The lane, in terms of the art of urban architecture, is like a pieceof prose of gentle gracefulness or a painting of classic elegance andsimplicity.
Often tucked away in a small town south of the Yangtse River, thelane, like a maiden of ancient times hidden away in a secluded boudoir, isreluctant to make its appearance in public. You’ll never have an opportunity tosee it and savour its gentle poise until you have become truly attached to thesmall town after living there for a long time. The lane has nothing in commonwith the mean rural alleys, which are narrow and low-lying, muddy and bumpy,overgrown with wild weeds and lined here and there with manure vats. Nor has itanything in common with linong (meaning alleys) in Shanghai, which areliterally packed with dwellings and their residents. Over there, you’ll seevendors hawking their wares here and there. From time to time, women are seenemerging from inside some dingy small gates and shuffling languidly in theirslippers towards a laohuzao, the shop specializing in selling boiled water,their hair disheveled like wind-blown withered grass in autumn, their eyesblood-shot, their faces betraying traces of overnight make-up. Nor has the laneanything in common with hutong (also meaning alleys) in north China, which aredusty on every side, especially when a wind rises.
The lane, though cut off from the hustle and bustle of busy cities,does not taste of the countryside at all. It is long and deep, so it will takeyou a long while to walk patiently and quietly through it from end to end. Itis also so winding that it seems to be a blind alley when you look far ahead,but if you keep walking until you take a turning, you’ll find it again lyingendless and still more quiet. There is nothing but stillness there. At any hourof day, you can even distinctly hear in the dusk-like quiet your own footsteps.On either side of the lane stand enclosing walls of medium height, which,moss-covered and hung with clusters of fresh green wisteria, look almost likescreens of primitive simplicity. Inside the walls are residents’ gardens withdense groves of tall bamboos as well as soft sounds of nature. In spring,beautiful peach and apricot blossoms atop the walls, like graceful girls wavingtheir red sleeves, will sway hospitably to beckon the pedestrians. You’ll findthe doors in the walls close shut without a soul in sight because they are backdoors to some households. Occasionally, you may come upon a dog lying there,which, however, never gives a bark at you.
The charm of the lane lies in its absolute serenity. No matter whoyou are, if you loiter around in the lane for a while, your mind will become asunruffled as the ancient well at the end of the lane. There you will experiencea kind of peaceful calmness rather than gloomy sternness. There reigns peaceand quiet in the midst of noisy bustle. It is a world of its own on earth. Itmay be a modern version of Wu Yi Xiang, a special residential area of nobilityin the Jin Dynasty southeast of today’s Nanjing, where each family, secludedbehind closed doors, has its own covered-up story of joys and sorrows, and riseand decline. When the sun is setting, swallows will fly low over wild flowersand grass on their way to their nests. The all-pervading and all-purifyingatmosphere of water-like placidness makes one forget all cares and worries.
Aren’t you weighed down with cares in this life of hard toil andexhausted physically and mentally? I would like to advise you often to take awalk in the lane in your off-duty hours. That is the best way to take a rest.It will dissipate your fatigue and relieve your nervous tension. When you arefidgety or depressed, go to the lane and wander around reciting or composingpoems with your hands crossed behind your back. You will then suddenly fallinto a bright mood and enjoy inner peace, forgetting both yourself and theexternal world. Don’t you have a sweetheart? Let me suggest that, instead ofaccompanying her on a visit to famous park or scenic spot, you take her with youfor a stroll in the lane at dawn or dusk. Over there, you two can chat freelyand with even deeper affection, free from greedy sidelong glances or malicioussquints such as you often meet with in busy streets. Suddenly, at a creakingsound, there may appear a figure by a door—usually an unsophisticated younggirl. She will, at the sight of you, withdraw coyly into the house.
The lane is a safe haven for those struggling in the turbulent seaof humans to enjoy a sense of security. It is a heavenly abode in the midst ofconfusion. Unlike the erstwhile plank-paved path used exclusively by theimperial family for their vehicles to move on smoothly, the lane is place forthe common people to roam about leisurely.
Those who strive after fame and gain, and haggle over every penny,please go to the downtown area! Those who are sharp-tongued and quarrelsome,please go to the teahouse or restaurant! Those who love deafening gongs anddrums as well as noisy wind and string instruments, please go to the operahouse or theatre! Those who are given to profound meditation and a quiet lifewithout worldly desires, welcome to the lane!