&: A story about spending time in a detention center in Datong

This is a story about spending time in a detention center in Datong. It's not a typical story about foreigners ending up in detention in China. I neglected to register with the local Public Security Bureau but I wasn't accused of a crime and I wasn't deported. I don't bear the local Public Security Bureau any ill will. I was treated well, despite being very cold and bored.

The story starts with leaving Guangzhou because my life was shit or because I was depressed and wanted to run away from everything. I think that's the most interesting part of the story.

That was a year before I ended up in Datong. I flew into Shanghai from Vancouver, then got on a thirty hour no seat train ride to Guangzhou. It's very easy to explain what I was doing. I wanted to escape. I had let a relationship crumble and I had been fired from a job working at a liquor store. If I was going to work a dead-end job and watch my future slowly darken, I thought I might as well do it in Guangzhou.

After I arrived in Guangzhou, I scraped together a pretty good life: a slack job in Tianhe, a Xiguan girl that spoke English with a SoCal accent, a Hunan art school girl that dressed like Sherlock Holmes, an apartment in a xiaoqu full of water features and palm trees and illegally parked Panameras. It didn't last long. Maybe a few months. I wasn't trying to build a future, so it was easy to fuck around and abuse the freedom of not having to give a fuck about anything. I became nocturnal, haunting the clubs downtown and drinking too much. I went out every night. I woke up once in a hash dealer's apartment; I woke up a few times in massage parlors and on sidewalks. That makes it sound more glamorous than it was. I spent a lot of time locked in my apartment, pissing in Gatorade bottles, smoking weed and playing Secret of Mana. But I knew that things were grim. And I knew what to do, at that point. I had been through the cycle before: escape, fuck things up, escape to somewhere where the stakes were higher, escape, repeat. I felt things breaking apart. I found an email that had gone ureplied-to in my inbox for months, someone I had met in Vancouver introducing me to a friend that could offer me a job in Shanxi.

I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving. I cleaned out my apartment and filled a dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I wouldn't get any calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if I left on for more than a few minutes. I put everything I owned—a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's bought before a job interview, notebooks—in a bag that I could carry over my shoulder. I bought a hard seat ticket on the K600 that runs from Guangzhou all the way 2000 miles out to Baotou. I waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I rode the thirty-six hours out to Datong, feeling the air growing colder every stop we made headed north.

Datong was cold. The old city was being torn down to put up a fake wall and a new temple complex. I could walk across the central town in a few hours. I survived on xianbing and sleeves of Oreos. I worked for a man with bad teeth and a lot of money, a low-level but authentic Shanxi coal boss who made the jump out of the coal business at the right time and diversified into heavy equipment, manufacturing, hotels and a half-dozen other sidelines. I worked for his cousin Huang, and was mostly left alone in a corner of an office that served as a travel agency and advertising company. The girls that worked in the office with me seemed just as idle.

I had no friends except a girl whose name I've forgotten now, who, seeing me sitting alone in a cafe, using the WiFi, entered, sat down, and then went home with me. After I slept with her, she insisted that she move in. We had relationship that was not unhappy but completely joyless. She doesn't figure much in this story. But I don't want to delete the references made later to her. I will call her Qiaoqiao.

As winter approached, I made a visa run to Hong Kong and ended up in Guangzhou with a new work visa, waiting for my flight back to Shanxi. I went out that night with a few former colleagues and clients. As the night wound down I found myself in a bar with a businessman from Uganda who ran a business shipping furniture and heavy equipment to East Africa, and a man from Syria who was married to a Mexican girl I knew through a friend. The Ugandan left as the Syrian and I took to take a taxi to a twenty-four hour private club. Over drinks he asked me for a long shot favor: I know a guy here, he said, going to medical school. His brother came over too and has gotten into a bit of trouble. Nothing serious. Nothing with the police. But the brother is very religious. He’s trying to get the kid out of Guangzhou.

I met the kid the next morning. Samir had grown up in Kenya, the son of a middle class Baluchi family, with a civil engineer dad who had two wives. (He discovered it when his dad ended up in the hospital and he ran into a boy who looked exactly like him in the corridor—his half brother.) The family ended up in a suburb of Toronto, claiming refugee status on bogus Somali passports. His passport said he was twenty two years old, but he had just turned twenty. In Canada, his two brothers became devout Muslims, active in their mosques. They married Pakistani girls and made plans to get out of the country. Samir’s phone still rang the call to prayer five times a day but he was more passionate about Bollywood, fashion and poetry. When his eldest brother went to Guangzhou for medical school, he followed. His brother had early suspicions. Samir could barely negotiate the city but he had had started fucking boys he met on a dating app, smoking ice and coming home fucked up at four in the morning.

Samir came with me to Datong. He lived in my apartment and came into the office most afternoons. The girls in the office loved him. He taught them Madhuri Dixit dances and they got him to take their lunch order down to the restaurants in the alley behind our office tower. I paid him out of my salary and made sure he was well fed. On Fridays we took a taxi to the mosque and I waited outside for him, chatting with the woman who came every week to sell frozen halal chickens from out of her Hyundai trunk. I translated what I remembered of the imam’s speech for Samir. We talked and got drunk together and ran through the shitty clubs. He made connections, somehow and it wasn’t long before he knew all the secret gay pickup spots in the city and where to buy poppers. I’m sure his brother wouldn’t have approved.

I tried my best. It's fucking wild to see someone that was around the same age as you when your life went off the rails putting their life off the rails in almost—without poppers and Islam—the same way. The night before we went to jail, I gave him a speech. I remember, we were sitting in the living room of our apartment. I told him that you can never be happy unless you learn to control yourself. It's not important what happened after that. We went out, I went home early, and Samir stayed out and got into some trouble.

In the morning, Samir came home with the police. They asked to see my passport and invited me to go for a drive with them. They filmed the arrest, so somewhere there is a video of me blearily answering my bedroom door and walking to the two black Passats that were waiting outside. A tall woman in a trench coat was in charge of a group of plainclothes cops. She apologized for disturbing my rest. I got into the backseat of one of the cars and Samir got into the other.

We were brought to an office of the Public Security Bureau. I was asked what my relationship to Samir was, if I’d been with him the night before and an outline of my activities over the last several days. We were taken to a hospital, pissed in cups and—I think?—had our blood drawn. I couldn’t talk to Samir but I tried to put him at ease, smiling over the nurse’s shoulder, making light conversation with the cops shuttling us around. They let slip that because I had a work visa I should be okay —detention but no deportation — but they were not pleased that I had never bothered to register at the local police station. We were taken to a KFC up in Beiguan and treated to lunch.

We got back into the cars and drove out beyond the edge of the city on an empty highway. We drove for an hour. It was late fall, the greyest season in a grey country. I talked to the cops that were riding with me, sitting on both sides of me in the back of the Passat. For a while, I thought that we might be driving to the airport, but I quickly realized we were going in the wrong direction and too far out of the city. I didn't care where we were going. When we pulled up at a walled compound and walked the gravel driveway up to a row of low, grey buildings, I knew Samir had not been able to read the three characters above them that indicated we had arrived at a detention centre.

In a cold room, we stripped our clothes off and were photographed back, front and side. We were given orange vests and flip-flops, and had any metal zips or buttons cut out of our clothes. One of the guards gave us a tour of our cell:

Put cold water in this bucket in the morning. Put hot water in this canteen. Shit and piss in this bucket. These basins are to get your food. This rag is to clean. Don’t touch the beds until it’s time for bed. Sit on these stools. Lights out at nine thirty. Out of bed at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Then you can go to the bathroom, dump your shit bucket and get water. Inspection is at nine. Lunch is at eleven thirty. You nap between one and two thirty. You eat dinner at four thirty. Any questions? Follow the rules and you'll be fine.

There were no other formalities. No interrogation, for sure. No reading of charges. No pre-trial hearing, obviously. One of the guards brought us steamed buns and pickled radish. We went to sleep. . No one told us how long we would be there. I had no idea that would be my life for ten weeks.

Every morning we were roused from bed by one of the guards shouting: Qi chuang! Get up!

There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to ours by an outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a grid of metal bars. The other cells each held five men, who were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard they might bang against the metal bars or shout individual prisoners’ names, or they might just yell. Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I would warn him when I saw the guard walking across the courtyard.

I was up before anyone. I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them. Nobody else seemed to give a fuck.

When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, and leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. Snow had not fallen yet. But a dusty December wind blew through the screen of our cell door. Samir had been given an army surplus parka. I was wearing a tight orange sweater that the police brought to me after they searched our apartment. It belonged to Qiaoqiao and I'm sure she was unhappy not to get it back. Below the sweater I wore a grey V-neck that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I also had a pair of Levi’s jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket — zipper and buttons also cut off — with the orange prison vest over it.

The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds and a metal cupboard with three doors. In it we kept our plastic basins, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall, was a camera nested in a mess of wire.

When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and performed his ablutions. He poured hot water into a basin from the thermos and mixed it with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and arms from wrist to elbow, rinsed his mouth and sprinkled water on his socks. He knelt on his army coat to pray. After he prayed he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.

At seven-thirty we got our first chance to leave the cell. Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket. I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast. The prison cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard were classrooms, activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.

The prisoners from the cells who dumped the bucket left the cell first. We walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.

The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I had slept, then gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at my door, I started every morning scrounging for a pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two of them while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir always told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison my morning cigarette was less about feeding a habit and more the thrill of special treatment and contraband. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and guards more than actually smoking them.

Breakfast was the same every morning. We got it through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin of pickled radish and carrot with steamed buns, and there was a larger basin to share, a thin porridge made from millet. After a week there was an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The first time that the man who scooped the food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that we were respectful to him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.

The period between breakfast at seven-thirty and lunch at noon was the dreariest and most hopeless time of the day. Time moved slowly. I tracked the passing hours by watching the sun move against the bars of the outer walkway. Samir and I rarely talked. The cell was cold. There was a radiator and he lay against it, dozing. While he slept I looked out of the window, listened to the sound of water in the pipes, and steered myself through private memories until I nodded off.

At 10:30am was cell check. Whichever officer was on duty would come to our door and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our name we put up our hand. We all had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day.

There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. The first was Cai. He was in his mid thirties, married, and hated his job. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Manchus. We discussed literature a few times and he mentioned he knew Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn’t think much of Cao’s writing. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks maybe he could set up a meeting. Some afternoons, Cai let me sit in his office. He didn’t smoke but bought packs for me. We chatted for a few hours about history or books or women. When other people from the prison wandered into his office he went silent until they left. He said: They don’t understand any of the things we’re talking about.

Zhang was the oldest of the officers on rotation. He looked like a cartoon cop, a tough short guy with a crew cut and bulldog jowls. He was the only one who stuck to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He criticized the folding of our bedding. Once he walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded neatly. We tried to improve our folding and he never brought it up again. He was the gruffest of the officers but was free with his cigarettes and had been the one to dig up the parka for Samir.

Wang was tall and also had a crewcut. He was quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules. One of the men in the other cells clearly had connections and seemed to be the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. The cigarette smuggler was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard’s quarters. Wang was the only officer who denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he would laugh and ask us when the fuck we were getting out.

The Warden was always looking over someone’s shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When he walked through the courtyard he was accompanied by a trio of boys in their late teens who fetched things for him, opened doors and lit his cigarettes. One of the boys had his hair teased up, dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Another boy wore a black satin jacket and thick glasses. They were clearly intimidated by the men in the other cells, who glared at them and pushed past them to get to the bathroom. I still don't know what the fuck was going on with the Warden or his boys. It seems fucked up, looking back, and I don't have an explanation.

Those mornings stretched on fucking forever. The boredom started to fuck with me. That was my only complaint. It only got worse. We had CCTV-1 but you can only sit through Boonie Bears so many times before it starts to grate. I used to take walks in my head, through places I had been before. Like, the walk out from Waterfront Station, down Cordova, cutting over to East Hastings, through the gates of Chinatown, back north to East Cordova and Oppenheimer Park, up onto Powell, with views out on the harbor, past the sugar refinery and the container terminals... The long walk from Kowloon Tong, over to Nathan Road, through Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, all the way to Star Ferry Pier.

After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. Samir was always cold, even with the parka. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. I knew I could spend a long time locked up. I knew it didn’t matter. But I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were there and he had apologized over and over again. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless. He vowed he’d stop fucking boys. He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day and sometimes he wouldn't shut up. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other yet.

When I was cold, I exercised and sat cross legged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me. At times I enjoyed the cold. I wanted to be uncomfortable. My move to the north of China was part of that impulse. In Guangzhou I had been living in a dream city without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty-four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there, swallowed up in the crowds, going to Loft 345 to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment, everything made more beautiful and important by the slow decay of a hash high.

There was something profoundly peaceful and right-feeling about those morning in Datong, sometimes. I had kept running and running from shit, trying to feel something in my fucked up life, and maybe I wanted to breathe dust and to be cold and hungry and stare at the walls.

Lunch broke the monotony. Samir filled up our water thermos and I went to collect the food — usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt—or mixed with the dirt, I guess. There was also a store in the courtyard, staffed by an older woman and a younger woman, which was open during lunch- and dinnertime. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hard boiled tea eggs, toilet paper and whatever prisoners requested. About a week into our stay someone from my company stopped by with cash and it was handed to me by one of the guards. I peeled off a few red bills and asked for cigarettes. We bought Orion choco pies, custard-filled spongecake and digestive biscuits, and ate them while we were allowed to watch CCTV-1.

I didn't recognize the man that came from my company. He seemed to intimate that the company was being shaken down by the PSB. He insisted we'd get out soon.

After eating lunch, Samir prayed again and we got into bed. Apart from these two hours in the afternoon and after lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds. That hour and a half in bed was a transcendent experience. It was the first time in hours we felt warm. Sleep made the time pass quicker. We knew the day was halfway done.

I used to think a lot about a trip I took to Lianyungang. I've written about it before, a fucking million times. I took mushrooms and slept beside an abandoned fishing village, out on a concrete pier. I had a sort of flash of enlightenment or something the next day, walking through the city, something about how, if I was going to be at my lowest, starving or freezing, I wanted to do it in China. It wasn't that I felt at home there. It was like realizing you can live in your favorite novel or something, for me. It felt like even living completely without purpose, I was still doing something, learning something about an unfamiliar place. Maybe it was bullshit, but it was like a peak life-in-China moment, and getting swept up into a Datong detention cell was the—despite whatever I felt or said about how it was profound or meditative or instructive—definitely the nadir.

After waking up, in the mid afternoon we got time outside. It was cold but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked down the outer walkway, wrapped up in our jackets, and I chatted with the other prisoners.

Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners, or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn’t specify. Most of them had been in detention centers before. One of them wore an army coat with the gold buttons still sewed to it. He had been in the People’s Liberation Army. His house had been torn down when Datong began construction on its replica ancient wall. When he petitioned in Beijing he was arrested near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing before policemen from Datong came to collect him.

Another of the men had his eye gouged out a few days before. He had gone to Beijing, too. The factory he had worked for was bought out by a private company. Then the company was sold and shut down, and the factory and employee dormitories were demolished. There had been promises of an apartment on the edge of Datong, and a pension. But he had received neither. He moved into a house in the old city and it was demolished, too. He got in a fight with a man while locked up in Beijing. After a trip to the hospital he was brought to the detention center.

Most of them would be released within four or five days. Their wives stopped by and brought them food. While we smoked cigarettes and talked, Samir prayed.

The nights were easier.

Dinner was the best meal of the day. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned his halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stir-fried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I had ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. There were handcut noodles with pork and wood-ear fungus. After dinner we watched the news on CCTV-1.

The radiators came on in the evening and the cell felt warm. On some nights, we laid out parkas on the floor after dinner, opened choco pies and watched whatever was on CCTV-1. By the time bedtime approached, I had forgotten how shitty the day had been.

When the lights went out at nine-thirty, one of the guards would shout: Shuijiao! Shuijiao! Sleep! Sleep! The radiators were almost blazing by then. We would undress and talk while we lay in our beds. It was peaceful and warm in bed. The lights stayed on all night.

Every day was almost the same. It was cold and boring.

I mentally prepared myself for two years. I thought: I can do this for two years. I thought there would be a trial. I planned to forego deportation and take the time in detention. I know this isn't how it works. But—two years, I would have been fine with two years.

I felt guilty about everyone that worried about me. I think that might have been worse than the cold and boredom.

Once a week someone from the Public Security Bureau would meet with us. I would translate for Samir. They asked the same questions. They let Samir call his brother in Guangzhou.

When I got my phone, I saw that there were long text messages from Qiaoqiao, saying, basically: Who the fuck is this? You claim you're the police but I know a police sergeant and you're going to be in trouble when I track you down. It went on like that. She called the phone whenever it was turned on. I guess the PSB were going through my text messages. But all they got were angry threats from a local girl. I find that touching, thinking back. The phone was useless and I had to write down a number to dial. I didn't call Qiaoqiao back.

The PSB people hinted that there would be a trial. A woman from the Canadian consulate came by and everyone in the detention center showed up to work with their uniforms on, for once. I can't remember what she told me. I think I called my mother. On the table in the conference room where we met her, there was a pack of Zhonghua, and I smoked at least five, washing them down with hot jasmine tea.

This story doesn't have much of an ending. One day, a woman that we had never seen met with us individually. She asked me if I wanted to come back to China. She asked if I could buy a plane ticket home. In the afternoon I sat with the guard Cai in his office and he told me: They’re just going to keep you here until your visa expires. Spring Festival is coming, and they want everyone out before then.

The necessary arrangements were made.

It was five-thirty in the morning when Cai came to our cell. It was dark outside. He told me that I would be leaving that day. I hugged Samir. Cai brought me across the courtyard to the guard’s office. He gave me a pack of cigarettes. On the security monitor I watched Samir pacing, tidying the cell. Cai said: You can leave now. They’ll come to pick you up soon. They’ll let him go in a few days, probably. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and took off my prison vest. I sat with Cai for a while. The black Passat was waiting at the gates.

The woman from the Public Security Bureau handed me my phone and my wallet. We drove to my apartment and we met two men there. I packed a few things in the bag I had brought up from Guangzhou. I changed into new dirty clothes. The men were wearing grey slacks and plastic parkas. I walked with them to an airline ticket counter and watched as they tried to buy last minute tickets on a flight to Beijing. They finally secured three seats but one of the men had to make a last minute call to okay the expense.

When we landed in Beijing, the two PSB took me to a Real Kungfu restaurant for my last meal. After lunch they slept with their heads on the table.

The story ends there.

I sat in that Real Kungfu waiting for a flight out of the country. I've flown out of Beijing since then and I think I've walked by that Real Kungfu—or it might have been replaced with something else, by now. But at that moment, I thought that those were my last moments in the country. I had devoted so much time and energy to the place and the language and I assumed I would never be back. I sat up while the PSB men slept, watching the waitresses, braless in their red uniform polo shirts, stringy hair tied up, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time to go, the PSB men tried to cut through the security line and were reprimanded by a teenager in an ill-fitting uniform. We took one last picture together. Maybe it went into the PSB file along with video of my arrest and a picture of me standing nude in a detention center reception room.

There's no conclusion. The story ends there. Maybe the experience dislodged the fantasy I had had since that day in Lianyungang. I'm not sure. The whole experience felt pointless. I went back to China a year after I flew out of Beijing.

No hard feelings.

(A version of this appeared on The Anthill and Alec Ash edited that early version. The site is gone now. Some of that Alec Ash-edited version remains here. Thanks, Alec.
Another note, too, that I've written versions of this story a few times and I notice myself fudging the facts here and there, leaving things out, for various reasons, mostly related to personal privacy and the privacy of people involved. That's just how it is. This is close enough, though.)


&: Mito, Ibaraki

The next day, I had given up on writing again. I got up early and I walked up to Keisei Department Store again, and then down toward the south end of Tennocho and Senba Lake, where there is a red light district.

The red light district in Tennocho is depressingly large for a town the size of Mito, made up of mostly fashion healths and soaplands on the south side, snack bars and pink salons on the north side, around the massive koban and blocks of abandoned danchi.

At the west end of the south side of the district stand the ruins of Trump Castle. It was not yet eight a.m. and nobody was around. I found a doorway blocked with cardboard and scrap wood. The smashed windows above the lobby let the early morning sun shine on graffiti and smashed sofas and Bacchanal wall reliefs painted in primary reds and greens. I went out into the lanes of the red light district to find a good angle to take a picture.

There is always that contrast in those red light districts, in a city like Mito, or in Yoshiwara, near my home in Tokyo, the contrast between the women, or the idealized companion with soft, perfumed skin, the half hour or hour or ninety minutes of love, and the places that these women work which are usually roughly built, sometimes crumbling buildings.


&: Record of Regret

This is an excerpt from my translation of Dong Xi's Record of Regret. It came out earlier this year as part of the Chinese Literature Today series at University of Oklahoma Press.

In this section, narrated by Ceng Guangxian to a bar hostess, it's the height of the Cultural Revolution and Xiao Chi, Baijia and Guangming, classmates of Guangxian, have signed up to join a production team in the countryside. Xiao Chi, who tried to seduce Guangxian only to be turned down, went down to the countryside because she thought Guangxian would join her. He turns her down once again but then finds himself traveling to the village where she has been sent, only to discover that it's probably too late...

She said: "We're going to harvest rice tomorrow. I can't sit up with you all night."

I told her: "I came all this way to see you. I didn't even plan on it. I was just walking by the train station and got on. I barely made it here." She looked up, studying me suddenly, as if looking for something she had lost. I said: "I was too stupid to understand before. I'm sorry."

"What's the use of saying sorry now?" She put a few roasted sweet potatoes in a plastic bag. "You should go. You might miss the bus back to town."

"You haven't told me what happened."

"Everything that was supposed to happen already happened. You can't change it now."

"If you don't tell me, I'll go ask Baijia and Guangming."

"What do you want from me?" She took a sheet of plastic and wrapped a flashlight in it. "It's time to go. Don't make trouble for me here. I'll tell you everything on the way." We took the flashlight and the sweet potatoes and went out onto the muddy road. The clothes that had just roasted dry in front of the stove were soaked through within minutes. For a while before she spoke, there was no sound except for our shoes in the mud and the hiss of rain. She said she didn't know what had made her fall for me. She said that maybe it was my curly hair, which made me look a bit like a foreigner, or maybe it was something else. She thought for a while and said that maybe it was the way I smelled. We'd always been told that the capitalist class stunk . . . So maybe my body odor carried some trace of that scent. I must have been right about the handkerchief, I thought. She must have been smelling my sweat on it.

We went by the village of Niutangao and the tall sycamore that stood at its entrance. Xiao Chi asked me: "Do you remember the day I left?"

"Of course."

"Do you remember how I looked out the train window and waved?"

"You were waving to your mom and dad."

"I begged them to let me stay in the city. They couldn't help me. I was waving at you."

"I couldn't tell."

"Are you kidding me? I even called your name. I told you to write me. I could tell you didn't hear me, so I said it again and I saw you nod. I saw you wave back at me. Don't lie to me."

"I swear."

"Then why did you wave? Why did you nod your head?"

"I didn't."

"I saw you! If you won't admit it, that's fine. I'm not going to keep talking."

I hadn't nodded or waved at her, but I finally said: "Fine, fine, fine."

She'd ended up in the countryside, waiting for her first letter to arrive. She had run out to check the mailbox every day to see if there was a letter from me. Baijia and Guangming got letters, but she received none.

A single letter was all that she wanted. Even though food was sparse, she would have given up a meal in exchange for a letter. Baijia and Guangming waved their letters in front of her face, so she could see the names of their female classmates. While they read their letters, she went outside and looked at the trees on the ridge, imagining that I was somewhere out there. She finally gave up and took the bus down to town. She wrote a letter to herself and signed my name. She apologized, as me, and told herself she was beautiful. In the letter she wrote, I proposed to her. She wrote her name at the top of it, then went back and wrote "Dear" in front. If I had just sent the first letter I wrote, she probably would have gotten it around the time she wrote her own. But I never sent it. All those letters had piled up under the bamboo mat on my bed. If I hadn't been so stupid . . . She started riding the bus to town to send herself letters. Every trip, twisting on mountain roads and bumping over muddy roads, she got violently carsick. The scenery of the mountains was as beautiful as that essay in the newspaper had described it, but she could barely see it. Eventually she gave up. She held the letters she had written to herself and cried. Finally, she burned them. She told herself that she would stop missing me.

When she arrived in Guli, Guangming and Baijia had been taken to live in Captain Wang's home. Captain Wang sent Xiao Chi to live by herself in a concrete hut a short distance away. It was, he said, better for a girl to stay by herself. The hut was a simple concrete box, dark and cold inside. That first night, she had stayed awake under the mosquito net, shivering. She thought she heard footsteps outside and went to the window, but didn't dare to look out. She wished she had a man to sit with her, to hold her hand. She decided that she would marry the first man who came to save her. She didn't care how old he was or what he looked like. The sound of footsteps came again, nearer now. She was lightheaded with fear. She yanked the door open and ran out of the hut - straight into the footsteps. A voice said: "Settle down. I'm here to watch your door."

Everyone working on the production team was assigned a job. If they were digging, everyone had a patch of earth to dig. When they finished digging their own section, they sat down and watched the other workers dig their patches. On her first day, Xiao Chi had been handed a hoe and given a section to work. She had never held a hoe before. By the end of the first day, her hands were covered in blisters. The next day, she was given the same tool and another patch to work. The blisters ripped open on the shaft of the hoe, drenching her hands in blood. The pain was so horrible that she felt as if she were working with a knife that she was holding by the blade. She couldn't complain; she would be criticized by the other workers. The whole point of coming to the countryside was to experience the hardship of the poor farmer. At first, some of the other workers would give her a hand. She fell behind again and again. Finally, most of them stopped offering to help. But one person continued to help her, even when the other workers laughed at him. He was the same one who had come to her door that night and kept watch. She was thankful for him. She thought that Chairman Mao had sent a man to look after her on the production team.

One day he came into her hut and told her that he wanted to get serious with her. She shook her head. Even though he had helped her and protected her, she turned him down because she was still in love with me, and she didn't want to marry a man from the countryside and be stuck there forever. She always used me as an excuse, saying she was in love with a man in the city. She even showed him the letters that she had written to herself with my name on them. But he said: "If he really loves you, why doesn't he come here to see you? Why is he just sending these letters?" He wasn't discouraged by her refusal. He kept helping her. He carried water for her, chopped wood, and washed clothes. He went to the market in town and brought her back brown sugar. 

Two days before my letter arrived, a heavy rain had begun to fall. When she went back to her room after work, tired and hungry, all of the firewood was soaked. She filled the stove and tried to light a fire. The stove belched white smoke, but the fire would not stay lit. Tears began to stream down her face. It was hard to separate the tears of pain from the tears caused by smoke in her eyes. Just as she was about to give up, the man came to her hut and helped her light the fire with a drop of kerosene from the lamp. She looked up at him with amazement, as if she had just seen the birth of fire itself. She stood up and fell into his arms. It wasn't that amazing, really: he had merely used kerosene to light some wet firewood. But she hadn't thought of it herself. From then on, she always used kerosene and a match. She'd once cried and sweated over the wet firewood. Learning the method was a blessing.

Maybe it was fate that my letter arrived right after that night. If it had come only a few days earlier, maybe she wouldn't have fallen into his arms so easily. If I hadn't forgotten to put a stamp on the envelope, if I had sent the first letters I'd written . . .

The sky was just lightening when we arrived at the Bala People's Commune. The minibuses outside the Revolutionary Committee office were waiting, driverless. From a PA above us, announcements intermittently echoed down the muddy roads. We sat down on the stairs outside the office. I asked: "Who is he?"

"I don't want to tell you yet."

"Is it Baijia? Guangming?"

She shook her head.

"He's a farmer?"

She shook her head.

"Do I still have a chance?"

"No, I've already . . ."

"Already what? Slept with him?"

She frowned. She said: "That's none of your business."

"I'm not going back. I'm going to stay here with you. I'll join the production team."

"Forget it. I told you to sign up. You said you didn't want to go to the countryside."

I felt a lump in my throat. My tears came freely, mixing with the rain on my cheeks. She said: "You're still a child. What are you crying about? It won't help. All my tears couldn't bring you here." That only made me cry harder. It made me feel better, though. She turned her back to me. "There are lots of girls in the city," she said. "I'm sure you can find someone better than me."

"I only want you."

"You can't have me. I can't just split myself in two. You have to go. I need to get to work." She left me there, holding the bag of sweet potatoes. I called after her, but she kept walking until she disappeared into the rain.

Are you getting tired of this story yet? Let's take a break. Sorry, I forgot to bring cigarettes. I didn't know you smoked. Order a pack, it's fine. As long as you're listening, I'll keep going. Order another plate of fruit.

When I got back to the city, I took all the unsent letters from under the bamboo mat on my bed. I put them in envelopes and put two stamps on each envelope. The way I did it, I put one on the back and one on the front. Even if one stamp fell off, the other one would still be there. I went out and mailed all the letters. A little over a week later, I got a parcel from Xiao Chi. When I opened it, I saw all of my letters, unopened. I fell asleep holding the letters that night and woke to the sound of myself calling her name. My heart was broken. I stood facing in the direction of Tianle. I saw a light on the horizon and imagined it was Xiao Chi's kerosene lamp and the fire in the stove. I imagined I could see the smoke rising from the chimney of her concrete hut.

I went to the warehouse and sat on a bench in the hall. I thought back to the night that Xiao Chi had climbed up on the bench and twirled off her skirt. I thought about her big, beautiful legs. If I had seized my chance, if I had taken her in my arms, I wouldn't be here now. I was filled with regret. Now the chance was gone and she hated me. I looked at the bench that she had stood on, and it seemed to glow as if illuminated by a spotlight. I saw her stepping up onto the bench. I called out: "Chi Fengxian." The only response was the bark of a dog. I turned on my flashlight and saw a stray dog, filthy and sick, cowering below one of the benches. I lifted the dog up and held her against my chest. I carried her back to my dormitory at the zoo and fed her sugar water and rice. The dog seemed to improve, and her breathing, which had been shallow and labored, began to strengthen. After a few hours, she had the energy to lick my hand. I brought medicine from the zoo's veterinarian and took some of the meat that was meant to be fed to the tiger and the bears. After a few weeks, the dog's coat was glossy again. After that, she followed me everywhere. When I went around the zoo, doing my chores, she was with me. I called her Xiao Hua, after my dog that had died and been hung from the tree.

But this dog had appeared after I called Xiao Chi's name, so I started calling her Xiao Chi. Whenever I called her name, she ran to me. If I felt sad, I'd talk to Xiao Chi. When I missed Xiao Chi, I had the dog, at least. I scrubbed her clean every night and let her sleep in bed beside me. Now when I called Xiao Chi's name in my sleep, Xiao Chi was there. The dog healed my broken heart.

Autumn came, and the zoo was covered in fallen yellow leaves. Every day when I got off work, I was met by Director He's cousin, He Caixia, who'd been given a job as the zoo's accountant. If she was sure nobody else was looking, she'd steal over to my side. "That curly hair," she'd say, "is it Soviet revisionism or American imperialism? I'm guessing it was American imperialism your mother preferred. You aren't the child of landlords at all, are you? You're the son of American imperialism. You'd better listen to me, or I'll turn you over to the Red Guards." While she spoke, one hand would be in my hair and the other would be between my legs. She would grab me so hard that I felt sick to my stomach. I used to walk away completely shaken. The only things I had to look forward to after work were my dog and talking to Zhao Jingdong, another one of the workers at the zoo.

Zhao Jingdong didn't talk much, but he sure could listen. He was a great audience for a story: he'd laugh in the right places, slap his thigh when something was really funny, sigh sympathetically at the appropriate moment - all the things you'd expect of a good listener. He also knew how to keep a secret. I was always worried about that, since I'd gotten myself into so much trouble telling the wrong things to the wrong people. I told him the story of Director He and my mother, how I'd found them together, and the story never went beyond him. He was like a vault.

He taught me something, too: if you wanted to be a good friend, you had to be a good listener. One night, I sat up and told him the story of the warehouse and Xiao Chi taking off her skirt. He responded: "A girl drops her skirt right in front of you and you reject her ? Well, that's gotta hurt, right? She had to be disappointed. Maybe you've heard about the Widow He, who works at the zoo. I've heard lots of stories about her trying to seduce certain men who ended up turning her down. Nobody wants to be turned down, right? Even if what they're asking is unreasonable."

Zhao Jingdong kept telling me that I should go visit Xiao Chi: "Make some time. Go see her. At the least, you're comrades, right? It's because of what you said that she ended up all the way out there, so you should show some concern. You should show her you're still thinking about her." He kept saying it: go see her, go see her. It was like a buzz in my ear. Eventually I saved up the money to take the trip, and I planned to use my sick leave to get time off work. When I told Zhao Jingdong, he seemed even more excited than I was. He asked me over and over again how far Tianle was from the city. Finally, he came to my dormitory room and spread out a map marked with an arrow pointing from the city to Guli. The way he'd marked the map, it felt like Xiao Chi was a military objective. He went out again and came back with three jars of braised pork and five bundles of dried noodles for me to give her. He saw me off at the train station and went back home with Xiao Chi the dog. 

A cold wind blew against the windows of the train as it left the city. After a few kilometers, the train passed into mist, which then covered the windows. Anyone looking at the train as it rumbled by would have seen its color darken and take on a hue like raw steel as the sunlight shrank down to a red ball on the horizon.

The next evening, I arrived at Guli. Everyone in the village seemed to be gathered under the lanterns at the commune hall. They were standing around a low stage. When I got closer, I could see two figures kneeling on the stage with old shoes hanging around their necks - it was Xiao Chi and Yu Baijia. Xiao Chi's hair was in disarray. Her face was cut, and there was blood on her lips. Yu Baijia had clearly been beaten, too. His left eye was swollen shut and ringed with a black bruise. I finally realized that it was Yu Baijia who had protected Xiao Chi. It was Yu Baijia who had played Prometheus in her cement hut.

&: Onoterusaki Shrine

Around these Negishi streets, there once lived bunjin and artists, daimyo set up in their second homes, courtesans retired or furloughed from the brothels at Yoshiwara, townsmen and clergymen, attracted by a new community balanced between the respectable quarters of Edo and the wild open spaces that ran out to the red light district and beyond to the wasteland occupied by madmen and outcastes. The bush warblers imported from Kyoto's western hills that used to sing in Uguisudani have been replaced by the sound of JR trains coming into the station, and the villas were leveled long ago, replaced with unlovely shitamachi slums and then love hotels and apartment blocks and handsome recent infill development and parking lots. Masaoka Shiki, the master of the modern haiku, his house still stands not far away from here; and Higuchi Ichiyo and Nagai Kafu both wrote about the place, and even this shrine—Onoterusaki Shrine—has made it into accounts of the area. In the summer, this shrine is an oasis of chilly shade; and now, in the late autumn, the yard has turned to mud and its smell dank weedy smell mixes with incense and the cooking smells of nearby apartments. The ema decorated with a painting of a bush warbler perched on a brush hint at the literary air of the place, devoted to a Heian scholar known for his brash literary exploits that included climbing a ladder down to hell to clerk for King Yama as he made his judgements on mortal men. And beyond the iron gates stand a miniature Mount Fuji, one of the few left behind by the cult started by an ascetic that starved himself in protest of a hike in the price of rice. They hoped for the return of the deity of the mountain to arrive like Maitreya or mashiach to rule over millennia of peace and prosperity. The iron gates and the monkey guards protect the mound during most of the year, but on the final day of June and the first day of July, they are opened and the faithful or curious can hike up the rough lava rocks. But on a cold day at the beginning of November, the mound is camouflaged against the rest of the hardscape by weeds.


&: Persimmons

Every supermarket has now at their front entrance racks of orange fruit: fist-sized Fuyu set in their holders pointy ass-up, reflecting the fluorescent lights, stout Hachiya, and, packed in trays of three or four, dried persimmons. These hoshigaki 干し柿 from Shimane Prefecture ripen and dried, suspended from a string, and the inside are soft like gummi candy. The hoshigaki are sweet, without the frosting of fructose that shibing have, and they're almost too sweet and sticky to eat without a cup of astringent tea.

Down in Ueno, there are piles of shibing 柿餅 now, too, in the Chinese shops on the shopping arcade, probably more in the underground market. Maybe the working girls from Yushima pick them up on the way home, students coming over from Kanda or from out in the suburbs, too, maybe. The shibing are saucers, dried on wooden racks or sheets of bamboo instead of hanging from strings, gently massaged into their shape; they're chewier, and I remember them tasting smokier, less sweet. I don't think I ate them until I was in Datong, bought from a shop beside the entrance to the Grand Mosque, or maybe it was further south, where in autumn in the night market I had deep fried persimmon cakes.


&: Jia Pingwa's '90s novels, an excerpt from White Nights

Jia Pingwa made his name with Abandoned Capital in the early 1990s, a book that was banned or suppressed in China for nearly two decades. Even though he returned to writing and publishing soon after, the books that followed Abandoned Capital will forever be in the shadow of that book and its ban.

The reasons given for Abandoned Capital's ban by the General Administration of Press and Publication related to sexual content (I guess? I don't really know for sure), but there was definitely a political aspect to it, as well. The country was feeling its way—crossing the river by feeling the stones, I guess you could say—back toward reform, trying to step away from the back-and-forth pendulum swing of liberalization and repression, student and labor protests followed by clampdowns, leaders at the top calling for restraint and local bosses calling for more reform... The cultural renaissance of the 1980s ended; a system of tight controls on culture, literature and art was perfected while economic liberalization progressed at an even faster rate.

Despite the suppression, a ban on reprinting the book, and academics and critics discouraged from discussing it, the story of intellectual life in Xi’an and a writer named Zhuang Zhidie remained in circulation, discussed in literary circles and among high school boys, available in the form of second hand copies, samizdat editions, and, later, online. Along with the book being banned, Jia's career as a writer and literary bureaucrat suffered a setback and he was forced to step back from the spotlight. The publication of the Abandoned Capital's followup in 1995 was a "non-event" with "no media interviews, no advertisements and no responses from critics until a few years later" (this and all the rest of the quotes are from Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World by Yiyan Wang).

Rumors of a new edition of Abandoned Capital were circulated regularly starting around the time that Qinqiang was published, and the book finally slipped back into stores in mid-2009. The three novels, White Nights, Earth Gate and Old Gao Village, that followed Abandoned Capital in the 1990s are still somewhat ignored.

In translation, there has been renewed interest in Jia's work, but there, the focus is mostly on more recent work: 2016 saw Howard Goldblatt's translation of Abandoned Capital (he called it Ruined City) finally appear, published by University of Oklahoma Press, and that was followed by Carlos Rojas' translation of The Lantern Bearer (put out by CN Times whose other titles include Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers, Xi Jinping's China Renaissance: Historical Mission and Great Power Strategy, Great Power Leader Xi Jinping: International Perspectives on China's Leader, and a book by a Tampa area cigar aficionado about pulp fiction cocktails), Nicky Harman's translation of Happy Dreams for AmazonCrossing this year, as well as forthcoming translations of The Poleflower (for AmazonCrossing by Nicky Harman) and Qinqiang (for AmazonCrossing by me and Nicky Harman). Nick Stember's Ugly Stone project is focused on the more recent work, as well (except for mentions of Turbulence and Abandoned Capital).

With the confusing situation around rights for Jia's novels, and with translators often working simultaneously on the same novel for different publishers, I guess it's not out of the question that a translation of an older work will appear. Hu Zongfeng and Robin Gilbank as late as last year were touting a translation of Earth Gate (Earthen Gate is their preferred title) set to be published by Valley Press. Northwest University in Xi'an, where Hu and Gilbank are both employed, have bankrolled a series of translations from Shaanxi authors to come out on Valley Press. But even if a translation of one of the three untranslated 1990s novels does pop up, it will be on a small press bankrolled by a Chinese institution, consigning it to obscurity.

Of those three novels, White Nights is the best.

My favorite Jia themes are represented: the hard rural man making his way in a city of soft literary men and bureaucrats, funerals and lovemaking, folk opera and local gods, male lust and self-loathing, and the meaning of art and the artist in an age of commerce. And, returning to Yiyan Wang:

...instead of the theme of lust underlying Abandoned City, in White Nights Jia Pingwa explores the theme of death. As Jia Pingwa puts it, the novel was inspired by his experience of watching performances of the Mulian drama cycle in Sichuan in 1993. He deeply appreciates the ancient theater that crosses the boundaries between “the world of the dead and the world of the living, history and reality, performers and audience, theatre and life,” so much that he wants to give a novelistic interpretation of the theater. … In the novel, the male protagonist, Yelang, is a literatus turned actor in a Mulian drama troupe. Through his performance tours, he enters a social network where all values, social identities, and emotive capacities are turned upside-down, and as such he can no longer judge the legitimacy of his own professional and emotional adventures.

The book follows a migrant worker, Ye Lang, who, at the opening of the novel, is working on a construction site. Ye Lang meets a local opera performer, Nan Dingshan, who introduces him to a municipal bureaucrat named Zhu Yihe. It is through Zhu Yihe that Ye Lang gets a position at the Provincial Library. After a factional dispute between the Party Secretary of the city and the Mayor, Zhu Yihe is fired and slips into a coma, and Ye Lang is relieved of his position. There are clear parallels between the lives of the thuggish rural striver Zhou Min of Abandoned Capital and White Nights’ Ye Lang. Perhaps in the face of the backlash against Abandoned Capital, Jia toned down the sexiness but there’s still a love triangle, involving Ye Lang, the hairdresser-turned-model Yan Ming, and Yu Bai. In the book’s opening scene, a reincarnated man visits his wife and children, who have continued to age in the years since he died. The reincarnated man eventually lights himself on fire, dropping a copper key, that is picked up by Ye Lang. Ye Lang shows the key to a local archeologist, who introduces him to Yu Bai, an aristocratic and cultured woman. But he remains with Yan Ming, who bears him a daughter.

There are countless other subplots along the way—one in which the archeologist opens a restaurant with his girlfriend, who runs off with a gold miner that ends up having his head taken off with a steel wire while riding his motorcycle, and another involving stone lions killing people in their dreams—but the book ends with Ye Lang’s arrest, following a plot to knock off the bureaucrat that fired him from his library job.

One of the key elements of the book is the staging of a folk opera called Mulian Rescues His Mother, an Indian Buddhist parable adopted by the Chinese into folk songs, stories and opera. The opera, which is frequently performed for the Ghost Festival, is about a loyal monk that hopes to rescue his mother from hell. In the words of the novel’s Nan Dingshan, the opera “mixes up reality and legend, the performer and the audience, center stage and backstage—it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.” The novel seems to attempt the same, especially opening as it does with the arrival of a reincarnated man in the city, whose devotion to his wife brings him home.

For a time, I hoped to interest a publisher in a translation of White Nights, and sometime last year I sat down to translate enough of the novel for a sample. There was zero interest.

So, here it is.

An excerpt from White Nights:

It was in autumn of that year when Brother Kuan met Ye Lang. That was the same autumn that the reincarnated man came to Xijing and showed up on Bamboo Row. He carried with him a guqin and a copper key that shined like it had been dipped in gold. The reincarnated man seemed to know where he was going. He walked right up to a house on the alley and put that key in the door. He seemed to struggle at first, twisting the knob and jiggling the key in the lock, and then he took a step back and call out: "A-Hui! A-Hui!"

It couldn't have been one of her neighbors. They wouldn't have known Madam Qi's childhood nickname. She rushed to the door to see who was calling her and when she saw the face of the reincarnated man, she froze.

He said to her: "It is me. I have moved on to the next life but in my previous one, I was your husband." And he repeated her name: “A-Hui.” He told her: “Since that day that you said your final goodbye, I've ached for you.” And then he asked her: “Why doesn't this key work anymore?”

Madam Qi seemed to still be frozen. The reincarnated man raised his guqin. He started to strum a tune that sounded like a farewell song, “Sunny Pass,” but almost as soon as his fingers hit the strings, he pulled them away and laughed. “Not much has changed around here,” he said. “When I was around, everyone down this alley made a living weaving bamboo. Anything made of bamboo, you could find it here. I remember, they used to make door curtains, and bamboo baskets for sieving rice, and in the summer they made fans and bamboo pads that you could put on your bed to stay cool when it got hot. Almost every house had stacks of bamboo steamers out front, twelve of them in a stack. This was where they made them, all around here. That’s how they earned a living around here. The best weavers in the city—they could do it in the dark, by feel!”

The reincarnated man knelt down beside the door, where there was a low shelf. From the shelf, he picked up an earthenware jar, the kind that men in the neighborhood kept fighting crickets in. He blew a nest of cobwebs off the lid and held it affectionately. Memories seems to come back to him. He looked up at Madam Qi and he told her things that only she could have known. He told her about the day that he fell in love with her. It had been the eighteenth of August. He remembered the date. At the time, she had been a servant to a shopkeeper. She was a sickly girl, he had thought, but her hair was beautiful. That morning, he had gone out to buy grain and came across her, crouched beside the road, perched on a loose paving stone, washing out a chamber pot with a bamboo brush. She poured water into the chamber pot from a basin and dumped filthy water into the street and then brushed it again. The piss-water ran down the paving stones until it reached his boot. She saw that he was wearing clean, new boots. A-Hui looked up and stuck her tongue out at him. Before she could turn back to her work, she saw that he was laughing. She laughed, too, then, and their laughter seemed to be in perfect harmony. That is when he fell in love with her. He told her about a winter night, when they had met below the city wall. They had embraced under a locust tree. They crashed back against the tree, wrapped in each other's arms. They weren't paying attention. They didn't notice the figure crouched in the grass a short distance away. A stone suddenly sailed through the air and hit the him on the shoulder. A-Hui felt something sticky on his face. She smelled his blood.

“You don't remember? A-Hui? What about the wall behind the house? Every time you brushed your hair, you took the hair out of the brush and balled it up in your palm. You used to put the hair into the cracks in the wall. Remember when my tooth fell out? It was one of my molars, a great big tooth. I pushed it into a crack in that wall.”

“It's you!” she exclaimed. “It must be you. You came back, for me?” She sobbed and fell into his arms. She led him into the house and went into the kitchen and began preparing a meal.

That was the legend that Brother Kuan was telling Ye Lang over drinks one night at a liquor shop near Bamboo Row. The legend was born on Bamboo Row but it soon spread, until everyone in the city had heard about the reincarnated man. Ye Lang laughed it off. He turned around to watch the woman playing a pipa in a corner of the shop. The pipa player wasn't very good but Ye Lang listened closely. He had taken an interest in writing music, lately. Nobody would have mistaken him for a composer, unless they could make sense of the scribbling he'd been doing on the papers that were even then spread out across the liquor shop's table.

Brother Kuan didn't appreciate Ye Lang's dismissive chuckle. He smoothed the front of his police uniform and shot a glance over at his drinking partner. He knew there was only one way to convince Ye Lang. Brother Kuan lowered his head and sucked a few drops of spilled liquor off the table. He lifted his head and looked at his friend and wondered, not for the first time, how he put up with him. Maybe, he thought, he felt some sense of duty to Ye Lang. He bent down and sucked at another puddle of liquor. He felt a burning in his sinuses and sneezed, scattering Ye Lang's papers. Instead of spending all night drinking, thought Brother Kuan, he might as well take Ye Lang over to Bamboo Row for a look. He knew that the only way to prove the story was to take Ye Lang to Madam Qi’s home, Number Seven Bamboo Row. He dragged Ye Lang out of the liquor shop and they rode their bikes over to the house. When they arrived, they knew they were too late. Hung from the door was a white parasol made of oiled paper. They knew as soon as they saw it—Madam Qi had already passed away.

Ye Lang sighed. The liquor finally hit him and he bent over and retched in the gutter. He lifted his head and turned toward the south end of the street. He saw that a crowd had gathered. He couldn’t see them clearly—how many were there?—but he could hear the sound of them—what were they saying? A lone voice lifted above the murmur of the crowd: "He's going to light himself on fire!" Ye Lang watched the crowd moving together, falling forward and then back, like a field of wheat in a summer breeze. A ball of flame filled the air above their heads and people began to scatter. They didn't go very far, still curious.

"Something's going on over there," Brother Kuan called out. He sprinted toward the flames. By the time Ye Lang caught up, Brother Kuan had already charged into a nearby shop and come back with a bucket of water. Ye Lang could not see what was burning but when the water hit it, Brother Kuan might as well have been tossing kerosene. The flames rose higher. As the crowd moved back, Ye Lang finally caught sight of the source of the fire. At first, blinded by its brightness, he could only see the flames—an unholy blue on the margins and then a deep red—but then he saw that there was a figure crouched inside of the fire. It was a man, he realized. The burning man glowed like amber.

Most of the onlookers looked stunned. Some in the crowd were calling for help. Ye Lang asked them who the burning man was but before the answer came, Brother Kuan shouted for him to call the fire department. Ye Lang raced up the streets, shouting into doorways for a phone. He finally ran for his bike and pedalled a few blocks over. It was forty minutes before the fire engine rolled down the street. The burning man had already been reduced to a black husk. By the time the firefighters climbed down from the the truck, the burning man was a pile of blackened bones. The chief told them not to bother unrolling the hoses.

The man that had lit himself on fire was the reincarnated man. That is the second half of the legend. Madam Qi had taken the reincarnated man in and began preparing a meal. It was the time of year when the buds of the locust tree are in season. They had just appeared in the market that morning. She rolled them with flour and set them to steam, and then she went out into the backyard of their house and collected some tender buds from the toon trees. Madam Qi kept cooking until the kitchen table was covered with old Xijing dishes. She was waiting for her children to come home. She wanted to gather as a family again and to hear her children call their father: “Daddy!”

The reincarnated man had not aged as living men age—even the couple’s youngest child was eleven years older than him. Madam Qi’s children were immediately suspicious. Kids nowadays aren't as superstitious as previous generations. They knew that nobody can come back from the dead. They immediately went back out to the street, shouting that they were going to the police. Madam Qi wept. She ran to the back yard and hanged herself from the toon tree. The reincarnated man took up his guqin. He went out into the street, wailing and plucking a ragged tune on his instrument. He lasted for three days, wandering in the streets, and then the man that had died once already lit himself on fire and died again.

After the fire engine left Bamboo Row, the reincarnated man's bones were still in the alley. Brother Kuan borrowed a coal shovel and began moving the bones into a tidier pile. After the bones were moved, Brother Kuan noticed two things: the first was that the burning man, apart from his bones, had also left a puddle of black tar on the road, and the second thing was a gleaming copper key, nestled among the blackened bones. Brother Kuan didn't care about the key but he thought it was a pity the guqin was burned up. The instrument and the man’s nimble fingers were not yet burned away when Brother Kuan arrived, but he had only heard a few of the final notes. He knew what key it was in, at least, and he had the rhythm, which resembled a classical seven-character couplet: pingping zeze pingping ze / zeze pingping zeze ping.

When Ye Lang finally got back to Bamboo Row, the bones had been cleared away. He parked his bike and started to walk toward the scene. But something stopped him—the cover for his bicycle's bell had been stolen, again. The street was deserted and he thought he might as well unscrew a bell cover from another bike and screw it over his own bell. As he went to work unscrewing a bell cover, he heard Brother Kuan came over, humming the reincarnated man's song. He looked up from the bell: "What are you humming there? 'Ping ze'?” Brother Kuan didn’t answer. “What’ve you got there?” Brother Kuan held up the key and Ye Lang took it.

In Xijing, he thought to himself, you need two things: a bell for your bike, and a key. In Xijing, the bell on your bike is like your voice. Whoever had taken the cover off his bell had essentially cut his vocal cords. It was nothing new, though. In Xijing, the most frequently stolen item is the bell cover. This is the usual way things happen: when you lose the cover, you reach over to the closest bike and unscrew the cover from that bike's bell. So, someone’s always missing the cover and ends up stealing another one. And a key? Ye Lang held up the copper key and inspected it. A key, he decided, can only open one lock. A key signifies ownership over something. If you walk up to a door and you can open it with your key, that's where you belong. If you can't open it, you can't really say it's your place, can you? Ye Lang saw one flaw in his theory: a thief can open any door they please. He turned the copper key over a few times in his palm. This key, he told himself, must have its own lock, too. The key belongs to something and since I have the key, I belong to that place, too. The man that had lit himself on fire must not have managed to find the place he belonged. Ye Lang tossed the key up and down a few times, admiring its gleam, and then slid it onto his key ring. On the key ring was a tiny stainless steel spoon for cleaning his ear. After that, whenever he took out the spoon to clean his ear, somebody would always ask about the shiny copper key. That was when he would tell them the legend of the reincarnated man.

Although perhaps it had little to do with the legend of the reincarnated man, that was where developers decided to put up a luxury hotel. There were a few luxury hotels in Xijing already but this was the first built in the city's southwest. The architect had something new in mind for the hotel: the building was shaped like a Zhongni guqin. The hotel was called Pingze Castle after the rhythms of classical poetry. The entrance of the hotel was guarded by a cluster of basalt lions, which also stood out in Xijing at the time. It's not that guardian lions were rare, but these were nothing like the average stone lions that stood outside of many banks and hotels in the city. The average guardian lion always wears a vaguely dumb expression. They’ve always got their mouths open and a mop of curly hair; batting lazily at a cloth ball, but the lions of Pingze Castle had a proud posture. They looked up, as if watching the heavens for some divine signal. Even though they were carved from grey basalt, you could imagine their eyes gleaming red. The lions were built by a local company from stone quarried in Suide County in the northern half of Shaanxi. Ye Lang had gone to work for the contractors, since Suide was his hometown and he knew the area well. His job was running out to Suide and coming back with any materials the contractors needed. While working on the lions, Ye Lang was given a room in the staff quarters, connected to the hotel.

At Pingze Castle, business was good. The hotel's conference rooms and dining halls were full, every day of the week. Since Ye Lang was staying at the hotel, he decided he might as well make use of the facilities. He made a habit of slipping into the lavish banquets thrown by bureaucrats and businessmen in the hotel’s conference halls and dining rooms. As the final toasts were being given at the first banquet, he would slip right into the next banquet. The hotel's servers started to wonder who he was. They asked one of the guests: "Is he a politician or something?"

"What do you mean?" The banquet guest looked over at Ye Lang.

"He seems to be invited to all of these banquets. We thought he must be important." As soon as Ye Lang heard them, he rose to go. He knew that his time was up.

"Of course!” the banquet guest said, “you can tell by what he's wearing!" Ye Lang wasn't dressed well but he carried himself well. Ye Lang reached down and took a toothpick from the jar at his place and pocketed a book of matches from the table. He rose and went out of the banquet room, striding, as if he owned the hotel. As he got into the elevator, the banquet guest bounded in after him. He demanded: "Who the hell are you? You must be someone important, to just walk out of there like that, without saying anything to anybody. Let me ask you, do you know who the hell I am?"

Ye Lang cupped his hands in front of his chest and gave a slight bow: "I'm your biggest fan."

"You must be mistaken. Nan Dingshan is Nan Dingshan's biggest fan."

That is how Ye Lang met Nan Dingshan. Nan Dingshan was famous for playing comic roles in Shaanxi opera. Earlier in his career, he had been a local celebrity, taking to stages across the province in the long gown and flowing silk sleeves of the choudan, the nagging older woman role. He was famous—but he was famous as a choudan, so only a true opera aficionado could recognize him with his usual make-up of rouged cheeks, red lips and painted-on moles. And, anyways, the true aficionado was a dying breed. Times had changed. The red sun of Mao Zedong had set and the movie stars, sports stars and music stars had replaced him. Whether hometown pop princesses or touring rock n’ rollers, the stars of the new era could fill a stadium that would put any opera venue to shame. As things were, Nan Dingshan was reduced to performing the occasional show, without his trademark make-up, at hotel banquets. He stuck with it, though, not so much for the meager paycheck but because he had a true desire to perform. Ye Lang and Nan Dingshan recognized something in each other. Nan Dingshan told Ye Lang: "A hundred years ago, you would have been a general... nowadays, you're reduced to a stable boy."

Ye Lang laughed and pinched Nan Dingshan's chubby cheeks: "All those years playing a woman, I can’t believe it didn’t turn you gay."

"When I was younger, I went to a fortune teller. She told me that in a previous life, I was a high-ranking official. Somewhere along the line, my ancestors ended up buried in a mound that was facing the wrong direction. In this life, I'm cursed to play an official's mother-in-law."

Nan Dingshan had one thing going for him, though, which is that he knew powerful people. Opera was his first love but his amateur calligraphy had put him in contact with the city’s artists. It was through those artistic friends that met Zhu Yihe, a patron of the arts and one of the city government’s secretary-generals. One day, in preparation for a visit from some VIPs from Beijing, Zhu Yihe called on Nan Dingshan to gather together a few of his favorite artists at the Pingze Castle. Nan Dingshan brought the artists, and he made sure to call on Ye Lang, too. Zhu Yihe wanted to prepare some work to give as gifts to the visiting dignitaries. When the artists had completed their work, Nan Dingshan took the opportunity to inked his own brush. He painted a delicate orchid on a fresh sheet of paper. One of the artists at the table said: "It's good. I have a couplet to go along with it, ‘One bloom for this world / Each petal representing enlightenment.’" But Nan Dingshan wrote instead: "The neglected geniuses once fled to the mountains / Now they hide in the alleys of Xijing."

Zhu Yihe chuckled: "'Neglected geniuses'? You're a celebrity in this town. Who’s neglecting your genius?"

Nan Dingshan nodded toward Ye Lang: "I'm not talking about myself. My friend here is the neglected genius!" Ye Lang stepped forward and Nan Dingshan introduced him. Zhu Yihe was impressed. He liked the way Ye Lang carried himself.

"That's my phone number right there.” Zhu Yihe passed his business card to Ye Lang. “Let's make some time to get to know each other better,” Zhu Yihe said. “You should stop by my house." Ye Lang visited Zhu Yihe several times. He brought Zhu Yihe a pair of stone lions, purchased on a trip to Suide County.

"I’ll tell you,” Zhu Yihe said to Ye Lang one day, “how the city government is: we've got so many people working down there and none of them show much promise. But you might be just what we need!" That is how Ye Lang got a job at the Provincial Library. The director of the library, Gong Changxing took a liking to Ye Lang, too, and took him on as an assistant. The job was simple enough. Ye Lang was tasked with taking care of the director's files, writing a few memos, and looking after the director's guests.

Another connection was made by Zhu Yihe at the Pingze Castle. That was where he met Yan Ming, who worked as a hairdresser at the hotel salon. Zhu Yihe was already in his fifties and still not married. He needed someone to look after his household. He hired her as a housekeeper. She came over to his house once a day to tidy up and make his dinner. Despite Nan Dingshan’s teasing, that was the extent of Zhu Yihe and Yan Ming’s relationship.

A few months after the Pingze Castle's lions had been erected, they were still attracting crowds. At the same time, something strange was happening on Bamboo Row: some of the residents of the area began to dream about lions. In their dreams, they were being attacked by the lions. And then the residents of Bamboo Row that had dreamed about lions began to drop dead, one by one. The coroner said, conclusively: heart attack. The residents of Bamboo Row were not experts in fengshui but they came to their own conclusions: the lions had been placed in an inauspicious location. After consulting with Taoist masters, they hung a mirror in front of the basalt lions and bound them with red string. But the deaths continued and the residents went to the hotel to protest. The owners of the hotel quickly relented and the lions were moved, but they were worried about future unrest on Bamboo Row. One of the owners came up with the idea of bringing in an opera troupe to perform. Nan Dingshan’s opera company was selected. They put on a ghost play that was received well by the residents of Bamboo Row. When the owners called on them to perform again, Nan Dingshan knew that the company’s next performance should be an opera called Mulian Rescues His Mother. To Nan Dingshan, it was the perfect opera for the occasion. Mulian, he knew, was an opera that mixes the nether world and this world, the yin world and the yang world. The opera mixes up reality and legend, the performer and the audience, center stage and backstage—it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Nan Dingshan thought to himself: Nowadays, people are willing to do anything for money. Everyone looks fearless—but, no, they still fear each other! Man’s inhumanity to man is the last great horror. And they fear ghosts, since ghosts were once human. Mulian he decided, was the perfect opera to put on at a time like this. Artistically, he knew that it was a rare opportunity, but it would also impress the owners of the hotel—and they were paying for it. The actors in the company would make more from the performance than they would singing folk songs over the chatter of banquet guests. Nan Dingshan went looking for actors and musicians and a script. Ye Lang tried to help out; he suggested that his friend Brother Kuan play the xun for the opera but Kuan Ge wouldn't agree, so Ye Lang took the position for himself.

Ye Lang took his wages from the library and his wages from the opera company. He had never been happier. He got to know Zhu Yihe's housekeeper, Yan Ming, and one day, out of the blue, he asked her: "Would you marry me?"

"Would you marry me?" she asked him. Neither of them were particularly serious but it got Yan Ming thinking. She put more effort into looking good. Every morning, before she left for work, and every evening, when she got home, she rubbed vitamin E lotion and cold cream into her cheeks. One night, when Ye Lang went to see her, he found her laying on her sofa, her entire face covered in slices of cucumber.

He asked her: "Did you see the thing someone put up down on the telephone pole?"

Yan Ming looked up, careful not to shake off any of the cucumber: "What is it? A lost cat or something?"

Ye Lang said: "Somebody found a face in the gutter over on Bamboo Row, trying to figure out who its original owner was. Why don't you call the number?"

She jerked up from the sofa and slapped him: "This face here is the only thing I've got. That's how it is for women, it's our pride and joy."

Ye Lang chuckled: "Then you've got too much pride to marry me."

"What does that mean?" He pulled her close to him. He felt his dick getting hard in his pants and pulled Yan Ming's hand toward his crotch. Her ears glowed red. She seemed about to pull back but finally gave in. She started to rub but realized that there was nothing there. She looked up at him: "What's wrong?"

"It's been like that since I was young. It's a condition I have." She turned away from him and began to sob. He was only joking but there would be time to tell her later. Until they were married, he decided, he wouldn’t try anything like that again.

Unexpectedly, around that time, problems began to arise among the leadership of the city. The Party Secretary and the Mayor were in conflict. The conflict was seemingly too deep-seated and complicated to allow for resolution, even after the provincial government and Beijing got involved. Factions within the bureaucracy began to organize behind the Party Secretary and the Mayor. Eventually, the Mayor was transferred out of the city. After the Mayor was gone, his loyalists began to be purged. Zhu Yihe was one of the first, dismissed from his job in the city and appointed to a lowly post in the suburbs of Xijing. Zhu Yihe never bothered reporting. Before he had gotten into the municipal bureaucracy, Zhu Yihe had been a lecturer at a junior college, so with his political future looking so grim, he decided to return to his old job. Unfortunately, returning to his college was not as easy as he had imagined it would be. In the years since he had been away from the school, the situation in academia, even at that level, had changed. He was unable to get the necessary certification and the college was not much help. The stress was too much for him. Zhu Yihe had a stroke and fell unconscious. He had no relatives, so it was Ye Lang and Yan Ming that stayed by his bedside for those five days and five nights that Zhu Yihe lay in a coma. Finally, the doctors came to Ye Lang and told him that Zhu Yihe would never regain consciousness. Ye Lang wrote a poem and stuck it on the front of the hospital. This was the poem: “Scholarship can build the nation / The King of Hell can shut his eyes / A diploma can kill a scholar / The common man has no hope.”

The poem was popular enough that news of it soon reached the new Mayor, who dispatched one of his functionaries to tear down the poem. When he realized the damage had already been done, the Mayor made a phone call and had Zhu Yihe’s certification processed. Once again, he had acted too late. Zhu Yihe regained consciousness but he would never be in the condition to retake his position.

At the end of the bureaucratic reshuffle, Zhu Yihe was left paralyzed and heartbroken, and Ye Lang lost his job at the Provincial Library. The director, Gong Changxing, did not even tell him in person. He sent one of his assistants to Yan Ming and had her tell him. When he got the news, Ye Lang flew into a rage. Yan Ming tried to console him. He was silent for a long time, grinding his teeth. He spit out a broken tooth and a mouthful of blood, and went to the opera company and was not seen for a few days.

On the sixth day of June, preparations for the staging of Mulian were mostly complete. The actors went to the temple on Bamboo Row to make offerings. The company's clown went first, followed by the actor of the laosheng roles, and the xiaosheng, who played the young men, and the laodan, who played old women, and the xiaodan, who played young women. The actors bowed and placed their offerings on the altar, and asked for the blessing of the local gods. After the ceremony, the actors gathered for a feast. Nan Dingshan noticed that Ye Lang had joined the other players at the table but was not eating. He asked: "Why aren't you eating?"

"I don't eat meat."

"You don't eat meat? You mean, since you were young? I never would have guessed!” Nan Dingshan looked Ye Lang up and down, taking in his strong arms and rugged face. “You look like you came up eating raw beef."

"I'll have some noodles, at least. They symbolize long life, right?"

Nan Dingshan said: "The way the world works, as long as there are people, there will be ghosts; and as long as I’m putting on an opera, you'll have food on your plate." Ye Lang had started to smile but now his jaw froze. His long face seemed to hang even longer.

A few days later, Nan Dingshan's shifu, Chou Laojiao, who had taken on the role of leading the musicians on clappers since being replaced by Nan Dingshan, passed out a copy of the script and gave a deadline of three days for everyone to learn their role. While the actors and musicians were working, Chou Laojiao would arrange costumes and decorations, and, coincidentally, he had been invited by some municipal bureaucrats to a banquet at Pingze Castle. Chou Laojiao wasn't sure about the invitation. What business do I have, he wondered, eating dinner with politicians? He ironed a shirt and a pair of pants and dug out a pair of velvet slippers to wear. He still wasn't sure what had occasioned his invitation but when he arrived at the banquet, he overheard some of the servers talking: a businessman from Taiwan was visiting Xijing, looking for projects to invest in, and the city government had invited local celebrities from music, art and literature to liven up the atmosphere. Chou Laojiao took a seat in the back of the room, where he was one of the first to see the Taiwanese businessman walking into the banquet hall. Chou Laojiao frowned. He stood up. Before walking out, he sneezed loudly, then pinched a nostril and blew snot over the table. It has to be him, he told himself. There was no doubt in his mind—he recognized the man who was now being feted with a lavish banquet in a luxury hotel. Before entering their respective current occupations, the two men had fought together in Korea. In fact, they had not members of the same company but had met in a prisoner-of-war camp. Chou Laojiao had been planning an escape; the Taiwanese businessman had informed the guards. In the end, Chou Laojiao had gotten away, along with two other comrades, but he wondered if it had been worth it. Once he got back across the line, he had come under suspicion as a possible double agent. He was interrogated endlessly. Joining an opera troupe was one way of escaping the endless investigation. He acted in clown roles and learned the clappers that accompany the singers. While he was under investigation, this man had somehow gotten out of the camp and made it, eventually, to Taiwan. After he returned from the banquet, Chou Laojiao was stricken with a mysterious illness. Rehearsals for the opera were cancelled and the players went to Chou Laojiao's home to try to buoy his spirits.

The players went to the old man’s small courtyard home and set up in the yard. The singers sang and the musicians played, until one of the actors that had been waiting on Chou Laojiao called out to the performers: "Something's wrong!" Ye Lang was there that day, too. He was working on learning the drums but he had been given a bowl and a bamboo drumstick to practice with. He ran, too, toward the old man's bedroom. Ye Lang saw Chou Laojiao roll over on his bloated belly and retch. The sheets were stained with blood. Nan Dingshan shouted for Ye Lang to run across the street to a restaurant, where one of the other elders of the company was eating lunch. The master was famous, like Nan Dingshan and Chou Laojiao, for playing comic roles; and he was known, too, for having lunch every day at the same lamb stew restaurant. The custom in Xijing was to crumble flatbread into the lamb stew, and the master had his own individual style, which was to order two of the flat disks of stale bread, then crumble one and send it to the kitchen to soak in the stew, when the stew arrived, he scooped out the first crumbled flatbread and then crumbled the second on top of the soup. Ye Lang arrived just as the master was working on crumbling up the second piece of bread. The master wrapped the bread in a napkin and ran after Ye Lang. In the old man's bedroom, he knelt beside the bed. "Brother," the master said, "what's wrong?" Chou Laojiao tried to raise his head but he was too weak. "You can't eat anything?" The old man tried to raise his head again. "You can't speak?" Chou Laojiao clenched his fists under his chin in a final show of respect. His eyes rolled up into his skull and he died. The master put the napkin of flatbread on Chou Laojiao's chest. He called on the players to organize a funeral. They chanted "A Banquet for Two" from the opera The Palace of Eternal Youth and then the suona players struck up a mournful tune.

That night, the mourning hall was prepared in the courtyard of Chou Laojiao’s home. Three white silk parasols were hung on the old man's door. The players put on black armbands and went out to burn spirit money—a toll for the ghost road, they explained to Ye Lang. He did not know the customs of the city and he could not follow the chants of the players, so he went to tend the burning spirit money, poking at it with a willow branch. Nan Dingshan led the players, sobbing and drumming as they walked around the mourning hall. As they went, they chanted:

Boom-cha, boom-cha, bong! bong! bong!
You lived for what, nobody could tell
One last breath and they bury you deep
And down and down you went to hell
Boom-cha, boom-cha, bong! bong! bong!
Across the Bridge to Inferno you creep
Through near darkness, the moon a sliver
On oily planks and tar in twilight sleep
Boom-cha, boom-cha, bong! bong! bong!
The wind sweeps down and all things quiver
The lucky ones dash across
The unlucky into the river
Boom-cha, boom-cha, bong! bong! bong!
Across the Bridge, amid the ghouls
Walk into the Netherworld
Boom-cha, boom-cha, bong! bong! bong!
Life is so sweet and oh-so good
Why did you have to go so soon?

Ye Lang was struck by the absurdity of the chant and tried to hide his smirk from the players. He stirred the fire again with the willow branch and a puff of wind came through the courtyard and lifted the scraps of burning spirit money. He brushed the embers off his shirt and wiped at his eyes with his sleeve. He heard a sound behind him and turned to see someone at the gate of the courtyard tossing pebbles at Kang Bing, who was sitting on a bench in the yard. Kang Bing turned and the two men had a silent conversation with hand gestures. Kang Bing shouted over to Ye Lang: "Somebody's looking for you."

"Who is it?"

"Who do you think?"

Ye Lang looked over at the courtyard gate and saw Yan Ming peering around the corner. She gave him a shy smile. She nodded toward the flame: "You look so serious over there." Ye Lang stood and went with Yan Ming into the circle of lantern light that fell on the street outside the courtyard. He should have expected her visit, since he knew that she rented a room on this street. This was the first time that day that she had had the time to stop by to see him. She had invited a qigong master to visit Zhu Yihe, to see if there was anything that could be done for him. After the master had seen Zhu Yihe, she took him to a vegetarian restaurant nearby. When they left, she had heard the opera company chanting. When she mentioned Ye Lang and the opera company to the qigong master, he told her that he wanted to meet Ye Lang, so she brought him over.

"How did it go, with Zhu Yihe?"

"I don’t know what I expected. He kept asking Zhu Yihe if he could feel anything. You know he can’t speak, so he was shaking his head. I could tell it wasn't working."

"Why did you bother bringing that guy in? I already told you not to bother. If the doctors can't do anything, you think qigong is going to cure him?"

"It's an ancient tradition. He said he's healed people before."

"He can claim anything he wants to. It'd be the same if he was a doctor or a qigong master." He slapped his cheek and held his hand up to the light to inspect the crushed mosquito in his palm. With his thumb, he ground the bug to tar.

"Whether or not he cured him, at least he tried. You should at least meet the man."


"That's it, just 'no'? Fine. There's something else I wanted to tell you. But I'm not sure if I should, now. I know you'll be mad at me."

"Just tell me."

"Gong Changxing sent someone over to bring you some money.” She handed him a ten yuan bill. “He said it was your meal subsidy that you didn't use before you were fired. Can you believe that? It's disgusting. I hope you aren’t mad at me."

"My stomach hurts."

"It's all my fault," Yan Ming said, nervously. "Where does it hurt? Just breathe in through your nose, Ye Lang, breathe in through your nose and you'll feel better." She started rubbing his belly. He arched his back and her hand slipped down his body and rested on something hard. "You're fine after all, huh?"

He giggled and said in a low voice: "You'll see."

She stepped back and punched him in the chest. "Pervert!" She pounded on his chest with her fist, repeating it. She stopped suddenly and said: "But you aren't mad at me, right, about the money? You look happy."

"You want to make me happy, don't you?"

Yan Ming said: "You will be happy. I know you will." Ye Lang took her in his arms and kissed her deeply. She felt his hot breath on her neck. From within the courtyard, there was a sudden burst of light. Someone had taken up the willow branch and stirred up the fire. Shreds of flaming spirit money and glowing embers were swept up and over the wall of the courtyard. The burning paper and ash began to fall in Yan Ming's hair. She ducked her head under Ye Lang's arm. When the ash stopped falling, she looked up at him and shivered, blinking. The chanting from the players had stopped momentarily but a new song was starting. Ye Lang pulled her closer and said: "It's okay. There's nothing to be afraid of."

Her fear was gone. She said: "You should go. If you want to see me later, you know where to find me." She pulled away from him and, still brushing the ash out of her hair, disappeared into the darkness of the street.

From within the courtyard, Ye Lang heard the players begin a song of filial piety. He looked across the street, to where he knew Yan Ming would be waiting, and then he went back into the courtyard. As he watched the players, he realized that they were no longer singing a funeral song—they had entered the realm of pure art. Their steps were methodical and careful, and their voices were solemn and resonant, but their faces betrayed the joy they were taking in the songs. Kang Bing had taken over the bowl that Ye Lang had been playing before. He glanced over his shoulder at Ye Lang and smirked. Ye Lang took out the ten yuan bill that Yan Ming had brought him, rolled it up and went to the spirit altar in the dead man's house and lit it off a candle.

Chou Laojiao looked up serenely from his bed. Stuck to his forehead was a piece of rough hempen paper. His face glowed with a pale light and seemed about to split into laughter. His mouth, parted slightly, held a copper coin. This dead man was laying right in front of him, but, Ye Lang knew, Death had already scampered off, to find a place to lay in wait for him, too. He relived the recent events of his life, in an instant. He felt hopeless. He felt lost. Ye Lang, Ye Lang. He hadn't imagined it—someone was calling him. Kang Bing had come into the room, too, and pushed the bowl and the bamboo drumstick into his arms. Ye Lang marched out of the room as if being pulled by invisible strings. He joined the players' procession, tapping his bowl. In his lips, he held the smoldering ten yuan note like a cigarette.

The players marched in time to their chants, praising ancestors from Pangu to Sakyamuni. They had just gotten up to Genghis Khan drawing back his bow to shoot a vulture when Chou Laojiao's relatives brought out a pot of lamb stew with noodles. As the mourners gathered to eat, Ye Lang saw his opportunity to slip away. He went out of the courtyard gate and dashed across the street to Yan Ming's room. She had rented a single room with one of her co-workers from the hotel salon but the other girl was coincidentally out of town visiting relatives. Yan Ming had changed into a flimsy blue qipao. When Ye Lang entered, he found her bent over a hot plate, frying a fish. He stood for a moment, watching her through the bamboo screen that hung over the door. He took the old newspaper that the fish had been wrapped in and that now held its guts, and he went to the garbage pile to throw it away. Before going back to her room, he stopped at a shop on the corner to buy a bottle of liquor.

Ye Lang and Yan Ming sat on her bed, eating fish and taking swigs off the bottle. They were intoxicated, and it wasn't just the buzz from the liquor. She took her chopsticks and dug out the fish’s eye for him to eat. She told him that it would help his eyesight. The fish eye was white, and perfectly round. She held it out to him on her chopsticks and he brought his mouth to their tips and sucked the eyeball into his mouth. Their eyes met and he wrapped an arm around the small of her back. Yan Ming fell backwards onto the bed and he followed her down. She tried to speak, to tell him to stop but she found that she could not speak. One of the chopsticks snapped under her. Ye Lang's fingers tore at the buttons at the back of her qipao. She saw that he had torn one of the buttons off, so she stood, unbuttoned the last button and let the gown fall around her ankles. She blushed and whimpered: "Don't look! You can't look!" Ye Lang put his head down but his eyes could still run up and down her long, lithe body. He had never seen a woman as beautiful as Ye Lang. She looked to him like a mythical animal, like an enchanted fawn in an enchanted forest. He bit his tongue. His mouth filled with blood and saliva. Ye Lang reached up and snapped off the light.

In the darkness, Ye Lang slipped under the covers and Yan Ming went to the corner of the room and washed herself in a basin. He heard the sounds of trickling water for a long time. Finally, he went to her and pulled her close to him. They fell into the bed but she froze and held up a finger to silence him. He heard it, then, too: outside, in the gingko tree, a sparrow was rustling, settling into its new nest. Ye Lang said: "It's fine. Even if there was an earthquake, that's fine with me." He began to move again, against her. Yan Ming pulled one of the pillows under her back and put her hand over Ye Lang's mouth. He rubbed his face against her hand and sucked her fingers into his mouth. He was happy. He was as happy as the sparrow, roosting in the gingko tree. He thought to himself: a sparrow is happy when it's in a new nest. The sparrow flies out its nest and then returns. Coming and going, coming and going, in and out, in and out. The creak and smack of the bed hit a rhythm and he could hear it pounding in his head like a drum. The rhythm became faster, and faster, and faster—and then silence. The sparrow settled in the nest. Yan Ming pulled him in tight against her. She cried out in pain, but when Ye Lang tried to roll away to turn on the light, she held him close. When he rolled over to sleep, she pulled the covers over him and said, softly: "Sleep well." She took a towel and wiped between her legs and tucked it under the bed.

She lay down but sleep wouldn't come. Early in the morning, before the sun had come up, Ye Lang was awoken by Yan Ming holding his nose shut. He woke up snorting. The fact that Ye Lang could feel so at peace in a place like that, at a time like that made Yan Ming hate and love him at the same time. She told Ye Lang that she could't sleep. She told him that she couldn't wait for him to wake up. She asked him if that was the meaning of love, to wait expectantly for another person. Ye Lang blinked and smiled up at her. He stretched out in the bed, trying to force all the fatigue out of his muscles. He didn't want to think about Chou Laojiao's funeral. He looked over at the fish, now reduced to bones and fins. Ye Lang said: "That's how I feel, too."

"What about me?" She sat down in front of the mirror and started doing her makeup. She brushed on foundation and rouged her cheeks and penciled in her eyebrows. When she was done, she turned and asked him: "How does I look?"

"I don't know what women are supposed to look like, these days."

"I never go out without makeup. Women like compliments, you know. Someone once said I look like a foreigner. Why don't you ever compliment me?"

"What good does that do? Women put on makeup to compliment themselves. Anyways, who said you look like a foreigner?"

Yan Ming said: "The boss of Blue Dream. They run that fashion show. You know me, I can't keep a secret, but..."

"He wants you to model for him?"

"Who told you! It must have been A-Chan. She's got a mouth on her, that girl. I told her not to say anything."

"Who's A-Chan?"

"The boss from Blue Dream showed up at the salon to get his hair blown and noticed me right away. He said I take a modeling class and then come model for them."

Ye Lang was overjoyed at the news: "I thought so myself—that you could be a model, I mean. Show me," he said, and motioned for her to walk for him.

She took a few tentative steps, turning as if at the end of a catwalk, and walking back toward him. Ye Lang sat up and pulled her against his chest. She pressed him back against the bed and said: "You go back to bed. It won't look good if someone catches you coming out of my room at four in the morning. Go back to bed and leave around nine or ten. I have to go to my class, anyways." She paused at the door and turned back: "I tossed a towel under the bed. Don't worry about cleaning it up." She went out, shutting the door gently behind her. Ye Lang rolled over and went back to bed. He woke up to sunlight streaming into the room. As he got dressed, he thought to himself: it feels like just overnight I became her husband. He glanced up at the calendar on the wall and made a note to himself of what day it was. That was when he remembered what Yan Ming had told him before she had left. He found the towel under the bed, sitting in a basin. The towel was stained red. He took the towel and wrapped it in some newspaper. It was proof, he decided. It was proof that she was a virgin. He grinned as he inspected the ruined towel. He wasn't going to put it back in the basin. He would take it back and hang it out to dry in his yard, so that all of his neighbors could see. Even if he had nothing else, at least he had found love; even if his life was a mess, at least he had a pure woman. He bent to smell the towel, inhaling deeply. That was when he knew: it wasn't blood. He put the towel down and went around the room, trying to figure out what had stained the towel. He found tucked behind one of the legs of the bed, the bladder from the fish, still stained with red dye. He thought back to the night before, how Yan Ming had slipped out of bed after he'd switched off the light, and it made perfect sense. She had cheated him. Overcome with sadness, he tossed the towel and the bladder back under the bed, and he left.