Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 30 (Old books are fascinating)

An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.

Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.

Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.

 

Chapter 30

Old books are fascinating

The weather was absolutely gorgeous: sunny and warm while a slight breeze of moisture brought by a mild wind from the East reminded him that the Great River was not far away. Mr. Wang’s last words made him lose some of the confidence he built up before he came to China, made him think again and again if all he was doing was not just a futile exercise, an attempt to go against forces he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure how to deal with, against some synergies that were above his comprehension and his talents. For the first time he felt helpless, he felt like he needed somebody to guide his steps, to show him the right way and the path to follow, for the first time he felt like he was losing the control of the situation. He didn’t realize that he departed a good distance from downtown. He walked for few miles while trying to clear up his mind. The area where he found himself all of a sudden was nothing like the tumultuous and sophisticated downtown. He looked around and all he could see were small Ma and Pa shops, selling everything from: fruits and vegetables to live caged chickens, from souvenirs and pieces of luggage to electronics and sneakers, from shirts and pants to fake brands of purses and colognes. It was something he has never seen before…the vibrant mercantile life of the area where everybody was selling something and the customers were bargaining for every penny in an attempt to strike a deal. In spite of all the negative thoughts he had in his mind after walking out of Wang’s shop, this new episode made him crack a large smile. For a moment, he stopped and looked around…he wanted to absorb this new experience in spite of the fact that he had no idea where he was. Pulled the cellular out of his pocket and started taking snap shots of the street, the stores and the vibrant life of an area he only saw in the movies before. While focusing his phone camera on the nicely colored signs of the stores, something (which immediately captured his whole attention) popped up: it was an antiques store which had the English sign written by hand right below: “Old books”

He startled and without any sort of hesitation rushed into that direction. The store was dark as it was facing the North side of the street. The usual scent of used books and papyrus-es, the dust collected on the book covers, the relative darkness into the room and the thick air filled with the smell of an old, poorly ventilated and poorly maintained room almost made John believe that this was a warehouse. Nobody came to greet him, in spite of the fact that the door chimes were producing a rather loud and quite pleasant noise. A bell was also available on the counter. John pushed the little button and waited for somebody to show up. In the meantime, he decided to take a look at the books on the shelves behind him. They were really old, as the edges of the covers were all worn out and a high degree of usage was shown on the pages John was patiently flipping.

He didn’t realize, but for half an hour he was completely captivated by the books he was looking at. Most of them were old atlases full of nicely colored maps and pictures. In spite of the fact that all the writing was in Chinese, he realized that some of the maps were military maps as formations of soldiers dressed in different uniforms were facing each-others. The colors were fading, but still had some of that initial vivacity and life the artist’s talent expressed through color mixing.

-May I help you, Sir?

John startled as he didn’t expect anybody to be around. The voice of the person was also familiar. He turned and looked at the individual who all of a sudden showed up from nowhere. John was facing a tall and skinny man with two lively and investigative eyes behind some thick lenses. The smiley face and the smart looks of the interlocutor in front of him, made John understand that he was dealing with a highly intelligent and possibly highly educated human being, as the business he was into, did require a certain expertise and a certain level of high level culture knowledge.

-Yes, I apologize first of all for entering and browsing through your books.

-No worries. You can have a look again. Are you looking for something in particular?

John didn’t know how to answer. Initial instinct was to tell the man that he was only looking for some old books, but then he realized that maybe this is the best place to get his hands on the books and atlases he needed to get accustomed to the period he was interested in. His natural instinct was telling him to ask and require what he wanted, but he remembered what Vic told him: “you have to be more patient and move at the same speed everybody else is moving. You cannot rush time and cannot fight traditions here, in China”

Consequently, he became vaguer with his requests, in spite of the fact that he really wanted to go through the whole library and buy everything he thought it may lead him to the bottom of his assignment.

-I am just browsing now through whatever you have in store. I wouldn’t mind if you would tell me something about Medieval China History.

-The Medieval Chinese History is vast and complicated and it is a little different from European. But I can get you for sure something related to Ming Dynasty if you don’t mind.

John startled! “How did he know this is exactly the period I am interested in? Did he talk somehow to Wang? This is so weird!”

-Sure, let’s see what you can show me on this particular period of time. John tried to temper himself and simulate that he is not in any rush or need for help. But the intelligent, investigative eyes behind the glasses picked up the fact that John was holding back his emotions and put up his poker face. A large smile flourished on the man’s face. John realized that he wasn’t able to trick the book seller. At this point, any simulation became futile and John understood that he had to make a choice between playing the game and actually ask for what he really needed.

-What about the last days of the Ming? Do you also have some military maps on this period?

– I have exactly what you need, Sir…but everything is in Chinese. I do not have anything translated.

-That’s quite alright. I will find somebody to translate it into English. Do you have anything related to the life of the General Yuan Chonghuan?

This time the man standing in front of him startled and looked John straight into his eyes. Apparently, it was an unexpected request as the skinny, tall man was fixing John with his eyes sight in a way that would make anybody uncomfortable. John understood that he pinched a sensitive nerve, but with the nonchalance specific to the best spies managed to put up again a poker face, the face of a novice looking for help, directions and guidance. The book seller coughed loudly in an attempt to easy up the atmosphere. He took his glasses off and with a lively motion, wiped them. John’s request made his behavior change, from a calculated and cold attitude to a precipitated and almost out of control behavior. “It is time to draw the line into the sand and figure out if he wants to help”

-I would also like to know if you have anything related to the last day of the Chongzhen Emperor before he committed suicide.

Once again, the man standing in front of him startled and for the second time that day, insistently starred at John. It was clear that a battle was taking place into his head, a battle on: helping or not helping the westerner.

John managed again to keep a straight face, a face of a person who is asking for some books purely from curiosity, not out of a well-orchestrated plan.

Without saying any word, the book seller disappeared again into the back room leaving John standing and scratching his head wondering if this last move of the man wasn’t something completely rude and out of the line. He turned around and opened up again the atlas he was holding – an atlas which was apparently depicting through wonderful colored characters a battle field of the past. One could clearly see the Cavalry on the flanks, the Infantry in square formations in the middle while the Artillery was centrally placed in the front. All the little details shown: the large number of solders so skillfully presented (in spite of the fact that they were shown at a reduced scale), the horses, the auxiliary personnel in the back and the Commander and his guard regiment on a hill, requested a high level of talent and understanding of the military tactics from the artist. By now, John was completely captivated by the fine piece of art he was holding and didn’t realize that the book seller came back and was waiting for him to turn around. A slight cough of the man, made him aware that he returned. John was stunned! The book seller came back with a stack of books! At this point, John was wondering if he really needed all of them, or the businessman in front of him is just trying to make a sale and hit a small jackpot. Also, how is he going to carry all of these? For now, he decided to just play safe.

-Wow! You brought quite a lot of books, Sir!

-You wanted to know about Ming Dynasty and the last days of the Emperor…you find that in these books. Unfortunately you have to find someone to translate. John didn’t know how much he should rely on Zhaohui…the quantity of information in all the books in front of him was immense and there was no way she would be able to translate it all. He was now baffled…to buy or not to buy the stack of probably good information from the man in front of him? While thinking, he realized that he had to buy time, so he pulled a little trick out of his sleeve:

-How much for all these?

-Two thousand RMB…John did a quick math and realized that the price asked for the books was ranging around two hundred eighty five dollars. “Not that bad, keeping in mind that I am getting nine books which apparently are antique. I am sure that they are not originals from that period, but at least I have something I can chew on, something which can get me started in understanding this particular period”

-Very well, Sir! We have a deal! But I only have five hundred RMB on me. I can give you the rest in US Dollars, if this is OK with you.

-US Dollars always good, Sir…a large smile flourished on his face which made John realize that there are good chances he may be gypped. However, even if he learnt something – anything – from these books, anything which could lead him towards the right direction and get to Gang, it meant that it was a good investment. John did a quick math on fifteen hundred RMB divided by the exchange rate and figured out that he has to throw another two hundred twenty dollars from his pocket. He pulled the nice leather wallet from his jeans and handed the money to the book vendor. The face of the man in front of him brightened again at the sight of fresh fifty dollar bills. Apparently it was a good day for him.

-Now, how do I carry all these books to the hotel?

-Don’t worry, Sir. I call taxi. You good customer. I will pay.

-Thank you, but I have to stop by a liquor store so I can buy some drinks.

-No worry, Sir. Driver will wait.

-Fantastic! It was good doing business to you.

-Likewise, Sir! Good doing business with you too.

-Listen…did we meet before? Your voice sounds familiar to me.

-I don’t believe we met, Sir. The short hesitation into his voice (prior to this statement), made John believe that this individual was actually the man standing in the shadow of the side door when for the first time he was taken into Mr. Wang’s office. He took another mental snap shot of the man and stretched his hand out to shake hands. The hand he was shaking was the hand of an intellectual, the hand of a person used to read and write, not of a laborer or any other person doing physical work.

-Let me call a taxi for you, Sir.

-Thank you! One more question though…this book, which I grabbed when I entered…I can see that is a military atlas and it has some military maps in it.

-Yes, Sir. You guessed right. It is a battle field.

-Who is fighting whom? A long pause kicked in and John started wondering if he said something wrong. Everything was so weird in this place, from the very moment he entered the store: the atmosphere, the dust collected everywhere, the guy from the back appearing out of nowhere and the quick deal he made. “Did I step on his toes again? What is wrong with this guy?”

-This is a collection of military maps – copies of course – of the General Wu Sangui. The map you are looking at, is the battle field of the Shanhai Pass (one of the major passes into the Great Wall of China). The forces of Wu Sangui and Li Zicheng before the final battle are shown.

-Wasn’t Li Zicheng the commander of the peasant army which took Beijing?

-Yes he was. General Wu Sangui defeated his armies twice, but the third time he was defeated.

-OK, I would like to buy this one too. How much?

-I am giving it to you as a bonus, Sir. You spent a significant amount of money in my store. You are a good customer.

-Thank you very much. Again, it is a pleasure doing business with you.

-Pleasure is all mine, Sir. Your taxi is waiting for you.

-Wait a minute, I have to stop by a liquor store…

-Driver knows, Sir. He will take you to the closest store near your hotel and wait for you.

-Fantastic!

-If you tell me which Hotel you stay at, I will talk to driver so he can plan his trip. This last statement brought into John’s mind the question Tony Gang asked him when he landed. “Is this guy hand in hand with Tony?” The dilemma grabbed his mind again and his brain started creating scenarios after scenarios on who is working for whom and who would be on his side, rather than on Gang’s side. However, he realized that if he continues like this, he will eventually get paranoiac from anything and will not move forward at all. “This is ridiculous! I am not going to let these mixed sentiments and states of mind capture my focus! I am done! I will only act based on what my guts and my first instincts are telling me!”

-Yes, Sir! This is the Hotel I stay at; John realized that he did not have the jacket. He was always carrying a pen into the chest pocket.

-Do you have a pen I can borrow from you?

-Of course! Here you go, Sir!

John wrote the Hotel on a small piece of scrap paper and handed it over to the merchant.

-Very well, Sir! Let me talk to the driver. Here it is a bag, let’s put the books into it. Careful, it is heavy. Only when grabbing the large bag, John realized how heavy those books were! Each one was a piece of art – one could say – and the thick carton or papyrus covers (most of them covered as well by leather) were making the final product weigh an extra pound or so.

-Ok, thanks again for your help and have a good day!

-You too, Sir. Please let me know what other books you need and I will find them for you.

-That’s for sure. Bye, now!

-Bye, bye!

The cab driver was already instructed on what to do, where to stop and where to take his passenger. John couldn’t wait to start browsing through the books as his curiosity reached high levels and the adrenaline was flowing through his veins. After just five or ten minutes, the driver pulled in front of a liquor store, showing his customer with his index finger that this is the place to which he was told to take him. John got off the car and quickly entered the store. He wanted to get done with shopping for drinks as fast as possible; it was already three o’clock and his desire to browse through the books was so high, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t read Mandarin. However, the books were all richly illustrated which was making his good visual memory feel like a fish in the water. To his surprise, the store was packed with good quality stuff. From European, South American, California, Australia and South African wines, to fine cognacs, scotches and whiskies. He thought that he would just get in and out. But now he had choices on his hand…and the choices were multiple and almost all of them of high quality. After browsing through the store for fifteen minutes, he realized that he had to make a choice! “Common man, think! For sure we will have sea food. So, let’s look for a nice white wine that’s not too dry. Then we will have probably some pork and we will have to switch to red. At the end, for sure we will have some sweets so I will have to get a sweet white as well”

In five minutes, he made up his mind: he bought two bottles of a semi dry, one bottle of sweet white and another bottle of a nice red he discovered into a corner of the main shelf. “Now, what sort of hard liquor are we going to have in the beginning?” After hesitating for few minutes, John decided to buy a nice cognac for Vic and a single malt for them to enjoy at the table. He was very happy…in relatively short time, he managed to get the shopping done. The cab driver stepped on the gas pedal and shortly they found themselves in front of the hotel. John pulled a ten dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to the driver. Apparently this gesture made an impression on the driver, as he carried all John’s stuff to the lobby. The bus boy took over and placed the bag with the books and the one with the alcohol on the trolley and immediately headed for the elevator. John spent another two or three minutes at the Reception asking for mail in his name and for messages. Nothing so far. So he headed for the elevator himself. Once he reached his apartment, he didn’t even consider changing his cloths and getting into a more relaxing attire. He was eager to open up those books he just bought and browse through them, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t read. There were so many great pictures in those pages! One book was of a particular interest to him: the one he was holding in his hands before the book seller showed up…the great picture showing the two armies facing each other and the short story told by the book store owner about the battles fought by General Wu Sangui against the peasant armies of Li Zicheng, started fascinating him. Right away he realized the drama through which the General had to go through. He opened up the Shanhai Pass to the Manchus at the time when he had no other choice. He made a tough choice when decided to side with the Manchus rather than with the peasants of Li Zicheng. And this was the choice that followed and haunted him to the grave. John didn’t realize, that the sun actually set and it was getting late. It was already five thirty! He jumped from the chair and in two minutes he was in the bathroom. It only took him few minutes to shave, take a shower and come out. Without hesitation, he put a pair of dress pants on, some nice casual leather shoes, a lose shirt and a nice vest which thus completed a casual, relaxed, yet well balanced and quite sophisticated attire. He called the Reception to get a cab for him. While leaving his apartment, he just couldn’t help but stopping by his neighbors door. There was no sound whatsoever coming from inside. John was even wondering if they are still occupying the apartment as he hasn’t seen or heard them in a while.

 

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