The Flute of Chang Liang by Maurice Baring

To P. Kershaw

The village was called Moe-tung. It was on the edge of the big main road which leads from Liao-yang to Ta-shi-chiao. It consisted of a few baked mud-houses, a dilapidated temple, a wall, a clump of willows, and a pond. One of the houses I knew well; in its square open yard, in which the rude furniture of toil lay strewn about, I had halted more than once for my midday meal, when riding from Liao-yang to the South. I had been entertained there by the owner of the house, a brawny husbandman and his fat brown children, and they had given me eggs and Indian corn. Now it was empty; the house was deserted; the owner, his wife and his children, had all gone, to the city probably, to seek shelter. We occupied the house; and the Cossacks at once made a fire with the front door and any fragments of wood they could find. The house was converted into a stable and a kitchen, and the officers' quarters were established in another smaller building across the road, on the edge of a great plain, which was bright green with the standing giant millet.

This smaller cottage had an uncultivated garden in front of it, and a kind of natural summer-house made by the twining of a pumpkin plant which spread its broad leaves over some stakes. We lay down to rest in this garden. About five miles to the north of us was the town of Liao-yang; to the east in the distance was a range of pale blue hills, and immediately in front of us to the south, and scarcely a mile off, was the big hill of Sho-shantze. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, and we had been on the move since two o'clock in the morning. The Cossacks brought us tea and pancakes, and presently news came from the town that the big battle would be fought the next day: the big battle; the real battle, which had been expected for so long and which had been constantly put off. There was a complete stillness everywhere. The officers unpacked their valises and their camp-beds. Every one arranged his bed and his goods in his chosen place, and it seemed as if we had merely begun once more to settle down for a further period of siesta in the long picnic which had been going on for the last two months. Nobody was convinced in spite of the authentic news which we had received, that the Japanese would attack the next day.

The sunset faded into a twilight of delicious summer calm.

From the hills in the east came the noise of a few shots fired by the batteries there, and a captive balloon soared slowly, like a soap-bubble, into the eastern sky. I walked into the village; here and there fires were burning, and I was attracted by the sight of the deserted temple in which the wooden painted gods were grinning, bereft of their priest and of their accustomed dues. I sat down on the mossy steps of the little wooden temple, and somewhere, either from one of the knolls hard by or from one of the houses, came the sound of a flute, or rather of some primitive wooden pipe, which repeated over and over again a monotonous and piercingly sad little tune. I wondered whether it was one of the soldiers playing, but I decided this could not be the case, as the tune was more eastern than any Russian tune. On the other hand, it seemed strange that any Chinaman should be about. The tune continued to break the perfect stillness with its iterated sadness, and a vague recollection came into my mind of a Chinese legend or poem I had read long ago in London, about a flute-player called Chang Liang. But I could not bring my memory to work; its tired wheels all seemed to be buzzing feebly in different directions, and my thoughts came like thistledown and seemed to elude all efforts of concentration. And so I capitulated utterly to my drowsiness, and fell asleep as I sat on the steps of the temple.

I thought I had been sleeping for a long time and had woken before the dawn: the earth was misty, although the moon was shining; and I was no longer in the temple, but back once more at the edge of the plain. "They must have fetched me back while I slept," I thought to myself. But when I looked round I saw no trace of the officers, nor of the Cossacks, nor of the small house and the garden, and, stranger still, the millet had been reaped and the plain was covered with low stubble, and on it were pitched some curiously-shaped tents, which I saw were guarded by soldiers. But these soldiers were Chinamen, and yet unlike any Chinamen I had ever seen; for some of them carried halberds, the double-armed halberds of the period of Charles I., and others, halberds with a crescent on one side, like those which were used in the days of Henry VII. And I then noticed that a whole multitude of soldiers were lying asleep on the ground, armed with two-edged swords and bows and arrows. And their clothes seemed unfamiliar and brighter than the clothes which Chinese soldiers wear nowadays.

As I wondered what all this meant, a note of music came stealing through the night, and at first it seemed to be the same tune as I heard in the temple before I dropped off to sleep; but presently I was sure that this was a mistake, for the sound was richer and more mellow, and like that of a bell, only of an enchanted bell, such as that which is fabled to sound beneath the ocean. And the music seemed to rise and fall, to grow clear and full, and just as it was floating nearer and nearer, it died away in a sigh: but as it did so the distant hills seemed to catch it and to send it back in the company of a thousand echoes, till the whole night was filled and trembling with an unearthly chorus. The sleeping soldiers gradually stirred and sat listening spellbound to the music. And in the eyes of the sentries, who were standing as motionless as bronze statues in front of the tents, I could see the tears glistening. And the whole of the sleeping army awoke from its slumber and listened to the strange sound. From the tents came men in glittering silks (the Generals, I supposed) and listened also. The soldiers looked at each other and said no word. And then all at once, as though obeying some silent word of command given by some unseen captain, one by one they walked away over the plain, leaving their tents behind them. They all marched off into the east, as if they were following the music into the heart of the hills, and soon, of all that great army which had been gathered together on the plain, not one man was left. Then the music changed and seemed to grow different and more familiar, and with a start I became aware that I had been asleep and dreaming, and that I was sitting on the temple steps once more in the twilight, and that not far off, round a fire, some soldiers were singing. It was a dream, and my sleep could not have been a long one, for it was still twilight and the darkness had not yet come.

Fully awake now, I remembered clearly the old legend which had haunted me, and had taken shape in my dream. It was that of an army which on the night before the battle had heard the flute of Chang Liang. By his playing he had brought before the rude soldiers the far-off scenes of their childhood, which they had not looked upon for years—the sights and sounds of their homes, the faces and the spots which were familiar to them and dear. And they, as they heard this music, and felt these memories well up in their hearts, were seized with a longing and a desire for home so potent and so imperative that one by one they left the battlefield in silence, and when the enemy came at the dawn, they found the plain deserted and empty, for in one minute the flute of Chang Liang had stolen the hearts of eight thousand men.

And I felt certain that I had heard the flute of Chang Liang this night and that the soldiers had heard it too; for now round a fire a group of them were listening to the song of one of their comrades, a man from the south, who was singing of the quiet waters of the Don, and of a Cossack who had come back to his native land after many days and found his true love wedded to another. I felt it was the flute of Chang Liang which had prompted the southerner to sing, and without doubt the men saw before them the great moon shining over the broad village street in the dark July and August nights, and heard the noise of dancing and song and the cheerful rhythmic accompaniment of the concertina. Or (if they came from the south) they saw the smiling thatched farms, whitewashed, or painted in light green distemper, with vines growing on their walls; or again, they felt the smell of the beanfields in June, and saw in their minds' eye the panorama of the melting snows, when at a fairy touch the long winter is defeated, the meadows are flooded, and the trees seem to float about in the shining water like shapes invoked by a wizard. They saw these things and yearned towards them with all their hearts, here in this uncouth country where they were to fight a strange people for some unaccountable reason. But Chang Liang had played his flute to them in vain. It was in vain that he had tried to lure them back to their homes, and in vain that he had melted their hearts with the memories of their childhood. For the battle began at dawn the next morning, and when the enemy attacked they found an army there to meet them; and the battle lasted for two days on this very spot; and many of the men to whom Chang Liang had brought back through his flute the sights and the sounds of their childhood, were fated never to hear again those familiar sounds, nor to see the land and the faces which they loved.