The fruit blossoms and flowers that grew near my father’s house in Che Chiang province stopped blooming that year in 1941. My father’s house near Ch'ien Tao Lake was always full of flowers, especially the white lotus, the sweet smelling flower that never had thorns. My neighbours said that it was because winter was at hand, but I think it was the Japanese military occupation that made it so. The fragile flower was to me, the soul of the serene province that I once called home as a child. Many asked me why I decided to leave the place that I had loved and grew up in.
When asked why I left Che Chiang, I simply replied that I was restless. I couldn't stay in my family’s house for long, and as soon as I was old enough, I left for a whole new city. I moved to Shanghai as a police officer in 1935, two years before the horrible nightmare in Nan Qing, when thousands of troops from the Imperial Army ravaged the capital. Thousands died in that oppressive massacre that lasted more than three days. The police couldn't stand up to them; that time, more than any other, we needed men like Wong Fei-Hung and Huo Yuan-Chia to come to our aid, to prove that we were not the sick men of Asia.
Three years had passed and China was yet again conquered. This time, however, the Empire of Japan was behind the occupation, and the Western powers, except for Germany, were still struggling to recuperate from the blow to their economy. The men of our country suffered, but the women were faring much worse. They were forced to slake the desire of the Imperial troops, and were called “comfort women”. In my mind, however, they would always be “lotus women”. They were beautiful women who, like the lotus, were defenceless against the cruel frost of war, without so much as a thorn to fend off the hands that would defile it and absorb its essence.
It was during that winter of 1941 that I met one of the “lotus women”. I went back to my childhood house near the lake for a week with the blessing of the police commissioner in Shanghai. Late at night, while the snowstorm was approaching, a figure came trudging along the path near my home, carrying a bundle in its arms. I could scarcely tell who it was, or what could possibly be in its arms, until I heard a slight whimper coming from the bundle. As the figure came closer, I saw that it was a woman, cradling a baby in her arms.
I asked her what she was doing outside with her child when a storm was approaching. She answered that she was running away with her son from the Imperial Army and that she needed a place to stay. I guided her inside the house and noticed that her face was covered in a scarf, which she wouldn't take off despite my offering to take it somewhere to dry. After she’d taken off her coat and taken the blanket off her baby, I led them both to the spare room near the fire and set up the mattresses for them to sleep on. They both fell asleep within moments of lying down on their makeshift beds, both mother and infant.
I awoke shortly after dawn to practice my chuan fa, or martial arts. Just before I left, I peered inside the room that my guests were sleeping in. The woman turned over on her side, still asleep and dreaming. As soon as I went outside, I noticed the storm had calmed itself, and the violent wind that carried the snow and obscured the land was replaced by a gentle breeze. I climbed up a small hill where my grandfather and I used to practice our favourite martial art, tai chi ch'uan, or tai chi as the Westerners called it.
I warmed up first, stretching my arms, neck, and shoulders, followed by my legs and lower body. Afterwards, I started out at the vast white lake and at the dock where the fishermen would take their boats to fish during the warmer seasons. Inhaling slowly, I brought my right leg up, grasping my foot firmly and extending my leg until it was completely straight, over my head. Balanced on one leg, I took the same leg and brought it back, gripping it with my other hand. I repeated the same exercise with the other leg, inhaling and exhaling slowly all the while.
As I brought my leg back to solid ground, the white ice lake remained still, a silent audience to my exercise. Inhaling, I gradually moved my foot to the side and raised my hands to my shoulder level, lowering my centre at the same time. My mind went still even as my body turned left and my hands took on a life of their own. To the passer-by, the postures I perform appear like a dance. Why, it's just some callisthenics to keep the body from freezing, they must think. But tai chi is much more than that.
It is a link. A connection between my mortal cycle and the greater cycle of all that around me. Though my legs are in motion and I don't stay still, I am rooted to the earth, neither rigid nor off balance. My hands rise and fall with my centre before moving weightlessly in harmony with my legs as I go from posture to posture. I am merely part of a chain of movement that has endured for centuries and will continue beyond my life. By the end of my routine, I am back where I began with my back straight and my hands by my sides.
With one last sigh, I called it a day and climbed down the hill.
When I entered the house, I found the baby lying near his mother, who stood near the Buddhist altar, praying and bowing three times as was the custom for the mourning of a loved one who passed away. When she finished praying, she took from the altar a framed photograph of a man with a beautiful smile, probably her husband. She still wore the scarf around her face, even in the warmth of the house.
“Good morning. I hope you slept well. I’ll prepare breakfast right away.” I greeted her.
I could hear her say thank you, although her speech was muffled from the scarf around her mouth. I went inside the kitchen to prepare the simple breakfast of noodles and green tea as well as a small bowl of rice porridge for the child. She lowered her scarf to eat the noodles and sip the tea, but still did not take it off completely. I was dying to ask her why she would not take her scarf off, but I had no idea how to go about it. I decided as soon as breakfast was over and the child was sleeping, I would ask her straight out.
Sure enough, she was laying her baby down to sleep as soon as the dishes were washed and put away. I approached her, laying my hand on her shoulder.
“Excuse me, but I never got a chance to properly introduce myself. My name is Liu Hsiao Chen. I am a police officer for the Shanghai police department, although my birthplace is here in Che Chiang.” I began. She said nothing, so I took a breath and asked her the question.
“Ever since you came here, you've been wearing that scarf around your face. Why?” She remained silent, so I leaned in to whisper into her hear.
“Don’t be afraid. I am not here to judge you and I will not turn you away. Please trust me. I just want to know your name, and why you won’t show your face.”
I ushered her into the sitting room, and once she sat down on the cushion on the floor, I did the same, sitting face to face with her. She turned to me and slowly began to remove the scarf around her face. Anyone else would have shrunk back in horror, but I persevered. Her face was burned badly, and there were scratches, almost like claw marks. Tears ran down her eyes and her head was bowed. Before long, she looked up at me and began to speak.
“This is why I was reluctant to show you my face,” she said softly “My real name is Yin Lei, but the Imperial troops called me Snow-White Flower, after the lotus.”
“But what happened? Why would anyone do this to you?” I wanted to know. She let out a shuddering sigh and resumed speaking.
“When the Imperial Army arrived in my village in Hunan, I was sold as a comfort woman, along with the other women from our village. When they came, they told us that we would have rewarding jobs in the army, caring for the wounded soldiers. By the time we knew what was really going on, it was too late. Some of the women had to take nicknames, myself among them. We were only allowed to serve the troops, and if any of the girls were found with anyone other than the soldiers, they would be punished,” she continued
“Some of the comfort women would still see their husbands or the men they were involved with. Secretly, I was seeing a man from my village that I fell in love with and that I married in secret. The three months that we saw each other were the best three months of my life, but they could not last for long. When we were discovered, they disfigured me with acid and called me an adulteress. As for my husband…I never saw him again.”
I listened in earnest, feeling a wave of emotion for what had happened to the woman who sat in front of me. It became clear to me that the child she had was also the child of the man she married and never saw again.
“Then…the child is your son? His father is gone?” I inquired. She nodded silently. For a short moment, I said nothing. I couldn’t think of anything to say after hearing what I had heard from her, until I remembered what I had meant to ask her.
“How did you end up here in Che Chiang? May I ask?” I enquired. She looked towards the window of the sitting room where we were sitting before she turned to me and answered my question.
“Not long after the disappearance of my husband,” she said, “There was a bombing at the barracks where I was being kept. Members of the Nationalist Party had arranged a hit and run attack. Amidst the confusion of the bombings, many of the other comfort women had fled, and I found myself among them.”
“For many days, I wandered through the forests of Hunan, living off whatever food I could find, until I arrived at a Buddhist sanctuary named the Ba Long Temple far from the chaos of the Imperial occupation. It was there that my son was born, and it was from there that I left and ended up here in your home.”
By that time, her son was starting to wake up, so she entered the guest room to take him from his makeshift bed, tying her scarf back on while walking. While she was gone, I contemplated what to do. I took a map of China from the drawer in the corner of the room. I laid it on the table and studied it for a while. After scrutinizing the nearest exits out of the country, I concluded that Hong Kong seemed to be a valid option for a means of escape.
The port city was crawling with British soldiers, and surely, Yin Lei could find a way out of China working on one of the boats. From there, she could probably find a way to England or even America if she was fortunate enough. All she would need would be some means of safe transport and a way of getting on a ship with her child. I took out a small pencil and circled the routes to Hong Kong from Che Chiang, writing some instructions on the back of the map. I planned to show her what I meant to do as soon as lunch was prepared.
Towards the middle of the day, I prepared a meal of Cantonese rice, as well as a small dish of bean curd for the baby. As she was putting him to sleep after the meal, I took her back to the sitting room and showed her the map to the city.
“Look,” said I, pointing at the map and the indications I made “I've found a way for you to get to Hong Kong. If you can get on a ship there, I am sure they will find some way to get you away from here. France isn't such a good idea now with the German army occupying the country, but you can always go to England, or maybe even America, where there are many Chinese refugees. I can even arrange for a skipper to take you somewhere safe.”
“Really? You would really do that?” she questioned
“Of course. All I need to do is send a letter to an old neighbour of mine in Hong Kong. I’m sure he’ll be happy to accommodate you.” I replied. All I had to do was write a letter to Wang, a childhood friend who was an angler as well as the skipper of a ship in Hong Kong. I planned to write a letter telling Wang in advance. By the time Yin Lei reached her destination undetected, Wang would have received the letter and would probably be ready to take her on his boat. The only conundrum so far was how she was going to get to Hong Kong from my house.
After turning over the notion in my head, I resolved to take her myself, using a horse and an old cart from one of my old neighbours who never left Che Chiang. It was all set for her to leave tomorrow at dawn, when there were fewer troops. I explained to her my plan, and we confirmed that as soon as the dawn approached, we would take the child and go to Hong Kong. It would have worked out fine, if fate were ever on my side that night.
The winds blew harder than ever the night before her escape. All figures that passed by in the night were made obscure and were turned into shadows walking through the gusts of snow. As I lay sleeping on my mat in my own room, I could not hear the footsteps of Yin Lei, who crept silently out of the house and into the snow. God only knows why she felt compelled to walk out in such a disastrous storm, but she did it anyway. As it turned out, it was the last I would ever hear of her.
When the dawn came at last, I awoke to the sound of Yin Lei’s son crying out for his mother. I sat up with a jolt, looking around for Yin Lei. Hastily putting my shoes on, I ran out of the house, scanning the land for any sign of her. One can only imagine my horror as I saw the child on all fours, crawling across the frozen lake. One wrong move could send him to the waters below the ice, drowning him.
I rushed forward as fast as I could, praying I would reach the child before anything happened to him. I caught up with him in the nick of time, taking him in my arms just before he reached a cracked hole. He struggled slightly but I held him in my arms tightly. I looked at the hole in the ice, and a lump began to form in my throat. Through blurred eyes brimming with warm tears, I saw the scarf that Yin Lei wore around her face, floating in the water.
I knew then and there that Yin Lei wouldn’t need a boat to take her on her journey to the West. But I couldn't just stand there and let her body float endlessly in the water, so I took the child back to the house and returned to the spot where I stood before, carrying a bundle of rope, a blanket, and a staff with a hook attached at the end of it. Prodding the waters, the hook on my staff eventually caught hold of her garments. I pulled upwards and watched her emerge from the frigid waters, before wrapping her in the bedspread and binding her to keep her warm. With a heave, I carried her on my shoulder to the Buddhist temple on the shore, my vision fading as the tears in my eyes began to freeze.
I finally reached the temple, carrying Yin Lei in my arms. “Somebody help me!” I cried out, sending the monks scurrying over to see what the problem was. I explained what had happened, and the monks arranged for a funeral service. I brought the boy to the funeral, hearing his whimpers for his mother mingling with the chants of the monks, ushering the woman’s soul into the hereafter. When the funeral finally came to a close, I sat outside the temple steps, cradling the sleeping child in my arms. I raised my head and turned it back slightly at the sound of the head monk approaching me. I rose up, bowing as low as I could with the baby in my hands.
“Thank you for what you've done. You at least managed to do what you were supposed to do.” I began.
“There’s no need to, Hsiao Chen. That is why we are always here, even in turbulent times as these,” the monk replied kindly
“It is strange, really. The one who brought helped her on her journey to the west was not me, as I had intended. At least in England or America, she would have had another chance to bloom, and to renew. But it’s too late now; she’s withered away like every lotus on the lake.”
“No, Hsiao Chen. Do not weep. You did what you could. You endeavoured to do what was best for her, for her son. At least now, she is free from the pain of this war. The frost cannot steal her blossom where she is.”
“What about her son?” I demanded, “Where will he live now? What should I do?”
“Take him with you to Shanghai. There at least he will be able to experience life away from his mother’s place of death. As for you, you must raise him as your own son.”
I took a moment to digest what he had said, before asking him the most important question on my mind.
“What shall I call him, if he is to be my son?” The monk did not reply, save to say that it was up to me to decide. I sensed that his spirit was strong, and yet there seemed an air of gentleness about him. I decided then to give him the name Bai Lian, in honour of his mother, the lotus woman who left behind her seed to grow without her.