Soul Oxygen No.4 / CEN LONG’s View of Art

Since long ago, I have known a Russian song, Tyomnaja Notch (dark night), by heart. Whenever my loneliness strikes me, its tune springs from the deepest corner of my heart spontaneously.

When I was a teen, both my parents were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and were both put into prison. My father, lost his life to this maelstrom. Their savings were frozen; my little brother had just started elementary school. With the recommendation of a high school classmate, I started apprenticing at the train depot, taking over the space of the workers who left to rebel. My meals were provided by the depot, and my earnings of five cents a day could buy six bowls of noodle for my brother. Every aspect of the reality then was mired in chaos. People were suspended in a state of delirium, few people showed up to work and all the positions were in need of employees. Automobiles were stranded and derelict, and most part of the railway system was paralyzed. I hadn’t fully grown at that time, I was barely as tall as the coal shovel, but just with a little training, I was sent on the train as a training stoker. However, to be truthful, I really took up the job of a formal employee.

I remember the train was called PL002, a small PL9 model manufactured in 1929 in the United States. I absolutely adore this gigantic wasted toy that the workers nicknamed “old nine”, I enjoy burnishing the pieces of bronze until it shone. On every journey, I fed all 12 tons of coal on the stream locomotive shovel after shovel into the furnace. I twirl the shovel with my right wrist and control the direction of the shovel and all sorts of specific actions with my left hand; coal and ashes were distributed to the four corners of the furnace and the heart of it, aiming to shape the pile of coal on the hearth to resemble the arc of the boiler so that all could be heated uniformly. All of this work was just to ensure that the stream could provide enough pressure to power the train. I learnt to observe important signals: a thumbs-up meant to go straight and a slanted thumb meant to cross through; at the same time I observe, I also had to report to the driver and co-driver so to ensure that we were all on the same page. Often, I had to turn on the pump and add water to the boiler, so that it wouldn’t exhaust all it water and explode. These are all experiences I can never forget. 

What left the clearest mark in my memory were the night expeditions: at that time, most cities were underdeveloped, the majority of China was farmlands and rustic areas, many depended on kerosene lamps for lightings. Once night fell, a stark darkness veiled the earth, and it seemed as if only the loud roaring engine of the trains, the straight glare of the headlight on the tracks ahead and the exchange of dirty jokes and chats I couldn’t understand between the drivers existed. The dull time seemed interminable and indefinite. One can often see me standing on the link between the locomotive and the stream room, clinging to the iron chains and coper handles, sticking my head out and gazing at the dark fields. I let the relentless wild wind scrape my cheeks scorched by the glaring furnace, and sang, repeating again and again, dark night, it’s name “темнаяночь” in Russian. Sometimes, as if suddenly lit, a light might appear afar, it would flicker as we approach it, and my heart would beat more rapid with accordance to the fluctuation of the light; because, that little light represented a family…… In my mind, a “home” must be very warm and cordial, maybe a family had just starting chatting beside a lamp, some dog or cat might even be resting beside…….

The lights I see during my travels became my rock and spring of hope during these endless nights. Sometimes, a light might be passed by in a flash, however, I clung to the anticipation that another would appear soon ahead, each time, it lighted up a sprouting hope in me. Such circumstances seemed to ease the sorrows and hardship of my life then, and more luckily, I had a secluded imaginary world, that was forever afloat in my heart. It was the memory of the art in my life before the Cultural Revolution: The artworks of painters like Repin, Surikov, M.A.Vrubel. All the poems and prose I had the honor of reading: Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Neruda, Hugo, Balzac, Pushkin, Lermontov, Baron, Longfellow, Shelley, and Whitman. I especially cling to Russian modernist Konstantin Paustovsky’s story about Anderson, < The Night Coach>. I cherished the past moments when the melodies of Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, and Beethoven rang beside me. 

I was nourished and caressed by these perennial masters, and solaced by these priceless spiritual manna; on those dark sleepless nights, I could suddenly forget the despair and helplessness imparted on us when after our properties were confiscated what was left was my family staring helplessly at each other in a small cramped room; I could also leave behind the horrid memory of being pushed on a rocky road as I tried to chase the red guards who came to take my father away with their crimson armbands and truncheons. Only to realize that despite the fact that people honored him as a “cultural maestro” then and after, he never came home again; I could even wash away the memory, that not long after all the tragic, that day when my brother and I went to visit my mother who was kept in the labor camp and brought along us, since neither of us knew how to cook, some food from the school cafeteria. The worker that was in charge to guard her, when checking the container with the food, sneered disdainfully and said, “I don’t see how she has any right to deserve this quality of food!” But the quality food he objected was just some plain fried cabbage I bought with the only few cents I had and was nothing but wan and dry. 

I now acknowledge the greatness of the power of art, it is grander and greater than this vast hollow dark night. I think that these scattered lights on earth mirrors the kindness of humanity and the great artists are like the innumerable stars on the vault of heaven. The light they shone, together, light up a flame of hope in our dreary heart burdened by the dark night, just like how the headlight of the train pierces the dark night with its sharp, powerful beam of light, and illuminates the road that leads to the ultimate destination.