

‘So, let’s eat some long-life noodles for you, eh, Ping,’ says Ma Xingjian.
‘Huang Hongmei, I think we need to meet your parents, don’t you?’

  Qiezi – pronounced chee edzer. It means egg-plant or aubergine.
  Where someone sits at a formal meal is of importance in China. Chief guests at a banquet, for
example, are placed opposite the entrance, so that they are the first to be seen by the waitresses. In
addition, fish-dishes are placed on the table with the head facing the chief guest.

‘Yes, Sir,’ she says demurely, smiling shyly again at Ma Shipeng and at Li
Jiangtao, who nods slowly at her. It seems like approval, and she feels relief.
Ma Ping looks from his brother to Huang Hongmei.
‘You mean you two…?’ He blushes.
‘Yes, you fool!’ says Ma Shipeng laughing, and helping his younger brother to
the noodles.
‘I thought you said he was bright!’ says Li Jincao.
‘Ma Ling, dear, pass your bowl!’ She reaches across her younger brother and
smiles that Ma Shipeng always remembers her first.
‘Give your grandfather some more noodles, Ma Ling and don’t just think
about yourself,’ says Bai Qiang sternly and the girl hurries to obey.
‘You mean you and she…?’ Ma Ping continues.
Everyone laughs this time.
‘For a clever boy, you really can miss a lot, can’t you?’ says his mother,
smiling at him in wonderment at his lapses and his insights. Maybe the
teacher is right. Maybe he is a tiancai after all. The thought doesn’t entirely
please her. But those pictures…
‘We are betrothed, yes, well, sort of,’ Ma Shipeng continues. ‘We need to talk
to Hongmei’s parents again of course.’
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ the child asks, stuffing his mouth with noodles.
‘How long’s this been going on?’
But now, everyone, including his grandparents seem to find this question
enormously funny. Little Ma Ping frowns indignantly.
‘What’s the joke?’
‘You are, little brother,’ says Ma Ling teasingly.
Everyone laughs again. Even Ma Hui seems to get the joke, and Ma Ping
looks at him with a warning glint in his eyes, but the younger child shrugs his
shoulders as if to say that whatever it is, it isn’t his fault.
‘Long life, my son!’ says Ma Xingjian. He raises his tea-cup in a toast. Ma Ling
pours her beloved brother some coke, which she hauls up in a big bottle from
beside her feet. Coke! What a treat!
‘Toasting him now!’ says Li Jincai, pursing her lips, but taking a little of the
liquid nevertheless and dipping her head in Ma Ping’s direction. Her duty
fulfilled, she puts down her cup and turns to her son-in-law.

‘And there are two reasons for us all being here today.’ Ma Xingjian sips his
tea slowly, as if deep in consideration of his next words. Ma Ping notices that
his brothers and sister are all wrapt attention. The older people on the other
hand, seem to know something. He looks from one to the other, but their faces
reveal nothing but a kind of tension, but it doesn’t seem a bad one. What’s
going on?

‘Would you like to speak, Father-in-Law?’ he asks politely. Li Jiangtao nods at
him, but gestures for him to continue.
‘Today I did a deal,’ Ma Xingjian begins. ‘With Zhang Fengjun and Ding
Yangching and several men from Haiyuan. Our vegetables are good, we all
know that. People nod around the table in assent, with murmurs of
‘Zhang’s the brains behind it of course, and although I am not quite happy
with doing business with Han people in Beijing, they think there’s a market
for our particular homegrown variety. Zhang says they’re the best he’s ever
‘Well, I should think so!’ says Bai Qiang adamantly.
‘Look,’ he continues, ‘you don’t need to know all the details. We’re all moving
to the city.’
‘What?’ Childish exclamations deafen his next words. Ma Ping shouts out
with happiness and grabs his sister’s hand across the table. Li Jiangtao and Li
Jincai look at each other for a long moment and nod quietly. Ma Rong sees her
son’s delight and swallows quickly. Ma Hui starts to jiggle up and down in
his seat with delight. Ma Shipeng looks across at Huang Hongmei with a
smile of gentle rapture. To have all his favourite people in one place: it’s more
than he ever dreamt possible. And Ma Ping sits back then, his pleasure almost

His father continues:
‘With the extra money and the revenue from this place – and son,’ he adds
with a nod of approval at his eldest child, ‘you’ve done an excellent job here. I
am very proud of you!’ Ma Shipeng blushes modestly and Huang Hongmei
smiles at him. Li Jiangtao nods gravely at him too. What a good man he is,
Huang Hongmei thinks proudly. What sons we will have!
‘So with all the money coming in, we can afford it. A better school for Ma
Ling and Ma Hui,’ he nods at his children with a kind smile and they radiate
theirs back to him. ‘And an easier life for you, dear Ma Rong,’ he says, turning
to his wife and taking her hand. ‘And at last, mother and father-in-law,
somewhere we can all live together. Building work will begin on these
premises and finish before Moon Festival. We’ve bought the bit of land at the
back and we can make our apartments there. We’ll need to bring some items
from home, we can’t have new, I’m afraid, but we’ve discussed this already.
And until they’re ready, Bai Qiang will put up Li Jiangtao and Li Jincai and
Ma Ling. We will board Ma Hui as well here. Me and Huang Weiping will be
responsible for most of the transport side – runs to Yinchuan and Xi’an. Lots
of traveling, but it’ll be fine.’
‘Huang Weiping, father?’ interrupts Ma Ping, suddenly interested in this
detail. That kind man who gives him fruit and who looks after those little
beggar girls. ‘He’s a nice man!’

‘So I should think, young ‘un!’ says Li Jincai. ‘Fond of your own opinion,
aren’t you? Keep quiet about your elders.’
‘Sorry, Grandmother.’ He drops his head and she smiles at him. What a
scallywag he is. She looks over at her son-in-law, believing it will work out
after all. As long as the child is carefully brought up. He mustn’t spoil. He
mustn’t be one of these Little Emperors. Oh no, her grandchild is destined for
quite another fate.

‘And of course, Bai Qiang.’ Ma Xingjian says, turning to his sister-in-law. ‘As
we all know, without your support, all of this would not have been possible.’
He sweeps his arm in an expansive gesture
‘Hear! Hear!’ shouts Ma Ping, but is silenced by a look from his father.
‘Well, thank you I’m sure, but I’m just doing my duty,’ she says sternly, but
Ma Ping sees the twitching at the corner of her mouth and knows she’s

Suddenly a customer rattles the door, and Bai Qiang shouts out, ‘We’re
closed!’ Everyone laughs at the release of tension, and the man mutters
something and walks away, but not before he’s peered in closely and for some
moments to check up on what’s happening inside, before turning away to
find a meal elsewhere.

‘Happy Birthday Ma Ping!’ shouts the father all at once, and the little family
gets to its feet and to toast the little boy. The grandmother heaves herself with
difficulty to her feet, but this time says nothing against the action.
‘To Ma Ping!’ they all chorus and click their cups, then bang them repeatedly
on the table-top to heighten the noise before draining them off in a single
mouthful before sitting down again all smiling over at the child.

And our little Ma Ping sits amidst all this love, looking again from one to the
other as they clink their cups – at his sister’s face joyful in the evening light,
his grandmother strict but loving underneath it all, his grandfather quiet and
serious and wise, his father clever and hardworking, his mother gentle and
thoughtful and quietly happy now, his brother so supportive and loving, Ma
Hui, roguish and silly (what fun they’ll have together!) Ma Hongmei soft and
beautiful, and at last his eyes rest on his aunt, his dear aunt, sterling, like a
battleship ready to launch, but whose voyage could save the world - and he
feels that this moment is perfect and wishes he could hold onto it forever.

Chapter Ten: Wednesday, April 16th
Ma Ping wipes the brush on an old rag and lays it down at last. It’s worth not
sleeping when this is the result. He looks from figure to figure on the canvas,
resting on the easel. It’s a rickety easel, but it’s his now: Chen Baoqing got it

from his attic. No one would miss it, he said. He didn’t even know it was
there, but he and Little Tian were rummaging around the other day, and there
it was in the dust. It must have belonged to his great-grandfather at one time;
he was an artist too. His mother said it was all right for him to have it for the
time being, but when her husband came back from Beijing, they would see.
She was pleased it was being used again, she said, but she insisted Ma Ping
draw her portrait. He blushes now at the memory and smiles. And he really
ought to get on with it, but what with the visitors from Beijing, and this
painting that just won’t go away until he’s finished it, well, he’s just too busy.
And he turns again to his canvas. Real canvas too. Chen asked and asked
until at last his mother relented and gave the child two canvases for Ma Ping’s
use. And Ma Ping is discovering the joy of painting in oils, a sensuous, an
entirely different experience from watercolour. The gentleness of that medium
is replaced with the timelessness of canvas and oils in which Ma Ping feels the
pictures grow out of the canvas themselves, rather than being depicted there
by him. It is as if he stands at the easel and the picture breathes through him
into its own life. He seems as much observer as artist and this process
fascinates him.

The figures sit in tiers. His grandfather and grandmother stand at the back,
shadowy on a grey background, one on each side, were it not for the light
which streams in from the window on the right and left of the picture,
illuminating them as focal points. It is difficult to discern their background,
but their features are alive with fire in their eyes and love in their bearing.
Then his parents in front of them, Ma Rong sitting down and Ma Xingjian
standing beside her, his hand on her shoulder. Bai Qiang is standing on the
other side of her sister, also laying her hand gently on her shoulder. The
children Ma Hui and Ma Ling are standing in the foreground with Ma
Shipeng in the middle, sitting down, looking towards the artist with a smile of
profound pleasure. And next to him, sitting closely, is Huang Hongmei,
looking up at him shyly. In particular Ma Ling’s expression is sweetly gentle
and he traces her smile with his finger a fraction above the canvas.

And then characters from Ma Ping’s daily life frame the picture. There’s Chen
Baoqing at the corner on the right-hand side, peeping round the curtains
which frame the main players like actors on a stage. And Little Tian is behind
him, holding on to his coat at the back. It’s like a theatre stage-set, stylized,
formal, symmetrical and instantly recognizable. For on the other side, near the
left-hand corner, is Ding Pengcheng, turned away from the others, trying to
exit the cluttered room, looking outwards into the gloom, his profile
shadowed with displeasure. Teacher Deng stands with him and is clearly
following his student, but he’s casting his eye back into the tableau where he
clearly wants to be. The child’s back is hunched in defeat and the teacher

seems beaten too. Their exit, in the shapes of their departing bodies, the swirls
of colour around their heads and retreating backs, are mirrored, in a reverse
way through Ma Xingjian’s arm as it curls around his wife’s shoulder, and Bai
Qiang’s hand as it rests on her sister.

At the back, directly in the middle, in the shadows, illuminated strangely
because there hardly seems any light, stands Ma Li Rui motionlessly, looking
on with a soft, wise smile. She is holding Yang Le’s hand and the younger
woman is looking up at her questioningly, but with a peaceful expression.

The effect of the picture is of grandeur and yet small domesticity. All the
figures are simply dressed. No one radiates the stature of an emperor, and yet
each character, apart from Ding Pengcheng and Teacher Deng, is depicted as
heroic in some way and in harmony with the others in the family-group. A
turn of the mouth suggesting nobility, honour and even valour can easily be
seen, particularly in Bai Qiang and Ma Xingjian and even to a degree, in Ma
Shipeng. Kindness is in most faces, a gentleness even a self-sacrifice.
However, the shadows lurking in the psyches of the two negative fugures
unbalance the picture, lending it a display of caricature, rather than the
timeless beauty of the family portraits.

However, Ma Ping is thrilled. For him it is a new way to express his feelings,
and he feels a sense of satisfaction he has never experienced before. He grins
widely at it. He knows that all the characters can see him as he paints them.
You have this impression as you look at the picture, that Ma Ping himself is in
every character he depicts, every swirl of the brush, every touch of shadow
and light, but more significantly, that they know he’s there, painting them
and that knowledge brings him into the centre of the picture, the focal point.
He is both at the centre and invisible. It is a tour-de-force and even the small
artist is moved beyond his own understanding at what he has achieved.

‘Wow!’ His brothers are standing behind him. ‘Oh Ping, that’s incredible!’
says Ma Hui. And then he laughs. ‘But I don’t think you should show Teacher
Deng like that, do you?’
Ma Ping turns his head to him, grinning hugely. ‘No, but it might do him
good nevertheless.’
Ma Shipeng shakes his head.
‘What might do Teacher Deng good?’ says his aunt’s voice. She approaches
the three brothers, crowded round the painting, they part and she scrutinises
it closely.
‘Well, so this is what you’ve been doing this morning and last night and the
night before that, I’ll be bound. Ping, I told you, you have to study as well

Her voice trails off as she peers, almost in disbelief at what she’s seeing.
‘Well, Allah himself might…’ She stops herself. ‘You have a gift, Boy!’
Ma Ping smiles at the use of the emphasis in her address.
‘It isn’t a kind painting, Ma Ping.’
‘No, well…’ His first words are belligerent, but his next ones are mumbled
and lost.
Bai Qiang purses her lips.
‘Go to school, nephew. And put a cloth over that.’
Ma Ping sighs.
‘And Ma Ping!’
‘Yes, Aunt.’
‘You are not going to become arrogant in this house. You have a great gift,
Boy, but that doesn’t give you the right to make fun of your elders and
‘No, Aunt!’
‘Well, think on, and do hurry up. Those visitors are coming today. Are you
going to take that red-paper poster you did a few weeks ago? It’s on the side
there in a cardboard roll.’
‘No, Teacher Deng says we don’t need it.’ Ma Ping throws a cloth over the
painting, which has now lost some of its gloss for him, and Ma Shipeng tells
him to down into the restaurant to eat his breakfast with his brothers. He
makes as if to do as he’s told, but only stands at the top of the stairs and waits
for his aunt. He is disturbed by her reaction. His innate honesty recognises
something valid in her response, and he needs to check she isn’t angry with
him. Bai Qiang remains a moment and removes the cloth so that she might
take another look at what Ma Ping has created.

She shakes her head, smiling and troubled. He really is a tiancai, isn’t he? She
peers closely at the figures, one-by-one, smiling at one, frowning at another,
then she sighs, puts the cloth back over the painting and turns to leave the
garret. It’s too difficult for her to think about now.
‘What are you still doing here?’ she says as she sees Ma Ping waiting for her.
‘You don’t like it, do you, Aunt?’
Bai Qiang doesn’t want this conversation, and to dismiss him at the moment
would be much the easier course, but she sees his imploring face. She
crouches down so that their faces are level.
‘Ma Ping, I don’t understand your gift. Maybe it isn’t for me to understand. It
is, of course, only for Allah to understand what gifts we have and how we can
best use them, but I don’t like what you seem to be doing with it. There! I’ve
said it. When you paint, you are saying something. You must be sure you are
saying the right thing.’
‘I don’t follow.’

‘Oh yes, you do,’ she says gently, leaning forward a little and kissing him on
his forehead. ‘Come on now, breakfast and then school. Aren’t you supposed
to be early today?’

This morning he enters through the school-gates, which are decorated by the
customary red-lanterns hung for special occasions, with signs of welcome
written in gold. Bright red posters abound. He spots one of his on the way in.
Not one of his best, because no one at school has seen his best calligraphy. All
the ones he did at school were supervised by Teacher Deng and he feels the
results are ordinary. He feels a spark of resentment that the best poster
remains at home, unseen and unadmired by anyone here. Children throng
everywhere and the noise and babble are tumultuous this morning.
‘Hello Ma,’ says Ding Pengcheng, limping his way across to Ma Ping. He has
clearly been waiting for him. Ma Ping’s heart misgives. Why won’t the child
just leave him alone?
‘Hello, Ding.’
‘The school looks good, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes, I suppose so. I have to go to class.’
‘Did you hear about Zhang?’
‘Zhang? You mean Zhang Chen Hui?’
‘No, what?’
‘He’s been expelled!’
‘What!’ This has Ma Ping’s attention and he turns to Ding Pengcheng.
‘Last night. It was all hush-hush apparently, but Mr. Zhang came up to school,
completely drunk, and tried to hit Mr. Gao.’
‘You’re kidding.’
‘No, I’m not.’ Ding Pengcheng is gratified that Ma Ping’s stance now suggests
he’s listening and staying for a while. ‘So, Mr. Gao said that was it! And
Zhang’s out. For good apparently.’ He nods his head with barely restrained
delight and all at once, Ma Ping finds his glee repulsive.
‘Well, what will he do now?’
‘Who, Zhang?’
‘Who cares! Actually, Ho said he saw him this morning skulking around
outside the gates really early. You’d think he’d be pleased to get out of here
for good. He could stay in bed for a start. That’d be amazing. I know I’d be
jumping up and down with delight if I could stay off school forever,’ he says
bitterly. There is a pause as Ma Ping thinks awkwardly of the picture Ding

Pengcheng has just painted of himself. He shakes his head free of such an

‘Ma Ping, I’ve got to be a runner today,’ the boy breaks into his reverie. ‘I hate
doing that. It always takes me longer than anyone else. And they just don’t
want me in the picture.’
With a pang of pity, Ma Ping realises there may be some truth in his
miserable words.
‘A runner? I’m sorry.’
‘Yes, I have to tell people when to go outside when the visitors come. And I
have to check that everyone is out of their classroom along my corridor. And
then I have to stay in and check no one comes back. It’s a big responsibility,
you know. But they just don’t want me in the picture. It’s always like that.
Who’s the runner in your class?’
‘Huang, I think. Yes, why?’
‘Yes, it is him. I saw him this morning. I asked him. I knew it would be him.
Huang, bai huabing huanzhe.27 Yes, well, that says it all, doesn’t it?’
‘Oh, come on, Ding,’ Ma Ping says in frustration. ‘You’re reading too much
into it.’
Ding Pengcheng is about to retaliate but he has nothing really further to say.
It embarrasses and hurts him too much that it might all be true.

‘Anyway,’ he continues with new verve, ‘my father’s going to take me to
lunch today because I got the first place in History yesterday. That’ll more
than make up for it. And Ding Fuxin isn’t coming. Father’s even coming to
fetch me from school.’ Then his smile becomes smug and Ma Ping looks away.
He cannot bear to see the child’s self-deception. This week a meal, next week
a beating probably. And no doubt Mr. Ding is only coming to the school to
fetch him because he wants to see the visitors from Beijing. He’ll be surprised
if he really goes to lunch with him at all. Ma Ping feels suddenly sick. Then
he’s struck with something his aunt said to him that morning. Something
about what he says to people. What truths he tells to people. He doesn’t really
understand, but something about her words is making him feel uneasy.
Should he say something to Ding Pengcheng? If so, what should he say?

But the other child is taking his leave, not wanting to miss anything in the
class preparations. Ma Ping watches him go to his lesson and knows it is the
last time that there will be any acknowledgement of a genuine friendship
between them. Something has just severed itself in Ma Ping and he feels a
hardness, but also a sense of pity for the boy, both of which emotions confuse
him. He goes to class.

     Baihuabing huanzhe means albino. Literally, white-birch skin-sufferer.

It’s all activity and noise. Children are putting up banners, sticking posters to
the walls, three children are washing windows, although to Ma Ping’s certain
knowledge, the windows were cleaned only last week! And someone is
washing the blackboard with water and a huge cloth, dipping it down into a
large metal bucket and sloshing it up onto the surface, giggling, because the
water is splashing his head. Teacher Deng is supervising some children at the
back who are decorating the picture of the Great Wall with flowers and
‘Ma, you decided to join us.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Help Chen and Tian with cleaning the cupboards inside.’
‘Yes, sir.’
Ma Ping instantly turns to his classmates and raises his eyebrows as if to say,
why on earth do we have to clean the insides? Both boys smile in response
and Chen throws a wet cloth at him, hitting him squarely in the face.
‘That’s quite enough of that behaviour. Now you get on, you three, or I will
have you removed from the ceremony this morning. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, sir,’ say all three. Little Tian looks worried, but Chen claps him on the
back with a reassuring grin. Ma Ping simply turns to his task without a word
or gesture. The other two look at each other with raised eyebrows but then
they devote their next half an hour to cleaning the insides of all the cupboards
in the room. There’s no time for idle chatter.

At eleven o’clock, the tannoy announces the arrival of the visitors. They were
supposed to have arrived at 10.30. Children waiting fractiously in classrooms
cheer hugely and rush to the windows to gain a glimpse of what they have
been so eagerly anticipating. Teachers don’t try to stop them: they are just as
excited as their students. Visitors to their school. Not Haiyuan. Not Penyang,
and not even the capital, Yinchuan first, but Guyuan, the newest city in
China’s developing glory. What an honour for their city!

Ma Ping and his friends stand at the window, peering out, pushing others
aside, and being pushed aside, all to get a better glimpse. There isn’t much for
them to see. Their classroom looks onto the back of the school, rather than the
front. A couple of children saw the tail end of the last car with its blacked-out
windows, as it drove around to the front of the building, but now their entry
is over. In dribs and drabs the children move back to their desks, muttering
with disappointment.
‘When can we go out, sir?’ asks Ho, sitting down gruffly on his stool.
‘Be patient, Ho,’ says Teacher Deng. ‘Let’s make sure that every student
knows their lesson for today. Chen, begin.’

Students expected Chen to be chosen, because his uncle lives in Beijing and
his putonghua is very good.
Chen Baoqing stands up and begins to recite, clearly and in standard
‘To our visitors from the Educational Department of Beijing Normal
University, we welcome you to our, um…’
‘New city, Chen. New city!’
‘To our new city. Our new city, yes. Um, we are proud that you have chosen
Guyuan to visit. We will work very hard in the future to become a better city
so that you can be proud of us in Beijing. Three cheers to our special visitors
And the children’s cheers ring out gladly as Chen Baoqing sits down.
‘And again, Chen. Again, please! Stand up’
Chen Baoqing stands again and delivers his little speech with fewer
hesitations and finally, after many repeats, Teacher Deng is satisfied.
‘Now, Ma, you please!’
Ma Ping, who has been waiting for this, stands and recites flawlessly. Teacher
Deng is about to praise him, but the boy’s cold expression, staring straight
ahead, just elicits from the man a curt command to sit down.

Suddenly there is a loud rap on the door.
‘Enter!’ shouts Teacher Deng.
‘Headteacher Gao asks for your class to come out now, sir,’ says the little boy,
popping his yellow head round the door. Everyone laughs at his appearance.
‘Fine. Huang, go and tell the other classes upstairs. You know the drill.’
‘Yes, sir,’ says Huang, putting on his black cap to cover his hair, pulling it
down over his ears so that not a trace of his hair can be seen, and leaving the
classroom. This is an automatic gesture: Huang Jiang no longer worries about
his colouring, and such ridicule as he receives on occasion makes little
impression on him anymore, and doesn’t even mind missing the photograph
today. Putting on his cap is an automatic gesture and he couldn’t tell you if he
is hurt by the laughter anymore. He knows he doesn’t like to have his picture
taken and he didn’t like the way Ding talked to him about it this morning,
either. That boy always sees the worst in everything. And why Ma Ping
would go around with him seems unbelievable. Ma is a clever boy and they
say he’s an artist. How wonderful to be an artist. He catches Ma Ping’s eyes
and grins just before he leaves the room, and the child is cheered by his
warmth. He likes Huang, even if he does have strange hair and eyes. Maybe
he should get to know him better.

Eagerly the children line-up as Teacher Deng orders them to, and two-by-two,
in perfect synchrony, they pass out of the classroom door, melding
harmoniously with all the other groups already swarming in the corridor

towards the side-entrance, the quickest route to the front of the school. No
one speaks. Such is the magnitude of the occasion, that absolute silence has
been required and not a single child dare break this unusual rule. Some even
compress their lips to ensure they don’t speak inadvertently. Thus the
procession moves out into the fresh spring day. Banners, bunting and posters
are everywhere, the wind, whipping up the bunting with harsh clicks and
slaps. Ma Ping walks out into the fresh air and breathes deeply. He is aglow
with the colour, with the occasion, with the multitudes of people.

All the children have been organized to form thirty ranks in rows of one-
hundred students, all evenly spaced, facing the podium which has been
standing empty for a week now. Oldest students at the back, near the
entrance of the school, their backs to the road, on which spectators are now
gathering to catch a glimpse of the esteemed visitors from Beijing. The
younger pupils form lines towards the front. The dais has been erected at the
exact-centre of the three-sided building and all the students crane their heads
to get a good look as they pass at the figures on the platform. There have been
three rehearsals after school for the last three days, and today, everything
seems to be going like clockwork.

The eight visitors are standing on the platform, in front of three long rows of
upright-chairs, on three levels, the highest at the back, with a fat man in the
centre laughing with Headteacher Gao, turning to his companion on his other
side too and clearly enjoying the occasion. Ma Ping likes the stranger’s face:
it’s friendly. He wishes he could get a closer look, though. And there’s
Teacher Deng going onto the platform, followed by Teachers Wang and Zhao.
Zhao’s all right. A bit forgetful at times, but kindly. He’s old and his white
hair stands out in the sea of black. Mrs. Wong, newly employed from the local
junior school and a favourite with all the younger students now because of
her sense of humour and her cleverness, walks onto the platform, looking
over at the children as she does so. Some of them wave shyly and she
cautiously waves back, then turns her attention to colleagues. Teachers file
onto the platform, filling up the seats quickly now.

To the left of the first dais is a smaller second one, also equipped with seats
rather than stools. Here, financial supporters of the school, some important
parents and newspapermen sit, cameras already clicking. Ding Yangching is
sitting in the second row. Ma Ping is surprised to see him, and more surprised
that he will be going to lunch with his son when it could be possible for him
to dine with these dignitaries. Puzzled, the child turns his attention to the
central figures – the guests from Beijing. They are indeed a glittering lot.
There is one woman wearing a bright red costume, a delicate suit by the looks
of it, jewels on her lapel glinting in the sunlight. She looks nice, he thinks, and

muses suddenly on Ma Li Rui. Yes, she’s prettier of course, but this woman
looks kind. She is dainty, her suit fitting like a glove, her gentle curves so
elegant, her hair drawn up in a bun with a glittering jewel on the back to the
side. Ma Ping is transfixed by her shape, colour and aura as she stands
amongst black-suited businessmen. But these black-suited businessmen have
their own shimmering handsomeness, wearing suits of silk with soft, silk
kerchiefs in their top pockets – red, yellow, or green – the colours of the
Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ma Ping stands agog at this realization. It is as if for
him a little bit of those Olympics has come to Guyuan, just for them. Just for
him. He stares with wide eyes at such a spectacle, a glimpse of the shining
citadel which has slumbered, like the great giant of Dongyue Mountain, for
years immemorial, and is now stirring into life at last.

He nudges his neighbour, Ho and indicates the stage with the Olympic
colours, but the child doesn’t understand what he’s getting at and motions to
him to be quiet or they’ll both be in trouble. He faces front again, as if to
emphasise his point.

Then the ceremony starts. A dignitary from The Ningxia Educational Board
speaks for some time, the sound-system bouncing his words to and fro off the
buildings, the delay between delivery and reception so marked, that Ma Ping
feels almost sick with the dissonance. And the children grow restless. But not
another soul speaks. It’s very difficult to remain silent, and Ma Ping realises
how rare such silence is in a group and finds he cannot remember ever being
in such a situation. He looks around for inspiration, for something to fill the
echoing moments. The official drones on. Ma Ping looks again at the stage
and then to the side at Ding Yangching who is shifting uncomfortably, by the
look of it, on his narrow chair. For a brief moment the wishes he could be
inside with his son, but then checks that thought and concerns himself with
the outside of the building instead.

Someone’s burning something in the yard behind the junior buildings, he
thinks casually as he casts his eye around. Funny time to be doing that. But
now, the woman who looks so kind stands up and says what an honour it is
for her to be there in Guyuan today. An honour for her? Ma Ping is touched.
What a lovely lady! He listens attentively to her talk, although the sound-
system renders her a little difficult to understand. And then Headteacher Gao
says a few words and then the school chants its learned eulogy, and then it’s
over. Headteacher Gao tells the students to fetch their belongings from the
classrooms and leave for lunch. The dignitaries have another appointment in
Yinchuan the following day and must depart now. The children make
exaggerated sounds of disappointment, the expected response to such an
announcement, and then disperse. Ma Ping has to take a closer look at the

pretty lady, and so he wanders nonchalantly down the aisleway in the middle
of the great crowd of children, and ambles slowly across her view. She is
collecting up some papers, which have been strewn around by the mild wind.
She turns to face him, looking down. He smiles up at her.
‘Who are you?’ she asks. He is thrilled, but suddenly shy.
‘Ma Ping, madam!’
‘And how old are you, Ma Ping?’ she says, coming further forward on the
dais and crouching down towards him.
‘I’m twelve. I was twelve two weeks ago. My birthday’s on April the 1st.’
‘A little fool, eh!’ she says, but so kindly, he is warmed. ‘And yet not so, eh?’
She looks at him long and hard. He looks without fear into her eyes, a
moment which lingers, to both their surprise. She shakes her head slowly.
‘And what did you do for this occasion, Ma Ping?’
‘Some calligraphy, madam.’
‘Are you good?’
Ma Ping hangs his head.
She leans over and ruffles his hair, but then stands up hastily. He’s a sweet
child. She smiles at his naivete, his youth and innocence. There is something
special about him, though. His eyes are so alive as she sees again as he
ventures to look up. He has touched her heart and she knows nothing about
him. He reminds her of An Zheping. She swallows painfully, pushing her
thoughts aside.
‘Look at me little one, little Ma Ping,’ she says caressingly. She has crouched
down next to him again, so that with his full standing height and her
crouching one, they are almost on a level. She tips his chin upwards gently
with her hand and he turns up his round eyes full into her face. She is startled
at their power.
‘You try your best, young man,’ she says, for want of something better. ‘And
who knows, maybe one day you will come to Xi’an and we will meet.’
‘Xi’an, madam? I thought you lived in Beijing.’
She smiles and stands up again.
‘I work in Beijing sometimes, but my home is in Xi’an.’ She turns away a
moment and retrieves her handbag, which Ma Ping notices is in a lustrous
shiny black.
‘I hope to meet you again, Ma Ping.’ And she turns away. The severance
seems a little abrupt to him, but he finds many adults strange. But she is nice.
Another person he’ll paint later.

All at once, Ma Ping is aware of the crowds surging around him and then
Ding Yangching’s voice at his side.
‘Where’s my son?’
‘He was a runner, Sir,’ says Ma Ping, glowing from his encounter.

‘Well, I need to find him. Can you take me to him? I have to go out with these
people in a few minutes, and so I can’t see him for lunch. Perhaps you could
tell him.’
But Ma Ping has already started to walk in the direction of the junior building.

They walk round the back of the school, but as they approach, they see a
horde of children running and a building belching smoke and flames. Then
there is a bursting of a window and somewhere along the corridor, further
down towards the centre, a child screams. From that moment, Ma Ping finds
it difficult later to recall what happened next. He knows that he has a sudden
instinct. He knows that Ding Pengcheng is in danger. And he also knows,
with certainty, how and from whom.
‘Ding Pengcheng,’ he shouts, rushing forward to the window where he can
gain access.

Ding Yangching, he remembers, followed him, but how closely, or how
quickly, he doesn’t know anymore. He knows there was a point at which he
had to decide to go in. And that was when he looked round and saw a horror
on Ding Yangching’s face, a fear, an animal terror, that frightened him far
more than the prospect of the flames themselves. But it’s his son. Why isn’t
the man moving?

Children are screaming, adults are running, but then comes the scream that
Ma Ping has heard from this little child’s soul ever since he first met him. This
poor, benighted, weak little boy, screams from his very depths somewhere on
the first floor.
‘Fetch a ladder! Fetch a ladder!’ shouts Ding Yangching. But the children are
just watching, unable, or even unwilling, to move.
‘Get a ladder!’ the man screams now, right into the face of a senior student,
who falls back in terror, but then recovers himself and nudging his friend,
they run off to Janitor Wang’s office nearby.

Ma Ping starts to run forward. He doesn’t know why he does this: it’s
something he asks himself time and time again in the months to come, and
will probably ask himself for the rest of his life. It is a moment of decision that
seems ponderous with meaning. As if this moment casts the mould from
which the magic and the terror of the rest of his life is spun. As if there were
nothing before and nothing beyond. Just this moment of decision. He keeps
looking back to find Ding Yangching’s face amongst the hordes of screaming
children and panicking adults, but in the end, he climbs in at the window

This moment is shared deeply by Ding Yangching. He sees the boy’s fear and
his resolution against it. He witnesses a child braving what he cannot face
himself, his memories twisting his gut into a horror of pain. This moment
lasts forever in Ding Yangching’s life too, yet for him it is imbued with his
double failure.

‘NO!’ he screams at the disappearing child.
Ma Ping looks back through the window and hesitates, and sees the man
frozen with fear, running up to him and reaching him at last. Ma Ping offers
him his hand and the man climbs, shaking in every limb, through the window
into the classroom. ‘Come on! Come on!’ Ma Ping shouts. Then that scream
again, which he hears as clearly as if it were being relayed inside his own
head. But now he has exhausted his strength and can’t remember now quite
what happens next, but he knows that children were screaming outside in
protest at their actions, adults shouting at them, exhorting them not to be so
stupid, but their voices seem to come from very far away now. The flames
and even the smoke itself, seem to deaden all outside reality and render it a
myth of childhood fantasy.

Inside, Ma Ping can see little. The smoke is choking him and he’s sick very
quickly. He lurches to the classroom door and yanks it open. A blast of heat
hits them both and Ding Yangching staggers back.
‘I can’t, I can’t!’ the man says, crying.
Ma Ping bites his lip, drawing blood. ‘You have to!’ he gasps. ‘You have to.’
And Ma Ping pushes him forward before he himself falls unconscious.

There isn’t much else he remembers of the fire. It’s all a blur now. Memories
come fractured and torn into his weary mind, out of sequence and proportion.
There are glimmers, like the one when he sees Ding Yangching carrying his
dead son in his arms towards the open window. Another when arms lift him,
Teacher Deng’s arms lift him, back through the window, and he is in the open
air again, breathing, his chest a bloated mass of searing pain. But he doesn’t
remember, (because he doesn’t see) Zhang Chen Hui’s body, lying on the
floor, arm outstretched for salvation towards the man who tried, at last, to
rescue his son.

He remembers children crowding round, their babble intolerable to his newly
sensitive ears, and Teacher Deng furiously shouting them back, gathering the
little boy jealously to him. He remembers Teacher Deng’s arms closing round
him, protecting him, loving him. He remembers later, he thinks it’s later, his
Aunt Bai, her face, tortured with worry, bending down into his face and
kissing him, his mother’s wordless tears, his father’s gentle hand on his brow,
his older brother’s slight cajoling manner, before he turns away in fear.

He also remembers at one moment, before he is carried to the hospital,
looking across at Ding Yangching, who sits with his dead son in his arms,
kneeling in the dust in front of the dais where they are now waiting, and the
man stares ahead, tears rolling down his cheeks as he holds the boy tenderly
to him in death in a way he never articulated in life. This is the moment at
which Ma Ping cannot contain his overwrought emotion any longer and he
sobs in Teacher Deng’s arms at the pity he feels, at the shock, at the terrible
loss. In Ding Yangching’s eyes he has seen a hollowness that he knows he has
never seen before, and never wants to see again, and this speaks to a depth of
feeling in his own little soul that floods him with despair. He sobs
uncontrollably, and he remembers Teacher Deng holding him just a little
closer and whispering something to him. He cannot remember the words now,
but their softness, their love, their balm, heal the hatred in his heart and
Teacher Deng will never forget the moment when Ma Ping looks up at him
and smiles a look of pure love at him before he drifts off into an uneasy sleep.

Vagueness haunts the next few days. He has many visitors. All his family, of
course, and Teacher Deng too. Even Headteacher Gao once. He doesn’t
always wake, but there is one visit that has the power to reach through his
own feelings of despair and pain, and stir a deep empathy for someone else.
He cannot quite remember if it is on his first day in hospital or his last.

‘I came to see you,’ says Ding Yangching. ‘Ding Yan and Ding Fuxin are
outside, but we were told not too many people all at once.’
Ma Ping wonders at this when he’s had his whole family and teacher Deng at
one time, but he tries to sit up to welcome such an esteemed visitor. Ding
Yangching puts his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder to push him down
again on his pillows.

‘Are they treating you well?’ he asks. He seems embarrassed and Ma Ping is
‘Yes, sir,’ he answers.
Ding Yangching looks at the child and tears form in his eyes. ‘Don’t call me
sir.’ He looks away.

Ma Ping looks with open curiosity at the man. He expects him to explain why
he is behaving like this. Instead Ding Yangching toys with the bedclothes, as
if making up his mind about something.

‘I came to thank you,’ he begins awkwardly and takes Ma Ping’s hand,
reminding him so painfully of other recent events, looking at him earnestly in

his eyes. ‘You were so brave,’ he begins gently. ‘Braver than me. I was a
coward, like last time.’
Ma Ping looks at him quizzically.
‘You went right in the building. I couldn’t get further than the door.’
Ding Yangching laughs tonelessly.
‘You were very brave, Ping.’ He squeezes his hand but then begins to cry,
sobbing with loud, long sobs, bowing his head and resting it on Ma Ping’s
legs momentarily, the raising it again. ‘Oh, my son, my son! I never loved him
as I should have loved him. I never gave him a chance. I always made his life
a misery. I didn’t want him to be a failure like me, you see. I didn’t want him
to…’ He cannot go on. ‘Oh, what have I done?’ He buries his head again in
Ma Ping’s bedclothes, trembling with emotion, still grasping Ma Ping’s hand.

At first the child is horrified at an adult doing such a thing, but then, as
always, his compassion rises in him and he pulls his other hand from beneath
the bed-covers, the regulation grey quilt of the Number Two Hospital, and
lays his free fingers gently on the man’s head. He doesn’t know what else to
do. The man sobs on, all his past reviling him. He failed then and he failed
now. But this child, this glorious child, he’s not going to fail him. And he,
Ding Yangching himself, is going to make sure of that!

Slowly he raises his head, from which Ma Ping has removed his hand at the
first tremor of movement.
‘You are a good child, Ma Ping,’ he says, blowing his nose on a silk
handkerchief in his top pocket. Ma Ping is reminded of something, but it’s a
dim memory and it eludes him. ‘You are a special child,’ Ding Yangching
continues. ‘I will never forget what you did for my child. I only wish I could
have done as much. Both times.’

Ma Ping is puzzled again, and his head is hurting. He closes his eyes. He
thinks it’s just for a moment, but when he opens them again his Aunt Bai is by
his side instead.

‘How are you, Little Hero?’
Ma Ping is about to make a quip in response, but then the face of the defeated
Ding Yangching is before him and he feels the man’s sense of failure as if it
were his own and he throws himself into his aunt’s waiting arms and cries
himself to sleep.

Then he sees Chen Baoqing, Little Tian and even Huang, sitting by the bed
waiting for him to wake up. He’s quickly tired by their ceaseless chatter about
how everyone thinks he’s a hero, and very special and brave and even
Headteacher Gao has said that to the newspaper people. And isn’t it exciting!

When he comes back to school, there’s going to be a special service for Ding
Pengcheng and he’s going to be the guest of honour, apparently. Ding
Yangching is organizing it. No expense spared apparently. Ma Ping turns
away and the children, worried, depart.

He remembers two more things from those first dark days after the fire. He
remembers Ma Li Rui sitting beside him, smiling at him, when he wakes up
once and he thinks he is going to speak to her, but then when he opens his
eyes again, he’s alone and it’s night and he feels so lonely.

The other thing, which seemed very strange at the time, is that The Nice Lady
comes to see him. She isn’t wearing the red suit now, but a black and grey one,
and she is carrying a cardboard roll with her. She says something about him
being a tiancai and kisses his forehead before she leaves. He sees a sliver of
red paper in the roll of cardboard, but she doesn’t look at it, and it’s only a
fleeting glimpse. He is bemused by this visit, but still weary and sleeps most
of the time.

He leaves hospital after a few days and goes home to rest. The doctors say
that he probably has no permanent lung-damage, but it is touch and go.
Certainly Ma Ping is in pain all the time. He has some antibiotics for this,
which make him very tired. The family gather tightly around him at this time,
protecting him from gossip, from undue attention, and Teacher Deng and
Ding Yangching are frequent visitors. Even Ding Yan and Ding Fuxin come
once as well. Ma Hui is now staying with his aunt to give the child more
peace and rest. His meals are taken in the garret and he is not allowed to
study anything, Teacher Deng says. A little light dabbling with his paints,
maybe, but no studying. Ma Ping is more touched by that than anything else
during this time, and this single action quite restores the man to Ma Ping’s
admiration. He tries to work out why Teacher Deng has changed his mind,
made such an about-face on this issue, but it makes his head ache to consider
it, so he gives it up, just grateful that there are no tensions now when he
wants to paint. Except that all these early pictures are frenzies of fire, broken
buildings, acrid smoke, and death in strangled gasps, figures yearning
towards salvation, but not finding it. But he paints those feelings out of
himself and gradually, he is able to turn back to his deeper insights.

One evening, a few weeks later, as this narrative draws to a close, when the
sky was hued in pink in the way that only happens here in the northwest of
China in early summertime, and Dongyue Mountain was clearly delineated
through the glowing light, slumbering through its dreams of being a giant,
Ma Ping sat at his garret window and painted the scene before him. Streets
outside in their dusty dirt, throngs of people hurrying past, a few of them

entering the meatballs restaurant below, swelling the volume from beneath
his feet: there’s Huang Weiping with his full load of fruit, in his spanking new
trolley-cart, and three little beggar-children riding along behind him. His
father must have completed another deal. More luxury fruits to sell. Business
is booming. Ma Li Rui walks past holding Ma Rui’s hand. She glances up
before moving on, and smiles up at him as he watches her. He waves at her.
And there’s Chen Baoqing and Little Tian. Huang Jiang’s there too, running
after his great-uncle wheeling his cart away from him. There’s another white
head in the crowd of people. The foreigner. She came to see him too when he
was in bed. Aunt Bai was very proud, but Grandmother thought it rather
presumptuous of her. Anna’s her name. He liked her, but he didn’t know
what to say to her and she didn’t stay long anyway. She was with that Yo
Hongmei, and Aunt Bai said she’s a strange young woman. ‘She’ll come to
grief, that one,’ she said, pursing her lips. Ma Ping smiled at that. So many
people came to grief in Bai Qiang’s imagination, the boy is surprised life
carries on at all!

And in the middle layer of the picture is the college, Guyuan’s aspiration to
be a city of consequence. Its new white buildings and especially the newest
Great Hall with its jade-green tinted arched windows, shine out of the picture
and reveal something of its purpose fulfilled already. Ma Ping liked painting
that part the most, that is apart from Dongyue Mountain, which rises like a
phoenix out of the back of the picture, as if it has been waiting for this
moment to show itself truly as it is for the very first time. Yes, it has always
been here and will always be here, but Ma Ping has seen it and depicted it
today and now it is here in an indefinably new way, a manifestation which
gives scope and meaning to the lives of the people it watches over daily, as
they go about their small lives enriched in the knowledge of hundreds or even
thousands of years behind them and before them, and in whose corridors of
time they take their steps, visit this place and that place, see what they see, fall
in love, have children, raise them, watch them grow, are nurtured by them in
turn, and then, at peace with the rightness of it all, they die.

Epilogue: Friday, August 29th.
The echoing waiting room was crowded, all passengers sitting around,
waiting for their long trip that night. Ma Ping stood trembling in the middle
of his family and friends, all standing around him. No one made a move to sit
and so they all stood, awkwardly, like extras in a film, waiting to be directed.
And everyone was fussing over him to see if he had his tickets, no that’s Ma
Shipeng’s job, and where is his easel? Oh, over there! And what about his
long underwear for the long winter evenings? It gets cold where he’s going.
And has he got his bag? Did he pack that apple juice after all? Well, just make

sure you don’t forget to drink it. They probably don’t give you anything on
the train and it’s a long journey…

All at once, the tannoy announced the arrival of the overnight train to Xi’an
and would the passengers please make their way to the barrier, and so they
surged towards the place where tickets were being checked by two officials in
uniform. Ma Ping eased forward, feeling his heart in his mouth, and a pain in
his throat. He found his feet were crawling forward reluctantly in the milling
crowd. He turned as if to say, it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t have to go if they
don’t want him to, and then he saw his aunt looking afraid for him and
realised he had to have the courage again. He faced the front of the queue
again, staring straight ahead and passed the ticket-barrier, crossed the short
strip of scrubland to the steps and heralding his new life, walked evenly over
the heavily ornate jade-green metal bridge, Ma Shipeng close behind. There
was a low siren-call. Here comes the train already. It’s too soon. There isn’t
enough time. Just a little longer, please!

They reached carriage number 18, right at the back of the train, a long
distance down the bleak platform where they had already been informed to
go. A guard stood outside waiting for customers to board her carriage. She
checked Ma Ping’s ticket and Ma Shipeng’s, and directed them wordlessly to
enter the train and turn left. Ma Shipeng went first, past his little brother, who
was hesitating at the top of the metal steps, and rushed off to find their berths.
Ma Ping turned round biting his lip at the assembled company.

‘Get on the train,’ said Ma Rong, chafing him a little, unable to bear the sense
of severance. His father nodded at him, eyes moist. His grandparents stood
behind his parents and Ma Ping nodded at them with love in his heart and
tears in his eyes. Ma Hui and Ma Ling were crying openly, which didn’t help.
Teacher Deng and Ding Yangching, Ding Yan and their son, stood a little back
and waved in small gestures, as if they didn’t want to intrude on a family
occasion. Even Ma Li Rui was there with her husband Ma Fengyin and their
two children, looking on at the scene quietly, Little Binbin now alertly sitting
up in his mother’s arms peeping out from beneath his bundles of blankets he
had been so carefully wrapped in. They all turned up just as Ma Ping was
about to board the train. He didn’t have time to say much to them, didn’t
know what to say, really, but he glowed with the pleasure of the effort she
had made for him.

Ma Ping looked at them all, now, his heart beating so wildly, he thought he
would never recover. All at once, the sad dream he had recently, the one in
which he was trying to look out of the window from the train as it left
Guyuan but couldn’t find a free space from the travelers, intruded into his

mind with such clarity, he knew it had been a kind of premonition. And
because of that, he felt grateful, suddenly, at being afforded this chance of
waving to them after all and not being sent away in disgrace as he had feared,
that at a stride, he leapt down the steps onto the platform and hurled himself
into his aunt’s arms before detaching himself, slowly, at the tannoy exhorting
passengers to heed the train’s imminent departure. Ma Shipeng was waiting
for him at the top of the steps, and helped him up. They disappeared from
view amongst the crowds in the train’s interior.

The family now sits in the gloom of a late night in the dimly-lit restaurant.
Paper cups with undrunk tea sit moodily on the table. Bai Qiang plays with
hers, moving it slightly from side to side and watching the play of light. Ma
Ping has taught her to do that. She stops herself and pushes it away.
‘Well, that’s it, then!’ she says. ‘He’s gone!’
‘Indeed,’ responds Ma Rong, wiping away a tear. ‘When will he be back, do
you suppose?’
‘Who knows, Rong?’ says her mother, sipping her drink thoughtfully. ‘It isn’t
easy to come from Xi’an and it’s expensive too. How much was the ticket?
’78 yuan, Mother!’ replies Ma Ling tearfully, ‘for the hard-sleeper, bottom
bunk. And 75 yuan for Ma Shipeng, because he’s on the middle rung.
That’s…that’s 153 yuan just for the tickets.’
‘A scandal. I remember when a ticket was just a few yuan for the train.’ Li
Jincai stamps her stick on the floor as if for emphasis.
‘Yes, dear, in the times when there were no trains from here,’ her husband
remarks dryly. ‘Every journey was cheap, because we never made any.’ There
is a pause. ‘Well, I for one am pleased. I know it’s not conventional. No, hear
me out, wife. It isn’t conventional and it isn’t what I would have chosen
myself for our Ping, but those people from Beijing, they knew what they were
talking about. I liked that An Xueping woman. She was so helpful to our Ping.
And to be honest, after everything that’s happened, I think he’s better starting
again somewhere new.’
‘Trust a man to think like that,’ says Li Jincai dismissively.
‘It’s such a big city, I’ve heard. Won’t he get lost?’ asks Ma Rong plaintively.
‘Now come on, dear,’ says Ma Xingjian soothingly. ‘We talked about this. Ma
Shipeng is going to room with him for the first couple of weeks and then the
school will organize him to live in the dormitory. Anyway, An Xueping will
be looking after him, I’m sure.’
‘But he’ll be all by himself.’
‘No he won’t!’ responds her husband matter-of-factly. ‘He’ll be rooming with
seven other students, they told us. He’ll be with people he likes.’

‘She wants him for her own son, I’ll be bound,’ says Bai Qiang moodily,
nodding her head at her own sagacity. ‘You mark my words.’
‘Rubbish!’ says Ma Xingjian hastily.
‘Well, she lost her own. I’m just saying. And anyway, she can’t have him, he’s
our son.’
She stops herself and blushes. Ma Xingjian presses her hand, looking at her a
long moment. ‘You’re right. He is our son!’ he offers generously.
Bai Qiang nods her head to blink away her tears this time.

‘Pour me some tea, Ma Ling,’ says Li Jincai. ‘Ma Hui, it’s after your bedtime.’
Ma Ling hurries to fetch some new tea.
‘Oh, but Grandmother!’ the little boy protests, appealing silently to his mother,
but Ma Rong gestures as if to say it is nothing to do with her as he well knows.
‘It is a special occasion, Grandmama.’
‘Not for you!’ she answers with asperity. ‘And you’ve got school tomorrow.
So no arguments, Boy. It’s up to you to be the scholar of the family now, you
He tuts in annoyance, but also quite proud at the implication, so he gets up
anyway and dutifully kisses his grandmother and mother and says goodnight
to his grandfather and father (Ma Ling waves in a tiny gesture to him) and he
leaves the room reluctantly, stomping up the stairs and is now lost to the
brooding company downstairs.

No one speaks for a while.
‘I suppose he’ll be warm enough. We all know about dormitories,’ says Ma
Rong eventually.
‘Lucky to have one. In my day…’ but Li Jincai doesn’t finish her sentence,
instead taking a sip of hot tea which Ma Ling has brought.
‘At least he’ll be a great artist, just like we all knew he could. But that
professor, you know, the one An Xueping invited to see his calligraphy, the
man who visited here, he didn’t seem to think he was that good. He says he
needs years of practice first.’
‘What does he know?’ asks Bai Qiang scornfully.
‘Well, he is the Professor of Calligraphy at Xi’an xibei daxue 28, Aunt,’ says Ma
Ling with a smile. ‘And An Xueping’s husband!’
‘Hold your tongue. You’re too free with your ideas!’ But Ma Ling is still
smiling, and so is Bai Qiang, but she doesn’t let the child see it.
‘I suppose at weekends the man will give our Ping some special lessons. He’s
very lucky really.’ Bai Qiang muses aloud. ‘Just as long as she knows that this
is his home, not Xi’an! And we’re his family, not her.’

     Xi’an xibei daxue – Xi’an’s Northwest University.

‘It was good of Ding Yangching to offer to sponsor him, wasn’t it?’ Ma Rong
speaks gently and her voice is almost lost in the gloom.
‘I suppose so, but it’s better coming from someone powerful like An Xueping.
I never did like that Ding Yangching.’ Bai Qiang’s tone closes the subject on
Ding Yangching, almost for good in that family. He isn’t to be a visitor again,
now that Ma Ping has gone, and he isn’t to be invited back either. However,
Ma Xingjian is reminded of his son’s words about the man a few months ago
and sits brooding.

‘That’s the main thing, at any rate,’ says Ma Rong. ‘That our son’s a really
clever boy and has a powerful sponsor now. And that famous professor is
going to spend time teaching him.’
‘No, wife,’ says Ma Xingjian so sharply, that every face is turned to his. Ma
Ling has returned the kettle to its hob and is sitting down, and all the family
looks at him, waiting for his next words.
‘It matters little if he is a great artist, or if he has a powerful sponsor, or the
greatest professor in the world teaches him - if he becomes a bad man in the
end,’ says Ma Xingjian deliberately, slowly, that all the family might catch the
meaning and take heed of it.
‘Our Ping may be a tiancai but he will be a man one day. And what sort of a
man must he be? One who is clever for himself alone? No, I hope not. I want
my son to go further than me. I want him to be a wise and good man. What he
did for that child, well, that’s the kind of man I want as a son, not a spoiled,
pampered, selfish man who thinks only of his own appetites.’
‘I’m sure Ma Ping is neither selfish, nor full of appetites, brother-in-law,’ says
Bai Qiang gruffly.
‘Except his stomach, sister, you must admit that.’
Bai Qiang smiles ruefully.
‘I didn’t mean that, sister-in-law,’ continues Ma Xingjian. ‘I meant that what
he does with his gift is one thing. What he does with his humanity is quite
‘You’re a wise and good man,’ says Ma Rong, pressing his hand.’
‘Hrumph,’ says Bai Qiang, not entirely mollified, feeling there is still an insult
to her beloved Ma Ping there somewhere, just that her brother-in-law isn’t
quite honest and open enough to say so.

Li Jiangtai is nodding his head slowly.
‘My son-in-law is right!’ he says carefully. All look at him.
‘Our Ping will suffer many temptations as a great artist. He won’t be like us,
his life will be difficult, but he’ll be better than us, but in his greatness he must
be humble. Yes, son-in-law, you are right.’ And he sits back, proud that his
daughter’s husband should have turned out so worthy after all.

And as they sit into the night and muse in their different ways about the
future of the child they all love, Dongyue Mountain, which dreams these days
of becoming a giant very soon, slumbers peacefully on.

Ma Ping: Part Two: Dramatis Personae:
Prologue: Tuesday, April 15th
An Xueping sits at the window in the early morning gloom, nursing a
photograph of her dead son. He’s smiling from the Great Wall on their last
holiday. She rubs her thumb caressingly down the profile of his face, trying to
feel the contours of his skin through the cold glass, but encountering only a
blandness, an insult to her feelings. And there he is, laughing as always,
stretching out as if to embrace the ancient structure in his arms, his youthful
exuberance captivating even from a photograph. They had a good holiday,
the three of them. So rare that Wang Xiaolin had enough time to travel a little.
The Terracotta Warriors, Huashan Mountain, the Great Wall: the only man-
made structure to be visible from the heavens. What she wouldn’t do for one
more sighting of little Zheping. Just one. Or to listen to him playing his piano
as she works in her study with the door open. His favourite composer was
Chopin, the Western Romantic. Where does such a talent come from? How
can such a young child have so much inside him and express it so effortlessly?
And where is that talent now? For a moment she thinks of turning on her
cassette-player and listening to one of the hundreds of recordings she has of
him playing, but she knows that will only widen the gap between her
questions and the world’s answers. A tear falls unchecked onto the glass and
she looks at it blankly, almost as if wondering where it comes from.

Wang Xiaolin watches her from the door, and sighs gently. He looks his 61
years these days. His face is lined with care and weariness, his once lustrous
black hair turning grey at the sides. Even his upright gait is a little stooped
now, as if the embers of his dead son’s memory glow with his fading hopes
for a better life now. He watches her but knows he won’t speak.

He cannot reach her. He hasn’t been able to reach her since it happened. Not
as they used to reach each other. With looks and smiles and small acts of
devotion. Now her devotion is measured calmly in the clockwork running of
the household when she is not there. They no longer need discussions about
how he will change his schedule, or she hers. They just work as they need to,
and live together when there is nothing more pressing to do.

When he looks into her eyes, she only smiles back because that is what a wife
does. She listens carefully to details of his work, the new colleague, the old
ways, the students, the university politics. She knows it all. She can even ask
him questions showing how carefully she has listened, but her attention, he

knows, is for the sole purpose of revealing that she has listened, and not
because she wants to know any of the answers. She has wrapped herself in
mourning and its outer case is hardening like a fortress. He doubts, however,
that he can either overcome her resistance, or these days, wonders if he even
really wants to.

If he tries to talk to her about their son, she retaliates with anger, suggesting
that she cannot understand why he should want to continue to torment her.
Isn’t their life just as it was? Doesn’t their work continue as it used to? And
doesn’t she still perform all the duties of a wife? It is this latter question,
which hurts him. He misses his son with an aching that is new to him. A
usually quiet and solitary man before his marriage, he had rarely been close
to another human being apart from his own parents and siblings (he had two,
but one had died, and the other lives in Beijing and there is little contact
between them). Then he met An Xueping, late in his life, after the haunting
troubles of the Cultural Revolution, when he had given up hope of sharing
his later years with anyone, and he loved her straightaway. He realised after a
while, that she had found a way to his heart that no one else had secured
since those times. He had always been able to feel great swathes of passion for
his mythical characters, for the stories of the Old Times. But since the
Revolution, he had felt nothing. Then, when he held this baby son for the first
time, he felt a completion which staggered him, and which in a moment, he
could recreate in his mind. A kind of communion with life itself. And his wife
had done this for him. As he held his son, everything else in his world
receded, yet became more complete, more meaningful, and his wife and son
took centre-stage.

Now, he knows that losing his son has entailed losing his wife as well. She sits
there, entombed in her own grief and he sees that if he tries to reach her there,
she will reject him openly and he is too frail now to cope with this. The shell
of their marriage seems better than nothing at all.

‘When is the car coming to pick you up?’ he asks.
‘About nine o’clock.’
She places the picture on the table next to her chair by the window, and gets
up as if there is no severance involved, as if putting down the picture doesn’t
feel like a breach of reality. She steels herself against her feelings of anger
against her husband, always for interrupting her, always blundering in where
he’s not wanted. And yet he is her husband and she has to be his wife.
‘How long are you staying?’ he continues.
‘I doubt it will take long, but the University wants me back in Beijing next
Monday, so I’ll go on to Yinchuan and fly to Beijing from there. I could really
do without this whole visit, but I can’t get out of it now. I’ll be back again the

following week. I hope you’ll be all right. I have made the usual arrangements
with the cleaner.’
She stands up, and with a quick look around An Zheping’s room, she skirts
round her husband and leave the room.

Wang Xiaolin sighs, tears in his eyes, feeling the loneliness before she has left.
That’s often the way now. The anticipation of loneliness and the loneliness
itself seem inseparable. He moves over to the window. Their apartment looks
out onto an expanse of green grass on the campus. It is a beautiful situation,
trees lining avenues in which even at this early hour, students are walking,
books under their arms, talking, chatting. He remembers the first time he
came to the university as an ordinary lecturer thirteen years ago. A wife and
baby son. He was so proud. He looked around him and most of his colleagues
had wives and babies, but no one had his wife and his baby! An Xueping was
already a lecturer at Beijing Normal University. Such an accomplished
woman. Her particular specialty is the Ming Dynasty. What she doesn’t know
about it. He shakes his head against his sentimentality. That piano. They
really ought to do something about that piano. Someone would love it, but he
dreads the very thought of broaching the subject with his wife. He cannot
bear to have the instrument in the house, its shiny blackness an insult to the
dust of his son. He has to tell her. But not now. He can hear her moving about
in her room. Packing again. She is always packing these days. Come to think
of it, she was actually packing that day, wasn’t she, when her waters broke.
He smiles to himself. Packing to come to Xi’an. He had gone to visit her for a
long weekend. She wanted to register their child in Xi’an, so that in the future
she could always live with her husband in his city. They didn’t quite make it
before the birth, he remembers with a rueful grin. Her waters broke at 9
o’clock in the morning and she had the child there on the floor before he
could even get a nurse. A lusty child, An Zheping had screamed his way into
the world giving not a whisper of his future musical genius. He had
scrunched up his little face in absolute demonic fury at being so introduced to
this cold world, and his mother had sat in wonder, and exhaustion on the
floor of their bedroom cradling the little mite to her breast. He was too angry
to suckle at first and he would never forget as he left the room once to fetch
her some water, (when her sister had come and cut the umbilical cord, just as
she had with her sister-in-law too) and looked back, he saw her cooing to him,
and gently settling his rage. The little mite stretched out his podgy fist, and
then with extraordinary dexterity, uncurled his hand and felt for her breast
with his little curved fingers, and then began to suckle, gurgling with
pleasure. His wife’s face in profile, looking down at her infant, was a picture
of serenity that seared itself into his consciousness, merging an archetype of
motherhood with what he was witnessing. This stayed with him, such that
there was from that moment on, a level of awe in his relation to his wife. She

seemed something other to him, something miraculous, beyond the mystery
of his calligraphy, his art, his insights. Something better. She stirs not only the
present of him, but also his past. The stirring is an uneasy one.

Students are walking past the window in the lecturers’ residents block. It’s
going to be another warm day. He draws the curtains fully back, noting with
a pang, the pictures on the material. A present to Zheping for his tenth
birthday. Specially brought from Beijing, this material had pictures of western
composers on it. There’s Bach, the one of him that looks fat as he’s getting
older. And the famous profile of Mozart, the one that makes him look as if he
has some sort of thyroid condition. ‘It might explain his feverish composing
ability,’ An Zheping said once, his serious little face looking up earnestly into
his father’s. ‘They say he wrote his last three symphonies in six weeks, you
know,’ he said once, as his father was tucking him in bed for the night. ‘In the
summer of 1788. He just sat and wrote them. Isn’t that amazing! And then
there was this person in London who tried to write them out, you know, copy
them, and guess how long it took?’
‘I don’t know!’
‘Go on, guess!’
‘I don’t…oh all right. Maybe longer.’
‘Seven weeks!’
‘Wow!’ And actually he was impressed, both with the fact of Mozart’s genius,
always his preferred Western composer, but mostly with his son’s enthusiasm.
 ‘And then when he wrote his Requiem…’
‘Zheping, come on now, you need to get some sleep. You’ve got that test
‘But honestly, dad, did you know that?’
‘Know what?’ he said, smiling, knowing he was beaten.
His mother was away in Beijing again, and it was just the two of them. Wang
Xiaolin used to love those times.
‘This man came to call on him.’
Wang Xiaolin did know this story, but couldn’t say that now: his son’s little
face was all eagerness, as if sharing a precious secret, just something for the
two of them, and any interference might disturb what it really was – an
articulation of the special love between them. He knew that the child never
spoke to his mother like this, not because he loved her less, but because he
loved her differently. It was as if the child had an uncanny understanding of
what it was his parents wanted from him, and he worked hard to fulfil those
requirements. His father needed the closeness of banter and shared moments.
His mother wanted his future success. He felt love in both those needs, but
spending time with his father was more fun.
‘A man?’ Wang Xiaolin asked gently.’

‘Yes, a man dressed in black asking him to write a mass for the dead. A
requiem. That’s what it means.’
‘I know!’ Wang Zheping said, realising that this much of an interruption was
quite permissible.
‘And then, he started to write it and he was ill, you see. And then, and then he
began to think…’ His voice trailed off as he became moved at the picture he
was drawing of this lonely artist.
‘What did he begin to think?’
‘That he was writing for himself. Oh daddy, isn’t that awful! Poor, poor
Mozart.’ The child had tears in his eyes, and Wang Xiaolin pulls himself back
from the past because he knows this way lies madness.

He closes the door behind him.
His wife has placed her traveling bag in the shining hallway, where she is
standing adjusting her gloves and looking at her reflection in the mirror. She
is still a most attractive woman, he thinks, standing there in her clean-cut suit
in the western style, her hair drawn back in a French roll, clasped with a
diamond jewel, which glints in the morning light filtering through the
window next to the mirror. She sweeps a strand of hair back and pushes it
into the sweep of the roll, delving her fingers into the softness of her hair, and
for a moment, Wang Xiaolin aches to touch her. He can’t remember the last
time his touch was welcome.
‘You’re early then,’ he says.
‘And you’re teaching this afternoon, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, the Masters course. They’re supposed to be some of the best students,
but honestly, you’d think some of them had never read anything.’
‘Oh dear,’ she says, eager to fill the gulf between them with words. ‘That’s a
pity. I wonder why that is.’
‘I don’t know really. Maybe my heart’s not in it.’
However, that’s too dangerous a topic, and An Xueping notes with relief that
the car is pulling up outside the apartment block early.
‘Well, I might as well go,’ she says. ‘There it is, you see. I’ll ring you.’
‘How long does it take to get to Guyuan?’
‘A few hours. I have some reading to do on the journey. My colleagues are
flying to Yinchuan and the college is sending a couple of cars for them, I
believe. Well,’ she says, picking up her bag, ‘I had better get on.’
‘An Xueping,’ he says to her, feeling his years stretching them apart from each
other. He knows they need to talk.
‘Yes,’ she says blandly, fending off any interrogative in her voice, which
might tempt him to ask her the questions she cannot answer.
‘Nothing. It’ll keep.’
‘Very well, then. I’ll ring you.’
And with that, she’s gone.

He sits in his favourite armchair in his study, surrounded by his posters, his
books, his calligraphy, his certificates, his accolades from the press and on his
desk, a newly published book, which describes him as one of the great artistic
thinkers of modern China. He runs his hand over it, feeling it to be a dead
artefact, a relic, but one that reveals nothing to the present day.

…‘And when he was half-way through this man came again. And then he
began to think he was Death himself. Coming to herald his death. What a
scary thing, Daddy. Wouldn’t it be awful to know when you are going to die?’
‘I don’t know, son. Perhaps if we knew…’
‘No!’ the child stated angrily. ‘We can’t know. If we know, then what we do
isn’t what we would have done. I want to do what I would have done.’
‘I don’t understand!’
‘I want to be me.’

Wang Xiaolin sits and cries. His shoulders shudder with his emotion and his
sobs resonate through the whole apartment. This man cries for his son, for the
unrealisation of the child’s genius, for his sweetness, for his gentleness, for his
sheer brilliance as a musician. He cries for the fact that never again will he
come home from the university at lunchtime and unlock the door, to find his
son playing Chopin mazurkas, or Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or listening to
their renderings by others. His son taught him to appreciate Dinu Lipati’s
renderings of Chopin, or the quirky genius of Glenn Gould playing Bach until
they could discuss their relative merits. In vain he tried to teach his son about
Chinese Classical music, but the child was quite impervious to it. He would
trail along after his father to concerts, but then come home and turn on his CD
player and blare out Beethoven or Mahler, almost as a protest. But now Wang
Xiaolin cries for his wife too, her sterile life, her blank face and distant eyes.
The contrast between this son’s vivid immediacy, his complete absorption in
everything and his wife’s habitual remoteness, self-imposed isolation, strike
him as so utterly sad, that he feels that perhaps nothing will ever console her
and part of her will never return to him.

And so lastly, he cries for himself, for his lost dreams, his loneliness, feeling
that a part of him died a year ago and that nothing in this life will ever
compensate him for that truth. How do you get over the death of your son? A
question he poses to every waking day and answer comes there none.

An Xueping sits in the back of the car. Driver Fan invites her to sit with him
but she finds the welcome excuse that she needs to spread her books out over
the back seat. She feels a sense of relief at being underway at last. It’s always
better to be in motion. She can cope with everything but her own company

and this opportunity to go to Guyuan (if such a word as opportunity is
appropriate here) is like a prayer answered by The Buddha himself. And her
husband is suffering. That much is clear. If he would only not hang around
with that miserable expression of his. He needs to get on with his work. Write
another book. He had all sorts of ideas before Zheping…well he just needs to
get on. She looks out of the window. She has never been this far north and
doesn’t really know much about it, except that it’s very poor and backward
and that people here don’t know much if anything, about the outside world.
How can they live like that, she wonders? She is going to the Teaching
College there as part of the celebration of its new city-status. She leafs through
the glossy brochure, which the president’s secretary sent her last week. A
hideous looking place with no flowers, no grass, all hills and desert. Scabs of
bushes puncturing the earth. Oh well, it will keep her busy, she thinks as she
looks out at the increasingly monotonous landscape of beige hills and valleys,
caves cut into the hillsides like marauding eyes.

See sees Driver Fan looking at her in his rear-view mirror and she feels a
bubble of anger. His bright, dark eyes are appraising her and glittering in the
‘Been to Guyuan before, have you?’ he asks her.
She picks up a book and scans it before answering.
‘No, first time.’ Her voice is clipped, but this doesn’t deter him. A seven-hour
journey is a seven-hour journey and he has to talk to someone.
‘Well, you’re not exactly in for a treat!’
‘You know it well, then?’ she asks, almost wishing she hadn’t.
‘Been there a couple of times. Good restaurants.’
‘Are the people a bit odd, though? You know, backward? Ignorant? Some of
them have never been outside the city, have they, or they just live in the
countryside and come to the city on weekends, or for holidays? I’ve heard it’s
got to be one of the ugliest places in the whole area.’
‘Well, I’m not sure about that. I think the people are lovely. So why are you
coming up, then, if you don’t like it?’
‘It’s a city now. I work in the capital, Beijing. We’re helping them to celebrate
their new status.’
‘Oh, I know that, I just mean, why would they want you to come?’
‘I hardly know,’ says An Xueping, feeling suddenly very lonely and ill-
equipped to deal with any questioning about anything, wishing suddenly for
the safety of her study at home, with Wang Xiaolin writing next door and
perhaps An Zheping practising…
‘Sorry, but I have to study,’ she says and lowers her eyes, knowing that he is
still watching her, but he falls obligingly silent nevertheless.

After about three hours he asks her if she is hungry and she admits she is,
although she is not looking forward to eating in one of these dirty roadside
restaurants. She gazes out at the relentless landscape, wondering how people
ever manage to eke out an existence here at all. They stop on a patch of
scrubland outside a row of shanty-shops, and in the middle of the row is a
small restaurant. This place hardly seems a village at all, just a straggling
heap of houses and shops, with dust and hills of a uniform beige all around.
‘That’s just the ticket!’ says Driver Fan with a beaming smile, as he switches
off the engine and opens his door, grabbing his bottle of tea 29 from the
dashboard. He has stopped here before and he knows the owner. The food’s
tasty and cheap too.
An Xueping gets out of the car and her feet crunch on the gravel as she
follows the driver to the entrance. Its exterior is grubby, with bright shields
advertising its tasty noodles. She pushes through the curtains and enters the
dim little room, which is almost empty. Immediately the driver and the owner
greet each other and he explains his business there that day, and she is
introduced and people come out of the kitchen to meet her and look at the
woman who works in Beijing. She sits down at a table, laden with dirty
crockery, discarded chopsticks, and spilt soup, feeling uncomfortable. This
isn’t helped when a girl comes to her table and after clearing away the
detritus of past meals, she returns, armed with a dirty wet cloth, which she
proceeds to wipe across the whole surface, leaving grimy trails across the
‘Soon have it clean!’ she says with a broad smile, grinning her gap-toothed
grin at the stranger from Beijing, whose smile is small and fixed. The waitress’
smile diminishes somewhat though, when An Xueping takes a roll of tissue
paper from the table, tears off a length and proceeds to wipe the surfaces
nearest her again.
The waitress raises her eyebrows at her boss and the driver, as if to say,
‘who’s your friend?’ and retreats into the kitchen at the back.

‘What do you want, then?’ asks Driver Fan of the silent woman, then calls
across to the owner. ‘What do you recommend, mate?’
‘The salsa mien30 is pretty good!’
‘O.K., that’s fine for me. What about you?’
‘I’ll have the same,’ she tries to smile.
‘Two then!’ Driver Fan shouts and then gets up to talk to his friend at the bar.
‘Want some tea, Missus?’ the manager asks.

   Bottles of tea are often taken on a journey in the northwest of China. They are usually specially-
designed containers which retain heat for a considerable period. Many men brew tea in them and then
add boiling water when they stop at watering holes.
   Salsa mien = a type of noodle dish in which small pieces of tofu are mixed with celery, onion,
peppers, and mushroom. It usually comes in a soup.

‘Yes, please!’ she answers, trying to make the best of it.
He hefts the kettle from the free-standing hob next to the bar and pours a
boiling stream into a little plastic cup, which he then fits into a holder, so that
his rich guest might actually smile for once. He carries it over to her with a
wry raising of his eyebrows.
‘Thank you,’ she says, and looks at him a moment and their eyes lock. She
looks away quickly. He is aware of some great sadness oozing out of her and
his heart fills with pity. How can someone so rich and famous be so sad?
‘You’re welcome!’ he says, the wind rather taken out of his sails, looking
down now on her pretty head, with its modern style, and that expensive
diamond jewel winking at him. He was going to show to himself that he
wasn’t going to be afraid of this city-woman, but now he moves back
awkwardly, indicating at his friend with a movement of his head at the
woman who is sipping her scalding tea with anything but relish. Driver Fan
shakes his head and raises his eyebrows. She’s just this moody woman and
the sooner he’s left her at Guyuan, the better.

The men continue their conversation but every now and again, before the
noodles arrive, the manager finds himself looking at her and feeling sorry for
her. For all her bluster, for all her self-importance, she’s just a sad woman in
the end. What’s she doing gallivanting all over the place, anyway? Working
in Beijing, living in Xi’an! Whatever next!

Once on the road again, the two travelers remain mostly silent. Driver Fan
knows he’ll be dining out on his tales of her disgust at the conditions in the
restaurant, how she argued about eating with chopsticks which weren’t in
their own wrappers. She said the ones in the tin were dirty. The managers
tried to find any ivory or plastic ones, but to no avail and in the end she
dipped the splintered chopsticks in boiling water before eating with them.
People were watching her, and although no one said it to her face, everyone
felt she was behaving badly and she knew it. She felt she was behaving badly
herself, but once started she didn’t know how to back down. So she carried on
as if she didn’t care that everyone was talking about her and she ate the food
scrupulously, finishing every last drop.

She dozes a little as they wind through lonely mountain regions, until at last,
Driver Fan tells her they are entering Guyuan at last. Dongyue Mountain
stands surveying his domain, woken momentarily from his long sleep -
perhaps for this very moment, a tiny shuddering deep in the dusty earth
registering his wakefulness. An Xueping looks at her watch and realises that
she has been asleep for nearly three hours. She feels strangely disorientated
and as the mountain looms towards her, filling the windscreen, she senses a
moment of doom, as if something enormous is going to happen here, which

will shatter her life. It is a momentary feeling and one over almost before she
can register it, but she sits up straight, feeling cold to her stomach. She looks
up at the mountain as its glides them past its gaze, its smooth contours
settling onto her mind like dust blown on the wind. It settles inside her and
she feels something resonating in harmony with the mountain’s new
wakefulness, a sediment of history bedding down into her, which she
struggles against, because she feels so powerless. She closes her eyes, wishing
the journey over. When she opens them again, the mountain is now standing
behind them, watching them trail down the windy road into Guyuan itself. It
watches them until they turn a corner leading into the main city-street.

An Xueping feels well-being washing over her as they sweep towards their
hotel and away from the mountain. The Postal Hotel, the best in Guyuan she
was told. The equivalent of the Zhonglou31 in Xi’an. She doubts that and as
they pull into the driveway, she knows she was right to doubt it. The Postal
Hotel is grand by Ningxia standards (that much is obvious) but it is still
provincial and tatty.

Driver Fan lifts her bag out of the boot, and clatters it shut. She has already
entered through the automatic doors into the foyer, which is grandiosely
marbled and gold-leafed. Six clocks showing times around the world adorn
the backdrop to the front-desk, as if the hotel welcomes visitors from these
international locations every day of the week.

‘I have a reservation,’ she says to the receptionist, who is standing watching
the stranger. ‘An Xueping, from Xi’an.’ She reaches into her handbag and
retrieves her identity card.
‘Ah yes, Mrs. An. How long are you staying?’
‘Just one night. I’m going to Yinchuan tomorrow to fly to Beijing in the
The receptionist looks closely at the identity card and hastily copies down
some details on the registration card in front of her. ‘You need to pay three
hundred yuan reservation fee, please and then tomorrow we’ll give you back
the balance.’
‘I see.’
‘Could you sign here, please?’ She smiles at the stranger, but An Xueping
hands over the money, signs swiftly and then asks to be shown to her room
immediately. She sees Driver Wang approaching her.
‘Are you staying here?’ she asks him.

  Zhonglou means bell tower. In Xi’an there is a Bell Tower Hotel, near the old Bell Tower itself. The
hotel caters for rich tourists and visitors from Beijing and Shanghai. Foreigners staying at this hotel
must pay a foreigner-supplement of one-hundred yuan a night!

‘Oh no, I’ve got friends down the road. I’ll be staying with them tonight.
What time shall I come and fetch you tomorrow?’
‘The thing is supposed to start at 10.30. Come about 10.15, will you?’
‘Well, have a good evening, then!’ she says, and the porter takes her bag and
together they go into the lift and are lost from sight.
‘She from Xi’an or Beijing?’ asks the receptionist of the driver.
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ he quips in response.

Wednesday, April 16th

An Xueping wants to look her best because she feels so utterly out of place
here. She buttons up the blouse of the red suit carefully, feeling the
embroidered frogs into their silk-woven loops. She stands back and surveys
the results. A pretty suit, shame about her face. She tries to smile at her
reflection, but is greeted only with the woodenness of her attempt and knows
that there is really no point. No one will notice anyway. Why on earth did she
say she would do this? She sighs and takes her shiny black handbag off the
bed. A surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. She looks at her watch. Her
colleagues probably drank well into the night last night, so they won’t be on
time. She places the handbag back on the bed and sits down at the dressing
table for a while, her head on her hands, looking into the mirror but seeing,
instead of herself, another room and another time.

‘Can we see the Great Wall today, then?’
‘Yes, of course, when your father thinks fits to climb out of bed.’
‘I heard that!’ came a muffled voice from the bathroom, where Wang Xiaolin
was drying his hair and face with a thick white towel.
‘Can we, then, baba? Can we?’
‘Yes, yes!’ said Wang Xiaolin, appearing at the bedroom door, his head
wrapped in a towel and wearing the luxurious toweling robe also provided
by the hotel. ‘Just give me a chance!’
‘But you take so long!’ said the child impatiently, looking up at his mother,
appealing to her power to do something more quickly than he can with his
puny efforts. Her answer was to ruffle his hair, which Wang Xiaolin watched
affectionately from the doorway, and which An Xueping only now notices for
the first time.

She shudders with the intimacy of it, with his intrusion into her memory, her
vision, her relationship with her child. Why can’t he leave her alone, even here?
There is a knock at the door.

‘Are you ready, An Xueping?’

‘Coming!’ she says to Driver Fan’s voice, picks up her handbag, scans her
room for anything she might need, and leaves the room to the cleaners. As
they walk into the foyer downstairs, she sees her colleagues waiting for her.
Inwardly she steels herself for what feels like an invasion as she walks
forward into their greetings.

The drive to the school in the three cars takes minutes. Her car is the first to
arrive and when she gets out, the wind is quite high and the bunting is
slapping the sky with angry insistence. Hundreds of children are already
there, waiting in the winds, straining to take a look, her arrival causing a buzz
of excitement. Her gaze sweeps over them, unconsciously searching, and
feeling her first glimmerings of pity for other human beings in months. Some
of them seem so small and dirty. As she walks past some of them, all craning
their necks to get a good view, she notes their eagerness, their bright
gleaming eyes, the thin clothes, the scabby knees. One girl takes her attention:
she has an ageless face, cares wrapped in a thousand years, eyes fathomless in
their feeling, and the intensity of her gaze brings the dusty mountain to An
Xueping’s mind. It is a reflection, which troubles her so she cannot even smile
at the girl.

She ascends the steps to the dais, on which there are three rows of seats. Her
name is written in passable characters on a central front seat and she sits
down to wait quietly for the event to be over. She looks out over the crowds
of strangers’ faces. All eagerness, youthful exhilaration, but even this makes
her sad. Some of her colleagues from Beijing join her now on the platform.
Zhang Jun is here first. He always was punctual. He’s wearing a green silk
kerchief in his top pocket and looks elegant. They decided between them to
wear the colours denoting the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 – red, green
and yellow. All they need now is Sun Weiming with his habitual yellow silks
and they have a full set!

The yard is filling up with students and teachers, the children’s blue and
white uniforms like a pageant of colour on this blustery morning. As her gaze
sweeps across the vast crowds, her eyes catch on a single child in the third
row, standing in a little pocket of space, staring intently at her. His eyes glitter
with a fierce brightness and he looks at her wonderingly, as if he can’t quite
believe his eyes. She is touched and smiles at him but he has already looked
away. She feels a small pang of regret at missing the moment.

She finally has to make a speech to the assembled dignitaries, school leaders,
local politicians and the elders from the Yinchuan government who have
come today to endorse the occasion. She talks about her honour at being there
and then it’s all over. So much effort for such a little, she muses, as people

begin to file away. A gust of wind catches some of the papers and she stoops
to retrieve them as her colleagues and new associates begin conversing about
the occasion. She knows she ought to join in, but her heart isn’t in it. Her
husband’s words come back to her and she pushes all thoughts of him away.

As she looks up, she sees a little boy standing in front of her, looking up at her.
She recognises him instantly as the child who was staring at her earlier.
‘Who are you?’ she asks. He is thrilled, but suddenly shy.
‘Ma Ping, madam!’
Oh, what a sweet child! And his putonghua32 is surprisingly good for a child
from this province. She closes her eyes against showing too much pleasure.
‘And how old are you, Ma Ping?’ she says, coming further forward on the
dais and crouching down towards him. He looks such a sweet child, such an
open countenance.
‘I’m twelve. I was twelve two weeks ago. My birthday’s on April the 1st.’
‘A little fool, eh!’ she says, and smiles at him. But his eyes are anything but
those of a fool ‘And yet not so, eh?’ she continues, looking at him long and

He continues to look straight at her, with an expression so reminiscent of An
Zheping’s that she doesn’t know whether to be angry or delighted. His stare
is candid and innocent and wondering and wise all at the same time. His gaze
says, ‘I want to know you. I want to know who you are. I want to understand
you.’ She is disturbed to find such close scrutiny in one so young, but it is an
expression, which An Zheping used to have sometimes when he played
Chopin. As if questioning the master, interrogating him through his music.
Idly, An Xueping wonders what this child’s medium might be.
 ‘And what did you do for this occasion, Ma Ping?’ she asks him.
‘Some calligraphy, madam.’
‘Are you good?’
Ma Ping hangs his head.
She leans over and ruffles his hair, but then stands up hastily. He’s a sweet
child and she suspects he might actually be very good indeed. She smiles at
his naivete, his youth and innocence. There is something special about him:
his eyes are so alive and she sees again as he ventures to look up. He has
touched her heart and she knows nothing about him. She can imagine him
being an artist, writing his soul onto paper, as her son played his out. She
swallows painfully, pushing her thoughts aside.

   Putonghua = standard Mandarin, which is now spoken in all schools. Teachers have to sit a
putonghua examination in order either to become teachers or remain so. Children are expected to speak
standard Mandarin at school at all times.

‘Look at me little one, little Ma Ping,’ she says caressingly. She has crouched
down next to him again, so that with his full standing height and her
crouching one, they are almost on a level. She tips his chin upwards gently
with her hand and he turns up his round eyes full into her face. She is startled
at their power.
‘You try your best, young man,’ she says. Oh, she wants to say so much more.
She wants to tell him to live because her son can’t. Live and be victorious,
because my son can’t. Live and vanquish all doubt with your life because my
son can’t. Be the best you can be because who knows what will happen
‘And who knows, maybe one day you will come to Xi’an and we will meet,’
she finishes.
‘Xi’an, madam? I thought you lived in Beijing.’
She smiles and stands up again. Madam. Fancy her being ‘madam!’ She must
go. She can’t stay here. She has to return to her life.
‘I work in Beijing sometimes, but my home is in Xi’an.’ She turns away a
moment and retrieves her handbag.
‘I hope to meet you again, Ma Ping.’ And she turns away completely now.
She cannot bear to look at him anymore. She might even cry. No, now it’s
time for lunch and then this afternoon she’s going to rest.

Later at the hotel there is an urgent knock at her door.
‘Who is it?’
‘Zhang Jun.’
‘What is it?’
‘There’s been a fire at the school where we were this lunchtime. Two dead
An Xueping wrenches open the door with a sickening presentiment.
‘Who’s dead?’ She ushers Zhang Jun in hurriedly.
‘Oh, none of our party. Two kids apparently.’
‘Which kids?’ She sits down opposite him, and opens her packet of cigarettes,
lighting one hastily.
‘Oh just two kids. Apparently this boy went in after his friend and the friend’s
father went in as well, but the child died. Ma Ping, or something! Hey, are
you all right?’
‘Ma Ping died?’
‘No, he was the hero. It’s all over Guyuan already. This kid went into a
burning building and tried to save his friend. But he couldn’t. His friend died
and another kid they think was the one who started the fire.’

‘Ma Ping is a hero!’ she states, clearly in shock, dragging on her cigarette
heavily, her hand shaking.
‘What ever is the matter?’
‘I met Ma Ping this morning,’ she says in a blank voice. The shock of what
nearly happened to him hits her with an overwhelming force and she
suddenly begins to cry, grinding out her cigarette in the ashtray on the
bedside table, and dropping her head into her hands. Zhang Jun is deeply
‘Perhaps I should go,’ he begins awkwardly, standing up.
‘No, no!’ she says, sitting up, wiping her eyes quickly and looking at him
shakily through the wetness. ‘It’s just, you see, An Zheping died in an
accident too.’
‘Yes, I know,’ the man says gently, sitting down again.
‘And sometimes, I find myself asking why I couldn’t save him. Why I wasn’t
there to save him. A car going too fast. Happens all the time now, apparently,
in cities. That’s what that PSB 33 man said. And you see, today, I met this
glorious little boy and he really reminded me of my beloved son. Oh I know
he can’t be, and he’s just a little country boy, and my son was so gifted and
bright and sharp and had such an important life in front of him, but
nevertheless, you know, this little boy touched me and when I thought he was
dead, I just…’
She starts to cry again.
‘Oh dear, Zhang Jun, I am sorry.’
‘No, no. I can imagine how you must feel. If anything happened to my little
Xiaomei, I know I couldn’t bear it. I don’t know how you manage.’
‘I don’t!’ says the woman bleakly. ‘As you can see, I don’t! What about Ma
Ping? Is he all right?’
‘He’s in hospital. I thought we might offer to pay the bill, you know, as a
gesture. His family is very poor apparently. Parents are peasants and the
brother’s practically illiterate so they say. Four or five brothers and sisters. He
lives with his aunt. They run some kind of restaurant.’
‘I see,’ says An Xueping, realising through his description how fanciful her
imagination has been. ‘Yes, of course, that’s a nice gesture. We’ll pay the bill.
Is he badly hurt?’
‘Just shock and smoke-inhalation, apparently. No real worries.’
‘Well, that’s all right, then. Now, let’s sort out our plans for tomorrow. I need
to be in Yinchuan for my flight in the evening. What about you?’

Thursday, April 17th.
Wearing a black and grey linen suit, and a white silk blouse, An Xueping
enters the Number Two Hospital in Guyuan. She’s told Driver Fan to wait for

     P.S.B. = Public Security Bureau. Police-officer, in other words.

her outside as he’s going to drive her to Yinchuan after all. Her other
colleagues have already left, unable to bear the place a moment longer. It’s
nine o’clock in the morning and she has to leave soon. She doesn’t really
know why she has come to visit the little boy. Although it might seem
obvious, she is convinced in her mind, that although she knows she is
attracted to him because he reminds her of his son, she doesn’t imagine for
one moment that he could really be compared to him. Her son was a genius
after all. No one and nothing can compensate for what she has lost. However,
the stories of this child’s courage, and the life in his eyes, have deeply touched
her, however, and she feels it’s the right thing to do to visit him and
encourage him for the future. What a shame he has such a poor background.

She asks an orderly to point her in the right direction and walks quickly down
the corridor. The smell of death, of disinfectant, and of hope miscarried into
despair assails her from the cracked and grimy walls, and she quickens her
pace. She is almost grateful, though, for the fact that the hospital where they
took her son before he died bore no resemblance to this one. There it was all
gleaming steel and white, shining tiles, nurses in starched uniforms, doctors
with the latest equipment. Here, the wards are full, and someone calls for help
from a lonely corner, but no one rushes to serve them. Again she feels her
heart stirring with pity. Finally, she reaches the place she was directed to. She
sees many children lying in their beds, a sprawl of sickness, the air heavy
with the smell of sweat, vomit and urine. She sees care in the staff, but
conditions whose existence seem like a personal slight as she walks quickly
towards the child.

That must be his bed, then. There are a number of people around it, a thick-set
man with closely cropped hair holding a child’s hand, but she can’t make out
if it is his, because there is also a woman older than her, her hair all
disheveled, sitting between her and the child’s face.
‘Don’t wake him, Ma Shipeng!’ she admonishes the younger man, probably
his young uncle or even one of his many brothers. A girl, about fifteen stands
up by his pillow, just gazing down at the sleeping figure. Her expression is
full of anguish. For a moment, An Xueping registers how lovely it must be to
have someone that concerned about her. Of course, this is a Hui family. And
she has lost her only son.
‘Excuse me!’ she says softly, but in the sickness of the room, her voice throbs
like an open wound.
Three people turn to look at her.
‘I am An Xueping!’ she says, moving closer. ‘I was one of the visitors from
Beijing at the school when they had the fire. I heard about Ma Ping, and I
wanted to visit him. I also wanted to say that we, that is to say, the people
from Beijing, want to pay for his hospital treatment.’

‘All the people of Beijing, you say!’ says the woman, acerbically, standing up.
‘Why, that’s very generous, I’m sure.’
‘I just meant…’
‘Thank you!’ says the young man, proffering his hand. ‘I am Ma Shipeng and
this is Bai Qiang, Ma Ping’s aunt. This is Ma Ling, his sister. She is very
worried about him.’ And almost on cue, the child bursts into tears.
‘Now, that’s quite enough of that!’ says Bai Qiang, looking at her caustically.
‘Please sit down, Mrs. An, won’t you?’ Ma Ling wipes her eyes and nose and
stands looking quietly on. ‘And forgive my rough manners. It is extremely
kind of you to come, but you see, we’re all rather upset.’ And her eyes also fill
with tears. ‘It’s all been rather trying, you see.’ She sits down abruptly and
takes Ma Ping’s hand. ‘So much has happened in the last few days. We were
all very pleased that you decided to come down from Beijing. We think it’s
very kind of you, don’t we?’ She looks around at her relatives.
‘Yes,’ agree Ma Shipeng and his sister, smiling at the stranger.
‘My sister and her husband are coming later,’ she explains unnecessarily, and
the woman’s effort touches An Xueping. She feels a wash of pity for these
poor people.
‘We would like to pay, you know,’ she says.
‘And as I say, it is very kind of you, but the school is organizing everything.’
‘What happened?’ she asks, indicating Ma Ping with a movement of her hand
in his direction.
‘They say he tried to save his friend but couldn’t. He wasn’t much of a friend,
actually. It was all on Ma Ping’s side, the effort.’ She stops a moment, looking
down at her nephew. ‘He’s a tiancai 34 , you know!’ she says with such
unexpectedness, that An Xueping gasps.
‘Excuse me!’ She laughs, wondering whether she can possibly have heard
‘They say he’s quite something, you know. Not your average child at all.’ She
continues to look at him as she burrows in her capacious cloth bag for
‘I’ve been carrying this round for days. I meant to take it to the school before
your visit, but, well it didn’t happen and I don’t think Ma Ping would have
much liked me to make a fuss, and in the circumstances, perhaps it’s for the
best. But I’d like you to see it.’
An Xueping begins to feel uncomfortable, but a glance at the other two tells
her that they think their aunt’s actions are perfectly understandable. Bai
Qiang draws a cardboard roll out of the bag, and starts to pull a roll of red
poster-paper out from it.
‘Well, I’m sure you don’t want…’ she begins awkwardly, but not knowing
how to finish. Then with a flash of intuition she asks:

     Tiancai = genius.

‘Is this some of Ma Ping’s calligraphy?’
‘How did you know about that?’ Bai Qiang asks sharply, looking at her,
narrowing her eyes. ‘Who told you?’
‘Um, he did,’ she replies, surprised at the sharpness.
‘Excuse me!’
‘I forgot to mention, sorry, I met him yesterday at the school after the
ceremony. He came up to speak to me.’
‘He came up to…?’ Bai Qiang is clearly surprised.
‘Yes, he introduced himself and I asked him about whether he had done
something for the ceremony. He said he wasn’t very good, but it’s strange,
you know, I didn’t believe him when he told me that.
Bai Qiang smiles cryptically.
‘You were right not to. Look at this, then,’ she says, unrolling the paper
carefully, her face assuming an expression of ‘I told you so, even though you
wanted to disagree.’ An Xueping is amused by the woman’s defensiveness,
but then all is forgotten in contemplation of what is being unfurled.

‘Eastern Prosperity: Western Development’, the calligraphy reads, with the
name of the school, Number Six Middle School, Guyuan written lengthwise
across the top, and the name of her university – Beijing Normal University -
across the bottom, diagonally opposite.

Gingerly she takes the paper from the woman’s hands, tentatively, as if it
might dissolve into powder at her touch.
‘And this is his?’ she says, her awe clear to all three who smile proudly at each
other. Her eyes devour the paper in front of her. She feels the child’s power
infusing the crackly paper. She feels strangely discomforted suddenly, in the
same way she experienced yesterday when entering the city in the presence of
the mountain.
‘And he’s twelve?’ she says, however, looking almost disbelievingly at the
boy’s aunt.
‘That’s right!’ says Bai Qiang, taking the paper back, and rolling it up
carefully. ‘Two weeks ago.’
‘Yes, he said his birthday was on April First and I called him a little fool, but I
knew he wasn’t.’
‘He told you his birthday!’ The exclamation almost discloses too much and
Bai Qiang goes red and mutters something about the fact that he’s usually a
shy child and that the family was hoping that living in the city would open
him up a little more. But then this seems too familiar as well and she lapses
into silence.

The quiet is long, broken only when An Xueping asks to look at the
calligraphy once more. Bai Qiang unrolls it again with a look of triumph in
her eyes this time.
‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ she says smugly.
‘It’s better than good,’ says An Xueping, softly caressing the paper between
thumb and index finger, savouring the genius. She hears her son playing in
the background of her feelings and her eyes swim between now and then.
When she raises them, she sees Bai Qiang looking closely at her.
‘Are you all right, Mrs. An?’ she asks gently.
‘My son was a genius too!’ she says, her own candour surprising her, and
feeling she is being generous in grouping their sons together, but now is not a
time for fairer distinctions. ‘He was a musician. Everyone said that if he’d
lived, he would have been famous one day. People came from all over to hear
him. A man from New York in America said he was exceptional and wanted
him to study at the Julliard. It’s a famous music school. All the best Western
musicians go there apparently.’
‘What happened?’
‘He died.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Bai Qiang says softly. Ma Ling is crying noiselessly,
her tears falling unchecked. An Xueping looks up at her and is cut to the
quick by the simple kindness she finds in the child’s face.
‘How did he die?’ asks Ma Shipeng, realising suddenly, that this could have
been his brother’s fate too and feeling a relief in this second chance.
‘A car accident. He stepped out in front of a car. One moment he…’
She pauses.
‘How long will Ma Ping stay here?’
‘A few days, the doctors say.’
‘Well, if he needs anything, if he needs to be transferred to Yinchuan, or Xi’an,
I live in Xi’an and I could arrange everything for you.’
‘You are very kind, Mrs. An, but we’ll manage.’

An Xueping stands up. She picks up her handbag. ‘Will you let him know I
think his work is amazing.’
‘Thank you, I will.’
And then suddenly, the visitor sits down again, a resolution clearly formed on
her face.
‘Mrs. Bai,’ she says. ‘My husband is Professor of Calligraphy and Ancient
Chinese Art at Xibei Daxue, in Xi’an.’
‘I’m very pleased for you, I’m sure,’ Bai Qiang rejoins rather stiffly, confused
at where this might be heading.
‘No, I mean, well, I was wondering. Would you like me to show this work to
my husband? I think he would be really impressed.’
Bai Qiang looks quickly at Ma Shipeng, who nods his head immediately.

‘I would need to talk to Ma Ping’s parents,’ she says slowly, but clearly
‘Yes, I can see that,’ An Xueping replies respectfully. ‘It’s just that I’m going to
Yinchuan today and then on to Beijing. I’ll be seeing my husband very soon
and well, I think…’
‘And you’d need to take that now, would you?’
‘And you really think your husband would be interested in it?’
‘I know he would be,’ she answers looking at Bai Qing full in the face. ‘This is
exceptional, but you know that already. I really would like him to see it.’

‘I think you should let her take it, Aunt,’ says the young man.
‘When I want your opinion, Ma Shipeng, I will ask for it,’ Bai Qiang says
querulously, leaving An Xueping in no doubt as to the woman’s love and
admiration of her younger nephew. It also reveals, however, the woman’s
vulnerability and An Xueping is touched to realise that this bossy little
woman is afraid of her.
‘I can see it might be an opportunity for Ping,’ she muses out loud. ‘Well, if
you take it, we want it back!’
‘Of course, it’s yours. It’s Ma Ping’s,’ she corrects herself. ‘Where do you live?’
Bai Qiang gives her the address and An Xueping writes it down on a small
notepad she pulls out of her handbag.

‘Thank you, and please don’t worry. I will return it,’ she says, getting up,
pushing the notebook back into her bag. She takes the cardboard roll from Bai
Qiang’s hand, which seems, at this last moment, to be reluctant to give it up.
The woman’s hand follows the roll for a moment, and then falls back at her
sides, as if defeated. Her mouth quivers, but is quickly governed.

‘I’ll write to you,’ An Xueping says. ‘Can you read?’
‘Everyone in my family can read,’ says Bai Qiang, drawing herself up to her
full height. ‘Just because we’re countryside folk…’
‘I didn’t mean…’
But it is perhaps better not to emphasise her mistake with an apology.
‘I’ll write,’ she repeats, and nodding to the nephew and niece, and with a final
glance at Ma Ping’s sleeping form, she leaves the room.

She reaches the car with relief. Driver Fan is, however, clearly agitated. He’s
hovering over the open engine, which he’s propped up on its metal bar.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asks him, going to his side and peering into the
innards, seeing nothing that means anything to her.
‘Something wrong with the engine. We’ll have to wait. I’ve rung this garage
in the area, they’re sending someone.’

‘But I need to be in Yinchuan for my flight.’
‘I’m doing my best.’

An Xueping sighs, opens the back door, and climbs in to wait. She unfurls the
paper again, to savour the delights of this child’s creativity. Fancy finding a
genius here! Of all places.

She looks up idly and sees Bai Qiang, Ma Shipeng and the girl hurrying out of
the hospital entrance away from the car. That means Ma Ping is alone. She
considers rapidly, rolling the paper back into its cardboard, and then, holding
the roll in one hand, opens the car door with the other.

‘I won’t be a moment,’ she says, rushing into the building, clutching the
cardboard. Driver Fan is about to call out that it’ll be fixed soon, when the
mechanic turns up and his attention is diverted. An Xueping almost runs
along the corridors this time, hardly noticing the stench, nor hearing the cries,
nor seeing the sallow lumps of people languishing in corners and
wheelchairs, without attendants.

She reaches Ma Ping’s bedside and his eyes are open. They don’t register
recognition. She smiles at him and smoothes the hair back from his forehead.
‘You met me yesterday,’ she says. ‘I am the lady from Beijing. I was on the
stage and you came to speak to me. Do you remember?’
He stares without seeing.
‘I’ve seen your work,’ she continues. ‘Mrs. Bai, your aunt, has shown me your
work. I am going to show my husband.’ She brandishes the cardboard roll at
him. ‘You’re a tiancai, aren’t you? Like my own little Zheping. I want you to
come to Xi’an. I want to give you all the advantages you won’t get here. I
know my husband will agree. You can live with us and we will give you
everything. Everything, do you understand?’
‘You’re the Nice Lady!’ he says in his soft voice, so low, she has to bend to
hear it.
‘Am I?’ she says, hope rising in her. ‘Do you think you would like to come
and live with us?’
‘I think you’re very pretty.’
‘Thank you,’ she says, and kisses his forehead. She takes his hand, but he has
already fallen asleep.

When she emerges again into the warm sunshine of a spring day, she finds
Driver Fan sitting at the wheel and anxious to be gone. She gets into the back
of the car, and he starts the engine, and they sweep through the entrance to
the hospital and out towards new hills, leaving the now slumbering Dongyue
Mountain far behind them.

She is eager to be gone now, so that she might quicken the time from now to
then and bring what she really wants, closer.

April 19th
‘Please, just listen, will you?’
‘I am not going to discuss this over the ‘phone. What you’re suggesting is
madness, woman. I won’t countenance it!’
‘Oh, you won’t countenance it, will you not?’
She shouts into the receiver and then holds it away from her at his angry
answer. Mustering all her self-control, she puts the receiver back to her face
and tries again.
‘Please, Wang Xiaolin. Just meet him. Please, please, just meet him. He’s
exceptional. He’s not our child, of course, but…’
‘You’ve just said the most significant thing. He is not our child. He can’t
become our child, An Xueping.’
‘I know that! I just want him to have a chance. His family, well, they love him,
but honestly, they haven’t a clue. They are so, well, so backward.’
‘Listen to yourself.’
‘But what I’m saying is true. With that family, what will he ever do? With us
he has a chance.’
‘A chance of what? Becoming our dead son?’

The line goes dead, as An Xueping crashes the receiver down.

April 23rd

‘I’m sorry about the other day.’
‘Wang Xiaolin, I said I’m sorry.’
‘I heard you.’
‘Look, we’ll talk about it when I come home.’
‘Will we?’
‘Yes, yes we will, and I’ll make you those special jiaozi and we’ll talk. Just
talk, that’s all.’
‘That’d be a first in a while.’
‘When are you coming home?’
‘Next week, probably Thursday.’
‘Fine. I’ll see you then.’
The line goes dead.

1st May
‘So, how was your trip?’
‘Fine. I am tired, though. This SARs thing has everyone paranoid at the
airports. The security is really tiresome. I could do with a shower.’
‘You do that then, dear. Li Haiyan has left us some food. I just need to put it
in the microwave.’

The jets of water steam through An Xueping’s weariness and sharpen her
resolve. She must convince him, it’s as simple as that. He is just being
cautious. She mustn’t lose her temper again. She wants Ma Ping so much now,
she can think of nothing else. He mustn’t ruin this. She’ll never forgive him if
he denies her this. She has never asked for anything from him. Why is he
being so difficult? The water pours over her weary spirit and she takes hope
from it. She won’t press the calligraphy on him straightaway, she’ll be
rational and show him how deeply she’s thought about this.

When she emerges into the sitting room, wearing her silken dressing gown,
which flows to her feet in scarlet, her hair damp and straight down her back,
the food is already steaming on the table. He has placed the special ivory
chopsticks by her place, her favourites. She sees this as a good omen. Chicken
and ginger, garlic sticks and beef, sweet and sour egg-plant, and longlife
noodles. It’s no one’s birthday, is it? She looks at him. He is standing by his
chair, waiting for her to sit down. It is the first time she has looked at him
since coming through the door this evening. He looks tired and old. She is
suddenly smitten with guilt. Around his eyes are lines of worry, and shadows
of despair. For the first time in a while, she feels a sense of pity for him. He
must be suffering too.

‘If madam would like to sit down…’ He gestures her to her seat, and she sits
down. He follows her.
His use of the word ‘madam’, however, strengthens her resolve against his
resistance, as it so graphically reminds her of her first encounter with Ma Ping.
‘This looks lovely. Thank you.’ She helps herself to some noodles first, eating
them slowly, but with clear relish.

He sits and looks at her briefly. He notes the sheen of her hair as it glides
round her shoulders. Their formality, however, is a strait-jacket, but it is safe
as well, and for some minutes they discuss the minutiae of their days apart.
‘About this boy…’
‘Ma Ping. His name’s Ma Ping.’
‘Yes, whatever. You know he can’t come and live here. His parents wouldn’t
want it anyway.’
‘We could persuade them.’

Wang Xiaolin helps himself to some noodles and then some chicken. He
begins to eat slowly.

He regrets his precipitate words. He should have led more gently into it. He
sees the way his wife’s eyes are glittering with determination. He has seen
that look before. When her parents said he was too old for her, she defied
them with that look. She told them he was the right man and she was lucky
and nothing was going to stop her marrying him. She did it without shouting,
without pleading, she simply did it and waited for the world to catch up with
her decision. This, however, is different. She cannot do it alone and this
knowledge galls her and makes her feel a bitterness towards her husband,
that in her deepest heart, she knows he doesn’t deserve. The energy required
to counter this moral slipperiness, however, is more than she has at present.

An Xueping helps herself to beef, nodding her head in approval at the
exquisite taste.
‘Li Haiyan has surpassed herself, I think,’ she says with a smile.
‘Yes, she’s very good, isn’t she? Tell me about him,’ he begins. She explores
his face to see if she can detect any duplicity, but his face is even and neutral.
‘He’s amazing!’ She reaches her chopsticks over and tweaks a bunch of
noodles, bringing them carefully back to her plate before selecting a smaller
‘You’ve said that.’ He allows a smile to play on his lips and she seems
reassured by it.
‘Mm, this chicken is excellent,’ he continues.
‘Yes, I must try some. He does this amazing calligraphy, the child. I think if
you saw it, you’d know why I was so enthusiastic. I brought some with me.
Will you see it?’
Wang Xiaolin bites his tongue. He knows already why she is so eager.
‘After supper, maybe.’
She is annoyed by this response, but she remembers her resolve and tries
another tack instead.
‘He could come here and we could put him up for a weekend or something.
Look, just meet him, that’s all I’m asking.’ She helps herself to the chicken and
immediately exclaims at its deliciousness.
‘No, it isn’t, An Xueping,’ he says, disregarding her comments about the food.
‘You’re asking me to adopt him. If I saw him and then decided I didn’t want
to do what you want me to do, you’d be furious because you’ve already
decided exactly what you want. This isn’t about giving him a chance. It’s
about giving you a chance to be his mother.’ He immediately regrets his
boldness. He looks at her, sitting across from him. She lays down her
chopsticks across her bowl, her movements slow and deliberate. There is no
passion in her stance, she sits like marble, cold and impregnable.

She wipes her mouth gently, slowly, deliberately.

‘How dare you!’ she says softly, so much so, he has to strain to hear her. She
looks at him levelly.
‘You have no right to pronounce on my character. You have no right.’
‘I am your husband,’ he says inevitably.
‘Huh! Some husband you’ve been over the last months.’
He shakes his head.
‘That’s not fair,’ he says ‘That’s so unfair, An Xueping.’ He shakes his head.
He cannot go on. He pushes back his seat, all at once his movements
becoming urgent. He has to get out of her presence. He cannot tolerate it any
longer. He will say or do something dangerous to her, to himself. What he’ll
do, he doesn’t know, but something. And it will be terrible. He staggers out of
the room, reaching his room, slamming his study door. For a moment she sits,
indomitable, convinced of her own rectitude. And then she hears his sobbing,
and her certainty crumbles like her hopes.

‘Wang Xiaolin. I’m sorry,’ she says, later.
He doesn’t look round. He’s reading a thesis, marking places in the margin
for future comment. His swivel leather chair is facing the window. She can
make out his elbow resting on the arm, but other than that, there seems to be
no one there at all.
‘I really am sorry.’
‘I am busy, An Xueping,’ comes the answer, clipped, controlled, distant.

She takes a deep breath. He has to listen to her. He has to.
‘I want to apologise,’ she says. She goes round to the front of his chair, and as
she passes him, she notices the bald patch on his whitening hair and this
seems to suggest vulnerability to her, so kneels down before him. She touches
his knee with her hand. He blinks, trying to mark still, or to appear to mark,
but his resolve falters. He finally puts the thesis on the table at the side of his
chair, and takes her hand, chafing it gently. He realises it is the first time he
has touched her for weeks. In feeling the parameters of her flesh, he is
suddenly more aware of his own and recognises his physical loneliness. He
swallows painfully.
‘An Xueping. I love you,’ he says, kissing the top of her head. She bends her
head and rests it on his knees. Her dressing gown falls open slightly, and he is
aroused by the sight of her smooth skin and the gentle sway of her breasts
under the thin material. He strokes her hair, nearly dry already. It is soft and
thick and rich and his vision swims before his eyes as he remembers early
times in their relationship, of making love in the starlit panoply of the night.
He remembers clearly still the time when An Zheping was conceived. On a

holiday in Shanghai. When their tenderness reaches heights of union he had
never considered possible. That this should have led to their genius child was
a mystical reality, which consumed him for years in contemplation of the
meaning of his life. She looks up at him now with tears in her eyes, and he is
filled with love for her. Simply, unaffected love, that desires nothing but

‘What do you want?’ he asks her simply.
‘I want you to meet him,’ she says, looking up at him imploringly.
‘Very well,’ he says with a sigh. ‘Show me the calligraphy now. I’d like to see
it,’ he says and immediately, she leaves him and goes to her bag in the hall,
and he hears her rustling around until she finds it.

She rushes into his study, where he is now standing by the window looking
out at the night lights, the lamps glowing for a short distance, and their slack
taken up by the next one. Students wander the campus in pairs, mostly, boy-
friend and girl-friend and he senses a momentary twinge of regret that these
days are forever behind him.

‘Look, here it is,’ she says, eagerly unfolding the red paper. The cardboard roll
has been discarded and lies on the silk carpet by the fireplace. He sits down
again in his chair and takes the paper from her. She kneels down in front of
him again and feeds deeply on his eyes as he looks, gleaning every expression,
every change of light. He says nothing for some moments. As he looks at the
paper, he is jolted by its brilliance. A twelve year old boy did this! It hardly
seems possible. He thinks with regret of how this shows up his masterclass.
This child knows more about calligraphy than any of them ever will. An
Xueping wasn’t exaggerating.

‘Some unwarranted boldness here,’ he says, pointing to the Zhong35 symbol.
An Xueping laughs in relief. She knows he’s had to try hard to find that. She
can’t discern what he sees, but she realises he is convinced of the child’s
genius. She nods as if she does follow. And she realises she admires Wang
Xiaolin. He is completely absorbed now in the child’s work. He isn’t
considering their arguments, he is simply aware of the work. She looks up at
him with a surge of hope.

He is nodding his head slowly. She wants to goad him into a verbal response,
but decides against it. She waits.

 Zhong = has various meanings. It can be the first character of Zhongguo, i.e. China. It can mean
Middle, and is often used to substitute for Middle School on its own. So Yi (one) Zhong is Number
One Middle School.

‘I’ll meet him,’ Wang Xiaolin says. ‘But I make no promises. I want that
understood, An Xueping.’
‘Yes, yes, of course!’ she agrees, now that she believes it is only a matter of
‘I mean what I say,’ he says, standing up, and handing her the paper. ‘This is
remarkable, but Ma Ping is not our son.’
‘I know that!’ An Xueping says, an irritation coming unbidden into her voice,
despite her desire for a cease-fire.
‘Yes, I hope you do,’ he says quietly. He places his hand gently on her
shoulder and smiles at her. ‘After all, dear, we want the best for him, don’t
‘Yes, yes, we do,’ she says, relief in her voice. ‘And that’s coming to live here
with us,’ she adds so quietly, it is doubtful Wang Xiaolin can hear her.

Saturday, 7th June
‘This is where they told me to meet them,’ says An Xueping, looking out and
up at the shop and restaurant names. She brings the car to a gentle stop. ‘This
one, I think.’ She gets out of the car, and Wang Xiaolin does likewise. The
wind is fierce and his hair blows vigorously. He places his hand on his head
to still it, and at that moment, sees his wife crouching down to the level of a
little boy who has run out to greet her. So that’s Ma Ping, is it? He’s a lovely-
looking little boy, that’s true. She hasn’t exaggerated there at all. His eyes are
really strong and full of character. And that woman must be his aunt. Yes, she
looks just as his wife has described her – rather formidable, actually. He
smiles at her. She nods at him without smiling. Is she bad-tempered or afraid,
he wonders, but he realises he likes her anyway. He smiles and stretches out
his hand.
‘I am Wang Xiaolin.’
‘Pleased to meet you Professor,’ she says, shaking his hand but relinquishing
it quickly, wiping her hands together swiftly afterwards. He is not insulted.
He realises she is afraid of him and this touches him.
‘It is a great honour for our family that you come to see us,’ she continues.
‘You must be hungry after your difficult journey. Please, come in, come in!
This is Ma Ping,’ she says, indicating her nephew who stands close to his wife,
shyly and sweetly, clearly trusting and liking her already.
‘Hello, Ma Ping. I am pleased to meet you at last. You have quite a gift, you
‘Thank you, Professor Wang,’ he says, blushing and looking down. What a
sweet face! Bai Qiang, leads the way to the entrance of the restaurant and then
holds aside the plastic slats for her guests to enter before her. Well, he’s older
than she expected. She guesses he must be nearly 65 already. And his wife so
young and pretty. Unusual, that.

Wang Xiaolin looks around at the gloomy interior. He cannot know, but
guesses, how much cleaning and scrubbing and washing has gone on under
this roof in the last week since they made their appointment for today. He
notes the polished floor, the gleaming windows, the pots of plastic flowers on
each table, the high gloss on the inlaid table at the centre of the restaurant, at
which places are already laid.

‘Please sit down,’ Bai Qiang says, motioning them to seats opposite the door36.
‘Oh, we have already eaten,’ says An Xueping, but Wang Xiaolin puts a
retraining hand on her arm. He intuits what this invitation means. The table is
set for five. All at once there is a commotion at the curtain to the kitchen. The
visitors turn and see an old man and his wife, followed by a younger man and
woman emerging into the restaurant.
‘My parents, Li Jiangtao and Li Jincai,’ says Bai Qiang, introducing them and
gesturing them at the same time to a seat next to the visitors. ‘Professor Wang
and his wife.’
‘Please to meet you!’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘This is my wife, An Xueping.’
Li Jincai nods quizzically as she sits, resting her stick on the table temporarily.
‘An Xueping? Your wife?’
‘It is customary sometimes now for a wife to keep her own name in the
university,’ says the woman, somewhat tartly.
‘Really!’ says Li Jincai leaving everyone in no doubt as to her feelings about
‘And my brother-in-law, Ma Xingjian, and my sister, Ma Rong. Ma Ping’s
‘Very pleased to meet you,’ says Wang Xiaolin reaching across to shake their
hands in turn. He notes that Ma Ping’s mother limps and wonders why. He
sees that Bai Qiang is very nervous and that his wife isn’t calm at all. She
wants too much. He sees all this, and feels only pity for all the people there.
He looks across at Ma Ping, who is standing slightly apart and wonders what
he must be making of all this. What his wife is suggesting is ludicrous. This is
the child’s family. The effort they have gone to for this meeting touches him
deeply. How can she fail to see how loving they are? Surely, in the end, that’s
all that really matters.

‘So what do you think?’ Bai Qiang has already started talking to him and he
hasn’t been paying attention.
‘I’m sorry?’
‘Ma Ping’s calligraphy.’

  Sitting opposite the door is a sign of an elevated position within the group. To show respect
honoured guest should be made to sit opposite the door.

‘Promising.’ He allows himself this one word, because any more is outside his
control. If he says any more it might be harder to remain firm later.
‘That’s not quite what you said at home, dear!’ An Xueping says with a smile,
touching his arm. Her touch alerts him immediately to the memory of her
previous touch that afternoon last week when they finally talked about what
they might do for the child. He had thought nothing of her touch then, that it
might be calculating, but this touch is calculating. She’s telling him that she
will push this to the limits of polite conversation, and that she won’t side with
him if he doesn’t accede to her wishes. He doesn’t know how he knows, but
he’s certain she is trying to manipulate him and it saddens him deeply, to the
extent that his pleasure in meeting this little genius is now clouded over with
brooding shadows.

‘The child is very talented. There’s no doubt about that, Mrs. Bai.’
‘Talented?’ Bai Qiang is not satisfied with this.
‘Please, Professor, have some baijou.’ Ma Xingjian offers him a tiny cup.
‘Thank you, no. I don’t drink. Do you?’
‘Actually, no, we don’t, as Hui. But we thought perhaps you would.’
‘That’s a very kind thought. Thank you. Perhaps some tea if it isn’t too much
‘Of course! Huang Hongmei!’ Ma Rong calls out and a young girl and a
young man come through the curtain.
‘Hello Ma Shipeng,’ says An Xueping. ‘Xiaolin, this is Ma Ping’s brother.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ says Wang Xiaolin with a broad smile. The older
brother looks kind, solid, reliable. He watches him interacting with Ma Ping,
and sees only love, warmth and fun there in their relationship. The brother
whispers something to the shy little boy and the child lights up like a beacon
at whatever words are being spoken. Wang Xiaolin smiles sadly. And this is
what she wants to take him from.
‘Huang Hongmei, please fetch our visitors some tea.’
‘Of course,’ says the young woman, blushing. Fancy having a professor as a
guest. Wait until she tells her mother. But surely he’s very old to be married
to that young woman. She’ll have to talk to Ma Shipeng about it and see what
he says.

‘I’ve heard him called a tiancai, actually!’ continues Bai Qiang. Wang Xiaolin
has to tear himself away from his reflections but catches her meaning.
‘It’s possible, Mrs. Bai, but it’s impossible to say on the strength of one piece
of work. Are there others?’
‘After eating, Xiaolin, surely,’ his wife interrupts and Wang Xiaolin is shocked.
This seems such duplicity. She’s playing a game, and not even doing it well.
He wonders at how desperate she must be to be doing this at all.

‘Let’s eat,’ says Li Jincai. ‘I’m hungry. Huang Hongmei, do hurry up!’ and she
strikes her walking stick on the floor.

Both emerge again quickly from the kitchen, Ma Shipeng and Huang
Hongmei, she bearing a tray with a variety of dishes on it, he armed with little
china cups for the tea, which he places one in front of each place, before
retrieving the kettle from the hob near the counter. Wang Xiaolin realises then
that Bai Qiang and Ma Rong are not seated, and in fact that there are no seats
for them.
‘Please sit down,’ he begins, but Bai Qiang waves his gesture away.
‘We should stand. It’s our custom with important guests. We will serve you
with food. It is our way.’
An Xueping begins to protest, but her husband intervenes. He should have
realised this, of course. As Hui women, they would rather serve the guests
than eat anything themselves. They will stand, thus to be in a good position to
see who needs what. Orthodox Hui men would also refrain from eating and
help the womenfolk with the serving. This means that their faith is not strict,
but it is traditional. This would make a difference, were Ma Ping to come to

‘You are very kind indeed,’ he says, nodding at Bai Qiang, who, for the first
time, smiles back.
‘Ma Ping,’ she says, ‘go to the garret and fetch those pictures. We can look at
them after we’ve eaten.’ He rushes to obey, glad to be beyond public scrutiny.

After the meal, tea is served piping hot once again, and An Xueping has to
admit that they have eaten well. The sweet and sour beef and potato-noodles
were particularly delicious, hot and spicy, yet delicate in flavour. She is
surprised when she is told this dish was cooked by Ma Ling, Ma Ping’s older
‘She’s the real cook of the family, Professor,’ says Ma Rong. ‘We are proud of
‘A lovely meal,’ says An Xueping, looking directly at the girl, who blushes
with pleasure.
‘So, Professor,’ says Li Jiangtao. ‘Tell us about our Ping’s talent.’
Various of the child’s pictures, his calligraphy, have been spread out on the
other tables in the restaurant.

‘This one,’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘Tell me about this one, child!’ Ma Ping
approaches him shyly, trembling. He doesn’t quite know what he’s supposed
to say.’
‘Speak up, now!’ says Bai Qiang, unwittingly preventing any spontaneity in
the boy.

‘Which one is that?’ asks Li Jincai.
‘The one of us all, Mother,’ says Ma Rong quietly across the table.
‘Ah, that one he did a while ago. Don’t like it!’
‘It isn’t my favourite either,’ says Bai Qiang. ‘But I’d like to know the
Professor’s opinion.’

The picture shows the family as they are assembled today, including Huang
Hongmei and Ma Shipeng. There’s a little boy too, another brother apparently.
Not there today. He looks bright. The composition is exquisite, yet it lacks a
dimension of insight about the ravages and healing properties of time, which
he might have expected to see in a family portrait. Traditionally, that would
be anticipated, but this picture is not at all traditional or expected.

‘Why did you paint this?’
Ma Ping swallows, sure he’s about to be told off.
‘Answer the professor,’ says Bai Qiang, pushing him towards their visitor.
‘I…’ He stops.
An Xueping looks at him and gets out of her seat, and crouching down next to
him, putting her arm round him.
‘We’re not angry, sweetie,’ she says. ‘We just want to know how you felt
when you painted it.’
‘I felt great!’ he answers, searching her face for confirmation that this is the
correct answer. Then he frowns because she doesn’t smile.
‘Why like this?’ Professor Wang asks, the fact that he’s talking to a child
forgotten, the fact that they are in a restaurant in some alien place forgotten.
The child looks up at him now. The man sees the picture before him and he
knows he is in the presence of genius.
‘Why did you arrange the people like this?’
Unusually, the characters are not arranged according to generation as in any
standard depiction of a family.
‘Because, ‘ he looks around and bites his lip, ‘because, well, they’re not just, I
mean my grandparents are my grandparents and older than my parents, but
Bai Qiang is like Li Jincai more than she’s like Ma Rong, my mother. I
He stops, worried that he’s said too much, or been disrespectful. He looks
from the faces of one to the other to glean support.
‘Do you know what he’s on about professor?’ says Bai Qiang. ‘I’m sure I
‘It’s true,’ says Li Jincai. ‘Everyone says it. We’re more alike even if we are
from different generations. I daresay that’s why he’s painted Ma Ling next to
me too.’

Wang Xiaolin smiles at her with new respect, but he knows there’s more to
these connections than simply generation or personality. This child has linked
mood and insights about his family, which stretch to the symbolism of the
wind-tossed dust blowing in swirls outside the window, with the backdrop of
a huge mountain, which dominates the background of the picture. The
restaurant wall has been stripped away and there stands the mountain in
glorious power behind them all, apparently unobserved, but clearly as
meaningful to the picture as each human being. Perhaps more so. The more
he sees, the more admiring he becomes. He looks up and sees the eyes of
everyone in the room gazing at him. Huang Hongmei stands at the curtain to
the kitchen and Ma Shipeng stands slightly behind her, his hand on her
shoulder. For a moment, it crosses Wang Xiaolin’s mind that they are in love
and he delights for them: they seem so well matched. He sees no evidence of
this relationship in the picture, but it’s possible the child wouldn’t see it

‘Come here, Ma Ping,’ he says. Ma Ping immediately steps near to him, but it
is the coming close of a creature that fears its master, yet is more terrified to
flee than to approach. His eyes are wide with terror. Whatever this man says
to him will embed itself forever on his consciousness. Wang Xiaolin knows
this and that is why he responds as he does.
‘You will need to practice a great deal,’ are his first words. He holds Ma
Ping’s focus, his eyes smiling into the eyes of the terrified child so that he
might relax.
Ma Ping nods mutely. He cannot smile yet, but Wang Xiaolin discerns a tiny
thawing in the child’s feelings.
‘You have great talent, but you need to learn discipline. In the end, you may
be so accomplished, that you can allow yourself the indulgence of not
following the rules, but at the moment, you manage something by the skin of
your teeth only. It is erratic. It is full of brilliance, but not judgement. Do you
‘Yes, Sir!’
‘No, little one. I asked you if you understood?’ He searches Ma Ping’s face
and smiles warmly at him. The child smiles back this time, and feels that the
man actually respects him. This revelation thrills him. He likes the man. No
wonder the Nice Lady is married to him.
‘I think I understand. I just do what I do. I don’t think about it. I have to paint.
You see if I don’t paint, I feel ill. I feel as if the world isn’t the world. I feel as if
I’m not me. And, and…’ He pauses. ‘You see, I want to be me!’

He cannot know how his words reverberate in the man studying his picture.
His son’s exact words come back to him and the circumstances in which they
were spoken too. He looks over at the child, his eyes focusing somewhere

within, however, but convicted suddenly, that his being with this child would
be beneficial to him. That he recognises this genius and he can bring it out.
That it must be brought out, because only this child is this child. This is
somehow mixed up with the inviolable uniqueness of his own son. That if An
Zhipeng had lived his individuality would have been nurtured and thus
should all children be nurtured. If so for his son, then surely for all.

He turns to Ma Xingjian and Ma Rong, acknowledging in his notice, the
grandparents. He smiles at his wife. She looks at him wonderingly.
‘My wife and I have a proposal,’ he begins, nodding at Ma Ping, and handing
him the canvas.
‘Your son is very special indeed. We know about specialness in sons. We had
one of our own, as I am sure Bai Qiang has told you.’ He nods at her
respectfully and she too feels his charm. ‘We want your son to come to Xi’an.
Not to live with us, however, before you ask. I am not sure that would be

An Xueping is about to protest, but he holds up a hand to restrain her, his
plan, although not considered in advance, all at once fully formed.
‘There is an excellent Middle School near Xibei Daxue, and many students
from that school graduate to come to our university. I know the president
there. He’s a personal friend. I can guarantee Ma Ping’s entrance to the school.
And at weekends, I can give him special help. He can live in at the school,
maybe stay with us some weekends, and come home whenever you want.’

There is silence. Whatever it was that the family was expecting from this visit,
this wasn’t it. They thought he might offer them money for a tutor, but a life
in Xi’an hadn’t occurred to even one of them.
Bai Qiang looks to her sister and brother-in-law and then at her parents. Her
Ping, with such a chance.
‘But,’ she begins, but then realises she should not be the first to speak. She
bites her lip and waits for the men to give their opinions.
‘Your offer is wonderful,’ begins Li Jiangtao, ‘but our family cannot possibly
afford this.’
‘I will pay,’ says Wang Xiaolin with simple dignity. ‘I know this is a difficult
subject. Fees at the Middle School in Xi’an are some of the highest in Shaanxi
Province. Of course, I would pay.’
‘We cannot accept this,’ says Ma Xingjian, ‘but we are most honoured that
you should even consider this. Ma Ping, I hope that you will never forget the
day when this kind and famous professor offered to help you out of his own

‘Of course I am grateful,’ says Ma Ping, heartfelt in his sincerity, glad, as he
thinks, to have escaped the possibility of such a fate. He couldn’t bear to leave
his family.
‘On the other hand,’ continues Li Jiangtao, ‘there might be a way that together
we could afford this. With your help, but the family also contributing. If he’s
not studying here, or living here, then we save those costs. And they can go
towards Xi’an.’
‘You’re genuinely considering this?’ asks Ma Rong, clearly appalled. ‘My Ping
can’t go all that way. He’s only twelve!’
‘It isn’t up to you,’ says Ma Xingjian. ‘These things need to be discussed over
time. By all of us. But my father-in-law and I will make the final decision, as
you know.’
‘We’d be very good to him,’ says An Xueping.
‘We don’t doubt that,’ says Bai Qiang, excited by the possibilities, which this
visit has opened up after all. But Xi’an! What a long way away.

‘We’re staying at the Postal Hotel tonight. Here is our number and also our
cards,’ says Wang Xiaolin, handing the information to Ma Xingjian, who
stands up to receive it.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ he says.
‘Come on, An Xueping, I am sure these good people are very busy. They have
a restaurant to run and we need to rest. Goodbye, little one. I really hope we
meet again. Soon.’
He nods at Ma Ping who can hardly bear to smile back, but manages it at last
when prodded by his aunt.

The visitors leave the restaurant, their hosts standing out on the pavement as
they hail a taxi, and are soon lost from view.

Chapter One: Saturday, 30th August
It’s only 6.30 in the morning, and the train draws into Xi’an’s railway station
slowly, with steam and hoots and heralds of arrival. Porters run up and down
the platform clanking empty trolleys to see what work they can glean from
tired passengers, only to emerge moments later laden with baggage pushing
heavily through the mounting crowds, shouting directions, calling for
assistance. Ma Shipeng and his little brother walk groggily down the metal
steps to the platform, hearing the different accents of the people, an audible
confirmation of the alien place in which they find themselves. It has been a
rough night, neither able to sleep, from noise, from excitement, from sadness.
Ma Shipeng heard his brother crying softly in the rocking gloom but didn’t
know how to comfort him. He’ll get used to it in the end. It’s a great chance
for him. What a lucky boy he is to have such powerful friends!

An Xueping waits anxiously at the barrier at the entrance. The train was
announced five minutes ago. What if Ma Ping isn’t here after all? What if the
family has decided not to send him? Wang Xiaolin wasn’t going to come at
first, not wanting to overwhelm the child, but now, he stands, just as
nervously as his wife, craning his neck to get a good look at the passengers all
surging towards the narrow exit where they must show their tickets. This
takes time and both of them watch out for any signs of familiarity in the sea of
faces pouring towards them. Then all at once:

‘Ma Ping, Ma Ping! We’re here, we’re over here!’ She waves frantically to
catch his attention.
Wang Xiaolin notices how, on hearing his wife’s voice, the little boy doesn’t
look towards it, but rather looks up at his brother beside him and says
something hastily to him. Ma Shipeng shakes his head and waves back. They
all greet each other at the barrier and then move away from the main
concourse, so that they can talk more freely.
‘It’s good to see you!’ says An Xueping enthusiastically, hugging the child,
who stands mutely, clutching his cloth bag in which he has packed two
jumpers, two pairs of trousers, some socks and underpants and a few books.
In his other hand he carries an easel and some painting materials. When she
hugs him, he stands ramrod straight, his arms pinned to his sides, his easel
clattering on the concrete platform. He hangs his head. He wants to cry but he
knows he shouldn’t.
‘Thank you,’ he mumbles.
An Xueping steps back with a small awkward laugh and looks to Ma Shipeng
for an explanation.
‘He had a bad night. Both of us couldn’t sleep. We’re very tired. It is very kind
of you to meet us.’
‘No trouble,’ says Wang Xiaolin gently. ‘Come on, let’s get you both home
and you can have something to eat and maybe a rest.’

They walk out across the car-park, where taxis are vying for trade and
passengers are reunited with families and friends. Wang Xiaolin takes Ma
Ping’s cumbersome load and falls into step beside Ma Shipeng, asking him
questions about the journey, their family, and how he feels to be in Xi’an now.
Ma Shipeng is shy at first, but such is the man’s kindness, that he is soon
talking about his forthcoming marriage to Huang Hongmei. Wang Xiaolin is
pleased to hear that he is such a lucky man. Ma Ping looks round at one point
when he hears the two of them laughing together. What can they be laughing

An Xueping talks enthusiastically to Ma Ping as they walk to the car. She talks
about the wonderful things they can do together, the things they can see, how

much he can learn and what a marvelous time they’re going to have and that
he’s going to become a famous artist and if he works really really hard, then
in the future, everyone will know the name, Ma Ping. The child looks around
at all the huge buildings, in white and red and brown, an old statue here, a
huge banner there, and everywhere, as far as the eye can reach, cars are
thundering up and down the roads. The air is thick with pollution, and as
they near the car, which will take him to his new life, Ma Ping sees the city-
walls stretching endlessly into the remote distance, brick after brick after brick,
defending the people from outsiders, keeping them locked in. His hostess
talks on brightly. He hears the battered noises of the city, he sees the
impenetrable bricks of the wall, he smells the thick dirty air, he feels the utter
weariness of his body and spirit, and the aching hunger in his belly, he
imagines Bai Qiang, little Ma Ling, his cheeky brother demanding more
meatball noodles, and all at once, it’s too much. He stops walking and looks
up at An Xueping for the first time since his arrival, tears pouring down his

‘Thank you very much for inviting me, but I think I want to go home now,’ he
says, and turns back to Ma Shipeng. The tears are leaving streaks of sadness.
‘Take me home, please, Big Brother. I want to go home. I can’t stay here,’ and
in the middle of the crowded city, he buries his head in his brother’s
welcoming arms. Ma Shipeng holds his brother close and looks across at these
kind people, shaking his head in embarrassment.

‘Ma Ping, Ma Ping, don’t be so rude to these good people!’
The child simply whimpers his despair and clings harder to his brother.

An Xueping stands, her face a picture of desolation, but Wang Xiaolin’s
features are simply sad. He goes up to the child, putting his hand on his
shoulder in a gentle caress, and waves Ma Shipeng and his wife into the car.
An Xueping is about to protest, but he nods emphatically at her.
‘Trust me,’ he mouths silently to her.
Ma Shipeng disentangles himself from his brother’s arms, gently whispering
to him to have courage and moves away.
Ma Ping stands, head bent, arms like dead limbs hanging woodenly at his
sides, gulping for air, sobbing with tiny sounds of sadness. Wang Xiaolin is
deeply moved by the child’s capacity to feel, and wonders how he might
possibly reach him without making him afraid.

‘Ma Ping,’ he says softly. ‘You are missing your home and that shows you are
a good child. Don’t be afraid. Did you bring those pictures we asked you for?’
He takes the child’s hand and walks with him towards the city wall, which
stands a few meters away.

Ma Ping nods his head, walking evenly and easily now, looking up at the
great man beside him.
‘Good, because I want us to study them together and paint them. Perhaps I
will paint them too.’
‘You?’ Ma Ping is amazed. This powerful, important man will paint his family?
‘Yes, and then soon, you can visit your family and perhaps show them the
paintings you are doing. Would you like that?’
‘Why can’t I visit them now? I could go home today and come back tomorrow!
I would come back tomorrow, honestly.’ His little face is wreathed in sudden
hope. It is as if the clouds have dispersed and the sun has come out. He feels
tiny in this vast anonymous and strange city and more vulnerable than he has
ever felt in his life, which, at this moment, seems long and arduous.
‘Do you know when this wall was built, Ma Ping?’
‘When the wall was built?’
‘No. Can I go home? Please, can I?’
‘It was built, careful now, watch that rock, it was built originally many
hundreds of years ago. This city is over three thousand years old.’
‘Three thousand?’
‘Yes. That’s a very long time. Twelve dynasties have reigned here. The city
wall of Xi'an, is nearly 12 km in circumference. Guyuan’s is a little smaller, I
‘Yes, sir. We hardly have a wall now. We have these two entrances, which are
really beautiful. Have you seen them?’ And without waiting for an answer, he
goes on: ‘It was knocked down in the Cultural Revolution. My teacher says it
happened in 1967. I’ve seen pictures of what it looked like before and it was
really lovely. I suppose this is lovely too,’ he says with such doubt, that Wang
Xiaolin suppresses a smile.
‘This wall was rebuilt in the early period of the Ming Dynasty. That’s the
dynasty my wife knows a lot about. The wall was previously built of rammed
earth, then was surfaced with grey bricks in 1568, and has 5,984 arrow-
shooting holes and 98 ramparts.’
‘5984 arrow holes! Why?’
‘To keep the enemy out!’
‘What enemy?’
‘Well, that’s something we’re going to find out while you’re here.’
‘And over there, look, Ma Ping, there’s the Zhonglou. It’s marvelous, isn’t it?
‘Yes!’ Ma Ping stands in awe, seeing the grandest building he has ever looked
upon, more splendid than the new college Deng Xiaoping Hall in Guyuan
Teachers College. Even more magnificent than that.
‘How old is it?’ he asks, his fears momentarily forgotten.

‘Well, many hundreds of years old. Legend has it that in the Ming Dynasty,
continuous earthquakes killed many people and a popular explanation goes
that there was an evil gigantic dragon in the huge undercurrent beneath the
city, and he caused the troubles. Later the dragon was tied up by a 300-meter
iron chain and people built the tower over the place to stop its spells forever.’
‘Wow!’ says Ma Ping, his eyes wide in wonder. ‘Is he still there? Can we see
‘No one has seen him for hundreds of years.’
‘Perhaps he’s escaped,’ says Ma Ping, thrilled to the core. ‘Can I see the
warriors?’ he asks suddenly.
‘What, now?’ Wang Xiaolin is touched by his enthusiasm, which he sees as a
mark of the child’s resilence.
‘Can I?’
‘Well, I’m not sure.’
Wang Xiaolin looks thoughtfully at the car and, nodding his head, gesturing
Ma Ping to follow him, he goes up to the front seat, where his wife is sitting,
opens the door and bends down to her, acknowledging Ma Shipeng, and says:
‘Ma Ping wants to go to the Terracotta Warriors.’
‘What, now?’
‘That’s what I said.’
An Xueping turns to look at the child.
‘I guess we could. Or we could go home, get something to eat, rest a little and
then maybe tomorrow…’
‘Really?’ says Ma Ping, all excitement. Ma Shipeng looks gratefully at Wang
Xiaolin and smiles happily.
‘Perhaps tomorrow would be best, Ma Ping. I’m very tired and so are you. If
we wait until tomorrow, then we’ll feel really relaxed and ready for it.’

Ma Ping smiles. ‘O.K., let’s go!’
An Xueping laughs happily, and directs him to sit in the back seat with his
brother. She looks across at her husband with a warmer look than he’s
received for months. He is both reassured and saddened by it, and his fears
about the arrangement resurface, and about his motivation for agreeing to the
idea in the first place.

Ma Ping looks at his brother in wonderment. This is the first time he has ever
sat in a car. He places his hands flat on the leather of the seats and then
strokes the surface luxuriously. He bites his lip with awe. Such an expensive
car too. It must have cost thousands of yuan.
‘How much did it cost? The car?’ he asks the adults in the front, sitting
forward in the middle, placing his hands one on both of the front seat-backs,
so that he has access to both of them.

‘Shush!’ Ma Shipeng admonishes him, pulling him back roughly to sit against
the upholstered seat. He’s annoyed not necessarily about the subject of the
cost itself, but the openness of the question.
‘That’s all right, Ma Shipeng, the boy’s just curious. I can’t remember,’ she
replies, looking slightly over her shoulder.
‘I didn’t know women drove either,’ Ma Ping says, pulling himself forward
again, looking out as they glide beneath the city walls and away from the
centre of the city. He is captivated by a two-layered pagoda building,
surrounded by a reddish wall with a picture of Mao on it. So much to see. An
Xueping laughs at his comment and glances at her husband with such
pleasure. Perhaps it will work out, he thinks. After all, they both want the
child to be happy.

After twenty minutes of fast driving through busy streets with street vendors
reminding him of home with their Hui caps, steaming bread-stalls, shouted
imprecations, they come to a set of apartment blocks, high and imposing.
They sweep into a vast courtyard with a shining plaque announcing the title
of the place, probably, and down almost immediately into the bowels of the
earth. Ma Ping tries to crane his neck to look up at the top of these palatial
buildings from his backseat, but they’re quickly lost from sight. As they delve
into the earth, Ma Ping is suddenly chilled. Does this weird couple live
underground? How do they ever see the sun and play and go for walks? And
where can I play basketball?

They are climbing out of the car before he’s aware they’re in a vast car-park,
and hastily he follows them so as not to be left behind. It is gloomy where
they are, and hundreds of cars live here. Ma Ping has never seen so many in a
single space and is overawed with their size and variety and shiny colours.
Blues and blacks and reds and whites and greens and even purples. A purple
car! Fancy that! All parked neatly with stickers on the front. He wonders at
those, but can’t read the writing from that distance and then realises their car
has one. He peers over at it. ‘Terracotta Villas, Xi’an District Council Parking
License, 2003’, he reads carefully. Ma Shipeng comes up behind him to see
what he’s looking at.

Until that moment, Ma Ping is feeling fine, but the sudden appearance of his
brother looking lost, looking less than assured, reminds him of how little he
wants to be here and he reaches gently for his hand, tears coming painfully to
his eyes. Ma Shipeng smiles and nods at him, trying to be reassuring, but he’s
not confident and Ma Ping can see it.

‘Welcome home!’ says An Xueping, clearly making an effort, and that
depresses Ma Ping even more. And at the use of the word ‘home’ he flinches.

‘Take this!’ says Wang Xiaolin proffers, reaching his easel out of the boot. Ma
Ping dutifully comes forward and takes the bundle. Wang Xiaolin smiles at
him and whispers gently, so that only he can hear: ‘This is your second home.
We know your real home is in Guyuan. And you will go back. Don’t worry!
My wife is just so pleased to have you here.’
He turns to the others, slamming the boot shut as he does so.
‘Right then, let’s go up!’

The brothers walk behind their hosts towards a door in the wall, which turns
out to be a lift. Ma Ping has never been in a lift before and is a little
bewildered when the doors close and An Xueping presses a green button on a
panel on the side and he hears and feels the room suddenly lurching. He
catches hold of his brother’s arm and gives a strained little laugh, part fear,
part delight. Wang Xiaolin and his wife laugh at him. Ma Shipeng doesn’t
know quite whether to laugh at his brother, or whether to admit he too is a
little frightened. This place is so strange.
‘It’s a lift, Ma Ping,’ says An Xueping. ‘It’s taking us up to our flat. It saves
dragging all this luggage up the stairs.’
‘I could have carried it,’ says Ma Shipeng, looking worried.
‘Not at all,’ replies Wang Xiaolin. ‘It’s here to help us. Soon be there,’ he adds,
looking at Ma Ping’s anxious little face.

Quickly the room stops and the doors open. They emerge into a marbled
corridor, stretching away and beyond in two directions, with framed pictures
on the wall of terracotta warriors, of Mao and some dignitaries Ma Ping
doesn’t recognise.
‘This way,’ says An Xueping, directing them to the left.
Eventually they come to a right turn, and at the end of the little corridor is
their door, the residents’ names emblazoned in gold. The door is in heavy,
panelled wood, painted cream with a gold border, a shield in the centre with
some calligraphy linking their hosts’ family names in a way Ma Ping likes. He
stands enraptured at such beauty on a door. Wang Xiaolin pushes slightly
past him and opens it. Ma Ping stands transfixed. An Xueping looks happily
at her husband, who catches the look and smiles back. Both enter the
apartment, the door opening smoothly, with hardly a sound. Ma Ping
wonders how something so heavy can be so silent. He is reminded of the
great gate at Ding Pengcheng’s home that is so cumbersome and how he and
his aunt had to struggle with it on their visit. He smiles wistfully. Ma Shipeng
on the other hand is full of misgivings. This is too much. They are simple
country folk; this isn’t where they belong. This will all go to Ma Ping’s head
and how will he go home again after this?

‘Come on!’ he says, a little roughly, to Ma Ping’s surprise and An Xueping’s
consternation. Wang Xiaolin watches the brothers closely and a twinge of
guilt stabs him unexpectedly. He sees the older brother’s insecurity and
knows that he is to blame, that he and his wife have caused this. He wonders
what he might do to make it better.

Ma Ping is still looking at the emblem as he’s almost dragged in by Ma
Shipeng over the threshold. They enter a small hallway, decorated in cream,
matching the door. The ceiling is unexpectedly high, and on one wall hangs a
silk tapestry, woven in exquisite brightness. Reds, yellows, blues, blacks,
browns, whites, scarlets, oranges and pinks present a riot of colour and Ma
Ping is shocked, and surprised to be shocked. He stands awed by the hues
and the meanings, which cascade into his little soul as he stands there,
oblivious of anything else. The scene is of a knight vanquishing an evil spirit.
Ma Ping feels the jagged edge of the sword as it pierces the spirit’s side. He
feels as if it is penetrating him and staggers back with a small gasp.
‘Oh no!’ he exclaims.
‘Come on!’ says Ma Shipeng, touching his arm.
‘Let him,’ says Wang Xiaolin, looking closely at the child. Ma Shipeng moves
back, but is instantly alarmed at his brother’s absorption. Words spoken by
teachers at Ma Ping’s school return to him, about the dangers of the child’s
artistic obsession. Ma Ping’s eyes have formed round pools of wonder. He
closes his eyes, pressing them firmly shut, as if expecting to find something
different when he opens them, and Wang Xiaolin is moved to see tears forced
down his cheeks when he does finally open them.
Ma Ping shakes his head and turns to Wang Xiaolin, his mouth open in an
enquiry he doesn’t know how to articulate. He is unable to express himself.
‘Yes, you’re right,’ says the man gently. ‘It is rather, isn’t it?’ He is excited.
This child’s simple, but brilliant vision has already touched him with its
perspicacity: he knows that having the child here will invigorate him.

Ma Shipeng and An Xueping have now gone into the interior itself, but the
professor and the little boy remain standing there, looking up at it still.
‘I haven’t studied it for ages, you know,’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘It’s funny, it’s
here every day and I don’t notice it.’
‘Don’t notice it?’ says Ma Ping, turning to him momentarily, but then back to
the silk-screen, talking not to an important professor but just another person
whose view seems so silly. ‘How can’t you? I mean it’s just…’ Words fail him.
‘Yes, it is. I see we’re going to have to increase your vocabulary in artistic
criticism.’ He laughs, but Ma Ping is stung. He is immediately aware again of
the professor’s status, his presence, of his being there, of the strangeness of his
surroundings, and knowing absolutely that he doesn’t fit. He moves away
quickly and joins his brother, who is standing in the main sitting room,

waiting for him to join him. They take each other’s hand. Neither
acknowledges it, but both are strengthened by the contact. There are artifacts
everywhere, facsimiles of warriors, statues, jade figurines, paintings on the
walls. The floor is fitted with ornately cream-coloured delicately-decorated
porcelain tiles and Ma Ping notices how Ma Shipeng’s boots, and probably his
own, have left a perceptible trail of dust and little clumps of mud from the
door to here and kicks him gently, alerting him to the fact. The result is that
the two brothers stand awkwardly feeling their incongruity and both wishing
themselves far away.

Ma Ping’s eyes are devouring the flat’s interior. All around him are bookcases,
with glass-paneled doors, the books gleaming and glossy, in bright colours,
and Ma Ping notices, many in English, or some foreign language anyway.
There are postcards and cards all over the surfaces, bright colours festooning
the sitting room. In his perusal of the walls, however, he cannot overlook a
large framed photograph of a child, about his own age. He is standing on
what must be the Great Wall and stretching out his arms in glee at the
experience, looking towards whoever took the photograph, looking as if he
rules the world. He must be their son who died. Ma Ping looks away. He is
reminded of the house in Guyuan he visited twice, of his dead friend Ding
Pengcheng, that unhappy house where children and adults seemed always at
odds with each other. There, riches adorned a house that had no soul, no
happiness, no mirth, no joy. And their son died too. Would it be like this here?
Is it true what his aunt said, that An Xueping wants him for her son because
hers was killed? Confused memories of earlier fears of death come back to
him at this moment. Oh, he wants to go home, to his beloved crotchety aunt,
his dearest Ma Ling, to his shared garret with Ma Shipeng, not be here in this
museum of dead relics.

He stands now, next to Ma Shipeng, his hand still tightly clasped, peering out
towards the window overlooking the city. They are high up, he doesn’t know
how far, but it’s high, and he feels strange being in a sitting room, which isn’t
next to the ground. He wonders how the whole building can stand the weight.
‘Let me show you both to your room,’ An Xueping says.
Suddenly, there is the sound of a door opening at the other end of the flat.
‘Only me, madam!’ shouts out a light voice, and then a woman, clearly
beyond middle age, bustles into the sitting room. She is wearing some sort of
uniform in grey and white with a white apron. Her hair is tightly drawn back
under a cloth, and in her hands she has mop, duster, bucket. She reminds Ma
Ping of Bai Qiang with her bustle and sharp movements. But there the
resemblance ends: she seems to have nothing of his aunt’s kindness, or the
delicious light in her eyes.

‘I’ve finished off now. It just took longer than I expected. You said to come
very early, but I’m afraid my son got stuck in traffic. Sorry.’
‘Don’t worry. This is Ma Ping and Ma Shipeng,’ says An Xueping. ‘They are
staying here for a couple of weeks.’
‘Really?’ says the cleaning woman, clearly unimpressed with her employers’
‘Good morning. Nice to meet you,’ says Ma Ping, holding out his hand. The
woman laughs and sweeps past them into another room near the front door.
Probably some outhouse, Ma Ping thinks, until he realises, of course, there
can’t be an outhouse in a block of flats.
‘This way,’ says An Xueping, picking up Ma Ping’s cloth bag and leading the
brothers down to the last room along the corridor, past two doors on the right,
and one on the left.

‘This will be where you stay, until you move into the school and you go back
to Guyuan.’
‘It’s very kind of you, madam.’ Ma Shipeng stands awkwardly in the middle
of the floor, seemingly unable to move.
‘Oh please call me An Xueping.’
‘Thank you,’ Ma Shipeng answers awkwardly.
‘Bathroom’s through there,’ she indicates with a sweep of her hand.’
‘Thank you,’ Ma Shipeng repeats, hardly looking.
‘I’ll leave you to get settled for a while and then we can eat breakfast. How
does that sound?’
‘Fine, thank you.’
‘And stop saying thank you.’
‘Thank you!’
And everyone laughs, but it’s the laughter, which doesn’t satisfy, like a squall
of summer rain that hardly soaks into a parched earth.

She shuts the door on her way out. The brothers look around themselves at
their new home. A single window lets in the only light, framed by thick velvet
curtains in a creamy weave, two standing lamps with cream shades framing
their beds, a wardrobe in a wood Ma Ping has never seen (it’s polished pine)
and a dressing table with a mirror. Pictures of cars, and foreign scenes cover
the walls. There is another picture of the dead child on the wall too, and Ma
Ping turns away from that. So, they’re in his bedroom. He feels cold and sits
on the bed nearest the window.
‘Can I have this one?’ he asks. His brother merely nods, he’s too busy picking
up objects and turning them over in his hands to see what they are and if he
can discover who gave them to the family, or whether the price has been left
on inadvertently.

The two beds are sumptuously decorated each with a thick fluffy cover,
depicting animals and trees. Ma Shipeng picks up the fabric between his
thumb and index finger. ‘Must have cost two hundred yuan this cover,
y’know,’ he says wonderingly.
Ma Ping is by now exploring the bathroom.
‘Ma Shipeng!’ he calls. ‘What’s this?’
Ma Shipeng goes into the sparkling room, so unlike any bathroom he’s ever
seen that he stands for a moment in wonder. There are cream-coloured towels,
fluffy and bright, adorning silver poles and a shower-unit, but gleaming with
silver and glass and ornaments, shells and little figurines.
‘What’s this?’ Ma Ping breaks into his reverie.
‘It’s the toilet.’
Ma Ping bursts out laughing!
‘You’re kidding. What do you do with that?’
‘Sit on it,’ whispers Ma Shipeng, suddenly aware that their voices might be
‘And there should be a lever there to flush it. Look!’ and he demonstrates by
pressing a gilt knob at the side of the cistern. All at once, a huge whooshing
noise engulfs them and Ma Ping springs back with a yelp.
‘Is it supposed to do that?’
‘I don’t know!’ says Ma Shipeng, looking under the seat at the flushing water.
‘I guess so.’
‘Wow, it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? And doesn’t it smell weird in here?’
‘Yeah, it does a bit.’
The brothers both sniff the air, which is reminiscent of rose petals, or would
be if they had ever smelt roses before. They look at each other and giggle like
‘Didn’t the Dings have a toilet like this one?’
‘I never used it. I never went in their bathroom. I never felt comfortable there
either,’ he finishes, turning away from the bathroom and returning to their
bedroom, where he sits disconsolately on the bed now, his head hanging.

Ma Shipeng is out of his depth. He doesn’t know how to help his brother,
because he doesn’t like this place either, but he still knows it’s a great chance
for the child. And here is Ma Ping again, moods switching like mosaics in a

‘Fancy having to use that toilet everyday, eh,’ he says with a smirk. ‘Do you
think the professor has to, as well?’ and Ma Ping catches his mood and starts
to laugh, rolling back on his bed with mirth, clutching his stomach, and Ma
Shipeng goes up to him and starts to tickle him, kneeling astride him,
grabbing hands full of his clothes in an effort to tickle him with a vengeance.
The boy squeals with exaggerated grievance until there is a knock at the door.

Their silence is absolute and immediate. They cast guilty glances at each other,
and Ma Shipeng lifts himself off his brother, who sits up straight without a
sound. Ma Shipeng struggles to his feet.
‘Er, yes,’ he calls.
‘We just wondered if you’d like to eat breakfast now,’ says An Xueping.
‘Thank you,’ Ma Shipeng answers. ‘We were just coming.’
The brothers exchange a long look, as if to say, ‘Here we go, then. Let’s make
the best of it!’ But both are aware that at least they have each other.

It’s after nine o’clock that evening and Wang Xiaolin and An Xueping sit in
their comfortable pale-leather armchairs next to a fireplace in which a false
flame-fire burns in winter, and consider the day.

‘I think that went well, considering,’ begins Wang Xiaolin.
‘Mm. We’re going to have to do something about his manners, you know. Did
you see the way he ate that beef and cashew nuts dish? He eats like a pig. And
what was all that fuss about the cooking preparations?’
‘Our kitchen isn’t halal.’
‘Well, we’ve cleaned it all out really carefully.’
‘Yes, but Hui people can’t eat from anything which has ever had pig parts in
it. You know that. We discussed it. Did you see how uncomfortable he was.’
‘Well, he was all right once I got Li Haiyan to use that new wok.’
‘Yes, because it hadn’t been used before for pig products. Look, I know we
don’t care about these things, but he does. He was really uncomfortable. They
both were. We’re knew they were Hui before we brought them here. It isn’t
just a word, you know.’
‘Does that mean I have to get all new stuff for cooking?’
‘Yes, quite frankly it does. Do you want both of them feeling dreadful here?’
‘Well, Ma Shipeng is only staying a couple of weeks, and quite frankly, I’m
‘That spitting he does. It’s awful. When he kept clearing his throat, I wanted
to be sick! His general manners, honestly!’
There is an uneasy silence.
‘I knew this would happen.’
‘Knew what would happen?’
‘You finding it difficult like this. I warned you.’
‘Oh, don’t start!’
Another silence.
‘Yes, his manners, both of theirs, are a little, shall we say, unformed. But
they’re good people. The way they look out for each other. They care. They

love. Did you notice, Ma Ping was holding his brother’s hand most of the time
when he wasn’t eating? And he didn’t eat much. He kept looking at his
brother to see how he should behave and Ma Shipeng didn’t really know
either. I wonder if we’ve done the right thing.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve taken that little boy away from everything he knows and loves.’
‘We’re giving him a new chance. We’re taking him away from ignorance and
filth and stupidity and chaos, quite frankly.’
Wang Xiaolin shakes his head. ‘We’re taking him away from reality.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know what I’m talking about.’

They sit on, looking into the shadows of their lives, remembering, finding in
their reflections arguments, which support their feelings, and engender a
sense of distance from the other. Wang Xiaolin finds the shadows in his mind
darkening again, and begins to fear for his ability to hold on closely to the
present. An Xueping searches her mind for any argument which might
cement her sense of righteousness.

‘He liked the calligraphy stuff,’ she says eventually, breaking out of her
reverie, wanting now to make the contact with her husband that will ensure
that Ma Ping gets to stay and that nothing comes to ruffle her plans.
‘Yes,’ Wang Xiaolin smiles tenderly. It has been the highlight of the day for
him, when he took the child into one of the rooms next to his new bedroom,
and showed him the specially adapted easels for a small child, roll-upon-roll
of red poster papers, brushes of every thickness, consistency, size, paints of all
describable colours, oils, water-colours, canvases stacked against the wall,
cloths to clean paint-stained brushes, bottles for water, and around the walls,
some calligraphy of the professor’s own devising. Ma Ping stares in wonder
and awe.
‘Oh, professor!’ he exclaims happily. ‘Is this your study?’
‘No, child, it’s yours!’
Ma Ping’s eyes grow in amazement.
‘Mine! How can it be mine? Do you mean, I can come here and paint? This is
mine? You’ve done this for me? You mean, I can…’ He bursts into tears. ‘Oh
thank you, thank you!’ And he turns and hugs the man there and then,
flinging his arms around his waist, and Wang Xiaolin is deeply moved by the
child’s innocent enthusiasm, patting him gently on the back, feeling in the
boy’s warm body, his own son reaching out to him across the regions of his
heart. This detail, however, this physical warmth, he doesn’t tell his wife
about. And the secret accuses him now as he remembers the moment,
whispering his deceit, his own selfish need.

‘Well, we’ll see what tomorrow brings. We’re off to the warriors. And you
have to go back to Beijing, don’t you?’
‘I have an extra week off, and then the following week I start work on the
‘You didn’t tell me.’
‘Well, I forgot it in all the rush. You know how it’s been here.’
‘Yes,’ he replies sadly. ‘I know how it’s been.’ He looks at her for a long
moment, but when he meets his eyes with a smile, he drops his, unable to

Ma Shipeng tucks his brother up underneath the luxurious coverings, and
then slips quickly into his own bed.
‘You all right?’ he asks.
‘I think so. She doesn’t like me much,’ says Ma Ping with abrupt insight.
‘What do you mean?’
‘She thought she would, but she doesn’t.’
‘You’re imagining it. All this fuss to get you here. Of course she likes you.’
‘She doesn’t think I’m good enough. Or you either.’
‘She was really polite.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. I do like him, though, the Professor. He’s so kind.
Did you see that room?’
‘Yes, you know I did.’
‘Well, isn’t it amazing? And he says, if I study hard, I can use it every day as
well. I can come after school for a while and at weekends too. But I have to
study a lot. More study. That’s just what I need.’
‘You have to study, brother. You have to work hard. These good people have
given you a chance that no one in Guyuan has ever had. Do you realise that?’
‘Yes,’ a small voice comes back.
‘So you have to be deserving of it.’
‘I wonder what Mother and Father and Aunt Bai are doing now,’ Ma Ping
says, his voice shaking a little. Ma Shipeng sits up in bed, and looks across in
the gloom from where the voice is coming.
‘Oh, they’ll be arguing, I guess,’ says Ma Shipeng with a laugh.
‘Yes, and Aunt will be telling Huang Hongmei off.’
‘She’d better not!’ Ma Shipeng snaps. ‘She’s always having a go at her. I
wonder why.’
‘Because she loves you so much,’ says Ma Ping with his usual perception.
‘And Father’s doing that deal with Huang Weiping now.’
‘And Ding Yangching37, is that still happening?’

  In Part One of the novel, Ma Ping's father builds up a vegetable business from someone from Beijing
and two local businessmen.

‘Far as I know.’
There is a small pause, and Ma Shipeng can feel the question building.
‘When can I go home?’
‘I thought you liked it here?’
‘Sort of, but it’s not home.’
‘Give it time.’
‘I don’t want to give it time. I don’t want it to become home either. Guyuan’s
my home. That’s where I belong. Don’t say I should get used to it here. I don’t
want to get used to it here.’
‘Hey,’ says Ma Shipeng soothingly, swinging his legs out of the bed and
going over to sit on his brother’s covers.
‘Will you sleep with me tonight?’ Ma Ping asks him softly, burrowing into his
brother’s chest, as it matters too much if the older man says no.

And that’s how An Xueping finds them later on, when she comes to check if
they are settled for the night, Ma Ping sleeping in the crook of his brother’s
arm, both facing the same way – towards the door, Ma Shipeng’s arm thrown
over his little brother protectively, both fast asleep, dreaming, no doubt of
their own Dongyue Mountain in Guyuan. Momentarily disturbed by their
closeness, she tiptoes out of the door, closing it softly behind her.

Chapter Two: Sunday, August, 31st.
‘Oh look, look over there!’ Ma Ping exclaims, dragging Ma Shipeng’s hand,
pulling him forward. ‘Just look at his face!’ The child stands awed, his eyes
shining with wonder again, leaning over the great parapet and gazing full
into the eyes of one of the warriors. Ma Shipeng watches his brother’s delight
and thinks once again how lucky his family is to have met the professor and
his wife. A klaxon sounds and Ma Ping leaps back, blushing, remembering
his promise at the entrance not to lean over the parapet. But how is he
supposed not to? How can he not reach out and touch history? He feels it,
seeping into him from all corners of this vast warehouse of relics. But these
are not dead artefacts, no not these, they are positively bristling with life. He
can hear the battle calls, hear the trumpets of victory and defeat, hear the
thundering hooves as they rage all around him.

An Xueping takes her husband’s arm and watches the child with
contentment. They walk slowly, leisurely, towards the country visitors.
‘And this one! And this one!’ Ma Ping exclaims again and again, running on
ahead, pulling his smiling brother behind him. ‘Look at them. Look at all of
them. They’re all different. How can they all be different?’
‘Because each one of them was different,’ says the professor, who has
approached the pair silently. He points out feature after feature and after a

while, Ma Shipeng steps back a little, finding in it a dazzling monotony, but
recognizing his brother’s absorption.

‘You mean, they were alive?’
‘Yes, what do you mean?’
‘They were actually alive?’ His face becomes taut with an expression that Ma
Shipeng is learning to recognise already. And as if on cue, the little boy starts
visibly fidgeting.
‘I need some paper,’ he says, looking around at Ma Shipeng and An Xueping
urgently, as if its absence is a serious matter.
Wang Xiaolin smiles over him at his wife, who has caught the look, and
closed her eyes at a moment of remembrance.
‘You’ll have to bring some another time,’ she says evenly.
‘When?’ asks Ma Ping ‘I need it now!’
‘You need to learn patience, young man.’ An Xueping nods her head at him
sagely. Instantly Ma Ping is snubbed and goes into his shell. The physical
difference between him now and only a moment ago is painful for Ma
Shipeng to witness. There he stands, shifting one foot in front of the other,
and wishing himself clearly somewhere else. All his fervour has dissipated.
‘Could we buy some?’ Ma Shipeng asks. ‘Some paper, I mean.’ He is worried
suddenly, though, that his meagre allowance might not stretch to some
expensive Xi’an paper, but he knows what this means to Ma Ping. He’s seen
this look before and it’s one, which, if unassuaged, leads to nightmares, to
restlessness, to profound unhappiness. He worries about both pandering to
his need and ignoring it.
‘There are sketch pads at the door,’ says An Xueping unhelpfully.
‘Let’s you and me fetch something,’ says Wang Xiaolin.
‘Um, right,’ says Ma Shipeng, rather bewildered. Ma Ping looks sharply at
him, as if to say, ‘Don’t go! Don’t leave me here!’ but the two walk to the exit
and are soon lost from sight. It is the first time Ma Ping and An Xueping have
been together alone since his arrival.

Ma Ping has one hand on the metal railing, and is scuffing his shoes in turn
on the dusty concrete, his eyes on the foot-trodden floor.
‘Do you like it here?’ she asks him.
‘The warriors are wonderful!’ he replies, looking up at her with that same
expression she remembers from his Middle School, when he first approached
the platform and dared to speak to her. He is as much a stranger to her now
as he was then, replete with that promise of fulfillment he gave her at that
time, but tinged now with an inaccessibility she hadn’t seen before.
‘I meant here, in Xi’an, with us,’ she probes gently, feeling a depth of sadness.

The question immediately brings on a squall of tears. He turns away to look at
the warriors again, losing his grief in the contemplation of their timeless

And that is how the two men find them when they return minutes later,
brandishing a sizeable sketchpad and some pencils, which Wang Xiaolin has
insisted on paying for. Ma Shipeng gives his brother the spoils of their
venture and the child eagerly opens the pad, crouching down immediately, to
gain a good view of his favourite warrior through the rails, and with the grace
of a true artist, with sure strokes and shadows and shapes, he captures the
very heart of the terracotta warrior as he must have been as a living man
serving his feudal lord: he draws him not as cast in brittle clay, but in flesh
and blood, and a terrible soldier of vengeance he is. There is no pity in his
eyes: they flash with an inner fire unquenchable by reason. The spirit of this
man is consumed by duty and valour and spirit and hope. Professor Wang
looks on, nudging his wife’s arm at one point, as she has turned away to look
in the other direction. Ma Shipeng watches the man’s admiration of his
beloved brother and is delighted with it. The visit might be a success after all,
and what a lot he has to tell his family. Such a wonderful day! What a lucky
man he is and such an opportunity for his brother.

‘And his horse. I must draw his horse,’ says Ma Ping, turning the page over
with a flourish, to suggest that the warrior is finished and no longer of
importance. He must capture the horse now before it’s too late. His urgency is
arresting, and people stop to watch. Head quickly flicking up to gain a
glimpse and then down again, a line here, a shading there, and a proud beast
emerges from his genius fully formed, arrogant and snorting with restless
energy. Professor Wang tries to keep the onlookers at a distance and explains
softly that this little boy is from the countryside and has never been here
before. He is drawing quite a crowd now, people craning their necks to get a
look and many exclaiming about the brilliance of the drawings. People nudge
each other and watch closely as Ma Ping finishes this drawing too.

When he stops and looks up, it’s clear that he had no idea so many people
have been watching him. People move forward to congratulate him, but he
blushes and looks over at Ma Shipeng, who is standing in gentle admiration.
His brother a tiancai!38 Who’d have thought it, but he truly is, isn’t he? Ma
Ping moves close to his side.
‘Can we go now?’ he asks quickly.
Professor Wang smiles, nods and helps him pack up the sketchpad and the
pencils into a small bag he already has with him, and now takes the boy’s

     Tiancai = genius.

hand, and together the two of them walk slowly past the other exhibits,
talking about each in animated interest, slowly out into the light of a soft
September day. An Xueping is left walking with Ma Shipeng and an
awkwardness descends on both of them. It takes Ma Shipeng’s simple
candour to break the ice.

‘It’s hard for him, Mrs. An,’ he begins, and An Xueping is conscious that she
should be reassuring him.
‘For me too,’ she says. ‘I know it shouldn’t be, but it is. I don’t know what to
say to him.’
‘He’s just a little boy,’ says Ma Shipeng, not really understanding this
sophisticated woman at his side.
‘Just a little boy,’ An Xueping repeats slowly. ‘I don’t think so, Ma Shipeng.
‘There’s nothing ‘just’ about him.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘I mean, he’s not like most boys.’
‘Isn’t he? I mean, he’s very clever, I know that. I’m not clever, but I can see
that he is. I can see that he’ll go places and understand things I never will, but
at the end of the day, he’s just a little boy. I used to be like him.’
An Xueping smiles inwardly. The contrast between this thick-set man at her
side and the delicate little genius walking ahead of her with her husband is so
ridiculous, she wants to laugh out loud.
‘Yes,’ he continues. ‘I was sensitive like him and took things to heart like he
does. I mean I wasn’t gifted of course, but I wanted what he wants.’
‘And what does he want?’ asks An Xueping, conscious of her superior
knowledge where such an answer is concerned.
‘He wants to be loved. He wants kindness. He’s a gentle child. I mean he got
into some scrapes at school once, but that was only because someone else was
bullying his friend. You know, the one he tried to save. He wants people to be
good to each other, you see,’ he adds rather inconsequentially. ‘He’s actually a
very good person. In that respect he’s better than me.’

This isn’t the answer An Xueping has been expecting and it shocks her. She
stops a moment and turns to her companion.
‘Do you think he can be happy here?’ she asks, the first time she is conscious
of not condescending, but asking for help.
‘I don’t know,’ he answers with his usual honesty. ‘You see, things here are
different. The way you live. The things you do. The money you have. All
these things here,’ he sweeps his arm around.
‘You mean the warriors?’ She is puzzled and wonders quite what he is talking

‘No, not really. Well, yes, but it’s not just that. You drive a car. You have rich
friends. You’re clever people. My family, well, we hardly learnt to read and
write until the last generation. And then that was interrupted. You know.’
‘The Cultural Revolution.’
There is a pause.
‘Ma Ping has lived all his life in one tiny village and then for six months, he
lived in Guyuan. Not exactly Xi’an is it? We’re country people, An Xueping.
We are Hui.’
‘I know that.’
‘Yes, but I wonder if you do really know,’ he says elliptically. He walks on,
and then turns back. He is aware of his brother’s inquisitive looks several
metres ahead by the entrance.
‘Our background, our beliefs, they are different from yours. I think we both
feel uncomfortable. No, please, don’t be offended, dear Mrs. An, we’re so
grateful for everything you are doing. I think it takes time, that’s all I mean.’
She catches up with him, for the first time, realising that this young man
beside her is a man, and not simply a callow youth.
‘I will try, you know,’ she says, her voice trembling, her mouth working.
‘You are very kind,’ he says, carefully not looking at her because he knows
she is near to tears. He realises in that moment how much she has suffered.
‘Ma Ping is a lovely child and if you are kind to him, if you’re gentle to him,
he’ll love you.’
An Xueping looks at him in wordless gratitude at his generosity. They join the

‘Right, I thought we might see the Great Mosque next,’ says Wang Xiaolin as
they wait for An Xueping to open the car door. It is busy today and it has
taken them some time to find the car amongst the hundreds of others
crowding in to see the warriors.
‘Oh yes, please!’ says Ma Ping with great enthusiasm.
‘I didn’t know you were so devout,’ says Ma Shipeng teasingly, but his small
brother pouts, and the older brother shakes his head at the child’s mercurial
nature. Whatever next? Praying at dawn?
‘It’s a very beautiful mosque,’ says An Xueping, opening her door first.
Ma Ping looks at his brother as if to say, ‘told you so!’ and Ma Shipeng has to
suppress a laugh.
‘Is it far?’
‘No, the Hui sector is near the centre of the city. We can drive there in about
an hour. Are you hungry?’ asks An Xueping.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Well, we’ll stop in some Hui part of the city. All right?’
‘Yes,’ says Ma Ping happily. ‘Come on, then!’

At that moment a man shouts over at them.
‘Just a moment! Can you stop a moment?’
They all turn to where the voice is coming from.
‘Your son,’ he says. ‘His drawing is brilliant. Can I see it again?’
‘We’re just leaving,’ says An Xueping, a strain in her voice.
‘Of course,’ says Wang Xiaolin, reaching into the boot and retrieving the
sketchpad. ‘But he isn’t my son. He’s just staying with us for a while.’
The man approaches breathlessly. He is middle-aged his sallow complexion
suggests illness, or an unhealthy life-style.
‘I’ll just get my breath,’ he says, a hand on the back of the car and leaning over
into his breathing.
‘You young people,’ he says, standing up straight again, looking across at Ma
Ping and Ma Shipeng, ‘you walk so fast. Right. My name is Zhang Qingwei.
Here’s my card.’ He produces a card, which he immediately gives to Wang
Xiaolin who studies it carefully.
‘I am professor Wang Xiaolin of the University here and this is my wife, Dr.
An Xueping of Beijing Normal University.’
‘Pleased to meet you! I am in advertising. We have a firm here in Xi’an, one in
Shanghai and one in Beijing. And we now have connections with a firm in
Seattle in the United States. We are involved in many different projects, but
one of them is to promote children’s work. There is a national project aimed at
showing children’s work in posters all over China for the next Children’s Day,
and also, to work on some projects which will reveal what Chinese children
can do in 2008, when China hosts the Olympic Games.’
‘And you just happened to be here today,’ says An Xueping.
‘I was here on another project,’ the man answers simply. ‘I glimpsed your
child’s work. I wanted to…’
‘He is not our child,’ says An Xueping sharply.
‘You want to see his work?’ says Wang Xiaolin calmly. ‘Fair enough.’ He
opens the sketchpad and reaches it over to the man.

Meanwhile, Ma Ping is looking on, a frown between his eyes. This is his work,
not theirs. He doesn’t like the man either. His eyes are too close together. And
his breath smells. His teeth are uneven, his hair matted down with grease.
Aunt Bai says that people who do that are trying to create an impression, but
they’re not really nice underneath. He has also combed his thinning hair over
his bald patch on the top of his head, which Ma Ping noticed when he bent
over to catch his breath earlier. Ma Ping looks at the man’s hands and notices
how his nails seem yellow in the extreme, and slightly curved, like talons. The
image sticks in Ma Ping’s mind, and he nudges his brother, but Ma Shipeng is
engrossed in watching the spectacle of fuss about the little genius and is not
in the mood to waste it in chatter.

‘Amazing stuff! And he just did this just now?’ Zhang Qingwei is flicking
from one picture to the other, his interest particularly taken with the warrior.
‘I thought you said you saw him?’ says An Xueping, looking at him directly.
‘It just seems so remarkable, that’s all. This is some of the best stuff I’ve seen.’
‘And you’d know, would you?’ replies An Xueping caustically.
He looks up at her and his eyes narrow a little.
‘I’ve been reviewing work like this done by kids for years. I’d say I know,
yeah!’ he hands back the sketchpad to the professor, addressing himself
entirely to the man now - child, woman and stranger forgotten.
‘This work is outstanding. Does he do other stuff?’
Wang Xiaolin smiles graciously.
‘The child is here to study, Mr. Zhang. Thank you for your interest. We have
to go now.’ He packs the sketchpad into the boot and shuts it quickly.
‘Do at least give me your card,’ Zhang Qingwei says, knowing there is no
point in pressing any other advantage at this moment.
‘Here you are,’ says An Xueping, handing over a card, which contains both
their details. ‘But what my husband says is correct. He’s here to study, not to
become a circus performer.’
‘I can assure you, dear lady, that under my tutelage, the boy would have
every advantage of a modern China.’
‘That’s precisely what I’m afraid of,’ she replies rather tartly. ‘Time to go, I
think,’ and she opens the door to the backseat for their visitors. ‘In you get,’
she says calmly, but authoritatively to Ma Ping and his brother, and the two
comply immediately.
‘Nice to meet you,’ says Wang Xiaolin, reaching across to shake the man’s
hand, and then he to gets in.’
‘If you change your mind…’ the man shouts after them, but they are gone.

‘What an odious little man!’ exclaims An Xueping, steering through the traffic
rather vigorously.
‘He has good taste, though,’ replies Wang Xiaolin dryly.
The passengers in the back look at each other wryly.
‘We should think about it, you know,’ says the professor in measured tones.
‘What!’ An Xueping almost swerves the car into oncoming traffic. ‘We’ll
discuss it when we get home!’ she says warningly, with a sideways
movement of her head in the direction of Ma Ping, which suggests not in
front of the children.
Ma Ping is alert now. This is about him. Why can’t he join in? He sits forward,
even though Ma Shipeng tries to pull him back.
‘I didn’t like him either.’
‘We’re not going to discuss it now,’ says An Xueping, looking sharply in her
read-view mirror, her eyes warning him to keep quiet. Wang Xiaolin turns to

the boy with an expression, which suggests he understands Ma Ping’s
frustration, and indeed, shares it.
‘Ma Ping, you keep silent please! This is none of your business. This is adults’
business.’ In the same breath she dismisses him, but also Ma Shipeng, who
feels aggrieved at her imperious tones.

Ma Ping sits back heavily in his seat and looks out of the window, his mouth
a small pout of displeasure. An Xueping is angry with him now. He was right:
she doesn’t like him. And the professor, is he really considering working with
that man? And why shouldn’t he talk about it? It’s his talent after all, not
theirs. And he wonders, suddenly, about the money for such a project. Would
he be paid? Could he send the money to his family in Guyuan? Wouldn’t they
be proud? And they’d be able to come and visit and spend some time in a
hotel. He can just imagine his aunt staying in a posh hotel and having room
service. Wang Xiaolin told him this morning about the Zhonglou Hotel where
you can sit in your room and they bring you food. Anything you want. You
pick up the hotel phone, because there’s one in every room, and then you
order the food and they bring it to you. It would be wonderful for his aunt to
be able to do this. Instead of having to serve everyone else, she could order
them around!

‘It’s only for your own good. Ma Ping, are you listening?’
‘Um, sorry. I was thinking,’ he says, biting his lip.
‘I just said, we tell you things for your own good.’ An Xueping looks at him in
the mirror.
‘Can I get some money for it?’ he asks abruptly, simply following his train of
thought, and unable to switch.
‘For this project. Could I get some money?’
An Xueping sighs.
‘We don’t think it’s a good idea, Ma Ping,’ Wang Xiaolin answers patiently.
He turns round to look at the child.
‘I want to help my family,’ Ma Ping says, appealing to Ma Shipeng, who is
looking at him in concern at the trend of this conversation.
‘Your job here is to study, Ma Ping, not earn money. You don’t need to.’
‘But I could?’
‘I am sure that one day you can earn a great deal of money, but for the
moment, my wife is absolutely right. You are here to study, and that’s an end
of it.’ In those moments, Wang Xiaolin has also made up his mind. ‘So let it go
now please.’
Ma Ping nods his head, but he continues to think about it. He thinks about it
all the way back into the city, to the carpark, in the lift up to the streets,

through the Moslem sector, as the small group tries to find a suitable eating

‘Look, Ma Shipeng!’ exclaims Ma Ping, with all the enthusiasm of discovering
the Warriors earlier in the day. ‘Doesn’t it look just like our restaurant? Can
we go inside? Can we? Can we?’ he asks feverishly, looking imploringly at his
two new guardians, pulling Ma Shipeng behind him. The streets are packed
with vendors, Hui men in caps selling fruit, trinkets, incense, ginger, and the
bustle feels familiar and comfortable to him. An Xueping is dodging the
melee and aware of how dirty the area is, worried about her new cream-
leather shoes, stepping gingerly through the discarded papers, dust and mud,
the overturned cardboard boxes. She notices the Arabic writing on the
restaurant shield hammered to the façade. She thinks of asking Ma Ping to
read it, but then decides against it. Wang Xiaolin reaches out his hand to
guide her, but she stalwartly refuses it. He smiles at her stubbornness.
‘Of course we can!’ he answers Ma Ping, reaching the child’s side, touched by
the child’s capacity for joy. Ma Ping jumps up and down in glee.
‘Look,’ he says to his brother, peering in at the grimy window. ‘Just like ours.
See over there! They’ve got a mirror too! And there’re the jars full of
chopsticks. Oh, can we, can we?’
‘I already said yes,’ Wang Xiaolin repeats, smiling. He raises his eyebrows at
his wife, and dutifully, they follow the two visitors inside.

Ma Ping is right. The whole place feels like his aunt’s business in Guyuan. A
similar layout, round and square tables, discarded tissues all over the floor, a
picture of a park somewhere in China opposite the mirror, just like in their
‘Look, Ma Shipeng!’ he exclaims delightedly.
‘Sit down, child,’ says An Xueping, hoping to reduce the attention they are
accruing. She is dressed in a Western-style suit, grey, with white borders, big
round buttons down the front of the jacket, which has a single silk kerchief
showing in the top-pocket. Her hair is swept back and is fastened with a
tortoiseshell ornament, winking in the gloomy light. Her husband is wearing
a well-cut black suit also in the western style, the material clearly expensive,
the suit well-fitting and expensive. With his graying hair, he looks very
distinguished. Ma Shipeng is wearing a pair of old jeans and a woollen
jumper in black. Ma Ping is wearing a red woollen jumper and slacks in a
bright blue, rather shabby with age. The four of them make two distinct sets
and the proprietor looks at them with interest.

‘Meatball noodles!’ squeals Ma Ping in delight, pointing to another table,
where the waitress has just delivered an order to four men in Mao caps,
talking and drinking, reminding Ma Ping so strongly of customers in his

aunt’s restaurant. Perhaps they’re the same ones down here on business. This
thought comforts him and he grins to Ma Shipeng broadly, who wonders
what’s going on in the child’s mind now.
‘Can I have meatball noodles like at home?’
‘Of course,’ says Wang Xiaolin, reminded again, of quite what he and his wife
are doing. ‘You can have what you like, dear,’ he adds gently. Ma Ping looks
at him, wondering why all of a sudden, the man looks sad. Things are going
really well, aren’t they? He looks at Ma Shipeng to see if he knows, but his
brother is scouring the menu. He checks Wang Xiaolin’s face again, but the
fleeting expression of melancholy has been replaced with something Ma Ping
can’t read. He is distracted then by An Xueping asking the waitress whether
they have sealed chopsticks. She says she’ll have a look and disappears
through the curtain into what must be the kitchen. Ma Ping is anxious,
suddenly, to follow her.

‘You visitors here?’ The proprietor is standing by Ma Ping’s side. He is
dressed in traditional Hui cap and a long smock and trousers underneath in a
dull blue, overlaid with dirt and grime, doubtless from many days of hard
work in a greasy restaurant.
‘We live here,’ says An Xueping.
‘We don’t!’ says Ma Ping, indicating his brother. ‘We’re visiting from Guyuan.
Do you know Guyuan?’
‘Yes, of course, I have a cousin there.’
‘Really? Perhaps I know him. What’s his name?’ asks Ma Ping urgently.
‘Huang Weiping.’
‘You’re kidding!’
‘Wow!’ says Ma Shipeng with a broad grin, and then he turns to their hosts.
‘Huang Weiping does some work with our father.’
‘I see,’ says Wang Xiaolin slowly.
‘You’re a Ma?’ says the proprietor with a quick smile, looking at the brothers.
‘Yes! I am! We are,’ he adds, knocking his brother with his hand to include
him, laughing. Now he looks from one to the other with a delight that seems
fit to bursting.
‘He’s a distant cousin, really, Huang Weiping, but he told me he was doing
some work with some Mas. You have a restaurant in Guyuan too, don’t you?’
‘Yes, we do,’ says Ma Shipeng. ‘What a coincidence!’
‘Well, Allah keeps us safe. He knows best.’ The man nods his head. ‘Yours is a
meatballs restaurant, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ Ma Ping answers gleefully.
‘Ah well, we’ve only just started doing those.’
‘I’ve ordered them,’ says Ma Ping with a broad grin.
‘Well, little man, you’ll have to tell me if they’re any good here, won’t you?
So, why are you visiting?’

An Xueping sees Ma Ping about to answer and feels a small bubble of
irritation at his boldness.
‘He is living in Xi’an for his education,’ she replies, raising her eyebrows at
Ma Ping, who is immediately subdued.
‘Oh, you’re the genius, are you? I’ve heard about you.’
Ma Ping smiles shyly, and looks over at An Xueping for permission to speak.
He can’t read her expression, so he nods mutely.
‘Yes, Huang Weiping says you’re here to study with a professor. Are you the
‘I am!’ says Wang Xiaolin with a smile.
‘Well, well, who’d have thought it, eh? Guyuan has a genius.’
‘He’s in Xi’an now,’ says An Xueping. Ma Ping realises that the man draws
himself up more straight at these words, and recognises a tension in the air,
but doesn’t know why.
‘Well, I must go. I’m busy at this time. Well, you’d know, wouldn’t you?’ he
says pointedly at the brothers, who both nod agreement. ‘Nice to meet you
all. And Little Ma, you come here anytime. You can always eat here. I hope
you feel welcome.’ He makes a little formal bow.
‘I do, thank you sir,’ he replies, his natural good manners charming each
‘Wow! I can eat here again. Isn’t this great!’
Each member of the little group considers this exclamation, and each comes to
a different conclusion.

Later, replete with two bowls of meatball noodles, Ma Ping wipes his mouth
with the back of his hand, with an exclamation of fullness.
‘Use a tissue to wipe your mouth,’ An Xueping says, pushing a little pile of
green and pink coarse-tissues across the table. Ma Ping looks across at his
brother, bites his lip, takes a handful and smears them across his mouth, then
dropping them on the floor.
‘You should really leave them on the table. It’s more hygienic,’ she adds in
explanation. The waitress can clear them up. The floor is very dirty.’ He bends
to retrieve them.
‘No, leave them there now!’ she admonishes sternly, and the poor little boy
gives her a glance of pleading confusion. He sits up straight, and a single tear
falls. Ma Shipeng notes his embarrassment and discomfort.
‘At home we…’
‘Yes, yes,’ she dismisses him with a wave of her hand, ‘but he’s in Xi’an now
and he really needs to learn new manners.’ She considers the subject closed
and scrapes her stool back on the linoleum floor and stands up.
‘I’m sure Ma Ping is eager to adapt himself,’ Wang Xiaolin begins, also
standing. ‘Let’s drop it for now. We can go to the Great Mosque this
afternoon. Let’s go!’

Ma Ping and Ma Shipeng stand up too, both downcast. Ma Shipeng is
doubting himself for the first time, doubting his family and their manners. If
these great people don’t like the way they behave, perhaps he has been wrong
all his life. He looks round at the restaurant and it is as if he is seeing it for the
first time, seeing his own meatballs restaurant of which he has been so proud.
He sees the discarded tissues, the grime and grease mounting up the wall
from the shiny dark floor, the man in the corner, spitting on the floor,
slurping his noodles, his bowl a couple of centimetres away from his face, and
wonders when they last washed this place. But there are so many people
traipsing in and out all day, he suspects, so how can they keep it clean? These
city people and their ways, they’re so critical always! He feels his first flash of
indignation at their hospitality and looks at Ma Ping to gauge his mood. The
little boy is showing nothing, his face a mask.

An Xueping, feeling her mistake, is anxious to make amends, but doesn’t
know how to. Of course, they wouldn’t know any better, would they? She
mentally upbraids herself for her insensitivity. She does have to teach Ma
Ping better manners, but maybe there is a better way to do it. When the
brother goes it will be easier. It is clear he is a bad influence in this respect.
She is uncomfortable with her conclusion, because she knows that Ma
Shipeng is essentially a good man. She feels it. But Ma Ping has to learn. He
has to fit in. She’d be failing in her duty if she didn’t advise him about better
ways to live now that he’s living in her city. He’ll understand one day. For
now, she’ll bide her time.

Outside the restaurant Wang Xiaolin notes Ma Ping’s subdued feelings and
works hard to engage him in discussion about what they’re seeing as they
wander through the Moslem quarter. Ma Ping is easily distracted from his
insecure feelings and begins to chat happily with his older companion and
says how this reminds him of a street in Guyuan and how that alleyway is
just like in the Hui marketplace too.

Ma Shipeng struggles to find anything to say to the woman he’s forced to
walk with. He remains silent, his natural good manners urging him to speak,
but his pride, and his sense of worry about this whole arrangement now
preventing any spontaneity. It is An Xueping this time who breaks the silence.

‘So, your father is expanding his business, I hear?’
‘I expect he works very hard.’
‘Yes, he does. Of course he does.’
A small pause.

‘Ma Shipeng, I owe you an apology.’
The man is silent, his not disagreeing with her a bold step on his part. She
understands his anger, but feels she now has the upper hand and can afford
to be generous. After all, he’s returning to Guyuan soon and then she’ll have
the child to herself.
‘I realise your manners are different.’
‘You mean, you think we are lower than you.’
Such an overt challenge comes as a surprise to her, but she recognises the
truth of his words.
‘No I don’t.’ She sees his face. ‘All right. I must admit, his manners, the way
he eats, the way even that he talks at times, without listening first, always
showing his opinion in the way he does, well, it isn’t right, Ma Shipeng. If he
acts like this in Xi’an, everyone will know he’s just a countryside boy.’
‘He is a countryside boy,’ Ma Shipeng says in measured tones. ‘And so am I,’
he adds with considerable dignity. He doesn’t meet An Xueping’s eyes,
however, and she almost wishes he would. ‘My brother is a good boy. He
deeply respects you and your husband. Are you saying he’s a bad child?’
‘No, no, of course not!’ This is so unlike what An Xueping has expected to
deal with, that she is unable to say anything else. The silence which develops
between them stretches out ina void which is pregnant with resentments,
until Ma Shipeng turns to face her.
‘Why are you doing this?’ he asks her boldly. In her world, people don’t
speak like this. They talk around an issue, they take their time, they consider
the feelings of everyone in the situation. They certainly don’t rush in like this
without heed to protocol, to precedent, to status. He has no right to speak to
her like this, doesn’t he realise? Clearly he doesn’t! His stance now, just look
at him, standing obdurately beside her, eyes probing her face, as if he can look
into her very soul. At that moment, he reminds her of his brother and she
remembers their previous conversation with a pang. What if Ma Ping really is
like this after all? What if she is about to learn that taking Ma Ping away from
his environment doesn’t affect who he is and that he will never become what
he might aspire to under her guidance?

‘I am proud of my brother, Mrs. An. He’s a good boy. We may be rough
people, little education, no money, but we are not less than you for all that!’
As he speaks, he holds his head erect, proud, and An Xueping is aware of his
physical strength and manliness. She sees defiance in his bearing and it
touches her because she knows she could sweep it away with her money and
power and influence, but she is compassionate and decides to be gentle
‘I know it.’ She wants to lay her hand on his arm, but she cannot.

Ma Shipeng looks skeptical. The city woman seems now to be torn between
anger at his impudence and admiration at the defence of his brother, whom
he clearly loves so devotedly.

Suddenly, a street vendor approaches the rich lady with some silk scarves,
touting for business.
‘Just twenty yuan, madam. Twenty yuan! A real bargain,’ he says, proffering
the scarves near her face for inspection, his gnarled face punctured by two of
the most glittery eyes An Xueping has ever seen. Clearly Hui, the man’s white
cap is slightly grubby and old, and his blackened hands, cracked and leathery,
handle the silk with a surprising gentleness as he pushes them at her. She
waves him away impatiently.

‘I do know it,’ she stresses, at last touching Ma Shiepng on the arm. ‘Why do
you think I brought him here?’
‘Because your own son died!’ Ma Shipeng states simply, looking back at the
vendor and smiling at him. The man steps back in good-humoured
resignation. An Xueping’s eyes open wide in surprised anger.
‘That is not a subject I discuss with you.’
‘He is my brother, not your son!’ Ma Shipeng looks at her closely as he speaks
these words. But all at once, he is aware of what he has said and its
‘I’m sorry, Mrs. An, I am so very sorry. I didn’t mean…It’s just…’
She rushes ahead of him, catching up with her husband and Ma Ping who are
now approaching the entrance to the Great Mosque.

‘Look!’ says Ma Ping excitedly to his brother. ‘Can we go in?’
‘Of course!’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘What have you two been talking about?’ But
then he sees his wife’s face with its brooding shadows and immediately
changes the subject.
‘Let’s buy some tickets.’
‘I’m going to stay outside and just rest a little, I think,’ says An Xueping.
‘It’s really good though,’ says Ma Ping impetuously and Ma Shipeng is aware
now, of what An Xueping said about her brother’s freedom of speech.
Perhaps he is too free with his ideas. Perhaps what she says, isn’t wrong at all.
‘I’d love to show you round one of our mosques,’ he says to her pointedly. It
is difficult for her to refuse.
‘Well, perhaps it won’t be too tiring,’ she accepts graciously. Ma Shipeng is
They approach the entrance-kiosk and Wang Xiaolin pays the required sum,
which amazes Ma Ping. 12 yuan for each person. 48 yuan, he calculates and is
suddenly reminded of his dead friend, Ding Pengcheng, who used to coach

him in his tables. Poor little Pengcheng. Ma Ping feels a pang of regret that he
didn’t love him more.

Ma Shipeng as ever sensitive to his brother, asks him quietly what’s the
‘It’s a lot of money,’ the child replies, unable to be honest at that moment.
Wang Xiaolin gives him his entrance-ticket.
‘One for your scrap-book,’ he says.
‘Scrap-book?’ he asks, looking at it with a frown. Book? More study!
‘Scrap book,’ says An Xueping. ‘It’s a book you put pictures in or tokens from
places you’ve traveled.’
‘Can I have one?’ he asks happily. ‘I can pay. My aunt gave me twenty yuan.
Is that enough?’
‘We can make one together,’ she says, smiling at him and ruffling his hair.
‘Don’t’ worry about the money.’ Ma Shipeng smiles at her, but she doesn’t
look at him. He stands awkwardly aside, wondering what he might do or say
to repair the damage. ‘And these can all go in it, if you like?’ she continues,
raising her eyebrows at her husband to see if he agrees. He nods. He watches
his wife’s responses to the brother, however, and wonders what it was they
were talking about before. No doubt she’ll tell him that evening when they
are alone. The young man also looks strained and is fingering his ticket
distractedly, as if he doesn’t know quite what to do with it.

‘I have to confess,’ begins Wang Xiaolin, ‘I’ve never been here before,
although I’ve lived in Xi’an all my life!’
‘Really?’ says Ma Ping. ‘Well, it’s my first time too!’ His disingenuousness
touches the elderly man, and he smiles benignly at his little charge, taking his
hand and leading him through the gardens and pathways.

‘What I said earlier,’ Ma Shipeng begins.
‘Think nothing of it,’ An Xueping says in clipped tones.
‘I didn’t mean to suggest any disrespect,’ he continues. ‘I really didn’t.’ He
pauses. ‘I am afraid that this whole thing will hurt Ma Ping.’
‘How can it hurt him?’
Ma Shipeng looks at her wordlessly. She drops her eyes.
‘When I go back to Guyuan, I want to know he’s happy.’
‘Look at him!’ An Xueping exhorts him, indicating the boy and her husband
in animated discussion about the meanings of the awnings, the places for
worship, where this takes place or that.
‘Yes, he’s happy now,’ Ma Shipeng says slowly, ‘but for how long?’

‘Look at this!’ says Ma Ping eagerly in front of them, and beckons to the
others to join them. An Xueping moves forward quickly, glad of the excuse.

Ma Shipeng follows slowly behind and watches how the woman takes the
child’s other hand and the three walk in a line through the various parts of
the mosque which are open to the public. He walks with measured steps
behind them so that he won’t catch up. He’s playing a game with his
imagination. He’s wondering if perhaps Ma Ping really does belong with this
new family or not. If he does, then what can he tell his parents, and if he
doesn’t, what can he tell these people?

Chapter Three: Monday, 1st September
‘No, it’s probably better if we take him on our own for a look around,’ says
An Xueping as she serves Ma Shipeng with his breakfast noodles and bowl of
noodle-water39. ‘Less distracting for Ma Ping.’
‘Can’t he come?’ asks Ma Ping, a worried expression on his face, his water-
bowl halfway to his lips, looking from his brother to the woman busying
herself at the sink.
‘Yes, why can’t he come?’ asks Wang Xiaolin, entering the room. ‘I’m sure
he’d like to see where his brother’s going to go to school when he starts.’
‘On Wednesday, isn’t it?’ asks Ma Shipeng.
‘Of course he can come, then’ says An Xueping, staring out of the window of
their apartment, looking over the landscaped grounds, the pagoda fountain to
her left, a knot of early-morning students sitting on the near benches in the
autumn sun, freckled by the canopy of trees. ‘I just thought he might have
something better to do, that’s all. But of course he’ll want to see.’ She doesn’t
look round, but nods her head a couple of times instead.

Wang Xiaolin looks closely at her straight back as she washes dishes and
cleans the surfaces, her movements clipped and careful. Ma Ping watches the
professor’s gaze, wondering why An Xueping doesn’t look at her husband. Is
she angry with him?
‘Is it far from here?’ asks Ma Shipeng, breaking into his thoughts.
‘A few minutes drive, that’s all. It’s pretty near here.’ The professor slurps his
noodle-water and drains it quickly.
‘What’s the headmaster like?’ asks Ma Ping, feeling suddenly afraid of what
the day might hold.

  Very often in the northwest of China, noodles are served with a separate bowl of the water they were
cooked in.

‘Mr. Li is a very clever man. He studied in America for one year and he
speaks excellent English. He’ll be teaching you English and Chinese. It’s a
really good school, you know. It has contacts in America.’
‘America?’ Ma Ping’s eyes grow large. ‘Americans are not very nice!’ he states
without fear of contradiction because what he states is obvious. He finishes
his water and puts down the bowl.
An Xueping and Wang Xiaolin exchange glances.
‘I daresay some of them aren’t, but I know some unpleasant Chinese people
too.’ The professor smiles at the little boy.
‘Look what they did in Iraq!’ Ma Shipeng interjects with feeling. ‘They don’t
like Moslems in America.’
‘I think we have to get going now,’ An Xueping interrupts them. ‘Ma Ping go
and fetch your woollen jacket. We’ll have to buy you another one, actually,
when I come to think of it. The one you brought is a bit scruffy.’
‘I’m sure his jacket’s fine, An Xueping,’ says Ma Shipeng a little stiffly. ‘Our
aunt bought it for him just before we left Guyuan last week. You really
mustn’t go and spend more money on him. He’s brought enough clothes with
‘Enough for Guyuan perhaps, but not really here. Things in Xi’an are different.
Ma Ping, you still here?’ she says in irritation and he leaves the kitchen

‘About America,’ says Ma Shipeng.
‘Ma Shipeng,’ says An Xueping, ‘I don’t think speaking about this in front of
the boy is a good thing, especially at the moment, do you?’
Ma Shipeng is silent a moment as he controls his anger.
‘I think I have a right to say what I think.’
 ‘I think we can agree to disagree,’ says Wang Xiaolin.
‘I think what America has done to Moslems is terrible. You’ve seen the
pictures on the television, haven’t you?’
‘Ma Shipeng, this is an important day for your brother. Let’s not make it more
difficult. I realise how much you care about this issue. It’s bound to touch you,
being Hui, more than it touches us. I think my wife…’
‘Can speak for herself, thank you,’ An Xueping interrupts curtly, the result of
which is that when Ma Ping returns to the room, his new jacket already
buttoned up, no one is speaking at all.

The trip to the school is silently uneventful and before Ma Ping gets out of the
car, Ma Shipeng leans across and gives his shoulder a squeeze. Before this
gesture the child is feeling strong and secure, despite the degree of quiet in
the car, but now he is reminded of the magnitude of the step he’s taking and
his friends at the Number Six Middle School in Guyuan come to mind. Little
Tian with his funny, clumsy ways, Chen Baoqing always keeping an eye on

him. Meeting Ding Pengcheng at his meatballs restaurant and then studying
together, Teacher Deng who beat him and then loved him, Headteacher Gao’s
confidence in him, his facility with calligraphy and English, sitting in the third
row and putting up his hand to answer questions, and those evenings when
he was on mop-duty and that time he found all those paints in the cupboards
and nearly got Janitor Wang into trouble for forgetting to lock it, his aunt
discovering his first picture and her reactions, his brother’s stalwart support,
his parents’ loving solicitude, his grandmother’s frosty warmth. As he climbs
out of the car, he is staring at his past. Events such as the fire sweep into his
memory, the heat, the choking, killing soot, the terrified child’s screams from
somewhere upstairs, the dead Pengcheng in his weeping father’s arms,
meeting An Xueping, and it has all led here to this place. Now.

He stares deep within. This school has sufficient similarities to link easily with
his past, but the terror of the fire, in buildings similar to this – large white
structures with oval-shaped shaded windows at the front of the three-sided
design - seem too difficult to reconcile and he turns wildly to Ma Shipeng.
‘I don’t want to go inside.’ He bites his lip and stands close.
Ma Shipeng is surprised as his brother has seemed so content this morning,
willing even, to meet his new headteacher and visit the school. An Xueping
raises her eyebrows and Ma Shipeng shrugs his shoulders in response.
‘Let’s go in, then!’ Wang Xiaolin says softly, immediately recognizing the
child’s ill-ease, coming over to his side and putting his hand on his shoulder.
Ma Ping is wordlessly shaking his head in panic. He’s not going in there. He’s
never going in there. He hears the screams again, feels the deadly heat of the
fire, and puts his hands up to his ears. He continues shaking his head.
‘No, no!’ He can’t manage anymore, but he turns and runs out of the school
entrance before anyone can stop him. He crashes past children and staff,
oblivious to their presence.
‘Quickly!’ says An Xueping, her concern making her actually push Ma
Shipeng on the arm. ‘Follow him! Don’t’ let anything happen to him!’

Ma Shipeng immediately sprints out of the gates, but almost immediately
stops as he finds his weeping brother sitting on the brick wall just outside, the
city traffic roaring past in a bid to get to work quickly.
‘What on earth got into you?’ he asks angrily. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ Then
he stops and looks at the child. Ma Ping is sitting, his arms on his lap, staring
blankly ahead.
‘Did you hear what I said?’
No answer.
At that moment the professor and his wife arrive at their side.
‘Ma Ping!’ begins An Xueping in a scolding voice, but Ma Shipeng shakes his

‘Look!’ he whispers, nodding in his brother’s direction.
She crouches down.
‘Ma Ping? Are you all right, dear?’
‘What’s going on?’ She gets up again and looks at her husband.
‘I don’t know,’ Ma Shipeng replies. ‘He seemed fine this morning.’

Wang Xiaolin steps forward and waves the others away. An Xueping shakes
her head, but he gestures for her to go, and reluctantly, taking Ma Shipeng’s
arm, they go back into the school building. The professor feels tired, suddenly.
He doesn’t have a clue what’s the matter with the child, but he knows it’s
serious, at least from the little fellow’s point of view. Shadows flicker within.
He must deal with this. He sits down.

‘It’s hard making a new start, isn’t it? And you’ve had to do that quite a lot
recently, haven’t you?’
‘Make the screams go away!’ Ma Ping says, turning to the man at his side,
with an appeal in his eyes whose anguish shocks the man. He’s seen that look
‘What screams, dear?’
Ma Ping starts to cry silently, looking straight ahead. There is a forlornness
about this slight figure that Wang Xiaolin finds deeply moving. The
vulnerability of youth, he thinks, in which all things are immediate and
matter more than anything else and are completely irredeemable. Ma Ping’s
capacity to feel makes the man feel humble and sad. It also provokes his
memories of his own life more vividly than anything else in his present world.
‘I hear them every night. Fire. Death. Dying. Fire burning my friend to death.
Americans killing Moslems.’
‘Fire killing your friend. You mean Ding Pengcheng?’
‘Yes. I don’t think he was really my friend, you see.’
‘No, I don’t see. Tell me.’
‘I tried to save him!’ Ma Ping says, a tear dropping unheeded down to the
ground, weeds growing through the concrete pavement, forcing their way out
towards the light. ‘His father didn’t want to, you know. Not really. He left it
too late. So I had to and I couldn’t.’
‘And this is what you hear?’
‘I see it too. I see it every time I close my eyes. I saw it just now in the school. I
looked up at the windows and they look just the same and I thought, it can
happen here too. If I make a friend, it can happen to him too. I want to go
home, Professor. Please let me go home! I don’t belong here. You’re so nice
and kind and I really like you. And Mrs. An too, but I want to see my Aunt
and my parents. Please let me go home, please, please!’

‘First, Ma Ping, your aunt and your parents want you to be here because they
love you.’ Ma Ping is watching the man’s face with that uncanny scrutiny
which distils truth and Wang Xiaolin is impressed deeply with what that
suggests about the child’s capacity to grow, to become more than he is. He
realises too that he sincerely wants the child to stay because he is beginning to
love him, but that alerts him to his potential selfishness.
‘You have a great gift,' he says at last. 'You are a special child. That is why
your parents and your good family are sacrificing their own desire to see you.
Of course, they would be so pleased if you went home…’
‘So can I go, then?’ Ma Ping exclaims with extravagant joy, but the professor
holds up his hand.
‘They would be pleased at first, but then they would be sorry.’

Ma Ping, scrupulously clear-sighted as always, nods his head. ‘I know,’ he
says softly, and in his clarity, Wang Xiaolin detects a much older soul than the
twelve-year old boy sitting next to him.
‘The best you can do is try your hardest, study well, develop your genius,
make a friend or two,’ Ma Ping’s eyes flash on his face for a moment, and then
drop. ‘And I’m sure you can go home for an extended holiday.’
Ma Ping nods his head dully.
‘How do I stop the visions?’ His simple appeal is so trusting that the older
man wishes in that moment he were a magician who could absolve pain and
suffering with a single spell.
He looks at the child closely, and takes his hand, searching his face without
‘I don’t think you can at the moment, because it happened and it’s awful and
we can’t pretend it isn’t.’

Ma Ping’s look of devastation makes the man upbraid himself for his honesty,
and then the child starts to sob and rests himself against the man, who
gratefully takes him into his arms and there they sit, amidst curious glances
and blatant curiosity, as Ma Ping talks between tearful sobs.

‘I tried to save him. I did try. I really did try even though I didn’t like him
much! I feel so bad I didn’t like him much. No one did, you see.’
‘There, there, dear.’ Wang Xiaolin holds him closely and feels his little body
relaxing. The control he needs not to be overcome at his own memories is
severe. How easy it is to give advice, he thinks to himself, as the little boy,
whom he loves now as his own child, gradually begins to feel substantial in
his arms and eventually wriggles free.

‘You’re so kind to me.’ Then Ma Ping stares closely. ‘Are you all right?’

Wang Xiaolin feels the uncomfortably familiar sensation of being in the
presence of someone wiser. And now he both revels in the intimacy, which he
has so quickly acquired with this special child, but also wonders about how he
might cope with it all. He feels a ridiculous desire to tell this child the whole
truth. Truths never spoken before today. The moment passes.
‘Not as young as I used to be,’ he says in lieu of explanation. This seems to
satisfy the child, however, and they stand up and walk into the school. Ma
Shipeng and An Xueping are standing just inside the gate, clearly agitated
and relieved when they see Ma Ping in a calmer frame of mind.
‘Right then, let’s go,’ says Wang Xiaolin, releasing Ma Ping to the care of his
brother, who takes his hand. The two of them walk behind the professor and
his wife.

‘You all right?’ Ma Shipeng asks with loving concern.
‘Yeah. The professor is so kind to me. He’s a sad man, though. I’m glad you’re
‘Me too. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll never let anything happen to you,
you know.’
‘I know,’ says Ma Ping, looking up at him gratefully, and for the rest of the
short distance into the building, they walk together in companionable silence.

Wang Xiaolin is moved by his encounter with the boy and doesn’t want to
share it. It occurs to him with a flash of self-knowledge, that he sometimes
kept moments of intimacy between himself and his son apart from his wife
too and that insight shocks him. He begins to feel forebodings. ‘He was
frightened about starting at a new place,’ he says, by way of atoning to his
wife and thus comforting himself. ‘He still has nightmares about the fire.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ replies his wife, feeling her husband’s openness. She takes
his arm. ‘I think this school will be really good for him.’
‘I hope so,’ he rejoins, ‘but I believe he’s missing home more than we realised
he would. We need to keep him busy.’
‘Yes, I agree,’ says An Xueping, feeling that for the first time since his arrival
they are walking together instead of on separate pathways. She is delighted
that at last, there is the possibility that she can persuade her husband to let the
child live with them full-time instead of this ridiculous notion of him
boarding at school. She senses something in her husband, that confuses her,
but it’s not to do with her, it’s to do with his relationship with the boy. All at
once she knows: he loves the child and wants to keep him. She hugs the
knowledge to herself and presses his arm affectionately. He looks at her and
smiles as they pass into the Number Three Middle School main entrance,
where a security guard approaches them.

A few minutes later they are shown into the headteacher’s office, a large
rectangular room, posters of Mao, Lei Feng, Lenin and Deng Xiaoping
adorning the wall. This makes Ma Ping feel both comfortable and uneasy,
flooding him with memories. The concrete floor is bare and cold, but newly
swept. There are two large sunken sofas with embroidered cushions, one on
either side of the room, a water dispenser and a large glass-fronted bookcase
next to the middle of the three windows looking out onto the macadamised
front yard, and at the end of the room, Mr. Li's cluttered desk.

He springs out of his seat and comes round his desk to shake the professor’s
hand after which An Xueping and he greet each other. Ma Shipeng and Ma
Ping hang back nervously, the older brother feeling his countryside large
hands and his shabby clothes. But Mr. Li steps forward and greets him
cordially, shaking his hand in a friendly manner, and the younger man
‘And you’re Ma Ping,’ says Mr. Li cheerily. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you!’ Ma
Ping looks up into this man’s happy face and realises he’s going to like him.
He’s younger than the child expected, only about 35 years old, bushy black
hair and a grey suit, which has seen better days. But Ma Ping likes him for
that and feels his own home-made clothes less keenly.
‘So, how are you, Wang Xiaolin?’ he asks his older friend, gesturing for his
guests to sit, as he pinches some tea-leaves from a plastic bag on his desk,
drops it into four cups already waiting, and then pours some boiling water
into each. Wang Xiaolin and his wife sit on one sofa, and Ma Shipeng and his
brother take their seats opposite the window. Ma Ping is a little flustered and
feeling thirsty. He’ll have to wait until they get home. Well, get back to
Professor Wang’s apartment anyway. Two cups are placed in front of the
professor and An Xueping and then the others are given to the brothers. Ma
Ping glows with pleasure. What a kind man! Everyone is being so nice to him
and he begins to relax inside.

He looks over at the professor and notices how his hair falls a little over his
brow and softens his profile, and how the light, now streaming in through the
windows, gives him an air of someone otherworldly. Ma Ping loses himself in
contemplation of the expression on the man’s face as he talks to the
headteacher. He notices the cut of his jaw, the way it moves when he talks,
and how the tension in the muscles in his cheeks deflects the light and causes
there almost to be shadows on his face. It fills Ma Ping full of worry, as if he
has seen the man’s frailty. But he’s a famous professor! How can he be sad?
Without self-consciousness he fumbles for a little pad of paper from his
pocket with a pencil pushed through the metal loops at the top, withdraws
the pencil and, turning to a blank page, hastily begins to draw. Just that angle.

Just that shadow. He flicks his eyes up quickly and then down again, hastily
capturing the moment, chasing it as a delicious dream.

‘Ma Ping?’ says Wang Xiaolin, and the child is so startled, he drops pad and
pencil, the latter rolling underneath the sofa, and sits up straight, staring
round at the four of them. It takes him a moment to recognise where he is.
‘Sorry,’ he says, picking up the fallen pad and groping underneath the sofa
for the pencil, but not finding it quickly, so giving up. He sighs: that pencil
cost him 2 yuan and he bought it with money his aunt gave him just before he
left Guyuan. It was expensive because it’s specially designed for sketching
and has a thick point. It’s pretty too – bright red and yellow in stripes.
‘May I see?’ asks Mr. Li jovially, going round his desk and reaching out his
hand for the pad. Ma Ping blushes and instantly holds it out.
Ma Shipeng nudges his brother in the ribs, as if to say, ‘pay attention, you’re
not at home now.’
Ma Ping looks down at the floor, craning his neck as far as he dare so as no to
be reprimanded again, but seeing nothing. He bites his lip. Perhaps he can ask.
He nudges Ma Shipeng back, who shrugs him off: he wants to listen to the
headteacher and the professor’s conversation. It’s about his favourite subject
after all.

An Xueping watches Ma Ping closely whilst all this is going on. She has seen
him begin to draw, she has witnessed his absorption as he began to study her
husband’s face. She is fascinated at the point when he isn’t looking at him in a
personal way anymore, but as if he is seeing something within her husband
that inspires him and must be expressed. She sighs. An Zheping was like that.
And she now knows that Ma Ping is just as much of a genius as her son. That
her son wasn’t superior in that way after all. Ma Ping, for all his impoverished
background, is no less in brilliance. She recalls that An Zheping would be
sitting reading a book or watching television quite comfortably, and someone
would say or something would happen – she never knew what it was and it
seemed, when she asked him, neither did he - and suddenly, he would rush to
the piano, crash the lid open almost (she used to tell him off about that, but it
made no difference) and then play feverishly. There was no apartment, no
people there, no world really, just him, the piano and his genius. Well,
Chopin was present usually, but once, he played a phrase of Bach over and
over and over again. She once went into his room to tell him off, as he took a
phrase from the second book of preludes and fugues, the c-sharp minor five
part fugue, the main voice, and just repeated it over and over.
‘Stop it, for goodness sake!’ she called out at him, saving her work on her
computer-desktop, before going to his room.
‘Stop what?’ The notes had stopped abruptly. An Zheping looked at her in
confusion as she reached his room.

‘That phrase, it’s driving me mad. What are you doing with it?’
‘You mean this one?’ and played it again, but without any sense of mocking.
‘Yes, that one,’ she replied deliberately. ‘Stop it, will you. I’m trying to work!’
‘It’s the whole thing, you see.’
‘That voice. He weaves it into everything, Bach does. Turns it upside down,
back to front, and there’s this redundant entry here. Do you want me to play
the whole thing? I was just hearing the other things he does with it as I play
the main voice.’
‘This,’ and he demonstrated the single phrase, ‘is the first voice. It’s a fugue.
You know, a fugue.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘So it has to be carried through all the voices before it can occur in the base
again. If it starts in the base, that is.’
‘Yes,’ said his mother, leaning against the door-jamb, with a sense that this
conversation is only making sense to one of them, folding her arms and
smiling at him.
‘And so, I wanted to hear each time I play the main voice, what else he does
with it all the way through. You see, the brilliant thing is, it’s different every
time. I was counting up the number of different entrances he makes, weaving
it in different ways. That’s all. I got to 21 in this fugue. So far. But you
interrupted me.’
An Xueping threw back her head and laughed.
‘Oh, you little darling!’ she said, going behind the back of him and embracing
‘Mum!’ he protested. ‘I want to finish this.’
 ‘Go on, then,’ she said, releasing him. ‘But stop when you get to a hundred,
will you?’
‘He doesn’t do anything a hundred times, well, in the Art of Fugue he
probably does! That last for an hour and a half. I’ll try that next, I think. Mum,
can we get the score for it?’
An Xueping laughed all the way down the corridor.

And here’s Ma Ping, just the same. The same absorption, that sweet self-
obsessed conviction that everyone must see things that way, or rather not that
he would think so, but he wouldn’t be able to understand when he realised
anyone perceived things differently. He was probably there thinking urgently
about light and shape and things that ordinary people don’t even notice, but
as if to him, they created the world.

‘This is, well, what shall I say?’ muses Mr. Li with a humorous twinkle in his
eye. He reaches it across to the professor who smiles at the devastating

accuracy of Ma Ping’s pencil strokes, the lines on his face, but then he is
struck as so many have already been, with the child’s insight into his inner
self, the one he doesn’t always see himself, the man who is strong and clever
and active, yet saddened and dulled by something. His smile turns to
melancholy, a change of expression, which Ma Ping instantly recognises. He's
done it again. There was another occasion when he offered a picture out of
love to someone in Guyuan and she cried because he had seen something she
was pretending wasn’t real in her own life. He doesn’t, of course rationalize
his previous experience in quite this way, but he knows that his art has
caused someone a dimension of pain. He looks up at Ma Shipeng who is
watching blithely, seemingly unaware of any tensions at all.

An Xueping sees it all and her heart contracts with love for the child. She goes
over to him. ‘It’s a lovely picture,’ she says, fondly.
‘I don’t think Professor Wang likes it,’ he says, his brow furrowed.
‘I think he loves it, actually,’ she says softly to him. ‘That’s why he looks like
that. He’s moved.’ He smiles up at her, his innocent pleasure filling her with a
sense of her power to bind him closer.

‘Professor Wang wants you to have a good education here and he has worked
hard to allow you to come here. I hope you will try your best.’ Li Peidong
address Ma Ping.
‘Always, sir,’ replies the boy. ‘I won’t let the professor down.’ He is eager to
please the man now he thinks he’s hurt him. ‘I will work very hard.’
‘I am sure you will, Ma Ping,’ says the professor with quiet conviction. ‘This
really is very good, you know, Li Peidong. I hope you’ll keep a special eye on
him. I think you know about recent events.’

Ma Ping realises that although they are talking about him, his attention isn’t
required and, at a sign from An Xueping giving him permission, he wanders
over to the window from where he watches students pouring onto the parade
at the front of the school, and take their places for morning exercises. Music
starts blaring tinnily from the tannoy and a thousand students begin, in
unison, to move to the sounds. He turns away, memories flooding through
him again.

‘You all right?’ asks his brother for the second time that morning.
Ma Ping nods mutely.
‘Is there anything you want to ask, Ma Ping?’ Li Peidong says, ushering him
to a seat, then taking a packet of cigarettes out of his top desk-drawer and
offering one to all three adult guests. Ma Shipeng of course, refuses, but Ma
Ping is shocked when both his hosts accept.

‘Stop staring!’ Ma Shipeng hisses at him, but not quietly enough, as all the
other three laugh.
‘I didn’t know women smoked!’ Ma Ping says.
‘You didn’t know they drove either, yesterday,’ An Xueping laughs. He
‘What’s the school like?’ he asks the headteacher, his face serious.
‘Read this, Ma Ping,’ Li Peidong says, handling him a leaflet about the school,
‘and then after the exercises outside, we’ll have a look around, shall we?’

Ma Ping reads avidly, running his finger over the characters, mouthing the
sounds as he reads them. An observer who doesn’t know the child, might
think his reading skills are poor, but in actual fact, Ma Ping is simply trying to
take every word in.

Since the 1990's, Xi'an Middle School has rebuilt the school house. And it has now
got fine teaching and study facilities. In the new multipurpose building of six storeys,
there are teachers' offices, a school library, laboratories meeting-rooms and music
practise rooms. The school library has a collection of more than 90,000 books with
3reading-rooms. Inside this building, there are 12 labs of physics, chemistry and
biology, 3 computer rooms, 3 language labs, a projection room , one matriculation test
centre, 3 rooms for science and technology activities, and 14 classrooms for recording,
rehearsing and broadcasting. In addition, a newly-built boiler-room has been put into
use, which supplies all the school buildings with enough heat in winter and there is
also a large bathroom. A two-storied building has been set up with two dining halls
large enough to hold 1,400 people. A students' dormitory building and a foreign
guests' house have been set up and we are pleased to report this house has sometimes
been full.

To keep the school ever thriving the key is to have a staff of well-qualified and highly
ambitious teachers. At present, among the 170 teachers and staff members are 143
professional teachers including two provincial-class outstanding specialists, 8 special-
class teachers (full professors), 52 senior teachers (associate professors) and 38 first-
class teachers (lecturers). 12 teachers from the school have been given the titles of
national or provincial model teachers. 24 are chief members or members of different
national, provincial or city professional associations.

Because of the hard work by the teachers and students, the quality in intellectual
education has been greatly improved. Figures indicate that during the past 12 years
(from 1990 – 2002) 4,800 graduates from the school have been enrolled at colleges and
universities all over the country. The average proportion of the school's graduates
entering colleges and universities is among best in China.

Xi'an Middle School is now one of the school in Shaanxi that are open to the outside

world. It has established close family relationships with Clover School in Iowa, U.S.A.,
Charles Darwin School in Australia and Lycee Jeunesse in Canada. The school also
reached an historic agreement on exchanging students in 1994. Up till now, five
groups of foreign students have been invited to live and study with the school's
students in the school. In addition, it has also established friendly contacts with some
other schools from Germany, Japan, South Korea and Holland.

The school is particularly pleased this year to announce the opening of the artist’s
workroom, which is expensively equipped with all the latest drawing, painting, and
computer-animation facilities. This has been sponsored directly by the Beijing
government, in its initiative to encourage young people in Shaanxi to develop their
artistic competence. At its opening, we were honoured to have the famous Chinese
artist, Chen Gaoming, whose work, ‘Developing China’ stands at the doorway…

He looks up in excitement at these words, but finds four pairs of eyes
studying him. All at once, he is overwhelmed by all this constant attention, by
his aunt telling him he’s a genius, by Teacher Deng’s pressure and later
encouragement, by his father’s admonitions to be a good son, by Ma
Shipeng’s great faith that his brother’s going to be famous all over China one
day, by all that palaver in the press after the fire hailing him as a hero, by
these three people discussing his future as if it matters, by that man yesterday
asking him to become a worker for profit, by his moving to Xi’an to get a
better education (which is why, he thought, he’d moved to Guyuan in the first
place), and in particular now by these three new adults in his life, poring over
him like attendants. He is overwhelmed by the incongruity of his life as it
appears to him in these moments and it crushes his enthusiasm. Ma Shipeng
sees it happening, sees something happening anyway: he’s worried again.

‘Let’s have a look round, shall we?’ Li Peidong asks again, and everyone
‘Yes, let’s,’ says An Xueping, reaching forward for Ma Ping’s hand. He takes it
listlessly, and all together they step out into the light of the expanding

Chapter Four: Wednesday, 3rd September
‘Now, as all the children know, my name is Han Yongchun. Boys and girls,
this is Ma Ping. He is from the countryside and he will be studying with you
this year. I hope you will make him welcome.’
Ma Ping feels his throat dry, as he looks around at the dozens of pairs of eyes.
All the children begin a buzz of chatter about him, pointing at his clothes,
laughing at his appearance, and although their scrutiny isn’t unfriendly, Ma
Ping feels lost and alone in this vast new crowd. How will he ever settle here?
He looks towards the window to the corridor, where his brother is still

standing, nodding gravely at him and waving once more before retreating
from view.
‘Perhaps, Ma Ping would like to tell us something about himself,’ the teacher
continues, and the child turns his attention once more to the class. He stands
in front of them awkwardly, painfully aware of his visibility and how much
poorer his clothes appear than those of his new classmates. He wishes now
that he’d accepted An Xueping’s offer of a new wardrobe yesterday, but he
didn’t want to trouble her all the time.
Han Yongchun continues: ‘Who would like to ask him a question?’

Absolute silence greets this invitation, which feels worse than the babble of
noise previously.
‘Well, we’ve heard he’s an artist,’ the teacher tries once more. ‘What else
would you like to know?’
Then a single hand goes up. A girl, her long hair in braids with coloured
beads at the ends, wearing a bright red jumper, with a merry smile, sitting
alone at a double desk at the front, near where Ma Ping is standing, looks
happily at him.
‘What do you like to draw?’ she asks him, in a clear and sweetly modulated
voice, and at once, Ma Ping is relieved. He can answer this question.
‘I like to draw people mostly, but I also draw animals.’
At the sound of his accent, the whole class erupts into laughter, especially one
lad at the back. Ma Ping hangs his head and feels ashamed suddenly.

‘Hush!’ says the girl who asked a question, turning round with a cross
expression. ‘Let him talk.’
‘Yes, Zhang Luxia is right,’ agrees the teacher. ‘Gao, keep quiet. When you
arrived, I think we all laughed at your Guizhou accent, didn’t we?’
‘Yes, sir!’
The class laughs and Gao reddens.
‘Can you draw me?’ Zhang Luxia asks eagerly.

‘I don’t think…’ begins the teacher, but Ma Ping has already pulled out a
small pad out of his pocket, and is covering a sheet with pencil lines. It takes
him seconds, and he passes it to the girl, who coos her wonder and pleasure.
‘Wow!’ she says, looking from the drawing to Ma Ping and back again.
‘Let’s see, let’s see!’ call out the others, and she shows it, waving it above her
head. The teacher takes it from her hand and, after scrutinizing it closely,
shows it to the class more clearly, taking it round to the various desks, so that
each of the students can see it. All lean forward to get a close look and there is
an obvious consensus of admiration.
‘Can he draw me, sir?’ calls a student from the back of the room.
General laughter.

‘No, me, sir?’ says another, and soon all the students are clamouring for
similar attention.
The teacher raises his hands in a gesture of pacification, and gradually, they
are quiet, but they now they look with keen interest at their new classmate,
who is standing not knowing whether to be pleased or embarrassed.
‘I am sure that Ma Ping will be happy to draw everyone, but now we need to
start our new lesson. Today we are studying about the history of our beautiful
city. Perhaps this will be of special interest to our guest. Ma Ping, please find
a seat.’
‘He can sit here, sir,’ says Zhang Luxia. Ma Ping blushes and quickly moves
to her side and sits down.
‘Thank you,’ he whispers at his new friend.
‘Oh, you’re welcome. I’m going to be the envy of everyone here!’
‘Really? Why?’
‘Ma Ping! Please be quiet. Turn to page sixty four in your history books.’ The
teacher looks warningly at the new student, who bites his lip.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t have a history book. We are not studying this one in

The teacher frowns. ‘Today you can share with Zhang Luxia, but you must
ask your guardians to buy you a new book as soon as possible.’
Guardians? Is that what Wang Xiaolin and An Xueping are now? It’s as if he
doesn’t have parents anymore, just guardians. A chill whispers inside him. As
well as that he doesn’t want to ask for any more from them, and now he really
does need a new pair of trousers and perhaps a jumper too, and a new book it
seems. He wonders how much more he’s going to have to ask for before the
week is out. Gradually, though, in the progress of the lesson, he forgets his
concerns and begins to take heed of where he is.

The classroom is similar to his one back in Guyuan. A long rectangle, like so
many classrooms in China. It’s covered with bright posters, some with
English slogans emblazoned proudly on pictures of foreign places. There are
ten rows of desks in neat rows, with two aisleways for the teacher to walk.
The class houses about seventy students. A picture of the Great Wall stretches
the whole length of the room on one side, continued on the opposite wall. Ma
Ping is fascinated by this depiction and checks whether the end of one wall-
segment really does match the beginning of the next. He’s delighted when he
finds it does. For some reason it makes him feel safer.

‘Ma Ping! I hope I’m not going to have to tell you again. In this classroom, we
listen to the teacher. I don’t know what you’re used to in Ningxia, but in
Shaanxi Province, our schools are run on orderly lines.’

‘My school in Guyuan was very good,’ says Ma Ping, remembering the
kindness of teachers like Gao, his friendship with Teacher Deng, and the way
in which all the staff were so proud of him before he left.
‘Indeed?’ The teacher is surprised to be apparently contradicted, but he has
been told to make some allowances for poor manners as the child is from the
countryside after all. ‘Well, we pride ourselves here on being up to date. Not
backward, like some countryside places.’
‘Yes, sir,’ replies Ma Ping subdued. He looks down at his history book, only to
find a little pink rose petal on it. He looks quickly aside at Zhang Luxia who
smiles at him and then begins to recite the lesson after the teacher speaks. His
heart is flooded with pleasure at her small action, and although he’s not sure
he likes his new teacher, he knows he has made a friend and he certainly likes

The lesson passes quickly and then it’s time for the children to have an
English class. Of course, they’re also using the ‘Junior English for China’
textbook, and Ma Ping is delighted to find that he’s actually a little ahead of
the other students. He answers three questions, and although Mr. Han
corrects his pronunciation every time, he also praises his efforts. Altogether a
successful morning’s work.

And then it’s break, and out into the playground where a cluster of children
gather round Ma Ping and urge him to draw. He readily complies and soon
has used up all his paper. It is only then he realises he’ll have to ask for that
too. Time for exercises, and he gets into a spare space to stretch his limbs,
Zhang Luxia standing next to him, and he notices Gao Li edging towards him.
For a moment, he wonders whether the boy is a threat and memories of
Zhang Chen Hui40 come back to haunt him, slowing his movements, making
him falter. He hears the screams of Ding Pengcheng again, feels the flames on
his body, searing his clothes, and the acrid smoke that threatens to sever him
forever from his family.

Earlier Ma Shipeng was watching his brother standing at the front of the
classroom. So many children, and he looks so small amongst them all. He
‘We should go!’ says An Xueping, drawing his arm slowly.
‘I suppose.’ Ma Shipeng moves reluctantly out of the child’s vision. He knows
that this day is the beginning of something over which he has no control. He’s
always protected his brother – it’s his duty, it’s his need. And if he isn’t
looking after Ma Ping, then what is he doing at all? He follows An Xueping

  Zhang Chen Hui is the bully Ma Ping defeated in his school in Guyuan, but who was responsible for
setting the fire in which Ding Pengcheng died.

quietly, sensing that his life will never be the same again. He doesn’t
rationalize it, but his feelings are mixed with a sense of the dust of Guyuan,
the winds, the volatile weather, hot sunshine one day, winds at night and
snow in the morning. And through all that there’s Ma Ping, his brother, the
genius, the silly little boy, the one who plays tricks on his aunt with his
Dracula fangs41, the sensitive little soul whose moods sweep into extremes just
like the weather. The boy belongs in Guyuan.

He stops in the corridor, and An Xueping turns to face him.
‘He shouldn’t be here!’ he begins.
An Xueping sighs with frustration. She is becoming a little tired of this
constant doubt. It can’t be good for the child.
‘This is one of the best schools in Shaanxi Province. Where would he get a
good education otherwise?’
‘Guyuan!’ answers Ma Shipeng proudly. ‘Number Six Middle School is an
excellent school. Everyone in the province says so.’
‘In your Province, maybe,’ An Xueping says dryly. ‘Look, Ma Shipeng, I think
you have to realise that the boy is here and he’s staying. It is hardly fair to the
boy to continue to make these kinds of statements. How is he going to settle
‘You don’t know about the teeth, do you? Or how he likes to sleep near a
window? Or how he loves to sit for hours with his family and just listen to us.
How he loves to pile his plate full of meatball noodles and then have a contest
with me to see who can finish first?’
‘Yes, well, I am hoping that the child will widen his horizons when he’s here.’
Abruptly she turns on her heel and walks down the corridor.
‘All this attention!’ says Ma Shipeng. ‘It isn’t good for a child.’
An Xueping turns slowly.
‘He’s a child.’
‘He’s a genius.’
‘Is that how you see him first? A genius?’
‘And how do you see him?’
‘My little brother. A little boy.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘Look, Ma Shipeng, your brother isn’t just a little boy. He’s very, very special
and coming here will enable him to become the kind of person he needs to
‘He’s already the kind of person he needs to be. He’s a good little boy.’

   This refers to a delightful incident when Ma Ping is getting used to living in Guyuan, and his aunt is
bossing everyone around. He stands behind her, baring his plastic Dracula fangs and making zombie-
like movements behind her back. Ma Shipeng has a hard time keeping a straight face.

‘He’s an ignorant child, who has much to learn.’ She shakes her head.
‘What does he have to learn?’ Ma Shipeng’s tone is clipped, but An Xueping is
too glad of the chance to speak openly to the child’s brother to choose her
words with caution.
‘He has to learn civilized manners for a start. He has to learn that there are
ways of doing things in the city, which are different. He has to learn that he
must work single-mindedly to get what he wants.’
‘To get what you want, you mean!’
An Xueping begins to walk away. Ma Shipeng catches up with her.
‘You look down your nose at us, don’t you? You think you’re better than us.
You think because we’re poor, we’re nothing. Ah, Ma Ping surprises you,
doesn’t he, because he doesn’t fit your view of stupid country people!’
‘Ma Shipeng, please keep your voice down,’ she hisses at him.
‘What’s the purpose of being a man?’ Ma Shipeng suddenly says in a lowered
‘Ma Ping is a little boy. Maybe one day he’ll be a great artist.’
‘If you’ll let him!’
‘But what sort of man will he be?’
An Xueping looks confusedly at him.
‘What do you mean?’
Ma Shipeng sighs. ‘I think your husband would understand.’
‘Are you being rude to me, young man?’
‘I hope not, madam. I’m just concerned about my brother.’
‘Well, he’s here now. This tension can’t be good for him. Let’s please stop it
now. I noticed that he needs some new clothes. He can’t afford to look the
odd one out. He only has to open his mouth and everyone will know.’
‘Will know what?’ asks Ma Shipeng.
‘That he’s from the countryside. That he’s different,’ she adds, seeing his
expression. ‘Don’t get angry, Ma Shipeng. If he’s here, and he speaks the way
he does, then everyone will laugh at him and think how awful that will be for
him. I’m only thinking of him.’
Ma Shipeng sighs. ‘So you want him to talk like a city-boy now too.’
‘Who has the prejudice now, Ma Shipeng?’
‘I’m not…’ He stops exasperated.
‘Look, let’s go and see some of the sights and we can do some shopping for
him. You’ll know the sorts of things he likes. And don’t worry about him so
much. I really will take care of him.’
Her use of the personal pronoun disquiets him. Uneasily, Ma Shipeng follows
An Xueping out of the building.

‘Have you some more paper?’ Gao Li asks after exercises. ‘Can you draw me?
I was serious, you know.’

Ma Ping looks warily at the boy squaring up to him. He’s large, with big
hands, a rubicund face, thick, glossy hair, unruly, flopping over his eyes, in a
way which relaxes the artist, and in which he finds fascinating. The sun
streaming through the playground alights on his hair, illumines it and tinges
it with an almost blue glow at the tips. He fixates on it.
‘Hey, what’s going on?’ says Gao Li with an uneasy laugh. He looks at the
children gathered around, who have all witnessed his absorption, but there is
an expectant air, as if they are intrigued to know what the new boy will do
next. Ma Ping stands in the middle of these strangers and for the first time, he
recognises his power to move people, to change their mood, to manipulate
them. He thinks about being at home with his aunt, who always has the last
word, whom he loves dearly, but who always has so much power. How he
must listen to everyone in his life. For a single moment he experiences a sense
of this reality changing. A reality in which others listen to him and their
minds change because of it. He laughs at Gao Li’s disquiet.

‘I have no paper,’ he says, feeling a delicious frisson, as he sees Zhang Luxia
close to his arm, listening carefully to everything he says, and more so when
‘I’ll get some,’ is shouted from the crowd, and the speaker pushes his way
through and runs into the building, returning a minute later, brandishing a
notepad and some pencils. He gives them into Ma Ping’s hands with a shy
smile and the artist thanks him graciously.
‘Me first, says Gao Li, standing stock still in front of Ma Ping.
‘All right,’ Ma Ping agrees with a smile, looking around and realising that
every child there is pleased he’s there. It’s a kind of welcome he’s never
known before.
‘Just stand a little over there,’ he says, pointing to a small linden tree, not
because the light’s better, but because the boy will. ‘Here?’ he asks, posing
rather awkwardly.
‘Just stand still,’ Ma Ping says, beginning to move his pencil over the page. He
frowns. The strokes aren’t fluid, and he’s surprised. This has never happened
before, but as he completes a picture which seems to him crude and awkward,
the children rally round to praise him and he realises it makes no difference.

‘Will you draw me again?’ asks Zhang Luxia, in her sweet voice, as soon as
he’s finished.
‘Yes, of course!’ he replies, but the bell goes for class, and so they all troop in,
Gao Li flourishing his picture like a trophy, children gathering round to see,
and many of them asking him to draw them later. It’s then that an idea occurs
to him.

It’s Calligraphy now, and of course, all the children want to see an example
from Ma Ping of what he can do. He has brought his best work with him42 and
he unrolls it before the teacher tells him.

‘Remarkable, Ma,’ Han Yongchun says. ‘I understand you did this in Guyuan,
without tuition.’
‘Tuition, sir?’
‘Teaching. It means teaching.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Remarkable’, repeats the teacher. ‘Look at this, children. Gather round.’ He
stands on the platform and holds up the calligraphy for the whole class to see.
There are wolf-whistles and general sounds of appreciation.
‘Hush now, hush now,’ Han Yongchun urges. ‘Note if you will, the way in
which the down stroke on the upper left hand corner is mirrored on the up
strokes on the opposite corner. A classic sense of symmetry. How did you
learn to do this, Ma?’
Ma Ping shrugs his shoulders.
‘I don’t know, sir. I just did it.’
‘There you have it!’ says Han Yongchun with an exaggerated tone of
disappointment in his voice. ‘And there was me hoping Ma Ping would teach
us all this morning!’
Everyone except Ma Ping laughs.
‘No, sir, I…’
‘I’m joking, Ma!’
The teacher rolls up the red poster-paper and hands it back to the child. The
other students disperse to their desks.
‘Ma, you’ll be studying this class with the seniors in actual fact. Senior three.
Block two, room 413. You should go there now.’
‘I’d rather stay here, sir!’
‘Would you, indeed? You’re rather fond of your own way, aren’t you? Block
two, room 413! You heard me.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well, off you go then! And Ma!’
‘Yes, sir?’
‘Take your poster with you!’
‘Yes, sir.’

  His best calligraphy is something he did after school one day when he was alone in the classroom,
supposedly cleaning it. It was to mark the occasion of a Beijing Normal University delegation of
educators to Guyuan to mark its new city-status. It was through this visit that An Xueping first met

Ma Ping packs his bag, takes the cardboard roll with his poster inside from
his desk, and with a nervous look at Zhang Luxia, who smiles at him
encouragingly, and Gao Li, who gives him the victory salute, he leaves the

‘Room 411, Room, 413. Here.’ He stops and knocks on the door quietly. It’s
almost immediately opened.
‘Ah, Ma Ping, you’re here at last. You’re late you know.’ A bespectacled
elderly teacher greets the child. He’s wearing a shabby laboratory jacket in
what used to be white fabric, but now shows all the colours of the rainbow
and quite a lot of grime too.
‘I was only just told.’
‘Well, come in, come in! We’re all eager to meet you! I’m Wang Guoyi, your
new calligraphy teacher.’
Ma Ping’s heart thumps painfully as he looks around at the small class,
maybe only twenty big students, sitting at single desks in three horse-shoe
rows, clustered around the front desk, poster paper, brushes, paints, oils,
canvases in abundance, and he suddenly realises that this is the famous art
room he’s heard so much about. On the blackboard, a huge poster, its strokes
exaggeratedly large, dominates the view, and all the students are copying it
assiduously. The class is comprised entirely of boys, all seventeen or eighteen
years of age, and he feels very small and very young.

‘This is where you’ll be having your lessons, Ma,’ says the teacher, coming up
behind him and nudging him towards an unoccupied desk in the second row.
Ma Ping turns to thank him before sitting down, but the teacher has already
gone back to the front of the class. The boys don’t pay him much attention,
and Ma Ping wonders what it’s going to be like coming here every day. He
reaches for a large poster sheet from the benches set up at the end of each row
of desks, and, dipping a suitable brush (already provided) into a jar of clean
water, and into the glossy black ink, he covers the paper deftly.

‘Mm, very good indeed, Ma. You really are talented, aren’t you?’
Now the other students are interested, craning their necks to get a look at
what the little boy is producing.
‘That stroke. You’ve not done it as I suggested. Look there,’ and Wang Guoyi
points to a downward stroke.
‘I just…’
The man frowns. ‘Students, cluster round please,’ and immediately, brushes
are clinked into jars, stools are scraped back from desks, and feet thump on
the concrete floor to a mass of surging students, all converging round Ma
Ping’s desk. He is now afraid and wishes that he could simply study back

with Zhang Luxia, who really is quite the nicest little girl he’s met for a long
time. Perhaps always. He is rather crushed as they push forward.
‘Students!’ orders Wang Guoyi sharply, ‘watch what you’re doing.’
Immediately the crush is alleviated, but Ma Ping’s feelings remain the same.
‘Now, look at this.’ The teacher holds up the paper, and Ma Ping feels more
and more uncomfortable.
‘See that downward stroke. Look at the blackboard.’ All the students comply,
heads darting back and forth to compare. ‘Now Ma has chosen not to do it the
way I did. Remember what I talked about last week.’
Students nod their heads. Wang Guoyi nods his slowly. He draws in his
breath loudly.
‘This way is a possibility. I hadn’t seen it. A bit like chess, this, eh?’ And the
students laugh dutifully.
Ma Ping hasn’t any idea what they’re talking about and he wishes someone
would tell him. After all, it’s his work, isn’t it?’
‘Right, back to the desk. Ma, I want you to take some everyday phrases.’
‘You know, like ‘shop here!’ or ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body!’
‘And create some of your own calligraphic style around it. Can you do that?’
‘Why would I want to, sir?’
‘Excuse me?’
‘I mean, it’s not a real thing, is it?’
Ma Ping doesn’t know how to contest this. After all, what he’s saying is so
clear and obvious.
‘I just want to see how you work.’
‘But this is how I work,’ and Ma Ping indicates the copying he did from the
blackboard just now, and then unfurls the poster-paper from the cardboard
roll. Wang Guoyi studies it closely.
‘Mm. Yes, very good indeed. Um, well, if you just do what I said and then
we’ll make some progress.’
Ma Ping looks wonderingly up at the man, who shifts uncomfortably towards
the other side of the classroom, leaving the boy free to experiment. But Ma
Ping doesn’t see the point of it. He dabbles around for a few minutes, but on
seeing Wang Guoyi’s bushy-white eyebrows raised at him from the other side
of the classroom, settles down at last to make up something.

This absorbs him and he doesn’t notice time: indeed he doesn’t notice
anything at all and when again he’s aware of where he is, he sees that many
of the students are standing around his desk, watching his strokes.
‘Impressive!’ he says, lifting the paper above Ma Ping’s head and scrutinizing
it on the front desk.

‘Good motif, boy!’
‘Thanks, sir.’ Ma Ping looks at his poster, an invitation to visit his family’s
restaurant, a grand affair in a new city! He smiles, pleased with what he’s
‘Right, all you boys, clear up, please. The lesson is coming to an end. It’s
lunchtime, so we need the place spic and span. Ma Ping, go and wash your
brushes under the tap over there and then come and see me.’
‘Yes, sir,’ says Ma Ping shyly. He stands patiently at the washstand until it’s
his turn to use the water. Not a single student speaks to him, and then he
notices a thin young man, standing at the window, staring out of it, a dreamy
expression on his face. It is as if he’s not there at all, just a whisper, a dream,
‘Xu, stop day-dreaming! Come away from the window and clear up your
The student turns his brilliant dark eyes on the teacher and smiles gently. As
he looks away he sees Ma Ping staring at him.
‘What are you doing?’ he says to Ma Ping.
‘You were staring!’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right,’ says the older boy. ‘Come and help me clear up my mess.’
‘I have to…’
‘Please yourself.’ He turns away. Ma Ping rushes after him. ‘Which is your
‘That one. Pour the water away, will you? I have to straighten out my papers.’
Ma Ping complies happily, but then looks over to his own desk through the
throng of students, towards which their teacher is approaching rapidly.
Xu intercepts the man with a question however, signaling to Ma Ping to hurry
up. The child gratefully pours away the dirty water from his classmate’s jar,
squeezes the brushes under the tap and returns them to a wooden rack on the
wall next to the sink and then hastens to his own desk, where he is
assiduously cleaning his patch when the teacher arrives.
‘You’re slow, Ma.’
‘I don’t know where everything goes, sir,’ Ma Ping says innocently. He smirks
when he sees Xu giving him the thumbs up from behind the man’s back.

It’s lunchtime. Xu Xiaojia claps the little boy on the back. ‘See you tomorrow,’
he says with a broad smile. ‘You’re one talented kid!’ He joins his friends who
are all meeting outside the canteen, a large white concrete building next to the
art block. Although he entertained a wild hope of being included in the older
boy’s lunchtime plans, and is thus disappointed, Ma Ping feels happier than
he’s done all day. Such a nice student! Perhaps they can be friends in the

‘There you are!’ says Zhang Luxia. ‘We’ve been looking for you. You’re going
to draw my picture, remember.’
We, refers to Gao Li and a couple more of the boys from Ma Ping’s class, all
greeting him in a friendly manner.
‘What did you think of old Wang, then? He’s a bit weird, isn’t he?’ Gao starts
to walk towards the canteen. Ma Ping falls into step alongside him.
‘I don’t know if he’s that good at calligraphy,’ says Ma Ping earnestly.
‘I’d keep that thought to myself if I were you,’ says Gao Li, with a laugh,
knocking him on the arm. ‘He’s an expert, you know. He used to teach at the
University. He probably knows your guardian.’ That word again. Ma Ping
retreats a little into his shell, but there is no one there who recognises his
biting his lip, his hanging his head, and shuffling with his feet.
‘Are you all right?’ says Zhang Luxia softly at his side, and immediately, he
feels better.
‘Where are you going, Zhang Luxia?’ says Gao Li testily.
‘With you, Gao, and what are you going to do about it?’ Ma Ping is surprised,
but pleased, with the tone of determination in her voice.
‘This is just for boys!’

Zhang Luxia snorts with derision.
‘Really? It says that over the door, does it? This canteen is just for boys! Oh, I
must have missed it these past years.’
Ma Ping watches Gao’s face darken, an expression he has seen before. He is
instantly on his guard.
‘I’m not really hungry, Gao,’ he offers in explanation of hanging back. Zhang
Luxia throws him a look of animated warmth, but with too much of an
expression of glee for Gao’s liking. The boy turns back to Ma Ping, appraising
him silently. He stops walking.
‘You’d rather play with girls, would you?’ he concludes sarcastically.
Everyone excepting he and Zhang Luxia burst out in derision.
‘Oh come on, Gao, give the boy a break!’ says his companion eventually as the
laughter dies down. The speaker is a small, wiry lad, short and eager, whose
face is already preternaturally creased.
‘Can I draw you?’ he asks the boy quickly.
‘Me?’ the child replies, evidently surprised and pleased. ‘Oh, would you?’
‘What, now?’ Gao Li says, irritation brimming into a danger-zone Ma deflects.
‘And then you, eh?’ he says to him.
‘Me first!’ says Gao Li.
‘I already drew you!’ exclaims Ma Ping and the other boys laugh, but the
earlier confrontation seems forgotten, as the artist takes up his pencil again,
removing a scrap of paper from his bag, and resting on a nearby wall,

captures very quickly enough of the new subject to satisfy his largely
uncritical audience. And then, altogether, they troop into lunch.

‘Will you draw me after school?’ Zhang Luxia asks him blithely, reaching his
side as they pass into the cavernous dining hall, as they collect their trays
from a servery in the corner and trail along in a big queue to where cooks are
assembled in line, dishing out rice, noodles with various combinations of beef,
vegetables and tofu.
‘Make sure you charge her the going rate,’ says Gao Li rudely.
‘My pleasure to draw you for free,’ he says, conscious of a gallantry in his
reply. Over at a distant table, Xu Xiaojia waves in greeting, and Ma Ping
smiles back.

As he sits at the table with his new friends and acquaintances, Zhang Luxia
sitting deftly beside him before Gao can take that privilege, he’s struck by the
fact that people are courting his attention. His earlier idea begins to take form.
Maybe this move will be a good one for lots of people and not just him after

Chapter Five: Monday, 15th September
‘I don’t agree he should have a day off,’ An Xueping is going through her
wardrobe, checking for something to wear. ‘He’s only just started a new
school.’ She selects a bright blue, silk-jacket with frogs across the top and
down the side, a style her husband favours. She places it against herself and
turns to face him, her eyebrows raised.
Wang Xiaolin is uncomfortably aware she is trying to distract him. She is
wearing a sheer white silk nightdress and house-coat in the same material.
Her glossy hair flows down her back. She flows as she walks and her grace is
both beautiful and alluring. He sits on the their bed watching her.
‘Ma Shipeng is leaving today, Xueping. He adores his brother. Oh come on,
you’re really not going to be that selfish, are you?’ His words are harsh not
only because he believes what he’s saying, but because he wants to resist her.
‘Selfish? Me?’ She flounces the blue jacket onto the bed and, rifling through
some more clothes in the wardrobe, selects a black pullover, a colour Wang
Xiaolin doesn’t like, and a pair of black slacks to match.
‘An Xueping, he’s twelve years old. He’s missing his family, he needs his
brother’s support. Would you have wanted An Zheping to suffer as he does?
What are you thinking of?’
‘Don’t bring his name into this!’ Is there anything the man won’t do to get his
own way? She pushes the blouse aside, sits down heavily on the bed, and
removes her house-coat and unstraps her nightdress, which falls smoothly
down to her breasts where it rests a moment, before falling to her waist. She
then stands a while, and pulls the rest of it down and steps out of it,

discarding it on a chair. She stands in her flawless nakedness near him, but he
knows she is far away from his touch. She walks elegantly to her cupboard,
opening her underwear drawer and retrieving her bra and pants in matching
black. As she puts them on, he is aware of his physical desire for her and
recognising that in this way she will always be able wield power over him
and he resents the truth of it.
‘Why?’ he continues, his resolve growing to resist her. ‘Why shouldn’t I bring
his name into this? We both know he’s here. We both know we think about
him all the time. I watch you. I see you grieving. Why won’t you turn to me?
I’m grieving too.’
And now the emotional blackmail! She sighs with anger, but this has to be
controlled. She pulls on the slacks and squeezes the pullover over her head.
Does he have no regard for the situation? Doesn’t he realise that the guests
can probably hear every word? What will Ma Shipeng say to his family about
‘Because you always accuse me!’ she replies evenly. ‘Because you’re so
Wang Xiaolin closes his eyes to control his feelings. He feels her tears building.
They cannot have this discussion now, despite the need.
‘Just think of the boy. Stop thinking of yourself.’
‘You have no heart, Wang Xiaolin. This conflict does the boy no good.’ She
wipes her tears brusquely. How can he be so entirely wrong?
‘Interesting you see that when it suits you.’
A silence follows, which she will not stoop to break.

Ma Shipeng and his little brother sit quietly in their room hearing raised
voices from next door. A few words filter through. Ma Ping looks down at his
feet, swinging his legs repeatedly against the side of the bed.
‘They said I could have the day off. I’m going home with you if they change
their minds again.’ His face is set in petulant refusal.
‘It’ll be all right, Ma Ping. Don’t worry. What are you doing?’ Ma Ping opens
his bedside cabinet.
‘I’d better give you this now, I suppose. It was meant to be a surprise at the
station. I’ve been drawing a lot of pictures, you see.’ He hands his brother a
thick wodge of notes. ‘I counted it. Nearly two hundred yuan.’
‘What? Where on earth did you get this from?’ Ma Shipeng flicks through the
money with disbelieving fingers.
‘I sold drawings. I asked everyone for three yuan. Cheaper than a bowl of
meatball noodles, and it was really easy. They don’t even know that I drew
some of the pictures badly!' He sneers a little as he speaks, casting a sly glance
at his brother to gauge his reactions. Then seeing them, he continues: 'I just
started and then everyone wanted one. I’ve had to work really hard. I even
got orders from parents. But I couldn’t go off campus, so I couldn’t do them.

But the fare for the tickets and everything, I wanted to give it back to Aunt Bai.
And then I thought…’
‘You weren’t thinking at all. You’re going to give this money back to every
child who gave you it. Do you understand? And you’re not, repeat NOT,
going to draw any of the parents for money!’
‘I’m ashamed of you!’
Ma Ping’s lower lip trembles and he sits back down heavily on his bed. He
hangs his head but his mouth is set angrily.
‘So that’s how you’ve made your friends, is it?’ Ma Shipeng continues. ‘Oh,
Ping, how could you? Selling your gift, and carelessly too. What were you
thinking of?’ He stuffs the money back in the envelope and hands it over. Ma
Ping snatches it from him and shoves it in the bedside cabinet with a loud
bang. As he shuts the drawer on his hopes of being a support to his family,
they shiver into nothing and in dissolving. some of his sense of being at the
heart of his family gathers in dust in his spirit.
‘I did it for you,’ he mutters mutinously, sitting down heavily again, kicking
at the side of the bed in desultory movements. ‘Everything’s so expensive,
and you coming here means less money in the restaurant.’
‘Well, two hundred yuan isn’t exactly going to…’
‘So, it’s not enough now?’ Ma Ping shouts angrily. ‘First you tell me not to,
then you say…’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
‘I did it for you,’ the child repeats miserably. ‘I did it for you because you’re
my brother and you always look out for me and care about me. You always
stuck up for me with Aunt Bai, and you always tried to take my side and you
always…’ He dissolves into tears, which graduate into sobs.
‘But Ma Ping, don’t you realise what you’ve done?’
Ma Ping looks up and snuffles through his tears.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m just shocked, that’s all.’
‘Why?’ The call comes from his heart, and Ma Shipeng feels sorry. ‘You really
don’t understand, do you?’
Ma Ping shakes his head mutely. ‘Tell me.’
The man sighs. He’s not sure what to say. He hesitates and in that hesitation,
there is a brief knock on the door.
‘So, Ma Shipeng,’ says Wang Xiaolin, looking round into the room, ‘what
would you like to do for your last day here?’
The brothers look at each other, neither wanting to speak first. Wang Xiaolin
senses a mood, but puts it down to the tension that anticipates the end of the
day. 4.45 pm., the train from Xi’an leaves for Yinchuan, stopping at Guyuan at
1.05 at night.

‘It’s up to Ma Ping,’ he says in a forced tone. He looks across at Ma Ping who
is making no effort to hide his feelings.
‘I don’t care,’ he answers sharply.
‘Ma Ping! Please answer the professor and stop being so rude!’
‘We could go to the Goose Pagoda, if you like,’ he answers with an ill grace.
‘Right!’ replies Wang Xiaolin with false cheerfulness. His heart sinks. He’d
forgotten the difficulties of raising a young boy. Strange how easy it is to
forget such things. He dwells a moment on the time when An Zheping had to
study rather than play the piano and how the tension in the house was
tangible. There was one evening when the child protested his need so long
and so loudly, that An Xueping had wanted to give into him, but the
professor had refused. The child shouldn’t be allowed to organize the whole
household’s timetable. Doors had been banged! Oaths screamed. Threats
shouted. His wife’s right about one thing: this child is moody too.

‘Let’s have some breakfast and we’ll go to the Goose Pagoda this morning.
Have you packed, Ma Shipeng?’
‘Yes,’ laughs the younger man. ‘Two jumpers and one pair of trousers don’t
take much packing.’ Wang Xiaolin is saddened, and Ma Ping notices the older
man’s emotion, but doesn’t understand what it means. He sees his guardian’s
vulnerability again and forgets his own troubles for a moment. And the word
‘guardian’ strikes him with a force, which emulsifies a new series of
understandings: this poor man: his wife isn’t very kind to him; she’s always
telling him off; when he gets married, he’s going to have a wife like Zhang
Luxia, who always agrees with him and wants what he wants; that’s the way
it’s supposed to be; but his guardian is vulnerable. Ma Ping doesn’t
understand. How is he supposed to be looked after by someone who isn’t
always powerful? And yet Wang Xiaolin is a kind and good man. It doesn’t
make sense.
‘Are you hungry, Ma Ping?’
‘Yes, a little,’ he replies, his face full of frowns, so comical that the professor
shakes his head and strokes the little boy’s head as he passes him to go to the
‘An Xueping has made you some onion bread.’
‘Oh, good!’ he enthuses and leaves the room with alacrity.
‘Ma Shipeng, can I have a word with you?’ the professor asks, putting up his
hand in a gesture denoting that the man should sit down on his bed again. Ma
Shipeng complies.

Wang Xiaolin takes Ma Ping’s place on his bed and sighs, as if making a
decision. He places his hands squarely on his knees and studies Ma Shipeng’s
face openly before he speaks again.
‘How do you feel about the boy staying here full-time?’

‘Excuse me?’
‘Living here.’
‘I thought…’
‘My wife and I have discussed it.’ Ma Shipeng looks at the man full in the face
and then drops his eyes immediately.
‘Although she won’t be here all the time, as her work takes her to Beijing, I am
sure I could make him comfortable here.’
Ma Shipeng feels out of his depth. These are issues his parents and
grandparents should be discussing, not him.
‘I’m not sure. I thought you were decided he should stay in the dormitory
with the other children.’
‘He has a fully-equipped little studio here, and in the evenings, I could make
sure he studies, and also help him with his art. I have one or two friends at
the University, who come here in the evenings sometimes, and it would be
good for Ma Ping to meet them and they could offer some advice on his art. I
really think it would be a good environment for him.’
‘Well, if you think so. It’s just…’ He pauses. ‘I don’t know what to say. Your
wife…’ And he can’t go on.
Wang Xiaolin nods sagely.
‘My wife! Yes, she is having a hard time with this. She doesn’t always…’
The two men sit in silence, both wondering how to bridge the gap of what
they understand in ways that offer loyalty to both sides.

‘Ma Ping isn’t An Zheping.’ Ma Shipeng, says boldly, biting his lip in a
gesture Wang Xiaolin finds touchingly reminiscent of his brother.
‘You’ve hit on a key-point, of course. Ma Ping is not, and never will be, An
Zheping, although I have to tell you, their genius seems to me very similar.
And even I am confused at times. However, I will give you my word: I do
know that Ma Ping is not and should not be, my son, even in my heart. He’s a
lovely boy, though.’
It is this statement, which pacifies Ma Shipeng the most, and he recognises
and respects the man’s openness.
‘You’re a good man, Professor.’
Wang Xiaolin laughs hollowly.
‘Kong-zi said, ‘a good man is not worried that others will not recognise his
greatness, he only worries that he won’t recognise theirs’. I will, I promise you,
try to bear the greatness of your brother in mind at all times, if I can. So, what
do you think?’
‘I think we must all remember he’s a little boy too.’ He pauses. ‘Please.’
Wang Xiaolin nods through his emotion, and stands up and goes over to the
younger man, stretching out his hand and Ma Shipeng jumps to his feet and
they shake hands, the professor holding Ma Shipeng’s a little longer than
expected. The artist’s proud brother feels the man’s strength, his forbearance

stretching out from his heart to a meeting place in his: they understand each
‘Thank you,’ he says gravely. ‘I’ll discuss it with the family when I get home.’
Wang Xiaolin smiles and again folds the man’s hand in his in a warm gesture.
‘You two coming?’ calls An Xueping from the next room and the moment is

‘Can you tell me about this place?’ Ma Ping later asks Wang Xiaolin, with
whom he has fallen into step. The child is looking up at the tall building with
his larger sketch- pad and Ma Shipeng has some pencils in his pocket in case
the child needs them. He watches his brother’s absorption with affection.
Wang Xiaolin is probably right. He’ll persuade his family to let Ma Ping live
with him.

‘Goose Pagoda, the city's emblem, was first built in 653 A.D,’ begins Wang
Xiaolin slowly, holding Ma Ping’s free hand, and walking ahead with him.
‘Xuan Zang, a renowned Buddhist monk, who had completed a pilgrimage to
India and neighboring countries, said that the pagoda should be built to store
the Buddhist scriptures he had captured during his trip.’
‘Captured? Do you mean they tried to escape?’ Ma Ping’s brow is creased
with confusion.
Wang Xiaolin laughs out loud, wishing he could share this moment with his
wife. They stop and look up. Ma Ping studies the man quizzically. What’s so
‘No, no! It means that people tried to run away with them.’
‘Because they wanted to keep them?’
‘So why did he take them away, then? It’s not fair! They belonged to the other
people. You shouldn’t take what isn’t yours. At least, that’s what the Koran
Wang Xiaolin looks down at him fondly.
‘No, it might not seem fair but it’s complicated.’
‘That’s what grown-ups always say when they disagree with children.’ The
little boy is comfortable enough with this man to speak his thoughts out loud.
‘And what’s pilgrimage?’ he continues before Wang Xiaolin, who is taking his
comment seriously, can speak. Ma Ping intones the word chaosheng 43
‘A pilgrimage is a journey made by religious people to visit somewhere
important, somewhere that others believe is a holy, a sacred place.’ He

     Chaosheng means pilgrimage.

continues the story: ‘Xuan Zang was made Abbot of the temple where he
translated the scriptures into Chinese.’
‘So because he stole the scripts…’
‘Scriptures, so because he stole the scriptures he became the Abbot.’
‘I’m not sure it was quite like that.’
Ma Ping furrows his brow.
‘How was it then? He travels somewhere, steals something and then becomes
an Abbot. An Abbot’s important, isn’t he? Isn’t an abbot supposed to be a
good man? That’s not very nice, is it? Our imams don’t do that!’

Wang Xiaolin smiles happily at the boy’s analysis. He likes the way the child
thinks: there is a simple clarity about his ideas, but he realises that much of
the boy’s study needs to be modified and rendered more complex and adult.
His resolution about bringing up the child intensifies.
‘The pagoda became a kind of shrine later on,’ he continues.
‘A place for pilgrims to visit.’
‘Oh! Like the Great Mosque in Haiyuan.’
‘Well, not really. This isn’t a Hui mosque. It’s a Buddhist temple.’
‘Oh. I don’t know if I should be here, then.’
He turns to Ma Shipeng who is walking close behind.
‘Is it all right to be here?’
‘I don’t…’
‘Your brother is worried that because this is a Buddhist temple, you might not
feel comfortable here.’
‘I’m sure it’s all right, Ping,’ Ma Shipeng says softly, smiling at Wang Xiaolin.
‘I’m sure we’ll get away with it this time. Just this once, eh?’ He smiles
teasingly at Ma Ping.
‘I’m joking.’
‘Oh, all right.’ He turns back to Wang Xiaolin and takes his hand. Ma Shipeng
is both pleased and tenderly sad to see it.
‘So Hui people can’t be pilgrims?’
‘You said they can’t!’
‘Did I?’ The professor smiles in amusement, but Ma Ping is serious.
‘You said it was a Buddhist temple not a Hui mosque. Does that mean…’
‘Oh, I see. I’m going to have to watch myself, aren’t I?’ Professor Wang
corrects himself with a laugh. ‘Yes, people can be pilgrims for any temple or
mosque or the churches they have in Christian countries.’
‘We had a foreigner in Guyuan.’

‘Yes. Was she a Christian?’
‘I expect so. I don’t know.’

Ma Ping looks up at the man, his brow furrowed.
 ‘You mentioned about the Great Mosque in Haiyuan,’ the professor says,
finding the child’s scrutiny strangely disquieting, so changing the subject. ‘Is
it beautiful? He continues.’
‘Yes. I went there once,’ answers Ma Ping enthusiastically. ‘It was wonderful!
It’s the best mosque in all of China!’ And Ma Ping rattles off memories of the
one day when he traveled to the capital town of Haiyuan prefecture with his
grandfather, Ma Baozhong, and his father, Ma Xingjian. He was only seven at
the time, but he’d been awestruck by the grandeur of the yellow and green
decorated building, with its high arches, and he glimpsed the imam in his
flowing robes and long beard, an image which galvanized his young
imagination so much that he dreamt about becoming an imam himself one
day, wearing long robes, having the beard of a wise man44 and speaking a
strange language, lilting, mellifluous, haunting, leading the congregation to

‘My grandfather was wonderful!’ he begins, clouds passing over his moods
again as he remembers conversations about his grandfather’s beliefs, sitting
on the old man’s lap, and looking up wonderingly at his bearded face. Wang
Xiaolin listens to his memories for a little while, sees the shadows dawning,
and gradually draws the child comfortably back to the present. He turns to
the brother.
 ‘Ma Ping has been telling me about his trip to the Hui mosque in Haiyuan,
Ma Shipeng. Did you go too?’
‘No, not that time. I was busy at school, and anyway, I think my father
wanted Ma Ping to learn something about our faith. It was the first time he’d
been to such a grand mosque. I went another time, though. It’s wonderful!’
‘A good thing!’ exclaims An Xueping brightly. ‘To learn about your culture, I
mean.’ Her words fall awkwardly into the conversation and there is a pause.
‘Yes,’ says Ma Shipeng. He raises his eyebrows at his brother, but Ma Ping
won’t look at him. Ma Shipeng makes a sudden decision.

‘An Xueping, Wang Xiaolin, I need to talk to my brother. Sorry to be so
abrupt, but we had a conversation we couldn’t finish this morning and I need
to speak to him now. It’s urgent.’

   The wearing of beards in China is perceived as a sign of someone’s age, and thus seniority. A beard
is a token of status, age and wisdom.

‘No, it isn’t!’ says Ma Ping obstinately, turning away. An Xueping looks
enquiringly at Wang Xiaolin, who can offer no insight. There is an awkward
‘Of course,’ agrees the professor, taking his wife’s arm. ‘I will buy us some
drinks. We’ll sit over there!’ He indicates a small table and set of chairs in
front of a refreshment-booth.
‘Well, maybe we can discuss it all together, whatever it is,’ An Xueping
attempts. Wang Xiaolin jerks her arm a little, which shows all the more
because she refuses to move. He eyes flash with indignation.
‘It’s family business, Madam,’ replies Ma Shipeng, making direct eye-contact
with her, forcing her to see her own motives more clearly, and she is aware of
being glad that he is travelling today. He, on the other hand, is irritated by her
lack of graciousness.
‘You, this way!’ he barks abruptly to Ma Ping, and taking the boy’s arm, he
leads him down one of the pathways behind the pagoda. Wang Xiaolin sit
down at one of the many tables without speaking.

They don’t see the blue sky, egg-shell blue, the blue of the Qinghai Lakes,
sultry below mountains looming above. They don’t see the avenues of newly-
planted trees, stretching in every direction, a welcome oasis of rural
possibilities in a busy modern city. They don’t see the couples walking as
slowly as possible to imposed destinations in another reality, or hear the
songs of birds which have for the first time, made their homes in Xi’an’s busy
city-centre – the goldfinches, the redwings, and even jays, emboldened from
their erstwhile shyness and now living comfortably in an urban setting with
their more boisterous companions. They don’t smell the mimosa, or the
fragrance of flowering water-lilies on an ornamental lake, or draw in their
breath in contemplation of ageless history and monuments to ideologies
which seem to hold up the skies.

‘Ow!’ says Ma Ping, holding his hand to the side of his head.
‘You naughty boy!’ exclaims Ma Shipeng in a rush. ‘How dare you speak to
me like that, or indeed to our kind hosts? Who do you think you are? I saw
this coming.’
‘Saw what?’ says Ma Ping sulkily.
Another blow.
‘You continue to speak to me like that, and you’ll get another one.’
Ma Ping’s lower lip is trembling with rage, but it dissolves almost
immediately into tears. He sits down on a nearby bench. Ma Shipeng has
never struck him before and now twice. Why is everything so unfair? First he
has to move from the countryside to Guyuan and there was that awful fire
and Ding Pengcheng died, and then, just when his family was getting settled

there, all his beloved family - well, apart from Ma Shipeng! – he has to move
here, with these strangers. Just because he can draw! He remembers the
problems it caused with Teacher Deng45 and realises, and not for the first time,
that his gift is also a curse. And then when he tries to help his family, his
brother tells him off and now because he’s fed-up, his brother beats him! He is
sobbing without awareness of where he is, his head turning away from Ma
Shipeng, who is sitting next to him and talks to him, trying to explain.

‘Oh, Wang Xiaolin, we can’t let this go on!’ An Xueping breaks out of their
uneasy silence. They have been watching the whole scene. Ma Shipeng’s
actions shock her, but she cannot control a slight feeling of pleasure at how
much easier Ma Shipeng’s action will make the boy feel about his time here in

Wang Xiaolin puts his hand in a soft gesture on hers over the table-top.
‘We had to discipline An Zheping at times. Remember that time when he
pretended he was ill because he didn’t want to travel, because he was going
to miss his precious piano lessons. We hadn’t had a holiday in a year, but oh
no, we had to stay at home because our son was ‘ill’.’
‘Oh yes!’ An Xueping laughs, and unfurls her hand to hold his, and looking
over at the brothers, sees that hostilities have apparently ceased. ‘And then I
went in to check on him, he had the score of Mozart’s Requiem under the
Wang Xiaolin laughs.
‘Yes, you thought he was being really morbid and thought he was going to
die, so he was getting to know the Requiem better. You came out to me and
we called that friend of ours, Dr. Chen, and when he came to visit he told us
there was nothing at all wrong with the child. Oh, what a scamp he was!’
An Xueping takes her husband’s other hand in hers, tears in her eyes.
‘He was a naughty little boy sometimes, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, he was. And if I remember correctly, I smacked him when we found out
he was lying to us.’
‘Oh, Xiaolin.’ An Xueping laughs through her tears, and bends her head
towards their clasped hands. ‘You’re such a nice man. You know it was me
He strokes her hand tenderly in his. They sit and watch the others.

‘Ma Ping, it’s very complicated. There are some things you don’t understand.’

  Teacher Deng was his class teacher in Number Six School in Guyuan, who, because of his artist-
brother’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution which caused him to commit suicide, the man is afraid
that Ma Ping may become unstable because of his gift, and once punishes him severely for secretly
painting after school using school-property. It takes a long time for their relationship to settle down into
companionship again after this.

The child looks at his brother with wry superiority. He would say that!
‘You hit me!’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘Well, aren’t you going to say sorry?’
‘Well, I’m sorry it was necessary. You’re behaving badly. You’ve turned into a
little brat! You charge money for something you even admit yourself isn’t
well done, no, more than that, that you didn't care wasn't well done. You have
no shame that you’ve sold something immorally. You were rude to the
professor earlier on, and to me and An Xueping just now.’
‘You don’t like her!’
‘Ma Ping, listen to yourself! You were all for talking about the Koran this
morning. I heard you. You’ll even use the Koran to make a point in your
‘Like you now,’ mutters Ma Ping softly, but his brother doesn’t hear him.
‘If this is how it’s going to be when you’re here, well, I’m worried about you.’
Ma Ping remains silent.
‘Ma Ping, look at me.’
The child complies, his chin set again.
‘How would your aunt see your behaviour?’
‘She’d understand!’
‘Ma Ping!’
The child doesn’t turn his head away this time, but lowers his eyes, and his
lip trembles.
‘All right, she’d be angry, but…’
‘Ma Ping, this is so hard for you, isn’t it?’
The child nods mutely and suddenly flings himself into his brother’s arms.
‘I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to stay here,’ he cries. ‘Please let me go
home with you. I can’t manage here on my own with these strangers all the
‘Don’t say that! How can I go if you say that?’ He folds his beloved brother
close to him, arms tightly embracing him, head bent, kissing Ma Ping’s hair.
‘And I need to tell you something.’

‘Look at that!’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘Look at all that love!’ He shakes his head
and then An Xueping hears a small gasp. She turns in anguish to her husband,
and she sees a single tear escaping down his cheek as he stares ahead now.
She takes his hand again. He shakes his head as if that will deter his feeling,
then turns to her, raising his eyebrows wordlessly, trying to smile, because he
knows if he should try to speak he will have no control over his emotion at all.
His grief threatens to overwhelm him, and yet not so. He comes back again
and again to the fact that he knows there is something more, that his feeling
cannot be fully explained by grieving over An Zheping. Lately, his life has
become more and more of a shell. He craves intimacy with his wife, and yet

he doesn’t. He desires her and yet he wants to dominate her, not share
anything. He watches her grieve and knows that hers is a grief that has no
shadows, no boundaries, no refraction of energy or love. Her grief is her grief
and simple for that. His grief is anger and resentment and rage and impotence,
buried memories and hidden fears. How will he ever make her understand?

His desire to control his emotion has always been so strong and An Xueping
has always felt the power of it, felt his desire to overcome it, and in that
insight, she senses not only a suffering she shares, but something else,
something old, something other, something terrifying. She doesn’t know what
to say, so contents herself with whispering words of love to him as he sits
there silently. Her words might not only mollify, but extinguish whatever it is
that has always kept him from her in his deepest self. In the first time of
acknowledging this to herself, she has broken a barrier of truth, which has
held her fears captive. Now she acknowledges that she perceives a cavernous
depth of sorrow in him that frightens her. She has always seen this. It gave
him a mysterious aura when they first met, sealed her fascination with him.
But now, regardless of their present circumstances, she senses she has the
strength to ask him. Now, because Ma Ping is staying, now because their lives
will be filled with it, because that question of what is behind his silences, his
absorptions, won’t need to be faced, now because he loves her and she loves
him and it’s transparent in its truth.

As she puts together these new frameworks of insight, she is aware that it has
something to do with the past before he met her, and then she is suddenly
afraid of what he might be hiding. There have been moments in their
marriage when his distance from her has been disquieting, but she has made a
decision to live with it rather than tackle it head on. It suited her too. It must
have done, or she wouldn’t have allowed it to develop. When she first met
him, he was so much older, so much wiser and she was proud that someone
of his stature and fame should notice her, and that he should love her seemed
a gift beyond any anticipation. She recalls once when he first met her parents.
They were impressed, but it was a difficult occasion, their being
contemporaries, but Wang Xiaolin acted with such deference, such sincere
respect, that when they still made their doubts known later, she was able to
remember his deep genuineness and defy them.

In later years, when he sat with his books and his knowledge and his expert-
status, and through the scrolls of his writing and the reams of his articles, he
kept much of any shared reality at bay. She managed to tread a comfortable
path through his choices, through his enthusiasms, which was, paradoxically,
one of the things that made caring for a genius son feasible. Both
simultaneously needed her, but also needed their own separateness very

much. And in that insight, she recognises her own loneliness over the years.
She turns and sees Wang Xiaolin’s careworn face.
‘Today will soon be over,’ she whispers softly.
He purses his lips, staring ahead and nods his head slowly, patting her hand
She is coming close to him again, and his hidden fears rise inexorably closer
to the surface of his feelings.

‘Better now?’
Ma Shipeng gives a heavy sigh. ‘We’d better get back to them.’
‘Can’t we spend the rest of the day by ourselves?’
‘I’d like to, dearest brother, but we have a duty here. These people…’
‘I know,’ says Ma Ping unhappily, but without his former tone of surliness.
‘These people are being good to us. Let’s go!’
He stands up.
‘You’re a brave boy, Ma Ping,’ says Ma Shipeng. ‘Now, do you understand
what I meant about the money? It isn't right to charge people for your
pictures, especially when you know you haven't done your best. Our father
would be ashamed of such an action.’
Ma Ping looks up at his brother.
'But he works with Ding Yangching!'46
That's really none of your business, Ma Ping. You'll understand when you're
Ma Ping looks wordlessly ahead.
'I really did want to help, though,’ he says, not wanting to be sidetracked now.
‘I know. I do know. Come on, let’s go. And I need to talk to you about the
arrangements for your stay in Xi'an.' He pats him on the shoulder and
together they walk over to their hosts, Ma Ping, listening carefully to his
brother's explanation of why he is now going to be staying with An Xueping
and Wang Xiaolin. It makes sense now.

At 4.15 they enter Xi’an’s main railway station, its large, white and red-
moulded façade towering over the large expanse of concreted car and coach-
parks, staffed by harassed officials in the traditional olive-green uniforms
with their regimental caps, the badge of their office on the peak. They push
their way through the heavily crowded interior, whose lofty arches remind
Ma Ping of the new Deng Xiaoping Building in Guyuan Teachers College
where he went one afternoon last spring47. Ma Shipeng stands in the cordoned

   Ding Yangching has financial dealings with their father, even though he drinks to excess, and
behaves in ways which the man doesn't approve.
   In the first book about Ma Ping a chapter is devoted to Women’s Day, in which Ma Ping, his older
sister, Ma Ling, his Aunt Bai and her friend, all troop over to the large new building on the college

queue and puts his bag down on the floor. Wang Xiaolin goes off in search of
some apple juice for him.

‘This is it, then!’ says An Xueping awkwardly. Now he’s going and she can
see the effect on Ma Ping, she is sorry, both for his leaving and her earlier
feelings towards him.
‘We got you this,’ she begins, delving in her brown leather shoulder-bag for a
long, slightly padded package, which is beautifully wrapped in bright blue
paper with gold stars.
‘Thank you,’ he responds shyly. ‘I didn’t…’
‘It’s fine.’
‘Shall I open it now?’
‘If you like!’ replies An Xueping, smiling.
He looks at her as if doing so would reveal the secret, and then at Ma Ping
with a wink. The child witnesses the kindness with a happy smile at both.
Ma Shipeng pulls off the paper to find a silk shirt in light blue, traditional
Chinese style with bright blue silk frogs down the centre. It is elegant and
clearly expensive.
‘I don’t know what to say!’
‘Ma Ping helped us to choose it.’
Ma Shipeng grins at his brother, raising his eyebrows.
‘Last week when you stayed at home,’ he says with glee.
‘I see. Well, I’m sure it’ll be wonderful. I just feel a bit embarrassed because…’
‘Don’t worry. It’s fine,’ says An Xueping and clearly means it.
Wang Xiaolin approaches with a small plastic bag full of apple juice and some
instant noodles, which he’ll be able to make up on the train, as each hard-
sleeper48 compartment is provided with a flask of boiling water.
‘Ah, I see you’ve got the present. I hope you like it.’
‘Yes, very much. You’re so kind. Thank you.’
‘And Ma Ping, don’t you have something for your brother?’
He looks worriedly at Ma Shipeng.
‘Oh, you mean the picture!’ He gulps painfully. ‘Yes. An Xueping has it.’
The woman smiles and reaches into her bag again, retrieving a large
cardboard roll. She passes it to Ma Ping, who quickly unrolls the paper from
‘Look,’ he says, unfurling it. He is oblivious to the crowds that jostle from all
sides. Now all he cares about is that his brother should like what he’s drawn.
He did take care with this one, but his certainty about its high quality is

campus, where they play games and win prizes. It’s an important day for him because he meets
someone he admires very much and who has a big influence on his development as a person and an
   Trains with hard sleeper compartments run from Xi’an to Yinchuan every day at 4.45pm. They are
comfortable blocks of four to six sleeping bunks, bedding provided, with an open corridor running the
length of the compartments. They are clean, cheap and efficient forms of travel in northwest China.

uncertain. It’s the first time that the judgement of the world about his abilities
threatens his tacit knowledge of its quality. When he first discovered his
talent, it was so much only a part of him, that the world didn’t exist in terms
of judgement. Indeed judgement itself wasn’t the issue. It was a question of
the life revealing itself through hand and eye, and how can that be anything
but good? He bites his lip because now his talent is connected to the world
and he no longer controls it in the same way. What inspired him, what
created him from within and showed itself as artistic genius, now has
parameters and Ma Ping realises with dread that something has separated
itself from him and he's perceiving it at a distance. The future suddenly looks

‘Oh, Ping!’ says Ma Shipeng, warmly affectionate, seeing his brother’s worry
and assuming he understands the cause. ‘It’s just stunning! Thank you!’ The
other adults smile at each other happily.
‘Is it?’ Ma Ping watches his brother’s expressions hopefully.
‘Yes, silly! How do you do it?’
Ma Ping shrugs his shoulders.
‘It’s wonderful! I’ll treasure it. Thank you.’
‘I love the way you’ve got that shading there. The implications.’ An Xueping
points at the ways in which the brothers’ close proximity seems to merge
them into each other.
‘Yes, it’s skilful,’ agrees Wang Xiaolin.
‘I like that bit!’ says Ma Shipeng, pointing to the way in which Ma Ping is
looking up at his older brother and the expression on both their faces is one of
love and peace. ‘I don’t think I’m that good-looking though,’ says Ma Shipeng
with a smile.
‘You are to me!’ says Ma Ping simply, his lip trembling, nearly jostled aside as
a man with a large suitcase pushes his way forward through the crowds.

‘It’s platform seven,’ says Wang Xiaolin. ‘Look, I think they’re starting to
‘No!’ says Ma Ping. ‘It’s too early.’
‘They always let people on early,’ says An Xueping taking Ma Ping’s hand.
He pulls away, but a look from Ma Shipeng and he dutifully takes her hand
again. The traveller unzips his bag and carefully places the shirt, the
cardboard roll and the provisions inside, zips it up, swings it onto his
shoulder and stands looking at the three of them.
‘I’m going, then,’ he says, firming his mouth against the trembling.
An Xueping has tears in her eyes.
‘You will come and see us?’
‘Yes, thank you, I will,’ he says, shaking her hand. ‘And Professor, thank you
for everything. You’ve been wonderful.’

‘Not at all, not at all,’ Wang Xiaolin nods his head at the younger man as they
shake hands.
‘See you little shrimp!’ Ma Shipeng says finally to his brother who is standing,
biting his lip for all he’s worth, moving from one foot to the other, still
holding An Xueping’s hand, which he leaves hold of suddenly, and rushes at
his brother.
‘I shall miss you!’ he sobs into the man’s shoulder. His brother has stooped
down and caught Ma Ping half way to a leap, and let his bag fall onto the
concrete ground as he holds him and the two bury themselves into each
other’s shoulders.
‘Will all the passengers for Yinchuan, please board the train at Platform Seven
now!’ the tannoy blares into their parting.
‘Come on, now, little brother. Let’s both be brave, eh?’ Ma Shipeng offers, and
slowly pulling the boy from him. They look at each other silently through
glistening tears and then Ma Shipeng hefts his bag onto his shoulders, turns
immediately and walks towards platform seven.

Ma Ping makes as if to run after him, but An Xueping restrains him,
crouching down and putting her arms lovingly round him. He resists a little,
but eventually slumps against her, shaking his head and sobbing into his
hands. She stands up slowly, and smiles at Wang Xiaolin. It suddenly
becomes clear to her: he’s staying. She squeezes the child’s hand affectionately.
‘Come on, let’s go,’ she says. ‘The professor and I have a special treat for you,’
she begins brightly.
Not a glimmer of interest. They begin to walk towards the exit.

Ma Shipeng looks back and sees the three retreating. What he wouldn’t give
for another hug? Sadly, he turns, showing his ticket and passing through to
the platform.

‘It’s McDonald’s. There’s a new one opened in the city. Have you ever been
there? To a McDonalds?’
‘Ma Ping shakes his head listlessly.
‘Well they serve all sorts of things. Chocolate sundaes.’
‘What’s a chocolate sundae?’
‘It’s an ice cream with lots and lots of sauce and nuts.’
‘I don’t like chocolate,’ he says.
‘Well, they have strawberry too.’
‘Do they have pineapple?’
‘I don’t know,’ says An Xueping relieved, ‘but we’re going to find out.’

Ma Shipeng throws his bag onto the top bunk and hauls himself up the ladder
to flop himself down on it. The other passengers are already seated on the

lower bunks, and acknowledged his presence with a friendly smile as he
entered the compartment. He now lies with his hands behind his head, his
habitual lying-position. He stares at the roof close above his head, white and
bowed, like the roof of a mosque, he thinks idly. Poor, lucky little Ma Ping.
Oh, but how he’s going to miss him! Rushing home of an evening, dashing
upstairs, frantically drawing and painting and watching, and then the silly
eating-contests, playing pick-up sticks, boisterous horseplay, jostling each
other, teasing each other. It occurs to him fleetingly that his brother won’t be
the same the next time he sees him. He will have grown away from his family.
He will have grown up and surely a brother’s place is to help this happen.
The thought makes him profoundly sad, but it never occurs to him to resent
the new reality. He knows his brother is one of the luckiest little boys in the
whole of Ningxia Province. Oh, but he’ll miss him, nevertheless! Every day!

With a creak, and a shouted command from the platform, the train glides into
motion, and as Ma Shipeng travels towards his beloved home, he feels a
mixture of deep regret, great hope and joyous excitement at seeing his family
again, as a sense of coming home which fills his heart. It’s the longest time he
has ever been away from them all, and a city is all very well, but it’s hardly
Guyuan after all. He thinks wistfully of his little brother in the big city, a place
where everything changes so quickly, and dwells with some pleasure on his
good luck at being able to see Dongyue Mountain every day and live in its
domain, like all his ancestors before him, and hopefully many of them still to

Chapter Six: Wednesday, 17th September
‘Now, you will get enough sleep, won’t you?’ says An Xueping, crouching in
front of him and buttoning up his new jacket, a red cotton, silk-lined garment,
which cost a lot of money, and of which Ma Ping is enormously proud.
‘Enough sleep?’ he grins at her. ‘I’m going to school!’
She laughs happily.
‘You know what I mean. When I’m not going to be here to look after you.
Don’t be cheeky!’
‘Sorry.’ His smile fades. She tips up his chin and smiles into his eyes.
‘A joke, silly!’
‘When are you coming home?’
‘At the weekend if I can.’
He looks at her evenly.
‘I’ll miss you,’ he says and realises it’s true.
The sentiment she’s been waiting to hear.
'You work hard, and we'll go to Huashan Mountain.'

'Huashan Mountain? At the weekend?' Where's that?'
'About 120 km from Xi'an,' answers Wang Xiaolin, emerging from the kitchen.
'But not this weekend. I have a lot of work to do. Perhaps later. ' He looks at
his wife who frowns at this news. He hurries on: 'It’s a famous site. The chess
pavilion is beautifully located. There's a small glossy magazine on the table by
the telephone in the hall. He picks it up.
'Here!' he says, flicking through the pages and finding the proper page. He
hands it to Ma Ping, who looks at him questioningly, and then down at the
picture. He gasps.
'Good, isn't it?'
Ma Ping just opens his mouth to speak, but no sound escapes.
An Zheping, delighted with his absorption, crouches down in front of him
and hugs him close. He looks over her shoulder at the picture.
'Beautifully located,' he repeats slowly, as if these words are alien script.
‘Come on, you two,' says the professor, looking with a smile at his wife. 'Ma
Ping, I’ll run you to school and then Xueping, we can go off to the airport.
‘Can I come?’ The child asks, as if wresting his attention away from the
picture is painful.
‘No you can’t!’ An Xueping says merrily, her good-humour flooding the
hallway with light. ‘Get on with you, and at the weekend, I want to test you
on your English. So study hard please! And put that book down.'
She takes it away from him, and he's about to protest, when he sees her
determination, and reluctantly, he closes the pages, slowly, savouring every
golden glow of colour, until the shadows shroud the paradise.
‘Yes!’ he replies, catching the professor’s eye and finally grinning broadly.
Wang Xiaolin feels the child's charm. He is happy at the thought. Such a
quality will very much assist him in his life.
‘I am-er going to-er school,’ he intones badly. Wang Xiaolin laughs. An Xueping
frowns at her husband, who regulates his features into conformity.
‘I am going to school,’ she corrects him, surprised at the poor quality of his
‘I know!’ he says with a huge giggle. She swipes him on the back of the head
and he ducks out of the front door. An Xueping looks at Wang Xiaolin whose
smile is less warm than she expects.
'Why can't we go to the mountain this weekend?' she asks him in a sibilant
whisper. 'You never told me you had to work then.'
'I want to introduce Ping to Zhao Bin.'
'Oh, I see.' She smiles at the child, who runs back to the door to see where the
two adult have got to: he thought they were in a hurry.
'Who's Zhao Bin?' he asks, looking from one to the other.
'A very famous calligrapher,' replies An Xueping.
'He's coming here?'
'Yes. Are you pleased?' asks Wang Xiaolin, ruffling the boy's hair.

They walk out of the door now, the heavy click behind them finalising their
preparations for leaving.
'Am I pleased? Why should…? Oh, I see. He's coming to see me.' Ma Ping
looks up and frowns, hurrying by their sides as they walk to the lift. Then
abruptly he stops, allowing them to walk ahead. 'Oh, no. Not the Zhao Bin?
You mean…?' Consciousness of what this means floods over him and
threatens to pull his legs out from beneath him.
'You've heard of him, then?' asks An Xueping, turning round and holding out
her hand to him. He rushes forward and takes it, needing the security of her
warmth, feeling wobbly.

Later in the classroom, Ma Ping answers three questions in History. And then:
‘Have you seen the Goose Pagoda, Ma?’
‘Yes sir.’
‘Mm, well, I think your essay on the History of the Goose Pagoda needs some
All the students laugh.
The teacher flicks through the papers.
‘You write, and I quote, Ma: ‘The bad man stole the manuscript and became an
Abbot on the strength of it.’
Li Peidong shakes his head, but there is a small smile playing around his lips.
‘It’s not very respectful, Ma.’
‘Stealing isn’t respectful, Sir!’
The class laughs.
‘Ma, I’ve had to tell you before that your quick answers are rather rude. You
are too fond of your own opinion. The way you have said this makes it clear
you don’t understand how these things work.’
‘How do they work, Sir?’
‘Excuse me?’
Now the class isn’t laughing, but Ma Ping doesn’t feel the tension.
‘How do they work?’
‘Ma, this won’t do!’
Ma Ping gulps. He looks around in fear, and realises that everyone has
become quiet. He looks over at the teacher, and his face grows pale.
‘I didn’t mean to be rude, Sir. I just wanted to understand so that I don’t make
a mistake in the future.’
‘Right, well, you just make sure that’s the truth.’
He steps up to Ma Ping’s desk and places his essay on it, scrawled with red
‘And let that be a lesson to you.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Ma Ping furrows his brow and looks down at the essay, all his
enthusiasm scored through with the teacher’s disapproval, his hopes of

success fluttering around him like scraps of charred paper. Well, he doesn’t
like History anyway.
Zhang Luxia touches his arm.
‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘He’s always strict with new students. You should ask
him after class.’ The boy is flooded with relief.
‘After class?’
‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Now, open your books to page 115. Lesson 52. Gao, begin reading at the top.’

‘Go on, ask him!’ says Zhang Luxia at the end of the lesson. ‘I’ll wait for you
‘I don’t want to.’
The children are packing away noisily and stools are scraping back from
desks on the cold concrete floor of the classroom.
‘Ask him! He’s waiting for you to.’
Ma Ping watches Li Peidong is putting his books into his leather briefcase.
The monitor is cleaning the blackboard behind him.
‘Then why didn’t he…?’
‘There’s no time in the lesson for questions. We have to cover the material. If
we want to know, we have to ask afterwards.’
‘Mr. Li?’
‘Yes, Ma. You have a question?’
‘Yes, sir. I want to know…’
‘Can’t it wait, Ma? I have a class in a few minutes.’
Ma Ping agrees sadly that it can wait and the teacher tucks the briefcase
under his arm and leaves the classroom.
‘So much for that!’ Ma Ping says, stubbing his toe repeatedly on the lip of the
‘Sorry, Ma Ping.’
‘Oh, it’s all right. I think this school’s stupid!’
‘Oh, it isn’t. Give it a chance. Please.’
She is smiling at him, her eyes an entreaty, her shining hair falling in a
graceful sheen round her shoulders.
‘Can I draw you?’ he asks suddenly.
‘Again? Where?’
‘Here. Sit down, there, next to the window. That’s right. Put your bag on the
floor. Can you lean your head on your hand? Yes, just like that. Look at the
way the light’s coming in. No, don’t look!’ They both laugh. He quickly pulls
the larger sketch-pad out of his bag, and sits on a stool and places it where he
can sit and view her half-profile. She stares dreamily into space.

‘What are you thinking about?’ he asks, his pencil scratching the page with
enticing sounds, which make her want to crane her neck and look, but she sits
‘I’m thinking of how pleased I am you’ve come here,’ she says simply.
‘Me too,’ he responds casually, but then smiles. ‘Me too,’ he repeats, trying on
the words for size. Their dimensions please him. The bell goes and his pencil
stampedes across the paper.
‘Oh, bother!’ he exclaims. ‘It’s all right. I’ll sort it out later. I’d better hurry. It’s
Calligraphy now. I’ve got to go over to the other building.’
‘Well, let me see!’ she implores him, but he smiles mischievously, stuffs the
pad and pencils in his bag, jumps up, shouts, ‘I’ll see you later!’ and leaves the
classroom. Zhang Luxia watches as all the other students pour in from their
early morning break.

‘Sorry, sir,’ Ma Ping says, arriving seconds later than the teacher.
‘Mm. Be on time next time. What have you been doing?’
‘Drawing, sir.’
From anyone else, general laughter would ensue, but Ma Ping’s reputation is
already widespread: he’s the kid who draws everyone.
‘Can we see the evidence, young man?’
Ma Ping rifles through the pad.
‘It’s not very good. The bell went and I made a mistake.’
‘It’s that little Zhang girl,’ says Xu Xiaojia with a smirk. ‘Well, well! Didn’t
take you long, Ma.’ Everyone laughs.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Enough, enough!’ The teacher directs Ma Ping back to his stool. The child
walks there and wonders what’s going on in this place. People seem to speak
in some of code. Everyone’s accent’s different, of course: actually, they sound
a bit silly, but they also have strange ideas. He looks around at them: they
might as well be foreigners for al the similarities he can find in their
expressions and movements. That's a thought. He thinks of Anna, the
foreigner in Guyuan. She tried to be nice, but at the end of the day, she was
still a foeigner. An outsider. Loneliness pierces him and he slumps on his
stool. He sees the clock above the teacher's desk. It's nearly eight o'clock, the
sun of a late summer glaring through the windows of the classroom. His aunt
will be kneading dough on that huge wooden slab in the kitchen now. He
remembers one time in particular.

It was early on a cool March morning. Aunt Bai was kneading the dough -
bang, bang, bang - repeating the motion backwards and forwards, hard and
unyielding against the wooden slab. A wisp of her black hair flurried in her
efforts, bending, straightening, bending, straightening. The early morning
light was filtering through the high window, which runs the length of the

room. It streamed onto her head and bathed it in a glow of yellow. Her hair
became wisps of gold. As she worked, her face gleaming with effort, he
noticed her tired eyes. He could tell they were tired because she blinked more
often than usual, and little lines of tension appeared at their corners. She
stopped at one point, bending backwards to stretch her weary body. As she
bent again to her task, she smiled at him, a fleeting gesture and only just now
does he catch its full significance: how she loves him! Tears fill his eyes and
their heat pull him back into the present. He wipes his eyes fiercely with the
back of his hand.

‘So, do you know what you’re doing, Ma?’
He bites his lip. The teacher's voice grates.
‘Yeah, I’ll work with him, Sir.’ It’s Xu Xiaojia’s voice. Ma Ping is greatly
'I'm going to see this place soon,' he says brightly to the older student,
pushing thoughts of his family away. He pulls a scrunched piece of paper out
of his pocket and reaches the creased paper across to his new friend.
'Yeah, it's great, isn't it? Ma Ping? Are you listening?' Xu Xiaojia is looking at
him quizzically. 'You're dreaming again. I reckon that's going to get you into
trouble, if you're not careful.'
'Mm.' Ma Ping's mind is full of the morning already spent, and thoughts of
the future. His loneliness is suppressed again and he remembers Wang
Xiaolin talking about Zhao Bin. Fancy the great calligrapher coming to see his
work. What an amazing opportunity this whole thing is turning out to be. If
only he could see his family, and again, the tears threaten to fall. He swallows

Xu Xiaojia is smiling. 'I'll come if you like?'
'Oh, you can't!' says Ma Ping, his mind tangled with the horrors of meeting
the great calligrapher, Zhao, the trip to Huashan forgotten.
'Oh, charming, I'm sure.' The older student takes his brush, his large sheaf of
paper, and scrapes his stool back on the concrete floor, reaching his
equipment onto the next table with a noisy flourish.
'Xu! What are you doing?' The teacher unbends himself from checking
another student's work, his face gathered in frowns.
'Ma thinks he's ready to work by himself,' he says, his tones clipped and
careful, his diction emphasising his putonghua, a deliberation Ma Ping feels
keenly. Another situation suddenly out of control. He'll never get used to this
place: he wants to go home.
'Well, you just get on with it by yourself then, Xu,' he says to the young man
without admonishment.
'I don't want to work by myself,' Ma Ping blurts out. 'I never said that. I think
it's better if I work…'

'You're probably right,' agrees the teacher. 'You're better than the rest of them
anyway. You can develop your own style. Good idea, Xu.'

The bright-eyed student flashes a look of rage at the child, but smiles
ingratiatingly at the teacher.
'Oh, no Sir. I didn't mean that.' Ma Ping stops awkwardly.
'Full of himself, isn't he, the little weed!' says one of the other students, a
friend of Xu's, Ma Ping realises, who is standing at a table near him, his brows
contracted with spite. He shakes his head and points his finger at the boy,
who blenches at the gesture, curling his lips up into a half-smile. Where Ma
Ping comes from, a pointed finger is a gesture of derision. He trembles
inwardly and his first instinct is to placate: he's on his own here. No one is
going to protect him. He is far away from everything familiar to him. Here, no
one loves him because he is who he is: they love him only because they want
something from him. An Xueping wants him to replace her lost son; Wang
Xiaolin, despite his great kindness, wants to duplicate his own skills. Li
Peidong, his new headmaster, wants him to rain credit on his school. And
here is Xu Xiaojia wanting prestige too. Only his family loves him for who he
is, and even they have left him here. He is alone and he has to survive. He
closes his eyes tightly as he makes a decision.

'Xu Xiaojia,' he says, opening his eyes and walking over to the lad's desk. 'I'm
sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I want you to work with me. I am sure
you can teach me a lot.'
The older student laughs derisively, but hesitates. Having the little squirt
around will be good for his image after all. He looks over to his friend, who is
watching the scene with a smirk on his face. And he can get the lad to do all
sorts of things for him too. There are possibilities here. He smirks inwardly,
but shows little emotion. He barely acknowledges the child's presence, but
with a tiny curt of the head, he indicates that Ma Ping should move back. The
child hurries to comply.
'What are you doing, Ma?'
Ma Ping looks up with all the boldness he can muster.
'I didn't want to move in the first place,' he says, and Xu Xiaojia feels the
child's humiliation is complete enough.
'It seems to have been a misunderstanding, Sir,' says Xu Xiaojia slowly,
looking at his teacher openly. 'It seems that the child thinks he has things to
learn from others, after all.'
Ma Ping colours at these words and his heart hardens a little. Why is he
having to go through all this? If his family really loved him then they
wouldn't have abandoned him to this, would they? He chases away the
thoughts with shame and hangs his head. Xu Xiaojia smiles at his triumph
and now feels he can afford a genuine compassion.

'Oh, I wish you'd make up your mind, Xu,' says the teacher in mild
exasperation, but to Ma Ping's surprise, he doesn't protest; and although he
looks from one to the other, he cannot understand what is transpiring, so he
shrugs his shoulders from any further reflections and moves the rest of his
art-equipment to Xu's desk.

'So, I can come to Huashan Mountain, then,' he says in a matter-of-fact voice.
'Huashan Mountain?' Ma Ping is confused. 'I…'
'Of course, if you're too proud to be seen with me…'
'Huashan Mountain?' he repeats.
'Yes!' snaps Xu Xaiojia. 'Where is your head this morning?'
'I thought you were talking about Zhao Bin,' he utters, before he can stop
There is a silence and the students at neighbouring tables turn to look and as
is becoming commonplace now, all stare wordlessly at him. He feels, as so
often these days, exposed and small. It is as if the whole world has stopped to
watch and judge him.
'Zhao Bin?' Xu Xiaojia says with a sharp intake of breath. 'The Zhao Bin'.
'Er, yes,' whispers the child, biting his lip, wishing that his new friend would
keep his voice down.
'What's going on at the back there?' The teacher walks over to Xu's desk. 'I can
see we're not going to get much work out of you this morning, Xu. And what
about you, Ma?'
'Ma,' says Xu Xiaojia slowly, 'has a bit of news that he's bursting to share with
Ma Ping shakes his head. Everything is out of his control. Nothing he says or
does in this place works out. He wants to go home, but even as he forms the
words of the wish, he knows his family wouldn't want him back: they want
him to stay here. They sent him here after all.
'And what's that, Ma?'
'Zhao Bin is visiting him. You know, the Zhao Bin!' There are gasps from
around the room and Ma Ping colours up, feeling the heat of exposure so
keenly that he is faint from it. He steadies himself on the edge of his desk.
'Zhao Bin?' The teacher's eyes narrow. 'Zhao Bin, eh!'
'He certainly does. Only the real Zhao Bin is good enough for this little boy.'
'Well, you make sure and tell him that you're being taught well here,' says the
teacher, nodding his head slowly. 'And you tell him how much everyone here
admires his work. And how much we learn from him. Isn't that right,
There is a chorus of assent, students murmuring to each other. Ma Ping
simply takes out his brushes and dips a fat one in the jar of water in front of
him and begins to write on the red paper now spread our in bright splendour.

'Er, when are you seeing him?' asks the teacher, hovering around the boy's
stool. Xu Xiaojia looks up and frowns at the teacher's new pet sitting
assiduously and continuing with his work.
'At the weekend probably', Ma Ping says softly, hoping that no one else is
eavesdropping, but feeling the silence in the classroom like a peel of sudden
bells tolling disaster. As if reading his thoughts, the teacher turns peevishly to
the group.
'Get on with your work, you lot. What are you going to talk about, Ma?'
'I don't know Sir,' replies the child, looking up reluctantly, but knowing that
courtesy demands it. He wants to carry on with his work. These constant
interruptions are distracting and always lead to trouble anyway.
'Well, what is he coming to see you for?'
Xu Xiaojia sits in quiet smouldering, and Ma Ping is as aware of his
displeasure as he would be if the older boy had shouted it from the rooftops.
His brooding presence acts as a dampener on his spirit, a further

Xu Xiaojia is carefully considering his options now. The child has too many
contacts to alienate and who knows what he might be able to do for him if Xu
simply shows him some kindness? On the other hand, he has to weigh all this
up with his status in the class, both with his fellow-students and the teacher,
who always wants to show him favour. His father is also not without
influence in the neighbourhood.

'I don't know, Sir' he hears the child saying. 'My guardian only told me this
morning. I don't know if he wants me to talk about it.' And as Ma Ping speaks
the words he is dimly aware that he uses the word 'guardian' now as a shield:
Wang Xiaolin is a well-known man in these parts, with great influence and
guanxi49. So this is what a guardian is: Wang Xiaolin guards him, protects him
from such people. A useful man to know, then. His words have the desired
'Please give my deepest and respectful wishes to your esteemed guardian,' the
teacher says deferentially and moves away with a simple nod of his head.
'You handled that well,' says Xu Xiaojian with a smile that could almost be
deemed respectful. Ma Ping shakes his head in confusion. First this student
seems angry and now he isn't. What is happening here? Instead of
considering it further, however, he begins to write: Huashan Mountain, Lotus
of Shaanxi Province, China's Jewel. His calligraphy is elegant, the

  Guanxi: a particularly Chinese form of the exercising of personal favours and influence. In some
areas of business and public life it can be impossible to succeed without having connections with
powerful individuals. These can be familial or material. Guanxi oils most networks in China and can
lay itself open to corruption and undue influence.

arrangement of characters themselves suggesting the lotus shape and
skillfully interwoven with the two characters for Zhongguo50.
'Good, Ma,' says Xu gently, leaning across the desk to get a better look at his
companion's work. 'How do you do that?'
Ma Ping looks up at him.
'It's easy. Can't you do it, then?' His temper snaps suddenly, even before he is
aware he is feeling so out of sorts. 'I do this!' he says, sweeping his blackened
brush across the paper, scoring through the middle kingdom and obscuring
the mountain. He then takes the paper and scatters it roughly onto the floor.

'Sorry, I'm sure,' says Xu Xiaojian, calculating carefully how far he can allow
his own temper to show. 'If I'd known it were that simple,' he enunciates
carefully, 'then I would have saved myself the trouble of asking the question.'
With disdainful aplomb, he takes a new sheet of paper and scores a great
black mark across it with his own fat brush. Then, in the manner of a fool
from a Beijing Opera character, he places the brush between his teeth and
begins to hum a famous ditty, grinning ridiculously from ear to ear. Ma Ping
closes his lips firmly against his imminent smile, but can't manage it, bursting
out laughing at the sight of the older student's antics.

'What is going on with you two now?' asks the teacher, approaching the desk.
Xu would be a good student if only he took life a little more seriously.
'Ma is teaching me all he knows, Sir,' mumbles Xu, only taking the brush out
of his mouth for the last couple of words.
Ma Ping laughs into his hand and turns his head away.
'Sir, I'm not!' he says, pushing Xu's paper back towards him.
'He is. Look!' And Xu retrieves the younger boy's paper from the floor,
pointing out the desecrating black stroke.
The teacher frowns.
'Why did you do this, Ma?' he asks, frowning. This work is unbelievably good
- completed in a matter of moments, clearly. 'You have a gift, boy. Don't waste
it. While you're playing games, your future career is getting further away.'
'Yes, sir,' he says. Xu Xiaojian has put the brush back in his mouth again and
has started faintly to hum again.
'Oh, I give up with both of you today,' the teacher says in exasperation. 'I
hope tomorrow, you come better prepared to work seriously.'
'Sorry, sir,' says Ma Ping contritely, turning his incipient laughter at Xu into a
long cough behind his hand. The teacher shakes his head as he retreats to the
platform. Xu watches him with interest. He is gratified. He is allowed greater
latitude with Ma Ping as an accomplice. This bodes well for the future. He
begins to hum louder and Ma Ping giggles uncontrollably. The teacher

     Zhonggou: China. Consisting of the characters Zhong - middle, and Guo - kingdom.

watches, unable to do anything. He cannot discipline this pair: the stakes are
too high, and besides, he's tired of this daily grind, with little reward, little
development. Ma Ping doesn't need his help at all, and Xu doesn't want it. A
thankless task, this job. He sighs.
'Well, students, today some of you have accomplished something. Wang
Fengjun, very good. Ma Ping, you need to make more effort. Xu, I have great
hopes for you. Zhang Li, I hope you can bring in your homework tomorrow.
All right, you lot. Homework tonight, I want you to write a dream. You must
draw on the great myths. Think of something which influences your present
life from your ancestors perhaps. I want it in calligraphic form. Next week.

Xu sighs. Ma Ping looks into the middle distance. He is already trembling
with ideas as his imagination weaves freedom from these constraints. He will
produce something truly remarkable, something that will satisfy him in a way
that nothing he has done so far has been able to accomplish. He smiles
happily, his troubles temporarily forgotten.

Chapter Seven: Saturday, September 21st
‘Hurry up, Ping!’ shouts An Xueping from the hallway. ‘Zhao Bin will be
arriving any moment!’
‘Yes, An Xueping!’ replies Ma Ping reluctantly. Oh, why does the man have to
be turning up today instead of tomorrow? He wants to finish this picture for
homework. This picture is the best thing he’s ever done. He can feel it. He
knows it. He looks at it again and it thrills him, a frisson of pleasure, which
floods him with hope and fulfilment and longing. Longing to stay here,
longing to contemplate it, longing to be with his creation for just a little longer
before he has to share it with the world and their distorting judgements. To sit
here a little and view it from different angles, to test reality on its glossy
surface with his fingertips – that thrill he first discovered just before he left
Guyuan when he was studying the picture of his family completed shortly
before he left for Xi’an, and he had reached out and was exhilarated by the
sensations of deeper dimensions as he glided his index-finger around the
figures – how they seemed to be renewing themselves and taking on a deeper
life even as he traced them. How his aunt’s flashed with a subtle light, which
he had not noticed before! How this light, which glinted from her eyes,
suggested a duality, a complexity in her he had not consciously seen before,
and how he felt a surge of power through his fingers as they lingered,
bewildered, with a growing mind of possibilities developing alongside.

‘Now, Ping!’ orders his guardian, and with a repressed sigh, the child retracts
his fingers from the surface, feeling a sudden chill. He crosses the room
slowly, shoulders drooping. He looks round from the doorway at the picture

standing at ease in the corner, and then, hoping against hope to keep others
from his little studio, he shuts the door.

‘Look at your clothes!’ An Xueping admonishes him before he’s set foot in the
sitting room. Wang Xiaolin is sitting in his usual armchair by the window,
smoking his long, black pipe, gently, contemplatively, avoiding his wife’s
‘I told you to keep yourself tidy,’ she continues. ‘Go and put on that new red-
silk shirt I bought you last weekend.’ Without a word, Ma Ping turns to obey,
tramping up the hallway to his room, passing the studio, feeling his whole
body yearn to be there, yet resisting the impulse. Once in his bedroom, he
tears his painting shirt from his wiry torso, yanks the silk item from its hanger,
where An Xueping has hung it out ready for him, and, raising it above his
head and aligning it with his upstretched arms, slips it coolly and luxuriantly
over his body. He is not so out of sorts with the world that he doesn’t feel the
sensuousness of the material against his skin, and he is suddenly galvanised
with an idea about how he might shade the blouse his aunt is wearing in his
picture for homework, and that it won’t take long and that if he does it now,
no one will miss him and anyway, Zhao Bin won’t be on time: these
important people never are, so if he just runs to the studio…

‘Perfect,’ he thinks to himself a few moments later, as the tiny brush leaves the
canvas, the light captured on his aunt’s blouse in such a way that she becomes
to an even greater extent the central figure, but more subtly so. This particular
quality of light is mirrored in other characters and their clothes, and yet it is
difficult to say at first whether this illumination begins or ends with her;
careful perusal, however, might show a slightly stronger glow about her, a
more pervasive radiance in her stance, even, slightly, in her aura, than in the
other characters. He smiles at her. She is smiling back, her eyes glinting at him
in the light reflected through the skyline. He feels enormously reassured and
stronger, and lays down the brush after wiping it in the turpentined cloth and
inadvertently on his silk shirt as well.

‘Ma Ping, if I have to tell you again, you and I are going to fall out,’ An
Xueping calls from outside the room. There is almost at once a knock at the
front-door. His heart lurches painfully. The reality of the coming hours
suddenly explodes inside him and he feels sick. Zhao Bin – the Zhao Bin.
Coming to see him. At least in part to see him. And what does he have to
show him? Nothing. He’s nothing special. Not that special to merit this
attention. His life is all expectations and attention, visibility and pressure
these days. Suddenly, the glow of the nearly-completed picture, and the
warmth of his aunt’s smile seem far away and as always these days he feels
alone in his own turbulent world battling against everyone and everything.

Wang Xiaolin is talking, exchanging pleasantries with the stranger obscured
at the front door. Ma Ping goes up behind An Xueping and finds himself
putting his hand into hers. She does not return the light pressure of his fingers,
and almost seems to shake him off a little, but he might be imagining it, yet
still he feels hope crushed and withdraws his hand. He is afraid. He wants to
go home again.

‘Wang Xiaolin, don’t leave our guest standing on the doorstep,’ she protests
in a formalised style, which Ma Ping recognises as the one adults use here on
special occasions. He is reminded too of her speech on the platform at the
Number Six Middle School in Guyuan when she addressed the audience –
teachers, dignitaries, council officials, some parents and all the students –
about Guyuan’s rise in status to a city. Her diction with the important
stranger is now even more precise than it was then, and all at once, he feels
deeply the formality of the situation. What he detected then as her kindness
and gentleness, he now feels as considered formality and is no longer
impressed by it. She is wearing a formal gown of black silk, little gold and
silver butterflies embroidered on the cloth, their wings winking in the light.
Her hair is drawn back in a French roll, a jewelled butterfly fastening her
thick glossy hair. He has to admit to himself that she looks exquisite. Without
warning, he suddenly hopes that no one is going to ask him any questions, to
which he won’t know the answers, but on that score at least he feels relatively
safe: he believes his opinions won’t be sought, and this gives him a measure
of consolation for the hours being robbed from his inspiration and its

Wang Xiaolin nods his head in acknowledgment of his wife’s sagacity, and
bowing his head slightly, he makes way for the visitor to enter the apartment
fully. The professor is also formally addressed in an old-fashioned Chinese
waistcoat in olive-green silk, its frogs fastened down the side. He is wearing
black silk pantaloons, making him appear like someone from an ancient
watercolour. Ma Ping almost expects calligraphy to grow out of the hall-walls
beside the professor as they walk along. An Xueping reaches beyond Ma
Ping and shuts the door, turning to walk behind him and her husband into
the sitting room. The child has watched his exchange feeling increasingly out
of place. Isn’t anyone even going to introduce the strangers to each other?
Should he follow them? Why can’t he just go back to his studio instead? An
Xueping walks out of his sight into the sitting room, chatting amicably with
the two men, and he stands alone in the hallway, looking up at the warrior
and his foe encrypted on the wall beside him and sighing deeply. Then he
looks down, and catches the smears of yellow paint on his red, silk shirt,

realising that he has rubbed his fingers down his front on completing the light
in his aunt’s eyes, thus trailing it onto himself.

‘Ma Ping!’ An Xueping calls to him. ‘Come in here! Where are you?’
He considers the price of running first to his room and changing, but realises
that simply isn’t possible: he must obey the call now. He walks into the room,
holding his now dry but yellow hands, across his stomach. His face is a
picture of blankness, but a close observer would see the fear in his eyes, the
abyss into which he feels he is about to fall. To appear thus attired for such an
important guest will be perceived as an insult, and as reluctant as he is to see
anyone at the moment (except for his aunt and the rest of his family) there is
no way he would ever attempt to be so at odds with anyone. ‘Why do these
sorts of things keep happening to me? Why can’t I lead a simple life? Why
can’t I just go home?’ Perhaps, he considers, despite all the things that people
are saying about him these days, there is something wrong with him after all,
and he is not destined for anything special. Perhaps Teacher Deng’s
protestations about him were based on something tangible.

‘You must be Ma Ping,’ says the stranger, his voice soft and low and deep and,
Ma Ping thinks, surprisingly kind. Instantly, he feels better.
‘Yes, sir,’ he says, wide-eyed in response, standing amongst the three
important adults, feeling very small, very insignificant, very vulnerable. He
agonises over whether he should reach out to shake the man’s hand if it is
offered, but these thoughts are overshadowed by a contemplation of the
visitor’s appearance.

Zhao Bin, from Sichuan, is a diminutive man, not a great deal taller really
than Ma Ping himself, and much shorter, the boy considers, than his elder
brother, which in itself is reassuring. The man has the swarthier features of
people from that area and the stocky frame gained from thousands of years of
peasant ancestors working the land and obeying the rhythms of nature. He is
wearing a mixture of Chinese and western clothes – a Chinese silk shirt, but
cloth straight black trousers beneath. Ma Ping remembers his grandfather
once saying that Sichuan people are the true Chinese, ancient, noble,
hardworking, always reliable in a crisis. Always fighting on the right side. Ma
Ping has no idea what side, and from where his grandfather might have
gleaned such information, but the aura surrounding all his grandfather’s
pronouncements about life is such that they have passed from hearsay into
fact in his memory and imagination. So Zhao Bin, in other words, is all right.
His grandfather has already said so.

Ma Ping smiles. It is the first time he has done so and An Xueping heaves a
sigh of relief. She thought she was never going to prise him from his studio

this morning. She realises that homework is important, but this child’s desire
to do his well, has mandated an exclusion-zone around the room for the last
four days. Just like An Zheping when he was playing sometimes. She
remembers vividly, with a mixture of pride and pain, how he had once
crashed his music book to the ground and slammed the piano lid shut
because she had interrupted him once too often when he was practicing a
particularly difficult piece of Chopin, and how he had refused to play for two
days, moping round the flat, banging doors, refusing even to eat. Yesterday
evening she had tried to peek in through the door when Ma Ping was
working, and he cried out with such anguish at her that she was truly
alarmed. When he finally came out of the room later on, she asked him why
he had reacted that way, and he looked at her in mystification as if he truly
didn’t understand quite what she meant. She tries to repress her misgivings in
his present smile. Everything is all right really. This meeting is crucial and
although at first, she was dismayed at the way in which her husband had
arranged it both without consulting her at all, and almost as if in direct
response to her desire to take Ma Ping to Huashan Mountain and show him
more of the glories of this part of China, she has now reconciled herself fully
to this rescheduling. So much so, in fact, that she is as eager as her husband to
make this visit the first of many by the widely acknowledged expert.

Zhao Bin, as everyone knows, is the calligraphy expert in China today. He
may be rather a squat little man from Sichuan, but he is clearly a genius.
Renowned from an early age, Zhao Bin now exercises the greatest respect in
China in terms of calligraphy. No one who is anyone in this field can overlook
his stature! What a great influence on the future of this child, this man could
become! With his recommendation in any shape or form, Ma Ping’s future is
assured. Wang Xiaolin may be renowned and even deeply respected in some
spheres, but Zhao Bin is simply famous and well regarded everywhere: he
needs no introduction. If only Ma Ping doesn’t jeopardise it with his
unorthodox behaviour, his quaint country accent, his silly and unworldly
ways – the constancy with which he interrupts and asks questions, the way he
doesn’t perceive social differences between people, his ability to reveal that he
is following the conversation of others as if he expects to take a part in it

Zhao Bin reaches out his hand in an unusually friendly gesture to the child
and Ma Ping follows suit, hoping against hope. At first An Xueping is
relieved. Such informality might suggest someone who doesn’t judge children
in the conventional way of academics. But then, almost immediately, she
gasps at the smudges on his shirt, and even Wang Xiaolin shakes his head.

‘Ma Ping!’ An Xueping exclaims crossly. ‘How dare you appear in that state?’

The child bites his lip, looking up at his three, no, it seems only one, accuser.
Wang Xiaolin is trying, unsuccessfully, to repress a smile, and the visitor
seems completely unperturbed. An Xueping has become pale with anger.
‘Go and change immediately!’ she orders in a tone with cannot be
contradicted. ‘And apologise to our distinguished guest for your rudeness.’
‘I am sorry,’ says Ma Ping, who is. Drops of moisture stand precipitously at
the corner of his eyes and it is Zhao Bin’s pitying smile, which triggers the
squall of tears.
‘I was painting and…and…I had to change and then I had this idea so I…’
‘I said go and change!’ An Xueping interrupts, little realising that with all
three of them, she is exacerbating the general unease.

Ma Ping turns and leaves the room, sobbing with distress, his oath of good
behaviour forgotten in his self-pity. He rushes into his bedroom and pushes
the door to, but it is caught in the wind and slams with a sullen bang. He
flings himself onto the bed, weeping, muttering about how unfair everyone is.
Almost immediately, An Xueping enters his room, and he feels himself
dragged without ceremony to his feet.
‘Get up at once!’ she orders him, and smacks his face with a stinging urgency,
and holds him firmly by the arm with her other hand so that he cannot fall
backwards. He sways nevertheless and she jolts him upright. She is
momentarily struck by how small he seems to her and she can almost detect a
trace of An Zheping’s fresh boy-smell in his hair as he pushes his face back
from her.

‘You disobedient child! How dare you show this side of your nature to our
guest!’ she exclaims nevertheless. ‘Do you know what this visit means? Do you
have any idea what rests on this? Now, get out of these clothes and put on that
green cotton shirt, the one you wore at school this week. Lucky I washed it
yesterday.’ She rifles through the wardrobe and retrieves the item with an ill-
grace. ‘This will have to do. It’s not what I wanted you to wear. I wanted the
red silk, because it’s traditional. Have you no idea how to behave? Did your
family teach you nothing?’ Her eyes flash with indignation, and their light is
in such sharp contrast to other patina he has been considering today, it is this,
which shocks him more than the physical blow. He drops his eyes from her
face, but not with fear of her, but of himself. He wants to hit her back. Her
words sting after the glow in his face dies down, but he realises it is a rage
that easily be turned into silent rebellion, into revolt through a thousand small,
invisible acts of defiance. His lips move with his newly hatching plans.

She glares at him as he fumbles with the red-silk embroidered buttons, trying
as quickly as possible, to wrest the garment from him.

‘We brought you here for precisely days like today, Ping, and you will obey
us!’ she says slowly, with cold calm.
He narrows his eyes in contemplation of himself in his studio, free as a bird,
painting her as a devil spirit, rendering her the demon of a picture, which
captures the grace, the kindness and goodness, of his dear family. He
manages his undressing finally, with fingers, which tremble, but not with fear,
and discards the red silk on the floor, kicking it with an unnecessary gesture
away from his feet, and wordlessly, takes the plain green cotton tunic from
her and hurries himself into it, not meeting her furious eyes.
‘This man can mean the difference between success and failure in your life
and I am not going to allow your slovenly nature to get in the way of success.
Do you understand me?’

He looks up at her now, without fear, but with cold deliberation, as if he
might reply, but then realises that she is only speaking rhetoric: he is not
expected to say anything. He looks down again at the frog-fasteners.
She sees his shaking hands and almost regrets her actions, but she
admonishes him to be quick, leaving the room, unable to stay and witness her

He wrestles with the buttons mechanically, feeling no real sense of injustice,
now that his hot fury has cooled somewhat – he has been hit before – but
instead a kind of shock. Until this moment, the full implications of what it
means to him to be wrested away from his own environment, has never quite
dawned on him. He has had moments, hours, even days, of missing his
family, but gradually, he has noticed a decline in the acuteness of the pain
associated with his reflections. He has gone to school, painted pictures, drawn
his calligraphy, had conversations with his guardians, enjoyed times with
Zhang Luxia, even Xu Xiaojia, yet still felt like Ma Ping, the little boy from
Guyuan. But now, he knows that he is Ma Ping living in Xi’an, and this means
rules and regulations which are different, to which he must adhere. This
means no cuddles with his sister, Ma Ling lounging on the window-seat in his
bedroom back at the meatballs restaurant, as they look at the full streets
below; this means no loving skirmishes with his Aunt Bai; this means no
playing pick-up sticks with Ma Shipeng; this means no tussles about who’s
going to clear the restaurant for the final time in a day before going to bed;
this means no taking it in turns to get up first to heat the water for washing
and for the bowls of tea at the crack of dawn; this means no counting the
hours until he can see Ma Li Rui again and reliving his creativity through the
recreation of the light in her eyes; this means no noisy meals with his relatives,
sitting round the table in a closed restaurant in the deepening darkness and
listening to their tales told in half whispers and deeply familiar
memorisations, and phrases and swathes of magic; this means no snatching

precious moments and moulding all the above onto canvases, now stacked
like memories, in a shadowy corner of his new studio in a pristine flat in Xi’an.

He enters the sitting room without a word and the men are smoking and
laughing and talking. An Xueping is handing round titbits on elegant
porcelain, and serving tea. She motions to him to help her and he follows her
to each adult’s seat, carrying the fluted teapot and pouring the golden liquid
into the tiny gold-rimmed bowls. She is pleased with his dexterity, but it is
one he takes for granted due to his long practice in the art. He admires the
cups’ elegance, whilst at the same time feeling their differences from the
receptacles in the meatballs restaurant in Guyuan in ways, which make him a
little heavier of heart. There, the cups are white and chipped, scratched and
cracked with long use, yet every one of them tells long stories in the local

He doesn’t pay particular attention to what the adults are now saying either,
because another local rule states that he isn’t expected to take part in adult
conversation. Neither of the men has seen him re-enter and he eventually
goes to sit quietly on a stool opposite the window near the door and allows
his mind to wander. He doesn’t begrudge the adults their behaviour anymore
because he now feels he understands it. He knows that this is the way the
world works really, and that it’s only with his own family that he enjoys such
freedom. Teacher Deng in his old school in Guyuan had tried to warn him
often enough, and for the first time he is now hearing the admonishments of
Li Peidong and his calligraphy teacher about the way he challenges
inappropriately through questions. The trees are swaying in the wind outside
and he watches their leaves fluttering and how, through the play of light, they
appear to change colour, gravitating from dark to light, and also, excitingly,
from solid to dappled. He can almost hear their rustling and is drawn, in his
imagination, to an outside world of birdsong, bending and swaying trees and
a landscape, which welcomes human exploration.

‘Ma Ping,’ says An Xueping to the child suddenly. He jumps to attention,
looking over at her, but not making eye-contact. If she notices his submission,
she doesn’t comment on it. ‘Zhao Bin would like to talk to you about
Ma Ping stands up immediately, and turns to face the visitor, as if such
actions are required.
 ‘Go and bring me your best work so far,’ he says and Ma Ping rushes to obey.
He has been expecting this and two sheets of red poster-paper lie just inside
the door to his study. He retrieves them hastily and returns to the sitting
room, where, it appears, another conversation has begun. He stands at the
entrance to the room, waiting for permission to enter. An Xueping motions

him impatiently to approach their visitor, wondering at his play of politeness,
and Ma Ping goes up to the man’s armchair, reaching out the poster-papers
towards him. Zhao Bin takes them, and Ma Ping notices that despite the
man’s small, rather dumpy stature, his fingers are tapered and beautiful, like
a woman’s. He is mesmerised by the sight of them and stares at them un-self-
consciously. His fingernails are pearly and smooth, contoured like white sea-
shells, filling Ma Ping with a longing to paint them into his new work
somehow. An Xueping reaches out from her seat and pulls him backwards.
He recovers his balance and goes and sits on the stool by the door again to

Zhao Bin nods his head contemplatively, but Ma Ping feels a great distance
from what is happening. He is thinking about his homework. How can he
enable this man to become a part of what he wants to express? His thoughts
are not this coherent. He only knows that he is fascinated by what he has seen
and recognises enough of his own emotion to understand what action is now
urgently required: he is eager for this man’s visit to be over so that he might
live properly. This waiting is anathema to him and the longer it lasts, the more
Ma Ping feels he cannot endure it. The famous man is now studying one of
the pair of calligraphic posters in particular, and hands it over to Wang
Xiaolin who confirms the man’s preference. It is the one Ma Ping completed
for the exhibition at the Number Six Middle School in Guyuan for An
Xueping’s original visit there before his teacher organised his expression on
more traditional lines.

‘The lines are sound but unorthodox,’ Zhao Bin says merely, and looks over at
the boy, who is staring out of the window, but immediately turns his head to
drop his eyes at the famous man’s scrutiny.
‘Yes, I think this aspect is interesting,’ says Wang Xiaolin, leaning over
slightly to tap his finger on one of the characters. His fingers arouse no
interest in Ma Ping and he looks away again.
‘Perhaps. More luck than judgement, I’m thinking.’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ agrees An Xueping, eager to be a part of the
conversation. Wang Xiaolin smiles reassuringly at her, but she is too intent on
capturing each nuance of their visitor’s attention to notice her husband’s. He
sighs and looks at the boy, misery engrained on the child’s profiled features,
but misery contained, not overt at all. He wonders what happened in the
bedroom between his wife and the boy. He sees a little heightening of colour
in Ma Ping’s visible cheek and guesses its meaning. She really doesn’t need to
be so anxious about Zhao Bin’s visit. She now motions Ma Ping to fetch the
teapot again and he hurries to obey, feeling himself faraway and untouched
by what is happening around him. He sits down again after doing his duty
and turns again to look out of the window and dream. There is a blackbird

sitting in the tree outside the window, singing joyously of its freedom,
turning its head this way and that – surveying its domain no doubt – and
turning the resulting scrutiny into triumphant song. Ma Ping looks at the
people discussing his work and blinks slowly, feeling tired. He wants to go to
sleep, but this, of course, would be deemed inappropriate, so he tries to sit up
straighter, then sets himself puzzles – to count the number of tiles on the floor
between his stool and Wang Xiaolin’s armchair, then between his chair and
Zhao Bin’s and then…

‘What are you working on at the moment?’ comes the question he has most
wanted to avoid.
‘Oh nothing in particular,’ he answers with the socially required self-
effacement, but without any real hope that it will deflect interest.
‘He’s been working on a painting every spare moment,’ An Xueping answers
for him, and for the first time, Ma Ping understands his guardian. She doesn’t
love him. He was wrong before when he thought she didn’t like him and
when he told his brother about his misgivings when he was staying with
them - she doesn’t actually see him at all. All at once, his aunt’s (his wise
aunt’s) words come back to him – that An Xueping wanted him for her son, to
replace someone lost. As if he is not himself at all to her, but only a copy, a
forgery one might say, of her own real son. And he feels a surge of the same
sentiment he once voiced to Wang Xiaolin, without necessarily being aware of
its significance – that through his art, through his life he wants to be himself.
That’s all. Himself. And that is precisely what An Xueping doesn’t want. He
isn’t, of course, quite conscious of all of this, but he is aware of it in the sense
that he knows how he feels about it. Her answering this particular question in
this particular way, makes him angry, makes him feel that the loyalty that
was building up in his heart for her, is gone, leaving not only a lack of what
had been building up, but a store of resentment as well, as if, in fact, the
resentment was always there, lying in wait only for the right circumstances in
which to rise up and overwhelm him.

He swallows painfully. ‘It’s not finished,’ he says, hoping against hope that no
one will suggest seeing it. He can’t rationalise this. He doesn’t understand
why he feels so strongly that he doesn’t want anyone to see it in its present
state. He certainly doesn’t have a glib statement at his disposal about the fact
that artists often don’t want anyone to see the picture until it’s finished. All he
knows is that this picture is still a part of him, and that showing it to anyone
is simply inappropriate. He is being asked to peel off his skin and stand in a
shower of hot, saline water.

‘Let’s see it, then,’ says An Xueping. Ma Ping’s eyes widen with terror, but
she leads Zhao Bin out of the room, either not noticing his reaction, or not

choosing to. Ma Ping draws in his breath in short gasps and grabs hold of
Wang Xiaolin as he passes, his rough movement being enough in itself to alert
the man to the child’s agitation. His little hands feel like vices and the man is
startled at the child’s physical insistence.
‘What on earth…?’ he begins.
‘No. No. No! Don’t let them! Don’t let them!’ is all Ma Ping can manage in a
whisper of desperation, breathing as if he has just run a great distance. Wang
Xiaolin looks at the child quizzically and sees an unusual level of tension. He
raises his eyebrows, but Ma Ping simply repeats the negatives frantically and
shakes his head in extreme distress, tears dripping profusely from his face.

‘One moment, Zhao Bin, if you please,’ the professor calls out and the man
returns, his face betraying his mystification, followed quickly by An Xueping,
who looks from her husband to the child and shakes her head at him. ‘My
apologies, but I should have asked Ma Ping to line up the pictures correctly
for your perusal first’, the man begins in explanation, ‘to save time checking
through. Ma Ping, please go into your studio and arrange the calligraphy and
artwork in chronological order for our guest.’ He speaks with some formality.
‘Please begin with the Guyuan pictures and calligraphy. Perhaps you should
have organised that before,’ he says in order to lend his words now an aura of
severity, which will find a sympathetic resonance in his wife, ‘and then come
back and tell us. I would like some more tea first’ he says to An Xueping.
‘There is quite a lot to see. Please go now, Ma Ping. Zhao Bin, some more tea?’

Ma Ping dashes past their visitor into the studio, shuts the door and leans
against it, trying to catch his breath. He feels sick. He has no understanding of
why, but he feels as if he has just escaped from a terrible fate. He goes to the
easel and looks at the picture standing on it, the picture in imminent danger
of dying unless he can rescue it, and heaves it off the stand. He looks round
frantically, to see where to hide it, and finally pushes it behind a great oaken
chest standing in the corner. He is momentarily reminded of times when he
used to hide his pictures from his family back in Guyuan, but the similarities
are too painful and absorbing to dwell on, so instead, he swathes a large dark
cloth over the top of the new picture, so that it is mostly obscured from notice,
and then sets about doing as he has been told, trembling with their lucky
escape. The calligraphy he practised with Teacher Deng at his last school
should go over there on that table near the window. He is ashamed of it now.
It seems so banal, so crude. He sees the sweeps of black ink, the brushstrokes
and recognises their faltering intentions. He now understands why Teacher
Deng admonished him at times when he was quite sure his work was
wonderful. With a lurch of pain, he wonders about the quality of his current
picture, but dismisses the doubts in arranging the depiction of his family on
the easel - the canvas he completed just before he started for Xi’an and this,

his new life. Those familiar and mostly beloved faces smile out at him across
the weeks and the long dusty distances between them: his Aunt Bai’s solid
determination not to cry because he was leaving, a look that he cannot
understand how he didn’t recognise before. He would, if he could, reflect on
the truly miraculous nature of his creativity that he could portray something
he didn’t even know he witnessed at the time – but in his aunt’s features there
is a decided stoicism, a courage, a gritty determination not to cry, not to give
in to her powerful emotions. And he raises his fingers to the canvas in a
loving gesture reminiscent of his reaction to his present artwork that morning,
and traces his favourite woman’s features in a gentle caress, the physical
sensation fully restoring to him his equilibrium, and his sense of self. He
hurries to complete his task and then, almost cheerily, he opens the door to
the hallway and trips through to the sitting room, where, in an appropriate
gap in their conversation, he announces to the adults that he is ready to show
them his work.

Wang Xiaolin sees the transformation in the small artist and is touched but
also disturbed by it. An Xueping eagerly leads the visitor past the child out of
the sitting room and down the hallway to the studio. The professor reaches
the child standing waiting at the door, and puts his hand gently on the boy’s
‘Thank you, Sir,’ says Ma Ping simply, looking up at this kind man’s face. ‘I’m
sorry, I…’
‘No need, little one. No need,’ the man says reassuringly, pressing the child’s
shoulder in an affectionate squeeze, and then pushing him out of the room
before him. Something stirs in the man but he represses such vulnerabilities at
a time like this and follows the child into the studio.

When they enter, Zhao Bin is scrutinising the family portrait on the easel. He
has his hand at his mouth, screwing up his eyes quite closely, bending his
head to the picture, studying carefully. Ma Ping looks up at Wang Xiaolin,
perhaps for reassurance, but the man has left his side and is walking over to
the easel to hear the famous visitor’s pronunciations. The latter is nodding his
head slowly.
‘This too has promise, but I don’t like the form.’ He breathes in audibly and
out again.
‘I thought that too,’ says An Xueping, and Ma Ping looks at her, cold inside.
‘She doesn’t understand,’ he reasons to himself, ‘and so she should wait for
Zhao Bin to say more.’
‘What about looking at some more of his calligraphy work?’ suggests Wang
Xiaolin. Zhao Bin is clearly about to capitulate, when he holds up a hand to
denote that he has changed his mind. He bends towards the canvas and with
a single delicate finger, he touches the canvas in front of him.

Ma Ping moves forward and sees just as the man’s fingers leave his aunt’s
face. He doesn’t feel this as any kind of violation. Quite the reverse. He sees
the man’s slightly open mouth, as if he wants to speak, but doesn’t quite yet,
know what it is he wants to say – and at this point he realises he wants to
paint this man, with that expression and those fingers. In this single gesture,
Ma Ping knows that the man is a kindred spirit. He will never be able to have
a relaxed conversation with him, of course, because this man is Zhao Bin and
he is only Ma Ping, but by recognising the power in the figure of his aunt both
representationally and realistically, the man has forever forged a link between
them and it is this, albeit unconsciously, that Ma Ping wants to capture.

‘Extraordinary!’ is the esteemed visitor’s only comment, on which he refuses
to be drawn by either of the adults, but Ma Ping doesn’t feel the need to draw
him: he is perfectly satisfied and believes the man understands him and his
art fully at that moment: it is absolutely his own view of his aunt after all!

He is, however, becoming aware of the fact that for the first time, any sense of
who he is in the world has become dependent on the deliberations of others
about his art. Whereas before there was only unity, an unconsciousness
surrounding the workings of his art and the hopes and dreams, enthusiasms
and fears of any little boy, now he is affirmed more than by any other means,
through the man in front of him defining what is real about his work through
what he chooses, or doesn’t choose, to say or feel or think, about his canvas.
The terror engendered that morning by the precipitate airing of his artwork
threatens to overwhelm him again, however, despite the man’s apparent
acknowledgement of those very features he himself values. The fear comes
from the simple fact that the man can judge his work, and thus, by extension,

Ma Ping realises now that his own opinion about his art is only his opinion. It
is no longer an incontrovertible fact, because others can counter it. He knows
they always could, but before, such comments were not real to him. He heard
them, even listened to them, but they remained on the outside of his sense of
what it was he had achieved. They could not touch the art itself. It was
inviolable. He feels as if he has suddenly had everything pulled out from
beneath his sense of normality, and replaced by the whims of these adults
around him. He feels naked between them all, stripped of reality, self and
uniqueness. And most of all, stripped of any protection against their
corrupting judgements.

As he comes to himself again, he notices that Zhao Bin is being led through
the other exhibits. Ma Ping notices gradually with pride, how every now and

again, the man’s attention wanders back to the canvas. This affirmation of his
own sense of the meaning and significance of this picture, goes someway to
restoring him to his sense of ownership, that he is even tempted for one
moment to uncover the canvas which lies shrouded behind the chest in the
corner and ask the man’s opinion. He hesitates in his sense of security: if An
Xueping were only not there, he would take the risk, but with her there, it is
an impossibility. The expert’s next words, however, stop him in his tracks and
leave him again bereft of hope.

‘Ma Ping needs to concentrate on his calligraphy,’ he pronounces with the
deliberation of an expert who sees his words as irrefutable. ‘These pictures,’
and he gestures back with his hands, ‘are self-indulgent. Personal. He needs
to work more on the less representational in order to mature his abilities in
general.’ Ma Ping listens without fully comprehending the words spoken, but
he knows that a further set of rules has been established for him to obey and
that they concern what he’s allowed to paint or not to paint. His heart sinks
within him.

Wang Xiaolin looks over at the child, and Ma Ping catches the man’s kind
insight but is too hurt to appreciate his sensitivity.
‘Do you understand, Ma Ping?’ Zhao Bin asks, turning to the boy and looking
at him closely.
Ma Ping instinctively honest, shakes his head slowly, frowning in
consternation at what he perceives as this death-sentence. An Xueping smacks
him lightly. He rubs his head with surprise, looking up at her with wide eyes,
a harsh glint reflecting from them.
‘Don’t be rude!’ she admonishes him. He looks away or he doesn’t know what
his eyes might convey.
‘But I don’t,’ he says softly, hanging his head now.
‘The great expert tells you should stop painting pictures of people, and
concentrate on the discipline of calligraphy. You understand that I suppose?’
‘Good! Well, Zhao Bin, thank you very much for your advice,’ she says, her
manner completely changing as she turns to speak to him. ‘Of course, we will
make sure that Ma Ping does just as you ask.’ She smiles gratefully at him. Ma
Ping stands as if someone has just told him a relative has died. He is stupid
with shock. Yet again, he is being forbidden to do the very thing, which keeps
him alive. Yet again he is being forced to choose whether to tell the truth to
those who are supporting him, and doing what he has to do because he is Ma
Ping. Whatever he does, in other words, is doomed in one sense, to a
significant failure. He feels a lump in his throat, and suddenly the room seems
very hot. The collar of his green cotton tunic is becoming too tight, and he
feels a little faint.

‘What would you advocate, Mr. Zhao?’ asks Wang Xiaolin, leading the man
back to the sitting room, both of them followed by An Xueping, but not Ma
Ping. ‘Which particular Masters would you expect him to study? I was
wondering about…’ Their words recede.

Ma Ping stands in the ruins of all that is belovedly familiar to him. At first he
can only stand there, not moving, looking around, feeling that his head, his
limbs, his torso, don’t quite belong to him, because they are not moving quite
how he tells them to, and he is shaking, so he gives up and stands watching
his life unravel around him. The calligraphy over there in the corner, its black-
ink-strokes gleaming in the sunlight from the skylight in the roof, and there,
the earlier painting of his family, lying back in such innocent ignorance of its
fate. Not to mention the shrouded masterpiece hiding beneath the dark cloth.
When will that ever see the light of day again? And what will they make of it if
they see it? Will they forbid that too?

The expert’s one pronouncement – that he must concentrate now on
calligraphy and cease such personal paintings - doesn’t feel like one sentence
to Ma Ping. It is the epilogue of his creativity, an epitaph indeed, headstoning
a tome covering hundreds of vellum pages, an adventure story, a high
romance, a story of deprivation and courage, peopled with devils and angels,
and beauty and ugliness; it is the myth of his deepest life and it has been, in
that one moment, quashed, vanquished, and left for dead.

Without warning, a sudden rage takes hold of Ma Ping and he crosses the
room, as if on the wings of an avenging angel, rips the week’s incomplete
canvas from its hiding place, and mercilessly begins to flail his hands and
nails across it, having little effect, but dissipating some of his energy in the
process. If he had not seen the stanley knife beside him on the floor, it is
possible he would not then have gone on to rip the painting to shreds, with
grunts of dispersed rage and impotent hatred, stripping his aunt’s face from
its central position to a shards of deformity on the floor of the studio, eyes
winking obscenely with a devilish light, and trodden unhindered underfoot.
As the composition begins to fall apart in his hands, his fury leaves his body
as quickly as it came and he realises what he has done. Rather than feel regret
and blame himself, however, he is clear where the responsibility for this act of
sacrilege lies. He flops onto his knees into these sacred remnants and begins
to cry softly for what he has lost rather than what he has done. He is
consumed with self-pity, threading his hands through the strips of his rage
lying scattered about the floor. He believes he has never known such
unhappiness. Not only has he lost his hoped-for future, they have destroyed
his past.

It is in this position that Wang Xiaolin finds him whenever it is that their
guest has finally left. The man is horrified, almost at once understanding the
magnitude of what has happened. He looks quickly over at the easel and sees
the familiar picture still standing there, and surmises that these strips are the
cause of all the earlier fuss. What could it have been to mean so much to the
child that he has destroyed it to protect it? Suddenly Wang Xiaolin is
overcome with guilt at what he and his wife have, inadvertently, subjected
this child to and those feelings of powerful discomfort surge through him

‘Zhao Bin has gone,’ he says quietly. Ma Ping looks up at him, his eyes clearly
seeing somewhere else. Wang Xiaolin isn’t only feeling concern now, he is
sharply worried, but the child’s abstractness stirs him deeply within and
begins to threaten his sense of self-control. Something stirs so profoundly
within that the man feels sick. If he can only stop the child looking like that.
Wang Xiaolin realises with a sickening lurch that he understands exactly what
the boy is feeling, because he has himself felt like that. He reels with the
certainty that he has been that unhappy himself but he can recall no such
occasion when this could have been the case.

‘What is it, Ma Ping?’ he asks, kneeling down and putting an arm around him.
Ma Ping continues to look up at the man as if he can’t quite focus on him, as if
they aren’t quite in the same place.
‘He said I can’t paint my family anymore,’ Ma Ping says simply. ‘So I killed
them so that you wouldn’t.’
Wang Xiaolin picks up a sliver of canvas, turning it in his hand, trying to
make it out. What does the boy mean? There is a silence, neither knowing
how to break it, neither really wanting to.
‘Was this your homework?’ asks Wang Xiaolin, toying with what has now
taken on the shape of a sliver of shoulder, the hint of fingers across it.
‘Not now,’ Ma Ping says without any attempt at a clever riposte. ‘I’ll do some
calligraphy. That’s what the teacher wanted anyway.’ His voice is flat and
without passion. Perhaps he is all right after all. But Wang Xiaolin knows this
is not the case.

The artist stands up amidst the debris of his flayed soul and begins to sweep
the fragments into a small pile and finally dumps them into a bucket in the
corner of the room.
‘That’s that,’ he says flatly.
‘Zhao Bin has recommended a course of scholars’ work you really should
study, Ma Ping,’ offers the professor, attempting to make contact, as well as

deflect the feelings of surging regret which are threatening to overcome him.
‘I would be happy to help you.’
‘Thank you,’ replies the boy.
‘You two ready for dinner yet?’ shouts An Xueping suddenly from the
direction of the kitchen.
Wang Xiaolin is grateful for the interruption, and looks at the child with a
small smile. Ma Ping looks back, but there is no answering warmth in the
boy’s lips, no softness in his face. The light, which has always sparkled in Ma
Ping’s eyes, is dimmed. The two leave the studio, and Wang Xiaolin closes the
door behind them.

In the studio, through the skyline, the sun goes behind a cloud and thus
cannot reveal Aunt Bai’s penetrating eyes still glinting from the floor, in
which position they are now forever barred from standing over her nephew
in a loving and protective warmth.

Chapter Eight: Sunday, September 28th
'Are you sure you want to take this Xu person?' asks An Xueping, calling up
the hallway to Ma Ping in his studio after she has told him to pack his
rucksack with the few artist's materials he ought to take 'just in case there's an
appropriate chance of drawing the scene'. Wang Xiaolin has already packed
the easel into the car and is standing by the front door, knowing better than to
remind his wife again about the traffic if they don't start soon. He has seemed
very irritable about having to drive all this way, and usually, he doesn’t
complain about such things. However, she reasons to herself, nothing feels
quite right this morning. And now, for a few minutes, her husband stands in
deep contemplation, but of what, he couldn't necessarily say: he only knows
that he feels a dread about this journey today and that if he could have found
an appropriate excuse - in other words an excuse which wouldn't raise
questions and necessitate a long justification of feelings and recriminations
and puzzlement and interrogation - he would have to absolve himself of the
responsibility and feign work commitments. But it's no good. His feelings
about the approaching excursion have not been clear enough to formulate a
distinct plan ahead of time, so he finds himself now committed. Ma Ping's
shouted response to his wife interrupts the flow of his thoughts and he is
surprised by his immediate irritation.
'Come on, both of you. The traffic…'
'…will be impossible if we don't leave now,' rejoins An Xueping, laughing as
she emerges from their bedroom, pulling on a light blue-silk jacket and
carrying her handbag. She is wearing black western-style slacks, suitable for
walking, yet still elegant. Wang Xiaolin barely registers the effort she's made.
Her handbag's the one she was carrying when she first met Ping, she

remembers, swinging it onto her shoulder - black patent leather, large and
shiny. She knocks on the studio door as she passes it.
'Come on, you,' she calls out. 'And then go and put your new trainers on. It's
going to be quite a climb today.' The lack of reply doesn't disturb her. Once
Ping gets into his studio, he's oblivious to the outside world.
'Is he…?'
'Yes, yes, he'll be here.'

They stand at the door, and without expecting it, both find themselves
wondering what to say to the other. It has been a strange week, Wang Xiaolin
considers. His wife away most of it in Beijing, and Ma Ping quieter than he
has seen him so far in these four weeks of his stay. Every evening, he has
come home from school, done his homework without any prompting, and
then worked in his studio on posters of calligraphy. Practising. Stroke after
stroke after stroke, attempts strewn all over the floor, so that even their
cleaning woman, Mrs. Chang, has mentioned it. Wang Xiaolin asked the child
to pick up after him, and he has dutifully done so, placing the discarded
papers in the wastepaper basket in the corner. Last Thursday, when Ma Ping
had gone to bed, he had picked out a few and studied them. Flat, he thought.
The paint was shining, but the sentiments weren't. He was disturbed by them
and wondered again whether they were doing the right thing in keeping the
boy there. He doesn't seem very happy at all at the moment. Still smarting
from last weekend, clearly. On Friday, he made a special effort with the boy,
taking him out in the evening to a local McDonald's restaurant, a venue he
personally hates, but which the child seems to enjoy, at least a little, although
these days they have little to say to each other. Wang Xiaolin realises he has
spent a lot of the last week thinking about An Zhepeng, the times when his
wife wasn't there and the two of them had spent their late nights together,
time forgotten carelessly like a dormant illness, moments treasured because of
their brevity, because of their enforced isolation, because of their imminent
end. And as he thinks this, he realises that he has become disappointed by the
time he is spending with Ma Ping. He hastily upbraids himself for such
uncharitable feelings.

'I think he's going to love the Mountain,' he says, breaking the silence, trying
to illuminate the growing darkness.
'Yes,' An Xueping says, her affirmative dropping into that space awkwardly,
suggesting to both the convenience of another silence.

She stands and looks at her husband. He has been quiet this weekend. Ever
since she got home in fact. She wonders if they've had a row, but there is
nothing in their manner to suggest any such thing. The boy is quiet though,
but he's probably doing some painting or other. Wang Xiaolin did mention

that the child is practising his calligraphy, just as the great man suggested last
weekend. Even Mrs. Chang, not known for seeing anything in detail (which
reveals itself in her sometimes slovenly cleaning - which An Xueping is going
to have to mention, if the kitchen is left in that state again) - has mentioned
how much paper the child seems to be using up these days.
'Cost a fortune, paper like that,' she said dourly only yesterday. 'Takes me a
week to earn what he throws away in a day,' turning away with a snort,
leaving a somewhat bemused employer wondering at the woman's tone.

Ma Ping closes the door to the studio. 'Ready,' he says softly, walking towards
his guardians. He looks pale, An Xueping considers. Ah well, a day in the
fresh air will do him good.
'Your trainers?' she says testily, and he runs to his room to put them on.
'About time,' says Wang Xiaolin. 'If we're…'
'…to beat the traffic…' An Xueping finishes for him, laughing. No one joins in.
She stops abruptly, feeling an awkwardness again.

'Where does this Xu live?' she asks Ma Ping, to break the monopoly of silence.
'In the dorms,' he replies shortly, scuffing his new trainers on the walls as they
pass. She tries to ignore it, chatting airily about the time they have that day,
how lucky they are, what a pleasure it is for them all to do something together,
but lapsing gradually: her attempts have only made things worse.

'Number?' Wang Xiaolin says, as he shuts the front door and they walk down
the marbled hall to the lift. He waits for Ma Ping, who has gone ahead, to
press the button as usual, but the child stands immobile and waits, as if he has
forgotten that he needs to press it.
'14. Second floor.'
'Right,' says An Xueping, pressing the button instead, smiling with an effort,
raising her eyebrows in mock enjoyment, reaching across Ma Ping, now with
a quizzical look on her face. The child is unnaturally quiet. Perhaps they have
had a row. She shakes her head. They stand, separate in their own worlds.
The lift comes, they all get in, and it sweeps them down to the ground floor,
where they walk out into the late September sunshine, squinting against the
sudden light.

The grey, concrete dormitory buildings have a heavy presence at the skyline,
as Ma Ping looks up and shades his eyes against the light. Everywhere there
are students milling in and out of the three entrances. The main living
quarters are built on three sides round a double basketball court, where four
teams of young athletes are already playing hard, as their car draws up to the
dormitory walls. Windows are open at all levels, washing hanging out to dry

on wire hangers, students looking out into the morning, some eating rice or
noodles, others just watching.
'Go and get him, then,' says An Xueping. 'Although to be honest, I can't really
understand why you wanted him with us today. But I suppose, now you've
invited him…'

Ma Ping opens the car-door and swings his legs out, dipping his head and
propelling himself out of the vehicle, and sprinting suddenly into the middle
entrance. He runs up to the second floor, and knocks on the appropriate room.
The gloom of the corridor doesn't impinge on the child as he waits, but the
echoing laughter, the smell of male latrines, the jostling of boys running and
calling out as they pass, these things he notices. From a distance. All from a

The door opens.

'Hi! Come in!' Xu Xiaojian stands framed by the doorway, still in his pyjamas,
his hair tousled and his glittery eyes shining with mischief. Despite the light
in his eyes, however, there is a languidness about his limbs as he leans heavily
against the door-jamb, his arm raised against intruders on the door-frame.
'My guardians are waiting.' Ma Ping looks straight into his eyes.
'Yeah, yeah, come in, come in,' says the older boy as if Ma Ping hasn't spoken.
He reaches out and grabs the boy's sleeve and begins to pull him in. He
chuckles and from inside the room, a coarse laugh punctures the air.
'Who is it?' a voice calls, different from the laughter.
'It's Ma, the kid from my art class,' Xu responds, looking back into the room,
and laughing shortly. 'We're off to Huashan Mountain no less,' he says now
with a careless drawl, turning his head back from his colleagues within, but
showing no signs of making any haste, and with his body, denying Ma Ping
any access. 'With Wang Xiaolin no less!' he finishes with a flourish, and bows
in a sweeping gesture in front of the boy, the door kicking back on its hinges
from being so abruptly left.

'I'll go and wait in the car,' Ma Ping says calmly, and walks off down the
'Hey, Ma, come on, it's just a joke. Where's your sense of humour? I'll be ready
in five minutes. Hey, come on back!'
No answer. He walks down the steps, with Xu's raised voice following him all
the way to the ground floor, where, when he walks out into the sunshine, he
can hear it no more.

He walks towards the car. His guardians are sitting in the front, not speaking
and both facing the front. An Xueping smiles in but Wang Xiaolin doesn't see
him. He opens the car-door.
'He's ill,' says Ma Ping in a flat voice, turning to look out of the window,
casually, willing them to get out of here.
'Ill? Oh dear, I'd better go up and see him.' An Xueping says, as she makes to
open her door.
'No, it's infectious,' the child replies hastily, shuffling towards the middle of
the two front-seats. 'The doctor says he has to stay in and he shouldn't have
visitors. I just spoke to his classmate, Gao. He says we shouldn’t disturb him.'
'I feel bad just leaving him like this,' says An Xueping. 'Perhaps I should go
up anyway.'
'No, you heard Ma Ping,' says Wang Xiaolin, turning the ignition. 'Let's go,
come on. I'm sorry he's ill, but it's not as if you wanted him with us anyway.
Lucky for you, eh?' Ma Ping sits back again.

As the car is backing up now and faces the right direction to leave the
compound - Ma Ping turns round to see Xu running wildly out of the
entrance to the dormitories, shouting and waving his arms about, but luckily
neither of the adults in the car notice. The older student's face is both angry
and dismayed. It is as if he cannot believe his eyes. He is already dressed,
which both surprises and pleases Ma Ping.

The journey takes a couple of hours, and the artist looks out of the window
for inspiration. The mostly barren landscape gives way at times to blotches of
townlets, the frequent shop-notices creating the only primary colours for
miles around. As they pass one little place, all the buildings (albeit higgledy-
piggledy) cling to the roadside-pavements, as if the seasonal desert winds
might well blow them away - there, only a few metres away, at least at first, is
a meatballs restaurant, its Hui welcome emblazoned above its entrance in
both Chinese characters and Arabic script. Ma Ping turns to look out of the
other window.

'Do you know anything about the mountain?' An Xueping asks, turning
slightly in her seat.
'Only what I read in that book,' the child replies softly, his head turned
slightly away from his interlocutor. She opens her bag and pulls the familiar
volume out, and begins to read aloud, exhorting him to listen carefully.
'I want you to get the most out of this,' she interrupts herself. 'You
'Yes, An Xueping,' he answers, staring out of the window.
She begins to read.

'As one of the five well-known mountains in China, Mt. Huashan is located in the
south of Huayin city, 120 kilometers east of Xi'an, Shaanxi blah blah blah, with an
elevation of 2200 meters above sea level.' That means how high it is,' she explains
'Yes, I know,' mutters the child, still looking out of the window. Wang Xiaolin
looks at him quizzically through his rear-view mirror and frowns at the boy's

'In ancient times, Mt. Huashan was called Mt. Taihuashan. But seen from afar, the
five peaks look like five petals of a flower.' That's good, isn't it? 'Hence, Mt.
Huashan. Today, it is listed as one of the renowned national scenic spots. 'Are you
listening, Ma Ping?' Mt. Huashan is famous for its breath-taking cliffs. Along the
12-kilometer-long winding path up to the top are awe-inspiring precipices, which
should make you hold your breath.'

She smiles and turns round. Ma Ping faces her immediately and smiles back.
She continues, slightly reassured, turning back in her seat.

'Among the five peaks, East Peak (Facing Sun Peak), West Peak (Lotus Peak) and
South Peak (Dropping Goose Peak) are comparatively high. Standing at the top of
East Peak, one can enjoy the rising sun early in the morning. West Peak, in
resemblance to a lotus flower, is the most graceful peak in Mt. Huashan. In addition,
there are Middle Peak (Jade Maiden Peak) and North Peak (Clouds Stand). It is said
that once a young lady rode a white horse among the mountains. North Peak, like a
flat platform in the clouds, is the place where the story Capturing Mt. Huashan
Wisely took place.'

'I think Lotus Peak will be the best one,' she says conversationally. 'You've
been there before, haven't you?' she asks her husband, who mutters
something in reply and then, says he wants to stop the car for a rest.
'It's only been an hour,' she protests.
'I want a break,' he repeats. Ma Ping turns to look out of the window again,
but An Xueping continues her reading aloud anyway.

'Mt. Huashan boasts a lot of places of interests. Here and there stand Buddhist and
Taoist temples, pavilions and buildings as well as sculptures and engravings. Of the
ruins, Yuquan (Jade Spring), Zhenwu Palace, and Jintian Palace are, comparatively
speaking, famous. Xiyue Temple, 7 kilometers north of Mt. Huashan is the place
where people of ancient times paid tribute to the god of Mt. Huashan.'

'Oh, this is the good part,' she says, an assumed excitement in her voice, as the
car crunches onto some roadside gravel and stops. Wang Xiaolin immediately

gets out of the car, leaving his door open. An Xueping, with an angry sigh,
reaches across and closes it against the sudden gusts of wind.

'Along the cliff of South Peak,' she continues, 'is a plank road equipped with an iron
chain, with the help of which the adventurers can have a walk on the frightful path.
There is a giant rock in front of Cuiyun Palace on West Peak. As it takes the shape of
a lotus flower, the mountain is also called Lotus Peak. As legend has it, Chen Xiang, a
filial…' that means a well-behaved and loyal young man, Ma Ping. Anyway,
this Chen Xiang, er, where am I? 'once split the mountain and rescued his mother
out of it. Now a crack can be witnessed in a giant rock beside Cuiyun Palace as if it
were made by an axe. Thus, the rock is called "Axe-splitting Rock," beside which is a
huge axe with a long handle. The northwest side of the peak is called Fatal Cliff for it
is as steep as if cut by a sharp sword.

'Can I get out of the car too, please?' Ma Ping asks. 'I need to go to the toilet as
well.' He points vaguely in the direction of some bushes where Wang Xiaolin
has just relieved himself, and cranks the car-handle down, emerging quickly,
and closing the door neatly behind him.

An Xueping waits, and for the first time today, she cannot escape the sense
that there is something very wrong with both of the others. Her husband is
emerging from the bushes, turning to look this way and that, his movements
distracted and somehow, she realises, ragged. She doesn't know what this
means, but it fills her full of foreboding. Her husband is uncommunicative,
and Ma Ping seems unenthusiastic about anything: it must have been a big
row they had during the week. She sighs. Why do other people have to make
everything so complicated? She feels a hollow dread inside, a feeling that
lately isn't unknown to her: it is dread, isn't it? Pure and simple. She can't tell
if it is emanating from her husband or from Ma Ping. A sense that Ma Ping
isn't fitting into their lives, fills her. It isn't that he's not working hard: by all
accounts he's applying himself very hard indeed. That talk she had with him
last weekend, has clearly had an effect after all, despite her husband's anger at
her treatment of him. He needed disciplining. That's part of the trouble with
Wang Xiaolin: he wants all the easy times with the child, just as he did with
An Zheping. She'd come back from work sometimes and feel like an
interloper in her own home. The two of them as thick as thieves, so very
comfortable by themselves, their cosy little twosome - their little in-jokes,
which, by definition, excluded her. At least it isn't like that now between him
and Ma Ping, but in fact, on reflection, it might be better if it were. At least she
was aware of what was going on before, but this present heaviness, this
foreboding, is unfamiliar, worrying.

No, it isn't that at all: Ma Ping isn't her son and never can be. The blow of this
truth nearly undoes her as she sits there, feeling the bitter gall melding her
where she sits. She stares out of the window again.

Wang Xiaolin feels sick. He thought the fresh air might revive him a little.
Needing to go to the toilet is just an excuse, he realises, as he can hardly pass
any water at all, and tucks himself back into his trousers, looking out onto the
bare desert landscape beyond the straggling bushes, standing still, feeling the
power of the emptiness draining him, yet at the same time, edging closer and
closer to his consciousness, until he feels he might call out in fear at what is
approaching. He feels fear in his stomach and, shocked by such abrupt and
inexplicable feelings, he shakes his head, and turns to walk back to the car.

An Xueping wipes her own eyes. First her husband gets into the car, having
walked back across the gravel alone, breaking her reflections, and then, a few
moments later, Ma Ping joins them, having lingered only paces behind.
Neither has spoken to the other whilst outside, and this lapse strikes An
Xueping as the clearest message so far today that something is seriously
wrong. It isn't her at all, is it? She shakes her head as Wang Xiaolin starts the
car, and in the back seat, Ma Ping turns his head to look out of the window.
Not a word spoken.

'Well, let's see what else the book says, shall we?' she finally offers to the
absorbing silence. She at least, knows how to behave.

'North Peak, with cliffs on three sides, has only one road leading to the south. From
here one goes south to Ca'er Precipice, the fourth dangerous place along the only-
existing path in Mt. Huashan. The cliff, less than 30 centimeters wide, faces such a
deep valley that the tourists have to edge along carefully. Then one comes to Sky-
leading Ladder, Sun and Moon Precipice and the well-known Blue Dragon
She looks up, but receiving no encouragement, reads on to the bitter end.
'East Peak, with a rising-sun platform favorable for a sight of the morning sun, is also
called Facing Sun Peak. As the sun emerges from the sea of clouds, one cannot help
showing his admiration.'

The car falls silent again. She should say something, she knows she should,
but she cannot. The truth of what she is considering is making her feel sick.
How could she ever have thought that this was going to work? Taking a boy,
and a Hui boy at that, out of his country environment and transplanting him
here! Whatever were they thinking of? He isn't their son! He's not happy. How
could he be? He was never going to be. How on earth had Wang Xiaolin ever
allowed her to talk him into it? In an involuntary gesture of denial she puts

her hand to her mouth to stem the recriminations which could flow so easily
from her lips, and they all pass the final miles in a heavy silence.

Wang Xiaolin feels a dread in his heart, as if in coming closer to the mountain
he is coming closer to a destination, which threatens his very sense of self. All
at once, his chief motive becomes how he might conceal this from his wife.
She must not know how he feels. She must not even ask him questions,
because his resolve might break and lead him to say anything. To say what?
He doesn't know, but he knows he mustn't say it anyway.

Half an hour later they are standing in crowds of other people, on the side of
the Western Peak, looking over at Cuiyun Palace, its fortress walls standing in
testimony to hardships endured and inflicted, and Wang Xiaolin is now
talking eloquently about his knowledge of the area, in a way almost animated
enough to engage Ma Ping's interest.

'Over there, look at that,' he says, pointing to a rock, of which any visitor
should take note. Then, almost as if an echo, their Guide speaks about the
selfsame feature, and An Xueping smiles at Ma Ping and nods her head as if
he should be pleased to have it confirmed. The child looks up at her with the
same unseeing gaze he has fixed on the mountain, and, disturbed by their
expression, she pretends to look elsewhere, so that she might not have to see
his face at all.

Around them, the early autumn winds howl like demon-spirits, and the
Guide comments on how appropriate it is for them to experience such
weather. Much the best time to come, etc. etc., just after Mid-Autumn
Festival51. The glorious Huashan Mountain is surely at its best when swirling
torrents of the elements intrude tempestuously into the visitors' faces! At
times such as these, visitors can really feel the force of the elements, really
experience the power and strength of the fifth-most famous mountain in
China. At other times of the year, the unfortunate visitor doesn't have this
opportunity, for then the sun only shines benignly on all it surveys. No, much
better to be here now when conditions are wild and free. However, visitors
are reminded to stick to the pathways and obey the signs and notices, which
they will find periodically on their way up. We don't want an accident, do we?
Adventurous explorers are reminded that some of the pathways are
exceptionally narrow and that they must keep to the signposts, following
pathways however narrow and not under any circumstances, should the

  Mid-Autumn Festival, otherwise known as the Moon Festival takes place annually, and is celebrated
by eating pastries called mooncakes, pastry-cases containing candied fruit.

visitors deviate from the marked route. Any visitor found so doing will be
fined heavily. He is sorry to have to mention it, but he hopes that everyone
understands. There are murmurs of assent throughout the party.

Wang Xiaolin leans across to catch the man's attention, and an attentive
listener could discern a few words only in the winds. 'Easel'. 'Drawing'.
'Talent.' The Guide nods his head and looks over at where the little boy is
standing, slightly apart from the waiting crowd.

Ma Ping is glad he can't hear tiancai but he's sure it's implied. He feels tears
pricking at his eyes, and turns away to look up at the pathway ahead. The
track is wide enough really for only one person at a time, although two
children might walk hand in hand along it. He swallows heavily and pushes
thoughts of Ma Ling from him. He closes his eyes, wondering if by some
magic when he opens them, he might miraculously find himself in Guyuan,
standing in front of his meatballs restaurant. Of course, when he does finally
open them, it is to see An Xueping and Wang Xiaolin walking towards him,
the man carrying his easel, and his wife smiling shakily up at her husband.
Members of the party are starting the long march ahead and approaching him
at some speed. He turns away and begins the ascent at a sharp pace.

He looks ahead. The sides of the pathway are encrusted with tufts of gorse
and rough grass, thrusting their untidy way out of the yellow sandy earth.
Above his head, an eagle wheels its golden way up into the thermals, until it
is almost lost from sight and sound. In one place, as Ma Ping passes, a tree
stump grows at a seemingly impossible angle, its bark cracked and split with
the sandy soil, its pale-green leaves choked with dust and age and grime and
neglect, with parched roots longing for water, the need for sustenance oozing
out of its aura. Ma Ping stands unable to move past it, his guardians and the
rest of the crowd squeezing past him, some asking him what he's going to
draw today, and might he have time to draw them, but he ignores them,
scarcely hearing them as they scratch their presence on the pebbles and scree,
being referred to something up ahead and on the right. Ma Ping stands rooted
to the spot now, staring, ripped suddenly out of his numb introspection of the
morning. His eyes grow wider and wider at what he is witnessing. It isn't a
still life he is contemplating: it is nature, red in tooth and claw, which tears at
his consciousness until he gasps with the reality of it all. He reaches out a
hand, and his fingers touch at the surface of the gritty leaves, their veins
standing out in lighted emphases along their chalky lengths.

'Wang Xiaolin!' he calls, suddenly, oblivious to anything else but an urgent
thumping of his heart and the thrilling of adrenaline inside him. 'The easel!
The easel!' Some of the long line of people turn at the unexpected breaking of

the mountain's other easeful silence, and Wang Xiaolin squeezes back past the
people and approaches the child, the easel clattering on the steep sides.

'Come on, now. We have to keep up!' he protests, standing in front of the boy.
'Why? Please, no, I must paint this! I have to draw it first,' he pleas in a tone
so adamant, without raising his voice, that Wang Xiaolin is convinced.
He looks at the child, his neat features animated in a way he hasn't seen for a
week, and suddenly realises just how quiet he has been during this recent
period. How could he not have noticed?
'We can't ask everyone to wait,' he says gently.
'Please, please!'

This urgency doesn't feel right, though, and the professor purses his lips,
trying to make up his mind, turning to look at the retreating crowd around a
corner. His wife, now standing at the end of the line, looks back and forth. At
another time, Ma Ping would have wanted to capture the flow of her
appearance, but not now. Now it only matters that he draws what he is
watching: a tree is thrusting itself against gravity, against reality, out of this
sheer rock-face towards the other side, where it will embed itself in the
opposing rock-face, thus joining two great petals of the lotus flower together.
Ma Ping looks from one side of the walkway to the other, as if scanning its
domain. The tree can't be growing like this, and yet it is. The pattern it
renders against the time-flinted rocks - with their black and white endlessly
etched with the sandpapers of wind - is both smooth and sharp, and Ma Ping
reaches out and touches it, then trails his hand over the thicker stem of the
tree where it emerges from the rockface, and then along, up its knobbly
emaciated trunk, up, past its sprouting branches, up and out towards himself
in the windy air. He feels not a gap between the tree and air and himself, only
a change of state, and now on experiencing the connected nature of
everything around him, his breath comes in short gasps. He staggers a little,
severing everything, blinking rapidly, with a sense of rising panic. He must
draw it now before it changes any more!
'Please, Wang Xiaolin. 'I don't care about the rest of the mountain. Please let
me draw this. Please!' Wang Xiaolin knows he cannot resist this plea.
'All right. I'll sort it out,' he says, arranging the legs of the easel and retreating
over to where his wife is waiting impatiently.

Ma Ping tears the pad of paper from his rucksack, cursing his clumsy fingers
and the wind for blowing the sheet loudly back and forward before he can
clip it to the stand, where it rattles moodily in staggered bursts of energy. He
places the easel from where he can face the tree stump side-on, and
immediately, without a sense of anything else, he draws in quick, confident,
heavy strokes, almost seering the paper, capturing the blaring intensity of the

little tree's enormous strength as it burts through the rock, dislodging millions
of years of wind and water and ground and sky with clouds distilling as
eternity. Ma Ping draws on, knowing nothing else but the necessity of
capturing this miracle of life, feeling its strength surging into him, threatening,
in fact, to set him off-balance with its magnitude. He stops suddenly, his
inspiration dissipated like the winds howling around him. Inside him no
longer. He pants with exhaustion and completion, yet feeling a momentary
severance, wondering where all that energy has so entirely gone. He breathes
quickly, his heart beating painfully.

'He's a tiancai,' An Xueping says in explanatory mode. She is, without
warning, putting her arm around him in a possessive gesture. People nod
their heads in approval now, instead of shaking them in impatience at this
strange child who speaks strangely and prevents them moving on. Ma Ping
starts at his guardian's touch, and turns to see people craning their necks to
get a good look at what he has accomplished. Nods and murmurs of approval
ripple through the crowd. He turns back, his face set, unclips the drawing and
reaches down in a single motion, to the rucksack lying abandoned on the
pathway, and folds the paper inside the pad. He straightens up.
'Thank you, Wang Xiaolin,' he says, wearily, but more happily than he has
managed for some time. 'Shall we go, then?'
Wang Xiaolin ruffles the child's hair in an affectionate gesture and the crowds
turn away, pushing and jostling past each other to get into a better position
for walking up to the next stopping place on the mountainside.

The Guide tut tuts - from the front of the slowly-climbing trail - about wasting
time, and there is both agreement and disagreement along the ranks, but the
ayes have it eventually, and Ma Ping knows he must be careful not to attract
attention to himself again. But if he could be careful, he would. Do they think
he wants to be seized by these urges when there are all these people around?
Is it his fault that the tree grows like that? He can't help it! They don't
understand. No one understands. Even Ma Shipeng doesn't understand, does
he? And Teacher Deng really had a go at him after he had that incident with
the poster paper when he was cleaning the classroom in Guyuan, and Ding
Pengcheng certainly didn't have any understanding of how he felt and they
were supposed to be friends. Poor Ding Pengcheng! But he can't think about
him now. It only makes him feel guilty and sad. He almost wishes he misses
him, and then feels strange for wishing such a thing.

An Xueping is admonishing him to hurry up, takes the easel and passes it to
Wang Xiaolin. He looks up at both of them, wordless now, squeezing what
they can't say to each other through him, and he closes his eyes at the

Much later, the party has climbed slowly, but inexorably towards the summit
of the Western Peak with breathtaking views over misty plains. In places the
pathway is so narrow, that some of the tired climbers have to squeeze past the
encroaching shrubs and jagged rocks, some with more complaints than others.
Ma Ping, An Xueping and Wang Xiaolin are trailing behind now, each with
their own reasons for their reluctance.
'Come on, I think we've gone far enough now.' Wang Xiaolin stops and leans
forward into his shallow breath. 'I'm not as young as I once was.' He attempts
levity, but neither of the other two smile.
'We'll stop after the next corner!' the Guide shouts back to everyone, and
murmurs of approval, with some complaints about how long it's been, ripple
through the crowd.

Up here, the air is cool and fragrant, and Ma Ping notices the tufts of hardy
flowers poking through the edge of the pathway. Purple, yellow, pink and
red. They prick his consciousness, but he is still mesmerised by the little tree
he saw at the bottom of the mountain: these flowers could only be pinpoint
planets around their sun, and his mind begins to construct just such a picture.
He walks up the hill, propelling himself forward in his mind to a future that is
more bearable to contemplate than his present situation. He looks back at
Wang Xiaolin's bowed form and forward at An Xueping's back, straight and
unyielding even at this gradient, and concentrates instead on his inner
landscape. He stops a moment and leans over into the mountain-side, and
feels how huge is this place, how miraculous. He leans a little further over
and heaves lungs full of clean air into his small fame.

Wang Xiaolin walks reluctantly. Perhaps he is ill, he thinks to himself. His
breath is coming in short bursts. He is sweating profusely and feels cold and
clammy. Whatever is the matter with him? The birds are twittering around
him and the sun is at its zenith, bathing the whole scene in a clarity of outlines
and distances that makes everything seem near. There is a rail for the frailer
visitor, and Wang Xiaolin grabs hold of it and, bending forward, makes a
slow and awkward progress towards the next rest-stop, snatching at the rail
as he stumbles forward. There is an acute pain in his chest, and although he
knows his heart is in danger, it is not from an attack. He stops and looks out
at the scene before him, the vegetation growing in burgeoning eagerness out
of the rocks below. He leans over a little and surveys the distance they have
walked. The foot of the mountain is swathed in greenery, tufts of awkward
little trees, and his feet are slipping on scree. He stops again where he is - the
last visitor to that elevated world. He stares out at the layers of mountains,
turning blue in the distance, melding with the clear sky of an early autumn

day, and suddenly he cannot move in any direction. He sees the wisps of
cloud drifting by him below, like distant neighbours in sailboats; he feels the
clarity of the day as if it is everywhere. He sees Ma Ping leaning over the

He blinks rapidly at the images his mind is now relaying him from its vast
store of opening caskets, as if the moment is fuelling his memory like bellows,
the images surging out in gusts which render him both nauseous and
immobile. He wants to call out to Ma Ping to step back from the side, but he
cannot speak. He can feel himself willing himself to speak, but no sound
utters. And now, he feels, rather than sees clearly, images of another time,
another place - albeit obviously a mountain - and he hears childish laughter,
sees the smile of a young woman, turning at the corner, waving at him, and
then disappearing from sight. He sees himself walking over to a little girl, her
long hair tied back in a pony-tail. She turns to look at him, her merry eyes
twinkling in delight. She turns back again and leans over the balcony-rail,
leaning into the abyss, and then, from nowhere, youths in red-guard uniforms
push past him, one holds his arms and another pushes the girl in a clean
sweep over the side. He staggers and then calls out as a child's scream echoes
in fading tones out of another time and into this.

'Little Yan!' he calls and stumbles forward. 'Oh, may the Buddha save me!'
'Little Yan!' he screams, as he makes to wrest Ma Ping from falling.

'An Xueping, it's Wang Xiaolin!' calls Ma Ping afraid, pulling himself out of
the man's tortured arms, as the professor falls to his knees in the scree. 'Are
you all right, Wang Xiaolin?' The man doesn't reply, leaning against Ma Ping
now, who has embraced him where he fell, his left hand stretched out on the
scree, his fingers scrabbling so hard on the rough surface, that blood is
seeping through the joins and Ma Ping watches in horror as the man in his
embrace shivers and trembles and bleeds, clutching at the ground and calling
out a name over and over again: Yanyan! Yanyan!

An Xueping rushes to join them, and quite a crowd is now scratching down
the scree to watch the unexpected spectacle. Comments are passed about the
fact that the three of them are rather odd anyway. The child is clearly out of
control and now we can see why.

Ma Ping has helped Wang Xiaolin to his feet and he is resting against the rail,
his eyes fixed somewhere else, with an expression which truly frightens the
boy. The man's lips are moving but no sounds are emerging. The child hears
the people's imprecations and they frighten him too, because for a moment,
he believes their accusations. Wang Xiaolin is pale and looks as if he might

faint. Ma Ping lifts the man's arm around his shoulder and they both stand,
propping each other up against the railing. The child says something to An
Xueping about the man's colour, alerting him to the fact that if she doesn't
take charge, they're both going to fall down.

'Get them to move!' says An Xueping angrily to the Guide, going to her
husband's unsupported side, and lifting his arm around her neck. The man
has now come to the front of the crowd and is staring closely at the professor.
Her authoritative tone is effective, however, and the Guide, somewhat
shamefacedly, after asking whether he should fetch someone and being
roundly told to mind his own business, gathers his party together and they all
eventually move away, looking back to catch glimpses of the drama.

Gradually, their voices recede. An Xueping looks up at her husband's profile.
'What, in the name of The Buddha, do you think you're playing at?' she bluffs.
She is afraid. The man is clearly deranged. He doesn't seem to know where he
'Let's get him to the next seat,' Ma Ping says, more for something to say than
because he thinks it's a good plan.
'But all the people…' An Xueping protests.
'They'll be gone soon. He needs to sit down.' His unexpectedly bossy manner
reassures both of them, and slowly, one on each side, they lead Wang Xiaolin
up the path, which luckily expands towards the corner, gradually finding that
he is walking more and leaning less, until at last they reach the corner, and in
turning it, gratefully see the party of visitors leaving the scene, although a few
look back and spot them, nudging each other in anticipation of further antics.
An Xueping glares at them furiously, and they scuttle away.

Wang Xiaolin sits down without help. An Xueping shakes her head. 'I just
hope, for your sake, that no one knows us here.' She hisses in his ear, but loud
enough for Ma Ping to hear, at which he goes to look out at the view, a
magnificent bay of colour and depth and perspective, stretching away into the
infinity of his imagination. He turns back to his guardians and sees Wang
Xiaolin sitting, leaning forward on the seat, his arms splayed over his knees,
his eyes fathoms of despair, and his heart contracts with pity, although he has
no understanding of what is happening. He wants to rush to him and tell him
that everything will be all right. He feels again the old man's kindness to him.
An Xueping has turned away in exasperation, hiding her fear. She is trying,
quite consciously, to turn this into his fault, because she knows that it isn't,
and that she cannot deal with whatever it is he is feeling. She knows too, that
he has been feeling this for years, and that she has known he has felt
something so painful he cannot face it, that whatever has happened isn't an
aberration - it is their lives together that have been just that. She doesn't know

how she knows this, but as she closes her eyes against the despairs of her
recent life, she realises that his have lasted a lifetime.

Ma Ping watches them suffering alone. ''Why?'' is the only word, which he
can utter in the face of such actively-sought isolation. Why are they behaving
so weirdly? Why can't they just say what's the matter? He shakes his head as
the tears fall in pity at what he is witnessing. He is trembling with fear, with
confusion, but also with anger. Anger that these people are messing things up
so much and that they cannot simply be happy. But it is pity that wins the day,
and he rushes to the silently weeping Wang Xiaolin, rushes into the man's
arms and feels the restoring warmth in his embrace. Their tears mingle.

'What's happening?' An Xueping is by their side now, standing stiffly, looking
on, unable to function. Wang Xiaolin looks up out of the bleakness of his face
and alarms her despite her need to believe this isn't fundamentally serious.

'Sit down!' he says to her, sitting up straight. 'I have something to tell you.' He
swallows painfully. 'Ma Ping, my dear, please go and amuse yourself a while.
I will be all right,' he says in response to Ma Ping's reluctance. 'And thank you,
child. You have done more for me today than you can ever know.' Tears and
nods of the head emphasise his words, and Ma Ping stands up reluctantly,
relinquishing the professor to his wife as An Xueping sits down, turning to
the man who now seems back in control.

'Go on!' she repeats as an unnecessary aside to the child, who feels her words
as another rejection, and slouches off to the railings to drink in the view, to
wait for their next arbitrary ultimatums. His mind drifts forward to the future
again as a palliative against present stresses, and he looks out over the
railings and dreams of a different life, one in which people behave in
explicable ways, with kindness and simplicity and honesty in their feelings, a
life in which anger is momentary and then gone forever, and not wielded like
an open threat to the presently achieved harmony, a life in which love
triumphs, albeit slowly sometimes, over routine and form and public opinion.
His family, in other words. He is dreaming of his family.

And as the rains begin to swell on this early Autumn day, and the winds
howl their energy around the mountain, Ma Ping is filled with a sense of
something about to explode, Wang Xiaolin begins to talk.

'I haven't lied to you. I have only lied to myself,' he begins shakily, staring
straight ahead. 'I hardly know how to speak to you. I hardly know if after
what I am about to tell you, you will ever want me to speak again. I hardly
know if…'

His breath now comes in sobbing gasps, and he bows his head, whether in
shame or feelings of being overwhelmed, An Xueping doesn't know, but she
takes his hand and begins gently, to chafe it in her own. He raises his head
gratefully at her touch. Her own eyes fill with tears. She realises that what she
is about to hear will change her life and his. She is hardly conscious of Ma
Ping, but quickly glances over to where he is standing with his back to her,
looking at the view. He's all right, then.

'I have been married before,' he states, the formation of the words conveying
reality on something he has put out of his mind for 35 years. He feels the
shape of the words as not only enabling the narrative of his life to become real
again, but also in part creating that reality. He feels out of his depth with
words for the first time in his life, feeling their strength. He understands,
without considering it, his lifelong attempt to shape words into calligraphy,
containable, beautiful. Not like these: dangerous, unpredictable. Real.
'You what?'
'Please don't interrupt, An Xueping. If you interrupt, I can't carry on.' He
stops as his emotion threatens to overwhelm him again.

'When I was twenty one I met Zheng Yan,' he continues slowly. He wants
these words to be the truth, not a further obfuscation, but he has lived
without the truth for so long, he is not sure he recognises it and is tempted,
even now, to deny anything and everything. 'I loved her more than I ever
thought I could love anyone.' He is aware of the possible effect of these
halting sentiments on her, but he can't stop now. 'She was eighteen. She was
the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. It was 1960. Our world
was young and so were we. Our glorious Motherland was a united China. It
was us against the whole world, an outside world that wasn't worth having.
Only our world was real. We were so proud and arrogant.' He stops to
consider. 'Yes, 'arrogant' is the right word.'

He smiles momentarily at Ma Ping's back.
'Arrogant, because we thought our love would raise us above any political
strife. Well, if we’d thought that's what it would have been like, but we just felt
you see. She came from a good family. Her parents were revolutionary
martyrs, and that made her safe. We thought. No,' he adds speculatively
again, as if there is a nuance in these present words which An Xueping must
not dismiss, 'we didn't think at all. We just fell in love.'

His mouth works in his emotion and he falls silent. She senses no jealousy or
any such crude emotion in herself, but she is afraid, because never once has
she ever considered that her husband might have depths she would never be
able to fathom. A husband and wife were all transparent to each other. There

were no hidden places, nowhere to hide. A husband and wife are transparent
to each other. So he has been married before. It happens. But she is wary of
hearing him speak again. Perhaps she had better check on Ma Ping. But her
husband speaks, as if recognising the necessity of seizing the present moment.

'So we married. A quick ceremony. Work in the morning, married at
lunchtime, back to work in the afternoon. We were true revolutionary patriots,
you see. We believed it was a great adventure. Everything. We believed that
sacrificing ourselves for the cause was all part of that adventure, you see.' An
Xueping doesn't, but nods anyway. She has heard stories about this time from
her parents, but no one dwells on its these days. You have to move on.

'Then she became pregnant.' At these words, An Xueping turns to him in
horror. What kind of man is she married to?
'She was beautiful. We called her Yanyan. Or Little Yan. Oh, how we loved
her!' he says, tears threatening the flow of the narrative again. He grips his
wife's hand to find the strength to continue.

'She was beautiful. Every parent says that about their child, of course, but
Yanyan was the most beautiful child in the world, you see.' He laughs ruefully,
and then, as if laughter and joy are forbidden treats for him, he censors
himself and continues. 'Such a clever little girl! We doted on her. We all doted
on her. Both families. She was a little treasure. The sweetest little girl you ever
met in your life.' He turns to his wife, as if expecting her to nod in agreement,
but she stares at him unseeing.

'She was so small as a baby, so dainty, I could lay her on one hand, her arms
and legs dangling, kicking and gurgling. And smiling at me with her bright,
oh so bright eyes.' As if to illustrate its fatherly size, he stretches out a veined
hand and looks at it, turning it over as if to check the other side. Finding it
ineloquent, he withdraws it in disappointment, not knowing what to say now.

'She was beautiful, you were saying,' An Xueping prompts gently and in her
gentleness she discovers a reservoir of love for this man that she didn't know
she could feel for him. She feels a well-spring of protectiveness, a desire to
save him from himself. She is aware of being grateful for feeling this, rather
than the distrust and the confusion that threaten to overwhelm her as well.
For the first time she perceives the etchings of suffering on his older face
instead of simply inside her own heart, and her whole being contracts with
pity. How can he not have told her about this? But this no longer feels as
accusatory, she realises. His years-long resounding silence, rather than his
present words, speak to her eloquently now of the despair he has lived with,
his constant unhappiness, his moments unfulfilled.

She remembers how, when An Zheping died, he was distraught, but never in
danger of losing himself as she was in danger of losing herself. Of course not.
You can only lose yourself once! And with a certainty, which makes her reel
with its force, she knows that his little daughter Yanyan died. And intuitively
she grasps when and how. Their tears fall silently between them like a ruined

Ma Ping turns and sees their distress. He turns away again quickly. He cannot
help. He's never able to help grown-ups. They all live in their sealed-off lives,
making incomprehensible rules and then breaking them. Draw! Don't draw!
Paint what you like! Don't paint what you like! Study calligraphy! Do it like
this! No, not like that! He sighs. The wind isn't as much cold now as chilling.
He draws his coat more tightly around him and looks out again at the view.
How long are they going to stay here? Wang Xiaolin is telling a sad story,
that's for sure. He tries to pretend indifference to their pain so that he can
simply draw, but when he retrieves the easel which has been discarded on the
pathway a little further down, and then returns to the railing, he sees Wang
Xiaolin's pain which renders him an old man, and An Xueping trying to
comfort him, and clearly not reaching him, he is struck with the pathos of the
world and that little tree blasting through the rock down below, which alone
seems to have it right. In a world in which people don't. He begins to sob as he
sets up the easel with a bank sheet and, clipping it against the tugging of the
winds, with pencil poised over the paper, he is gripped, as he almost always
is, with the fire which binds heaven and earth and renders it art.

'And after a few years, when she was growing up and we were the happiest
people in the world, Yan told me she was pregnant again. It's strange how
one event can change a life. We realised we couldn't support another child.
We didn't have anything to eat at a time when it was treason to say so. We
were eating leaves off the trees. It was the year after Mao ordered us to kill all
the birds because they were eating all the grain. Of course we all did. And so,
the insects flourished and the whole crop, all over China, was ruined. The
whole country was starving. We couldn’t see it for what it was. Even when
we heard yet another family had gone to the wall, it was never the policies'
fault, it was always that that particular family hadn't managed properly, or
perhaps they were secretly enemies of the state anyway and we were better
off without them. As long as no one came for us, eh!' He pauses again and An
Xueping squeezes his bloodied hand. 'Mao couldn't be wrong, you see. He
never was. The rest of the world, heaven and earth, could be wrong, but never

He pauses.

'A new evil was stalking China now. 1968. The Red Guard. Yan was just seven
years old. Family turning against family. Comrades turning against comrades.
My family was classed as Stinking Intellectuals52 and we were all sent into the
countryside, but not the same countryside, of course. And Yan could have
escaped such an eventuality because of her revolutionary martyr family
background, and also because she was pregnant. Another child for the
motherland! But no, she was loyal to me and that sealed her fate. This was
frowned upon. Private loyalties above public fidelity. Smacks of being
capitalist roaders53, but of course, we were true revolutionaries. She endured
meeting after meeting. Self-criticism after self-criticism 54 . A year we spent
apart. I won't tell you how. I won't tell you how we suffered. How we starved.
How our letters were never passed through to us. How we each thought the
other dead. How we lived in constant fear for our lives. Or even of the
deathly hope of reconciliation after this year of hell. Was Little Yan still alive?
Was she with her mother? What was going to happen to them? My mother
and father had died, I heard. I never quite found out how and when exactly,
but it was something and nothing.'

His voice betrays no emotion as he speaks now, and An Xueping sits in
stunned silence, hearing some, but not all, of his narrative.

Ma Ping's hand glides in almost mesmeric smoothness. In front of him, on the
easel, grows a picture of force and insight. The landscape so vividly
emblazoned all around him has leaked through onto the paper from the
canvas, from the air around him, from the wind and the trees and the flowers
and the earth beneath their feet. Peopling the picture are his present company,

   'Stinking Intellectuals' was the name given to a whole section of Chinese society during the Cultural
Revolution (1966-76), in which to be associated with any kind of book learning was to place oneself
under threat from accusations of aspirations above the common-man. Intellectuals were treated very
harshly throughout this time in China, and millions, especially those from universities, were sent into
the countryside to 'learn from the peasants'. However, the rural economy, such as it was, could not
support these 'interlopers' and their lives there were unendurably hard. Many millions died or were lost
unaccounted for, during this time. Many others were openly attacked or killed by the Red Guards
during the early days of the Cultural Revolution, as a direct consequence of Mao's comment that
constant revolution of the people by the people was the only way to control a country's destiny.
   Capitalist roaders were people in Mao's China, perceived as having capitalist sympathies in their
habits, aspirations, families connections, words, deeds, or even unspoken beliefs. Such a labeling was
dangerous and one to be avoided at all costs.
    Self-criticism was a common way for people to be tried for their 'crimes' during the Cultural
Revolution and the legacy of it obtains in present day China, but in a much milder form. As well as
going against the whole cultural issue of losing face, and thus hugely humiliating individuals, it saved
the authorities from the burden of proof. Citizens were often persuaded, bribed, blackmailed, or
tortured into confessing their sins in front of a huge audience, thus vindicating the accusers and
rendering themselves vulnerable to any punishment the authorities might choose. Nowadays, self-
criticism is a popular way of bringing private and public consciousness of guilt into the public arena.

shadows of their faces etched into the rocks facing him, their expressions of
timeless sadness haunting the frame. Ma Ping brushes tears away as he
captures their woes.

'And they condemned us both,' Wang Xiaolin continues, 'as traitors. As
subversives. As undesirables. I was paraded there in the courtyard on the
cliff-side on the first evening of our reconciliation. I had yet to see Yanyan.
But at least, I suppose, I knew she was alive then. And they put me in the
aeroplane position55 and for hours I confessed to being everything they said I
was. And then they took my wife and they did the same to her as I watched.
And people I thought I could trust, they stood and encouraged the Red
Guards and the elders. She passed out after a while, but that didn't placate
them, you see. And I was standing, restrained by three guards, and they
forced me to watch. Every time I closed my eyes against what I was having to
witness, they dug me with sharp instruments, anywhere they could reach.
Here's one, here.' He points to the faded scar on his left cheek, which An
Xueping was once going to ask about, but never has. 'That's why there's a
scar there, of course. They had to hear the confessions, that was the point of it.
They had to be heard and seen to be heard. Loudly. So they stopped for a
while, and when she came to, they gave her water, and a little rice in a bowl.
And she thought she was safe, but then they started again even worse and the
crowd cheered. With the adventure of it all, I suppose.'

He stops as his sobs make his speech unintelligible, An Xueping silently
weeping by his side. If only she could take the pain away.

'And she couldn’t stand it. Who could? When the crowd dispersed, finally,
such a long time after those moments, she staggered to her feet. I was lying,
unable to move. Perhaps she thought I was dead. I don't know what she
thought, you see, because I never spoke to her again. I saw her standing near
the cliff, turning to me, and waving. At least I think she was waving at me,
and then she fell over the side. She never made a sound, you see. Not a sound.
She died without ever speaking again. And I tried to get up, because I wasn't
sure what had happened.'

The artist is completing his art, and is deriving a compensation for the
accumulating sadness through a group of people he is sketching, positioning
them many metres away from himself as witness, their features lovingly

  The aeroplane was one of the most common torture-positions, in which someone would be forced
onto their knees, their arms raised behind them as high as they could go and their heads pushed down
towards the ground. This position could be forced for many hours, shoulders often dislocating in the
process. Whilst in this position a victim was expected to confess his/her sins, to the cheers and
imprecations of the mob.

familiar and calm, his watchful and sad too, their presence in these mountains
causing the witness Ma Ping to smile briefly at what is unfolding before his
watchful eyes both inside and outside the perimeters of the paper.

'And then I saw Yanyan, running out of the hut across towards me. She was
shouting something. I don't know what it was, and some red guards were
chasing her. Someone was screaming about Yan killing herself. Killing herself!
She was murdered, as fully as if they had pushed her over with their bare
hands. I tried to get up. I did try. I really did try. I just couldn’t move. My
limbs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t save her either. People were screaming and
shouting, not with alarm, but with fury. Fury against Yan. Against her
cowardice and that now they would have to explain what had happened and
only a guilty person flees from the people's justice. It didn't look good for
them either, of course. They knew they had gone too far. They were so angry
with her for dying. That's what I had such trouble understanding at the time.
She was dead, she couldn't talk anymore, couldn’t vindicate them anymore.
And one of them, he caught up with Yanyan, right near the edge, and he
pushed her over. Just like that! From pure spite and malice. He killed my
daughter because he couldn't kill her mother. By committing suicide she put
herself beyond the people's revenge. The ultimate crime. And I lay there on
the ground and watched it all as if it were happening in slow motion. And
now I want it finally to stop.'

He falls silent and looks out at the view before them, seeing Ma Ping drawing
effortlessly, both part of the landscape and containing it no doubt, and envies
the child's ability to create where he can only seemingly destroy.

'Oh, Xiaolin. Oh, you poor, poor man.' An Xueping sobs against his arm,
turning her face in to nestle in his warmth. However, any further words of
sympathy are stymied by the approaching sounds of the returning party. She
sits up abruptly. They will turn the corner at any moment. She cannot face
anyone, and neither, looking at his ravaged face now, can he?

'Ma Ping, we're going!' she calls out and he turns surprised at the interruption
from a world existing only in parallel with this one, but not really of it.
Shaken, and rather mechanically, he gathers his rucksack from the ground,
shovels the pencils, which have fallen out and rolled across the pathway, and
pushes them into the bag, then unclipping the paper from the easel and
tucking it carefully inside the pad, finally swinging the rucksack onto his
shoulder and clicking the easel's frame together and lifting it with both hands
under one arm, where it rests precariously.

'Can you walk?' An Xueping asks her husband.
'Walk. We need to leave now. All the people are coming back. Can't you hear
'I don’t want them to come back,' he says vaguely, and his wife wonders what
people he's meaning, her heart sinking at such despair.
'Come on, up you get,' she encourages him softly. Her gentleness is powerful
and it warms him a little. He looks at her now with the trusting complicity of
a child asked to do something which is just a little beyond his competence,
but taking heart anyway from the adult's belief that he can do it if he only

He tries. And they make slow, rather rambling progress down the
mountainside. No one speaks, but it is a very different silence from the one
they all experienced so separately on the ascent.

The wind is dropping noticeably, and the adults pass round the next corner
and out of sight. Ma Ping pauses to touch again the leaves of the little tree as
it bursts out of the bank across the path, his plan for what will happen to him
in the next stage of his life, now firmly rooted in his mind.

It isn't so much hope he feels as a gritty determination.

Chapter Nine: Monday, 29th September
'Don't be late!' An Xueping calls out, but the door has already slammed shut.
Sighing heavily, she pads back into the bedroom, where Wang Xiaolin is lying
staring at the ceiling, a position he has occupied all night and where, for most
of the time, she has joined him. His silence is frightening her. He talked a little
when they first climbed into bed. She nestled close to him at first, but his rigid
back, the lack of response in his arms and hands, made her give up quickly.
'Talk to me, husband,' she asked him. 'Please. It doesn't really matter what
about, just talk to me.'
'I have nothing to say,' he responded dully. 'Don’t nag!'
This was so unfair as to make her gasp, but as she made to retort, she saw the
marble sadness of his profile, and the recriminations died in her throat.

And now, she sits on the edge of his side of the bed and strokes his brow. He
looks much older this morning than his 62 years. From agility to decay in a
single day, but then she knows it's taken a lot longer than that. She gets up
again and goes over to the white, fitted wardrobe, opening it on her
traditional-Chinese-costume side, rifling through, and finding a black and
gold-woven suit, slim-fit traditional jacket with the frog-fasteners down the
side, and a trim black-silk skirt. She slips out of her night-clothes, kicking

them away from her and adoitly dresses herself, adjusting the final fastener,
and standing back to survey herself in the door's full-length mirror. Satisfied,
she gives her reflection a half-nod and turns, calling out in surprise. Wang
Xiaolin is sitting bolt-upright in the bed, staring at her. The unexpectedness of
his actions renders it uncomfortable, as if she has been spied on by a stranger.
She blushes but recovers herself quickly.

'It suits me this one,' she says with a nervous laugh. 'Do you remember, you
bought it for me a couple of years ago when we went to Shanghai.' No,
perhaps this was not the best memory to evoke for him, the father of two,
possibly three, dead children. An Zhepeng had, of course, been with them in
Shanghai, exuberant, as she now remembers, for missing three whole days of
school, although Wang Xiaolin had insisted that he study every evening. It
wasn't a holiday for them either. They were scouting for a new piano teacher
for the boy. Zhu Ru-sheng was considered one of the finest in China, and thus
they had to have him. An Xueping smiles at the memory, leaning gently
against the dressing table on which her favourite picture of her son sits in
cheeky splendour: a moment when he was un-self-consciously showing his
father what he had learnt to play that day, and she had photographed him as
she stood at the door. It is a simple photograph, no deep study of a human
psyche, and yet, precisely because of that spontaneity, it shows up more of the
child, to her mind, than any other picture they have of him. His face is in
profile, his enthusiasm shining from it, his hands sculpted on the keys, staring
at someone (his father?). Staring at the father of three dead children.

'You look good in it,' her husband replies unexpectedly. 'You always did, my
dear. Come over here.'
She swallows awkwardly, and does as he bids her, sitting down close to him.
She looks at his weary face, the lines of care and hopelessness carved cruelly
into his features.
'Oh Xueping!' he calls out suddenly, and gathers her to him, with broken sobs.
'You are so beautiful. So was Yan.' And his sobs deepen. 'And Yanyan. And
'My dear,' his wife says tenderly, stroking his hair as he relaxes entirely
against her, his heart breaking with the weight of death. 'It's all right. You're
safe now,' she says, her own tears shining, and wondering whether he really

'What on earth were you playing at yesterday? You made a right fool out of
me,' snarls Xu Xiaojia at the school gates, jerking the smaller lad round. His
own face is twisted in a grimace so ugly, Ma Ping wonders coldly how he
ever thought the boy was handsome.

'You did it to yourself,' he says plainly. Xu Xiaojia gasps at the child's calm
'You'd better watch out!' he begins.
'No! You better had!' rejoins Ma Ping, yanking himself free from the older
boy's grip and facing him. 'I told my guardians you were ill. Otherwise, I
could have told them the truth - that you are so arrogant and lazy and
disrespectful, that you hadn't even got ready for them. I could report you to
the head-teacher for your attitude and I somehow think you'd be in trouble.
So, no, you shut up!'

He stalks off, anger, determination and (Xu Xiaojia has reluctantly to admit to
himself) rectitude in his bearing. The older student calculates rapidly what
chance he might have of gaining anything more from his alliance with the boy,
and decides to leave it until breaktime, when he'll have had a chance to cool
down. He looks after the retreating figure and smiles at this unexpected

Ma Ping enters the classroom.
'Hi,' says Zhang Luxia happily as soon as she sees him. 'Have a good
weekend?' She is copying a passage out of the English course-book into her
exercise-book. Laboriously checking the spellings as she goes along. English
isn't her favourite lesson. Gao is sitting, watching the exchange, but not
attempting to join in. Other students are milling around, shouting out to each
other, talking about their weekends. Many students acknowledge him with
grins and mock-punches on the shoulder. He responds little.
'All right, I suppose,' he says in reply. His voice is flat and she looks up at him
quizzically. 'Well, I did. Thanks for asking,' she says in clipped tones. If he's
going to be moody again, she can't really be bothered, and bends her head
again to the task ahead. Five minutes until the bell. Five minutes until she gets
into trouble again. She doesn't have time for this palaver.

Ma Ping plonks himself down in the seat next to her, looks over at her once or
twice after dropping his rucksack onto his desktop, extracts his drawing pad,
and begins to draw hastily. He pushes the finished article across the desk
towards her a few moments later. At first she pushes it back with her elbow,
not looking at it, but he offers it again. Finally, she puts down her pen with a
sigh and turns to look at it. She bursts out laughing loudly.

'Good morning, class,' says Han Yongchun, and everyone stands noisily,
stools grating on the concrete floor.
'Good morning, Sir,' they chant in straggly unison.
'Zhang, report to me after class!' the teacher orders the still-laughing girl, who
has failed to repress her mirth. 'And what's that?' he demands, pointing to the

paper before she has a chance to hide it under her desk. Ma Ping stands up
and retrieves the drawing from her fingers and holds it up. Ths class waits in
delicious anticipation. A class confrontation always distracts the teacher from
the lesson and this promises to be a good one!

'It's mine, Sir,' Ma Ping explains. 'I drew Zhang Luxia because I had been rude
to her this morning and I upset her, so I drew a picture to make her laugh.'
'And did it work, Ma?' the teacher asks, a twinkle in his eyes, and with his
head, indicating the girl whose whole body is still shaking with repressed
Ma Ping begins to laugh at the question, throwing back his head and roaring
with the delight of it. The class, looking at each other in confusion at first,
begins to laugh too.
'All right, all right, that's enough children!' Han Yongchun says with quiet
control. 'Zhang Luxia, in future, try to contain yourself. And Ma?'
'Yes, sir?'
'Sit down, you scallywag!'

'Yes, sir!' He sits with a delighted grin on his face and a twinge of regret that
he has such a short time left with such a kind teacher. Everything will be all
right, though. All he has to do is bide his time, organise a few details and then
everything will be ready. And now, he looks down at the picture, which
shows a caricatured Ma Ping, his tongue lolling out of his head, his eyes
bulging, and his head bent at an angle due to the noose being tightened
around his neck. The single word, 'sorry', adorns the bottom of the page. He
reaches for it and begins to scrunch it up.
'No!' hisses Zhang Luxia, pulling it out of his reach and placing it flattened in
the bag down by her side. 'I want to keep that!' She faces the front again and
assiduously turns to her textbook. Ah yes, Ma Ping realises, English first. A
good thing he's studied for it. He'd better answer a few questions today. He
doesn't want to draw any negative attention towards himself now. The lesson
proceeds smoothly and he answers two questions, asks none and writes down
everything carefully because he'll need those details for next class' answers.

After exercises in the morning break, he finds himself, as usual, the object of
interest and has taken his drawing pad outside especially. He draws swiftly,
handing over the sketches hurriedly before going on to the next, and makes
plans for completing a few portraits at lunchtime as well. In fact, he has had
the good organisational sense to bring a small book in which he writes down
the names of the students whose pictures he has promised. A long list. Every
spare moment accounted for until Thursday. That should do it, he thinks, as
he stands next to the wall and peruses the names and calculates how much he

can charge for each one. He's put the word round and now everyone knows
he's back in business. Four yuan a picture.

'Ma!' shouts Gao suddenly, running breathlessly up to him, surprising him so
much he drops the little ledger.
'What?' he snaps angrily, stooping down to pick it up.
'Li Peidong wants to see you? And what did your last slave die of?' the boy
rejoins stiffly. He isn't used to this tone from Ma Ping. What on earth is wrong
with him?
'Li Peidong?' repeats Ma Ping with quiet horror. Surely, they can't have found
out already. He feels suddenly sick. Has someone been watching him? No,
calm down. It's nothing. It's not related.
'Asking questions!' he says with a forced smirk at Gao.
'What?' asks the boy, mystified.
'What my last slave died of,' he replies.
'Oh!' Gao steps back. 'Er, sometime in this century would be good!'
'Right.' Ma Ping tucks the small writing pad in his pocket. 'Do me a favour,
would you?' he says distractedly. 'Take this back into the classroom.'
'I'm not your messenger boy!' Gao says sulkily, but Ma Ping isn't listening.
Instead he hands the drawing pad and new pencils to his annoyed classmate
and sprints away across the playground.

Xu steps in his way.
'Hey, Ma, where are you going?' he calls out after him, as Ma Ping dodges
him, and scoots towards the headteacher's room.
'Somewhere!' the child replies cheekily over his shoulder, enjoying his sense
that nothing here really matters here anymore, and that he doesn't have to
weigh up words and deeds, but can be free of all those responsibilities. He
enters the building, on the third floor of which, Li Peidong has his office. He
runs up the stairs. This will be only the second time he has been here. Last
time he lost the golden pencil he'd bought with the money his aunt gave him.
He wonders idly whether it will still be here.

'Xiaolin, do you want another cup of tea?'
He sighs. 'Yes, please, my dear. Thank you.' He stretches out his hand to her
as she walks past to the work-surface where she has left the glass pot of tea.
She trails her fingers through his. He wraps his dressing gown closely round
him and sits back comfortably on the kitchen chair, stretching his legs out
under the table.
'Mrs. Chang coming this morning?' he asks her.
'No, silly, tomorrow. It's always Tuesday. Why can't men remember details
like that?' She exaggerates her pleasure in answering such a domestic

question but sees, with a sinking heart, that he is no longer attending to her
and is sitting, staring ahead instead. What is he seeing? She stands and
watches him.

'Ah, come in, Ma. How are you?'
'Fine, thank you, Sir,' he replies, timidly, shutting the door behind him. He
looks over to the man whose distant presence in the school evokes both
respect and liking. He looks tired today, Ma Ping realises, his eyes crinkling
with exaggerated welcome, as if to disguise the fact.
'How are you doing?' he asks, indicating the chair opposite.
'Er, fine, thank you, Sir.' Ma Ping remains standing, feeling awkward.
'And your guardians? Everything all right there?'
'Yes, sir, thank you, sir.' Ma Ping blushes. What would he think if he'd seen
them only yesterday, crying on the mountainside? He looks inquisitively at
the man, until Li Peidong turns to face him from where he has been stacking a
few files behind him on the shelves built into the wall.
'Sit down, I said. Sit down!'
Ma Ping is worried now. Children are not asked into the headteacher's office,
nor, if they are, are they ever asked to sit down. He is either in big trouble, or
the man something to tell him. Oh no, of course, Wang Xiaolin! Something's
happened to Wang Xiaolin. Li Peidong's going to tell him he's dead. Ma Ping
sits down heavily, realising at once how much he loves the man, and that he
should have been kinder to him. He slammed out of the house this morning.
Perhaps that was the last straw. What if Wang Xiaolin has killed himself
because of his cruelty? Oh, why did he ever come here in the first place? To be
responsible for so much, it's just so unfair. He stares across at the man blankly,
seeing his lips move, but not being able to distinguish anything at all, already
feeling the weight of foreboding crippling him.

'So we were wondering, whether you should do the main calligraphy over the
With both surprise and relief, Ma Ping realises that he has missed the first
part of the man's suggestion. Wang Xiaolin isn't dead after all. He is so
relieved, he feels suddenly sick.
'Um, excuse me, sir,' he asks humbly. 'I er, could you say it again, please? I'm
a bit surprised, you see!' his face lending his statement an open veracity. It's
an astute gambit from the child, however, because the headteacher is quite
prepared to start again from the beginning and tells him that in the new Art
Block, there is to be a display of students' work and his has been chosen to
stand over the arched entrance. Zhao Bin will be there to open the new wing.
But of course, he's already met the Great Man, hasn't he? It all becomes clear.
Ma Ping dismisses what was a growing feeling of empathy for the man as he

leans across his desk and takes a cigarette from the small wooden box in front
of him and lights it from a disposable lighter next to it.

'What did the two of you talk about?' asks Li Peidong, with a winning smile,
leaning back in his chair and blowing a waft of blue smoke across the desk.
'About calligraphy, sir,' the student replies flatly. 'He said I needed to
'And of course, he's right.'
'Of course he is,' agrees Ma Ping mendaciously.
'And what else?'
'He said that representational art is not suitable for a child's talents at the present
time and that one should devote oneself to the greater rigour of calligraphy by
studying the Masters.' He rattles off the quotation he overheard between Zhao
Bin and Wang Xiaolin the previous week with affected ease, as if he has
practised it out of respect, whereas someone who knows Ma Ping well, for
example, his Aunt Bai, might recognise his slightly haughty tones and give
him a clip round the ear to instil a proper sense of respect.

'So, you are to prepare some calligraphy for the occasion. Perhaps you can
discuss it with Professor Wang. It has to be your best, Ma, and our calligraphy
teacher says you are very capable but erratic.'
Oh, thinks Ma Ping indifferently.
'And so that means lots of practice. Now, as you know, the art block will be
completed next month. So, you'll need to do some after-school sessions. We
want this to be a very high-profile process. This school's name will be on
everyone's lips. It is a great privilege to have Zhao Bin as a guest here, and I
hope you realise that, my lad!'

Shades of the past sink heavily onto Ma Ping's shoulders. At such a time to be
given this responsibility. Well, there's no point in worrying about it. He's not
doing it anyway, and that's that.

'Well, then,' continues Li Peidong, as if it's all settled. He grinds the cigarette
out in an overflowing ashtray, and stretches out behind him to reach for a fat
loose-leaf folder on the shelf, and as he swings it round, papers glide out from
its leaves and float to the floor. Ma Ping rushes from his seat in front of the
seat to pick them up, seeing a piece of headed notepaper bearing the crest of
Beijing Normal University's Architecture Department. He places the sheet on
the table where he can read it in greater detail, as Li Peidong is retrieving the
vast majority of the fallen leaves behind the large desk. Beijing Normal
University? I his guardian involved in this building work, then?

Suddenly he notices the pen-jar beside the headteacher's telephone. Out of it,
sticks a golden pencil. His eyes widen, with surprise, but also anger. This was
a gift from his aunt. He reaches over to claim it.
'Thanks, Ma,' says Li Peidong, straightening up, and the child retracts his
hand swiftly, looking at it longingly. They both return to their seats.
'My pencil, sir,' Ma Ping says, pointing to the jar.
'What?' Li Peidong is rifling through the retrieved pages and barely attends to
the child. He inserts the headed sheet of paper into a sheaf in the folder, and
closes it.
'That's my pencil, sir. The gold one. I dropped it when I first came in here.'

Li Peidong looks up and laughs. It isn't an unkind sound, although it feels like
it to Ma Ping, whose nerves are already so taut. 'One pencil looks very like
another, I fear.' He takes it out of the jar and contemplates it. Ma Ping
imagines drawing a caricature of this man being hanged as he represented
himself in the drawing for Zhang Luxia only that morning. But for him no
joke or reprieve. This caricature isn't funny! Li Peidong replaces the pencil
back in its jar and sits, joining his hands like a steeple, the tips touching his
chin and looking speculatively at the child. Ma Ping thinks he might explode
with the unfairness of it all. Not just the pencil. Everything.
'My pencil, sir,' he repeats, calmly, willing himself to look at his headteacher
without his stare revealing his anger.
Li Peidong narrows his eyes.
'Are you contradicting me, Ma?' he asks. 'I have to warn you…' Li Peidong
places the pencil on the desk between them.

'It is my pencil, sir.' Ma Ping's voice takes on tones of pleading now, which he
realises as the words are out of his mouth, might give a bully an excuse to
bully. He feels a tight coldness inside. However, he is not at all afraid. Not of
anyone or anything. No, not him! He knows he's right, and whatever this
man's response, it doesn't matter anyway, does he? He won't be here much

'Look,' he says, reaching across the desk and picking it up, looking at the man
with an expression which could be interpreted as seeking permission. 'It has
this nick in the stem. See. There!' he exclaims, finding it, and pointing to the
blemish, passing it near to the headteacher for his scrutiny, but carefully, the
man notices, not relinquishing it to him.

Li Peidong narrows his eyes. This boy is a brat! It comes as something of a
shock to him. Meek and mild he was when he first joined the school. And
look at him now, sitting there with assumed humility. If there's one thing he
can't stand, it's arrogance in a child. And all this pandering to him. He hasn't

got time for this. He turns to look at the child full in the face, preparing to
blast him out of his arrogance! Giving him his own studio at his age, for
goodness' sake. Prominent citizens like Wang and An taking him in as well. A
Hui boy from the countryside. It can only come to grief. Differences like that
can't be squared. He shakes his head.

'I think you have an attitude problem,' he says slowly, waiting for the effect of
his pronouncement, as he watches Ma playing with the pencil, tracing it
through his fingers, watching it intently, eyes cast down. The child's mouth is
working with emotion, repressing something. The man tries to harden himself
against what he can see in the boy, but even his tiredness, his busyness, don't
make that possible.
'Your talent, Ma,' he begins, 'doesn't give you the right to treat other people as
if they're less than you. Just remember where you come from!' The instant he
says it, he regrets it, though. He hadn't meant it that way. Not in that way. He
sighs as he sees the child stiffen in front of him. How could he have said that
so clumsily?

Ma Ping sits, feeling the fire of the previous day's creativity on the
mountainside, threaten to combust from within, in a conflagration that would
take in a headmaster or two. Speak harshly to him and it's fine. Criticise his
family, well, that's a completely different matter. He looks up and straight
into the man's eyes, no flinching now, puffing himself up to his fullest height,
like a meerkat in the desert on the lookout for danger. His eyes are full, so
pendant with tears, whether of rage or sadness, the headteacher cannot tell,
but he is struck by the child's strength of character. He is such a young boy, so
clearly out of his depth in this place, and yet so much is expected of him: his
teacher says he is talented but undisciplined. Why would he be undisciplined
if he were happy?

'I'm not your enemy, Ma,' he says wearily, leaning forward in a conspiratorial
gesture, placing his arms on the desk, joining his hands, speaking with a
softness Ma Ping cannot cope with. 'I'm not insulting your family, boy. I just
want you to remember that you are no more important than anyone else,
that's all.' The kindness of the man's tone reaches through the carapace Ma
Ping has constructed for himself, and threatens to undermine everything. He
lowers his eyes. This brittle shell is the shelter he retreats within, drawing
himself up tightly inside. If it is pierced, then he cannot do what he has to do.
He steels himself.
'Is anything worrying you, Ma?' The man is tired. He has a meeting with
some building-sponsors in a few moments, then so much paperwork to
complete before lunch. In the afternoon, it's a visit to a neighbouring school to

see how they deal with the influx of foreign students and teachers, how they
might build closer links with the wider world. He is struck by the paradox of
the situation in which he finds himself now, sitting opposite this little boy,
who finds clearly no warmth in his school, a country boy who can find no
community in the city. Such a paradox accuses the man.
'No, sir. I'm fine, thank you,' the child replies dutifully, severing any real
possibility of contact.

The telephone rings suddenly, restoring them both to the immediacy of their
lives. As he picks it up, the headmaster gestures, half-reluctantly, to his
student to leave, nodding at him and then speaking into the receiver, his
attention all drawn away.
'Yes, yes, of course,' Ma Ping hears the man say as he walks over to the door,
clutching the pencil tightly in his hand, and wondering why he feels as if he
has lost something, not gained it. He turns and looks back and suddenly, he
doesn't want to leave the ro