A summary: Set in contemporary Shanghai, this elegant and seductive love story revolves around Shen, an art appraiser, and Ruth, a young Australian woman, who find their lives strangely mirrored in Six Chapters of a Floating Life, an actual centuries-old Chinese manuscript that is missing the final chapters. A moving and richly layered novel, The Red Thread interweaves love and destiny, art and beauty, and the passion that ties one person to another forever.
Yun had a peculiar fondness for old books and broken slips of painting. Whenever she saw odd volumes of books, she would try to sort them out, arrange them in order, and have them rebound properly. When she saw scrolls of calligraphy or painting that were partly torn, she would find some old paper and paste them together nicely, and ask me to fill up the broken spaces. Then she would roll them up and label them ‘Beautiful Gleanings’. This was what she was busy about the whole day when she was not attending to the kitchen or needlework. When she found in old trunks of musty volumes any writing or painting that pleased her, she felt as if she had discovered some precious relic. An old woman neighbour of ours used to buy up old scraps and sell them to her. Yun had the same tastes and habits as myself, and besides had the talent of reading my wishes by a mere glance or movement of the eyebrow, doing things without being told and doing them to my perfect satisfaction.
Once I said to her, ‘It is a pity that you were born a woman. If you were a man, we could travel together and visit all the great mountains and the famous places throughout the country.’
‘Oh, this is not so very difficult,’ said Yun. ‘Wait till my hair has gone grey. Even if I cannot accompany you to the Five Sacred Mountains, then we can travel to the nearer places, as far south as the West Lake and as far north as Yangzhou.’
‘Of course, this is all right,’ I said, ‘except that I am afraid when you are grey-haired, you will be too old to travel.’
‘If I can’t do it in this life,’ she replied, ‘then I shall do it in the next.’
Shen and Ruth travelled to Tianzhou by boat that same night, arriving late and waking Mrs Ma from her sleep. She was pleased to see Ruth looking so well.
First thing in the morning they went to find Dr Feng who was half expecting them. She knew that the prescription would have run out by now. If Ruth had not come, it would have been a bad sign. But after examining her, Dr Feng was more than satisfied with her progress. The transformation was remarkable, but the treatment must continue, she said, busily writing out another prescription.
Ruth was grateful to this skilled doctor for showing her that a remedy was available if ever again an emotional storm threatened to blow her off course. Dr Feng beamed in contentment as she handed her patient the package of medicine. If you had time, the doctor said, you could always find a way. You must slowly stitch the body to the world that nourishes it, repairing the frayed threads of its own life principle. Saying this, she ran her fingers over the neat embroidery on Ruth’s shirt, which Ruth had mended on the river.
They were saying their goodbyes when Old Weng rushed in, breathless and shaking. Shen had never seen him so agitated. Hearing that the lovebirds had reached Tianzhou, he had come rushing to find them, not allowing a moment’s delay. He more or less dragged Shen and Ruth out of Dr Feng’s clinic and up the hill. Only when they were striding along like the wind did he think to congratulate Ruth on her return to health, but he made no concessions as he raced ahead up the cobbled road to the Yellow Corktree Temple.
At the entrance to the temple they stopped, as the young couple had done that first time, to look back at the town, spread below like a soft, smoky quilt airing in the morning light, the waterways reflecting the sky. As they paused to catch their breath, Shen blurted out to Old Weng what had happened in Hangzhou. He had swapped his precious Ming dynasty stem-cups for the missing chapters of Shen Fu’ s book on the understanding that the deal would be reversed if the chapters turned out to be phoney. But when he had tracked the man to his lair with proof, he was told that the stem-cups had already gone.
‘Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,’ laughed Old Weng. ‘Dealer Situ always was a rogue. You got your fingers burnt. But you had some interesting reading. Wait and see where it goes from here.’ He was rubbing his hands.
‘In the end it goes back where it came from,’ Ruth said. ‘Even the finest porcelain is only baked clay, after all.’
‘It’s the scarcity of survival that gives value,’ said Old Weng, rocking on his toes. ‘Come on, in we go.’
They entered the main hall of the temple where an old monk was waiting. He had a birthmark on his cheek that looked like half of the Chinese character for gate. Old Weng introduced him as Broken Gate, the renowned head monk of the temple. He looked familiar to Ruth and Shen, although they had not met him on their previous visit. Overhead the giant face of the Buddha floated in gold among the blood-red beams of the temple roof as the candles danced and shafts of sun poked through doors and cracks. Oranges and waxy apples were piled up on the altar in offering, and incense twisted upwards in wayward curlicues of smoke. This Sakyamuni Buddha sat cross-legged with downcast eyes, and hands poised in the mudra of teaching. On either side of him were other statues, the avatars of destruction and rebirth. The stone floor clattered with the sound of people bobbing up and down in prostration. It was a busy place.
‘You’ve come back,’ Broken Gate said, bowing inconsequentially. ‘This way, please.’
Behind the main hall was a smaller hall dedicated to Guanyin, whose bright eyes seemed to follow the monk as he led them round the back and up the stone steps into the living quarters. When they reached a musty little reception room, he asked them to sit.
The head monk and Old Weng had been friends since boyhood. Their roads had diverged years ago when Broken Gate took his vows and set off on his beggar’s journey. But in the period of turmoil when the Yellow Corktree Temple was under threat he returned to Tianzhou to protect it, like a son coming home to protect his parents, and Broken Gate and Old Weng resumed their old friendship.
‘In those years, when all forms of religion fell under suspicion,’ Broken Gate said, ‘Yellow Corktree Temple was attacked time and again. Its funds were confiscated, its relics seized or smashed. Monks were denounced and pilloried, and many left the order, returning to secular life. At the lowest ebb, during the Great Leap Forward, the grand compound was designated a site for light industry. The commune members moved in and attempted to smelt iron here. It became a factory for producing electric fans. Only one small dormitory was set aside for the few remaining monks.
To be Continued In the May issue…..
About the Author：
Nicholas Jose has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Adjunct Professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University and Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.