Soothing Rain in a Chinese Courtyard
He who has not passed rainy days in a deserted courtyard ... does not know a Chinese variety of repose. - George N. Kates, `The Years That Were Fat'
IT is always rain that brings many of my memories to life, and now that the spring rains have come to upstate New York, I listen to the water sounds outside the house and think back to the old Chinese courtyard home in Beijing where I lived not long ago.
I remember ``the rain dripping down from the eaves hour by hour'' and the ``gurgling as it fills the drains,'' which Kates experienced during the seven years he lived in a Chinese courtyard home in the 1930s.
The home I lived in is much the same as the one he describes, and the rain in that old place seemed to have a presence that spoke to both of us. And it told me, as it must have told Kates and generations of Chinese, that in the gathering shadows of insurmountable adversity it is sometimes best to simply wait out the storm. That sometimes we should take things as we find them. That at times in one's day, or life, one must free himself from the bonds of the ambitious world to enjoy quietly - and alone - the timeless sensations of nature, even in the middle of a bustling city.
My wife and I had a small, whitewashed room to ourselves in the tumble-down, old house of our Uncle Wang Chen. My wife is a Chinese-American, and Uncle Wang Chen - a soft-spoken, scholarly patriarch - is the elder brother of my wife's father. It was with him, his daughter, Wang Hua, and her husband, Li Chen, that we lived. Our room opened up into a large courtyard surrounded by the other squat, gray brick buildings which made up the traditional-style home.
The house is one of hundreds crowded into an expansive, maze-like neighborhood of weathered gray brick and brown stucco homes and small shops. That our Chinese family has their entire home for themselves is highly unusual in contemporary China. After China and the United States normalized diplomatic relations in 1979, they were able to repossess the house that three other families of squatters and a clothing factory had forcibly occupied during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Most individually-owned homes are still occupied by squatters, who are now under the protection of the government, which won't evict them because of a housing shortage. Armed with a letter from all of us in the United States saying we wanted to visit, our Chinese relatives used the government's eagerness to show how well New China was treating its citizens. Just before my wife and I arrived, the last of the squatters moved from what was our room for the next year and a half.
The place was like a chest of silent memories. Some of them were tragic. Like the Red Guard raid in which Uncle Wang Chen's antiquities were destroyed. Like the slow death of my Chinese aunt whose health, in my uncle's opinion, was ruined by the Cultural Revolution. Like my cousin's suicide in 1966 before the Red Guards were able to drag him off to a session of berating, badgering, and torture. There were other memories too - of children's voices, of lively conversation at New Year's banquets, of laughter.
In this house, life outside on the street - and even my life in the States - always seemed so far away. In these old places there are few windows looking out into the street, and this alone gave the place that air of awesome distance I experienced and of repose Kates writes about. From inside the walls, the outside din of activity reaches you muffled through the brick or from over the roof.
The hawkers would plod by and peddle their wares (brooms, coat racks, washboards), their skills (knife sharpening, shoe repairing, washboard recutting), or their vegetables (sweet potatoes in the winter, radishes in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, squashes in the fall) and cry out for customers. I enjoyed listening to them come and go. But if you wanted to buy something, you had to scurry out your door with money clutched in your hand to catch the hawker before he disappeared around the bend, into the maze.
I also remember how I was always so in touch with - and moved by - the changing weather and the extremities of the seasons. Sum-mer was often a time of stifling heat as the house bricks baked under the sun and turned rooms into ovens. The primitive, cold shower Li Chen had installed in the bathroom was often all I could possibly want.
In winter, I could be found huddling around the coal stoves that heated the house, blowing into my hands to keep them warm and waddling about in layers of woolen and cotton clothing.
Spring first came with wicked winds from the Gobi desert, flailing windows on their hinges, knocking down rows of bicycles like clattering dominoes. Fall was a time with bright, clear, temperate days that were familiar to me, reminiscent of the mellow, amber afternoons of New England.
With the passing seasons came hints of change from the outside world, some of them disturbing. The most disturbing change for me was the threat that these old houses will someday all be deliberately wiped out. One autumn day, three officials from Beijing's Ministry of Housing stopped by to discuss government plans to demolish the neighborhood, and to ask how many rooms my family might need in a new, high-rise apartment building that was proposed to be put up in its place.
The following summer as I left the house to return to America, as I turned one last time to look at the sagging eaves, the fading vermilion columns, and the crumbling bricks, I was certain it was the last I would see of the old place. I had tried to make myself ready for this end, to firmly etch in my mind the precise details and contours of the place. Yet, even the moment the taxi rounded the bend and the house disappeared from view, my time there already seemed to begin to fade into a memory of feeling rather than of place. Today, what I remember most is the rain.
It was my favorite time to be there, when it rained. Perhaps with the rain, the combination of the visible dereliction of the old home and an awareness in a far corner of my mind of its endurance was the most poignant element of its simple beauty and subtle grandeur.
Most people who live in these places have long given up on all but necessary repairs. Weeds and wildflowers grew in the clay tiles of my family's roof. In our bedroom late at night when the quiet of the city was thick, I heard rotted particles of the roof tumble down onto the ceiling above me.
Sometimes as I drifted off to sleep, I saw in my mind's eye Greek-like ruins of the neighborhood which had been abandoned and allowed to rot. But when it rained I felt that would never happen. The place in the rain seemed to be as it has been for years, in an enduring state of disrepair which no one seemed to mind.
I would sit on a stool just outside the door, under the eaves. Sometimes Uncle Wang Chen would come out and together we would watch the rain. The wind would blow and I would feel the cool mist on my face. In the rain, the city noise became muted and the sound and smells of the rain seemed to accent the antiquity of the earth - and of China - that I always felt there, in all kinds of weather. When it rained, no matter how long I'd been there, I still felt the freshness of my response, the strangeness of my being there, and the wonderful solitude. I felt the presence of those countless memories.
It was all so much like a scene out of China's distant past, so much like being on an island out of touch with the contemporary, busy world. When it rained it was as though the new, gleaming hotels, the roaring traffic, and the industrial plants, did not surround us. It was as though time, in some distant, bygone era, had stood still, as though the timelessness hung in the rain.
At no other place than under the sagging eaves of that old home, and at no other time than during a day-long rain, did I feel so far from the rest of the restless world, and so forgotten by it. Yet, it was not a lonely feeling. On the contrary, I felt fantastically contented. I felt as if all the battles I was fighting, all my urgent ambitions and anxieties, and all my haunting regrets, were somehow washed away by the soothing sound of falling water. To be there in the rain was enough.
``Many Chinese poems,'' Kates writes, ``reproduce this mood of respite, granted with the patience of the rain.'' As Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Han Yu writes in ``The Pond in a Bowl'':
Don't forget, if it rains stop in for a visit. Together we'll listen to raindrops splash all the green leaves.