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Authors: Dai Sijie

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Once on a Moonless Night (3 page)

BOOK: Once on a Moonless Night
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“On the second strip, which is in more luxurious silk stained light blue, there is a long colophon of thirty columns of ivory-coloured Chinese ideograms, with calligraphy details by Huizong in gold dust—which still gleams in places—mixed with glue, a technique used in Buddhist temples for copying sacred texts. (Did Huizong have some premonition about the nature of this text written in an unknown language?)

“The colophon begins with a short biography of An Shih-Kao, the first Chinese translator of Buddhist sutras, a hereditary prince of Parthia in the Middle East, who converted to Buddhism, became a monk and, when his father died, gave up his inheritance in favour of his uncle. Leaving the confines of Indo-Iran, he followed a route through the oases of Central Asia, Khotan, Kucha, Turfan … all the way to Gansu, having travelled through the cosmopolitan cities of Dunhuang, Zangye and Wuwei. He reached the valley of the Yellow River in northern China and his presence there is recorded in the middle of the second century, in the year 148 to be precise, in the capital, Luoyang. Alongside his reputation as a linguistic genius—he spoke some twenty languages—was his vast historic erudition, and not a day passed when he did not devote several hours to his works of translation. He spent ten years in his room translating into Chinese the many sutras brought home from his travels. His translations were usually in verse, honed and restrained, betraying no trace of his previous existence as a Parthian prince or indeed of any personal pretension; they stir the readers very soul, whereas his spoken Chinese was hesitant and tainted by a strong accent and grammatical errors. Once in the middle of the night—as he later told his emperor—during a visit to Xi’an, the former capital of China, where he had come to preach in the outskirts around Fufeng, he saw beams of light springing up from the ground on a stretch of wasteland, lighting up certain areas as in mystic visions depicted in religious paintings. According to the report he made to the Court in the year 480 before our era, once the Buddha Shakyamuni achieved the unfathomable peace of Parinirvana, his disciples shared his relics among themselves and set off in several groups, heading in different directions to spread his word all over the world. Those who reached China met with insurmountable problems, for the country was ravaged by war, and they died one after the other. The last of them, a very elderly man, died when he reached the Wei valley along the course of the Yellow River, where he had had to bury the Buddha’s relics, which then revealed themselves to An Shih-Kao with those beams of divine light piercing through the earth. It was the first time the Court had heard the name Buddha, which amused everyone; even so, on the emperors orders, the army carried out excavations and found crystal structures in the shape of teeth and finger bones, but larger than normal size, golden in colour and translucent, gleaming in the bottom of a ditch. That was how An Shih-Kao succeeded in converting the emperor of China, who, in memory of this miracle symbolising the triumph of Buddhism, erected a ravishing stupa on the site (a stupa being a tall edifice made of wood and brick and painted white), in whose crypt the Buddha’s relics were kept. He had a house built beside it for An Shih-Kao to spend the rest of his days praying, meditating, translating and teaching. After An Shih-Kao’s terrible death (he was assassinated during one of his frequent religious pilgrimages), his house became the first Chinese Buddhist temple, the Temple of the Gates of the Law.

“Almost a thousand years passed, the colophon written by Huizong goes on, and in mid-August of the year 1128, deep into a stormy night racked with thunderclaps and squalls of hail and torrential rain, the superior at the Temple of the Gates of the Law had the extraordinary sensation of the sky being torn in two by lightning and a hallucinatory vision of the stupa floating several feet above the ground, defying the laws of gravity and eventually vanishing in a puff of smoke. He woke the two hundred monks in the temple, announced his vision to them and asked them to pray with him all night for the stupa to be removed to the eternal peace of Parinirvana. As dawn broke the rain slackened, the dark mists stopped swirling and there was a huge thunderclap, creating so much electric discharge that the sky seemed to explode and the ground to disintegrate. The framework of the temple cracked and shuddered; then, in a fraction of a second, the left side of the stupa, which had been struck by lightning, collapsed. The right side remained standing in the rain, its damaged silhouette—bearing the clear tear line, which ran from the highest point right down to the ground—outlined against the sky like a fragment ripped from an architectural drawing. The following morning, in among the lightning-blackened bricks and planks at the foot of the building, soaking wet pages of the Avatamsaka Sutra were found lying in concentric circles on the ground. This was Buddha’s ‘Flower Garland’ Sutra, which the monks were not surprised to see here, as, for many centuries, faithful wealthy donors had had the right to lay down offerings (rolls of silk or sheets of paper on which scribes had been paid to copy out sacred texts) inside the thick walls of the temple. But when the superior of the monastery climbed to the top of the broken stupa to take down a pitifully damaged bronze statue of Buddha, a manuscript rolled on valuable shafts made of white sandalwood, jade and ivory fell from the belly of the statue. Unsettled by the unfamiliar language on the roll as much as by the circumstances in which it was found, he presented himself to Emperor Huizong in person to offer him the manuscript, convinced that it bore a message concerning a higher authority. What came next proves that deciphering this text would have tremendous repercussions on the country’s fate as much as on that of the emperor himself.

“Huizong, a weakened sovereign, an artist shipwrecked on a throne, ended his colophon in a hand that admittedly proved he still had a dazzling mastery of the skill but increasingly lacked discipline: ‘My imperial person, in his concern to decipher the manuscript, devoted all his erudition and hours of research, reading and reflection to every last sign. In vain.’ As this item seemed to date back to the period of An Shih-Kao, the emperor asked the then king of Parthia, where this genius originated, to send him a delegation of intellectuals and experts, but they too were unable to identify the language. They pointed out that, according to the annals of history, An Shih-Kao was familiar with some twenty languages, most of them dead. The mystery remains impenetrable but the emperor is convinced that, despite its brevity, the text is a sutra, since it was positioned at the very top of the reliquary, inside the most sacred statue. This hypothesis is joined by another, from Su Shi, the emperor’s favoured poet with very pronounced inclinations towards Buddhism: remembering that An Shih-Kao was assassinated, Su wondered whether there was any secret link between this crime and the roll of silk in which An Shih-Kao might reveal something about the authenticity of the relics.’

“As for Puyi,” the professor went on, after gazing for a while at the silent streets flitting by through the tram window, “his fascination with the manuscript took an unexpected turn. Towards the end of the 1920s, before the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, Puyi, who was then twenty-five, was confronted with the dilemma of behaving patriotically at the risk of never regaining his throne or collaborating with the Japanese who might one day restore him to his imperial role, albeit at the expense of his honour. It was at this point, as if trying to find a message to resolve his dilemma, that he threw himself into deciphering the unknown language, firstly on a whim but later with a nervous intensity that gradually consumed him. Books translated by An Shih-Kao began to overrun his study, dining room, bedroom, bed and soon his whole existence. For the most part these works, devoted to various techniques of dhyana meditation or to numerical categories, made him feel faint and dizzy, bringing on migraines that clouded his little round eyes and made imaginary motes of dust dance across his field of vision, but he forced himself to apply a system conceived by one of his former tutors with the aim, after considerable circumnavigations, of identifying one word or phrase that might have sprung from the great translator’s hand in an unguarded moment, betraying the secret to the labyrinthine construction of this unknown language. One day, when he was reading the nineteenth volume of one of the seven versions (the number of pages and contents of each version vary and even contradict each other depending on when they were written, constituting several areas of controversy) of the
Buddhanusmri Tisamadhi-Sutra
(a meditative sutra that evokes different manifestations of Buddha), he had a sudden conviction that all An Shih-Kao’s translations belonged to the classic tradition of Hinayana, a school of thought known for its strict discipline and which had fallen out of usage long since in China but was, and still is to this day, very widespread in Burma, Sikkim, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, etc. Convinced he was on the right track, Puyi then noted these countries down in red ink and sent their heads of state or their British guardians official letters essentially asking for their help in deciphering the signs. At first these letters went unanswered without upsetting Puyi at all, because he had now turned his research to another field of investigation: the origins of Chinese writing. His aim was to find the oldest glyptic signs which might have a link to those in the manuscript and that a linguistic genius like An Shih-Kao would have been able to write. Puyi would certainly never have thrown himself into such an enterprise had he had any idea of the complexity this work entailed or the erudition it required. To some historians, this long march towards the origins of the Chinese language represents a final flurry of patriotism from the last emperor, but they also hold that he ended up losing himself along the way, which, in my humble opinion, is by no means a certainty, because a man in a state of mental torture is sometimes better equipped to approach the truth than scholars. Puyi had three thousand chests of national treasures and he started by asking to see a collection of small, thin-walled bronze alcohol flasks made during the Zhou era (late eleventh century-256 B.C.). Using a magnifying glass, he studied their minute inscriptions, where he found no trace of the unknown language, but—examining the signs that soothsayers had had carved onto these small yet solemn and imposing receptacles—he felt for the first time that they constituted a separate ritual language with little connection to Chinese writing. This idea was reinforced when he scrutinised another, still older glyptic language used by soothsayers about two thousand years before our era. He found it in his collection of rare antiquities that had never belonged to previous emperors, but had been given to him by a private collector at the beginning of the twentieth century: inscriptions on sections of tortoise-shell, which had been used for divination by reading the patterns of cracks on them, kinds of diagrams that soothsayers created by burning the shells; the interpretation (in some cases propitious, in others not) of these diagrams, the date, name of the interested party and reason for the sacrifice were later engraved on the shells, themselves so thin and fragile that most would barely want to touch them with their fingertips for fear they would crumble to dust. During this period Puyi’s doctors, concerned to see him laugh a great deal of the time for no apparent reason, worried about his mental health. I myself am convinced he was at last savouring a brief moment of happiness when he could forget the outside world, his political dilemma, his impotence, etc., as he laid out those tortoiseshells and wandered along pathways through an ornamental garden of signs as far removed from Chinese writing as the unfamiliar language on the manuscript. To Puyi those signs did not belong to a language at all, but to a system of purely graphic symbols with no grammatical rules or syntactical relationships. It was the language he had always been looking for, one he had found only in dreams or as a child, a language without verbs, just nouns, nouns and nouns—a language, I like to think, with which he could have written his own motto, painted in large characters on the walls of his residence: No
verbs, therefore no concerns
.

“After the inscriptions on tortoiseshell, Puyi was inspired by patterns suggesting a primitive sort of writing, painted or engraved on two ceramic articles in his possession: a pot with openwork sides to display its contents and ajar with a narrow neck. He then widened his field of research, obtaining photographs and copies of prehistoric engravings found deep inside legendary caves in far-flung provinces. In 1980 a distant cousin of his published a two-volume work entitled
Glyphs and Rock Carvings Acquired by Puyi
.

Little by little, [the cousin states in his preface,] as he copied and recopied them, Puyi managed to hear a dialogue between these patterns, the suns, human bones, birds, frogs, fish, plants and insects, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs. As several weeks could pass without his speaking to anyone but his Japanese sumo, this verbless exchange thrumming round inside his head constituted his only conversations. In a wine-coloured leather diary for 1930 (probably a gift from his English tutor and now conserved at the Museum of Contemporary History), there are some brief notes sufficiently explicit to demonstrate that, in his mind, these glyphs and rock carvings were associated with images of paradise, which ended up haunting his dreams. On the page for the 8th of November, for example, he writes: “dreamed of Banpo, a giraffe” … Banpo was known from pictograms dating back to the second half of the second millennium before our era.

“One day,” the professor went on, “he received a letter from Borneo, an Indonesian island whose Dutch governor had had copies made of the alphabets of several languages once used by native peoples. Among them was one letter of the Phoenician alphabet, which attracted Puyi’s attention because it resembled a sign on the manuscript. Peculiarly, instead of leaping for joy, he simply glanced at a map of the world, placed his finger on this land lost in the middle of an ocean which—in An Shih-Kao’s day—had not yet been crossed and cried: ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, no!’ With which he removed his finger and had the letter filed in archives still known as the Court Archives, the better to forget it.

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