Beijing Lights: ‘The music felt ever so more beautiful’

Society & Culture

"I don’t play for others; I play for myself. I need to make sure my hands are washed and that my mind is at peace when playing."

Illustration by 魏文绮

Beijing Lights is a column written by Huang Chenkuang, published by the Beijing-based literary arts collective Spittoon, in which she tells the stories of the marginalized from their point of view. With permission, we syndicate one column every month. This latest was originally published under the headline “To love the same way as I am loved” (click through to read it in Chinese), and appears here with slight edits.

Note from Kuang:

It’s a delight to talk with Mǎ Nánrú 马南如. Poetic and philosophical observations are always slipping into her speech. I would like to preface this article with a quote of hers not included in her story below: “Human beings are like ants. Some see themselves as extraordinary and therefore superior. They don’t seem to realize, however, that even if you’re a king, you’re only a king of ants.”

Ma Nanru, 57 years old, from Beijing, violinist

I received my Christian baptism in 1989. Ever since then, I’ve been detached from my body, and my channel to the earthly world has closed.

What does that mean? It means I am no longer greedy toward the world and that I don’t require anything from it anymore. It makes life so much easier.

People’s greed is what makes things complicated. They chase after money, buy this and that. I don’t have that greediness, so I can skip that endless chase. I earn just enough money, eat just enough food, and am happy to wear the same clothes for 10 years. All of my energy can be put into the things that I truly love, which imparts me with endless power.

My true passion is music. I started to learn violin when I was 43.

In the beginning, I was just accompanying my daughter to her violin lessons. She was five when she started learning from an esteemed violinist.

I remember when the teacher started playing that first time, I was immediately taken by the sound — it crawled into my ears, worked itself deep into my chest, and exploded inside me. My eyes closely followed the teacher’s hands; my ears opened wide for every note. I was absorbing the music like a desert absorbs water.

I decided to learn with my daughter. No matter how busy I got, rain or shine, I never skipped a single lesson.

Because I worked in the daytime, took care of my daughter after work, and needed to also do chores around the house, I could only steal some time to practice after my daughter had gone to sleep. I practiced until late at night and often woke up to find the violin still in my arms the next morning. The first thing I’d do was to reach for the violin and continue practicing. I also went to a nearby park to practice. Playing alongside the singing birds and rustling leaves, the music felt ever so more beautiful.

My daughter learned violin for 10 years, and I too persisted like this for 10 years. Every day I kept the same routine and slept for only three hours a day.

The teacher was deeply moved by my commitment. He later rented a store to sell violins that he made himself. He asked me to work in the store. It has been over a decade since I started working here, and I see it as more important than my life. I arrive early in the morning to carefully wipe the violins clean, and I even stay after work to enjoy the peace.

I don’t sell performances. I wouldn’t play just because a customer asked me to. I don’t play for others; I play for myself. I need to make sure my hands are washed and that my mind is at peace when playing.

Like me, my daughter is passionate about violin. She never lacked the initiative to practice, even when she was little. I never tried to preach to her either but would instead leave her to figure things out by herself. Unlike most parents, I don’t center my world around my child but try to live for myself. The day when my daughter was born, I looked at her and whispered: “You are you, I am me. We’re not one. We’re separate individuals. We are to respect each other.” And that’s how I’ve maintained things — I am her friend. She shares her thoughts with me too.

Last year, we stayed home together for a few months during the pandemic. She talked about a boy she liked at high school. She said that boy was an avid runner and that he often ran circles around the school playground. She said that she found great happiness in having someone to think about every day.

Her dad was an avid runner too. He is tall and thin, always keeping his back straight, always high-spirited.

We were neighbors living in the same hutong. I married him at 34. When our daughter was one year and two months old, he went to the United States in pursuit of his American Dream. Many criticized him as heartless for leaving me and my daughter behind, but I understand him. I know that dream meant so much to him. I know that he would sacrifice everything for freedom.

He hasn’t returned even once since he left. I have never asked for money from him. I supported our child all by myself, playing the role of both mom and dad. I helped take care of my parents-in-law too.

During our calls, he never talks much about his life there. I don’t ask either. I know that life is not easy for him. It took him 20 years to get a green card. He’s not been doing very notable jobs. He used to be a bus driver but lost the job due to the pandemic. He now packages items at a vegetable market, working five days a week, eight hours per day, and getting paid 17 dollars per hour.

Though he doesn’t earn good money, he is happy with his life. He says life over there is rather simple. His relationships with people are simple, too, and there are no occasions for unnecessary disputes. You work a day and you get a day of pay. That’s it. Food like pork and shrimp are cheaper than in Beijing. He often asks me to join him.

I have of course thought about joining him. In the earlier years, my daughter was too young, but now that she has grown up, my mom has begun to get old and needs me around to care for her. I think about joining my husband one day, when I’m not needed here.

Yes, I still see him as my husband. I have waited for him for over 20 years. Nobody here thinks it’s a fair situation for me. My elder sister told me that he has other women in the States. Multiples of them. But I think as long as we haven’t gotten divorced, I still have a responsibility to him, to our marriage.

I don’t resent him. I don’t resent anyone. Hatred is like a bloodstain and hating someone is equal to killing them. Instead of resenting him, I’d rather love him.

The mug I use every day is a souvenir from our church’s 100th anniversary. On it is a line that reads, “I love you for eternity.” The love I receive from God, I would like to give it back in the same way to people, and to everything.

Check out the Beijing Lights archive on Spittoon.