Once upon a Time, my sister and I loved to memorize poems.
Because there are no books to read, the most favorite book is the language book. In the language book, the favorite again is the ancient poem. If you like poetry, you have to like to memorize it. There is something utilitarian and vain in this love, but it doesn’t matter. Every time school started, I followed the teacher, received my books in the only office in the small school, and carried them Home in my backpack with joy and solemnity. The first thing I did at home was to wrap my books, and with my father’s guidance, I learned to wrap them well at a very young age. The second thing is to turn to the lesson of ancient poems to memorize.
At this time, there are too few poems in the book, so there are not many to memorize even if you want to. By the time the teacher started the lesson, I already knew these poems by heart. But still, I cherished reading them together.
“The river is full of people, but they love the beauty of the bass. You see a boat, in and out of the wind and waves.”
The painting on this page is very beautiful, a flat boat on the vast waves of water, a small man on the boat. What does the perch look like? We don’t know. Even the teacher didn’t know. It was always a very tasty fish, something similar to bream in our imagination.
“The dangerous building is a hundred feet high, the hand can pick the stars. I don’t dare to speak loudly, for fear of frightening people in the sky.”
This poem comes to mind in the summer when we take a cool ride at night. We went to sleep on the roof, pouring a bucket of cold water on the hot concrete roof and laying bamboo woven grass on it. When we lie down, the Milky Way is in front of us, so we deliberately read it out loud: “I dare not speak aloud, for fear of frightening people in the sky! Sometimes I thought, “Is there any immortal in the sky? Suddenly, I was afraid that the immortals might have heard me, or they might have understood the little disrespect in my heart and come to teach me. I hurriedly covered my face with the sheet and went to sleep. The dew cooled down little by little, and the immortals never came after all.
When I grew up a little, I liked the phrase “I don’t sleep in spring, I hear birds crying everywhere. The night comes the sound of wind and rain, the flowers fall know how much”, as if some understand the meaning of the falling flowers, is a girl’s favorite. I like “far up the cold mountain stone path slanting, white clouds where there are homes. I love the syllables of “stop and sit in the maple forest at night, the frosty leaves are redder than the flowers in February”, and I love the syllables of “Lin Lang”, and I proudly pronounce “slant” as “Xia”, and I secretly love the flowers in February, as if there is really a spring inside. I also like the phrase “The jasper tree is tall, and ten thousand green silk ribbons are hanging down. I don’t know who cut the fine leaves. The spring breeze in February is like scissors”, I like the green weeping willow tree, which is hovering on the pages of the book but is not available. I like that the spring breeze in February is like scissors, and I think of the tail of the swallow. Swallows make their nests in the hall, and the door is open during the day, and two of them fly in and out. If there were swallows, it was the most fun time. At night, we would always stand under the swallow’s nest to see what the swallows looked like. At night, we would stand under the swallow’s nest to see what the little swallows looked like. The little swallows hid inside, covered by the big swallows, so we could not see anything.
When I was studying Wang Wei’s poem, I was very surprised – “surprised” is a written expression, but I actually did not understand it. “No one is seen on the empty mountain, but the sound of people’s voices is heard. The view is back into the deep forest, shining on the moss again.” We always went up to the mountains a few times a year, pinching the red fern in spring, playing fern ferns, playing chestnuts in autumn, not seeing people on the empty mountains but hearing the sound of people’s voices is the way they often are when they are apart. Is this poetry? What I don’t understand is that this very ordinary scene is all poetry.
Once I got a picture book of ancient poems from somewhere, a thin book with a dozen poems, each with a colorful painting. The paintings were so beautiful that we couldn’t stop looking at them, and we had to put our heads together every day. I remember one poem, “The Wind”.
“The leaves fall in three autumns, the flowers bloom in February. Crossing the river with a thousand feet of waves, entering the bamboo with ten thousand slanting poles.”
It was as interesting as a riddle, and we liked it very much. It is like another song in the textbook: “From afar the mountains are colored, from near the water is silent. The flowers are still there in the spring, and the birds are not frightened when they come” (“Painting”), children seem to have a natural interest in riddles. There is another one that I like very much.
“The hedge is sparse and the path is deep, the flowers at the head of the tree are not yet shaded. Children rush after the yellow butterflies, but they fly into the vegetable flowers and can’t find them anywhere.”
The painting of this poem is very beautiful, with two pages full of rape flowers, two yellow butterflies flying into the rape flowers, and one or two children with tufts of hair in the distance. Yellow butterflies and rapeseed flowers are both very familiar and dear to us. When I grew up, I read “The Long Dry Line”, “August butterflies are yellow, two flying into the western garden grass”, I also liked it. In autumn, there are many small yellow butterflies that fly around on the purple flowers. Ye Jiaying said “August butterfly yellow” has a different text is “August butterfly come”, she prefers the version of “butterfly yellow”, I also.
When we got to junior high school, we had to walk back and forth every day because the school was more than ten miles away from home and there were no bicycles. In the morning, we were in a hurry to walk, not caring what to say, and at the end of the school day, if only my sister and I walked, we liked to play a game, walking while competing to recite poems. In fact, we read exactly the same books and memorized the same poems, so this game was just for fun. But we still enjoyed playing this game, each time to the end, not even “goose, goose, goose, bend the neck to the sky song” such a poem also recited, never give up.
In school, our language teacher was a young man, not very tall and said very little. His skin is very dark and his lips are slightly thick. He was not really a handsome person, but for some reason we all liked him a little. When we describe a teacher as good, we have to say he is: “Authentic An Shi Da graduate!” Our language teacher was not. He was just a college graduate. Maybe for that reason, or just to get out of our shitty place, he had to go to graduate school. So he often had to take his book and read it on the podium, and find one or two students to copy the questions on the blackboard and give them to the students below. The students who copied the questions were usually me, my sister, and Su Xiaolin, who had long braids. She was tall for her age and had long hands and feet, so when she wrote chalk words, she could easily write them very high and very neatly. But my sister and I couldn’t. We were so short that we could only write in the middle of the board, even on tiptoe, and our hands soon got sore, and the words we wrote were crooked and fell down, making them unattractive.
Sometimes the teacher asked us to get up and read the text aloud. The children in the countryside are very shy, we use our hometown language to teach and answer questions in our hometown language, and if occasionally we are asked to speak in Mandarin, it is really difficult. The boys in the back row were especially shy in this matter, and in the end, the teacher, for fear of trouble, always took turns to let the three of us read aloud, and according to our secret judgments, we had to admit that Su Xiaolin read the best. Because my sister and I are still not immune to restraint, we always read quickly, thinking that we can finish this piece and then sit down.
On the first day of class, we all noticed Su Xiaolin, who had long braids. Her braids were so long and numerous that it was hard not to draw attention to them. She always split her hair in half and tie it up high, then braid it into two twists, so that the braid is shorter than the direct braid out, but also looks more spiritual. Her hair is not very black, is a natural tawny, her face is very white, eyebrows and eyes show a kind of fallen generous. When we talk with her, we can’t help but want to grab her braid from behind and pinch it a few times. We asked, “Su Xiaolin, has your hair never been cut since you were a child? She said yes. We were all very envious. When we were kids, there were very few girls who did this anymore. The only other girl I ever met who had long hair from childhood was a young aunt who lived next door to Auntie San’s house. When I went to Auntie San’s house to play, I saw her put a big basin on a big bench to wash her hair, one after another for a long time. When she finally let her hair down, it was down to her feet.
Su Xiaolin’s hair wasn’t that long yet, but it was long enough. We soon became good friends, and at noon we all took our lunch boxes to a seat and ate face to face. We walked a long way to her house to play. At that time we liked to run to a girl’s house after school to play, and if the relationship was better, we had to stay for dinner, sleep together at night, whispering for a long time, and confide in each other which boy we liked in the class. The day we went to Su Xiaolin’s house, besides my sister and I, there were two other boys, so we just stood on the base of the field in front of her house for a short while. When we arrived at her house, we were always a bit excited and nervous, afraid of being seen by the language teacher. We encouraged her to untie her braid and let us see how long her hair really was. She was a little embarrassed, and after a little pushing, she finally did it. Because she was always braiding her hair, her hair was very loose and trailed down to her buttocks. We all said, “It’s so long!”
One day when school was over, my sister and I walked alone as usual. We walked from school to the market and got greedy, so we walked to the back street and went to the Xinhua bookstore to play. The back street was where the market used to be in the village, but by then it had gradually declined, leaving some stores with wooden doors and grain and oil stations. The New China Bookstore is one of the surviving storefronts on the backstreet. The room is very large, and because it is not lit during the day, only a little light is thrown in through the doorway and a window, so even during the day, it looks very shady. There are two long wooden counters across the store, and under the glass countertop there are books that have been left unattended for a long time.
We hardly ever buy anything here, because we certainly can’t afford it, and we don’t even ask the price. In fact, the thin woman inside the counter, her attitude is very gentle. When I was in elementary school, I wanted a copy of the Xinhua Dictionary (actually, it was just because the teacher wanted us to buy one), but my father found one from somewhere that was missing the pinyin and radical index, and gave it to us perfunctorily. We didn’t know many of the characters, so there was no way to look them up, and after a while, when the passionate desire faded, we stopped using it.
We liked to play after school, leaning over the glass counter to see if there were any new books, colored letterheads, or cassette tapes of Huangmei opera. This day we went to the counter and saw the new book in the center. An ancient painting on the cover, a few clusters of mountains and rocks, a few strokes of autumn trees.
“The Three Hundred Poems of Tang!”
Almost at the same time, they shouted in surprise and in a small voice. The famous “Three Hundred Tang Poems”, who does not know that “if you are familiar with “Three Hundred Tang Poems”, you can recite poems even if you do not know how to recite them”? We looked at each other and knew what we wanted: we wanted to buy this book. Although I never asked my sister, I am almost sure that at that moment she must have flashed the shadow of Su Xiaolin in her heart, just like me. There was something slightly taut in the friendship with Su Xiaolin that we didn’t think about. Maybe it was just because her hair was too long, or our grades were slightly better than hers. But then it was none of Su Xiaolin’s business, we were so fond of memorizing poems!
But when we walked out of the Xinhua bookstore, we weren’t as excited to see it as we had been at first. The book cost more than ten dollars. This was a lot of money for us at that time – we didn’t have that much money left over anyway. At that time, all we had to spend every day was our lunch, plus the meal ticket for steamed rice, which was 25 cents for each of us. There was no money at home, and we knew this very well and did not think about asking for it. After walking for a while, when we reached the dirt road between the rice fields, my sister said, “Why don’t we write to my big sister and ask for it?”
At that time, my elder sister had just graduated from health school and had gone to a hospital in Nanjing for internship. Sometimes she wrote to us, always telling us to study hard at the beginning and end of her letters. One time she sent us a letter with ten dollars in it, and needless to say, when we opened it, we fell into a great sense of happiness because of the unexpected joy, and from then on we looked forward to every letter from Big Sister with money in it – something that obviously would never happen.
Although embarrassed, we didn’t hesitate long to write to Big Sister, saying we wanted to buy a copy of “Three Hundred Tang Poems” – and half a month later, we received a letter back from Big Sister with twenty dollars in the envelope. I realized years later that my sister was living extremely frugally at that time, so I don’t know how she saved the twenty dollars. But at that time we were so happy that we ran to the Xinhua Bookstore at noon when we got the money and bought the book “Three Hundred Tang Poems” back. The book was passed around the class and won the admiration of everyone.
The first thing we did when we got back was to memorize the poems. We aspired to memorize one poem a day, so that we could memorize the whole book in less than a year! The first poem, Zhang Jiuling’s “Sensational Encounter”, was so familiar that even now, I can still recite it in a very fluent way: “The orchid leaves spring to lean, the guihua to be full of flowers.
The leaves of the orchid are lush in spring, and the laurel is bright in autumn.
The business is so happy that it is a good festival.
Who knows that the forest dweller is happy to sit in the wind?
The grass and trees have their own hearts, why do they need to be folded by beauty?
In the first sentence, there are two words I do not know, but the book has pinyin, there are notes. I think back many years later, it was about the Huangshan Book Club’s edition, and the commentary was quite detailed, but it was arranged in a dense manner, not caring whether people could read it or not. There is no explanation of the whole poem either. We memorized the poem, so we did not understand its message, but just memorized it because we had to. Sometimes we come across a very long poem title, “Going down to the Final South Mountain to pass the Duangshishanren and set up wine”, which is like a tongue twister, so we recite it very quickly and feel very happy.
But this kind of recitation, which could not understand the benefits of the poem, could not last long, and our plan of reciting one poem a day did not last many days. At that time, our understanding of “poetry” was still at the stage of the Five Absolutes and Seven Absolutes, and the rhyme of eight lines was already very long, and the first time we saw a dozen or so lines of ancient wind and songs, we were simply stunned. When I first saw a dozen or so verses of old-fashioned poetry and songs, I was so shocked that I lost most of my interest in poetry, so I didn’t memorize them. After losing it for a while, I couldn’t let it go, so I picked it up again and recited it. This time, I only picked up the lighter ones and poems that I seemed to like. I remember Li Bai’s poem.
“The beauty rolls the pearl curtain, sits deep and knits her eyebrows. I don’t know who my heart hates, but I see the wetness of tears.”
I love its flowing and round like a pearl curtain, and the beauty of beauty is a soft type of beauty. There is also “Swallow grass like blue silk, Qin mulberry low green branch. I don’t understand why the grass is swallowed and why the mulberry is Qin mulberry, but I just vaguely feel that there is a turquoise love for each other here. I really have a piece of blue grass in my imagination, and it is growing there one by one.
We sometimes took this book with us when we were herding cattle during the summer. We were always on the ridge, taking a step back every once in a while, watching the cows to keep them from eating the rice plants. It was very appropriate to memorize poems, but we didn’t concentrate on them. We recited one or two poems indifferently, and then we lifted our heads and concentrated on watching the cows graze. The green locusts and small gray moths were startled by the cow and flew out from the cracks of the grass in front of them. When the cow’s rope was accidentally dipped into the water of the field, the cow always turned its head back to hit the flies on its body, and sometimes the rope was torn into the pages of the book, leaving a faint dirty mark on the page. I memorized Bai Juyi’s “The Song of the Long Hatred”, and when I got to the point where it was “carried on the drums of the fishing yang, and the song of the neon garment was broken”, it was as if I was frightened by the word “drum” which I didn’t know, and I found it very difficult, so I stopped there for a long time.
I never had the same enthusiasm for learning and memorizing poetry as I had when I was a child. Although I majored in ancient literature, I had an extensive school library, and I could borrow most of the books I wanted. I also bought many books of poetry, and inserted them one by one on the shelf, neat and pleasing to the eye, but I rarely opened them. I’ve never played the game of “memorizing poems” with anyone since I was separated from my sister long ago and no longer live in the same city. The night after the graduate defense, I went drinking with my roommate and four people from the same Family. They were all very light drinkers, and they were slightly drunk, so they were madly talking about a competition to recite poems with the word “flower” in them.
My memory of the poem was already in shambles, so I recited one or two lines with a giggle, then sat quietly and watched her recite them in a whisper, holding a bright green bottle of wine across the room. The flowers of Huang Siniang’s house were full of groves, and a thousand of them were pressing down on the branches. When the poplar flowers have fallen, the son cries, and he hears the dragon’s standard crossing the five streams. The dark water flowed down the flower path, and the spring stars brought the grass hall. I seemed to be a little sad, for I could not remember a few lines of poems, for the campus I was about to leave, while they would stay and continue to do their PhD in ancient literature. Suddenly she recited: “The warbler cries with tears, for the highest flowers are wet.”
In the dimly lit hotel, there was a lot of disturbance behind her. For a moment I almost loved her, loved the fact that she could recite such a good poem, fluttering and easily passing away, like the distant cuckoo’s voice in April.
The small matter of memorizing a poem is after all very moving.