This play was written as an imagined epilogue of the Chinese movie To Live (Huózhe) directed by Zhang Yimo (which was in turn adapted from Yu Hua’s novel of the same name).
Cast of Characters
Man: 30s. Chinese
Open field, China
SETTING: Open field. Scattered trees.
One lone tombstone, one tree adjacent.
Wind. A tune floats in the air, wisping through leaves, whispering through the grass.
AT RISE: ENTER MAN. 30s, Chinese. Black suit jacket and old plastic bag in one hand, folded plastic chair in the other. Purple orchid petals peek from the top of the bag.
MAN walks towards tombstone. Ever gently, he sets down the plastic bag on the grass. The chair unfolds precariously, creaking dissent.
He sinks into the creaks. From the bag, he pulls out an almost empty bottle of Chinese rice wine. Delving in once more, he pulls out two small ceramic shot glasses. He pours one for himself and places one on the tombstone.
The shot glass dangles from his fingers and he sees his own trembling reflection in the glass.
Could not find this chair. Looked left and right after Grandfather’s Banquet of Heroes1. Turns out it was tucked in the trunk. Must be Chengdong – this monkey will cause an earthquake every single day.
(MAN murmurs. He rummages in the bag and pulls out a small pack of tissues, taking out one piece. Kneeling in front of the tombstone, he begins wiping down the surface of the tombstone, lingering at the picture on the tombstone. He speaks as he wipes the tombstone.)
His teachers certainly dislike him. He relies on genius rather than hard work. Never studies. Really, that child.
(MAN shakes his head in amusement.)
Maybe he should play a sport. How about gymnastics, he jumps around and around anyway. Table tennis could also be an option. I think he would perform vividly. Anything to keep this rogue asteroid from crashing into Earth.
(chuckles, and sighs)
As they say, from a strict father, a respectful son is born. Grandfather said I was just like that, running wild in the mountains. Maybe you would have been able to teach him properly.
(A soulful pause. What could have been. MAN delicately folds the used tissue and puts it in his pocket. He then takes out the flowers and sets them squarely in front of the tombstone, painstakingly adjusting its placement. Once done, MAN sits back in the chair, and picks up his glass.)
Emptying this glass for you.
(MAN downs the wine in one gulp.)
Good fiery wine. Just like Grandfather liked it.
(MAN pauses and chuckles to himself.)
I bought this bottle for you, but we only drink a few drops every time. At this rate, maybe Chengdong’s son will have to be my drinking substitute.
(As MAN continues to speak, he pours himself another one. The glass dangles from his fingers as he observes at the tree.)
You did not have this umbrella the last time I visited.
(MAN looks down at the ground and sees a leaf. He sets down the glass on the ground, and gently pinches the leaf between his fingers. He examines curiously the nostalgic gold.)
With each passing day, three autumns really do go by.
(MAN shows the leaf to the tombstone.)
How fortunate for us that you finally get to rest beneath the shade of a tree, shielded from elements, as you paddle your feet idly in the rivers below.
(MAN smiles and twirls the leaf gently. He recalls with introspection.)
With September’s frost, autumn draws to a close. Defeated leaves of crimson and the hollow forest witness each other in a reflection of red. Only the Eastern fence bears the colour of blossoming yellow chrysanthemums in a trail of forgotten mist, in gold. The neighbors’ shades descend, as Chongyang2 nears3.
(MAN pockets the leaf and pats it gently. He picks up the glass from the ground, wiping the bottom with a delicate finger.)
We went up the mountain with Grandfather today, wished him a peaceful journey as he left through the chimney of the furnace. And, as smoke disappeared and clouds scattered, he was gone.
Chengdong originally wanted to join Grandfather for his last journey, but I told him the later born should not have to bear witness to the end. Let the white-haired send off the white-haired.
(MAN runs his hand through his hair and coughs. Self-consciousness lingers. A whiff of guilt.)
It has been so long since I sent somebody off in a funeral. I barely remember all the customs and traditions.
(MAN looks up at the tree.)
I think of what it would have looked like for you, every time I watch the smoke. How Grandfather felt as he sent you on your last journey. I would have loved to be at your funeral, to be able to send you off. Did you receive everything that was burnt to you? Did they even send you anything?
(MAN takes a sip from his glass.)
I had asked Grandfather and Grandmother before, but every time they bent to avoid the question. I suppose I understand.
(MAN rubs his face in exhaustion.)
At least for Grandfather, we got to send his puppet box along with the paper money – the one he had hidden under his bed all these years. Finally, the paper puppets can live in their ancestral home. It made sense, you know. His livelihood and everything. How else would he have fed you dumplings?
(MAN remembers. Emotions awash.)
Dumplings. It must make you miss Uncle Youqing, too. Now that Grandfather is with you and his puppets, maybe he can do his shadow puppet show for you and Uncle Youqing again.
(MAN takes in a deep breath.)
I hope Uncle Youqing can continue his nap next to you, with no driver to disturb his sleep. Speaking of Uncle Youqing, the village chief came to the funeral too. It had been perhaps two decades since I last saw him. He walked barefoot 15 kilometers from his house to the crematorium. Grandmother saw red when she saw him, and threw a brick at him. Like Grandfather said, life is a master of irony. He wasn’t there to pull Uncle’s body out from under the bricks. Brick for brick, I suppose.
(MAN drily laughs, and takes a sip from the glass.)
The village chief apparently walked in apology and deep regret. After all these years, Grandmother had told me that she had finally set down the sinking rock in her heart, that he no longer owed us a life. But I never really got the feeling from her. Day before yesterday, I finally went to see Grandfather’s old mansion, or at least its location. Now it’s transformed into a skyscraper.
(MAN sets down his glass.)
Lakes and mountains would change sooner than personalities would move; I now understand the logic of the saying. Grandmother unleashed her anger at him and he just stood there, like he had dog’s blood poured over his head, and quietly came over to me to pay his respects. At least the chief had some guts. A life for a life. Grandmother still believes in that, thank the gods for her.
For sure you would have seen how broken Grandfather and Grandmother when they lost Uncle Youqing. I don’t know if you forgave him or not. If only you could have spoken, maybe they would have known how you were hurting. He was your dear little brother, after all.
(MAN caresses the tombstone.)
In my heart, I believes he still owes us. Tell me: without you, is it not my onus to grant Grandmother peace after all these years? When you passed, Grandmother’s heart bled, and as Grandfather departed in smoke, her heart broke finally. It would be the least I could do.
(MAN takes a deep breath.)
I cannot possibly compensate for the life I took from you, but I can certainly try to compensate for Uncle Youqing’s life.
(MAN looks up at the tree.)
If you were alive, would you have disapproved? Grandfather told me stories about your empathy, and I wish I could have seen it. But perhaps your silence was one of anger rather than one of forgiveness. It would have been unlike Grandfather to notice anyway.
(MAN takes another sip from the glass, and gestures at the tombstone with his glass.)
Let us empty ours together.
(MAN reaches out the other glass on the tombstone and elegantly pours it on the ground. Reaching for the bottle, he empties it in the glass on the tombstone.)
I suppose you will have the last glass.
(MAN downs his glass.)
I wonder if Grandfather and Grandmother ever blamed me for your passing. Every time they saw me, they must have been thinking of you on the surgery table, helplessly bleeding as your life cried out one last time. I would have found somebody to compensate your life, if it were not my fault. Perhaps I would have found the doctor, if he was still alive after imprisonment.
(MAN takes a deep breath.)
I suppose if I must compensate for Youqing’s life with the chief’s, perhaps I will have to compensate for your life with mine. A life for a life.
I would have wanted a little more wine in me, but I suppose you deserve the last glass.
(MAN leans back and stares into the distance. Suddenly remembering, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of black hemp. He looks at the piece of hemp.)
Grace and forgiveness comes as a virtue of family teachings, but how would I have known? All I could learn from was Grandfather’s sadness and Grandmother’s anger. But I also saw as their emotions drove their lives into a hollow cave, and they no longer resembled people. I watched, and my heart felt maimed.
(fidgets with the hemp.)
Grandfather told me the story of when the village chief came to our house during the Great Leap Forward. He had wanted to apologize one last time, with the thought of suicide hanging over him. He told me what he said to the village chief: “Remember, you still owe our family a life. Live on well; how would you pay otherwise?”
(pauses, choked up)
Live on well. A life for a life. For my life to exist, your bones and flesh had to be stolen in exchange. So here.
(MAN places the hemp on the tombstone.)
This is the filial piety4 and the life that I continue to owe you.
(MAN caresses the tombstone.)
When I join you at the river, I will be sure to continue paying back what I owe.
(MAN places his glass next to the glass on the tombstone.)
Perhaps we will share glasses too. I would be able to meet you for the first time. But for now…
(stands up and folds his chair up)
I’ll see you next time, Mother.
(He gathers his items and exits.)
1The Banquet of Heroes is a phonetic misnomer for the Red Banquet, a traditional Chinese meal prepared by the bereaved after they have removed their mourning wear/dress (made in white or black hemp). It consists of eight meals and signifies that the family has removed their grief, and will move on from the sadness.
2Chongyang Festival is a traditional Chinese festival celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese Lunar calendar, where people visit the graves of their deceased relatives and loved ones (euphemistically called “go up the mountain”).
3This is a directly translated excerpt of a poem written by Ōuyáng Xīu (1007-1072), a politician and poet in Northern Song Dynasty. The poem itself is part of an anthology known as Yújiāào (The Pride of the Fisherman); the poem can be found in the twenty-four—part chapter titled Yuèlìngsòng (Ode of the Months).
4In ancient China, upon the death of one’s parent or guardian, one would have to wear the hemp-made funeral dress for up to three years in mourning. In modern times, that tradition has transformed into a piece of hemp to be worn on the lapel for up to one month. The practice of keeping the hemp can be translated as “wearing filial piety”, as a final demonstration of respect.
Garreth Chan is the multimedia editor of Postscript Magazine. He is a transdisciplinary artist from Hong Kong, focusing on the intersection of sound, text, and video. He holds a BA in Music and Sociology from NYU Abu Dhabi.
Garreth worked at a production studio as a film colorist and audio engineer before deciding to explore as a freelancer. His work in film and theater has premiered in Amman, New York, London, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, Budapest, and others.
He is most interested in notions of silence and the mundane. @garrethchan