The Photographic Record of My Childhood
The other day, in rummaging a suitcase for newspaper clippings of my essays written over forty years ago, I came upon some old objects, among them an old and enormously bulky album.
The moth-eaten album contained several photos of myself taken in early childhood. I stared blankly at my little face in the faded photos, feeling as if I were reliving my childhood. But I also felt that my childhood had long been irretrievably gone and no longer belonged to me.
My childhood, as recorded in the old photos, was at once real and unreal.
In one of the photos, I was very little, probably just one year old. As was the custom of my native place, I had a big ornament hung on my chest as a lucky charm. The photo had been taken over half a century ago. Was it I myself in the embryonic stage of life, with my ignorant eyes on the strange world?
Another photo, in which I stood full-length, had been taken, I remember, when I was three or four. It was winter, and I was dressed cumbersomely in a cotton-padded thick gown, staggering ridiculously. In still another photo, probably taken at the same time, I was holding grandma by the hand. As she had been looking after me ever since I was in the cradle, we had become inseparable from each other. In the photo, she looked in her early fifties. She was turning her head slightly, as if trying to make me look ahead or telling me the tragic and moving story of Meng Jiang Nu making a long, difficult journey in search of her husband. She had an unlimited stock of folk tales to tell. I always thought her in possession of a wordless book full of fascinating stories. They became, as it were, the first literary works that I ever came into contact with in my life.
The background of the photos was yellowed with age and dotted with fuzzy specks. There was distinctly a big round hole in the mottled wall.
Wasn’t the round hole a circular gate? I asked myself.
Yes, it was the moon gate so familiar to me in my childhood – a fairy-tale gate!
I used to play on the flagstones of the courtyard in front of the hall of the old house where I had been born. Standing side by side before the tiled wall were several water vats for receiving rain water dripping from the eaves. In playing hide-and-seek with my little playmates, I would conceal myself behind one of the vats, which were taller than I was. On either side of the courtyard there was a moon gate. Why did the two big moon gates always remain in my memory? Was it because they differed from ordinary rectangular gates in resembling the big round gate of the legendary palace on the moon? Or was it because of the little world between the two big gates where I used to play happily? I often think of the old house in my hometown. It brings back many, many memories of my childhood.
In the midsummer of 1960, I returned to my old home in the city of Dinghai for a short visit after a long absence of more than thirty years. One day, in the deepening twilight, I quietly stepped into Heng Tang Alley, a long flagstone alley between two towering walls. The setting sun was casting its last rays on an old house down the alley. At the direction of someone, I found my way to the house and ascended its stone steps. Its gate was left unlatched, so I pushed it open. Inside it was all quiet. My eyes suddenly fell on the moon gate on either side of the courtyard. Yes, the same two old big round holes. Only they looked much smaller than they were in my memory, and very shabby, too. The courtyard and the hall where I had used to play around with my little playmates in my childhood were now heaped with sacks of goods. So my old house had long been transformed into the warehouse of a department store!
I hesitated to move ahead, feeling perplexed and melancholy.
Perhaps I should not have returned to my hometown to see my old house and to relive my past experience. I wondered whether it had been worthwhile or not for me to revisit my old home. Everything’s gone. Everything’s changed.
The only thing that still remained was my photographic childhood. Having found some newspaper clippings of my old writings, I replaced in the suitcase the album that had seen many more winters than I. Then I carefully put back the lid on the suitcase. Memories of my childhood, together with the album, sank again to the bottom of the suitcase.