Once on a Moonless Night - By Dai Sijie






1978 – 1979


LET’S CALL IT THE MUTILATED RELIC, this scrap of sacred text, written in a long-dead language, on a roll of silk which fell victim to a violent fit of anger and was torn in two, not by a pair of hands or a knife or scissors but quite genuinely by the teeth of an enraged emperor.

My chance meeting with Professor Tang Li sometime in mid-July 1978 in a conference room of the Peking Hotel, and what he revealed to me about that treasure, both shine out to this day like a little square of light in the hazy and confused labyrinth that my memories of China have become.

For the first time in my life I was being paid in my capacity as interpreter in a meeting set up by a Hollywood production company to discuss the screenplay of The Last Emperor, which went on to be the major film that everyone knows, garlanded with nine or ten Oscars and generating astronomical box office takings. With permission from the University of Peking, where I was enrolled in the Chinese literature department as a foreign student, and armed with a notebook bought the day before specially for the occasion, I made my way to the Peking Hotel in the middle of a summer afternoon so hot it vaporised everything, turning the city into a cauldron steadily stewing its population. Creaking their last, my bicycle wheels sank into the cloying asphalt, softened by the heat and giving off little spirals of blue smoke. The foyer of the eight-storey hotel (the city’s only skyscraper at the time) was overflowing with excited activity, the revolving glass door besieged by a noisy succession of fifty a hundred, two hundred people, I couldn’t tell. Judging by their accents they had come from every corner of China. Parents laden with provisions and children carrying violin cases on their backs and, despite the heat, wearing Western-style blazers with white shirts buttoned up to the neck and ties or bow ties, even though some of them were barely six or seven years old. As soon as each child appeared in the foyer, a riot broke out; the others would swarm over and huddle round, peering anxiously and bombarding the newcomer with impatient questions. It looked just like a crowd of worried refugees jostling at the doors of an embassy. After a while I gathered that they were each waiting for a private audience with Yehudi Menuhin, who came to China once a year on a mission that was as charitable as it was artistic (and in which there was a certain element of personal publicity): to find one or two child prodigies, a new Chinese Mozart. This was a golden opportunity for these young violinists, an unhoped-for chance to set off for the United States and attend a music school directed by the master himself.

The lift wasn’t working and the climb to the eighth floor, where my meeting was being held, required considerable effort, especially as there were violinists everywhere in the stairwell too, milling about like ants, sitting or even lying on the stairs, along corridors and in the corners of window ledges. Eventually, almost rigid with exhaustion, I reached the meeting room and found that it was, quite by coincidence, right next to the budding violinists’ audition room, which had its door closed.

I was invited to join a group comprising a representative for the Italian-American director, a production assistant, another translator and a dozen eminent Chinese historians. We were seated around a rectangular table covered in a white cloth dotted with tins of Coca-Cola, cups of tea, ashtrays and vases of plastic and paper roses, and in the middle, in pride of place, stood an imposing and majestic professional tape recorder. On the wall hung an enlargement of a black-and-white photograph of Puyi, the last emperor, taken in the Forbidden City on a particularly raw winter day in 1920. He was wearing a Western-style jacket and glasses with rimless round lenses, his features tense, his expression dark.

The introductions and handshakes were accompanied by my halting translation from Chinese into English laced with a strong French accent, while the other translator, who was barely more at ease than I was, translated from English into Chinese; protocol was strictly respected. I noticed a Chinese man of about sixty, not like the others who all wore short-sleeved shirts; he was draped in traditional Chinese dress (a tunic in