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Letters Back to Ancient China

Author: Herbert Rosendorfer

Translator: Mike Mitchell  

My dearest friend,

Two more days have passed, days during which, as always, I have been subjected to new, astonishing, strange and inexplicable experiences. However, for the moment I will continue with my description of the events immediately following my arrival.

The street I told you about, the one I wanted to cross, was an avenue. On either side of the cobbled carriageway is a wretched, neglected strip of grass. The stones, too, have been set in the road in a very slipshod manner, making it pretty bumpy. If the Exalted Son of Heaven had driven along this street just once, he would immediately have had the mandarin in charge of road construction beheaded. In the strips of grass there are ugly, unkempt trees growing.

All unsuspecting, I was just starting to cross this avenue when I heard an unimaginable roaring, grinding, rattling noise approach; there is simply no comparison for it in our world. At the same time a huge animal or a fiery demon, that was the thought that flashed through my mind came rushing towards me at lightning speed; no, even faster than lightning, so incredibly fast that I could not see the animal or thing at all. Since then I have found out, more or less, what these things are (they aren't demons, though they are at least as dangerous as demons are for superstitious people) but on that first day I was naturally completely unprepared. I was half-way across the road when, as I assumed, this snorting beast noticed me. Everything happened in the time it takes a bat to beat its wings. I realised that the demon was not after me. It made an even more hideous roaring noise, if possible, and tried to avoid me. I too tried to get out of the way and, with a couple of bounds, reached the safety of the bridge. But, like a wild boar in a frenzied charge, the animal (bigger than ten wild boars) could not change direction so quickly. Still roaring, then making a bang such as you would only get if you set off the whole Imperial stock of fireworks for the New Year's celebrations at once, the demon, so it seemed to me, leapt up a tree. I collapsed to the ground and fainted.

By the time I regained consciousness an even greater crowd of bignoses had gathered, and again each one looked like the next. They had laid me on a bench between two of the trees but apart from that they hardly paid any attention to me at all. They were all standing round the tree the 'Ten Wild Boars' demon had climbed up. No, when I sat up a little I saw that it had not climbed up, it had sunk its teeth into the trunk. Now I know that it wasn't a demon, nor a wild boar the size of a dragon. It was a carriage made of iron. Mr Shi-shmi's house is close to the bridge and I have passed the place several times since. The tree is not going to survive, I'm afraid.

There are large numbers, dangerously large numbers, of these iron carriages that move without a horse and go much, much faster than any horse could gallop. In each carriage there is one usually of these bignoses sitting, and he twists and turns a further wheel inside the carriage and thus steers it, after a fashion. They go so quickly that they have disappeared before you realise they are coming. These iron carriages are so numerous that no one can walk on the stone streets. They race up and down, in and out, all at the same time. I wonder how they manage not to keep constantly crashing into each other. They probably have some kind of magnetic repelling device to keep them apart. Flocks of starlings, too, fly round the trees in apparently complete disorder, but I have yet to see two starlings collide. I imagine it must be something like that with the iron carriages, but I will try to find out. The name for these iron carriages, by the way, is 'mo-tao-ka'. That is one of the first words of bellow-speech I learnt.

But even when there is no mo-tao-ka in sight, no one dares to step out into the road. These infernal machines appear so quickly that even the nimblest do not have time to jump out of the way. For that reason on either side of the roads they have installed smaller, separate roads which are slightly raised and on which one can walk in relative safety. And the people crowd onto these little walkroads and make their noise. Compared with the iron-carriage roads, the walkroads are very narrow. From that I deduce that the people sitting in the mo-tao-ka rule the city, and presumably also the country, and that the men and women who go on foot have no say in deciding things.

But to return to the events of the day of my arrival: I sat up. After I had seen the mo-tao-ka with its teeth sunk into the tree, I noticed there were a number of other mo-tao-ka carriages tied up at the side of the road. I wanted to get up and leave, since I immediately realised that, being different and therefore conspicuous, if harmless, someone might possibly want to blame me for the fact that the iron carriage which now was just standing there, gently steaming had ended its journey against the tree and possibly even damaged the tree. But two giants, dressed in identical green costumes with an inordinate number of silver buttons sewn on, had clearly observed me and immediately detained me. They were obviously two minions of the Imperial Mandarin of Police. Straight away I recognised the tone in which they bellowed at me, even though I naturally did not understand a word of what they said. This was the first similarity with the world I had left behind, and it almost made me feel at home, even if the arm-lock they put on me was rather uncomfortable.

I said to the two minions, 'Venerable and exceedingly aged officers of the Imperial Constabulary! You see before you the base, unwashed, though harmless mandarin, Kao-tai, kuan of the fourth grade, spouse of two nieces of Her Sublime Majesty, the all-illuming, unfortunately recently deceased, Chiang-fu, fourth favourite wife of our exceedingly fortunate ruler, the Son of Heaven; I am also Prefect of the Poets' Guild that goes by the name of Nine-and-twenty Moss-grown Crags. Would you be so good as to release me immediately, although I am completely undeserving of your mercy, otherwise it might happen that this unutterably unworthy person's friend, the exceedingly powerful and highly respected kuan Fa-kung, the Mandarin of Police, your sunbeam-bright superior, whose cousin I, incredibly considering all my moral imperfections, have the honour to be, might cause you serious difficulties, which your almost incomparably beautiful heads beneath those caps the colour of the imperial forests in early spring might not survive.' Habit so often takes over when our thoughts give out, and in my confusion I had forgotten that 'here' my cousin Fa-kung has been dead for nearly one thousand years, and that another mandarin will long since have taken command of the police, a mandarin, moreover, to whom the name Fa-kung may well mean nothing.

But, of course, the two minions could not understand a single word I said anyway. One of them did try bellowing something else, but I just kept shaking my head until they realised conversation between us was impossible.

For a while the two green-clad minions discussed the matter. I believe I was not wrong in thinking I could perceive expressions of bewilderment on their rather flat, vacant features. Then they led me, not particularly gently, to a mo-tao-ka waiting nearby. It may well have been that their lack of gentleness was not intentional; perhaps these giant minions of the Mandarin of Police are incapable of behaving otherwise. Their hands were as big as palm leaves and as clumsy as two short planks. They shoved me into the iron mo-tao-ka. I was terribly frightened, and clutched my travelling bag tightly to my chest.

You must understand, my dear Dji-gu, that all this, spreading over page after page, only took up a quarter of an hour, perhaps less. Unfamiliar impressions were rushing past me like a river in spate and disappearing in a furious roar. My memory only retained a few haphazard fragments. During the early part of my stay 'here' I must have missed much of the significance of what was happening. But in such a situation who, no matter how cool he normally is, could keep a clear head and note every detail?

I realised there was no point in resisting arrest; it was obvious that was what it was. I took heart from the hope that Imperial justice had perhaps not declined to the same extent as general behaviour; if that were the case, then, I told myself, I had nothing to fear. I was innocent. And anyway, the purpose of my journey is not to feel afraid but to observe. We knew all along that risks were involved in an undertaking of this kind, though it is true that I little thought my first experience would be to be treated as a criminal. But I came to the conclusion I would just have to regard it as part of my journey into the future.

The minions' mo-tao-ka, clearly an official carriage, was frightfully cramped, as cramped as a primitive litter, but at least it had a well-upholstered bench. One of the men in green sat beside me, the other farther forward, where there was the internal wheel. There was a dreadful smell in the carriage, and when it started to move, with all that unspeakable rattling and roaring, I fainted again. Since then I have travelled in similar mo-tao-ka several times. One can get used to anything. I don't faint at the inordinate speed any longer, but I still cannot travel in them with my eyes open. As the houses and trees outside rush past at I use the word advisedly inhuman speed, it is as if a huge file were rasping away at my capacity to absorb impressions. I think it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the speed of things here has filed away all the locals' finer feelings. Perhaps that is why they are so crude.

The two minions took me to a very large, very dark house, where there were many other officers of the law. It seems there are some things in this world that have managed to survive unchanged over the centuries. Once it was in my thirty-second year, and I was a mere kuan of the A7 grade I was a member of an imperial commission that inspected the prisons of the seaport, Hai-chou. What characterised the prisons for me was a certain rancid smell and it was that same smell that I noted in the building to which I was taken. That was how I knew straight away that it was a prison. There are, as I said, certain things and certain characteristics that do not change over a thousand years. And clearly these are neither the best characteristics, nor the best things.

In the prison, that obviously also served as the minions' headquarters, I was taken before the head minion. Prior to that, one of them had taken my travelling bag away from me and searched it. As I was led down the long dark corridors with their rancid smell, another minion carried it. Not, I am sure, out of politeness.

After my experiences so far, I did not even bother to address the head minion. I remained silent and confined myself to bowing slightly whenever he said something. But the language in which he spoke to me was the extremely loud, harsh, unmelodious language of our unfortunate descendants. He, too, soon began to look baffled. I had to sit down on a grubby wooden bench. My travelling bag clearly they had realised it represented no danger they set down beside me. Countless minions came into the room, trying to give the impression they just happened to be passing, and stared at me. I had to laugh, in spite of my humiliating situation. But it was still embarrassing.

Some time later the head minion came back with a person who was not wearing a uniform. This person I think it was a woman also tried to speak to me. I realised that they had fetched an interpreter, but I still could not understand the language the interpreter woman was speaking. I could not hear any difference at all between the idiom they had used before and the one the interpreter was using. Eventually they must have fetched about ten interpreters, one after the other. At first I had a flicker of hope that there might be one among them who understood our language, but it was soon extinguished. The head minion felt the same way, too, I suspected.

How long that all took I cannot really say. But after four of the interpreters had tried their luck, an under-minion brought me I am sure it was kindly meant a plate of sheet iron on which there was a pile of something which, after several minutes close scrutiny, I presumed was intended to be eaten. He also handed me an implement which was likewise made of sheet iron (I have since become familiar with these implements, more of that later). The implement is called a fa-lik. Very wisely, people here do not pick up their food with their hands but convey it to their mouths by means of these fa-lik devices. With all the agitation and fright, I did not feel the slightest bit hungry; on the contrary, I felt sick at the sight of the light grey, gritty porridge (very remotely resembling our rice) with a few blackish lumps on top, which, on closer inspection, proved to be some kind of meat. A layer of reddish sludge had been poured over it. But I told myself, 'Kao-tai, you haven't travelled to the future to feel sick, but to observe and to gather impressions', and ate some of the porridge. It mainly tasted of salt and was very hot. Since then I have learnt that people 'here', even educated people, are addicted to eating their food scalding hot. That is one of the reasons why they have to use a fa-lik. Eating normally, the way we do, they would burn their fingers. The meat tasted like leather and was also hot.

I ate a little and then, once I felt I had gathered enough impressions of this particular aspect of future life, I returned the iron plate and the fa-lik with a one-eighth bow (the head minion is doubtless far below me in rank). When I indicated by gestures that I was thirsty, they brought me a glass containing a disgusting white liquid, which I now know to have been nothing other than cow's milk. Yes, milk from cows! The mere smell of it made my stomach turn and at first I thought they were trying to poison me. Shaking his head, the bignose took the cow's milk away and brought a container with a quarter sheng* of water, which I drank. The water was good.

When the tenth interpreter came, it was like the sun rising after the gloom of a stormy night: this interpreter had a human face. Although taller than me, he was not as gigantic as everyone else here. Imagine my disappointment when he could not understand me either. I think he must have come from the Southern Islands.* Is it possible that people there have not changed quite so much as the inhabitants of our unfortunate capital? Or where am I? That is a question I will perhaps have the opportunity of investigating. Wherever I am, the language has degenerated to the point where it is incomprehensible. Nor could he understand the characters I wrote down.

By that time, it was evening. I was locked up. Yes, dear, faithful Dji-gu, your friend, Kao-tai, kuan of the A4 grade and Prefect of the Nine-and-twenty Moss-grown Crags Guild of Poets, was locked up in a prison cell. After all I had been through, I was past caring. Before I was locked up I had to go through a number of what were presumably ritual ceremonies. I had to dip my fingers in black ink and then touch a sheet of paper. Probably to ward off demons. Then I was taken into a room where another minion was fiddling with an incomprehensible machine that gave out little flashes. I had to sit on one particular stool and look once to the right, once to the left and once straight ahead. Each time there was a flash of lightning from the box, but I was unharmed. Perhaps it was a purification spell. As a precaution I gave the flash-box three two-thirds bows. If they are as superstitious as that, I thought, the least I can do is to show their superstition a minimum of respect. In the cell it was very uncomfortable, cold and dirty as well, and there was a rancid stench. In spite of that I lay down on one of the wooden beds and tucked myself in with a coarse brown blanket. And I did get to sleep, though not without first of all sighing as my thoughts went to you, my friend, and to my beloved sweet Shiao-shiao (who so often shares my bed), to my blue silk pillows at home, and to the saffron blanket that guards my dreams. Thus I spent my first night in this distant age in prison. Well, even that is an experience. Perhaps it is the worst humiliation that I am fated to suffer in the course of this journey? In that case it is probably a good thing that it has come right at the beginning. I have not given up hoping that there will be good and useful experiences as well, although sometimes I despair in this fog-hole of a future. Yes: fog-hole. Although the weather is reasonably fine, I feel as if I am walking through grey mist. Does it ever lift?

I have spent the whole morning writing. Mr Shi-shmi is just coming in through the door. He is signalling me to follow him. We will probably go out to have what passes for a meal here. Afterwards I will go to the contact point it will be the right time and place this letter there to send it back on its 1,000-year journey. Perhaps I will find a letter from you waiting for me.

With thoughts of our beautiful past together, I remain ever Your Kao-tai


RRP: £8.99

No. of pages: 274

Publication date: 06.04.2006

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 39 0
978 1 910213 22 3

World English