The Water Splashing Festival

Translated by: Harvey Thomlinson



Just like Anxin had the year before, I boarded the train to Dark Springs. Just like her, I watched those imposing mountains rise and fall as we traveled. Terraced fields were cut layer upon layer into the mountains' slopes. It was June, and they were yellow, but no one collected their harvest, which was destined to rot. Looking up, I saw a few clouds as white as cotton around the tops of the mountains. The sun blazed in the sky. The clouds, sun and scenery, framed by the train window, were like a watercolor by some famous artist.

Anxin and I talked our hearts out the whole way. She told me Boss Pan's story about the cop who opened a roadside gas station in Shanxi and worked undercover for eight years. Finally he was unmasked by the drug cartels and killed. This started a conversation on the subject of heroes. Anxin probably had more of the heroic spirit in her than I did. On the whole, I was more realistic.   I thought it best to admit that human nature was basically selfish, which was an improvement on the days when the government used ideals to dictate social behavior and even personal relationships. Heroes existed, sure, but they were forged by particular circumstances and conditions. Without those conditions it was simple vanity to try to be heroic. These days, everyone knew how to look moved when they weren't moved, indignant when they weren't indignant, or solemn when they weren't solemn. They could laugh when they weren't happy, and cry when they weren't sad. This kind of deception was widespread.

The journey from Nande to Dark Springs took no more than half an hour. In the end, the story of Boss Pan's friend seemed too remote from our current situation. It seemed even more so when we arrived at the Dark Springs fair, where countless people shamelessly squabbled over a few cents.

Anxin and I emerged from the train station and were instantly drawn into the festival atmosphere. The streets teemed with people, the fair ran in every direction, and there were girls everywhere carrying beautifully embroidered parasols. I couldn't decide whether the Dai women's clothes were exquisite or gaudy. The light garments they wore on their upper bodies were plain, but their bell-shaped skirts were richly patterned. They wore their hair up in a bun on top of their heads, often decorated with flowers. Those without flowers had a comb instead, all the same design. I especially liked the young girls' skirts. Of all the traditional costumes worn by China's fifty-six ethnic minorities, those of the Dai girls are arguably most flattering to a woman's form and beauty. Their upper garments are cut short to reveal the waist, while their skirts brush the ground. The design shows what should be shown, but with restraint, and effectively highlights the women's narrow waists and long legs.

The tide of people swept us along the path towards the river; the same path Anxin had taken the first time she was here. A three-tiered platform had been erected on the riverbank for people to watch the dragon boat competition. We were jammed at the back, peering through a dense wall of backs and heads, and couldn't tell whether or not the competition had started yet.

Very slowly we advanced along the wall of bodies. Street peddlers were selling embroidered bags, and when the current slackened its pace for a moment we bought one each. I took my lead from others, swung my bag round by its string a few times, then sent it flying into a crowd of girls. Anxin gave me an amused look.

"To throw that bag is to declare love. Be careful where it lands."

 "Well, throw yours too and then we're quits," I said. "How about that handsome guy over there?"

 "I'm not throwing mine," Anxin said. "I want to take it home for Little Bear."

"Oh, your only real love is Little Bear," I said.

A little further on, we heard singing. Although we couldn't make out the music clearly, the sense of harmony and rhythm suggested it was a professional troupe. Suddenly, the melodious sound was interrupted by a howling screech and a long bamboo pole spurted thick smoke into the blue sky.

"They're letting off fireworks," Anxin said. "It's like Chinese New Year."

We continued along the river and eventually spotted the song and dance troupe. They were impressive, especially as they were competing with many other raucous attractions like cock fighting and bull fighting.

Eventually the flow delivered us to the Graceful Dragon Temple, which was famous throughout China. A sign outside said that the temple took both its name and its celebrity from the Graceful Dragon Pagoda at the back. The base of the pagoda was gold, the body silver, and there were spectacular carved reliefs of fearsome Buddhist demons. Behind the temple was a large open area that bordered a small village at its far end. We pressed on toward the village, hoping to reach the heart of the water-splashing festival.

Finally we came across a huge mass of people splashing water at each other. Most of them were young, but there were some middle-aged and older festival-goers among them. I couldn't tell where the droning music was coming from, but it was a mere backdrop to the sounds of men and women yelling with excitement.

Anxin and I watched for a while, discussing whether or not to join in the commotion. If we didn't, we'd feel we'd wasted a rare opportunity. But if we did, we would be wet until we got back to Nande. As we deliberated, a girl rushed towards me and emptied a basin of water right over my head. In a split second I was wet from head to toe like a drowned rat.

Anxin clapped her hands and howled with laughter, and was instantly soaked by someone else. Her laughter stopped abruptly. We looked at each other questioningly, then cried out and plunged into the crowd, looking for anything that might hold water.

There was plenty of choice - the ground was strewn with makeshift water containers. We found two plastic basins. First we soaked each other, and then we got our revenge on the people who had wet us. Before long we were attacking anyone we saw. This was the first time I'd ever seen Anxin truly happy. The young girl inside her had always seemed repressed, but today she shone through.

I also laughed that day; I laughed until my sides hurt. A long time afterwards, in Hawaii, I would dream of laughing heartily like that. Later I realized that my feelings in the dream had been like that time at the Graceful Dragon Temple in Dark Springs, when I was completely relaxed and happy with Anxin.

We were separated from each other in our pursuit of new targets. Anxin got really carried away. I saw her chase after the fully dressed to drench them, or simply hurl the contents of her basin indiscriminately toward whole groups. Her final victim was a tall young man walking briskly in the direction of the Graceful Dragon Pagoda. The basin was full and Anxin completely emptied it over the man's straight back and shoulders. Then something unexpected happened. The guy, now on the steps at the base of the pagoda, turned his dripping face towards her and gave a poisonous smile.

I saw Anxin freeze. She took two steps back and her plastic basin dropped to the ground. The man disappeared instantly behind the pagoda. Anxin shouted after him, but I couldn't make out her words. She threw herself after the retreating figure, but the steps were suddenly filled by a mass of newcomers who flooded out from behind the pagoda. They covered their heads with empty basins and scuttled along like frightened rats. Close on their heels came another group armed with full basins and buckets of water. They released their contents and a mighty cascade of water swept down the steps. The wall of people and water completely blocked Anxin's path and line of sight.

When the army ran out of ammunition and retreated from the steps, a wet Anxin was left there alone, looking in every direction. But there wasn't a single other person to be seen on the whole platform of the Graceful Dragon Pagoda.

 When thinking about Anxin, my memory always returns to the water-splashing festival at Dark Springs: a happy, lively time; and a shocking, terrifying time. Because at that water-splashing festival, Anxin saw Mao Jie.

My eyes scoured the four corners of the Buddhist pagoda and the square in front of the temple. They probed into every corner of the little village. Everywhere people sang and danced, delighting in their noisy revelry. The sun illuminated the mist that hung in the air from all the water.

I wiped some of the surplus water from Anxin's forehead with my hand. "Mao Jie?" I said.  "Are you serious?"

All about us was fun and gaiety; Anxin could see that as well as I could. Where was this Mao Jie? Still she looked around desperately for him. "I saw him!" she said. "He was here!"

We checked around the temple once more, and then as far beyond its surrounds as we could see. "Where?" I asked.

There were men and women everywhere, drunk with music, forgetting their worries. I knew that even if Mao Jie really was in this huge crowd, it would be almost impossible to find him...