I went to bed after finishing my readings and practicing my new vocabulary words – they say it takes a hundred repetitions to learn a new character, and that method has always worked for me. By the time I was finished I had sheets of paper stacked on my desk, each with one character written many times on them. One of the faults of my handwriting, from a calligraphic point of view, is that it looks like a mishmash of printed typefaces, mainly because I got most of my advanced written vocabulary from books. These words weren’t going to change that. I can admire those beautiful, flowing, handwritten scrolls, but I can’t write like that. Sometimes I’d like to be able to, but my attempts always end in tears and mess. Which is probably why my alarm clock woke me from a dream where I was trying to scrub ink out of floor matting. Let’s just say that even in my dreams my calligraphy was never going to get me my driver’s licence and leave it at that.
I’d offered to the household altar, fed myself, cleaned up the kitchen and left the house by seven to make my eight o’clock tutorial. I think Master Que was still asleep in his room when I left, but a couple of other people my age emerged from the old house the He family lived in as I left my place, and I followed them down Heng Mien Street, round the corner into Kung Tao, and then passed them when they stopped at the bus stop. I continued walking because I needed the exercise, and I was at the tutorial room in plenty of time again.
Tay Yang was waiting for us, and with him was an older man in a long laboratory coat over his blacks. In his hands the older man had a metal canister and a thick book while a piece of silk was laid out on the tutor’s bench at the front of the room. As each student arrived we were called up to the desk where we were asked to toss three coins six times and divide up bundles of yarrow sticks. The older man filled in a form, and then we were sent to sit down but not unpack. When the entire class had arrived, and had a hexagram drawn up, the older man laid his forms out on the tutor’s bench and started sorting them.
It was Tay Yang who started the announcements. “Your lab work this year will be performed in pairs or teams of pairs. Guang Wei, here, is our senior Geology laboratory technician and he will announce your pairs and bench numbers. When he announces your details, please move to the bench he states – the numbers are attached to each bench in front of the water tap. The short period of transitional chaos will now commence!” He bowed to Guang Wei who smiled, bowed to him and to us, and then picked up his first stack of forms.
“Liang Miao, Di Yue, bench one.” One of the named boys didn’t have to move, but the other had to get up from the corner furthest from the door and come forward. “Gui, Dao Shu, bench one.” Three of the people who’d originally sat at bench one were now standing at the side of the room. Dao Shu bowed formally to Gui, as if he were entering into a business arrangement, before allowing her to take her choice of the two seats. Gui responded with what I interpreted as a prayerful salute, the sort that you saw some religious give after receiving alms, before she sat.
With eight benches and twelve teams of two, we could have had two empty benches in the room. It looked like we might, but as Guang Wei was proceeding by bench number but not in order it was hard to tell which ones they might be. He filled up bench one, put one pair on bench seven, put two pairs on bench five, put only one pair on benches three and two, four of us on eight, put one pair on bench six, and finished with two pairs on bench four.
I was on bench eight. My partner was Kun An, and we were sharing with Bao Xing and Wang Guai. Both of them were boys, and Wang Guai wore blacks that I now had the experience to tell were probably made by a bespoke tailor. Bao Xing had the sort of haircut that suggested that one of his parents had insisted on doing it. Kwan Ren was on bench four, providing what I suspected would be a lack of distraction for he and Kun An that would be good for their grades. Possibly for their little romance too, as neither would be responsible for the other’s lab results.
The rest of our first lab was on correct sample preparation. By the end of the lab I understood why my secondary school Earth Sciences teachers had been so annoyed by the lapidarist father of one of my classmates who’s insisted on all her homework samples being done ‘his’ way before she brought them in to class. At the end of the class we each had three samples prepared to testing readiness. Ang Shen on bench two had a neatly bandaged hand following an incident with a stone cutter, and we had all received three safety reminders. Wang Guai had taken to reading all the equipment instructions twice after the first warning, and that saved our bench some grief because the last person to use one of our pieces of equipment had left a blade in it back to front.
At the end of the class it was Wang Guai who asked, “Would the rest of you like to come for tea?” As Kwan Ren came to the back of the room to join Kun An he easily extended the invitation, “You too, Kwan Ren?”
“Me too, what?” Kwan Ren looked around the group.
“Would you all like to come for tea?” Wang Guai added, “My treat. I suspect most of us are going to the Philosophy and the Arts lecture at eleven, and it’s early in the year to have extras in place, so….”
“Thank you,” said Kun An, “but we have a Literature tutorial at ten.”
“The only reason it works on the timetable is because the tutorial building is in brisk walking distance of the lecture theatres,” added Kwan Ren.
“Perhaps another time then,” replied Wang Guai politely. He turned to the two of us who were left, “So, Bao Xing, Sung Nai?”
I replied, “Yes please. I need to spend some time in the library later, but I would like tea. Do you have somewhere in mind?”
“Splendid! I found a little hole in the wall place yesterday when I was working out which lecture theatre to go to today. This place is in the same building as two of the lecture rooms, and they have tables on the inner courtyard of the building. Are you coming too, Bao Xing? We need you to stop us being socially awkward or something.”
“Indeed?” Bao Xing looked sceptical.
“And with three of us, everyone is suitably chaperoned,” added Wang Guai. “My grandmothers are very big on that sort of thing.”
“It might be worth checking out if we could do homework and study there,” I pointed out. “After all, we are going to have a two hour break every week, and if we can just go and get tea and a table to read at right next to where we have to be next…that would be so convenient.”
“It would,” agreed Bao Xing, “and you two don’t seem like bad company so far. I’m in, let’s go.”
The tea shop was indeed a little hole in the wall halfway along the eastern wall of an old courtyard house that had been made over into lecture theatres and staff rooms. It looked for all the world as if someone had decided to put in a side entrance at some point and the tea shop now filled that foyer. I wondered about the feng shui of running a business in a passage way, and the décor indicated that I wasn’t the only one – the pictures on the wall were all water scenes and a miniature fountain played in the southwest corner of the shop. Wang Guai asked for a table for three and we were ushered out onto the internal verandah where we were given a table in the shade. There were signs up asking patrons to consider the lectures in progress, and to speak quietly. We did speak quietly, partly because of the signs and partly because the other occupied tables seemed to be occupied by teaching staff.
“I think,” remarked Wang Guai as he topped up everyone’s tea, “that we would be alright to stay here for two hours studying, if we bought a few pots of tea and some snacks. There are two people who’ve got their tables covered in books and papers, and one of them has two tables pushed together.”
Bao Xing and I snuck a look in the direction that Wang Guai vaguely indicated with the teapot.
“He looks like a very senior faculty member to me,” opined Bao Xing. “He might be allowed to do things other people aren’t.”
“We can at least try it once,” I suggested. “I mean, if we’re quiet and buy tea….”
I didn’t go to the library before the Philosophy and the Arts lecture. Instead I stayed at the table in the tea shop with Wang Guai and Bao Xing, fixing up my notes from the Geology tutorial, and then reviewing my notes from the Statistics lecture in preparation for my first tutorial that afternoon. Before I started my assigned Statistics readings, I went and got us a second pot of tea and a plate of almond biscuits.
I was marking up the background reading for the previous day’s lecture in my textbook when Bao Xing asked, “What are you doing, Sung Nai?”
I looked up, pencil and highlighter in hand and said, “Going over the Statistics readings. I had the first lecture yesterday and my first tutorial is this afternoon. There’s one I have to go to the library to borrow, but this is getting me nicely ready.”
“Do you always write in text books?” Bao Xing looked slightly scandalised.
“Only if they’re a copy I own,” I admitted. “School didn’t appreciate it in their books.”
“Won’t that be a problem when you need to sell them at the endo of the course?” He went on, “People like clean books.”
“I’m hoping I won’t have to sell them,” I answered quietly. “Besides, I’d rather not be able to resell the textbook than fail the class. As for the money, I have a job that’s been earning me enough to pay for my books without me having to sell the old ones. Heaven willing, I hope that remains the case.”
“May it be so,” agreed Bao Xing gravely.
It was a companionable hour and a bit before we broke to get ready for our lecture. We regrouped outside the fourth lecture theatre listed for the session, and went in to take our seats.
Introductory Philosophy and the Arts was a compulsory course, along with Introductory Literature, for all first-year students in all courses. That, along with smaller lecture theatres, was why there were four rooms set aside for this lecture session rather than three. Our experience, so far, had been that the further down the list of rooms the particular lecture was, the easier it was to get a seat. However, the fourth listed theatre already had the first five rows solidly filled with students. The three of us looked at each other, and then took middle seats in the seventh row. After getting ready to take notes, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the backs of the people sitting in front of us, and what I noticed was a uniformity of hairstyles and clothes. Lots of short hair and very simple blacks. Almost like a uniform.
When the lecturer, a tallish man dressed in tailored blacks and with hair that looked like it had been cut short to control an exuberant curl, entered, the front five rows of my fellow students stood, bowed in unison, and sat again. The professor looked at them and said, “Yes, I am Professor Chiang Xin, and I take it then that you’ve read my book. Please keep in mind that this course is not about Utilianarianism, and please reread my work in conjunction with your studies. Even better, if you’ve only been introduced to my work through the popularisations of Sang and Chao, read the original. Your tutors will go over the examination and assignment schedule with you, and I recommend that you do not ignore the artwork assignments. Now,” he looked briefly around the entire lecture theatre, “let us look at the earliest roots of philosophical thought in our culture, and why almost all of us are in violation of those precepts.”
He spent the rest of the hour examining ancient concepts of responsibilities to oneself and those around one, and touched on how those ideas were reflected in art. He wasn’t an exciting lecturer, but he wasn’t hard to follow either, and my notes all made sense. At the end he opened the floor to relevant questions, and a lot of front five rows sagged disappointedly. He answered three questions, the final one getting, “That’s a very good point, and I’ll think you’ll find it’s covered at length in the next lecture – please make sure you come.” Then he smiled, gave us three readings, and dismissed the class. Most of the central front row stood and surged forward to talk to him.
Wang Guai and Xing Bao hurried off because they had tutorials in an hour, but as I had three hours before my Literature lecture, I took my time. That let me snag a passing Professor Chiang fan and ask him about the professor’s book.
“Oh, haven’t you heard of it? It’s wonderful.” He rolled his eyes in what may not have exaggerated ecstasy. “It’s Ma Guao’s Thoughts On An Efficient Society Revisited. Please excuse me, I have to get to a meeting with my tutor.” He bowed and was gone.
“Gentlemen,” Professor Chiang was projecting, and given that he was surrounded, I couldn’t blame him, “this is an introductory course. Your questions are beyond its scope, and better suited to it further studies. Some of you may come up with your own answers during your studies, and I look forward to reading your essays on the subject. In the meantime, I suggest you read widely across the range of philosophical thought. You, young lady!”
I looked around and realised that I was the only person in the direction he was facing that Professor Chiang could be talking to. I put on my best innocent bystander face and bowed politely, “Me, Professor?”
“Yes. Can you name three philosophical works you’ve read in the last six months for us?” Professor Chiang waited expectantly, although I wasn’t sure quite what he was hoping for.
I thought it best to answer honestly, “Thoughts from the Floating Mountain by Wu Jen, Honour Among Horses by Cho Ki, and Peony Missives by Lady Wen Cho.”
Professor Chiang stopped for a moment, and then he laughed. “If you want to read more broadly than this class suggests, gentlemen, then those first two books are excellent introductions to the sorcerer-philosophers. I am unaware of the third author, though?”
I replied, “The librarian who recommended her work told me that Peony Missives is often filed with the historical texts, like Lady Wen’s collected letters from the Solar Court. In Missives she advocated that women should own their own labour, several generations before the idea was popularised.”
“I believe I have a book to borrow.” Professor Chiang bowed and added, “Thank you, Miss?”
I bowed in return. “Sung Nai, Professor Chiang. I hope you enjoy her work as much as I did.”
Professor Chiang escaped then, while I was accosted by a number of diligent young men who wanted me to repeat the names of the books I’d given.
This is now followed by Halfway Through The First Week