Chapter 1: A Single Rancid Mantou
A dilapidated temple.
A dilapidated temple without the scent of incense, nor the sign of worshippers.
The lighting in the temple was heavy and hazy, its interior completely wrecked. The body of the Buddha statue in the center was completely covered in dust and shattered, though it still looked dignified. A dilapidated temple like this couldn’t shield from the wind or rain, but destitute people frequently used it as a place to hide.
There was no fire burning within the temple, so it was a bit chilly.
On the side, a few people dressed in rags who resembled beggars hugged rolls of dry grass, claiming the warmest, driest places for themselves. As for me, I used my sleeve to wipe my face and spat once.
I scanned each corner of the area while undoing my waistband, squatting in the forest in front of the temple. Pretending to go to the bathroom, I waited until no one was looking before digging in the dirt…
It was risky doing something during this time of day, so I had to be quick and precise. The old, long robe I was wearing didn’t fit my body at all. I knew this outfit made me look ridiculous. The ash-green clothes were even stolen off a dead body.
I didn’t know my name.
An old beggar at the temple said I was delivered here by my mother on a windy, snowy day. She was a woman with a teardrop birthmark at the corner of her eye, a peerless youth whose beauty was unlike a mortal’s. Whenever the old smelly beggar got to this point, he’d look at me with a turbid eye and shake his head hopelessly. And then I knew he’d say, you’re not even equal to one-tenth of your mother’s looks.
This old beggar was already at death’s door, but still so lecherous.
Though I say this, he was my only protector within the rundown temple. Even when hunger struck, he never forgot to leave a mouthful of soup for me.
“During the chaotic years of war, soldiers mutinied and troops rebelled. Families were torn apart and numerous starving corpses were displayed.” These were the last words the old man left me before he died. I thought they were the most educated things he ever said, because I couldn’t understand a thing.
But as a little beggar, I didn’t need things like inner meanings and polished conduct. No matter how many words I learned, it wouldn’t find me food. For me to live on this crappy piece of land for five years without starving to death was nothing short of a miracle.
I once had a major illness whose fever muddled my head, so I had no idea how old I was. At first glance, I appeared to be seven or eight like a child, but I don’t think I was only that old, because I understood a lot of things. Maybe I just didn’t grow up enough.
Up until he died, the old beggar firmly believed I still had unsettled things. He said back then the temple wasn’t so rundown and I wore very good clothes as if I was the child of a rich family. He told me I had a mother, and she’d definitely come back to pick me up.
But, none of what he said to me left a lasting impression… …
This old beggar used to be a storyteller, so who knew if all the things he used to say were just wild tales. This was a place where a man-eat-man creed was forced to exist. As for me, the only thing to do was to figure out how to keep living.
In the present, reality had the only person who was good to me in the temple dead. My future prospects were bleak, but luckily the old beggar left me some food before he passed away.
My tedious, long sleeves were covered in dust from being dragged through the ground. Filthy dirt lined my fingernails. After digging through the moist earth, I unearthed an oil-paper package containing the remnants of half a mantou. This year, there was very little food. There were even people willing to eat white clay, so stealing, hiding, looting were all common techniques for survival. Only by doing this could one keep living in these turbulent times.
Furtively, I used the span of a few seconds to open the oil-paper package and took a bite of the old mantou inside. I held that bite in my mouth, reluctant to swallow. My hand trembled as I rewrapped the food and inhaled its scent, then reverently, carefully, put it back in the hole. Immediately afterward, I flattened myself against the ground, spreading out my sleeves to gather more dirt to bury the mantou. I used the chance to stuff my mouth with white clay as well.
…chewing a bit, I couldn’t help but knit my eyebrows. The taste wasn’t too good, but at least it filled my stomach.
“You dirty rascal, what are you eating here? You didn’t even pay respect to your elders.”
Startled, I grasped at the dirt like a dog paddling in water, wanting to cover all traces of my recent excavation.
“Looks like that old beggar must have left him some good food.” Suddenly, someone launched a surprise attack, and a foot kicked my back. My body burned from the pain as I crawled forwards, trying in vain to suppress my tears. It made me choke before I had time to swallow, and I spat out the pieces of mantou mixed with mud.
That white-colored clay mixed with the glutinous pieces of mantou.
What a waste.
“Get closer! He has mantou.” A few pairs of dirty hands searched everywhere until they fished out the paper package in the dirt.
“It’s already a little rancid.”
“It’s still edible, leave me some.”
“His granny…stupid lowlife, you actually learned how to sneak off and eat by yourself, just watch me beat you to death, thief.”
A rain of fists fell upon my body. Everything, even my organs, hurt. This kind of burning sensation was more severe than stomach pains after a few days with no food. Either way, it spelled death.
“All of you beggars bullying me–your mom, I’m going to beat you up!” I crawled atop a person and grabbed their leg, biting viciously past the stinky, dirty trousers.
“That hurts, you b***ch spawn!”
Dust rose and blinded me for a second, before the fists fell like a storm of jade plates. My small and broken body was beat forwards step by step, but my trembling hands stretched forwards to pick up the mantou that had fallen on the dirt. I wrenched myself free to stuff it in my mouth and start chewing furiously. The moist dirt had the flavor of raw fish and mantou, and was a little stifling.
My eyes were damp. This was called, ‘Even if I die, I can’t become a hungry ghost!’
I think the bullies were pretty angered by my heroics. Every one of them jabbed me as they grabbed my collar and shook.
Even while being shaken, do not spit out the bird!
The mantou was rancid, but it was still a mantou, a scarce commodity.
Just as I closed my eyes to prepare myself for another round of trampling, silence fell around the area. The strange atmosphere really made a person’s heart uneasy.
My body bent a few times and I crawled forwards, hand fumbling for that rancid mantou so I could prepare to take another bite. But then a pair of boots, so white they couldn’t have appeared in a rundown temple like this, showed up before my eyes to step on my last piece of food. This kind of white…was even more snow-white than my mantou.
I was flabbergasted.
A white, crescent-moon robe slowly lowered itself to the ground in folds, the cloth made from an unknown, high-quality material. I don’t know what kind of thing its owner tossed out, but the urchins who were beating me up broke up into a hubbub and started looting amongst themselves.
I remained stubbornly on the ground, unmoving, still cradling that piece of rancid mantou.
“This is still edible?” a voice rang out like the tinkling of jade, yet it was filled with strength, the intonation gentle and refined like a clear spring of cold water pouring into my entire being. Even the pain wracking my body had lessened.
“If I don’t eat, I’ll starve to death.”
“If you agree to come home with me, I’ll give you three meals a day and promise you’ll eat until you’re full.”
A jade-like hand, beautiful and slender, gently reached over to prop me up, as if afraid to hurt me. The motion made me look up at the person, surprised. Even after many years and events had passed, I would never be able to accurately describe that moment or the soul-stirring profundity of its beauty.
Early spring of that year was my fifth season at the dilapidated temple.
I met Fang Hua for the first time.
-o- mantou (??) ?steamed bun made with flour.  white clay (???) ?guanyin tu, literally translated as Bodhisattva Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) earth, a type of white clay eaten by famine victims in China.  his granny ???????ta nainai de, a form of cursing. Think of it as the Chinese version of your mom, or similar.  even while being shaken, do not spit out the bird! (?????) ?huang ye butu niao, metaphor for not giving up even under duress.