At first light, I am often woken up by the calls of sparrows. Over time I have realized that they always start to call twenty minutes before the sun comes up. The sun comes up late in the winter and so they start to call late too. The sun comes up early in the summer and so they start to call early too. Their call is different before and after sunrise. Before sunrise the cry they make sounds like “scree, scree, scree.” After sunrise this changes to “chup, chup, chup.” I don’t know what the connection is between the sun and the calls they make.
On a little path in the hills I saw an ant with a drag hold on a dead dung beetle. The beetle might have been stepped on by somebody, it was crushed out of shape and the fluids that had leaked from its body had stuck two little rocks to it, making it heavier for the ant. The ant had its mandibles clasped tightly on the beetle and it was wriggling back and forth as hard as it could, trying to drag the beetle. The beetle was rocking slightly but wasn’t moving forward at all. I watched for a long time, and up until I finally left, the admirable little soldier was still trying its hardest without rest. No other ant came to help it, and it seemed to have no inclination to go back to the colony for reinforcements.
Two sparrows landed on the railing of the porch outside my window. The spot is a little gulf of sunlight, warm, quiet, safe. They were two old sparrows, and only the earth can say how many baby sparrows they have raised. The two sparrows sat there in brilliant sunlight, looking well kept and well fed. Their eyes were squinting and their noggins turned this way and that, they seemed absolutely carefree. From time to time they called once or twice, the sound guileless and intimate. They were solid of build, their feathers fluffed out, heads scrunched down on their thick necks, like coach drivers in sheepskin coats for winter.
On January 1, 1988, I saw the sun rise. I made a note about this sunrise because I had never in my life seen anything like it. It was as if a miracle had taken place, it shocked me into silent amazement. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez describes the sunrise in Macondo the day after four straight years of rain has finally stopped: “the world lighted up with a crazy crimson sun as harsh as brick dust and almost as cool as water.” I don’t want to try to say a lot to describe the sunrise that I watched. The sun was red and very large, making me think first of a millstone in a village courtyard. If you’d seen this sunrise, you’d believe it.
We ordinarily think of north as up and south as down. As we travel north, with the sun at our backs, we say we are going up. As we travel south toward the sun, we say we are heading down. I don’t know where this up and down distinction comes from (the system of naming degrees of latitude? topography?). As we travel on the planet we have this sense of up and down in mind. Rather like we envision officials above and the people below.
Magpies and sparrows are the two resident or non-migratory birds one sees most often in the north. Their presence makes northern winters lively. There is a folk saying to the effect that “Sparrows fly with owls.” The literal meaning of this is that little birds tend to blindly fly after bigger birds. I have seen a sparrow flying after a magpie before and so was made aware of two different sorts of flight found among birds. Magpies are calm and composed in flight, their wings move like tree leaves rocking in the wind, and one gets the impression that magpies have well-founded self-confidence. Sparrows are anxious and hurried, they fly like a swimmer doing the breaststroke, their bodies hunching forward repeatedly, and at any second they are liable to flash off in a new direction.
There is your difference between little birds and big birds.
As we get into winter I miss the snow. It used to be commonplace to welcome several big snowstorms each winter, but this has now become a longed for luxury (who took this divinely bestowed right from us?). A winter without snow is like a field barren of crops or a forest with no birds. When it does start to snow unexpectedly, everybody is happy. Snow brings something miraculous to the earth. Snow sweeps away whatever it is hidden deep inside us that shackles or destroys our keenest instincts. I have seen adults building snowmen with their children and I am sure that many such happy scenes take place everywhere when it snows.
I don’t mind when the wind doesn’t blow or when the rain doesn’t fall, but I have to have snow. Snow plays a part in many of the wonderful things we wish for.
Most things are known by two or more names.
I am not writing here about the Western scientific system of binomial nomenclature (this is a system in which each species is given a two-word name in Latin, with the first word identifying the genus and the second the species) or of trinomials (which is a system for using Latin to name genus, species, and subspecies). I am referring to the fact that in almost all cases we understand the things around us through the use of several different names, specifically the formal name, the alternate formal name, and the popular name. All these names have their own mysterious origins and each reveals its utility when used in different contexts. The sun is an example. We call it taiyang (sun) but we also use the term ri (sol), and I know that in the north farm folk call the sun laoye or “grandpa.” Owls are called chixiu and xiao, but the common folk call them maotouying (cat-headed hawk) and yemaozi (night cat).
Scientific names and formal names tend to be abstract and they are useful for academic research and efficient exchange of information but they don’t easily become part of our lives. These names have no symbolic or emotional connection to the things to which they refer and so the planet and the people resist them. They are bloodless, lifeless things that lie statically in books and academic journals.
Alternate names are simply revised forms of the formal or scientific names and suffer the same fate.
The popular name is a species’s infant name, its pet name, its nickname. It is traditional, folk, homegrown, intimate. Popular names come from the unfettered imaginations of the people, they arise spontaneously all over the country and are handed down through the generations. The popular names capture either the essence of the things to which they refer or one of their most salient particularities. These names also convey the intimate affection and casual familiarity the people of any locality have with the plants and animals of their land. For example, what you might know as cheqiancao (“cart-side weed” or more idiomatically “roadside weed”), which in English is the Asian plantain (Plantago asiatica), is called “pig’s ear” in my home village because of its broad leaves, and the plant known as dihuang (ground yellow) has a bell-shaped corolla that you can pluck to drink the sweet nectar, and so it is called “Old Tippler.” Popular names give the sense of having been born together with the things they name. They are poetic, distinctive, and full of lifeblood and vitality. Today despite the overwhelming influence of modernity, popular names continue to thrive in our courtyards and fields. They have many meanings and move us emotionally as well. No matter when it is or where we go, when we hear popular names we are immediately taken back to scenes of our childhood, back to our native places and native soils. Back to our origins, to our mother.
When a crescent moon first comes up, if you look for it you can see near the moon a single bright star. Sometimes the moon and this star are very close, and their placement in the sky, relative positions, and intimate connection make me see them as an oarsman in a boat out on the ocean. But each night before long the oarsman leaves his boat and moves off. Well after I had been observing this, I found out by reading a book on astronomy that the oarsman is none other than Venus, the second planet from the sun in the solar system, the Earth’s closest neighbor. Because Venus is closer to the sun than the Earth is, its place in the sky varies. The first star to appear in the west at twilight and the last star still visible in the east at dawn are both our peripatetic oarsman. In antiquity the Chinese gave this star two elegant, sophisticated names. The evening star was called changgeng (the night watch star) and the morning star was called qiming (the rising light star). The Greeks were more crude in their terminology and went with the instinctive, descriptive, but also familiar and poetic, if rather direct name of “wanderer.”
I love birds but I just cannot get close to them to watch them. Every single time I pass a group of birds, regardless of whether they are in a tree or on the ground, I must not stop, I must not stand and stare at them, I have to instead sidle up and turn an ear to them to listen to their happy sounds. If I do otherwise, they alert immediately, they react immediately, stopping their conversation and their feeding, and flash up together and fly off quickly.
For me this is just something I come across in my daily life. For the birds, each time it is a test of their fitness for survival.
[ . . . ] The seasons have a life of their own. To truly understand this we need to go to the countryside to live for a year and experience the seasons with careful and full attention. Taking winter as our example, we may note that in the north—in Beijing—each year in January winter quite evidently undergoes a change. In January winter is like a traveler who has finally reached his destination after a long journey and is now settling down. Winter at this time of year reminds us of an old country horse who is worn and listless and no longer fit for pulling a cart or of a rooster too old to crow. The winter that had been nimble, impulsive, fresh, alive, and mutable has gone and won’t come back. A winter that is dilatory, sedate, solemn, gloomy, raw, and cold has settled in beside us. This is a mournful transition, and with it begins the stretch of winter that is most difficult to endure. The feeling we get from winter at this time is very much like the feeling we get from a person who has made some money or acquired some power but at the same time has given away all his books and forgotten all the songs he knew.
Thoreau writes that “While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.” I look at it this way: the root of the problem is that children spend too much time in the company of adults (I am leaving aside for the moment the question of how much human nature itself is to be blamed).
Allow me to use metaphors to explain what I mean. Every day at school children go about the meticulous work of building beautiful, beautiful webs of imagination, but when they leave school their webs are crashed into and broken by the many gnats and mosquitoes of society and sooner or later the children discover the futility of their labor.
The world of adults is a big, raging river and every child is a happy, crystal clear little brook making its way toward that big river. The tragedy is that the world gives children no choice but to eventually flow into that big, dirty river.
In the 1970s a series of campaigns to open up farmland and build irrigation works were undertaken in northern China.
These campaigns transformed the character of the land as it had been for thousands of years. Uncultivated “wasteland” was cleared for farming, wetlands and ponds were drained, dense copses of hundred-year-old trees were logged, and big, weed-covered old tomb mounds were leveled. This conversion of ancient plains and woodlands into neat, homogenous fields brought with it the threat of extinction to the birds and animals that had bred there for generations. Wild rabbits vanished and hawks disappeared along with them. The birds had nowhere to find water or build their nests and so they grew fewer in number day by day. For many years, it was just about impossible to spot even a single bird’s nest out in the countryside.
More than a decade has now passed since the last of these campaigns, and the trees that were planted along all the new, straight roads that cut through the fields have grown. The happy news is that this year you can see nests of magpies, which are non-migratory birds, dotted here and there in these trees even though the trees are still small. Magpies prefer to build their nests in tall trees and their willingness to build their nests closer to the ground is testimony to the risks they will take in order to ensure the continued existence of their species. The fact that the nests are still there undisturbed so close to the ground is also testimony to the fact that country boys and girls have been taken hostage by television and the other products of modernity and they no longer go outside to play and explore.
It is rare to see a Kestrel anymore. In May I was sitting underneath a willow tree with the expanse of a wheat field spread out in front of me. Thoreau wrote, “But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper.” Me, I’m not a housekeeper, I’m a teacher. I often walk the paths through this field when I come out to the countryside to see my grandparents, who are ill and so don’t often leave the kang.
As I was sitting there beneath the willow tree, a bird came toward me from way across the north side of the wheat field. The wheat was like a formation of soldiers standing at attention and as the bird crossed over the field it was like a general reviewing his troops. The bird stopped in place from time to time (this is about the only bird, besides the hummingbird, that is able to hover in one place), like a general pausing to rouse the fighting spirit in his troops or make some disciplinary correction. He was flying from the north toward the south, his wings spread, advancing slowly and steadily. He never came down close to the ground, he just moved on to inspect another one of the platoons under his command.
(This majestic general is none other than the Sparrow Hawk [queying], also known as the Kestrel [yaozi]. In my home village, he is known as the Swallow Hawk [qing yanzi]).
From out in a field, I have watched the entire process of the emergence of the night sky. My abbreviated notes on my observations are below.
About fifteen minutes after the sun has gone down, the first star appears ever so faintly in the southwest part of the sky (this is actually not a star but the carefree, wandering planet Venus). After thirty-two minutes, the second star appears and it almost always appears directly overhead. Next, at thirty-five minutes, the third star appears. At forty-four minutes, the fourth star. At forty-six minutes, the fifth. After that the stars seem to all pop out together and it becomes impossible to keep track of when each individual star appears. After fifty minutes the sky is filled with a blanket of mostly vague and indistinct stars. An hour after that you can begin to make out the constellations. In the main, stars appear first in the east and the south and last in the west and north. (These notes were made on August 8, 1995, and revised and corrected the following day.)
Between sunset and the appearance of a star-filled sky the gorgeous light of dusk fades slowly to darkness. It is a sight to make one sigh in appreciation. It is a sight that puts one in mind of the way one moves in life from passionate romance to cool practicality.
I have a fondness for William Henry Hudson, the English essayist celebrated for his writing about birds. Hudson was born and raised on the pampas of South America and he said that the area was deserving of being called “the land of birds.” He wrote, “I do not believe that any other large area on [the continent of South America] so abounded with bird life as this very one where I was born and reared and saw, and heard, so much of birds from my childhood that they became to me the most interesting things in the world.” Consequently, birds become for Hudson the thing he loved most on this earth beginning in his childhood. In writing about the migration of birds he describes for us in detail the grand sight of huge flocks of various birds in migration that he saw in his youth. The bird he liked best and found most impossible to forget was the Upland Plover, also known as the Upland Sandpiper. When they were flying, their beautiful call-notes could be heard as the birds passed by overhead. He writes that while he can still hear this sound in his imagination, he will never hear it again in his life because this bird is “now on the list of the next ‘candidates for extinction.’ It seems incredible that in this short space of time, comprised in the years of one man’s life, such a thing can be.”
[ . . . ]
In what must have been early 1993 I was in the old Wangfujing bookstore, now gone, and I bought an atlas of the birds of China. Looking at the illustrations in the book, I was able to identify about thirty species of birds that I knew from my childhood. These days in my home village, aside from the resident sparrows and magpies, you are unlikely to see any other birds at all.
In his essay Hudson writes, “The beautiful is vanished and returns not.”
I saw it early one morning when I was out for a walk. The first cold front of the season had passed through at daybreak and the sun was coming up slowly in the southeast. Myriad creatures were making their proud entrances to the day in the warming sunlight. They were like kings of old, each taking to the field, his banner flying high.
But this guy was lying prostrate and motionless. He was bright in color, the same color as spring grass. His head was small and triangular with two big bulging compound eyes. His two robust-looking front legs were shaped like kitchen cleavers, which is why farming folk call this kind of praying mantis “Mack the Knife.” Mack the Knife likes to go about with his head up proudly and his big pincers raised up high in imposing fashion. To children he is the superman of insects, an insect knight, an insect hero. This one had been frozen stiff by the cold front, which had caught him unprepared. I could move his legs, they were still flexible. I found a good place for him and put him down. I had faith that the warmth of the sun and the power of the life force would revive him.
When I walked by the spot the next morning he was gone. Had he truly been resurrected or had he been discovered by a sparrow or a magpie? To this day I still think now and again about that tough little guy.
Every year in December in the north, at least if you live above forty degrees north latitude and you go outside early in the morning and pay a bit of attention, you will discover that the sun does not come up in the east, it comes up in the south.
This time of year I always think of the sun as a big pendulum that never stops in its swaying. Our ancestors quite brilliantly observed that the pendulum swings back and forth in the interval between the “arrival of summer” (equivalent to the English summer solstice) and the “arrival of winter” (winter solstice) and that at these times the pendulum hits two points that are on opposite sides of the earth, points at which we may erect monuments demarking the Northern tropic (the Tropic of Cancer) and the Southern tropic (the Tropic of Capricorn), which the Chinese ancients named as the limit reached by the sun before its return.
The richness of avian life is reflected by the fact that birds may be categorized according to any of several different criteria. They are sorted by class, order, family, genus, and species, but ornithologists also have several other ways of classifying birds. For example, birds can be sorted by their physiological characteristics and placed into the categories of songbirds, perching birds, swimming birds, wading birds, and birds of prey. Or they can be sorted by habitats into groups of woodland birds, prairie birds, marsh birds, and water birds. Or they can be sorted by their migratory habits into the categories of migratory birds, resident birds, visiting birds, and partial migratory birds.
The so-called “visiting birds” of a given place are migratory birds that pass through but do not stop in that place. Partial migration refers to the movement of birds who roam relatively short distances in search of food as the seasons change. In Chinese, birds in which partial migration has been observed are called “wandering birds” (piaoniao), which shows that the ornithologists among our scientists still have some poetry in their hearts. The most representative of the partial migrants is the woodpecker, which can be observed moving from tree to tree and woodlot to woodlot as if on some grand mission. In the summer woodpeckers are found in hillside or mountain forests and in the winter they move to the plains. Their beautiful, quick, nimble, undulating flight casts their wandering shadows everywhere across the land.
In popular culture the woodpecker is called a tree doctor, but woodpeckers remind me of what Dostoevsky called Russian intellectuals: “wanderers.” The father of the Russian intelligentsia was Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (Radishchev was one of the most outstanding Russian figures of the eighteenth century; he was outstanding not as an original thinker but rather in his efforts to establish justice, righteousness, and freedom in the real world); he set the model and exemplified the characteristics that would become the typical Russian intellectual. In his essay “The Russian Idea,” Berdyaev, the Hegel of twentieth-century Russia, wrote, “When Radishchev in his Journey from Paris to Moscow wrote the words ‘I looked around me and my soul was lacerated by the sufferings of mankind,’ the Russian intelligentsia was born.” The sacred mission of the Russian intelligentsia ensured that “The great Russian writers of the nineteenth century created not from the joy of creative abundance, but from a thirst for the salvation of the people, of humanity and the whole world from unhappiness and suffering, from the injustice and slavery of man.”
Of all the birds in the Order Passeriformes, the birds in the family Corvidae are the biggest. The birds in the family Corvidae are divided into two branches, the crows and the magpies. There are many species of crows, including Jackdaws, Jays, Nutcrackers, Ravens, Collared Crows, Rooks, Thick-Billed Crows, and Carrion Crows. There are two kinds of magpies, Azure-winged Magpies and Magpies (there is also the Red-billed Blue Magpie, but its numbers are small and it is limited in its distribution).
Magpies are more stocky and sturdy in build than Azure-winged Magpies. Magpies like to stand at alert attention in the long-tailed tuxedo they wear day and night. Their behavior and their attire were reason enough for Jules Renard to jokingly say of them that they are the “most French of all our birds.” Their throats must be made of metal: their song is sharp, dry, and rasping, which adds to their overall rather oafish bearing. Azure-winged Magpies are more charming, their feathers have a blue-gray or greenish-gray luster. Their songs are appealing, tactful, gentle. A flock of Azure-winged Magpies reminds one of beautiful women in a traditional brush and ink painting.
Magpies and Azure-winged Magpies are the resident birds you see in the north in the winter. When you see magpies on a winter’s day, you are reminded of a royal court. The Magpie is the king, and the Azure-winged Magpies are the queen and concubines (the queen and concubines tend to stay hidden back in the hills and in the trees, as if remaining in the imperial harem), and the sparrows who alight all around the Magpies and sometimes fly after them are the common multitudes, the citizens of the kingdom. The other sorts of birds that appear from time to time, your crows, your hawks, your woodpeckers, and so on, those birds are visitors to the kingdom.
Once where beekeepers were camping out I saw some wasps robbing honey from a beehive side by side with ants that were doing the same thing. This little observation of mine led me into making a mistake that I could never put right.
When wasps were building a nest outside the window to my study, I put a used-up bottle of honey, which still had a little honey in it, on the window ledge below the nest. I did this to reward the wasps for their labors. I put the bottle there in the morning and by night I had yet to see a single wasp go anywhere near the bottle. At nine o’clock I suddenly noticed that the nest was in an uproar, there were wasps everywhere, on the window, in the bottle, everywhere. My guess was that when it got dark and the wasps stopped working for the day a few of them came out to eat honey and then when they went back to the nest smelling like honey they were attacked by other wasps. It wasn’t until eleven o’clock that things at the nest finally settled down. I removed the screen on the window and turned the bottle upside down so the half dozen or so wasps still inside it could get out. Covered in honey, these wasps struggled to crawl slowly up the window, cautiously drawing closer to the nest and leaving streaks of honey on the glass.
The next morning the wasps were going about their business in their usual hectic but orderly fashion. Acting on a sudden suspicion I went downstairs to take a look. Below my window I found a dozen or so dead wasps. Out of shame, I left this particular detail out of my essay “My Neighbors the Wasps,” but I wrote about it in my diary for the day and at the end of the entry I wrote, “I’m so sorry, wasps! Forgive me!”
It has big ears that stick way up over its head, two back legs that are longer than its body, it can run like the wind, it is the color of the dirt in a northern village, and it possesses the stealth and silence of a fish. These are the essential components that go into making a wild rabbit (and these same characteristics give a hint as to the nature of the rabbit’s gloomy fate).
The rabbit is an animal of mystery and legend, it survives by its vigilance and its speed in flight. The wild rabbit is as connected to the soil as the crops that grow from it, indeed, the wild rabbit seems to be one with the soil (the soil come to life). Legend has it that if you see one rabbit at a given spot during the day, at night there will be a whole lot of rabbits gathered at that same spot. Legend also has it that anybody who hunts rabbits will end up shooting a companion or himself by mistake. We associate the rabbit with the goddess of the moon, and in the West there are folktales about rabbits being witches who change themselves into rabbits when they are being chased and have no place to hide.
Wild rabbits have an astounding ability to adapt to all sorts of habitat. They occur more commonly and are spread more widely around the globe than even sparrows (you can find rabbits in mountains above four thousand meters and you can even find them on the tundra at the northern and southern extremes of the earth). But nowadays it is rare to see even the slightest trace of a wild rabbit. I’ve lived my whole life on the outskirts of Beijing and I often go way out into the fields, but most of what I know about wild rabbits I know only from my memories of childhood. One April Fool’s Day not so long ago, I called up a friend and told him in the most serious voice I could manage that I had caught a wild rabbit with my bare hands. But in truth I have not been able to lay my eyes on a single wild rabbit, even earlier this year when I spent an entire morning in Bazhou in Hebei province walking around in the countryside with my binoculars. The sad truth is that wild rabbits have quietly disappeared from our land. The lyrics in that Western folk song are right: “This is the time of man.”
—translated from the Chinese by Thomas Moran
Read more about Wei An and translator Thomas Moran in our “Behind the Byline” series.