From What is Love?
Probably, I’m the most unromantic purpose on Earth, as neither roses, nor romantic dinners with the candlelight, sweet words and kisses appeal to my heart. Too good to be true and often too fake, like the online dating TV show The Bachelor with all its fake romance. I do not trust romantic sweetness – like sugar, it quickly dissolves and vanishes in the turbulent waters of life.
As life shows, the true measures of love are often bitter, such as poverty, hunger, sickness, pain, separation and death. True measures that apply across all times, cultures and generations…
For this Valentine’s Day I would like to share a story and a song. They came from different cultures and times, but have one thing in common – they do reflect the meaning of true love.
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On the day of her marriage, eighteen-year-old Reiqing sits alone in her village home… She hears happy music approaching her house, but she is nervous. The wedding has been arranged by marriage introducers, as is the custom. Today the bride will meet her groom for the first time. She worries that her future husband will not be kind-hearted and will not like her….
The groom is twenty-one. He leaves home before sunrise. Strong men a hired to carry two sedan chairs from his village to the bride’s. There are trumpets, cymbals, gongs and bamboo flutes…
The bride is almost in panic by the time her groom arrives… The bride cannot stop shaking. Tears stream from her eyes. Soon she will become a wife and another family’s daughter-in-law.
‘You silly girl,’ her mother says to her. ‘Don’t cry! You’re going to a family with enough food. Do you want to be poor for the rest of your life?’ She gently wipes her daughter’s tears and hugs her…
All day the bride has longed to remove her veil. Now she is afraid. Her husband may not like her appearance. Nervously she lifts her veil. For the first time in their lives they look at each other. The bride sees that her husband is handsome. There is something honest and humble about him too; he immediately captures her heart.
The groom, who is called Li Tingfan, is stunned by the bride’s beauty. They sit there until their ‘widen your heart’ noodles arrive, that symbolise acceptance of each other’s fortunes and faults… Reiqing knows her mother is right… Her name and place are changed for ever. Her destiny lies ahead…
So it was for this bride and groom, my mother and father, in Qingdao in 1946…
My mother and father lived with my father’s six brothers, their wives, his two sisters and their children – over twenty people crammed into a six-room house. As the youngest daughter-in-law, my mother’s status in the Li family was the lowest. She worked hard to prove her worth.
Often she would not see my father until late in the evenings, because he worked at two jobs, either away in the fields or carting building materials, all day long…
Their first son was born about a year after their marriage, their second just over two years later… My mother eventually came to be known as ‘that lucky woman with seven sons.’…
Mealtimes in my family were always sad for my niang [mother]. There was often nothing for her to cook. We would look at what little food there was on the wooden tray and out of respect for our elders, always wait for our dia [father] to start. One day, when my niang served dinner, it was clear there was not enough food for everyone.
‘I don’t feel hungry,’ our dia said. ‘I had a good lunch’…
Our niang gave our dia an annoyed look and made ‘zhi, zhi, zhi’ sounds with her tongue. ‘Don’t you dare not eat! Your health is our entire family’s security. We will all only drink water if you starve yourself to death!’
‘I’m not hungry,’ our dia protested.
Our niang picked up some food with her chopsticks and put it in our dia’s bowl. We started to eat only after he took the first bite. Our parents always ate slowly to allow us more food. On many occasions our niang told us to leave the best food for our dia because he was our breadwinner. But our dia told us we should give the best food to our niang: if it were not for her we would all have only ‘north-west wind’ for dinner…”
(From Li Cunxin autobiography ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ )
Niang (Joan Chen) and Dia (Shuangbao Wang)
From the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer”
* * *
Old Russian Folk Song
“Steppe, endless steppe”
( Drawing by B. Dexterev )
Steppe, endless steppe,
the way lies far before us,
and in that dense steppe
a coachman lay dying.
He summoned up all his strength,
as he felt death approaching,
and he gave an order
to his comrade:
“My dear friend,
do not think of the bad times,
but bury me here
in this dense steppe.
Give to my wife
a word of farewell;
and give back to her
this wedding ring.
And tell her as well
Not to be too sad,
To find another soulmate
And to get wed.
And tell her that I died here,
in the freezing steppe,
and that I have taken her love
away with me.”
( Photo by Vapi )
I was asked a few times why the dying coachman in this song asks his wife to find another soulmate to get wed. Very good question. For generations, that have never experienced hunger and starvation, it is hard to understand the hardships experienced by people in poor countries or in the past in the currently prosperous parts of the world.
A few months ago I visited the historic 1880’s Denniston coal mine in New Zealand. It was a truly fascinating experience to go deep underground emerging yourself in the tough life of coal miners. Their work was very dangerous and a number were injured or died as a result of accidents in the mine or riding the infamous Denniston incline.
‘Do you know how long could a coalminer’s family survive after his death in those days?,’ asked a lady, who was visiting that mine with me. ‘I’ve heard that in those days the coalminer’s widow needed to re-marry in 1-2 weeks after her husbands death to ensure the survival of their children,’ she said.
I can easily believe that, especially as families in those days used to have a lot of children to feed…
From the Denniston Mine History