south of the dragon
Carpet - A Tale Of Fertillia by Xi Xi, translated by Diana Yue,
Hong Kong University Press $180
SMALL ISLAND sits south of Dragonland. This tiny speck, 'smaller
than a sesame seed', has a world-famous harbour rimmed with skyscrapers,
an elite mountain top district, mid-level homes for the upwardly
mobile, steep, narrow alleys, hawkers, street sleepers, noisy
markets, garish signs and border crossings. A place strangely
In a series of well-crafted vignettes, we accompany the Ips, master
furniture-makers, the Fas, aerated water suppliers, and Falibaba,
secret possessor of a flying carpet, as they encounter typhoons,
meteor showers, squatter fires, bank-runs and government elections.
live in the lush green land of Fertillia and we feel their panic
as an earthquake approaches from Dragonland, their ancestral home,
a once-sleeping behemoth who has been given too many clocks by
narrator asks, 'Do they want to wake up the sleeping dragon?'
Images of growth and change - flowers, foliage, clocks, rain,
wind and water - permeates this magical, luminous book. Every
object takes on a meaning that transcends its physical space and
function - gold jewellery, wooden furniture, perfumes, fire and
earth - cleverly weaving traditional Chinese cosmology into the
narrative and implying that the old has a place in the new. The
carpet metaphor is what carries us through this shifting mosaic
of change and draws it all together. Carpets, the author explains,
are 'garments that we make for the earth'. Fertillia, a 'door
rug' to its large neighbour to the north, has 'protected the feet'
of those who have made it their home. It has its own definition
of what a carpet is, in its own unique language. 'The door rug
can change into a flying carpet, but then who knows if a flying
carpet may not change back into a door rug?' Not only does this
refer to political realities, but it also reflects the struggle
that we all have between the practical and what we truly desire.
Carpets lose the ability to fly because people put obstacles in
a surreal episode, a group of scientists attempts to make a flying
carpet but, even after capturing the best scholars in the land,
fail spectacularly. Humans can advance technologically it seems,
but the mysteries of the metaphysical are beyond them. Only those
who possess simplicity and who follow their inner voice will be
able to understand its secrets. Which is why only Falibaba, who
looks after his flying carpet with loving care, can ride one.
Carpets that fly do not always have the most beautiful of patterns,
is defined by its geography. But this can be transcended if its
denizens are prepared to open themselves to a more elevated vision.
At story's end we are invited to free ourselves from Fertillia's
reality altogether - but the book does not end there. There is
a listener to this story, a young girl who has been absorbing
it all, suggesting that another chapter of Fertillia's history
is yet to be written.
is a work of a major Hong Kong writer who chronicles her city
with the simple, wise air of a child. The translator has captured
the subtleties of the original Chinese work leading readers
to look anew at the fascinating minutiae of the world around
in the South China Morning Post, 2000)