Chapter Thirteen

Just Talking



One evening Yannang and I were leaning on the rails of a pier on the Praya. We had with us a great book of pictures which Yannang had brought for me to see. Each page carried a Chinese painting, some famous, some less well-known, and every one gave us new ideas to talk about. We became so engrossed in conversation as to be almost oblivious of all else. The tide flowed under the pier; the sun set; neon lights began to light the oily water with patterns of green, red and blue; a party of rowdy American sailors, carrying on with gaily dressed Chinese girls, departed in a launch. We talked on and on.

I had never known this kind of talking, a conversation of the soul rather than the intellect. We described feelings and states of mind, evoked by the pictures, with an intuitive understanding of one another that seemed to transcend the barriers of culture, race and language.

One evening, we climbed to the Upper Level, a narrow road ringing the Peak some way below the summit. In a sheltered corner of the hillside, with jungly woods around us, we found a little stone table, its top smooth, polished and marked with a Chinese chessboard. There were two seats beside it. The hours once more sped by while we talked of beauty, the essence of life, Christianity and Buddhism. Using twigs for pieces we had a game of Chinese chess. Dusk fell as we strolled down to the bustle of the town. We usually ate in simple Chinese restaurants or teahouses avoiding the high prices and culture of the European restaurants.

There was a kind of poverty in what we were about, a disregard for the frippery and thrills of the city. We rarely visited a cinema. Our enjoyment was in conversation, an open-ended discovery that went beyond outward form. It was simple, cost nothing and there was a lot of gentleness. These conversations were profound, reaching beyond the insight of most of my friends. There was a seeking to understand one another and a certainty of its accomplishment. Like an ephemeral butterfly at a choice flower that might be frightened by a sudden movement, I found in it a sort of compassion that I dared not try to probe.

Another evening found us up on the Peak again. The whole, vast city lay below us, brilliant with strings of beads of light, flashing, dancing, quivering in the haze. Ferry boats weaved across the harbour, a liner hooted, the murmur of traffic and voices came up to us. It was a warm night and again we talked for three hours, oblivious of all except the shadowy light on each other’s faces, the glow from the city below and our long, long talk.

“Look at the lights of the cars, they are so small from here,” said Yannang. “The rich people look so important in the city in their big cars and expensive clothes, yet, from up here...” He left the sentence unfinished.

He told me about his home in Swatow. When times were kind, there had been much coastal trade and his father’s junks were laden with cargo. When trade was poor, the junks went fishing but, when times were exceptionally hard, they all had to live off the land. There was no question of moving food around China, it was local produce or nothing.

“It was like that when the Japanese came. Our land saved us. There was a terrible famine and many of the peasants died. Only those, whom the land could feed, survived. In my father’s house the Japs discovered firearms. They did not like it and they burnt down our house. I remember being dressed hurriedly as a farmer’s boy, torn clothes and a broken bamboo hat and a stick over my back. All the family hurried from the village and I can remember passing along our street, hearing the crackling of flames and the smoke as they burnt our house.”

“We walked by night, hurrying along small paths. It was a long journey and I was very tired. I was about nine then.2* At last we came to an inlet of the sea and we were rowed secretly across in the moonlight. I recall the quiet dipping of oars in the water. On the other side we rejoiced in throwing off our peasants’ clothes and hurried to meet my father’s brother. We were in a country not yet occupied by the Japanese.”

“The Japanese only occupied certain coastal areas around Swatow and did not penetrate very far inland. When the war was over, my family returned to the village and I spent some time there. I came to Hong Kong on a holiday and I was here when the Communists took over China. At first I was very unhappy. I wrote a long letter to my uncle and to one of my friends. It was an inspired letter. I have not been able to write like that lately. I complained about the evils of society, the sin, wickedness, the corruption. Life in Hong Kong is cold, harsh, money-ridden, grasping. You will not have been here long enough to know this fully. Most of the police indulge in petty corruption and take squeeze money for most things. It is very difficult to be a good person here. So I have turned my back on this ugly life and look to nature.”

“Do you love the world?” I asked him.

“No, not the world but I love nature. Society seems corrupted. Innocence has left it. There are not many good people. It is all money, careers, business prospect, a scramble for living. So few understand their lives.”

He looked down at the city below.

“They rush and bustle, the countless thousands, the poor, the coolies, living from one dollar note to the next, from one meal to the next. Their minds, which are meant to understand, achieve nothing: there is vice and squeeze and toil. My idea is not shared by many.”

We looked down and listened to the roar of the city. O Jerusalem!

“So, you see, I always like the quiet places, the mountains, the mists and the trees. There I find peace and consolation.”

We talked about Buddhism and Yannang remarked that he had often thought about becoming a monk.

“A real monk high up in the mountains. I believe that after many years it is possible to realise something. Perhaps it does not take so long. If one thinks rightly, something can be seen. Of course, most monks are not like that for they do not have the power to live the right life and they fall back into worldly things. They become concerned with ceremonies and appearances and there is nothing in that, nothing in their superstitions, their false Bodhisattvas. Few monks hold to the high ideal. They mistake ceremony for practice and forget the silence in the hills. The doctrine is difficult and most are too stupid to understand it. The Buddhist idea is very high, too difficult for most of us. It means getting away from the world and, as you know, all Chinese love their families. If I became a monk, I could not bring up a family and that is natural life. I should fulfil life, not deny it. For me, I do not think I can attempt that life. Even so, there are some who find something by a monastic way of living. I believe that is so.”

I asked what he thought of Christianity.

“It is a very good religion. I mean in the sense of being a good organisation. It does a great amount of practical good, teaching health and hygiene, raising the ways of living of degenerate people. Christians are very friendly, they welcome new friends, and Chinese, you know, are often stiff and formal, until you know them well. Christians seem to override this. Yet, I don’t like Roman Catholics. Like some Buddhists, all they seem to think about is ceremony and incense and chanting in Latin. Protestants are better because they do not try to tell people what to do and do not have such fixed dogmas. Their ceremonies are simpler and in local languages. Mainly I like Christians because they are practical.”

“What do you think of Christ?”

“He was a great teacher, a very great one, like the Buddha maybe, but human like the rest of us. Once, in Swatow, I lived in a house with four other students. One of them was a Christian and we talked a lot. He used to tell us that Christ was the son of the one God and that he had risen from the dead to become a judge whom we had to ask for help in life. This student told us many such mysterious things but I did not believe any of it. The great thing about Christianity is its kindliness and good works. I may join a Christian society because then my children will have a good education.”

“Have you read the Bible?”

“Only small extracts. I want to read it. It is one of my great wishes, because the English is so very excellent.”

“What then do you think of the Christian God?”

“There is no god like that. The world is a great mystery and, if you ponder the mystery, there is no need for a god. In nature there are so many things, birds, animals, sea, land, the stars, all moulded together in a great and wonderful rhythm, a kind of harmony. The old Chinese, you know, called it the balance of Yin and Yang, spirit and matter, force and resistance, positive and negative, male and female. It is so expressed in one of the oldest of Chinese books collected by Confucius around 400 bc – the I Ching. But it is very mysterious, too difficult for us in everyday life.”

“Well then, what is the cause of all this?”

“Cause? Well, we do not think about a cause. The world is. It is a wonderful mystery. Nature is a secret in which lies the strange harmony of which we all form a part.”

We fell silent, conscious of the night about us, the slight chill of the mountain air and the chirruping of a cricket somewhere in the darkness. It was indeed a mystery and beautiful beyond expression. Was it really worthwhile, I asked myself, this striving to explain, this scientific search to which I was so deeply wedded?

The question had to come. “What do you think happens after death?”

Yannang turned to me, a smile on his face. “Nothing. It is a long sleep with no awakening. It is the great peace we long for. Yes, it is like a sleep, yet it is nothing.”

A sadness came over me at his reply, even though it was an answer to which I too, by a different route, had also come. It was the way he said it, with such faith in both life and death, their co-presence in the universe, that moved me so. In Yannang there was such an acceptance of the harmony of all things. There was no sorrow in his voice, no passionate wish for an afterlife. Death lay before him as an idea, something to be regarded as everything else, a thing in itself, a fact. There was no fear, no regret, a tinge of sadness and a wonderful acceptance.

The night became very silent as I looked at him, wondering what the great faith that made him understand so much could be and where it had come from. I had a feeling of finality. There was nothing more to be said. An unutterable beauty was there. All desire for anything else faded away. I was happy in this gentle, perceptive company.

I asked myself, how is it that Yannang alone, in these last challenging months, has made me think and think hard on a level I have not known with any other friend. With most of my friends, I felt I could go further than they in any metaphysical talk, drawing on my own feeling and experiencing a certainty that I could refute any argument I contended. Sometimes I would sweep into a merciless torrent of talk, which only a few could perceive as really a kind of fog. With Yannang I found myself with no wish to excel, to show off knowledge and brilliance, as if conversation was an intellectual competition, a game of chess with words and ideas. With Yannang I was learning that words were the façades of feeling.

Yannang was not especially brilliant nor especially handsome. His health was poor and he suffered from the effects of earlier malnutrition. Yet he had a surprising persistence. While he did not appear forceful or dynamic, his gentle almost shy approach was like the water that wears away mountains.

“I do not want riches or great success because they spoil one’s true nature. I want to live a simple life. First I must find a way of earning enough income. Then I must see to it that I have enough time to sit quietly in the country and study, perhaps then I can write something too. It is a vain wish of mine, but I would like to write about English things in Chinese and Chinese things in English. I would like to go to a university but I would have to win a scholarship outright. Then again I would have to stay two more years at school and I am sure my uncle cannot keep me that long. I am afraid my wishes are vain ones. I shall never be able to do all I would like but I shall try.”

“Do you want to be famous?”

“Only a little among my friends! Look how busy famous men are, always rushing about in a way that ruins the natural life. My chief idea is happiness. If we can find happiness then all difficulties settle themselves.”

“Isn’t that perhaps a little selfish?”

“Maybe, but first we must find the way for ourselves and afterwards lead others onwards. The Buddhist monks of China say that, once he has found the way, a great man will not keep it to himself but turn and help others less fortunate. This is also a Christian idea. In helping others we find further happiness.”

“But isn’t happiness the opposite of sorrow? Do they not both exist together – necessarily? You cannot find happiness alone without sorrow.”

“That is not quite my meaning. Indeed both sorrow and happiness are real and inseparable opposites but the true happiness I mean is different from either; it understands and transcends them.”

Yannang said to me, “I do not talk about these things with my other friends. Somehow you manage to understand better than most. An idea comes up and then another. They flow along. I do not talk like this as often as I should.”

“We certainly seem to have thought about very similar problems and, in spite of our so very different backgrounds, have come to understand much the same thing.”

“Yes. It is so extraordinary. We have known each other for so short a time and we converse in a language that is not my own yet we understand each other’s deepest thoughts.”

“It is a strange chance that we should have met at all,” I said.

“It’s a miracle!” said Yannang with feeling.

“When I first read that newspaper article of yours there was something in it that pleased me. You know I had been watching that page for weeks. It was only this one article that seemed to cry out to me. I recall you were comparing richness and poverty, not as a moralist but like a being upon a cloud looking down from afar – simply observing, detached even while you were present.”

“Yes – you see it was the moonlight.”

Some conversations run out of words.

“Will you ever come back here, John?”

I hesitated. How could I answer with the world poised about a razor’s edge?

“Perhaps,” I said. “Maybe I shall want to teach here, to work in the university, but so much depends on the situation in the world. If the frontiers of China ever open again I shall come back at once. I would love to go to China and you could come with me.”


We returned to our own thoughts.