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 (3)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Witch in Training

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(3), September/October 2005, pages 32-37

After studying Chinese at Central University for Nationalities, in Beijing, I took an entrance exam for Beijing University, called Beijing Daxue (–k‹ž‘ĺŠw) or just Beida (–k‘ĺ) in Chinese. I officially enrolled in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature in 1997, on the eve of Beida's centennial.

Beida was founded in 1898 as the Metropolitan University, or Jingshi Daxuetang (‹žŽt‘ĺ›{“°), of the Qing dynasty. It was renamed National Peking University in 1912, a year after the creation of the Republic of China. After the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Peking University absorbed Yenching University (‰‹ž‘ĺŠw), and in 1953 it moved to Yenching's park-like campus, known as Yan Yuan (Gardens of Yan), in the northeast of Haidian District near the Yuan Ming Gardens and the Summer Palace.

Beida's history as China's highest seat of learning is long. The campus is still called Daxuetang (Hall of Great Learning). Its main gate, and the columns of its older classrooms, are painted vermilion. Inside, you feel as though you've entered a daoist temple. In the garden, too, standing as though in ancient ruins, are marble columns with sculptures of clouds that suggest you are in a heavenly hall of learning.

On either side of Beida's vermilion gate are two stone lions. They appeared to be glaring at me as if to say "You are entering this great hall of learning to study; is your heart prepared?" But in order to pass between those lions, you have to show a student photo-ID card to an officer of the Public Security Bureau or police. If I tried to peddle through on my bike I'd be stopped with a "Hey, hey!" I'd get off and search for my student ID, show it to the officer, and deferentially pass through the gate. I always felt like I was crossing the threshold into the precincts of a temple.

But why were the police guarding Beida's entrance? According to one story, they were on the lookout for suspicious movements, as China has a history in which its students, having mastered their studies, became infatuated with capitalism and freedom of speech and caused disturbances like the incident at Tiananmen in 1989. That year I started Beida, during the ceremonies celebrating its 100th anniversary, security in Beijing, but particularly on campus, was strict, and there were more police than usual at the vermilion gate. Graduates came from all over China and overseas to attend the ceremonies, and it was thought that former students who'd been leaders of the Tiananmen incident might be lurking among them. Had they been spotted, they would have been arrested as political criminals.

Beida students

At a certain plaza on campus are a number of cafeterias where I always ate lunch. They are near a three-sided intersection called the Triangle, where students can freely post opinions on bulletin boards. The Tiananmen incident is said to have started and spread from there. Beijing University has produced a number of interesting literati and politicians during the past century of China's history.

At the time I was a student in the literature department, students in China were "politically" quiet. Most students were engrossed in learning English and economics. TOEFL classes and schools were springing up all over, and students were desperate to get seats. A typical elite student dreamed of studying in the United States, working in America's IT industry, returning home, and becoming the president of a computer-related company.

President Jiang Zemin himself was in favor of raising such "sea turtles". It was a time when China's gate faced America and was wide open. Students repeated the "cat theory" of Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), which holds that "Regardless of whether it's a white cat or a black cat, if it catches mice it's a good cat" (•sŠÇ”’”LüK”LC‘ߏZ˜V‘lAĽD”L). In other words, "Instead of history or philosophy learn English, study abroad, become rich, and contribute to the development of national strength by introducing advanced culture to China."

But where to study abroad, Japan or America? The American camp would say, "Japan has advanced technology, but it's chasing America." The Japanese camp would argue, "Japan's an advanced country, and it's close." While I was at Beida, the Japanese language department was losing the popularity war.

Students were busy, studying hard day and night, and I rarely saw anyone just having fun. Except once when there was a scandal on campus. A certain female student was rather conspicuous. I, too, had sometimes seen her. She was tall, her hair was very long, and she always wore dark clothes and little makeup.

The lightness of her brown hair, which she wore in a ponytail that flowed to her waist, didn't seem natural. She moved from class to class, carrying her textbooks, her eyes always a bit downcast, ignoring everyone's gaze. Whenever she entered or left a classroom, she was accosted by boys. I remember her figure was very radiant as she briskly walked, as though to brush them off with her hair.

There was lots of gossip about this girl. At a bookstore near campus called Songhua Shudian were heaps of copies of an anthology called Ice and Fire. It had been written by a young student author in the literature department, and the girl was said to be his lover. I also thumbed through a copy, and I noticed the expression "drawer literature" in an advertising blurb. This appeared to mean that the book had evolved from drafts kept in a drawer in a small dorm.

The girl was very witchlike, in the sense that she was beautiful and seemed to possess magical powers. Her lover would have been just the sort to write such a book. It was a collection of very passionate short stories, which made me think that she, being who she was, had probably made him write them. How nice, I thought, relieved to discover that here at Beida, in my own department no less, were young students devoting themselves to literature and love -- not just cyborgs, their masks unchanging, thinking only of studying in America and success.

From Clinton to Zhu Xi

One day President Clinton came to Beijing University. Again the number of guards at the gate increased. Clinton presented the university library with a bookshelf full of volumes about American history, and he delivered his speech to students while standing beside this bookshelf. The campus was jammed with students trying to catch a glimpse of him giving his speech outdoors in Beida's expansive garden.

China's students greeted Clinton with enthusiastic applause and adoration. Standing next to me was a student from the Department of International Politics. She was very excited and seemed eager to ask the president an embarrassing question. Clinton parried her question -- which began "Concerning the future relationship between China, America, and Japan . . . " -- with a smile. My mind was filled with lighter thoughts, like whether such a new bookshelf would look right in Beida's old library.

The most wonderful thing about Beida, for me, was its library. It was founded in 1902. Over the years it absorbed a number of other university libraries, including the Yenching University Library. A new library building was built in 1998 to celebrate the centennial. Beijing University Library is now considered the largest research library in China, and the largest university library in Asia.

I had come to study in China with an interest in Chinese characters or hanzi (ŠżŽš). But I didn't fully understand why I was attracted to them, much less what they really were. I knew they had come to Japan, mostly through Korea, and that people in Japan continued to use them to express themselves. However, I felt that, without understanding their true meanings, I would not be able to utilize their true powers of expression.

Knowing more about Chinese characters was, for me, also connected with knowing more about myself as a Japanese interested in older literature. But there I was, pursuing thee older wisdom of China amidst Chinese students who mostly talked about money, money, money.

Surrounded by Chinese students bent on mastering English, I one day visited the study hall of Tower 5, which houses the Department of Philosophy. When I pushed open its simple double doors, made of wood and painted vermilion, they squeaked. I walked down a hall so deserted I thought no one was there. At the end was a small room, and pushing open its doors I found a professor with two Chinese students, doing research on Zhu Xi (Žéŕ”, Chu Hsi, 1130-1200), the Song Dynasty (960-1279) Confucian scholar who laid the foundation for Neo-Confucian thought, which later spread to Japan.

The professors and students were investigating the impact of so-called "Shushi studies" (ŽéŽqŠw, "Shushigaku" in Japanese, "Zhu Zi xue" in Chinese) in Japan. At the time they were reading Shushi-studies texts written by Japanese scholars during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868). The texts were written in kanbun (Šż•ś), or Chinese as written by Japanese, which is analogous to Latin in Renaissance Europe.

I was interested in what they were doing, so I got them to let me read the materials with them. While reading, we would say things like "The way this character is used here is peculiar to Japan." I thoroughly enjoyed such comparisons of character usage in China and Japan.

Erya magic

At length the professor asked me, "What did you come here to do?" as though he had just realized I was there for another reason. I told him, and he said if I wanted to study the origin of characters, I should read a Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) book called Erya (›•‰ë, Ž˘‰ë). He said it would be a good guide to the thinking that became the foundation of dao teachings (“š‹ł) and yinyang (‰A—z), which constituted the core of ancient philosophy in China.

I knew of a thick volume called Shuowen Jiezi (ŕ•ś‰đŽš), compiled around 100 (CE) by Xu Shen (30-124) during the Latter Han dynasty (25-220). As its title implies, this early reference is a guide to "explained texts and explicated characters" that appear in the Confucian classics. So I rushed to a hutong with lots of bookstores, with high expectations, and finally found a copy of Erya -- so thin I couldn't imagine it being very useful.

During my rounds of bookstores I ran across shops with names like Erya Shudian (›•‰ë‘“X), and when I asked an employee if Erya was famous, I was told things like "It's the earliest philosophy in the world, and it's also poetry." So I figured it was, after all, a classic that held some attraction.

Erya means something like "approach to refinement" and is widely regarded as China's earliest dictionary. However, it is actually a guide to words that appear in the Confucian classics, and it is topically organized more like an encyclopedia or thesaurus. It's compiler is not known.

Sometime over two millennia ago, scholars of Confucian teachings, and of law, military affairs, and the writings of Lao Zi (˜VŽq) and Zhuang Zi (‘‘Žq), wrote for their own patron lords practical guides on how to survive the civil wars that were raging at the time. The author of Erya collected the original forms of all the characters he knew and classified them on the basis of the philosophy of "tianren heyi" (“Vl‡ˆę), meaning that "heaven and people are unified" by Confucian principles. In a word, "tianren heyi" means "the cosmos and the earth are one".

Erya describes "Chinese characters" as constituting the first language to give "names" (–ź) to various phenomena of the cosmos such as animals, plants, the wind, clouds, light, stars, the sun, feelings and the like. Interestingly, its explanations liken spring, summer, fall, and winter, and east, west, south, and north, to colors and sounds. It has, in fact, many highly intuitive and poetic explanations.

I sensed that the ideas of divination (fortune telling) and magic (witchcraft) in dao teachings, the Iching (ˆŐŒo), and yinyang and such developed from these "tianren heyi" ways of thinking. My first thought when encoutering Erya was "This is a handbook of magic." In yinyang magic, you place importance on "names". You take a person's "name" and, with it, put a spell (curse) on the person. One's actual "name" is therefore a "spell". And so the Chinese characters I pursued were both the true "names" of things, as well as the "spells" that had been cast on them.

In order to learn the origin and development of characters -- that is, the "names" and "spells" of things -- you have to study the "shell and bone graphs" (bœ•śŽš) inscribed on tortoise shells and dry ox scapula, which are regarded the earliest written graphs, and the hieroglyphic graphs (ŰŒ`•śŽš), which are closer to pictures than characters, engraved on bronzeware.

The number of graphs (•śŽš) explained in Erya is limited. So I thought I would investigate the earliest graphs using the Siku Quanshu (ŽlŒÉ‘S‘), the largest encyclopedic collection of classical works and commentary in China, compiled over a number of years by scholars working under the orders, and occasionally the direction, of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).

Siku Quanshu, which runs to several thousand volumes, brings together selected Chinese works of all ages and regions. As its name implies, it was intended to represent "the complete works of the four repositories [branches of knowledge]". It also includes materials on shell-bone and hieroglyphic graphs, and other primitive graphs that are scattered all over China, which were known at the time. More recently, of course, many more such graphs have been unearthed by archaeologists.

Only a few hand-written copies of Siku Quanshu were made, to be preserved in different parts of the empire. Part of one of these copies is in the basement of the Beijing University Library. Today, of course, the entire work is available on CD-ROMs and even in on-line databases.

The Siku Quanshu lady

The Beijing University Library, like the National Library in Japan, like any extensive institutional archive, is huge. Its ceilings are high, its shelves are also high, and the coolness of its marble protects the books. At the tables in the reading rooms, students are ardently taking notes.

I discovered that the basement, too, was deep, when I went to the library with a letter of introduction from the professor and said, "I would like to see the Siku Quanshu." First, with an attendant, I descended one stair after another, and knocked on the door of a rather small room that had a crooked sloped ceiling, under the stairs, at the very bottom. Inside, alone, was an older lady sitting in a small chair. I greeted her but her expression didn't change.

"I came to find out the origin of ‹›," I said in a small voice. The lady reached for some keys, which clanged as she rose, and among thousands of volumes went straight to one, slipped it out, opened it to the part on "fish", and handed it to me. I had gotten the professor to teach me how to use the index of a Siku Quanshu dictionary, and had come prepared to use it. But I worried it might take me the whole day just to fine the part on fish, and so the lady's services were a great help.

Looking at the volume she had given me, I saw that indeed there were a number of shell-bone graphs representing ‹›, and several examples of picture-like hieroglyphic graphs of ‹› engraved on swords and bronzeware. After copying these pictures in my notebook, I said, "Next I'd like to see what you have on –ž," as I wanted to know the original forms of the principle character in my name, –žŽq.

I had thought that –ž came from “ú meaning "sun" and ŒŽ meaning "moon", but the “ú element actually derives from a representation of a window. And so –ž represents the brightness of moonlight through a window. I felt somehow relieved to learn that my name signifies not the combined brightness of the sun and the moon, but the brightness of only the moon. Which is the just the right amount of brightness for me. After copying many primitive forms of the graph –ž in my notebook, I felt as thought I had divined the "spell" caste on me by my name.

"Next I'd like to see ’š," I said, asking what just came to mind. The lady immediately brought me another volume and opened it to the "bird" part. Again I copied earlier graphic forms in my notebook, but there were more than I expected. There were pictures of various birds, from small birds to phoenixes. The forms of their feathers were all different. Some were flying, while the wings of others were closed.

Copying them all would take a lot of time, so I said to the lady, "So many pictures came to be consolidated into this single character ’š." As before, though, there was absolutely no response from her. When leaving, I asked, "Have you memorized the volume and page for every one of the tens of thousands of characters?" Again there was no answer. But when I asked "Are you a professor?" she shook her head sideways a bit.

The room in which the lady worked was dim. Light entered only from a small barred window near the ceiling on one side of the room. The atmosphere was very different than on the higher floors. As the lady was jangling her keys, I left.

I went to the Siku Quanshu room many times after that, but every time I descended the stairs, I worried if the room would really be there. One day I imagined there wouldn't be a door . . . while thinking that the Siku Quanshu lady was surely a witch who lived there.

Thanks to the Siku Quanshu lady I was able to pursue the origin of ‰F’ˆ. The graphs ‰F and ’ˆ are both classified under the "roof" (›~) radical. This radical seems to have first signified the "heavenly pavilion" that hung from heaven. ‰F’ˆ was the name given to all things that lived under this pavilion in the sky. People in ancient times regarded the sky as a pavilion. When things fell toward heaven from the ground, the holes they opened in the heavenly pavilion were named "stars" (Ż).

To imprint what I had learned, I started writing the ancient shell-bone and hieroglyphic graphs on calligraphy paper in ink with the tip of a chopstick. In time I began to feel their magical powers, and thought I might try some oracle bone divination myself. I would buy some ox shoulder blades, bury them, and inscribe some graphs on them. So I asked the professor, "Where can I buy some ox bones?" And he peered at me and said, "For the fat to entirely leach out so you can write graphs on them takes ten years." He'd seen right through me.

The gods of Weiminghu

One night I went out for a stroll around Weiminghu (–˘–źŒÎ), Beida's beautiful "unnamed lake", and the favorite place on campus for walking, resting, reading, thinking -- and magic. In the middle of the lake is a hermitage, and floating beside it is a stone boat. I was told that no one ever rides the boat, except the powerful water spirits in the lake, who use it when coming ashore. It seems these water spirits are still imparting to students the energy that makes Beijing University China's highest seat of learning.

It's a nice night. A warm breeze is blowing, the water of the lake is lapping the shore, and the stone boat appears to be gliding toward me. When I look up at the night sky -- which appears to be sunken right in the middle like a pot laying under the willows around the lake -- I think, Ah, that's the heavenly pavilion. All of us, all human beings, subsisting under that heavenly pavilion, are part of ‰F’ˆ, the cosmos.

Whether one is Chinese, Japanese, American, whatever -- whether a capitalist or a communist, man or woman, or genius enough to be able to publish a book while in college, or not -- or whether or not one has a terrific lover -- everyone living under the heavenly pavilion is the same, I felt as all my grudges seemed to dissolve into the lake.

Things that fell toward the heavenly pavilion opened holes it it, and so the light that came into the pavilion became stars. Hence so many stars . . . I thought, then suddenly had the illusion that I was endlessly falling toward the night sky, and grabbed the trunk of the willow beside me. I whispered to it, "I know you're clinging to the earth with your roots so you won't fall toward heaven." Had I leapt through 2000 years of space-time and experienced the "tianren heyi" feeling of the author of Erya? Everything in nature around me began to greet me, and began to talk with me in its primitive forms.

When I later described this experience to the professor who had put me on to Erya, he said, "Every night the gods of the lake pass right by those willows on their way to the temple on the hill next to the lake. You probably felt some very strong energy." I shivered to think that, unknown to me, the rock boat had reached the bank, and the gods of the lake had passed right by me.

In flying form

At last I had an opportunity to test the "spells" that were the greatest magic of yinyang. The word "spell" conjures up something fearful. But a "spell" is actually something through which, by knowing someone's real "name", one can discover the person's true form, and so awaken or move the person. Through informing a person of their real "name", a "spell" can save or heal them.

One day, again while walking near the lake, I heard the robust call of an adult bulbul. Looking down I spotted a chick that had fallen from its nest. It was thrashing its wings but it couldn't yet fly. Or perhaps it had thought it was big enough to leave the nest, but had left too early and failed, unable to get the hang of flying.

I called out "Niao" to the chick, as the "bird" graph ’š is pronounced in Chinese. But it just continued to shake and thrash its wings. Magic, though, is more than a sound. So I cast a spell on the bird, saying, "I'm going to show you your real form."

I really like the pictures of the hieroglyphic graphs of ’š. I had drawn them many times and remembered them. So I chose the one I liked best, a simple one showing a bird thrusting out its beak and fully extending its wings. I carefully drew it, with a twig, in the dirt near where the bulbul chick had fallen, covered it with a lot of leaves, set the chick on top of this puffy bed, and traced a circle in the ground around it. Then I prayed to the gods of the lake to lend the chick their powers so it could fly in its original form.

I returned later to find that the baby bulbul which couldn't fly was gone. Looking up at the nest, I heard its vigorous cry. Had it returned on its own power? If so, this witch in training had scored her first success.

Through my studies at Beida, I came to understand why I had come to China so attracted by characters -- characters that derive from ancient graphs, the first in human history to give names to things. I wanted to know the original forms of characters, in order to know the true forms of things. Through knowing the real meaning of the character in my name, I was able to know my true self and be released from a mistaken "spell".

If, when writing, you know the true forms of graphs, then the stories you tell will be more likely to caste a spell, and capture the hearts of many people.

(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.