YOUNG FU OF THE UPPER YANGTZE by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis
– 1 –
A City Set upon a Hill
Young Fu stood on the narrow curbing before Dai’s two-storied tenement in Chair-Makers’ Way, Chungking, and stared about him. In the doorway, Fu Be Be, his mother, directed load-coolies in placing the household goods which she had brought from home, and anxiously examined each article as it passed before her. A day of clattering over country roads, followed by two on the crowded freight boat, had been difficult indeed for her, but the furniture looked no worse for wear than did her son. For him the hours had flowed into the past as swiftly as the current of the river. He had been fascinated by shifting scenes and strange faces; the constant menace of bandits with which all travel was shadowed, had added its own flavor to the experience, and when at last Chungking’s great walls had loomed above them, it had seemed the fulfillment of all his dreams.
He turned in the direction of a yell as one of the load-bearers lowered his burden of a pigskin trunk on the bare foot of a bystander. In a flash the two men, their faces white with anger, were after each other.
“Pig, have you no eyes?”
“And you, grandson of a two-headed dog, could you not see that trunk?”
“It is your affair, you whose ancestors for ten generations have been scavengers of the streets, to look where you place a load!”
“And it is yours, whose grandmother resembled a monkey, to move out of the way of workers!”
The carrier, unlike the Chungkingese about him, wore a queue, and the bystander stretched out a hand, grabbed the tail of hair, and pulled viciously. The queue, half of which was false hair plaited in with string, came apart in his hand and the onlookers roared. Furious with chagrin, the victim lifted his carrying pole to strike. As he did so, an unexpected clamor in the street drew everyone’s attention, and the bystander seized this opportunity to lose himself in the crowd.
A handsome red wedding chair, ornately decorated with gold, rolled past. Hidden completely behind its satin-hung curtains, sat a youthful bride on the way to her new home. A long train of coolies followed the chair, swinging great, painted trays on which rested roast fowls and sweetmeats, silk bed comforts and hard, lacquered pillows, sealed boxes of clothing, and pieces of furniture—all of the contributions essential to any dowry. When the last of these had disappeared from sight, the angry carrier, who had succeeded in plaiting his queue to its original length, stooped, picked up his pole, and resumed work as if nothing had ever disturbed him.
Fu Be Be breathed a sigh of relief. After the quiet countryside, this city was providing more excitement than she could well endure, but she would have to be content for her son’s sake.
Young Fu, unconscious of anything but the fact that he was now in Chungking, drew a long breath of delight. In his village men who counted it a privilege to visit this city once in a lifetime had told of its wonders.
“Miles of streets there are, lined with shops where may be purchased more than any man will ever need,” he had heard the innkeeper say one evening. “The people, a hundred times ten thousand in number—so many that they are forced to build dwellings on top of one another that all may be sheltered—work at their countless trades and, when there is time for play, enjoy themselves in handsome tea houses and theaters.” Here the speaker had paused in the act of serving a new customer and had gazed inquiringly from one listener to another. “When, sirs,” he had demanded, “do farmers and innkeepers ever find time to play? Certainly the citizens of that place are people of good fortune!”
A true saying! For Chungking, built high above the waters that swept about its feet, was distinct in its position of port city to all of this far, western world. To the west and north towered the frozen Himalayas and mysterious Tibet; to the south, trade routes, centuries old, connected it with Indo-China, Burma, and India; to the east, its main artery of life, the Yangtze-kiang, flowed tortuously for fifteen hundred miles before it reached Shanghai and the coast and emptied its muddy stream into the blue Pacific.
And, ancient and gray, Chungking opened its gates to let the tides of commerce flow in and out, never failing to reach for the choicest prizes and hug them to itself. Wealth it had, wealth that was reckoned enormous even in Szechuen, this the richest province in the Middle Kingdom, and poverty such as only an overpopulated Chinese city can know. Young Fu’s pulse quickened; he, Fu Yuin-fah, at the age of thirteen was already here, standing on one of its streets and watching coolies carry familiar household possessions into the room in which he and his mother would live.
That Fu Be Be did not share his enthusiasm, he knew. For weeks she had wept over the idea of leaving the farm land where she had spent her lfe. But with her husband’s death, she had not known in which direction to turn for help. Her father-in-law had died years before, and there was no other member of his family on whom she had a claim. Tilling the ground offered in these troubled times a secure living to no man. As for a widow and a growing boy—she clicked her tongue in dismay.
And then, when the future had seemed darkest, the Head of the Village told her of an opening for an apprentice with one Tang, a coppersmith of Chungking, and, at her request, letters had been exchanged and her son accepted. A life in Chungking was not what she would have chosen for either of them, but, as it was, she had not dared to refuse. Besides the meager furnishings of the farmhouse, she possessed only a few dollars and her wedding ornaments, silver hairpins and bracelets—a feeble barrier between themselves and hunger.
And now the square, red table, the rectangular stools, the rolled bedding, and the baskets of kitchen utensils had been carried within. Fu Be Be paid the coolies what they had been promised in advance and listened with small attention to their grumbling.
“This is not enough! These loads were twice as heavy as we thought them when we bargained price. You have robbed us of strength for the day. Give us another two hundred cash!”
“Two hundred cash!” she exclaimed. “Do I look like the widow of a mandarin? You agreed to my amount; if you are not satisfied, that is your affair.” She waved them out of her way and entered the house.
The disgruntled coolies moved on down the street, and Young Fu turned with a sigh from the excitement of the curb. His momentary depression changed suddenly to a feeling of satisfaction that their room was in this lower house and not the upper. At the rear was a ladder which had to be climbed if one lived on top, and while that held no terrors for one who was used to scrambling to the roof of the farmhouse and adjusting tiles displaced by stormy winds, this business of living in the air above others was strange indeed. And for his mother, whose bound feet, four inches in length, had never been expected to step over anything higher than a door sill, this ladder would have presented a real problem.
Within, he stood and looked about. The walls of the one room which they were to occupy were plastered. In his village, the inn alone had plastered inner walls. That material cost more than plain baked clay, and if one could afford to have a wash of it on the outside of the building, it was a mark of prosperity. His own home had boasted such a coating and a tiled roof as well, but it had been built in his grandfather’s day, when, for a brief period, the province had known peace and farmers had faced only the uncertainties of weather as their common enemy. His father had worked none the less diligently than his ancestors, but how could a man be expected to prosper when marching troops crushed the tender young plants in the fields, or settled in a village overnight and in that time seized a year’s harvest for their use? Fowls and live stock disappeared always with the first visit of soldiers, and if they stayed away, the bandits came in their place.
“Mi teh fah!” his father had said in that expressive earth language which distinguished the talk of the farmers from that of their neighbors in the towns. “Mi teh fah!” And the men of the village had conquered their discouragement and planted again and again. But Young Fu, working from his sixth year beside his father in the fields, had watched him change from a young, good-humored man who was never too tired to laugh at the antics of his small assistant, to a bent, aging stranger with an unsmiling expression and lips that opened only to scold or cough. Here in Chungking there would be no farming worries at least.
Fu Be Be’s voice prodded him into action. “Can you find nothing to do but stare? Certain it is there is little about this place worth anyone’s glances.”
Her son began to loosen ropes from a basket. “The walls are plastered,” he suggested by way of favorable criticism.
His mother twisted her mouth. “Naturally, when houses are planted one on the other, something more than good, clean clay is needed. Wood or bamboo is doubtless beneath, but that will make it no better a place in which to live. Cracks there are in plenty, so that our neighbors’ curiosity as well as their noise may enter. And holes! We shall do well if we do not supply food to any army of rats. Moreover, the light is poor. And I like not the odor.” She walked to the rear and, pressing her eye to a break in the wall, continued, “It is as I feared—our landlord houses his pigs at the back.”
In a short time the room was in order. Food was prepared and a candle lighted. It flickered grotesque shadows over the cracked walls, cast a soft glow on the brass hot-water kettle which was Fu Be Be’s special pride, and reddened the highly colored countenance of the genial kitchen god whose portrait had been placed in a choice location on the chimney. This deity, friendly though he was in appearance, had been known to carry bad reports to Heaven at the festivities of the New Year period, and it was wise for a household to give him the place of honor on its walls.
Young Fu nodded wearily over the food. He held the rice bowl close to his lips and with the chopsticks pushed its contents into his packed jaws. Steaming tea revived his interest in life. He became conscious of the ceaseless bustle of the street and, rising, slipped to the outer door.