This is the story of the ancient Chinese poet, Wen Long's search for his male beloved. He has been shown in a dream that there is a legend whereby true loves are fastened together by a red cord however far apart they may be. Many and dangerous are the adventures he encounters and occasionally he is almost led astray.
But this story, as illustrated on an antique Chinese fan is interpreted by an antique dealer who is trying to sell the fan to a customer. Thus events happening back in the Tang Dynasty under the Empress Wu are not always as they seem. The story is divided between what actually happens and the dealer's comments. There is also a twist in the tale.
A Poem from Ancient China
The old-fashioned bell on the door tinkles as the customer enters. After the brilliant sunshine of outside, the interior appears dark, gloomy and slightly forbidding. There are various pieces of heavy Victorian brown furniture arranged around the walls and some glazed display cases in the centre. A smell of age and dust makes the customer’s nose wrinkle in distaste, and she almost turns and seems about to go back out.
But, as if to forestall the premature exit, and almost too quickly, a man appears through the doorway at the back of the shop. He has short, iron-grey hair and a pencil thin moustache. For a second, the potential customer wonders whether this is a man who can be trusted. His tone of voice, though, is cultured and deferential, and this somewhat reassures her.
“Can I help you, madam, or are you just browsing?”
The customer bridles a little at the epithet, “madam.” She would obviously prefer to be addressed as “miss.” Nevertheless, she answers civilly enough. “I’m looking for something special, something really special.” She lingers over the word and looks around, though without evincing a great deal of hope of success.
The man though, is not one to let a potential customer escape too easily. “In what line would that be?” he asks. “Decorative Art? Indian perhaps? Ceramics? A Chinese fan?”
“A Chinese fan…” she pauses, ruminating, then apparently makes up her mind. “Yes, one of their beautifully decorated silk fans. But it must not be one of those modern copies, turned out in their thousands in a Chinese sweatshop.”
“Of course not.” He seems almost offended at the idea. “I quite understand.”
The dealer opens one of the glass-topped cases and hands her a scarlet object on which golden dragons sprawl and coil.
She opens it out fully and peers closely. Then she hands it back. “Hardly an individual piece. I’ve seen so many like this before,” she complains a little fretfully.
“Obviously you are a connoisseur. And for you, I must find a real treasure.”
The customer seems slightly dubious, but waits expectantly.
“Now what about this one?” asks the antiques dealer. He takes out a long object from its case and reverentially unpacks it from its dark green, oiled silk covering.
“Aah, that’s a little better,” coos the potential purchaser, trying to appear blasé, but her fingertips itch to touch the precious article; her lips twitch with anticipation.
The grey-haired man opens the fan, displaying the overlapping sectors covered with embroidered silks which glisten with a jewel-like intensity. Colours shimmer from the surface, pearly opalescence, rich ruby reds, the gleam of emerald and sapphire, reflecting and concentrating what little sunlight comes through the window.
“The fan is made of the finest materials,” explains the grey-haired man. “The struts are of course ivory. And the workmanship…” He allows silence to convey the magnificence. Then he realises that perhaps silence may not be quite sufficient. “…superb,” he finishes. “Notice the tiny figures which stroll amidst a delicate tracery of bamboo and willow trees. They are clothed in brilliant garments and surrounded with chrysanthemum and jasmine flowers.”
He allows a minute to elapse for the customer to take them in, then continues:
“The embroidered pictures represent a story from the life of Wen Long,” he explains. “Wen Long, the poet,” he adds almost as an afterthought as if it does not need to be mentioned, as if the client will surely know. “It was made during the reign of the Empress Wu Tse Tien, AD 684 as no doubt you know. Here at the beginning,” he indicates a group at the extreme left of the fan, “you can see Wen Long as a young man in a domestic setting at home with his parents.”
There was a loud knocking on the door.
“Aieee,” shrieked Wen Long’s mother, a whirlwind in yellow silk. “The marriage broker is too early.”
“The Mei Poh is always early,” said Wen Long’s father quietly. “It is part of her job.”
“But she is earlier than the early I expected. Where are the rice cakes? Where is the bottle of date wine? Where is the Hong Pau?”
“The cakes are where you set them out,” said Zun Fu calmly. “The wine is ready to be poured. I have the money here.”
There was another sharp rap on the bamboo door. “Let her in, Wen Long. Do not keep the marriage broker waiting. It is not seemly.” The young man, who would be a poet but was bewildered at the moment by the general confusion, obeyed his mother.
A small woman with a wrinkled face, an incipient moustache, her head covered with a green shawl, stood outside. Woman and boy stared at each other for a moment. The woman twitched her thin lips and gave Wen Long an appraising look—as if comparing him with something prosaic—perhaps a pound of rice.
“Invite the Mei Poh in, Wen Long,” came his mother’s insistent voice from inside.
The woman fussed herself in, her movements prissy and deliberate. She sat down, arranging her clothing around her body precisely. Wen Long’s mother pressed cakes and wine on her. The woman sipped and nibbled with little evident signs of enjoyment. She did, however, eat quite a few of them and allowed a refill of the porcelain cup. Wen Long’s mother looked anxious, his father serious.
“Is this the boy?” asked the woman after the formalities were over and before the silence became embarrassing.
“This is Wen Long,” said his father proudly, laying his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “My eldest son. My only son.”
“How would you describe him? What are his good points?” asked the woman. She stared at Wen Long and appeared to find the prospect not entirely satisfactory. Her mouth drooped at the corners, and the moustache followed.
“He is a good son,” emphasised Wen Long’s mother. “A very good son.”
“He is obedient and willing,” insisted his father. “He has been to an excellent school.”
The woman sighed as if trying to make the best of a bad job, then produced paper, ink and a bamboo brush from the canvas bag tied around her waist. She screwed up her face as if what she did was slightly distasteful to her. After a pause, she began writing on the parchment in exquisite calligraphy: ‘Wen Long: willow of form, fleet of foot, strong of body, imperious of face, agile of mind.’ She sighed again. “It is the best I can do,” she said, and looked around for approval.
“Have you a suitable girl in mind, Mei Poh?” asked Wen Long’s mother, seemingly unembarrassed by her own bluntness.
The broker appeared to consider. Eventually she said, “There is Chun Mei from the neighbouring town of Ping An.”
“I know her father,” said Zun Fu. “He is a man of some substance and integrity.”
The mother said, “I know the girl. She is pretty enough, but can she cook?”
“She has skin of the finest porcelain, hair of ebony darkness and very small feet,” said the Mei Poh defensively. “You can always teach her to cook—if you think that is necessary.”
Wen Long considered the probability of this proposed union with Chun Mei, but he found little attraction in the girl, her porcelain skin, her black ebony hair or her small feet—though others might consider her captivating. He sighed, his long sensitive face expressing his inner conflict, respect for his parents, his own unexplored secret desires.
“My son is a poet,” added Zun Fu, as if this might be some sort of an added inducement.
“That will not necessarily be held against him,” conceded the marriage broker. “Do you wish me to make a formal offer to the girl’s parents?”
After a moment’s consideration, Zun Fu nodded, and his wife seemed pleased.
They handed over the Hong Pau, the traditional red packet of money, payment for her services. Mei Poh tucked it away into the loose wide sleeves of her dress. She did not, of course, count it in their presence, but from the feel it seemed appropriate if not actually generous.