I ate my lunch in the same place as I had the previous day, and then walked back to Earth Sciences to present myself at Room 12 on the fourth floor of Laboratory Building Number 5 (Earth Sciences) a little before noon. It was a large, well lit room furnished with fourteen large desks, each of which had two seats at it. I was the sixth person to arrive and I greeted our tutor, who was waiting at the door with a clay jar in his hands. “Scholar Wu,” I bowed politely.
Wu Gin, for my geography tutor was indeed also my importunate acquaintance from the train to Xiamtian from the capital, bowed slightly in return and said, “Please take a token from the jar, Miss Sung, and then find the seat with the matching mark. That will be your seat for the rest of this year in this class.” My token had the radical character ‘er’ on it, and I found my seat was set in the windowless corner of the room – something that was apparently compensated for by that position having two work or reading lamps allocated to it. I discovered that most of the position had an appalling view of the board behind the tutor’s desk, mainly because my desk was in line with the tutor’s desk, but if I moved to the corner of the table I could see it. That wasn’t quite enough to put me in the lap or line of sight of Chow Jian who sat at the next table, but there was a small enough separation that I reminded myself to be careful.
I didn’t know any of the other students in the group yet, Chow Jian was a jovial, barrel-shaped boy who had cheerfully introduced himself when I sat down, but I noticed that a girl who was probably the one Professor Tian had described as having ‘orange pom-poms for hair’ had the seat on the far end of the room’s diagonal from me, in the corner with two windows. When all twenty-five of us had turned up there was a sole empty desk in the middle of the middle row. My desk mate was Sen Chou who was a tall, serious fellow with a grave bow and didn’t seem at all talkative. The fourth member of our corner plonked himself down in a whirl of bags and shaggy hair at the last minute, then hastily introduced him as Mu Gen just before Scholar Wu began to address us. The elegant girl with a long hair braid directly behind him, something Zhang I thought I’d heard her say, pulled her chair into her desk to get further away from him.
Scholar Wu started by formally introducing himself, “I am Scholar Wu Gin, and I will be your tutor in Physical Geography for this year. In these laboratory sessions we will concentrate on the construction of maps – taking the data and representing it in comprehendible form on paper. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then we will identify the relevant words and then provide the picture. The tutorial session that we have later in the week will concentrate on written tasks, assigned readings, and questions arising from the lecture material. The assessment schedule was covered in the lecture so you already know about the exams, the weekly work from both our sessions together, and the projects you will be doing later in the year. Today we will work on identifying the relevant data for your first map, and I have handouts for both the map data, and the map making materials you will require. You should note that I have annotated the materials list with when you will require each item so you don’t need to get everything all at once.”
The handouts were passed around and I couldn’t help but notice that the materials list was a full double-sided page in length. Fortunately, for the next lab we only needed six items.
I spent the next three quarters of an hour working out what we were supposed to be mapping, the scale, and how many symbols I would need to have in my legend. My classmates did the same, and one of us accompanied his work with a whistled rendition of The Marshal’s Serenade, a folk tune that had been part of the obligatory curriculum cultural units every year of my school life. Our phantom musician had quite a good version, and although there were glances around the room to try and workout where the sound was coming from, no-one complained.
Ten minutes before the lab was due to end, Scholar Wu called for our attention and said, “Starting with the student in outer seat on the front window desk, please stand, give your name, and tell us what you will be tracking in your map. If someone says something that isn’t in your map data, don’t panic.” He turned to the student sitting at the far end of my row and said, “If you will begin please.”
The student stood, silhouetted against the windows so I couldn’t see any details, and then he bowed. “I am Fat Rang, and I am mapping land use, soil type and settlement location.” The rest of us followed off in order, and I discovered that the elegant girl was Zang Zhang.
When it was my turn I stood, introduced myself with a bow and said, “I am mapping current and previous watercourse paths, with land use, roads and settlements.”
Scholar Wu resumed, “Thank you, everyone. You will have noticed, I’m sure, that only a very few of you are doing exactly the same map. That’s perfectly fine for this exercise, given the data and the instructions you’ve been given. We will spend several weeks on this map, so you’ll have time to consider other interpretations of the data than that which initially struck you or which you decided to pursue. You will also begin to develop your personal library of map symbols – even the standard ones can be personalised, if you wish, and of course different styles of map will require different symbols. We will meet again for our tutorial on the last day of the week, so please make sure you’ve done the readings set in the lecture by then. If you need to speak to me at any other time, my office is in Earth Sciences faculty building and a note into my pigeon hole in the front foyer will reach me if I’m not in my office. Have I covered everything for now?”
He looked around the room, and apparently no-one had any additional questions so he dismissed us. As we filed out of the room, a class of more senior students, who were toting map cases, were waiting to come in.
I had an hour before my statistics lecture and decided to make my way over to the Sung Mah Memorial Building so that I could meet up with Ong Tien. The mathematics buildings, including the graciously proportioned memorial, were in the eastern portion of the university campus near the main gates. Someone had apparently put a great deal of thought into what infrastructure mathematicians required to sustain themselves, and one of the support buildings was a food court arrangement with noodles, dim sum, and seafood options. That building’s two wings turned out to be an old-fashioned tea house on one side, and a tavern or bar on the other. The bar was called The Artilleryman, while the tea house was Views of the Kwaizhu under the Third Moon. Which sounded rather macabre in context, but that sort of melancholy name has a long history in tea houses and, I am told, in mingji and yueji establishments – although I didn’t expect to find one of those in the middle of the university.
I had tea and a snack in the food court before making my way into the memorial building and locating the lecture rooms. I was looking for Ong Tien but she saw me first, and the first I knew of her presence was a tap on the shoulder.
“Sung Nai, that is you, isn’t it?” When I turned around Ong Tien smiled at me with black lips and said, “I’m so glad to see you. My Modern History tutorial is full of earnest, would-be politicians and activists, and they’re all so intense! They look at me as if I’m weird whenever I say something, and can we please just go sit in our lecture and act like normal people?” She shuddered.
I asked, “What do they think is weird?”
“That maybe someone writing analysis on the Chiafu Movement at the time knew more about what was going on and was relevant than Deng bloody Shuo, who was born twenty years later and was writing during the Occupation. They don’t even consider that he might, just might, have been criticizing the Occupation Government that was in power at the time he was writing because he’s their political god, and he could never have done anything other than say exactly what he meant or have been in fear of his life if he did.”
I asked, “Should I admit that I’m not entirely sure who Deng Shuo was? Did he have something to do with drafting the Presidential Constitution? I think I remember something like that from Civics – I didn’t do Modern Studies.” With both Earth Sciences subjects in my timetable I hadn’t had room for any other major disciplines.
Ong Tien laughed. “No, Deng Shuo opposed the Presidential Constitution – he thought we should continue under the original Republican Constitution that was brought in when the Occupation ended. Apparently though he got on really well with Wang Wei, the first President under the Presidential Constitution.”
“I do remember reading that Wang Wei said that being a primary school teacher for almost thirty years had been a good grounding for dealing with Parliament.” My Civics class, only a year out of primary school ourselves when one of us had had to read that out to the class, had found the notion enormously amusing. It had also set an image in my mind of Wang Wei, President of the Republic of Tang-ji and incarnation of the Solar Emperor, as being like Mr Hei at my primary school who had spent his life teaching six year olds how to hold their pens correctly and read basic characters.
Ong Tien replied, “I like the eulogy that Deng Shuo gave at Wang Wei’s funeral where he said that even if the whole Solar Emperor incarnation was, as the Occupiers had claimed, nonsense, in Wang Wei the republic had found a President who had managed to make Parliament do what it was supposed to do.” She sighed. “Let’s go learn about statistics and forget about political history for now.”
We looked again at our timetables and went for the third lecturer’s session. Professor Cao Mian was in the fourth-floor lecture theatre and waiting for students to arrive when we entered the room, so our first view of her was of a small, energetic woman pacing backwards and forwards across the front of the podium. The energy continued when she started talking, and she spoke with both her hands and her body, using continuous gestures and lunges to emphasis her points. It was clear to me, if not necessarily others that when she paused was where we, the students, were supposed to think. My hand didn’t quite wear out taking notes, but we seemed to cover a lot of information in the hour – including examination and other assessment schedules. Professor Cao finished by giving us two lots of readings, one set for background for the lecture she’d just given us and the other pre-reading for next week’s lecture.
Ong Tien commented, “The question is, can I read my own notes?”
“Facts, queries, and population definition. Did I miss anything?” I looked at my own notes and realized that in places I’d inserted a movement diagram depicting what the professor or her hands had been doing at that moment. “I may have to work on the relevancy of my notes.”
“She certainly makes you feel like everything she’s saying is important, doesn’t she?” Ong Tien sounded slightly shell-shocked. “I need to go to the library and get some Water Science reading done, but would you like to have some tea first?”
“Yes, please.” I smiled and added, “I want to go to the Gi Club meeting at four. They’re in a gym up near Physical and Life Sciences, but I’m not sure what to expect given that they didn’t have a stand at orientation.”
Packing up her things, Ong Tien commented, “That’s the sort of thing groups do if they don’t take first year students, but a sporting club? Yes, that is weird.”
We had tea in Views of the Kwaizhu under the Third Moon, and I shocked Ong Tien by ordering from the expensive side of the menu for both of us.
After the waitress left us she hissed me, “What are you doing? I can’t afford that.”
“Buying us good tea,” I replied. “It’s my treat. I need fortification for the Gi Club and you need strengthening for your studies.”
“But that’s a Quimong tea!”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I like Red Dragon First Growth. I’m hoping that this Golden Phoenix will be almost as good.”
“My grandmother doesn’t drink Quimong. She says it’s too expensive!” Ong Tien was looking guilty.
“Your grandmother isn’t paying for this,” I pointed out. “Besides, Master Que always says I have an image to build and maintain, and I choose that image to include enjoying really good tea and sharing it with my friends. If you’re worried about what your grandmother will say, then consider this an information gathering expedition for potential future gift purchases.” I smiled at her and added, “Your grandmother might like a gift of expensive tea.”
“There is that,” agreed Ong Tien. She looked around and asked, “Is it just me or is this the sort of establishment that was originally for men?”
I looked around too and agreed, “It does look like the sort of place that the conspirators are always meeting in all the way through The Rice Paper Scroll novels, doesn’t it?”
“Did you do those too, the year before last?” Ong Tien leaned forward, “I thought they were fantastic but my mother wasn’t impressed that we did them instead of Pursuit of the Sun.”
“My class studied The Rice Paper Scroll series,” I poured Ong Thien more tea, “But the classes for people doing Classic Studies did Pursuit.” I dropped my voice and added, “No less than five sets of their parents complained about the content, and someone’s grandfather wrote a public letter complaining that Pursuit glamorised a level of brutality and lack of compassion that was inconsistent with civilised life.”
“What!” I had Ong Thien’s attention. “My mother talked about it like it was one of the classics that everyone should read.”
“I went to a very working class based school,” I told Ong Thien, “with lots of peasant families. Apparently, Ba Fun spends most of the book treating peasants like they’re not people. I believe torture and enslavement were mentioned.”
“I know that there’s some rebellion that’s put down,” replied Ong Thien. “What else did the grandfather complain of?”
“Scenes of gratuitous cruelty, I think,” I said. “Meanwhile we got lost gold mines, lots of daring do, a perfidious Count, and a missing pregnant concubine.”
“I still like the bit where Rotgut Siew goes into the burning mansion, and then rescues Lady Kou and her daughters who can’t get away fast enough because of their bound feet.” Ong Thien sipped happily on her tea. “I got full marks for an essay that argued that one of the themes was that anyone could be a hero.”
“Then Lady Kou saves Rotgut from being hung,” I nodded. “I like to imagine that they rubbed along happily as sort of friends for years after that.”
“You never know when you’ll need a man who knows how alcohol acts under pressure,” agreed Ong Thien, and we both laughed.
After we finished our tea and parted company, I made my way to the gym where the Gi Club was due to meet.
I arrived at the Gi Club’ gym as someone was putting out the sign announcing that the Club would be in session from four until five with booked practice periods until eight. I bowed, introduced myself, and then asked whether there was anything I could do to help with the setting up.
“Oh, you want to help!” The young man bowed in return. “Most people who come along want to compete – although of course you can do both.” He bowed quickly enough to make his hair untidy. “I’m Tong Nao, and I handle the Club’s equipment. If you’d like to put your things down inside, perhaps you could help me with the mats?”
I would, and I did. Together we got half the sparring mats out before anyone else showed up. I’d found out from Tong Nao while we worked that most of the people who looked after the equipment had graduated the previous year, and that he was trying to recruit a new equipment team. I told him, cautiously, that I might be interested, at least on Tuesday afternoons and evenings, but that I was going to have work commitments that I didn’t yet know about.
“Really?” Tong Nao looked pleased. “Just having one other person that I can rely on coming along to meeting afternoons would make so much difference.” He was interrupted by some more people arriving, one of whom was the Club Secretary, Wu Ching. Tong Nao made haste to introduce me, “Wu, please meet Sung Nai. If her work commitments pan out, she might be able to help me with the equipment on meeting nights!”
“That would be useful,” Wu Ching and I exchanged bows. “Do you want to take part in the intra-University competition as well, Miss Sung?”
“I’m afraid that I’m ineligible for amateur competitions, so no,” I answered apologetically. “I came along to make friends who are also interested in gi. Equipment handling needs to happen, and it is something I can help with without violating any rules.”
Wu Ching and Tong Nao exchanged glances. “Let’s get you signed up before the Club President arrives. Our illustrious leader is also captain of the inter-University team, and he has, let us say, narrow views on the role of the Club.”
I asked, “Narrow views?”
They looked at each other again. It was Tong Nao who said, “He’s not interested in the potential social or research activities of the Club. For Dang Huai, the club is purely a sporting endeavour and it’s going to get him to the national level. His friends who think the same way hold the other committee positions this year – all they’re interested in is the inter-University competition. Wu Ching is Secretary because they don’t want to do that level of administration, and Gai Qiu is the Treasurer because she’s studying accounting as well as being the deputy president’s girlfriend.”
Wu Ching added, “Of that group, Gai Qiu is the only one who sees that we need new members this year, but she and I don’t really get on so we haven’t been able to combine forces effectively on that front.”
I looked at them both and suggested, “Perhaps you should stop trying to warn me off, and just sign me up?”
Wu Ching gave me a wry smile and pulled out his paperwork. By the time anyone else arrived, they had me all signed up and ready to hand my membership fee for the first semester over to the Treasurer. Gai Qiu turned out to be a small, neat woman a few years older than me who had a worry crease between her eyes. It disappeared for a moment when I astonished her by handing her three fifty standard tael notes.
“You really meant that you’re paying for the whole semester straight up?” She looked at the notes in her hand like they might disappear. “Not weekly in arrears?”
“Well, I’ve got the money now,” I answered. “Maybe I won’t later. If I pay you now, then it’s out of the way.”
“And you don’t want to compete, you just want to help and hang out?” Gai Qiu looked up at me and I nodded. “So, what did you think of Zhang Wong in the nationals?”
I laughed and asked back, “His bouts, his fighting style, or those nails and hair?”
“All of it!” was her enthusiastic reply.