Up the River Valley

As the train was passing through the hills of Jiangxi, up the river valley, Ling could still not believe that he was finally going back. Staring out of the window, he thought of when he had last been here, just a few weeks after the Germans had come ashore. Now he was sitting in a German-made carriage, going over German-built railway tracks (well, paid for by German companies, but built by Chinese workers).

He couldn’t complain: His sponsors had shied no expenses. He was travelling first class, the waiter had just cleared the remains of the excellent lunch from his table, and a gramophone was playing a good recording of some Shanghai band.  The other passengers were calmly talking, mostly business matter judging from the number of top hats, probably all German-made as well. He could hear contract papers being neatly shuffled back into briefcases.

Ling did not carry a briefcase. His luggage consisted of two enormous trunks in the baggage coach, each filled to the brim with clothes that had been supplied by his sponsors, as he had grown used to explain at each of the countless border controls he had passed through in the last few weeks. So far, he had been able to pass through every one of them; a testament to the resourcefulness of his sponsors, considering the two secret compartments in his trunks were stuffed to the brim with German Mark bills, neatly off the press in Paris. Paris, yes; Thinking back to it, Ling remembered how he had stepped out of the train carriage that brought him to Paris all those years ago, after a travel around half the world.

The sponsor was the same now as then, the trunks were the same, and even his assumed persona was the same: a citizen of German Qingdao, assistant curator of some Hamburg trade agency, a title that guaranteed passage on all ships to and from trade-friendly German China. That much he knew.

He also knew that while the façade had stayed the same, behind it things had changed; that had, after all, been the whole purpose to which the French had sponsored these ludicrously expensive trips not only for him, but for so many of his comrades and colleagues from the movement back when things had fallen apart. It had been confused times; Things had come unstuck in a completely unforeseen manner, and Ling and many others had gratefully reached for the lifeline presented to him by a French agent in some seedy café back then; China was lost. Come to Paris. We are enemies of the Germans just as you are. We will guard you from them, we will analyse what led to the fall of the Republic together, and then we will send you back as soon as an opportunity presents itself.

And soon, Ling had been standing on some Dutch steamer, holding back tears as he saw the Chinese shore vanish beyond the horizon. He had been alone; had had no contact to his friends or family for months, and would not see them for years, probably. Those thoughts were his only companions while he was traveling under an assumed name, not daring to speak a single unnecessary word out of fear of giving himself away, locking himself away from the world – come out and take a look at us, the cities of India, Arabia, of Africa screamed, no thanks, I’m fine, he answered –  until he stepped out of that carriage in Paris. Because as he stepped out of it, he recognised the faces of the small group waiting for him in the mass of Frenchmen and -women: Exactly those friends and colleagues he had left behind in China, not knowing what their fate had been. Some of them, at least. Not the ones closest to him, not the ones he had gotten along best with before, but that mattered little back then. For him, they were all that he had left of his old world. They would do.

They submersed themselves into their work. It was their duty to figure out where it had all gone wrong – and how to do better on the next attempt. The day consisted of waking up, remembering you were in Paris, having breakfast in the hotel that had been reserved for them, already picking up on yesterday’s discussions, splitting up for the day’s work, meeting again for dinner in the same hotel, continuing the discussion from breakfast, and finally going to bed at one o’clock in the morning.

And there was enough fuel for discussion. Lectures in universities or union halls – heard or held, and more than one time in front of the general assembly of the CGT –  correspondence or personal meetings with Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, Englishmen, Englishwomen, Italians, Spaniards, Americans and fellow exiles from Russia. If the day’s morning had seen the publication of a new political work, it would be delivered to their doorsteps in time for the evening’s debate – by “the benevolent sponsors”, as they liked to joke – and already been incorporated into their discourse by the time the next delivery arrived. Every newspaper was diligently ripped apart in search of new discussion fodder – especially, of course, every scrap of paper related to China.

The train was approaching a bend in the river valley. On the other side Ling could see growing rice and workers handling some kind of heavy machinery, stopping theur work to watch the train work along its path, filling the sky with smoke. The sun reflected from the water in the terraces, and a town appeared behind the hill’s bend. The rhythm of metal on metal, wheels on track, began to slow.

They had worked for years and years. Winters and summers had passed by their hotel room windows, were many still had their trunks standing in a corner, wanting each day to be the day they would be able to return. Some did not live to see it – a heart attack there, an assassination by poisoned cocktail another time – but finally, the results of years of collective work where boiled down and published under a ridiculously long name, once again under the friendly auspices of the benevolent sponsors.

They celebrated in the hotel lobby – where else? – joined by trade union representatives and even the very agent that once recruited Ling, now sporting a magnificent greying moustache. And after a number of apricot cocktails Ling had not bothered to remember, that agent, slumped beside him on the counter, tinsel hanging on the edges of his moustache, disclosed him what he had wanted to hear for so long: That in a week’s time, he would be on a ship back to China to bring their program into action.

And now here he was, he thought, as the train came to a screeching halt at the town’s station. He looked, without much thought, into the mass of villagers on the platform; wearing giant packages on backs and heads, streaming into the third-class-carriage’s doors. A wooden cart being emptied of its load, some burlap sacks with a German stamp on them. As the wheels began to turn again, Ling sat up straight. German goods? Here? In some godforsaken village? And what was a train line doing here, anyway? And that soldier over there, in front of that building – wasn’t that a German helmet?

But already, he had lost sight of the village.

He wondered what he would find. He had treasured the last batch of letters he had received before leaving, read them a thousand times over; Now there would be new ones. But one from whom? Who would still be there? And what would they have done in the time of his exile? What would he have to catch up to? The last thing he had heard was that there had been reports of reform projects in rural areas, which was where he was heading now.

Of course, that went against everything he believed in: The future was to be found in the cities. Cities were the future. Those who stayed behind seemed to think differently. This was why his trunks weren’t packed with posters or other propaganda material; The task wouldn’t be to spread the movement, but to unify it again.

If only he knew what they were thinking at this moment. If only he could start to talk to them right now.

Ling clenched his hands into fists, beating the rythm of the wheels, commanding them to go faster, ever faster, his knuckles white as the plate the waiter set down on his table for dinner. Thank you, Ling said, calmly and with controlled voice, staring out of the window without seeing anything.

The gramophone played, and the train carried him farther, ever farther, up the river valley.