China’s painThere is a story in China of a sister who tried to offer her body, in pity, to her younger brother. He was so poor and physically handicapped that he lived always in the shadows. Naturally, he could not afford to marry. Withdrawn and stared at by villagers when he was out, the brother lived a barren existence.
The sister had a chance to visit her poor younger brother after a long time away as a married woman. To the brother trying to sleep by the kitchen fire because there was only one blanket, she took off her underwear and cried out, “Just think of me as a stranger and have a taste of a woman at least once.” However, the brother flung open the door and disappeared in the rain.
The vignette is from the “Dictionary of Maqiao,” by one of China’s greatest contemporary writers, Han Shaogong. The book is a novel structured as a collection of stories and vernacular slices of lives in the remote city of Maqiao in Hunan Province. Few would favorably view the sister’s act in trying to give a small gift of experience to her solitary brother, but the scene makes us empathize with the humanity found in those clinging to exhausted lives in dire poverty.
The Chinese have a long memory of misfortunes wrought by war, calamities and dire poverty. The numerous wars waged by people fueled by greed and ambition in that vast land, and the famines and floods that alternately pervaded people’s lives at all times, were invoked memorably for readers of Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” The origins of the language of suffering are quite ancient.
Du Fu, known as the poet-sage of China, once wrote, “Don’t you see the end of the green sea/ Since long ago, there was no one collecting the skeletons/ That new ghosts hold grudges and old ghosts lament/ When cloudy and rainy, we hear them cry.”
Old and new ghosts cry together in suffering. The cries of the downtrodden in wars and droughts are wretched and sad.
The Chinese have always trembled from fear of catastrophe. Calamities, they know, can reduce them to a brutish existence: “Even if born as a dog, let us not live as people in troubling times.”
The pain felt by the Chinese in the aftermath of the great earthquake in Sichuan must be understood within their historical experience of pain from a very long time ago, as something greater than it appears. People who lived in poverty in remote places in Sichuan are the majority of the victims. It makes the hearts of ordinary Chinese watching the devastation cry out as Du Fu had, and wish they could instead live as dogs. Korea must find its role as a neighbor in understanding and helping ease their pain.
*The writer is deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yoo Kwang-jong [firstname.lastname@example.org]