Learning Chinese in Peking
We waited until the car emptied, then slung our seabags over our shoulders and stepped out on to the platform. Upon seeing us emerge, a gang of coolies wanting to help us materialized out of nowhere, and then came the beggars and street urchins. Coming through the crowd was a Marine gunny sergeant, waving a brown envelope above his shoulder, and shouting angrily for the crowd to get out of his way. When they saw him, they cleared a path. He stopped short, looked at me, and said, “Marine, you look like shit.”
The gunny was from 5th Marine Headquarters quartered in the old British Legation. He was under orders to pick us up and take us to the University of Peking where we had to register. It was Saturday afternoon when we arrived, and the gunny explained that the headquarters office was closed. The university was providing quarters and all we needed to do was check in at headquarters every Saturday morning. “You have until next Saturday,” he said. “I’ll log you in.” We thanked him and I apologized for my appearance, blaming it on the conductor for locking me out. He softened his tone a bit, even smiled, and was not as gruff as he was at first. He said we could stop at a bathhouse on our way to the university and I could clean up. He had a 4×4 and a driver waiting for us outside the station.
We drove to a bathhouse, similar to the one Stevenson and I visited in Tsingtao, and I felt better after a good scrub down. I came out clean shaven and smelling of fufu perfume, with my uniform cleaned and pressed, and my shoes shined. The whole operation took less than an hour. I wished I had Stevenson’s barracks hat to make it complete but he wouldn’t loan it to me. The others were waiting and we took off in the 4×4 through the streets of Peking.
What excitement to be driving for the first time through this great Oriental city, one of the greatest capital cities of the world. Suddenly the gunny took on another role. He began pointing out all the sights, telling us to look here one moment, and over there the next. He was quite knowledgeable about the history of Peking and took delight in telling us about the city. “The wall around the city, over there to our left, it’s 4,000 years old,” he said as we drove along the western section of the city. Indeed, it was a magnificent wall. “It surrounds the whole city, and within the walls are some four and a half million people.” He had the driver stop so we could see the wall better. “There are four main gates,” he continued, “but they couldn’t keep out Genghis Khan. It was called Chungtu in the 12th century when he arrived with 100,000 mounted horsemen and stormed the place. It was his grandson, Kublai Khan, who rebuilt her and changed the name to Cambulac-The Great Capital.”
The gunny, self-made historian turned guide, insisted we drive through Tiananmen Square. “Here you will feel the might of China,” he said, and he was right. We could almost feel the strength of China by looking out over this vast empty square which seemed to radiate power. He had the driver take us to the southern end of the square and here we stopped. “Look at that, look, look,” he shouted, pointing to three marble bridges that crossed a narrow moat. On the other side was a high-walled building with huge gates. Adorning the wall was a grand poster of Generalissimo Chiang K’ai-shek. “This is the Forbidden City,” the gunny shouted, standing up in the front seat of the Jeep and spreading wide both his arms as if embracing the whole of Peking. His excitement was infectious, and like laughter in a schoolroom, it spread to us. We felt the full glory and the excitement of being in Peking. Even Melanowski agreed, “It is nice.”
We made one more stop, The Temple of Heaven, and then the gunny delivered us to the University of Peking. He handed me a brown envelope with our orders and wished us good luck. We had only known him for a few hours and yet we felt we were losing a good friend. “I’ll look you guys up,” he said, and we knew he felt the same. The Marine Corps can do that to you. We were sad to say goodbye, and ten minutes later we regretted leaving the gunny and his world behind. The head counselor of the university was waiting for us. He wasn’t anything like the gunny.
Dr. Siang Wren, head counselor, could have been Dracula reincarnated. He had a pockmarked face and was well past middle age, but he carried himself erect as a board standing upright. He wore a dark robe that fitted high around his neck and extended down to his shoes. You got the feeling that if he tried to walk he would trip. He had pince-nez glasses perched on the very end of his nose. He kept his hands tucked into his wide sleeves and when he greeted us, he bowed slightly, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on us all the time. He did not offer to shake hands, and we found ourselves bowing too. He did it naturally; we did it awkwardly like the three stooges did in the movies. We knew at once Dr. Wren was a man who demanded respect.
“I will address you gentlemen in your own language,” he said quietly in an English Oxford accent. “But this will be the last time we speak in English.”
“But we don’t speak Chinese,” Melanowski interrupted.
Dr. Wren didn’t like to be interrupted. “That is why you are here,” he snapped. You could suddenly see flames in his eyes, enough to burn a hole in Melanowski. But Melanowski was not about to be intimidated by an emaciated, arrogant Chinese professor.
“I am here because they sent me here, sir” he fired back, putting much emphasis on sir.
Dr. Wren would not concede. “Yes, you are here to study Chinese,” he said, “and we shall teach you Chinese.” He removed his right hand from his sleeve and raising a finger to his lips, he continued. “You are a guest of the Chinese National Government. You will be given Chinese clothes to wear, a slate to write upon and books for your studies.” He took the brown manila envelope that I had given him and opened it. He read the contents very carefully. This was worse than standing at attention in front of Col. Roston while being reprimanded for coming in late from liberty. He then scrutinized the three of us, starting at the tops of our heads, then down to our shoes and back to our faces. He had an uncanny ability of making us feel the size of toy puppets, and all he had to do was pull the strings to make us act as he wanted.
I waited but he didn’t pull the strings. “You will address me, and all your professors and all your teachers, as ‘syan-sheng.’ Syan-sheng means sir. You will be given Chinese names.” He studied the records again. “Why do you want to study Chinese?” he asked looking at me.
I was confused with the question and didn’t know quite how to answer. I was tempted to answer him in Chinese but I thought it best not to. l didn’t care to leave myself wide open for harsh criticism that be most likely would reign upon me. “Well,” I said stumbling for words, “I guess, I mean, I mean I like China. I want to know how to speak to the people.”
“You like China?” he questioned.
“Yes, I like China.”
“Your last name we can translate into Hsi. You are Hsi Syan-sheng. You understand?” I nodded. Dr. Wren continued: “You say you like China. How much do you like China?”
“Very much,” I replied. .
“You say very much. The verb ‘to like’ in Chinese is ‘huan.’ To like very much is ‘huan !oh.’ Your Chinese name is Hsi Ruan Loh. Repeat it.”
“Hsi Ruan Loh,” I repeated, pronouncing slowly each word.
It was an easy name to pronounce and I rather liked it.
“Very well. Again, what is your name?” Dr. Wren asked. “Hsi Ruan Loh,” I said proudly.
“No,” the professor snapped. “When asked your name you will reply, ‘Wada bee sheng shir Hsi Huan Loh.’ ‘My humble name is Shi Huan Loh.’ When you ask an elder his name, you must ask for his ‘gwei sheng,’ his honorable name. Now you understand.” That was one of the first things that Mrs. Murray taught me, but it was best I didn’t tell him that I knew. I didn’t want him to end up losing face.
I could see the anguish on Melanowski ‘s face. I knew at once this was not what he had in mind when he agreed to study the language. It was not the easy duty he thought it would be. To him, Dr. Wren was another Col. Roston, and he didn’t like Col. Roston. But I was finding the situation quite the opposite. It was like a game, and I liked games when they were a competition. The good doctor was simply playing a game. I felt this until he made his next announcement and then I wondered if l too might be wrong. There was no winning this game. Dr. Wren announced that each of us would be given separate quarters, and that meant not only separate rooms but we would be located in separate buildings as well. He gave each of us a piece of paper with a name and an address. Mine read Hostel No. 3, 253 Da Shao Lao Road.
I didn’t have a chance to talk things over with the other two, or even to say goodbye to them. Dr. Wren made certain of that. We were suddenly being ushered out of his office by his assistants. He had made arrangements for pedicabs to take each of us to our quarters. Our last instructions from Dr. Wren were that classes start at 0700 sharp on Monday morning. Before I knew what had happened, my two friends, my Marine Corps buddies, were gone and I was alone.
My pedicab driver placed my seabag on the seat next to me and I settled back for a new experience-riding a pedicab in Peking. Unlike two-wheeled rickshaws that are pulled by coolies who position themselves between two shafts, pedicabs are three-wheel bicycles that are peddled by drivers who sit in front. Passengers sit behind them in the rear. Pedicabs seem more humane than rickshaws but it’s still grueling work. I remember Roger telling me how the rickshaw business began. “Not Chinese like everyone think,” he said. According to him, the rickshaw was invented in Japan in the 1860s; the American Baptist missionaries called it jinrikisha, which means ‘man-powered cart.’ Its popularity spread from Japan to China and to most countries of Asia. For almost fifty years the style of the rickshaw was little altered. Then came the two-wheeled bicycle and a revolution in the transportation business in the Far East. The bicycle principle was added to the rickshaw, and every city in the Orient, it seemed, made its own version of the tricycle-rickshaw, now called the ‘pedicab.’ Roger disliked the use of rickshaws. He often said the rickshaw was an invention of the imperialists to enslave the Chinese. Shanghai had more rickshaws than any other city in China, some 50,000. “Shanghai much much foreigner people, now you savvy why,” he said. I disagreed with Roger. Nevertheless, I rather liked rickshaws, but then I am not Chinese. Pedicabs were not popular in Tsingtao because of the hills.