Book 1 Chapter 1 - The Invitation Card
Original and most updated translations are from volare. Please don't read elsewhere and stop supporting theft.
The sight of a couple laced in a tight embrace, leaning against a red Maserati, made Li Yiming’s hand shiver as he sought the support of the tree trunk right next to him. Shock, anger, helplessness and confusion swirled within his eyes. One of the woman’s arms rested on the man’s shoulders, while she gently traced circles on his chest with her other hand. Her face was painted rose with shyness, and her eyes, watered by lust. Her slender thighs, audacious put to display by a mini-skirt, was pale as freshly fallen snow, and she rubbed them gently against the man.
“Xiaoqin…” The joints in Li Yiming’s right hand whitened as he clasped it against the tree. However, after an ultimate effort, his arm slid down, limp. The gesture was accompanied by an unheard uttering of his girlfriend’s name.
The man abruptly swept the young woman into his arms. The woman responded with a shriek of surprise at first, only to wrap her arms around the man’s neck and bury her head shyly into his chest the next second. He walked into the entryway of a residential building with her in his arms, leaving behind the echoes of a barbaric laugh.
Li Yiming quietly put down his rose bouquet right next to the tree and turned around, still numb from the shock. Right before he left the neighborhood, he raised his head one last time and printed into his mind the blue curtains of a familiar window. A few moments later, his lonely and desolate silhouette faded into the veil of the night.
Li Yiming failed to notice the person hidden in the shadows behind him. It was a man with a cigarette and a nylon bag with red and blue lines interwoven into the fabric. The depth of this strange man glinted with a dark luster, darker still than the shadows in which he hid. A frustrated smile appeared on his lips as he followed Li Yiming.
Li Yiming recently graduated from Hangzhou Teachers College with a major in dance. His girlfriend, Ji Xiaoqin, was his classmate. They had been a loving couple for two years. This year, they had planned to take their relationship to the next step through an arranged meeting between their parents on the Chinese New Year, followed by their engagement on the first month of the Lunar Year. After taking into consideration the living costs in Hangzhou, a decision to move back to Lishui, Li Yiming's hometown, was made. The prestige of a degree from a Hangzhou College was fairly admired in such a small city, so Li Yiming was confident that he would be able to secure a stable teaching job. He could then give dancing lessons to supplement his income. This was Li Yiming's promise to Ji Xiaoqin: a blissful and happy family despite his own modest financial circumstances.
Today was the day of his teaching interview. It was also Ji Xiaoqin’s birthday. They had spoken on the phone and planned to celebrate her birthday three days later. Yet youthful passion triumphed over reason, and Li Yiming rushed to the train station after the end of his interview, hurriedly boarding the train bound for Hangzhou on the same night.
This was simply screaming out romantic.
Then, romance met reality…
The owner of the Maserati was called Guo Xiang. He could be considered one of Li Yiming’s friends. A few years ago, in order to seduce one of Li Yiming's classmates, he had made quite the effort to become friends with Li Yiming. Guo Xiang’s grandfather was a prominent figure in the capital before his retirement, and his father was the chairman of Yunlong Construction Group. This made Guo Xiang the stereotypical wealthy third generation, with both power and wealth running in the family blood.
Back then, Ji Xiaoqin loathed people like him, whose only virtue was to be born in an affluent family. When she talked about him, it was usually with derision and contempt. Li Yiming would never have guessed that after leaving Hangzhou for less than a month...
Li Yiming wandered aimlessly in the streets. Night fell, but it brought little relief to Hangzhou’s sultriness in the midst of August. As the clock ticked past two o’clock, the entertainment venues closed one after another. The tranquility of the streets was broken by the chatters of groups of young people returning home. The sight of cuddling couples strolling past him once again threw Li Yiming’s mind into a hurricane of emotions.
His love for Ji Xiaoqin had bound him to her like an ivy climbing up a pair of branches. He thought it strong enough to outlast the shifting of mountains and the drying of seas. But now, vain was all longing for happiness; and to ashes all hopes for a future together. Now, everything had been broken like fleeting spumes on an ocean wave. Was the sole purpose of these exchanged vows to showcase his powerlessness against reality's cruelties?
His steps led him to a building whose name he did not know, but remembered it as being the place where he had his first kiss with Ji Xiaoqin. In a dark alley behind Li Yiming, a lit cigarette butt splashed embers as it hit the ground and was crushed by a dark grey flip-flop a second later. The man followed Li Yiming into the building with his red and blue bag swaying back and forth in his hand.
Li Yiming gazed into the distance as he leaned on the railing. The dazzling neon lamps bore witness to the prosperousness of Hangzhou. The scenery reminded him of another moment in his happy past, and he was once again shaken and feeling lost. He remembered Ji Xiaoqin’s coquettish protests, her mellow whispers, her familiar silhouette. The echoes of her voice continued to reverberate in his mind, and he could see her more and more clearly with each passing second, but she was now a stranger, a visitor that did not belong here. He closed his eyes, shutting away those memories and sounds, but he could picture Ji Xiaoqin set flight into a beautiful dance. He reopened his eyes, and he could see her shadow looming behind the curtains of every window in the distance.
Li Yiming removed his shoes and slowly climbed onto the rusty railing. He swayed his legs in the air as he sat on it. His eyes slowly emptied as he thought of his parents. He was only nine years old when they divorced. Then, shortly after, they both remarried and had a child with their new spouse.
“They all have a family of their own…” Li Yiming raised his eyebrows, not knowing how else to console himself.
“Mulling over it enough? Now hurry up and jump, will you?” A voice came from behind him.
The unexpected voice almost made Li Yiming fall off. He grasped the railing and turned around with surprise all over his face. He saw a man in his forties, with a sleeveless vest, a pair of colorful Hawaiian shorts and a pair of flip-flops. He held a bag and seemed amused by what he saw seeing.
Li Yiming had difficulty finding the right answer.
Neither of them spoke as the man sat down. He took out a can of beer from his bag and stared at Li Yiming.
Li Yiming was a little embarrassed. His emotional reflection had been completely interrupted. He stretched his neck and readjusted his sitting posture to relieve the numbness in his hand. The thought of saying something to break the silence came to him, but he had nothing to say.
Clack! Psschit! The other man emptied the beer can in a few gulps and threw the can on the floor before taking another one out of his bag.
“Thinkin’ about jumping?” Finally, the man asked. Li Yiming, discomfited by the awkward silence, was relieved by the question.
Li Yiming replied subconsciously, "No…”
“If you don’t plan to jump off then why are you sitting here? Is this a good place to think about things?” The man laughed and the facetiousness in his eyes grew.
“Ah… I was thinking about something.” Li Yiming answered truthfully; he was unable to lie under this man’s stare.
“Looks like you still haven’t figured out the answer. How about venting some of it out? After all, I’ve lived quite a few more years than you.” With a smooth movement, the man fetched out a pack of cigarettes from his bag and pulled a cigarette out. He lit it up and inhaled deeply with an expression of nostalgia.
“...” Li Yiming kept silent, unable to say anything. Although he felt compelled to explain his circumstances by the man’s imposing manner, he didn’t know where to start. Should he say that he saw his girlfriend cheat on him and his steps led him to this terrace? What was he planning to do, going on a terrace on the highest floor? Common sense would conclude that he was planning to jump off and kill himself.
“‘Feeling shy? That’s okay, lemme take a guess.” The man noticed Li Yiming’s embarrassment. He drank another mouthful and started speaking before Li Yiming could accept his proposition. “By the way you’re dressed up, doesn’t seem like bankruptcy. Wouldn’t have enough money to start anything in the first place.”
Li Yiming lowered his head and looked at his cheap garments and at the hole in his right sock. He awkwardly retracted his right leg and crossed it behind his left leg, hiding it from sight.
“Doesn’t seem like a failure at the university entrance test[1. The most important exam in China, called Gaokao, is a an exam on the same scale as SAT exam but has a much higher stakes. The pressure for the success of this exam is a major cause of teenage suicides. For more information, click here: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam ] You are too old to want to kill yourself ‘cause you flunked a test and can’t go to university.”
Upon hearing his words, Li Yiming instinctively reached out to stroke his unshaved chin, but he almost lost his balance from releasing his grip on the railing, so he hurriedly clamped his hand around it again.
“Oh, you nearly bent that metal pipe! Well, that rules out the scenario of an incurable disease.”
Li Yiming looked at the man sitting beside him in semi-frustration. ‘Did you come here to force me to jump down?’
“Women! Am I right? A woman is the root of your problem?” Suddenly, the man snapped his fingers and loudly declared.
Li Yiming nodded with embarrassment.
“Really? Women… Come here, come here. Let big brother give you some advice.” Suddenly the man became somewhat excited and his imposing attitude vanished.
After this moment of confusion, Li Yiming climbed down from the railing; rather, it was a good time to do so for him since he could acutely feel the soreness in his hands. A moment ago, his heart was dying away like embers from an extinguished fire, and it removed him from all other feelings. Now, he has broken out of his trance, and he could finally feel his legs becoming limped from sitting on the railing for too long.
“Come here. Sit next to me. Big brother’s gonna talk with you.” The man saw Li Yiming approach him, so he pulled on the corner of his pants to signal him to sit down.
“Women… Ah…” The man gazed at the starry sky. His expression gradually gained a certain profundity.
One second… Five seconds… Ten seconds… A minute passed, but he was still silent.
The man sighed heavily before taking out another can of beer from his bag. “Let’s not talk about women. Those creatures are troublesome. Here, have a drink.”
“I… I don’t drink” Li Yiming was a bit dumbfounded in front of such attitude. ‘Really… Is that the counseling you’re offering? Weren’t you the one who mistakenly thought that I was about to jump off the building?
“Ah? Then, how ‘bout a smoke?” The man presented him a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Ah... don’t smoke or drink?” The man was a bit surprised.
Li Yiming nodded timidly.
“Don’t say that big brother didn’t warn you. A man who doesn’t drink, no woman he shall have; a man who doesn’t smoke, no son he shall beget. No wonder you want to jump off the building!”
“Big Brother, do you live here?” Li Yiming hurriedly changed the topic: he found no way to continue on it. He looked at the man’s clothing and came up with an attempt to do so.
“No. I was just passing by.”
‘Passing by? We’re on the 21st floor.’
“Wait, wha- sigh! Well, I suppose I should thank you.” It seemed like the man believed he wanted to jump off the building and was looking to talk him out of it. Although his approach was debatable, the important thing was the good intentions behind it.
“Hehehe! Gotten over it?” The man exhaled a puff of smoke as he asked.
“Actually… It’s just…” Li Yiming remembered something and his mood sank again.
“Okay, stop getting downcast. If you can’t figure things out at the moment, stop mulling over it and think about it again when your head is clearer. Like the old people say, even if the sky collapses, there’s nothing to be afraid of. If worst comes to worst, may it be.” The man got up with ease and patted off the dust on his butt before walking to the railing.
“Look at this world. Lavish, flamboyant, prosperous, complex… Then, look at the people below. There are mediocre ones and astute ones; some are happy, others are sad, the rest, angry or depressed. Some are healthy while others are sickly and on the verge of dying. Let’s not forget about those who have poise and good deportment; those who beg on the streets; those who burn their fortunes to live a few more days; and the idlers, like you, who jump off buildings for trivial matters. Tell me, what’s the difference between them? What’s the true essence of this world?” He held a can of beer with one hand and pointed his cigarette around with the other hand, but his words had an odd lucidity.
Li Yiming looked at the man in front of him with amazement; he became a different man. Enough so that Li Yiming had a bit of difficulty adjusting. He remained silent, unable to come up with a good answer. However, the man did not let him get away with such an answer. He turned around and fixated his gaze on Li Yiming, waiting for an answer.
“The… The difference is in the efforts each of them invest in life…” Li Yiming gave up on dodging the question and equivocated an answer to not pour cold water on the good mood of his benefactor. Besides, when he was young, his teacher had taught him that only by making efforts in life would one be able to reap the corresponding rewards.
“Invest… effort… Hahaha!” The man laughed mockingly. “Consider this then… The first man is from a poor family, with nothing else but dreams and ambitions but he’s hardworking and has the iron will to realize his wishes through the ordeals of life. The second is his opposite, a man born with a silver spoon and no redeeming quality nor goal in life. If you were a woman, which would you choose?”
Perhaps it was unintentional, but these words hit straight at Li Yiming’s sore spot. Li Yiming gazed onto a distant neon lamp and remained silent for a long while. Below, a modified sport car sped up, its engine roaring in a deafening explosion. In the building across the street, a few windows, just like the stars in the nightly sky, lit up and heads stuck out of them, searching for the source of the noise. Soon after, curses poured out as the heads pulled back and the windows were shut.
“Because… of rules.” Li Yiming broke his silence but spoke grudgingly. He clenched his fists tightly and released them slowly, letting go, at the same time, of something in him that he persisted to hold onto for so many years.
“Yes, that’s right, rules! Dragon gives birth to dragon and from phoenix, new phoenix is born. A rat will give birth in a tunnel and a tortoise will forever be unable to catch up to a deer. Only a rich person can make you rich; only a leader can promote you to manager. Such are the rules! But you want to mention the rags to riches story? First of all, they follow the so-called rules. Second, they overthrow them. Without understanding them, even if you bury yourself in work, these efforts are futile. To elevate yourself as a sheepdog amongst a herd of sheeps, you have to understand the rules set by the shepherd. Only if you can understand the rules, can you become a shepherd. If you can’t do either, then your only fate is to toil all your life in a sheep pen. If the shepherd is cold, your wool will be shaved for him. This is called selflessness. If the shepherd is hungry, you shall lay on the butcher block and scream your devotion for his cause.”
“Rules…” The man repeated the word, then turned around and stared at Li Yiming. “The Dao is incorporeal, encompassing heaven and earth. The Dao is merciless, cycling along the passage of the moon and sun. The Dao is nameless and gives birth to all things. All creation possesses a common truth and merges into the Dao. These are the rules I’m talking about.” The man was idly chatting, but in a split second his figure towered his surroundings, bursting with an uncommon force and vigor like an immortal entity would.
Li Yiming struggled to keep up with the man. ‘Big brother, the change in your temperament is too great. We were only chatting about philosophy, yet now it’s suddenly metaphysics? I’m a student majoring in dance you know?’
“Do you want to be someone who make the rules?” All of a sudden, the man asked Li Yiming with a solemn stare.
“What?” Li Yiming had yet to extricate himself from his previous philosophical pondering.
“If you desire to make the rules, first, you need to know them. Come, take this.” Without waiting for Li Yiming to react, the man took out a sealed envelope from his knitted bag and shoved it into Li Yiming’s hand.
“What is it?”
“Rules!” The man laughed cryptically.
Li Yiming unsealed the envelope and found a flashy golden invitation card inside. Then, he opened the card and saw a row of words: August 15th, Pure Water Herb Hall in Hangzhou.
“Big brother, what is- Huh? Big brother? Where did he go?” Li Yiming raised his head, but the man was nowhere to be seen. What remained were only three empty cans of beer and two cigarette butts littered on the floor...
Grenn: I really like the analogy between society and the sheep pen. You have to remember that this novel is heavily based on Chinese society which have many differences when compared to Western societies.
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