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."
"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.