Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (1)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Possessed by the magic of kanji

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(1), May/June 2005, pages 32-34

I was nine or ten, and in elementary school, when I began to frequent the home of Inoue Yasushi (ˆäă–ő), who I called "Uncle Yasushi". Inoue loved China, and he was writing one of his many "western novels" concerning the history of China. The novels include a tale about a princess in early China who sleeps in the desert of the Silk Road, the story of the celestial maiden Feitian (”ò“V) who dances above the desert, and a historical saga about the beautiful bodhisattvas drawn on the walls of the caves of Dunhuang (“ÖàŠ), among others.

Inoue was a novelist. He wrote one sentence after another, in a mixture of kanji (ŠżŽš, Chinese characters) and hiragana (‚Đ‚ç‚Ș‚È, cursive syllabic script), in a balanced way, on manuscript paper. They are sentences that move people and cause them to say "That's beautiful." I marveled that there should be such an occupation, a novelist, who casts spells on people with characters and makes them dream. To be a novelist, I knew, I would have to learn kanji.

The sitting room of Inoue's home was like a library, its walls lined with shelves, full of books, among them some with brown and red spines, exuding the peculiar smell of old books. For me, still a student in elementary school, those books were writings of magic, and everything Inoue brought back from his trips to western China, and placed on those shelves, I thought had to be props related to magic. On a small rectangular leather chair, he had put a cover he had brought back from Mongolia. The cover was warm, and when I turned it over I could clearly see the seams where the fur had been sewn together. Sitting in that chair, I could see on the shelf immediately in front of me the image of a human face, made of earth, its outline indistinct against the sandy wall.

"What's that, Uncle Yasushi?"

"That's a Buddha head."

It was part of the head of an image of Buddha, which had been dug up somewhere in the desert in the west of China. Its brows softly traced an arch, its lips were warm. It's face was very gentle. It appeared to be made of sand, and it seemed it would crumble if touched. From then I studied such Buddhas in books, and went to museums, and saw many Buddha heads. In China ten years later, I went to antique markets, and I saw the faces of lots of Buddha heads. There were similar heads, but none had so gentle or beautiful a countenance. There are different kinds of Buddha heads, but the one displayed in Inoue's sitting room is thought to have been heavily influenced by Greek sculpture. Later, when studying at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, I had a classmate of the Zang (ćU, Tibetan) minority, and when I saw her face, I was astonished that its shape and color were exactly those of Inoue's Buddha head.

The book shelves in Inoue's sitting room reached the ceiling, and a shelf so high he needed a ladder to reach it was filled with volumes, with ‘ć“‚Œˆæ‹L (Great Tang Record of Western Countries, C. Datang Xiyuji, J. Daito Seiikiki) written in gold characters on their gray paper spines, which look like sutras. Now and then Inoue would come in, mount the ladder, take a volume in his hands as though it were very precious, and go back to his study. At the time only the title carved itself in my mind, but later I learned it was the travelogue of Xuanzang (Œșšś, J. Genjo, aka ŽO‘ , C. Sanzang, J. Sanzo, 602-664), a monk who trekked the Silk Road in search of the teachings of Buddha. Inoue used the travelogue, written in 645, as material for one of his novels.

Inoue graciously welcomed me when I peeked in on him, full of curiosity about the life of a novelist. He was a busy man, and when someone came to interview him, I would wait in his study. I would sit in the study, and steal a look at the volumes piled beside his writing desk, and at the pages of the big notebooks filled with his cursive writing. I especially liked watching him when, asked to write something, he would fill a sheet of specially treated manuscript paper, hard and thick like a card, with a poem he had chosen from his own anthology, with his fat fountain pen. Since Japanese is written in a mixture of kanji and hiragana, one has to position the characters on the paper so they look well balanced. The forms of the characters are important. Inoue would tackle this with a sense of spiritual unity, as a calligrapher, as an artist. He seldom had to rewrite anything. He just inscribed the characters on the paper in dark blue ink, quietly, leaving their outcome to nature. Perhaps because he had done judo since his student days, his spirit of consecration was palpable. When looking at a finished inscription, the poem looked like a sculpture that had been carved to rise on the paper in three dimensions. I was very attracted by the interesting forms of the kanji.

"Kanji are very mysterious . . . like drawings," I murmured. Kanji appeal to the eye more than hiragana, and are sometimes more powerful.

One afternoon, when there were no interviews or guests, Inoue brought from his study a book in which was written a certain Chinese poem, sat before me, and opened the book on the long table. In that large sitting room were just Inoue and I, and the poem that had been placed between us. I was suddenly seized by the feeling that all the books were looking at us from the walls. Inoue recited the poem, and began interpreting it for me.

The poem expresses the feelings of Xiang Yu (€‰H, 232-202 BCE), a general who, during a war against the Qin dynasty, reached Gaixia (šŽ‰ș) by the Wu river (‰G]), found himself and his horse exhausted, resolved to die, but worried about the future of the woman he loved.

Even heaven has forsaken me,
and my beloved horse cannot go on;
What shall I do about you?
How will you live on?

I sang those lines aloud with Inoue many times. The peculiar rhythms of the kanji absorbed us both. Kanji at times are packed with strong feelings, and they convey these feelings to posterity.

One time I spotted Inoue, in his own study, tilting a glass filled with something amber, probably whisky, gazing at a picture, of a quiet color that seemed to blend into the wall, hanging in a somewhat secluded part of the room. In the picture a bearded man, with a calm face, was trailing a fishing pole in a river from a small boat. The sleeves of the man's clothing, too, were slack as though flowing. It looked like the sort of sumie art often seen in Japan, but when I asked Inoue "Is that Chinese?" he deeply nodded. There was a quietness about the picture that differed from that of a Japanese work, and it had a mellow touch.

Much of the culture of Japan was received from China. I didn't remember clearly learning this in school, and until then I hadn't given such things much thought. In Inoue's sitting room, though, I began to see things differently. The kanji in a stream of hiragana, in a Japanese sentence, now looked to me like crystals inlaid in sand. To really know Japanese, I had to know kanji, and China.

Inoue personally knew the Chinese author Lao She (˜VŽÉ, 1899-1966). During the Cultural Revolution, it was reported in Hong Kong that Lao She had committed suicide. Hearing this, though not knowing whether it was true, Inoue reminisced about Lao She in an essay called "Tsubo" (Jar). Inoue recalled a story Lao had once told him, and thought, now, suddenly, Lao She is dead. This is the story Lao She told Inoue.

"A long time ago, in China, there was a wealthy man who owned lots of fine antiques. Then the man failed in his work and sold his antiques, one by one, but in time was reduced to being a beggar. Yet even when he became a beggar, there was one jar he couldn't part with. Another rich man wanted the jar, and kept offering him a high price for it, but to no avail. The beggar wouldn't sell it to him, and eventually he became sick and died. The rich man who had wanted the jar came running with hopes of finally possessing it. But the beggar, before breathing his last, had thrown it into the garden and smashed it to pieces."

Lao She represented the "intelligentsia" who were severely persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. When the Red Guards began closing in on writers, Lao She chose death to bending his style of writing. Or so Inoue thought. Inoue likened Lao She's spirit to that of the beggar who destroyed his beloved jar rather than let it pass into the hands of another man. From this I realized how important sentences are to the authors who give them birth.

One day Inoue said to me, "Kanji with the oni radical (‹S) are used in the names of both oni (‹S, demons, ogres) and stars. Don't you think that's interesting?" For sure, it was mysterious that the same oni symbol should be used in kanji that express frightening things and beautiful things.

"When people die, maybe some become oni and some become stars," he said. I thought of all the time I still had to live, and what I would be doing during that time, and wondered which I would become.

I got some kanji dictionaries and looked up the names of Chinese oni. In a dictionary called Kanjigen (ŠżŽšŒč, Origin of kanji), edited by Todo Akiyasu (“Ą“°–Ÿ•Û), I found 鳖Ł (C. chimei, J. chimi), which it described as a beautiful Chinese hobgoblin with green hair and red eyes, who sang in a beautiful voice. I had often heard of 鳖Łé±éČ (C. chimei wangliang, J. chimi moryo), which are supposed to be terrifying evil spirits in mountains and rivers. But as Kanjigen was full of nice Chinese oni, it became my favorite dictionary. Searching in the dictionary, I found that in China there were gods with various names. A god that wandered in the desert like a gale, a cooking stove god, and others. Later I read a biography about Todo, written by his wife. Apparently he, too, had been totally possessed by kanji, so much so that during the war, while a Japanese soldier in China, he engrossed himself in collecting Chinese words that had not made their way to Japan. The result was Kanjigen, which features 70,000 words, including some kanji and interpretations not known in Japan, and Todo's annotations.

One of my favorite Inoue poems begins "If I were to die here." Inoue had actually traveled the Silk Road, and once when confined by the desert, he wanted to send someone he knew a postcard, but he didn't know to whom. In the poem he wondered if, having died in the desert, he would dry like a mummy, softly crumble and be buried in sand, but with whom would he share this? He didn't know, so strongly had he felt, in the desert, the powerlessness of humans, and the meaninglessness of the human relationships he had left in Japan.

Humans live about eighty years, but the crystalline jewels called kanji, which humans have come to use to express their feelings, even if buried in sand, do not crumble. Humans who have used kanji during the past four-thousand years may die, but the kanji are able to report their feelings to humans of later generations.

Inoue stayed healthy by practicing Makkoho, a method of breathing that came from China, whereby one slowly flexes all the joints in the body. When feeling good, he would stretch on the carpet in the sitting room, and show his guests and relatives his pliable limbs folded entirely in two. When he drank too much and his stomach felt bad, he would drink this dreadful black mass called "bear bile" which he obtained from China. He wanted to believe, in accordance with Chinese medicine and treatment, that health can be restored to parts of the body that go bad by drinking the same parts of a strong animal.

Until Inoue Yasushi died at the end of March in 1991 at the age of 83, I often visited his home. I had turned thirteen by two months and would soon finish my first year of middle school. After his death, I began studying Japanese, especially kanji, harder than ever. And through this I came to have a yearning for the characters and literature of China.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi (ˆäă–ő 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.