About The Book
In 1938, the second year of the War of Resistance Against Japan, Minglun University is relocated to Kunming, the capital of China’s southwestern province Yunnan, where makeshift buildings are constructed in order to continue educating. Meng Yue, a professor of history, and his wife Lü Bichu both enjoy the weather in Kunming, although they constantly need to seek shelter against enemy air raids. Er, their eldest daughter meets her ex-male classmate during a class with an American teacher. One weekend, Bichu’s family visits the mansion of the Yan family, the home of her eldest sister Suchu, to celebrate her birthday. Jiangchu, her second elder sister, and Tantai Mian, her husband, also come from Chongqing, the provisional capital during the War, for the occasion. The three sisters celebrate their reunion in war-ravaged Kunming. Yan Liangzu, Suchu’s husband, is a general of the Yunnan army. He serves with distinction in The Battle of Tai'erzhuang. Later he suffers a mishap during the Battle of Wuhan, the wartime provisional capital before it falls to the Japanese in 1938. He is currently reassembling his troops in anticipation of marching again to the frontlines. Hezhu, his concubine, is the real mistress of the household. She keeps weird things like toads to exorcise evil spirits. During the reunion, an obituary arrives from Beiping (name of Beijing from 1928 to 1949, when Nanjing was the official capital of the Republic of China), announcing the passing of the father of the three sisters.
The Meng family holds a memorial service for Bichu’s father in the suburbs. They come under enemy air raid. Mei, the second daughter, faints from shellshock. Back in Kunming, the family discovers a crater the size of a vintage car in front of their house, which is half demolished by the air raid. Meng Yue manages to recover pieces of furniture such as their bed, table and chairs as well as utensils from the rubble. His manuscripts are also found intact in his bookcase. Xiaowa, his son, also digs out from the rubble an ink stone. Xiaowa has by now grown out of his fascination with aeroplanes, which he now sees as murder weapons.
In her article The Winter-Sweet Grove that Will not Fall to Enemy Bombs, Bichu expresses her memory of her father and describes the condition of her family during the war. She states that, “the winter-sweet grove will not fall to enemy bombs,” and “whatever the hardship, flight, bombing, disease…we shall overcome and build a new life for ourselves.”
After the lunar New Year, Mei starts to attend the Kunjing High School for Girls, which is situated on the mountains. She gets to know Yin Dashi, a classmate from a prosperous family. After lights out, Mei, Yin Dashi and a couple of other classmates sneak out to the foot of the mountain to eat beans and watch the moon. Zhao Yuping, one of her classmates, suffers a snakebite.
It is part of daily routine for wartime Kunming residents to seek shelter upon the sounding of air raid alarm. Faculty and students of Minglun University have become used to this. Whenever air raid alarms begin to sound, they will escape with campstools to the suburbs to continue their class. They will only go into shelter once the drone of enemy bombers drowns out the sound of their discussion.
Mei falls sick with fever. She is moved from the school and checked into a hospital. Bichu decides to move the family to the countryside.
Early in the summer of 1939 the Meng family moves to Longwei village. Their neighbor is Qian Mingjing, a lecturer from the Chinese Department. Mr. Zhao, the landlord, keeps pigs, chickens, cats, dogs and horses. The living conditions are passable except for the inconvenient sanitary arrangement. One day, when Bichu goes to fetch water from the well, she hears light laughter in Qian’s home. When the pail falls to the bottom of the well, Bichu calls Huifen, Mrs. Qian, for help and receives no answer. She then recalls that Huifen has left for town. Bichu asks Huifen to help cut her long hair and learns from Huifen the news that Wei Feng, her relative, and his wife, Xueyan, are in Guiyang, the capital of neighboring province of Guizhou. Qian Mingjing studies oracle bone inscriptions and, with business acumen, deals in jade and precious stones. He has had various extra-marital affairs, which have so far all been forgiven by Huifen. Upon discovery of his latest affair, however, Huifen insists on a divorce. Qian Mingjing desires promotion to professorship and visits Bai Liwen, an expert on paleography, to seek his support. Erudite as he is, Bai Liwen is eccentric and prone to verbal abuse.
Weifeng and Xueyan arrive at Meng Yue’s home after a long and arduous journey from Guiyang. They recall the past with strong emotions. In 1937, Weifeng arrives in Yan’an from Beiping. First he works as a teacher at the Chinese People’s Military and Political University against Japan and then leaves to work at a radio station. Xueyan receives Weifeng’s message, asking her to join him in Yan’an. Ashamed of the fact that her father has become a collaborator with the Japanese aggressors, she comes to Yan’an under the escort of Weifeng’s friend. Sometime later, the Communist Party of China arranges for Weifeng to teach at Minglun University in order to expand the influence of the Party. Consequently, Weifeng and Xueyan come to Kunming together.
In her article Endlessly Flows the Mang River, Xueyan describes her new life at Minglun University: she has found a post teaching French and learned to cook and launder.
One evening in May 1940, after attending a lecture by professor Zhuang Youchen on the current situation of “the War in the European Theater,” Er, Zhang Xinlei and other students chat in a teashop. During her field trip to collect specimen for the botany class, Er sails to the center of the Dian Lake and asks for an oracle bamboo slip at Taihua temple, which reveals to her that “all good matches are made in heaven and occur by divine will only.”
The graduation ceremony has to be broken up in a hurry due to air raid warning. However, teachers and students sing the magnificent school song and drown out the sharp noise of air raid warning. During the summer vacation, the Meng family moves to the side yard of a research institute for the humanities on Baotai Mountain. Though living hand to mouth themselves, they still receive and entertain many visitors. Once Bai Liwen comes and gobbles up half of the meat dish for dinner. After the Pearl Harbor incident, air raids occur less frequently. Spring returns to Kunming. During one of the performances for the troops, Baofei, wife of Mr. Mi, the elderly Jewish gentleman, suffers a miscarriage, drawing attention to this wandering race without a nation.
In his article The Trial and Tribulation of a Wandering Jew, Mr. Mi wonders where country and home are for a Jew. He once worked in Qingdao, a once German concession and was discriminated against once back in Germany due to his race. While other countries refuse to accept the request of asylum by him and his wife, China opens her door to them. Tragically, his wife dies on the boat to China. On the boat he gets to know Baofei, a Jewess with a scar on her face, whose husband and son have been murdered by the Nazis. United by a common fate, they console each other and finally get married.
Around the time Minglun University decides whether to continue to engage members of the faculty, Bai Liwen, absent for a year, suddenly returns, only to be told that his contract will not be renewed. Bichu, Huifen and other wives of members of the faculty open up a stall to sell steamed buns with fillings such as scallions and meat, sesame and sugar as well as twisted steamed rolls with salt and pepper. Their business booms. However, Er does not approve. One day, Xueyan drops by to lend a hand and suddenly faints. The doctor declares that she is pregnant.
Kunming is now much more prosperous than compared with a few years ago. Jeeps driven by crews of US air force can be frequently seen on the streets. A new cinema with state-of-the-art facilities has opened up. Er declares her affection to professor Xiao Ziwei and receives a gentle refusal. When Zhang Xinlei proposes, she immediately accepts. On the way to breaking the news to her parents, to avoid collision with military vehicle, Zhang Xinlei veers and falls off the cliff to his death while Er suffers a mild injury. At her insistence, news of their engagement is published in the paper. Bichu wants to sell her jade ear pendants and pins to pay for daily expenses. Qian Mingjing happens to visit and take them away to look for potential buyers. The articles penned by Meng Yue on the history of Song dynasty are construed as an implicit attack on the government. Two agents take away Meng Yue without giving a reason and release him half way. Yan Liangzu comes to bid farewell to the Meng family as he is ready to march to the frontlines.
Xueyan gives birth to a son and names him Wei Lingnan. One day, she comes to the pond to launder and falls into the water to her death. In The Song of Wei Lingnan, her son expresses the pain at the loss of his mother and condemns the war. He can only cry, “crying is my song”. The Meng family returns to the city. Mei participates in a charity performance, whose motive is however thrown into doubt due to suspected embezzlement.
Spring goes and summer comes. Kunming is in bloom. People change too. Weifeng leaves Kunming. Mei graduates from high school and is admitted to the math department at Minglun University. The leadership at universities in Kunming convenes meetings. According to the plan promulgated, the universities will be relocated and senior students will be drafted into the army. It is the consensus amongst all that “we shall never surrender.”