I grew up in places with names like “Winnetka” and “Sewickley,” spellings no doubt based on mangled transliterations
of old, even ancient Native American words. I vaguely recall that Sewickley meant “sweet water,” but no one seemed sure.
How many cities, mountains and rivers in China, I wondered, hide their non-Han origins?
From the Mountains
to the Sea
The birth of a literary work resembles the growth of a tree. It requires favorable circumstances.
Firstly, there must be a seed, the Mother of All Things. Secondly, it cannot lack for soil, nor can it make do without the sunlight’s warmth, the rain’s moisture or the wind’s caress.
In the case of The Last Quarter of the Moon, however, first there was soil, and only then was there a seed. For this land that turns muddy as the ice thaws in the spring, shaded by green trees in the summer and covered by motley leaves in the autumn and endless snow-white in the winter, is very familiar to me.
After all, I was born and raised on this land. As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd head-shape on a thick tree trunk. Father told me that was the image of the Mountain Spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen.
I knew the Oroqen were an ethnic minority who lived on the outskirts of our mountain town. They resided in their open-top cuoluozi (teepees) where they could spy the stars at night. In the summer they fished in their birch-bark canoes, and in the winter they hunted in the mountains wearing their parka and roe-deerskin boots. They liked to go horse riding, drink liquor and sing songs. In that vast and frigid land, their small tribe was like a pristine spring trickling deep in the mountains. Full of vitality, yet solitary.
I once believed that the masses of forestry workers, those loggers, were the genuine masters of the land, while the Oroqen in their animal hides were aliens from another galaxy. Only later did I learn that before the Han came to the Greater Khingan Range, the Oroqen had long lived and multiplied on that frozen land.
Dubbed the “green treasure house,” the forest grew thick and animals abounded before it was exploited. There were very few roads and no railroad. Most paths in the wooded mountains were trodden by the nomadic hunting peoples, the Oroqen and the Evenki.
After large-scale exploitation of the forest began in the sixties, bevies of loggers were stationed in the forest and one road after another—for timber transport—appeared, along with railroad tracks. Whizzing along those roads and tracks each day were trucks and trains laden with logs bound for destinations beyond the mountains. The sound of trees falling displaced birdcalls, and chimney smoke displaced clouds.
In reality, the exploitation of nature is not wrong; when God left man to fend for himself in the mortal world, wasn’t it to force him to find the answer to survival within Nature? The problem is, God wished us to seek a harmonious form of survival, not a rapacious, destructive one.
One, two, three decades passed, and the sound of tree felling quieted but didn’t cease. Continuous exploitation and certain irresponsible, reckless actions made the virgin forest begin to display signs of aging and decline. Like an apparition, dust storms suddenly appeared at the dawn of the new century. At last, the sparse tree coverage and decimated animal population alerted us: we have exacted too much from Mother Nature!