Updated: May 31
How am I?
This summer I was supposed to be in Oxford. Somehow, I was going to work out how to travel thousands of miles from Singapore with my toddler twins, just for the chance to see and study a century-old Chinese Friendship Scroll up close. I have friends in England! I am sure, if push came to shove, my friends would chase my two-year olds around Portmeadow while I took an hour or two to study Ling Shu Hua’s scroll—which, in turns out, rolled up is exactly the size of a toilet paper roll. Ling Shu Hua exchanged a few letters with Virginia Woolf on the eve of WW II, and I have been thinking about this exchange for a year now. The letters crossed the South China Sea, back and forth between Wuhan, China, and Rodmell, England, talking about their writing, art, landscapes, ancient civilizations—and of course the constant refrain: war.
A tiny replica of the scroll drapes from the bars across my window. Scraps and fragments of their letters lie cut out, like a found poem, on my desk. This from Ling Shu Hua:
I could not sleep in the night, if I fell to sleep I would dream the most unpleasant thing I had in my thought. I saw my house in the ruin and broken furnitures, outside of the house the laying corpse, the unburied corpses smelling badly.
If my book could give English readers some pictures of real Chinese lives, some impression about Chinese who are as ordinary as any English people, some truth of life and sex which your people never have a chance to see but is even seen by a child in the East, I shall be contented.
One can not help feeling it might be by God’s will that He intends to put an end on the yellow race…In my heart, I often feel I love Japanese ordinary people not less than I do to Chinese. But why do we have to fight?
Little children who never have the pleasure of ride in a train or a motor car, but they can tell you the difference between the enemy’s plane or Chinese. Isn’t this world ridiculous?
And from Woolf:
I wish you lived near and could come in. These little meetings are the best things we have at present. We talk about pictures not about war.
I often envy you for being in a large wild place with a very old civilization. I get hint of it in what you write.
And, though not written to Ling Shu Hua directly, Woolf wrote the following words for her memoir group around the same time. She might just as well have been answering Ling:
I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed.
I am thinking of this exchange now because I can’t travel and see the scroll, but I am writing my book with a new urgency. There was something intriguing, beautiful, about the hesitant correspondence between these two women writers that caught me twenty years ago when I first read these faded letters in the New York Public Library. And I felt that same ache, so hard to describe, in October, when I flew with my collaborator, Diana, a sound artist, to meet a Chinese woman, a calligrapher, an art scholar, for an hours-long lunch in the hopes to convince her to help us to understand Ling’s scroll. We had food from Xinjiang Province: DaPanji, a plate piled high with potatoes, chicken, and bright red peppers; Uyghur Polo—lamb and rice; BanMian, a noodle dish—and then we nibbled on Matang, a sticky, addictive concoction of nuts and honey. The scroll traversed the ocean between Paris, London, Japan, and China from 1925 until 1984, and we touched lightly on the calligraphy, inscriptions, sketches, and paintings contributed by the nineteen artists. But the moment that held me, that I come back to again and again in my mind, was her expression when she watched me, in the middle of lunch, video-call the twins whom I had left in Singapore—and then her shy, polite, eager questions about fertility treatments, and how I had made the decision to pursue single motherhood when I was living so far from the United States, from home and family, still at the brink of my career. We walked, the three of us, back to her office in Shanghai and she gave us bookmarks—red ebony, inlaid with yellow dragon flies flitting through bulrushes. We agreed we would meet in Oxford, at the end of the summer when she could get away, and later Diana and I plotted how we would get the research funds to pay for her ticket.
I have reached out many times, but haven’t heard from her since a WeChat message in January let me know she was staying at home and ok.
And here, in Singapore, I haven’t seen another adult friend since the Circuit Breaker started two months ago. The twins tug at my legs impatiently as I try to write, pleading with me to come see the red and blue monsters their Chinese teacher is talking about in Mandarin as they do their preschool on Zoom. I am fascinated this week, by the last image on the scroll: the backs of two small children, holding hands, the boy clutching a fishing rod. This is by Feng Zikai, children’s illustrator, who drew his sketch in 1943. The internet tells me around this same time he wrote:
Our land is being overrun by a vicious enemy. It is as though we are in the throes of a disease, and only strong medication can help us fight this illness and survive. The war of resistance is just such a timely treatment. Yet warfare can never be more than a short-term remedy, and we should be wary of becoming addicted to it. As the virus is eliminated and we regain out health, it is essential that we take proper nourishment. And what kind of nourishment is crucial to out long-term well-being? Peace, happiness, and universal love, and the basic ingredient for ‘preserving life’ itself: art.
I am, it’s true, far from home. I miss my friends and family. I give up my computer easily to watch the twins learn all about red and purple and yellow monsters in Chinese. On social media, there is a growing distrust of expats in Singapore, and today I watched in dismay a huge backlash unfold against another single mother who wrote, she thought, privately, about government restrictions that have kept her, all of us, isolated and in place for another six weeks. But there is the other side too: the neighbour who left a box of chocolates outside our door; the elderly Chinese man who re-hid their teddy bears much more effectively than my first attempt on a recent bear hunt through the un-mowed grasses of our condominium.
How am I today? I am taking Feng Zikai’s words to heart:
The real artist must be in complete emotional communion with the object or person depicted, to share their joys and sorrows, their tears and laughter. If you take up the brush but lack this all-embracing sympathetic heart then you will never be a true artist.
— Feng Zikai, “Art and Sympathy”