Cherry blossoms after the rain. Sounds romantic, right? Good enough to win over the professor of chemistry?
Chapter 1.3 – The Unfathomable Past (3)
After Shi Yi saw the email, her gaze shifted to the bottom right corner of her screen. 7:36 a.m.
She was a little worried, would this meet-up be like the previous ones where, because of unexpected weather changes, a sudden sickness, busyness at work, or various other strange events that arose out of the blue, it would be cancelled?
But this time, Heaven suddenly opened its eyes to her and the rain did not continue coming down.
Their videographer was actually from the province of Shaanxi, so even though he was not born in Xi’an, he was still familiar with the city. Shi Yi was worried about being late, so she anxiously asked Hong Xiaoyu and the videographer to confirm how long it would take to get to Qinglong Temple from where they were. The end result was, they were early by a full twenty minutes.
Perhaps because it was cherry blossom season and the weather had just cleared up as well, Qinlong Temple’s main entrance was bustling with people coming and going and was rather crowded. They chose a more noticeable location to wait, and approximately ten minutes later, they saw Zhousheng Chen alone in the distance coming toward them.
As Shi Yi faced the sun, she squinted her eyes and recognized him, and her heart seemed to quietly settle down.
“Shi Yi, you’re a lost cause……” Hong Xiaoyu whispered to her. “Your face is all red. Don’t tell me it’s because of the sun.”
She shook her head. “I’m not going to try to explain to you. I can’t explain it so that you would understand anyway.”
“You’re early, Teacher Zhousheng.” The corner of Hong Xiaoyu’s lips curved upward as she greeted him with a smile. “Ten minutes early. Is that a habit of yours?”
Zhousheng Chen stretched out his hand and gave two entrance tickets to Shi Yi. “When I am meeting someone, I am normally fifteen minutes early. Just now, I used five minutes to purchase the tickets.” The remaining ticket, he handed to the videographer.
With a thank you, Shi Yi took them from him and then slapped one of the tickets loudly into Xiaoyu’s palm.
Hong Xiaoyu had never been here before, so naturally, she did not know this meeting place she had arranged was very pitifully small.
They entered the temple and wandered around for a little while. The cherry blossoms bloomed boldly and unabashedly, and the eaves had a mottled, ancient color. However, the small number of people sitting on newspapers and chatting in groups of twos or threes detracted quite a bit from the blossom-viewing atmosphere and made it seem more like a regular spring outing. Despite it being such a crowded, little temple, there were still several groups of tourists who were walking side by side and listening to their guide’s explanation.
“…… 1986, Qinglong Temple introduced cherry trees from Japan and planted them on the temple grounds. There are a total of twelve precious varieties here. The ones that blossom early in the season include the Edohigan [彼岸樱], Ito-zakura [红枝垂樱]……” The tour guide recited his prepared commentary.
Shi Yi listened in interestedly and even took out her mobile phone to secretly record part of his description, but unfortunately, the guide soon left. She listened to a few seconds of the recording but discovered that it was noisy and unclear, and she hesitated over whether to delete it.
If she wanted to recall the information later, perhaps taking some photographs of the interpretive signs with her camera would be better.
“When I first arrived, the people at the research institute here gave me a book of Xi’an city’s notes and descriptions. If you would like, I can give it to you,” Zhousheng Chen told her in a nonchalant tone. “All over this city, there are stories that can be told.”
Shi Yi nodded, then allowed her gaze to drift away from him, as if she was very interested in the cherry blossoms.
“Do you like reading books?” she asked suddenly.
“Everyday, I have a fixed time that I allow for reading,” he answered. “But my reading is not inclusive of everything. It depends on if the book is interesting or not.”
Shi Yi answered with an “oh” before tentatively continuing to ask, “Have you ever been to one of those very ancient-style library towers? The type that has row after row of wooden shelves filled with countless books and scrolls?”
The ancient library tower she was thinking in her mind was not very clear in her memory but was connected to him.
That place did not often have people in it. Sometimes, when the windows were opened to allow air to circulate, a breeze would blow in, and the books on the shelves would make rustling sounds as a few pages were turned.
Zhousheng Chen did not really understand what she was trying to say. With a faint smile, he said, “The place I often spend time in also has row after row of wooden shelves, but on those shelves are all bottles and containers and various dangerous apparatuses that should not be readily touched.”
Shi Yi gave a little laugh. “Seems rather interesting.”
“Interesting?” A smile was still on his lips. “The lightest consequence would be burns, and the more serious, explosions.”
Shi Yi was truly frightened by this. “A high-risk occupation? Based on what you’ve said, who would want to go into a lab, then? Wouldn’t you be extremely nervous about everything being so dangerous and you’d be fearful all day long? How can you still go about doing your research?”
“It is not that terrible. I got used to it very early on.” His words were very straightforward, as if he was speaking about something that could not be more commonplace. “When I first entered this field, there was one night I forgot something inside the laboratory and so I had to go back early the next morning. At the time, there was not a single person there, and then an explosion occurred. Half of the entire laboratory was blown-up and destroyed right in front of me. It was fortunate that I had not arrived a few minutes earlier, so I managed to preserve my life.”
Shi Yi was completely dumbstruck when she heard this. “And then?”
“And then?” Zhousheng Chen thought for a brief moment. “Fortunately, the dozen or so materials that I had been working on were still intact, so that same afternoon, they were moved to the adjacent lab and I carried on with the tolerance testing for them.”
Zhousheng Chen was very casual when he stated this, as if he was talking about a random person’s matters. But she felt post-trauma fear after hearing this and forgot to avoid the branches of the cherry tree that were beside her. Only when Zhousheng Chen’s arm reached up in front of her and brushed aside that fragrant branch of blossoms did Shi Yi finally register a response, and she hastily said thank you to him.
The temple was not very big, and after strolling around for a while, they concluded their little spring outing.
Since it was still early, they went to a nearby teahouse to rest. Inside, the teahouse was nearly full. Zhousheng Chen’s student, though, was sitting at a table on the second level near a window, and he looked as if he had been waiting for quite some time. The instant he saw them, he immediately rose to his feet and greeted, “Teacher Zhousheng, over here, over here.”
“Huh? Teacher Zhousheng, you were so thoughtful as to arrange for your student to save a spot for us?” Xiaoyu pulled out a chair and seated herself down first.
“Teacher didn’t arrange it,” the student hurriedly explained. “My dad is the one who owns this place, and I happened to have the day off today. Yesterday night, when Teacher and I were working on a late night experiment, he said that he was coming to Qinglong temple today to view the blossoms, so I deliberately saved a table here for all of you.”
While the young man spoke, he also brought out some tea and, one by one, set it on the table in front of each person. When he reached Shi Yi, the young man actually appeared a little embarrassed and he smiled shyly, “I forgot to mention, my name is He Shan.”
She replied with an “oh” and commented, “That’s an easy name to remember.”
He Shan had a very favorable impression of this pretty big sister, and purposely offered up the tea straight into her hands.
Hong Xiaoyu had been neighbours with Shi Yi since childhood, so she was very accustomed to these sorts of situations and did not find it the least bit peculiar. Instead, she shot a glance at Zhousheng Chen and then looked over at Shi Yi. This person surnamed Zhousheng was really quite unique. At the very least, he did not allow his composure to slip when in the presence of a beauty.
“Come on, come on. Let’s play a game of ‘shuang sheng’.” Hong Xiaoyu cheerfully pulled out a couple boxes of playing cards and poured them out so that the tabletop was covered. “Shi Yi doesn’t know how to play card games, so it’s just perfect, the four of us will play.”
Seeing her card game addiction was flaring up, Shi Yi obligingly gave up her seat right away and moved in to the furthest reaches of the table. In the end, Zhousheng Chen was on a team with the videographer and they were the Opponents. By coincidence, his seat was beside Shi Yi. She noticed a book on the window, so she picked it up and planned to read it to pass the time. It was a New Weekly magazine, likely left behind by a tourist, and she flipped it open to the inside cover page and casually glanced over it.
Zhousheng Chen drew a card out, his motions unhurried, as he carried out a casual dialogue with the others.
His sitting posture was very proper and gave the impression that this was his habit. Even though he was merely playing cards with them, from the small details, one could tell that he had a very good, cultured upbringing. When he was playing his card, Shi Yi would secretly watch him from the corner of her eye, and very amusingly, she noticed that the cards in his hands were very neatly lined-up such that at all times, they maintained a symmetrical, fan-shaped arc.
Just right. Everything about him was just right.
But it was precisely because of this that she felt a sense of distance. Regardless of how close they were sitting to one another, it still felt as if there was an invisible wall separating them.
The videographer was the most loquacious, and after chatting for a while, the conversation turned to the grades he had scored in the past. “Now that I think about it, my grades back then were really poor. My National College Entrance Exam scores just made it past the entrance minimum for third level universities, so I barely made it into university. Teacher Zhousheng, are you classified as the type who has offered up his life to furthering scientific knowledge?”
“Not really.” He pulled out a card from his hand and placed it on the wooden table. “I simply could not think of anything, apart from scientific research, that I could do.”
The videographer fell silent.
Hong Xiaoyu smacked her lips together. “Teacher Zhousheng, don’t act so distant. Let’s talk about some common topics.”
“Alright. Go ahead.”
“Do you have any… especially tacky or uncultured hobbies or interests?” Xiaoyu asked him.
“Many. For example, watching television dramas.”
“Watching TV? That’s not really considered all that tacky or uncultured, ah.” Xiaoyu laughed, “What do you normally watch the most?”
“Xun Qin Ji [A Step Into the Past].”
“Normal, very normal.” Hong Xiaoyu had finally recovered her usual confidence. “It turns out the professor of chemistry likes to watch time-travelling dramas, too, and it’s even A Step Into the Past. My boyfriend during university really liked watching it, too, and watched it four times.”
“I have probably watched it more than seventy times,” Zhousheng Chen stated in an unconcerned manner. “More accurately, it is seventy-nine times.”
Hong Xiaoyu fell silent as well.
This group spent the whole afternoon matching their strength against 108 playing cards. Zhousheng Chen’s student clearly worshipped him, and every now and then, he would divulge some shocking achievement of his, but most of these had to do with science and research. Shi Yi and the others did not really comprehend what he was saying so could only repeatedly express their feelings of admiration.
Towards the evening, there were gradually less patrons in the teahouse.
As for the magazine that Shi Yi had been holding, she had not flipped through even three pages.
As the sky grew dark, their spot by the window was a little chilly. The staff came over to close the window and even very attentively brought a small plate of light refreshments over for them. Hong Xiaoyu finally remembered Shi Yi, whose existence had been acknowledged as much as if she was air. “What are you reading about?”
“Defectors from the North.” Shi Yi wagged the book in her hand. “It’s talking about North Korea.”
“What are ‘Defectors from the North’?” He Shan tossed down two playing cards and asked curiously.
“People who could not endure the sufferings of the North Korean famine and chose to flee to China or South Korea. In a certain sense, these people do not even have a nationality to call their own.” Zhousheng Chen’s voice was calm and even without any superfluous emotion. “If they are captured and returned back to their country, they face the crime of treason.”
“Treason? That serious?” He Shan lamented. “They still want to escape, even at the risk of the death penalty?”
The videographer smiled and patted him on the arm as he told him, “I once interviewed some North Korean defectors. They said, when people spoke about those in their family who died of starvation, they stated it like it was very normal. If that was you, would you try to escape?”
The videographer spoke these words with a show of solemnity.
Shi Yi pulled over the small plate of refreshments, selected one that looked tasty, and took a bite.
Unexpectedly, Zhousheng Chen reached over and, using his finger, turned the page of the magazine that was still in her hand. She then realized that, although Zhousheng Chen was playing cards with them, his eyes were actually on the magazine.
He finished reading the last few lines before pulling his gaze back to the cards in his hand. Pulling out two, he tossed them lightly onto the table.
Hong Xiaoyu was still enthusiastically discussing the North Korean defectors when her eyes swept over the cards he had thrown down. Immediately, she howled in anguish, “Oh no! Completely lost the game.”
And so, in this way, they squandered away the whole afternoon. When they stepped out of the teahouse, the sky was completely dark. Their videographer keenly offered to treat them out to dinner, but Zhousheng Chen unexpectedly raised his arm and took a glance at his watch. “I still have to attend a meeting tonight.” He Shan was his assistant for his few months in Xi’an, so even though he wanted to go to dinner, he could only leave with Zhousheng Chen and head back to the research institute.
The two groups parted ways, and Zhousheng Chen lead He Shan to take the bus.
Shi Yi and the others were on the opposite side waiting for a taxi. Separated by a road, they could still see each other off in the distance.
Zhousheng Chen stood amid a large throng of people, waiting for bus route 400 that would take them back to the institute. This particular time was rush hour, and three or four buses in a row passed by, but they were all jam-packed with people.
And they, standing in a place only a dozen or so metres away from him, were also unable to snatch a taxi because there were so many people.
Shi Yi was not the least bit impatient about having to wait for a taxi.
She felt it was very good this way. Not far away from her was Zhousheng Chen. Beside him, He Shan was complaining about something. Very quickly, a smile rose onto his face, and in that same manner that was neither hurried nor impatient, he said something.
As Shi Yi observed him, she tried to guess what he might say to pacify the young research student next to him.
“If you’ve never been on Bus 400, you absolutely cannot fathom what it means to be crammed in a bus.” The videographer, Xiao Shuai, was watching Zhousheng Chen as he sighed with a grin, “But we’re in the same situation as them. Don’t even know which of us is going to be able to get back first.”
“If we can catch a cab, should we give them a ride?” Shi Yi immediately suggested.
“We’re still standing in a sea of people, and we don’t even know what we’re going to do.” Xiaoyu was utterly amused by her as she sprawled herself on Shi Yi’s shoulder and whispered, “Beautiful Shi Yi, since preschool, regardless of who wanted to play pretend prince and princess, you would still always be the princess. So, you should just happily continue being the princess. This person really does not seem interested in you. What’s that saying again? You’re not his cup of tea.”
In the space of those few sentences spoken by Xiaoyu, another bus had pulled into the stop.
Zhousheng Chen and He Shan were finally able to squeeze onto the bus, and they disappeared out of Shi Yi’s sight. From beginning to end, Zhousheng Chen had not cast another glance in their direction.
 The young man’s name is 何善 He Shan. It sounds just like 和善 (same sound to the ear but the first character is different), which means “good-natured.”
 大姐姐 “da jie jie.” While this literally means big sister, in Chinese culture, a more casual way of addressing someone older, but probably in the same generation as you would be by “big sister” or “big brother.”
 双升 “shuang sheng.” A four player, point-based card game using two decks, although there are variations using a single deck and three decks. It goes by many names. See here for more details on playing rules.
 高考 “gao kao.” Unified national examinations on various subjects held annually, usually for students in their final year of high school and are a pre-requisite for any post-secondary education at the undergraduate level.
 As a very broad brush generalization, undergraduate university programs in China can be classified as first, second, and third level. First level are key universities in the country, second level are universities with undergraduate programs that would still have students from all over the country enrolling in them, while third level are simply local colleges or universities where most of the students would be local as well.
Anyone as tickled as I am about Zhousheng Chen’s love for A Step Into the Past?
Because I am following the labelling based on the chapter divisions of the published novel but still separating my posts based on how the novel was released online, you might be a little confused what the progress is. At the bottom of every update, I’m going to just keep a little progress tracker so everyone knows how far along we are in the novel. You can ignore it if you want. 🙂
1 of 1 Prologue
3 of 56 Main story segments
0 of 3 Epilogues