“Islands with islands, sunsets after sunsets, surfs are washing your memory away.” An ancient Chinese poet wrote this when he looked out over the sea from an island. Maybe, the memory had been washed away but not the lighthouses. If you are at the place where the poet stood hundred years ago, you will catch the sight of a 135-year-old lighthouse, though the memories associated with it might have faded away long ago.
Hundreds of miles south-eastward from Shanghai, in the latitude of 30.85 degrees north and 122.67 degrees east, there is a small flowery and bird-shaped island we call the Flower Bird Island, which sits in the top north of the Zhoushan Islands — the biggest archipelago in China.
It was in early June 2005, after sailing through billows and landing at the foot of a hill in the island when we arrived at our destination.
As I reached the top of the hill, nearly worn out, a distinctive lighthouse amazed me, not only for its thick and sturdy appearance, but also for its height of 16.5 meters and width of six meters, and also for the distinctive black-and-white coat of paint. Almost the top three quarters of the lighthouse is black, the other quarter is white.
The lighthouse, which the indigenes call the Flower Bird Lighthouse, is a navigated mark of entrance to Yangtse River. It has stood there since 1870, but incomprehensibly, in most of its past, it doesn't belong to China but to the Great Britain, a country 10,000 miles away from China. Is this a fruit of international cooperation or globalization? No.
Those who are familiar with the Asian history of the 19th century know the truth: the lighthouse is a fossil of the Empire Without a Sunset. After two wars between the Chinese Qing Empire and Great Britain in the 1840s and 1860s, the failed former had to open its ports and cede maritime rights to the latter. So the English built the lighthouse and inhabited the area in the following decades until it was taken over by the Japanese in World War II. The lighthouse finally came back to China's control after Japan was defeated in 1945.
The lower half of the lighthouse, including the first two floors, looks like a blockhouse with high and small windows, and there is an annular balcony in the third floor. The fourth floor has a vaulted loft with broad and bright glass windows.
After putting on clean chinelas, we stepped into the lighthouse and walked up along the four-floor cockle stairs.
I saw an enormous combined bull’s-eye lens at once when
I reached the lantern room. The lens, which was constituted by four independent lenses assembled by eight loops of crystalline glass prisms, has its boastful diameter of 1.84 meters and was once regarded as the biggest lens in the far east.
The lens rotates one revolution every 60 seconds, and its light can reach an extent of 24 sea miles in its altitude of 89 meters. But if you look carefully at the surface of the lens, you could find some nicks on it. The master told us that the nicks were caused by bullets when the Japanese took over the lighthouse in the World War II.
He also said that because this type of lens is no longer manufactured, it is irreplaceable. Fortunately, the nicks do not affect the function of the light, so the lighthouse continues its duty even after 100 years of threats by storms and history.
A horrent tale, which was told by an indigene, said that eight natives were killed and buried under the groundwork of the lighthouse just before it was set up. Although the saga's authenticity might be left to doubt, it seemed that the collision between the indigenes and the immigrants never stopped since the latter inhabited the island. How many skirmishes of hatred have been witnessed by the lighthouse? I don't know. But when I turned my head, watching through the glass windows of the gigantic lantern room,
I saw a steamship passing through the skyline of the Pacific within eyeshot, then I thought, maybe all those animosities are not important but the responsibility and devotion to the lighthouse, and maybe, all the sad bygones have been bygones, just like the surfs lashing the coast and washing the memory away.
Opening a guidebook about the lighthouse, I found its glorious history. Constructed in 1870, the light, which had four thick wicks and used rap oil, went into operation. In 1899, the light was improved and was burning with kerosene by its six wicks. In 1923, a diaphone was installed and the sailors can hear its whistle 5–10 miles away. In 1989, the automatic oil transporting system was completed and the history of oil heavers was over. Although all of its stories can't be compressed into one short article, as you know, many things could have happened in a long period such as 135 years.
When we took the boat and left the island, my friend Icy looked a little sentimental. She said that while I was wallowing in the spectacular beauty from the outside balcony of the lantern room, the master had told her a story about a former keeper. The hero of the story retired just two years ago and still lives on the island. Forty years ago, when he was a young man just beginning his work here, his wife and his four-year-old daughter came to visit him, but the ship was lost at sea and he never saw them again. I thought, maybe, that is just one of the many sad stories the lighthouse has buried deeply in its heart.
When I looked up, the sun glows were bestrewing the sky at dusk, and the light of the Flower Bird Lighthouse was lit up. Suddenly, it seemed that I grasped the meaning of this image, maybe, just like its statuesque figure on the background of the sky in the past 135 years. The lighthouse is a post-house between island and island, a messenger between sunset and sunset and a prophet between memory and memory.
The Flower Bird Lighthouse has been imbedded into my memory and would never be washed away.
(The author is a Chinese freelance journalist and writer.)
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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