Shengliver’s Note: This Chinese farmer, Quanlaotour, is dead, yet his spirit lives on. In times of difficulty or when I find myself lost, he is out there, acting as a beacon. Quanlaotour, the name by which he was addressed by his fellow villagers, literally means “Quan the Elderly Man”. Quan was his family name.


We come across the multitude by the thousand all our lives, yet only a small number of them stay on in our memory. The majority fade into oblivion as time goes by.


Quanlaotour is a character whose image has been etched on my mind since I was a boy. He was a Chinese peasant, eking out a living through subsistence farming. I never saw his wife, for she had long been gone. His only daughter was a bit mentally retarded, stuttering whenever talking. This daughter of his was not married out of the Quan family. She had to extend the family line, so a lad Zhao was married into the Quan family. Zhao fathered two daughters, both of whom carried the family name Quan instead of Zhao.


Quanlaotour stood out among the peasants. All the folk in the hamlet said that he had lots of ink in the belly, meaning he was well educated. My dad told me that his family had been well off when Quanlaotour was young, thus affording him an opportunity to study Chinese Classics with a private tutor. Aloof from his fellow villagers, he seemed quite contented with himself. Anytime I saw him, he was humming a tune, staring into space, or murmuring to himself.


My best memory of him is this. On many a spring day, either in the morning or in the afternoon, when the sun was nice and warm, he was tending his wheat crop, hoeing or weeding or fertilising. When he was tired, he would stop and rest himself against the hoe standing in the field. A book was magically produced from under his baggy clothes. Then and there, he was reading, sometimes aloud, most times silently. What a picture! All the quiet, all the fresh greenness, all the warm breeze, a Chinese peasant who lost himself in reading. Occasionally I found him waving his arms in the air. Books were hard to come by in those days. His books were old style thread-bound novels, and they were dog-eared, read and re-read. One of his favourites was The Legend of Three Kingdoms. No one was able to borrow the books from him. His books and his pleasure aroused my curiosity about the magic of reading.


One year he had a row with his son-in-law, Zhao. I have forgotten what it was about. He thought he was a civilized man, superior mentally to his strong-bodied son-in-law, who was illiterate. Instead of confronting the son, he wrote his angry words on slips of paper and posted them everywhere on the cottage walls in the village. In fact, the slips were so tiny that I was afraid that few ever noticed them. I happened to find one and told my dad about it. My dad warned me not to tell anybody else, and he also directed me to tear off the slips if I found more. I found more indeed on other walls and did as I was instructed. My dad later said that if Zhao had been able to read, father and son would have been at each other’s throats.


The reason time will never erase Quanlaotour from my mind is something else. He was a devout Taoist. Every year, usually in the autumn, when harvest had been done, he would go on his yearly pilgrimage to Mt Wudang, a Holy Mountain of Taoism. This journey was not taken alone, though, for it was hard and long, over mountains, through valleys, across streams, in fair weather or foul. He had some fellow practitioners in nearby villages. They decided upon the date of departure, then made preparations, getting ready with food, clothes, several pairs of shoes (some of which were made from grass) and an oil-paper umbrella. I knew it because I happened to see this party of pilgrims setting out from the village one year. I will never forget it. Five or six of them, dressed in home-made attire dyed deep blue, each of them carrying all their baggage on the back, provisions, shoes, clothing, a bamboo hat, and an umbrella, were bidding farewell to their friends and family at the edge of the village. They travelled on foot to and from the Holy Mountain. There were no modern means of transportation then. No trucks, no buses, no bikes. This trek took them from 20 to 30 days, depending on the weather. On the way, I was told, they took lodgings anywhere they could, sometimes in a farmhouse, sometimes under the eaves, many times in a barn, and even in the open air. Autumnal rains could add to their difficulty. In spite of the hardships, their devoutness paid off, for Quanlaotour was robustness incarnate. In my memory, he was never for once taken ill.


Such devoutness is a rarity today. Devotion to a calling is laughable in many guys’ eyes, let alone devotion to a faith. When obstacles crop up on my way, Quanlaotour comes into my mind. His pilgrimage empowers me. He took so hard a journey. I will do better.


Where is Quanlaotour? He is dead. He died many years ago. In fact, I don’t know the exact year. Probably he passed away when I was in high school or college. If he were alive, and knew I was writing about him in a foreign language on the Internet, he should be all smiles, with a thumbs-up to Shengliver.


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