The day I posted my last blog, my cat Ninja, as if thinking my Japanese ceramic horse and the Chinese Warrior replica were taking precedence in my affections, managed to break both within a few minutes of each other. He was up on the bookcase and decided to push a glass paperweight off the side (rather like a baby throws a rattle from its cot). Unfortunately, my warrior bore the brunt of this act, with one hand being severed by the heavy glass ball. “I can fix it,” my husband said, “it’s a clean enough break.”
We resumed eating at the table when Ninja leapt onto the far end. Fierce shouting ensued from husband and Ninja took one huge leap, back onto the bookcase felling the little ceramic horse in the process. The breakage of one favourite ornament was one thing; but two? I felt tears and anger building. “I’m going for a bike ride.” I said, pleased to see the back of both of them.
I pedalled away from the apartment, annoyed at myself for feeling so emotional, thinking I shouldn’t be that attached to mere ‘things’. I stopped off at a friend’s house and told her my woes, which lengthened into a conversation about why we felt so attached to particular objects we owned. We agreed it was all about the story they brought with them; taking us to a particular place in time. A significant memory.
The Chinese Warrior came as a result of my husband and I visiting China, at the end of a year’s work in Hong Kong. We found ourselves on a personal tour, with a different guide at each point. This was a surprise in itself, as we had expected to be part of a group. Beijing was first stop. We felt special, being able to saunter around the magnificent Red Square and take photographs at our leisure of the temple complexes and fine architecture. Xian was next, and I was itching to see the famed Terracotta Army.
It is very hard to describe the impression the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum had on me, apart from saying I felt true awe. It is a massive space; the size of several rugby fields, where over eight thousand warriors, horses and chariots were once buried and are now in a process of restoration and exhibition for anyone to come and view. The army is majestic; all soldiers’ features modelled on a different artisan who’d help construct them. A truly fabulous feat, containing replicas of horses, chariots, palatial stables and much more; echoing the kingdom which had existed above ground. But when I learned that thousands of artisans and slaves were immolated when their work was done, I could no longer see this as a spectacular tomb for Qin Huang Shi, but a memorial for the men who perished during the thirty-seven years in its making.
Back at our hotel, we popped into the gift store. There was a very good replica of a warrior standing against the wall. He was handsome; an officer I was told. I wanted him. My husband wasn’t keen, arguing I’d think it a folly years down the line. I disagreed, to the point, when he went off for a walk in the evening, I dashed down to the shop, bought, and arranged shipping for the warrior. He arrived at my house half the world away, with not a chip or scratch on him, being perfectly packed in moulded styrofoam.
He’s been with me now for twenty one years and not one day goes past where I don’t look at him, touch him. My warrior takes me back to the year in Hong Kong, reminds me of the friends we met, the places visited, the concerts we attended to celebrate the hand back to China. He reminds me of how it felt to be immersed in another culture, the difficulties and pleasure received. This statue is part of my home; my life. He has proved to be no mere folly.
But what has my soldier given me apart from accumulated memory? Humility I think above all and a reminder of how precious and precarious our existence can be.
The little ceramic horse, comes from Kyoto, Japan and does not have the same sad provenance as the terracotta warriors. His presence in my home takes me back to when I was teaching in Japan, some years after living in Hong Kong. He reminds me of Japan and the people I knew; the blossoms; maples; gongs sounding; monks chanting. The smell of incense and food. The first time I visited Kyoto I was with an American flatmate. We were walking along the fabulous pottery street leading down from the temple complex of Kiyomizu-dera, when a small painted horse caught my eye in a window. As much as desired him, I resisted buying him that day.
Two months later, a close friend came to visit from New Zealand, and I couldn’t wait to show her Kiyomizu-dera, with maples now ablaze in their autumn glory. As we walked down the pottery street I told her about the little painted horse, and how I hoped it would still be there. We went searching for the store and found it. Disappointment. No horse in the window. However, we stepped inside and I explained to the shopkeeper in my limited Japanese about the horse I had seen weeks before. To my surprise he popped out the back of his shop and appeared with ‘my’ horse in his hand. “Domo arigato gozaimasu,” I said, “I’ll take him.”
My ceramic horse is not just a pretty thing to behold. He signifies the year I bought him (the year of the Uma) and that always reminds me of Japan; my Japanese friends; and the special day in Kyoto I shared with a very dear friend.
The ending of this story is a little brighter than the start, when my cat caused havoc and broke two of my precious things. The warrior and horse were patched up fairly well; and although they are more fragile now, what hasn’t been damaged are the memories they carry with them.