As Long As You Still Wake Up At Five


By Yitao Shen

It was summer. The clouds were cotton-soft, thick but half transparent under the sunlight.  He wore only a white tank, a pair of blue shorts with large pockets to hold keys, and black slippers. His left hand was holding my right hand. His right hand was holding a retractable clothes pole. He was looking up and pointing the pole at the branches of a tall mulberry tree like raising a sword to a swooping pterosaur. He was 63 years old, fat, bald, but strong like cattle. If a pterosaur was indeed attacking, it would surely be defeated by his clothes pole.

He is my grandfather on my mother’s side.

His name is Zhang Qingping. Zhang is his last name. “Qing” means “clear”, and “ping” means “peace”. In Chinese, his name is utterly simple and powerful. He was born and named in 1949, the same year the People’s Republic of China was founded. His father, Zhang Xinshu, was a soldier who just fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War. He named his son wishing and expecting him to enjoy a warless youth, which, unfortunately, did not come true. 

Zhang Qingping is a great grandfather. He spoiled me when I was little. There was a time I thought it normal that I could get drinks and snacks whenever I wanted. When my parents were trying to teach me to cope with dissatisfactions, like trying to stand not having chips when we were temporarily out of chips, they would hear a clicking sound at the door, and Zhang Qingping  would have been changing shoes in front of the door he just opened. He would then walk out with a reused plastic bag and his old wallet in hand, leaving no words but a loyal, trustworthy back behind.

Every day he goes to sleep at ten and wakes at five, then goes jogging for half an hour in the morning before breakfast. He can walk ten miles without sweating and probably can travel the world on a bike. At 69 years old, he was able to carry his granddaughter in his arms even after she had grown too heavy for her father to do so, and it’s very likely he will not have any problem doing it again now. It feels like he could be sharp and dangerous. He has an impressive amount of power hidden in these naughty wrinkles and smiling eyes, alarmed but remained unaggressive and restrained.

It was hard to explain what he had been through. Let’s just say he went through a Chinese version of witch hunt in his youth in which both him and his father were witches. Let’s just say at least thirty years of his life was spent working like cattle, experiencing irrational poverties and insults rationalized by a historical political context. He wouldn’t talk about his youth if not asked but would gladly do so if I asked. He would tell the stories with excitement and specificity that only the experienced would know, like the feeling of drowning or five hints to catch a frog. 

“Frogs wouldn’t move under sudden lights,” he once acknowledged at dinner. “Did you catch them to raise them?”

“No, I caught them to add some meat to the dinner. At that time we did not have much to eat. My sister and I pierced them on a stick to bring them home conveniently. I saw a little river and decided to wash the frogs first, and guess what?” he laughed and used his chopstick to draw in the air, “there was nothing but a stick-all the frogs ran away to the streams. I cried half an hour there squatting beside the stream!”

In summer, 2012, it felt like every single one of Chinese primary school kids was caught in the trend of keeping silkworms. Mulberry tree leaves became a scarce resource. When Zhang Qingping pointed the retractable clothes pole to the tall branches of the only mulberry tree in the neighborhood, he asked his eight-year-old granddaughter, “how many silkworms did you raise?”

“Five,” she answered, staring straight up at the crystal-green leaves as high as the clouds.  When he raised the pole up and reached the branches with little effort, it felt like he was invincible. It felt like he could overpower a god with the unaggressive might hidden in his wrinkles and smiles.

Yitao Shen is quiet and introverted. She works to develop a calm and indifferent voice. She writes to sing.