I am glad that my grandfather had died, full of age, long before I reached manhood, carrying with him to the grave his great, cherished hope for me that is certain to be bedimmed by my later seeming ungrowth. My mother is well satisfied with me as I am. As for my father, the old fool still thinks I should be a laundryman. So, the glory of my birth and the incidents relating to it would have been forgotten had I not revisited my old village three years ago before I sailed for the United States.
I was born beside my father’s plough in a village near Canton. My grandfather used to tell me in my childhood that, upon hearing my first cries, our cows stood still, their heads stooped and their cudding ceased, as if in submission. It was believed that I was destined to be a successful farmer, because the cows showed signs of obedience at the coming of their future master. Although he had a bright vision of my future, my grandfather was very unhappy, for, he said with touching sorrow, my birth took place when supper was ready. My father and others had returned from the rice fields and sat around the table for their late supper. But my mother’s seat was vacant. This predicted that she was not to live long enough to see me succeed and to eat from the abundance I was to harvest.
On the morning after my birth there came to my grandfather a geomancer of the village. “There is only one Pole of Honor in our village,” he said. “There will be another much taller one for your grandson.” (A Pole of Honor was a pole erected in honor of one who had a government degree.) And having inquired about the exact hour of my birth, he reassured the veracity of his prediction by saying that at the time of my birth there came down from heaven a ray of bright light which rested upon our roof for a few minutes, and that a certain star at the north corner of our house was extraordinarily bright. At last they gave me a name bearing the meaning of his prediction.
My village is called “Three Hills Village,” being surrounded by three hills. The inhabitants lived on the fields they tilled and drank from the wells they dug. They rose before the rising of the sun and retired when it set. Childhood was short and old age long. Children had only a few years to play in, while old men drew eternity from their long bamboo pipes. Its stillness was like the stillness of an ancient well over which the four winds might blow, but the water never ripples or curls. Any new thing was an extraordinary thing and, consequently, the concern of the whole village. A new house, a new bride, a new baby, or a new cow. In fact, the atmosphere was such that, except on rare occasions such as the New Year, the Moon Festival, or wedding feasts, a new dress was distinctly out of harmony with the color and rhythm of the village.
The village was an absolute creation. Its life had a certainty which the hills around could not surpass. Time was a night-journeying bird that flew over the sleeping village but left no trace. There seemed to be a kind of Way, set down by none but observed by all, in which the inhabitants lived and breathed and had their being. Anything out of this way was invariably described by the term “foreign-devil.” An uncommon bird was a “foreign-devil” bird; an uncommon tree was a “foreign-devil” tree. Hot temper was “foreign-devil” temper. A child unusually naughty but not without brains was a “foreign-devil” child.
The only means for information from outside was to gather on some street corner to listen to the peddlers who came back from town in the evening. The tellers always showed ability to exaggerate and entertain; the hearers always showed utter belief and admiration.
One day, in early 1918, if I remember correctly, when we children were playing in the streets, we saw Ho-ling, our famous, dramatic, oily-tongued oil and dry-goods peddler, flying his hands in the air and shouting breathlessly in the midst of a crowd.
“A foreign-devil woman! A foreign-devil woman at the village gatel . . .” Ho-ling was trying desperately to convince his usually easy-believing listeners. But a foreign-devil woman at our village was past believing. Many would pawn their breeches to see one.
“Telling big guns, Ho. Your big guns won’t fire this time. Your mother is a foreign-devil woman I” said one skeptic, while others pulled his head near the oil can and asked him to lick the oil he was selling to make his tongue more smooth.
“If I lie, let my ancestors be cursed I”
That was the dearest price one could afford to pay to assure others that he was telling a truth. The crowd had to believe. They hurriedly selected a committee to see, if not to welcome, the foreign lady. The seriousness of the situation frightened the children. Stepping on chickens and geese and falling upon dogs and pigs, they ran up the narrow muddy paths, announcing “Foreign-devil woman! foreign-devil woman!” at the top of their voices. Very soon the whole village was out to “look see,” as we said in one of the two or three foreign-devil expressions we all knew.
“I bring you good tidings, brothers. I bring you light. I come to spread the Gospel of Christ. I come to show you the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.” These words, though spoken in the native dialect, were more foreign to them than she herself was. They were mere sounds to them, strange and mysterious.
“I come to teach you.” That was simple enough for them to understand; and understanding, they were shocked with their mouths wide open.
“To teach us? But we have Master Chen to teach us all we want to know.” “That’s different,” explained our guest at the village gate. “I’ll teach you the Gospel, the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Let’s get Master Chen,” one of them suggested. “We can’t understand her foreign-devil language.”
Then came Master Chen, the Chu Jen, or M. A., in whose honor the only Pole of Honor had been erected. While he was leading the guest along the muddy main street to his school, six hundred simple and curious souls, far too innocent to know that their humble souls needed salvation, watched and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle that made the dragon-boat race seem pale in comparison. There was a continuous wave of suppressed whisper going around, and now and then unrefrained exclamations of wonder and admiration broke out among the women. “How white and fair!” “How pretty!” “How big and tall!”
“Her feet are bound,” whispered my mother, who always complained that the vanity of her parents had cost her two feet but never expected any rich woman to have natural ones.
“No, they are as natural as a sparrow’s,” observed another woman.
“What? Such a pretty white lady with natural feet? Impossible!” my mother retorted. “Don’t you see how uncomfortably she walks in the mud? A person with natural feet never walks like that.” But she was quick to compromise. “I am sure they were bound before, but probably they are loosened now.”
Her feet were bare—she had taken her shoes off to keep them dry, I suppose. I did not realize then what a torture it must be to her delicate feet to walk bare on the unpaved street. We never thought that any feet were entitled to the luxury of shoes on ordinary days. Shoes were used only to transport one from the bath basin to the bed. And, in fact, the most adequate way ever devised to torture a, thief was to force him to walk a mile in heavy leather boots—that is, if somebody would take the trouble to borrow a pair from town.
She carried a black umbrella in one hand, and in the other a rattan basket, to which her shoes were tied. She was in a discolored tan dress of heavy silk, with a round opening at the neck, around which were yards of embroidered lace. Her rich corn-colored hair formed a profuse knot on her head and was stayed by a yellow pencil and a big brown comb, like a large hay fork on a wind-blown hay mound.
After the reception, a meeting of the village elders was held to decide in whose house our guest was to stay. Our house was chosen because it was the newest in the village.
That night women and children kept coming to our house with lanterns in their hands. Our guest extended her greeting hand while the villagers bowed their greeting heads. It was only after much difficulty that she succeeded in convincing us that hers was the better way to greet people. After shaking our hands one by one, she prayed and blessed us. Some were frightened and slipped away when her eyes were closed. Some kept their heads away from the shadow of her lifted hand, thinking that she was enchanting them. Apparently, her magic was harmless, for she soon opened her eyes and talked with us like friends.
“What is your honorable name?” one woman ventured to ask her. She told us her name and taught us to say it. But it was too long for our tongues, accustomed to monosyllables. We wanted something shorter and easier.
“Call me Miss White, then,” she said, meaning a white miss.
Immediately those simple folks began to whisper from ear to ear: “Still a miss! She must be nearly forty years old!”
The curious Mrs. Wong must know why she was still a miss. She asked, “Do girls get married in your honorable country?”
“Yes,” answered Miss White, “but they marry when they are much older than you girls here.”
“Oh, pity!” exclaimed Mrs. Wong, and recited an old saying: “A man is forever poor who has no money at forty; a girl is forever an old maid who has no husband at twenty.” It is with great tenderness for that kind soul that I remember how I happened to discover that Miss White was married. She slept in the big room with me and my little sister. I awoke in the middle of the night and saw her kneeling by the bed, saying something in a strange language. The oil lamp was dim and the shadows were ghastly. I trembled in bed, not knowing what she was doing. But my instinctive fondness for her made me disinclined to believe that she was an enchantress of children. I was afraid and timidly cleared my throat. She did not move or cease muttering. I made some noise by turning myself heavily. She did not seem to hear. Presently, her voice became so intense and pleading and so strange that I feared something had happened to her or would happen to me. I pretended to be in a nightmare and called out “Mother, mother,” dreamily.
“Good son, mother is asleep. Tell me what you want.”
Her head was bending over me, and her hands caressed me. Her eyes were wet—I did not know why—but her face was smiling. Had I known there were angels, I should have taken her for one.
She told me not to be afraid and taught me to pray. She told me that God watched over sleeping children. She told me that she had been praying for the safety of her husband who was fighting in the war.
“Is Mr. White a soldier?” I asked, astonished and rather disappointed.
“Yes, son. He is fighting in the war,” she said gently, but rather proudly. And in a languid tone she added, “I pray God protect him.”
Her hand still on my head, she looked out of the window into the darkness outside. Her eyes were sad. We remained silent for a minute. If not for her gentle kindness, I would have then despised her for being a soldier’s wife. Whether I meant to hurt her or not I cannot remember now. But I blurted out a few lines with the sureness of a schoolboy who knew his lesson.
Good men never go to war; Good wood’s never fed to fire. Good sons never go to war; Good girls are never for hire.
“But this war is different, son,” she told me. “He is fighting for his country. He is fighting for the world, for righteousness and humanity. When it is over and won, the world will be a better place for us to live in.”
While I was thinking, she said good night.
Miss White rose early every morning, for the harvest was waiting for her. She went about, preaching, offering blessings, and calling upon God to save the sinners. The few chicken-thieves and vegetable-garden breakers regarded her words as personal attack and said some bad things about her. She told us about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. We didn’t mind the first two, but we did not like the idea of having two fathers, heavenly or otherwise. In general, she was well liked, especially as an arbitrator for feminine disputes.
When a quarrel was started between two women, they would first go home, each bring out a chair, sit down comfortably by the door, and then resume the quarrel leisurely by calling each other bad names from one end of the street to the other. Although they never had a pot of tea beside them to ease their throats—they often quarreled for hours—to go in for a drink of the precious liquid was not uncommon. Now their quarrels were shorter and not so loud, for a third party was certain to come out and say, “Where is your face? To quarrel when a foreign lady is with us ? Where is your face?”
Any theft was known to all, for the curses on the thief were broadcast so loudly that he could by no means miss them.
“What’s that woman saying, Kan?” Miss White asked me when she heard a woman yelling.
“She said whoever stole her chicken will have stomach ache.” “Oh, that’s really bad. I must stop her.”
Few men heard Miss White preach. They avoided her. To sit at a woman’s feet and let her teach was an outrageous disgrace to a man. Only the men in my family heard her preach, for she preached at the table. Even if they listened to her, they must not confess in public that they did. But the fact was that they were so occupied with our table manners that they had very little time to listen. Therefore, a week’s preaching had not given my grandfather the slightest idea of what it was all about.
“Who is this Jesus that you have been talking about, Miss White?” he asked her one day at the table.
“He is the Son of God,” she said.
“The Son of Heaven, eh? Like our Emperor?”
“No, no, he is the Son of God, the King of kings.”
“You must not say that. Our Emperor is the highest.”
“You have no more Emperor now, old man.”
“Who said we don’t? Say that in closed doors.”
“You have a president now instead of an emperor, old man.”
“Oh — well — and did you say Jesus came down from heaven?”
“Yes. But he was the Son of Man.”
“Please tell me all about him.” He was deeply interested.
Miss White told the story solemnly while we stayed our chopsticks to listen. It was an amusing story to our heathen ears. She was uninterrupted until she got to the humble and the most glorious birth of Christ.
In the meantime my grandfather’s eyes glowed and fixed upon me lovingly. He looked nervous and held himself up stiffly on the edge of the chair, his hands clasping its arms firmly. His lips trembled. In a serious voice Miss White emphasized:
“When Christ was born the heavens were lighted!”
“Miss—Miss White,”—the old man’s lips were trembling —”so they were when our little one was born.” He pointed at me while his whole body shook with intense emotion.
Miss White cast on him a reproaching glance and went on.
“And the stars were bright—”
“So they were when he was born!” he almost shouted. And hopefully and proudly caressing my head, he said, “My grandson will be great—like Miss White’s Jesus.”
“You shouldn’t say that, Mr. Mok!” Miss White’s tone was very stern and commanding. My grandfather was about to tell the story of my birth when Miss White, somewhat displeased now, continued to tell of Jesus.
“Jesus had a lowly birth. He was born in a manger.”
“We were poor, and he was born near—”
“But the three wise men came to his home from afar to find him out.”
“You be the wise man, Miss White.” He either forgot the geomancer or had not enough respect for him to call him a wise man.
“No! I am not!” Miss White sharply refused the honor. Then, without giving the old man another chance to interrupt, she finished the story in one breath:
“And he grew up a fine and brilliant boy and a wise and holy man and God loved him and at thirty he came out to save the world and at thirty-two he died for us on the cross!”
“Oh, no, my grandson will not die on a cross! Our precious will not die like that!”
“Mr. Mok! You are using the name of God in vain!”
“But, Miss White, do you think that all these coincidences are meaningless? Heaven was not crazy when it sent down a ray of light upon our roof and made the stars extraordinarily bright when my grandson was born. Yes, he will be another Jesus, but not die like him! He will die in bed long after his sons’ beards have grown white.”
“Blasphemous old man! This is profanity! Sacrilege! God will punish you! Your grandson shall not be another Jesus!”
She left the table, fell on her knees and prayed, “O God, forgive him.” Tears were in her eyes.
Several months later Miss White left us. The whole village was out to wish her well.
I also left the place of my birth the next year, returning to see it once more three years ago. There were no additional Poles of Honor; the only one stood there, half decayed and ready to fall, proclaiming to the world the past glory of the village. The bright light on my roof was not to be seen again, for it rested only for a few minutes. I stood at the north corner of my house and looked up to heaven for that star. But it was not there. Perhaps the dark clouds covered it; but I, being tired, was not patient enough to wait until the clouds passed away.