Article by Rose English
Li Yi Bai arrived at the temple to take me to see Master Wen after lunch, as promised. He stood beside his motorbike looking quizzical while Sebastian and I discussed who would ride on the bike and who would walk. “But we can all ride,” said Li Yi Bai, as if it were obvious. “Lili will sit on the tank; we will sit on the seat, no problem.” “Good thing the UK social workers can’t see us now,” Sebastian whispered as we wobbled between shoppers along the cobbled street. The townspeople made it clear that they approved of our transport arrangements.
Later, when we had eaten our way through a dozen courses iMaster Wen You Bing was waiting for us in the school playground. He was a plump, affable man in his late 60’s, a retired history teacher who now worked part time for the school in some unspecified capacity. Li Yi Bai said this excellent arrangement allowed Master Wen to keep his apartment and salary but gave him ample time to practise tai ji and write poetry. At every ceremony, feast or function day he could be relied upon to write and read a poem. When he asked if I was interested in poetry, I told him T’ao Ch’ien was a favourite of mine and he looked pleased. “I don’t know who T’ao Ch’ien is,” said Li Yi Bai, “but Master Wen does and he says anyone who enjoys T’ao Ch’ien is welcome to practice tai ji with him.” We arranged to meet at 6:30 every weekday morning on the opera stage at the back of the school playground. Sebastian was incredulous, “6:30am! Are you serious!? How long can you keep that up?” “We will see,” I replied.
I’d had several attempts at tai ji with English tai ji teachers back home; for one reason or another the lessons hadn’t lasted. One had spent so much time talking about himself we’d barely touched on the actual doing of tai ji; another had treated the practice like a workout and had no interest in the philosophy; yet another concentrated so much on the minutia of each action one lost sense of a continuous form. A good tai ji teacher is hard to find, and a master harder. I had a feeling I’d just turned as lucky as a calf in clover.
After making the arrangements with Master Wen, Li Yi Bai drove us a little way out of town to a secluded pool by a bend in the river where children came to bathe and scramble over the rocks. It was late August and so hot Lili needed no persuading to join the others splashing about in the water. Li Yi Bai, Sebastian and I cooled our feet then lay on the rocks and talked. “There was a lot of opposition to you coming here,” Li Yi Bai said while lighting a cigarette. “We had many meetings and I had to fight hard to persuade our leaders.” “But you’d only met us that one time we came to look, you didn’t even know us,” said Sebastian. Li Yi Bai laughed, “You were foreign that was enough! Sure you were friendly but most important you were foreign and we country people don’t have a chance to talk to many foreigners. Most of my fellows have never spoken to a foreigner; even most of our English teachers have never spoken with a native English speaker.” “What about when they were in college, didn’t they have foreign English teachers?” “All our teachers were Chinese in those days,” said Li Yi Bai.
Sebastian and I were both from London. London, the cosmopolitan city where, for almost a century, it has been normal to have friends and live alongside a plethora of nationalities. Coming from a culture where the importance of racial integration is an ever-expanding reality, it was hard to imagine what it would feel like never to have spoken to someone of another racial mix. “Our leaders said we must be careful because you might bring trouble to us,” continued Li Yi Bai, “they said foreigners have expensive lives and our town will suffer if something happens to you!” “Well you took that on board didn’t you!” I said. “What do you mean? I don’t understand your words.” “I mean, for example, some people might consider four people on a motorbike dangerous.” “Of course not!” he dismissed, “I am an excellent driver, you are in no danger with me.” We laughed, for different reasons I’m quite sure. “Risk is hard to quantify,” commented Sebastian, helping himself to one of Li Yi Bai’s cigarettes. ”What are you doing, you’ve given up!” I said. Li Yi Bai dismissed my concern with a sway of his hand, leaned over and lit Sebastian’s cigarette. “He can give up again, that is the beauty of a decision you can always make another one!”
That night when I kissed Lili goodnight where she lay on the single camp bed next to her friend Wing Di, I felt a thrill of happiness. The first real thrill since moving to our new home. Life in our remote mountain town had just started to become less threatening and rather more interesting.