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Shan Sa

The Girl Who Played Go

Joueuse de go

English translation copyright © 2003 by Adriana Hunter


In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen. White vapor billows from their mouths and noses, and icicles growing along the underside of their fur hats point sharply downwards. The sky is pearly and the crimson sun is sinking, dying. Where does the sun go to die?

When did this square become a meeting place for go players? I don’t know. After so many thousands of games, the checkerboards engraved on the granite tables have turned into faces, thoughts, prayers.

Clutching a bronze hand-warmer in my muff, I stamp my feet to thaw out my blood. My opponent is a foreigner who came here straight from the station. As the battle intensifies, a gentle warmth washes through me. Daylight is dwindling and the stones are almost indistinguishable. Suddenly someone lights a match and a candle appears in my opponent’s left hand. The other players have all left and I know that Mother will be sick with worry to see her daughter come home so late. The night has crept down from the sky and the wind has stirred. The man shields the flame with his gloved hand. From my pocket I take a flask of clear spirit which burns my throat. When I put it under the stranger’s nose, he looks at it incredulously. He is bearded and it’s hard to tell his age; a long scar runs from the top of his eyebrow and down through his right eye, which he keeps closed. He empties the flask with a grimace.

There is no moon tonight, and the wind wails like a newborn baby. Up above us, a god confronts a goddess, scattering the stars.

The man counts the stones once and then twice. He has been beaten by eighteen points; he heaves a sigh and hands me his candle. Then he stands up, unfolding a giant’s frame, gathers his belongings and leaves without a backward glance.

I stow the stones in their wooden pots. They are crisp with frost in my fingers. I am alone with my soldiers, my pride gratified. Today, I celebrate my one hundredth victory.


My little mother barely comes up to my chest. Prolonged mourning for her husband has dried her out. When I tell her I have been posted to Manchuria, she pales.

“Mother, please, it is time your son fulfilled his destiny as a soldier.”

She withdraws to her room without a word.

All evening her devastated shadow is silhouetted against the white paper screen. She is praying.

This morning the first snows fell on Tokyo. Kneeling with my hands flat on the tatami, I prostrate myself before the altar of my ancestors. As I come back up I catch sight of the portrait of venerable Father: he is smiling at me. The room is filled with his presence-if only I could take a part of it all the way to China!

My family is waiting for me in the living room, sitting on their heels and observing a ceremonial silence. First of all, I say good-bye to my mother, as I used to when I left for school. I kneel before her and say, “Okasama, [1] I am leaving.” She bows deeply in return.

I pull on the sliding door and step out into the garden. Without a word, Mother, Little Brother and Little Sister follow me out. I turn and bow down to the ground. Mother is crying and I hear the dark fabric of her kimono rustling as she bows in turn. I start to run. Losing her composure, she launches herself after me in the snow.

I stop. So does she. Afraid that I might throw myself into her arms, she takes one step back.

“ Manchuria is a sister country,” she cries. “But there are terrorists trying to sour the good relations between our two emperors. It is your duty to guard this uneasy peace. If you have to choose between death and cowardice, don’t hesitate: choose death!”

We embark amid tumultuous fanfares. Soldiers’ families jostle with each other on the quay, throwing ribbons and flowers, and shouts of farewell are salted with tears.

The shore draws farther and farther away and with it the bustle of the port. The horizon opens wide, and we are swallowed up in its vastness.

We land at Pusan in Korea, where we are packed into a train heading north. Towards dusk on the third day the convoy comes to a halt, and we leap gleefully to the ground to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. I whistle as I relieve myself, watching birds wheeling in the sky overhead. Suddenly I hear a stifled cry and I can see men running away into the woods. Tadayuki, fresh from the military academy, is lying stretched out on the ground ten paces from me. The blood springs from his neck in a continuous stream, but his eyes are still open. Back on the train I cannot stop thinking about his young face twisted into a rictus of astonishment.

Astonishment. Is that all there is to dying?

The train arrives at a Manchurian station in the middle of the night. The frost-covered ground twinkles under the streetlamps, and in the distance dogs are howling.


Cousin Lu taught me to play go when I was four years old and he was twice my age. The long hours of contemplating the checkered board were a torment, but the will to win kept me there.

Ten years later Lu was considered an exceptional player, so famous for his talents that the Emperor of independent Manchuria [2] received him at his court in the new capital. He never thanked me for propelling him to this glory: I am his shadow, his secret, his best opponent.

At twenty, Lu is already an old man, and the hair that falls over his brow is white. He walks with his back hunched over and his hands crossed, taking small steps. A few pubescent hairs have appeared on his chin, a baby-beard on a centenarian.

A week ago I received a letter from him.

“I am coming for you, my little cousin. I have decided to talk to you about our future…”

The rest of the letter is an illegible confession: my painfully discreet cousin must have dipped his pen in very weak ink because his cursive ideograms are strung out between the watermarks like white storks flying in the mist. Endless and indecipherable, his letter written on a long sheet of rice paper undid me.


It is snowing so heavily that we have to stop training. Trapped by the frost, the cold and the wind, we spend our days playing cards in our rooms.

Apparently the Chinese who live out in the country in northern Manchuria never wash, and they ward off the cold by coating themselves in fish fat. As a result of our protests, a bathhouse has been built in our barracks, and officers and soldiers alike queue up outside it. Inside the bathhouse, through the haze of steam, the walls can be seen trickling with condensation. In the doorway, molten snow boils furiously in a huge vat. Each man draws off his ration in a cracked enamel bucket.

I undress and wash myself with a towel dampened in this cloudy liquid. Not far away the officers have formed a circle, and as they scrub each other’s backs, they discuss the latest news. As I go over to them, I recognize the man speaking: Captain Mori, one of the veterans who fought for Manchurian independence.

This morning’s newspaper tells us that Major Zhang Xueliang has taken Chiang Kai-shek hostage in the town of Xian, [3] where he and his exiled army have sought refuge for six years. In exchange for the generalissimo’s freedom, Zhang Xueliang has demanded that the Kuomintang be reconciled with the Communist Party to reconquer Manchuria.

“Zhang Xueliang is unworthy of his good name and he’s an inveterate womanizer,” Captain Mori says dismissively. “The very day after September 18, 1931, [4]when our army had surrounded the town of Shen Yang where he had his headquarters, the degenerate weakling fled without even attempting to resist us. As for Chiang Kai-shek, he’s a professional liar. He’ll welcome the Communists with open arms, the better to throttle them.”

“No Chinese army can take us on,” threw in one of the officers while his back was energetically scrubbed by his orderly. “The civil war has ruined China. One day, we’ll annex the entire territory, another Korea. [5] You’ll see, our army will follow the railway that runs from northern China to the south. In three days we’ll take Peking, and six days later we’ll be marching through the streets of Nanking; eight days after that we’ll be sleeping in Hong Kong, and that will open up the doors to Southeast Asia.”

Their comments confirm various rumors, already rife in Japan, in the heart of our infantry. Despite our government’s reticence, the conquest of China becomes more inevitable every day.

That evening I go to sleep relaxed, and happy to be clean.

I am roused by a rustling of clothes: I am sleeping in my own room, and Father is sitting in the next room, wrapped in his dark-blue cotton yukata. Mother is walking up and down, the bottom of her lavender-gray kimono opening and closing over a pale-pink under-kimono. She has the face of a young woman; there is not a single wrinkle round her almond-shaped eyes. A smell of springtime wafts around her-it’s the perfume Father had sent from Paris!

I suddenly remember that she has not touched that bottle of perfume since Father died.


Cousin Lu is becoming more and more stooped. He tries to seem nonchalant, indifferent, but those dark

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