Book 1 Chapter 1 – The Invitation Card
Original and most updated translations are from volare. Please don’t read elsewhere and stop supporting theft.
Li Yiming was standing under a tree. The sight of a couple laced in a tight embrace, leaning against a red Maserati, made Li Yiming’s hand shiver as it sought the support of the trunk. Shock, anger, helplessness and confusion swirled within his eyes. One of the young woman’s arms rested on the man’s shoulders, while she gently traced circles on his chest with a finger from the other hand. Her face was red with shyness, and her eyes, watered by lust. Beneath her mini-skirt, her slender thighs, pale as freshly fallen snow, rubbed against the man’s body frictionlessly.
“Xiaoqin…” The joints in Li Yiming’s right hand whitened as he clasped a tree branch, but, after an ultimate effort, his arm slid down, limp. It was accompanied by a silent uttering of his girlfriend’s name.
The man abruptly swept the young woman into his arms, to which she responded with a shriek of surprise, only to wrap her arms around the man’s neck and bury her head shyly into his chest the next second. He walked into the entryway of a residential building with her in his arms, leaving behind the echoes of a barbaric laugh.
Li Yiming quietly deposited his rose bouquet onto the ground and turned around mechanically. At the entrance of the residential district, he raised his head and looked; he printed into his mind the blue curtains of a familiar window one last time. Then, his lonely and desolate silhouette slowly faded into the veil of the night.
Li Yiming failed to notice someone hidden in the shadows behind him. It was a man with a cigarette between his lips and a nylon bag made of criss-crossed red and blue lines in his hands. The depth of his eyes glinted with a dark luster, darker still than the shadows in which he hid. A frustrated smile hung on his lips as he followed Li Yiming.
Li Yiming recently graduated from Hangzhou Teachers College, majoring in dance. His girlfriend, Ji Xiaoqin, was his classmate. They had been a loving couple for two years. This year, they had planned to take their relationship to the next step through a meeting between their parents on Chinese New Year, followed later by their engagement on the first month of the Lunar Year. After taking into consideration the housing prices as well as the living costs in Hangzhou, they decided to move back to Li Yiming’s hometown, Lishui, to seek a better life after their marriage. The prestige of a degree from a Hangzhou College was still fairly admired in a small city such as Lishui, so, despite his family’s modest financial situation, Li Yiming was confident that he would be able to secure a stable teaching job. He could then give dancing lessons to supplement his income and shoulder the responsibility for the blissful family he promised to Ji Xiaoqin.
Today was the day of his teaching interview and, at the same time, it was Ji Xiaoqin’s birthday. They had spoken on the phone and planned to celebrate her birthday three days later. Yet youthful passion is a stranger to reason, and Li Yiming rushed to the train station after the end of his interview, hurriedly boarding the train bound for Hangzhou on the same night.
For men and women in love, this was simply screaming out romantic.
Then, romance met reality…
The owner of the Maserati was called Guo Xiang and he could be considered one of Li Yiming’s friends. Guo Xiang used to pursue a student in Li Yiming’s dancing class, and he used to be on quite good terms with Li Yiming. Guo Xiang’s grandfather was a prominent figure in the capital before his retirement, and his father was the chairman of Yunlong Construction Group: this made him the stereotypical wealthy third generation.
Back then, Ji Xiaoqin loathed people like him, whose only virtue was to be born in an affluent family. When she talked about him, it was usually with derision and contempt. But Li Yiming would never have guessed that after leaving Hangzhou for less than a month…
Li Yiming wandered aimlessly in the streets. Night fell, but it did little to alleviate Hangzhou’s sultriness in the midst of August. As the clock ticked past two o’clock, the entertainment venues closed one after another. Night’s tranquility was broken by the chatters of groups of young people returning home. Li Yiming’s mind was once more boiling from an emotional upheaval as the cuddling couples strolled past him.
The love he shared with Xiaoqin bound the two together over the years like an ivy climbing up a pair of branches. He thought it strong enough to outlast the shifting of mountains and the drying of seas. But now, vain was all longing for happiness; and to ashes all plans for a future together. Now, everything had been broken like fleeting spumes on an ocean wave. Was the sole purpose of these exchanged vows to show his own powerlessness and reality’s cruelty?
His steps unawarely led him to a building whose name he did not know, but remembered it as being the place where he had his first kiss. In a dark alley behind Li Yiming, a lit cigarette butt splashed embers as it hit the ground. A dull gray flip-flop slowly rose over it and crushed it gently. The man followed Li Yiming into the building with his red and blue bag swaying back and forth,
Li Yiming gazed into the distance as he leaned on the railing. The dazzling neon lamps bore witness to the prosperousness of Hangzhou. The scenery reminded him of another moment in his happy past, and loss and defeat gripped his heart once more. He remembered Ji Xiaoqin’s coquettish protests, the kind words she whispered to him. He could perceive her well-known yet now unfamiliar silhouette. The indistinct echoes of her voice continued to reverberate and amplify in his mind, resounding more and more clearly with each passing second. He closed his eyes, shutting away those memories and sounds, but in his mind, he could see Ji Xiaoqin set flight into a beautiful dance. He reopened his eyes, and could see her shadow looming behind the curtains of every lit window in the distance.
Li Yiming removed his shoes and slowly climbed onto the rusty railing. He swayed his legs in the air as he sat on it. His eyes slowly emptied as he thought of his parents. He was only nine years old when they divorced. Then, shortly after, they both remarried and had a child with their new spouse.
“They all have a family of their own…” Li Yiming raised his eyebrows, not knowing how else to console himself.
“Mulling over enough? Now hurry up and jump, will you?” Suddenly, a voice came from behind him.
The unexpected voice almost made Li Yiming fall off. He tightly grasped the railing and turned around with surprise written all over his face. He saw a man in his forties, with a sleeveless vest, colorful hawaiian shorts and a pair of flip-flops. He held a nylon bag and threw an amused glance at Li Yiming.
Li Yiming had difficulty finding the right words to say.
Neither of them spoke as the man sat down silently. The man took out a can of beer from his bag and stared at Li Yiming without speaking.
Li Yiming was a little embarrassed from the attention and his pensive mood was completely obliterated. He stretched his neck unnaturally and readjusted his sitting posture to bring relief to his numbed hand. He wanted to break the uncomfortable silence but had nothing to say.
Clack! Psschit! The other man emptied the beer can in a few gulps and threw the can on the floor before taking another one out of his bag.
“Thinkin’ about jumping?” Finally, the man asked. Li Yiming, discomfited by the awkward silence, was relieved by the question.
Li Yiming replied subconsciously, “No…”
“If you don’t plan to jump off then why are you sitting here? Is this a good place to think about things?” The man laughed and the facetiousness in his eyes grew.
“Ah… I was thinking about something.” Li Yiming answered truthfully; he was unable to lie under this man’s stare.
“Looks like you still haven’t figured out the answer. How about venting some of it out? After all, I’ve lived quite a few more years than you.” With a smooth movement, the man fetched out a pack of cigarettes from his bag and pulled a cigarette out. He lit it up and inhaled deeply with an expression of nostalgia.
“…” Li Yiming kept silent, unable to say anything. Although he felt compelled to explain his circumstances by the man’s imposing manner, he didn’t know where to start. Should he say that he saw his girlfriend cheat on him and his steps led him to this terrace? What was he planning to do, going on a terrace on the highest floor? Common sense would conclude that he was planning to jump off and kill himself.
“‘Feeling shy? That’s okay, lemme take a guess.” The man noticed Li Yiming’s embarrassment. He drank another mouthful and started speaking before Li Yiming could accept his proposition. “By the way you’re dressed up, doesn’t seem like bankruptcy. Wouldn’t have enough money to start anything in the first place.”
Li Yiming lowered his head and looked at his cheap garments and at the hole in his right sock. He awkwardly retracted his right leg and crossed it behind his left leg, hiding it from sight.
“Doesn’t seem like a failure at the university entrance test1 You are too old to want to kill yourself ‘cause you flunked a test and can’t go to university.”
Upon hearing his words, Li Yiming instinctively reached out to stroke his unshaved chin, but he almost lost his balance from releasing his grip on the railing, so he hurriedly clamped his hand around it again.
“Oh, you nearly bent that metal pipe! Well, that rules out the scenario of an incurable disease.”
Li Yiming looked at the man sitting beside him in semi-frustration. ‘Did you come here to force me to jump down?’
“Women! Am I right? A woman is the root of your problem?” Suddenly, the man snapped his fingers and loudly declared.
Li Yiming nodded with embarrassment.
“Really? Women… Come here, come here. Let big brother give you some advice.” Suddenly the man became somewhat excited and his imposing attitude vanished.
After this moment of confusion, Li Yiming climbed down from the railing; rather, it was a good time to do so for him since he could acutely feel the soreness in his hands. A moment ago, his heart was dying away like embers from an extinguished fire, and it removed him from all other feelings. Now, he has broken out of his trance, and he could finally feel his legs becoming limped from sitting on the railing for too long.
“Come here. Sit next to me. Big brother’s gonna talk with you.” The man saw Li Yiming approach him, so he pulled on the corner of his pants to signal him to sit down.
“Women… Ah…” The man gazed at the starry sky. His expression gradually gained a certain profundity.
One second… Five seconds… Ten seconds… A minute passed, but he was still silent.
The man sighed heavily before taking out another can of beer from his bag. “Let’s not talk about women. Those creatures are troublesome. Here, have a drink.”
“I… I don’t drink” Li Yiming was a bit dumbfounded in front of such attitude. ‘Really… Is that the counseling you’re offering? Weren’t you the one who mistakenly thought that I was about to jump off the building?
“Ah? Then, how ‘bout a smoke?” The man presented him a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Ah… don’t smoke or drink?” The man was a bit surprised.
Li Yiming nodded timidly.
“Don’t say that big brother didn’t warn you. A man who doesn’t drink, no woman he shall have; a man who doesn’t smoke, no son he shall beget. No wonder you want to jump off the building!”
“Big Brother, do you live here?” Li Yiming hurriedly changed the topic: he found no way to continue on it. He looked at the man’s clothing and came up with an attempt to do so.
“No. I was just passing by.”
‘Passing by? We’re on the 21st floor.’
“Wait, wha- sigh! Well, I suppose I should thank you.” It seemed like the man believed he wanted to jump off the building and was looking to talk him out of it. Although his approach was debatable, the important thing was the good intentions behind it.
“Hehehe! Gotten over it?” The man exhaled a puff of smoke as he asked.
“Actually… It’s just…” Li Yiming remembered something and his mood sank again.
“Okay, stop getting downcast. If you can’t figure things out at the moment, stop mulling over it and think about it again when your head is clearer. Like the old people say, even if the sky collapses, there’s nothing to be afraid of. If worst comes to worst, may it be.” The man got up with ease and patted off the dust on his butt before walking to the railing.
“Look at this world. Lavish, flamboyant, prosperous, complex… Then, look at the people below. There are mediocre ones and astute ones; some are happy, others are sad, the rest, angry or depressed. Some are healthy while others are sickly and on the verge of dying. Let’s not forget about those who have poise and good deportment; those who beg on the streets; those who burn their fortunes to live a few more days; and the idlers, like you, who jump off buildings for trivial matters. Tell me, what’s the difference between them? What’s the true essence of this world?” He held a can of beer with one hand and pointed his cigarette around with the other hand, but his words had an odd lucidity.
Li Yiming looked at the man in front of him with amazement; he became a different man. Enough so that Li Yiming had a bit of difficulty adjusting. He remained silent, unable to come up with a good answer. However, the man did not let him get away with such an answer. He turned around and fixated his gaze on Li Yiming, waiting for an answer.
“The… The difference is in the efforts each of them invest in life…” Li Yiming gave up on dodging the question and equivocated an answer to not pour cold water on the good mood of his benefactor. Besides, when he was young, his teacher had taught him that only by making efforts in life would one be able to reap the corresponding rewards.
“Invest… effort… Hahaha!” The man laughed mockingly. “Consider this then… The first man is from a poor family, with nothing else but dreams and ambitions but he’s hardworking and has the iron will to realize his wishes through the ordeals of life. The second is his opposite, a man born with a silver spoon and no redeeming quality nor goal in life. If you were a woman, which would you choose?”
Perhaps it was unintentional, but these words hit straight at Li Yiming’s sore spot. Li Yiming gazed onto a distant neon lamp and remained silent for a long while. Below, a modified sport car sped up, its engine roaring in a deafening explosion. In the building across the street, a few windows, just like the stars in the nightly sky, lit up and heads stuck out of them, searching for the source of the noise. Soon after, curses poured out as the heads pulled back and the windows were shut.
“Because… of rules.” Li Yiming broke his silence but spoke grudgingly. He clenched his fists tightly and released them slowly, letting go, at the same time, of something in him that he persisted to hold onto for so many years.
“Yes, that’s right, rules! Dragon gives birth to dragon and from phoenix, new phoenix is born. A rat will give birth in a tunnel and a tortoise will forever be unable to catch up to a deer. Only a rich person can make you rich; only a leader can promote you to manager. Such are the rules! But you want to mention the rags to riches story? First of all, they follow the so-called rules. Second, they overthrow them. Without understanding them, even if you bury yourself in work, these efforts are futile. To elevate yourself as a sheepdog amongst a herd of sheeps, you have to understand the rules set by the shepherd. Only if you can understand the rules, can you become a shepherd. If you can’t do either, then your only fate is to toil all your life in a sheep pen. If the shepherd is cold, your wool will be shaved for him. This is called selflessness. If the shepherd is hungry, you shall lay on the butcher block and scream your devotion for his cause.”
“Rules…” The man repeated the word, then turned around and stared at Li Yiming. “The Dao is incorporeal, encompassing heaven and earth. The Dao is merciless, cycling along the passage of the moon and sun. The Dao is nameless and gives birth to all things. All creation possesses a common truth and merges into the Dao. These are the rules I’m talking about.” The man was idly chatting, but in a split second his figure towered his surroundings, bursting with an uncommon force and vigor like an immortal entity would.
Li Yiming struggled to keep up with the man. ‘Big brother, the change in your temperament is too great. We were only chatting about philosophy, yet now it’s suddenly metaphysics? I’m a student majoring in dance you know?’
“Do you want to be someone who make the rules?” All of a sudden, the man asked Li Yiming with a solemn stare.
“What?” Li Yiming had yet to extricate himself from his previous philosophical pondering.
“If you desire to make the rules, first, you need to know them. Come, take this.” Without waiting for Li Yiming to react, the man took out a sealed envelope from his knitted bag and shoved it into Li Yiming’s hand.
“What is it?”
“Rules!” The man laughed cryptically.
Li Yiming unsealed the envelope and found a flashy golden invitation card inside. Then, he opened the card and saw a row of words: August 15th, Pure Water Herb Hall in Hangzhou.
“Big brother, what is- Huh? Big brother? Where did he go?” Li Yiming raised his head, but the man was nowhere to be seen. What remained were only three empty cans of beer and two cigarette butts littered on the floor…
Grenn: I really like the analogy between society and the sheep pen. You have to remember that this novel is heavily based on Chinese society which have many differences when compared to Western societies.
- The most important exam in China, called Gaokao, is a an exam on the same scale as SAT exam but has a much higher stakes. The pressure for the success of this exam is a major cause of teenage suicides. For more information, click here: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam ↩