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?