The Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting

Free The Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting by Adeline Yen Mah

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Authors: Adeline Yen Mah
going to take the birds home without their cages?’
    ‘That’s my problem. Not yours.’
    ‘I’ll go bankrupt if I sell you three birds for ten coppers.’
    ‘All right! How about two birds for ten coppers?’
    ‘Who keeps the cages?’
    ‘You do.’
    ‘Any type of birds?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘How about these two pigeons for ten coppers?’
    ‘Fine!’
    ‘So, these two pigeons are yours for ten coppers. Now, I’d like to see what you’re going to do with them without a cage.’
    He hands over the two caged birds to Ah Zhao, who pays him. Ah Zhao calmly opens the doors of the cages and releases the pigeons, one after the other, into the sky. A murmur of astonishment goes through the crowd of onlookers. I can tell by the way they shake their heads that they can hardly believe what they are seeing.
    The bird-seller is outraged. ‘What did you do that for?’
    ‘If you were a bird imprisoned in a cage, what’s the one thing you would yearn for?’
    ‘I have no idea. What is it?’
    ‘Freedom! Lack of freedom is a fate worse than death!’
    ‘You’re mad! But why should I care? Just give me back my cages, as agreed, and we’ll go our separate ways.’
    I watch as the two pigeons flap their wings and soar away joyously towards the horizon. Happy birds, I think to myself. I wish I had eyes buried in their feathers so I could follow their flight across the wide blue yonder and go wherever they roam. I can see from Ah Zhao’s body language that he’s happy to have set the birds free. It occurs to me that, as a servant, he must feel like a caged bird himself. Just like me.
    At that moment, Gege creeps up stealthily behind Ah Zhao, tackles him from behind, covers his eyes and shouts, ‘Guess who I am, Big Nose!’
    ‘Can it possibly be the handsome and talented Zhang Ze Duan, famous court-painter-to-be?’ The two boys laugh and shadow-box and chase one another along the grassy shore.
    ‘Tell me about the boats, Ah Zhao,’ I say.
    ‘Amazing variety, aren’t they?’ He brushes grass off his black, hemp cloth trousers as I join them. ‘See the cluster of boats on the other side of the teahouse? Most of those belong to fishermen. Families of four or six people sleep, eat and work in them.’
    ‘I see some fishermen even keep birds as pets.’
    ‘Those are special birds called cormorants. The fisherman places a metal ring round their neck so they can’t swallow big fish. He lowers them into the water to catch fish, then takes the ones they can’t swallow from their mouths.’
    ‘What about that cargo boat laden with boxes? What’s making it move up the river?’ Gege points to two vessels close together, one behind the other. ‘I don’t see any sails or oars, let alone anyone rowing.’
    ‘That’s because the smaller boat in front is a paddle-wheeled tugboat. Instead of sails or oars, these wooden paddle wheels are moving the two boats forward.’
    ‘How about those two big boats docked along the banks to our right? Are the workers loading or unloading?’
    ‘Who knows? The one with multiple decks, that looks like a big house, may be a merchant ship. Both of them are big enough to sail to the ocean or to other countries. See those gigantic masts? When all the sails are pulled up they look like great clouds in the sky.’
    ‘What are the sails made of ?’
    ‘Bamboo matting. The sailors probably took some of them down for cleaning and repairs. The direction of those sails can be changed from moment to moment to catch the wind. That way, the sailors can go wherever they wish.’
    ‘How glorious! To go wherever one wishes!’ Gege says longingly.
    ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the three of us could board one of those boats and sail somewhere far, far away?’ I say, mesmerized by the panoramic view and the possibility of travel.
    ‘How I long to be a sailor!’ Gege exclaims. ‘I simply hate my lessons! As for those ancient books I have to learn by heart! I don’t know anyone who speaks like

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