[This brief story was inspired by the photo. It takes place after the events of Sea of Dreams.]
“So they still show the sunrise?” The old woman glanced at the window on the screen Wong Anming was watching as she finished dressing.
Wong turned with a start. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
Mother Huang dismissed Wong’s comment with a brief, sharp wave of her hand.
Anming crossed the room and sat on the small stool in front of the other bed in the room. “What do you mean ‘They still show the sunrise’?”
Huang propped herself up on her elbow and smiled absently. She was remembering when she had been slightly younger than Wong Anming, sitting somewhat impatiently with her grandmother in the old apartment near the 8th Ring Road. “My grandmother told me there used to be great outdoor screens so people could see the sunrise when the smog settled in. It’s funny that they still stream the image, even though you can see the sun now.”
“It’s one of the Macau betting streams,” Wong Anming said.
Mother Huang snorted, “It doesn’t surprise me…” She paused and looked around the room they were in. The Five Truths guest house in Tianjin was an old building, hastily constructed after the Great Schism. The temple had modernised it, but it still retained the feel of those times, she thought.
“You may not believe it, but there was a time when my grandmother did not see the sun for days because of the smog. She said it was impossible to go outside in the winter because you could feel the breath tear your nose and mouth, even with a mask.”
Wong Anming could not imagine what it must have been like. Even though her mantle had a mask, she only used it against the summer dust or winter wind. She had seen the serials, set in the past where Beijing looked like a poisonous ghost town, but she had always thought the shows exaggerated the situation.
“Did you have smog, Mother Huang?”
“I remember it a few times, when I was very young. The war did a lot to end the smog.” She laughed ironically. “When all the factories and cars stopped in Beijing during the worst of the troubles, the air got better. In the end, the damn fighters did some good after all.”
Wong Anming started to ask another question, but Mother Huang cut her off brusquely. “Since you insist on getting up early, my young devotee, the least you can do is make an old woman’s tea and bun for her.”
Anming was just about to say something, but a hardness had set in the old woman’s face that Anming had not seen in her before. Getting up, Anming understood that there would be no more discussion about this topic.
As she poured the hot water over the tea ball, Anming could feel the annoyance roil around inside her. The period of the Great Schism was always present, yet somehow never discussed. She had been taught that it was a terrible time and China had fallen into ruin as a result of environmental destruction, political in-fighting and greed. What she had never been told was the detail- why it had happened and why it was so bad. Thinking about what Mother Huang had said, it seemed like the Great Schism had actually been good for Beijing in some way. Handing the plate and mug to Mother Huang, Anming decided that something did not feel right about this and she had to understand why it was like this.