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For Whom the Bell Rings
by Liu Hong

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This is a poem written by a Tang poet about homesickness:

Yue luo wu ti shuang man tian,
jiang feng yu huo dui chou mian.
Gu Su cheng wai Han Shan Si,
ye ban zhong sheng dao ke chuan.

The moon drops crows croak frost fills the sky.
Maple trees and fishermen’s flickering light companions to my melancholy.
Midnight, from out of the Han Shan Temple outside the city of Gu Su,
I hear the sound of bells,
as it reaches my lonely travelling boat

Many a time when I was away from home: huddled in the corner of a moving train, counting the passing lights; restless in the middle of a formal meal that I had to go to, wishing I was elsewhere; or sheltered underneath a porch watching the raindrops outside an English country church, the bell of Han Shan Temple would ring for me, soothing me, lulling me into a cocoon of melancholy. It was the opium for my homesickness.

I think I secretly relished the bittersweetness of it: the bitterness of being away from home, and the sweetness of missing it. The longing was all the stronger because of the distance, the allure of old pleasures more intense because of their unavailability, like stopping a thirst by painting a plum tree.

So when I had a chance to visit the real site of Han Shan Temple I jumped at it. I would sit underneath that bridge with my eyes shut and listen to the crows, hear that bell ringing and savour my melancholy. There would be no moon but perhaps the odd little boat would drift a little in the tranquil water as I lay listening to the crows in the quiet, still afternoon heat.

Going to a historical site to experience a specific poem written about it is a Chinese obsession. It is natural and proper that one should feel like a visit to the temple. In my excitement I had quite forgotten that my own obsession would be shared by my many compatriots. At least fifty other people had the same idea on the day I went. But in their collective efforts to re-enact the poem they created the opposite effect: In broad daylight there were no crows, car horns would have drowned their croaks anyway. In the midst of all the noise the bell rang suddenly, sounding anything but melancholic.

I felt bitterness and resentment at the intrusive crowd, at the way they spoiled it for me, that treasured sweetness of finding a hidden treasure that is mine, only mine. Then it dawned on me that poetry must be experienced in solitude. As one of the crowd one could not be lonely.

We fled, my husband and I, to the next bridge not so far away, quieter, more beautiful, where one could sit alone, undisturbed and were not charged for sitting there watching the water.

Beyond the bridge there were no tourists at all, just ordinary houses whose walls were covered in discoloured paint, slogans of the Cultural Revolution that someone had made a half hearted attempt to erase: Down With …” the rest was unclear.

As I stared at the words, I was aware of two distinct historic times. The Cultural Revolution, a recent past being quickly covered up, deliberately forgotten and the Tang dynasty, a distant past representing the old Chinese empire in all its might, which many felt nostalgia for. One political slogan, which made no sense to anybody apart from the propagandist; one sentimental poem, which made homesickness such a concrete feeling that many felt the need to sit on the bridge, see the river and ring the bell – a public, collective show of a very private feeling.

I understood them, I felt for them, those bell ringers. I understood their eagerness.

I walked further beyond the bridge and wondered what else I would find at the end.

A broad river emerged, no, a canal, the Grand Canal, the earliest bit built nearly two thousand five hundred years ago, around the time of Confucius. I stood watching the canal, which took me back to its time: a time further back even than the bell era.

A Sui emperor connected the North and South canals and created the ‘Grand Canal’. The story goes that he was a cruel emperor whose only motivation was to speed up his journey to see the rare Southern blossoms. Whatever the truth, it became the bloodline of transport connecting North and South China. It was the livelihood of the locals.

I felt the pulse of the passing water beneath my feet as if it was blood rushing through a strong vein. Boats of different sizes sailed past. The faces of the people on the boats attracted me: they looked relaxed, as if on the water they were free. They were expectant, when they saw us, especially Jon, the westerner; they smiled rather than stared, women scantily dressed, children ran barefoot, dogs barked and wagged their tails. Pots flowers and lucky charms abounded: this was a more colourful, more expressive and more spontaneous lot than those on land.

It was the canal. The canal gave them strength and vitality. They were travelling in history, making it. They were the movers and shakers and we, like the tourists on the other side of the bridge, were mere spectators.

The boats paraded endlessly, sounding their horns, with the steady noises from the mighty engines. I sat down. A sound reached us, the hurried and inharmonious sound of the bell from the Han Shan Temple. For a charge you could ring the bell and recall that moment in the poem.

The canal was real and water constant, the bell sound was brief and when it was gone it was gone. That moment could never be recaptured.

But people tried, all the time. Thieves tried to steal the bell, in dynasty after dynasty the temple was burnt and rebuilt, the bell lost, retrieved and lost again. One legend had it that it was stolen and taken across the sea to Japan. Then years later at the beginning of this century a small bronze bell was presented to the temple as compensation. Throughout history many poets have made the pilgrimage to Han Shan Temple, their dearest wish to listen to the midnight bell ringing. Their subsequent poems commemorating their journeys contributed to the legend of the bell. One famous poet (Lu You) developed quite an itch for it before he finally made it to the temple: “For seven years I did not make it to the temple, but night after night I heard the mid night bell.”

So much fuss for a sound long gone. The Grand Canal taught me better. In my spirit I was with those on the boat, going with the flow, living on the wave, making my history, right now.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve crowds flocked here to hear the bell ring.

I’d rather sit here and watch the canal flow. The bell does not ring for me.

Copyright © 2001 Liu Hong

Liu Hong was born in 1965 in Manchuria, China. She came to the UK in 1989 and now lives in Wessex with her husband and daughter. Her first novel Startling Moon is published by Headline.


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