Three Novels of Love and War "A Leaf in the Storm"


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3. Lin Yutang :“A Leaf in the Storm”

 

apart from its distinction as a novel  with the traditional virtues of strong plot, exciting narrative, varied and interesting characters (virtues it shares by War and Peace  and Gone with the Wind), A Leaf in the Storm is fascinating from a philosophical and ideological point of view since it puts Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy on trial in a most unexpected and devastating way. Currently, in the West there is a certain vogue amongst literati for a watered down version of Buddhism which envisages it as no more than a ‘philosophy’, by which we should understand an intellectual system that does not involve giving up the Western consumer life style and is certainly not to be classed as a ‘religion’, now become a dirty word. Buddhism, at its best, has always viewed itself, not as the last word on the subject, but as a sort of well of clear water from which very different travellers can quench their thirst, and there can be no doubt that the West,  desperately needs some sort of release from the interminable samsara of unfulfilling work, possession-gathering, status-seeking and sexual obsession that fills most people’s lives today. However, the uncomfortable fact is that Buddhism in both its forms, the Hinayana and Mahayana, is a deeply pessimistic and world-denying religion : this is its signal achievement, its originality, its merit and its usefulness as Schopenhauer realized more clearly than anyone before him in the West. As much try to dispel the sceptical, world-denying core of  Buddhism as try to eradicate the ideal of self-sacrifice from Christianity. What you are left with may well in both cases have its merits but is neither Buddhism nor Christianity.

            What is notable about A Leaf in the Storm is that it shows us  the Buddhist ethical ideal at its best, exemplified in the person of Lao Peng, but challenges its justice and relevance, while ultimately endorsing this same ideal in a slightly different form. Lin Yutang, the author of A Leaf in the Storm, was uniquely placed to write such a book. Born into a rural Chinese Christian family, as a young man he immersed himself in Buddhist and Taoism and eventually emigrated to America where he absorbed very different cultural influences. Extremely well-read in both traditional Chinese and modern Western literature, as well as being an inventor (he was one of the first people to design  a typewriter for Mandarin Chinese), he seems to have done the virtually impossible, namely to have taken the best from three mutually incompatible world-views. From Buddhism and Taoism he took tolerance, the search for peace of mind and a set of values which radically downgrades the ego; from Christianity he took the urge to give practical assistance to the underprivileged, and from America and the West he took individualism and romanticism. A Leaf in the Storm can be read as a dramatic and highly charged love-story (the romantic strand); it is also the story of how certain human individuals transcend selfish concerns and find satisfaction in life by devoting themselves to the community (the Christian element). Finally, it is a profound, though inconclusive,  enquiry into the human condition (the Buddhist element).

 

How did I come across A Leaf in the Wind ? By chance, in much the same way as I came across other forgotten great books such as The Black Obelisk by Remarque or Reflexions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort by Marcel Jouhandeau (that I am currently translating). A few months ago, in a room I occupy when I stay with my ‘friend’ — I don’t like the term ‘partner’ — I came across a faded old-fashioned ‘Book Club’ novel at the back of a cupboard that I was urging J  to clear out. J said it must have belonged to the people she’d stayed with when an evacuee during the war and that she’d never read it.

            As soon as I glanced idly at the first paragraph, then the first two or three pages, I was absolutely gripped and could not put the book down. The image of Poya, one of the three main characters, strolling through the outskirts of Beijing on a beautiful autumn evening, his carefree mood in stark contrast to the sombre backdrop of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, immediately captivated me. A lesser novelist would have had Poya stopped by brutal Japanese soldiers, but the peacefulness, even nonchalance, of the opening — which perfectly  balances the quiet of the close of this tragic novel —  is just what is required.

 

“He turned left to reach Lao Peng’s house, which was situated in an alley so small that a rickshaw could  barely go through.

   He  gave a few knocks on the iron rings of the closed gate and soon heard the coughing of a man approaching whom he knew to be the old servant of Lao Peng.

         ‘Who is it?’ the man called.

         ‘It’s me.’

         ‘Is it Yao shaoyeh?’

         ‘Yes.’

         The door latch was slowly drawn, to the accompaniment of a violent fit of coughing.

         ‘Is laoyeh in?’ asked Poya.

         ‘He left this morning and has not returned yet. Come in.’

(…) Poya walked across the yard into the parlour. It was a characteristically bare room, with the simplest of furniture, a cheap varnished square wooden table, a few cane chairs covered with hard cushions of dark-blue cloth, and a rickety old armchair that must have cost ten dollars secondhand at Tungan Bazaar.”

 

            It is a deft touch to have Lao Peng, the central male character, absent, for he is all the more in evidence because of this : it allows us to see the contents of the room, including his small library of books — “an odd assortment ranging from poultry and bee culture to Buddhism” — and to hear Poya’s inner thoughts about his best friend and mentor.  

 

            It transpires that Lao Peng, a failed small businessman and language teacher, is absent because he has been to a rendez-vous with Grandma Chao, the incredible sixty year old illiterate Chinese Resistance leader, and, on entering, he immediately asks Poya to advance some money to buy ammunition for the guerrillas. Add in the romantic interest when Poya confides to his friend that he is becoming increasingly captivated by the mysterious young woman with the cinnabar birth-mark behind her ear who is staying at the family home, and we have all the necessary ingredients of  a hyper romantic novel or film…

 

           

After the brooding opening, like that of a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner, the novel changes key as it shifts to the comfortable family milieu of Poya, a somewhat dandified half-Westernized Beijing intellectual, and the book becomes temporarily more like a Jane Austen or Trollope novel. It is all the more interesting to the contemporary Western reader because of this since we have few pictures of such a social ambiance, soon to be swept away for ever by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For example, I was bemused to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. Another interesting detail is that, apparently, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional ‘big-drum Storytellers’, who gave public recitations to the accompaniment of a  hand-held drum, still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the Shanghai public, since Malin and her mother were mad about them.

            Throughout A Leaf in the Storm  there is the right balance struck, exactly as in Tolstoy, between interest of plot and characterization, keen social observation and philosophic speculation. However, the novel only really takes off for me with the appearance of the central character, Malin, the recapitulation of her early life in a Shanghai working-class district and her dangerous life as a penniless young woman living on the margins of society and currently pursued by the police and the Japanese.   

            Those who are sufficiently intrigued by what I have written, might be well advised to stop reading this now, and get hold of a copy of the novel either through the Library Service or via Amazon (it has long been out of print). In what follows, I cannot avoid giving away the plot which is extremely important and well managed : my concern at present  is to view A Leaf in the Storm not so much as a work of art but as a lucid voice in my exploration of the twin themes of love and war that I have been dealing with so far. As a matter of fact, it was A Leaf in the Storm which started the whole ball rolling, forcing me back to have a further look at Schopenhauer’s gloomy philosophy and ponder his powerful dichotomy between the World viewed as Will and the World viewed as Idea (or Spectacle). Then I felt I needed to re-read War and Peace and read right through, for the first time, Gone with the Wind, since I saw at once there were parallels between the storyline and setting of these three novels, and I was curious about how the very different authors approached, or evaded, the troubling underlying philosophic  issues.

            Malin, the main character in A Leaf in the Storm, at first sight strongly resembles Scarlette O’Hara. She is devastatingly attractive to men while not being a perfect beauty

 

“There was a slight defect in her eyes, which might be called a squint if it had been more, but which in her case was so slight that it gave her face an inimitable individuality, as if she was looking at the world from a special point of view of her own, as indeed she did.”

 

                                           A Leaf in the Storm, p. 28

           

            Like Scarlett she is fearless, hardy and resourceful with a certain worldly wisdom oddly (but beguilingly) mixed with high-flown romanticism. Left penniless and without a profession at the age of eighteen in mid-twentieth century Shanghai when her mother died, Malin learned to live by her wits from an early age and managed to negotiate the obvious perils such a situation represented for a beautiful young girl without this souring and hardening her character.

            She has a prominent birthmark under her right ear which one might think would be considered a defect, but, since it is of the right cinnabar colour, it is considered a rare trait of beauty and, when she is urged to change her name by Lao Peng to evade the police, they both go over various names, only to reject them as “either too literary or too common”. At length Lao Peng hits on the name ‘Tanni’, the Vermilion Maid, since it refers to this birthmark, and she accepts it at once. The change of name increasingly marks a profound change of personality, and it is anticipated, very much in cinematic style, by the very first time we see her in the book when she decides to do her hair “in a different way which left the red mark in clear view”.           

            She differs from Scarlett in being well-versed in Chinese literature and history (without having ever been to college), but above all because  she has what Scarlett O’Hara, and similar figures such as Becky Sharpe, completely lack : common humanity. The one-roomed flat where she lived with her mother faced an undertaker’s  and  

 

“she could not bear to see a child’s coffin, or a humble woman buying one for her child. ‘You kow,’ she said to Poya, ‘even in death there is a difference between the rich and the poor. Sorrow strikes deeper among the poor bereaved of their kin. Sometimes I saw rich brothers, clad in silk, come to buy an expensive coffin for their parent, bargaining as jocularly as if they were buying a piece of furniture.’ ”

 

            She is speaking to her lover, Poya, himself a rich man who, while not going quite so far as the rich brothers bargaining ‘jocularly’ over the price of a coffin, is to say the least extremely casual in his attitudes to people in distress. When she tells him about Lao Peng feeding starving refugee children, he says rather sharply — “You don’t expect me to hand out food to refugees, do you?”  

 

The Wheel of Karma 

 

The first half of A Leaf in the Storm is, in the main, an exciting adventure story which has a charm and innocence about it similar to certain Shakespearian comedies, since Malin  dresses up as a boy in her efforts to evade the police and pretends to be the nephew of Lao Peng, who himself poses as a travelling merchant. Although they pass through the outskirts of the war zone, we do not see any actual killing or even fighting. It is all somewhat like the beginning of World War II for children in England before the blitz really got going : the evacuee children relished the unaccustomed freedom of life in the country and, temporarily, found the war a stirring Enid Blighton adventure. Malin herself is a city girl  who has never even seen a mountain much to the amusement of the donkey drivers. The guerrillas they meet include swashbuckling figures straight out of Chinese folklore like Rattlesnake who sings opera tunes to the assembled villagers before leading a band of virtually unarmed peasants to rescue their women from the hands of the Japanese. And when eventually Malin gets united to her lover Poya in a hotel in war-torn Shanghai, the atmosphere is very much like that of a  Hollywood forties war movie — Casablanca with a happy ending in view. However, all this is about to be shattered into a thousand pieces and the tragic second part of the book is all the more effective for having this lengthy mainly light-hearted prelude.

            In point of fact, the leitmotif  of Buddhistic renunciation sounds as early as page 8, though we hardly notice it then.  While waiting for Lao Peng’s return in the opening scene, Poya idly opens a book and comes across the story of Ananda and Pchiti. Ananda, traditionally the Buddha’s favourite disciple, is doing the rounds with his begging bowl and comes to the house of the beautiful prostitute Maudenka. Her daughter, Pchiti, is attracted to him and she persuades her mother to cast a love spell over him. Ananda, bewitched, enters her room :

 

“The Lord Buddha had known all along what was happening to Ananda and now called Manjusri and bade him repeat the great Dharani at the place where Ananda was yielding to temptation. As soon as Mansruji reached the house, the magic spell was broken and Ananda regained his self-control. Mansruji encouraged Ananda and Pchiti and they returned with him to meet the Lord Buddha.” 

 

            I found the parable tiresome in its moralism the first time round  — there is, incidentally, plenty of this kind of stuff in Buddhist hagiography. It seemed to strike a false note, though with hindsight I see that it encapsulates much of what will come to pass during the course of the novel. Note the odd ending, quite different to a Christian morality tale : instead of being punished as one might expect, the pair are not only pardoned but rewarded, since “they return with him [Mansruji] to meet the Lord Buddha”.

            The climax of the first half , and the hinge-pin of the entire  book since it leads on to the dramatic change from the personality of Malin to that of Tanni, is the Shanghai dance-hall scene where Malin comes across Poya dancing with another woman, Sianghun, and the pair pretend they do not recognize her. This is not an ordinary betrayal. Malin, who has only returned to Shanghai in order to meet Poya and, hopefully, get married to him, is being sought not only by the Japanese authorities but also by the Chinese Resistance because of her previous association with a prominent Chinese traitor who had used her name, Tsui Malin, without her knowledge, to receive and transmit letters. In reality, when she found out what was happening, she denounced him  to a Resistance group and fled to Beijing (where she meets Poya). However, a newspaper report accused her of making off with the man’s jewellery and of complicity in the whole affair. Back in Shanghai for the first time since these events, Malin keeps strictly to her hotel room where she is registered as the niece of Lao Peng, and anxiously awaits the arrival of Poya who has a family house in Shanghai. He is delayed but eventually reaches Shanghai and visits Malin clandestinely in order to keep her presence there a secret from his family, especially his wife. At this stage Poya does not know about Malin’s past involvement with various men in Shanghai including the Chinese collaborateur. They visit a dance-hall together where Malin introduces him to Sianghun, a young woman Malin knows from their common past as paid dancing partners, and who works there still in this capacity. After the meeting, back in Malin’s hotel room, Malin and Poya formally plight troth Chinese fashion  by writing their names on two scrolls of red silk, promising to love each other “until the rocks decay and the seas dry up”. This pledge is not just play acting since by Chinese law at the time, once witnessed and presented to a lawyer (as subsequently happens), it becomes legally binding. It looks as if Malin’s fortunes have changed for good.

            However, the following day Poya is escorted to the house of a Shanghai godfather figure, Mr. Tung, who has put his organisation at the service of the Chinese Resistance and in particular arranges for the assassination of prominent Chinese collaborateurs. He tells Poya that Malin is on his list and asks if he knows her and where she is living. Poya makes an evasive reply but from this point onwards, since he knows he is being followed, he does not go to see Malin or telephone her. The following day he decides to go to the dance-hall in question to warn Sianghun to say nothing to anyone about Malin’s presence in Shanghai. Malin, now known as Tanni,  naturally, cannot understand what is happening and, fatally as it turns out, she suggests to a peasant girl, Yumei, who is living with her, that they go to a dance-hall (which the latter has never seen) to pass the time.

            The scene is brilliantly described : we see the well-dressed fashionable people, both European and Chinese, desperately seeking pleasure in the midst of war (just as many people did in Paris under the German Occupation) while starving refugees throng the streets outside. Just after Tanni and Yumei arrive, five half-naked Russian women dancers perform somersaults in the middle of an applauding crowd — “Shames one to death”, says the outspoken peasant girl Yumei, “but it is beautiful”. By ill luck, Poya is dancing with Sianghun telling her about the situation, and he knows that agents of the Underworld are there watching him so he has no choice but to pretend not to recognize Tanni and the pair walk coldly by pretending they do not know her.

 

“Tanni sat stupefied, her hands cold and numb.

      The band struck up the St. Louis Blues. The lights dimmed, and the huge glass in the ceiling was turning round and round, throwing its coloured points of light on the jostling crowd. Tanni heard the mad squeals of the saxophones.

      With her senses heightened by anger, Tanni saw what others in the room did not see. They were living in a madhouse inhabited by madly whirling shadows of grotesque human shapes — puny shadows wearing masks which covered emptiness within, going around in that giddy swirl. The music was shrieking its own emptiness in a wild ecstasy of destruction. Everything crashed, reeled, shrieked, swam before her like that infernal music and the ghostly faces of men and the white arms of women suddenly became very small, as we sometimes see the room before us when we sit up too long at night… The people were dancing like automatons without a heart, except one bleeding heart that was her own.”

 

            So far the above passage might have come from any number of Western writers, though one should note the repetition of the term ‘emptiness’ which has strong Buddhistic connotations. But what follows would not have come from a Western novelist : this is not just a moment of heartbreak and disillusionment, as it would be in a contemporary film, but a moment of enlightenment in the  Buddhistic sense, a moment when the true nature of life in the world becomes apparent, and not only in a negative sense :  

 

“The feeling that all was over brought her a strange inward feeling of peace within, like calm on the sea after a violent storm.  (…) Tanni knew the beauty of the human form. But at that moment she saw human nature in all its naked brutality, and seeing it after her sharp impression of a human madhouse a moment ago, she saw the folly and futility and incompleteness of her past life, the life of the senses that she had known so well.”  

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  pp. 218-9

 

            That night, returning to her hotel room with Yumei, she has a dream which she recounts to Yumei

“I ran on and on and I suddenly realized that I was naked and that many men were chasing after me. I was rolling along very fast, more like skating than like running , and soon I was rolling on a big waterwheel and my body was attached to the wheel, and it went round and round and my body with it going backwards, and there were many people watching me, some of them, laughing and some of them admiring my body.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 211

 

A little later the wheel grinds to a halt and she manages to get off it.

 

“I landed suddenly on my feet. And who do you think I saw…. Lao Peng. He was in a monk’s robe and staring at me. And we went along the road hearing the squeak of the water wheel behind me. We went up a hill and stood on the top and looked down the valley, and he said to me: ‘Look there. That is the Wheel of Karma!’ And I saw the wheel turning, with a big word ‘Nieh’ [Karma] in the centre, and there were still many naked women tied to it. Then I saw there were many other wheels in the valley and they kept turning with many women on them. ‘Was I turning like that?’ I asked, and Lao Peng said: ‘Yes’.”

                                

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 223

             

            Tanni burns the wedding pledge and also, to the peasant girl Yumei’s emphatic approval, the brassières which are now seen as a symbol of Westernisation and ‘emancipation’ in a negative sense.      

      Then “Tanni lost interest in her body”. It has become fashionable, even politically correct, to view sex in an entirely favourable light and to dismiss fears about it becoming too powerful in society as old-fashioned rubbish and superstition. But there is a fatal ambivalence about sex, mankind’s most powerful instinct since it can even overcome the instinct for self-preservation. Even if sex is not inevitably associated with aggression (which it all too frequently is in imagination if not in fact) it is certainly linked to competitive display and jostling for position. One moment it may appear to lead to a Garden of Delights, at another one feels there is something almost demonic about it — one has only to look at the porn on the Internet to obtain both impressions simultaneously.  

            The dance-hall scene is immediately followed by a chapter where the narrator/author, coming forward for the first time,  gives scarcely credible examples of the depravity of the Japanese military (without dwelling on them unnecessarily) and raises, without resolving it, the question of the nature and origin of  human evil. The sensuality displayed at the dance-hall which suddenly appears to Tanni as something maniacal, is paralleled by the ‘ecstasies’ of physical sadism in which the Japanese soldiers indulge themselves and indeed mix with sex. The two extremes are seemingly both part and parcel of the same eternal round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth from which the only escape is the Buddhist  Nirvana.

 

Salvation through Action

 

And yet not so. Lin Yutang, brought up as a Christian, is not content with this essentially passive and inactive avenue towards salvation, and Malin/Tanni is too vital a character to make a good Buddhist, at this stage in her life at any rate. She leaves Shanghai immediately after the dance-hall scene (refusing to listen to Poya’s explanations on the telephone) and eventually traces Lao Peng to where he is qworking for the Buddhist Red Cross. They find an abandoned mansion near Henkow where no one goes because it is supposed to be haunted, and turn it into a centre for refugees. At first, she shows some interest in Buddhist teachings partly because they must in some way explain the enigma of Lao Peng himself, — “You have the secret of being happy,” she says to him, “Is it your Buddhism? Why did you never explain it to me?” Lao Peng says that religion “has nothing to do with learning, it is an inner experience”. Nonetheless, Tanni finds some of the doctrines strange and incredible : what she takes from Buddhism is not its otherworldliness but its compassion.       

            Tannu thus finds a different sort of happiness in useful, charitable actions : she is revered by the odd assortment of waifs and strays who make up the refugee community as a sort of Mother Theresa and they call her Kuanyin chiehchieh after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. karma leads on to salvation through karma — the term originally just meant ‘action’, ‘activity’.  She is so changed from the former Malin that Lao Peng scarcely recognizes her at first  :

 

“The final shock had not only shattered her hope but had changed her attitude toward all romance. Defeated once more, and acknowledging defeat with a sad finality, she also seemed to have transcended love.”   

 

                                                A Leaf in the Storm   p. 231

 

            At one point it even looks as if, having renounced personal human love for communal, eros for agape, she will, by a kind of positive ‘poetic justice’, get human love thrown into the bargain, since Poya eventually manages to get a letter through to her explaining the tragic misunderstanding in the dance-hall which she accepts.

            A lesser author would have left things there, and we would have had a happy ending. This would be emotionally more satisfying than what actually happens, but the book would have been a far less subtle and penetrating one. However, before tracing Tanni’s further development, it is time to turn the spotlight on the two men with whom she is irrevocably involved, Poya and Lao Peng.

respect from other people.

 

Poya

 

“He [Poya] was young and tall and called handsome, brought up in all the luxury of a large, rich family, with cultivated tastes in art, literature and the pleasures of living…. ”

 

Although one hesitates to say he has ‘peace of mind’, since one hopes there is more to it than that, he has the sort of easy indifference which one associates with certain Roman aristocrats. He views everything including the Japanese Occupation and even his own love affairs dispassionately, as if it concerned other people rather than himself. (This is how the ancient philosophers and certain types of Buddhists were encouraged to view life.) He fancies himself as a military strategist and indeed his ideas, based apparently on the actual deployment  of Chiang-kai-chek’s armies, are by no means stupid. But he feels no desire to volunteer himself — strangely enough there was no conscription in China at the time — though he does eventually, through his connections, procure himself a job well away from the front surveying the terrain for the building of a great road for the retreating  army. He treats it more as a means of visiting celebrated Chinese beauty spots and historical sites than a serious contribution to the war effort.      

            If this were all there were to him, he would not be the stuff to fill a good deal of this novel. But there are two things which mark him out from the average educated, wealthy Westernised Chinese of his time and which are both related to his family background. 

            A certain respect for, and hankering after, ‘true love’, despite a life of casual philandering, no doubt owes something to the tragic incidents of his childhood. In what was most likely a typical incident amongst wealthy Chinese families of the time, Poya’s grandmother, who disapproved of her son marrying a servant-girl for love, drove Poya’s mother out of the house when the grandfather was absent, kidnapped the child and refused the mother entrance to the house. The latter committed suicide when Poya was still a child. Also, typically, the grandmother became tormented, not exactly with remorse, but fear of being pursued by her dead daughter-in-law’s ghost.  Another member of the family, Red Jade, committed suicide for love and so, with hindsight, it is not quite so surprising that this seemingly superficial and self-satisfied Beijing intellectual eventually carries out a supreme act  of self-sacrifice at the close of the book.

            The second strand comes from his grandfather and is what connects him to Lao Peng.  

 

“[But] with all Poya’s mental gifts and polish and savoir-vivre and worldly understanding of women, he had a touch of mysticism which he inherited from his grandfather. This …. enabled him at once to understand the different character of his friend’s genius. Old Peng had all but saved him from becoming a cynic, which would have been the development of a young man of his intelligence and circumstances.”                    A Leaf in the Storm   (page 5)


Lao Peng

 

Lao Peng is introduced to us in the very first scene as someone truly remarkable which indeed he turns out to be.

           

“Poya sat down in the creaky armchair, picking up the newspaper which lay on it, intending to read. But soon he let the sheets slip from his hand and fall to the floor. He sat reflecting on a mystery, more important to him than the war news. Ever since he had come to know Lao Peng a few years ago, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man he knew, without wife and children. A man who had found himself, ‘without fear and without worry,’ as Confucius described the gentleman.”                        

 

                                               A Leaf in the Storm  p.3

 

            Lao Peng’s imperturbability is not destroyed by the war, though we are told there was a period when he and Poya  would spend their evenings “drinking in sorro w” as they called it, ending up weeping  as they talked about the disastrous retreat of the Twenty-ninth Army and the abandonment of Biejing to the Japanese. Lao Peng is too naturally ‘good’ a person, and also too commonsensical, to blithely ignore the human tragedy all around him , dismissing it as ‘illusory’ along with the rest of physical reality, or as other people’s karma. Instead, he devotes what remains of his small fortune to helping refugees and supporting Grandma Chao’s guerrillas. “You will feel better,” he says to Poya, “travelling and seeing the people and doing things. (…) It was silly how we used to drink and weep.” Though he does not actually fight, he aids people who do and the moral issue of whether, as a practising Buddhist, committed to pacifism, he should support armed resistance does not apparently bother him unduly.     

            In the eyes of Poya and Tanni, and many other people who come across him, Lao Peng seems to have achieved what so many philosophers and writers like Rimbaud spent their lives searching for, “la clef du bonheur”, the ‘key to happiness’.  

 

“ ‘You are a happy man, aren’t you?’ asked Tanni. The fascination of this middle-aged man was strong upon her.

‘Happy?’ he said. ‘I have no worries and I have a clear conscience, if that is what you mean.’ ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm  p. 239

 

            The lack of false modesty or diffidence in his reply makes a pleasant contrast to what a Christian, with his eternal guilt complex, would have said in reply. Lao Peng actually convinces us that he is not only a ‘good’ person but someone one would actually want to meet. He has something of Gandhi in him but, great man though Gandhi was, I do not think I would have particularly wanted to meet him. Lao Peng does not have anything cranky, or even especially striking,  about him : he is, as ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be, ‘nothing special’.

            But as it happens, Lao Peng is standing on the edge of a precipice. At the beginning, he is not troubled by Malin, as a beautiful young woman,  except inasmuch as he fears for her since, as a Buddhist, he knows that this passion between her and Poya is bound to lead to sorrow.

 

“He could understand why his friend was enchanted with her. He had known many young men and women and heard stories of their romances. There was always something pathetic about love and romance — the greater the love, the more tragic the romance. (…) And so when he saw Malin’s bright eyes and heard her pleasing voice, he felt a kind of pity that those eyes and that voice controlled a destiny that she must live through.”

 

                                                A Leaf in the Storm, p. 109

 

            However, this turns out to be a moment of hubris. The forty-five year old Lao Peng, whose wife is dead, sincerely thinks he has got  beyond the attraction of the senses, a dangerous illusion for anyone to have as the early Christians found to their cost. “His mind classified feminine charms with the desires of the senses, and he saw not a lovely girl before him, but a woman in the abstract” (p. 109). Lao Peng is not in the least the repressed puritan who projects his inner torment onto the world around him and takes it out on other people, especially women, either in reality or in imagination. Lao Peng genuinely means it when he says, “We must not judge”. By Victorian standards — and mid-century China within the well-to-do families can only be compared to Victorian England — Malin was a thoroughly scandalous person who had been the mistress of several older men at a young age and was believed (though wrongly) to have run away with the money and jewels of one of her lovers. As Malin senses, Poya, like most male philanderers, is far from having a liberal attitude towards women on the sexual level (except, of course, where his own advantage is concerned), and for this reason she keeps back details of her previous life from him. But she has no hesitation in telling Lao Peng everything — “She felt that if anybody would understand her, Lao Peng would. She felt at ease with him as she was not with Poya”.

            During their flight together from Beijing — Poya remains in the capital and does not know what is going on exactly — Lao Peng is thrown into intimate contact with Malin day and night but both of them handle the situation with good sense and discretion. People of the present era may simply say, or think, “Why the hell doesn’t he just take the girl?”  But there are serious issues involved, far more serious than passing sexual satisfaction. Apart from anything else, Lao Peng is Poya’s best friend and he has entrusted Malin into his care. “He found himself under the obligation to take her to Shanghai for Poya. The attitude dictated by old tradition was that ‘a friend’s wife should never be taken advantage of’’”.

            Apart from that, any sexual involvement would, one feels, ruin everything. As it is, there is something of a children’s escapade about the situation especially since Malin, like a Shakespearian heroine, is dressed up as a boy. The relationship has a genuineness and a charm which the Hollywood romance with Poya entirely lacks. Added to this, they are both in serious danger and, as time goes on, are united by their joint charitable work in the ruined house they turn into a refuge for old people and orphans. All this takes Malin away from Poya more irrevocably than the latter’s apparent betrayal, though she does not realize this for a long time. 

            As it happens, it is not simply the sexual attractiveness of Malin that troubles Lao Peng — he would have been repelled by Scarlett O’Hara or Becky Sharpe — it is  the combination of sex appeal with her trusting and affectionate behaviour towards him. He has enough self-knowledge to admit, to himself, that he is not so much of an ascetic as she and Poya think he is. For most of the novel the ups and downs of their life fleeing from the Japanese and running the orphan hostel in the keep them busy enough for the situation not to become too intolerable. However, once Tanni discovers that she is pregnant (from Poya) Lao Peng offers to marry her “for the child’s sake”. This is a point of no return, not from the marriage point of view which soon proves to be no longer necessary since Poya finally succeeds in making contact by letter  and explains the circumstances of his apparent betrayal which Tanni eventually accepts.

            But Lao Peng has revealed himself. The real drama in the latter part of the book is not the commonplace eternal triangle situation, but the inner drama within Lao Peng himself. This is one of the things which takes the book completely out of the normal run of such stories.  For Lao Peng has lost what, in Poya’ eyes, and in Tanni’s, made him unique, his peace of mind that they both sense has something to do with his strange Buddhist beliefs. He coped with the war and, even had he been captured by the Japanese, would doubtless have inspired his fellow prisoners in much the same way as Pierre does in War and Peace when he is taken prisoner during the disastrous French retreat from Moscow.

 

“Suddenly he felt the supreme irony of it — to be caught in the meshes of passion, at forty-five? What was love? Where was the border between the natural affection of congenial and devoted friends and the deeply personal love between man and woman? How unconvincing the theory of Buddha’s impersonal love seemed now! Certainly he had come to love Tanni as a person. How else should it be?  To abolish personal hatred was easier than to abolish personal love. If the assumption of self and individuality was the origin of all struggle and all hatred, it was also the strongest basis of our sentient life. He loved Tanni as a person; it was useless for him to think of her as an abstract woman….”

 

                                 A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 303

 

 

            Yet it is precisely as  an ‘abstract woman’, not as a person, that the Stoic sage, the Christian saint and the Buddhist bodhisattva is supposed to love someone : this is rising above the ‘principle of individuality’ and seeing the world as Idea, not as Will. 

                    

            As if to add insult to injury, parallel to Lao Peng’s turmoil, we have the tragic-comic situation of Poya back in Shanghai embarking on a casual affair with Tanni’s old friend, Siangyun. Siangyun, a sympathetic character, while not being exactly a courtesan makes a precarious living, as Tanni once did herself, as a dance-hall hostess and occasional mistress of well-to-do married men. She has a worldly wisdom which would appear cynicism in someone else, but in her case inspires respect. At this moment in time, Poya has not heard from Tanni or Lao Peng for over two months. Siangyun tells Poya that they must certainly be living together.

 

“ ‘You shut up!’ said Poya angrily. ‘You don’t know Lao Peng. He is my friend.’

   ‘I have never yet seen a man who could resist a woman,’ she said. ‘Not even a monk.’ ”

         Siangun had a fund of droll stories making fun of the monks, over which she laughed as she told them. They always played upon the same theme, of the reputed sainthood of men and women, especially of the Taoist immortals and sainted widows, and always ended with a shattering climax.”

        

                                                     A Leaf in the Storm, p. 285

 

            This is very to the point and, once again, takes A Leaf in the Storm right outside the usual ‘romantic’ story which certain other passages might lead the reader to believe it is. Poya is hardly in a position to contest Siangyun’s views, since he himself has started this quite unnecessary affair when he is supposed to be ‘eternally’ in love with Tanni. It is, moreover, an affair on the cheap since he does not bring her expensive presents and “when he gave her a hundred dollars she thanked him in a way that was almost humiliating” — in the context her ‘thanks’ were doubtless ironical. It is Siangyun, who flaunts  a cynical worldly-wise philosophy, or rather makes an attempt to do so, who is in reality the victim of Poya. There is even something of the detestable Clare of Tess of the d’Urbervilles about Poya — scratch a serial seducer and you will find, if not a puritan, at least a traditionalist.   

               

The Dénouement

 

The eternal triangle is ‘resolved’, if one can call it that, by the mutual self-sacrifice of all of the characters involved — somewhat in the manner of  Racine’s Bérénice.

            Poya eventually makes contact with Lao Peng and Tanni in the refugee house near Henkow and tells Tanni that he has had their marriage vows legalised and is about to divorce his wife, Kainan, a superficial and self-satisfied creature with whom it is impossible to have much sympathy. He does not know that Tanni is pregnant, but it would seem that this Chinese wartime romance is set after all for a happy ending and Tanni is even visited by a member of the Yao family, Mulan,  who is sympathetically inclined towards her, while knowing something of her past, and who facilitates the marriage as much as she can.

            The first person to sacrifice himself, or at any rate his emotions and aspirations, is Lao Peng who leaves the refugee home in Tanni’s care, ostensibly to move into the interior nearer the war zone. Tanni, however, knows that he is removing himself so as not to impede her marriage.

 

“This great-hearted man was now without a question taking himself out of the way as unselfishly as he had offered to protect her name before the word from Poya came. (…) The sacrifice on his part touched her more deeply even than his offer to be father to her child.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 321/339

 

            This personal act is set against a backdrop of the newfound, stubborn resistance of the Chinese to the Japanese. In the first part  of the book, what fighting there is, which we do not see at close quarters anyway, is  of the Robin Hood variety and this matches the mood of the ‘romance’, if such it can be called, of Malin and Lao Peng travelling incognito through the countryside with Malin dressed up as a boy. But in the second part, the war becomes a much more serious and ugly business as the civilians are bombarded mercilessly and millions of starving refugees throng the roads and rivers of eastern China. Lao Peng and Tanni themselves narrowly escape death in a bombardment and the refugee hostel itself is hit. The self-sacrifice of Lao Peng and eventually Tanni and Poya also, on the personal plane is matched by the increasing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers, the guerrillas and ordinary civilians.

 

“Eight hundred volunteers came forward, when three hundred were asked for, to form a suicide squad, and they captured by hand-grenade fighting the Changtoushan Hill immediately north of Taierchuang. (…) The first historic victory over Japan had been promised and delivered.

         On April 7th, Wuchang was in uproar. At half-past seven, Miss Tuan came to the refugee home like a mad person, bringing news of the victory which she had heard by radio.”

 

            Tanni herself leaves to go nearer to the front to gather orphan children but takes the opportunity to visit Lao Peng and finds him alone and ill in a hotel near the war zone.

 

“He was soundly asleep. (…) Lightly and noiselessly she approached his bedside and stood looking at this man who in her eyes was without fear and without reproach, who had done so much for her and now had come to live in solitude on her account.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 353

            Tanni realizes that, now that everything is prepared for her, she does not want to live the sort of life that Poya could give her. During this scene, which cannot  be given in detail, the true nature of their feelings for each other is revealed. However, Lao Peng insists on her going through with her marriage to Poya, probably rightly, and the situation seems impossible when eventually Poya arrives. He is at first somewhat irritating, even to Tanni, by his casual behaviour and he takes Tanni and Lao Peng as well on a sort of sight-seeing trip to a place well known in Chinese history and folklore which happens to be on the edge of the war zone. He has realized by now what the situation is between Tanni and Lao Peng and has learned a lot about their life in the refugee hostel. Tanni is now becoming conspicuously pregnant and the marriage has to be speeded up. They happen to come by chance to a spot where there is still sporadic fighting and Lao Peng leaves them to make his own way back along the canal, Tanni and Poya being on a bicycle. Poya sees that Tanni is sobbing because she fears that Lao Peng might die getting back. But then there is a clatter of hooves and a small group of twelve Japanese cavalry come riding across the field. Poya gets up from their cover, stands there in the middle of the road, aims at the horsemen and kills three before he is fatally wounded himself.

 

“She bent over him, calling his name between her sobs.

         “Tanni, don’t cry,” he said in a gasping whisper. “Marry Lao Peng.” He stopped and began again with great effort. “All my money is yours. Bring up the child.” Pointing to his pocket, he said with a last smile: “It is there. Our pledge!” “

                                

                                                         A Leaf in the Storm, p. 381

 

 

          This self-sacrifice of the apparently superficial and unreliable Poya is not, as we find out later, a quixotic spur-of-the-moment act. Tanni later has the opportunity to see his Diary where he discloses his feelings about the situation, and writes notably

 

“Oh, what a fool I have been! Lien-erh [Tanni] must be quite a changed person. She has gone beyond me. I must yet try to understand her better — this Buddhism and her interest in the war work. I feel almost unworthy of her.”

 

  This supreme act of self-sacrifice, all the more impressive because it comes from a character with whom one has lost sympathy, is followed by an equivalent act of self-sacrifice by Tanni. She is given the free choice by the Yao family to get married posthumously “before Poya’s spirit-tablet in the presence of the closest relatives”, in which case the child will be legitimate but this will condemn her to life-long widowhood. It is made clear that financial arrangements should be no part of the decision since the family is committed to providing well for the child in any case. Tanni has to show her decision be the next day wearing either a blue or a white knot in her hair — white being the colour of mourning in China. She is in effect free to marry Lao Peng at last but, true to character, he advises her to accept the marriage

 

“ “Courage, Tanni! You will soon have your baby and he will fill your life. Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.”

            “Can I still join you in your work?”

            “Why not? After this, both you and I must find a higher happiness.” ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390

 

 

            Buddhism is a religion of withdrawal and compassion but not a religion of active charity and self-sacrifice. By a combination of the best of the two religions, Lin Yutang concludes the novel — ending that is sombre but not tragic. It is quite the opposite of the ending of Gone with the Wind since in the latter romanticism triumphs, or attempts to at any rate, and different from the ending of War and Peace which is somewhat bathetic though we do have the young Prince Andrei raising the banner of idealism in the last scene. On the other hand, Lin Yutang has an easier task since he has chosen not to show us what happens ‘twenty years after’.

           

“A calm settled over the refugee house at Hungshan. Lao Peng and Tanni found in their common devotion a happiness which they ahd not thought possible.

   Not far away was Poya’s grave. Above it stood an ep[itaph chosen by Tanni and approved by Lao Peng. It was a non-Buddhist, but curiously universal text :

   Greater man hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.     

 

 

 

                                               

 

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