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 (6)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Mao at Baiyunguan

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(6), March/April 2006, pages 40-43

In Beijing -- in 1997, as humans count the years (people were shouting "Hongkong's been returned!") -- there was a cat named Mao. Mao lived with his mother in a cave-like hole at the base of a stone wall, where it had partly crumbled, in a hutong of old courtyards. From a radio in a home somewhere flowed a song that began with the words "My house is in a hutong in west Beijing . . ."

Mao's mother picked up scraps of cucumbers, noodles, steamed buns, and other food humans left uneaten or dropped around the stores along the main street and shared them with him. Kids would see him and call "Mao! Mao"!" and toss him a piece of an apple or a baked potato.

One day, though, some bright yellow circles were painted on the stone walls. A few days later a huge machine came, and making a deafening roar it rammed and toppled the wall in which Mao and his mother were living. Mao's mother shielded him from the crush of the rubble and died. Mao was now alone.

Mao remained for a while in the mountain of rubble. Many things were flying around Beijing's skies at the time. Mao chased and played with the willow seeds that fluttered down like flakes of peony snow. He squinted and faced away from the wind that darkened the sky with sand from the deserts to the west.

Flocks of plump pigeons, which people ate, drew circles in the sky over the hutong where Mao had lived. The bamboo flutes on their rumps sent uncanny melodies reverberating everywhere.

One evening Mao pricked his ears at an uncanny tune he had heard from time to time. It was a long song and continued for a while. While listening, he felt so at peace he started walking toward it.

After awhile Mao spotted a cobbled area of the kind familiar in older homes. When entering what seemed to be the foyer, he encountered a human, clothed in black and white, absorbed in sweeping the stones. His fine hair, in a style not often seen, fell from a cap to his back.

Passing slowly behind the human, Mao ran into to a smooth cold wall rising from the stones. The man came nearer. Mao looked up at the stone wall. On it were sculptures of several animals that looked like his mother.

While listening to the uncanny song, which still reverberated from somewhere, Mao fell asleep at the base of the wall, and slept more soundly than he had for a long time. He dreamed of his mother coming back and finding him sobbing. She smiled and patted him and said it's okay.

When he opened his eyes, a silver moon was hanging in the sky. Stars were sparkling everywhere. Mao decided to go somewhere. He looked up at the animals on the stone wall one more time, then put behind him the only world he knew.

After passing through many piles of rubble from the walls of the wrecked hutong, he came out on a wide street. In the dim light of dawn, four horses were crossing the street. They snorted as they pulled a large wagon, from which a human was driving them with a whip. One horse-drawn wagon or cart after another wheeled by as Mao ambled down the brick sidewalk along the street.

On the bed of one of the wagons was an iron cage. It was so packed with dark grey pigs they could barely squirm. Some were thrusting their snouts through the bars and squealing.

Mao arched has back and kept going. Several times he sneezed from the dust kicked up by the wagons. The street smelled of oil.

There were trees at intervals between the sidewalk and street. They seemed to go on forever. The bark of the trees was split in places. The splits looked just like the eyes of humans or animals. As he ambled along, Mao felt a myriad of eyes glaring down at him.

It was hard to walk on the brick and Mao's paws were hurting. Yet he kept walking, and by the time the sun had shown its face and was bathing him in its light, where there had been mostly fields left and right, he suddenly came to a wide place that was bustling with many humans.

The huge stretch of ground was paved with concrete. The concrete felt very different from the earth and stone he was used to. It was coarse and utterly lacked their warmth.

There were green lean-tos everywhere and under them all manner of goods. They mostly things like old watches, old clothing, books, pottery, and furniture. The humans, buyers and sellers alike, were grabbing things and exchanging words in raised voices Mao was not used to hearing.

It was still very early and Mao's body was numb from the chill. The faces of the humans under the green lean-tos were bluish. Mao had the feeling he had come to a very frightening place.

Mao hastened his pace, but a bit further he came to a weathered cage made of wood, buried among some other old things. Inside the cage, lying down, was an animal that had five times as much shaggy grey fur than Mao, and he seemed to be pouting. When Mao got closer, the old animal slowly rose, opened his sleep-filled eyes a crack, and peered at him.

"Well, where did this little fellow come from."

"Where did I come from? I really don't know," Mao said.

Mao wanted to get away from the cold, frightful place as quickly as possible. But thinking he might get this large elderly animal to teach him something, he stopped and told him everything that had happened. He related how the stone wall in which he was living had suddenly been destroyed, and how his mother had died protecting him. He also described the uncanny singing he had heard the day before.

Just when he was about to ask how he could live without getting lonely, he heard behind him the voice of what he imagined was a very large human. And suddenly he was snatched by the back of the neck and lifted high above the ground. Mao twisted and resisted with all his might, but the human, unperturbed, stared straight at Mao and said something.

Grinning, apparently satisfied, the human tossed Mao into the cage with the grey-furred animal, rubbed his hands together, and hurried off somewhere. Mao was shaking and crying.

"Don't worry, little child. Look closely at my eyes," the animal said, and opened both eyes wide.

Mao tightly closed his eyes, for everything around him suddenly appeared very bright. When he squinted a bit, he saw that one of the animal's eyes was silver like a full moon, while the other was gold like the sun. As Mao opened his eyes wider, the animals eyes returned to slits. Gazing at the animal, the likes of which he had never seen, he now saw that his coat of fur was a deep-silver, and he had a bushy tail.

"I'm a cat like you," the old animal said. "I'm just of a different kind. I belong to the Sun-Moon Tribe."

Having seen the old cat's eyes, Mao believed him. Simply being beside him made Mao feel very warm and safe.

"I've lived a long time. My fate has been to use my long life to continue to see the world. To see the world, I've gone everywhere east, west, south, and north. Of course I also know the hutong where you were born. There's a temple there where many local deities have congregated for ages. All manner of gods, from the god of the fires in ovens, to gods that assume the shape of animals, and the god of water, come to heal or bless humans whenever something sad or happy happens in the human world. They like mischief and are rarely arrogant."

"What about the uncanny voice I've sometimes heard?" Mao suddenly said.

The Sun-Moon cat nodded.

"The god of water is a very beautiful god. He has green hair and eyes red like rubies. And he likes to heal everything with his own voice. The voice you heard may have been his. Humans call the temple where the gods congregate Baiyunguan. But during the past few decades, humans migrating from the west began to increase. They like the meat of sheep, wear gaily embroidered hats, and believe in only one god. I've never seen this new god. But at Baiyunguan, there are some inscriptions of texts which praise a god who reigns in a new, far-off, different country. I suppose that very few of the gods who were at Baiyunguan in the old days are still there now. Well, this often happens in the world of humans."

The Sun-Moon cat laughed and gently gazed at Mao.

"What about your fate, though? You're like the moon that was floating in the sky the other night. Small and cute like fine silverwork."

Mao wanted to meet the gods still congregating at Baiyunguan. He wanted to ask them what he could do to fill the loneliness left in him when he had lost his world in the hutong where he had lived with his mother -- the sounds of that radio, the human children, and above all his mother.

"Thank you, Sun-Moon cat," Mao said. Feeling tired, he snuggled beside the Sun-Moon cat's soft fur and was soon asleep.

The next day, the moment he woke up, Mao was jerked from the cage by a human, and the Sun-Moon cat started raging about.

"That's enough of that, you feeble old puss!" the human said, and began hitting the Sun-Moon cat with a stick.

Mao darted out of the man's reach and looked back.

"I've already lived a long time," the Sun-Moon cat said. "Run! Go back to Baiyunguan!"

Mao ran as fast as he could. The sun set, again the moon rose, and Mao arrived back at the place where he was born. His paws were sore from the long trip, but he went straight to the temple.

The temple, surrounded by the rubble of the hutong, and shining faintly white, was waiting for Mao. As he ambled into its grounds, he passed several gods who had been chiseled on the stone wall. He stopped before one that looked like his mother.

"Welcome home," she said.

"Mommy, I went to a market far away and met a Sun-Moon cat. He said that cats have fates like humans. I guess your fate was to save me."

Mao went deeper into the temple grounds. Feeling thirsty, he found a pond. There were flowers in it, and bathed in the moonlight they looked like faintly luminescing flames. Mao, while admiring them, saw some silver fish swimming between them. Now and then a fish would jump above the water, sparkle, and dive back in.

Mao drank his fill of the water, found a leafy bed under a tree, and slept. In his dreams, a silver fish became the water god. The water god's body was the color of jade, and its eyes were red like the lotus blooming on the water's surface.

The water god danced with a beautiful woman, who had come from the western reaches of China, wore gay clothing, and had braided her long hair in a number of plaits. They whirled round and round under limbs laden with roses. Mao was full of joy.

The next day, a number of humans hauled away all the stone rubble of the wrecked hutong.

Some time passed, and at the monastery which had once been called Baiyunguan, a gate in the shape of a round onion was built. By the gate was a sign in glittering gold characters reading Qingzhensi.

Passing through the gate, Mao came to a wide clean street, lined on either side with vendors selling mutton on skewers, prayer books written in script that seemed to dance from right to left, and caps and cotton candy, among other goods for humans visiting the mosque.

Mao always sat in a certain corner of the grounds of Qingzhensi, before a stone wall, as though guarding it, and watched the humans who came to worship or sightsee. In the evening, when everyone had left, some humans came to sweep everything clean. When finished, they would come before the wall where Mao sat watching the world, fall to their knees, light incense, report the events of the day to the gods, and whisper words of thanks and prayer.

Mao would prick his ears and intently listen to the prayers humans had been offering the local gods from time immemorial. And in time memorial, he came to be called Mao of Baiyunguan.

(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 ( 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.


This story is fiction.

The real Baiyunguan, or White Cloud Temple, is a short walk to the west and a bit south of the old Imperial Palace in the center of Beijing. First built in the 8th century, during the Tang dynasty, it is one of the biggest Daoist complexes in China. It was closed after the 1949 revolution and not reopened to the public until 1984. Thousands of local deities, and humans, still convene there.

As for Qingzhensi, there are numerous mosques that go by this name in China. The most famous of many in Beijing is Niu Jie Qingzhensi, or Ox Street Mosque, a short walk south of Baiyunguan. Apparently the street got its name because Muslims eat beef rather than pork. Niu Jie Qingzhensi was built in the 10th century during the Song dynasty and has been a national historical site since 1988 while continuing to be a Mecca for Chinese Muslims.

In the real world, as in the story, both Baiyunguan and Qingzhensi are places of worship for cats of all kinds.