Stories are about changes. Since mountains and rivers normally change only over many centuries or millennia, we can safely say that from their point of viewalways excepting the unruly Yellow River there was no story to tell about those two and a half centuries when the Empire was ruled partly or wholly by foreigners, or even during the final two and a half decades of anarchy and civil war when the Mongols were driven out and we recovered our freedomor at least our independence. Yet those same mountains and rivers, whatever their own indifference, were both the setting for and the underlying cause of all the changes, since at bottom this is a simple story of landscape and its ownership.
We begin, then, in the eighty-fourth winter of Mongol occupation by taking ourselves south of the Yangzi River and letting our eyes slide down the flanks of a mountain. We notice a small stream, a clump of fir-trees, a single one-storey house with a thatched roof, a group of similar houses partly concealed by pines, a fishing-village away to the right and, immediately in front of us, a good-sized river, flowing swiftly but calmly over the rocky roots of the mountain. There are plenty of trees at this level: over there, on the far side of the river, is a wood of mountain- oaks with the occasional rowan, all bare of leaves, their branches lightly dusted with snow. Snow lies also on the turf-slopes above the river-bank and there are a few snowflakes in the air. If we raise our eyes again we can see the last grey wisps of the snow-cloud, but the sky above and around the mountain is blotted out by dense white vapour.
Lowering our eyes once more to the far bank of the river, we can pick out among the trees the figure of a man with a large red sack over his shoulder. He wears a peasant's wide-brimmed straw hat and greyblue padded clothes and he is bent over, stooping to collect a fallen branch. He shakes the snow off it, breaks it into smaller pieces and drops them into his sack, then continues on his way to our left, disappearing behind trees, reappearing, stooping repeatedly, adding more sticks to his sack. On our side of the river, a fishing-boat is drawn into the bank and its owner, muffled and padded against the cold, crouches motionless in the bow, staring into the cloudy, rippled water. From the village in the distance there is the faint sound of a bell and a dog barking. Otherwise nothing moves or makes a sound, except for the river, a sudden scattering of disturbed crows and the man gathering firewood.
He is in sight of his home now, three or four thatched cabins on the far side of a little stream which flows out from under a covered balcony on the side of the house facing us and runs down into the river. He crosses a wooden foot-bridge, passes three tall pine-trees standing together on the lawn in front of the house, stoops for a last stick, which he keeps in his hand, and disappears round the side of the house.
His family name is Wang, a common name, but although we have seen him collecting firewood like a peasant, he is not a common man. On his mother's side he is descended from a famous general who rose to be Emperor and founded a long and successful dynasty. Wang even wears on the middle finger of his left hand a white jade ring, carved with dragons, which belonged to that fighting Emperor who two hundred years earlier healed and united the Empire after a previous period of civil war, chaos and foreign conquest.
Thirty-six years old, tall, usually slender and with a healthy complexion, Wang is at present pallid and overweight. He has spent too long in the city, poring over legal documents in an office, eating large meals and drinking too much with friends, taking too little exercise. Ever since he finished his education he has worked steadily and dutifully as a legal secretary in the local bureaucracy, earning enough for himself and his wife to live on, escaping from time to time in good weather to this country retreat under the Yellow Crane Mountain.
Excerpted from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling. Copyright © 2014 by John Spurling. Excerpted by permission of Overlook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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