A Casual Proposal

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-from Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart, who lived in Lijiang during the 1940s.

 

Sitting in my office upstairs one morning, I heard the tinkling of a silver bell and rushed to the window to see who was coming. It was perhaps a bad habit of mine, but I could never refrain from dashing to the window whenever I heard the sound of bells, hooves on the stone path or some unusually loud or unfamiliar noise in the street below. This was from my desire to see everything worth seeing and not to miss anything going on in this magical city. I was so grateful to the Fates who placed me in this house so strategically situated on the main road which led to many tribal villages, to Hsiakwan and to Lhasa itself. From the early morning till late at night it was crowded with a procession of unique people and sights — colourful and enchanting and not to be missed at any cost.

 

Seated in a silver saddle on a magnificent black mule, led by a soldier in black woollen cloak and carrying a gun, there was a pretty young woman in dark blue pleated skirt and red jacket, wearing an enormous cartwheel turban of scarlet silk. Two women in light blue dresses, barefooted but weighted with silver ornaments, ran behind her. To my surprise the mule stopped at our gate and the soldier entered. I descended just in time to meet the lady as she crossed the threshold. She smiled at me and introduced herself.

 

‘I am the Queen Awouchin of Lotien,’ she said with an easy grace. ‘I always wanted to see your house,’ she added in a lovely, silvery voice.

 

She was petite, extremely pretty and vivacious. I bowed and showed her upstairs. She ran up, accompanied by the two ladies-in-waiting and the soldier. She went straight to my desk and seated herself in the chair. The barefooted ladies with the dark-blue turbans sat on the floor together with the soldier. I asked the queen whether she would take tea. She wrinkled her nose and said ‘No.’ Would she drink some boiled water? I inquired again. She laughed outright.

 

‘Don’t you have anything better than that?’ she said, looking at me challengingly.

 

I understood. Cups were brought and I produced a jar of best yintsieu. She drank her cup very quickly and I poured her another. She pressed me to keep her company and gave a cup to the soldier herself, explaining that he was really her knight-at-arms. The two ladies-in-waiting drank their cups greedily. We all became merry. Very soon we began asking each other very personal questions. I told her about myself, my work and how old I was. She said that she was only eighteen and had just divorced her sixth husband. She had come to Likiang for shopping and to look up some relatives who lived near the village of Shwowo.

 

At last she got up and went to my gramophone.

 

‘Can you play some dance music?’ she asked. I put on a slow foxtrot.

 

‘Can you dance?’ she asked. I said that I could.

 

I do not remember how long we danced, probably more than an hour. Like all the Tibetans and Nakhi, who come from remote mountain regions, she was a wonderful dancer. Not once did she miss a step or a movement. Since the music and dances of the Nakhi, Tibetans and Black Lissu along the Yangtze River are essentially Western in rhythm and execution, there was no need for any preliminary explanation or demonstration. She particularly enjoyed my boogie-woogie records and we jitterbugged until I was ready to collapse.

 

Finally she sat down and we had a few more cups of wine.

 

‘You ought to come down to Lotien,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we could even be married,’ she added nonchalantly. I pretended to be shocked.

 

‘At my age!’ I exclaimed. ‘And with you so young!’

 

She brushed that aside.

 

‘A foreign husband would give me a lot of prestige,’ she continued. ‘You would have a comfortable life and much money.’

 

I glanced instinctively at her good-looking knight and he gave me a dirty look.

 

‘What about your knight?’ I whispered, winking at her.

 

She laughed. ‘It’s nothing. He is only a friend,’ and she rose to go.

 

‘Well, I will think it over,’ I said, not wishing to disappoint royalty. I escorted her downstairs.

 

‘I shall drop in again.’ She waved to me as the two ladies were helping her into the saddle.

 

I entered my general office. Prince Mu and Wuhsien, my interpreter and organizer, were smiling broadly.

 

‘That was Her Majesty the Queen Awouchin of Lotien,’ I announced proudly.

 

‘I know her well,’ said Prince Mu. ‘She is a distant relative of ours.’

 

‘Is it true that she is only eighteen?’ I inquired. Both men laughed outright.

 

‘At least twenty-six if a day,’ they cried in unison.

 

‘What about her husband?’ I continued.

 

‘She has just divorced her fifth or sixth one,’ they said.

 

‘And the soldier?’ I asked again.

 

‘He is clearly a candidate,’ said Wuhsien, ‘otherwise why should she drag him along.’

 

The next day I was surprised by a visit from the handsome soldier. He went straight up to my room, sat down and unwrapped a small leather pouch. Then he took two small moon-shaped silver sycees and laid them before me.

 

‘What is that?’ I asked uneasily.

 

‘This is my present to you if you will lay off the queen,’ he said simply. I felt I was becoming red.

 

‘What do you mean?’ I gasped, trying to control a burst of laughter.

 

‘I love her,’ he continued, looking me straight in the eye, ‘and I hope she will choose me for a new husband.’

 

‘But where do I come in?’ I tried my best to get it clear.

 

‘Well, she is serious about marrying you. She thinks a foreign husband would be an experience and it would add to her power.’ He said it with conviction.

 

Now I was laughing so much that the people downstairs thought I had gone mad. I took the sycees and replaced them in the pouch. Then I handed it back to the knight and filled two cups with wine. I told him solemnly:

 

‘My dear friend, I am not Adonis, and please do not consider me to be your rival for royal favours.’ We took a sip, then I continued: ‘I shall never marry your queen, not because she is not beautiful but because I do not want to spend my life in Lotien.’

 

He brightened up considerably, but still persisted in trying to give me the silver.

 

I conducted him gently downstairs. He came back yet once more in the evening and presented me with a jar of my favourite wine; but the Queen of Lotien never came back.

 

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