The Five Chinese Girls
I have never been to China, but I have dreamed about arriving there. I will be met by five Chinese girls, all of them with bells ringing in their laughter and magic glittering in their dark eyes. They will be my guides throughout my journey.
The first girl whispers folktales in my ear. She tells me about the cowherd who loved a fairy girl who was a weaver, and how they were cruelly punished by the Queen Mother of Heaven. Now the lovers are separated by a river and miss each other terribly, but every year on the seventh night of the seventh moon, the magpies create a bridge so they can be reunited for one night. Such is the power of this love story that it is the heart of an entire festival, especially for young women who wish for a husband as devoted as the cowherd was for his weaving girl. My guide shows me one of the holiday traditions – she places blossoms in water so that when I wash my face, my skin will stay fair.
The second girl offers me a menu bursting with colourful pictures. She points out food I have never tasted before, from all over China – small rice flour dumplings filled with sweet black sesame paste, duck blood soup and bean noodles, jellyfish with green onions. There are long noodles to eat before birthdays, and chestnuts and dates for celebrating weddings. I smell shallot and ginger, garlic and chili. As we share my first meal in China, she shows me how to use my chopsticks so I can eat my food politely and without dropping a morsel.
The third girl brings me to a park and teaches me the basic movements of Tai Chi. She demonstrates how to keep my knees slightly bent, my spine straight, my shoulders and tongue relaxed. We move slowly, allowing our bodies to start the movements. We are rooting ourselves into the earth, into our own inner power, releasing smooth waves of energy. My mind is also awakening, and we are bringing ourselves into harmony. All of my physical movements are a circle, and my qi – my life force – spirals around my body in a way I have never felt before.
The fourth girl cups my hands and gives me pieces of smooth green jade. I knock them lightly together and hear their merry chimes. Jade was so honoured that if you were a good, noble person, you yourself would be compared to jade. Although it is heavy and cool in my hand, it warms quickly, as if my skin is breathing life into this small stone. She shows me the many ways jade has been used in Chinese culture – as adornment, necklaces and pendants and beads; as ceremonial objects, daggers and sceptres and brush pots. She places a jade bangle around my wrist. Jade guards us against evil spirits, and if jade likes us it will deepen its colour. Confucius, the great philosopher, said that jade could be compared to virtue, and I think he is right, because we should all ring out with lovely sounds, and make this world beautiful.
The fifth girl walks with me along the Great Wall. With a wave of her hand, she shows me how the Great Wall changes as the seasons turn, surrounded by lush greenery in the spring, colourful flowers in summer, warm rust and orange and yellow leaves in autumn, and hushed white snow in the winter. She proudly shows me Badaling, the most visited section where international leaders come to pay their respects, and Simatai, whose perilous steps allow you to cross the Sky Bridge. As we hike, she informs me of the history of this architectural wonder, and how it stands even today as a symbol of the amazing art and technology of generations past, and protection of modern China.
Now all five girls surround me, and I am dizzy and laughing as I try to keep up with what they are showing and telling me – porcelain, calligraphy, and silk; herbal medicines and calligraphy; tigers and pandas; kung fu and plum-blossom boxing; Taoism and Buddhism; the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of China; the Forbidden City and the Classical Gardens of Suzhou; Li Bai the poet, and Cai Lun, who invented paper; mah-jong and chupu; Liu Yang, China’s first woman astronaut, and the Empress Wu Ze Tian; paper-cut and ivory carvings; Kang Ding Love Song and Mo Li Hua.
Suddenly there is a rush of wings. I look up to where five dragons are swirling in the moonlit sky. Every one has five claws on each foot. One is made of water, another of wood; a dragon of water follows a dragon of fire, while the metal of the fifth dragon outshines the moon itself. Lightning shoots overhead as they dance in the air, strong yet gentle. Fireworks burst into glittering rainbows, and jade bells ring throughout the land. I am swept up in a crowd, and we are all whistling and banging drums and plates. Firecrackers snap around us, and still the dragons are swooping overhead, pushing outwards so they encompass the boundaries of this entire country.
…and as the five dragon-girls fade away, I wake up, wishing in my heart that I had really been in China after all.
Could it become more than a dream?