The Library of Legends

Though the country is broken, hills and streams endure;
And in the city spring comes again to trees and grasses.
But flowers shed fearful tears,
And desolate birds sing the sorrows of parting.
Beacon fires have burned for three months now,
And letters from home are worth ten thousand pieces of gold.
                         From “Spring View” by Du Fu (AD 712–770)

 

 

Chapter One

September 20, 1937 – Nanking, China

The approaching aircraft were too far away for Lian to tell whether they were Chinese or Japanese. A moment later, she didn’t need to guess. The spiraling wail of sirens churned the air. Then the bombs began falling, like beads slipping off a necklace. 

She had been on her way to the train station. She’d gotten off the rickshaw to buy a steamed bun for breakfast. Now she stood outside the bakery as though rooted to the pavement, uncertain what to do. The nearest air-raid shelter was two blocks away, across from the railway station, its entrance already besieged. Even if she were willing to abandon her wicker suitcase, she would never reach the shelter in time. 

A strong hand gripped her arm and yanked her through the bakery door.  “Get to the back room,” the baker growled. But she shook her head and dashed out, struggling back with the heavy suitcase. She had to save her books. 

Inside, the baker and his wife were throwing damp cloths over trays of buns. He pointed to a storage room built against the back of the kitchen, sacks of flour stacked against one wall. The couple joined four small children squeezed together against the sacks. Lian hesitated, then slid her wicker suitcase under a worktable. But before she could run to the storage room, a shrill whistling pierced her eardrums, followed by the sound of explosions. The floor shuddered. Next she heard the sharp, rhythmic report of antiaircraft guns. 

There was a roar of sound and then the world went silent.  

 

Lian had left Minghua University early that morning, spending precious coins from her small cache to ride on a rickshaw that jounced its way through congested streets. Rickshaws and handcarts, handbarrows, wagons, and the occasional automobile. Nanking was evacuating. Every vehicle was piled high with trunks, sacks of food, furniture, and people. Invalids and the elderly, mothers holding children. Their expressions ranged from anxious to stoic.

Her own appearance, Lian hoped, signaled maturity and reserve, enough to dissuade the attentions of hawkers, pickpockets, and talkative fellow travelers. She’d pulled her hair into a tight knot, the severe style offsetting her least-favorite feature, a small chin that made her seem years younger than nineteen. At least her navy-blue Minghua blazer proclaimed her of university age.

The Japanese had yet to bomb the city’s outlying districts. Minghua University’s campus lay southwest of Nanking and was a haven compared to the frenzied scene around the railway station. The university had begun emptying bit by bit as nervous parents instructed their children to come home.

Lian’s home was Peking, where her mother lived. But Peking had been taken by the enemy earlier that month. She’d been frantic for her mother’s safety until a much-delayed letter arrived. Inside, her mother had tucked in money for Lian’s train fare. Peking was already lost when her mother wrote that letter. The Chinese army was in retreat and the Japanese were marching in.

Daughter, everyone expects the Japanese to reach Peking within days. I’m leaving tomorrow. I will meet you in Shanghai. When you get there, find the Unity Mission School and stay there. Tell them your mother is a former student. Tell them I’m on my way. They won’t refuse you.

But when her mother mailed the letter, the Japanese had not yet attacked Shanghai. Every day, newspapers printed photographs of Shanghai’s streets, now cordoned off with barbed-wire barricades that separated Shanghai’s International Settlement from the rest of the city. The Settlement was not Chinese territory. It had been ceded to foreign powers decades ago and the Japanese military couldn’t enter. Now refugees streamed into the sanctuary of the Settlement, past gates guarded by Japanese sentries.

Lian was taking the Nanking-to-Shanghai train, which terminated at Shanghai’s North Railway Station, safely located inside the Settlement. But how would her mother get to Shanghai? What if she couldn’t get past the barricades? It was too late now for second-guessing or a change of plans. Her mother was on the road and Lian had no way of contacting her, let alone in a timely fashion.

These thoughts and a multitude of other worries spun hazily in Lian’s head and slowly, slowly, she opened her eyes. Sunlight from a back window illuminated motes of white dust hanging in the air. No, not dust. Flour. The baker’s family was sweeping the floor, coaxing snowy piles onto a large cloth, which they tilted carefully into a bin. Lian sat up and leaned her back against the wall.

One of the baker’s children knelt down and spoke to her. Lian saw the girl’s lips move, forming words. Words Lian couldn’t hear. She shook her head in bemusement. The girl shrugged and went back to sweeping. Lian stood up slowly, still leaning against the wall. She noticed with detached wonder that she was covered in a fine film of white. She took her blazer off and shook it a few times until the fabric shed its dusting of flour.

Then she knelt beside the kitchen table and pulled her suitcase out. She staggered to the front of the shop, wondering why the suitcase felt twice as heavy as before. Outside, she put it down and peered at Shing An Road, toward the railway station. Murky smoke stung her eyes. All she could make out were large, inert shapes but her hearing was coming back and there was a muted sound of shouting voices.

Wreckage covered the road. Rickshaws in splinters, carts missing wheels, a wooden store sign lying broken on the sidewalk. A pile of fallen bricks where a wall used to be. Fragments of yellow-glazed roof tile littered the road like autumn leaves. A middle-aged woman sat up, then steadied herself against what remained of a lamppost. Her plump face streaked with grime, stout figure swaying, the woman stared up at the sky. She burst into tears and limped away, vanishing into the smoke.

Beside the lamppost, a toppled handbarrow blocked the sidewalk. It was surrounded by bundles, goods that had fallen off. Then one of the bundles twitched and slowly crawled across the cobblestones toward a smaller bundle. And lay still again.

Lian pushed her knuckles into her mouth to block the scream rising from her throat, backing up until she bumped against the bakery wall. She had to get hold of herself. There were people in need of help. She had to do something. She picked up her suitcase and began walking uncertainly toward the station, into the smoke.

A mound of rubble heaved up and she jumped back in alarm, dropping her suitcase. Bits of brick and wood dropped away to reveal the undercarriage of an upside-down rickshaw. The two people who had been sheltering beneath it stood up. The young man who had pushed up the rickshaw carriage turned and surveyed the street. He was tall, with the lean frame of an athlete. Streaks of dirt obscured his features but his jacket was a familiar shade of blue.

The petite young woman beside him wore the tunic and baggy trousers of a servant. She gave the young man a handkerchief and he wiped his face. Then he dusted off his jacket with a jaunty air, not at all as though he’d just lived through an air raid. He smiled when he saw Lian, a grave and courteous smile that made her feel as though he was giving her his complete and undivided attention. In a far corner of her mind, she acknowledged that his smile would’ve been captivating if she weren’t so numb, so overwhelmed by all the destruction.

He walked toward her, his first few steps a bit unsteady. He pointed at the enameled badge pinned to his jacket, then to the embroidered crest on her blazer with a grin of recognition, as if they were at a school social. The servant girl simply stood on the street, appraising the ruins around them.

“I’m Liu Shaoming, fourth year,” he said. “Call me Shao.”

Lian recognized him now. It would’ve been hard not to. Liu Shaoming was at the center of an elite circle at Minghua, all scions of wealthy families connected either by kinship or business interests. Her female classmates considered him the handsomest man on campus.

“That’s Sparrow Chen,” he added, indicating the girl with a tilt of his chin. “She works on campus.”

Sparrow’s face was clean of dirt and soot, her features calm. Lian found the girl vaguely familiar, wide-set eyes in a face just verging on prettiness. Yes, of course. Sparrow was the one who cleaned the dormitory floors. How could she not have remembered?

“Hu Lian. Second year,” she said. It was ridiculous, in this place and at such a time, that she should wonder how she looked, her cheeks streaked with tears from the stinging smoke, hair and clothing dusted with flour.

“We were on our way to the station,” Shao said, “the ten o’clock train to Shanghai. You too?”

She nodded and turned away to look down the street. A light breeze was dispersing the smoke and she could see more of Shing An Road. And the railway station. It seemed undamaged, but twisted vehicles and shattered masonry filled the street in front of its arched entrance. The air-raid shelter and buildings across from the station had taken a direct hit and were now in flames. All those people, now buried under bricks and shards of glass.

“There were too many people trying to get in the air-raid shelter,” Shao said, his gaze following hers. “Sparrow said we should find cover somewhere else. Good thing we did.”

His next words were interrupted by an explosion from the direction of the shelter, making them both jump. There was a whoosh of sound, and flames rose from another building.

“Young Master,” Sparrow spoke for the first time. “We must get out of here. Now.”

“No, no, we should go help,” Lian said, staring at the flames, the smoke. She picked up her suitcase again.

“That was a gas explosion and there will be more,” the girl said, as patiently as if Lian were a child. “This street will burn to the ground before the fire trucks come. If they even come. We must get back to campus, let them know we’re safe.”

“Sparrow’s right,” Shao said. “Let’s walk back to campus.”

He reached down and took the wicker suitcase from her. “Let me take this,” he said. “We left our luggage behind when we ran from the station.”

When Lian didn’t move, he took her hand. She followed him obediently and they made their way slowly through the ruined streets. Past crumpled vehicles flung against walls, homes collapsed into small landslides of shattered building materials. Past ragged piles of bloodied clothing, some moving feebly. Lian couldn’t stop hearing the screams and desperate voices calling out for mothers, husbands, children. For help. Jiu ming ah, jiu ming! Save me, oh, save me!

“This is hopeless, Sparrow,” Shao said after several blocks. “The streets are a mess. I can barely tell where we are.”

“I know the way,” Sparrow said. “Let me lead.” There was a pure and shining quality to the young woman’s voice, Lian thought.

“Sparrow and I grew up together,” Shao said. “She was one of our house servants. She claims she got bored with Shanghai and that’s why she came to Nanking. But I’m certain my mother sent her to keep an eye on me. Right, Sparrow?”

Sparrow looked over her shoulder and smiled.

Blinking tears from her stinging eyes, Lian thought for a split second that Sparrow Chen’s silhouette glowed, shimmering with a clear light that gleamed through the murk. Lian wiped her eyes with a grubby sleeve and when she looked again, Sparrow’s figure was quite ordinary, a petite shape clambering over the wreckage of a fallen roof.

All the way back, Shao talked. About his roommate, Pao, who had gone home the week before. About his two older brothers, one running the family’s shipping business, the other working as an aide for a senior cabinet member in the government. About his home in Shanghai, a modern villa with formal European gardens in front, classical Chinese gardens at the back with two goldfish ponds and a pavilion.

Lian knew he was trying to distract her, but she barely heard his words as she stumbled along beside him, back to Minghua University. Back to the tranquil campus designed after American colleges, its green lawns edged with gravel walkways, and halls and dormitories of warm red brick. Back to a tranquility that could not possibly last.

Chapter Two

As Shao and Lian trailed Sparrow through the wreckage, Shao kept glancing down at Lian, trying to place her. It came to him only after Lian’s hair came loose from its matronly bun and hung down to frame her face. Each year, Minghua University awarded scholarships to three students. The school newspaper always printed their photos. Lian was one of the scholarship winners from last year, her fees and expenses fully covered for four years. She was a literature major, if he remembered correctly. He recalled thinking at the time that she looked too young to be attending college.

They followed Sparrow’s trim figure past neighborhoods blasted beyond recognition, through tangles of people and vehicles, along streets Shao didn’t know existed, until finally the crenellations of Nanking’scity walls loomed above them. They left the city through its triple-arched southern gate. After another hour of walking, Shao began spotting familiar landmarks. They were almost at Minghua University. He knew it would’ve taken much longer if not for Sparrow.

When they reached Minghua’s gates, Shao insisted they all go to the school clinic. He only had a few cuts on his hands, which the nurse treated with iodine. There wasn’t a scratch on Sparrow, who returned to the servants’ quarters. The school nurse took one look at Lian’s pale face and called an aide to take her into the ward. Lian would stay at the clinic for a night or more to recover from her shock.

Shao used the telephone in the nurse’s office to call his father in Shanghai. His father was in a meeting, the secretary informed him, so Shao left a message to say he hadn’t boarded the train. That he was safe and back at the campus. And what would his father like him to do now?

When the war began, some families had kept their children home, so they’d be together if they had to flee. Others believed their children would be safer at school in another city. Some, like Shao’s father, had changed their minds partway through the semester and sent for their children to come home.

There was no single correct decision, Shao reflected. Only anxiety, leavened by hope. And now perhaps Minghua University would evacuate Nanking.

 

That night, Shao lay awake on his narrow dorm bed, trying and failing to push away memories of the morning’s horrors. He wished his roommate, Pao, hadn’t gone home. But there was something else that prevented him from sleeping, something that prickled at the edge of his consciousness. Something to do with the letter from his father. It had arrived weeks ago, ordering him to come home.

But Shao had been reluctant to leave Minghua University. Professor Kang had asked him to lead a tutorial group, the first time he’d been given such a responsibility. The first-year students had been enthusiastic in their discussions and touchingly in awe of Shao, so he’d kept delaying his departure. Until the Japanese began their aerial attacks on the city.

Giving up on sleep, he lifted aside a corner of the blackout curtains. Overhead, a waning moon glowed serenely behind a thin veil of clouds. Enough cloud cover, he hoped, that there wouldn’t be any air raids this night. Dropping the curtain, he reached over to his desk and turned on the lamp. He found his father’s letter and sat down on the bed. His father never wrote actual letters, just appended a few lines to the ones Shao’s mother wrote. It was her monthly missives that kept Shao up to date with every birth, marriage, illness—and sometimes death—in their large clan. He scanned his father’s words again, the handwriting elegant and spare, penned in a deep blue ink that exactly matched the border of his mother’s stationery.

I know how much you want to stay at Minghua, but you must come home before it gets even more dangerous to travel. Your mother is worried. Leave before Minghua University evacuates Nanking. Buy a train ticket and let me know the date.

His father had signed the note as usual with his seal, a red stamp with his name, Liu Sanmu, in traditional li-shu- style script. Unconsciously Shao picked up his own chop from the desk and rubbed his thumb across the cylinder of polished white jade, identical, but for the carved signatures, to the ones his father and older brothers carried.

Your mother is worried.

An oblique reference to his mother’s state of mind was always a cause for concern and always effective at ensuring his obedience. She could be withdrawn one day, vivacious with wit and charm the next. Shao recognized his own impulsiveness as one of his mother’s traits and always tried to keep it in check. He’d inherited little else from her. Like his brothers, his height, thick brows, and clean, square sweep of jawline were his father’s.

He read his father’s words for the third time and identified the sentence that bothered him.

Leave before Minghua University evacuates Nanking.

Not “in case Minghua University evacuates Nanking” but evacuation as a statement of fact. The Liu family owned Xinwen Bao, one of Shanghai’s major newspapers. Shao’s father was the paper’s owner and editor in chief, privy to information from a wide network of contacts. Liu Sanmu was careful never to criticize the Nationalist government, not even in private. But in advising his son, he had let something slip.

His father didn’t believe the Chinese could hold on to Nanking.

 

When Chancellor Zhao called an assembly, Shao suspected it was to announce their evacuation. Some of the students in the large auditorium grumbled, especially the ones whose hometowns were now occupied by the Japanese. They wanted to stand their ground. Some of Shao’s classmates had already dropped out and enlisted. Angry voices around Shao echoed his own hatred and feelings of helplessness.

The army would never let Nanking fall, it’s our nation’s capital.

I don’t care what my parents say, I’m enlisting. I can join our defenses at the city walls.

Women are volunteering too. First aid, couriers, emergency services.

In Tientsin, the Japanese had bombed Nankai University, then set fire to what remained of the campus. During a press conference with foreign journalists, the Japanese press officer had insisted it had been necessary to target Nankai University because it was an anti-Japanese base. In fact, they considered all Chinese universities anti-Japanese bases.

When Chancellor Zhao took the stage, a respectful but reluctant silence replaced the clamor. The announcement was as they’d expected. The Ministry of Education had ordered universities to get out of the enemy’s path. The government wanted students to continue their education in safety, far from the front lines. Schools must evacuate to cities inland where the government was setting up temporary campuses.

Minghua’s interim campus, they were told, would be in the city of Chengtu, deep in central China. They would take only what they could carry on this journey of a thousand miles.

A traveling campus, Shao thought. No, a refugee campus.

Then Chancellor Zhao cleared his throat. “I know how badly some of you want to enlist and defend our country. But war threatens not just people and places. It destroys knowledge, culture, and history. If we want China to have a future, we must save our cultural and intellectual legacy.”

“He’s going to tell us to stay in school,” the student beside Shao muttered.

Murmurs of protest rose from the audience then faded when Zhao held up a hand for silence. He paused to take a deep breath and Shao realized the elderly gentleman was trying to hold back tears.

“My dear young friends,” the chancellor said, “I can’t forbid you to enlist, but I ask you to consider that your educated minds will be the most valuable resource you can give our nation once this war is over.”

Exiting the auditorium, the students were quieter and more thoughtful than they’d been fifteen minutes earlier. Shao found the chancellor’s uncharacteristic display of emotion disturbing because it meant the situation was more dangerous than they’d all chosen to believe.

Outside, under the late summer sunshine, Shao suddenly felt as though he was seeing Minghua’s campus for the first time, the flower beds and lush green lawns of the quadrangle, the neatly raked gravel paths shaded by sycamores. He had been awed by the stately halls of stone and brick when he’d first arrived. Now there was the distinct possibility he would never see this campus again, not the way it stood today. He winced at the memory of Shing An Road, the flames roaring above shattered buildings. He hoped their beautiful campus would escape ruin.

“Were you planning to enlist?” a voice beside him asked.

It was Wang Jenmei, a fourth-year student who made no secret of her sympathies for the Chinese Communist Party. Shao’s roommate, Pao, had taken Jenmei to a movie once and found her too outspoken, her manners too casual. Too much of her conversation had been spent trying to persuade Pao on the benefits of a socialist system. Despite her bold beauty, Pao had never taken her out again.

Shao shook his head. “My father forbids it.”

“The government is right about one thing,” Jenmei said. “We must think of China’s future after the war. We must protect our students.”

“So the Communist leadership doesn’t want students to enlist either?” he said, just to tease her.

“Most of China is illiterate.” Jenmei waved her hand, an airy gesture. “Finding a hundred thousand raw soldiers is easy. But university students are much harder to come by. So yes, on this particular issue the Communist leadership agrees with the government.”

She turned and ran lightly down the steps to the quadrangle. His eyes followed her shapely figure, her graceful movements. She joined a small group of students and immediately took over the animated conversation.

Shao couldn’t help but contrast Jenmei with Lian. One so bold and confident. The other cautious as a bird. Lian had clung to his hand all the way back as they made their way through the chaotic streets. Once he’d glanced down and she had looked up at the same time. She had a kittenish face with a small chin. Her eyes were the same color as the smoky topaz his mother wore at her throat. That he should remember her eyes so clearly caught him by surprise.

Shao pushed his way past groups of clustered students. He was a tutorial leader and had to set a good example and get to the room on time, even if most of the students were still milling about outside. Across the quadrangle, he saw a slim figure carry a bucket and mop up the steps of the Faculty Building. As if she could sense him watching, Sparrow Chen turned around for a moment, then continued through the double doors, her bucket swinging.

 

Lian had the dormitory room to herself now. Her roommate had gone home several weeks ago, taken away by her parents shortly after Peking and Tientsin fell. Lian cherished her solitude. Without a roommate the plain room felt like a sanctuary, a place where she could dispense with any pretense of enjoying her classmates’ company, avoid the puzzling, intricate protocols required to feign friendship.

Lian dosed herself each night with syrup of poppies. The nurse had given her a small bottle to help her sleep. Even so, she woke up several times, jolted out of dreams that left cold sweat on her brows, ghostly images from the railway station curling like burnt paper at the edges of her mind. She turned over to try and sleep again but the silence disturbed her. Nanking was under blackout and nothing moved on the streets outside Minghua’s walls. Not the familiar rumble of farmers pushing handbarrows on their way to market or the cries of night soil collectors. No laughter from revelers reeling their way home.

Yet there was something about the silence, an expectant stillness that felt like the hush of a theater audience waiting for the star performer to appear. Lian rolled over just as brightness flared at the window, outlining the blackout curtain. Its brilliance was not that of early morning. Awake enough to be curious, Lian got out of bed and raised one edge of the drapes. To the east, the barest hint of morning colored the horizon. To the west, the sky was steeped in darkness, dim hues of blue and gray flecked with stars, a low-hanging half-moon.

The light came from the courtyard below.

It was a girl. She stood with her back to Lian. Her head was turned up to gaze at the heavens and her slim silhouette gleamed with a cool, clean radiance. She lifted one hand to the sky as if in greeting. Then a scattering of clouds dimmed the constellations and light drained from the courtyard as the girl walked away, vanishing into the shadows.

Lian climbed back into bed and pulled up the blankets, wondering what she’d just seen, or if she had seen anything at all. By the time she fell back into sleep, it seemed to her that the shining figure was merely the memory of a dream, brought on by syrup of poppies.