Yang Wan Li was a Chinese official and Zen Buddhist in the 12th century. It’s said he wrote over 20,000 poems (of which, around 4000 survive). This poem was written in Hangzhou, a city I used to live in many moons ago and have many fond memories of.
(Note on translating: Most old Chinese poems don’t have standard translations, so there is no ‘fixed’ version in English)
Seeing off Lin Zi Fang from Jingci Temple at Dawn
At last, the West Lake in June
Its grand, incomparable view
Leaves reach skyward, their endless green
Lotus reflect different shades of red
On the way back home from the camp/school, a scene from Miracles of Life came back to me; I say ‘came back to me’ but in truth, it was such a harsh and defining moment in Ballard’s mythology that it was never far away from thought during my search.
After the war ended and the Japanese waited for the Americans to arrive in Shanghai, Ballard would leave the camp and walk back into Shanghai, especially to see what had become of his family home. One such time as he was walking along the railway track he came to a guard house where he witnessed the torture and (he expected) death of a Chinese man who had been tied to a chair by a Japanese soldier outside, despite the war being over. I won’t re-write the whole scene here but I had an urge to find where that true experience had happened.
I thought about the railway line I’d been along on my way out to the camp – that was the original Shanghai-Hangzhou line which the young Ballard had walked along in the days after the war.
So I retraced my steps and went back to the walled-off segment of track. At one end near the old airport terminal was an old building standing right by the track; it had a platform in front of it and I imagined the Chinese man seated and tied up, in despair and knowing his life was about to end, as a young white boy stared and slowly walked by, too scared to do anything. Could it have been right there? Who knows, but it was a reminder of another, brutal, terrifying world that Shanghai had once been, and in my own interpretation of events decades before and involving people I had never even met, this was the spot.
As I cycled back past Longhua temple and to Xujiahui an air-raid siren started whirring. It was only when I got back home that I found out it was the anniversary of the end of the war—when Japan finally surrendered and Ballard would soon leave war-torn Shanghai behind and move to an even more alien land—England—and the great writer he would become, inevitably affected by the first 15 years of his life in Shanghai.