&: Diary (6)

(May 19th, 2019) This weekend, this side of town has been caught up in the Sanja Matsuri 三社祭 (and the Shitaya Shrine's festival was last weekend or maybe the weekend before). This is my shaky overview of the festival: the Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社 honors three men who were enshrined as kami after they founded Senso-ji 浅草寺 (look at that: the names of both places are written with the same kanji, 浅草, but are read different ways, asa kusa, the Japanese reading, and sen so, the Chinese reading, which is not unlike the Mandarin reading of qiancao) with a statue of Kannon that they found in the Miyato River 宮戸側川.

The founders of a Buddhist temple being enshrined as Shinto kami makes more sense, considering the formerly close relationship between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which ended with shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離, the official separation of Buddhism and Shinto, part of a nationalistic drive to wipe out the influence of Buddhism, and the sanctioning of violence against Buddhist temples and clergy after 1868 and a new wave of haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀釈 ("destroy the Buddha wipe out Shakyamuni," ).

So, three portable shrines, mikoshi 神輿, bearing the three kami 神 head out for a trip around the neighborhood. On the same weekend, mikoshi from other Taito Ward districts (or Asakusa Ward districts, before, and I guess I live in what would have been Sakamoto 坂本, but is now Shitaya 1-chome 下谷一丁目) get set up and then head out to meet up at Asakusa Shrine.

I would never approach Asakusa's central districts during Sanja Matsuri 三社祭, but I can appreciate it from a distance, stopping by at the neighborhood committee kiosk at the end of the block, give my donation and get my scarf, have my name put up on the board. The revelry is centered on the Asakusa Shrine, and the local celebrations are smaller affairs, mostly old folks greeting neighbors, a few young men with slicked back hair, hanging around in happi 法被 crushing tallboys (some of them, according to gossip in the building, volunteers from Saitama, due to the lack of local boys to carry the mikoshi), and you can catch mikoshi from other neighborhoods getting set up to make the trip to the central shrine—or a Tengu 天狗, escorted by Shinto priests and police, coming down the street at the head of a procession, reducing children to tears. Even sitting up in my fifth floor apartment, I can hear the sound of flutes and drums played over PAs at two neighborhood association kiosks, drumming from a mikoshi procession, a wartime anthem coming from a right-wing sound truck.

I thought it was interesting, the way that the neighborhood committee kiosk was staffed, mostly by elderly people living in this danchi, and missing completely were the thousands of other residents of this city district. Apart from the danchi building, most of the mansion マンション buildings would have gone up in the past decade or so, and even the smaller homes around the former Sakamoto Elementary School are fairly recent, too, so perhaps most people in the district have no roots in the neighborhood or the city. I don't know. I noticed, hanging around for a while outside of the neighborhood committee kiosk, people coming down from the tall, fancy apartment building beside it (the space for the kiosk is carved out of the building's property, a mostly empty triangle of space that has a few planters). They seemed to take no interest in what was going on. I can understand that. I heard that the kids mikoshi procession had thirty kids in it, though.

There is lots of evidence wandering around Tokyo of Edo and older structures, under the surface—like, the crook in the road in Nihonzutsumi where the main drag of Yoshiwara used to be, so you couldn't see straight down it, or the remains of the canals over in the same area, one of which has been turned into Sanyabori Park 山谷掘公園, or the way the blocks in Okachimachi 御徒町 are laid out in a certain way because they used to have sort of military barracks for low-ranking samurai, things like that—but Sanja Matsuri is a time when you can see in more abstract ways how the city was organized before, on a community level... You can see groups that no longer have much meaning, the firefighters' guild, organized crime groups, neighborhood ujiko 氏子 organizations. "Shinto matsuri traditionally provided a 'divine' opportunity for local residents to consolidate their community ties and thereby prevent the intervention of the authorities in their internal affairs" (Prayer and Play in Late Tokugawa Japan: Asakusa Sensoji and Edo Society, by Nam-lin Hur, Harvard University Asia Center, 2000, which goes on to make the case that Sanja Matsuri was slightly different, but I hope my point still stands, talking about a neighborhood like this, way out on the periphery of the city and the ward).

The residents of the danchi are old enough to remember a former way of doing things, not talking only about shrines and organized crime but also merchants' organizations, community-led machizukuriまちづくりplanning, later, and they have the leisure time to engage with neighborhood groups and their own danchi committees, but you have to, if you're under the age of, say, forty? and live in Tokyo, have the sense that more powerful forces are at work that make those kinds of things nothing but a diversion. You only moved to the neighborhood because Tokyo is the only place with jobs, and this is one of the few neighborhoods with affordable real estate and rent but also not way out in Kita Ward or built on high earthquake risk land in Sumida Ward—but if the day comes and Mori Building Company decides a residential-hotel-retail complex near Ueno Station makes sense, you'll take their check and hopefully pick up an even nicer apartment Setagaya or Shinjuku. Like, real estate, LCCs, tax-free shopping, and tour groups will wreck the neighborhood long before you'll ever need to rely on your neighbors for help.

(May 20th, 2019) Irohakai いろは会, one of those places where time stood still from roughly 1990 to 2015, down the shopping arcade, time went very slightly faster, the business hotels were replaced with hostels and Airbnbs, the men that used to sleep rough waiting for jobs to come were finally driven out, the older men moved over to Tamahime Park... The arcade was there, most shops shuttered, shelter for the men that drift over from Tamahime, I guess, a few cheap bars, a soba place, Chinese restaurant. The lots are bought up around it, then finally a few lots directly on the arcade are bought, demolished, replaced. The developers push to open up the road, bring traffic down, take the roof off so that the old men of Tamahime can't sit there when it rains and pass a bottle, I guess, and it comes down. What a strange place to walk through now! Unless you knew it was there, unless you noticed the few Ashita no Joe tie-in banners here and there, you'd never know it was a thing, right? It's one of those places, too, disconnected from the neighborhood in a way, since the men that patronized it in the good days were out-of-towners, day laborers, etc. rather than arcade neighbors. I mean, unlike the arcade at Minowa or Senzoku Dori, running down to Asakusa. There was a different character. Nobody ever settled in. It was always on the edge of town. The area was always populated by marginal people, way out on the periphery of the city, beyond Yoshiwara and beyond Asakusa. I'll tell you this, I walked through, but mostly out of a sense of obligation. I never bought a thing on Irohakai. And especially today, with, I think, every single shop closed, definitely no reason to stop, on my way to Senzoku Dori to buy zhacai at the Chinese grocery store over there.

(May 21st, 2019) When am I ever up early enough to see the garbage set out in the neighborhood? Never. I was up all night, dozed off around seven in the morning, got up before the pickup, around ten, when everyone had already gone to work or school and the streets were empty and still wet from a dawn rain.


&: Something from Qinqiang (2)

Jia Pingwa has routines, names, and scenes and locations that appear in novels written years or even decades apart. They most often take the form of stories told by characters, so they feel sort of partway between gossip and local lore. The effect is sometimes, like, "Where did I hear that before?" You wonder if you're remembering an incident from earlier in the book or a story told to you in person or—"Wait, yes, it's from Ruined City." One I came across today, the story of a man who seals himself in a box, mimicking a spiritual master, hoping to have his body preserved because of merit earned in his present life. This story is repeated in White Nights 《白夜》(1995), Old Gao Village《高老庄》 (1998) , then near the end of Qinqiang 《秦腔》(2005) with different settings, different characters, and roughly the same punchline.

In Qinqiang, Zhongxing's dad 中星他爹 (or Uncle Glory 荣叔) has seen his son go on to great success as a local bureaucrat but is concerned that he has few years left to live. He has begun going to a temple in Nangou where Master Zhaocheng 昭澄师傅 has been mummified. He tells Xiaxia's wife that he plans to nail himself into a box and starve himself to death. He believes his body will be preserved. Word spreads around Freshwind but nobody takes it seriously, until the township head tells Xia Tianzhi and his wife:
"How did he die?" Fourth Aunt said.
"He'd been dead close to a month, it seems, but nobody knew. We just got word from Nangou. The village sent a few policemen up to check and they confirmed it. Who would have thought? The word is, he died at the temple on Tiger Head Cliff."
"So, what exactly happened?" Xia Tianzhi said. "He hadn't been well for a while... Did he take a turn for the worse?"
"It looks like a case of homicide."
"He was murdered?" Xia Tianzhi said.
"I got the word this afternoon from the police," the township head said. "The culprit was caught and confessed to everything. It sounds like the murderer had also been worshipping at the temple. I'm sure you've heard about Master Zhaocheng. After he died, his body didn't decay. The master's corpse was installed in the temple and pilgrims go to make offerings. Zhongxing's dad started saying he had done all the good deeds he had in him. That was why his son had been successful, he said. And he said that because of his good deeds in this life that his body would somehow be preserved after his death. He made a coffin and took it up to the cliff behind the temple. Once he was inside, the murderer nailed him inside. It's always raining up there and when it's not raining, it's still humid, so the body decayed quite rapidly. The coffin started leaking. It was leaking down from the cliff and somebody spotted it. They went to the police to report it."
Junting and Yinsheng go up to the temple to retrieve the body:
The meat was falling off the bones. His body looked like a braised pig trotter. The flesh on his skull had almost completely rotted away. "Uncle Glory," I said, "is that really you?" I went and broke a branch off a tree and pried open his mouth to look for his two gold teeth. They were still in his jaw, so I knew it had to be him. We laid the bones and rotten flesh on a sheet and carried them down from the cliff to the temple, along with the box. When we got down, Junting kowtowed to the remains and burned a few sticks of incense. It was only right, since Zhongxing's dad was one of the Xia family patriarchs. We separated the pieces of the body into two bamboo baskets and brought them down the mountain. Fifty years before, when Zhongxing's dad had been around my age, some bandits had come down from the hills and killed some villagers at West Mountain Bend, cut their heads off, stuck their cocks in their mouths, then put them up on the stage at Freshwind's opera theater. They'd gotten Zhongxing's dad to carry the skulls in baskets just like this. Fifty years after that, I was giving him the same treatment.
The story appears again toward the end of White Nights, when Wang Kuan's visits his friend Wu Qingpu, who is working as an archeologist on the outskirts of Ziwu, excavating a Western Jin dynasty temple:
Qingpu brought Wang Kuan over to the gingko tree beside the cliff. He thought Qingpu wanted to show him the view but he was actually bringing him to see a large earthen jar. Wang Kuan looked and saw that the body of a bald, withered monk was curled up inside. "The guide is a local," Qingpu said, "and he told me that they've known about the monk in the jar for long time. During the Cultural Revolution, one of the villagers dragged the mummy out of the temple and put it in his house to worship. Once the coast was clear, he put the mummy back. The mummy's been around for at least a hundred years."
"They just had an exhibit in Xijing last year," Wang Kuan said, "showing some mummies they found. But those mummies were from way out west in the desert. Out here, if it's not raining, it's humid as hell. How'd the mummy last this long? Maybe there is something to all that talk about Daoist alchemy."
"They say it's because of his merit in this life. He achieved enlightenment. Should we take a picture? I want an expert to look at this. Oh, wait, there was something else I wanted to show you. Over there, behind the temple, up that cliffside..."
"Can we climb up there?"
"I went up there for a look yesterday afternoon," Qingpu said. "The guide took me up. He told me that after the Cultural Revolution, a traveling doctor showed up. He thought his own good deeds were up to the level of the monk, so he decided to try the same trick. He got a box and got some help from the villagers hanging it from the side of the cliff. He climbed in and had the villagers nail the lid shut. A couple months later, they saw that the box was rotting. When they popped it open, there was nothing inside but bones."
Wang Kuan laughed, "Everyone wants to be an immortal, huh?"
Wang Kuan left Qingpu down below and scrambled up the cliff. On an outcropping, he found the wooden box. He reached out to lift the lid and felt the wood breaking apart between his fingers. The long nails that had once held the box shut had rusted almost to nothing. Inside the box was a pile of bleached white bones. Wang Kuan nudged the skull with his toe. The skull still had teeth in its jaw, including a gold tooth, the outer layer almost worn away and the iron ring set above it rusted to a dark red.
Why does the scene appear again, twenty years later? In both novels, the story is played as farce. Despite all of the fantastic events in both books, and our willingness to accept that the trick has been successfully pulled before, we know it's absurd: a man can't shut himself up in a box and hope to turn into a mummy. In Qinqiang, the story of Zhongxing's dad trying to mummify himself comes rather after a harrowing scene where Xia Feng attempts to kill his infant daughter, so it's sort of set up as a counterpoint there, maybe taking some of the tension out. But what the hell is going on?

It's important, perhaps, that both novels center on local opera. In Qinqiang, the Xia family is full of qinqiang opera aficionados. Xia Tianzhi in particular is a tireless promoter of the local opera, puts out a book on the topic, plays opera from his rooftop, and is overjoyed that his son, Xia Feng, has married an accomplished performer. In White Nights, the opera performer Nan Dingshan 南丁山 hopes to revive Mulian Rescues His Mother《目连救母》an operatic retelling of the Chinese Buddhist fable of a devoted son going to the underworld to save his mother, who is eventually reincarnated as a black dog.

In White Nights the local opera is already on the decline and two decades on, in Qinqiang, it has virtually disappeared. There were once great performers and great operas that could unify the village and tell their timeless stories, but those days are gone. "It presents the idea of the modern world setting the clock back to a bygone age of magical alchemy and cosmological reciprocity as a tragic farce," as Jessica Elizabeth Imbach writes in Not Afraid of Ghosts: Stories of the Spectral in Modern Chinese Fiction, and "...it also recasts the novel's fascination with the excruciating minutiae of exotic cultural objects and presents their historical origins as an empty if not hypocritical gesture." Mulian is a "ritual festivity," just like the village performances of qinqiang opera, just like Uncle Glory's fortunetelling, his pilgrimages to Master Zhaocheng's temple, and his eventual choice to mummify himself...

In Old Gao Village, the scene appears again. Cai Laohei 蔡老黑 carries the preserved body of a well-endowed and very dead monk to the village's temple:
"I think it was a monk from White Cloud Temple, over at White Cloud Valley, right? They used to call him 'Three Legs.'"
"I'm afraid it was him. His name was Yihong. I carried him back from White Cloud. He'd been dead for years, but I could still see how he got that nickname."
"What are you talking about? He'd been dead for years?" Xixia said.
"Didn't Zilu tell you?" Cai Laohei said. "Yihong the Monk had good karma. When he died, his body was preserved. I brought him back from White Cloud Temple thirteen years ago. He's been at Taihu Temple since then. White Cloud Temple was going to be destroyed. He died out behind the temple, dug a hole in the ground, passed away while he was meditating. I spent two years in prison because of it."
"Prison?" Secretary Huang asked.
"After Yihong died, a traveling doctor showed up to look at the body. He told me that his body was preserved because of his good deeds in this life. He said that since he was a doctor, he'd done plenty of good deeds, too. He said that when he died his body would be preserved, too. He knocked together a box and put it up on the hillside behind the temple. He wanted me to nail him inside. I refused but he pleaded with me. I was a young man. He managed to convince me. He ducked down inside and I nailed it shut. I went back a few months later and the wood had rotted in the rain. When I opened the lid, there was nothing inside but bones. Someone ran to the cops. No matter what I said, it was case closed, as far as they were concerned. I got sent up for two years because of it.
Xixia blinked. "Really?" she asked.
"Why would I lie to you? Ask Zilu, if you don't believe me."
Zilu nodded.
It seems to be contribute to a comic section about big dicks and sets Cai Laohei up as a rough character... Old Gao Village is a book I don't know well, so I'll hold off on saying anything about why it appears again.

But with the routine appearing decades apart and at least three times, I got curious. Where did Jia get the story? The belief in the holiness of mummified monks, roushenfo 肉身佛, goes back for centuries in Mahayana Buddhism (when it got to Japan, they took to it very enthusiastically), so I assumed it might be from a local news story. But nothing seemed to match. I managed to turn up another reference in Jia's work to the story, though, this time in "Old Xi'an: Evening Glow of an Imperial City" 《老西安: 废都斜阳》(published in 1999 and translated in 2001 for Foreign Languages Press by Ma Wenqian). The essay gives a real life location (Nangong Mountain 南宫山 in Langao County岚皋县 in Southern Shaanxi) but otherwise follows the pattern of the fictional versions. The brief anecdote is sandwiched between a recollection of two men debating world affairs and a section about Shaanxi politicians:
I was once in a public bathroom near Xuanwumen and heard the two men squatted beside me passionately debating the overthrow of some African country and then turning to an equally passionate discussion of the merits of various appointees to the Politburo Standing Committee. When I asked to borrow some toilet paper, they brushed me off. I said, What do you two care so much about politics for? One of them said, Kingdoms rise and fall, everyone has their duty.
On Nangong Mountain in Southern Shaanxi's Langao County, there was a monk that passed away while meditating in the lotus position. His body was preserved for centuries. A traveling doctor who lived nearby believed that his earthly merit and boundless beneficence might earn him similar preservation. He made himself a box, climbed inside, and paid off one of the men from the mountain to nail himself. Not even a year later, the wood rotted and the box split open. The man that found him could only laugh—and then he pried the gold tooth out of the dead man's jaw.
Shaanxi people are enthusiastic about politics, but power games require finesse. Their methods are fine for local politics, but they come up short when they head outside the region. That is the reason why not many people from Shaanxi have reached the upper echelons of power in recent years. Yu Youren is one of the few exceptions, having been named a KMT cabinet minister. But even he never reached his full potential. The First Emperor of Qin once sent out men to Lantian County to find jade to carve a seal on. The men saw a phoenix flying overhead and when the phoenix landed, they rushed over to it. The phoenix took to the sky again, but they found a seam of fine jade at the spot where it had rested. For years after, whenever someone became an official, they would go to the same spot to collect jade for their official seals to be carved on. But even those men were never allowed to put their Lantian jade seals down on more important documents. These days, men like that would rather show off the ring of keys on their belt. It's proof that they have some power, no matter how minor.
With that location in mind, I went back through some of Jia's other essays, looking for the earliest mention of preserved monks. I found it in an essay published around the same time as White Nights. "Trip to Bijia Mountain"《游笔架山》is about a mountain in Langao County in southern Shaanxi, too. The mountain, I assume, looked like a bijia 笔架 (a brush or pen rest) and was home to a mysterious temple:
I was one of very few visitors the mountain receives. It is very far from the county town and the road leading up to it is treacherous. Some make the trip to visit the nameless temple that sits at the top of the mountain. The only route to the temple is up the south side of the mountain, but thick trees make the trek difficult. I went there for the first time in the early summer of 1994 for no other reason than that I thought the name of the mountain was interesting. The first night there, when the moon came out over the mountain and lit up the forest below, it seemed to loom over the horizon bigger than any moon I had seen before and it had a soft, supple light as if shining up from the bottom of a clear pool. I took a photograph, but when I had it developed, the moon was tiny, like a little white speck in the sky. I still don't know what happened. In the morning, there was a mist that wouldn't disperse. As I climbed toward the peak, the land below disappeared completely. There had been mountains all around but they were suddenly replaced by a layer of cloud, with only the highest peaks poking up like islands on a boundless ocean. ... In front of the temple, there was an old tree. On the tree were five types of leaves: gingko, juniper, beech, honey locust, and mulberry. The tree had died thrice and had been reborn each time. Humans have many emotions and trees have many souls. ... I heard the calls of a frog coming from a mountain stream and went over. Standing beside the stream was crested ibis with an elegant beak and long white wings. It flapped up into the sky and floated above me for a while, but when I called up to it, the bird took off like an arrow away from me.
I spent the night at the temple. There was a small fee, collected by an old woman with pinned back hair. There was no monk at the temple and the old woman was definitely not a nun. She could tell fortunes, though. She made me a meal of dried tofu, bamboo shoots, and smoked meat that tasted of applewood. The old woman told me that the spring nearby had medicinal qualities. I went and drank a bowl of the springwater. At night it was pitch dark and so cold that I worried that I would never be warm again. Even the small fire burning in the stove could not keep the chill away. I stayed awake and listened to the sound of the forest, to the insects and the wild birds and the cries of unidentifiable animals, to the sound of squirrels nibbling and the pine trees creaking.
The Buddha in the temple was carved wood, unpainted and unvarnished. The temple had no bell. There were no lanterns and, even if there were, there was no gate to hang them from. I didn't burn incense for the Buddha. I didn't bother bowing. The wooden board for fortunetelling was truly beautiful, though. The method used at the temple was this: take out a bamboo divination strip, brush a bit of watery ink across the board, then press a sheet of yellow paper across it to see your fortune. The temple was small. The temple was simple and uncomplicated, like the mountain people that had once made their pilgrimages there. Its decline had begun after the death of the temple's monk sixty or seventy years earlier. The temple had no official master. Whoever occupied it became its guardian. But the body of the monk was still there, sitting in a large earthen jar. The monk looked just as he had in the moment he died. The jar was set under the old tree in front of the temple. Legend had it that during the Cultural Revolution, one of the faithful had taken the preserved body and hid it in his home. Several years, he brought the body back to the temple. There were mummies in the desert, where the air was dry. Those mummies toured city museums and welcomed huge crowds. But Bijia Mountain was not a desert. It was always raining on Bijia Mountain. The mountain was full of wild animals. But the monk's body had been preserved. The body had not rotted in the humidity or been torn apart by wolves or been pecked at by birds. Perhaps science could have explained it, but no scientists had made the trip to Bijia Mountain to investigate.
Behind the temple was a cliff. Partway up the cliff was an gnarled old pine. I pulled myself up on the roots of the tree to the small outcropping where it stood. Under the tree, I found a pile of bleached bones, a few rotten planks, and some rusty nails. The old woman told me that a traveling doctor had arrived at the temple a couple years before and had taken an interest in the story of the monk. The traveling doctor thought his own good deeds were up to the level of the monk. He thought his own body would be preserved, too. So, he made himself a box, got inside, and had one of the men from the valley below nail the lid shut. Not even a year went by before the wood started to rot and the doctor himself was nothing more than a pile of bones. The police arrested the man who had nailed the doctor in and charged him with homicide. He's still sitting in prison.
Outside of a novel, it's easier to read the story as a fable about hubris (and perhaps about the dangers of doing a good deed), a man that believes his good deeds will earn him the dubious reward of his body being preserved forever. "Even monsters think they can turn into immortals," as Xia Tianyi tells Shangshan. And maybe the reading suggested by its inclusion in a section about politics in "Old Xi'an" points to it being about local politics, too, in some way in Qinqiang, the dispute between Junting and Shangshan, perhaps, especially given Shangshan's response to Xia Tianyi: "Maybe they can. Take Zhongxing, who'd have thought he’d be a bureaucrat one day?" Or maybe it's just a good ending for the story of Zhongxing's dad. Who knows?


&: Something from Qinqiang (1)

She took the slap without crying. She went out into the yard and sat for a while on the laundry stone, then went into the kitchen to put the jianbing on the stove. She couldn't sew worth a damn but among the five daughters-in-law, she made the best jianbing. Her mother had died when she was still young, so starting at four years old, she had dragged a stool over to the table and began learning to make the various doughy staples of the village. She'd been married long enough to know what her husband was like and that their future together promised nothing but more of the same. She was resigned to her fate. In years past, she might have cried or made a scene, but she knew it wasn't worth it. As the jianbing cooked, she felt a sudden twinge in her breasts. The baby was still at her mother's place, so there would be no chance to use the milk. She pulled her full, tender breasts out of her shirt and squeezed the milk out over the fire. When she was done, she put the jianbing out on a plate and then filled four bowls with vinegar and chili oil. She closed the kitchen door, went out into the yard and called, "The jianbing are ready!"
Jia Pingwa is associated mostly with his priapic literati avatars like Zhuang Zhidie, but even in his horniest books, the women are, of course, closely, but also sensitively observed. Xiaxia 瞎瞎 hits his wife. He is the youngest of Xia Tianyi's 夏天义 five sons, named after his brothers had been given far more impressive names (Xia Qingjin 夏庆金, Xia Qingyu 夏庆玉, Xia Qingman 夏庆满, Xia Qingtang 夏庆堂). When Xia Tianyi's wife is pregnant, he wishes for a daughter, but she gives birth to a particularly ugly son ("...到了二婶怀上第五胎, 一心想要个女子, 生下来还是个男的, 又长得难看,便不给起大名了,随便叫着'瞎瞎'"—and 瞎 here for the name, since it's because he's ugly rather than blind, is perhaps a 方言ish use, meaning something like 坏, although I'm not completely sure). Xiaxia has a temper. In this situation, he wanted his wife to go to his brother's place to pick some pepper leaves to put in the jianbing and slapped her when she refused. Xiaxia is never given a proper name and neither is his wife. Her sisters-in-law are all named but throughout the book she is simply, "Xiaxia's wife" (瞎瞎的媳妇). She spends her day laboring in the yard of the house and working out in the field, and in her free time sneaks away to go to the shrine dedicated to Master Zhaocheng's 昭澄师傅 preserved corpse. And it's a beautiful moment that I think I must have skimmed over in first reading but that stands out while translating, Xiaxia's wife over the stove, completely resigned to her fate, taking her swollen breasts out of her shirt and spraying the milk over the cooking fire. You can still hear the raucous game of cards going on in the next room and smell the woodsmoke and feel the warmth of full breasts in palm. After she serves the jianbing and sneaks out to sell a bag of grain to Zhao Hongsheng 赵宏声 for some extra cash, you can't help but cheer her on, until she explains she needs the cash because Xiaxia is gambling away their savings in the card game.


&: Reading "Red Rose is Paging You" by Chu T’ien-wen, general notes on reading Chu T’ien-wen for the first time, telling time by books

I don't know what this is, maybe just an excuse to translate some of my favorites parts of "Red Rose is Paging You" and try to talk about why I love Chu T’ien-wen so much.

I offer a brief sketch of her career only because, despite being a towering figure in Taiwanese literature, she does not have a high profile in English-language translation, and it's not unforgivable to have no idea who she is. Chu T’ien-wen started as a writer but is possibly more famous now for her work as a screenwriter, collaborating with Hou Hsiao-hsien on 1983's Growing Up (directed by Chen Kun-hou) and going on to write or co-write almost every film he made after, from The Boys from Fengkuei. It was after she began writing for the screen that she broke away from the style of her early work (most notable there are: The Modern Stories of Magistrate Ch'iao《喬太守新記》, Legend 《傳說 》) and was able to produce her best work. Fin de Siècle Splendour《世紀末的華麗》, published in 1990, and Notes of a Desolate Man《荒人手記》, published in 1994, have hints of her former lyrical, romantic style, and still show a debt to Hu Lan-ch’eng 胡蘭成 and Chang Ai-ling 張愛玲, but also point in a new direction, influenced by film, the new political and cultural environment after the lifting of martial law in 1987, and her own intellectual discoveries over the past decade.1 I offer a brief sketch of her career only because, despite being a towering figure in Taiwanese literature, she does not have a high profile in English-language translation, and it's not unforgivable to have no idea who she is.

You know, I met her once. There isn't an anecdote here. It was almost ten years ago. She had an aura. I was in awe of her. I stood at a respectful distance while she spoke with Josephine Chiu-Duke and a few other professors, and then I said a brief hello after being introduced by Christopher Rea. I was too nervous to say anything else.

I can find in my email archives a record of that night, in an email I sent myself, and I can find a very bad undergraduate paper I wrote about Notes of a Desolate Man. I don't have an actual memory of that night, at this point. The archives can tell me when and where I was at any given time (and I can read pathetic emails sent to crushes, the upbeat checkings-in on exes, job applications, threatening letters from collections agencies, the occasional summing-up-the-past-five-years emails to friends I'd fallen out of touch with, emails to myself in the form of stories or drafts of posts typed out while standing at a liquor store register in St. Albert or riding the train in Guangzhou, etc. etc.), but actually holding the book, it's like another window into memory, some kind of prompt... I remember the mildew smell in the Asian Library at UBC, and when I look at the cover with its image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, I always see it with a background of the floor beside the bed of my one-room rental across from the McDonalds on Number Three Road in Richmond. I have a memory of finishing Notes of Desolate Man one afternoon, sitting in the park outside the Buddhist temple in Richmond, the smell of manure from the fields to the south, a gazebo with a ceiling of wire mesh to keep sparrows out, a tape loop of chanted sutras, the trickle of water into the turtle pond... I was on my way to work, maybe coming from school, or maybe it was on summer break, and I used to get off the bus early, at the end of Number Three Road, walk down Steveston Highway, and read in the park.

Notes of a Desolate Man, it strikes me, reading it now, is not a young man's book. It's told from the perspective of a man approaching middle-age, with his life mostly behind him, watching a friend die of AIDS. It's a book about nostalgia and mourning and the passing of youth. The sadness of it is almost oppressive. I don't know what I got out of it, then. It packs an emotional punch, undeniably, and, maybe, as someone that hoped to someday make a living as a writer, who spent a bunch of time typing out short stories to email myself, I liked the feeling that it gave me, that Chu T’ien-wen was enjoying herself while writing, and just out of university lectures, headed toward a shit job selling auto parts, sitting for a while in that garden, seeing names I knew from class used in some practical and beautiful way, Eliot, Fellini, Ozu, and all those exotic places like Shinjuku, Venice, Kamakura, that I could barely imagine visiting...
Listen, the high-pitched sounds of a flute came and went as if creating musical signs in the air. Enchanted, we looked up to decode the signs; we chased after the drum troupes amid the sea of cherry blossoms day after day. Listen, heavenly drums and earthly flutes. The musical signs in the air confiding their secrets: three thousand kaleidoscopic worlds, a thousand rulers, a country of many fragrances, the femininity of India.
See, there's Lévi-Strauss. He said, Islam, on the contrary, has developed according to a masculine orientation.
Yes, the abstract, the unified, the monotheistic.
The destruction of idols started with Abraham, and when the Ten Commandments appeared, all other gods disappeared.
We left the drum troupes and stood before a high platform, enchanted by dancing shamans in vermilion robes and short white coat. It was an unknown shrine, with the musicians sitting on both wings of the platform, dressed in ancient clothes, playing flutes and beating drums.
The vermilion of the shamans' robes was that of the caste mark between an Indian woman's brows. The white of their short coats was that of a Yin dynasty carriage, the white of the Shang Dynasty. The white of the white robe and headdress worn by Hatsheput, Queen of Egypt, who ruled upper and lower Egypt in the fifteenth century B.C. The vermilion and white were a white ox pulling a vermilion wagon in The Tale of Genji.2
Now, rapidly approaching the same age as Hsiao-Shao, it all means something different. I've been to Kamakura and Venice and I live a short train ride from Shinjuku. My youth, too, has passed.

After I finished Notes of a Desolate Man, I went and read the stories from Fin de Siècle Splendour that had been translated by Eva Hung, Fran Martin, and Michelle Yeh. The email archives can't confirm dates or reaction, but they direct me towards my first mention of the collection, in a short story I emailed to myself in 2012, where a young woman has on a child's plastic chair that she uses as a bedside table, a pack of ESSE Menthol, a TV remote control and a copy of Fin de Siècle Splendour, and I'm not going to show you the paragraph where those details come from but the paragraph itself seems to reflect the influence of Chu T’ien-wen-ish attention to mise en scène.

But so when I exhausted the translations, I went to the originals. I sat in the dank upper floor of the Asian Library at UBC with a Chinese-English dictionary beside me, trying to work my way through the stories in Fin de Siècle Splendour. I couldn't do it. It would be years before I worked through even the shortest Chu T’ien-wen short story. Even now, sitting down with my favorite story in the book to attempt a translation, there's always something missing, some bit of language I still can't grasp the subtleties of, some references which are probably over my head. Another benefit, too, of coming back to a book, with a decade of reading and living in between... Chu T’ien-wen was about my age when she wrote these stories. But also, reading in a second language, coming back to a book a decade later, that transformation can be even more dramatic. I know most of the time that I could pull out some meaning and follow the story, but I couldn't appreciate the writing. I knew they were special, though. It's hard to put into words, even now, what makes Chu T’ien-wen's writing unique and powerful. If pressed, I would say: the intense focus on mise en scène, nonlinear narratives and cinematic staging, possibly learned from her time working with Hou Hsiao-hsien, visual impact, the mixing of high and low registers, like the poetic, classically-influenced descriptions of the commonplace and the superficial and absurdist descriptions of the holy, and the mixing of Taiwanese local language and standard Chinese with Taiwanese characteristics and English and Japanese and Cantonese...

There must be some better, more representative passage, but here is one chosen at random from Fin de Siècle Splendour's "Bodhisattva Incarnate"《肉身菩萨》and Fran Martin's translation:
The body is a burden, let it be pared away and disappear! But he felt a pair of eyes watching him.
It's no use. After the violence of passion like a lightning strike, there remained only boundless, limitless, endless soundless ennui, a desert like a sea of sand engulfing his spirit. He laughed coldly to himself, I'm not interested. Raising his monk's eyes, he looked toward the eyes that watch him.
For an instant, they looked at each other. There in the wide latitudes of a vacant heart, he met him.
It's no use. It's the shadow of an imagined bubble; it's dew; it's electricity. He said this to the tremulous melancholy voices that arose within him. But those eyes, those eyes were like the eyes that had stripped him of his innocence when he was seventeen, saturated with a narcotic scent that pulled him strongly. Dragged by its force he went with him, as natural and fated as a flower with bee.
High up on the tenth floor they faced each other naked. A highway overpass swept by outside the window with lights that radiated a sheet of tangerine; the passing traffic sped over their heads in a roar of orange. He extended his hands to embrace him; he did the same. They each embraced the other, both wanting to give at the same time. It was a confused and hasty union that came to an end soon after.
They lay side by side on the pillow. It was dark inside, and outside the lights on the bridge made an orange sky and a tangerine sea like twilight on the wasteland, reflecting inside to paint a layer of rusty verdigris on their naked bodies. They'd made a hash of it, and he avoided looking at him. His was an authentically manly physique, solid and strong.
He arose to put on his clothes, and he, too, got up to dress. The room was filled with the sounds of dressing, belt buckles and key rings making a wild clanging and jangling, terrifying. Then suddenly it all stopped; in an instant noise ceased and the silence was suffocating. He saw a truck with EVERGREEN written on it soar by outside the window.
Evergreen, said Little Tong, breaking the silence.
What? he asked.
I've got a friend who worked like a dog for Evergreen, Little Tong said. Evergreen sea freight. My friend was at sea for two years, then came ashore and got married.
He said, My name's Zhong Lin, what's yours?3
Over the years, I've gone back to the seven stories in Fin de Siècle Splendour every few years. A few days ago, I found a copy of the collection in a used bookstore in Jinbocho. I have to admit that I didn't buy it, but I went home and re-read "Red Rose is Paging You"《紅玫瑰呼叫你 》.4

Like Notes of a Desolate Man (and Jia Pingwa's 贾平凹 Abandoned Capital《废都》and White Nights《白夜》come to mind, too, since I'm working on Jia Pingwa at the moment, but there are many other examples), "Red Rose is Paging You" reads very differently after a decade of reading and living.

While the other stories in the collection have Chu T’ien-wen-ish beauty throughout, "Red Rose" is purposely less beautiful, less erotic, less coherent. Writing the carnival world of Taipei's nightlife is another one of those places where, reading Chu T'ien-wen, you can almost feel the joy she gets out of describing the PDKs and KTVs and nightclubs. It is resistant to translation or makes translation tough because of the many vernaculars spoken throughout (the many languages of Taiwan, including Japanese and English, the CB radio lingo5, the language of the nightlife, slang from the world of film and TV).

The story is about a Chinese-Korean man named Hsiang Ke. When he's not working, Hsiang-Ke is going out into the Taipei nightlife with his "open collar Yves Saint Laurent shirt with a white silk scarf, and suede Ballys" to hang with United Bamboo Gang-connected legitimate businessmen, smoke weed, hunt for casual sex, and sing karaoke (I should ask Jia sometime if he's read this, since I think there is something in common, in a concrete and a more abstract way, between Abandoned Capital and Chu's "Red Rose," since it is also about a horny culture industry man—a guy working on primetime soap operas rather than novels, but still). He is married but sees his wife and two sons rarely.

The story opens with Hsiang-Ke out at a KTV, reminiscing about a hookup and contemplating his one-hitters:
Hsiang-Ke! This is Hsiang-Ke's song! they yelled. Hsiang-Ke picked up the microphone, climbed over their legs and strode to the center of the room, ready to sing his new signature song, Zhang Gui's "Little Clown." Everyone was waiting for him to hit the chorus, little clown, little clown, but he knew how to ride the melody, speeding up here, then stretching out a line there, as if he were riding a wave—then there it was: little clown, little clown. His body surrendered up his spirit. He rode on the wings of song up into the heavens. Yes, I nailed it this time.
He basked in the glory, in the glow of KTV victory and a marijuana high and an XO buzz. If it wasn't for KTV, he would never have known he could sing. The weed helped, too. It was strong stuff. He had started to feel it after one hit. He'd had to take a few hits off a J, huddled in a corner. ... He would have loved to bring out his pipes. His favorite had been a pear-shaped one-hitter that fit right in the palm of his hand. He often studied the intricate carvings across its surface. One time, while cleaning it, he'd found a busted cod liver oil pill in the bowl. When Longhair finally confessed, Hsiang-Ke had leaned his son over the bed and whipped his ass three times with a bamboo switch. After that, he switched to a brass pipe that looked nice but didn't hit as smooth. And after that it was a sandalwood bat. It was one of his hobbies. He could spend hours cleaning each pipe under the light of a Tizio desk lamp, swabbing them with rubbing alcohol and a wiping them out with a clean cotton swab. After they were all clean, he’d then line them up for inspection.
Goddamnit, our tenth anniversary. What the hell am I going to get her?
Carnation handed him a business card. Hsiang-Ke, call me a taxi. It was one in the morning. He knew she wanted him to take her home and he knew what she had in store for him. A girl in her twenties is always horny. The night before, after he'd fucked her, he passed out and woke up in her bed at four a.m. He had been sleeping so deeply she could have clipped off his nuts and he wouldn't have felt it. As soon as he came to, he jumped out of bed and rushed home as fast as he could. He told himself he wouldn't fuck her again. I’m almost forty for fuck’s sake. He made the call then went out to take a piss. Instead of going back in, he lay down on the sofa outside the room and pretended to pass out. He watched the attendants out in the hallway, rushing back and forth. With their their bright white shirts and black bowties, chattering into their walkie-talkies, he thought they looked like magpies building a nest. He smelled her pussy before he saw her. She reached down and grabbed his crotch. Are you ready to go? He snored theatrically. She walked away. He hadn't expected her to just leave like that.
Hsiang-Ke's nighttime carousing is contrasted with his wife's own private world of dance group in the park, DPP politics, and Japanese lessons. When he returns home one night to find his kids are growing up without him, he decides it might be a good idea to spend some time with them:
Saturday night was once again set aside for the kids' baths. Longhair, Fuzzy, and the kid that lived next door—three little pigs sharing their bath with a hairy baboon. He ran the water and dumped in bubble bath, then climbed into the tub. He ducked down among the towering bubbles and listened to the trillions of tiny snaps and pops they made as they popped. It was joyous. While the boys played below him, he sat in the tub and used a pumice stone to rub every square inch of his feet. He looked like an immortal sitting among the clouds. He wouldn't even have known that their roughhousing had carried them out of the bathroom and they'd soaked the hardwood floor of the hallway and then the living room sofa. He led the boys back in, rinsed them off, then called for his wife, and left her to towel them dry.
He toweled himself off and took in the scene. My kingdom, my Garden of Eden... He was happy. He called over the neighbor boy. Get over here, let Uncle Hsiang have a taste. The boy went over and smiled up at Hsiang-Ke. Hsiang-Ke picked him up and gave his plump cheek a nibble. He set the boy down and called over Fuzzy. His youngest son was so boney that he looked like a root of Korean ginseng. He picked Fuzzy up, flipped him over and bit his ass. Help me! Save me! the boy shrieked, giggling. The biting game continued until his wife told the boys, Hurry up and put some underwear on.
Hsiang-Ke also begins to fall in love with his wife again. He finally catches her dance group performing in the park, all the wives with "kneecaps like Thai guavas" bobbing along out of time to pop music. She catches him watching and somehow appreciates that he's finally gotten out to see her:
His wife was in the back of the group. She danced boldly, without caring what anyone thought. But when she saw her husband's car, she froze. Even from across the parking lot, Hsiang-Ke could sense that his wife was happy that he had seen her. He had finally seen her dance. He recognized the smile. It was that strange, ambiguous smile that seemed to show frustration and pleasure at the same time. He had been seeing it less and less over the years. How many times had she used it on him, back then? It used to make him melt. That had been one of her ways of seducing him. He thought back to those years, before they were married... They used to do everything short of fucking. He used to suck her earlobe until it turned red. Sung-tzu didn't believe him when he told him. Hsiang-Ke had no choice but to marry her.
At first, there had been complaints about the dance group, that they were too loud, but eventually they came to own that stretch of road. If anyone parked their car in their territory, they would get a visit from one of the womens' sons or sons-in-law and they'd never encroach on the dance group's turf again. The women eventually decided to put up a metal pavilion out there, so they could keep dancing even when it rained. Nobody on the block dared to go against them, but the local authorities were not keen on the idea. They told the women that the police would be called if they attempted to build the pavilion. Hsiang-Ke's wife came in the door around ten that morning, out of breath. Come and talk to him for us, she told Hsiang-Ke. I want you to help negotiate.
He slid his hand up her leg. Longhair was at school and Fuzzy was at his kindergarten. There was nothing in the world he wanted more than to pull down that tennis skirt. What the hell... This isn't a skirt, he realized. He slid his hand up her culottes.
He attempts to rekindle the romance with his wife. He helps her out negotiating with the local government. But it's too late, though. He returns to the nightlife. He knows that he can't go home.
Sung-tzu had once made him swear, when he got old, if he ever got Alzheimer's, Hsiang-Ke should snuff him. It had been so many years ago. They were still so young. They used to fuck girls in the same room then switch them. The girls used to always say, Sung-tzu's way bigger than you. Fucking bullshit.
He went to call his wife. He woke her up. It's our tenth anniversary. Thank you.
What time is it? Do you want me to wait up for you? I can make you some noodles when you get back.
It's almost two. You go to bed. If I get hungry, I can make myself something.
He wasn't worried about Alzheimer's. He knew that long before dementia got him, he would no longer speak the same language as his wife or his sons. They were already speaking Japanese. He'd seen how fluent his Longhair's Japanese had been when he'd answered the call from his wife's Japanese teacher—better than his Mandarin! After that, perhaps they would speak the American English that Fuzzy was learning at his Montessori kindergarten. He would no longer be able to understand them. It would be humiliating. He would wither away, jealous and ashamed. That was how Hsiang-Ke imagined his future as he faced the glass KTV rooms with their twinkling lights like a million stars and the wall of screens showing MTV.
The neon lights were coming on outside. The nightlife spread like wildfire through the city. And somewhere above him, he knew that there was another city, one that could be heard but not seen. It was a city carried on radio waves. As the night deepened, the transmissions would grow more frantic, until the sun rose and the sound vanished. Red Rose, calling Blue Stocking. All he hoped was that even while he was withering way that his wife might let him find some temporary solace inside of her.
If this isn't just an excuse to translate my favorite parts, maybe I should venture some serious reading of it... Like, Hsiang-Ke lives by the cultural logic of late capitalism. In urban Taipei, fresh out from under martial law when Chu T’ien-wen wrote "Red Rose," the old autocracy has been replaced by something more insidious. The nightlife is no longer a subculture or something in resistance to the mainstream, but a total world that he can escape into. His wife escapes instead into progressive politics and NHK documentaries and her dance group. His family life and his marriage should mean something but he can only remember rather than experience them. He is not a father or a husband, anymore. There is only nostalgia left. He escapes into the nightlife and he fucks but the only fleeting joy he feels is with his wife and son... Sex with his wife is passionate and it reminds him of when he was human, in a way that the unerotic trysts with various women cannot (the fucking scenes are deliberately joyless and dull and the lasting image from those meet-ups is a scene where Hsiang-Ke fucks a girl doggystyle and is transfixed by the way her ass likes like a watermelon when the bars of shade and sunlight coming in through a Venetian blind hit it) (this is a common theme throughout the collection, thinking of Master Ch'ai in another story, trying to stave off decay by seducing a much younger woman). He is only waiting to die.

The whole thing, for me, hinges on the scene in the bath. It's been on my mind since I re-read the story a few days ago. I hope the translations captures something of the tone of the original. It's beautiful. I can't explain why without sharing too much about myself. I'm sorry. But I like what it does, within the story. She puts the scene near the beginning, so it lingers, while you watch Hsiang-Ke wasting his prime in a KTV or a nightclub, making it easy to sympathize with Hsiang-Ke, who is an irredeemable piece of shit but deep down a good man, and creates a nostalgic melancholy that hangs over the entire thing...

1 Please read "Chu T'ien-Wen: Writing 'Decadent' Fiction in Contemporary Taiwan" by Hwei-cheng Cho, a SOAS doctoral thesis, available with a quick search.

2 This is from Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's 1999 translation for Columbia University Press. I may have disparaged Howard Goldblatt's skills as a translator in the past and I stand by those nonspecific remarks, but this is his and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's best work. It's not perfect but it's close enough.

3 This is from Fran Martin's translation in Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2003). I encourage you to find a copy. Angelwings introduced me to Ch'en Hsüeh and many other writers I would have never heard of otherwise. I think the Chu T’ien-wen translation is particularly good, too.

4 I'm using the most common translation of the story's title. What else could it be? I'm not even sure. Maybe "Red Rose is Calling You," since "paging" calls to mind either a pager or a public address system announcement.

5 The story mentions walkie-talkies but also handheld two-way radios 雙頻手扒機 used to talk on CB radio channels.