Fire from the Sun


John Derbyshire


For Rosie


Author’s Note

Names of the principals:

“Weilin” is pronounced “way-leen.”

“Yuezhu” is “ü-e-jwoo.” The “ü” is done with a pout, as in German Glück or French lune. The “e” is a shortAmerican “e” as in “get.”

Opera singing, like any other line of work, has its own jargon, taken mainly from Italian and German. Though I did not want to cumber my novel with these terms of art, it has proved impossible to avoid them altogether. Because they are not defined well—often not defined at all—in standard dictionaries, I have put them in a glossary at the end of this story. Also included in this glossary are the names of all operas, arias and composers mentioned in the text, with brief descriptions (where the text has not already supplied them).

For the convenience of my plot I have taken serious liberties with some of the realities of opera life, training and performance. I ask opera lovers to forgive me these transgressions (and one or two absurdities), and beg them not to write me angry letters pointing out that, for example, the Ravenna festival only began in 1990.

Similar remarks apply to the world of high finance as I have portrayed it. I know very well, and do not need to be told, that the Bosco and Mosco are not possible objects (though the latter bears a passing resemblance to the Collateralized Mortgage Obligation, invented in 1983 by Lew Ranieri and Bob Dall). Novelists, like opera composers, are very ruthless people, as our acquaintances will tell you, and the material world is our slave, not our master.

In building my sets for this story I have been helped by friends and relatives who know much more than I do about opera, finance, and life in China during the 1970s and 1980s. I am deeply grateful to: my wife Rosie, Wally Fekula, Bing Ma, Liz Kotlyarevsky, Yanbin Wang, Liz Funghini, Carl Leaman, Paul Micio, and Kitty Brush.

Chapter 1

New Costumes at the Swimming Pool

We Have Friends All Over the World!

The first time Weilin ever saw foreigners—real foreigners, not just National Minorities or Chinese people from another province—was at the swimming pool in South Lake Park.

September in Seven Kill Stele was very hot. Weilin and his classmates used to go to the pool after lessons. Most of the classmates just wanted to splash around and cool off, but Weilin really liked to swim, and conscientiously practiced his strokes in the pool, so far as was possible. This was, in fact, not very far. The pool was patronized by all the children on the south side of the town: not only those from Elementary School Number One, which Weilin attended, but also students from Number Three, by the textile factory, and some from a nearby middle school. This made the pool very crowded. If you got there early you could swim the length of the pool without more than two or three collisions, but later it was so full you could only jump up and down in the dark, oily water.

None of the classmates had a swimming outfit. You rented an outfit at the pool, for two fen per session. The outfits were poor things, made of rough wool dyed dark blue. The boys’ outfits were just briefs, with a draw-string at the waist. The girls’ had shoulder-straps. However, the outfits were so old and worn you sometimes got one with a hole in it. This was all right if the hole wasn’t in an embarrassing place; but of course, in the case of the boys it generally was, whichever way round you tried to wear it. Then you had to argue with the crabby old woman in charge of distributing the costumes, to try to get a replacement.

The woman belonged to one of the National Minorities. She had a piece of ivory in her ear. There was nothing very quaint or fascinating about this: it was just a curved piece of ivory, murky gray in color, tapering from one end to the other like a tiny replica water-buffalo horn, stuck through a hole in the woman’s earlobe. It was just a custom the women of her tribe, whatever it was, practiced. She did not wear any picturesque Minority costume, at any rate not while carrying out her duties at the pool; just plain old-woman clothes, and that piece of ivory in her ear. Arguing with her was very tiresome. She was part deaf, or pretended to be, and her Chinese was not very good. Depending on her mood and your own perseverance you might or might not get a decent exchange, or you might have to forgo the evening swim, or take a chance with your classmates’ mirth.

Weilin was, in point of fact, rather afraid of the old woman. He had only been able to negotiate an exchange with her once, when she was distracted by several children trying to claim her attention all at once, and at last had handed out costumes at random in exasperation before slamming the window she owned in the wooden shed at the entrance to the pool area. The other times he had tried to argue with her the old woman, with the bully’s instinct for spotting the weak and shy, had rebuffed him. Furthermore Weilin was never really sure of his position among his classmates, and did not bear up well under ridicule, so if he got a costume with a hole in it he generally just claimed back his two fen and went home alone.

Weilin’s birthday—his eighth birthday—fell in October. One day in late September, a few days before the birthday, he went to the swimming pool after classes to find it all changed. The old woman’s wooden shed had been whitewashed. The old woman herself was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was an army man at the window. The army man looked very smart. He wore full uniform and a peaked cap. It must have been even hotter in the booth than outside, to judge by the rivulets of sweat running down the army man’s face from under his cap. He made no move to wipe away the sweat, though. He must (Weilin thought) be a model soldier. “Fear neither hardship nor death!” was the army motto, and so for one of these fellows an overheated shed in a muggy southwestern summer was beneath consideration.

The most wonderful change of all was that the tattered old blue woolen bathing outfits had been replaced. The new outfits were all different colors: black, maroon and ultramarine for the boys, a brilliant flower-garden of yellows, greens, crimsons, pinks and purples for the girls. There was a little knot of girls at one side of the window, still wearing school clothes, comparing the outfits they’d drawn, arguing about whose was prettier, in that noisy way girls have.

When Weilin got to the window the army man scanned him quickly, then turned and produced an outfit from one of the wooden pegs on the wall inside. It was brand-new, maroon with a white drawstring. Weilin took it cautiously. He thought it the most beautiful item of clothing he’d ever been given.

“No charge today,” said the army man when Weilin offered up his two fen. “Mind you behave yourselves in there. Next!”

Of course, all the children were delighted with their new outfits—especially the girls, their skinny bodies, when they emerged from behind the changing screens, sheathed in dazzling displays of color and pattern. They were jigging up and down in delight, shrieking, covering their mouths with one hand and pointing with the other.

The pool area itself had been spruced up. The water of the pool had been cleaned to some degree. The surface, normally scummy with algae, bits of grass and dead dragonflies, now glittered and flickered with pure light. At the shallow end you could see right down to the bottom of the pool. The concrete surround had been scrubbed, and bushes and shrubs in bright-painted tubs had been set along the outer perimeter. Everywhere was a strong smell of disinfectant.

The water, when Weilin let himself down into it, was colder than usual. Perhaps it had been refreshed from the town supply. Weilin didn’t mind this at all, because the air was so insufferably hot. However, the girls made a fuss about it—shrieking, clutching their arms about themselves and each other, pretending to shudder. Weilin thought the generality of girls very babyish, incapable of any kind of serious talk or play. He himself was an only child; but there were girls in his class, of course, and most of the boys he knew had three or four brothers and sisters apiece, so Weilin was pretty well acquainted with girls. Now, irritated by all the shrieking and shuddering, he decided to assert his superiority by splashing the nearest group of girls. He accordingly set off to swim past them, using an exaggerated overarm motion to make a lot of splash.

This went wrong. The girls were standing round in a little ring, and as he was about to pass the nearest one she stepped back right into him. His flailing arm caught her quite a sharp knock on the shoulder.

“Ow! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”

By the time he got upright the girl was clutching her shoulder, face scrunched up in pain.

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” Weilin thought the girl was going to cry. She was a little thing, younger than him, he thought, with one of the more spectacular of the new outfits on: big yellow, red and blue flowers on a white background. Her hair was tied up in short pigtails, sticking out at each side. Her face was round, a tooth missing at top front, and her eyes were very large and mobile, like those of an alert small animal. However, the eyes did not cry.

“You really hurt me. I’m sure I shall have a bruise.”

“Why are you boys always so rough?” chipped in one of her companions, a chubby girl with no visible eye matter at all, only puffy horizontal slits, like a Tibetan. “Go away!” This was echoed by the others, a little chorus of minuscule outrage. The chubby girl splashed at him, hitting the water with her palms.

“It’s all right,” said the girl he had hit. “He didn’t mean it. It was an accident.”

Weilin had had his fill of girls for the evening. He swam off as best he could among the jostling children, into the deeper part of the pool. Here he felt very brave, knowing he could not touch the bottom. Weilin considered himself a good swimmer, probably the best in his class, though nobody had ever bothered to organize any competitions.

There were only real swimmers at this end of the pool, older boys mostly. Normally they were horsing around, showing off to each other. Today, however, they were standing and sitting quietly on the surround, or making clumsy solo dives into the water. Holding on to the rim of the pool, Weilin saw the reason. As well as the normal lifeguard—one of the Physical Education teachers from the middle school, a rather unfit-looking middle-aged type with a paunch hanging over his blue shorts—there were two more army men: sleek well-muscled young fellows in army-color shorts and brown plastic sandals. They were not doing much, just standing together at one side watching the children in the pool, but their presence was enough to intimidate the older boys from their usual rough play.

Weilin made his way back to the shallow end, swimming haltingly among the milling youngsters, now so colorful. Standing there in the eighty centimeters of water he looked back down to the army men. They had gone to the other side now to talk to the regular lifeguard. The regular lifeguard had a little hut of his own, up against the screen of the changing areas. This hut, like the one where the outfits were kept, had been whitewashed. Weilin wondered about all the cleaning and painting, and about the new costumes. He thought perhaps it might be a movement. He was not very clear in his mind what a movement was, but he knew that they happened from time to time, and that when they happened people ran around rearranging familiar things. Landmarks disappeared, people’s parents were moved away to new assignments, slogans were painted on walls. Weilin had a vague idea, the very vaguest of ideas, from hearing his parents talk, that movements were a big nuisance.

“I really think I shall have a bruise.”

It was the girl, the one he had bumped into. She was standing alone just in front of him. When she saw she had got his attention she angled her head over in a way that looked quite painful by itself, to inspect her shoulder.

“I’m really sorry. But as you said yourself, it was an accident.”

“It’s all right.” She turned back to regard him, cocking her head now just a little over on one side. With her pigtails sticking out like that she looked rather comical. Weilin smiled. She smiled back, showing the gap in her top front teeth.

“My name’s Han Yuezhu. Yue like in ‘moon,’ zhu for ‘pearl.’ My father’s an army man. He’s a company commander.”

What a show-off! thought Weilin. But the girl had disarmed him, cocking her head like that, and he felt a little guilty about the accident still.

“I’m Liang Weilin. My dad teaches in the college.” Weilin didn’t feel he wanted to describe the characters of his given name. He did not like it very much, thinking it old-fashioned and pedantic. He had not yet been able to develop a satisfactory running-hand signature with the fussy, complicated characters.

“Really? What does he teach?”

“He teaches mathematics.”

The girl made a face. “I hate math. Two threes are six, three threes are nine, four threes are what? I can never remember. I think it’s stupid.”

“What do you like, then?”

“I like dancing. When I grow up I shall be a dancer.”

The girl raised her thin arms above her head, fingertips touching, and swayed a little. It was so affected Weilin could not help but laugh. His laughing discomfited her. She dropped her arms, looking a little crest-fallen, and Weilin felt guilty again.

“Your outfit is really lovely,” he said, for something nice to say.

The girl brightened at once. “Yes, it’s the prettiest one. Much prettier than Fujun’s.”

“I think it’s great that they’ve got new outfits. The old ones were so awful.”

“Oh, I know why! I know why! Do you know why?”

“Why what? Why they got new outfits?”

“Yes. I know why, and I’m sure you don’t.”

“Well, it’s true, I don’t. Will you tell me?”

She frowned, feeling the weight of responsibility. “I don’t know if I should. Perhaps you’re a bad person. A county-revolutionary.”

“It’s counter-revolutionary. How could you spot one? You don’t even know how to say it.”

“Well, then, I won’t tell you.”

“Please yourself. I don’t care.”

“It’s a secret. Because my father’s in the army, he knows. He told me. He’s a company commander.”

“It can’t be a very important secret, or I’m sure he wouldn’t have told you.”

The girl ignored this. “I guess it’s all right,” she said. “Everybody will know soon, anyway.”

“So you’re going to tell me?”

“Yes. Listen.” She came close to him, paddling her hands through the water, which came up to her chest.

“All right,” said Weilin. “I’m ready.”

The girl was at his side. Quite unselfconsciously she grabbed his arm with her hands and pulled him down so that she could whisper in his ear. Weilin experienced an odd thrill, feeling her hands on his arm. It was a new thing, something he had not felt before.

“There are foreigners,” she hissed.

“What? Foreigners? Where?”

“In the town. At the guest house.”

“All right. What’s that got to do with the new outfits?”

“They’ll come to South Lake Park. To the pool. So we have to look our best. That’s why we got new outfits. To make a good appearance in front of the foreigners.”

“Oh, I see.”

The girl had let go of him now. Weilin regretted this, still in the afterglow of that peculiar thrill. The girl was pretty, he decided, in spite of her missing tooth and those babyish pigtails. Her skin was pale, paler than most of the girls’, and looked smooth and creamy. He guessed she was a little younger than himself. You wouldn’t have called her either skinny or plump—though her chest and shoulders were somewhat broader than usual, perhaps. He wondered if there were some polite way to touch her. Start a splashing game, perhaps. But at this point the foreigners showed up.

It was a big party, foreigners and Chinese together. The Chinese were officials and party secretaries from the town government. Weilin thought he recognized one or two of them from various rallies and functions he had been taken to, though he could not have placed them by name or title. But of course it was the foreigners who captured everyone’s attention.

The most prominent of the foreigners was a most extraordinary looking creature. He was very tall and very hairy. You could see he was hairy because he was wearing shorts, and there were thick curly gray hairs all up his legs. On his feet he wore sandals: not the plastic sandals the army men had, but complicated things made of leather, with numerous straps and buckles. The man’s hair was gray and very long, swept back in a mane, reaching almost to his shoulders. He had a beard, likewise gray, a narrow goatee several inches long. He wore an open-necked shirt in egg-shell blue, hanging loose outside his shorts.

The other foreigners were slightly less alarming. The gray-haired man had a woman at his side, much younger, with astonishing yellow hair gathered in a limp pony tail, and a light cotton dress over her rather plump figure. Behind them were two other men, one in a short-sleeved shirt and tie, but with sandals like the old man, the other wearing a jacket. It was a light linen jacket in off-white, but the man still looked very hot and uncomfortable. He had an odd face, the features all hanging down, as if his flesh were especially susceptible to gravity.

The army men were coming up from the other end of the pool carrying deck chairs. The deck chairs had been secreted away in the lifeguard’s hut, apparently. The party seated themselves, the officials making a great fuss about the foreigners sitting first. Weilin could hear the old man talking. He had a loud voice, but apparently did not speak Chinese. One of the officials was an interpreter. He kept leaning over to catch what the foreigners said, then relayed it to the other officials, who listened with exaggerated attention, then nodded or laughed or clapped their hands in simulated delight.

“Don’t stand there staring! Foreigners don’t like to be stared at. Swim, or play, or something.”

This was one of the army men, heading back for more deck chairs. The children had been frozen dead still in the water and on the surround, staring at the foreigners. The army men walked back, each working one side of the pool, telling the children: “Swim! Play! Be natural!”

Even with this encouragement Yuezhu could not move. She stood staring at the foreigners, her mouth hanging open.

“Come on,” said Weilin. “We’re supposed to act naturally. The army man said.”

Yuezhu jerked back to life. She reached out for Weilin’s arm and held it with her small, pale hands.

“What a monster! Ai ai ai, I’d be scared to death to get close to him!”

“Which one?”

“The one with the beard, of course. Ai, so hairy!”

Feeling her hold on to him, the thrill came back, triple intensity. It seemed to Weilin the most delicious thing he had ever experienced, though he could not understand why. With his free hand he disengaged one of hers, and held it, his fingers twined through hers. She seemed not to mind this. Her neck was rather longer than normal, or seemed so with her hair in pigtails. Her pale skin and long neck made him think of the expression swan-neck, which he had read somewhere. He thought it was apt, though on purely instinctual grounds, as he had in point of fact never seen a swan. Beneath her neck, passing under the straps of her outfit, were her clavicles, which Weilin would have liked to touch, but of course dared not. The clavicles, and indeed as much of the rest of the girl as could be seen, gave a combined impression of grace and sturdiness, like one of the lesser ruminants—a deer, perhaps, or an antelope, some species of which Weilin had seen, at the zoo in Chengdu. Small and neat, but not frail. Robust, but not muscular.

“They’re only foreigners,” he said, determined to show himself unimpressed. “It’s really nothing out of the ordinary. At home we have several foreign books, all in foreign languages.”

“I wonder if they’re Impersonalists.”

Imperialists. Of course not. Imperialists wouldn’t be allowed to come here. These are foreign friends. Chairman Mao says We Have Friends All Over The World. They’re just foreign friends, that’s all. Come on, we’re supposed to be acting naturally. Do you know how to swim? I’ll show you if you like.”

He tugged at her hand. Reluctantly she turned away from contemplating the foreigners.

“So hairy!” she murmured.

The pretty new costumes were strictly for show to the foreigners. Next day when Weilin went to the pool the old Minority woman with the ear ornament was back at her station, handing out the ragged woolen outfits as before. The water of the pool stayed clean for several days, though.

Chapter 2

A Fairy Weeps a Lake of Tears

Moon Pearl Dances in the Bamboo Grove

On the wall of the apartment where Weilin lived was a character scroll, a poem done in black ink on white paper, the characters running from top to bottom, right to left in the old style. The poem was Du Fu’s “Night in the Pavilion.”

Winter—Heaven’s law shortens the days.

Frost and snow—bright to the limits of the sky.

Drum and bugle bravely sound the fifth watch.

Three mountains—above winds the River of Stars.

Wild sobbing in many homes after the battle—

From fishermen and woodcutters, strange old songs.

Sleeping Dragon, Prancing Steed—now you are dust.

Let the traffic of the world yield to silence and peace!

The scroll had been made by Mother, who was a good calligrapher. Mother had helped Weilin memorize the poem, and had explained the meanings to him. Frost and snow he knew about, of course, though he had never seen them. On clear nights—all too few in this humid region—the River of Stars stretched across Heaven, a dim band of silver seeming to lie behind, beyond the actual stars. Sleeping Dragon and Prancing Steed were literary names for two great generals of the Three Kingdoms period, many dynasties ago, even before the time of the poet, himself twelve hundred years dead.

Mother told him about this poet Du Fu. He had struggled all his life to get an official position at the court of the Tang Emperor; but just when he had succeeded a great rebellion broke out and Du, along with the Emperor and all his court, became refugees. He spent the rest of his life fleeing war and famine, trying to find safe lodgings for his family, trying to get back his position, growing his own food, trudging muddy roads to seek help from friends and relatives, worn out at last from despair and from grief for his shattered country.

“That was life in the Old Society” (Mother had concluded), “before Chairman Mao swept away all those bad things and gave us a New China.”

“Don’t make it too simple for him,” Father had put in at this point. “Our progress has certainly been tremendous, and many evils have been eliminated. But we have not yet abolished loneliness and death.”

“Hush, Bullfrog. You should not speak in such a negative way. You don’t know what lesson he’ll take from it.”

Father had just chuckled and turned back to his book. He often spoke in this somewhat flippant style, and Mother always chided him for it. Weilin grasped, from the nervous edge on Mother’s voice, that it was not correct to speak like that, though he did not know why. Nor did he know why Mother called Father “Bullfrog.” Father bore no resemblance to a bullfrog, and his voice was not in the least like the lowing of bullfrogs in the empty field beyond the college wall during the rainy season. Father’s pet name for Mother was “Cicada,” though again Weilin did not know any reason for this. And in point of fact Father very rarely said “Cicada,” at any rate in Weilin’s hearing. He often called Mother “Darling” or “My Love,” though. Weilin thought that all these little endearments were, like Father’s sarcasm, mildly improper. This he gathered from the fact that Mother and Father never used them when anyone else was around, addressing each other then by given name or even full name as other people did. The family nickname for Weilin was “Pangolin.” This was a joke of Father’s. Weilin’s teeth had been slow to appear, and Father said he had his teeth inside his stomach, like a pangolin.

Weilin never regretted being an only child. He liked to be with Mother and Father, and thought he would have resented having to share them. The three of them spent most of their evenings together, reading, listening to the radio or gramophone, or playing games. Mother was best at the word games, especially the one where you had to make a harmonious sentence whose first word was the last word of the previous player’s effort, or “chain verse,” where you built a poem by each player contributing a line in turn. Father was more inclined toward mathematical puzzles, board games and card games. He was expert at both Chinese and western chess, and used to take on Mother and Weilin simultaneously, Weilin playing the western game, Mother—who didn’t care for western style—playing Chinese. When Mother was occupied with some private task, Father would play Weilin alone, spotting him a queen if western-style, a cannon if Chinese. Even with such an advantage, Weilin rarely won.

On Friday nights one of Father’s colleagues, a young lecturer in the Mathematics Department named Wang Baojiang, came to the apartment to play western-style chess with Father. Sometimes when Weilin was occupied with homework Father and Mother played a card game called “Honeymoon Bridge,” an adaptation for two players of the great American game. Weilin wanted to learn Honeymoon Bridge, but Mother, laughing, told him he must wait for his honeymoon, which he understood to have something to do with being married. He grasped the main points of the game anyway, from watching them play; but since he could not play himself, he would eventually get bored watching them and take up a book.

The books Weilin read were mostly Father’s. Father had all the old classic novels and poetry anthologies, of course, and many western books in translation. Of the Chinese books, Weilin’s favorites were Strange Tales from Liao’s Studio, a collection of ghost stories from the Manchu dynasty, and Stories Ancient and Modern, from the same period but with more commonplace themes. Of Western writers, his first favorite had been the storyteller Antusheng. Weilin especially liked the story called “The Tinder Box.” In this story a poor soldier finds a magic tinder box. When he strikes the flint once, a dog appears with eyes like saucers. Twice, and another dog comes, with eyes like mill wheels. If he strikes the flint three times a third dog comes, “with eyes like the Round Tower.” Weilin had no idea what the Round Tower was, but he trembled to think of those dogs. The dogs would do anything the soldier told them. If he wanted gold, they brought it to him. At last the people made him king, and he married the beautiful princess.

How marvelous it would be to have that tinder box! You could get anything you wanted. Nobody would dare to bully you or insult you. Weilin half convinced himself that such a tinder box really existed. He did not grasp that the story was supposed to have happened in Denmark—did not, in fact, know that Denmark existed—and thought the round tower must be somewhere in China. Very carefully, not to give away his reason for wanting to know, he asked Father if he knew the whereabouts of a round tower. Sure enough, Father said he thought there was one near Changsha, in the next province. Weilin determined to go there and find the tinder box. Then he thought of the dogs with those terrifying eyes, and inwardly trembled, and thought perhaps he ought to wait until he was older. But what if someone found the tinder box in the meantime?

While he was vacillating about the tinder box, Weilin happened to read Treasure Island, a story about pirates and buried treasure. This was so exciting it swept Mr Antusheng from his mind. Then he discovered Tom Sawyer. This was a revelation. The boys in it were so bold, so unrestrained, and showed so little respect for their parents and teachers! The book thrilled him none the less, and he dreamed of being a bold American lad, having adventures in caves and cemeteries. When, some months later, he picked up the book of Antusheng stories again, they seemed very babyish.

Father was Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the college, so of course he had many textbooks and stories about science. He had several of Jules Verne’s romances on his shelves, and The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, as well as W.W. Rouse Ball’s Mathematical Recreations. These were all in Chinese translations, but there were real foreign-language books, too, just as Weilin had boasted to the girl Han Yuezhu: dictionaries of German and Russian, some mathematical texts in German, full of strange symbols and diagrams of various sorts of shapeless blobs joined by lines. There was even an American book: Abramowitz and Stegun’s Handbook of Mathematical Functions.

This last was very fascinating to Weilin; not because of the English text, which he could not understand at all, but because the majority of its pages were filled with numbers—ten thousands, perhaps ten thousands of ten thousands, of numbers, marching down the pages and from page to page in ranks and files. So many numbers! It filled him with awe to think of all the numbers, and that a book should be made like this, presumably because there were people—people like Father—who wanted to read pages and pages of numbers.

Once Weilin had asked Father about the numbers. Had he really read them all?

Father laughed. “Of course not, Little Pangolin. It’s a reference book. Like a dictionary. You just dip into it for one number. You don’t read it.”

Weilin felt foolish, thinking he should have realized this.

The older books were battered and stained, having been packed, unpacked and repacked in Father’s numerous moves around the country. Father was much older than the generality of fathers. He had been born in 1911, the year called “Xinhai” in the old calendar, when the Manchu dynasty had been overthrown by revolution. He had been 46 when Weilin was born. Yet he had married at a normal age, to a girl of normal age. It was only that they had waited seventeen years before having Weilin. Mother said that in fact Weilin had had a sister, born during the war against Japan, but in the wartime conditions there had not been enough food and medicine to keep her healthy and she had died from an infection. After New China was established of course there was enough food for everyone, and so Father and Mother had decided to have Weilin. He was all the more precious (Mother said) because they had waited so long for him.

Mother was herself a Manchu from the northeast. The northeast was all mountains and forests, Mother said. There were bears and wolves in the forests. In the winter it was bitterly cold, often forty or fifty below. It was so cold that if you were to spit, the spit would freeze in midair and hit the ground—which was hard as iron—with a ting-ting sound. The bears found a warm place in the forest and slept through the cold weather, but the wolves used to come down from the mountains to attack the livestock of the farms, and the people had to shoot them with guns. In summer the air was pleasant, not stifling like Seven Kill Stele’s; but then there were horseflies the size of small sparrows that could sting through leather. The peasants in the northeast used to wear iron bands round their heads with burning tapers set in them, to keep the horseflies at bay while they plowed. However, you could go up in the mountains to escape from the horseflies. Up in the mountains, as well as bears and wolves, there was gold, and wild ginseng. Before Liberation the mountains had been full of bandits, who went there to mine the gold and dig up the ginseng. Now, of course, it was all very peaceful. The highest mountain was named Ever-White Mountain, and it had a lake at the very top, Heaven Lake.

“If the mountain was ever-white, wouldn’t the lake be ever-frozen?” asked Weilin when Mother told him this.

Mother kissed him and said he was a clever boy to reason so well. But Ever-White Mountain was white because of a kind of white gravel that covered its upper slopes. It only had snow on it in winter. The pool at the top was pure and clear, made from the tears of a beautiful fairy who had lived there in ancient times. The fairy was unhappy because she had had no children, so she had wept this lakeful of tears. At last Manzhushuli, the King of Heaven, taking pity on her, had given her the finest of all children, named Guoruo, which meant “Blessed One” in the Manchu language. The fairy had added the name Aixin, which means “Golden”; and Aixin Guoruo had become the ancestor of the whole Manchu race (named after Manzhushuli himself), whose destiny was to conquer China and build the greatest dynasty the Empire had ever known. The dynasty was to be named Qing, which means ‘clear’ and is written with the three-drops-of-water symbol at one side. The water was for the tears of the fairy, and also to show that the previous dynasty (named Ming, which means ‘bright’ and is a fire-word, and whose ruling family had the surname Vermilion, another fire-word) was to be extinguished.

Weilin loved to hear Mother talk about the northeast. It seemed like a very romantic place, with the bears and wolves and mountains with lakes on top. He hoped he would see the northeast one day. Mother still had relatives there, he knew. He had heard her speaking of Cousin This and Uncle That, and he thought that once or twice there had been a letter from the northeast. Father’s only relatives were Grandmother and Auntie Shi, who both lived in Nanjing, a thousand miles away. Mother’s relatives were not close relatives, either. They were all cousins and uncles. She had no brothers or sisters. Her parents had fled the northeast to escape from the Japanese. They had gone to Chongqing; then her parents had died in an epidemic; then she met Father, and they had got jobs at the college in Seven Kill Stele when it opened, soon after Liberation. Mother’s parents lived only in a photograph which stood on the dresser.

The dresser was set against the wall which separated the living-room from the kitchen. It had drawers and a door at each side. The drawers held clothes and an overflow of table utensils from the kitchen. Behind the right-hand door were kept Father’s things, and the cards and board games. Father’s things dwelt in a square tin box with a lid, on the topmost of the two shelves behind the door. Weilin was not supposed to touch Father’s things, but once he had peeped into the box. Notebooks; some letters tied with string; Father’s personal chop, in an ivory container with a carved lid and a compartment for red ink; needles for the gramophone; writing-brushes and a fancy, unused ink-block; a peculiar kind of ruler, with a smaller ruler sliding inside it and a little glass window fixed over both, that could also slide; a miscellany of small metal or wooden implements, of which the only one not entirely mysterious (he had actually seen Father use it once) was a thing made of pressed tin and wire, for threading needles with ease. Behind the left-hand door were Mother’s things: some hanging cloths she chose not to hang, needlework accessories, hair ornaments.

On top of the dresser was a radio, a Chinese model in a black plastic case. Around the radio were the photographs. Mother’s parents; Father as a college student; Father and Mother at West Lake in Hangzhou, a famous scenic spot; and one Weilin especially liked, of himself at one month old, with Father and Mother holding him between them.

Keeping company with the photographs were two little porcelain love-birds. When Weilin had first been old enough to reach the top of the dresser he had knocked off one of the love-birds. By a miracle it had not broken; instead of falling to the bare concrete floor it had hit his own infant foot and rolled off unharmed. Mother had scolded him severely for that—one of the very few scoldings he had had—and even Father had looked stern and said: “Listen to your mother, don’t be naughty.” Then Mother had put back the love-bird very tenderly, setting it and its companion further back, our of Weilin’s reach. Because of the love-bird’s narrow escape, and the vivid memory of being scolded, Weilin regarded these creatures even now with some awe. They were perched out in front of the photographs, one on each side of a slender flower-vase in which Mother always kept two or three wild daisies picked in the college grounds.

Because Weilin’s father was an Assistant Professor the family had a pleasant apartment on the edge of the college grounds. The apartment was on the third floor of a small block assigned to senior staff at the college. There was running cold water and a water toilet you could flush by pouring a bucket of water down it. From the window of the living-room you could look out over some bamboo thickets to fields and villages, with Mount Tan in the distance, rice-fields terraced all up its lower slopes. Weilin had a bed in the living-room, right under the window. His parents had a bedroom all their own, a thing few of his classmates’ families could boast, and there was a separate kitchen and bathroom, though both very tiny. The kitchen had a kerosene stove for cooking, and a large white enamel sink.

The “Night in the Pavilion” character scroll was on the wall opposite the dresser. Beneath and to the left of it stood a wind-up gramophone—a cabinet model built in the ponderous, factual Russian style. Father was in charge of loading the records and changing the needles, but Weilin was allowed to open the doors at the front of the cabinet, which was the only way to regulate the volume. Father and Mother both loved to listen to music. Mother liked piano pieces, most especially Mr Chopin; Father preferred Mr Beethoven and Mr Mozart. They had to ration their use of the gramophone rather carefully, though. The needles it used were of a soft metal which did not damage the disks; but these needles wore out quickly, and you always needed a good supply of them. For some reason they were difficult to obtain. In fact they could only be got in Shanghai, and then not very reliably; so Father had to wait until he heard of someone going to Shanghai, and ask them to get needles for him.


Coming home after the incident at the pool, Weilin told Father about the foreigners. Of course, Father already knew. Father knew pretty much everything. This was a Friday night. Lecturer Wang Baojiang had arrived, and he and father were sitting at the table drinking tea and trading morsels of professional gossip, preparatory to their chess game.

“They’re from England,” said Father. “The old one is a famous journalist. He’s writing articles about our country for the English newspapers.”

“I thought England was one of the Imperialist countries.”

“The government is Imperialist,” said Lecturer Wang. “The common people are our friends.”

“You can speak English, can’t you, Father?”

“Mm, only a little.” Father chuckled. “I can read it, at any rate for professional purposes. But English is very difficult, you know.” Father explained about the horrors of English spelling, and wrote out the words though, bough, cough, enough to illustrate his point. Weilin thought this very interesting, and tried to memorize the strange words: though, bough, cough, enough. It was clear to Weilin that Lecturer Wang did not know these English words. He nodded when Father was explaining them, as if he was entirely familiar with the peculiarities of English orthography; but somehow Weilin knew with certainty that he was only pretending.

Lecturer Wang said he always composed his papers with a maximum of mathematical symbols and a minimum of words, so that when they were published they could be read by anybody in any country. Father laughed and said perhaps one day the human race would be able to dispense with natural languages altogether, as Mr Leibniz had proposed.


Later Weilin tried to teach these strange English words to Yuezhu. After their first meeting at the pool they had become friends. They had met at the pool most days until it closed, in November. Weilin had even managed to teach her to swim a little. Then they would walk home together, as the barracks where Yuezhu’s father was stationed was on the road that led out to the college, which was located out on the very edge of the town. It was on the open grassy area in front of the barracks gate that he tried to show Yuezhu the English words. However, she could not grasp the point at all.

“I don’t see what’s so interesting. Lots of Chinese characters look the same but sound different.”

Weilin let it go. He thought Yuezhu was not really very clever. At first he had over-estimated her, because she could speak Mandarin. Weilin’s family, being educated people, and his mother coming from the north, spoke Mandarin at home, and Weilin was perfectly fluent—more so than most of the teachers at his school. Yuezhu’s family spoke Mandarin because everyone in the army did. She did not speak as well as he, but it was something that she could speak it at all; most of their classmates knew only the thick local dialect. The two of them had soon begun speaking Mandarin together, as their private language.

Mandarin, however, proved to be Yuezhu’s only claim to intellectual distinction. Weilin was only six months older than she, but he knew far more about the world. So it seemed to him. Yuezhu, however, was airily sure of herself, and thought her tiny stock of knowledge—which encompassed very little beyond her own immediate circumstances—quite adequate for her needs. From dealings with his classmates Weilin knew better than to press his superiority. He husbanded it quietly, bringing it out for employment only when he thought he might raise her a little from her slough of ignorance without risking a scornful rebuff. Above all else he did not want to lose Yuezhu because he felt sure he was in love with her.

The peculiar attraction he had first experienced that day in the pool could be nothing but love, Weilin believed. Though much too young to have known the tug of sexual feeling, and entirely ignorant of the facts of life, Weilin was familiar with the concept of love. How could he not have been? There was a large poster on one wall of the school auditorium promoting the Three Loves:

Love the country!

Love the Party!

Love Socialism!

He knew, however, that there was more to the matter than that. He knew about Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, at any rate, and about the instances of thwarted love in the Stories from Liao’s Studio, which invariably ended with a death and a haunting. At the same time he was aware of a component to his particular feelings that Mr Tuwen and Mr Liao had not seen fit to mention: something infinitely fascinating in the contemplation of Yuezhu’s smooth, sturdy limbs and swan neck. He had no way to place these impressions as he had no frame of reference to work from; but in his own mind he grouped them under the adjective delicious and thought—in a way which even he could perceive to be absurdly illogical—that if Yuezhu were food, he would like to eat her. Her voice also had a peculiar effect on him. When she was imitating someone, or when she wanted to tell something she thought very important, her voice seemed to come from deep in her chest, to be very round and strong. To hear this made Weilin shiver from head to toe, though he was not sure why.

After the pool closed for the winter there was no reason to meet, as they attended different schools. Yuezhu’s school was Elementary School Number Three, where the children of the textile factory workers went, and those from the army barracks. Weilin should have gone to Number Three too. It was closest to the College; but his father had felt dissatisfied with it for some reason and arranged for him to attend Number One in the town, halfway from South Lake Park to the Martyrs’ Monument marking the center of Seven Kill Stele. But Weilin still passed the barracks on his way home. As often as not Yuezhu would be there in the road, or on the grassy area in front of the barracks, waiting for him. There was a point on the long straight road out from the town where he could pick her out, if she was there, and the anticipation as he approached that point, and the delight when he could pick her out, were the most thrilling things he had ever known. The first few times she would be playing with some other girls (traffic was so light you could play ball games in the roadway with only the occasional interruption from a cart or bicycle). But she soon abandoned the pretense of nonchalance and stood there waiting for him, alone or in company with her girl friends.

The girl friends were a nuisance, smirking and giggling at them when they were together. Yuezhu felt this, too, and took to walking away with him along the road to the college gate. But this was only ten minutes, even at dawdling pace, so they extended their walk past the gate to the scruffy little store set in the college wall further along, where you could buy loquats—two for a fen—then past the college altogether, out beyond the end of the town to where the road was intersected by another leading to some villages, and ultimately to the provincial capital. A little way along this crossroad there was a bamboo thicket off at one side, followed by a curious depression: a little swale fifteen or twenty feet across hidden from the road by the bamboo. This became their secret place, where they would sit talking and playing and eating loquats, of which Yuezhu was very fond.

Although Weilin loved to be with Yuezhu, he did not think her talk very interesting. She knew of very little beyond her family. Her family was dominated (in her mind, at least) by her half brother. When she first mentioned this person, Weilin did not understand the expression she used, there being no common terms in the Chinese language to designate half- or step-relatives. She had just put together the words for “half ” and “elder brother” in a way that made no sense on a first hearing.

“He makes me say that,”Yuezhu explained. “He won’t let me call him Elder Brother. He says we’re not really brother and sister because we have different mothers. He gets angry if I forget to say Half Brother.”

“I don’t see why he should care. Why does he think it’s so important?”

“Because he didn’t agree with my father marrying my mother. His mother died when he was small, you see. Then my father married my mother. But Half Brother didn’t agree. He wouldn’t even go to the wedding banquet. He stood outside the house where it was held and refused to go in. He stood there until late at night, until some of my father’s relatives took him home. He’s very stubborn.”

“Oh, dear. So I guess he doesn’t get on with your mother.”

“Oh, they’re all right. He won’t call her Mother, though. He always says Ayi.” [The term used in the old society for a father’s secondary wives.] “And he fights with my father. Oh! terrible fights. Shouting and cursing.”

“Well, I guess it’s a kind of loyalty. To his own mother, I mean.”

“That’s what Half Brother says. Your mother is your mother, he says. It’s wrong to call another person Mother.”


This half brother was eighteen years old. He was a first-year student at the college, and actually took a class from Father. When Weilin asked Father about him Father said that at this early stage of the academic year the freshmen students were like grains of rice, there was no reason to notice one rather than another. If this Han Shiru developed any distinguishing characteristics, Father would report back.

Before Father had time to notice anything about Half Brother, Weilin met him, or at any rate encountered him. One evening just before Spring Festival the two little friends were walking along the road to the bamboo thicket when they saw two male students approaching, talking busily about something. Yuezhu squeezed Weilin’s arm and pulled him down to get his ear. Half Brother! she announced, in her deepest, chestiest, most dramatic whisper, sending Weilin’s entire nervous system into sympathetic vibration.

“Which one?”

“The handsome one. Not the one with glasses, the other one. Tall and handsome!”

The students differed in height by no more than an inch and a half, and neither was handsome to anyone but an adoring baby sister. But to be sure, one of them wore glasses and one didn’t. The one who didn’t was square-built, with broad shoulders and a powerful-looking neck, but spotty-faced and sporting a shock of unruly hair sticking up at one side. Seeing Yuezhu he stopped and broke off his conversation with the other.

“Little Half Sister. Where are you going?”

“Just up to the college. This is my friend, Liang Weilin. He lives in the college. His father teaches mathematics.”

“Old Liang?” Half Brother turned his attention on Weilin. “He’s too strict. Tell your Dad to ease up on the assignments.”

Half Brother laughed loud, showing square white teeth, and his classmate joined in. Then they walked on.

“Half Brother doesn’t like mathematics,” said Yuezhu. “In fact, he doesn’t like the college. He wanted to go to Sichuan University but Father wouldn’t do it.”

“Do what?”

Yuezhu frowned, uncertain. “I’m not sure. They had a big fight. Father said Half Brother should study harder, then he could go to the University. Half Brother said Father’s position was good enough to open a back door for him. But Father wouldn’t do it. He said a revolutionary doesn’t go in by the back door. Then Half Brother said a revolutionary should struggle by all means to serve the people and how could he serve the people if he couldn’t get a good education? And Father said Half Brother was an  …” Yuezhu squinted, trying to remember the difficult word. “… an on fong tu di nist.”


“Yes. Oh! It was a big fight. They are both very stubborn.”

Weilin heard all about Yuezhu’s family, walking the road or lying back in their hollow in the early twilight. Her father was an old revolutionary who had had many adventures. He had fought against the Japanese and Chiang Kaishek all over China, and against the landlords’ rebellion in Tibet. Weilin felt at a disadvantage here. His own parents, so far as he knew, had never been anything but teachers. Their lives seemed very dull. Having no stories to tell about his family, he told Yuezhu the stories he had read in Father’s books. Some of them were right over her head—she dismissed The Time Machine as just silly and said she thought Tom Sawyer too naughty to live. But she liked the sad, sentimental tales of Old China from Stories Old and New and the ghost stories from Liao’s Studio. Best of all she liked the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.

Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai

Zhu Yingtai was a girl in ancient times who wanted to be a scholar. Because women were not allowed to take the Imperial examinations, she dressed as a boy and journeyed to the capital to enter the lists.

In the examination halls she met Liang Shanbo, a scholar from a poor family. They became close friends. Of course, Liang did not know that Zhu was a girl.

After the examinations they went back to their homes, which were not far apart. Zhu Yingtai realized that she loved Liang Shanbo. She went to see him to explain herself. Seeing her dressed as a girl, Liang Shanbo fell in love with her and proposed marriage.

Her family, however, would not accept him because he was too poor. They had in fact already made an arrangement for Zhu Yingtai to marry the son of another wealthy family.

When her family refused to yield, ZhuYingtai killed herself. Liang Shanbo followed her funeral procession, weeping.

ZhuYingtai’s body had been set carelessly in its coffin, and a corner of her white shroud was showing from under the lid. In his grief and despair, Liang Shanbo grasped at it and tore it off. Then he went home, and soon he too died from a broken heart.

Relenting, or fearful that his ghost might haunt them, Zhu Yingtai’s family agreed to let him be buried with their daughter in the family vault, and so he was.

As the mourners were turning away, however, a wonderful thing happened. The funeral mound split open with a mighty crack! and two beautiful white butterflies fluttered out and ascended up to Heaven. It was observed that one of the butterflies had a small piece missing from the end of a wing.

Later, when the workmen went to repair the tomb, they were astonished to discover that it was empty.

Yuezhu was deeply affected by this story. The first time Weilin told it she burst into tears, and wept for a long time. Afterwards, for several weeks, whenever they were alone together in the hollow she wanted to play Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. She herself played the part of Zhu Yingtai, of course, and seemed particularly to enjoy the death scene, which she prolonged to the point where Weilin could not restrain himself from laughing at her affected moaning and swooning. Later she added some dancing to the story. She tried to get Weilin to dance with her—the two butterflies ascending to Heaven—but Weilin lacked the necessary coordination and could not follow her, so at last she allowed him to lie back and watch her dance by herself: up on tip-toes, her slender arms raised above her head, eyes closed, turning and swaying in the twilight, while a chorus of cicadas played accompaniment.

Chapter 3

A Bird Who Takes Fright at the Sound of the Bow

The Liang Family Entertains Ardent Young Guests

One day in June, when Weilin came home from playing with Yuezhu in the hollow, Professor Fan was in the apartment. Weilin had seen Professor Fan before. He was a teacher at the college, an old friend of Father’s, of about Father’s age. Weilin had the dim impression that Father and Professor Fan were close in some way, perhaps sharing mutual sympathies about something. Mother said that Professor Fan was the best scholar at the college, and had published papers in international journals. However, he had made an error of some kind in one of the movements, and lost his professorship, and never been able to get it back. Now his title was just Lecturer. This put him below Father’s rank; but Father always deferred to him, and made a point of addressing him as Professor Fan.

Professor Fan was sitting with Father and Mother at the table in the living-room when Weilin came in. Mother was sitting forward with her elbows on the table, in a rather tense, perhaps angry, posture. Father just looked thoughtful. Professor Fan wore his usual expression—anxious and fretful. There was a newspaper on the table—an odd thing, as newspapers were delivered to work units to be read in libraries or study rooms, not to individuals. There was nothing else to be deduced from Professor Fan’s presence, as they had obviously stopped talking when they heard Weilin’s feet on the stairs. There was an uncomfortable pause during which no-one said anything. Then Professor Fan said: “Well, we must follow the General Line and obey the directives of the leaders.”

“Yes,” said Mother. “We must study Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong Thought and strive to fulfill the tasks set for us by the Party.”

Father said nothing. After Professor Fan had gone, taking the newspaper with him, Weilin asked Father what they had been talking about. Father chuckled.

“Old Fan!” he said. “He’s a ‘bird who takes fright at the sound of the bow.’”

Weilin did not know this idiom. He asked Mother to explain it, but she would not. She seemed very troubled—almost (he thought) close to tears. He found the idiom anyway in one of Father’s books.

The Bird Who Takes Fright

at the Sound of the Bow

In ancient times, in the Kingdom of Wei, there was a famous archer, whose name was Geng Lei.

One day Geng Lei was out walking with the King of Wei when they saw a gaggle of wild geese passing above them. Geng Lei said: “I can shoot down a bird using my bow alone, with no arrow.”

The King demanded a demonstration. Geng Lei raised his empty bow and took aim at the rearmost of the geese. At the twang of the bowstring the goose fell dead from the sky. The King was astonished.

Geng Lei explained: “I could tell that this bird had previously been wounded by an arrow. I saw that he was rather slow in flight, and I heard that his cry had a note of fear in it. From this I knew that his wound was not yet healed, that his heart was not yet steady again. When he heard the bowstring he at once took fright and tried to fly up higher to escape; but his strength and spirit failed him, and he died.”

Having read this, Weilin himself felt troubled. Why should Father speak of Professor Fan in that way? What did Professor Fan have to be scared of? Perhaps of being demoted again. But if Professor Fan was the bird who takes fright at the sound of the bow, who was the archer?

When this question occurred to him, Weilin at once felt afraid, though he did not know why. Clearly this was some adult thing. Normally Weilin did not concern himself with adult things; but this thing, whatever it was, had upset Mother. He asked her again about it, later that evening, but she said it was nothing, he should not worry, just be a good boy and don’t question anything at school.

Weilin was sufficiently disturbed that he could not get to sleep that night. Lying in his bed in the living-room he could hear Mother and Father talking in their own bedroom. From his bed he could not make out the words, so he stealthily crept out and put his ear to the bedroom door. Still he could not make out everything that was said, but got most of it.

“… can’t understand why they would do that. We are making so much progress.”

“Never mind why. Why does not concern us. We only have to survive.”

“Well, we’ve always survived before.”

“Thanks to me! You, you foolish old Bullfrog, you are the one who wanted to speak out in ’57. It was I who persuaded you to keep your mouth shut. And you see, I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Of course, of course, I know that. I just can’t understand the Librarian’s reasoning.”

“Nobody can understand. Why bother trying to understand? It’s like a force of nature, like an earthquake. You just have to survive.”

“We are put on this Earth to understand, my sweet Cicada. If one generation can’t improve on the previous generation’s understanding, why should we trouble ourselves to put forth new generations?”

“The Librarian has his own motives. They don’t concern us. If you could understand them, what would you have understood? The thoughts of a maniac! The babbling of an idiot! It’s not worth trying to understand it. Just be quiet and obedient. Just survive.”

“Yes, yes. I know well enough how to do that. But we should worry about the Little Pangolin. He is at a dangerous age. As Mr Rousseau observed, he has the words but not yet the meanings. We must be sure he does not use the words carelessly.”

“You must explain to him, Bullfrog. He is old enough to understand, surely. He will listen to you. You must tell him how to survive. How the nail that sticks up is hammered down; how the tree that stands tallest is felled by the storm.”

“Such things to teach a child! To always march in step, to hold the same opinions as everyone else, to be a ‘rustless cog in a great machine.’ Is this all we can offer him?”

“It’s only for a while. The Librarian is, what? more than seventy now. There are other voices in the Party.”

“Yes. There was Peng Dehuai. Look what happened to him!”

“It won’t go on for ever, silly old Bullfrog. We must be patient. Think of our Little Pangolin. He can be a fine scholar, I know. You have said so yourself. If the worst comes to the worst, perhaps he will be able to go abroad.”

Father sighed. “Ai! Ai! We are oxen and donkeys for our children!” He sighed again. “Well, thank Heaven I am a mathematician, at any rate. They can’t find anything counter-revolutionary in that!

Other than perceiving a vague sense of menace, Weilin could make little of this. As it happened, he knew the college librarian—a tiny mild-mannered fellow named Zhao, best known in the college community for his fanatical dedication to fishing, though no-one had ever known him catch anything bigger than his thumb. Was he really more than seventy? Weilin would not have said so; but like most children he had only the sketchiest notion of numerical age beyond about thirty, so he thought it not impossible. But why was he suddenly so important? Like a force of nature. What, Old Zhao? Weilin doubted Old Zhao could muster enough force to push a wheelbarrow.

Baffled, Weilin retired to bed. In a dream, a terrifying archer with the varicolored face of a temple god shot invisible arrows into the air, one after another, howling with laughter all the while, and each arrow brought down a weeping bird. If dreams were logical the birds would have had the face of Professor Fan; in fact, they were a selection of Weilin’s classmates, all weeping.


It was soon after this that the school closed. One morning the teachers were all summoned to a meeting. The younger students were left in the charge of older ones. This was never a success, as the older students were themselves only eleven or twelve and had no authority, so everyone just did as he pleased. Later in the morning they were all called into the school yard, and the Physical Education teacher made them do calisthenics for half an hour to music from the loudspeakers. Then, quite abruptly, he sent them all home.

Weilin and some classmates went to the pool in South Lake Park; but it was the dead period in midday, when people ate their lunch and had a nap, so the pool was closed. The classmates started up a game called Storming the Mountain, using a little hillock among the trees of the park, but Weilin slipped away and started to walk home. He dawdled by the barracks; but Yuezhu must have been still in school, or having her afternoon nap, and did not show. There was no-one at home. Weilin took his own nap on his bed in the living-room.

Usually Mother, whose teaching duties were not very arduous, came home in mid-afternoon, Father somewhat later. On this day, however, they came home together. Weilin heard them speaking in low voices as they ascended the stairs, but they stopped before he could make out words. When they came in he told them about the school. Mother seemed not interested at all. She just went to the kitchen to start preparing food. Father, however, was very attentive.

“Did the teachers say anything to you?”

“No. Only to go home and there was no school today.”

“Were there any posters stuck up?”

“No. Only the usual things.”

“What about the loudspeakers?”

“Mmm, there was a speech. But I didn’t listen to it. Then some music. When the music started, Teacher Liu came out and made us do calisthenics. Then he sent us home.”

Father fell into deep thought, and did not speak all through dinner. That evening he seemed to have a passion for Mr Mozart, and in particular for Number Thirty-Eight. He played it three times right through, sitting in his chair with his head back, his hands clasped in front of him, moving only to change the records. Mother sat with a book, though she seemed not to be turning many pages. After the third time through Number Thirty-Eight Father sat in silence for some time. Then, abruptly, addressing the room at large, he said: “Five hundred years from now we shall be dust, and Hibiscus Slope Teachers’ College will be utterly forgotten. But people will still listen to Mr Mozart.”

Weilin could think of no response. He wondered why adults said things like that, such obvious things, unconnected with anything else.

Mother put down her book. “You should talk to our son, Bullfrog.”

“Yes.” Father sat up and leaned forward, elbows on knees, looking across at Weilin. Weilin was sitting at the table, practicing calligraphy. He wanted to be able to make beautiful characters, like Mother, but just could not get the proportions right.

“There’s going to be a movement,” said Father. “Do you know what that means?”

“Is Chiang Kaishek trying to come back again?” asked Weilin.

His only real experience of politics had been a campaign—apparently it didn’t count as a movement—a year or so before. The point of the campaign had been that Chiang Kaishek was trying to overthrow the People’s Republic and reinstate the landlords and bring back the old society, so everyone had had to do military training. Weilin had only been seven at the time, but he and his classmates had had to participate in the campaign, throwing wooden hand grenades and drilling with wooden rifles. Everybody thought it great fun.

Father smiled. “No, Little Pangolin. Not Chiang Kaishek. But there are other enemies, you know. The Party will try to find them and punish them.”

“Do you think there are enemies here in Seven Kill Stele?”

“Oh, I’m sure the Party will find some.” Father glanced across at Mother.

“Yes,” said Mother. “You can be sure they will find some.”

“Will I have to look for enemies, too?” asked Weilin.

“Probably not. You are too young. At any rate, we don’t want you involved if we can help it. The main thing is, you are to keep very quiet and be a very good boy. That’s all.”

Weilin was somewhat disappointed. He thought it might be fun to go looking for enemies. Imagine if you were lucky enough to find one!

“Why do I have to be good, particularly?”

“Because,” said Mother quietly, “when the Party looks for enemies, sometimes they are too keen. They take somebody to be an enemy, who really isn’t.”

“And if you’re not good, or if you bring attention to yourself in any way, they might mistakenly think you’re an enemy.” This was Father.

Weilin felt baffled. “You mean they don’t really know who’s an enemy and who isn’t?”

“Oh, it’s not so easy, spotting enemies,” said Father.

“What Father means is, the enemies are very sly,” said Mother. “They go in disguise. It’s difficult to spot them.”

“Then how do you find out? I mean, if someone’s an enemy or not.”

Father looked at Mother, then dropped his eyes. He seemed to have no wish to continue. Mother came to the table and sat opposite Weilin.

“You must trust the Party,” she said. “The Party knows. Chairman Mao knows. You trust Chairman Mao, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes! Of course!”

“Well, there you are, then. As Father said, you must just be very quiet and very good. Don’t let anybody think you are an enemy. Don’t let anybody think we are enemies.”

“Oh, no!”

“That’s right. We’ve brought you up to love Chairman Mao and love the Party, haven’t we?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Yes. That’s what it means to be good. Then no-one can say you are an enemy.”

The next day school was back to normal. Everything was normal; and because it was a Friday, Lecturer Wang Baojiang came to play chess with Father in the evening. The following day, Saturday, was a half day at school. This was normal, too. Everything was normal. Father and Mother said nothing, and Weilin thought perhaps there would not be a movement after all. He was disappointed, as it seemed a movement was an exciting thing.


On Saturday afternoon Yuezhu was waiting for him outside the barracks. They walked together up to the college. On the wall of the college, on both sides of the gate, large white sheets of paper had been pasted. On the paper were big black characters in a rough hand.


said one of these posters. Another asserted that


Professor Chen was the Principal of the college, Weilin knew. He was not sure who the Mengs were, though the Party Secretary for the whole college was named Meng. Perhaps he was one of the Mengs. Though it did not seem likely that anyone would be rude about Party Secretary Meng on a wall poster.

“It’s a movement,” said Weilin. “I know all about it. The Party is going to find some enemies. It’s not Chiang Kaishek, it’s some other enemies. But they’re very sly and it will be difficult to find them.”

Weilin felt pleased to have this information. Yuezhu always liked to be first with gossip, and pretended she always knew what was going on. Now, for once, he had the advantage of her, he thought. But Yuezhu was not to be upstaged.

“You don’t know anything,” she said with utmost scorn. “Listen. I know all about it. Half Brother told me. Some black elements have got into the leadership of the Party, the very high leadership in Beijing. They’re trying to push out our Chairman Mao. They have allies everywhere, all over the country. Chairman Mao has asked all the people to support him. The people have to find all those black elements and criticize them. To save Chairman Mao! That’s what’s happening.”

“Wa! In Beijing! Such big enemies! Perhaps Chiang Kaishek is really trying to come back, after all.”

“If Chiang Kaishek comes back I’ll fight him myself!” declared Yuezhu. She put on a stern face, like one of the revolutionary heroes in the storybooks—Iron Man Wang or Good Soldier Lei Feng—and clenched her fists, and flexed her tiny muscles in a way that made Weilin laugh.

“It’s not funny! Isn’t Chairman Mao dearer to you than your own mother and father?”

“Of course,” replied Weilin reflexively. All the children were supposed to love Chairman Mao more than their mothers and fathers. Weilin had tried his best with this, but did not think he had managed to attain the proper level of devotion. It had been a nagging concern for him for some time, and he could never think of Chairman Mao without experiencing a tremor of guilt.

“Aren’t you willing to defend our Chairman Mao with your own flesh and blood?” Yuezhu was frowning at him, trying to look fierce.

“Of course I am. It’s just that he’s in Beijing, and I don’t see what I can do here in Seven Kill Stele to defend him.”

When Weilin went home he saw that there were wall posters all over the college buildings. Most of them were calling for someone or other to be criticized or exposed. One, however, demanded better food at the college refectory; and another politely asked the authorities to reconsider the decision not to allow a student dance following the graduation ceremony. At home, Father looked grave.

“Why are there so many wall posters?” asked Weilin at dinner.

“It’s the movement,” said Father. “That’s what happens in a movement. People put up wall posters to criticize each other. Big character posters, they’re called. That’s all.” He stopped abruptly, as if he felt he had said too much.

“Who? Who puts up the posters?”

“The work team,” said Mother. This was not helpful, as Weilin had no idea who the work team were. But it was clear the adults didn’t want to talk about it to him. It was always like that with public things. Adults never wanted you to know anything.


Then everything seemed to happen quickly. The next day, Sunday, there was a lot of shouting in the college, and the students had some kind of demonstration. Father and Mother had to go in to a meeting, and came back looking upset. Still they would not say anything. On Monday Weilin’s school was closed again. The teachers were nowhere to be seen, but one of the custodians came out and said they were having thought reform and the school would be closed indefinitely. When he got back to the college the loudspeakers were all blaring, someone making a speech about politics. Now there were even more wall posters stuck up everywhere. They seemed to be getting more forceful.



In the paths and open spaces of the campus, however, there was no sign of activity at all. One of the old women sweepers told him the students were all in the auditorium having a meeting to criticize the teachers.

“What, all the teachers?” asked Weilin incredulously.

“How should I know? They’re all in there, anyway.”

“Why should they criticize all the teachers? They can’t all be enemies.”

Weilin felt afraid for Father and Mother. Now he remembered Mother’s words about being identified as an enemy by mistake. What if Father or Mother were thought to be enemies?

The old sweeper chuckled, and expelled an ellipsoid of turquoise phlegm to the side of the path. “It’s a movement,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “A movement.”

When Father and Mother came home they looked tired but not especially upset. Weilin begged Father to tell him what was happening.

“Oh, some of the faculty are being criticized,” said Father. “The students have put together a committee. They’re making a lot of noise. But I think it’ll all blow over.”

“Are you and Mother being criticized?”

Father smiled wearily. “No, Little Pangolin. We have done nothing to be criticized for. Don’t worry. However, it looks as if Old Fan’s case will be opened again.”

Weilin didn’t care anything about Professor Fan. He just wanted to be sure Father and Mother wouldn’t be called enemies by mistake.


Now the Red Guards appeared. It was very sudden. One day there was no such thing as a Red Guard; the next day they were everywhere. The college seemed to be a center for them. Coming home from the pool Weilin often encountered them marching into town in columns, singing Red Guard songs. Once he saw Yuezhu’s half brother in one of these columns. There seemed to be nothing particularly scary or intimidating about them, though. They were just high-spirited students out on a lark.

The Red Guards had a campaign to change the names of the streets in the town. The street behind Weilin’s school had been named Fish Sellers’ Lane: it became Uphold the People’s Democratic Dictatorship! Lane, complete with exclamation mark. The Martyrs’ Monument was still the Martyrs’ Monument, but the stretch of road between it and South Lake Park changed from Cheng’an Temple Street to Carry Out Revolution to the End! Street. The Red Guards seemed to be especially fond of exclamation marks.

At the college itself things were very chaotic. Classes had ceased altogether, it seemed, and the students just had meetings all day long. The wall posters were more and more vituperative.



Individual teachers were being denounced by name. There was a rash of posters criticizing Professor Fan, and once Weilin glimpsed him scurrying from the teachers’ refectory to his apartment building, looking terrified. Still Father and Mother said little; and Weilin did not know that Father was being criticized until Yuezhu told him. This was in the pool one afternoon.

“Half Brother says your father is a black element.”

“What? How could that be? My Father loves Chairman Mao.”

“Half Brother says he’s a counter-revolutionary.” Yuezhu was starting to get the hang of these terms now.

“Oh, Yuezhu! Don’t let him think that. Tell him it’s not true! You don’t believe it, do you?”

Yuezhu was looking down, splashing randomly with her hands on the surface of the water.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Oh, no!You mustn’t say that! It’s not true! It’s not true! You must tell him, you must make it clear to him, it’s not true.”

“No use for me to tell him. The Red Guards decided.”

Weilin pressed her nonetheless, and went on nagging at her all the way back to the barracks, until at last she said yes, she would tell Half Brother that Assistant Professor Liang was not a black element. But Yuezhu only yielded very reluctantly, and seemed disconcerted by the whole thing, and would not go with him to the hollow behind the bamboo thicket.

Whatever she said to Half Brother, it did no good. That very evening the Red Guards came to Weilin’s apartment. They knocked on the door politely, but when Mother opened the door they came spilling in, a dozen or more of them crowding into the Liangs’ living-room. There were even more Red Guards than would fit in, with others out on the landing and stairs. Among these latter, craning to look in through the door, was Half Brother. All the students wore red armbands with gold lettering—the sign of the Red Guards.

The Red Guards were quite polite. The leader, a thin bookish type with glasses, wearing a pair of army-style sneakers and baggy blue peasant trousers with a rather ostentatious patch over one knee, addressed Father as Assistant Professor Liang. He even apologized to Father, but said they had to carry out an investigation, on behalf of the people. Father was quite cool. He said he would be glad to help with the investigation in any way he could, and was eagerly awaiting their instructions, which he knew were inspired by a love of Chairman Mao and the revolution. The leader, and a female student who chimed in with him from time to time, seemed to think they had to speak in a sort of shrill bark; but otherwise the invasion was perfectly genteel. They did not call Father a black element. They did, however, mention Professor Fan, and said that Father had encouraged Professor Fan’s counter-revolutionary crime. Father said nothing to this, only hung his head in silence.

After criticizing Father, the Red Guards went all round the apartment, examining everything. Two of them sat down by Father’s bookcase and began pulling out the books to examine them. This led to a lot of discussion. The leader came over and looked at the books. The foreign-language ones seemed especially interesting to him. Through all this Weilin was sitting at the table with Mother, Mother holding his hand on the table.

The end of it was, that the Red Guards decided to seal up Father’s books. They pasted white strips of paper cross-wise across the bookcase, with AWAITING FURTHER INVESTIGATION written across them in black characters. Now it was impossible to take a book from the shelves without breaking the paper. Weilin felt glad that the book he was reading—a Chinese translation of Oliver Twist—was in his school bag, which the Red Guards had not investigated.

After the Red Guards had gone, singing one of their vigorous songs as they clattered off down the stairs, Mother started to weep. Father sat next to her at the table, his arm round her shoulder. Weilin could not see that there was anything much to weep about. It was a shame about the books, of course, but presumably that would be resolved sooner or later. That apart, the Red Guards had been something of a let-down; a group of self-important students playing policeman. He thought this movement was turning out to be rather boring after all.

Mother stopped weeping at last and went to the kitchen. She returned with glasses of tea. The three of them sat there at the table, sipping the hot tea. The silence was uncomfortable.

“Is Professor Fan an enemy?” Weilin asked, to end the silence.

“Not any more,” said Father, looking into his tea.

“But the Red Guards said he’d committed a counter-revolutionary crime.”

“Yes,” said Father. “Yes, he did. Last night.”

“But what? What did he do?”

Father did not answer. He looked up at Mother. Mother turned away, and looked as if she might start crying again. Still turned away, she said: “Tell him.”

Father shrugged. “Old Fan hanged himself,” he said.

Chapter 4

Down With Bourgeois Things!

Father Becomes a Big Character Poster

For several days Yuezhu did not appear at the pool, and was not waiting for him outside the barracks. Though there was no school now Weilin went into the town every day, to South Lake Park, always hoping she would be there; but day after day, she wasn’t. Then he would walk home, along the dusty road leading out of town to the college and the bamboo grove, and dawdle outside the gate of the barracks. Usually there would be some of her little friends playing there. They sniggered and giggled among themselves when they saw him, and the embarrassment soon drove him away. Weilin even went to the bamboo grove, more than once, in the desperate hope she might be there waiting for him, but of course she was not. The grove was quite different without Yuezhu to share it with. It seemed smaller, and hostile in some way he could not understand.

Then he discovered the reason for Yuezhu’s absence. She had become a Little Red Guard.

At about the time Professor Fan hanged himself one faction of Red Guards decided that their leaders were not revolutionary enough. They staged a coup and took over the Red Guard movement. These new Red Guards were fiercer than the old ones. They made a lot of noise at their meetings, chanting and shouting. They held many of their meetings in the open air, on the basketball courts behind the teachers’ refectory. Then Weilin could hear them from his room, sometimes late into the night. It was a very scary sound, especially when you couldn’t actually hear the words they were saying. The only time Weilin could make out words was when a certain young woman was speaking. This girl had a very shrill, penetrating voice. She especially liked to say “Down with . . . !” and that was what Weilin heard, lying on his bed at night: “Down with . . . ! Down with . . . ! Down with . . . !” There seemed to be no end to the number of things she wanted to bring down.

One of their innovations was to enroll grade-school kids as Little Red Guards. They didn’t accept just anyone, of course. You had to be politically correct, which in practice meant from a worker, peasant or soldier family. The Little Red Guards got Red Guard armbands—red with white or gold lettering—and marched around in groups chanting revolutionary songs. When the older Red Guards decided that something was incorrect, they would often send in the Little Red Guards to rectify it. Flowers were discovered to be incorrect: the Little Red Guards pulled up the flowers in Children’s Park and South Lake Park. The traditional afternoon siesta was incorrect: the Little Red Guards were set to making continuous loud noise from noon till two o’clock, banging drums and old cooking pots, singing and shouting outside people’s windows. Tea houses were incorrect: the Little Red Guards were sent to close them down—though this campaign met with fierce resistance from the tea-house patrons, some Little Red Ears were boxed, and the Red Guards proper had to go in and do the job.

Weilin, of course, was not allowed to be a Little Red Guard. His parents were intellectuals, so he was not politically correct. In fact, he did his best to avoid the Little Red Guards, of whom he was rather afraid. They had quickly got themselves a reputation for mischief. But one day, walking home from the pool, he met a squad of Little Red Guards going into town. There were about forty of them, marching five abreast, like soldiers, and singing a revolutionary song. Yuezhu was in the front rank. Weilin wanted so much to call out to her, to speak to her, but he dared not. Her face was set in the expression of righteous determination that all the Red Guards cultivated. She certainly saw him; but only clenched her features more firmly and swung her arms more wildly, and marched straight past. Weilin struggled to hold back tears all the way home. When at last he got home the wish to cry had gone. He only felt a dull, unhappy despair.


The new Red Guards started a campaign against Bourgeois Things. They went into people’s houses and criticized the people for having Bourgeois Things. Then they took the Bourgeois Things away on a handcart.

They came to the apartment block where Weilin lived, and took Bourgeois Things from some of the teachers. Professor Jin of the History Department, down on the first floor, had Bourgeois Things. Weilin watched from his window as Professor Jin’s Bourgeois Things were loaded on to the handcart in the courtyard below. There was a radio, something in a large glass case, a potted plant, a bird cage, some fine-looking clothes in bright colors that Weilin supposed must belong to Mrs Jin, though he had never seen her wearing them. The Red Guards taking the Bourgeois Things from Professor Jin’s apartment were all college students; the Little Red Guards did not seem to be involved in this activity.

Afterwards it occurred to Weilin that his own apartment had things in it similar to those he had seen loaded onto the handcart. This worried him. Would the Red Guards come and take away Father’s radio? The gramophone? Mother’s pretty coral-pink blouse that she wore at Spring Festival? What exactly was a Bourgeois Thing, anyway? How did you tell? Weilin had never been clear about the meaning of bourgeois. He knew it was something bad, but the Chinese characters—“wealth” and “root”—did not really make much sense together. He had a vague idea that bourgeois was a synonym for foreign. The “root” character also turned up in the word for “Japan,” which gave it a slight foreign connotation.

At dinner that evening he tackled Father about this. “Do we have Bourgeois Things?” he asked.

Father nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

“Will the Red Guards come and take our things away?”

“Probably. But they are not important things. Not things we really need. It doesn’t matter.”

“If the Red Guards come here, you must just do what they tell you,” said Mother.

“Why did they go to Professor Jin’s apartment, not to ours?”

Father chuckled. “It’s not so easy to struggle a mathematician. Our subject is too unworldly. Try finding anything counter-revolutionary in Pythagoras’s Theorem!”

“Does that mean you won’t be struggled?”

“Hard to say, Little Pangolin. I can’t understand this movement at all. It’s a new thing, not like the other movements. But you’re not to worry. If they struggle me, I’ll give them satisfaction.”

Weilin didn’t understand what give them satisfaction meant; but this seemed to have been intended for Mother. Father smiled at Mother reassuringly, and squeezed her hand. Then, to take Weilin’s mind off unpleasant matters, he showed him how to extract a square root by a process that on the paper looked like long division, but was more subtle. After dinner he played Mr Brahms Number One on the gramophone, listening with his eyes closed. It was a Friday, and Lecturer Wang should have come to play chess with Father; but for some reason he did not come.


On Sunday the Red Guards came again to the faculty apartment building. They took Bourgeois Things from old Professor Qi on the second floor and loaded them onto the handcart. Weilin watched from the window. Most of Professor Qi’s Bourgeois Things seemed to be books. So many books!—even more than Father. The Red Guards were shouting at Professor Qi in a very fierce way. It made Weilin scared to hear them. He went to sit with Father and Mother at the table. Father and Mother were just sitting there silently, listening to the commotion downstairs. Father had his hand over Mother’s hand, and sometimes he stroked her hand or patted it. When Weilin went to sit with them Mother put her arm around his shoulder.

When the Red Guards did reach the Liangs’ apartment at last, they came right in without knocking. The first one in wasYuezhu’s half brother. Half a dozen others followed him. They looked hot and bothered, presumably from carrying Professor Qi’s stuff down the stairs to the handcart in the August heat. They brought in with them a strong smell of sweat. Half Brother seemed to be in charge now. He wore a stern, angry expression, his jaw clamped shut, his eyebrows squinched together. He planted his feet wide apart, fore and aft, and stuck his arm straight out dramatically, pointing at Father.

“Liang Yushu! We are carrying out Chairman Mao’s instructions to smash the Four Olds! Do you dare to oppose us?”

“Everybody in this family loves Chairman Mao,” said Father calmly. “We are anxious to follow his instructions. Please tell us what we must do.”

“Don’t pretend to be so meek and mild!” shrieked a girl who had come in behind Half Brother. From her voice, Weilin thought she must be the Down With . . . ! girl he had been hearing at night. She made the same dramatic pointing gesture as Half Brother, like the hero in a movie poster. “You have bad thinking! Your hearts are not pure! In your hearts you cherish the Four Olds! Down with the Four Olds!”

“Down with the Four Olds!” everybody shouted several times over.

“In your hearts you are against Chairman Mao!” continued Miss Down With. “Look! This apartment is full of Bourgeois Things!” She made a theatrical sweeping motion with her arms, encompassing the character scroll, the gramophone, the radio, the bookshelves—which were still taped up from the previous visitation. “Down with Bourgeois Things!”

“Perhaps we have fallen into luxurious ways,” agreed Father. “You young Red Guards must correct our thinking!”

One of the other Red Guards, a thin youth wearing a somewhat unorthodox black pants and jacket, had gone over to the gramophone. He lifted the top and squinted at the turntable. Then he opened the doors at the bottom of the cabinet, and started pulling out the records and looking at them.

“These are foreign things!” the youth in black shouted. “Look! Foreign things!”

“They’re from the Soviet Union,” said Father, still maintaining the mild, level tone. “It’s a socialist country, like ours. They are not imperialists.”

“The Russians are revisionists and hegemonists!” shrieked the girl. “You’re in league with them! You’re black elements! Down with the hegemonists and revisionists! Down with the black elements!”

“Down with the black elements!” they all shouted. “Down with! Down with!”

Half Brother had broken the seal on the bookshelves and was pulling out books and examining them. He stood up, holding open a book. It was Abramowitz and Stegun’s Mathematical Tables, Weilin could see. Half Brother fanned some pages with his thumb. His jaw stiffened, the eyebrows squinched tighter together.

“What’s this?” He addressed Father.

“You know perfectly well what it is,” said Father, quite calmly. “It’s a book of mathematical tables.”

“In English? Why in English?

“It’s an American book. They make the best tables. They have powerful electronic computers …”

“Much better than our Chinese computers,” sneered Half Brother. He had come over to the corner where Weilin and Father were standing together. “That’s your character, Comrade Liang, isn’t it? To worship all things foreign.”

“Worshipping foreign things and looking with contempt on the Motherland!” shrilled Miss Down With. “Down with the foreign things!”

“Down with! Down with!” The other Red Guards started shouting and shaking their fists.

Half Brother still had his eyes fixed on Father. When the Red Guards had quieted a little, he waved the book of tables in front of Father’s face.

“Liang Yushu! You don’t fool me! You’re a black element, I can see! We’re going to give your case very serious consideration!”

Half Brother gave the book to one of the Red Guards and went to examine the radio on top of the dresser. The radio was a Chinese model. He turned the tuning dial absent-mindedly. The others seemed to be waiting for him.

“All right,” he said at last. Then, turning to address Father: “We’re going to remove these Bourgeois Things. They’ll be stored in a safe place, don’t worry.” He nodded at the radio. One of the Red Guards unplugged it and carried it out, down the stairs.

After that they took all the Bourgeois Things from the Liangs’ apartment.

Practically everything the Liang family owned was bourgeois, it turned out. Mother’s “Night in the Pavilion” character scroll was bourgeois; her prettiest clothes, which she kept in the dresser, were bourgeois. Father’s books were all bourgeois. The little gadgets in his tin box; his notebooks; their board games; the gramophone records; even the photographs on top of the dresser—everything, all but the barest necessities of life, was bourgeois. Not quite all: In the peculiar calculus of the Red Guards, board games were bourgeois but playing cards were not; Father’s fancy ink block was bourgeois, but not his writing brushes.

Weilin sat with Mother and Father at the table while the Red Guards took away all the Bourgeois Things. He wanted to cry, but he dared not. He wanted to say something; but since Mother and Father were silent, he thought he had better be, too. He most wanted to cry when the Red Guards took away the photographs, including the one he liked so much, of himself as a baby. He thought up an argument that might be used in defense of the photographs: since photographs of Chairman Mao could be seen everywhere, how could photographs be bourgeois? But something told him that this logic would cut little ice with the Red Guards.

Most of all Weilin hoped that Mother’s two little porcelain love-birds would not be bourgeois. This hope was partially fulfilled. The love-birds, and the little flower vase between them, were left; but the Red Guard who swept up the photographs from the dresser knocked them all off, and they fell to the floor and broke.

Last of all the Red Guards took the gramophone. It was a substantial object, standing four feet high, made of good heavy wood. “Come on,” Half Brother said at last. “Let’s take this down to the cart.”

With Half Brother supervising, three of the Red Guards manhandled the gramophone across the room and out onto the landing. They seemed to have a lot of difficulty with it on the stairs. All of them were out there, shouting orders at each other, jostling each other on the stairs. Bump! went the gramophone down the concrete stairs. Bump! Bump! Each bump seemed to contain a plangent metallic component, the mechanism vibrating from the jolts; and with each bump, Mother winced, the motion transmitting itself down her arm to Weilin’s shoulder. Bump-thwang! Bump-thwang! went the gramophone, accompanied by shouts and grunts, fading away round the bend of the stair well, leaving the Liangs in silence.

Looking out from the window at last, Weilin could see his family’s Bourgeois Things on the handcart in the courtyard. He could see the pile of gramophone records in their brown paper sleeves: Mr Chopin, Mr Beethoven, Mr Mozart.

“Shall we not be able to hear Mr Mozart now?” he asked Father.

Father was still sitting at the table with Mother. Mother’s face was nestled against him, his arm was round her shoulders. She was sobbing quietly.

“We can hear them inside our heads,” said Father.

Weilin thought this didn’t make sense. How could you hear something inside your head? But he could see Mother was upset, and this was no time to pursue things.

“That one at the front, he was a lousy student,” said Father. “I failed him on the midterm. He just hates me for that.”

Mother didn’t say anything, only sobbed. Seeing Mother crying, Weilin began crying too, and Father had to comfort both of them.


Father was struggled the next day. He and Mother had been going in to work diligently, in spite of all the confusion on campus, to prepare for the new academic year. But this evening they didn’t come home. Weilin heard a struggle meeting going on over at the basketball courts, but he dared not go to investigate.

It was after midnight when Father and Mother came home at last. When Weilin saw them he screamed. They had both turned black. Their eyes were awful white circles in black faces, like demons. Weilin screamed and screamed, until Father picked him up and shook him.

“Little Pangolin! It’s all right! Don’t be afraid! It’s just a game the Red Guards played with us.”

“A game?” whispered Weilin, when he could bear to look at Father. Now, close up, he could see that Father was not completely black, only streaked with black. One ear was still its normal color. Mother had gone into the bedroom and shut the door.

Father laughed merrily. He swung Weilin round, then set him on his feet and kneeled down in front of him. “Look! It’s only ink!” With slow, over-pronounced movements, like a character in traditional opera, he licked a finger and drew it down his face. Sure enough, the finger came away black.

“They poured black ink over us, to try to show that we are black elements.” Father laughed again. “But of course we’re not.”

“I don’t like the Red Guards,” Weilin blurted out.

“Oh, you mustn’t say that. They’re just carrying out Chairman Mao’s instructions.”

“But Chairman Mao is very kind. Why did he let them break all our things? Even Mother’s little love birds. They broke them both. I tried to fix them, but I couldn’t.”

Weilin had spent part of the evening trying to re-attach the love-birds’ heads and wings with some stationery mucilage that had been left in the dresser, but with no success. He had found all the pieces and knew where they belonged in relation to each other; but the mucilage seemed to have no power over porcelain.

“Chairman Mao wants to teach us not to cherish physical things too much. To concentrate on spiritual things. How can that be bad? If people only care about physical things, how will they have any feelings left for each other? Do you want to live in a world where people have no feelings for each other?”

Weilin could think of no answer for this, though he felt that his feelings for Father and Mother, and also for Yuezhu, had been quite satisfactory when the little porcelain love-birds were intact. Now Mother came out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. She began running water from the faucet in the bathroom. Father went into the bathroom with her and shut the door.

Weilin could not sleep that night. He was consumed by the apprehension that Father and Mother would be taken away from him. Three, four times he got up and crept across the apartment to their door to make sure they were still there. Each time he could hear Father saying some soothing words, Mother weeping.


The second time Father was struggled, he went alone. Whether this was on the instructions of the Red Guards, or whether Mother just refused to go, Weilin did not know. He stayed with Mother the whole evening.

It was a Thursday evening, when normally there was a storyteller on the radio at seven thirty. But the Red Guards had taken the radio; so Mother played the card game Twenty-Four with him until nine, when she said it was time for bed. To help him get to sleep Mother put him into the bedroom, as she sometimes did. For a long time Weilin could not sleep. He could hear the Red Guards over at the basketball courts: Down With! Down With! Then he drifted off, to be woken suddenly by a loud cry from Mother. He jumped out of bed and ran into the living room—then stopped in his tracks when he saw Father.

Father was naked, though it took a moment or two to see that. His whole body was covered with paper, twenty or more big sheets of paper. The paper was white, with Red Guard slogans written on it in angry black characters. Apparently the paper had been pasted to Father.

“See!” said Father, turning to Weilin. He was trying to make a joke of it for his son’s benefit, but something in the eyes betrayed him. Something Weilin had never seen before: the dawning of some awful realization. “See! They have made me into a living big-character poster!”

Chapter 5

Moon Pearl No Longer Cares for Loquats

A Scholar Unwisely Speaks His Mind

The next day Mother did not go to her office. After breakfast, when Father had left, she told Weilin to sit at the table with her.

“Your little friend,” said Mother. “Miss Han.”

“Han Yuezhu.”

“Yes. You were close friends with her, weren’t you?”

“Yes.” Weilin blushed, thinking of Yuezhu; and lowered his face, hoping Mother wouldn’t see him blushing. Mother had met Yuezhu once. Early in their friendship, before they discovered the bamboo grove, Weilin had brought her to the college three or four times to play in the college grounds, though mainly just to be with her; and Mother had met them on her way home across the sports field.

“Are you still friends?”

“I’m not sure. She’s a Little Red Guard.”

“Oh.” Mother seemed not pleased with this information. “Of course. She would be.”

Mother was silent for a while. Was she going to blame him for having been friends with a Little Red Guard? Weilin thought so, and tried to think of something he might say to excuse himself.

“Her brother is the leader of the Red Guards now,” said Mother.

“Half Brother.”


“Half Brother. He’s her half brother. Doesn’t like to be called her brother.”

“Oh. Whatever.” Mother leaned forward, looking earnestly into his eyes. “Weilin, I want you to do something for the family. Something very responsible. Will you try?”

“Of course! I’ll do anything!”

“I want you to find your little friend Yuezhu and explain to her that we are not bad people. We are not black elements. We love Chairman Mao. We would never do anything to harm him. Perhaps if you tell her that, she will believe you. Then, perhaps she will be able to influence her brother. Half Brother, I mean.”

Weilin was doubtful. “I don’t think she’ll listen to me. And anyway, I don’t think she can influence her half brother. It’s more a case of him influencing her.”

“But we must try! We must do what we can! For our family, for Father! However small the chance, we must try! Won’t you do this for us, Weilin? For all of us?”

“Yes. Yes, I will,” said Weilin, despair already filling his heart. He remembered Yuezhu’s face, that time he had seen the Little Red Guards marching into town. It was hopeless, of course. “I will,” he repeated. “I will.”

Weilin’s plan was to try to bring back to Yuezhu’s mind the happy times they had spent together in the bamboo grove. To this end he begged some coins from Mother and bought half a dozen loquats from the little store set in the wall of the college. Then he went looking for the Little Red Guards.

It turned out they had been assigned the task of ridding the town of sparrows and mice, in accordance with Chairman Mao’s instruction: Away With All Pests! The older of the Little Red Guards had been issued with catapults and BB guns, and were stalking under the trees in South Lake Park looking for sparrows to shoot. The younger ones, Yuezhu included, were catching mice and rats. Or not: having already set out the town’s small supply of traps, they were reduced to patrolling the kitchen and toilet areas with sticks, hoping to see a rodent in the open. Yuezhu was behind the refectory at Number One hospital, staring resolutely at a large rat-hole where the wall met the ground, holding up a piece of two by four poised to strike any creature that might emerge.

She saw Weilin approaching her, and at once assumed the proper Red Guard glare: jaw firm, lips pressed together; but she seemed not to have mastered the squinching of the eyebrows, and attained only a sort of cross-eyed effect. Her hair was no longer sticking out in pigtails, the way he had liked it. Now it was cropped short, making her neck, her swan-neck, look even longer.

“Yuezhu. I haven’t seen you for a long time.” Weilin smiled as he came up to her, trying to be just like before. But Yuezhu only crossed her eyes more ferociously, and turned her gaze back to the rat-hole. She said nothing.

“I wanted to talk to you …” Looking down at her crouched over the rat-hole, Weilin could see the sturdiness of her frame, count the vertebrae running down the whiteness of her neck into the rough army-green blouse. A wave of hopeless longing washed over him, and he lost his words.

“Hush!” She hissed. “You’ll scare them back into the hole.”

“Do you really think they’ll come out?” asked Weilin, glad of the conversational opening.

She looked up at him, momentarily forgetting to glare.

“Of course they will. Half Brother said so. You just have to wait.”

“Perhaps you should rattle the stick inside the hole,” suggested Weilin, really keen to help. “I mean, perhaps they’re just asleep in there.”

“No! This is the right way! Half Brother said so!”

“All right. But you look like Mr Guard the Stump Waiting for a Rabbit.” This was an idiom everybody knew, based on a story from ancient times.

Guarding the Stump, Waiting for a Rabbit

A farmer was working in his field when he saw a rabbit running very fast. The rabbit ran straight into a tree stump and knocked itself out. The farmer picked it up and took it home. His wife made it into a delicious rabbit stew.

After that the farmer would not work his field any more. He just stood by the stump, waiting for another rabbit to come.

Weilin had meant this as playful banter, in their old style. However, Yuezhu took offense. She resumed her cross-eyed glare.

“I’d rather be Mr Guard the Stump Waiting for a Rabbit than Mr Black Element. That’s your father, Mr Black Element! Everybody knows!”

“No, no. Yuezhu, listen to me. My father is very good. A kind man, a sincere teacher. He loves Chairman Mao! He’s not a black element!”

“Is so!” Yuezhu pursed her little lips, and crossed her eyes with such determination the irises almost disappeared. “What’s more, he’s a spy! We have evidence! Your father is a spy for the American Imperialists! For the … the … the Xi Ai Hei.” Her voice had gone down into her chest, into those round rich tones Weilin had once found so thrilling. Now they seemed full of menace.

“Yuezhu, that’s nonsense! My father doesn’t know anything about the CIA! He’s just an Assistant Professor at the Teachers’ College! How could he be a spy? What secrets has he got?”

“We’re going to struggle him until he confesses,” said Yuezhu with satisfaction.

Weilin was close to tears, from frustration and despair. “Yuezhu!” he shouted, feeling his voice shake. “It’s me, Weilin! Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember our happy times together in the bamboo grove? When we played Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai? Look, Yuezhu, look—I’ve brought you some loquats. I always remember how much you like loquats.” He held out the brown paper parcel on one palm, and opened it with the other hand to show the loquats.

Something crossed Yuezhu’s face, just for an instant; then she locked her eyeballs and set her jaw again. “Those are old things!” she said. Stepping forward, she quite deliberately slapped aside the hand holding the loquats, scattering them on the ground. Then, suddenly, with a vocal force that almost knocked Weilin from his feet, she yelled out: “DOWN WITH THE FOUR OLDS!” Straightening up, she brandished her stick, her face now set in an expression of utter malevolence. Weilin fled, leaving the loquats scattered there on the brown earth.


It was some days before Father was struggled again. During those days, he and Mother both stopped going to work. They stayed at home playing Honeymoon Bridge with the deck of cards that had somehow escaped the Red Guards’ vigilance. Then, late on Sunday evening, Father was sent for.

An escort of Red Guards came for him. One of them was Miss Down With, who Weilin now knew was actually called Comrade Gao. Father got up and went to the door with them. Comrade Gao turned and beckoned to Mother.

“You, too. Everybody.”

“I’ll go. But I don’t see why the child has to go,” said Mother.

“Because you’re all black elements!” shrieked Comrade Gao. “You all need to have your thinking cleansed! To have your bad thoughts corrected! Come on!”

They left the building and walked down to the basketball courts. The light was failing, but the basketball courts were illuminated by some floodlights that had been set up on tall poles at each side. There was a big crowd all around, spilling back on to the path, and beyond, on the other side, on to the running track. Most were students, but there were teachers too, and some of the college workers. The Red Guards were all at the front of the crowd, and seated on ramshackle metal-frame bleachers at one side of the main court. Some of the Little Red Guards were up on the bleachers too, though not Yuezhu. Below these bleachers were some of the college faculty, six of them, all kneeling down, all with their heads bowed. They had placards round their necks. The placards said things like KUOMINTANG AGENT! or COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY! One of these teachers was Lecturer Wang from the Mathematics Department, Father’s chess companion. His placard said ACCOMPLICE OF THE TRAITOR LIANG.

When they saw Weilin’s father coming, the Reds Guards all started yelling. Father was forced out on to the court with the other teachers, and made to kneel down. Comrade Gao stood behind him. She pulled up his arms to force his head down, then let go and stepped back. Weilin and Mother were not allowed out on the court. They were kept at the side, behind the Red Guards. Weilin found himself standing next to one of the college workers, a member of the administrative staff. Weilin had met the man once, when he went with Father to get some papers typed. The man was watching the proceedings out on the court without much interest, and splitting sunflower seeds with his teeth.

“That’s your old man, isn’t it?” said the worker.

“Yes,” said Weilin.

“Well, he’s in for it.”

“Here’s the blackest of all the black elements!” shouted Half Brother as Father took up his position. “The leader of the traitorous clique in the Mathematics Department!” He pushed his face right up to Father’s. “CONFESS YOUR CRIMES!”

“I have committed no crimes,” said Father, not very loud but quite clearly, his head still lowered.

Half Brother let a short pause develop. Then, in a level, incredulous tone: “Do you dare to defy the justice of the masses?”

He spun round theatrically to address the crowd.

“Comrades! Our Party is in danger! Our Motherland is in danger! Our Chairman Mao is in danger! Traitors and black elements are trying to pull down our Party!”

“Down with the traitors!” shrieked Comrade Gao. “Down with the black elements!”

“Down with! Down with!” roared back the Red Guards. The teachers and workers joined in, slightly off-beat.

“Here at Hibiscus Slope Teachers’ College we have uncovered many black elements. They have been spreading their poison all over our college. We must root them out, one by one! They must be forced to confess their crimes!”

“Down with the cow ghosts and snake demons!” shrieked Comrade Gao. “Down with the dog’s-head traitors!”

“Down with! Down with!” screamed back the mob. One of the college workers, a cook from the refectory, whom everyone thought a bit retarded, did one too many Down Withs, making several people laugh; but the Red Guards turned on the crowd with their fiercest, most practiced glares, and the laughing stopped at once.

Half Brother turned back to Father. “Do you think you can escape the people’s justice? Confess!”

The Red Guards, followed by the crowd, took up the cry. “Confess! Confess!”

They had a placard ready for Father. It was a big white sheet of card with some string to go round the neck. There was nothing written on it; apparently Father had to write the characters himself. The placard was laid on the ground in front of him. A Red Guard came forward and gave him a big wood-handled writing-brush, already dripping with ink.

“What would you like me to write?” asked Father, his voice mild and even.

“TRAITOR AND SPY!” screamed Comrade Gao, shaking a fist in the air. The crowd took up the cry. “Traitor and spy!” they roared. “Traitor and spy!” The worker next to Weilin was shouting it, too, waving a fist in the air; but he brought the fist down rather quickly, to reach into his pocket for another sunflower seed.

“Maybe I’ve got some old thinking,” said Father in the same calm tone, when he could be heard. “Maybe my thoughts need correcting. But I’m not a traitor or a spy.”

“Oh, aren’t you?” Half Brother turned and pointed at Lecturer Wang, kneeling with his placard. “Wang Baojiang!” Lecturer Wang hastened to his feet, head still bowed.

“Before I had a teaching position at the College I was one of Assistant Professor Liang’s students. In a class on tensor calculus, Assistant … I mean, Traitor Liang said that the universe is probably finite. But Engels says it is infinite!” He lifted his head now, and glared indignantly at Father. He attempted the dramatic pointing gesture, without much effect, his placard getting in the way. “This is trying to turn our minds against Marx and Engels! This is trying to turn us against the Party!”

“I really don’t remember making that remark,” said Father carefully. “But Engels was a social commentator, not a cosmologist …”

He said more, but it was all shouted out by the Red Guards. They went on shouting for some time, shaking their fists at Father. When the shouting died down a little, Half Brother called out another name. One of the Red Guards, a pretty young girl student, stepped forward. She had the eyebrow squinch down to an art. Her face looked like one of those in a propaganda movie, a peasant girl who has just been raped by the Kuomintang landlord, but knows that the People’s Liberation Army is on its way to avenge her. She waited for silence; then assumed the approved posture—feet apart, arm pointing straight at Father—and spoke out.

“In our class on mathematical logic, Traitor Liang recommended a book by the Englishman Bertrand Russell. This Mr Russell was a paid hireling of Chiang Kaishek. He wrote a book against the 1917 revolution in Russia. In that same class, Traitor Liang said that truth and falsehood were absolute and independent of social facts—against Chairman Mao’s thinking, that true and false depend upon the class character of the proposition.”

“LONG LIVE CHAIRMAN MAO!” roared a man’s voice in the crowd. The Red Guards yelled it back, and there was another spell of chanting. “Write! Write!” they ended up with. “‘Traitor and spy!’ Write it! Write it!”

“I’ll write whatever you like,” said Father. “But not ‘Traitor and Spy.’ I won’t write that. I won’t confess to that. I’ll write ‘Counter-Revolutionary’ if you like. Or ‘Dog’s Head Demon,’ or ‘Big Black Element.’ But I’m not a spy.”

“Oh, no?” Half Brother turned to the bleachers. Three male students got up and went down to join him. One of them was carrying Abramowitz and Stegun’s Mathematical Tables. Half Brother took it from him and waved it in front of Father’s face.

“If you’re not a spy, then what’s this?”

“Why, it’s a book of tables. You know that …”

“An American book.”


Half Brother held up the book with both hands, open somewhere in the middle. He held it up over his head, facing the Red Guards. “An American book!” he shouted. “Full of numbers! So many numbers! Look! What does he need so many American numbers for? IT’S HIS CODE BOOK! HE’S A SPY AND THIS IS HIS CODE BOOK!”

Everybody started yelling now. One of the three who had come down, a tough-looking character wearing an army cap, ran forward and punched Father on the side of the head. Thuck! went the punch, and Weilin could hear it above the crowd. Father fell over on his side, the ink-brush flying out of his hand and skittering away across the court, marking the ground with irregular splashes of ink. Father lifted himself up at once, back to the kneeling position. He put a hand up to the side of his head that had been hit, and shook his head once or twice, as if to clear it. The rough-looking Red Guard stood over him, as if preparing another blow; but Half Brother held him back with an arm.

Now Mother had pushed through the ring of Red Guards, out on to the court. “Stop this!” she screamed. “It’s all nonsense! You are mad, you are all mad! What has my husband done, that you call him a traitor and a spy? How can you believe this nonsense?”

Half Brother glared at her. “Teacher Yu,” he said, using Mother’s maiden name. “You should denounce your husband. He is a black element, you know it very well. If you don’t denounce him, that means you are a black element, too.”

“None of us is a black element!” shrieked Mother, holding her head with her hands. “You’ve all gone mad!”

Half Brother laughed—a rich, hollow laugh. “What a performance!” he laughed. “What an act!” Suddenly he was stern again. He made the exaggerated pointing gesture at Mother. “You know very well what you’ve done! Don’t put up this show of innocence! In your apartment, alone together with Traitor Liang, you have spoken bad words about our Chairman Mao—against the Party, against the country, against the people! You know you have, you can’t deny it! Do you think we don’t know? Han Yuezhu!”

Now Weilin saw Yuezhu. She had after all been in the crowd of Little Red Guards at the side of the bleachers, out of his line of sight. She stepped forward. Planting her feet wide apart and crossing her eyes, she pointed at Father.

“The Traitor Liang’s son told me his parents never read books by Marx or Lenin or our Chairman Mao! He said his father said they were too boring. And he told me his father was close friends with Counter-revolutionary Traitor Fan Huizhong. And he told me his father never listened to our Chinese revolutionary music, he only liked to listen to the stinking foreign music, and he said our Chinese revolutionary music was garbage. And he said his father told him the most important thing was mathematics, because it was absolutely true, but everything else was only supposed to be true, and …”

“Liang Weilin!” Half Brother was pointing right at him. Weilin was petrified. He could not move. Comrade Gao ran over and grabbed him, pulling him by the arm. Now he was out on the court with Father and Mother. Mother had her hands over her face, and seemed to be sobbing. Father was just kneeling there impassively. Then he turned to look at Weilin just for a moment, and smiled. It was his old smile, the smile he used when he had made one of his sarcastic remarks, or when he was going to trump you in a card game. The smile lasted only a second, but Weilin never forgot it. It was the last time he saw Father smile.

Out on the basketball court the illumination from the floodlights seemed much brighter. Those nearby seemed oddly distinct in the harsh white light, those further away strangely distant. There was Father kneeling, his head bowed again now, and Lecturer Wang and the other teachers, all in a row. There was Mother, her face in her hands, swinging her upper body from side to side in convulsive weeping. There was Yuezhu, still stuck in that absurd theatrical pose of accusation. And here was Half Brother, looming over Weilin, his round spotty face clenched in stern indignation.

Half Brother waved Abramowitz and Stegun in his face. “Do you recognize this book?”

Weilin tried to speak, but he couldn’t. He began to cry. Seeing this, the Red Guards all started yelling. “Denounce!” they yelled. “Denounce! Denounce!”

“Tell me!” commanded Half Brother. “Do you want to be a traitor, like your father?”

“No,” whimpered Weilin. Father had his head bowed, looking at the ground.

“When the foreigners were here last year, did your father use this book?”


“How did he use it?”

“He … he just looked up numbers in it, and wrote them down.”

“He wrote them down on paper?”

“Yes, on paper.”

“And gave the paper to whom?”

“To whom? He didn’t give it to anybody. It was just his work.”

“He gave it to the foreigners, didn’t he?”

“No. No, he didn’t.”

“Then whom?”

“Nobody. He didn’t give it to anybody. It was just his work.”

Half Brother took a step back and made his mocking laugh again.

“You’re a stubborn little fucker, aren’t you? Well, we’ll find out what you know! We’ll teach you to defy the people’s investigations!”

He half-turned, and beckoned someone. The rough-looking boy came up, the one who had punched Father. This time he was not empty-handed. He was carrying a shoulder-pole, the type that peasants use for carrying bundles. It was an old, worn shoulder-pole, made from one half of a piece of thick bamboo split lengthwise, smooth and gray from long use. The rough boy stood over Weilin, gripping the shoulder-pole with both hands.

“Tell us who your father’s accomplice is, or we’ll beat you black and blue.”

Weilin had what seemed like an inspiration. Old Professor Fan! Since he was dead, they wouldn’t be able to prove anything. Without thinking further he said: “Fan Huizhong. My father gave the paper to Fan Huizhong.”

Half Brother nodded slowly. “So. The traitor Fan, who was condemned as a Rightist by the Party ten years ago! The traitor Fan, who nursed grievances against the Party, against the people, against the country! The traitor Fan, who destroyed himself in a final act of counter-revolutionary cowardice when he knew that his crimes were being uncovered!”

Yuezhu, who had held her dramatic pointing pose right through up to this point, now ran forward to where Father was kneeling. “Traitor!” she squealed. “Big traitor! Dog’s-head turtle-egg traitor!” She began pummeling Father with her tiny fists, punching at his head and shoulders.

Father submitted to half a dozen of Yuezhu’s blows; then, suddenly, brushing away the little fists, he stood up. He looked straight forward, at the crowd of students and workers.

“You … you … my students, my colleagues.”

Father’s voice was strong and clear. Everyone fell silent, waiting to see if he would confess.

“I have done my best to be a good teacher. To give you the spirit of mathematics. That everything must be proved. That nothing can be taken for granted. That even things that seem very obvious must be subjected to strict logical inquiry. Now you are taking another path. A path of unreason and nihilism, of blind obedience to dogma. Not even a dogma arrived at collectively after long inquiry, but dogma from a single uncultivated mind, the ignorant ravings of a demented despot …”

“Yushu!” It was Mother, screaming his name to stop him. “Yushu, don’t …”

Mother and Father both were drowned out by a roar of anger from the Red Guards. The rough-looking youth who had been threatening Weilin turned to Father. Lifting the shoulder-pole right above his head, he swung it round and struck the side of Father’s head with it. Stunned, Father staggered a few steps, but did not fall. But now the Red Guards were on the court. One of them grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head down, and smashed a fist into his face. Another kicked him in the belly. Then they were all over him, a yelling, kicking scrum of frenzied youth. The other teachers who had been kneeling on the court got to their feet and ran, their placards flapping from side to side as they passed from the circle of brightness under the floodlights to the darkness beyond. The teachers, students and workers who made up the rest of the crowd just stood and watched for the most part, though a few of the students were in there with the Red Guards. Comrade Gao had gone into the melee. Mother was just standing there screaming, screaming.

Half Brother was still standing in front of Weilin. He had looked angry, listening to Father; but when the Red Guards rushed on to the court his expression changed. He seemed surprised by the violence of their attack.

“Comrades!” he called out. “Comrades! Let’s do things properly!” He stepped forward and pulled at the tunic of a Red Guard on the outer edge of the melee. “COMRADES!” with more authority, and an edge of alarm.

The Red Guards untangled themselves and stepped back. Father was curled up on the floor in a ball, his hands clasped tight over his head. There was blood on his head and hands; and the sleeve of his tunic was ripped right off, and there was blood on his bare arm. By some quality of the floodlight the blood looked black rather than red, but Weilin knew it was blood. He thought Father must be dead, and he began to cry uncontrollably. Mother was still screaming. Weilin could see, through the fug of tears, that Yuezhu was crying too. Not for Father, though: she had been trampled in the rush of Red Guards and was sitting on the ground nursing a shin with half the skin scraped off it.

“That’s the end of the struggle meeting,” Half Brother announced suddenly. “Let’s show good order to the masses.”

The masses had, in fact, mostly drifted away. They could be seen in the darkness beyond the floodlights, walking away across the athletic field and down the path to the dormitories. Only eight or ten students were left at the basketball court, and two workers—one of them the eater of sunflower seeds.

The Red Guards formed up in ranks and files, Little Red Guards in the rear, and marched off down the path to the student dormitories singing “The East Is Red”:

The East is red, the sun has risen!

China has brought forth Mao Zedong!

Yuezhu was limping along at the back of the Little Red Guards, supported by two others. Weilin could not stop himself crying. Father dead! How would they survive with Father dead?

Mother was kneeling by Father. “Bullfrog! Oh, my foolish old Bullfrog! Can you hear me?”

To Weilin’s wonder and delight, Father groaned. Not dead! Father not dead! He ran across and knelt down next to Mother. There was a big pool of blood under Father’s head; but Father was moving, straightening his arms and legs gingerly, groaning.

“We must get him to the hospital,” said Mother. “He’s badly hurt.”

“How can we move him?” wondered Weilin.

Mother stood up and addressed the nearest person, the eater of sunflower seeds. “Please help us. Help us get my husband to the hospital.”

Sunflower Seed seemed to wake suddenly from a daydream. “What, me? No fucking way! They’ll call me an accomplice! I’ve got a wife and kids to think of.” He turned and walked off.

Mother appealed to the others. There were four students standing together, two others each standing alone, and a worker. The worker walked away. The group of four looked at each other, but nobody moved.

“I’ll help you,” said one of the lone students. “Teacher Liang is a good man, a good teacher. They shouldn’t have beaten him up like that. It was wrong. They can call me an accomplice if they like. I don’t care. It was wrong.”

He was coming forward as he spoke. When he reached Father, he said: “We must stop the bleeding, that’s the main thing. Then, there’s a hand cart back of the boiler house. We’ll get him on that and take him to the hospital.”

Another student, one of the group of four, came to help them. The others slipped away. Father’s tunic shirt was badly torn, so they got it off him altogether and tore it into strips for bandages. Father’s head and face were all covered with blood. There were two big round wounds on his head where the skin had been split. His face was badly bruised and his lower lip split, and some teeth had come out. There was a long, deep gash on his arm, nobody knew from what. His arms and shoulders, when they got the tunic off, were covered in black bruises. But there were no open wounds other than those on his head and arms, and the student, feeling up and down Father’s limbs, said there were no broken bones. Father seemed to be conscious, but could only groan.

They found the handcart and got Father on it. Then, with the students pulling at the front and Mother and Weilin walking behind, they took Father to Number One Hospital. But the hospital wouldn’t admit him. Mother begged with the admissions clerk, but she would not yield.

“He’s been done over by the Red Guards, anybody can see that. Nobody here will treat him. It’s more than our lives are worth. We’ve had the Red Guards here, too, you know!”

A doctor appeared, and Mother called out to him; but grasping the situation, he only scuttled off down a corridor. At last they had to take Father home.

Chapter 6

The Wood Has Been Made Into A Boat

Through the Palace of Green Porcelain to the Willow Palisade

The name of the student who had first offered to help was Liang Yi. His family name, Liang, was the same as Weilin’s, but he was no relation. Weilin never knew the second student’s name. By the time they got back to the Professor’s compound Father was sufficiently conscious to be able to support himself, though he seemed to have lost the coordination necessary for walking or climbing stairs. However, they got him up to the apartment somehow. They sat him in a chair and Mother bathed and dressed his wounds. Father nodded and made appreciative murmuring sounds, but seemed unable to speak. When they had cleaned him up they put him to bed.

The second student left soon after this, and Father fell into a profound sleep. Liang Yi said he would go to the police station first thing in the morning and report the incident. He sat with Mother talking; but it was very late and Weilin was drowsy. He went to bed. Next morning Father was still sleeping. He slept all morning and into the afternoon. Mother was worried. She thought it was a coma. Liang Yi came at noon. He had been to the police station, but the police just laughed at him. The Red Guards were sponsored by Chairman Mao, they said. The police were not allowed to interfere with them.

Mother and Liang Yi went out, with the idea of finding a doctor willing to treat Father, or at least some medicine that his condition might respond to. While they were gone Father woke. Weilin sat by the bed, holding Father’s hand, talking to him, trying to get his attention, sometimes crying, until Mother came home alone. Mother made some soup and fed Father with it. Then she gave him medicine she had got from one of the clinics. He seemed glad, and it even seemed that he recognized them; then blood spurted from his nose and one of his ears. After the blood came a dense milky substance, mixed with blood. By the time they finished cleaning him up, Father had fallen into sleep again. This sleep was fitful, and he developed a fever, his body trembling and sweating. He voided his bowels in the bed, and moved his arms convulsively.

After cleaning his mess and sitting with him all night, Mother went out the next day to visit the local practitioners of traditional medicine, to see if any of their herbs or roots might have application. After she had left the student Liang Yi came. While he was asking Weilin about Father’s condition, Father woke with staring eyes and went into spasm. His head jerked until Weilin cried out for fear he would break his neck. His limbs thrashed and his eyes popped, and a white curd formed on his lips. The milky substance came out of his ear again, but this time with no blood. Then, quite suddenly, Father opened his mouth very wide and made a dreadful gurgling, retching sound, and his spirit fled to the next world, and he fell back limp and empty. Liang Yi had backed off to the wall, his mouth a small round circle of horror, while Father was in spasm. When it was finished he went forward and looked at Father’s eyes. Then he bent down to listen to Father’s breathing. At last he said that Father was dead.

Mother came home soon after. She was inconsolable. She knelt by the bed, her head on Father’s belly, her arms out in front of her, keening, keening. There were words in her keening, but you couldn’t make sense of them. Weilin wondered if she had lost her mind, but was too numb to speculate on the consequences if she had.

Liang Yi went to tell the hospital. Still no-one at the hospital would have anything to do with Father. They only notified the crematorium. The crematorium sent two young men with a rough canvas stretcher, and the young men took Father away, stumbling and cursing down the stairs with Father on the stretcher. Mother went with them, but she would not let Weilin come. He stayed with Liang Yi, playing card games with him. Liang Yi taught him a new card game called kebizhi, where everything depended on getting fifteens.

Mother came home long after dark. It’s finished, is all she would say. It’s finished, everything is finished.


Mother changed completely after Father died. She could not play cards. Weilin tried to teach her kebizhi, but she couldn’t pick it up at all. Even the old games she could not now play. They would start a game, but then she would get lost, forget it was her turn, make foolish plays. In the daytime she sat for hours perfectly still, looking out of the window. At night, only at night, she wept. She could not bear to sleep alone, and made Weilin come and lie in the bed with her. She did not cry at first, only lay there holding him; but late at night Weilin would wake, and she would be curled up with her back to him, sobbing.

Though Mother’s distress was plain enough, it was some weeks before Weilin himself felt the full force of grief. What first obsessed him was guilt. It had been his fault, his fault, his fault. If only he had not mentioned Old Fan like that! Without thinking! Of course, since Old Fan was a counter-revolutionary, any connection with him would condemn Father. Of course! Weilin had only thought of Old Fan’s being dead, so that the investigation against Father would have to stop. So naive! He went over and over in his mind the words he had said, willing them to be different, willing that he had said something different—something clever to deflect their interest from Father. Weilin willed it and willed it, to the point where he really believed that if he shut his eyes very tight, when he opened them again he would be in a different place, a place where he had never mentioned Old Fan, where Father had not been beaten, where Father was still alive, smiling and passing his sarcastic remarks, showing him again how to extract a square root. But when Weilin opened his eyes at last, he was still in the same place: Mother listless and weeping, Father dead for ever, for ever.

There is an idiom in the Chinese language: mu yi cheng zhou—“The wood has been made into a boat.” This is used to speak of the irreversibility of time’s arrow; once made, the boat cannot be un-made back into logs and branches. Weilin had first heard the idiom that summer, from a storyteller on the radio, in those last weeks before the earth had opened up to reveal the dark waters beneath, and Father had explained it to him, with a long digression about subatomic physics that Weilin hadn’t been able to follow at all. Now the phrase hung dully in his thoughts all those weeks and months following Father’s death: the wood has been made into a boat.

The first time he really felt the full pain of Father’s passing was on his ninth birthday, that October. Father and Mother had always made a celebration out of Weilin’s birthday. There was a gift, and some delicious food to eat—not just the food everyone tried to get for birthdays (eggs for good luck, noodles for long life), but food appropriate to the number of Weilin’s age. The gift and the food always corresponded in some ingenious way to the number of the birthday.

On his eighth birthday the previous year Weilin had got a storybook titled Eight Heroes of Antiquity, which he had liked very much, and Mother had cooked Eight Treasures in sticky rice, and a soup with eight-pointed stars of aniseed, and tangyuan—small round rice-flour dumplings filled with sweet paste and served in soup. The roundness of the tangyuan of course corresponded to the number eight, the roundest and luckiest of all numbers, being the double of a double doubled, the Chinese character two symmetrical strokes of the pen and the western numeral having a double round form. On his seventh birthday Father had given him a tangram, which in Chinese is called the Seven Piece Puzzle—a square divided into seven parts, which could be re-assembled in all sorts of different shapes. Father had made the tangram himself, or had it made by one of the college workers, from a piece of wood cut up with a fretsaw. On Weilin’s sixth birthday they had feasted on carp, on the rather flimsy pretext, put forward by Mother to mock scorn from Father, that the word for carp, liyu, sounded like the word for six, liu. The very earliest birthday Weilin could remember was his third. Father had given him a wooden doll with two other dolls inside it, each doll painted a different color—yellow, red, blue—and counted the dolls with him over and over, to impress the numbers one, two, three on his mind.

So it had always been. Now here was Weilin’s ninth birthday, and there was nothing—only Mother pale and weeping, and too distraught to think of making sweet tangyuan or sticky rice. It dawned on Weilin, with a force that made his belly feel hollow and his skin cold, that his life had changed irrevocably, and for the worse. The wood has been made into a boat. He clung to Mother now, and wept when she wept.


In spite of Father’s being dead, Mother and Weilin were still black elements. The Red Guards all went to Beijing for a rally in September, but when they came back they were worse than ever. They made Mother do a parade, which meant that she and some other black elements had to submit to being led through the streets of the town wearing caps while people stood and jeered or spat on them. The caps were tall conical dunce’s caps made of white paper with slogans written on them. Mother’s slogan said WIFE OF THE CAPITALIST ROADER, TRAITOR AND SPY LIANG YUSHU. “Capitalist Roader” was an expression the Red Guards had picked up in Beijing, a new way of saying “black element.”

After the parade Mother got ill. Winter in Seven Kill Stele was cool and damp, and somehow this got to Mother’s chest. She coughed all the time, sometimes lying in bed all day coughing. The student Liang Yi, who was now the only person who would have anything to do with them, got some medicine from somewhere and cooked it up for Mother in a soup. He cooked food for Weilin, too, when Mother was too ill to do it.

The world beyond their apartment seemed to have closed down completely. There was no teaching at the college, nor at Weilin’s school. At the rally in Beijing Chairman Mao had instructed the Red Guards to roam freely all over the country. Soon they had all gone off, replaced by others from other parts of the country, who stayed at the college dormitory and held their own rallies and struggle meetings. Because they were strangers to the town, however, their activities had an ad hoc and ineffectual quality. They did another sweep of the teachers’ apartments looking for Bourgeois Things, but there were very few left to confiscate. They summoned everybody to a big meeting at the town’s sport stadium; but it was rained out and never re-scheduled.

With no radio and no books (except Oliver Twist, which he soon knew nearly by heart), with no school and Mother too dispirited to play card games, Weilin sank into a profound ennui. Some days he lay on his bed for hours, feeling empty and dead. Sometimes he walked for miles, round and about the town or out into the countryside. He came to prefer the countryside. In the town he often saw classmates from school. Like him, they were at a loose end. Some of them had reacted by forming gangs. They hung around in the streets, or in South Lake Park, or rode the town buses. They picked pockets, broke windows, stole from construction sites and started small fires. Weilin was scared of them. He had never been close to his classmates, and had always felt intimidated by the rougher ones.

Then there were the Little Red Guards. With the real Red Guards out of town, they played host to the visiting Red Guards from other regions. They liked to show off their ardor and militancy to these strangers. Weilin came across them once putting on a show at the Martyrs’ Monument. They had organized a dance troupe and were dancing for the visiting Red Guards. The dance they did was the Loyalty Dance, in honor of Chairman Mao. It involved a lot of chanting and striking heroic poses, and much waving and snapping of red flags. Yuezhu was one of the dancers, wielding a big red flag. “Rebellion is justified!” she shrilled. “Make revolution to the end!” Her voice could be heard above all the others, though she was physically one of the smallest of the Little Red Guards. She did not see Weilin, who was standing in a small crowd of townspeople and visiting Red Guards.

Watching her—her sturdy, nimble body, her round expressive face—Weilin felt an odd reprise of that electric thrill he had experienced when first she touched him, in the pool more than a year before. But now the thrill was cold and bitter, like a dagger of ice piercing his belly. As she strutted and posed up on the plinth of the Martyrs’ Monument he saw her again at Father’s struggle meeting—pointing, accusing. Weilin was gripped with a dull, helpless rage. He wanted to push forward up to the plinth, pull her down and tear at her with his hands. Of course, he did nothing of the sort. The crowd would have stopped him, and in any case he thought Yuezhu was probably strong enough to resist him.


In the spring another blow fell. Capitalist Roaders—this was now the official designation—were no longer to be allowed to occupy high-quality accommodation. A woman from the college’s administrative office came to tell Mother. She would have to move into the single teachers’ dormitory.

They made the move that weekend. Weilin was so bored at this point he didn’t mind at all. Any change, anything new, would be interesting. But the new accommodation was awful. Because all teaching at the college had stopped, most of the single teachers, who came from all over the province, had gone home to their families. The dormitory was full of visiting Red Guards. They were very noisy and dirty. To go to the toilet Weilin had to use the common facility at the end of the corridor. The Red Guards had fouled it up, so that you couldn’t relieve yourself without stepping in excrement. Weilin took to scraping his feet on the door-sill as he came out, but he knew he was still treading excrement up the corridor. The common wash-rooms were just as bad. The Red Guards threw everything into the big stone sinks so they were all blocked up and full of scummy, stinking water.

Mother and Weilin had the top and bottom of a bunk bed in one of the dormitory rooms. On the other side of the room was another bunk bed. Since the teachers it belonged to had both gone back to their families, it was let out to visiting female Red Guards. None stayed more than a few days. Some were decent and treated Mother with respect; most just paid no attention to her at all, but came and went on their own whim, at all hours of the day and night, shouting, laughing, arguing.

Lying there in his bunk trying to sleep, negotiating a path between pools of ordure in the toilets, standing on line for the rough, tasteless food at the teachers’ refectory, Weilin thought with aching, hopeless longing of the third-floor apartment with Mother’s “Night in the Pavilion” on the wall, where everything was theirs and the window looked out over the bamboo groves to Mount Tan, and Father seated in his chair with head back and eyes closed, listening to Mr Mozart. The wood has been made into a boat.

In the summer the fighting started. The first Weilin knew of it was, one day when walking in the town he was almost run down by Half Brother. Half Brother came racing very fast round a corner into Red Flag Street, where Weilin was walking. Weilin froze with terror when he saw Half Brother bearing down on him, and only at the last moment had the presence of mind to step back into a doorway. But Half Brother didn’t see him. He was running at full stretch, his mouth wide open and eyes staring; and right behind him were half a dozen other Red Guards in the same condition. They seemed to be running for their lives. The last of them was no more than twenty yards past Weilin when another crowd of Red Guards came round the corner, also at full tilt. It was clear that they were pursuing Half Brother’s group; and their numbers were far greater. Soon the whole street was full of them, eighty or a hundred, running and shouting: “Stop the Rebels! Death to the Rebels!”

Some days after this there was a gunfight. It happened in the evening before dark, just as Weilin was eating with Mother in the teachers’refectory. There was a crackling sound, distant but very sharp. Weilin thought at first it was firecrackers, but Mother had frozen to attention like a startled animal. She sat bolt upright, listening. There was a string of isolated crack … crack … sounds, then another general outburst. Some of the college staff jumped up and ran out.

“What is it, Mother?”

“Guns, Weilin.” Mother never called him “Pangolin” now. “The Red Guards are fighting each other. You must not go into the town.”

Weilin didn’t mind this. The college grounds let out on to open countryside, so he could walk as far as he liked without going into the town. Since his school was closed, his only reason for going into town had been to do food shopping, for such fruit and fresh vegetables as could be found to supplement the awful refectory meals. He had begun this during Mother’s illness the previous winter, and been proud of the responsibility. Now Mother took care of it again, waiting for days when there seemed to be no fighting. Weilin filled his time by walking out into the countryside. Soon he knew all the nearby villages. One of the village headmen took a liking to him, and let him buy fresh produce from the village stocks, at a price much below the town price.

Weilin never understood the reason for the fighting. From hearing the talk in the teachers’ refectory, and of occasional visitors in their dormitory room, he gathered that it was between Rebels and Revolutionaries. This made no sense to him. The main Red Guard slogans, which you still heard shouted at rallies and meetings, were: “To Rebel Is Justified!” and: “Make Revolution To The End!” So it seemed to Weilin that rebellion and revolution were both part of the Red Guard creed—in which case it ought not be possible for them to be in conflict. When he tried to ask Mother about this she just shook her head and put her hands over her face. Any talk about politics or Red Guards now sent her into a fit of distraction.

The fighting sputtered on through the summer and into the fall. Once there was fighting on the college campus itself: endless running feet and shouting voices outside the dormitory window, while Weilin cowered with Mother under the lower bunk bed. Now the food situation was bad. Mother came back from town with only a handful of moldy cabbage leaves, or a bunch of thin gray scallions. When Weilin trekked out to the village of the friendly headman, there was a crowd of townspeople there already, negotiating with him. The headman sold Weilin some bruised, over-ripe persimmon and the head, legs and feet of a duck, but said all his green vegetable had been bought up.

By the fall of that long year, the year 1967, Weilin had fallen into a stupor of boredom and fatalism. He slept twelve hours a day, and lay on his bed inert another two or three. He knew now, with conviction that had sunk roots deep into his childish soul, that Father was gone for ever, that Mother would never again be the Mother who had played word games with him, who had cooked eight treasures in sticky rice for him, who had made the “Night in the Pavilion” scroll. Since all that was gone, it seemed impossible that there could be anything in the future. It remained only to live out his fate, whatever it might be.

Yet still he could not help working over in his mind the events of Father’s struggle and death. Still in his mind’s eye he could see Half Brother, towering over him implacable; and Yuezhu, feet apart and pointing, her face all set in grim accusation. He nursed fantasies of revenge. He would climb over the wall into the barracks compound where they lived. Watching from a hiding-place, he would discover their apartment. Then: overpower one of the guards! steal his gun! go to the apartment! kill anyone who stood in his way! shoot them! shoot the whole family! leaving Yuezhu till last, so she could beg for the lives of her family! in vain!

Under the muggy skies of September he lay on his bunk bed, dreaming. The dreams got worse. Something about Yuezhu’s body, something to do with the smoothness and wiry strength of it, seemed to demand pain and dismemberment. He tortured her with knives, blinded her with fire, opened her belly and pulled out her five entrails, as Yang Xiong had done to the witch Pan Qiaoyun in the old novel Water Margin, that for so long had sat cozy and secure in a green and yellow colored binding on Father’s bookshelf, now cast out into the world helpless, like Mother and himself.


He thought Mother would forget his tenth birthday altogether, as she had his ninth. Two weeks before, however, she sat with him on the bottom bunk bed, took his hand, and told him she had a special birthday gift for him.

“The gift is this: a great change in our lives. Weilin, we are going back to the northeast.”

Weilin was delighted. Strictly speaking it was only Mother, of course, who was going back; he himself knew the northeast only from her stories. But how was it possible?

“It’s an exchange. If you want to go live in another place, you can sometimes find someone in that place who wants to come to your place. Then, if your work units both agree, you can exchange.”

It was difficult, of course (Mother went on), if you wanted to move from a poor place to a prosperous one, or from a bad climate to a good one. She had tried to get a transfer to Nanjing, where Father’s sister and mother lived, but it was hopeless. Auntie Shi was scared to help, and Grandmother had become senile and understood nothing. But then she had contacted one of her own relatives in the northeast, Auntie An. It was a country district; and being in the northeast, winters were harsh. Auntie An had easily found someone willing to move to a cozy little market town in the lush southwest. It had taken months to get the units to agree, but now everything was all arranged. Mother was to be an office clerk in a town named Dewy Spring, far in the northeast.

“It will be a poor life,” Mother continued. “Poorer than we were used to when … before. But no poorer than this, I believe. And we will be in my homeland, where my relatives will help us. And … away from these memories.”

From Seven Kill Stele to Dewy Spring was five days by train. It was a miserable journey. The trains were all packed, of course, so there was no guarantee of a seat; and even when you got a seat, it was hard wooden slats whose edges eventually penetrated through anything you tried to put between them and your flesh. Everybody was uncomfortable and ill-tempered, and of course the railroad staff, who had authority, took every possible opportunity to inconvenience or insult the passengers, as people invariably did when they had authority.

Even Beijing, the nation’s capital, the place where Chairman Mao himself and all the nation’s leaders lived, was a disappointment. They had to change trains there; but to get in position for a good seat on the connecting train they had to wait for eleven hours on line with a mass of other people and their bags and quilts and blankets and bundles, all crammed together fidgeting and grumbling and snoring on the wooden benches and hard stone floors. There was no opportunity to go out sightseeing. It was in fact perilous to move at all as you might lose your place, thereby condemning yourself to another half day, or half week, of waiting.

Beijing railroad station itself was by far the biggest building Weilin had ever seen. The waiting hall stretched away to infinity on all sides, countless ramps, passages, stairways and galleries running off into nested interiorities as complex and mysterious as those of the Palace of Green Porcelain in The Time Machine, leading away (for all Weilin knew) into darkness and menace, into the haunts of the Morlocks. He huddled beneath his quilt trying to hold off the moment when he would have to go to the toilet and face the chill fear, coming back, of not being able to locate Mother.

For all Mother had said, and all the trouble she must have gone through to effect the transfer, Weilin knew that she was in low spirits at leaving Seven Kill Stele. He tried his best to support her, to be a good boy, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. He was in fact, for all the discomfort and fear, quite looking forward to the northeast. Mother had told him so many stories about it, it seemed to him like a place of romance and adventure. He knew nothing about Dewy Spring—Mother herself knew nothing about it, other than that Auntie An lived there—but in his young imagination Weilin developed pictures from the name of the place: neat wooden houses set along the banks of a bubbling mountain spring.

Late in the evening of the second day, as they rode north to Sea-and-Mountain Pass, where the Great Wall meets the eastern ocean, Weilin managed to coax Mother to tell some of her stories about the northeast. She told him about Nurhachi the conqueror, who had united the north-eastern peoples in a great confederacy and made war on the Ming dynasty, and about his son and grandson, who overthrew the dynasty and seized the Empire.

After the Manchu people seized the Empire (mother told him) they worried that their native vigor would be sapped by the luxurious life of the court. So they fenced off their old homeland in the far northeast, preserving it in its original condition as the raw mountains and forests from which their race had sprung. The Manchu emperors of China used to retreat there from Beijing, to hunt and fish, and to mix with their own people. To keep out the Chinese, whom they despised, they built a palisade of willow trees, as long as the Great Wall, and stretching north from the Wall to the Black Dragon River on the Siberian border.

Weilin thought the northeast sounded more and more fascinating. A wall of willow trees, as long as the Great Wall itself! What a wonderful thing to see! He wondered at what point they would cross through the Willow Palisade into the homeland of the Manchus, with its bears and wolves, its mysterious forests and mountain-top lakes.

Of course (Mother continued) the Chinese could not be kept out. Human beings are a kind of infestation of the earth (she said): they will seep through any barrier, occupy any empty place at last, teeming and squabbling, trampling everything down. So the northeast filled up with Chinese at last, and the Manchu people lost their aboriginal vitality, and their dynasty fell.

“But what about the Willow Palisade?” asked Weilin anxiously, thinking now that he might have been born too late to see this wonder.

“All gone.” Mother made a careless motion with her hand. Her spirit seemed to have deflated suddenly, as it did so often now. She leaned her head against the window of the train, against the darkness fleeing past outside. “There is only a sort of ditch in places to show where it was,” she continued. “The willows were all burned for firewood by the people, the people, swarming and trampling everything like locusts.”

The train passed through the Wall at Sea-and-Mountain Pass while Weilin was sleeping that night, the night of his tenth birthday, and he woke in the northeast. It did not look magical at all. In fact, from the train window it looked just like the countryside south of the Wall. After Mother and he had eaten the last two of the steamed buns she had bought in Beijing he spent a long time pressed against the window, looking out at the dull flat fields and brown villages. The northeast looked just like everywhere else after all. So disappointing! Perhaps the place where Auntie An lived was also dull, flat and brown. He stood at the window for hours, vaguely hoping to see some sign of the Willow Palisade—even if only the ditch Mother had spoken of. But there was no sign at all.

They traveled north through a great industrial city named Shenyang, where they had to change trains again. Mother picked up more food from the vendors in the station. This train was older and dirtier than the one that had brought them from the south, but less crowded. It passed through a myriad tiny station stops, more people getting off than on each time, so that by nightfall Weilin had the luxury of stretching out at length on the seat, his head on Mother’s lap. For all the hardness of the wooden seat he slept soundly, and when he woke the land had folded up all around them, and they were moving among forested mountain slopes.

“Oh, Mother, it’s the real northeast at last! Look, the forest! Are there really bears and wolves in the forest?”

Mother smiled and ruffled his hair, which made him feel very happy. “Don’t worry, Little Pangolin. I won’t let them eat you.”

It was the first time she had called him by his pet name since Father’s death. And although he was glad to see her smile, hearing himself called “Pangolin” set something cold moving deep inside himself.

Auntie An was waiting for them at Dewy Spring station stop. She was a rough woman with a sallow, unhealthy face, and wearing a peasant’s padded winter jacket, though it was only October and the air, though of course colder than in the south, was not uncomfortable. Weilin thought she did not look very happy to see them. She greeted Mother by her full name, and only nodded to Weilin without any spoken greeting at all.

Dewy Spring was a settlement of two hundred or so low buildings in a valley, with fields of sorghum and millet all around. Its purpose was to service a mine, whose excavations had stripped bare most of the nearer mountainside. Auntie An’s unit was a mile from the station in the direction of the mine, so they shouldered their bundles and trudged behind her along the road. From the railroad station to her unit Auntie An talked with Mother; and in her talk the words trouble and difficulty occurred a great deal. From time to time her flow of talk was interrupted by a soft, repetitive cough.

It was on this road that the dust first caught Weilin’s attention. It seemed to lie everywhere: on the road, on the grass and stones at the roadside, on the leaves of the trees, on the roofs of the houses. It was a fine dust, and each step on the road puffed up a tiny cloud of it, which seemed to just hang there without re-settling. It was not unpleasant to look at—a sort of pale creamy color, like the flesh of a banana. Now, glancing at Auntie An, he saw that she, too, was covered in the banana-colored dust. He could see it in her hair, on her clothes.

The dust was worse nearer the mine; a visible layer of banana-white, covering everything. There were some donkeys tethered outside one of the buildings: their coats were thick with the dust. At Auntie An’s unit Mother went into an office with Auntie An and stayed there for a long time. Weilin was left in the corridor outside. After a while he got bored waiting in the corridor and walked out into the walled courtyard that fronted the place. Three young men were loafing there, squatting on the ground, smoking and talking. They all had the same pale, sickly look as Auntie An; and one was coughing the same soft, dry cough that Auntie An had. The youths stopped talking when Weilin came out. One of them stood up and accosted him. He was an ugly character, about eighteen probably (Weilin thought), with a weedy black mustache. He addressed Weilin without taking the cigarette out of his mouth.

“You from Baiyong?”

“What? No. I’ve never even heard of Baiyong.”

The youth squinted, apparently unable to credit that there might be human beings so benighted as never to have heard of Baiyong. “From where, then?”

“From the south. My mother’s been assigned to work in this unit.”

The youth’s eyes widened. “You’ve come here from the south? Wa!” He turned and spat on the ground. Then he coughed—the same cough everyone else in this place seemed to have, the dry, gentle and oddly deferential cough. When he was through coughing, he addressed the others. “Hey, this kid’s come here from the south.”

They got to their feet and came over, kicking up little clouds of the creamy dust. “What, from Shenyang?”

Weilin smiled at their ignorance. “No, the southern part of our country. Sichuan Province.”

They stared at him for a while, absorbing this. Then one of them laughed.

“You’re crazy, coming here from the south.”

“I’d cut off my arm if I could go live in the south,” said the third youth, chopping violently with his hand to act out the wish. He went into a fit of coughing.

“But it seems very nice here,” said Weilin. “Mountains, forests.”

They all laughed. “Ha!” said the first youth. “You should see it in the winter!”

“Forty below, and the snow twelve feet deep!” said number two.

“You’ll find out,” said number three; and he and number two coughed together in unison.

But Weilin did not find out. Mother came out of the office at last red-eyed from weeping. There was no place for her in the unit after all. There had been some change in the administration of the place, some faction overthrown by some other as was continually happening in those times, and the person she was supposed to exchange with was having her case re-examined, and nobody had thought to tell Mother.

“Then … shall we have to go all the way back to Seven Kill Stele?” Suddenly the thought of five more days on the train going back seemed unbearable.

Mother was silent. It seemed that that, in fact, was exactly what they would have to do.

“No, we won’t go back to that place. We’ll go to Uncle Zhou. Uncle Zhou will remember me, Uncle Zhou will help us.”

Auntie An came out of the office while Mother was saying this. To her credit, she looked embarrassed. “Uncle Zhou,” she said. “Yes, Flat All Around.”

“But now how can I get a ticket?” asked Mother.

“We’ll fix you up,” mumbled Auntie An. “We should do that, at least.”

Chapter 7

Flat All Around Brings Forth an Upright Official

An Enterprising Young Man Tells of His Conquests

“Flat All Around” was the name of a town, the town where Uncle Zhou lived. It was still in the northeast, a day’s journey westward by train from Dewy Spring.

“How can it be called ‘Flat All Around’,” asked Weilin as they rode in the train, “if the northeast is all mountains?”

“Sometimes places are named for peculiarities,” explained Mother. “Well, in the northeast it’s peculiar for a place to be flat all around.”

Uncle Zhou seemed to be even less promising than Auntie An. He was a decent man but very poor, living in one of the low, dark hovels behind the railroad shunting yards in Flat All Around, near the center of the town. His daughter and her husband lived with him, and their two children also, sickly urchins with scabby, snotty faces. The whole family—three adults and two children (Uncle Zhou’s wife had died during the great famine in ’61)—lived together in a single room, divided at night by a soiled white curtain, so that the married couple could have at least the illusion of privacy. The sanitary arrangements were even worse than in the teachers’dormitory at Seven Kill Stele. The Zhous shared an outhouse with eight other families. Water came from a pump at the end of the street, fifty muddy meters away.

“We manage all right,” said Uncle Zhou, who was a philosopher. “There are plenty worse off than us. But I really don’t see how we can take in two more.”

There was not even any place for Mother and Weilin to sleep. At each end of the room where the family lived was a narrow kang, the raised brick-built bed people used in the northeast, heated in winter-time by burning straw in flues underneath. Uncle Zhou slept on one kang with the children; his daughter and son-in-law had the other. Weilin and Mother spent their first night on the floor, covered with the curtain, which the family sacrificed for this purpose. The floor was earth, but beaten hard as stone from generations of being lived on. Weilin could barely sleep, what with the shuffling and scuffling of the family on every side, Uncle Zhou coughing, one of the children sneezing with a cold, and the hard floor, the drafts from the doors and windows not yet taped up for the winter.

“You’ll have to settle things before the winter comes,” said Uncle Zhou. “Being in the south so long, I dare say you’ve forgotten our northeastern winters. And the laddie has never experienced one at all.” (Turning to Weilin.) “Forty below! Spit freezes before it hits the ground! Ting-ting!

Weilin thought they would surely have to go back to Seven Kill Stele, and wondered how they would be able to pay the fare. With no work unit to appeal to, and no place to live, their situation was perfectly hopeless. But Mother did not weep at all that night on the hard cold floor. At breakfast, as they shared some thin millet gruel with Uncle Zhou and his daughter, Mother announced in a voice stronger than Weilin had heard from her throat for more than a year that she would go to the Revolutionary Committee of Flat All Around and ask them for help. Uncle Zhou’s daughter shook her head in disbelief—as if officials would be any help in such a situation!—and Uncle Zhou said nothing, only looking down into his gruel, embarrassed at Mother’s naivety, or at his own incapacity to be of help to her, or both.

Mother went anyway, taking Weilin with her. The Revolutionary Committee was in a fine square old Japanese-style building right at the center of town. Before being the home of the Revolutionary Committee it had been Party Headquarters, before that very briefly the Corps HQ of General Du Yuming’s Nationalist army, before that the Civil Affairs Office of the Japanese occupation government. The townspeople of Flat All Around, who were of a conservative inclination, just called it the yamen, using the term current in Imperial times for the center of local administration.

Mother didn’t say anything to the officials about having been married to a black element. Her file was still on its way to Dewy Spring, so it was not likely anyone here would know about that for months. She just said her husband had died and her transfer had fallen through. The first officials they saw were brusque or frankly abusive, telling her she would have to go back to the southwest, and that her old unit there would have to pay for the ticket. She persisted, however, sitting for long hours in the dim waiting-room, just doggedly refusing to be dismissed. The floor-boards of the place—Weilin came to know them very intimately—were worn down into long shallow depressions from decades of use. There was a dado of black grime round the interior walls at shoulder height where generations of citizens had leaned, waiting for the resolution of their cases. Light seeped in from outside through small, high, filthy windows. At last, when even that little light was beginning to fail, when they had been in the building all day with no lunch, been shunted up four levels of the Party hierarchy with no word of sympathy or hope, they got an interview with Secretary Tang.

Secretary Tang’s office was up a flight of worn wooden stairs, with fine carved banisters and roundels on the posts. Secretary Tang himself was fortyish, a large handsome man still wearing a short-sleeve white summer shirt. He listened to Mother’s tale, asked about her relatives, shook his head.

“Not really our responsibility,” said Secretary Tang. “But kaolü, kaolü.” [We’ll consider, we’ll consider.] “Come here tomorrow.”

He wrote something on a sheet of paper and gave it to Mother, so that she wouldn’t have to begin the bureaucratic board game again from the beginning next day. He was somewhat warmer in his manner than the other officials had been, as if he really wished to do something for them; but Weilin dared not hope, and Mother said nothing as they trekked back to Uncle Zhou’s.

Secretary Tang came through, though. They climbed the fine dark wooden stairs again next day, and Secretary Tang informed them that one of the rural production brigades outside the town would take Mother as an assistant in the kindergarten, and even give her a room.

It was a gift from Heaven. Mother wept when she heard it. She took Secretary Tang’s hand in both of hers and would not let it go, calling down blessings on him as an upright official and a true friend of the common people, until the scene was enveloped in such a cloud of embarrassment Weilin felt he could hardly breathe. The most mother had hoped for (she told him going back to Uncle Zhou’s) was some arrangement for a loan to pay her way back to Seven Kill Stele.


Love Socialism! Production Brigade was a bus ride to the end of town, then a long walk on broad unpaved tracks. They had had several years of good harvests (this was the first thing everyone told them) and so were well off by the standards of the northeast, itself one of the nation’s more prosperous regions. The brigade offices were set up in neat square brick-built buildings in a compound surrounded by a wall. The front stretch of the wall, facing and parallel to the road into Flat All Around, was made of brick, and had a gateway in it (though no actual gate), over which was a semicircular metal framework bearing the name of the brigade: LOVE SOCIALISM! in six characters stamped from metal and painted red, with a big red star in the center, three characters on each side of the star. The wall at the other three sides of the brigade office compound was made of dried mud, with gaps in it for the paths leading to the several villages that made up the brigade.

The kindergarten shared some low buildings behind the main compound with the brigade’s elementary school. It was for the children of the peasants and the workers at the brigade offices. Most of the peasants who had toddlers sent them to the kindergarten in care of older children (who had nothing to do all day, the elementary school having been closed by the Cultural Revolution), to get them out from under foot and free both parents for work. The room Weilin and his mother had been given was one in a row built against the back wall. It had a kang, and a window, and a door, and a floor of actual concrete, and nothing else at all, but Mother was radiant with pride when the Branch Secretary responsible for the school showed them it.

“We had them built last year, same time as the new boiler house,” explained the Branch Secretary in her slurred northeast dialect. “So many kids now! We Chinese, we know how to make babies all right! So we figured we’d add a kindergarten to the school. But the teacher who lived here had a situation, and she was sent off.”

Mother said nothing to this. Weilin could sense that having a situation and being sent off were not good things, but no-one seemed to want to elaborate. That evening Mother acquired two salted eggs from somewhere, and they ate them with millet gruel from a common kitchen area at the end of the row.

Weilin thought the northeast very pleasant. He didn’t understand why it should have been so easy for Mother to get a transfer. The air was clear and bracing, if somewhat cooler than the south, and they had been given this wonderful new brick-built room for the asking. There were no actual shortages of food, though of course one could never have enough food; and while rice was impossible to get, sorghum and millet were plentiful, and corn merely a treat, not a luxury. The local people were good-natured and frank-speaking, and there seemed to have been little fighting—certainly nothing as savage as in the south. Flat All Around was run by a family, or a clique, called the Dongs, about whom Weilin knew nothing except that everyone seemed to approve of them, and that, as he overheard some workers in the brigade administrative building say, they had kept the lid on the Red Guards.

There were no Red Guards to be seen, though everyone spoke of them having passed through the place. They had, indeed, left their foot-prints on the town. On the road in from Love Socialism! was an old temple they had visited, the porcelain tiles of the roof and door lintel all splintered, the statues decapitated, the place all boarded up and covered with peeling big-character posters whose characters, where sheltered from the rain, could still be made out: DOWN WITH THE FOUR OLDS! and SMASH THE DONG ELEMENTS AND THEIR RUNNING DOGS! But the Dongs were unsmashed and the Red Guards had moved on, and Flat All Around vegetated quietly in its modest prosperity.

Then came winter.


As October passed into November the air cooled to what Weilin thought a winter should be; cooler than it ever was in the southwest, but not intolerable if he put an extra shirt on under the light winter jacket he had brought from the south. “Better get some cotton-padded clothing,” the locals all said, smiling, beginning to appear in theirs. Mother said the brigade would give them coupons for the clothing, but there was some mix-up and they were not yet eligible.

Suddenly it was cold, a terrible icy cold keening down from Siberia, a wind that seemed to pass clean through the body, penetrating every membrane. A lazy wind, said the locals, who had a pawky style of humor—too lazy to go round you, so it went through you. The single-layer brick of their dwelling offered almost no protection at all, and Weilin noticed now how thick were the earth walls of the peasant’s houses, and how their roofs were insulated with layer upon layer of straw. He and Mother’s little room, exposed outside the compound to the wind sweeping across the fields, the room which Mother had thought a gift from Heaven, looked set fair to carry them both down to Hell, frozen to death.

Following the instructions of the brigade workers, he and Mother sealed up their window-frame with pasted-on strips of newspaper, but of course they could not paste up the door. Mother had lost, and Weilin had never acquired, the art of keeping a kang warm. They put burning straw into the flue underneath; but either it went out in three or four minutes, or else it burned up too fast instead of smoldering in the proper fashion, or else it blocked the flue somehow, filling the room with rancid smoke. Uncle Zhou came out from the town to give them lessons in kang management, but still they could not get it right. Mother took to using the straw as night-time insulation instead, heaping it on top of them where they lay, then covering themselves and it with their single inadequate quilt.

Weilin thought they would die of cold before the cotton coupons arrived. The prosperity of the brigade apparently did not extend to cotton-padded garments; everybody had one set, and that was that. In desperation, Mother went back to Uncle Zhou. With some help from him, some cannibalizing of their spare clothes, and some scrounging from the workers and peasants at the brigade, she got enough material and cotton to make a suit for Weilin—padded pants, padded jacket, padded hat. Weilin knew he ought to say Make clothes for yourself, Mother. I’m younger and stronger than you, it’s you who should have the padded clothes. He knew he should say it, he wanted to say it, but he did not say it. Instead he took the jacket and pants and hat gratefully, and wore them day and night, giving his summer jacket, which now looked so flimsy, to Mother in exchange. Mother (he rationalized) was in the school all day, except when she was shepherding the kids to and from their little refectory for meals. The school was heated, or at any rate had a big kang that was kept warm for the little ones to sleep on.

The coupons arrived in late December, and Mother at once acquired a suit of cotton-padded clothes from a seamstress in the town. The excess coupons—since Weilin had the suit she had made herself—she traded for food. By this time, however, it had been severely cold for a month and Mother had developed bronchitis. She coughed all night. Hearing her, Weilin felt terrible that he had let her dress him before herself. He thought that he could have got through to the point where the coupons arrived without developing health problems; only it had been so cold. He lay at night twisting with guilt, listening to Mother’s cough.

Almost worse than the cold, Weilin began to think, as 1967 turned to 1968, was the boredom. Though the Cultural Revolution had fallen fairly gently on Flat All Around, the national policies arising from it applied here as much as elsewhere. In particular, the schools were all closed, so that Weilin had no legitimate occupation. On being assigned to the brigade he had vaguely supposed he might have to work as a peasant, but in fact the peasants did no work in the long northeastern winter months, only sat on their kangs playing cards, smoking and gossiping. And drinking. The northeast had been one of the last regions of China to be populated, so that the soil was very fertile, but until Liberation there had been a shortage of roads and canals. In times of plenty the only economic way for the peasants to transport the grain they produced in such abundance had been to first transform it into liquor. This tradition had continued into the modern age, and every production brigade had its still. Love Socialism!, somewhat larger than the average brigade, had two, both out in the villages somewhere. In the long winter idleness it was not uncommon to come across peasants oblivious from drink, something Weilin had never seen in the southwest.

Weilin could not drink liquor, of course. Mother would not have allowed it, even if they had had money to pay for it, which they had not. He occupied himself with long walks out into the countryside around; then, when the vistas of mud-built peasant huts and frozen fields palled, into the town itself on long, aimless wanderings through the grimy streets, stopping sometimes at Uncle Zhou’s for a bowl of gruel and half a batter-stick.

From Uncle Zhou he learned the history of the place, such as it was. There had been a trading station here since the Manchus allowed Chinese people into the northeast. It had had a wall around it, like all Chinese towns in the old times, made of dried mud, some sections of which could still be seen. Then after the Sino-Japanese War seventy years before, the Manchu government had begun to fear Japanese power, and arranged with Russia to allow an arm of the Trans-Siberian railroad to cut through the northeast to Vladivostok. When Russia in turn was defeated by Japan, the Japanese had taken over the railroad. They had built another one at right angles to it, running from Korea west into Mongolia. Where the two railroads crossed, there was Flat All Around.

“You should have seen this place in the Korean War,” said Uncle Zhou, nodding his head in slow remembrance. “Soldiers going through every day, ten thousands and ten thousands. And coming the other way—empty trains, or trains full of cripples. Nobody knows how many of our young lads died fighting the Imperialists. In those days, if they shipped you to Flat All Around with a ticket east—suan wanle ba!” [You could consider yourself done for.]


The current railroad station had been built by the Japanese when they held the northeast in the thirties, and had the solid, graceless functionalism of Japanese imperial architecture. In front of it was a huge open square, with small stores, restaurants and hotels set around the other three sides, and some of the lesser sort of government offices.

Such vitality as the town possessed was on display here in the railroad plaza. There were peddlers here selling fruit, eggs and peanuts, herbal medicines, small cooked delicacies, dried jujubes and candied apple pieces on sticks. Sometimes there was a show; some patent-medicine salesmen hawking their wares, doing conjuring tricks to attract a crowd. Three or four mad people had made the square their home (the Red Guards had declared psychiatric medicine to be counter-revolutionary and had opened the doors of the county asylum). One was a woman, incredibly ragged and filthy, who was always absorbed in an endless slow dance, to enhance which she sometimes broke into discordant song. The exquisite grace with which she danced was made ludicrous by her grimy rags; but she seemed oblivious to this, and to the kids who gathered round to throw stones at her, and even to the Siberian wind cutting through the great rents in her clothing to the dirt-blackened bare flesh beneath. Another lunatic, a middle-aged man with the look of a college professor, delivered long earnest speeches about electricity, the proper application of which, he urged, would induce levitation and personal immortality.

But the strongest attraction for Weilin, when the novelty of these other wonders had worn off, was the penny library. This was run by a boy a few years older than himself—fifteen perhaps; a local boy with a coarse round face and a cap with padded ear-warmers. The boy supervised a rickety old table stacked with books, any one of which you could sit and read for a penny an hour. He would sell you the books, too, for forty or fifty cents, but that was beyond Weilin’s means. The books were a perfectly random collection: farmer’s almanacs, engineering handbooks, poetry anthologies, children’s primers, adventure stories, the old classic novels, occasionally a translation of some western book.

“Got ’em from the Red Guards,” explained the boy quite openly, when, after four or five visits, he considered Weilin a sufficiently close acquaintance. “They went round confiscating books from all the intellectuals. Stored ’em all in the old temple on Victory Avenue. Then the Red Guards were chased out, but the intellectuals were too shit-scared to go and get their books back, so I took ’em. I got a million books.”

The boy’s name was Asan, which means “number three,” he having been the third son in his household. The first two had apparently exhausted the entire onomastic resources of his parents. He was an odd person to be in charge of a book stall, being next to illiterate. He seemed to have a keen sense of business, though. As well as being proprietor of the book stall, he was a middleman for several of the fruit vendors in the square, one of his relatives being headman of a production brigade in Liaoning with extensive orchards. He could get medicines, too, both herbal and western-style, at a rate much lower than the clinics charged; but he would not divulge his source of supply for the medicines.

“If I told you that you’d be as wise as I am, wouldn’t you?” he laughed when Weilin asked him about the medicines.

Weilin spent many hours sitting on the kerb reading adventure stories from Asan’s stock. The older boy seemed to take a liking to him. No doubt noticing Weilin’s makeshift winter clothes, he often took a reduced fee, letting Weilin read all day for two pennies. Sometimes he seemed to forget the fee altogether. If Weilin was there at lunch-time he would send him to one of the restaurants for millet gruel and batter-sticks or the steamed sorghum-flour buns called mantou, and share what he had. If business was really good he would order a beer, and it was sitting on the kerb by Asan’s book stall in the railroad plaza of Flat All Around that Weilin first tasted beer.

“Main thing,” Asan said, “is to keep ahead of the tiaozi.”

The tiaozi—the sticks—were Flat All Around’s constabulary. They operated on the usual third-world principle: let things run along quietly for a few months, then launch a sweep and round up anyone you can find who is doing, or looks as if he might be capable of doing, anything that might be construed as unlawful, or inconvenient to the authorities. Give them a beating, extract a fine from their families, let them go, and leave things alone for another few months. Since street trading was theoretically illegal, Asan was vulnerable to these tactics. However, his vulnerability did not seem to cause him much loss of sleep. When the sticks made their sweep, one bitter freezing day in January, he was not in the plaza at all.

“A little bird told me,” he said the next week, when he was back in business. “I got friends.” He nodded gravely and tapped the flange of his right nostril to indicate the potency of his friendships.

Actually most of Asan’s friends seemed to be local youths very much like himself. They used to stop by at the book stall from time to time. All were coarse-looking and ill-educated. All smoked cigarettes, when they could get them—and all in the same style, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, lit end outward, expelling the smoke through their nostrils. None of them paid the least attention to Weilin, but he came to know the most frequent callers by overhearing their talk. There was Red Wang, so styled for having been a Red Guard, apparently; a thin fellow with a hatchet face and exceptionally long, yellow teeth. Red Wang was an easy-going type with a cheerful laugh. His father worked for the railroad, and Weilin gathered that most of his visits were concerned with another of Asan’s sideline businesses: obtaining railroad tickets outside the normal channels. Red Wang often traveled with Donkey, a short plump boy, almost perfectly spherical in his padded winter clothing, whose main activity in life seemed to be cadging cigarettes.

Weilin was a little scared of these visitors, though Asan was quite at ease with them all. There was one called Big Meng, a Mongolian with one of those ironed-flat faces Mongolians have. He was older than the generality of Asan’s friends—seventeen or eighteen, perhaps—and fully-grown, square and muscular as a horse. One day Asan sent Weilin to a restaurant to get some lunch. When Weilin came back, Big Meng was standing talking to Asan. Still talking, Asan tipped some of his millet gruel into the mess tin Weilin now carried for just this purpose, and gave him half a mantou. Big Meng watched this transaction with hungry eyes.

“Wouldn’t mind some of that myself,” he said as Weilin was stepping away. Weilin thought he could feel Big Meng’s eyes on his back as he sat down on the kerb to eat.

“You want some, fucking buy it yourself,” said Asan, not at all intimidated by the older boy.

“Who’s that then?” asked Big Meng. “Your little bit of butt cake, is it?”

“He’s a friend of mine, a good kid,” replied Asan. “You got a problem with that?”

“He can pull on mine, if he likes.” Big Meng laughed, sticking to his train of thought.

“He’s not even old enough to pull on his own,” said Asan. “So mind your own fucking business.”

Weilin liked this, was thrilled by it—the way Asan stood up for him, even against hulking Big Meng. It was not only the words themselves, it was also the very timbre of Asan’s voice—deep, confident and rounded. Hearing Asan’s voice, Weilin sometimes experienced a shiver of excitement he could not account for, related somehow to the electric thrill he had felt in the swimming pool at Seven Kill Stele, when Yuezhu had grabbed his arm. Weilin thought at that moment (and the thought never quite left him) that he would do anything for Asan.

The remarks about pulling were, of course, over his head, though he guessed they had some filthy connotation. Quite a lot of the talk that passed between Asan and his friends was filthy. They seemed to know several girls with whom they did filthy things; but none of these girls ever showed up at the book stall, and Weilin wondered why, if the girls were willing to do the filthy things (whatever they were) they were not willing to come and pass the time of day with Asan in the railroad station plaza, as his male friends did. Perhaps (he reflected) they were ashamed because of the filthy things. Some of Asan’s customers were girls, of course, but Asan showed them no particular favor, treated them indeed with some diffidence, certainly never with as much consideration as he showed to Weilin. If you had not heard Asan’s stories you might even think he was shy with girls.

By spring time, when Weilin had been going to the book stall two or three times a week for three months, Asan felt sufficiently intimate with him to share some of the filthy talk. Weilin could never quite follow what was supposed to have happened in these brief narratives, but he listened attentively and chuckled at what seemed like the right place, just to please Asan.

“I had great pussy last night,” Asan would say. “Wet and hairy. One of the girls from the bottling plant. I fucked her up against the wall in Serve The People! Street. Boy, I served her all right!”

Or: “Me and Red Wang fucked Little Plum last night.” (Little Plum was a frequent player in Asan’s stories, gifted—according to Asan—with sensational qualities of hairiness and wetness.) “One after the other, over in the old brickyard. I fucked her first, to get her juices going, then Red Wang had the sloppy seconds. Oh, she squealed like a cat when I shoved it in!”


Asan left town for the summer, to go to stay with his relative in Liaoning—the one whose brigade had the fruit orchards. By this time Weilin had got so used to him, to his cheerfulness and rough courtesies and incomprehensible salacities, he missed him terribly. There seemed no point in going into the town now, and Weilin developed an actual aversion to going in, though Mother sent him once a week for supplementary provisions.

The countryside, by contrast, came alive with the warming air. Sorghum, millet and corn were shooting up, ducks and geese were under foot everywhere, around every cluster of buildings could be heard the grunting of swine.

Weilin went out on long expeditions through the brigade and into those surrounding it. At the furthest extremity of his journeyings, an hour and a half away by foot, was a little river, a distant tributary of the mighty Liao, the water muddy and cold but clean enough for swimming. The country was still flat here, the current sluggish. Weilin could swim upriver for an hour or more, then turn and float on his back, allowing the current to return him to his starting-point.

He loved this: the clean rhythmic effort of the swim, then the leisurely floating, gazing up at the sky, hearing voices of children splashing in the shallows by the bank, allowing the river to bring into his head whatever idle thought it would. Floating so serenely like that, even the bad thoughts did not seem so very disturbing. He could think of Father, even of Han Yuezhu, without the pain that came at other times. Something about the brightness and cleanness of the sky seemed to leach out everything vile from those memories; though, when they came to him at home, in the darkness, trying to sleep, listening to Mother coughing the cough he had given her, they were as bitter as ever.

Nor were the Liangs allowed to forget those evil things. In July Mother’s file finally arrived at Love Socialism! Production Brigade; or perhaps it had arrived before, but no-one had bothered to look into it. The two of them were called in together to see Secretary Duo, the head of the brigade’s Revolutionary Committee. Secretary Duo was coarse and ignorant, a real peasant, but Weilin had never heard anything bad of him. He was sitting at his desk when they went in, smoking a cigarette—not one of the smart manufactured ones that Asan and his friends affected, when they could get them, but a crude cone of newspaper stuffed with black shag.

“Eh, Comrade Liang, mother and son … Sit down, sit down.” Secretary Duo’s desk had a brown paper folder on it. Mother’s file! It was an unusual thing, to actually see one’s file. Mother (he noticed) could not take her eyes off it.

“Before you came here you were on the staff of a college in, ah, yes, Hibiscus Slope, way down south.”

“Yes,” said Mother. (“Hibiscus Slope” was the official name of Seven Kill Stele.)

“It seems there was a situation there. Accusations of counter-revolutionary activity.”

“It was all nonsense!” said Mother with sudden vehemence. “The Red Guards …”

“Oh, is that who it was?” Secretary Duo was squinting at the folder, picking out characters with his finger. “‘Ad Hoc People’s Red Revolutionary Organization Committee of Inspection’? Fuck me, they like to think up grand names for themselves, don’t they?”

“My husband was accused unjustly. He was beaten by the Red Guards, then he died. Nothing was proved against him.”

The fact that the relevant entries in her file had been made by Red Guards seemed to have settled things for Secretary Duo. He waved his cigarette hand to dismiss the matter.

“Many improper things were done when the Red Guards were running wild. Now we have Clean Up the Class Ranks” (the name of a nationwide movement that had started that spring to reign in the Red Guards once and for all). “I don’t think you come under the scope. It’s all a Party matter.”

Secretary Duo leaned over and spat on the floor, rubbing it in with his foot. He was a Party member, of course. Mother was not.

“There won’t be any difficulty for you here. It’s only that you should have come clean with us first off. Old Tang really went out of his way to help you, just out of renqingwei [the milk of human kindness], knowing you were a northeasterner yourself trying to settle back in the home region. He won’t be pleased if he knows about this. If he asks me I’ll have to tell him, of course. But if nothing is asked, nothing will be said. We’ll keep it in the file.”

Mother cheered up a lot after that. The bronchitic cough that had lingered with her since winter-time now dwindled to an occasional asthmatic rasp. Weilin cherished the hope that she might be persuaded to play card games with him again. In the long summer evenings, before going to bed, he took to playing solitaire on the kang, hoping to draw Mother in; but still she only sat sewing or preparing vegetables, lost in her thoughts.

Chapter 8

Clean Up the Class Ranks!

Weilin Joins a Daring Expedition

In September the schools opened again. The Brigade had an elementary school and Mother arranged for Weilin to attend. But the school was a poor place, the teachers hardly better than peasants themselves. The content of the lessons was: elementary arithmetic, with endless exercises of numbing simplicity, and class reading of newspaper editorials, the teacher explaining the characters and words one by one. Since there was no secondary school to advance to, Weilin thought there was little point in attending. After a few days he went back to his wanderings.

The Saturday after National Day, October 1st, Asan reappeared in the railroad station plaza. Weilin had gone into town early that day, and saw him setting up his stall and books, which he brought in in a handcart. Asan was the same as ever: cheerful, confident, obscene. He seemed taller, but Weilin thought probably he was only narrower without the padded winter clothing. It was still warm, and Asan was in his summer jacket with oversleeves and an army-style green cap. He was wearing smart shoes, the kind everyone called Capital shoes, made of black corduroy with white soles. As they loaded the stall he favored Weilin with a long discourse on the relative merits of the girls of Liaoning Province, where he had spent the summer, and those of their own district, with special reference to their body hair and juices.

“Jilin girls are easier,” he concluded, naming the province in which Flat All Around was situated, “but Liaoning’s are prettier.”

“I think our southern girls are prettiest,” said Weilin, wanting to have an opinion. He really did think so. The girls in Flat All Around, with their bad-diet lumpiness and frostbitten complexions, did not seem to him at all like his female classmates in Seven Kill Stele, where fish, fruit and vegetables were plentiful and light summer clothing could be worn all year round.

Asan considered this seriously. “Well,” he said at last, “maybe the chicks are cuter the further south you go. Liaoning’s south of here, isn’t it? That must be it.” He grinned, pleased at having successfully mastered logical induction. “Hey, you’re pretty smart, Little Brother! Let’s you and me go south!”

“Prettier, but more difficult,” pointed out Weilin.

“Oh, yeah. That’s right. Shit, there’s always a downside to everything.”


In October Love Socialism! Production Brigade was visited by one of the new Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda teams. All the adult employees of the Brigade had to go to an open-air meeting in the main compound one evening. Weilin did not go, but sitting in the room behind the wall of the school buildings he could hear the shrill, urgent tones of the speaker. The sound filled him with dread, bringing irresistibly to mind the struggle meetings at the college in Seven Kill Stele. Down with! Down with! These were not Red Guards, though. They had been sent by the Party to restore order and tell people the new line. Still Weilin feared them. Once a movement got started, you never knew what direction it would take.

His forebodings proved well-founded. The Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda team decided that life in Flat All Around had been altogether too orderly. The Dongs had not been Taking Class Struggle As The Key. Counter-revolutionaries had not been properly exposed. Under the leadership of the team, the Party Secretaries of the various units therefore rooted out such counter-revolutionaries as they could identify and exposed them.

Inevitably, Mother’s case was reopened. She wept when they told her, and continuously for several days afterward. Weilin could make no contact with her at all; she just shook her head wildly and burst into tears at any approach. She was struggled again: not a violent affair like the one at the college, only a one-hour meeting in the Brigade compound, the Thought Propaganda team leading the Brigade members in criticizing their half-dozen counter-revolutionaries and urging them to reform.

A few days later there was a parade, all the town’s counter-revolutionaries being marched down Victory Avenue with caps on, the names of their crimes written on the caps in black letters. Again Mother’s cap said WIFE OF COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY LIANG YUSHU. This parade was rougher than the meeting, as the townspeople had the opportunity, which some of them took, to spit or throw stones at the participants. After the parade there was a rally at the town sport stadium where the local counter-revolutionaries were yelled at, and in a few cases beaten up, by those they had wronged, or by anyone else who had a grudge against them for any reason. Since nobody knew anything about Mother’s case she was spared this. As struggle meetings went it was nothing. There was an air (everybody said) of just going through the motions. No great harm was done and nobody was sent away. Two days after the parade the Thought Propaganda team left, and Flat All Around lapsed back into its customary political torpor. The Dongs had finessed the situation somehow and were still in charge, to everyone’s satisfaction.

Weilin did not attend either the struggle meeting or the parade. He cowered at home through both, remembering Father, and the milky white substance that had come out of his ear, and wondering how he would live if Mother were struggled to death. When she came home at last from the sport stadium, carrying her cap in one hand (it would have been counter-revolutionary to discard it on the road), he ran to her and threw his arms round her. They held on to each other for some time, mother very quiet and still, Weilin sobbing loudly.

“Do you think this will ever end?” he asked Mother.

“No,” said Mother. “It will never end.”


It was after being paraded that Mother definitely changed for the worse. The spells of silent introspection, when she could hardly be persuaded to speak at all, expanded to occupy whole days, sometimes two or three days at a stretch. Her hair turned white; at least, that was Weilin’s impression. Mother had had some white hair before, he was sure, but now the white outnumbered the gray—or perhaps it was only now that the change in Mother’s manner caused him to think so. Weilin had always thought of Mother as young and beautiful, though in fact she had been almost forty when he was born. Now quite suddenly, through whatever blend of the subjective and objective he could not unravel, she was old.

Mother’s bronchitis returned with the cold weather. This year it was worse than ever. She would wake in the middle of the night coughing, waking Weilin on the kang beside her. At first Weilin tried to console her by holding her in his arms, but Mother could get relief only by sitting up, so of course he had to sit up with her, and instead of sleeping they sat up for an hour or more every night, in the cold and the dark—their only light being from an oil lamp, and oil too precious to waste.

The room was never warm, but by midwinter this year Weilin had mastered the kang, so that it was never really cold. He had also developed a technique for plugging the cracks around the door at night with strips of crushed straw, so that the icy draughts were eliminated, at least once they were shut in for the night. As Mother’s condition got worse he tried to keep her confined to the room when she was not at her duties in the kindergarten. He would not let her go out, and went himself to fetch food and hot water for her from the communal kitchen. Still Mother coughed and coughed.

Weilin told Asan about Mother’s bronchitis.

“Is she coughing blood?” asked Asan, who liked to pose as an authority on everything.

“No. I don’t think so. I’ve never seen any.”

“That’s good. That means it’s not TB. Does she take any medicine?”

“No. We haven’t got any money for medicine.”

“Shit, I can get you some. Leave it to me.”

The result was a brown paper package filled with traditional remedies: herbs, bulbous seed-pods, fragrant bark and the pale white skins of cicadas. Following Asan’s instructions, Weilin steeped it all for a long time in boiling water, then gave it to Mother to drink. In the following days her condition really did improve; but this was spring time now, each day warmer than the last, so whether her revival was caused by the herbs or by the weather, Weilin could not know.


It was late that summer, the summer of ’69, that they tried to rob the bank.

Robbing the bank was Red Wang’s idea. Weilin first heard of it from Asan, of course. Asan had stayed in town this summer. His other businesses were languishing, so he kept the penny library in the station plaza two or three days a week. When Weilin did not feel like swimming he would go into the town, and it was on one of these days that Asan told him about robbing the bank.

Weilin had been reading a Chinese translation of R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, which he thought a wonderful tale. On the day he was hoping to finish it he went to the plaza. Asan had told him he would be there this day, and there he was, sitting on the kerb in his usual spot—but there were no books.

“We’ll go for a walk,” said Asan. “Then we’ll have some lunch.”

Weilin tagged along with him, suspecting nothing. They went along Renxing Street (named for Ma Renxing, a hero of the Liberation War) and down Victory Avenue. Here was the newer part of town, most of it built after Liberation. The town bank was on a corner, where Victory Avenue crossed Revolution Street. It was a single-story building in red brick, with a grassy area all round it. Clothes-lines were strung between poles on the grassy area, with clothes drying on them. Some of the bank staff lived in the bank, explained Asan. The clothes belonged to them.

“Have you ever been in the bank?” he asked Weilin.

“No, of course not.”

“Me neither. But Donkey has. His ma’s elder sister works in the bank.”

“Really? What exactly do they do in the bank? I’m not clear.”

“Why, they hand out money. All the units in the town, the railroad and the paint factory, the shoe factory, all the production brigades in the countryside around, they all need money. The bank hands it out.”

“Where does the bank get the money from?”

“From the Party of course. Now, look there. Don’t stop and don’t make a big show of looking, just glance. The little window, in the corner of the wall there.”

“Yes. I see it.”

“Think you can get through there?”

“I don’t know. It’s very small.”

“You can, I bet. Skinny kid like you. You climb in there, go through to the front and open the door. Me and Red Wang will come in, help ourselves to a bit of money, slip out again. Easy. That window, they always keep it open.”

Weilin stopped dead. “You’re going to do this now?

“Course not. And keep walking. Cross over here and we’ll walk back. Try to get a good look at the place going back, careful like.”

Weilin felt scared. His knees were shaking. These boys were bandits! They were going to rob the bank! He had fallen in with bandits, like poor Oliver Twist!

“We’re going to do it one night, one Wednesday night. Maybe this coming Wednesday.”

“But don’t they lock up the money at night?”

“Mostly, yes. But Thursdays they do big payouts to the work units all over the town. They have to get a start on counting up the bills before, on Wednesday. When they’ve counted them, they lock them in the cashiers’ drawers. They’re just drawers made of wood. You can open them with ordinary tools. Donkey knows, heard his Ma’s elder sister talk about it.”

“If Donkey’s Ma’s elder sister works in the bank, why doesn’t she let you in?”

“’Cause she doesn’t live there. Only the ‘collars and sleeves’ live there. But they all live round the back, they won’t hear us if we’re quiet.”

Asan, for all his street smarts, had a peculiarly old-fashioned way of referring to authority. People in a senior position were always “collars and sleeves,” the old metonymy used in Imperial times; Party HQ was “the yamen”; the instructions of the national leadership, on the very rare occasions he referred to them, were “edicts.” Admiring Weilin’s good educated Chinese speech on one of their first encounters, he called it guanhua, “the Mandarin tongue” instead of saying putonghua, “the common tongue” as everyone was supposed to nowadays. Weilin did not think Asan was consciously counter-revolutionary, he was just ignorant. His people were peasants, Weilin knew. Once Asan’s mother had come to the railroad station plaza and stopped to pass the time of day with her son. She had one of those shiny faces that have never been washed, and was smoking a pipe.

“I don’t think it’s a very good idea, to rob the bank,” said Weilin cautiously. “Suppose you get caught?”

“Who’s going to catch us? The sticks had a sweep last month, they won’t stir for a while. The army’s helping with the harvest. We have a flashlight—Red Wang got one from his dad, they use it to check under the trains. Everything else will be dark. Piece of cake.”

“I don’t know. I really … It seems so dangerous.”

They were back on Victory Avenue now, fifty yards from the bank. Asan stopped and looked down at Weilin.

“Younger Brother, don’t you want to help your mother?”

“My mother? Of course. How will it help her if I rob the bank?”

“Why, she needs treatment for her bronchitis. It will come back this winter for sure. You need a decent doctor. You know the saying: ‘Money can move the gods.’”

This put things in a new light. Weilin considered. “If we suddenly start spending money, people will wonder where we got it.”

“Nah. You’re strangers here. Tell ’em it’s a secret stash you brought with you from the south. Your people had a decent position in the south, didn’t they?”

“Yes. I … I suppose we could do that …”

Probably Weilin would still have resisted if it had been anyone other than Asan grinning down on him. But he could not resist Asan.

The following Wednesday was unpropitious for some reason, so it was ten days later that they robbed the bank. Asan had them all meet at midnight—“zero o’clock” as he put it, sounding very military—in the old brickyard on Victory Avenue, at the edge of the town. It was a moonless night and the town had no street lights, so the darkness was total. Weilin stumbled along the familiar streets for what seemed like hours, feeling for the kerb where there was one, making his turns by dead reckoning. He passed the bank on the way out of town, but could only sense the shape of the building, set back from the street corner. How would he find the window? What if it were closed?

The other boys were all at the brickyard. They met in one of the kilns, gathered round the feeble glow of Red Wang’s flashlight. Donkey was there, of course, and another boy called Pimple who dropped by at the book stall from time to time.

“Any trouble, we all run off in different directions,” said Asan. “That’s important. I’ll head down Victory; Red Wang go up Victory, out of town …”

He had planned it carefully, but everything depended on Weilin being able to get in through the window, he being the only one small enough to accomplish this. When at last they found the window, after groping along the wall in pitch darkness for twenty minutes, it was higher than it had looked from the street, and Weilin had to stand on Asan’s shoulders. It was open; but going in head first, he could find nothing inside to hold on to. At last they fed him through feet first and face down. When he was standing inside they passed in the flashlight. As Asan had instructed, he held the flashlight against the floor to switch it on, then raised it an eighth of an inch to let some light leak out, and wait for his eyes to adjust. He was in a store room, shelves all the way up to the ceiling, with stacks of printed paper forms on the shelves. The place smelt of dust and damp. Perhaps they kept the window open to ease the damp. The only door seemed to be locked on the outside. Weilin felt relieved. It was clear there was no way to open it from this side. He stood on tiptoe at the window to report these facts.

“Shine the flashlight on the door,” said Red Wang, who was peering through the bottom part of the window. “Yeah, see the hinges? Knock out the pins. Quietly.”

He passed a heavy wood-handled screwdriver in over the window. After some experimentation, Weilin found he could tap out the pins from the door hinges using the screwdriver and the heel of his hand. When they were free he pulled back the door as quietly as he could; but still it made a grating, scraping sound and he froze in fear, clutching the heavy door, waiting for some sound of activity from inside. No sound came, and he got the door standing stably, supported by its lock.

Beyond the door was a corridor which led to an open area behind some counters, presumably where the tellers worked. On the other side of the counters was the main hall of the bank, with a big sign on the wall in Chairman Mao’s calligraphy: FOLLOW THE GENERAL LINE! Weilin thought of their quiet little room at the production brigade, and wished he were there. But winter would soon be on them, and if Mother’s bronchitis returned it would be worse than before, and need some treatment. Asan had said they wouldn’t take much money, so as not to anger the authorities unduly; just a few hundred. Enough, anyway, to get Mother some decent treatment from a doctor.

The main door of the bank had no locks at all, only two heavy metal bars set across in brackets. The bars were too heavy for Weilin to lift; but by sliding and jiggling he got them out of one set of brackets, and the right-hand door opened far enough for Asan to squeeze in.

“Well done, Little Brother!” he whispered as Red Wang and Pimple wriggled in behind him, Donkey performing lookout duty outside. “Where’s the screwdriver?”

“I left it back in the room, after I took off the door …”

“Don’t leave anything!” hissed Asan. “The sticks can figure out who it belongs to. Go get it. Take the flashlight.”

When Weilin came back the other three had made their way over to the counters with the aid of some matches Asan had. Now they started opening the drawers. There were several that were not even locked; but none held any money.

“Here,” whispered Red Wang. “Give me the screwdriver.”

He had found a locked drawer and began working on it with the screwdriver, trying to lever it open, to break the lock. It broke at last, with a sound that seemed unbearably loud. The drawer shot forward, coming right out, but Red Wang caught it. Inside the drawer were bundles of bills.

“Wa!” Said Red Wang. “It’s true!”

Pimple and Asan grabbed at the bundles in the drawer. They were too forceful, and knocked the drawer out of Red Wang’s hands. It hit the floor with a crash.

They all froze. By the flashlight Weilin could see their faces, mouths part-open, eyes wide and scared. Far off down the corridor light showed suddenly from an open door, and there was a voice: “Zenme hui shi? Zenme hui shi?” [What’s going on?]

“Run like fuck!” said Asan—redundantly, as Red Wang and Pimple were already half-way to the door. He himself went down on hands and knees, for the bundle of bills he had dropped. When Weilin got to the door, Pimple was just wriggling through. The lights went on inside the bank as he slipped through the opening, and there were voices shouting. Asan’s head came through, and Weilin pulled at him.

“Run for it!” yelled Asan.

Weilin ran. With the lights on in the bank he could make out the roads, but had forgotten which one he was supposed to take. He ran at random. Looking back, he saw that Asan was through the door and away. There was a lot of shouting. Then a gun went off: once, twice.

Weilin ran through the darkness for what seemed like miles, though he was still in the town. Once a jeep with headlights on came racing towards him, and he had to duck into a doorway to avoid being seen. When at last he could run no further he groped around in the darkness for a long time to find a street name. He found one, discovered that he was in the old part of town, not a hundred meters from Uncle Zhou’s house. It was dark, and cold, and he was exhausted, and contemplated for a moment going to sleep on Uncle Zhou’s floor; but thought better of it and began the long trek out of town.

Chapter 9

Mother Divulges a Terrible Secret

The Barefoot Doctor Shows His Art

Thinking of what had happened at the bank, Weilin became profoundly scared. He stayed in the room at Love Socialism! for several days. Had any of the others been caught? If caught, had they informed on him? The bank robbery was big news; Mother heard about it at the kindergarten that very next day. The authorities were furious, the police running round town rounding people up. Weilin did not trust himself to speak. Mother had heard him coming home, but did not seem to know how long he had been gone. At any rate, it did not seem to occur to her that he might have had anything to do with the bank business.

Boredom drove him out after a week, but he dared not go into the town. When Mother sent him food shopping, he just went to the Brigade commissary. The commissary had little to offer, but sufficient for their immediate needs. In October there was a distribution of cabbage to everyone, and Weilin occupied himself with storing it in jars of vinegar to keep for the winter, in some underground cellars the brigade had dug out for common use. Still he dared not go into the town.


That November Mother began to go mad. Or perhaps she had been going mad for some time, and it was only in November that Weilin really noticed it.

He woke one night, in the seamless darkness and silence of the small hours, to the awareness that Mother was not on the kang with him. After some fumbling Weilin got the lamp lit. Mother was sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, hunched up as small as she could make herself, clutching her knees to her chest.

“Mother, mother, what’s the matter?”

“They tried to make me go with them, but I wouldn’t go,” said Mother. “Hush! They may still be here.”

“Who? Who tried to make you go with them?”

“The men. They said I had to go with them, but I said no, I won’t, I won’t. They pulled at me, but I wouldn’t go.”

“Well, you don’t have to go with them if you don’t want to,” said Weilin, understanding that she had suffered some kind of nightmare.

“No.” Mother shook her head, her face set in fierce determination. “I won’t, I won’t.”

After much coaxing Weilin got Mother up from the floor and back onto the kang with him. There he held her in his arms to comfort her; but there was a stiffness, a withholding to her body that he had never noticed before, until she fell asleep. Next day she was perfectly sober, one might almost have said cheerful; and it became the pattern of these episodes that after each one there was a spell of normality, slipping into silence and distraction as the days went on, mounting at last to another crisis, as if those times when she was lost to the world were the venting of some slow-accumulating pressure.

Some days after this night-time attack one of the kindergarten teachers brought Mother home in mid-morning, while Weilin was still in bed. Mother was staring straight ahead, lips pursed, as she had when they had paraded her in the town.

“She just wouldn’t do anything,” said the teacher. “She stood there in the classroom staring into space, not saying anything. The kids were running wild, she just didn’t do anything. When we spoke to her she didn’t answer, just stood there staring at nothing. She came along with me easy enough, though.”

Weilin put Mother to bed on the kang. She made no resistance; but when he brought her food from the kitchen she would not feed herself, and he had to spoon the millet gruel in through her unresisting lips.

It got worse, though never dramatic. Now, even when Mother was not perfectly silent, her speech was sometimes strange and illogical. Word of it spread out to the people in the brigade offices, and even to some of the peasants.

“Your ma’s very strange,” said one of the cooks at the communal kitchen. “She was in the boiler room talking to herself. I asked her if she was all right, and she said yes, her life was good, the Party had sent a young man to take care of her. Said this young fellow lived in her room and took care of her. Well, there’s only you and her living there, right? So I suppose she meant you. She thinks you’ve been sent by the Party to look after her.”

The cook—who was really just a peasant himself—laughed openly in that uncouth, unembarrassed way peasants had towards other people’s misfortunes. “Seems like your ma’s got a screw loose.”

The disturbances, whatever they were, had a good side: they seemed to act beneficially on Mother’s bronchitis, which did not seem so bad this winter. Some of this was sheer willpower. Part of the malady that had seized Mother’s brain was the determination to make as little impression on her surroundings as possible. When in the grip of her disorder she would not speak, for fear of being heard; she would not move, for fear of being noticed. When attacked by a coughing fit she did her best to swallow it, keeping her mouth closed and straining to hold her breath for fear of giving herself away to the demons that, in her imagination, surrounded her. Weilin found her a number of times like this, often in the middle of the night; her chest wheezing and creaking inside, an occasional stifled grunt escaping through her mouth or nose, but no real coughing. He wondered if these prodigies of self-control would cure the illness, and hoped that they would, for he still dared not go into the town and so had no access to Asan and his pharmacopoeia.

One night in January, in the very bitterest depth of the northeastern winter, three days before the Spring Festival—which in these latitudes marked only the beginning of the hope of Spring—Weilin woke in the pitch blackness feeling cold air on his face. Even before he struck the match to light the oil-lamp he knew the door was open. Mother was not in the room.

Weilin ran to the door and shouted for her: “Mother! Mother! Come back!”

The moon would have been far gone toward new even if it had been up; but it was not up. The only light came from the stars, which were countless, but whose rays revealed only the dimmest apprehensible outline of the brigade’s administration building a hundred yards away. The terrible remoteness and ineffectuality of the stars seemed only to add five more degrees of frigidity to the winter air, which had been at fifteen below the previous afternoon, when Weilin passed the thermometer fixed to the outside of the window frame of Secretary Duo’s office. Weilin slept in his cotton-padded winter clothing, but without his hat, and now the cold air burned his exposed ears. He went back into the room, grabbed and donned his hat, then ran out into the icy darkness calling to Mother.

Past the school and kindergarten buildings the path from their room forked into two at right angles to each other. One went off to a village, the nearest of those that made up the brigade; the other to the administrative building, then out through the brick gateway on a broad track to the paved road leading into Flat All Around. Guessing that Mother would take the route more familiar to her—she had never had any reason to go to the village—Weilin headed for the administrative building. It was dark, the doors bolted from inside; but by this time Weilin’s eyes had accustomed themselves to the very little light there was, and he was aware of something moving up ahead on the broad track.

He caught up with Mother fifty yards along the track. She was walking at a brisk, deliberate pace, and did not stop when he grabbed at her arm. Like Weilin himself, Mother slept in her padded winter clothes, and had her jacket on now; but Weilin was horrified to find that the jacket was wide open, unbuttoned at front, and that Mother had no hat or gloves.

“Mother! Mother! It’s me, Weilin!” Weilin put himself in front of her, holding out his hands to grab her arms and stop her. He could make out her face as a pale oval in the starlight, though not well enough to discern its expression. With surprising strength Mother pushed him aside, hardly breaking her stride. Weilin turned and walked alongside her.

“Mother, at least let me fasten your jacket. Don’t you feel the cold? It’s twenty below, at least.”

“I have to find Comrade Shu, before it’s too late,” said Mother.

“Comrade Shu? Who is Comrade Shu? Mother, Mother, please let me fasten your jacket! Please!”

“Comrade Shu will know what to do. Comrade Shu will fix everything. I’ll find him all right—don’t think you can stop me!”

Weilin had never heard of this Comrade Shu. In desperation he was contemplating hurling himself on Mother to bring her to the ground, as apparently being the only way to stop her; but in the darkness Mother stumbled in one of the frozen ruts of the track, and fell to hands and knees. Weilin went down beside her, got his arms round her torso, and began fastening her jacket as best he could from behind. Mother made no resistance to this, only kneeling there murmuring about the necessity of finding Comrade Shu. Weilin got the buttons all fastened, then took off his hat and put it on Mother’s head, fastening the two ear flaps under the chin. By the time he got this done Mother had fallen silent. He helped her to her feet.

“Put your hands in your sleeves, Mother. That will keep them warm.”

“My feet,” said Mother. “My feet are cold.”

Her feet were, in fact, perfectly naked. They were as cold as the icy air itself. Weilin made her sit on the track while he put his own shoes on her. She was silent the whole time. The coldness of the air was terrible on Weilin’s feet, and he wondered how Mother had endured it so long. Neither of them possessed any socks.

Mother was quiet while he was putting his shoes on her. When he tried to get her standing up, however, she grabbed his wrists with that same extraordinary strength and prevented him from rising.

“Mother, come on, let’s go. Now I have no shoes or hat. My feet are freezing.”

“It’s you, Weilin, isn’t it? Weilin, my son. Our Little Pangolin.”

The sheer conversational normality of Mother’s voice cut him deeper than the steely Siberian air.

“Yes, Mother. It’s me. Weilin. Of course it is.”

“Something’s happening to me, isn’t it? I’m losing my mind, aren’t I?”

“No, Mother, no, of course not. But we must go now. Quickly. We must get out of the cold.”

Mother paid no attention. She was still holding him down by the wrists.

“Weilin, listen carefully. I am losing my mind, I know. A few minutes ago I didn’t know who you were. I thought they’d sent someone to follow me. I can clearly remember thinking that, like when you wake from a dream. You were talking to me, but I didn’t know your voice.”

“Mother, it doesn’t matter. You’ll be all right. But we must get back. My feet …”

“All right, Weilin, all right. But listen. While we’re here, with no-one around, there is something I must tell you.”

“Mother, please …”

“It will be quick. Then we’ll go back. Here, put your feet under my jacket while I talk. Here, yes.”

She let go his wrists and pulled his feet back under her padded jacket. They were still sitting on the frozen hard earth of the track, and Weilin’s ears were burning from the freezing air, but he humored her, holding on to her jacket with his hands to keep from falling over backwards.

“All right, Mother, but quickly. What is it you want to tell me?”

“You have an uncle. Fourth Outside Uncle.” She pulled him closer so she could whisper the story into his ear.

“My mother’s fourth younger sister’s husband,” she said. “She died very young, and he remarried. He lives in Hong Kong.”

“But I never heard you talk about him.”

“Listen! He was an officer in Chiang Kaishek’s army. An intelligence officer. This is a secret thing! If people know you have such a relative, it will make trouble for you. Don’t say anything about it!”

“Of course. I understand, Mother.”

“He lives in Hong Kong. When I went to see Auntie An that time, you remember? At Dewy Spring, when we first came back here. She told me, this Fourth Outside Uncle is still alive. He’s a rich man in Hong Kong. You must go to him. He will help you.”

“No, Mother, no. I will stay here with you.”

“I am going to lose my mind, Weilin, I know it. I’ve heard the comrades talking about the things I do, the things I say. I know what is happening, don’t think I don’t know. When I’ve lost my mind the brigade will stop feeding me. They don’t want useless mouths. I’ll be left to wander around naked, like the woman you told me about in the town.”

“I’ll look after you, Mother. Please don’t say these things. I’ll always look after you.”

“No! Listen to me! Don’t waste your life looking after an old mad woman. Go to Fourth Outside Uncle in Hong Kong. His address. I remembered it. In Hong Kong, of course. It’s Wodalao Road, number 433. You must remember that. Don’t write it down!You see, I remembered it! I didn’t write it down. Too dangerous. I followed your father’s example. Anything with numbers, he would remember it. Such a brilliant man. My Bullfrog, my dear old Bullfrog.”

Mother was silent for a while. The terrible steely cold of the earth was seeping up through the road, through Weilin’s bottom and haunches, penetrating the cotton padding of his pants.

“Bullfrog,” whispered Mother. “Oh, Bullfrog!”

“I can remember it, Mother. Wodalao Road, Number 433. But what is Fourth Outside Uncle’s name?”

“Name Xu, Xu Yiming. Listen, and I’ll tell you the characters.” She described the written characters. “A rich man, a rich man in Hong Kong. He will help you. Things in Hong Kong are different. They have no movements there. The living standard is higher.”

“All right, Mother. I’ll remember. But we must go back now. We’ll freeze to death here outside. Come on, let’s go back. Please.”

“Tell me his name, Fourth Outside Uncle. Tell me his name and the characters. And the address. Tell me!”

Weilin told her, describing all the characters until she was satisfied. At last she got to her feet. They set off down the track in silence. Weilin’s feet quickly went numb, but he could still walk. Mother seemed to have exhausted her capacity for speech. The only words that passed between them were when, near the gate of the brigade, Weilin asked: “Who is Comrade Shu?”

Mother stopped at once and looked at him. “Comrade Shu?” Incredibly, she chuckled. “Did I talk about Comrade Shu?” When she walked on, Mother was chuckling again, quietly, making the bronchitis rasp and gurgle in her chest, sending her into a spasm of coughing at last.

“Comrade Shu!” she murmured, before the coughing took over. “How absurd it all is! What a comedy!” But Weilin was never able to find out anything about Comrade Shu.


Mother caught a cold from this night-time expedition. She lay on the kang coughing all through the Spring Festival. She coughed now even when lost in one of her attacks, as if concealment from the demons no longer mattered to her.

At Spring Festival the refectory had a distribution of fresh fish, meat dumplings and sugar candies, all of which Weilin dutifully fed to her; but she took no pleasure from them. On the third day of the Lunar New Year she developed a fever. Weilin became aware of it in the night. He woke to her coughing. Sitting up and taking her in his arms, he felt the heat of her skin against his face. It seemed almost too hot to touch.

He lit the lamp, which was just a string wick poking up through a hole in the lid of a little can holding oil. There was enough light to see how flushed Mother was, and he got up and woke the barefoot doctor.

The barefoot doctor was not actually barefoot. Nor was he, in point of actual fact, a doctor. “Barefoot doctor” was just a term people used for the paramedics with minimal training who served in places like Love Socialism! brigade, that could not afford the services of a fully-trained doctor. When people on the brigade needed a real doctor they walked into the town. If too ill to walk, they used one of the brigade’s donkey carts; or, if it was an emergency and none of the carts was to hand, two of the strongest peasants would carry the patient into town on a makeshift stretcher; or piggy-back, taking turns.

The barefoot doctor had a little clinic in the main administrative building, and lived in his clinic. Weilin had to shout and bang on the window shutters for fifteen or twenty minutes before the doctor unbolted his door. He was a young fellow, big and strapping, and Weilin had often wondered why he had been chosen to be a barefoot doctor, when he would probably have done better for himself earning work points out in the fields. He supposed it was just sloth. Father had once remarked that peasants would do anything to avoid field work.

On this particular night the barefoot doctor was drunk, being of the opinion—a majority opinion among the male population of Love Socialism! brigade—that Spring Festival was a splendid opportunity to test the limits of one’s capacity for the brigade’s home-distilled white liquor. He was willing to do his duty, but not very able, and fell flat on his face twice in the pitch darkness going back to the room behind the school buildings. When they finally got back to Mother he could think of nothing to do but put a hand on her forehead and look at her tongue.

“’S a fever,” he mumbled. Getting up from the kang he lost his balance and would have fallen again if Weilin had not held him.

“Shouldn’t you take her pulses?” asked Weilin, drawing on his scanty knowledge of medical procedures. [In traditional Chinese medicine the doctor feels for several pulses.]

“Noss ness, noss sess, not necessary,” averred the barefoot doctor, lips pursed authoritatively. “Bring down fever, ’ass all. Wessa ma bag?”

Turning to look for the shoulder bag of supplies he had brought, he fell down, this time too quickly for Weilin to grab him. He landed on his bottom and sat contentedly there on the floor by the kang, having apparently forgotten about his bag. Mother was coughing again: a thin, dry, exhausted cough. She was clearly awake, and had begun plucking fretfully, abstractedly at the quilt. Behind the cough was the other sound, a scraping, creaking sound from inside her chest.

“Perhaps you should listen to her chest,” Weilin said to the barefoot doctor, handing him the bag. The barefoot doctor was singing, or mumbling, a peasant ditty:

“Big Wang’s donkey

Pissed in my bowl.

Millet on the stalk;

A prick in a hole.”

Weilin unbuckled the bag and looked inside. There were a lot of bandages and dressings, scissors, a glass jar of some kind of salve, presumably for burns, and half a dozen small circular pill boxes made of cardboard. Each pill box had one character written on the lid—crude, simple characters, mnemonics for the barefoot doctor, who probably could not read much, to remember which pill was in which box.

“Which one?” insisted Weilin, to the barefoot doctor mumbling his song. “Which one to lower the fever?”

“Aspirin. ’S the one with ‘wood.’”

Weilin found the box with a rough “wood” character on its lid. There were a hundred or so small white pills inside.

“How many?”

The barefoot doctor’s professional pride stirred in his sodden brain. Holding on to the kang, he got to his feet.


He snatched the box of aspirin pills from Weilin, and promptly dropped it.

Weilin brought the lamp down onto the floor, and the two of them set to picking up all the pills. The barefoot doctor was giggling to himself. In the middle of their work he paused, straightened up, adopted a look of great concentration, and farted loudly. Then, giggling even more relentlessly, he went back to picking up pills. Weilin, who had quite got the measure of the barefoot doctor by this time—the measure both of his general abilities and of his current condition—took the opportunity to hide twenty or thirty of the pills in his jacket as he picked them up.

They gave Mother three of the pills, and some warm water from the flask, and the barefoot doctor left, the heavy marinated-vegetable stink of his fart lingering behind. Weilin left the lamp on all night. Mother was silent when not coughing, plucking and plucking at the quilt.

The aspirin did nothing to lower Mother’s temperature. Weilin gave her a dozen more the next morning, but still without result. When he tried to give her some food at noon, she was unconscious and could not take it. He could hear her breathing from outside the door of their room as he approached with the mess tins of food. Her fever was still high, her skin hot and flushed. Weilin went to see Secretary Duo, and brought him over to see Mother. Secretary Duo was rough and uneducated, but he was not a fool and had seen people die.

“Pneumonia,” he said. “She needs penicillin.”

He had a cart brought up from one of the villages, and roused the barefoot doctor from his hangover, and they bundled Mother up on the cart in a mass of quilts, and the barefoot doctor and the peasant who had brought the cart set out for the town at a run, taking turns to push, Weilin trotting along behind. When they reached Flat All Around Number One Hospital, Mother was dead.

Chapter 10

Weilin Ventures a Bold Suggestion

An Old Campaigner Earns Merit for His Next Life

After Mother’s death in February that year, the year 1970, there was a period of some weeks when, so far as Weilin was ever able to recollect, nothing happened at all. Or at least, it was difficult for him to apprehend that such things as happened were in fact happening to him.

Responsibility for his welfare fell upon the production brigade. However, nobody there seemed to have a clue what to do with him. Everybody’s idea was that he should be taken in by relatives, as generally happened in such cases. Since Uncle Zhou’s circumstances were already strained, this would have meant going to live with Auntie An in the mountains up by the Korean border. But Weilin did not want to go and live with Auntie An, and evaded this fate by simply not mentioning her. Apparently there was nothing about Auntie An in Mother’s file, only a transfer notice from Dewy Spring; and nobody in the brigade or its school knew enough about her to be able to locate Auntie An. Indeed, it seemed that the brigade did not even know about Uncle Zhou. At any rate, no-one spoke of him. There was a boys’ orphanage in the provincial capital, but for inmates under thirteen only. Being just eight months short of thirteen, it seemed hardly worth while for Weilin to apply. In any case, the brigade would have to pay for his upkeep there, and the Revolutionary Committee felt that all things considered it would be cheaper to keep him on, if he could be found some useful work to do.

This decision was conveyed to Weilin by Secretary Duo, at an interview in his office.

“You’ll have the same coupons as before,” said Secretary Duo. “And you’ll be on work points, like everybody else. We don’t do badly here, as you know, so long as there’s some rain in May and June.” He leaned forward and blew his nose onto the floor, wiping his fingers on his jacket.

“And shall I still go on living in the same room?”

“Don’t see why not. Nowhere else for you to live, anyway.”

And so Weilin became a full-time employee of Love Socialism! Production Brigade. Dully, in no frame of mind to care about it, he had supposed this would mean working in the fields at last. In fact none of the work units seemed to want him in their fields, being too jealous of their work points, and too suspicious of the capabilities of anyone not born a peasant, and he ended up doing odd jobs, mostly around the brigade office. The conditions were just sufficient to keep him from starving, and the work was never arduous. Indeed, much of the time there was nothing to do at all, and Weilin could wander off into the countryside. When the weather warmed he started going back to the river to swim.

It was in the summer, in July that year, that Weilin saw Asan again. His fear of being seen in the town had subsided by this time, and he had made two or three trips in, to stroll around Number One department store and check out the railroad station plaza. He always hoped to see Asan and his bookstall, but the bookstall was never there.

On this particular day in late July there were two men in the station plaza selling patent medicine. By way of advertising, they were giving a demonstration of qigong. [Qigong is a traditional art of mind and body control, attained through breathing exercises.] One of the men was the qigong practitioner, the other the salesman. The qigong man was stripped to the waist. He was muscular and fierce-looking. He broke a brick and some tiles with his head, and leaned at an alarming angle against a spear, the tip of the spear pressing on his naked belly, the other end held fast to the ground. After these wonders the salesman went into his pitch.

Weilin lost interest and was turning away when he saw Asan in the crowd. Asan saw him at the same moment and came over, greeting him with a slap on the shoulder. He looked the same as ever; big and confident, though perhaps a little shabbier than Weilin remembered. His army green pants had a long tear up one leg that had been inexpertly stitched closed, and the Capital shoes had given way to a pair of battered army-green sneakers. He favored Weilin with a broad grin.

“Little Liang. Haven’t seen you around.”

“My mother got sick. I had to look after her. Then she died. Now I work for the production brigade.”

Asan looked grave. “I’m really sorry about your Ma. But what’s this about you working on the farm? You’re too smart for peasant work, Little Liang.”

“What else can I do? I have no way out.”

“There’s always a way out. Hey, you look undernourished. Come on, I know a place we can eat.”

“I’ve got no money.”

“Fuck that. Come with me.”

Asan led him through some back streets to a dingy place in the old part of town. It was hardly any larger than the living space of someone’s house, with four tables jammed together and a hatch in the wall where you ordered your food. Without consulting Weilin about it, Asan ordered tripe in noodle soup, some batter sticks, and two bowls of beer.

“They water the beer, of course,” he explained as they started on the food, “but then so does everybody else. These people use clean water, at least.”

The tripe was delicious, a wonderful relief from the alternated sorghum mash and millet gruel at the brigade dining room. They ate and drank, Asan talking through his food. His fortunes were at a low ebb, it seemed. After the bank raid, the police had gone into the streets with army men in support and rounded up anyone who looked like a trouble-maker. This had pulled in far more people than they could deal with properly, so most had been let go after a routine beating. Red Wang had been charged, though—nothing to do with the bank job, they had fished up some offense from his Red Guard days—and his family had had to pay a huge bribe to get him out. Donkey, having no family who cared sufficiently to bribe him out of trouble, had got three years Reform Through Labor for hooliganism, and was now doing time at a camp near the Mongolian border. Again, the sticks did not seem to know Donkey had been at the bank, and Donkey had not volunteered the information, perhaps feeling that bad as Reform Through Labor might be, it was less of an inconvenience than being shot.

Asan himself had only avoided arrest by chance. When the army and police did their first sweep, he was hiding in the old brickyard, making tongfang with one of the girls from the textile factory. He gave a full and graphic account of the episode, dwelling at length on the exceptional flow of the girl’s juices. This part of the discourse left Weilin embarrassed and puzzled. He could not figure out where these juices were supposed to be flowing from, or what purpose they served; and it all sounded very disgusting anyway.

“Now,” said Asan, sitting back and lighting a cigarette, “the whole district’s as quiet as a bone yard. Nobody wants to do deals, nobody wants to take a chance, nobody wants to fuck. I haven’t felt a girl’s tits for three months, can you believe it? As for any kind of enterprise—well, they’re shooting people now for picking pockets. Imagine that! Pick a pocket, get a bullet through the gourd! And that’s after they’ve broken all your bones, of course. I keep myself looking shabby now”—he pulled with disgust at the fabric of his pants—“so nobody will think I’m running any schemes.”

“What about the money you got from …”

“Hush!” Asan looked round nervously. They were the only customers, but the proprietor could be seen behind his hatch, leaning against the wall picking his nose and scrutinizing the extracta. “Walls have ears, don’t you know? Yeah, I got some.” He laughed. “Know what it was? Ten-fen bills. I got three hundred of the fucking things. Thirty dollars!” Asan laughed again and shook his head. “The others I don’t think got anything. In too much of a hurry to get out of there. Thirty dollars! I wouldn’t mind, if we hadn’t closed down the whole town like this. You can’t do anything now. To tell the truth, I’m thinking of relocating.”

“Where will you go?”

“To Beijing, if I can get a residence permit. I’m working on it. Nothing’s impossible, you know.”

“Me, I’m going to Hong Kong,” said Weilin.

The truth was that up to that instant he had not given a moment’s thought to following Mother’s suggestion. It had just seemed impossible; and he had anyway been disabled by grief and hopelessness. But Asan was so cool, so confident in his life and his schemes, the temptation to try to impress him was irresistible, and Hong Kong bobbed up to the surface of Weilin’s thoughts, and he said it.

Asan was not as impressed as he decently ought have been. He nodded, and took a drag on his cigarette.

“Hong Kong, huh? It’s a long way. Er, in the south, isn’t it?” Asan’s ignorance could still shock Weilin.

“I don’t care how far. It’s better than here. There are no movements, and the standard of living is much higher.”

“That’s not what I heard. Hong Kong? It’s like the old society, isn’t it? Darkness and oppression.” Asan frowned, summoning up his fragmentary knowledge of public affairs. “Capitalism. Or is it feudalism? One of those things.”

“How can it be worse than here? I’ve been hungry for months, and the winter—so cold! Hong Kong’s in the south, at least the climate will be bearable.” Following Mother’s injunction, Weilin did not want to say anything about Fourth Outside Uncle.

“I don’t know, Little Liang. It’s a long way to go to be disappointed. Suppose it is just like the old society? Suppose you end up a rickshaw boy, with an opium habit? Perhaps you won’t be able to come back.”

“I’ll never come back! How can Hong Kong be worse than this? They killed my father, they killed my mother. Now I’m supposed to be a peasant all my life. No, if Hong Kong doesn’t suit me, I’ll go …” He struggled to think of another foreign place. “… I’ll go to America!”

Asan chuckled. “Well, you certainly have great plans! But, by the way, just how exactly are you going to travel? By jet plane, perhaps? By helicopter?”

“I don’t care. I’ll steal a train ticket. I don’t know. I’ll find a way.”

“Hng.” Asan drew deeply on his cigarette, pondering. “It’s a long way to go,” he said again at last.

“I don’t care. I’m going,” said Weilin, with great and sudden determination. He felt it, too, for the moment at any rate; though now he wondered for the first time: How exactly am I going to do this?

“Perhaps you could help me get a ticket,” he said boldly.

Asan considered. “Rail tickets are not easy to get,” he said at last. “Red Wang was my main contact for that little business, and he’s sitting at home pissing in his pants. You need a letter from your unit. Then there’s the expense. To Hong Kong? It’s the other end of the country, right? Must be a hundred dollars, at least.”

Weilin’s entire income, board and lodging aside, was four dollars fifty a month. Now it all seemed impossible again. He regretted having raised the subject of Hong Kong. Of course he could not go to Hong Kong! He would be a gofer for the brigade office all his life, not even allowed to work in the fields with the peasants. There really was no way out, after all. His head drooped. He dipped his finger in a puddle of soup that had spilled on the table, and drew out a long pseudopod.

Asan seemed to be deep in thought. His cigarette finished, he dropped it to the floor and ground it with his foot. Abruptly, he stood up.

“I’ll see what I can do. How often do you come into town?”

“I can come any time.”

“Meet me in the old brickyard. Mmm, four weeks from today. Twelve thirty, nap time. I don’t promise anything, mind. But I’ll see what I can do.”


Weilin hardly dared hope for anything to come of the Hong Kong idea. It had fixed itself in his mind now, though, and he could not stop thinking about it. He wanted to know about Hong Kong—where it was, what things were like there. There were no maps in the brigade offices, but one of the schoolrooms had a map of China on the wall. It showed Hong Kong as a small dot on the south coast, with a broken line around it and the words SEIZED BY BRITAIN. It was indeed very far: much further than Beijing, further even than Shanghai. Very close to Guangzhou though. Perhaps if one could get to Guangzhou, one could walk to Hong Kong. It wasn’t clear from the maps.

He went to the old brickyard at the appointed time. It was deserted, the kiln cool inside away from the noonday sun. The brickyard had been built during the Great Leap Forward, back in the fifties, when every unit was supposed to strive for self-sufficiency. The authorities of Flat All Around had decided to make their own bricks, so they had built this brickyard. There were huge kilns, big enough to walk around in, where the bricks had been baked. However, because the local clay had been wrong for bricks, or the necessary expertise had been lacking, or peasants requisitioned for the work had drifted back to their fields, or starved to death in the great famine, or for some other reason, the whole project had been abandoned. Now the brick-yard was deserted. There were stacks of crumbling yellow bricks all around, with grass growing out of the cracks between rows of bricks. The kilns were all empty; local people passing by used them as toilets. There were always turds in various stages of decomposition on the floor by the walls and in the corners, the fresher ones attended by little buzzing clouds of flies.

Asan turned up half an hour late, looking pleased with himself.

“Well, well, Little Liang!”

“You found out something? You can help me?”

By way of reply Asan took a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket, and flourished it. It was white, six inches by four, and covered with ruled lines and neat small characters.

“A railroad ticket! You got me a railroad ticket!”

“Take a good look. The money I spent to get this, they could nail me for the bank job. And I had to give up my share in the fruit business. Not that I’ll be needing it any more.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, it’ll be no use to me, once we’re in Hong Kong.”


“Sure. I’m going to Hong Kong, too. I’ve been thinking about it, since you raised the subject. This place is dead. Everybody’s just waiting for the next movement. You’re right, things will be better in Hong Kong. So I’m coming with you.”

“But … Do you have another ticket?”

Asan grinned. “No, just the one. And it has my name on it. But don’t worry, I’ll get you to Hong Kong.”

“But how will I get there with no ticket?”

“We’ll hide you under the train seat. Don’t worry. I’ve found out everything. They don’t check your ticket when you get on, only when the train is going. We just have to keep you out of sight when the inspectors come around.”

Weilin was unsure. It couldn’t really be so easy, surely. But Asan was beaming his big audacious smile, and Weilin felt sure that if only he stayed close to his friend, everything would be managed somehow.

“Can you swim?” asked Asan.

“Sure. I can swim very well. Why?”

“Because we’ll have to swim over to Hong Kong across the sea. The land border’s guarded both sides, you can’t get through. You have to swim. But people do it all the time, it’s all right.”

Weilin didn’t care about the swimming. He was suddenly impatient to leave. “What’s the date on the ticket?”

“Friday. Night train, eight o’clock. Will you be ready?”

Weilin laughed. “I’m ready right now.”

Packing did not present any serious challenges. Weilin’s entire possessions at this point in his life were: two T-shirts, one newish, one very old and ragged; a pair of pants, baggy and somewhat too big; a pair of shorts he wore as underpants; the cotton-padded winter jacket and pants Mother had made for him in ’67 and enlarged each subsequent fall, in very poor condition now; a pair of canvas shoes with worn-out soles; a hat; a quilt; a toothbrush; a towel; a mess tin; an oil lamp; a thermos flask inherited from Mother; and a single photograph of Mother and Father, taken before he was born, which had been overlooked in Father’s tin box when the Red Guards took all their Bourgeois Things. The rest of Mother’s possessions, such as they were, had been taken by the brigade to defray her cremation expenses—all but a red plastic hair clip Weilin had salvaged somehow.

He agonized briefly over the cotton-padded jacket, pants and hat, which were his most substantial possessions, and basic survival equipment in the northeastern winter. However, he reasoned that since Hong Kong was in the south, he would not be needing them, and left them lying on the kang. Everything else he took, bundled up in the quilt. The quilt itself was not very thick, and the whole bundle fitted easily under his arm. Weilin did not think it necessary to notify the brigade he was leaving. In the fullness of time they would notice his absence and assign the room to someone else.


Asan was waiting for him at the railroad station on Friday evening, He too was traveling light, with only an army-style backpack slung casually over one shoulder. They boarded the eight o’clock train in a press of people, and scrambled for seats. Nobody checked their tickets, and in fact the train was milling with non-passengers seeing off colleagues and relatives. The last of these scrambled for the doors as the train began to move. Weilin watched the grimy back streets of Flat All Around slipping away into the gathering darkness, and cursed the place, and swore a bitter silent oath that whatever happened to him, he would never return to it.

“Oh, one thing I forgot to tell you,” Asan was saying.


“The ticket is only for Shanghai.”

“So what shall we do then?”

Asan laughed. “We’ll manage. Meantime, you’d better get under the seat. The inspectors will start coming round soon.”

Weilin felt very self-conscious, asking the other passengers to move their legs so he could squirm under the seat. Most of them took it in good part; but there was a woman opposite with what Asan called a Class Struggle Face—angular and self-righteous—who took exception.

“If he hasn’t got a ticket, he shouldn’t be riding,” she said, very loud. People in the next set of seats turned to look.

“He’s an orphan from the south,” explained Asan. “Didn’t you hear his accent? His mother died just recently. He wants to get back to his family in the south, and he has no other way to do it.”

“Leave him alone,” said one of the passengers. This man belonged to a party of four—workers, from their appearance—who were starting up a card game on the floor between the seats. “He’s not doing any harm, is he?”

“Many things happen that are not right,” said an old fellow sitting by the window. “This is a very small one. Is it really worth making trouble about?”

I’m not making trouble. I only said, it’s not right.”

“Oh, come on, comrade. He’s only a kid,” said another of the card players. “Let him sleep. The inspector won’t see him down there.”

Class Struggle Face was sufficiently cowed by all this opposition that she had nothing to say when the inspector came round. Weilin soon fell as nearly asleep as was possible in his cramped quarters, among the smell of dust and cigarette smoke and the noise of the card players. He woke briefly when the train stopped at Shenyang, and noticed that Asan had got into the card game somehow. When next he woke it was clear daylight outside and the train was running fast through a countryside of low hills and small villages. The card players were all asleep: two stretched out on the floor, Asan and the others leaning against each other at odd angles on the seats.

Weilin was hungry. He wanted to wake Asan to ask if he had any food, but thought Asan might be angry at being woken. Weilin struggled out from under the seat and went to the toilet at the end of the carriage. After relieving himself he felt hungrier than ever. His traveling companions were asleep, Class Struggle Face snoring like a hog. Only the old man by the window was awake. He favored Weilin with a discolored grin.

“Hungry, little fellow?”


“Here.” The old boy reached into a cloth bag he was carrying, and produced a steamed bun. “I’ve got some tea, too. Come on, help yourself. Don’t be polite!”

The bun looked delicious—white and soft. But Weilin hesitated. “What will you eat, comrade?”

The old man chuckled. “I can ‘eat the air and drink the dew,’” he replied, using a Taoist tag. “Never mind. This world belongs to youngsters like yourself. We old ones have played our part. What use are we? Look at me. I can’t sleep, I can’t work, I can’t fuck, and I have no appetite. But I can still earn some merit with Lord Buddha for my next life. Come on! Eat.”

Gratefully, Weilin ate. In contradiction to his philosophical boastings, the old boy produced a second bun for himself, and ate it with gusto. He also had some pickled turnip wrapped in wax paper, and a flask of cold tea.

While they ate he told Weilin stories about his life in the northeast. His father had gone south to fight for Sun Yatsen in the Xinhai revolution of 1911. He himself had been a soldier in the army of the Old Marshal, a famous northeastern warlord of the twenties. When the Japanese invaded he had gone into the mountains and lived with bandits, poaching ginseng and hunting bear. Several of the bear’s body parts were culinary delicacies, or key ingredients of traditional medicine, and you could live well for a year from the proceeds of one bear. But it was very difficult to kill a bear. For all their size, they could move very quickly. Their flesh was thick and hard, and you had to shoot them in just the right spot. If you misjudged your aim the bear would keep right on coming, and tear you to shreds with his claws, which were three inches long and sharp as razors. Or else you would kill him all right, but at the cost of destroying his gall bladder or some other priceless organ.

Weilin listened, hypnotized by the rhythm of the train and the old man’s tales. In the small hours of the next morning they passed through the Wall at Sea-and-Mountain Pass, into China proper.

Chapter 11

Strange Blessings Fall on Weilin’s Head

A Brief Experience of the Seafaring Life

They reached Shanghai early in the morning of the third day. The ticket Asan had got would take them no further, so they left the train and ate breakfast at one of the restaurants near the station.

“We’re going to be mailmen,” chuckled Asan, when Weilin asked him how they were to proceed. This he explained: before leaving Flat All Around he had canvassed all the Shanghai people he could find in the town and surrounding countryside. They were all young people, sent to the northeast as part of the clean-up campaign following the suppression of the Red Guards. Shanghai had been a big Red Guard center, and there were Shanghai youth all over the country now. All of them were bitter and homesick. None trusted the public mails and all were glad to know someone traveling to Shanghai, to carry letters to their families and sweethearts. Asan had five of these letters to deliver.

“One of these families is bound to have enough connections to get us railroad tickets to Guangzhou,” he said.

The plan did not start out very well. The first address they could not find at all, and they got hopelessly lost in a down-at-heel industrial district far from the city center. They took a bus all the way back to the railroad station; and by that time it was noon. The second address was not so far out, but the only person at home was the mother. She could barely speak Mandarin and seemed to be terrified of them, taking the letter eagerly but not opening it in their presence, edging them towards the door even as she thanked them. Number three, out towards Sun Yatsen Park, was even worse: a sweetheart who went into peals of laughter at hearing the name of her exiled lover, and held his letter between thumb and finger away from her body, as if it had been sprinkled with plutonium.

By now it was nearly twilight, and Weilin was sick of Shanghai, of its endless dusty streets and packed buses. The weather was hot: not the heavy, humid heat of the southwest, but still oppressive and enervating after a day spent on the move.

“Where shall we sleep, Elder Brother?” he asked.

“Leave it to me,” said Asan, scrutinizing a bus sign. “Let’s do one more, then we’ll eat.”

With the fourth address their luck arrived. It was in one of the narrow old alleys off Sluice Gate Road. The alley was bounded by an eight-foot wall with rusty metal spikes on top. In the wall was a door, and by the door a bell. After Asan had pressed the bell three or four times the door was opened by a boy of Weilin’s age. He was skinny and nervous looking. After the necessary introductions he led them across a bare courtyard to the house. It was large, with several rooms; but in contrast to what Weilin imagined a rich family’s house would be like, this one had no decorations or ornaments at all. There was only a bare minimum of furniture, nothing hanging on the walls, no mats on the floors.

The boy, it turned out, was the younger son of the family, whose name was Fu. The elder was in the northeast, on a production brigade near Flat All Around. It was he who had given Asan a letter, addressed to his mother.

Mrs Fu was a straight-backed, handsome woman with a pale, lined face. Using flawless Mandarin, she greeted them in the main reception room of the house, took the letter from Asan, and opened and read it at once, her eyes moving hungrily over the pages. From another room somewhere further back Weilin could hear someone coughing a thin, feeble cough. It made him think of the coughing at Dewy Spring, of Auntie An’s cough and the boys in the courtyard of the yamen there.

When Mrs Fu had finished reading the letter she sighed, folded it carefully, and put it back into its envelope.

“Forgive me,” she said. “I am a poor hostess. Have you eaten? You’re very welcome to join us. We shall have dinner soon. After my husband has eaten.”

Mr Fu was bedridden, dying of lung cancer. That was the coughing Weilin had heard. They were taken in to be introduced to him. Weilin thought he had never seen anyone looking so ill. Mother and Father, at the time they died, had both looked more or less normal; but Mr Fu was like a ghost already, his skin deathly white, the flesh beneath it all gone. His eyes were clear, though, and he spoke steadily, if very softly, with a strong Shanghai accent. He asked them why they had come to Shanghai. Boldly, Asan took the opening.

“We’re going to try to escape to Hong Kong,” he said.

Weilin was shocked to hear him say this out loud, to people they had known less than half an hour. But Asan’s judgment was sound. The skin of Mr Fu’s face moved slightly in a smile. “Good,” he said, “good, good. I hope you make it. These devils …”

“It’s all right, Husband,” Mrs Fu broke in. “Don’t exert yourself. Save your strength to eat.”

Mr Fu, once interrupted, seemed to have disconnected from them. He was lying straight back now, staring at the ceiling. “They cheated me,” he whispered. “The bastards, they cheated me. I should never have trusted them.”

Mrs Fu seemed very keen to get them out of the room at this point, but Asan pressed his advantage. “Good Sir,” he said, addressing Mr Fu with the old honorific, instead of Comrade. “We have enough money, but no way to get tickets from here to Guangzhou. Can you help us get tickets?”

Slowly, Mr Fu turned his head, engaging them again. Once more he made the waxy smile.

“I’ll arrange everything. I’ll tell my son what to do. Leave it to us. Stay here tonight. Tomorrow everything will be arranged.”

While Mrs Fu fed her husband, Weilin and Asan sat in the reception room with the son. He told them his father had been a National Capitalist. Before Liberation he had owned and run a printing firm. He had done favors for the Communists, printing some of their pamphlets free of charge; so when they took Shanghai they had let him stay in business. He had done well and developed good connections in the local Party. Then the Cultural Revolution had arrived. The Party had been purged; the Red Guards had looted his house; and both his sons had been sent away to remote areas. Now that he was dying, the younger son had been allowed to come home to look after him. Of course the boy had no residence permit for Shanghai, so when Mr Fu died he would have to return to his unit, a poor place in Anhui Province where (Little Fu grimaced) the peasants washed their bodies only at birth, marriage and death and talked of nothing but food and money.

“The authorities here are very strict about residence permits,” said Little Fu. “A Shanghai residence permit is like gold. My father still has some contacts in the government, but even he can’t pull it off. I guess I will spend all my life in that place.”

Weilin thought the boy was going to burst into tears. Little Fu was a year or two older than himself, but seemed, to Weilin, much younger. He felt sorry for the boy. Like himself, Little Fu had had an agreeable life and bright prospects. Then the Red Guards had smashed everything. Weilin could never think of the Red Guards without seeing in his mind’s eye Yuezhu, pointing at Father in accusation, or strutting and prancing through her Loyalty Dance at the Martyrs’ Monument. As soon as he thought of her, acid rose from his stomach.

“But my father can get railroad tickets, don’t worry. That he can still do, I know. He’s done it for other people. The head of the Railroad Bureau is an old classmate of his. Ai!” Little Fu shook his head. “Everyone says: to get ahead in life, you need a father with influence. But soon I shall have no father at all! What will happen to me?”

Now Little Fu really did cry, though without much fuss. There were just the tears, running down his pale cheeks. Weilin lowered his head in embarrassment. Asan, too, was apparently at a loss for words. Fortunately Mrs Fu came in and announced dinner.

The dinner was not much: a dish of fibrous green vegetables, some dried fish, rice. The striking thing was that before taking up their chopsticks, Mrs Fu and Little Fu said a prayer. Apparently they were religious. Weilin had only the vaguest concept of religion: a copy of the Diamond Sutra at Grandmother’s house in Nanjing, on their one visit there when he was seven, the book all printed in thick ugly black old-style characters … the temple in Flat All Around that had been wrecked by the Red Guards in ’66. He felt fairly sure that religion was counter-revolutionary, and listened apprehensively to the Fus’ prayer.

“We thank the Master of Heaven for the food on our table, and for his many blessings in the past, and for the hope he sets in our hearts for the future. His will be done.”

Mrs Fu and Little Fu said amen in unison. Asan had bowed his head; but Weilin was too much taken by surprise even to do that. He just gawped. The Fus did not seem to mind. After amen they set to the food with a will, pointing out such choice pieces as there were to their guests.

After dinner, when Mrs Fu had retired and Little Fu was showing them their room, Weilin asked him about the prayer.

“We are Christians,” said Little Fu. “We say prayers to the Master of Heaven, and to his son, Yesu. Yesu was a bodhisattva. He lived in Palestine back in the Han Dynasty. He stayed on Earth and suffered, to show us how suffering could be conquered. My mother was a Christian first. After she married my father she tried to convert him. He was very stubborn, and made fun of her. But at last she converted him. Now they read sutras together every night. But don’t speak about these things to others,” he added.

“I think these people are counter-revolutionaries,” said Asan when the two of them were alone in their room, lying on the wood-frame bed together in the darkness.

“You shouldn’t say that. They’re being very kind to us. Even though they have nothing to hope for from us.”

Asan considered this. “Maybe they’re going to shop us. And in return, the authorities will give the kid a residence permit.”

“Shop us? For what? We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“We’re trying to escape to Hong Kong, aren’t we? It’s against the law, I’m sure.”

Weilin wondered if this was right. “No,” he said. “Even if it’s against the law, we’re not such big criminals. They wouldn’t get a residence permit just for shopping us. Little Fu said they’re like gold.”

Neither of them said anything else about it. Lying there in the dark, Weilin wondered if what Asan said might be true. He lay awake a long time wondering about it. Very faintly he could hear Mr and Mrs Fu talking in another room: the woman’s voice strong and insistent, the man’s barely audible, lapsing into long spells of coughing.

The next day they had to themselves. Little Fu went off to do whatever his father had instructed him to do by way of getting railroad tickets. Mrs Fu ate breakfast with them, then retired to her husband’s room. The two companions set off for a day’s sightseeing.

They strolled the Bund, looking at the ships on the Yellowbank River. They explored the stores in Nanjing Road. Now Weilin found the city awesome and intimidating. The great buildings—mountains of stone—glowering down at them along the Bund: the mighty ships moored at the waterside, impossible complications of halyard and hawser, sheer metal sides streaked with rust, super-structures all embroidered with railings, funnels, companionways, davits: an enormous hotel, towering up into the sky layer upon layer, twelve foot high glass doors guarded by two PLA men.

Now, with no purpose but to observe, he watched the people themselves, moving briskly about their wide, clean-swept streets, the men wearing short-sleeved white shirts, the women in pretty blouses—so different from the sluggish inmates of Flat All Around moping listlessly in their patched khaki jackets and mud-colored T-shirts. Asan, however, seemed not impressed at all by the great city, though it must have been as strange to him as it was to Weilin. His main comments concerned the girls they saw. “What a cutie!” he would exclaim, or: “Check out the pretty face over there!”

Back at Sluice Gate Road that evening, they found that everything had been arranged. More, indeed, than they had anticipated, for the number of tickets was three. Little Fu was to come with them.

“My father said it’s best. He said there is no future for me here. I must make my way in the outside world.”

“You must look after him,” said Mrs Fu. “He is not very strong. Please, please look after him.”

Asan was scrutinizing the tickets. “Are these the right characters for Guangzhou?” he asked.

Weilin looked. The tickets were not for Guangzhou at all but for Shantou, a different city—also, he knew, in the far south.

Little Fu explained. “My father says we must get a boat to take us to Hong Kong. You can’t get across the border, it’s guarded. So you either have to swim across the sea, or get a boat. And I can’t swim, you see. He says it will be easier to get a boat from Shantou. There are a lot of fishing people there. They will take you on their boat for a consideration.”

He showed them the consideration: a wad of bank notes wrapped in brown oil-paper. The notes were all for ten yuan, the highest denomination in China at that time. There were two hundred and forty of them. Weilin’s salary at Love Socialism! brigade had been four and a half yuan a month. Probably nobody in Flat All Around earned more than fifty.

Mrs Fu made bundles of food for them to take to Shantou. The train was to leave the following afternoon. That morning, when everything was ready, she took them in to see Mr Fu again. He reached out for his son, resting one wasted hand on the boy’s cheek, which was already wet with tears again. The papery skin of his own face trembled with emotion. He looked past his son, addressing himself to Asan.

“Go to Shantou. Say nothing to anybody about why you’re going. I’ve given my son an address in the city. Old associate of mine. He’ll give you directions, tell you how to find the fishing people. If you have no luck with them, steal a boat. Hong Kong is along the coast, west from Shantou about three hundred kilometers. Keep the coast in sight. Do what you must do! Don’t be afraid of anything!”

He fell back, exhausted, and Mrs Fu led them out. Before seeing them off she made them all kneel in the reception room while she prayed to her Christian gods. Now Weilin and Asan knew enough to temple their hands and bow their heads.

“Master of Heaven, look down on these young people and bless their journey. Guide them with your strong hand. Let the love of the Lord Yesu be with them in all their dealings with those they meet. And let the Holy Spirit be their companion and strength. If they succeed, fill them with humility and gratitude for the gift of success, which can come only from You. If they fail, take them up to live with You inYour Hall of Joy and Peace for ever. In all things let Your will, not ours, be done.”

Amen, said everybody. They rose and went outside, across the courtyard to the door in the wall. Mrs Fu opened the door for them. At this point Little Fu began weeping without restraint, shaking his head from side to side in distress, the tears flying away from him. Mrs Fu, however, showed no emotion. Her eyes were clear and her voice strong.

“Master of Heaven bless you all,” she said as they stepped out. “Lord Yesu bless you.”

When they were all outside she closed the door quickly. Little Fu sobbed all the way to the railroad station.


Shantou was further south than Weilin had ever been. Here the people spoke a dialect so thick and strange he couldn’t understand them at all. Little Fu’s mother had written out a letter of introduction for them to Mr Fu’s old business associate. They spent half a day trying to find this man, asking directions from all the people they met until they hit on one who spoke Mandarin. Then they would get lost and have to repeat the process.

It was evening before they found the man, whose name was Zhang. He was suffering from some illness that had swollen his feet up with edema so that he could not walk. He was friendly enough, much more so when he knew that they were well supplied with cash. He insisted on knowing how much, and also on seeing it, which was embarrassing as Asan had told him they had only four hundred, while the oil-paper bundle, if produced, would show six times that amount. Asan, with great presence of mind, said that Little Fu was carrying the money fixed to his underwear, and would need to detach it in private.

“My health is poor,” sighed Mr Zhang. “I need medicine. But it is so difficult to obtain now.”

“I am sure Little Fu’s father intended us to help you in this respect,” replied Asan.

They paid him a hundred yuan for his assistance, and stayed three days and nights while Mr Zhang made inquiries on their behalf.

“There is a village along the coast,” he told them at last. “Forty kilometers. You can take a bus. The headman is a distant relative of mine. He can arrange everything. You should pay him sixty.”

It took them all the next day to reach the village, riding a bus from the Shantou station to a dozing country town named Baodan, then hitching a ride in a truck that stank of fish, until they reached the coast. Here China fell away in steep rocky cliffs to the Pacific, lusterless under solid cloud cover. The village headman read Mr Zhang’s letter with some difficulty, tracking the characters across the page with a long curving brown fingernail, mouthing them as he read. Finished, without further ado he said gei qian!—pay up—quite possibly the only words of Mandarin he knew.

When they had paid the headman he took them down to the waterfront, which was surprisingly well-appointed: concrete dock, typhoon bar two hundred meters out, half a dozen large shed-like buildings—fish-drying or -canning plants, perhaps. There were an astonishing number of ships in the typhoon shelter, all of them ancient-looking high-prowed junks in dark wood. The headman strolled along the dock, calling out to the ships. Some yielded a response; most did not. He entered at last into long negotiations with a man on one of the smaller ships. The man looked about ninety years old, burnt by the sun to the color of his vessel’s timbers.


The headman frowned and grimaced as he wrote, making the characters very slowly, holding the paper away from himself after each one, to make sure it looked right. Weilin marveled that anyone who looked as old as the man on the boat could yet have an older brother.

The three adventurers slept that night on the boat with the old man, whose name they never discovered—with whom, indeed, they had no means of communication, he being perfectly illiterate and speaking a dialect none of them understood. The old man’s brother and nephews were on shore. Little Fu paid him up front, the bills ready in his pants pocket, he having followed Asan’s instructions and fixed the main part of their cash into his underwear. They bought salted eggs and dried fish from the headman, at a price that left Asan grumbling the entire evening, and the fisherman shared some delicious white rice gruel with them, and they slept out on deck in the heavy heat. Weilin was almost too excited to sleep. So easy! And soon they would be in Hong Kong! Fourth Outside Uncle would take care of him, and he would have a life of prosperity and peace. So easy, after all!

They were out at sea when he woke next morning, China a smudge on the horizon, the sun already high behind the heavy tropical clouds. The ship was under sail, presumably to save fuel. The sail was of oiled brown cloth, lifted up the ship’s mast by a boom. Three men, none of them the old ship-owner, were sitting on piles of netting at the rear of the boat, eating rice from bowls and talking cheerfully with Asan. Little Fu was squatting on his haunches by the railing that ran along the side of the boat, looking over at the shore with a glum expression. As Weilin stirred himself upright, Little Fu lost his balance from the movement of the ship, and clutched at the wooden railing to keep from falling over.

“I don’t think you can squat on board a ship,” said Weilin. “Look, the sailors are all sitting.”

“I feel sick,” replied Little Fu. “I want to throw up.”

Weilin went over to where Asan was talking to the three fishermen. They were talking in their own dialect, but explaining with sign language as they went.

“Can you understand them?” asked Weilin.

“Yeah, more or less. I think they’re telling me, if we see a boat to go downstairs. He means the coast guard, I guess. They don’t want the sticks to know they have passengers. We should investigate downstairs, try to find some hiding places.”

Which is what Asan was doing when the boat arrived, late the next day. It was not a coast guard boat, though, but a motorized sailing junk very much like their own, except for the machine gun mounted in its prow. Weilin and Little Fu were up on deck, thinking the new arrival was another fishing boat until they saw the machine-gun, by which point it was too late to go below. No sooner had they seen it than it fired, stitching a neat line of holes across the junk’s sail. Their hosts brought down the sail. They did not seem afraid, only subdued. Weilin caught the eye of one of the nephews. His expression was unmistakable: Your luck just ran out. Nothing I can do.

The visitors came right alongside, cutting their engine, grappling to the boat’s railing with poles and jumping up on to the deck. Four of them came aboard, all with the burnt, ageless look of these sea people. They were barefoot and wore shorts, like the fishermen. Two of them wore nothing else at all. Of the others, one was wearing a white T-shirt of surprising cleanliness, brilliant white against his burnt umber skin, with a picture printed on it somehow—the head of a cow, with unnaturally long horns—and some English words Weilin could not understand: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS. This character also had a lurid red-and-white bandanna wrapped round his head, and sported a machete in a leather holster at his waist. The fourth man wore a rather smart maroon vest, unbuttoned, over his bare torso.

Red Bandanna seemed to be the leader. He went to the older brother and began yelling at him. Maroon Vest stood behind him, eyes scanning the deck. The two others went below, shinnying expertly down the hatch.

Red Bandanna went on yelling at the three fishermen for some time. The fishermen shrugged, spread their arms and shook their heads, invulnerable in their poverty. Nothing worth stealing.

The two who had gone below reappeared, the old man between them, but no Asan. There was more yelling, with all the visitors joining in; but the yelling had a quality of ritual display about it, and the visitors’ eyes were already wandering from the fishermen, looking around at the boat, at the fittings, at Weilin and Little Fu standing by the netting at the stern. Weilin wished he could disappear.

Now Red Bandanna was asking the old man about them, pointing at them, barking short interrogatives. The old man shrugged, mumbling, pointing at Little Fu. Red Bandanna came over to Little Fu. He took the machete from its sheath and held it with the point against Little Fu’s breastbone. Little Fu fainted, actually falling against Red Bandanna, who pushed him back on to the netting.

They stripped Little Fu, tearing his clothes apart by the seams, until he was naked. They found the oil-paper bundle in his shorts. Red Bandanna opened it up, the others clustered round to see. They all whooped at the sight of the bank notes. Little Fu was face-down on the nets, either still unconscious or just prudently feigning it. Red Bandanna looked down at him, said something, and they all laughed. He lay down on top of Little Fu, fiddling with the front of his own shorts; then went into a kind of rhythmic pushing motion—up and down, up and down. Little Fu seemed to come up and down part of the way with him on each motion, but showed no other sign of life.

After a certain amount of this Red Bandanna got up, and the others one by one repeated his actions. Little Fu made no sound during all this. When the last of the four had got up, Red Bandanna lifted his machete very high then brought it down fast, making a tsokk sound. Little Fu’s bare legs, which were all Weilin could see of him from his position, jerked out straight in spasm. Red Bandanna lifted the machete a second time, inky droplets flying from the blade as it rose, and tsokk again. Now Little Fu’s head was rolling along the deck, over and over, passing not six inches from where Weilin was standing petrified. As the head rolled it left a splash of color on the deck, like a footprint, after each revolution, until it came to rest at last against the far railing, to dribble the last of its liquid contents into the scuppers. Two of the men lifted Little Fu’s body, blood still pumping from the neck in braided shafts of vivid crimson, and threw it over the stern. The fishermen were watching the whole thing with, so far as Weilin could make out, perfect lack of interest. Still he dared not move. He felt his bladder go, then his bowels.

Now Red Bandanna came over to inspect Weilin. He looked him up and down without expression for a moment, then his face split in a grin. His teeth were the same dark brown as his skin, his eyes pitiless, the eyes of a demon. Weilin was paralyzed with terror, the gazelle in the jaws of the lion. In the heat of the day he had left off his pants, was wearing only the shorts and T-shirt he used as underwear in the north. Of course the visitors could see that he had voided himself. They thought it a great joke, pointing and laughing. One of them leaned past Red Bandanna to pinch the flesh of Weilin’s arm.

Weilin stepped back from sheer reflex. Red Bandanna frowned, and reached out to grab him; but slipped on the waste that had dropped from Weilin’s shorts, and lost his balance. He grabbed at his companion instead, to prevent himself falling, and Weilin, woken now from catalepsy, turned, ran four long paces, and dived clean over the rail.

When he came up he was twenty meters from the ship. Red Bandanna was at the rail, looking down at him, then turning to call instructions to someone. Weilin was at the rear of the ship, on the opposite side from the other vessel. It took them some time to get the machine-gun to their stern. By the time they could fire at him he was a hundred meters away. The bullets made a cheerful bok-bok-bok as they hit the water.

After three or four bursts the machine-gun stopped. Weilin could hear them shouting, but he did not look back now, only swam, as hard as he could. When he felt sufficiently safe to roll over and look back, the two ships were a very great distance away, and had separated. The one on the right, the pirate vessel, had hoisted its sail. Weilin wondered if they meant to come after him, but they sailed away without turning, disappearing at last in the evening haze. The fishing-boat stayed in view longer, but finally she too slipped from sight, and Weilin was alone in the ocean.

Weilin felt no fear, his capacity for fear having perhaps been exhausted. He recalled that the fishing-boat had been sailing parallel to the coast, their occasional glimpses of land always to the right of their line of travel; so he turned ninety degrees to his right and began to swim.

Darkness came down quickly, sweeping across the water from the east. The moon rose; a full moon, or nearly so, but visible only as a smear of rich silver on the clouds. Weilin swam on. When his arms got tired he paused to float on his back, as he had floated on the river in the far northeast, the river whose name he had never bothered to discover, the current then always taking him back past the laughter of small children to his starting-point on the road home to Mother at Flat All Around. He wondered briefly what currents were active here, out on the great heaving ocean, far from any human sound—but firmly pushed down the thought and its trailing tendrils of terror, turning instead to regret at the recollection of his few scanty possessions left in the fishing boat, especially that last photograph of Mother and Father … but then remembering, with quite disproportionate joy, that he had been carrying Mother’s red plastic hair clip in the pocket of his shorts as a sentimental talisman, and had it still, and could feel it there with his hand if he paused to tread water.

Weilin swam on, without fear or hope. The very motion of swimming seemed inconsequential in the vast movements of the sea, in the slow swell that lifted him up high then lowered him down according to its own immemorial rhythms; and yet there was nothing to do, after all, but swim, for as long as he was able to. At the top of the swell he sometimes saw lights far off. Whether they were the lights of ships, or of the shore, he could not tell. Each light would glimmer for a while at the utmost edge of vision, then disappear. Phosphorescence danced in meaningless patterns on the dark surface of the water. The moon crossed the sky and began to descend. The beginnings of exhaustion tugged at his will; but he would not accept them, still swam on.

And so he swam, all through the long night, under the veiled moon. And as the clouds hid the face of the moon (thus Weilin reflected, in his diminishing spells of clear thought), so they hid Weilin himself from the eyes of Heaven, so that the Immortals above, unable to see him, were indifferent to his fate, whatever it might be, wearily swimming alone out there on the infinite warm dark ocean.

Chapter 12

If You Don’t Love Opera, You’re Not a Human Being

Half Brother Answers Chairman Mao’s Call

Somehow—Yuezhu never understood the details—the different factions in the Cultural Revolution fell to fighting. The fighting went on for months. It would quiesce for a while, then flare up again. From the barracks where Yuezhu’s family lived they could hear the sounds of the fighting in the town. Mostly it was just the crackle of small-arms fire; but once, for several days, they heard a whump-whump sound which Half Brother said was field mortars. Yuezhu was not clear about mortars, so Half Brother had drawn an elaborate diagram for her, explaining the mechanism. Half Brother knew everything.

While all this fighting was going on Father wouldn’t allow them to go out. Half Brother wanted to go out anyway, but the barracks’ perimeter guards sent him back. The army was supposed to keep out of the fighting. This was on the orders of the very senior leaders in Beijing, including Marshal Lin Biao himself, so nobody dared disobey. Of course Half Brother and Yuezhu, being of an army family even though not actually in the army, came under the prohibition. The schools and colleges were all closed in any event, so there was no reason to go out.

Half Brother stayed at home with Yuezhu. He taught her card games like Eight Eyes and Imperial Family, and Chinese chess. He let her sit with him while he listened to the radio, and explained the dramas and news programs to her. Of course Half Brother knew all about history, and could give her the background to what they were hearing: the cruelty of the Japanese during their colonial rule in China, the arrogance of the American Imperialists trying to stifle the brave people of Vietnam, the treachery and dishonesty of the Russian Hegemonists, who had betrayed all of Lenin’s and Stalin’s ideals.

“Only we Chinese have the true spirit of revolution now,” said Half Brother. “It’s our duty, our sacred duty, to carry that spirit forward, to make a new society for the enlightenment of all mankind.”

“But wasn’t that what we were trying to do when we were Red Guards?” asked Yuezhu. “Yet the Red Guards were disbanded, and now we’re not allowed to be Red Guards any more.”

Half Brother smiled at her naivety. “It’s not a simple thing, to make revolution,” he said. “There are many twists and turns on the path. Chairman Mao understands everything, we must listen to him, try to understand his great Thoughts, and follow his instructions.”

Yuezhu didn’t see how she could carry out Chairman Mao’s instructions cooped up in the barracks. Some of Chairman Mao’s instructions were, in any case, very hard to figure out. “Examine the essence of a thing and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the door,” for example. How exactly were you supposed to do that? When she asked Half Brother these things he just laughed and said: “You can’t understand it until you’ve had some revolutionary experience.”

She would have liked to ask Father, who had had even more revolutionary experience than Half Brother, but Father was especially unapproachable at this period. He spent a lot of his time in meetings, from which he always came back frowning and irritable. Yuezhu had the impression, anyway, that Father did not have much taste for political or philosophical matters. There had been some blazing rows in Half Brother’s Red Guard days, Father yelling that revolution meant more than just breaking windows and beating people up, Half Brother yelling back that people like Father, raised before Liberation, could never bring themselves to make a full break with the Four Olds.

On the few occasions when Father expressed himself on public matters, it was with a tone of disgust. “Fucking civilians!” he snarled once, when one of the warring factions, needing weapons, broke into an ammo dump belonging to the army. “Troublemakers!” Another time, while the family was sitting down to dinner, they heard the tramp of many feet and a marching song being sung on the street leading into town, which passed close to the barracks. “I wonder what’s happening,” said Mother. “Oh,” said Father, “one bunch of idiots going to blow up another bunch of idiots, I suppose. In the end they’ll call us in to clean up the mess.”

Father’s mood was not improved by the sudden unheralded arrival of Uncle Fish. Uncle Fish was Mother’s older brother. He lived with his wife, mother and twin adolescent girls in Chengdu, the provincial capital, which was also Mother’s home town. In Chengdu, apparently, the fighting was very fierce. Anybody who had a safe place to go to had left. People had gone to relatives in the countryside. Seven Kill Stele was too big to be considered countryside, and the fighting in the town seemed just as bad as it could possibly be in Chengdu; but everyone knew that an army barracks was the safest place to be living at this point in the Cultural Revolution. So Uncle Fish had packed up his family, with their quilts and cooking pots, and taken a train to Seven Kill Stele to throw himself on Father’s mercy.

Father had grumbled a great deal but could not send his in-laws back to Chengdu while the fighting was going on. Two or three other families in the compound were in the same situation. Some sleeping accommodation was found in the soldiers’ and nurses’ huts, extra rations were approved somehow, and Uncle Fish and his family lived with the People’s Liberation Army that winter and spring.

Uncle Fish was actually named Jiang, which was of course Mother’s maiden name. He seemed decent and kind, if somewhat lost in the military environment, and Yuezhu liked him. However, there was no denying he looked like a fish. His head was flattened in the vertical plane, and had no chin, and his eyes were small and round. It had been Half Brother, always looking for something satirical or derogatory to say about Mother’s side of the family, who had christened him “Uncle Fish.” Once Yuezhu had heard the appellation, she could never think of Uncle Fish in any other way.

The Fishes were at even more of a loose end in the barracks than anyone else. The military people at least had some legitimate occupation: drill, training, political education, maintenance. The Fishes, like Yuezhu and Half Brother, had nothing to do at all. Yuezhu’s parents’ apartment was too small to accommodate them all at once, and the Fishes were never quite at ease when Father was there, knowing they were imposing on him, so they tended to turn up in ones and twos at odd times when Father was at a meeting, to sit and talk, or, in the case of the women, play cards. Half Brother, following Father’s lead, was somewhat standoffish with them and inclined to drop sarcastic remarks about the great good fortune of those whose close relatives have married into the military.

Yuezhu, on the other hand, was always glad to see them. Auntie Fish was an educated woman from a family who had had some position before Liberation. She knew all the old classic novels and stories, which Yuezhu was hardly acquainted with yet, though Half Brother had an abridged, illustrated version of the Three Kingdoms he had allowed her to read. Auntie Fish could recite poetry and sing folk songs. She knew dozens of varieties of Cat’s Cradle, could play foot-shuttlecock better than anyone Yuezhu had ever seen, and knew every card game under the sun. Mother, who had no education and never acted a day less than her age, clearly felt a little oppressed by her sister-in-law, so Yuezhu, from filial piety, deliberately tried not to be too interested in Auntie Fish; but it wasn’t easy.

Uncle Fish was very musical. He could play the flute, so he said, both end-blown and transverse, and the erhu, which he was able to prove, having brought one with him. [The erhu is a two-string Chinese fiddle.] Sometimes he accompanied Auntie Fish in a folk song. His real passion, though, was opera.

The province they lived in, Sichuan, had its own style of opera. The stories were for the most part the same as the ones in Beijing opera, some of which Yuezhu already knew by osmosis; but everything was sung in the local dialect and there were some special instruments and make-up effects not used elsewhere. Uncle Fish knew everything about Sichuan opera. He had even begun to train as an opera singer when he was young, but opposition from his family and the changes in everybody’s affairs that had come with Liberation had put an end to it. Until the Cultural Revolution came up there had been opera performances every week in Chengdu, and Uncle Fish had hardly missed one, he said. He could sing entire operas, taking all the parts. He made a creditable job of acting out some of the roles, too, and even Half Brother could not help laughing at his version of the white-nosed judge in Fifteen Strings of Cash.

“If you don’t love opera, you’re not a human being,” said Uncle Fish, quoting an old saw, after accompanying himself on the erhu through practically the whole of The Jade Hairpin.

“That’s all very well,” said Half Brother. “But these operas you sing are very reactionary. They belong to the old society. We should have some new operas for New China.”

“You are right, of course,” said Uncle Fish, who was a cautious man. “You young people will show us the way.”

After that Uncle Fish told his opera stories with many asides about the darkness and oppression of the feudal society in which they were set, to show that he had a correct attitude. It was clear to Yuezhu, though, even at the age of ten, that these asides were “feet drawn on a snake,” and she discarded them automatically when listening. It was from Uncle Fish that Yuezhu learned all the stories of the old operas, and in later life she often wondered whether her fate had been determined in part, in spite of all her own inclinations, by some gene passed down through her mother’s family, a gene she shared with Uncle Fish.


Father’s prediction about the course of events proved correct. Shortly before the Spring Festival the following year—1968, theYear of the Monkey—the loudspeakers around the barracks compound, which for weeks had played only martial music, began broadcasting exhortations to Clean Up the Class Ranks. Squads of soldiers, five abreast, marched out of the gates early one morning, with jeeps towing artillery pieces. Father disappeared for several days, leaving very strict instructions to Half Brother and Yuezhu not to leave the barracks.

The instructions were superfluous. The perimeter guards allowed no-one in or out, and the sounds of fighting in the town were sufficiently discouraging in any case, with fearsome roaring and crashing noises added to the rattle of machine guns and the thump of mortars. The noise did not scare Yuezhu. It was too remote, too abstract, and in any case there were still plenty of soldiers in the barracks to defend them. She only felt scared once, when she was going to the boiler-house to fetch hot water, and happened to see the front gate opened. It was opened for two soldiers pulling a handcart. The soldiers were red-faced, dusty and sweating, trying to run while pulling the heavy handcart, whose heaviness was caused by the presence on it of four or five other soldiers lying fore-and-aft, all covered in blood. The soldiers pulling the handcart were shouting in desperate, exhausted, angry voices, and one of those on the cart was emitting a terrible continuous thin wailing noise, like a ghost. They made off in the direction of the infirmary, and Yuezhu ran back to the apartment, forgetting her hot water altogether.

Father came home at last. His manner was much better, the irritation and disgust apparently dispelled. Everything everywhere was better. The noises of fighting from the town had stopped, and the prohibition on leaving the barracks was lifted. Fighting had stopped in Chengdu, too, according to Father’s information, and the Fishes packed up their quilts and pots and erhu and went home, with many smiling declarations of gratitude to Father and Mother. Yuezhu, though not Half Brother, went to the railroad station with Mother and Father to see them off.

Yuezhu had not often been into the town, and did not know it well, but it seemed to her that some of the buildings had recently fallen down. Around the railroad station there were several ruins, jagged shapeless walls and heaps of rubble. The facade of the station itself was pockmarked all over, and a big round hole high on one side was being roughly filled with bricks and plaster by a team of workers up on bamboo scaffolding. The ticket hall inside was a mess. Big-character posters had been stuck all over the walls and were now being scraped off. Their scrapings mingled on the floor with broken glass from the windows, splintered wood from a hole in the ceiling, fragments of plaster and concrete.

Oddly, Father seemed pleased to see the mess. “They ran like chickens when they saw the People’s Liberation Army,” he said to Uncle Fish, and chuckled. Uncle Fish chuckled too, though without Father’s true enthusiasm.


Very soon after this, matters at home became tense again. Father was clearly worried about something. He had a long private talk with Half Brother, and the result was that Half Brother became thoughtful and quiet. Mother, too, seemed to be infected by Father’s worry, whatever it was—rather severely, for Yuezhu heard her weeping one night. It seemed odd that Mother and Father should be so worried, and Half Brother so quiet, as everyone else in the barracks was in high spirits, and all the noises of fighting in the town had stopped. It was a week before Yuezhu could get up the nerve to ask Half Brother what they were all so anxious about.

“Anxious?” Half Brother laughed. “I’m not anxious. I’m certainly ready to answer Chairman Mao’s call.”

“What is he calling for?” asked Yuezhu.

“Why, he wants us educated youth to go into the countryside and learn from the poor and lower-middle peasants.”

This did not seem so very bad to Yuezhu. The peasants were very wise, as everybody knew, and it was quite proper that people should go to learn from them. It was only after several days, from fragments of her parents’conversation she overheard, and from various clues in the speeches on the loudspeakers, that Yuezhu got an idea what was happening.

The Red Guards were all washed up and all the factions had been suppressed. The army was in charge of everything. The Red Guards had gone too far, and those young people who had been the most prominent Red Guards were to be sent to the countryside to correct their thinking by learning from the peasants. Half Brother was one of these young people, of course. Yuezhu was not; nobody had really paid any attention to the Little Red Guards. She felt oddly confused about this. On the one hand she felt annoyed that her Little Red Guard activities, which she had taken very seriously at the time, should count for so little. On the other she felt secretly, guiltily glad that she would not have to leave Mother and Father and the apartment to go and live with strange peasants in a strange place.

It seemed that Half Brother himself did not mind being sent down to the countryside; but that, Yuezhu thought, was his nature—to follow Chairman Mao’s call selflessly, enthusiastically. Half Brother was a true revolutionary! But she was sad to think she would not be able to see him every day, as she had been used to. She knew, of course, that she would not be allowed to go to the countryside with him, though part of her wanted to go, in spite of the separation from Mother and Father. She made the suggestion anyway, but Father just laughed at her.

“You? Eleven years old?” (She was not quite ten at that point, in fact, but Father counted age in the old style: a year old at birth, a year older every Spring Festival.) “What could you learn from the peasants? You’d just be in their way!”

But although she knew that Half Brother was glad to answer Chairman Mao’s call, she perceived that Father and Mother were unhappy about this policy. Mother was unhappy because (she told Yuezhu frankly when asked) she thought the assignment would be permanent, and Half Brother would have to spend all his life as a peasant. Father was unhappy because some of his colleagues had avoided similar situations by getting their sons and daughters into the army by the back door, but Father felt this was against his principles. Father hated these back doors, and even hated to hear anyone speak of them.

“I was too revolutionary,” explained Half Brother over dinner one evening. “If you’ve been too revolutionary, you can’t go into the army.”

Why should Half Brother’s having been revolutionary prevent him joining the army? Yuezhu wanted to know. Wasn’t the People’s Liberation Army the beating heart of the revolution? (Repeating a phrase she had heard at school once.) “The more revolutionary the better, I should have thought.”

Father frowned at her over his uplifted rice bowl—they were all there at the dinner table. “It’s not so simple,” said Mother on his behalf. “There are different kinds of ‘revolutionary.’”

Father, when he had finished shoveling rice into his mouth, waved his chopsticks angrily. “You women,” he said, “keep your noses out of what you can’t understand! He’s going to the countryside, that’s all, to learn from hard experience. It won’t hurt him. Do him good, probably.”

I don’t mind,” affirmed Half Brother. “Chairman Mao told us we must learn from the poor and lower-middle peasants. Well, I’m ready to learn.”

So Half Brother went to the countryside early that summer. Yuezhu helped Mother pack up some food for the journey, along with his toothbrush, spare socks and underwear, and one or two books. He was getting a ride in an army truck to a village with the peculiar, yet reassuring, name “White Rice,” where the road ended. After that he would have to walk. Three other ex-Red Guards from the town were also going on assignments to that district, so they came to the barracks to ride in the truck with Half Brother. Yuezhu felt sad to see them ride off in the truck. She would have cried, but Half Brother and his comrades were so cheerful, waving to those behind, singing a revolutionary song:

Chairman Mao’s book is the thing I most love to read!

A thousand, ah, ten thousand times

I must apply myself

To understand his Thoughts!


In the fall Half Brother fell ill with a gastric infection. Some kind of worm (said Mother to a neighbor), which to Yuezhu sounded dreadful. A worm! Inside Half Brother’s belly! It sounded terrifying and disgusting all at once, and she desperately wanted to go with Mother, but Father wouldn’t allow it. He wasn’t even keen on Mother’s going.

“So much fuss over a bellyache!” said Father. “In my day we just slogged on regardless, and sooner or later you forgot about aches and pains. You kids nowadays are pampered.”

Mother went anyway, walking for days over the rough mountain tracks to the remote unit Half Brother had been assigned to, to take him medicine. But still Yuezhu was not allowed to go, because of school. She fretted and pined on Half Brother’s behalf until Mother came back. Half Brother alone in that remote place, with a black worm inside him! (She had not actually heard that the worm was black; but in her imagination it seemed that it must be so—an evil, black, glistening worm.) What if Half Brother were to die! She hurried the thought away, trying desperately not to think it, because if you could think it, then it could happen, and that would be unbearable.

In fact when Mother came back, tired and thin, with blisters all over her feet, she said that Half Brother was much better and the worm had been got rid of somehow. At once Yuezhu found herself thinking—shamefully, guiltily—that she didn’t want Half Brother to be completely better, for if he needed to convalesce he would probably come home to do so, and she would be near him again.

The reason she had not been allowed to go to the mountains with Mother was that school had restarted in September, and Father insisted she attend to her lessons. Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams had gone round the province restoring order, telling the students that since all the bad elements among the teachers had been purged, they should now return to their books and not disrupt the lessons or put up big-character posters. Some of the students had still wanted to make revolution, but the Teams had criticized them severely, telling them that they, the Teams, had been sent out by Chairman Mao himself. In Yuezhu’s class, after some of the boys had shouted revolutionary slogans at the history teacher, the Team had made everybody spend a whole day studying an article in the People’s Daily written by Marshal Lin Biao, who (as everyone knew) was Chairman Mao’s closest comrade-in-arms and most trusted confidante. Marshal Lin had stressed the need for order and discipline, and asked the young people of the country to emulate the men and women of the People’s Liberation Army, who kept their discipline even under the stress of battle.

“They thought they could run the show without us,” Yuezhu overheard Father say to Mother one evening while she was preparing for bed. “They thought they could run it without us, but they never could.”


In April the next year, the Year of the Chicken, when Yuezhu reached her eleventh birthday according to the modern reckoning, Half Brother came home.

He was coming home for good, or at any rate was never going back to the countryside; and the reason for this was that he was to go into the army after all. There had been some shift of policy, and he was no longer considered too revolutionary to be a soldier. The birthday party was really more of a coming-home party, or perhaps enlistment party, for Half Brother.

Father did not altogether approve of birthday parties. He said they were a relic of bourgeois society and the landlord style of living. He would not let anybody celebrate his own birthday; he would not even tell anybody when it was, though Mother said she had heard from his own mother that Father had been born on some date in November, and that his sign was the Dog, the same as Yuezhu and Half Brother; and Yuezhu, working it out by herself from an almanac, had figured Father’s birth year to be 1922. Still, Mother had always managed to make something nice for Yuezhu’s birthdays, and Father had never seemed to mind, so long as there was no great fuss about it.

So now the big circular table was full of dishes, a real banquet. There was chicken, of course, since Half Brother had not been able to share the Spring Festival dinner with them, when they had welcomed in the Year of the Chicken. Fish and round dumplings for the same reason, these being traditional Spring Festival food. Lotus root, because of the saying “Though the Lotus Root is Broken, the Threads Still Connect” (referring to the tiny silken ligaments that run through a lotus root, and to the bonds that keep human beings connected even when physically far apart). Dog meat, because Father, Half Brother and Yuezhu were all Dogs. Sweet round tangyuan ravioli, so that everything should be smooth and round for Half Brother’s career in the army, and for Yuezhu’s twelfth year in the world. There were green vegetables, water chestnuts and sweet potatoes, and a soup made from fragrant leaves. Mother—normally an unadventurous cook—had even attempted some of those small “lip-tingling mouth-burning” delicacies that are the delight of the Sichuan people: spicy granny bean curd, stick chicken, “husband-and-wife” lung slices, wonton in red oil. It was the most elaborate meal Yuezhu could remember. So elaborate she was a little anxious (and suspected Mother was, too) that Father, who detested all kinds of luxury and ostentation, would frown at it.

To the contrary, Father was in the best of good humors. He took down a bottle of Five Grain Liquor which had been on the shelf in their living-room for as long as Yuezhu could remember, and dusted it off and opened it, and poured tiny cups for himself and Half Brother. Half Brother seemed thinner than Yuezhu remembered him, but he had a good tan, and his complexion had cleared up. He seemed happy and excited about going into the army.

“Does it mean you’ll stay here with us for ever?” asked Yuezhu.

They all laughed at her. “Half Brother will have to go wherever the authorities assign him,” said Mother, smiling at her. “It’s not likely they’ll let him stay here. See, your Father joined the army in Shanxi Province, way up in the North; but he’s been assigned all over the country.”

“I’m ready to go wherever they send me,” said Half Brother proudly, reaching over the table for a piece of lotus. “The Party’s will is my will.”

He was so noble! Yuezhu was torn between pride at Half Brother’s courage and revolutionary ardor, and apprehension at his being taken away from them again to be posted to some distant army unit. So noble!—going willingly to the countryside in answer to Chairman Mao’s call, to learn wisdom from the peasants (Yuezhu of course did not know that he had spent practically all his time there prostrate with dysentery), and now ready to don a soldier’s uniform and go to the ends of the earth to defend Chairman Mao and the revolution.

Father made a toast, pouring out the Five Grain Liquor into three tiny cups—Mother, somewhat against her will (she said liquor made her feel ill) joining them in the toast. Yuezhu made the toast, too. She was not allowed to drink liquor, of course. Mother had got a bottle of sweetened pineapple juice from somewhere, and Yuezhu had been drinking that from a beaker. When Father called out “Raise Cups!” she lifted her beaker and the others their cups, and Father made a toast to the Ninth Party Congress, which was just then assembling in Beijing.

“To the leaders of our country and our party,” said Father, “and to the people’s representatives. Success to the Ninth Party Congress!”

“Success to the Ninth Party Congress!” they all repeated.


Yuezhu and her classmates heard a great deal about the Ninth Party Congress over the next few weeks. They had to read all the resolutions in class, over and over again, with little in the way of explanation from the teachers. With the best will in the world, Yuezhu found it dull stuff. The only things she could extract from it all, all the resolutions and editorials, were that the army was to cultivate Mao Zedong thought, and that Marshal Lin Biao was more important than ever. Now, when there was a slogan to remember, or a Thought For The Day, it seemed to come from Marshal Lin as often as from Chairman Mao.

In the middle of all this, Half Brother went off to his training unit, in the north of the province. It would probably be next Spring Festival before he could get any leave, he said, and even then leave was not always given. Someone had to defend the country even at Spring Festival, after all.

Mother and Yuezhu went with him to the railroad station. Father did not go, saying it was wrong to make a fuss about these things. The mess in the town had been cleaned up now. The ruined buildings still looked very stark, but were beginning to be softened by grass and weeds coming up around and inside them. The ticket hall of the railroad station was as good as new: broken windows replaced, walls repainted, a huge chandelier installed, and a big framed reproduction of one of Chairman Mao’s Thoughts, in his own script, put high up on the wall: TAKE CLASS STRUGGLE AS THE KEY!

The train did not stop long enough in Seven Kill Stele to allow them to get on with Half Brother. They said their good-byes through the opened window.

“Remember to eat rice every chance you get,” said Mother. “If they send you north it will be hard to get rice. Nothing but noodles up there!”

“Write me a letter as soon as you’re allowed to,” said Yuezhu, on the edge of tears.

“Make revolution to the end!” yelled back Half Brother from the departing train, grinning at Yuezhu—a Red Guard again, for one last time.

Chapter 13

A Startling Demonstration of the Power of Poetry

Peach Blossom Lets Down the School

After Half Brother had gone life seemed very flat and empty again. Yuezhu thought Mother missed him, too, in spite of all the trouble Half Brother had had accepting her. With Half Brother around it had seemed there was always something interesting happening, or about to happen—always some new aspect of the world to be revealed. Now there was only school, the activities associated with school—Youth League, for example—and the apartment in the barracks, seeming so quiet and dull now.

Even school was not as interesting as before. Many of the teachers had been struggled in the Red Guard period and the experience had made them cautious and reluctant to impose discipline. Most of the students were glad to be back at school—there was little else for them to do in Seven Kill Stele—but of course there was a bad element who misbehaved. The Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team was still in the town, and sometimes they came to the school to give a talk or lead the students in some voluntary activity. The leader of the team was a fierce square woman named Cui, with a voice like metal scraping metal. Everyone was scared of her, and when she was in the school even the worst students bent their heads over their desks in silence. At other times, though, it was difficult to work for the talking and laughing in class.

The work itself was much less interesting than Yuezhu remembered. Cowed and miserable, the teachers played safe, saying little, leading the class through rote drills or editorials from People’s Daily. There was no attempt to interpret or explain the material; they just read it, each student taking a turn at three or four sentences, the bolder teachers correcting pronunciation.

There was one teacher, Teacher Bai, who seemed especially to like having Yuezhu read. He called on her in turn, but always let her read longer than the others, and if the whole class had read and there was still time in the lesson he would go back to her. Yuezhu thought it was because her Mandarin was so much better than the others’; but he soon made it plain that it was the voice itself he liked, the actual sound of her voice.

“Such a fine voice!” he exclaimed once to the whole class. “Like a bell! You students should all emulate Han Yuezhu. Learn to speak up bold and clear like her! We want the whole world to know about our achievements under socialism, and about the teachings of our Great Helmsman Mao Zedong! Let’s all sing out loud and clear like HanYuezhu!”

Yuezhu liked this, of course. It was good to be a model student. The others—except the bad elements, of course—would look up to you, and you would be asked to address the school on public occasions. She wished it had not been Teacher Bai who singled her out, though. The students all thought he was a little eccentric. He had been badly struggled by the Red Guards, sent to the countryside for a spell, and his wife had left him, taking herself and their baby—Teacher Bai was no more than thirty—back to her home village. Now Teacher Bai was a “bird who takes fright at the sound of the bow.” He never spoke a sentence without including some revolutionary phrases. Somehow, though, he always seemed slightly off-key with his modes of expression, coming out with things that had been current in ’66 or ’67 but had since fallen by the wayside. “Chairman Mao is the Red Red Sun Shining in our Hearts,” he said once; and one or two of the students snickered. There was nothing definitely wrong with the expression, of course; it had been a favorite of the Red Guards in ’66, and of course they all loved Chairman Mao; it was just that nobody said this any more. All Teacher Bai’s revolutionary rhetoric was like that—like a radio slightly off-station.

History, Literature and Russian seemed to have disappeared from the curriculum. Yuezhu had disliked History and been too young for Russian, which had only been taught to the senior year, but she missed Literature. Before the Cultural Revolution her class had been reading Red Cliff, a novel from the early sixties about the Liberation struggles in the southwest. Yuezhu had thought it exciting, and wanted to finish it; but everyone seemed to have forgotten about it, and she had had no copy of her own. Seven Kill Stele’s only bookstore had been looted, then closed, by the Red Guards, and when it reopened sold only party tracts and technical manuals for the peasants, all about fish-stocking and the diseases of pigs.


With Half Brother gone, the spring and summer of that first year back at school were tedious, a gray blur in her later recollection. At the end of the year, however, the students put on a show for the graduating class in the school auditorium. A choir was selected from each class, and they sang revolutionary songs: “Socialism is Good For Us,” “Upholding the Red Flag,” and the “Internationale.” A team from the senior class, directed by their teacher, declaimed some of Chairman Mao’s poems. And Yuezhu, together with three other girls who had been Little Red Guards, danced the “Loyalty to Chairman Mao Dance.” It was the most exciting thing Yuezhu had done since dancing the same Loyalty Dance at the Martyrs’ Monument when she was a Little Red Guard—right up there on the stage, in front of the whole school, with all the teachers and the leaders of the Revolutionary Committee (every work unit now had a Revolutionary Committee to manage its affairs). The dance was well received, the audience clapping their hands for a long time, the Revolutionary Committee all smiling with pleasure.

Presumably as a result of this pleasure the Revolutionary Committee started a dance group at the school. Beginning the following semester the dance group practiced after lessons every Tuesday and Thursday. Yuezhu wished it could have been every day of the week, but the schedule was set by the teachers, who had little enough time to themselves, what with administrative duties, Political Study meetings, and the endless tiresome trudging of streets and standing on line for food, for clothing, for medicine, for repairs, for permits.

Yuezhu’s best friend in the dance group was Taohua. The name meant “Peach Blossom,” but it was not in fact the girl’s real name. She belonged to one of the National Minorities, her people part of the racial salad of the southwestern highlands, and they had their own language and she had a name in that language. She told Yuezhu the name once as they walked together to the refectory for lunch, but it was so strange Yuezhu could not hold it in her mind.

Taohua could speak the local dialect of Chinese—though with an odd, sing-song accent—but Mandarin not at all. She had been brought up in one of the minority villages in the mountains to the west, beyond Mount Tan, but during the Cleaning Up the Class Ranks period her father, who was headman of the village and a Party member, had been assigned to the Minorities Bureau office in the town, the previous staff of the office having been scattered during the factional fighting. Taohua and her mother still went back to the village in vacations, though. She was the youngest of an immense number—eleven or twelve, she was not sure—of sisters, the eldest of whom were married to village men. She often told Yuezhu about life in the village. It sounded very primitive, living among the animals, no electricity or heating, no toilet paper (they used a handful of grass, she told Yuezhu, giggling), strange rituals and ceremonies no-one could remember the meaning of, ghosts lurking in the darkness beyond the cleared area at night.

You couldn’t call Taohua pretty. She had dark skin, thick lips and a flat nose. However, she was a natural-born dancer. She was much better than Yuezhu. Yuezhu knew this in her inmost heart, though she would never have said it out loud. Sometimes, as they went through the group exercises, she felt that everything she did was just striving, striving hopelessly, to attain Taohua’s grace and fluency of movement. Taohua said her people could all dance, and whenever there was a public occasion—a wedding, New Year, harvest home—the whole of her village would dance all night. They even danced at funerals, she said: appropriate dances, grave and slow, accompanied only by slow tapping on a drum. It made Yuezhu’s flesh creep to hear this, but she thought it might not be polite to say anything.

The National Minorities were very primitive and backward in their customs, of course. Under the leadership of the Party they were being shown a modern way of life, but you couldn’t expect them to change all at once. With this settled conviction in her mind—everybody knew the Minorities were backward—Yuezhu was astonished when Taohua told her that the people of her tribe laughed behind their backs at the Chinese and called them The People Who Couldn’t Dance.

Yuezhu herself laughed out loud at the time, at the absurdity of Minority people looking down on their Elder Brother Chinese; and Taohua laughed with her, somewhat nervously, perhaps thinking she had spoken out of turn. Later, alone, Yuezhu felt indignant about the remark, and resolved to show Taohua that she could dance just as well as anyone from a grass hut in some godforsaken mountain village. Along with her indignation, she felt some unease. It was true, after all, that nearly all the dances they practiced were from one Minority or other—Tibetan, Yi, Miao, Dai, Korean. There was only one dance associated with the Han Chinese, the rather feeble yangge, which none of them really took seriously. Well (Yuezhu reflected), it might be true that her ancestors had been somewhat remiss in the field of dance, having been too busy civilizing All Under Heaven; but it was still inconceivable that Minority peoples, who were only half-way from being monkeys, could out-perform Chinese at anything.

For all her backwardness, Taohua was in some ways very worldly. Some of the things she knew, things she knew from her sisters or from living so close to the animals, were really disgraceful. She knew, or claimed to know, everything about the private relations between men and women, for example. One day she favoredYuezhu with a full account.

Yuezhu stared at her, quite unable to credit the fantastic tale. “You’re crazy,” she said, and laughed. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard! Why would people do such a thing?”

“It’s how babies are started. Married people all do it.”

“Nonsense!” Yuezhu could not exclude a fleeting thought about her own mother and father doing this thing—but the thought was too absurd to be tolerated, and she dismissed it at once. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “It’s nonsense, I don’t believe it.”

Taohua seemed not to want to press her point. Notwithstanding her worldliness in these particular things, she deferred to Yuezhu, who of course was pure Han Chinese, as being wiser and smarter than herself. She did, however, say: “Well, the thing about the jiba being hard and stiff is definitely true. Sometimes you can see Teacher Bai’s. It makes his pants stick out in front.”

For a week or two after that Yuezhu, in spite of her doubts, could not resist looking at Teacher Bai’s pants to see if his jiba was sticking out. However Teacher Bai was always standing when in class, or walking about, and his dark-blue pants were quite baggy, so she could make nothing out. Soon she forgot Taohua’s absurd tale.

Then one day in early spring, soon before Yuezhu’s twelfth birthday, after giving her a particularly long passage to read out in class, Teacher Bai asked Yuezhu to stay behind when the other students filed out. He was sitting down when she went to stand in front of him, sitting in a chair at one side of the room. In his lap he was holding a battered old book for which he, or some previous owner, had fashioned a dust-jacket of coarse brown paper.

“Han Yuezhu, your voice really has a most remarkable quality. Tell me, have you ever done any singing? I didn’t see you in the graduation choir.”

“Oh, no. I was one of those doing the Loyalty Dance. Since we had to practice the dance we were excused from singing. Now I’m with the dance group, the one they started in September.”

“Ah. You like dancing better than singing?”

“Oh, yes! Singing is very boring. You just open your mouth and … sing. Dancing is much more interesting. To express the idea of a story by movement.”

Teacher Bai nodded. “Well,” he said in his clumsy way, “we must all make what contribution we can to the Socialist Reconstruction of our country.”

“Yes,” saidYuezhu. There was an awkward pause. Teacher Bai coughed to break the pause. The other students had all left the classroom now, though the door was still open and students were passing to and fro outside.

“I wanted to ask you to read something for me,” said Teacher Bai. He held out the book to her. She took it. On the cover, in Teacher Bai’s own rather fussy script, was the title: Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty. Yuezhu had heard the title before—perhaps Mother owned a copy—but she had never read it.

“Page eighty-eight,” said Teacher Bai. “Bo Juyi’s ‘Song of Endless Sorrow.’ Just the last few lines, from ‘She sent by messenger …,’ can you see it? If there’s a character you don’t know, ask me.”

Yuezhu knew all the characters. It didn’t seem like a difficult poem, though very sad. It was about the Xuanzong Emperor, his love for Lady Yang and his grief at her death. As she read Yuezhu could sense Teacher Bai watching her face, nodding slightly to the rhythm of the lines. Yuezhu had often heard poems read—apart from the previous summer’s concert, the Red Guards had held all-day readings of Chairman Mao’s poems—and had a good idea of how it should be done, exaggerating the tones and caesuras.

When she had finished she looked up to wait for Teacher Bai to dismiss her. He was not looking at her now, he was looking down and to one side. There was another uncomfortable pause, in the middle of which Yuezhu saw, to her horror, that Taohua had been right. Teacher Bai’s jiba was sticking up inside his pants, making a sort of tent. Worse yet: at the apex of this phenomenon the blue pants showed an elongated oval of darker blue—a stain, a wet stain. Shocked, disgusted and embarrassed all together, Yuezhu flushed. Teacher Bai looked up now, but seemed not to perceive her consternation.

“Thank you,” he said. “Such a lovely voice! Thank you.”

Yuezhu could not resist telling Taohua about this. Taohua expressed muted triumph at the vindication of her extraordinary theories.

“I told you,” she said. “It’s big and stiff with a shining round pink head. If you jiggle it with your hand the juice squirts out.”

The shining round pink head was a new detail. Something about it, about the way Taohua introduced it, made Yuezhu want to ask: And have you done this yourself? Have you jiggled one and watched the juice come out? But she had an awful suspicion that the answer would be Yes. The Minorities were so backward! And the whole topic was really too shameful and disgusting to pursue.


That year was Half Brother’s second year in the army. He had been away the whole of the first year doing his training, coming home only for four days at Spring Festival. When he came home he was quite changed. He looked fit; in fact he looked younger than when he’d left, with his head shaven and his cheeks shining like a country boy. But his high spirits seemed to have deserted him. Yuezhu wanted to hear all about his training, but he would only say: “Very hard, it’s very hard.” When she pressed him to tell her some of the things they did, he snapped back irritably: “These are military things, our country’s National Secrets. Do you think I can talk openly about them to a kid?”

Father seemed pleased with him, anyway. He and Half Brother had long talks together in the living-room, Father smoking cigarettes one after another and sipping tea from his covered cup, Half Brother eating sunflower seeds (he did not smoke), nodding as Father talked, adding some words about his unit, the commanding officers, the advantages of certain kinds of assignments. Yuezhu did not pay much attention to the little she overheard. She gathered that Half Brother had the ambition of getting into some Special Security unit, though what exactly that meant she did not know.

It was also Yuezhu’s last year in elementary school. In the second semester, after the Spring Festival, she threw herself into dance training and rehearsal. The dance group was to give a big show at the graduation ceremonies, with a program of four different folk dances. The group had lost two of the original eight girls and no less than five of the eight boys (all but one of these latter the result of ridicule by their classmates, everyone said), but the nine remaining were all keen, and persuaded the school to shift to three nights’ practice a week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

As a further mark of approval the Revolutionary Committee endowed the dance group with a gramophone and a stack of records, so now the group no longer had to rely on the handful of students and teachers who could play flute or erhu. The gramophone and records had been found, covered in dust, in a storage room somewhere. The gramophone itself was a fine Russian model in a dark-wood cabinet, with doors at the front that could be opened to regulate the volume. The records were not altogether satisfactory, being mainly heavy orchestral music in the western style; but further searching turned up some revolutionary and folk tunes suitable for dancing, and the group considered themselves imperially well-equipped.

One of the dances they were to do was from Taohua’s own nationality. Part of it involved Yuezhu and Taohua dancing together while the others knelt down low in a circle around them. The dancers were supposed to be water sprites, the others water lilies. This was the dance Yuezhu concentrated on most. It showed her together with Taohua, their skills in direct and obvious comparison. Yuezhu knew she was not as good as Taohua. She knew that Taohua knew this, too; and also that Taohua would never be bold enough to speak directly about it. The dance teacher, a middle-aged woman teacher named Ma, was not so shy.

“Pull your head further back, Yuezhu! Your arms won’t take the correct position unless your head’s up. Watch Taohua, look at how she holds her arms.”

I don’t see how I can pull my head back any further. I feel as if I’m swallowing my chin already. This was only thought, not spoken. Only the very worst elements among her classmates would have talked back to a teacher’s criticism.

“Do you want to do this dance or don’t you?” Teacher Ma continued. “Come on, again! One, two, three …”

Yuezhu could not dislike Taohua, did not want to dislike her; yet the conviction grew on her that her dancing would look poor next to her friend’s. She thought of giving up her place in the duet, but by the time the thought gained any traction rehearsals were too far advanced. She resigned herself to ignominy. Then, one stifling Monday evening in late June, two weeks before the performance, Taohua was gone.

“She has gone back to live in her village,” said Mrs Ma. “We’ll have to cope without her.”

“But … how could she leave now, so close to the show?” they all asked. The dance group were puzzled and dismayed. Taohua was their best dancer, and they were proud of her, even those who were also jealous of her.

“Is she ill?” asked Yuezhu. She had not seen Taohua all that day; but that signified nothing, as they were in different classes.

“I don’t know,” said Mrs Ma, bent over the gramophone to set a record on the spindle. “I don’t know anything. She’s gone, that’s all. We’ll have to cope without her.”

Apparently the school had to cope without Teacher Bai, too. He disappeared at the same time as Taohua. Yuezhu never saw either of them again. Her classmates gossiped that something disgraceful had happened, something very dirty; but nobody really knew anything. Yuezhu wondered if Taohua had jiggled Teacher Bai’s jiba and somehow been found out. However, she said nothing about it. She didn’t know whether Taohua had spoken to anyone else about the jiba business, and didn’t want to implicate herself in any way.

Since there was no time to train anyone else to do the water-sprite dance with her, Yuezhu did it alone. She was nervous, though, and embarrassed somehow for Taohua’s absence, and lost the music a couple of times. The applause was no more than polite.

Chapter 14

Moon Pearl Makes the Acquaintance of Yellow Tiger

A Situation in the Affairs of Our Country

The middle school had no dance group. Yuezhu did not mind this as much as she would have expected to. The fiasco of the graduation performance had dulled her interest. Besides, beginning that fall, some change had come over her. She felt a lassitude, a distance from her surroundings. There was no reason for it that she could understand. The only real physical symptoms were sudden, brief spells of heat and an occasional fierce pain in her lower belly that seemed to exist only by and for itself, never resolving into vomiting or diarrhea, just coming and going without warning.

In the winter months, when the little town was folded in dull clammy mists, she sometimes practiced her dances alone in the apartment after school. Her heart was not in it, however, and she soon stopped, stopped dancing altogether. Her heart was not in anything. She wanted to sleep all the time, and had trouble rousing herself from her customary afternoon nap. In the spring, when Youth League activities started, she excused herself time and time again, to go home and sleep. Normally this would have been frowned upon. Youth League activities in the spring were mostly concerned with trooping out into the countryside to help the peasants, and this was all supposed to be a key part of one’s political education. But Teacher Zou Liuye, the leader of Yuezhu’s section, seemed to be very understanding about Yuezhu’s pains and flushings.

“It’s part of growing up,” she said each time Yuezhu asked to be excused. “Go home and rest.”

Comrade Zou was a popular teacher, one of the few who did her work with any enthusiasm. A single woman in her twenties, she always had an air of energy and purpose about her. She loved all kinds of sports, and during the winter months had tried without success to interest Yuezhu in volleyball.

“Chairman Mao says we young people are the luckiest people in the world,” she had said to Yuezhu on one of these occasions. “Working together, with all our youth and health, we can build communism very quickly. Sport is one way we can practice working together, don’t you see?”

“Yes,” said Yuezhu. “It’s just that I am so sleepy. And my skin feels hot, as if I have a fever.”

“It’s part of growing up,” said Comrade Zou. “Better go home and rest.”

Yuezhu thought it very odd to hear Comrade Zou say “we young people.” Up to that point she had thought of adults in general, and teachers in particular, as a separate species. Now she saw—it was obvious once seen—that Comrade Zou, and by extension other teachers, other adults, were merely larger versions of herself.

Yuezhu thought the real reason she got off so lightly was that her father was a military man. It was dawning on her that other people looked up to the military, and to everyone associated with it, and were keen to show consideration to her on this account.

A great many things were dawning on her all at once. It seemed now, in spite of the languor oppressing her spirit, that every month brought some little revelation of this sort, some awakening. Father himself seemed to be changing in front of her eyes, though she was vaguely aware that the change was mostly in herself.

Her dimmest memories of Father were happy ones. When she was very small he had loved to cuddle and kiss her, calling her his Precious Pearl (the second character of her name meant “pearl”). She had used to sit on his knee while he listened to the radio, sometimes falling asleep there, her cheek against the rough green serge of his uniform. Later, perhaps as a consequence of his advancing in rank and taking on more responsibilities, he had retreated to become a gruff, remote presence, not often home and disapproving of most of what Yuezhu liked to do. He had not liked her being a Little Red Guard, for example, though he had made no move to stop it.

Now she detected in him a new attitude, something of tenderness and concern. It was pretty well hidden by his habitual outward manner—she perceived now how much he liked to see himself as a plain, no-nonsense man of action, his finer feelings all set aside the better to make revolution. Now, just visible beneath that carapace, were these new aspects. Perhaps not really new, perhaps they had always been there, and she was only just noticing.

Certainly there was more opportunity to notice: she was at home more, and so was he. Father’s chief—the commander of the military region which included Seven Kill Stele—had fallen out of favor with the leadership in Beijing, was being given no responsibilities and seemed to be keeping quiet, hoping for a change of policy. The chief’s uncertainty and passivity had transmitted itself to his subordinates, as will always happen in an army; and with all the Red Guard factions now thoroughly suppressed, there was little for Father’s unit to do.

At Yuezhu’s thirteenth birthday party in April he had made no complaint, referring to it frankly as a birthday party, letting Mother make a full table of food, and bringing down the Five Grain Liquor again. He even poured a tiny cup for Yuezhu, and bade her drink it.

“You’re old enough now,” Father said. “Not a child much longer.”

From the words, and the look he gave her across the table, it seemed that he was offering a valediction, as if she were going away on a journey, never to return. Yuezhu felt sad, terribly sad, though she really did not know why. Seeing her sadness, Father smiled to reassure her.

“Still, you will always be my Precious Pearl,” he added, as Yuezhu’s eyes watered and her throat burned from the liquor.

Mother clicked her tongue. “So sentimental!” she said, perhaps misreading Yuezhu’s tears. “How long since you said such things to your wife?”

“I’m celebrating youth here,” replied Father, smiling at Yuezhu again. “We are husband and wife, but we are no longer young.”

Mother’s attitude was curious too. As Father seemed to be moving closer to Yuezhu, Mother was retreating to a distance. Several times when Yuezhu was alone with her she thought Mother was on the point of saying something, but at the last moment would turn away and lapse into irritability.

As Father’s disapprovals melted away, Mother seemed to acquire a few of her own. She thought Yuezhu’s clothes were too tight. She let out what could be let out, and took in two of her own blouses for Yuezhu to wear. Yuezhu thought them much too baggy, but had no energy to protest.

Mother also disapproved of Mustache. This was Yuezhu’s best friend at the middle school. Mustache was a boy, of course: a town boy, whose father worked as a foreman in the textile factory. The same age as Yuezhu, and in the same class, he was big-boned and dark-skinned and sported a line of dark hairs on his upper lip, from which of course the classmates had awarded his nickname. Altogether he looked rather a rough type. At first Yuezhu had thought he really was a rough type, and avoided him on that account. Once, in the schoolyard, she had overheard him say “dogfuck,” the local dialect’s all-purpose expletive. This had put her off, and she had rebuffed his first attempts at friendship. Mustache took this in a good humor, and waited for his chances to walk to class with her, to sit next to her at meetings, to help her with mathematics (which Yuezhu could not cope with at all), and quickly showed her that he was in fact a sensitive and sympathetic companion. He liked her a lot, she knew. He took obvious, unconditional pleasure in her company, was a good listener, and had a fund of jokes and stories that made her laugh.

Some of Mustache’s opinions were very shocking, though. He declared perfect lack of interest in politics, which he said was just a kind of game played by the leaders in Beijing.

“But don’t you love Chairman Mao?” asked Yuezhu in bafflement when Mustache first shared his heresy with her.

“Old Mao? Oh, he’s all right.”

Yuezhu thought this outrageous. “All right? All right? He’s the Great Helmsman of our country! Of all the workers and peasants all over the world! The greatest Marxist-Leninist that ever lived! How can you be so disrespectful, calling him Old Mao?”

Mustache laughed. “Do you think Old Mao cares about you?”

“Of course he does! He cares about all the people!”

“What, all eight hundred million of us? He really must have his time cut out then, mustn’t he?”

“Don’t you think he cares about us? About you?”

Mustache shrugged. “Heaven is high, the Emperor is far away,” he said, quoting an old proverb.

Shocked as she was by Mustache’s careless skepticism, Yuezhu now found herself thinking critically about matters she had never questioned before. China was so vast, with thousands of counties, towns and villages—not to mention the big cities like Chengdu and Beijing. Could Chairman Mao really watch over all of it all the time? Probably not. The very thought scandalized her; yet it kept coming back. Beijing was, as Mustache said, very far away.

She dared not share any of Mustache’s opinions with Mother, much less with Father, but Mother disapproved of Mustache anyway. The grounds of her disapproval were, apparently, just that Mustache was a boy. Yuezhu couldn’t see why this made a difference. She had been friends with boys before, and nobody had seemed to mind. Now Mother minded.

“You should be careful with boys. Don’t let them take any liberties with you.”

Yuezhu didn’t understand what this meant. What liberties might Mustache take? She prompted Mother to explain, but Mother only replied: “Be careful. Men are like porcupines, you mustn’t get too close.”


In the summer there was a work camp for all the middle-school students. It was out in the countryside, attached to one of the larger production brigades. It was too far for them all to walk, so a truck came from the production brigade to fetch them. The students thought this very exciting. Most of them had never ridden in any motor vehicle before, other than a bus. To stand in the open back of the truck, bowling along at thirty miles an hour with the air—so still and humid at this season—rushing over your skin like a mountain breeze, was thrilling to them. They stood there waving and calling to people they passed on the road.

The truck left town on the road that turned past the college. Here there was the bamboo grove where Yuezhu had played with Liang Weilin, back when they were children together. She had hardly thought of him since that time. His father had turned out to be a counter-revolutionary, so Weilin must have been a counter-revolutionary too—unless he had denounced his father, of course. There had been a struggle meeting—she remembered now—and Weilin’s father had been beaten black and blue, which of course was no more than he deserved, and when the righteous anger of the masses had boiled over she had been trampled, and the skin had been scraped from her leg. It had got infected and taken ages to heal. However, she couldn’t remember whether or not Weilin had denounced his father. It didn’t matter, anyway. It was a shameful thing, to have been so friendly with a counter-revolutionary, or even with the son of a counter-revolutionary, whether he had denounced or not. She hoped nobody else remembered it. Watching the bamboo grove dwindle through the cloud of dust in the truck’s wake, she recalled hearing someone say that the Liang family had left the town, gone to live somewhere else. So that was all right, probably nobody would ever know she had been friends with a counter-revolutionary.

Further along the road was the place where the actual Seven Kill Stele had stood, the one the town was named after—unofficially, at any rate. The town appeared on maps, and was always referred to by the leaders, as Hibiscus Slope. It had been awarded this name—rather arbitrarily, as the town itself was quite flat and was not adorned with any very striking quantity of hibiscus—after Liberation, the authorities perhaps feeling that Seven Kill Stele was too gruesome a name for a pleasant country town. The local people, however, like country people everywhere, were very conservative. They considered that, as inauspicious as the old name might be, the town had prospered pretty well under it, and they would be inviting bad luck by discarding it.

Like everyone else, Yuezhu always referred to the town informally as Seven Kill Stele, but she had never thought about the name, or inquired its origin. She had not known that the stele was a real stele until Mustache pointed the place out to her. The stele itself was not there any more, having been pulled down after Liberation; but its great square plinth was still just visible in the long grass at the roadside, thick with lichen and moss. Mustache told her the story of the Seven Kill Stele.

The Seven Kill Stele

First you must know the story of Zhang Xianzhong, the Yellow Tiger of Sichuan.

During the disorders at the end of the Ming Dynasty the warlord Zhang Xianzhong seized control of the western provinces. There he ruled as King of the West for several years. Zhang was a fierce and cruel man, known as Yellow Tiger, from his yellow eyes and his cruelty.

At first Yellow Tiger was a routine end-of-dynasty warlord: liberating the peasants, rewarding his followers, and suppressing landlords. Then his mind turned some dark corner and he began killing people wholesale. First he killed all the scholars of the western regions, inviting them to a ‘special examination’ in his capital, then massacring them. After that he killed all the Buddhist and Taoist priests. Then he just started killing everybody. He killed everybody his men could find. Only people who escaped into the high mountains survived. He even developed a hatred of the inanimate world, burning forests and destroying buildings.

When the Manchus had conquered north China and declared their dynasty, they turned their attention to the west. Hearing that their advance parties had been seen at the borders of his kingdom, Yellow Tiger called his men together at a mass assembly. “We shall soon fight our greatest battle,” he told them. “In order that you may fight as soldiers should fight, without hesitation, without looking back, without any regard for yourselves or those who depend on you, I command you now to kill all your womenfolk and children.” Yellow Tiger then slew his own eight wives right there in front of his men, to give them a good example. Such was the loyalty (or perhaps just terror) he inspired that his men all followed him, hacking their women and children to death in a frenzy of slaughter until there was no inch of ground not soaked with the blood of these unarmed innocents.

Yellow Tiger then rode out to his borders to meet the Manchus. The Manchus, however, were the world’s finest archers. Spotting Yellow Tiger at a distance, a Manchu scout let fly an arrow, which found its mark. Seeing their master fall from his horse, his men fled and his power collapsed.

Such was the fate of Zhang Xianzhong who, at the height of his power in the west, set up the Seven Kill Stele. The stele was a response to one of his generals, who had asked: “Sire, why do you take such joy in killing?” Replied Yellow Tiger: “I’ll show you why.” He then had a stele erected in the middle of the desolation he had made. On the Stele were carved three columns of characters in his own handwriting. The characters said:

Heaven has brought forth a myriad things to nourish mankind.

Yet men do not do one good deed in gratitude to Heaven.

Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.

This was known all over the southwest as the Seven “Kill” Stele. When it was ready the general who had asked the question was staked out on the ground and the great stone plinth lowered slowly down onto him.

The work camp was not as poor a place as Yuezhu had feared. The production brigade it belonged to was, in fact, one of the richest in the province. And it was fun to be there with all the classmates, working together. The weather was sunny—an unusual thing in this region where, according to the folk saying, dogs barked at the sun, being so unused to seeing it through skies turbid with humidity. In the evenings the leaders would organize community singing, or bring in some of the older peasants to tell colorful stories about their lives before Liberation.

The brigade did not actually let them do any important work, as it would only have had to be done all over again when the students had left. They sent them into the hills to get firewood, had them dam a stream to make a fish-pool, let them help with a tree-planting project. None of this was very arduous, though Mustache and another boy were nearly drowned when their first attempt at a dam broke. In the stifling heat of August the pace of life in the production brigade was in any case very slow. The peasants rose early, worked until the heat of the day became oppressive, then disappeared for three or four hours. Yuezhu was of course used to taking a one-hour nap after lunch; but here the long still afternoons, with not a soul to be seen, seemed to drag out to infinity. She lay on her mat in the girls’ house, looking out through the window at the hot brassy sky, sleeping fitfully.

Strange daytime dreams troubled her. Time and again she was in the bamboo grove with Liang Weilin, the counter-revolutionary boy. Once he had a great halberd, like the one Duke Guan, the God of War, is always portrayed with. Weilin was holding the shaft of the halberd, and its blade was buried in Yuezhu’s belly. Oddly, it drew no blood; but the pain it gave her was terrible. She twisted and turned, trying to free herself from the halberd, but the more she twisted the worse the pain got, and she woke with the pain, and it was with her all the afternoon and evening. In another dream Weilin had no halberd, but was floating a foot or so off the ground, equipped with huge iridescent butterfly wings. The colors of the wings shimmered and danced in a way that was horrifying yet hypnotic, but which did not altogether distract Yuezhu from noticing that Weilin was entirely naked. His skin was very smooth and golden; and the whole dream was delicious and thrilling, and shameful and terrifying, all at once.

There was a classmate, one of the girls, whose father was a worker at the college in Seven Kill Stele, the college at which Weilin’s father had been a Professor. Not understanding why she was having these strange bright dreams about Weilin, Yuezhu wanted to ask the girl what had happened to him. She did not like the dreams, did not want to have them. She wanted to know that Weilin really had left the town, preferably for somewhere far away. Several times she was on the point of asking the girl, but each time the fear of it being generally known that she had been friends with a counter-revolutionary family deterred her. When the time came to go back to town for the fall semester, she still had not asked. Driving back in the truck, Yuezhu deliberately turned her head away when they passed the bamboo grove, calling out to Mustache to distract herself: “Elder Brother! Look at the birds!” and pointing up to where a flight of geese were passing high, high overhead.


When school restarted everything seemed different. It was as if she had grown physically during the vacation. The classrooms were all smaller than she remembered, the teachers more abject and dull. Dullest of all were the political study meetings. Yuezhu could never have said she found political study interesting, but she had always done her best with it, sure it must be important, determined to try to understand Chairman Mao’s Thoughts and exhortations. Now she found herself dozing as the Branch Secretary droned away, unable to make any sense of his words at all, and not really wanting to.

Then, late in September, there was a political study meeting that was not dull at all, that she remembered for the rest of her life.

Something had been in the air for several days, though no-one could say what it was. Father was summoned to meetings which lasted all day and far into the night—Yuezhu heard him coming home at two, three o’clock in the morning. The handful of teachers who were Party members—including sporty Comrade Zou—were summoned to a big meeting at county headquarters, along with all the Party people from the administrative staff. Then the other teachers, the non-Party members, had an all-day meeting, from which they emerged looking even more cowed than usual. Everyone knew something was going on. Mustache gave it as his opinion that it was a movement, a new movement.

“Oh,” said Yuezhu. “And shall we be Red Guards again?”

“Perhaps,” said Mustache. “Or perhaps we shall all be counter-revolutionaries this time.”

Yuezhu chided him for his cynicism, at the same time reflecting that she really did not want to be a Red Guard again.

When at last the political study meeting was called, it was a big one, for the whole school, held in the auditorium. Instead of a teacher or a branch secretary of the Party, the students were addressed by Secretary Bu, the Party Secretary for the whole town. He looked very grand up there on the stage, flanked by the school’s own secretary and branch secretaries, and some cadres from the town office, and two men in military uniforms.

The school secretary mumbled an introduction. “Classmates! Comrades! There has been a situation in the great affairs of our country. These cadres have come to tell us about it.”

Some of the students frowned and exchanged glances, but no-one said anything. Yuezhu felt dizzy from the heat of the auditorium. She had suffered badly from the cramps in her belly that morning. Now the cramps had gone, but had left her weak. They had been bothering her occasionally for months now, and she thought perhaps she would go to the clinic with them, or at least tell Mother. Here in the heavy, still auditorium, she wanted to lean back and rest; but the bench she and Mustache were sitting on had no back.

The school secretary stepped to one side and Secretary Bu went into his address at once.

“Comrades! There has been a plot against our country! Against our Party! Against our great leader Chairman Mao!”

Someone cried out at the far side of the hall. Near Yuezhu, several students gasped. A murmur rose up, rippling back and forth across the auditorium, until Comrade Zou clapped her hands to restore silence.

“Fortunately the security forces of our country discovered this plot,” Secretary Bu continued. “The ringleaders have been arrested. Chairman Mao is safe! Our revolution is safe!”

“Long Live Chairman Mao!” called out one of the students. Some others echoed him.

“The leader of this plot, in collusion with foreign hegemonists and imperialists, was Marshal Lin Biao.”

What? What? Now the buzz of talk started up again. “Lin Biao? Lin Biao?” people were saying. Nobody could believe it. Comrade Zou had to clap her hands several times before Secretary Bu could go on.

“Masquerading as a protector of the revolution and comrade-in-arms of Chairman Mao, the treacherous Lin attempted to overthrow the Party and establish personal dictatorship. But he and his clique have been destroyed. The danger is past. Long Live the Communist Party of the Chinese People’s Republic! Long Live Chairman Mao!”

He stepped back abruptly, nodded to the town cadres, and they all turned and left the stage. Yuezhu, like most of her classmates, was stunned. When the school secretary had mumbled his way through a long speech about safeguarding the People’s Democratic Dictatorship and upholding the General Line, Yuezhu turned to Mustache.

“Marshal Lin Biao!” she whispered. “Can you believe it?”

“Of course,” whispered back Mustache, affecting nonchalance. “As I’ve often told you, it’s just a game.” But Yuezhu could see that even he had been shaken by the news.

It seemed that she herself had been more affected than she knew. When the meeting was over and she stood to go, she almost fell. Her head span, her ears rang, and she felt she was losing her balance. Somehow she stayed upright, and turned to file out between the benches. Behind her, she heard Mustache gasp.

“Little Sister!” he croaked, in a voice she could hardly recognize.

“What? What is it?”

He was looking down at the bench, a very strange expression on his face, something she had not seen before.

“Little Sister … your seat …”

“My seat?” But even before she looked down at the bench where she had been sitting, Yuezhu became aware of the sticky wetness. Involuntarily she put a hand behind her, feeling at her pants. The tips of her fingers came away crimson; and now she was looking at the bench, at the oval pool of blood beginning to drip onto the floor.

Chapter 15

A Young Man’s Tears Flow at Parting

An American President Makes Little Impression

The family was to move to Beijing. It happened all at once, a few weeks after the downfall of Lin Biao. Father announced the move over dinner one evening.

“The whole brigade’s moving up there,” he said. “Part of the Consolidation.”

Yuezhu had heard this word “Consolidation” several times the past week or so, in Father and Mother’s talk or on the barracks loudspeakers, but she had no idea what it meant. Father explained it all, speaking very frankly, as he did to her nowadays, and with obvious satisfaction.

“My chief, Divisional Commander Hu Pinghui, you’ve often heard me speak of him. Old revolutionary from the Long March. Well, he grumbled about the Cultural Revolution, like a lot of others. When the Ninth Party Congress came along he was frozen out by Lin Biao. Lin wanted to get all his own people in, everywhere important. That’s why we’ve been sitting out here on our rear ends these two years past, watching the bamboo grow. Now since Marshall Lin’s downfall there’s been a big shake-up going on. You know the saying: ‘When the lips are gone the teeth are cold.’ All the people Lin moved up are under suspicion of being in his plot, so the leaders want some good reliable old soldiers around them, people they know had nothing to do with Lin. People like my chief. That’s why we’re going to Beijing.”

“Shall we be able to see Half Brother?” asked Yuezhu at once. Father smiled and nodded and said he hoped they would, Half Brother’s unit currently being stationed in Hebei Province next to Beijing. However, he added, things were in such a state of flux that no-one in the military could be sure where he’d be posted to this time next week, soYuezhu should not get her hopes too high.

Lying awake under her mosquito net that evening, the full glory of their new posting came home to her. To Beijing! Capital of the People’s Republic! Where Chairman Mao lived! Where he had proclaimed the People’s Republic from Heavenly Peace Gate! Where Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had built the Great Hall of the People! Where there were all the best schools, best movies, best parks, best restaurants! There would be a new middle school—surely, in Beijing, a school with a dance group!

Sleeping, Yuezhu dreamed of Beijing (which she had never seen): the red walls of the Imperial City, boulevards a hundred meters wide, the Summer Palace with its stone boat and seventeen-arch bridge. Sometime in ’66 or ’67, in one of the public rooms at the barracks, she had seen a wall calendar with a picture of one of the great Red Guard demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In the picture, the sky above Heavenly Peace Gate was full of bright red balloons, each trailing a streamer with one of Chairman Mao’s Thoughts on it in gold script. Now, in her dream, she mingled with the throngs in Tiananmen Square—everyone smart-dressed, everyone handsome—and the air above them full of bright red balloons.

She was full of the excitement of it when she told Mustache, walking between classes the morning after Father’s announcement. To her surprise, Mustache looked stunned. He stopped dead, stared at her in obvious dismay for a moment or two, then, in a voice oddly hoarse, asked: “How long will you be in Beijing?”

For ever, I hope, was Yuezhu’s inward response; but seeing poor Mustache’s face, she could not say it. “I … I don’t really know. These army postings, you know … they’re unpredictable.”

Mustache was still looking at her with that devastated expression. All her life, through much greater trials and revelations, Yuezhu was to remember his expression at that moment. At last he lowered his eyes, turned, and continued walking. Having seen his distress, Yuezhu’s joy was eclipsed. Mustache was in love with her! It was clear to see now, and she wondered why it had never occurred to her before. She could think of nothing to say, and they walked along in silence to the door of their classroom. Just outside the door, still out of earshot of the classmates, Mustache stopped, looked at her again, and said in his normal voice: “I hope you will write to me from Beijing.”

“I will. Of course I will.”

That was Tuesday. Mustache did not come to school on Wednesday or Thursday. Yuezhu sought out his sister, in one of the junior classes. Mustache was ill, said the sister. Nothing serious, only a sore throat.

The family was to leave for Beijing on Friday morning. On Thursday afternoon all the classmates came up to Yuezhu to say farewell. There was no great ceremony about it. Students—especially those from army families—arrived and left all the time. Yuezhu thought Mustache might come in for the purpose, but he did not appear.

Instead he came to her parents’ apartment that evening. He would not come in, so Yuezhu stepped out into the corridor to say good-bye. Mustache had brought gifts for her: a neat little boxed set of writing paper and envelopes, a fountain pen, a little pack of Shanghai candies, a pretty plastic barrette for her hair, and a fine thick exercise book with a pink plastic cover. Inside the exercise book, on the first page, written in Mustache’s somewhat clumsy, ill-proportioned characters, were two lines from a well-known untitled poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin:

Silkworms cease making silk only when they die;

Candles end their weeping only when burned away.

[“Making silk” being a sound-pun on “thinking of you.”] When she had read the lines and closed the exercise book, Yuezhu looked up at Mustache to thank him. Mustache’s face bore an expression of utter hopelessness; and before she could actually say anything, he started to weep.

Yuezhu could think of nothing to say to comfort him. Clearly he was in the grip of very strong emotion; but she herself felt nothing, except embarrassment and a sort of incipient irritation. She had thought they were just friends. How was she supposed to know he was in love with her?

“Zizhong,” she said, using his personal name. “Zizhong … I’m sorry. I didn’t know …”

She put the exercise book back into the cloth bag with the other gifts, and set the bag down on the bare concrete floor. Mustache had his hands over his face now, pressed flat against his face. Yuezhu reached up tentatively and touched his arm.

“I’m sorry, Zizhong.”

“Not your fault,” mumbled Mustache. “My fault.”

“You should have told me.”

“Wanted to. You didn’t seem … I didn’t think … Oh, Yuezhu!”

Mustache took her hand with one of his. His hand was all wet from tears. His face was wet, too, all over, and his eyes were red. So many tears!

“You will write to me, won’t you?” said Mustache, looking at her with his red eyes.

“Of course I will.”

“Use the paper I gave you.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I will come to see you in Beijing.”

“Yes. Good. All right.”

He had a wild look now, and for a terrifying moment Yuezhu thought he was going to grab her and kiss her. But he just turned and went off down the corridor, leaving her standing there with her bag full of treasures. It was the most embarrassing thing Yuezhu had ever experienced. If this was the love between men and women that was spoken of in the old stories (Yuezhu reflected, letting herself back into the apartment), she wanted no more of it.


They traveled to Beijing by train, hard sleeper class. With the rank of Colonel, Father was actually entitled to travel soft sleeper; but he chose hard class anyway, saying that the People’s Liberation Army should always stay close to the common people, and not seek privilege or favor. It was a long trip: up and through the Qinling Mountains, the peaks glittering white in the clear cold air; down into the valley of the Wei, where civilization first took root and the Yellow Emperor, first ancestor of their race, rode in his chariot to court; on to Xi’an, the ancient capital of the Empire, from which Li Longji, last truly great Emperor of the glorious Tang dynasty, fled in ignominy from the armies of the rebel An Lushan, purchasing the loyalty of his own troops with the life of his dearest concubine; along the Yellow River plain, dust and donkeys, to Zhengzhou; then northward over the rich heartlands to Beijing.

They had been assigned an apartment in the West Wall area, where high cadres and military people lived. The apartment was grand beyond Yuezhu’s wildest imaginings. There were huge soft armchairs, such as you saw in newspaper photographs of the nation’s leaders playing host to foreign delegations. In the kitchen was a refrigerator—a monster of a thing in gleaming white, made in Poland, humming and clanking to itself in odd unfathomable rhythms as if to impress them with its grandeur and their own provincial backwardness. Most astounding of all, there was a TV—Chinese this one, made in Shanghai. Yuezhu turned on the TV at once, as soon as they had all their bags in the apartment. At first there was nothing on the screen; then a random fuzziness, and a rising hiss from the speaker.

“They only broadcast certain hours,” said Father. “It’s too early.”

Disappointed, but still thrilled at the family’s new status, Yuezhu switched the thing off. So much to learn!

Her new school was at first as intimidating as all else in this mighty city. It was new-built, fine stylish modern buildings in glass and concrete, with large asphalt areas for games and drills. There was a science laboratory with balances, retorts and bell jars locked in glass wall cases. There was a grand modern auditorium with a piano, and an entire library of books, most of it unfortunately closed since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Arriving several weeks into the fall semester Yuezhu had of course expected to find herself behind in lessons, but the situation was much worse than she had feared. Though there was, technically, only a single middle-school curriculum for the whole country, from the frozen rivers of the far north to sweltering Canton, from the lush fields of the Yangtse delta to the dusty steppe of Turkestan, in reality the Beijing schools were far ahead of the provinces. Even now, five years into the Great Cultural Revolution, with the nation’s intellectual life in ruins, the ruins were far more imposing in the capital city, and much better inhabited. Even when classroom studies of history and society have been reduced to the parsing of newspaper editorials, the parsing can be done with or without style, the Thoughts interpreted with or without understanding of thought in general, the barren slogans of despotism served warm or cold.

The very speech of her teachers and classmates set Yuezhu at a disadvantage. Practically everyone was a Beijing native and spoke with the knowing, supercilious drawl of the capital. Yuezhu had been raised to speak Mandarin, which was the only dialect permitted in the military; but it had been book-Mandarin, an abstract construct in the same relation to the speech of the capital as the geometer’s ideal points and lines to the strokes of an artist’s brush, and in any case modified by the southwestern sounds she had been immersed in all her life. Here she became painfully aware that the cutting winter wind beginning to sweep down from Mongolia was ferngr, not fong; and that “l” and “n” were two perfectly different and distinct consonants; and, in short, that her tongue betrayed her as a hopeless bumpkin.

There were, of course, compensations. Instead of Russian, the usual foreign language in provincial middle schools, West Wall District Number 14 taught English, with no less than three teachers on staff. An American pingpong team had visited China that spring and the Beijing people all understood, with their instinct born of living at the center of power for generations, that America was now a friend and Russia an enemy, even though these facts had never been publicly announced. Everybody was keen to learn English, to the degree that several teachers sat in on the lessons, chanting the rote phrases and copying out the exercises with all the others. A year behind, Yuezhu started at a great disadvantage, but there were two other pupils in the same situation, and elderly Teacher An (in Beijing, apparently, it was quite all right to refer to people as “Teacher,” or even as “Mr” and “Mrs” instead of the more proper, revolutionary “Comrade”), gave them catch-up lessons after school. Yuezhu discovered an aptitude for foreign languages, quickly piling up a big vocabulary which she carried everywhere with her in the smart, durable exercise book Mustache had given her, running her eye down the word lists when other classes got boring, until every word, and even its position on its page, were fixed in her mind.

Teacher An’s obsession was phonetics. “You can have ten thousand words of vocabulary,” she would say, “but they are just fart gas, no use at all, unless people can understand what you’re saying.”

“Every people has its own way of making speech sounds,” she would say. “An English ‘t’ is by no means the same as a Chinese ‘t’; an English ‘a’ is quite different from a Chinese ‘a.’”

“Air comes out from the lungs through the mouth and nose,” Teacher An would say. “If there is nothing to obstruct it, it comes out silently. To make a sound, you must obstruct it. Only four things can obstruct it: the lips, the tongue, the soft palate, and the vocal chords. Of these four, only the tongue is really capable.”

Teacher An could draw the standard phoneticist’s diagram—the cross-section of the human speech apparatus—almost instantaneously, with a few swift strokes of the chalk. She drew a dozen or more each lesson, showing the human tongue in all its versatility: the tip advanced or retracted, the surface high or depressed, the body of the organ bulked back or forward.

“If you can always know what your tongue is doing, you can speak any language perfectly,” Teacher An asserted.

Yuezhu was fascinated by all this. She had never in her life given a moment’s thought to what her tongue was doing. It was just there, in your mouth, sometimes getting in the way when you chewed things, its surface an index of your health for doctors of traditional medicine. Now she realized that she had all these years been harboring a wild beast, bucking and writhing in its narrow dark cave. Diligently she tamed the creature, working it round the twelve English vowels and the eight diphthongs, holding the sounds for as long as she could, teasing and coaxing it a millimeter here, a millimeter there. She thought at last she had attained the state of grace sought by Teacher An, in which she always knew what her tongue was doing. She applied this new facility to her Chinese, easily turning her southern dz, sz, ts to the soft round retroflexes of Beijing: zh, sh, ch.

“Observe Han Yuezhu,” said Teacher An to the whole English class one day at the end of the first year. “She has mastered her tongue. The rest is nothing, just listening and memorization.”

“Learn from Han Yuezhu!

Her tongue knows what to do!”

was Baoyu’s own tribute to her accomplishment. Baoyu was the first real friend she made at Number 14. He was the star of the school’s dance group.

The dance group at Number 14 was a much more serious affair than the one at Seven Kill Stele. Teacher Li, who ran Number 14’s dance group, had actually been a professional dancer herself in her younger days, with one of the Army’s entertainment units. She not only knew the folk dances and revolutionary dances, but even some foreign-style ballet, which she had learned during a spell in Russia in the 1940s. Baoyu pestered her once to teach then some foreign-style ballet, but she claimed she could not.

“You need a barre,” she said, “and full-length mirrors. A floor of sprung wood, special shoes with rosin for the soles. And lots of foreign-style music, which of course is considered counter-revolutionary nowadays. Quite correctly so, I mean,” she added quickly.

For “barre” she used a Chinese word, wuba, that none of them had heard before. It sounded slightly ludicrous in Chinese, and some students giggled.

“It’s a long wooden rail set against the wall, with mirrors all around,” said Teacher Li. “You hold onto it for support while you exercise your free limbs.”

Yuezhu caught the idea immediately. From then on, when she did warming-up or practice exercises, she tried to find something to hold on to, to balance herself. There were no mirrors, of course, but when at school she asked Baoyu to judge and correct her positions.

Baoyu had introduced himself to Yuezhu at the first session she attended, in November that first year. He went over to her directly when she walked in to the practice room, where the group were standing round waiting for their instructor.

“You’re a new girl!” he exclaimed, as if this were an occasion for great joy. “How wonderful! You are so pretty!”

He held out a hand to her. The hand was slim and delicate, but held hers firmly.

“My name is Cao Gang, but everybody calls me Baoyu, because I like to make friends with girls.”

Baoyu is the name of the main character in Red Chamber Dream, the greatest of classic Chinese novels. He cared only for the company of girls and completely neglected the serious, manly side of life, to his father’s anger and disgust. Baoyu means “Precious Jade,” because in the novel Baoyu was said to have been born holding a tiny piece of jade in his mouth. Yuezhu of course understood the allusion at once. Anybody who could read knew Red Chamber Dream, even if only through popular illustrated versions.

Baoyu was the same height as herself, but somewhat younger. He was quite extraordinarily good-looking—beautiful, you could say—large mobile eyes in an angel’s face, his frame lithe and wiry, posed now with his feet at an obtuse angle, like a foreign-style ballet dancer.

“I’m the best dancer in the group,” he went on, striking another pose, arms curved above his head now in perfect form. “None of the others can compare with me!”

Yuezhu laughed at his naive immodesty, and told him her name, explaining the characters.

“It’s a lovely name!” exclaimed Baoyu, his mouth puckered in admiration. “Moon Pearl—sounds just like one of Baoyu’s handmaidens! Will you be my handmaiden? I hate my own name. It’s Gang meaning ‘steel,’ you know. My father thinks everyone should be hard as steel, to serve the revolution. Actually I just want to dance.”

“Well, there are many ways to serve the revolution and serve the people,” said Yuezhu, thinking (the cynicism of the capital already beginning to penetrate her sensibilities) that perhaps she sounded somewhat priggish. “If you dance well and give pleasure to others, isn’t that serving the people?”

“Of course it is!” cried Baoyu, pirouetting away across the room. “Look at me, everybody! I’m serving the people!”

Yuezhu soon got used to Baoyu. She thought him the sweetest of all the boys she had known. He was vain, of course, and sometimes silly, but there was no malice in him, nothing at all secretive or indirect. It was impossible to imagine Baoyu telling a lie—he wouldn’t have known how. He had an odd way of speaking, which added to his charm: when the mood took him, he would lapse into impromptu verse, or at any rate doggerel—little rhyming couplets or quatrains, like the jingles in infant story-books or the duilian pairs of harmonized mottoes that country people stuck to their doorposts for Spring Festival, black or gold characters on red paper.


It was with Baoyu that she first saw Red Detachment of Women. This was one of the revolutionary ballets that had come up since the Cultural Revolution began. It was about some peasant women in Hainan Island during the war against Chiang Kaishek, who had liberated themselves from their cruel landlords and formed their own army unit. A movie had been made of the ballet the previous year, but Yuezhu had left the southwest before the movie was shown there. When Baoyu knew this he got tickets to the movie at one of the Beijing theaters, and they went to see it together. He had seen it before, when it first came out in the capital, but said he didn’t mind seeing it again.

“When you’ve seen foreign-style ballet,” he said, “these folk dances we do seem very tame.”

Yuezhu had never seen foreign-style ballet before. Red Detachment of Women overwhelmed her. The thrilling leaps and turns, the precision of the ensembles, the vigor and crash of the music, all left her breathless.

“So beautiful!” she sighed to Baoyu coming out of the movie theater. “Why can’t we learn this kind of dancing?”

“Needs too much equipment to learn it, just as Teacher Li said. That would be ‘expert.’”

Politics at this time was dominated by a conflict between the adjectives “red” and “expert”—an antithesis that the ingenious Professor Bauer has traced back to the religious controversies of the Bronze Age. To be “red” was to dedicate oneself heart and soul to Chairman Mao and the revolution. To be “expert” was to believe that specialized knowledge or technique was more important than political ardor. The Party had declared that redness, with some allowances, was to be preferred to expertise.

We must all be red!

Never mind learning skills.

Chairman Mao’s Thoughts

Will cure all ills!

as Baoyu put it—speaking, so far as Yuezhu could tell, in all seriousness.

Baoyu could always get tickets for anything. His father was an important official in the Public Security Bureau, who had somehow avoided the purges and reorganizations of the late ’60s. He had access to all kinds of privileges.

Seeing how much Yuezhu had liked Red Detachment of Women, Baoyu pulled off his greatest coup. In February, when the American President Nixon came to visit China, the national leadership put on a performance of this very ballet for their distinguished guest in the Great Hall of the People. Baoyu’s father was invited, along with most of the senior cadres in the capital, and somehow found two extra tickets.

It was the greatest experience of Yuezhu’s life to that point. Not the fact that the American President was there (from their position they could catch only a glimpse of him—a very smart-looking man with surprising dark-brown skin the color of coffin-wood and very white teeth) as that she herself was. The Great Hall was magnificent, the seats upholstered in red velvet, the stage vast, the ceiling as remote as the sky itself. And the performance, when at last it began (everyone except the most senior cadres had had to seat themselves two hours early so that everything was in order when the President arrived) surpassed the movie version a thousand, ten thousand times! You could see the dancers, their actual faces and bodies, actual people, and hear the thump of their feet on the stage. The orchestra seemed to come from everywhere, all around, rolling and crashing from the walls and the ceiling so high. Yuezhu watched in a trance, completely taken out of herself, her soul merged into one soul with the bright colored stage, the leaping dancers, the rolling, crashing music.

Yuezhu’s course in life was set. She was to be a dancer, a dancer of foreign-style ballet, on the stage before an orchestra. However, she did not say this to anyone, not even to Baoyu. So intense was that experience at the Great Hall of the People, so deeply did the longing to dance then enter into her adolescent soul, she cherished the knowledge of her destiny as an intimate thing, an utterly private thing, to be shared with no-one yet.


Half Brother came home for her fifteenth birthday in April ’73. It was his first home leave for a year and a half. Now four years in the army, he was an officer, a Lieutenant, and seemed to Yuezhu taller, broader and better-looking than ever. He interrogated her about her schoolwork, especially about her English.

I can speak English very well now,” Yuezhu said in English, to show off.

Half Brother grinned. “I also can. Good Morning! Thank you very much!

“Oh!” Yuezhu laughed, putting her hands to her face in surprise. “Where did you learn?”

“My unit. We have some Special Duties.” Half Brother frowned, to show the gravity of his Special Duties. “Of course I can’t tell you anything about them. But we have to study English for these Duties.”

“Everybody likes to study English now,” said Yuezhu. “Since President Nixon’s visit.”

“Oh, from even before that, I think. We had a big shock in ’69, you know. It brought the true world situation home to us.”

“Why, what happened in ’69?” Yuezhu could not think of any important event in that year. But she had been only eleven, not really paying attention to public affairs.

“The Russians attacked us on Black Dragon River, up in the far north. There are some disputed islands there, in the river. They hit us with very advanced weapons, terrible weapons.” Half Brother frowned again and shook his head in disapproval of the terrible weapons. “Frankly, we took a beating. From that point our leaders understood that we can’t live in isolation, just devoting all our energies to class struggle. The Imperialists and Hegemonists will wipe us out if they have the chance, if we don’t modernize ourselves. It’s like the Three Kingdoms …” [referring to a period of division in Chinese history, A.D. 220 to A.D. 265] “… the weakest of the three will be swallowed by the other two, as Shu was swallowed by Wei and Wu. We have to make ourselves stronger. For that we need more knowledge, knowledge of foreign things and techniques. And for that we need English, because it’s the international language.”

Part of Yuezhu, the part that had been a Little Red Guard, wanted to say: “Yes, but we have Mao Zedong Thought, which can conquer everything.” But she now understood that this was very naive, that important people—and clearly Half Brother was set fair to become an important person—did not take such ideas seriously any more, if they ever had.

She invited Baoyu to her birthday party. Father was absent on a mission, and it seemed too thin a gathering, with just herself, Mother and Half Brother. Baoyu was a perfect guest, chattering easily about school, about Beijing, about the dance group. He flattered Mother’s cooking, making her smile, and was properly deferential to Half Brother. The People’s Liberation Army wore no marks of rank at this time, but Yuezhu had already told him Half Brother was an officer.

“The army has a very good dance troupe,” he said to Half Brother. “We saw them in a movie last fall, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.”

“The army exists to serve the people,” said Half Brother. “We have all kinds of singing, dancing, and entertainment units. If the masses like to see dancing, of course the army should be involved in it.”

“Oh! That’s just what your sister said to me! Your family’s thinking is very advanced! Until then I’d thought dancing was just for personal fulfillment. My attitudes were really very bourgeois!”

Baoyu’s feigned self-criticism made everybody laugh. “Perhaps you can come and give political instruction to my regiment,” said Half Brother. Later, when Baoyu had gone home, he said: “Your friend seems more like a girl than a boy.”

“That’s just his manner. He’s very athletic, actually.”

“Hm, well. ‘After he’s spoken three sentences you know his calling.’ He’s obsessed with dancing, isn’t he? Unusual for a boy. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing him in the army.”

Chapter 16

Big Ten Bestows Favor on the Han Family

Moon Pearl Encounters a Potent Demon

Teacher Li told them about the Academy, one evening just before the Spring Festival vacation, when they were all assembled for dance class.

“The Academy of Dance will reopen in the fall,” she said. “They’ll be taking applications after Spring Festival.”

The remark did not register with Yuezhu at first but Baoyu picked up on it right away. He jumped to his feet, face all alight.

“How do we enter? Is there an examination?”

“Of course not. In revolutionary China we have no more examinations, you all know that. Big Ten abolished them.”

Big Ten was the Tenth Party Congress, which had met the previous summer, the summer of ’73. The publicity had been terrific, and the students of Number 14 had spent weeks going over the resolutions in class. On the top landing of the stairs that led up from the main entrance lobby of the school there was still a huge wall poster exhorting the students and faculty to STUDY BIG TEN!

For all the publicity, Yuezhu would not, in the normal course of things, have given a moment’s thought to Big Ten, other than what was required of her in class. People nowadays—certainly it was true of her fellow-students at Number 14—paid no more attention to public affairs than they were obliged to. There was supposed to be a movement going on, in fact: the “Criticize Confucius, Criticize Lin Biao” movement, but nobody seemed to know what it was all about and nobody paid it any attention, other than to go through the necessary motions at Political Study sessions. Everybody was just tired of movements. Yuezhu knew now, without being quite ready to say it to herself in words yet, that Mustache had been right: the movements were just games played by leaders, with the common people as pawns.

Big Ten, however had had some rather direct effects on Yuezhu’s life. For one thing, the faction favored by Father’s chief had strengthened its position. Everyone associated with that faction had benefited. Father himself was now a Brigadier, and the family had the right to use a part-time maid, so that Mother would no longer have to cook. There had been a big fight about the maid, Father saying it was a Bourgeois Thing, that an officer of the People’s Liberation Army shouldn’t employ menials, Mother responding that menial work was just as honorable as any other kind, that (as by this time they all knew) the Party leaders all had lots of servants, and that she was tired of cooking. Father won the argument, of course, so they did without the maid, but it put Mother in a bad mood for weeks.

Big Ten had made balancing concessions to the other, more revolutionary, faction in the national leadership. One of them was the abolition of all school examinations. This had come about in the following way. A student in the northeast had handed in a blank examination paper. The school authorities had marked him at zero, of course; but he had protested to his local Revolutionary Committee, arguing that paper examinations could not measure revolutionary spirit, which was the only important thing. The Committee had upheld him, and someone in the national leadership, one of the revolutionary faction, had got to hear of the matter. This person praised the student for a correct revolutionary attitude, and so the policy had been pushed through. This was the policy Teacher Li was referring to when she gave them the news about the Dance Academy.

“I expect they will look for some physical ability,” she continued. “But of course, the main thing will be to have a correct attitude to dancing.”

“I have a correct attitude!” Baoyu struck an exaggerated pose. “I dance to serve the people!” He pirouetted, ending with a graceful bow. All the students laughed and applauded.

“Where is this Academy?” asked Yuezhu.

“In the Conservatory of Music. It’s all part of the Fine Arts Institute. The Conservatory has been closed these last seven years, so that the teachers and students could get some revolutionary experience in the countryside. Now, after Big Ten, I guess the leaders feel they have had enough revolutionary experience, so they are fit to teach their music in a proper revolutionary way.”

It was said with no inflection of irony, but several pupils giggled. This was still, well into her third year in the capital, somewhat shocking to Yuezhu. The Beijing people were so irreverent and cynical. Everyone said the right things, of course; but they had a way of saying them that always seemed to be making a sly joke. Jing youzi was Father’s expression for this: “capital oil,” meaning that the people of Beijing were slippery and smooth. Ba mian linglong was another phrase he used: smooth and polished on all sides, meaning that the people here always showed the appropriate face to everyone, without any sincerity. The Beijing people had seen so many invaders come and go—Manchus, Europeans, warlords, Japanese, Nationalists—they had learned to bend with the wind.


At Spring Festival Yuezhu told Father about the Dance Academy. “I want to apply,” she told him the first evening of the vacation. “I want to be a dancer, Daddy. It’s the thing I want most in the world.”

“Well, if that’s what you want, of course it’s what we want for you. Do you have the ability to get in, do you think?”

“I don’t know. Teacher Li said it’s our attitude that counts. And I guess … of course, our class background.”

“No problem there,” said Father. “But from what I remember of Big Ten, they’ll be allowed to give you an ability test, even if not a full examination. That’s how things are being done, anyway.”

At this point Yuezhu did not have the nerve to put it to Father frankly that a word from him, a senior military man, might make all the difference to her application. She knew Father’s feelings about those indirect methods of doing things.

She found out where the Conservatory of Music was from Teacher Li, and went there with Baoyu. They went twice: the first time right after the actual festival, while they were still on vacation from school. On that occasion the Conservatory was closed, and no amount of hammering on the gate or calling out could raise anyone inside.

They went again at the beginning of the summer semester. The Conservatory was in an old Japanese-style building over in the Haidian district, near the University. It had a high brick wall with a wooden gate in it. This time the gate was open. There was a courtyard beyond, and the main building, its entrance doors also open. From the door, down the steps and halfway back across the courtyard was a line of people, waiting.

“To get an application form for the Dance Academy,” said the scholarly-looking man at the end of the line. “For my niece in Tianjin. She’s dance crazy.”

The woman in front of him nodded. “My daughter, too. They all want to be dancers, since this revolutionary ballet came up.”

Yuezhu experienced the first risings of that resentful irritation we feel when we discover that our most cherished private dreams are in fact commonplace. “I wanted to be a dancer long before the revolutionary ballets came out,” she said to Baoyu—loud enough, she hoped, for the woman to hear.

“Me, too, elder sister.

I wanted to dance

When it wasn’t allowed.

When at last came the chance

I was lost in a crowd.

It seems the world has caught up with us now.”

The clerk who handed out the forms told them nothing, but everyone assumed there would be some sort of audition or interview.

To prepare herself for this interview Yuezhu concentrated on her dancing, never missing a lesson. She understood now that the folk dances they had been doing these three years past, and those she had done at Seven Kill Stele, belonged to an inferior form. Real dancing was ballet, foreign-style ballet, with special shoes and dresses, foreign-style music, mirrors and a barre. She longed to dance that way, she and Baoyu both longed to, but Teacher Li disclaimed any ability to teach foreign-style, and the two devotees were reduced to practicing what few steps they could remember from Red Detachment of Women and such other revolutionary ballets as they were able to get tickets for.

The interview came in June. It was a very odd business. One of the interviewers—they did not deign to introduce themselves by name—was a foreigner, or at any rate had the appearance of one. She was a woman of about fifty, brown hair beginning to turn gray, cut straight across the forehead and cropped short all round. Her eyes were blue and round, her skin fair; yet she spoke perfect native Mandarin, with a slight northeastern accent. You would never have known from her speech she was a foreigner. Not that she had much to say; most of the interview was monopolized by two very revolutionary-looking types, a man and a woman, neither more than thirty, clothes rumpled, the man’s shirt with a carefully-located patch on the front. They spoke alternately, complementing each other, like the xiangsheng comedians on the radio that Yuezhu could remember from before the Cultural Revolution.

“Not much revolutionary experience!” barked the man. They had obviously had some access to her file. The man’s hair was sticking up at all angles around his head. He had a big sharp nose and an Adam’s apple that stuck out.

“Not much evidence of a desire to serve the people!” shrilled the woman, who was slightly cross-eyed and sported a faint mustache.

“I’ve always tried to study Chairman Mao’s thoughts and carry out his instructions,” said Yuezhu, apologetic in spite of herself.

“Since your best subject is languages, why do you want to study dancing?”

“Since your people are Army, why not enlist instead of going to the Dance Academy?”

“I feel that it’s through dancing that I can best serve the people.”

“Since you were raised by the People’s Liberation Army, tell us what the Three Rules of Discipline are!”

“Tell us what the Eight Points for Attention are!”

Yuezhu rattled off the Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention, early instructions of Chairman Mao’s which were now taught as the basic creed of the PLA.

The fourth member of the panel, an older guy with a rather haughty, aristocratic kind of face, who had seemed to Yuezhu to be asleep, suddenly spoke up.

“What are the fundamental principles of Dialectical Materialism?”

Yuezhu’s heart sank. They had been doing Philosophy in school this last year, and she had struggled gamely with the gibberish phrases, but nothing had stuck.

“Well … There’s the, um, the Interpenetration of Opposites …”

“Oh, let’s see if she’s suitable to be a dancer, why don’t we?” It was the foreign-looking woman, speaking with ill-disguised impatience.

“Carry out the instructions of Comrade Zhao,” muttered the young man, slumping back in his chair.

“Follow the directions of Comrade Zhao,” pouted his echo, beginning to riffle through some papers on the table in front of her.

The foreign-looking woman, who was apparently Comrade Zhao, had Yuezhu walk up and down a few paces, swinging her arms; then told her to touch her toes, continuing downwards for as far as she could bend; then made her do the splits, which Yuezhu could accomplish easily; and finally asked her to go from a standing position to a lying one as gracefully as she could, by any means she chose. Lacking specific instructions, Yuezhu made rather a mess of this, and did little better at the reverse movement. Standing there under the cold blue eyes of Comrade Zhao after this latter evolution, she felt desperately awkward.

“You will be notified,” said the young man.

“Successful applicants will be announced,” said his ghost.

Comparing notes afterwards with Baoyu, the interview seemed to have been standard. For the lying-down business, Baoyu had said he pretended to be dying, as in the Uighur folk dance “Flying Goose Crossing the Desert,” and by concentrating on this idea had attained a graceful movement.

“I wish I’d thought of that,” said Yuezhu. “I really believe I made a mess of it. That foreign woman with her cold blue eyes. I lost my nerve.”

“She’s not foreign. My father found out. She’s Chinese, from the northeast. Her parents were Russian immigrants, when they built the railroad. They stayed in China after the 1917 Revolution. Then they sent her to Russia and she danced with the Bolshoi Ballet. But there was some trouble, I don’t know what, and she came back to China. She’d married a Russian guy, a choreographer, but she left him in Russia when she herself came back, and he’s still there. She got struggled in ’66 for being too expert and worked on a farm in Zhejiang Province, but now she’s been reinstated.”

Baoyu’s father knew everything about everyone, it seemed. But that was his job, that was what the Public Security Bureau was for.


For the pre-graduation exercises the dance group at Number 14 was to give a performance to the whole school, and they had begun rehearsing it after the Spring Festival break. The dance was a folk dance from the northwest, based on the story of Shining Lady Wang, which everybody knew.

Shining Lady Wang

Shining Lady Wang was Wang Zhaojun, one of the four great beauties of Chinese history. Some say she was the most beautiful woman that ever lived. Although of humble birth, she was chosen for the Imperial harem by those officials who toured the country looking for suitable material.

The ruler at this time was Liu Shi, tenth emperor of the Han dynasty. His harem was so big he could never get round to looking at them all personally, so he had one of his eunuchs, a man named Mao Yanshou, paint portraits of them all and make the portraits into a book. When the Emperor wanted female company he would leaf through the book until one of the portraits took his fancy.

Now this Mao Yanshou was very venal. He would paint a beautiful portrait of a lady only if she gave him a bribe. Shining Lady Wang, trusting in her own beauty, refused to pay him the bribe, so he painted a very unflattering portrait of her. Because of this, the Emperor never chose her for companionship, and she languished in the harem unnoticed.

Liu Shi made a treaty with the King of the Huns, a wild tribe who lived beyond the Wall. In return for peace, the King of the Huns asked for a Chinese bride to take back with him to his encampment on the steppes. Looking into his harem book, the Emperor spotted the portrait of a plain, rough-looking lady, and said: “This will be good enough for the King of the Huns.”

Of course, the portrait he had chosen was that of Shining Lady Wang. He sent a servant to ask Shining Lady Wang if she would be willing to be a bride to the King of the Huns. Shining Lady Wang said: “Yes, I am willing. Better to be a Queen among barbarians than to waste away neglected in the Emperor’s harem.”

At the ceremony to present the King of the Huns with his bride, Liu Shi saw her for the first time. He was overwhelmed by her beauty. However, he had given his word to the King of the Huns, and could not break it. So Shining Lady Wang went off to live among the Huns, to drink mare’s milk, dress in animal skins and dwell in smoky tents made of felt.

She proved, in fact, a very good Queen, teaching the Huns to farm and weave. She wrote many songs for the guitar, which she liked to play while riding Hun-style on horseback. If you see a lady playing the guitar on horseback in a Chinese painting, it is Shining Lady Wang. When she died she was buried, by her choice, on the barbarian side of the Wall. The grass on the barbarian side of the Wall is yellow; but in the place where Shining Lady Wang is buried it is always green, as in China.

Yuezhu, Number 14’s best girl dancer, was to be Shining Lady Wang; Baoyu, the Hun King. Teacher Li had rechoreographed the dance to make it more revolutionary, eliminating solos in favor of group movements; but still there was a brief section where Yuezhu and Baoyu danced together. This they practiced endlessly until every least lift of the head and turn of the hand were second nature. They both felt now that these folk dances were childish and would soon be behind them; but (as Baoyu said) that was all the more reason to show that they had mastered them completely.

The performance was a big success, the rows of students, teachers and Party Secretaries all clapping, clapping and smiling up at them from the auditorium. Bowing in the newly-approved style to acknowledge the applause, as the cast of Red Detachment of Women had bowed in the Great Hall of the People, Yuezhu could not help but think that her destiny was set, that she was fated to be chosen for the Dance Academy, to spend her whole life like this, rehearsing until her very body—the muscles and joints themselves—had memorized the movements, dancing and bowing for endless rows of smiling faces.


Selections to the Dance Academy were to be posted in the second week of July. On the appointed morning Yuezhu went with Baoyu to the Music Conservatory.

The whole courtyard was full of people, two or three hundred, most middle-school students like themselves, the rest older people, presumably parents or representatives of out-of-town applicants. It seemed far more people than had been there for the application forms.

“Is this only for the Dance Academy?” she asked Baoyu, who knew everything about the process.

“Yes. The other departments post at different times.”

“Oh, Heaven! What chance do we stand, with so many?”

“I bet there are even more than this. Think of all those out in the provinces who can’t get here. Some of these people represent a dozen or more, you can be sure.”

“Heaven! To select only forty!”

Baoyu, irrepressible, laughed at her. “Such a low spirit, Elder Sister! We shall go through that big door together next September, I feel sure.”

“I wish I did.”

At last, an hour late, a functionary appeared carrying a bucket of paste, a roll of white paper under his arm. With insolent slowness—savoring his rare moment in the spotlight—he scrutinized the wall where notices were posted, shook his head, and went back into the building. The crowd groaned. Twenty minutes later he came out again carrying a little folding ladder which he set up, with infinite fuss, at the foot of the wall. Another disappearance, another re-emergence, paste and paper again. Painstakingly—interrupting himself twice to shift the ladder an inch this way, an inch back, carefully setting down the paste and paper each time—he pasted his single roll to the wall and withdrew.

The crowd pressed forward. “Ah!” and “Oh!” and even one clear “Motherfuck!” in broad Beijing dialect sounded from the front; but Yuezhu was too far away to see the names.

“Baoyu, Baoyu! I can’t see! Are we selected or not? How can we get to the front?”

The crowd went into a sort of slow fermentation process, those at the front who had finished scanning the lists elbowing their way back, those at the back struggling forward. Lists of this sort were always ordered by the number of brush-strokes in a person’s name. Yuezhu’s family name had twelve strokes, so she knew to look in the lower part of the list. Baoyu’s name had eleven strokes, so would be just above hers. When she was close enough she saw his name first, then—struggling to keep her feet in the heaving mob—scanned downwards for her own. She couldn’t see it. Had the names been listed in some irregular order? Out of order? No, she could see the first name on the list, someone named Bu, which had only two strokes. A heave of the crowd pushed her suddenly closer, and she could read all the names. Hers was not there.

Turning to look for Baoyu, as if in appeal, she met his eyes, and saw his distress. Distress for her, of course, dear Baoyu—neither of them had ever doubted he would be chosen. But neither had she had ever allowed herself to doubt that she would be chosen; yet she had not been. It was a fact in the world, the world which now had no meaning.

Walking home with Baoyu (who was close to tears on her behalf), it seemed to Yuezhu that she was a kind of dupe, the victim of an illusion. The name of the illusion was Hope; or, more accurately, Hope was the agent of the illusion, the demon who had conjured it up, capering around her in her sleep, whispering in her ear so that she would never, never imagine not being able to go to the Dance Academy. The demon Hope—it seemed so clear to her, a new understanding. She could almost visualize him, one of those figures with wild, evil faces from illustrated versions of Journey to the West, to be outwitted by Sun Wukong the Monkey. But she was not Sun Wukong, she did not know how to outwit the demon.

Chapter 17

Words of Encouragement Beneath the White Stupa

An Old Revolutionary’s Principles Come Under Siege

In August Yuezhu went off to a camp organized by the army, helping the peasants in Hebei Province. These peasants, though kindly, were even less willing to be helped than those in the southwest, and it was quite easy to avoid work altogether. Yuezhu took long walks along the raised paths between the fields with a fellow-sufferer, a girl a year older than herself who had been deeply attached to a boy from the Mongolian nationality until her parents found out and forbade the friendship.

“You shouldn’t be so close with people from other races,” the girl’s parents had said. “They are not like us. You are storing up trouble for the future. ‘The eagle doesn’t mate with the crow.’”

The two girls wandered the endless rectangles of raised yellow earth, united in self-pity.

The start of the new school year brought no relief. It seemed to Yuezhu a thwarting of fate, a violation of nature, that she was at West Wall District Number 14 Middle School, not the Dance Academy. The lessons were mere drudgery, the dance group sessions without purpose. The dances themselves seemed puerile now, irrelevant to the real business of dancing, which Baoyu was now engaged in at the Academy, which she herself should have been engaged in if she had not made a mess of the lying down and getting up at her interview. So unfair!—after all her years of dancing, of acquiring these skills, after all the applause, to be failed on a ten-minute interview!

She missed Baoyu, somewhat to her surprise. She perceived, through her gloom of solipsism, that the other members of Number 14’s dance group missed him, too. He had been silly, of course, often ridiculous, sometimes annoying; but he had given their activities a spirit and color they did not now have. He had been an inspiration to them, too, his skill and grace setting a mark for them all.

Baoyu came to visit her, appearing at the compound one Sunday in October. Sunday was the Dance Academy’s one day off, apparently. They went to Bamboo Park, and sat on a grassy bank watching rowers on the lake.

“So unfair!” she complained to him, unrolling her train of thought (very nearly her only train of thought nowadays). “They didn’t see me dance at all.”

“You’re certainly good enough for the Academy,” agreed Baoyu. “There are dancers there less capable than you.”

“They probably got in by a back door. Everyone says that’s how things work nowadays.”

Yuezhu did not know whether or not Baoyu’s father had opened a back door for him. If she asked him he would certainly tell her, but she did not want to ask for fear of poisoning their friendship. Certainly Baoyu’s father was powerful enough. On the other hand, Baoyu’s abilities were so obvious, and the dearth of male applicants so acute, he had really had no need for a back door.

“Well, why not?” Baoyu shrugged. “If the selection process is so unfair, why not try by any means to circumvent it? You should apply again, but this time have your father speak to Secretary Kang. He’s the head of the Revolutionary Committee for the whole Conservatory. He’s an older guy, not an idiot like most of them. An old soldier, I believe. I’m sure if your father speaks to him he’ll accommodate you.”

“My father has very strong principles. He wouldn’t even accept a maid, although we are entitled to one. Everywhere he travels he goes hard sleeper class. He would never open a back door for me. He hates back doors.”

“But you’re his only daughter. I’ve heard that a clever daughter can always bend a father to her will.”

“You don’t know my father and his principles.”

“Well, the heart can rule the head, if the pressure is strong enough.

The sternest father’s heart will melt

Faced with a weeping daughter.

You know, when all is said and done,

Blood is thicker than water.”

Father, as it happened, was away from home on a mission until December. By the time he returned, Yuezhu had resolved to follow Baoyu’s advice. She tackled Father at once, as soon as he was rested from his journey. Father was sitting in one of the plush armchairs after dinner, reading Reference News, of which he was now entitled to a personal copy. Yuezhu kneeled on the rug in front of him, in a position which she thought would touch him, a supplicatory position.

“I’m going to apply to the Dance Academy again,” she said. “You always taught us never to give up, Father, to persevere through all difficulties. So I’m following your instructions.”

Father put down his paper and smiled at her benignly. “Good, good, Precious Pearl. I’m sure this time you will succeed.”

Yuezhu lowered her head. “Perhaps not,” she said, addressing the rug. “Having rejected me in ’74 they’re not going to look kindly on me in ’75. It will be more difficult to get accepted this year. Last year they’d only just started classes, not many people knew. Now everybody knows. They’ll be getting thousands of applications from all over the country.”

“Well, then, you must redouble your efforts,” said Father.

Yuezhu allowed a strategic pause to develop. Then (still looking at the rug) she said: “The head of the Revolutionary Committee at the Conservatory is an old soldier, Comrade Kang Yimi from the Eighth Route Army. Perhaps you know him?”

She heard Father getting out of his chair. Looking up, she saw that he was furious. His eyes were bulging and his lips were pressed tight together. Hastily she got to her feet. Father was already yelling by the time she got upright.

“You dare to suggest this? Knowing me, knowing my principles, you dare to come to me with this filthy back door business?”

“I’m sorry, Father. It’s only …”

“You think I struggled and bled all those years just to bring a new aristocracy into the world? You think the Communist Party just rode on the backs of the people to establish a new dynasty?”

“Father, please …” Yuezhu was close to tears. Hearing the noise, Mother came in from the kitchen. She stopped just inside the doorway, watching them.

“Now you want me to take gifts to this Kang character? What do you think I should take—a watermelon, perhaps? Or a carton of cigarettes? And ask him to open a back door for my daughter? Pei!”

Father flung down his paper to the floor with great vehemence.

“I’ve spoilt you! I’ve raised you the wrong way! You’re a xiaojie, a little Princess, aren’t you? Never tasted bitterness, never suffered hardship, never faced defeat or disappointment.”

Yuezhu actually was crying now. “Father, don’t be so cruel. How can you say I’ve never faced disappointment? Don’t you know what I’ve been suffering this last few months? Don’t you know …”

“Suffering? You want to talk to me about suffering?” Father jabbed a finger at himself, at his nose. “Ts! I’ve walked across mountains covered with ice, wearing shoes made from straw. I’ve gone five days with no food. I’ve got up and walked twenty miles with a raging fever. I’ve seen men die screaming, with their guts hanging out of their bellies, and places the Japanese had passed through, the people impaled on stakes along the road, little children skinned alive. You talk to me about suffering? It’s a word you don’t know the meaning of!”

“Old Han, Old Han, calm yourself.” Mother had come forward to stand with them, and addressed Father in the style of old revolutionaries. She raised an arm, putting it between the two of them. “It’s only a small thing she asked. No need to make such a fuss about it.”

“No need? My principles …”

“Yes, yes, we all know your principles. But it wouldn’t hurt you to put in a word for her. Everybody does it nowadays.”

“Everybody does it! If everybody hangs themselves, must I hang myself, too?”

“I thought you might help me,” said Yuezhu, recovering her courage a little after seeing that Mother supported her. “Such a small thing for you, and it means so much to me.”

Father looked from one of them to the other, apparently speechless now. Then he bent to pick up his newspaper, sat down in the armchair again, and reopened the paper with a snap, shutting both of them out.

“Come help me in the kitchen, Yuezhu. There’s no talking to him when he’s like this.”


After seeing the depth of Father’s intransigence, Yuezhu did not dare raise the subject again. She sank into depression.

“You shouldn’t be so discouraged,” said Teacher Li at dance class one evening. “You can apply for the Academy again this year. You’re not too old. They’re taking applications right now, for next year.”

“What’s the use?” asked Yuezhu. “My chance is less next year than it was this year.”

“Nonsense. They’ll know you’ve had a year’s more training. They’ll give you the same consideration as everyone else.”

Yuezhu didn’t believe it, but she applied anyway. The application, once filed, only depressed her more. She felt she was applying for another rejection. At last her low spirits made her ill. Mother took her to the army doctor, who examined her tongue and throat with a flashlight. “Tonsillitis,” declared the doctor. “They’ll have to come out. A few days’ discomfort, that’s all.”

When she woke from the operation Yuezhu at first felt nothing. Then she sniffed to clear some mucus from her nose, and the muscular movement caused the back of her throat to burst into flames. She cried out, or tried to—all that emerged was a croak, and it was some minutes before the fierce dry burning in her throat subsided to ordinary dull pain.

She had a room to herself, at least; and the hospital was much better appointed than the dark, grimy Number One in Seven Kill Stele, where she had once visited a classmate stricken with gastritis who had, in fact, subsequently died. Here there were no peasants milling in the corridors, no broken windows or scurrying rats. The walls of her room were fresh painted, the bare concrete floor swept clean. There was a bedside table with a plain white water-jug and a glass tumbler. She tried to drink a glass of water, but the pain of swallowing was too great. She ejected the mouthful she had taken into the glass where it swirled brown, flakes of clotted blood settling very slowly like tea-leaf fragments.

Mother came to visit that afternoon, bringing some cold rice gruel seasoned with ginger, and tea in a flask. With patient coaxing she got Yuezhu to swallow half a dozen mouthfuls of gruel.

“Half Brother will be home for Spring Festival,” she said. “His unit has given him leave.”

Half Brother! If Father would not yield to her, perhaps she could enlist Half Brother to the siege! There had been a time—when?—somewhere in her early childhood—when Half Brother and Father had fought over Half Brother’s admission to the University in Chengdu. She could remind him of that, try to bring out the arguments he had used at that time. Half Brother was doing well in his unit, this she vaguely knew. He could confront Father not as a rebellious kid, but as a fellow-soldier—much inferior in rank, to be sure, but a comrade in arms nonetheless.

When Father himself came visiting next day, Yuezhu played the invalid for all it was worth. She smiled wanly at his clumsy words of encouragement, made feeble croaking noises in response to his questions, and at last fell back on her pillow in feigned exhaustion, one hand to her throat.

The effect was better than she had dared to hope for. Rising to leave, Father took her hand and pressed it between both of his, looking down tenderly into her eyes. This was the most demonstrative she had ever seen him since she was an infant.

“The conditions here are very good,” said Father. “Don’t worry, they’ll soon have you well. You must rest, Little Pearl. Rest, and don’t worry about anything.”

Yuezhu almost felt she had succeeded right there, but Father said nothing about her application. He said nothing about it next day either, when he visited her again; but he brought a gift with him, to raise her spirits. The gift was in a luxurious box made of shiny white cardboard, like something from a foreign country. Inside the cardboard was airy white tissue paper perfectly clean, and beyond the tissue paper was a brand-new pair of ice skates. Baoyu had ice skates, and used to go skating on North Lake. Months ago, when the previous winter was already ending and the lake no longer safe, Yuezhu had expressed a wish to try ice-skating, without really expecting anything to come of it. It was that that Father had remembered.

“When you’re better you can go skating with your friend,” said Father. “They’re a product of our own country, look—made in Harbin, in the northeast.”

The skates were indeed very fine—glossy black leather lacing up high, with brilliant silver blades. “Thank you, Father. Thank you, dear Father,” croaked Yuezhu, reaching out with her hands to take his. Father squeezed her hands, clumsily. Now she saw his love for her, and the guilt he felt, despite himself, for having refused her. Still she thought she had not sufficient courage to raise the subject of her application directly with him, but she resolved to try the Half Brother strategy at Spring Festival.

She told Baoyu about this when, recovered from the tonsillectomy, she went with him to North Lake, behind the Forbidden City, to try out her new skates. They were permitted to skate only on a restricted part of the lake, encompassed by the shore, Jade Island, and the two bridges leading to the island. Yuezhu had never skated before, but with Baoyu’s encouragement and a dancer’s aptitude, she was soon gliding along confidently. It was a wonderful motion, like something one might do in a dream, like flying almost; and the dreamlike quality was enhanced here by the surroundings: a faint ice-mist hanging over the lake, bare trees on the shoreline, above all towering the White Stupa, a hundred feet high and three hundred years old. The stupa did precisely what it had been designed to do: it impressed upon those playing beneath it their utter insignificance, the transient and illusory nature of everything they thought important, and it induced the peace and inner silence that can be attained only by acceptance of these truths.

Baoyu was all encouragement. “I miss you very much,” he said. “Dear Moon Pearl. We danced together so well. Do you remember when we did Shining Lady Wang?”

“If I get in I shall be a year below you,” Yuezhu pointed out. “We’ll be in different classes. Perhaps we’d have no opportunity to dance together.”

“Oh, but we’re encouraged to do extra practice in our own time. We could practice together. You’ll love ballet. So much to learn! Different positions, different movements, different kinds of music.”

“First I have to get admitted. My only chance is if Father will open a back door for me.”

“If your Half Brother will cooperate, it will be three against one. I don’t see how your father can resist.”


Half Brother appeared the very day before Spring Festival, the last day of the lunar year. His appearance was dramatic: he was driven to the compound in an army jeep, right into the courtyard of the compound with a squeal of brakes, where he leapt out and up the steps to the entrance hall. Yuezhu did not see this but Mother did. She happened to be at the window. “Wa!” she said aloud. “He has his own driver now!”

Yuezhu ran to open the door. When Half Brother came up onto their landing she threw herself into his arms.

“Little Sister!” he boomed, his voice much louder and stronger than she remembered. “So big now! What, almost seventeen!” He lifted her off her feet and held her, his face six inches from hers. He was very handsome now, handsome and smart, in spite of the severe military cut of his hair.

Father was not yet home. Half Brother embraced Mother, who had been gazing adoringly at him, and laughed merrily at her queries about his health, his diet, his conditions.

“The life of a soldier is a good life,” he declared. “Always something interesting! Always something new!”

Yuezhu took her chance right away, before Father came home. In this huge apartment, Mother in the kitchen preparing the evening feast, there was room to speak without being overheard.

“It’s the main thing that matters to me. The only thing,” she explained, filling her voice with urgent emotion. Her voice still had a hoarse edge on it from the tonsillectomy, and she worked this for effect. “I can’t shift him, but perhaps he’ll listen to you.”

“I don’t know.” Half Brother frowned. “His principles are very rigid, you know.”

“But don’t we have to adjust our principles sometimes, to deal with changing circumstances? America was always our great enemy; but when Mr Nixon came to China, we showed him a friendly face.”

Half Brother laughed. “It’s a good argument. I’ll see what I can do.”

Yuezhu supposed he would take Father aside some day during his visit and try to persuade him. She was caught unawares when he brought up the subject that very evening, at the family’s New Year’s Eve dinner.

They had had two toasts in Five Grain Liquor, Yuezhu joining in the second toast at Father’s encouragement. He touched his liquor cup to hers, smiling into her eyes with the smile he had for her nowadays, and said: “Drain your cup!” Perhaps seeing Father’s kindly affection toward her inspired Half Brother to speak.

“Why don’t you put in a word for Little Sister at the Dance Academy? You know she’s set her heart on getting accepted.”

Yuezhu held her breath in fear that Father would explode again; but he was only silent for a moment, reaching with his chopsticks for some bean curd.

“It’s not the right way to do things. You all know my feelings about that.”

“Right or wrong, it’s the way things are done,” said Half Brother. “If you stick so doggedly to your principles, you will just get left behind. You, and your family. What will Little Sister do with her life if she can’t be a dancer? It’s the only thing she cares about.”

Mother was saying nothing, just watching Father warily. Yuezhu, once she recovered from the shock of Half Brother’s boldness, could not help adding her own supplication.

“Father, please. Half Brother’s right. If I don’t get into the Academy I really have no future. I’m not good at anything else, only dancing.”

“You’re good at languages,” said Father. “The best in your class, is what I heard.”

“How can I make a living from that? Be a teacher? You know what a poor life they have.”

“I don’t know. A translator, perhaps.”

“What, sitting in a dark office at a desk, turning English into Chinese all day long? I should die of boredom!”

Mother spoke up, using Father’s full name as she sometimes did, for gravity. “You should help her, Han Dingguo. Blood is thicker than water.”

“And then what will happen to our revolution? Are we to fall back into the ways of the old society, man struggling for advantage against man, without regard to method?”

“No, Father,” said Half Brother. “It’s nothing to do with going back to the old society. If you don’t open a back door for Little Sister, someone less qualified than her will get in in her place, because her people were willing to do what you won’t do.”

“Then that person will come to a bad end. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Father, honored Father.” Half Brother leaned forward on the table, tapping his left index finger against his palm to make his point. “The revolution is over. Those battles have been fought and won. Now we have a new battle, and we need new strategy. Our country’s leaders know that. Listen: in my unit we have to review a lot of foreign material. Since Nixon’s visit we are getting more and more material from America. We have all been shocked by this material. None of us realized how far behind our country is. They are so advanced! Everyone in China is proud of the Yangtse Bridge, right? Well, let me tell you, in America they have a bridge so long that you can’t see one end from the other! Everyone in America has a car, even ordinary working people. It’s true. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true. The workers have big houses, surrounded by gardens and trees. They have color TV, they have washing machines—everybody! Yes, you are right: our society is no longer one where man exploits man. Now we have a fair and just society. But the big world—the world outside China—is not fair and just. It is a competition, a battle. If our country is to advance, to compete with these other countries, we must put forward our best people in every sphere.”

Father listened carefully to all this, chewing slowly on his food. “All right,” he said at last. “I can agree with what you say. Of course our country needs to bring forward our best dancers. But how do we know she is one of the best? Aren’t the authorities at the Academy best qualified to judge that?”

“No, they’re not. They can see her abilities, they can ask about her political attitude and background. But they can’t see her enthusiasm. Oh, Father, we are both soldiers. We know what makes a first-class unit, don’t we? It’s the enthusiasm of the men. Nothing can compare with that, nothing can compensate for that if it’s absent, isn’t this true? Suppose you were recruiting men for a special mission. Wouldn’t you leap at the chance to include a man with this kind of spirit, this kind of enthusiasm? Look at Little Sister. She would do anything to get into that Academy. She’s crazy to dance. Now, tell me: will the Academy be better off with such a student, or not? Will our country be better off, or not?”

Father looked at Half Brother. Then he looked at Yuezhu. He was not angry, but nor was he at ease in his mind. He looked levelly at Yuezhu for a moment, then turned his gaze to Mother.

“Blood is thicker than water,” said Mother.

Father sighed, and looked down at his bowl. He was silent for a few beats; then he made a short laugh.

“Ha! Blood is thicker than water! Ai, ai, ai! Yes, I suppose it is after all.” He looked up at Yuezhu, smiling his fond smile now. “I suppose it is. All right, Precious Pearl, all right. I’ll speak to Secretary Kang.”

Chapter 18

Moon Pearl Seeks Divine Assistance

Strange Portents Foretell Great Changes

On the night before her first day at the Dance Academy, Yuezhu knelt by her bed and made a prayer. She had never made a prayer before, and did not feel at all sure of the correct procedure. She knew she should fold her hands together in a bai gesture, and bow her head—that was all. So, feeling very self-conscious, even though there was no-one to see her, she knelt by her bed, clasped her hands in front of her, lowered her head, closed her eyes, and prayed.

First she prayed to Guanyin, the White Goddess. It seemed most natural, and she knew Guanyin was the goddess the peasants most liked to worship. She asked Guanyin to help her succeed at the Academy, and promised Guanyin that she would forgo all pleasures, spurn all delights, if only she could succeed.

After praying to Guanyin she said another prayer, for extra insurance. This one was to Shangdi, the god of Heaven itself, the god people worshipped in the West. The fact that he was worshipped in the West counted against him, of course. It might be counter-revolutionary to pray to him, she thought—not that anyone would know. On the other hand, Half Brother said that the Western countries were very rich and successful, so presumably Shangdi was quite potent. Well, you could never be too careful when dealing with the supernatural. Respectfully, she asked Shangdi to grant her good fortune.

She should (Yuezhu soon found herself reflecting) have prayed not for fortune but fortitude. The schedule at the Dance Academy was more grueling than anything she was used to or could have imagined. Classes began at 6 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., with only two hours for lunch and a nap. On Saturday classes finished early, after lunch, and on Sunday there were no classes at all. The school was always open, however, and the keener students came in early to practice unsupervised, left late, and were there on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

Yuezhu had supposed she would be able to live at home and take a bus to the Academy every day, but this left her so little time for sleep she moved into one of the dormitories belonging to the Conservatory, going home only on Sundays for dinner with the family. Rising at five, she was at the barre early in time for a few minutes loosening-up, yet still she was never the first student there. Some of the others were very keen, rising at four to get a whole hour and a half in before lessons officially began. Yuezhu tried this for a while, but it was too much for her. The schedule was sufficiently exhausting as it was. Day after day she danced until her joints ached and her limbs could barely move. It was a different world from the leisurely, informal dance groups of her previous experience.

As well as being long, the schedule was very varied. They practiced dance, of course, four or five hours a day; but that was the least of it. There was dance history, dance theory, folk dance study, dance drama theory and practice, choreography and choreology, physiology and health, political study of course, English—everybody was learning English now—and music.

A consolation was that she was able to attend some classes with Baoyu. Boys and girls at the Dance Academy had quite different schedules. The boys had to do a lot of physical training—weight-lifting and calisthenics—to strengthen their bodies, so that they would be able to lift their partners without effort. In foreign-style ballet, Baoyu told her, the male dancers needed to be very strong. Consequently, some of their classes on theory were run a year behind. For dance history and music the two friends were able to study together.

It was the music Yuezhu found most difficult at first. She had been reading music for some years, but only in the Chinese number notation. Now the students all had to master western notation, bass and treble, sharp and flat, crotchet and quaver, tempo and key. Yuezhu found it horribly difficult, the dense black symbols spread over the staves reminded her of the heavy black characters seen in peasant almanacs foretelling the weather, the harvest, setting out the right day to wash your hair or conceive a child.

“I’m so confused by it all,” she confessed to Baoyu coming from music class one day. “‘In the key of  …’—what does that mean, to be ‘in the key of  …’? How can I tell whether a piece is in the key of A, or B, or what?”

Baoyu laughed. “Oh, Elder Sister, it really doesn’t matter. So long as you can move with the music, it really doesn’t matter if you’re tone deaf.”

“It matters to Teacher Fang,” said Yuezhu. “He scolds me every lesson.”

“Teacher Fang is a dusty old pedant.”

“Yes, but I have to pass his course.”

Yuezhu did pass his course, though, that first semester, and all her other classroom courses. Not sensationally well, but well enough. To her dismay, it was the dancing that gave her real trouble. Before going to the Academy she had always reckoned herself a good dancer. In every dance group she had been in there had been someone better than her; but if she was not first, she was always among the best. Now, at the Academy, she was one of a group selected largely by merit from across the whole nation, and most were better than she. Yuezhu gritted her teeth and concentrated on the ballet exercises, where she was weakest: barre-work, center-work, corps drills.

Madame Blaitsky herself took charge of them for two hours each afternoon, to teach them fundamentals: the five positions of the feet, the eight positions of the body, the five positions of the arms, and all their many variations. Madame Blaitsky was the Russian woman with the cold blue eyes, who had interviewed Yuezhu for both her applications. She used the surname Zhao in Chinese, nobody knew why, but her students all called her Madame Blaitsky. She was a stern teacher, and threw them straight into the peculiar foreign vocabulary of their art with the barest minimum of explanation.

En avant, Han Yuezhu, cinquième en avant! You’re not concentrating!”

Absent Teacher An’s phonetic guidance, Yuezhu’s foreign language skills could not engage the French words, or perhaps had just been exhausted. She could hold them in her mind only by making absurd Chinese mnemonics of them. En avant sounded like “unforgettable”; the body position effacé became “prone to fever”; en bas transformed itself into wang-ba, a low-class insult meaning “turtle”; and the knee bends Madame Blaitsky called pliés were pili, the crack! of nearby thunder. Still she could not keep ahead of Madame Blaitsky. As soon as a movement, or a sequence of movements, and the bizarre foreign names for them, became second nature, they were pressing on with the next.

Glissade a demi-plié, you stupid girl! If I’d wanted you to croisé I would have said so!”

They were all scared of Madame Blaitsky. Yuezhu had the impression that even the other teachers were scared of her. She would march into classroom studies sometimes, interrupting the lesson without warning, to speak to a student—for she took a strong personal interest in the students’ lives, her object apparently being to make quite sure they had no interests of any kind whatsoever outside the world of dance.

At first Yuezhu felt that Madame Blaitsky was picking on her, as one of the weaker dancers in the first-year class, and this fed her sense of inadequacy. In fact, Madame Blaitsky had the same effect on everyone—even on Baoyu, who had endured her attentions the previous year.

“I thought she really disliked me,” said Baoyu. “Then I saw that the other students all felt she disliked them. It’s just her way of driving you forward.”

“I hope you’re right. Sometimes when she’s watching me do exercises, I feel her eyes can see right into me, into my soul. See all my innermost faults.”

“That’s her job, to correct your faults. It’s nothing personal. It’s Sunzi drilling the palace ladies, that’s all.”

Baoyu was referring to an old story about the great military strategist Sunzi.

Sunzi Drills the Palace Ladies

King Helü of the state of Wu read Sunzi’s book and asked for a demonstration of his training methods. “Is it true that you can train anyone at all to be a disciplined soldier?” asked the King.

Sunzi said: “It is true.”

“All right then,” said the King. “Let me see you make soldiers out of my palace women.”

Sunzi frowned. “Do I have the authority of Commander-in-Chief for the purposes of this test?”

“Certainly,” replied the King.

The palace ladies were brought out on to the parade ground and made to stand in two companies. Sunzi appointed the King’s two favorite concubines as the two company officers. He explained to them how to move to the front, to the rear, to the left, to the right, and taught them the various signals for these movements.

When everything had been explained five times, Sunzi asked: “Is it clear?”

“Yes, Sir,” replied the ladies.

The drums were rolled for a right turn. Instead of carrying out the movement, the ladies all began laughing.

Sunzi said: “When the orders are not completely understood, this is the commander’s fault.” Again he explained the orders five times, and asked if all was understood.

“Yes, Sir,” said the ladies.

The drums were rolled for a left turn; but again the palace ladies fell into laughter and could not carry out the order.

Said Sunzi: “When the order is not clear, it is the commander’s fault. When it is clear but not obeyed, that is the officers’ fault.” He thereupon ordered the two company officers to be killed.

Hearing this order, King Helü hastily sent an order to Sunzi. “These are my dearest companions,” he said. “Without them my food would lose its taste. Please cancel your order of execution.”

Sunzi replied: “The commander must use his judgment, and the ruler must trust the judgment of his commander.” Thereupon he had the two ladies killed, the next in rank being promoted to company officers. When the drums rolled again the ladies’ performance in advancing and withdrawing, turning to the left and right, was faultless. None dared utter a sound.

Sunzi reported to the King: “The forces are trained and ready. Your Majesty may use them as he wishes. Even if you drive them into flood or fire, they will not falter.”


For all the pain and effort, Yuezhu believed she had found her life’s purpose. Even when her self-esteem was at its lowest, when Madame Blaitsky had singled her out for criticism three or four times in a single afternoon, she never doubted that she was doing what she was meant to do.

There was a morning that December, shortly before the western New Year, when she was walking down the path from her dormitory to the main building. It was pitch dark, of course—little more than five thirty—and the ancient city was quiet under its night-time haze of ice mist and coal smoke. The only sounds were the faint rattle of bicycles on the road beyond the outer wall. Inside the main building some lights were on, one of them in the practice room where the keenest students were already loosening up. Coming down the path, Yuezhu could make out one of the dancers in the room practicing ports de bras, and she automatically checked off the movements: première, seconde, demi-seconde, troisième … The particular aspect of things at that moment—the beams of light from the windows cutting through the smoggy dark, the dancers all unawares beyond the glass, the distant rattle of bicycles, the silence and peace, even, somehow, the prospect of an arduous day’s work under the unforgiving eye of Madame Blaitsky—it all came together with her own mood in an instant of perfect dedication. This is my fate, it all said. This is where I should be.

A great swell of emotion lifted up her heart; not merely satisfaction on her own behalf, but unselfish things—love for dancing, and determination to do her best at it, whatever that best might be. Submission to her art, with all its tribulations. And gratitude—to her father, who had betrayed his principles for her, to her teachers, most of all to Chairman Mao, who had swept away the cruelties and hopelessness of the old society and created the opportunity for her to fulfill herself, to serve the people by enriching their lives with beauty. She had always loved Chairman Mao, of course, but she had rarely felt her love for him as deeply as she did at that moment. The cynicism of the capital, and indeed of the time, which had been settling on her like the gritty winter dust of Beijing, all fell away for a moment, and she loved Chairman Mao with all her heart.


It was not Chairman Mao, however, but Prime Minister Zhou Enlai who forced himself on Yuezhu’s attention that winter.

In January the Prime Minister died. The Dance Academy students got the news at the beginning of Teacher Fang’s music class one Friday morning. Several students burst into tears right there. Everybody had liked the Prime Minister. The people all loved Chairman Mao, of course; but the love one felt for Chairman Mao was more in the nature of devotion, as one might feel for a benevolent deity—devotion mixed up with awe, gratitude, submission and respect. People’s feelings for the Prime Minister were more on the human level. He could not part the seas and open the sky, as the Chairman could; but there were many stories in circulation about his acts of kindness and selflessness towards the common people, stories of a kind that were never told about Chairman Mao. Father liked the Prime Minister, Yuezhu knew that. She had the impression—of course, Father would never had said such a thing out loud—she had the impression he liked the Prime Minister more than he liked the Chairman.

Yuezhu herself had long since given up paying attention to current affairs. She was astonished at the emotions that appeared when the Prime Minister’s death was known. Several of her classmates were red-eyed and distraught all that day. One or two of them could not dance. They went back to the dormitory and stayed there, sobbing into their pillows.

“It’s the ones from intellectual families,” said Baoyu. “They suffered a lot in the movements, and they always felt the Prime Minister stood up for them. My father says the ones who loved the Prime Minister most really hate Chairman Mao. They blame him for the movements.”

Yuezhu was shocked by the words “… hate Chairman Mao.” She had never heard this combination of syllables before. It sounded like an obscenity. “How can anyone hate Chairman Mao?” she asked, almost by reflex.

Baoyu shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s what my father said.”

Baoyu had even less interest in public affairs than she had, though because of his father’s position he always knew the latest gossip about the country’s leaders.

On her Sunday visit home, Yuezhu could see that Father was worried about the situation. It was a negative for his chief’s faction, somehow. When the lips are gone, the teeth are cold, Yuezhu remembered him saying at the time Lin Biao died. But Lin Biao had been plotting against Chairman Mao, so of course it was necessary to purge all his followers. Nobody had ever accused the Prime Minister of plotting; indeed, the newspapers they read in Political Study class were full of eulogies for him. So why should Father’s chief be affected? Yuezhu read one of the eulogies again, in the quiet period before dinner, and noticed now that it was less than unrestrained, had in fact a sort of guarded quality to it. These things were so deep, who could understand them?

Father said nothing to enlighten her. Yuezhu thought she would ask Half Brother when he came home in April. It was a firm family tradition now that he would come home for her birthday in April every year. It was not so easy for military people to get leave at Spring Festival, but her birthday was only a few weeks later, so it was almost the same thing.

Before Half Brother could come home, however, there was an incident. Yuezhu was never clear about the origin of or reasons for the incident, but it made a big sensation in the capital.

The incident happened at the Qingming Festival, early in April. Qingming was not a public holiday. Indeed, it was not officially a festival at all. It was associated with filial piety, and with sweeping the graves of one’s ancestors. These were, of course, ideas and practices left over from the old society, and so they were officially frowned upon. Still, it was surprising how many people seemed to be away from their posts on Qingming. Yuezhu had noticed it even at West Wall Number 14, where every other student was the child of some senior party or army official.

This particular Qingming fell on a Monday. On Sunday, the day before, some of the people of the capital used the festival to express their devotion to the late Prime Minister. They took big pictures of the Prime Minister to Tiananmen Square, set them up on the Martyrs’ Monument in the middle of the Square, and banked them with flowers and memorial placards and poems.

Yuezhu herself did not see this. Her class had been issued their first real dance shoes the day before, and she and the other girls spent Sunday morning in the dormitory sewing on the ribbons that laced up around their ankles. There was a special way to sew on the ribbons—Madame Blaitsky herself showed them. You folded down the heel of the shoe, which was made of soft satin, and marked the corners where the fabric turned on itself. Those were the right points at which to tie the ribbon.

After fixing her shoes, Yuezhu hastened over to West Wall District to see her family. Sunday was her only chance in the week to be with Father and Mother, and she wanted to hear news of Half Brother, to know whether and when he would be able to get leave for her coming birthday. At home Father was pacing the floor, looking at his watch. He acknowledged her entrance with a grunt, then went back to pacing.

“It’s his chief,” said Mother in the kitchen. “You know, his chief follows Comrade Deng Xiaoping, and it looks as though Comrade Deng’s in trouble.”

“Yes. He’s a capitalist roader,” said Yuezhu unthinkingly. It was something they’d learned in Political Study class. Actually, Comrade Deng Xiaoping had not been named in the article they had studied, but everyone knew the piece was about him.

Mother laughed. “Is that what they say? Well, I don’t pretend to know anything about these things. But your Father says if they push old Deng out, we might have to leave the capital.”

Father’s car arrived, and he left. Nowadays his unit always sent a car for him. He had still not returned when Yuezhu left to go back to the Academy, and the family had had no news of Half Brother. It was late evening, but the streets seemed to be full of people, all walking northwards, away from the Square. It seemed that something was in the air, though Yuezhu could not have said what it was. Father; Half Brother; the unexpected throngs of people drifting silently up from the Square—things were unsettled somehow. It brought to her mind the catalog of natural disorders in the first chapter of Three Kingdoms Romance, that heralded the fall of the Han dynasty: earthquakes, tidal waves, poultry changing sex, strange mists and vapors seen in the halls of the Imperial palace.

On the part of the bus route that ran along White Stone Bridge Road she witnessed something astonishing. A car went by, one of the shining black cars that party leaders and senior officials were chauffeured around in, exactly like the one that had come to fetch Father that afternoon. There were still people on the sidewalks here, not as many as nearer the Square, but groups and lines of them walking north—ordinary-looking people in rough workers’ clothes and caps. One group stopped to shout at the car. Yuezhu could see them clearly, shouting and shaking their fists at the car as it sped by. Their faces were angry. Incredibly, one young man jumped into the road to shout at the car’s back as it sped away. Yuezhu felt afraid even to have seen the incident. The other people on the bus looked afraid too. They were all looking down, pretending they had not seen.

Next day there was an announcement in mid-afternoon: students were to stay in the Academy grounds. Most especially, nobody was to go to the Square. The students all talked about it in the dining hall that evening, but no-one knew what was going on. It was two days later, Wednesday, that everything became clear. Yuezhu heard it from Baoyu, who had gone home on Tuesday evening.

“All the wreaths and memorials people left in the Square on Sunday,” he told her over lunch. “Public Security took them all away Sunday night. When people went to the Square on Monday and saw everything had gone, they were angry. There was a big demonstration. Some police cars were burned. The people smashed up some government offices. Public Security had to restore order. My father was out all night.”

“Wa! People feel so strongly about the Prime Minister!”

Baoyu shrugged. “Sure. Everybody loved the Prime Minister.”

“Then why did they take away the people’s offerings?”

“I’m not clear. Something to do with Chairman Mao’s wife. She never liked the Prime Minister, you know.”

Of course, Yuezhu did not know. She did not know anything about these high matters, and felt uneasy hearing about them. “Just think,” she said, not really thinking herself, just wanting to get back to generalities. “If this is the reaction when the Prime Minister dies, what will people do …”

She stopped herself short. Of course, Chairman Mao would have to die some time; but it was not very respectful to talk about it. Baoyu caught her meaning though, and smiled at her.

“If what my father says is true, we shall soon find out.”


After the Incident, things quickly went from bad to worse. The official named Deng Xiaoping, to whom Father’s chief was attached, was now being vilified by name at Political Study classes. Apparently the leaders blamed him for the Qingming disorders. A prudent man, he took himself off to the South, and Father’s chief went with him. Father had no choice but to follow, and the Han family had to give up their apartment.

“It needn’t affect you at all,” Mother told her, when she went to help them pack, on the very Sunday they should have been celebrating her birthday. “You’ve got accommodation in the dormitory. You can come down to see us in the vacation.”

“It’s easy to say,” said Yuezhu. “But you know that I’m only at the Academy because of Father. If he’s disgraced, I may get thrown out.”

“Nonsense. They’ll respect your ability. Nothing that happens to Father will reflect on you.”

Baoyu was less sanguine. “It’s a movement,” he said, “a big movement. The leaders are all struggling for position when Chairman Mao dies. Even my father doesn’t feel secure, I can see. Nobody knows what will happen.”

In fact nothing happened, except that Comrade Deng Xiaoping was now vilified by name in the editorials they read at Political Study. It was clear to Yuezhu now—it seemed to her that she had been dull and stupid not to have thought it through before—that Father’s chief, and therefore Father himself, and therefore the entire Han family, were attached to this Comrade Deng Xiaoping, about whom she knew next to nothing, and that their fortunes would rise and fall with his. For the first time since she had been a Little Red Guard, politics now had some content for her—entirely negative content, at this point. To further discomfit her, Half Brother made no appearance for her birthday, and sent no explanation for his absence.

It really seemed that there was a movement in the air. On top of the regular Political Study sessions, the leaders at the Conservatory held two mass meetings. The main point of the meetings was to get all the students and teachers to criticize Comrade Deng Xiaoping, which of course they all did. In the field of music (said their final resolution), Comrade Deng Xiaoping had spoken disparagingly of the model revolutionary ballets and operas of the last few years, had sponsored productions that distorted the image of workers, peasants and soldiers, and, in short, had opposed what the proletariat supported and supported what they opposed. The students and teachers of Beijing Music Conservatory unanimously called upon the leaders of the Party to publicly condemn the revisionist and capitalist-roader Comrade Deng Xiaoping.

“At least nobody got struggled,” said Baoyu. “I really used to hate those struggle meetings.”

“I’m only afraid they’ll close down the Conservatory again,” said Yuezhu.

The Conservatory did not close. The Dance Academy ended its formal summer term in a whisper of anticlimax, there being no graduation ceremony because the Academy had only been reopened two years before so no-one was yet ready to graduate. After a few days’ uncertainty Madame Blaitsky told them the practice rooms would be open all summer, but there would be no classroom teaching. Nobody minded this latter; all the students wanted to stay to practice; so there was little difference between term-time and vacation-time as far as Yuezhu was concerned, except that she had some leisure, and freedom to come and go.

She welcomed the opportunity for extra practice. It was clear to her now that, even with her best efforts, she was in the bottom third of her class so far as dancing ability was concerned. This she was determined to improve. Through all the stifling heat of July she rose at five, exercised all morning, alternating barre and center-work, took a long nap after lunch, then went back to the practice rooms for another three or four hours dancing. Madame Blaitsky had gone to her home in the northeast for the summer, and the other teachers were not much in evidence. Baoyu, careless in his superiority, came in no more than two or three times a week, but there were always students in the practice rooms, ready to help, criticize, encourage.


Half Brother appeared one sweltering day in mid-July just before noon, walking right into the practice room where Yuezhu and two other girls, enervated by the heat, were struggling through enchaînements together—five minutes of dancing alternating with ten minutes of fanning themselves and gossiping.

“I went to your dormitory, Little Sister, but they told me you were practicing. Such dedication! Have you eaten?”

Half Brother looked very fine and handsome, wearing a shiny brown leather belt over his smart green uniform. There was a gun holster in the belt, with the polished wooden butt of the gun visible beneath the cover.

He had come in a military jeep, with a driver. Now he tookYuezhu off across the city on a thrilling ride in the jeep, the air rushing past her face to cool and refresh her. Yuezhu had traveled in the backs of trucks, but never before in a car of any kind. To speed along Eternal Peace Boulevard in the jeep, past the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City, the driver sounding his horn at the scattered cyclists, seemed to her the grandest thing in the world.

They came at last to an old mansion in the Front Gate district south of the Square. Half Brother helped her out of the jeep, then led her through a leafy outer courtyard to a small reception room in what must once have been the servants’ quarters. From here a waitress in a starched white tunic led them through the inner courtyard to a clean, airy dining-room set with small tables, each table covered with a white cloth. On the wall at the far end of the room was a large landscape painting in the old style. Most of the tables were occupied, small groups of people—mostly men—in shirt-sleeves or T-shirts, bottles of beer on the cloth in front of them, glass tumblers, dishes of food in various stages of consumption.

“Southwestern cuisine,” said Half Brother as the waitress led them to their table, “the best in the capital.”

“It looks very bourgeois,” said Yuezhu. “What would Father say?”

Half Brother laughed. “Father’s ideas are out of date now,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer who think like him.”

“Isn’t it expensive, though? Are you sure you can afford it?”

“Not a problem. I want to make up for missing your birthday.”

The food was very good indeed. Not really fancy, just varied and well-made. All the dishes were southwestern specialties: pickled eggs, savory bean curd, sliced chicken with a blistering hot black pepper sauce. Half Brother ordered beer, but Yuezhu would drink only tea.

“You should take a break from your dancing,” said Half Brother. “Go down to Guangzhou to see Father and Ayi. They seem to be well settled in now.”

“To tell the truth, I don’t want to draw attention to the fact that my family’s in Guangzhou with Comrade Deng Xiaoping. I don’t know what they’d put in my file.”

Half Brother laughed, selecting a choice cube of bean curd. “It’s nothing. Comrade Deng will soon be back in the capital. You’ll see.”

Yuezhu was surprised to hear him speak so easily and carelessly. He, a military man! She looked round a little nervously, but no-one was in earshot.

“I don’t think you should make so light of it,” she said. “Comrade Deng’s in deep disgrace. Every unit in the country has denounced him. The Party’s turned away from his path, left him behind.”

Half Brother chuckled knowingly. “Little Sister. Don’t try to make a chicken from fragments of bone. The Party …” he gave the words a sarcastic spin, throwing them back to her, “… is waiting for a certain very important person to die. So that the ruling faction, who have that person’s support, can be sent off to be managers of cement factories in Gansu Province” [naming a remote and impoverished region of the northwest].

“I can’t believe you’re serious,” said Yuezhu. “How can you know such things?”

“Oh, the army knows everything. What’s the Party without the army? The Chairman said it himself. ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ There’s nothing goes on that my seniors don’t know about. And then, sooner or later, it trickles down to the officers’ mess. Trust me, Little Sister, Father’s setback is only a temporary one.”

“But how can you be sure? It could be years before …” Instinctively, Yuezhu looked around again. “… before anyone important dies. The Prime Minister only just died in January.”

“It won’t be long,” said Half Brother emphatically, and took a drink of his beer.

“I can’t imagine what our country will be like without … when that person has left the world.”

“Don’t worry.” Half Brother wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Our country will prosper. There’ll be no more of these foolish movements. We shall accelerate Socialist Reconstruction. Our country will be the richest and strongest in the world. All the other countries will fear us. Even America—they will shake with fear!” He laughed, so loud that some people at nearby tables looked over, and Yuezhu wondered if the small quantity of beer he had drunk might be having a bad effect on him.

“Well, that would be wonderful,” she said cautiously. “Of course, I hope you are right. But the immediate situation is that Comrade Deng is in disgrace, and our father’s chief along with him.”

“The masses support Comrade Deng,” said Half Brother firmly. “Do you know about the demonstrations at Qingming earlier this year?”

“Yes. I even saw something of them.”

“Well, that’s the mood of the people. This leftist faction can’t control them. ‘When the rulers are wise, there is harmony under Heaven.’ Soon we shall have wise rulers again, and our country will be strong and happy.” He grinned across the table at her, the old clever grin she knew from her earliest memories. “Trust me, Little Sister.”

Whatever the worth of Half Brother’s insights, the general tension of the country’s political situation had by now communicated itself to everybody, even to those who gave no thought to large matters from one year’s end to the next. Everyone was nervous, but of course no-one wanted to speak about these things for fear their words might come back to them at a struggle meeting.

And at last—the great affairs of mankind being linked to the natural world as they are, in ways no human mind can fathom—at last that tension penetrated the crust of the earth itself.

Chapter 19

The Stage Trembles As a Great Man Departs

The White-Haired Girl Takes a Victim

Yuezhu woke in the middle of one stifling hot night to the sound of voices shouting, glass breaking. Along with the noises she noticed the smell: an odd smell, something like chalk dust. There was nothing to see, though. All was pitch black. “What is it?” she heard a sleepy voice say nearby. “Is it thunder?”

Yuezhu shared a dormitory room with seven other girls. They slept in four bunk beds, two against each wall. Three of the girls had gone home for the summer vacation, or were away for some other reason. The other four were all awake, to judge from the sounds of movement in the darkness around her.

“What is it? What is it?” voices were saying all around. Nobody knew what was happening. Yuezhu sensed the girl in the upper bunk above her sliding down to stand on the floor. But she lost her balance somehow and lurched over to fall on top of Yuezhu where she lay. As she fell she screamed.


Instantly the word was in the air all around them. Running feet in the corridor outside, and the word—shouted everywhere now: “Earthquake! Earthquake!”

Yuezhu struggled out from under the other girl and tried to stand. As she did so, the floor yawed sideways beneath her, and the window blew out as if hit by a truck. Someone crashed into her in the darkness, one of the other girls. “We must get out,” gasped the girl, trying to push past. “Outside, we must get outside.”

They were on the third floor of a six-floor block. The whole building was swaying and they could hear the concrete cracking. Hear, and also smell—that was the brick-dust smell, everywhere in the air around them now, as they ran along the corridor to the stairwell.

The stairwell was already crowded with students from the three upper floors, which were all male dormitories. One or two of the more enterprising students had flashlights—one above Yuezhu, one below her—and the occasional flickering light showed a heaving sea of faces pushing down the stairs, white faces, each illuminated for only an instant, every one a study in cold terror. The air was full of dust from the strained concrete, and the flashlights made white shafts through the dust.

It was difficult to keep one’s footing on the stairs, in the darkness, with people pushing in panic all around. Yuezhu got down the first flight; then, on the landing, with students streaming in from the second-floor rooms, there was another sideways jolt from the earth, and several fell. Yuezhu kept her balance at first, but was pulled down by someone grabbing at her. Someone else fell across her; heavy bare feet stepped on her, hard on her kidneys, and she screamed. Straining to rise, she felt a sharp pain in her back, then was knocked down again. People were screaming. “Let us get up! Wait, please wait, people have fallen!” But no-one was inclined to wait, the crowd pressed forward to the last flight of stairs, all naked bodies it seemed, glistening silver in the random play of the flashlight beams, the stink of their sweat filling the narrow stairwell. Yuezhu was carried with them, half-standing half-crawling. Reaching wildly for something to hold, her fingers met the damp concrete wall, and by sheer friction of her palms on the wall managed to right herself. She was down the steps and outside, sobbing, sobbing.

Near the building the ground was covered with broken glass. It seemed all the windows had blown out. Further away there were the vague forms of people standing around in the darkness, groups sitting on the ground or standing in little clumps, picked out by occasional flashlight beams. It was a hot night and people were wearing just what they had gone to sleep in: the girls, thin cotton pajamas, the boys only shorts.

Yuezhu tried to pick out someone she knew, but could not. She sat on the ground, which was bare hard earth. Now she was aware of having injured her back somehow in the scramble down the stairwell. She twisted and turned her body, flexing to find the source of the pain, and at one point sent a sharp spasm down her right leg all the way to the ankle. Nothing serious, she thought, nothing a few days of light warm-ups wouldn’t fix; and remembered Madame Blaitsky, in one of her rare lighter moments, telling them that if they wanted to strike up a conversation with a professional ballet dancer, one infallible technique was to inquire about the dancer’s latest injury.

Someone near by, a girl student, was wailing about her family. “Mama! Baba! Didi! Where are you? Are you all right? Oh Heaven, please be all right!” Yuezhu supposed the girl must have her family in Beijing. Her own were safely in Guangzhou, thank Heaven for that, and Half Brother too. She wondered about Baoyu, who lived with his family, off campus—had he survived?

As the night wore on the campus area filled up with residents of the buildings all around—it was the largest open space in the area. People brought oil lanterns and candles. A group of four classmates from the Dance Academy located Yuezhu. Together, they wandered among the crowd looking for other classmates. Three or four times the earth trembled; people fell silent and clung to each other until it stopped.

“Everyone’s saying it’s a sign,” said one of the classmates, a pretty willowy girl from Jiangxi Province. “It means Chairman Mao is about to die.”

For “die” she used the antique word beng, which was applied to the Emperors in olden times, or to collapsing mountains. It sounded odd to hear the word spoken, though it turned up occasionally in historical movies. They all had to stop and think what it meant.

“I think that’s absurd,” said another girl after this pause for thought. “It’s feudal thinking. I don’t think we should allow such beliefs in New China. Long live Chairman Mao!” But her voice cracked on the penultimate syllable, and the others knew she did not believe what she was saying. She knew, like everyone else, that such an event cannot be without meaning.


As everyone said that terrible night, so it was proven: six weeks later Chairman Mao left the world.

By that time the capital had got itself into some sort of order, as if the earth intended its omen to have sufficient time to properly impress itself on people’s minds. Teams of engineers were going round inspecting the large buildings, to see if they were safe for habitation. They had not yet reached the Conservatory, but the army had come and put up tents on the campus, and the students were all living in these tents. The beginning of school was postponed until the state of the buildings could be determined; but the staff, and those students who had not lived on campus in the summer, had all come back.

The second-year dance students heard the news soon after Madame Blaitsky came back from the northeast at the beginning of September. The few days she had been back Madame Blaitsky spent in setting up a dance practice tent, using the biggest tent the army would give her and enlisting all her students to work fitting it out with barre and mirrors.

“Couldn’t we just wait until the engineers have certified the main buildings?” asked one of the bolder spirits.

Madame Blaitsky impaled her with a Siberian glance. “You are here to dance,” she replied. “There’s no reason why an earthquake should interfere with your dancing.” She made the earthquake sound like something trivial—a sore throat, a bruised shin.

The practice tent was just complete when Chairman Mao died. The second year, Yuezhu’s year, practiced in it for the first time the day before. The tent was made of heavy army canvas. It was stuffy and hot inside, and smelt of dust and canvas. Teacher Li, their ballet instructor for the morning sessions, taught them soutenu. Then they had a class in choreology from Teacher Zhang, an eccentric old pedant who had been a professional pianist until the Red Guards broke all his fingers. After lunch there was an hour’s siesta, then an English class, then practice at the barre. Madame Blaitsky had supervised the army men setting up the barre inside the practice tent, making sure they drove the uprights deep into the earth of the campus to make the barre rigid. After barre came center work, then music reading, then the evening meal. After evening meal the students did their small chores—laundry, mending, letter-writing. The period between small chores and bedtime was usually given over to free practice, and the keener students went back to the tent. Yuezhu did not. The weather was still very hot, water supplies were problematical, the tent was stuffy, and Yuezhu did not like going to bed covered in sweat. She filled the time with some isometric exercises on her bunk, going over her English lesson, and gossiping with roommates before lights out. She went to bed wishing they could have their proper facilities back soon. When she woke the loudspeakers were playing death music.

She realized at once that one of the leaders must have died. They had played the same music when the Prime Minister died. It was a peculiar piece of music: basically a dirge in the traditional Chinese style, played on traditional instruments, but with a lot of foreign influence.

Oddly, Chairman Mao did not come to mind right away. She had never thought of Chairman Mao dying. Such thoughts seemed improper, disrespectful. Hearing the death music, Yuezhu supposed it must be one of the other leaders, several of whom were very old. But as soon as she got out of bed the other students in her tent told her. Then the loudspeakers interrupted their dirge to give the news. “Great Leader Chairman Mao Zedong has departed from this world … ” It chilled her to hear the words. As soon as they had started she wished they would stop. She wished for it not to be true. Chairman Mao dead! It was too big a thing, her mind could not encompass it.

Many students were weeping, but Yuezhu could not weep. Her grief was of the sort that is beyond weeping. She was overwhelmed with hopelessness and despair. What was the use of being alive, if Chairman Mao was dead? That day Yuezhu was actually ill, a terrible heavy lethargy settling on her; and it was several days more before she could bring herself to dance with any enthusiasm.


The pain in her back was a serious nuisance. The days of confusion following the earthquake gave Yuezhu the opportunity to rest up, and the pain was no longer continuous. Still it came back to torment her every dance practice, every time she bowed, or landed from a jump. She should go to Madame Blaitsky with it, she knew, but was afraid to do so. She had felt sufficiently insecure about her dance skills before Father’s chief’s disgrace. Now she did not know what the consequences might be if she confessed any weakness or disability. She spoke of the problem only to Baoyu, who showed her some light stretching exercises the male dancers used when they got strained muscles from their weight-lifting.

Half Brother’s theory that Comrade Deng Xiaoping, and consequently Father’s chief and Father himself, would return to power after the Chairman died, seemed to have been wishful thinking. A new Chairman was announced, a man named Hua Guofeng. Baoyu said the leaders didn’t take him seriously.

“He’s just a nonentity from Shanxi Province,” said Baoyu. “He happened to be in the room when Chairman Mao died, and he got the Mandate of Heaven.”

“Well, that was a great stroke of luck,” said Yuezhu.

“Yes. But he can’t last. Your half brother was right. My father says the same thing: Comrade Deng Xiaoping will come back.”

But Comrade Deng Xiaoping did not come back. The new man, Hua, had the leaders of the previous faction arrested and put caps on them, calling them the Gang of Four and blaming them for the Cultural Revolution. There were meetings to denounce these people, and resolutions to support Chairman Hua. Comrade Deng Xiaoping, and Father’s chief, and Father, remained in their exile in Guangzhou. Yuezhu got a brief, uninformative letter from Mother once a month.

It seemed that Father’s faction would never be rehabilitated. The insecurity of her situation preyed on Yuezhu’s mind, as the back problem plagued her body. Other than Baoyu, there was no-one she could speak to about either.

In November they moved back into the buildings, now passed as safe by the engineers. At once Madame Blaitsky announced that the Dance Academy would put on a public performance of The White-Haired Girl the following spring. This was one of the revolutionary pieces promoted by the late Chairman’s wife, who had been one of those arrested by the new Chairman. Apparently the fact of her having been arrested did not reflect upon the ballet.

TheWhite-Haired Girl

Xi’er was a peasant girl who lived before Liberation. Her father could not pay his debts, so he was beaten to death by a cruel landlord named Huang Shiren. Then the landlord took Xi’er in lieu of the debt, and made her work as a servant in his house.

Xi’er’s fiancé ran away from the village to join the Eighth Route Army. Xi’er’s sufferings became so great her hair turned white. She ran away from the landlord and went to live in a cave.

The fiancé’s unit liberated the village and rescued Xi’er from the cave. The landlord was led away to receive the People’s Justice. Xi’er joined the army and went off with them to make revolution.

The rumor soon spread among the students that the new Chairman himself would attend the first performance, but Madame Blaitsky would not confirm this. The students began rehearsals in late November, as the people of Beijing were disappearing into cotton-padded jackets and winter hats. Actual roles would not be announced until the spring, though everyone assumed Baoyu was to dance the part of the fiancé. Yuezhu had no real chance of dancing Xi’er, but still hoped for a good role.

Now there were not enough hours in the day. Yuezhu made an arrangement with the night-watchman at the dormitory. She tied a piece of string to her ankle and let it out over the top of the door of the room she shared with five other girls. At four thirty the watchman would come up to the door and yank on the string. In this way Yuezhu found she could get another half-hour’s practice in with the keenest of her classmates.

Every morning, every dark winter’s morning, the building heat not yet on, she worked at the barre. At first she worked without music, for the gramophone records were locked in a cabinet at night. She tried to hear the music in her mind, or sometimes read through it—at least in the first weeks, until she knew it by heart—waiting for Baoyu to come in at six to keep her company and help with the supported movements. Then Madame Blaitsky, perhaps moved by Yuezhu’s intensity, relaxed the rules and the early-bird students could dance to music at all hours.

All through the winter Yuezhu danced on doggedly, up at four thirty, never missing a class, coming back to the practice room after evening meal. She danced through both New Years, solar and lunar, wearing out one, two pairs of dance shoes, stubbornly ignoring the pain that shot down her side and right leg when she landed in certain positions, or angled her body a certain way. Baoyu marveled at her dedication.

“I really think you may be chosen for Xi’er,” he said. “Your technique has improved so much!”

One evening in late February she was alone in the practice room with Baoyu. It was after nine, and the other dancers had all left to go to bed. But the roles for The White-Haired Girl were to be announced the following week, and Yuezhu grudged every moment not spent in practice. Baoyu began to chide her, as he often did, for taking things too far.

“You’re not moving very well. Losing the tempo. Perhaps you should call it a day.”

“Just half an hour. Some light exercises to unwind. Watch my pas de chat, tell me if I have the right positions now.”

She waited for Baoyu to find the right place on the record, then began with the music. Dancing out on the floor, away from the barre, Yuezhu felt her weariness. Perhaps Baoyu was right, perhaps she was overdoing it. Demi-plié, arms to seconde, jump left. After the roles were announced, whatever the results, she would take it easy for a while. “Pull back and regroup,” as Father liked to say. Demi-plié, arms en bas, seconde, demi-seconde, jump.

“It’s awful,” said Baoyu. “Looks like a fish flapping its tail. You’re too tired. Come on, you’re overexerting yourself.”

“Watch! Watch my pas de chat!

Pas de chat is not a difficult movement. Madame Blaitsky had taught it to them in the first year. You travel sideways by a series of two-footed jumps, landing in the position called demi-plié, knees slightly bent for shock absorption. Yuezhu thought she could do pas de chats in her sleep. Indeed, this was very nearly the situation. But coming down from one jump, her feet got tangled. She fell, awkwardly, putting out an arm to save herself, but failing to do so, and landing rather hard on her hip.

Baoyu was at her side immediately. “Elder Sister, I warned you. You’re really overdoing it.”

He offered her his arm. Yuezhu marveled, as she always did when she noticed him now, at how muscular he had become. She got up on one knee; but when she went to straighten her body, a shocking pain went all the way down one side, from waist to foot. The pain was so sharp it brought tears to her eyes. “Ai!” she yelped; and tried again to straighten, and again couldn’t.

“Elder Sister!” Baoyu’s face showed alarm. “What is it?” He took her arms with his and tried to lift her, but the pain made her cry out again. She was stuck, bent over down there on one knee, on the floor.

“Elder Sister! Elder Sister!”

“It’s all right. I’ve just pulled something. Give me a minute. It’ll be all right.”

But it wasn’t all right. At last Baoyu had to carry her in his arms, still doubled over, wrapped in a coarse school blanket, across the courtyards of the Conservatory, through the gritty cold air, back to her dormitory, and set her carefully on her bed—against all regulations, as boys were not allowed in the girl’s dormitories. Three other girls were already in the room, sitting on their beds talking. They gathered round Yuezhu, murmuring sympathy.

“I’ll go and get Comrade Shao,” said Baoyu, referring to the dance physician who tended to their injuries.

“No,” gasped Yuezhu, struggling to straighten while lying sideways on the bed. “No, it’ll be all right. Don’t make a fuss, it’ll be all right.”

But it wasn’t all right at all.

Chapter 20

Comrade Deng Xiaoping Finds Food for His Soul

Father Returns to His Principles

“It’s a judgment,” said Father, nodding to emphasize his words. “It’s Heaven’s judgment on me for going against my principles. I knew, I always knew no good would come of it.”

“You don’t have to say that now, husband. The poor girl’s upset. What use is it to tell her these things?”

“It’s my fault too,” said Half Brother gloomily. “I was the one who persuaded Father.”

They were assembled at the dinner-table for Yuezhu’s nineteenth birthday. Some great political shift was under way, and Father’s chief’s faction was in the ascendant. Father and Mother had returned to Beijing the month before, to a spacious new apartment in the elite district between Jade Abyss Lake and the Temple of the Moon.

The move had rescued Yuezhu from a painful decision. The physiologist at the Conservatory had declared her unable to dance, at any rate for the foreseeable future. Since she had no home to go to in the capital, she had stayed on in the dormitory. For a while she had even continued to attend the classroom lessons, and apparently could have gone on doing so indefinitely; but the sympathy of her classmates had become too much to bear. Having been explicitly barred from dance classes by the physiologist, by mid-March she had ceased participating in the life of the Academy altogether, and occupied her days with solitary expeditions to the capital’s many parks and monuments. There was a general assumption by everyone concerned that she would eventually pack up and leave to join her family in Guangzhou. In fact she had not even told them in her letters anything about what had happened. Some part of her, deep in her deepest heart, longed for and believed in a miracle that would restore her health—and then, how foolish it would have looked, to have written letters saying her dance career was finished! But Father had been reassigned to Beijing, to this splendid new apartment, and Mother had come to the Academy to tell her about it, and of course the state of affairs could not then be hidden.

“Oh, what does it matter?” Yuezhu poked listlessly at the bean curd in her bowl. “I can’t dance any more, that’s all.”

Just hearing them talk about it sent her to the verge of tears. She didn’t want to hear her misery talked about. She wanted to suffer it alone, in silence, toting her burden of despair through the unpeopled splendors of the Summer Palace, limping with them beneath the blossoms at Purple Bamboo Park, under the unbearable bright skies of spring.

“From a bad action there’s bound to be a bad consequence,” Father continued, pursuing his theme. “I should never have let Eldest talk me into it.” (“Eldest” was his word for Half Brother.)

“We don’t know for sure,” Mother pointed out. “The army has the best doctors. Perhaps you could have them look at her. There may be some cure.”

“There are certain doctors at the Beijing Medical Institute the senior leaders call on sometimes for an opinion,” said Half Brother. “It might be possible …”

“What’s the use?” said Yuezhu. “If there was a cure that would let me dance, wouldn’t the doctors at the Academy know about it? Whatever another doctor did, we’d have to persuade the Academy to accept his result. By that time I’d have lost the rest of this year. I was old already when I entered, for a dancer. They won’t accept me again at nineteen, to start my second year over. It’s hopeless.”

Yuezhu was unhappier than she had ever been. She had not known—not truly known, in her blood and marrow—how much dancing meant to her, until she heard those terrible words from the physiologist: You will not be able to dance, not for a long time. The sentence rang in her head like the doleful note of a temple gong, reverberating in the sounding-box of the skull, the ring of bone. She had dreamed of a miracle during those lonely last few weeks at the Academy; but somehow, once her family knew about her injury, denial turned to resignation, and she had sunk into fatalism. Hope, the demon Hope, had deluded her again.

Still she could not altogether resist his susurrations. Father and Half Brother between them somehow arranged for her to see Professor Piao, a specialist at Beijing Medical Institute. Professor Piao was one of the most renowned practitioners in the field of spinal injuries. During the most fevered period of the Cultural Revolution (so Half Brother told it) he had been sent down to the countryside to learn from the poor and lower-middle peasants; but had been recalled after only a few months to attend to the daughter-in-law of a very senior personage, who had slipped a disk while six months pregnant. Since then he had held his position at the Institute through all the varying political winds, and had several times been called to Zhongnanhai to attend to the country’s leaders.

Professor Piao ordered some X-rays taken. When they had been developed he favored Yuezhu with a personal examination. Her X-ray pictures were right there in Professor Piao’s examination room, fixed to panes of white frosted glass lit from behind. The panes glowed creamy white in the spaces between the pictures. Also in the room was a stainless-steel sink, a chair on which she had deposited her clothes, a tall apparatus of tubular metal and webbing straps whose purpose Yuezhu could not guess at, and Professor Piao. Yuezhu lay face-down on the vinyl couch, quite naked, facing the unfathomable apparatus, while the old man—Professor Piao was at least seventy—prodded her back with his bony fingers.

Apparently satisfied, Professor Piao turned to the sink and began washing his hands. “You were studying ballet,” he said to the faucet.

“Yes. At the Academy of Dance.”

“Well, you’d better forget about that.” Professor Piao flicked a cold glance at her. “Put your clothes on.”

Yuezhu climbed down from the couch and began dressing. She had been a little shocked at taking her clothes off in front of Professor Piao, and had tried to maneuver herself on to the couch without letting him see her private parts. His manner was so distant, however, she had lost her self-consciousness before he finished.

“There’s nothing to be done?”

“I didn’t say that, did I?” replied the old man irritably. “There is an operation, zhuiban qiechu shu.” Apparently feeling this was sufficient information to divulge to a patient, he fell silent, drying his hands on a spotless white towel.

At first Yuezhu did not understand the expression. Professor Piao was from Shanghai, and spoke Mandarin with a heavy accent. Qiechu she recognized at once, with alarm, for it meant “amputate.” Shu was a surgical operation …

“Amputate … what? The disk?”

“Yes. It’s ruptured. The juice inside is seeping out, and pressing against the nerve. This kind of tissue cannot really heal. You will always have some problem with it. The only solution is to remove the disk. Remove it, and then join together the bones of the spine, above and below it. You will be a few millimeters shorter, of course.”

Professor Piao chuckled. He had been quite cordial with her, Yuezhu reflected, considering that he had dealt with the most senior of the country’s leaders, and she was merely the daughter of a Brigadier. She had been rather afraid of him, expecting that he would be brusque or plain rude with her—as, of course, considering his position, he was entitled to be.

“And that … that will let me dance again?” The demon was chittering wildly in her ear now.

“Dance? Oh, no. I shouldn’t think so. There will always be a certain stiffness. For a year or two, until the bones are fused, you will have to move quite carefully.”

Professor Piao was nodding at her, smiling as he spoke to take the edge off his words. “As I said, you had best forget about dancing. In fact, this operation is quite new, and the results not always predictable. All that can be said for sure is, that in the case of a severely ruptured disk, it will remove the main cause of pain. In a case like yours, where the pain is not crippling … I really would not recommend it.”

“So my case is serious enough to stop me dancing, but not serious enough to justify an operation?”

Professor Piao stiffened a little. He turned away, dropping the used towel into a stainless steel pedal bin. “There is no question of you doing any kind of gymnastics, athletics, or advanced dancing, operation or no operation. Not this year, not next year. Possibly never. You had better reconcile yourself to the fact.”


Reconcile herself Yuezhu could not. She accepted the situation now, but not the blank empty condition in which it left her life. No-one and nothing could comfort her. Mother tried her best, but was constitutionally incapable of understanding the depth of her loss. Mother’s own life had been one of resignation and duty, almost (Yuezhu reflected, now having ample time to reflect) almost like a woman in the old society. The saying in those times had been san cong si de—the three obediences and four moralities. The three obediences were to one’s father before marriage, to one’s husband after marriage, to one’s son when the husband was gone. Mother would never have let such a feudal expression pass her lips, but she had been brought up in the old society—had been sixteen at Liberation—and her thinking was set in that mold. She had never had any strong ambition for herself, had easily subsumed her own will to that of her parents, her husband, the Party.

Looking at Mother, listening to her clumsy efforts at consolation, Yuezhu even developed some real feelings of guilt about her passion for dancing. After all, that was what they were supposed to be like, all of them, everybody: selfless, sacrificing personal considerations for the good of all, Serving the People, rustless cogs in the great machine of History. Personal ambition was bourgeois, probably counter-revolutionary. Perhaps her present misery was, as Father had said, the judgment of Heaven on her.

Father himself was very busy, sometimes coming home at nine or ten in the evening. Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s position, and therefore Father’s chief’s, was waxing stronger day by day, and Father was in meetings all the time. Half Brother had gone back to his unit, whatever it was—even Father did not seem to know. Baoyu called on her two or three times in April and May, to walk with her in North Lake Park or by the Jade Abyss Lake, but his visits only made her more desperately miss the discipline and companionship, the sense of purpose, of the Academy, and she found it difficult to talk to him. On the last occasion she was actually quite rude, and Baoyu was clearly hurt; but they parted before she had made any apology, and she thought he might not come again.

Into this void of despair and self-pity, one day late in May, stepped Fate’s messenger, in the improbable form of Madame Blaitsky.

The compound Yuezhu’s family now lived in was in the nature of an elite barracks, and non-military visitors were not allowed past the gatehouse without invitation. On this particular afternoon, as Yuezhu and Mother were starting their siesta, one of the guards from the gatehouse came knocking, saying there was a foreigner to see them. Mother went to investigate. Five minutes later there were voices in the corridor, Mother and someone else, a woman with a northeastern accent, whose voice for some reason Yuezhu did not immediately recognize. Go away! Go away! willed Yuezhu, fanatical now in her seclusion. But the visitor did not go away. Mother called through to the bedroom, and Yuezhu had to go and be polite. To her surprise it was Madame Blaitsky. Yuezhu offered a courteous greeting.

“How is your back now?” asked Madame Blaitsky. And even this simply query, kindly intended, pierced Yuezhu with more pain than the disk had ever given her.

“It’s much better,” she said. “So long as I don’t try to dance.”

Seeing Madame Blaitsky brought back to her the training, the barre and mirrored walls, the endless repetition, the smell of the other dancers’ sweat, all the hope and challenge and attainment and camaraderie of the school … everything, everything. Please, please go away! she inwardly shrieked.

“It’s really a tragedy,” Madame Blaitsky was saying to Mother. “I could see how she loved to dance. Same as myself at her age, nothing else in her head but dancing.”

“It’s a shame,” agreed Mother. “But our daughter has many abilities. Her foreign language skills are excellent. She may become an interpreter or translator.”

“Really?” Madame Blaitsky looked over at her, eyebrows raised somewhat. “Would you be satisfied with that, Little Han?”

“The Party’s will is my will,” replied Yuezhu mechanically.

“Of course, of course.” Madame Blaitsky cleared her throat, and addressed herself to Mother again. “Well, the damage is done, I’m afraid. Our doctors all agree: your daughter cannot dance.”

So why have you come here to torment me? But Yuezhu only said: “The doctors were very kind. I’m really grateful to them.”

Madame Blaitsky nodded appreciation of this little act of grace. Catching her eyes, Yuezhu suddenly saw the older woman’s sincerity. It came right through, lancing the armor of her selfish despair. Madame Blaitsky knew her pain, understood it perfectly! Not to be able to dance—she understood! Yuezhu’s heart warmed to the kindly woman, with her round Slavic face and strange blue eyes.

“I’ve come to make a suggestion,” said Madame Blaitsky.

These words, and the sincerity on Madame Blaitsky’s face, and the very fact of her having taken the trouble to come visiting, reawoke the demon Hope, and he at once began whispering in Yuezhu’s ear. The doctors have a cure, after all! There is a special Russian medicine to heal the disk! Some special exercises you can do! A few months of these exercises and you will be back at the school!

Mother was smiling expectantly at Madame Blaitsky. Yuezhu should likewise have waited politely for her to deliver her suggestion; but the murmuring of the demon was too insistent.

“I will do anything I can,” she said. “Anything I can, to come back to the Conservatory.”

“Right,” said Madame Blaitsky, looking at her very tenderly. “To the Conservatory. But you know, there is no possibility of your coming back to the Dance Academy.”

“Our daughter has already resigned herself to that,” said Mother.

“However,” continued Madame Blaitsky, “there is another possibility open to Little Han at the Conservatory. Since she has already studied music.”

“I don’t understand,” said Yuezhu. “I can read music, but I can’t play any instrument.”

“No. But you have a beautiful voice. Everybody notices that. Beautiful, and very strong.”

They looked at her: Yuezhu, fast slipping back into despair, Mother altogether baffled.

“They are starting a new department at the Conservatory, you see. To train young people in foreign-style opera.”

Mother frowned. “Foreign-style opera? I didn’t know there was a foreign style. Our country has so many different opera styles of her own. Why would we need to train singers for the foreign style? What’s the use of that? It sounds like ‘Copying the Handan walk.’”

This last was an idiom, the name of a story from the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi.

Copying the Handan Walk

In the period before our country was decisively unified there was a state named Zhao, whose capital city had the name Handan. This Handan was regarded by all the other states as a center of fashion. In particular, the gentlemen of Handan had developed an exceptionally graceful and dignified gait. Everywhere under Heaven, people wanted to walk like the men of Handan.

Some young men from the neighboring state of Yan journeyed to Handan just for the purpose of learning the Handan walk. They took lodging in the city, and every day they went out into the streets to observe and imitate the famous Handan walk. Try as they might, however, none of them could master it, and in their blundering approximations to the Handan walk just made themselves look ridiculous, not only to the stately walkers of Handan itself, but even to the merchants and travelers from other states who were resident in the city.

Worse yet, when the young men of Yan returned to their own country, they found that in striving to copy the Handan walk, they had forgotten the customary gait of their native place. Not only had they made themselves ludicrous to the people of Zhao, they were now laughing-stocks in Yan herself. They had failed to learn the foreign style, and lost their own style.

Madame Blaitsky smiled—the smile of one who understands large affairs so much better than her listeners.

“You don’t appreciate how fast things are changing, Comrade Han. Comrade Deng Xiaoping recently attended a concert given by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra down in Guangzhou. Do you know what he said to them afterwards? He said: ‘That is what I call food for the soul!’” Madame Blaitsky paused for dramatic effect. Then: “There is a new wind blowing through the cultural affairs of our country, Comrade Han. The Conservatory is to receive an increase in funding next year. A very large increase.”

“Well …” Mother was, of course, eager to show her approval of whatever wind was blowing. “Well, it’s a good thing.”

“Yes. It’s a good thing. All kinds of foreign performance arts are to be encouraged now. The American Ballet Theater will visit us this fall. To perform in the Great Hall of the People!” She turned to Yuezhu. “If you want a ticket, I can …” But she caught the expression of anguish on Yuezhu’s face, and stopped dead. There was an unhappy pause.

“So you are suggesting that my daughter can join this foreign-style opera department?” Mother had gathered things together.

“Yes. Well, I mean, she can apply for admission. Since she has some training in music, she has an advantage. Of course, experts will have to listen to her voice, to see if it’s suitable. There will be a special interview, I understand. But, to tell you the truth …” she made a small laugh, “… the competition will not be very intense. I am one of the first to know of it. It’s all being done in a hurry, of course. They want to start classes in September—only three months! There is hardly time to get the word out. Most of the students who might be interested are committed to other schools. And frankly, it’s such a new thing …” the laugh again, “… not very many will be interested anyway. When the style is better known, of course, it will be popular. But right now …” she shrugged. “Well, the first year of admission, if they really start this September, the first year—perhaps even the first two years—will really be just to get things started.”

“A new thing,” repeated Mother, somewhat blankly, with the air of one who thought that in spite of its being a new thing, disaster might yet be averted somehow.

Madame Blaitsky turned to Yuezhu. “What do you think, Little Han? If you want to apply, I can put your name forward.”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have another plan for September? All the schools and colleges will be open, you know. They’re taking students now. There will be nation-wide examinations in December for all colleges. Starting next year it will all be done by examination. If you want to go to college on an interview, a good political record and …” she glanced at Mother, “… if you don’t mind me speaking frankly, on a word from your father, this is the last chance.”

The news about the foreign-style opera department had hardly penetrated Yuezhu’s gloom. It was interesting, in an abstract way, but so what? She didn’t want to be a singer. She wanted to be a dancer. And she couldn’t. Therefore life had no purpose. What use to talk about singing? Nobody in China listened to foreign-style opera, anyway.

Madame Blaitsky was watching her, reading her thoughts. “There is no hope of your dancing,” she said softly. “No hope at all. The Conservatory won’t accept you back in the ballet department. But you may be able to come back as a singer.”

“I have no experience as a singer,” said Yuezhu. “Not in that style.”

“Who in China has? You are at no disadvantage.”

“I don’t know,” said Yuezhu. “I don’t know.” Meaning: I don’t care, I don’t care.


Yuezhu had no spirit to do anything about the foreign-style opera school. After Madame Blaitsky had left she did not even think about it. But when Father came home and they were sitting at dinner, Mother brought it up. Before she had finished a couple of sentences, Father began shaking his head wildly.

“I won’t do anything! I won’t do anything! No matter what you say! No more back doors!”

“I don’t care,” said Yuezhu, in all truth. “I haven’t asked you to do anything, have I? I don’t want to go to singing school anyway. Singing is very boring. I’ll be a teacher, or a translator. I don’t care.”

Father looked at her, still angry. “Bad deeds have a bad result, haven’t we seen it proven? I’m not going to any Party Secretary with gifts to get you in. You’ll get in on your own this time, or find something else to do!”

As much to assert herself against Father as from any real desire to be a singer, Yuezhu applied to the new school, going to the Conservatory to sign her name. It made her ache to be there again. Crossing the courtyard she could not help but see the window of the dance practice room, and recall that still frosty morning in her first year, when love for this place, and for her part in it, and for Chairman Mao, had filled her heart. Now she was banished from that Eden, and Chairman Mao was dead, and nothing mattered very much at all.

In less than a week she was called to interview.

The interview was much more businesslike than either of the ones she had had for the Dance Academy. There were four people in the room. Three were sitting behind two teacher’s desks pushed together. There was Second Secretary Wang from the Party committee for the whole Conservatory; Professor Zhao from the Department of Performance Music, and a middle-aged woman Yuezhu had never seen before. The middle-aged woman was writing on a pad of Conservatory paper. She glanced up only for a moment when Yuezhu came in.

The fourth person was sitting on a stool next to an enormous brand-new concert grand piano at one side. The first thing Yuezhu noticed about him was his beard. It was an actual goatee, shaped to a point, with a trim little white mustache to match. His grayish hair was long, swept back across his head and down over the collar of his shirt; but the other real oddity in his appearance was his fingernails, which were unusually long, long and curling. Most unsuitable—even inconvenient—for a pianist, Yuezhu thought.

Professor Zhao smiled encouragingly at her. “Little Han. We were sorry you had to give up dancing. Madame Blaitsky said you were so promising.”

“Thank you. She is too generous. My ability was not very great.”

Professor Zhao nodded. He turned to the middle-aged woman. “This is Comrade Zhang. She studied Russian and German opera at the Leningrad Conservatory. And this is Professor Shi. He is an expert on the Italian opera. He studied in Moscow in his youth, under Italian teachers.”

Professor Shi, sitting sideways on his piano stool to face them, smiled suddenly, laugh lines springing out all round his eyes and mouth. He had narrow blue teeth like a rodent.

“We have your file, of course. We know all about you.” Professor Zhao laughed uncomfortably, realizing that this phrase was not very appropriate, sounding, as it did, like one of those things that used to be said to the subject of a struggle session. We know all about you! Confess! Now, when it was dawning on people that that might be all over, everyone was so sensitive to phrases of this sort. “I mean, no need to go into your school record here. We just want to find out if your voice is suitable. All right? Professor Shi?”

Professor Shi nodded at him, then at Yuezhu. “I want you to sing me some scales,” he said. “Just sing ‘do, re, mi,’ following the note I give you. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I understand.”

“I just want you to sing naturally, without straining at all. Just naturally, with the voice you feel comfortable with. Good, strong, loud notes—but not forcing or shouting in any way. Understand?”


He struck a note. It caught Yuezhu by surprise, and she just stared at him. Everybody laughed.

“Again.” Professor Shi struck the same note, a middle C. Yuezhu sang a scale. He nodded and struck another. She sang. Another, another. Professor Shi never once looked at his keyboard. He was watching her, listening very intently. Another, another. She sang twenty or more scales, from all over the keyboard. Finally he seemed satisfied.

“Now,” announced Professor Shi, “I want you to be loud. I will strike a note, and you will sing that note. Just that one note, but loud. As loud as you can without losing melodic value. Without shouting or straining. Loud and long. Hold it at the same volume as long as you can, until the breath fails. Fortissimo, tenuto. Understand?”

“I think so.”

He struck an A. Yuezhu took a deep breath and sang out the note, stopping when she felt her breath failing. This exercise, too, was repeated all over the keyboard, until Yuezhu began to feel dizzy from hyperventilating. Professor Shi stopped suddenly and stood up. He was no more than five foot two. He came out from behind the piano and approached her, stopping three paces away.

“Let us investigate your acting ability, young lady. You were trained as a dancer, ha? So you can express emotions using your body.”

“Yes. I believe so.”

“Show me some of these emotions. Show me angry.”

Yuezhu adopted the posture and expression of a peasant girl accusing the landlord who had oppressed her. To her surprise, Professor Shi laughed. His laugh was merry but rather high-pitched, like a girl. “He he he he he! All right, now show me proud … Good, good; now joyful …”

At last Professor Shi seemed satisfied. He thanked her and bowed low, bowing from the waist with his arms straight down, like a Japanese.

“Thank you very much,” said Professor Zhao, nodding to her. Comrade Zhang was writing again. Yuezhu left. Leaving, she closed the door, and so was quite unable to hear Professor Shi saying: “This one! We must have this one!”

That same day Comrade Deng Xiaoping returned to the capital, and Father was promoted to Major-General.

Chapter 21

A Great Party Shows Symptoms of Decline

Moon Pearl Receives a New Name

When the visitor had gone, Secretary Kang walked back the length of his office to the window that looked out across the campus. Now—it was early April—the trees he’d had planted last year were beginning to be in leaf. Planting trees was a pet project of Secretary Kang’s. Some new ones were being planted along the walkways that crisscrossed the campus. There was a cart with some of these new trees laid out in it right under his window, their root structures wrapped in burlap. A donkey was harnessed to the cart. Apparently the donkey was being recalcitrant; one of the workers was beating him with a bamboo cane, lashing at the donkey’s hindquarters with dull ferocity. Each time the cane landed the donkey made a little jump in the air; but that was all the motion he would concede. Secretary Kang watched for a while, until interrupted by a knock at the door.

Secretary Kang walked over and opened the door to reveal Little Chen, the girl who kept the leaders supplied with thermos flasks full of hot water for tea. She came in, smiling nervously at Secretary Kang. She was nervous because, in the first place, she was at the very bottom of the Conservatory’s administrative hierarchy, he at the very top; and in the second place, because Secretary Kang occasionally helped himself to certain favors from her, favors she was not eager to grant but, given his position, could not refuse. She replaced one of his flasks, fumbling with the handle. She was nervous all the time, feeling herself under Secretary Kang’s eye, and nearly knocked over his tea-cup.

“Little Chen, do you know the International Opera Department?”

“Yes, of course. Who doesn’t know them? I hear them singing all the time. So loud!”

“The Branch Secretary for that department has the surname Guo. Go and fetch him for me. Right now. His office is at the beginning of the corridor leading to their classrooms.”

The girl scurried out, thankful that no more was required of her. Secretary Kang re-locked the door and went back to his window. The worker was still flogging his donkey, who had not moved forward an inch. In the middle distance one of the foreign teachers was crossing the campus on a path, one so far untreed, transverse to Secretary Kang’s line of sight. He had two students with him, laughing at something the foreigner was saying. Secretary Kang experienced a mental twitch of distaste. He did not like foreigners. For one thing, they were an administrative nuisance—endless arrangements to be made for their food, their travel, their accommodations. But fundamentally he just didn’t like them. He thought they were always laughing up their sleeves at him, at Chinese people, at China. Five thousand years of civilization, and still you are so poor? The country that’s supposed to have invented everything, yet you are the beggars of the world? That was what they were thinking, so he believed. Well, fuck their mothers. If China was poor, whose fault was that, if not the foreigners who had pillaged her for most of this century past?

But it was policy now, since the opening up in ’77, for every institute of higher education to hire foreign teachers. The Music Conservatory had five of the devils, striding around as if they owned the place, eating with their fancy knives and forks, fucking each other—it was common knowledge, the instructions were to let them get on with it, so long as they didn’t corrupt the morals of the Chinese students—writing who could say what lies back to their own countries in their sinister spidery script. A, B, C, … Fuck their mothers! But it was policy, you couldn’t argue with policy.

And now this visitor, out of the blue. Well, it was a windfall, that was the only way to look at it. It was a wrong thing, of course—who knew that better than himself, an old Party man from before Liberation? But many things were done now that didn’t bear close examination. Class struggle had gone by the board, and it was every man for himself now. Well, he had made revolution; now he could reap the rewards. You couldn’t say it was unfair. That was the only way to look at it. In any case, the visitor had shown him the chop of a senior person, a very senior person—one who lived in the national leaders’ compound at Zhongnanhai, quite possibly. You didn’t cross people like that, not unless you were looking for trouble.

Another knock at the door. This was Branch Secretary Guo from the International Opera Department. By the time Secretary Kang had got back to his desk, Branch Secretary Guo was settling himself in one of the big stuffed armchairs—the one the visitor had sat in while Secretary Kang entertained him.

“Old Guo, we have an important matter,” said Secretary Kang, looking across the desk at his junior. “Public Security matter.”

“Ah,” said Branch Secretary Guo, nodding his head slowly. “Old” was merely a term of address: Branch Secretary Guo was no more than thirty-five. He was short, short enough to be slightly comical, and possessed of a pale circular face which always—always, so far as Secretary Kang knew—had a rather idiotic eager-to-please look plastered across it, under a peaked army-green cap. “An important matter,” he repeated. “Public Security. One of the foreign teachers?”

“No.” The ghost of the shadow of a thought stirred in Secretary Kang’s mind. “Mm, not necessarily. It concerns one of the students. In the International Opera Department. Your department.”

“Right, right.” Branch Secretary Guo nodded eagerly. “My department.”

Heaven, the man was an idiot, thought Secretary Kang. Perhaps actually retarded. But so much the better. Depending on how he decided to handle the thing, the fewer people understood what was going on, the better. And he’d known Guo for three and a half years, since the International Opera Department was established. The man was perfectly reliable.

“I’m ready,” said Branch Secretary Guo, sitting up and forward in the armchair like a dog waiting for a bone.

Secretary Kang got up and went to the window again. He stood at the window with his back to Branch Secretary Guo, to impress on him the gravity of the matter. Incredibly, the worker in the quadrangle below was still thrashing his donkey. The creature’s hide must be made of steel, thought Secretary Kang.

“It’s a student in the international opera department. A fourth-year student, 1977 intake. Family name Han, like in Han Lin’er.” [Using the name of a 14th-century rebel leader to illustrate the surname.] “Given name Yuezhu, ‘yue’ for ‘moon,’ ‘zhu’ for ‘pearl.’”

“Who is Han Lin’er?” asked Branch Secretary Guo, grinning at his own ignorance. Of course, you couldn’t expect a clod like that to be acquainted with history. When Secretary Kang had joined the Party in ’46 they’d made you read books. If you couldn’t read, the Party taught you. The educated ones taught the ignorant ones, and everyone was lifted up. That was when the Party was a Party—a Party worth fighting for, worth dying for. Now it was, what? Opportunists, and morons with good connections. Now it was every man for himself. Well, he could play that game well enough, too. You had to swim with the current. His thoughts returned momentarily to the envelope in his desk drawer. Swim with the current, live according to the morals of the age you found yourself in. That was the only way.

“A zhuo on the left and a wei on the right,” said Secretary Kang, sketching the girl’s surname character on his palm, held up for the other to see. “Find out everything you can about her. Get her classmates writing reports. You know. I want to see reports on her. Everything she does, everything she says. Her background, her family—everything.”

“I’ll go!” said Branch Secretary Guo, like the hero of a propaganda movie volunteering for a suicide mission. The role required that he leap to his feet; but he was having some difficulty struggling out of the armchair.

“Keep it under your hat,” said Secretary Kang. “It’s Public Security, remember.”

When Branch Secretary Guo had gone, Secretary Kang went back to his window. The worker was sitting on the tail of his cart between two trees, smoking a cigarette—taking a break, apparently, from beating his donkey, who still, so far as Secretary Kang could see, had not moved a single centimeter. The little thought stirred again, the one about the foreign teachers. What? Perhaps. Two birds with one stone. Yes, that might be the way to do it.


Some days after this Yuezhu was crossing the campus heading for the dormitory, for her afternoon siesta. At the front of her mind was the Cinelli visit, which was new news. Vincenzo Cinelli, the World’s Greatest Tenor, was to visit China in June. He was going to give a concert at the Great Hall of the People, and pay a visit to the Conservatory. Naturally he would be most interested in the International Opera Department, her own department. They were going to put on some kind of show for him, though it hadn’t yet been decided exactly what form the show would take. Perhaps a full-dress production, though it was short notice.

The classmates all knew Cinelli of course. Who did not know him? Well, probably ninety-nine per cent of the population of China did not; but that was because foreign-style opera was still hardly known here. Cinelli’s visit would help to make it known. Yuezhu’s best friend, Johnny Liu, had a portrait of Cinelli on the wall by his bunk—a miniature oil painting he’d done himself from a magazine illustration. Of course, Yuezhu had never been to Johnny Liu’s dormitory; but he had brought the portrait to class to show her. It was very well done, clearly Cinelli. Johnny Liu was quite gifted in that way, as well as having a fine baritone voice.

Thinking of the Cinelli visit she did not notice Samson Lü until it was too late to avoid him without discourtesy. Yuezhu did not care for Samson Lü. Not that he was bad-looking, or objectionable in any very direct way, but there was something about his manner that grated. Also, he had the reputation of being one of those who wrote small reports on his classmates for the leaders. Everyone was careful what they said around Samson. Still, it being too late to avoid him, she smiled as he came up, though in a way she hoped would not encourage conversation.

“Han Yuezhu. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Well, I’m not hard to find.”

He had stopped. It was clear from this, and from what he had said, that there was no avoiding an exchange with him. Yuezhu resigned herself, and smiled again, more easily.

“Han Yuezhu. Can I have a word?”

She thought she recognized the tone. He was acting the go-between! This one—who would have chosen this one to make an introduction? Knowing how everyone distrusted him! Setting aside the unsuitability of the messenger, though, the message itself was not very surprising. Yuezhu knew by now that she was pretty, and that men wanted to be introduced to her. There had been several go-betweens in the last two years at the opera school, since the new, liberal winds had penetrated down to student life in ’79. She had turned down all these approaches firmly and briskly, feeling no need of this kind of attachment and wanting no repeat of the awful embarrassment she had gone through with Mustache. In this respect, she was aware of being thought a little odd by now. Most of her female classmates, including all of those with any claim to good looks, were spoken for. She was the only holdout.

Yuezhu puzzled about it to herself often. She didn’t think there was actually anything wrong with her; it was only that she felt no need for that kind of permanent connection yet. For permanent it would be: those already paired off would all marry in the year or two after graduation—that was understood. To break an agreement of this sort was widely regarded as flagitious. There had, in fact, been two such incidents the previous semester. Plump, cheery little Musetta Wang had been introduced to a boy from the instrumental department, a cellist, in her second year. After a few months she’d decided it was a mistake, and broken up with him. The boy had mimeographed a long complaint against her and distributed it among all the students and teachers. Poor Musetta had hardly dared show her face for months.

The other case was worse. A fine, handsome boy with a lovely tenor voice in Yuezhu’s own department, International Opera, had been introduced to a girl in the Dance Academy. The girl was devoted to him; but after a year or so he had dropped her. They had apparently been doing tongfang in secret. On this basis, the girl, whose family was well-placed, got the boy charged with raping her, and he was sent to Reform Through Labor for three years. Lucky not to be shot, everyone said, for rape was a capital offense. Still, everyone could see it was unfair, since the girl had been infatuated with him, and obviously gave her consent. No, Yuezhu was content with her life as it was. She did not want all these complications. She liked boys, and found it easy to be friends with them, but didn’t want to take things any further at this point.

“All right,” she said to Samson Lü. “I’m listening.”

“It’s about your personal thing.”

“I thought it would be.”

Samson Lü laughed. His pasty face flushed. He looked down, and seemed to have lost his words.

“I really don’t want to accept any introductions,” said Yuezhu, feeling a bit sorry for him. “I’m quite happy with my life as it is.”

“But you are twenty-three,” said Samson. “Just two weeks ago, right? Girls all want to be married before they’re twenty-five. After that, it’s difficult to find anyone who’ll take you.”

“Oh, I’m sure I can find someone to take me.” Yuezhu laughed at her own vanity. “Even when I’m twenty-six and all wrinkled up.”

“And you must consider …” Samson Lü was plowing on doggedly through his script, now that he had found his place, “… that we shall all be graduating in a few weeks’ time. We don’t know what our assignments will be. You may end up in a unit with few eligible men.”

This was, in point of fact, quite true. With the rush of marriages after graduation, what men would be left unmarried? But still Yuezhu could not make herself care about it. She had had enough of Samson Lü and his clumsy approaches now.

“All right. Who did you want to introduce anyway?”

“Ah … that is … Really … since you are so negative about it …”

He had lost his spirit again. “You can just tell me the name,” said Yuezhu. “I don’t mind. I won’t tell anyone.”

“No. No … it’s not … suitable.” Samson Lü turned and half-ran down the path the way he had come, back to the boys’ dormitory.

What a strange business! thought Yuezhu. Usually a go-between at least got to the guy’s name, even if he could see you weren’t interested. Certainly (she smiled to herself) if she ever needed a go-between, she would not use Samson Lü. No need to anyway; Johnny Liu would be a fine go-between. Smooth and smart, with his Shanghai worldliness, he could talk anyone into anything.

She told Johnny Liu about the botched introduction, when they were in the weight room together. They were lying on their backs on rubber mats, each with the top part of the torso covered by an apparatus of black-painted metal and straps padded with green vinyl. The purpose of the apparatus was to press weight down on one’s chest. By breathing against the weight you could cause the apparatus to rise and fall, thereby strengthening the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. This contraption was called Iron Bride by the opera students, after an instrument of torture used in ancient times. It had been invented by Professor Shi himself, and the department possessed two of them: one for men, one for women. This was necessary because the thing actually sat on one’s chest, so it had to make some accommodation to the breasts of the female students.

Johnny Liu was working out with the male apparatus, of course. He was singing scales as he exhaled, long clear scales in his robust baritone. Yuezhu did not sing while exercising her diaphragm on the machine. She felt it was an unnatural position for singing—she knew of no opera where one was required to sing supine; even in deathbed scenes, one was always sitting up—and also that the pressure from the device might strain her vocal chords or diaphragm. She just counted silently through her three sets of thirty reps, then released the apparatus and wriggled out from beneath. She stood through a cycle of slow deep breaths to relax her diaphragm, then went over to stand above Johnny. She waited till he was inhaling before she spoke.

“Samson Lü came and tried to give me an introduction. Do you have any idea who it might have been?”

Johnny Liu looked up at her from the floor, wrinkling his brow. “You mean he didn’t say?”

“No. I told him I wasn’t interested at all, and he ran away without saying who’d sent him.”

Johnny Liu laughed. “What a shit! I hate that son-of-a-bitch ankle-rubber. He writes reports for the leaders, you know.”

“Of course I know. Everybody knows. What I don’t know is, who sent him.”

Johnny Liu released the catch of the machine and worked his way out from under it.

“Whoever it was,” he said as he got to his feet, “you should consider it. You’re not getting any younger, Little Sister. How old are you now? Twenty-two?”

“Three. Oh! He knew that! How did he know my birthday? Did I mention it to the classmates?”

“Not that I noticed. But you really should make some plan, you know. Graduation is only three months away. Less than three months. After that we are out in the world. You might as well get something settled. You don’t know what conditions will be like at your unit.”

Lying in her bunk that night, Yuezhu thought about what Johnny Liu had said. He was disinterested, of course. They were really like brother and sister, had been since they met in class the first semester. Johnny was a worldly man, as all Shanghai people seemed to be. There had been a connection with one of the college workers in their second year that everyone had talked about, and another the following year with a girl from Instrumental, a sluttish girl with a bad reputation. But he had made it clear to Yuezhu that he meant to try by every means to get abroad, to go and live in America; and he did not want any hostages to fortune. Johnny’s class background was not very good, and his family had suffered a lot in the fifties and sixties. He bore a big grudge about that—against the Party, against the country—and had told her frankly that he could not believe he had any future in China.

She wondered, not for the first time, if there was anything wrong with her, that she did not want to settle a connection, to get engaged. Certainly she liked men, and enjoyed the friendships she had with them. It seemed to have been a pattern in her life: Johnny Liu, before that Baoyu (now a sensation at the Royal Danish Ballet); before that Mustache at high school; before that, who? That friend when she was a child, whose father had turned out to be a counter-revolutionary. There now: they were all slightly counter-revolutionary, weren’t they? More pattern. Baoyu had merely been indifferent to politics, but Mustache was a cynic—the first she had known—and Johnny Liu frankly hated the Party, though of course he only said so in private to her. And the boy—oddly, his name escaped her for the moment—his people were counter-revolutionaries of course.

So: she liked the company of men, so long as they were just friends, and politically heterodox. What did that mean? She puzzled over it for a while, but could not get any meaning out of it, and at last fell asleep. In a dream she was in the bamboo grove by the road leading out of Seven Kill Stele. Liang Weilin—in her dream she knew his name at once—was not naked in this dream, nor an iridescent butterfly. He was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. She turned this way and that, looking for some trace of him; but there was none. Yet he was there, she knew. He was there, out of sight somewhere in the bamboo. He was there, and he was watching her, and she woke with a start to the sound of the loudspeakers on the campus playing “March of the Volunteers” for those who liked to do calisthenics first thing in the morning.


A day or two after this dream the mystery of Samson Lü’s approach was solved. Yuezhu was doing voice exercises with the foreign voice coach, Mr Powell. Mr Powell was something of an oddity among the foreign teachers. He did not mix with the others much, nor did he attend their get-togethers, nor the sightseeing trips organized for them by the authorities. He seemed to like being with the Chinese students. He kept the door of his office open—the foreign teachers shared offices in pairs, but Mr Powell’s colleague rarely used the office—and students just wandered in and out. When not entertaining students Mr Powell went off on long bicycle rides through the city, or sat in his room listening to opera tapes on a cassette player he had bought.

Mr Powell was short for a foreigner, and rather thin. He had a face that looked older than it ought to—he was thirty-seven—and he smoked cigarettes, which everyone thought odd in a voice coach. Nobody knew much about his history, though one of the Chinese teachers, who had seen the papers he submitted when applying for the job (and who was, consequently, the source of information on Mr Powell’s age), said he had been a singer with Welsh Opera for many years. Johnny Liu, who could read a person better than most, said he thought there was some personal calamity in Mr Powell’s recent past—a divorce, perhaps. Everyone knew that foreigners were always getting divorced. Whatever his personal history might be, Yuezhu herself liked Mr Powell, and thought him a good teacher.

It was a rule at the Conservatory that students should not be alone with foreign teachers of the opposite sex. For voice exercises, therefore, the female students went to Mr Powell in twos. Mr Powell himself said the rule was silly. Also a waste of time, since he could only listen with attention to one voice, so the two girls had to take turns, and at any point one of them was sitting idle, leafing through the magazines Mr Powell had placed in the music room for just this purpose.

At the end of this particular session Mr Powell called Yuezhu back as she and her companion were leaving. Mr Powell was still sitting at the piano, sitting sideways, one thin forearm resting on the piano lid. He called her name as she was going through the door. Yooey-jew—he could not pronounce it properly, of course. Some of the foreign teachers had made an effort to learn Chinese, and one, who had been two years at the Conservatory, was even quite fluent; but Mr Powell seemed content to remain at tourist-Chinese level. He only ever spoke English to them, except when working from librettos, or using technical terms from Italian or German.

Yooey-jew. Could I have a word with you, please?”

Yuezhu trotted obediently back into the room, leaving the door open, and stood by the piano. Mr Powell smiled up at her from the stool.

Yooey-jew. It’s really not an easy name for us round-eyes, you know. Why don’t you give yourself an English name, like the other students?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t feel the need. I am Chinese; my name should be Chinese.”

Mr Powell smiled, his whole face crinkling up in a way Yuezhu rather liked. “A patriot, is it? Very commendable. But if we were all to stand on linguistic nationalism, I should have to call myself Ap Hwyl, do you see? Come, sit down.” He indicated the small wooden chair where the spare student sat while waiting to practice. The practice room was tiny, and this was the only chair—not counting the piano stool, of course. WhenYuezhu had seated herself, Mr Powell got up, walked over to the door, and closed it. Yuezhu felt no alarm at this. She knew the college rule, of course; and she knew that Mr Powell knew it, and thought it silly. She thought it a bit silly herself, at least in Mr Powell’s case. Everyone knew he was a junzi, a gentleman—an English Gentleman, Professor Shi had said once, though Mr Powell did not thank you for calling him English. He was Welsh, he insisted, which was something different from English, though Yuezhu had never been sufficiently interested to hold the actual difference in her mind for more than a minute or two. However that might be, Mr Powell had been eight months at the Conservatory, and never been anything but polite and courteous to everyone, students, teachers and leaders alike.

“Well,” said Mr Powell, settling back on the piano stool. “I shall not go on trying to get my tongue around your Chinese name. Since you will not choose a name for yourself, I shall choose one for you. From now on I shall call you Margaret. What do you think of it?”

“Margaret?” Yuezhu laughed. “Like your Mrs Thatcher.”

Now Mr Powell laughed. “Whom God preserve. But yes, the same name. Do you like it?”

“I don’t know.” Yuezhu did not actually think she did like it. That hard “g” in the middle—it was not very feminine, she thought. English and German had too many of these hard sounds. She preferred Italian, with its luscious round vowels and whispering sibilants. You had to go to some trouble to make an Italian consonant hard, write an “h” after it. She could not speak either German or Italian, of course; but she had learned to sing them. On the other hand, patriotism notwithstanding, she did not feel altogether comfortable with her given name. Her parents were uneducated people, after all; and the name they had bestowed on her sounded provincial—even slightly ridiculous—to the refined ears of the capital. “Moon Pearl”—like a yatou, a servant girl in one of the old novels! Perhaps Mr Powell was right; she ought to take an English name. Perhaps “Margaret” would do as well as another. “Marguerite” in French—the soprano role in Gounod’s Faust. Yes, it would do.

“It’s a sort of translation,” Mr Powell was saying. “One of your classmates translated your name for me. ‘Moon Pearl.’ It’s very beautiful. Can’t be done in English, of course, not the whole thing. But ‘Margaret’ means ‘pearl,’ you see?”

Yuezhu thought it flattering that Mr Powell should put so much thought into awarding her a name, but having given it her attention for a full minute, she could not summon up any further interest in the matter. Mr Powell, to the contrary, seemed to find the topic inexhaustible.

“Now your name will be Margaret Han. It’s a good name: a double dactyl, truncated. With your voice, Margaret, you will travel all over the world. It’s good for you to have an English name, one people can remember. The really great singers are always spoken of using the Christian name, you know. Until they are dead—then we use the surname.”

Yuezhu thought there had been quite enough about names. To change the subject, she asked: “How about Mr Cinelli’s visit? Has it been decided yet what we shall do?”

Mr Powell laughed again. “‘It is being discussed at the highest levels,’ I think is the appropriate expression. All bogged down in politics, I’m afraid. Like so many things in your country.”

Yuezhu bristled at this. She did not like to hear foreigners criticize China. Of course there were things that were wrong—everyone knew that. But these things were for Chinese people to manage, not for foreigners to pass slighting remarks about. But they all did it, she knew that by now. They were just insensitive on this point, there was no point being upset about it.

“It seems clear, at any rate, that we shall not be doing a full production. That was the leaders’ wish, but the organizers of the visit said he could not give us more than a hour. Apparently the schedules for these things are worked out in the finest detail. So I suppose we shall do a concert. I would have given up both concert and production if he could have done a master class for us, but I’m afraid my voice does not carry very far in these great matters. And Vinnie does not believe in master classes. Says they are a waste of time, that voice students need long, steady coaching from a teacher who gets to know them. Not a bad argument, perhaps.”

“I wonder if I shall have the chance to sing for him. What an honor that would be!”

“I have no doubt you will sing for our distinguished guest. You are our best soprano voice, by some distance.”

“Oh!” Yuezhu’s hands flew to cover her mouth, in modesty. “It’s kind of you to say so, Sir. But I’m sure it’s not true.”

Actually Yuezhu knew perfectly well that it was true. It had become clear to her, to everyone, as soon as they had started singing in earnest early in the second year, that her voice was exceptional. In range, power, control, and quality she was far ahead of the other girls. Now, two and a half years later, she had internalized the fact of her superiority. It was a solid, quiet satisfaction to her, like the knowledge of having a decent sum of money in the bank.

Mr Powell was smiling across at her in a rather odd way. He caught her eye, and looked down.

“I hope Samson didn’t take you too much by surprise,” he said, looking up again. Margaret thought he looked nervous. She did not immediately connect what he said with Samson Lü’s approach three days previously.

“Samson? What did he do?”

“Well, not much, I gather. I asked him to act as go-between for me, but I’m afraid he fluffed it.”

Margaret stared at him while it sank in. Then her hand went over her mouth again and she felt herself blushing.

“You … Sir … You asked Samson to introduce you? Oh! I don’t …”

“I’m sorry, truly sorry. It was foolish of me. Though actually it was Samson who suggested that particular approach.” Mr Powell laughed, a nervous laugh. “His idea, but now he tells me he didn’t have the nerve to follow through with it.”

Margaret’s head was spinning. “I’m not sure … I don’t know why …”

“Why? That I can tell you very easily. I am in love with you, Margaret. Have been since I first saw you. Our first voice training class, do you remember? September 11th last year.”

“Oh! Mr Powell …” Now it was Margaret’s turn to look down. She could not face him. “I didn’t know that.”

“Of course you didn’t. And the way things are set up here, I had no opportunity to tell you. I thought it was quite hopeless, anyway. Then Samson told me that there are many marriages now between foreigners and Chinese. Several every year, here in Beijing.”

Marriages! The man was really serious! Margaret could only stare at the floor. The voice training room was in one of the older buildings, and had a floor of worn wooden boards, still showing some traces of pre-Liberation varnish.

“I just have to know, Margaret. Is that something you would consider? Marrying a foreigner?”

Margaret struggled briefly to find some words that would not give him pain. She liked Mr Powell; and besides, though it was something she could not have admitted, even to herself, she was flattered. Who is there, who has there ever been, that was not flattered by a proposal of marriage, from any source? But struggle as she might, at last only one word would do.

“No,” she said. “No, no. I’m sorry …”

She half expected Mr Powell to burst into tears like Mustache. Instead, he made an odd exhaling sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “Ah, well,” he said. “I didn’t really think you would. But Samson said you were fond of me, and I thought: if you don’t play, you don’t win.”

Now Margaret felt she could look at him again. “Oh, Sir, I am fond of you! But not … I mean, I don’t want …”

Mr Powell was smiling now. He waved away her excuses. “It really doesn’t matter. Put it down to cabin fever. It’s an isolated life we live here, you know. Once I get back to my own country, I’m afraid I shall forget all about you, dear Margaret. These last few weeks, especially …” He laughed. “China fatigue.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s an expression foreigners in China use. However sympathetic one may be at first, this country has a way of getting under one’s skin. The cruelty and dishonesty …”

As much out of consideration for Mr Powell (in some odd way) as for her own feelings, Margaret did not want to hear these negative things. It was true what he was saying, she knew. They had all seen it with Mr Mackenzie, the New Zealander who had been the Conservatory’s first foreign teacher back in ’78. He had come to them curious and keen. Almost at once he had taken up Chinese clothes, including even a worker-style cap and sleeve protectors. During his first semester he had made great strides in learning Chinese, to the degree that he could even quote poetry. Then something had gone wrong. He had turned cynical and boorish. In a sight-reading class with the second year, Margaret’s year, he had delivered a long angry harangue, calling them a race of slaves, passive conformists, the playthings of despots, lesser breeds without the law, and other such nonsense. He had even called them barbarians. This had been too much for Alfredo Zhang, who had started yelling back at Mr Mackenzie: Call us barbarians? It’s you who are barbarians! We were civilized when your ancestors were living in caves! Which one of your stinking grandfathers burned our Summer Palace?

The leaders had soothed everything over; but a few days later, on a trip to Friendship Store in the city, Mr Mackenzie had punched one of the store assistants in the face, breaking several teeth. After that he had been forced to leave. The classmates supposed there would be no more foreigners; but the leaders had instead taken to hiring them in twos and threes, to keep each other company, and in this way trouble had been avoided. Mr Powell, though, did not seem to care for the other foreigners, so it was not surprising he felt this “China fatigue.”

“You are too lonely, Sir.” Margaret said. “You should associate more with the other foreign teachers. Everyone says you avoid them.”

Mr Powell’s face twisted into a moue of distaste. “Ech! An Italian poof, a German nympho, and a brace of American Jew lefties. I prefer my own company, thank you very much. Though I like yours even better.” He grinned at her now, an open, cheerful grin. Margaret felt her embarrassment ebbing. Mr Powell really was very nice.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

“Think nothing of it. Do you know the story of Diogenes and the statue?” Margaret shook her head. Diogenes (Mr Powell explained) was a philosopher in ancient Greece. One day a friend of his saw him in the public square, speaking to a stone statue. Coming closer, he discovered that Diogenes was actually begging from the statue. “Why are you begging from the statue?” he asked. Replied Diogenes: “I am practicing disappointment.”

Margaret laughed at this—she really thought it quite funny. “I hope you don’t consider me a statue,” she said.

“I hope you don’t consider me a beggar.” Mr Powell laughed too, and stood up, and went to open the door for her.

“And I hope at least, in these few weeks before you graduate, you will come to see me often.”

“Yes, I will,” said Margaret, impressed now by his calm, gentlemanly acceptance of her refusal. She liked him more than ever now. He leaned forward, still smiling, and shook her hand as she stepped through the door.

Voice training had been the last class of the day, and Margaret immediately went looking for Samson Lü. He was in the library. She stood at the glass door of the reading room until he looked up and caught her eye, then beckoned him outside.

“Samson, you are very bad,” she said as soon as he stepped out into the lobby. “Encouraging Mr Powell to seek an introduction to me. Why did you do that?”

Samson giggled, very nervous at having been exposed. “I felt sorry for him. I thought he was lonely. I know he likes you. And I thought you liked him.”

“I do like him. But marriage—really! It’s outrageous.”

“I went too far, I know. I’m sorry, Yuezhu. I was only trying to help. Please don’t blame Mr Powell. He’s a decent guy. And he’s really crazy about you. He told me.”

“Well, I hope you won’t tell anyone else. You made a really embarrassing situation for me.”

“All right. Just don’t blame him.”

“I don’t blame him. I blame you.”

Samson Lü grinned at her, apparently quite satisfied with this. What a strange bird, Margaret thought to herself, walking back to the dorm.

Chapter 22

The World’s Greatest Tenor Enters the Middle Kingdom

Teacher Powell Bids Farewell to a Favorite Student

When Cinelli stepped into the auditorium the whole audience—students, faculty, family members (including both Margaret’s parents) and visitors—rose to their feet and applauded. He was brought in through the big double doors at the back, so those seated in the body of the auditorium all had to turn a hundred and eighty degrees to face him. From her own seat up on the stage, Margaret had a clear view of his progress down the center aisle.

The first thing she noticed about him was his size. The man was a giant, not only in girth but in height, towering over the little cluster of Professors and leaders who accompanied him to his seat two-thirds of the way to the front. There was only one other foreigner in the entourage, a lugubrious middle-aged man in a dark gray suit and tie, and Cinelli towered over him, too. After Cinelli’s size you noticed his smile: a dazzle of Adriatic sunlight filling the hall with warmth, color, pleasure, life.

For all his size he moved easily, as a trained stage performer should, bowing repeatedly in acknowledgment of the applause, sometimes raising his hands to applaud back, and always the smile, the smile, flashing forth from a nest of black beard. It took some time for them to get him seated; everyone at the Conservatory was genuinely glad to have him amongst them, and they would not stop applauding. Already beginning to be infused by that sunlight, people were smiling and laughing to each other, and applauding, applauding. Three or four times he stood up again to bow and applaud back. The tension that had built up during their long wait—everyone had to be seated an hour before Cinelli’s arrival—was gone, and everyone was in a good mood. It was clear that Cinelli himself was at ease. Indeed, he had dressed for ease: pale slacks, short-sleeved blue shirt open at the neck, loafers. Margaret had rather expected him to be in formal wear, as he usually was in photographs.

The entire third and fourth years of the International Opera Department were up on stage, forty-two altogether, with the Conservatory’s orchestra. The best singers, all but one from the fourth year, had solos and a duet. The others were a choir, singing in support of the soloists where required, and with contributions of their own at strategic points: the bridal chorus from Lohengrin half-way through the concert, and “O sole mio,” an Italian folk song that was Cinelli’s trademark, as a finale, with everyone on stage joining in.

Because Margaret’s voice was considered the best of the sopranos, her solo was placed at the end, before the choral finale. It was “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, a piece she liked to sing, which she felt suited her voice. Though not one of the most difficult arias, it had some challenging features that made Margaret proud to have mastered it. There was tricky messa di voce, and the vocal score at one point followed a different rhythm from the accompaniment. Cinelli watched her all the way, his hands folded over each other in front of his face. She was aware of him watching even when looking at her score, or watching Professor Shi, the conductor. When she finished, to her astonishment and delight Cinelli stood up and called out in his huge voice: “BRAVA! BRAVA, BRAVISSIMA!” Everyone in the hall followed suit, of course, and Margaret felt herself blushing hot with pride and pleasure. She could see Father beaming, nodding at her, and Mother looking slightly stunned. It was only Cinelli’s second bravo in the concert. The first had been for Enrico Wang, a third-year student, a tenor, who everyone knew was a prodigy, who had sung the Flower Song from Carmen to utter perfection. Margaret bowed twice, then made her way back to her seat, the hall still applauding her. No sooner had she sat down than she had to stand again, for the finale. This went off very well, Cinelli throwing his head back and laughing freely when he realized they were doing his signature song.

Afterwards Cinelli came up on stage to shake hands with the singers. The lugubrious man accompanied him. First Cinelli went along the line of soloists, nodding, smiling, shaking hands. He said something in English to Johnny Liu, who had done a solo “Non più andrai,” and laughed, and Johnny Liu laughed too. When he reached Margaret he took her offered hand in both of his, and made a little bow.

“Una voce poco fa, qui nel cor mi risuonó,” he said. “Can you understand?”

“Yes,” whispered Margaret. He had quoted the opening lines of a well-known Rossini aria: “A voice I just heard is echoing in my heart.”

“You ’ave a beautiful voice,” said Cinelli. He was speaking in English now, but with a strong accent which softened and palatalized the rough sounds: byu-tyi-fwool.

“You must sing bel canto,” he said, still holding her hand in his two. “Your voice is made for bel canto. Fioritura, coloratura—don’t be afraid to sing hanything!” Then, to Margaret’s astonishment, and infinite embarrassment, he lifted her hand six inches, bent down low, and kissed it. Over his shoulder Margaret saw Secretary Kang, Party Secretary for the whole Conservatory, looking at her face, with no expression at all on his own.

“A moment to remember all your life,” said Secretary Kang in Chinese, as Cinelli moved on. Margaret was speechless. Cinelli went on to shake hands with everyone, including every member of the choir, which (as the classmates all said afterwards) was a thing no Chinese celebrity of his standing would have done. Foreigners seemed not to stand on their dignity at all!


“Did you know he can’t read music?” said Mr Powell, pouring himself some tea.

“Is it true?” said Johnny Liu. “Such a great musician cannot read music?”

Mr Powell laughed. “I don’t think singers are really counted as musicians. Even composers aren’t necessarily—Wagner could not play the piano, you know, nor any other instrument. From that point of view, every well brought up middle-class girl of his period was a better musician than he. Though of course none of them gave us the ‘Liebestod.’ Vinnie is in the Italian tradition, according to which a singer is not required to do anything but sing.”

“Do you really think he is a great singer?” asked Margaret.

“Oh, yes. A poor actor, and in some ways regrettably unimaginative with his voice—but great, yes. Greatness and perfection are different things. Callas was great, everybody knows it, but she never got through a performance without making a mistake somewhere.”

Callas, Vinnie: Margaret recalled Mr Powell’s remark about names, when he had awarded “Margaret” to her. Would she one day be Margaret to the world of opera? And then, when she had gone on to her next life, as “Han”? She looked out of the window, out across the campus. The office Mr Powell shared with Signor Russo, the voice coach for Italian and French, faced south. At this time of the morning it was full of sunlight. Some residual smoke from Mr Powell’s last cigarette was hanging in the air, and the sunlight played on it in trembling shafts of gold. The windows were open; she could hear people talking on the campus below.

She had come to Mr Powell’s office with Johnny Liu, simply to talk in that relaxed way that was possible with foreigners. Especially with Mr Powell, since the clearing of the air between them a month earlier. Margaret came often to see Mr Powell now. There was something new in his manner—something wry and self-mocking—that she liked very much. It was an agreeable way to pass time. Of which there was now plenty: this was the quiet, inconsequential period between Cinelli’s visit—the high point of the year for everyone—and graduation in early July. There were some paper examinations to come on opera history, opera production, English and political science, but no-one took them very seriously. Assignments would be announced a day or so before graduation, and if you weren’t marked for a decent assignment by now, the examinations would make no difference. Margaret already felt confident of her own assignment. She would join the national opera company that was being formed. So she had been assured, more or less, by Professor Shi. All of the dozen or so outstanding singers in her graduating class would go to form the nucleus of this new company. Some of the others would help to establish new international opera departments, at the Conservatories in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Others, including Johnny Liu, were developing plans to go abroad, which was more and more possible now.

Looking out of the window across the sunlit campus, Margaret could see the back of the Dance Academy. She smiled inwardly now to think of her earlier folly: the hopeless longing to be a great dancer, when in truth she could never—she saw it clearly now—have been anything but a mediocre one. And all the time carrying this greater gift within herself, unknowing. Truly fate was unfathomable. If there had been no earthquake in ’76, if she had not strained to surpass the others for fear of Father’s disgrace, then she might have gone on for years trying to be something she was not meant to be. To fail at last, and probably quite soon, for dancers had a short professional life. Whereas opera singers often carried on into their sixties. Cinelli himself—Vinnie—was, what? forty-five, forty-six, and at the height of his powers; while Barbara Bacon, the great Australian soprano, was over fifty and could still cause a sensation with her famous mad scene from Lucia.

Sitting there in the mid-morning sun, listening idly to Johnny and Mr Powell speaking of operatic greatness, Margaret’s thoughts drifted back over her four years at the department.

The first year had seemed like a vacation after the Dance Academy. The department had been organized in a hurry, and there were many changes of direction and spells of confusion. Politics (she could see now, though she had not understood it fully at the time) had played a large part in the general air of disorganization. The leaders had wanted to ensure that nothing counter-revolutionary be taught; yet since they knew absolutely nothing about foreign opera, they had had to be persuaded libretto by libretto, score by score.

In that first year only two operas had been approved for detailed study: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (satire on the decadence of the feudal aristocracy) and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (tragic indictment of western imperialism). Verdi’s I vespri Siciliani was passed at the end of that year, on the grounds that it showed the righteous anger of the common people against foreign oppression. At a certain point during the negotiations over I vespri one ingenious faculty member had offered to rewrite the libretto to place the story in China of the 1930s, the Sicilians turned into Chinese, the French into Japanese. Secretary Kang had vetoed this, once the opera’s plot was explained to him, on the grounds that the business about paternity (the plot turns on the Sicilian hero discovering that the French villain is his father) would make the Japanese too human. But I vespri had passed anyway, and after that the leaders seemed to have worried less about the political content of the operas. Or perhaps they had just wearied at having the plot of Donizetti’s fifty-ninth potboiler explained to them.

All the hesitations in that first year about which operas were correct for study and which were not had anyway been of only theoretical interest to the voice students. Professor Shi was in charge of their timetable, and he had an eccentric philosophy about voice training, which he had forced through the school committees. The philosophy was, that a student of voice should sing nothing in her first year of study. That first year should (according to Professor Shi) be devoted to the muscular development of the chest, abdomen and diaphragm by means of endless repetitive exercises. Some of the exercises involved vocalizing; but it was vocalizing in the abstract—long sessions of yelping and squealing under Professor Shi’s careful direction. To actually sing an actual song, said Professor Shi, would capture the student’s attention, detaching that attention from the real business of first-year training, which was to build a wall of hard, obedient muscle around the lungs.

“Before you learn to write,” said Professor Shi, “you must learn to handle the brush. Before you learn to sing, you must learn to handle your lungs, your diaphragm.”

So instead of learning actual operas, actual repertoire, the classmates had been put through long sessions of voice training, muscular exercises and sight reading—tedious beyond all endurance at the time, but an excellent foundation for their further studies. By the time the leaders had settled on what operas might be sung, there were two dozen diaphragms tensed to a condition of physical perfection, ready to sing them.

“I’m sorry?” Margaret was suddenly aware of having been addressed by Mr Powell. He and Johnny Liu were both smiling at her, at having interrupted her reverie.

“I asked what Vinnie said to you. Before he kissed your hand.” Mr Powell had his tenderest look for her. He would like to kiss my hand, I’m sure, thought Margaret.

“He said I should sing bel canto.”

Mr Powell nodded approval. “So you should, indeed. You have the range already. With a little more work on your passagio, you will have the evenness. You would already make a fine Rosina or Adina. One day, perhaps, a Lucia—a Norma, even.” He laughed. “We have not had a decent Norma since Callas stopped singing.” He nodded, to show that he was serious. “Yes, sing bel canto. It’s good advice, from a master.”


The day before the graduation ceremony was hot, the still dry desert heat of Beijing. Margaret rode a bus down to West Wall to see Mother and Father, who were to attend the ceremony. Father was still glowing from his daughter’s triumph at the Cinelli concert.

“It’s beautiful music, I see that now. Food for the soul, as Comrade Deng Xiaoping says. Our country can only benefit from such things.”

“I wish your half brother could be with us,” said Mother. “But …” she shrugged resignation, “… his duties.”

Half Brother was in the south, that was all Margaret knew. His duties, whatever they were, took him all over the country, and his furloughs were sudden and unpredictable. Margaret knew now that Half Brother was in some high-security branch of the military—the nuclear forces, perhaps, or Intelligence. She thought Father knew more, but was not allowed to say.

After dinner Margaret rode a bus back to the Conservatory. Walking across the campus to her dormitory she heard footsteps hurrying behind her. Turning, she saw Samson Lü coming up, wearing a look of relief.

“Han Yuezhu! I’m glad I could find you. Where have you been all day?”

As if it were any of your business. But Margaret was too polite to say this. “I’ve been at my parents’ place,” she said.

“Mr Powell wants to see you.”

“Mr Powell? Why?”

“He wants to say good-bye. He’s leaving soon after graduation, to go traveling round the country. He especially wants to say good-bye to you.”

“Well, he can say good-bye to all of us tomorrow, after graduation, can’t he?”

“Oh, but you know Mr Powell has special feelings for you.”

Margaret felt herself flushing. “I didn’t ask him to have any feelings for me. It’s not something I’ve encouraged. You know that.”

“Of course I do.”

In the failing light Samson looked paler than ever, a white ghost grinning at her beseechingly.

“Come on. Just give him a few minutes of your time. The poor guy’s so lonely. He’s been sitting in his office all day marking the second year English papers.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I should go there alone. So late in the evening.”

“No problem. I’ll go with you.”

Margaret considered. There was nothing else to do. It was two hours to her accustomed bed-time, and the choice was to sit chatting with Mr Powell, or gossiping with the girls in her dorm room. “All right,” she said. Mr Powell had been sincere with her, after all. She owed him for that.

Mr Powell was at the desk in his office with the light on. He had two piles of examination papers on his desk: a very short pile on his left, a much thicker one on his right. He stood up at once when they came in.

“Margaret. What a lovely surprise.”

“You’re very busy, Sir.”

“No, no.” Mr Powell indicated the short pile. “Almost finished. Come, sit down. Hello, Samson.”

She sat on the sofa with Samson. Mr Powell sat in the armchair opposite and tried to interest them in his iced tea, which he made by running cold water into his bathtub and sitting pans of tea in it till they cooled. There was no refrigerator available to the foreign teachers.

There was talk of graduation and assignments. Samson Lü had got a remarkably good assignment, as an interpreter and organizer at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. There would, he said, be lots of travel all over the country, probably abroad too, and hosting of foreign delegations.

“I shall have a life of banquets!” he shouted, quite carried away with his good fortune, his rather unpleasant high-pitched laugh pealing round the narrow office. Margaret thought it odd that Samson should have pulled such a good assignment. He was an indifferent singer, and his family were just low-level clerks in a government ministry. Possibly he had a well-placed uncle, she thought.

She could see that Mr Powell, too, was made uncomfortable by Samson’s gloating. He caught her glance, and lowered one eyelid in the movement called “wink” in English—a gesture unknown in China. She smiled at him in spite of herself. Perhaps noticing this, Samson Lü suddenly jumped to his feet and said: “Oh! I’ve just remembered! I promised to help my room-mates with their packing!” He almost ran to the door, and was gone before either of them could respond.

Margaret stood up. “I’d better not stay. I mean …”

“Oh, rubbish.” Mr Powell shook his head vigorously. “I won’t hear of it. Sit down and let me enjoy your company alone a few minutes. Sod the rules—you’ll be graduating tomorrow, and I’m sure I shall see no more of you after that. Come, come, Margaret, sit down and let’s make a leisurely good-bye.”

Reluctantly she sat. Mr Powell was so kind, she hated to disappoint him. Besides, there was no-one around in the building at this time—it was dark already—and the door was locked. Samson Lü might snitch, of course, that would be entirely in character; but what did that matter, at this point in the semester?

“Shall you be coming back to the Conservatory next year?” she asked, to fill the somewhat awkward pause that had developed.

Mr Powell shook his head. “I don’t think so. No, I’m sure I shan’t. There are some things back home … Well, suffice it to say I left some loose ends I really oughn’t have left, which I must tidy up before I get on with my life.”

Margaret thought it would not be proper to ask for details, and Mr Powell did not seem inclined to supply them unbidden, so another awkward pause opened up. Mr Powell broke it with a laugh.

“Come now, Margaret, let’s not be so ill at ease with each other. After all, I have exposed myself frankly to you. There is no law to say that partings must be sad. You know, I was thinking, while I was marking those damn papers: I have not seen much of the Chinese sense of humor. I’m not even sure that you have one. Would you care to disabuse me?”

“I’m sorry?” Margaret had not quite followed the English.

“Make me laugh, Moon Pearl. Give me a happy memory to go away with, back to glum, smoky old London.”

“Laugh at what?”

“Well, tell me a joke.”

Margaret tried to think of a joke. Most of those she knew had been manufactured to make a political point, like the one everyone knew about Wicked Landlord Zhou Bapi and his rooster. She knew that this would not please Mr Powell, who was allergic to Chinese politics. At last she could only recall a tale from her childhood, the Duck Soup Joke, which Half Brother had told her one day during the period they were confined in barracks, when the Red Guards were being suppressed. She had thought it very funny at the time. Now it seemed childish, but at least it had no political content.

The Duck Soup Joke

There was once a man named Zhang, famous for his generosity and hospitality. A scoundrel decided to take advantage of him. He learned from gossip that Zhang’s best friend was named Lao Chen. So he went to Zhang’s house and knocked on the door. When Zhang opened the door, the scoundrel said: “You don’t know me, but I am a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of Lao Chen.”

Hearing this, Zhang ushered him in to the best room in the house, and sat him in the best chair. “You do me such honor!” said Zhang. “How can I make you more comfortable?”

“Well, to tell the truth,” said the scoundrel, “I’m rather peckish. If you have something to eat, that would be fine.”

“Of course!” said Zhang. “Will duck soup be all right?”

The scoundrel replied that it would be fine. He loved duck soup.

“Wonderful!” said Zhang. “Please make yourself at home while I kill a duck.” He left, coming back after only a few minutes with a steaming bowl. He set the bowl before his guest, and urged him to eat his fill. The scoundrel began to eat the soup. He could not help but notice that it tasted like nothing but hot water.

“Excuse me,” he said boldly, after a few mouthfuls, “but the soup is rather thin, isn’t it?”

“Who did you say you are?” asked Zhang.

“Why,” replied the scoundrel, “I am a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of your best friend Lao Chen.”

“Just so,” nodded Zhang, “just so. You are a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of my friend. This …” he indicated the bowl, “… is the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of my duck.”

To her surprise and pleasure, Mr Powell roared with laughter. “Very Chinese!” he said, when he was through laughing. “Slyness and symmetry! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Pleased with her little triumph, Margaret relaxed. “You should tell me an English joke,” she said. “Otherwise the game isn’t finished.”

“Oh, I am a poor raconteur.” Mr Powell laughed. “And not English at all, as I am bound to keep reminding you. We Welsh have no jokes. We are a melancholy race, ever since we lost the best part of our country to heathen invaders.”

He really seemed to mean this, his face lapsing into a quite woeful expression for a moment. He got out of his chair and walked to the window.

“I’m sure you can’t be melancholy all the time,” said Margaret. “Actually, I have often seen you laughing and making jokes.”

Mr Powell said something she didn’t understand at all—twenty or thirty words, not one of which she could recognize.

“A Welsh poem,” Mr Powell explained, turning back to the room. “Something like:

With Hope I woke, and labored long,

With willing heart and merry song.

By evening time, when hope had fled

’Twas with Despair I went to bed.”

“Why, I’ve had just the same thought myself,” said Margaret. “Hope always deceives us, and leaves us with despair at last.”

This seemed to please Mr Powell. “There, you see,” he said. “We are kindred spirits, thinking the same thoughts.” He crossed the room and sat beside her on the sofa. The sofa was not very wide; he was right next to her. Margaret felt uncomfortable, and wondered how she could politely take her leave.

Mr Powell took her near hand and held it in both of his. “Margaret,” he said, in quite a different tone of voice. “I should apologize. I have imposed myself on you.”

“No, no. It’s quite all right.” Now Margaret was contemplating a run for the door.

“We’ll say good-bye now.” He was looking right into her eyes. “You know you have my best wishes for your success, which I feel sure will be great. You have a magnificent voice, Margaret.”

“Thank you.”

“But I want to impose on you just once more. A small thing.”


Margaret walked back to the dormitory. Had she done the right thing, allowing Mr Powell to kiss her? Perhaps not; but there had been no stopping him, anyway. He really was rather nice. Not tall enough to be really handsome, but wiry and … masculine. Some Chinese boys were so spoiled and effeminate, and so timid. Or sly and untrustworthy, like Samson Lü. Not Johnny Liu, of course. Johnny wasn’t afraid of anything, and you could trust him completely. Handsome, too—there was no doubt of that. If she were someone else, she might be in love with Johnny Liu. Or even with Mr Powell. But she was Margaret Han, and she only wanted friendship. She wondered, as always, whether there was something wrong with her. Or perhaps there was someone she was fated to meet by the principle called yuanfen in pop songs and the old religion, and she just had not met him yet. According to the old religion, a fated couple were bound together from birth—through all their many lives, in fact—by a thread of red silk, invisible of course to mortal eyes. Perhaps she was one of those. Perhaps that was why she did not respond to these people who adored her. Mr Powell, so passionate! So intent on her lips! Yet—she had to be frank with herself—stirring her not at all.

When he was close to her, Mr Powell had emitted a faint delicious fragrance. It was aftershave, something foreign men put on their faces, after shaving of course. She had asked him about it, and he had told her. How strange—men wearing perfume! But all the foreign men used it, he told her. You could buy it in China, too. He had bought his at the Friendship Store in Beijing during the Spring Festival vacation. His lips had seemed big, with a kind of velvety texture that was rather nice, and arrived accompanied by a faint acid taste of tobacco, by no means unpleasant. Zhang Hui had gone out with Leonora Wang for months before he’d kissed her, according to Leonora. What did her own lips feel like? Margaret wondered. Mr Powell was deeply in love with her, she was sure of that. For him, it was a sad thing, a small tragedy perhaps. But that was not her fault. She had not invited him to fall in love with her, and her own conduct, so far as she could see, had been blameless. Except perhaps for allowing him to kiss her, which she had just been unable, at the time, to think of any way of resisting.

Well, no doubt Mr Powell would soon get over her, once back among his own people. Everyone said that foreigners had a very loose system of morality, that they married and divorced just for fun and were incapable of serious attachments. Some of her classmates thought Mr Powell already had a wife in England. There were a lot of stories like that in the newspapers, now that people were being allowed to go abroad. A woman would go to a foreign country to marry a man, only to discover that he was already married. Then she would be abandoned in the foreign place, and have to beg for her living, or something worse. But really, Mr Powell didn’t seem the type who would do that.

When she reached the dormitory old Mrs Feng, the door-keeper, was standing just inside the doorway. She was an ill-tempered creature, with never a kind word for anyone. Now she just watched silently as Margaret crossed the lobby and started up the stairs. When Margaret reached the first landing she thought she heard the old woman speaking to someone in her rough hoarse voice, though there had been no-one else in sight at the doorway.

In her dormitory room the other seven girls were already in bed. Margaret had not realized it was so late. Strangely, none of them greeted her. They all seemed to be asleep. This was unusual; there was generally some chattering until the lights went out, or at least someone would be sitting up reading. Perhaps they all wanted to sleep well before the graduation ceremony next day. Margaret climbed up to her bunk. Instead of undressing immediately, she lay there for a while musing, thinking about Mr Powell back in England. What was it actually like in foreign countries, she wondered? You were told so much about the darkness and oppression of bourgeois society, yet the foreigners one saw seemed quite cheerful and healthy, and kinder in nature, actually, than most of one’s Chinese acquaintances. Perhaps, as Gorky said, a bourgeois society was really two societies, who hardly knew of each other’s existence. Perhaps all the foreigners one saw in China came from just one of those societies, the gentler one.

Just as she had decided to undress, in case she fell asleep in her day clothes, there was a tapping on the door. Margaret did nothing, waiting for one of the lower bunks to get up and attend to it. However, nobody got up.

“Hey!” she called. “Junliang! Leonora! Come on!”

Nobody answered, nobody moved. What was wrong with everybody? Margaret climbed down and went to the door. “Who is it?”

“Branch Secretary Guo wants to see Han Yuezhu.”

Branch Secretary Guo? That half-wit? Margaret supposed it might be official confirmation of her assignment. It was just like Guo to get you out of bed for news. She opened the door. The caller was a muscular woman in a dirty white jacket. Margaret recognized her as one of the paramedics from the college clinic. The woman’s husband was a Branch Secretary in one of the other departments.

“Okay,” said Margaret brightly, “I’m Han Yuezhu. Let’s go!”

Margaret was glad. She had heard unofficially, from Professor Shi, that the assignment was all settled, that she was to join the new national opera company. But this must be the official notification. Nothing was official until the Party Secretaries had ruled on it. She trotted off behind the muscular woman. At the foot of the stairs was Mrs Feng the doorkeeper, peering up at them as they came down. What was so interesting? Margaret felt the old hag’s eyes on her as they stepped out of the dormitory building. In was dark outside, but lights could be seen in the main building, across the campus at the end of the path.

A person she did not know was sitting at Branch Secretary Guo’s desk: a youngish man with his head cropped down close like a soldier, wearing a smart open-necked short-sleeved khaki shirt, three or four pens clipped into the breast pocket. He had a folder open on the desk in front of him, white sheets of paper both recto and verso. Branch Secretary Guo himself was sitting at the left side of the desk, Secretary Kang at the right. There was a single other chair facing the desk, unoccupied. Standing against the wall in one corner, behind the desk, was a small older man in a baggy blue tunic, wearing a cap.

“Do you want me to stay?” asked the muscular woman.

“No.” Secretary Kang waved her out. “Comrade Han, sit down.”

Margaret sat down in the empty chair facing them. The crew-cut man at the desk turned his head to the older man standing behind him, who made a slight nod. The man turned back and began unscrewing the cap of a fountain pen, apparently preparing to write something.

“What did you do this evening?” asked Secretary Kang, in quite a pleasant tone of voice. Still Margaret saw nothing wrong. She supposed he was just making polite conversation. She was still feeling pleased with herself, anticipating the news of her assignment. She supposed these strangers were from the Ministry of Culture, which was organizing the national opera company. Of course, she could not answer truthfully; but since they were only making small talk this did not matter.

“Well, I spent the afternoon with my family over West Wall District. I came back around eight o’clock and went to the TV room to watch the Nationalities show. Then I had to get some water for my dormitory. After that I went for a walk out to the …”

BANG! Crew-cut had come alive, slamming his fist down onto the desk. His eyes were blazing, his lips pursed in a thin line, the character yi. There was a moment of terrible silence.

“Don’t play with us! We know everything! Everything you did this evening—we know it all! Now, why don’t you start telling the truth!”

Only then did Margaret feel fear.

Chapter 23

Father Regrets Past Indulgence

Secretary Kang Conducts a Special Examination

“You’ve brought down the whole family!”

Father was furious, his face flushed, his voice hoarse.

“I’m being investigated! Me—an old revolutionary, forty years in the army! I have to go in front of a commission and explain myself! Heaven only knows what kind of trouble your brother is in. How could you do this? Where’s the reason in it?”

“But I didn’t do anything,” wailed Margaret. “I’ve told you, I didn’t do anything! Military secrets? I don’t even know what they’re talking about!”

“I’ve spoilt you.” Father was shaking his head, intent on his own logic. “That’s what it is, I’ve spoilt you. No discipline! You always had everything you wanted, never tasted bitterness. Now you want to make some connection with this damn foreigner, fuck his mother, so you destroy your family.”

“How was I to know he was a spy? I couldn’t know that, could I? I thought he was just lonely. I thought he just wanted to be friends.”

“Of course he’s a spy! All foreigners are spies! Why else would a foreigner come and work here, if not to steal our national secrets? Don’t you know how much higher the standard of living is in the West? He could earn more in a month in his own country than he made in a year in China. There’s bound to be some ulterior motive. All that stuff they found in his room. Troop dispositions, command structures, casualty counts from the Vietnam expedition. He’d been collecting it for months.”

“But where did he get it? Where did he get it? Not from me—I don’t know anything about these things.”

“Of course you don’t. But they knew he was spying, they found the evidence, and just at that time you chose to be caught spending time with him, alone. You!—your father a Major-General, your brother in Military Intelligence. What are they going to think?”

“I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just being friendly, that’s all.” Margaret felt herself blushing, though she had spoken nothing but the truth. That Mr Powell had kissed her—she could hardly be blamed for that. It wasn’t something she had incited him to. No, she had done nothing wrong. Yet now she was being treated like a criminal: held incommunicado at the Conservatory for three days, being interrogated all the time, released at last into her parents’ custody, to discover that Father himself was under investigation. Public Security had found all kinds of incriminating documents in Powell’s private room, Father told her. He was a spy for the British government.

“But how could I know that? How could I know that? I was just being friendly.” This had been her single line of defense during interrogation. She thought at last they had believed her, having extracted from her all the truth she contained, including Powell’s having kissed her. Surely once they heard her tell that, they must have known she was being open with them.

The phrase Father used again and again was make a big matter into a small matter. That was what you had to do in these situations: make a big matter into a small matter.

“Just tell the truth,” he had been saying these days past, when he wasn’t cursing at her. “Tell the truth and don’t contradict yourself. They’re bound to find out sooner or later where the secrets came from. Tell the truth, but play everything down. Criticize yourself, flatter the leaders. Make a big matter into a small matter.”

Margaret thought of going to find Baoyu’s father, who was a senior official in the Public Security Bureau. Perhaps he would be able to help her. Baoyu himself was in Copenhagen with the Royal Danish Ballet, but no doubt they could get in touch with him. She was under de facto house arrest, but after some days of pleading she persuaded Mother to go to the place where Baoyu’s family lived. They were not there; they had gone to the seaside resort of Beidaihe for the summer.

Of all her classmates and teachers, only Johnny Liu came to see her. She did not blame the teachers. A teaching position in the Beijing Music Conservatory was a great prize for oneself and one’s family, not to be jeopardized by fraternization with putative enemies of the people. A similar consideration applied to the classmates, of course; but they did not have wives and children to worry about, and had not had their careers already derailed once by the Cultural Revolution, as most of the teachers had. She thought one or two of them, one or two Margaret had thought of as close friends, might have been bold enough to come calling. But only Johnny Liu came.

She was at home with Mother when he came. Father was still being investigated in connection with her case, and had to go here and there to answer questions, sometimes for two or three days at a time. Mother let Johnny Liu in and called Margaret from her bedroom, where she was reading a novel. When she saw Johnny Liu she burst into tears. Seeing him, all the happy years at the Conservatory came back—and the knowledge that it had all been for nothing, all been lost; that without (so far as she could see) doing anything very wrong, she had lost everything. Seeing her distress, Johnny Liu himself seemed close to tears.

“Little Sister. I came to see if you’re all right.”

For a while Margaret could not speak. She sat on the sofa with Johnny Liu, sobbing while he held her hand. At last: “I guess the classmates are all talking about me.”

Johnny Liu laughed. “Classmates? The whole city’s talking about you! The whole world! It’s an international incident!”

“Really?” Margaret was impressed despite herself. “Oh, dear. Then I guess it’s very serious.”

“Yes. Mr Powell was expelled from the country. The British Embassy made a protest to our Foreign Ministry.”

“Heaven! Such a big matter! Oh, I’m sure I shall be put in prison.”

“No, no.” Perhaps thinking he had over-alarmed her, Johnny Liu smiled encouragingly, and patted her hand. “It’s just a nine days' wonder. Now Mr Powell’s been expelled, the fuss will soon die down.”

Johnny Liu glanced toward the kitchen, from where Mother could be heard making food-preparation noises, though the evening meal was still some hours off. “Let’s talk English, okay?”

“Yes. Oh, Johnny, it’s been so bad. Everybody thinks I gave secrets to Mr Powell. But I didn’t, I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t. I know that. All the classmates know it.”

“Do they? Nobody came to visit me.”

“They’re scared. Such a big case!”

“How about you, Johnny? You’re not scared?”

Johnny Liu laughed. “Pei! The communists destroyed my father, they destroyed my family. They can destroy me too—but they can’t make me koutou to them. I’ll never do that. They can beat me black and blue—I’ll spit in their faces. Anyway, I’ll be out of China in a few months.”

“Really? You got a position abroad?”

“Mm, not exactly. But my cousin in New York has booked me in to a college there.” Johnny Liu laughed again. “Just for one semester. Business college—but enough to get me a visa. Enough to get me out of China.” He laughed again.

“But Johnny, what about your singing?”

“Oh, I can find a job once I’m there. Even if I can’t sing, I can do something. I don’t really care. So long as I can get out of China. I’d rather polish shit in America than sing opera in China.”

“I wish I could go with you. Away from this …” Margaret could not think of a suitable English expression. “This stinking mess,” she said in Chinese.

Johnny Liu patted her hand. “Don’t worry. Nobody can believe you gave our country’s secrets to a foreigner. Anyway, all these secrets Mr Powell was supposed to have got. They don’t amount to much. I heard the details on BBC World Service. The names of some military leaders, some stuff about the fighting in Vietnam in ’79—things everybody knows. I really don’t know why it’s such a big matter. There’s something fishy about the whole business.”

“You don’t think Mr Powell is really a spy?”

“Of course not! Who thinks so? Mr Powell? Ha ha ha ha!” From Johnny Liu’s mirth, it was clear he had never even entertained the possibility that the charges against Mr Powell might be true. Margaret felt very naive. Since the authorities, and even Father, had said Mr Powell was a spy, she had supposed it must be true.

“If he wasn’t a spy, why did they find military secrets in his room?”

“Ts! How difficult is it to put some papers in a foreign teacher’s room? Mr Powell only went to his room to sleep, he was in the office the rest of the time, or teaching. Anybody could have done it.”

“But why would anyone do that?”

“That’s a very interesting question. The authorities wanted to make Mr Powell look like a spy. Somebody wanted to do that. I don’t know why. If you hadn’t gone to his room alone that evening, you wouldn’t be involved. Why did you do that? If you wanted to say good-bye to him, why didn’t you ask me to go with you?”

“It wasn’t me wanted to say good-bye, it was Mr Powell.”

“Did he ask you to go?”

“Yes. He sent Samson Lü to ask me.”

Johnny Liu stared at her, narrowing his eyes. “Samson Lü.”


“That creep?”


Johnny Liu let go her hand and sat forward, on the edge of the sofa, elbows on knees, staring in front of him.

“What? Elder Brother, what?”

“Is your father involved in anything political? Any kind of struggle with other leaders?”

“No. His health hasn’t been very good. He’s given up a lot of his responsibilities. Says he’s moving back to the … second echelon.” (This last expression in Chinese—she didn’t know the English.) “Anyway, he was never political. Just a soldier, just concerned with military matters. Why do you ask that?”

“I was thinking about Samson Lü. Acting like that, like a go-between. What did Mr Powell think of him?”

“I think he liked him. Mr Powell didn’t know he was, what? What’s it called in English? When somebody’s an ankle-rubber.”

“‘Stool-pigeon.’ Or you can say ‘informer.’”

“I don’t think Mr Powell knew. You know, foreigners never really understand what’s going on. But why did you ask about my father?”

“It’s only … I thought you got involved just by chance, when the authorities were aiming at Mr Powell. But maybe … I don’t know why, I don’t understand it, they were using Mr Powell to attack you.”

Now Margaret laughed. “Attack me? Why?”

“I don’t know. Because of your father, perhaps? To put him under suspicion?”

“I don’t think my father’s so important.”

“He’s more important than you. They’d hardly go to all that trouble to attack you, would they?” Johnny Liu laughed. “No, that’s not possible. Not possible at all! Why would anybody want to do that?”


She was interrogated again—the same questions, the same answers. Alone in the apartment in the heavy August heat of Beijing, she wept and fretted. Father, far from accepting the situation, became more and more distant. He hardly spoke to her without anger. Mother seemed to think there really had been something fishy going on with Mr Powell, and dropped clumsy hints that if there was anything Margaret might be holding back, she had better get it off her chest, for the authorities would be bound to find out sooner or later. At the same time she was worried about Father’s health. There had been an episode early the previous year—a small heart attack, it seemed—after which the doctor had told Father to avoid stress and undue exertion. Now Mother fussed over him whenever he became agitated, glowering accusingly at Margaret the while.

At last Margaret ceased to care what happened. She only wanted things resolved, no matter how. The long interrogations, the eventless silences between, were too much to bear. And soon enough the resolution came. She was to write out a full self-criticism; Father was to stand guarantor of her future good behavior; she was to accept an assignment as a middle-school language teacher in the far west of the country; and there was to be a special examination, to test her veracity on certain points.

Father seemed to think it was a good result. So far as her assignment was concerned, he seemed actually pleased. It would do her no harm, he said. Stay out there a year or two (he said), till everyone’s forgotten about this miserable business. Then I’ll pull some strings to get you back to the capital. A couple of years serving the people will do you a world of good. Make you realize what a nice easy life you’ve been having here.

Margaret longed to hear Father say some word of consolation to her, show her some of his old affection, or even just give some sign that he believed her side of the story; but he had set his face against her, retreated into some private obsession of parental doubt and guilt, and went off to his Divisional Headquarters for a week to catch up on work he’d missed while being investigated.

The special examination was to be done at a hospital in the Xuanwu district, not their local Beijing Number Four. This apparently was by Secretary Kang’s direction. He and the Party Secretary of this hospital were old comrades—Margaret overheard Father explaining this to Mother. Margaret was taken there on the appointed day by Mother, who was still unwilling to let her out alone.

The hospital was a shabby place, much inferior to the facilities she had got used to in West Wall District. Inside it was ill-lit, the air rancid and stifling. The original colors of the interior walls could still be made out: bottle green up to shoulder height, then white to the ceiling. The white had been stained to a mottled gray and brown by decades of dirty air, cigarette smoke and inattention. In the gloomy corridors and anterooms were crowds of rough-looking people, workers from the nearby factories perhaps, some moving listlessly from here to there carrying scraps of paper or glass tubes, most just standing, sitting or lying stretched out among the litter on the floor.

Mother made some inquiries. They were directed to a room half-way down a dark corridor. The workers shuffled aside to let them pass, staring in their dull-witted way. The air stank of formaldehyde and humanity. Mother knocked on the door of the room.

“Come in.”

It was a tiny office. Sitting at an ancient wooden desk against one wall was a doctor. She was a woman of about fifty, ugly and sour-looking—what the common people called a Class Struggle Face. She wore a dirty white lab coat and skull cap.

“This is Han Yuezhu. From the Conservatory of Music. I’m her mother.” Mother’s voice was still sharp with resentment and anger. She had not spoken more than ten words directly to Margaret since Father had gone off to Divisional Headquarters. Margaret did not care any more. She was far gone in fatalism. She had even accepted her assignment to the far west, as at least a relief from Father’s anger, Mother’s accusing looks, and the relentlessly repetitive interrogations by Public Security. In lucid moments she knew that it was, of course, a disaster for her career, for her life—very little better than being sent to a Reform Through Labor camp. But most of the time she did not care. What had it been, anyway, all those plans for a singing career, but the facile whisperings of the demon Hope, deluding her again as so many times before, telling her that the future might be other than what it was implacably destined to be.

“What? Han What? Oh, yes. For the special examination.”

Margaret felt suddenly faint. Special examination. At this point, she actually had no idea what she was doing at the hospital. A suspicion, but no real understanding. It was something to do with her case, of course. With the belief everyone seemed to hold that in addition to the country’s secrets, she had also given Mr Powell more intimate favors. She knew that even Mother believed this, though she had made no direct mention of it, and Margaret had denied it to her a score of times, weeping as she spoke.

The woman had gone back to her writing. She scratched away for a full three minutes, while Margaret trembled and Mother stood silent and sullen.

“All right.” The doctor stood up. “You. Follow me.” She grabbed Margaret’s elbow and jerked her toward the door. To Mother: “You stay here, Comrade.”

They walked back down the corridor to the entrance lobby, then through the crowd of staring, murmuring workers to the opposite corridor. A side corridor led off into the murky back part of the building. Here there were no windows, only twenty-five-watt bulbs in the high ceilings. The woman opened a door.

This was an examination room. It was quite surprisingly large, almost the size of one of the classrooms at the Conservatory. The only item of furniture was a vinyl examination table with tubular steel legs.

“Here,” said the doctor. “Wait.”

She left, closing the door behind her. Margaret was alone in the room. There was no window, only a ventilation grille, but the light here was much better than in the corridor. Margaret wandered back and forth for a while. The far left corner of the room, where the walls met the ceiling, had been attacked by damp and was swelling and flaking away in a great chancrous blister. The vinyl surface of the examination table was cracked, with black dirt in the cracks.

Margaret waited. The bed, the formaldehyde smell, made her think of the Conservatory clinic. They had sent her there to spend the night after her interrogation. The muscular woman had gone with her—had not, in fact, taken her eyes from her. Especially when she undressed for bed. The woman had watched her so carefully! “If there’s something you want to tell me, just tell me,” the woman had said. “I’m a married woman. I know all those things. I know how it is with men. Sometimes they’re just like animals, they can’t control themselves.” At the time, Margaret hadn’t had a clue what she was talking about.

Perhaps half an hour passed. There were voices in the corridor: men’s voices, laughing. The door opened. The doctor came in first, followed by Secretary Kang, Branch Secretary Guo from the International Opera Department, and an uncouth character with a mustache whom Margaret recognized as one of the drivers from the Conservatory car pool. The last two were grinning at some joke, but Secretary Kang, when his glance fell on her, was cold-faced, as he was when he addressed the students on matters of discipline.

“This is the student?” asked the doctor.

“Ri-i-ight.” Secretary Kang breathed out the syllable. Behind him, the driver was lighting a cigarette.

“Do you want to attend the examination?”

“Yes. Let’s see what the foreigner got for his dollars.”

Branch Secretary Guo giggled. They were all well in the room now; but nobody had closed the door. Three or four other men had edged their way in, and were standing around the doorway. Margaret thought one of them was another Branch Secretary from the Conservatory, one who hung around with Branch Secretary Guo. The others she thought were just hospital workers.

“It’s not the right way to do it,” complained the doctor, who seemed to resent the whole business. “I myself should do the examination, then submit a written report. That’s the right way.”

“Fuck you, fuck your mother, and fuck the right way,” remarked Secretary Kang in a flat, conversational tone of voice. “If you’ve got any issues, talk to your Secretary Niu upstairs. He knows me.” All the time he was looking at Margaret, still with that cold, dead look.

“Get your clothes off.”

So even was his gaze, so directionless his speech, that she did not grasp for a few seconds that this last remark was addressed to her.

“What’s the matter? You only undress for foreigners? Is that it? Your fellow-countrymen aren’t good enough for you?” The men behind him snickered. Margaret could not control her trembling. She thought she might pass out, and wished she could, but was too numb even for that. Reality—the room, the leering men, the doctor—seemed to recede. In a half-dream, she pulled at her clothes, laying them neatly at the far end of the table.

“Her skin’s so white!” said one of the men in the doorway.

“Ts!” said Secretary Kang. “If she were my daughter she’d have some bruises to show. I would have leathered the bitch. Teach her some morals.” He turned to spit on the floor. “All right, you. Get up on the table.”

Margaret lifted herself up to sit on the table. She did not quite make it at the first attempt from trembling so badly, and the doctor reached forward to steady her.

“Lie down, stupid. It’s not your fucking tonsils we’re going to examine.” Secretary Kang’s voice was full of contempt. The others all laughed.

Where the vinyl had cracked, the edges had curled up. They were sharp, and cut into her flesh. Margaret was horribly uncomfortable. She stared at the ceiling, forcing her mind blank.

“You don’t necessarily get a definite result from this examination,” said the doctor.

“What? What do you mean?” Secretary Kang seemed genuinely surprised.

“It’s a fact. Sometimes you can make a definite determination this way, sometimes you can make a definite determination that way. But often you can’t make any definite determination at all, either this way or that way.”

Secretary Kang stared at her a moment, then made a snorting sound. “That’s dogshit. Of course you can make a determination. Everybody knows these things.”

“No. Sometimes you just can’t tell.”

There was a moment of silence. Branch Secretary Guo broke it.

“In the old society they used a pigeon’s egg.”

“What? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A pigeon’s egg. That’s how they used to tell. They’d take a pigeon’s egg and try to push it into the hole. If it wouldn’t go in, the woman was a virgin.”

This little gem of social history seemed to stun everyone to silence. At last one of the men at the door spoke.

“What if the egg broke?”

“Well, then there’d be a fine mess, wouldn’t there?” said Branch Secretary Guo.

Everybody laughed, everybody except Secretary Kang. He glowered at his colleague.

“Have you got a pigeon’s egg with you?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Well then SHUT THE FUCK UP!” He turned and stepped to the table. He grabbed Margaret’s bare knees and pushed them apart. “We don’t need any fucking experts here! These are things everybody knows!”

He stabbed forward with a meaty thumb. Margaret could not help herself: she screamed. Then, at last, she passed out.

Chapter 24

An Offering Declined, an Offering Accepted

A Famous Boxer Displays True Compassion

All at once, in one of the ever-briefer lucid spells, Weilin heard the crash of waves. It was full daylight now. Ahead of him was land: tall black rocks standing straight up out of the water. The sea was breaking against the rocks. Despair gave way to indescribable joy. He was safe! He would live! Then, as he approached the rocks, he saw that they were everywhere jagged and vertical, and the force of the waves against them was tremendous. The waves were carrying him forward now, with very little effort on his part, and it seemed he would be dashed to death on the rocks.

Flailing furiously with his arms, he tried to work his way sideways, in the hope that if he passed the rocks there might be some more hospitable place to land. But Weilin’s strength had all gone. Having once broken the rhythm of his night-long swim, he could not re-coordinate his movements, nor his breathing. He took a mouthful of water and went under, the sea roaring in his ears. He came up choking and retching, but before he could draw breath was pulled down again. Under the water the crash of waves was easier to bear, a growling and hissing sound, remote and unthreatening. Dying is really not so bad, thought Weilin, and lost all consciousness.

If natural laws applied to human beings as remorselessly as they do to the inanimate world, Weilin’s story would have ended there. But Lord Yanwang, the Emperor of Hell, who alone decides these matters, was not yet ready for Liang Weilin. He accordingly caused to be sent an undertow and a great wave. The undertow pulled Weilin sideways away from the rocks, and the wave lifted him up and deposited him on a tiny beach hidden at one side of the rock mass. The beach was covered with large gray pebbles which dug and scratched at Weilin’s flesh, and this stimulus was sufficient to restore a glimmer of consciousness. Weilin coughed the water from his throat and lungs. Then, fearful now of the sea clawing and tugging at his bare legs and feet, he crawled up the beach, clutching at handfuls of the pebbles. Further up the pebbles yielded to rough sand. The sand was waterlogged, though he was well out of the waves now; and Weilin had just enough power of reason left to deduce that the tide must therefore be going out. He fell asleep at once, face down on the sand.

When at last he woke the light was all different. The sea was in the same position but the sand was dry, so Weilin supposed the tide to be coming in. He sat up and looked around. The beach was no more than fifteen feet wide, a narrow cove between two masses of rock. On the landward side was a cliff of red earth, covered further up with tufts of coarse yellow grass.

With the sea coming in and the razor-edged rocks all around, Weilin saw no choice but to climb the cliff. He started up. With bare feet it was difficult to get a purchase in the loose red soil, but eventually he reached the grass and could then pull himself up by grabbing at the tufts. Sometimes the tufts came loose in a shower of red grit and small white stones, but Weilin kept hold somehow, hugging the slope with his belly, spread-eagled for every square inch of friction to keep from sliding downwards, and after an eternity of struggling up in this way he felt the slope decreasing, leveling out onto a plateau of grass and boulders.

Weilin stood up and looked around. It was mid-day, to judge by the light. The rough grassy ground stretched away in front of him to some low hills. Behind him were the cliffs and the sea. It was a scene of perfect desolation.

Baffled, Weilin scanned around, shading his eyes. Grass, rocks, the sea—and far away, along the coast to his right, a filament of smoke rising into the sky! Weilin set off walking along the cliff-top. He felt weak: his arms, shoulders, chest and thighs all ached. Several times he stumbled and fell, and once he thought it might be nice to stay where he had fallen and take a nap. But he was very hungry, and curious besides. Where was he? Weilin supposed he must have washed up on the mainland somewhere between Shantou and Hong Kong. This was not, he thought, disastrous. He must at least be nearer to Hong Kong than he was before. Perhaps he could walk there, or walk to the border and swim over at night. At any rate, the first order of business was to get his bearings.

The smoke was from a fishing village, set down below him in a neat little bay. There was nobody to be seen. Weilin ran down the hillside to the village. A dog started barking, then another. Still no people. There were a dozen or so houses, set along a single unpaved street leading on to a jetty. Midway down the street was a temple. The smoke was coming from a house next to the temple. Weilin came at the village from the landward side and walked down the street toward the jetty. No-one, no-one. Three or four dogs were barking now.

He peered into the temple. Lighting up the gloom within was a beautiful, gaudy statue of Guanyin, surrounded by candles and imitation flowers. Above and behind her was a horizontal red board with gold lettering: QUEEN OF HEAVEN, BODHISATTVA OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN, GUARDIAN OF SEAFARERS. There were other boards set about, all vertical, asking Guanyin for luck, for prosperity, for safety on the sea. In front of her were some offerings: dried fish, flowers, an orange.

The sight of Guanyin was perplexing. If this was the mainland, why had the temple not been smashed up by Red Guards? On the other hand, where else could it be? Hong Kong was a great teeming city like Shanghai, not a fishing village.

Weilin stepped cautiously into the temple. He knew Guanyin, of course, but he had only heard her title as Goddess of Mercy. This stuff about Queen of Heaven and Guardian of Seafarers must be some local cult. Well, if guarding those at sea was really part of her domain, she must have been watching over him during his swim, and favored him with life. Under these circumstances, she surely would not object to his eating the offerings. Having thus satisfied his conscience, Weilin ate the dried fish. Then he pulled some rind off the orange with a fingernail and bit into the flesh. It was exquisitely, almost painfully, delicious. He looked up at the serene painted face above its necklace of green beads. Thank you, Guanyin. Thank you, he murmured.

Weilin was poised to take another bite at the orange when a voice spoke behind him. He jumped, and span round. At the door of the temple was an old woman. She was wearing loose black pajamas, with green plastic sandals on her feet. Her face was burned dark, and was a mass of wrinkles, and the very little hair she possessed was white, brushed straight back from her brow. She did not seem put out by Weilin’s presence and might even have been smiling; though since she had no teeth, it was difficult to tell.

The old woman croaked something Weilin couldn’t understand. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was hungry.” He thought he had better not mention anything about his swim, or the fishing boat, or Shantou, until he knew where he was.

The old woman cocked her head on one side and gave him a long string of prose. Weilin couldn’t understand a single word. It didn’t even sound like Cantonese, which Weilin had heard once or twice. Perhaps he had washed up in a National Minority area.

“My name is Liang Weilin,” he said. “I am really sorry about the food. It’s only that I was so hungry. I meant no disrespect to Guanyin.”

To illustrate his meaning, he put his hands together and made a bai to the goddess.

The old woman reached out a dark, bony arm and said a disyllable three or four times over. She turned and stepped away, looking behind her for Weilin to follow. Still clutching the orange, he followed. They went into the house next door. It was a rough affair made of wooden boards, the floor of beaten earth. The inside, however, was quite well-appointed. There was a comfortable-looking couch, an armchair, a cocktail cabinet, a colorized panorama of some city—presumably Hong Kong—on one wall. On top of the cabinet was a portable radio. This was the front room. Beyond this was a kitchen, with a brick stove and a pot steaming on the stove. Along the wall behind the stove were shelves stocked with jars and bottles. In one corner was a table with a meat locker. There was another table in the middle of the room. The crone took a folding stool and unfolded it, indicating for Weilin to sit down. Five minutes later Weilin was looking at a steaming bowl of rice gruel, fortified with fragments of fish, vegetable and ginger. The old woman stood on the other side of the table, watching, as he devoured it. When he was through Weilin took the liberty of finishing Guanyin’s orange. He felt wonderfully full, though still very tired.

The old lady chattered to him in her language as she cleared the table, putting the bowl into a tub with some other utensils, carefully placing the orange rinds on a shelf.

“Can you speak Mandarin at all?” asked Weilin.

The old woman squinted at him, not understanding a word.

“Can you read characters?” Weilin sketched the character for his surname, using a finger against his palm.

The old woman held up her own palms and shook them vigorously for negation. Illiterate.

Now she chittered away through a door in the far wall of the kitchen. It led to a small outhouse with a floor of square flat stones and a toilet cavity at one side. There was a huge earthenware jar full of water, a plastic bowl and some scoops, several rough pieces of rag on pegs. The old woman made washing motions and pointed to the jar, then left. Weilin relieved himself, washed the red soil from his body and toweled off. He remembered fouling himself on the boat, and examined his shorts warily, but their long immersion in the sea had laundered them most effectively. The shorts and T-shirt—the entirety of his current wardrobe—were dry now, but covered with the red dirt of the cliff. He brushed them off as well as he could, then put them on and went back to the kitchen.

The old woman led him through to the front room. Once there, she bade him lie on the couch. Then she made a pressing-down motion with her hands to mean that he should stay there, and mimicked sleep by closing her eyes and cocking her head on one side.

Weilin was only too willing. He got a comfortable position on the couch, looking out through the open front door of the house. The old woman left altogether. Weilin lay there, waiting for sleep. He could smell the sea, down at the end of the street, and hear the waves breaking. The only other sounds were seabirds calling, and a dog still barking several houses away. He felt sure that this was not the mainland now. He still didn’t see how it could be Hong Kong; but perhaps Hong Kong was a much bigger place than he had imagined—like a small country, with rural as well as built-up parts. That must be it. His mind at peace now, he fell asleep.


Weilin was woken by a man’s voice. The man was middle-aged and dark, with a crew-cut. He wore loose navy-blue shorts and a rough beige-colored T-shirt. His skin was burned dark brown like the old woman’s. He was addressing some sentences to Weilin in the impossible dialect.

“I’m sorry,” said Weilin. “I can’t understand. Can you write?” He made the writing motion on his palm.

The man nodded and went to the cabinet. He came back with a pencil and a very well-thumbed notebook. Most of the notebook was full of numbers, all western-style numerals. On a clean page the man wrote a few lines. He had trouble making the characters, and not all of them were right, but Weilin could see the sense clearly enough.

You have come from the mainland. You swam in the sea. We are fishing people. Guanyin protects us. To gain merit with Guanyin, my mother has welcomed you. But we are poor people. We cannot support you. You should go to Hong Kong.

Weilin’s heart leapt. The characters were clear: from the mainland. Somehow he had left the People’s Republic. He took the pencil.

How did you know I have come from the mainland?

The man nodded and wrote.

There are many, very many. They swim in the sea to come here. Some come alive, some dead. Those that live all go to Hong Kong.

There was no clock in the room, but Weilin judged it to be late afternoon by the light. Clearly, these people felt they had done their duty to Guanyin, and he should be on his way. “Where is Hong Kong?” he wrote. The man nodded. He led Weilin out into the street. A boat was moored at the jetty, a junk like the one Weilin had taken from Shantou. Some people were taking things from the boat. Thinking of that other boat, of what had happened, Weilin felt cold in his belly.

They walked up the street in the opposite direction, to where it ended. The man pointed over the nearby hills, making an “over” motion with his hand.

“How far?” asked Weilin. The man could not understand him, and they had left the notebook in the house. Weilin sketched the characters on his palm. He had to do it twice, the man struggling to make out the characters. At last he got it. On his own callused, mahogany palm he sketched: fifty li.

It seemed a long way to walk, but there was still plenty of light. Weilin put his hands together and made bai to the man, to show gratitude.

The man just nodded, then turned and started back to his house. Apart from the two of them, and the people on the jetty, the village still seemed deserted. Weilin set off toward the hills.

Beyond the hills were more hills, but beyond these was a road, a real paved road. There was no traffic on the road, and no human beings to be seen. The light was beginning to fail. Weilin thought he would walk on the road, as a road was bound to lead to a town sooner or later. But the road seemed to cut right across the direction the man had given him, so there was no particular reason to go either right or left. At random, Weilin turned right and began to walk. His feet were sore. When he looked at the soles of his feet, they were blistered and cut. He wished he had asked the fisherman for something to cover his feet.

He had walked less than a mile when, coming over a rise, he saw the cars. There were two cars, parked by the side of the road facing towards him. The one at the front was a big limousine not unlike the ones Weilin had occasionally seen in Flat All Around, used by high-level leaders when visiting the town; but this one was a silvery-gray in color, not shining black like those cars the leaders used. Behind the limousine was a type of vehicle Weilin had never seen before: a pale-blue van with windows all the way along the sides.

There were seven or eight people standing around on the road beside the vehicles. They were all young, and dressed in a very stylish way. The men all had long hair, so long it covered the tops of their ears. They wore flowered shirts open at the neck, or T-shirts in interesting colors. Their pants flared out below the shin. Their feet were in two-tone sneakers, or leather shoes with thick heels. From their hair and clothes they looked like westerners, though they were all clearly Chinese.

The two women had long sleek hair flowing down below their shoulders and the same flared style of pants as the men. One of the women was smoking a cigarette, holding it between the first two fingers of her right hand, her left hand cupping her right elbow—a posture that conveyed to Weilin incredible sophistication. This woman glanced at him as he approached. Apparently finding him to be without interest, she turned back to her companions.

Looking at them, and the vehicles, the last traces of doubt disappeared from Weilin’s heart. He was in, or somewhere near, Hong Kong. This was not the People’s Republic.

Now he saw that there was a problem with the pale blue van. It was tilted towards the roadway. The tilt was caused by its being propped up on one side at the rear, and this had been done so that one of the men could take the wheel off. He was taking it off as Weilin came up to them, kneeling on the grass beside the van. Another man, standing next to him, was giving advice or explanation. The others were standing around talking. Mostly just one was talking, and the others listening, or responding.

The man who was talking was about thirty, of average height for a Chinese, with a wiry but well-proportioned frame. His hair was long, like the others’, and framed a lean, intelligent face. He wore a burgundy-colored T-shirt, light fawn pants and gray-and-white sneakers. The man talked expressively, moving his hands. His feet, too: from time to time he would make small springing or skipping movements with his feet, apparently unconsciously, accompanied once with some very fast, flickering passes of the hands at someone who seemed to have contradicted him, in the manner of a traditional-style boxer. He was laughing as he did this, and everyone else was laughing with him.

The man stopped talking and turned to look as Weilin came up to them. He set his hands on his hips and leaned forward slightly, conveying suddenly to Weilin an overwhelming impression of contained strength—as if the concentrated life force of a hundred, a thousand ordinary men were coiled inside this compact, sinewy figure. From a mouth somewhat too small for his face, white teeth flashed, and he said something in a language Weilin felt sure was Cantonese.

“I’m sorry,” said Weilin, “I can only speak Mandarin.”

“No problem. I can talk Mandarin.”

Weilin could barely make out the words. The man’s accent was atrocious.

“I’m trying to get to Hong Kong,” he said. “Am I going in the right direction?”

“No. It’s that way.” The man pointed back the way Weilin had come, the way the vehicles were facing. “But it’s twenty miles, you know. Too far to walk.”

For “miles” he used yingli, meaning English miles. Weilin was not sure how long an English mile was—whether it was the same as a kilometer, or a Chinese mile, or what. Before he could pursue the matter, the wiry man spoke again.

“Why haven’t you got any shoes?” pointing at Weilin’s bare feet.

“I lost them,” said Weilin simply, unwilling to speak the truth to strangers.

“You’re a swimmer, aren’t you?” said another one of the party, a younger fellow with the same sneakers and flared pants as the wiry man, but much better Mandarin.

Still unwilling to reveal anything, Weilin pretended to misunderstand. “Yes,” he said, “I know how to swim.”

“No. I mean you’ve just swum from the mainland, haven’t you?”

“How did you know that?”

Everybody laughed. “Your clothes,” said a third man, a slightly older type, scholarly, wearing glasses. “And your bare feet. And you not being able to speak Cantonese.”

“Do a lot of people swim from the mainland, then?” asked Weilin.

The one with glasses nodded gravely. “Hundreds. Especially this last few months. Mostly kids like yourself. A lot of them drown. Some get eaten by sharks. Some are shot by the coast guard. You were lucky. I guess you came across Dapeng Bay.”

“I don’t know.” Weilin didn’t feel he wanted to talk about the fishing boat, the things that had happened. “I came ashore a mile or so … back there.” he indicated the way he had come.

The wiry man was listening to all this, flicking his eyes from one of them to the other in watchful concentration. As he watched he slowly, with infinite grace, took his hands from his hips and folded his arms across his chest. There was something fascinating in his every small movement. Weilin thought he would like very much to see this man run, jump, dance, box.

“How old are you?” asked one of the girls.

“Thirteen,” said Weilin, adding a few months.

“You’re a brave kid,” said the wiry man. Then he said something Weilin couldn’t get through the awful accent.

“I’m sorry?”

“He wants to know, were you persecuted?” interpreted the man with glasses.

“Yes. My father was killed. My mother went mad and died.”

They all nodded gravely. “It’s all right,” said the man with glasses. “We’re all Nationalists here. We all like Chiang Kaishek.” He turned to the others, and now they laughed. “Were your family Nationalists?”

Weilin was struck speechless. He had been brought up to think of Chiang Kaishek as the Prince of Demons, a pawn of foreign imperialism and collaborator with the Japanese mass murderers. At every point of his life heretofore he had lived in an environment where to say these words: We all like Chiang Kaishek, would be instantly and irrevocably to condemn oneself and one’s family to a lingering death. The very combination of the words was beyond imagining. The man with glasses might as well have said to him: We all like tearing our flesh with knives, or We all like to cook and eat small babies. The phrase “freedom of speech” is overworked in the West, is often the plaything of cynics and charlatans. Nonetheless, the concept it expresses is imbedded deep in our consciousness, and it, and all its connotations, are as much a part of our lives as our own blood. It is difficult to imagine for us, but to twelve-year-old Weilin, a child of despotism and fear, the notion of free speech was not thrilling, or exciting, or attractive, or inspiring. It was simply, blankly, inconceivable. We all like Chiang Kaishek—he trembled to hear the words! Was it some kind of trap?

“No, no,” he said at last. “Not at all.”

“Have you got relatives in Hong Kong?” asked the girl smoking the cigarette. In spite of her rather exotic appearance—as well as the cigarette and the long flowing hair, she was wearing a blouse far enough open to allow a glimpse of the cleft between her two breasts—Weilin thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The cleft between her breasts stirred something in him, made him think of Yuezhu at the pool, grabbing his arm.

“Yes. An outside uncle.”

“What’s his address?”

“Wodalao Road, number 433.”

“Wa!” said a boy. “Waterloo Heights! The guy must be rich!”

They all laughed good-naturedly.

“You’re lucky,” said the second girl. “Got a rich uncle.”

“But so far to walk,” said Weilin.

“You’re riding with us,” said the wiry man. His unmoving eyes, his stance, his voice, made this a fact of the world, known to everyone, as if it was just something Weilin had momentarily forgotten. The wiry man called back something in Cantonese to the men fixing the wheel. They responded; the wiry man cracked some kind of joke; everyone laughed; the man went to the limousine and opened one of the rear doors to let in the girls.

“Come on,” said the man with glasses. “You’ll ride in the bashi with us.”

The bashi was clearly the blue van. It had been righted now, and people were getting in. There were two rows of seats in the back. The man with glasses sat in the front row, Weilin behind him with a younger man carrying a camera. The van eased onto the road behind the limousine, and picked up speed.

Leaning on the back of his seat, the man with glasses introduced himself. His family name was Chen, his given name Houyi. He worked for a movie company. They all did.

“I guess you don’t know who you were talking to there,” said Mr Chen. “The one with really bad Mandarin.”

“No. Is he well-known?”

Mr Chen, and the man with the camera, and the other three in the van, all laughed.

“You bet,” said Mr Chen. “Everybody in Hong Kong knows him. I guess they don’t have Green Hornet in the mainland?”

Green Hornet? No, what is that?” Weilin thought it sounded like a kind of medicine, but didn’t want to risk being laughed at again by guessing out loud.

“An American TV show. Li Xiaolong—that’s the guy’s name—lives in America, in Hollywood. That’s why his Mandarin is so bad. He grew up in Hong Kong, then he went to America. Never learned Mandarin. We all speak it because the movies are done in Mandarin, for the Taiwan market. Well, Xiaolong was the star of this show, Green Hornet, on American TV. Everybody in Hong Kong likes to watch it. It’s made him a big star here. Now our boss—he’s in the limo with Xiaolong—is trying to persuade him to make a movie here in Hong Kong. A Chinese movie. Xiaolong’s got his mind fixed on making American movies in Hollywood. He’s not crazy about making a Chinese movie. But it’s tough for him in Hollywood. They look down on Chinese people in America, you know. They won’t give him a good part. So I think at last our boss will persuade him. That’s why we’re here. Our boss is building a new studio, way out here in the New Territories. He wanted Xiaolong to see it.”

“So this Li Xiaolong is a movie star?”

“Not yet,” said the man with the camera. “Only a TV star. But if he makes a movie, he’ll be a super-star. You should see him on the screen. Wa! You’ve never seen anyone move so fast. He’s a master of martial arts, you see. When they do a fight scene—oh, you can’t take your eyes off him! But he can act in the regular way, too. Especially comedy. He knows how to make people laugh. Oh, he’ll be a big star!”

“Those girls—are they, is one of them, I mean, his wife?”

Everyone laughed. “No,” said Mr Chen. “He has an American wife. She’s in Hollywood. They just had a baby last year, so she’s stayed there with the baby. Those girls are movie actresses. Playmates for our boss.” They all laughed again.

The driver of the bashi said something emphatic in Cantonese, to more laughter. A conversation started up in that language. Weilin couldn’t follow it at all, though he got the sense that it was considerably ribald, with a lot of laughing. He thought of the cleft between the girl’s breasts, and the odd feeling surged again, strange and pleasurable. It was dark now outside the windows of the van, and the driver put on his headlights.

“Do you have any plan for your future in Hong Kong? What’s your ambition?” asked Mr Chen, turning back to him.

Considering the matter, Weilin drew a blank. “My ambition is just to stay alive,” he said.

For some reason this seemed to embarrass Mr Chen. He turned away and was silent for a while. Then he got back into the Cantonese conversation with the others.


They came to a town, the streets all lit up. Mr Chen told him this town was named Xigong. There was some countryside, then another town named Jinglanshu. The next place was named Qide, and they all told him this was the airport for Hong Kong. Sure enough, Weilin could see, in the darkness beyond the windows, a great flat open place with parallel lines of light stretching away—and suddenly a plane! so close it made him flinch to see it coming down, followed after an unreasonable interval by its noise. The plane—the first one Weilin had ever seen up close—seemed quite impossible, so large, slow and silent swooping down like that ahead of its own sound.

After Qide there was no more countryside. The buildings were continuous. The buildings got higher and higher, the streets busier and busier. They made a stop, one of the girls getting out of the limo to buy something in a store. Although it was quite dark now, the stores were all lit up. Everything was lit up—Weilin had never seen so much electric light. This place was named Jiulongtang, said Mr Chen.

“We’re going out of our way,” he added. “It seems Xiaolong’s going to take you all the way down Waterloo Road.”

In fact they took him to the shopping district in Nathan Road. Mr Chen opened the side door of the bus to let him out. The wiry man, the one named Li Xiaolong, had got out of the limo and was standing on the sidewalk, one hand against the roof of the limo, but not really leaning. Weilin could see, now, that he was a martial-arts master. His posture, even in such an inconsequential situation, was taut and balanced. Weilin thought that if someone were to punch him it would have no effect at all, except perhaps to make him twang like a steel rod.

Li Xiaolong held out a hand to him, and Weilin shook hands. The hand he shook was cool and firm, giving no impression of great strength. “Wish you good luck in Hong Kong,” said Li Xiaolong.

“Thank you.”

“I think before you see your rich uncle, you’d better get some decent clothes. And some shoes, for Heaven’s sake.” He flashed a grin, and Weilin thought he would give anything at all if, in his next life, he could have this man as an elder brother. He was about to say: I haven’t got any money, but the other was holding out some bills to him, two bills marked with 20. “This store here …” he indicated the brightly-lit plate-glass windows, “… will have what you need. Waterloo Road is up there, first main road on the right. Waterloo Heights is a mile or so along. Take your bearings from here, don’t get lost.”

Weilin took the money. “How can I pay you back?” he asked. “You live in America, one of the men told me.”

Li Xiaolong shook his head. “If a stranger does you a good turn, the way to repay it is like this: when you yourself have the chance to do a good turn to a stranger, do it. In that way, good deeds spread all over the world, and don’t just stay a private thing between two people. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Good luck, mainland boy. Never stop fighting.” This last was in English so that Weilin could not understand it. Before he could ask the meaning, Li Xiaolong was back in the limo. The door closed; but through the window of the door he waved once to Xiaolong. The white of Xiaolong’s smile was brilliant through the tinted glass, before he turned away to someone inside the car. The limo and the van pulled away and left, Mr Chen waving to him from the van.

Weilin went into the store. As he pushed open the door he was at once enveloped by a billow of cool, dry air. It startled him: he had never encountered air-conditioning before. The store was the cleanest he had ever seen, with more different kinds of goods than he could have imagined being together in one place. Here were kitchen utensils, there musical instruments, across the aisle shoes, further along men’s suits. All was brightly lit and spotlessly clean. There were plenty of customers, strolling unconcerned among the plenty, stopping now and then to peer into the glass display cases or finger the clothes hanging on racks in the open, where anyone could just go up and touch them. The assistants were all dressed in smart navy-blue nylon tunics and white-soled shoes, just like those in the department stores on Nanjing Road in Shanghai. (Li Xiaolong, thinking to minimize the culture shock, had left him outside one of the stores run by the Beijing government, of which Hong Kong had several.)

Weilin caught people looking at him, at his bare feet. Two pretty teenage girls, arm in arm, pointed at him and giggled behind their hands. Weilin hastened to the shoe department, located an assistant who spoke good Mandarin, and purchased a pair of sneakers so white they looked luminous. Next he bought jeans, though there was no way to put them on there in the store. He carried the jeans out with him into the street.

The street was still busy, though it was now quite late. The stores were all open, their lights shining out on to the sidewalk. One nearby, a record store, was playing music into the street—a sweet love song in Mandarin. There were people everywhere, strolling and window-shopping. Signs hung out above the sidewalk in every color of the rainbow, advertising the stores and the businesses located on the floors above them. A food stall on a side street was selling tasty snacks cooked in red sauce—chicken feet, slices of squid, balls of fish paste. On the next corner was a news vendor with a sensational display of magazines and newspapers, the magazines all full of bright-colored pictures. A group of well-dressed youngsters passed by, laughing and chattering in Cantonese. One of the girls was spectacularly pretty, wearing tight blue jeans, a smart blouse, and a wrist bracelet in what looked like gold.

So open, so free! How could he ever belong to such a place? We all like Chiang Kaishek. Was everything allowed here? Could anything be done or said? If so, what prevented it all from falling into chaos? These mysteries swirled and throbbed in his brain as the traffic roared, the colors danced, and the people—the clean, smart, fearless people—drifted to and fro in their unimaginable freedom.

Chapter 25

Fourth Uncle Xu Holds a Full Month Party

Hong Kong—A Paradise for Shoppers!

Waterloo Heights was a cluster of apartment buildings at the top of a cliff which rose up, sheer blank rock, from one side of Waterloo Road. Weilin missed the access road, but found some steps cut up through the cliff. Number 433 was a large and very splendid-looking block, with many cars parked on the access road in front. Glass doors showed a bright white lobby. There were potted plants in the lobby and a small desk, with a man behind the desk reading a magazine.

Weilin pushed open one of the doors, releasing the same breath of cold, dry air as in the department store. The man at the desk looked up as Weilin came into the lobby. He was quite old, wearing an open-necked white shirt and smoking a cigarette.

“I’ve come to see Mr XuYiming,” said Weilin. “Can you tell me what room he’s in?”

Riding with the Mandarin-speakers from the movie studio, he had forgotten the language problem. It now asserted itself again. The doorman cocked his head to one side and offered a feeble, embarrassed smile. “Waan binwei?”

They found a pen and some paper, and Weilin wrote down Fourth Outside Uncle’s name. The doorman nodded. “Chaat Si.” On the paper he wrote: 7C. Then he indicated the elevator. Unfortunately Weilin had never before seen an elevator. He could tell that it was a sort of doorway, with a door in it; but the door had no handle, and when he pushed at it it was quite firmly locked.

The doorman laughed at him good-naturedly and showed him how to summon the elevator using the button on the doorpost. Presently the door hissed open of its own accord, and the doorman indicated that Weilin should step in. Inside was the same cool, dry air. On an inspiration Weilin pressed the button marked 7. The doors hissed closed, but nothing happened. Weilin started to feel scared, then the doors hissed open again. To his surprise, the view was quite different. This was not the lobby, but a pristine white corridor, the floor a lovely mosaic of red, white and yellow tiles. He stepped out into the corridor. A little way along was a door behind a heavy metal grille. 7B, said the door. At the far end of the corridor was 7C.

When the door opened to him Weilin heard the sound of many voices, laughing and talking, and music playing—traditional Chinese music—and a distant clattering and rattling which, before he had been in Hong Kong much longer, he would know to be the sound of mahjong tiles. There was nothing to be seen, though; only a small bare hallway with a potted plant on a stand, and the old woman who had opened the door. The old woman wore black pants, black white-soled shoes and a spotless white top. She peered at him interrogatively through the heavy grille. Weilin showed her the paper with Fourth Outside Uncle’s name written on it. The old woman glanced at the paper but shook her head. Another illiterate.

“Please help me,” said Weilin. “I must see Mr Xu Yiming.” To his astonishment the old woman replied at once, in Mandarin with a stiff south-western accent.

“Who are you? Mr. Xu is entertaining right now. It’s a manyue party for his grandson.” [Manyue is the celebration of a healthy baby, carried out one month after the birth.]

“I am the son of his first wife’s eldest sister’s third daughter. I have just escaped from the mainland. My mother and father are dead. I have no money, no place to live. Please ask him to help me.”

The woman stared at him expressionlessly for a few beats, then abruptly shut the door. Weilin waited. He had originally knocked on the door, reaching through the grille. Now he noticed a protuberance on one of the door-posts, which had what looked like a press-button set in it. In Hong Kong everything was done by buttons on doorposts, it seemed. After five minutes fruitless waiting, he pressed the button. A buzzing sound came from inside, very faintly. The old woman reappeared.

“Did you tell Mr Xu I’m here?”

“No. He’s entertaining his guests. He doesn’t want to be disturbed. Go away.”

Weilin’s heart sank. She didn’t even tell him? What had happened to Blood is Thicker than Water? He felt very exhausted, and close to tears.

“Please tell him. Oh, please! I’ll stay here until I see him. Tell him that. I’ll stay here all night, until I see him.”

The door closed. When it opened again, it was the old woman; but she stepped back at once for a large man of fifty or so, with a rough mottled face and graying hair slicked back with oil. He was wearing an old-style robe of some very fine material, with complicated frogged buttons, and was carrying a cigarette in a long ivory holder. He fixed a haughty stare on Weilin, but did not speak.

“Sir,” ventured Weilin. “I am looking for Mr Xu.”

“Yes, I know you are. And do you know what’s happening here?”

“Sir, I …”

“This is manyue for my daughter’s son. Do you think I want bad luck in my house on such a day? Do you think I want poverty and failure under my roof on such a day? Go away! Get out of here right now!”

“But my mother …”

“I don’t know anything about your mother. What, am I supposed to hand out favors to every urchin who knocks on my door claiming a blood relation? How many people am I supposed to support?”

“Sir, I have no …”

“The authorities in this city know me very well. I am in charge of all the concessions for U.S. Navy purchasing. The Governor, the Executive Council, they all know me. If you don’t get out of here I shall call the police. They’ll take care of you all right! You can be sure of that!”

So saying, Mr Xu slammed his door closed. Weilin stood there stunned for a moment. Then he made his way back to the elevator, down into the lobby. The doorman looked up from his magazine. He said something in Cantonese, and nodded pleasantly to Weilin.

Out in the street Weilin was overcome by despair. Blood is thicker than water, indeed! What could he do now? Here, on the height above Waterloo Road, he could see a large part of the city. There was an empty area, a park perhaps, in the foreground, and beyond that the lights of ten thousand buildings, glittering and sparkling as far as the eye could see. Far away was a mountain, with more buildings scattered up its face, to the very top. The din of traffic on Waterloo Road below him was continuous. Weilin examined the money in his pocket. Four dollar bills and some coins. The rest of the money Li Xiaolong had given him he had spent on his jeans and sneakers.

The great city stretched before him in all its vibrant glory; and he knew no-one, and could not understand the language of the place, and had less than five dollars to his name.


At a loss Weilin walked back the way he had come. He felt hungry, having eaten nothing since the rice gruel at the fishing village that morning. Well, a person must eat. He thought if he could eat something he would be able to think better, to find a solution to his situation.

Back at the corner where he had arrived, the shops were still lit up, the crowds of people floating to and fro. He turned left and walked south down Nathan Road. There was a food shop he thought looked cheap, with a sign saying RICE GRUEL AND NOODLES, and some pressed duck in the window. Weilin went in and sat at a table. The menu was on a board up on the wall: twenty different dishes with rice gruel and noodles. Some had names like Seven Treasures or Granny’s Delight, suggestive of southwestern delicacies familiar to him, some others were quite specific, and the prices were mostly less than three dollars. He ordered rice gruel with slices of fish, and a dish of vegetables.

“Can you speak Mandarin?” he asked the waiter.

“I can understand a little,” the man said, in a most atrocious accent.

“I need work. How can I find work?”

The waiter said something Weilin couldn’t get at all. Seeing he was not understood, he went to the front counter area and came back with a soiled, much-folded newspaper. He offered it to Weilin.

“See into the newspaper,” he said, ungrammatically.

Eating his rice gruel, Weilin scanned the jobs page. Easy! So many places wanted hands! Every advertisement carried a number, which Weilin assumed was a telephone number. He had never used a telephone himself, but he knew from movies that out here in the capitalist world people used telephones a lot. So! He would call these places the next day and get work. No problem! He had had no need of Fourth Outside Uncle after all! There remained only the question of where to sleep that night.

Further down Nathan Road on the right was a park. To Weilin’s astonishment—it was past eleven p.m. by the clock in the food shop—the gate was still open. People could be seen inside the park, though there was little lighting. Unlike a mainland park, there was no entrance booth and apparently no admission fee. Weilin walked in, up some steps. There were bushes and trees and many quiet dark places. Benches were set along the paths at intervals, but every one seemed to have a couple on it, sometimes two couples, whispering to each other or embracing. At last he found an empty bench in a far corner of the park, behind some sheds perhaps used for maintenance equipment. Weilin lay on his back on the bench. The bench was hard, but no harder than an uncovered kang and it was good to lie down. He indulged himself in some quiet anticipation of the morning, when he would find work and begin to live like a real westerner, prosperous and free. To Hell with Fourth Outside Uncle! He would survive in spite of him! The park was dark and quiet; but the city beyond still busy with the noise of traffic, and so well-lit that no stars were visible above him, only the glow of the city, reflecting back a dull orange.

When he woke the sky was light. The sound of the traffic seemed less. Weilin sat up, his hips and shoulders stiff and sore from the hard bench. He seemed to be alone in the park. After relieving his bladder in a bush he walked back the way he thought he had come. Everything was different in the daylight, though, and he came out into a different street. This was a back street, but it led to another much busier. On one side of this busy street was a large open area full of small food stands. For sixty cents Weilin purchased some batter-sticks and a glass of tea. This left him only coins, less than a dollar’s worth, but he thought this should be sufficient to make a few phone calls.

“Where is the post office?” he asked the man running the food stall. The man squinted incomprehension. Weilin borrowed a pen and wrote it. This got him a long explanation in Cantonese, which he couldn’t understand, and some hand gestures in the direction of the park, back to the south.

Weilin took the return trip through the park, which was still nearly deserted, as an opportunity to empty his bowels in the concealment of some bushes, cleaning himself with a superfluous page from the newspaper. Then he crossed the park to Nathan Road and headed south.

Nathan Road ended at the harbor. Now Weilin discovered that the mountain he had seen from Waterloo Heights was actually Hong Kong Island, on the other side of the harbor. He walked along the new road in the direction most of the traffic seemed to be going, and sure enough came to a post office. However, there were no telephones available inside. One of the clerks could speak Mandarin. He explained that the telephone service and post office were different things here, that local phone calls were free, and that any store would let him use a phone.

Back on Nathan Road Weilin went into the first store. It was a place selling cameras and electronic equipment. He asked the young man behind the counter if he could speak Mandarin.

“Sure. And English and Japanese.”

The young man was terrifically smart. His smooth round face was decorated with gold-rimmed glasses and tiny black whiskers at the corners of his mouth. His hair was oiled and trim. In the pocket of his wonderfully smooth white shirt glittered a gold pen.

“May I use your telephone?”

“I guess so. But don’t be long.”

Weilin had never made a phone call before, though he had seen it done in movies. He pulled out the newspaper and dialed the first number. He had a vague idea that the telephone ought to ring, but nothing happened. Behind him he heard the smart young man laughing.

“You’re a mainland boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I know, it’s not being able to speak Cantonese.”

“Well, yes, there’s that. Also, not knowing you have to lift up the handset before you dial the phone.”

Boiling with embarrassment, Weilin lifted the handset and dialed the number again. A voice said something in Cantonese.

“Can you speak Mandarin?” asked Weilin. Click. Buzz. He listened for a while, but there was only the buzz. Not sure what to do he dialed the number again, with precisely the same result.

“Excuse me,” he asked the very smart young man. “Would you please help me make a phone call? I can’t understand Cantonese.”

“Who are you trying to call?”

“I’m trying to find work.” Weilin showed the newspaper.

The very smart young man laughed. “You’re only a kid. Your voice hasn’t broken yet. They won’t employ you. Don’t you know about the new regulation?”

“Regulation? How should I know? I’ve only just arrived.”

The smart young man smiled. The smile was supercilious, the smile of one in possession of knowledge critical to the fate of another.

“The companies aren’t allowed to employ anyone under fifteen. Some busybodies in England made a big fuss about children working in the factories. They started a boycott. So now the companies won’t employ anyone under fifteen. You’re not fifteen. Anyone can see that.”

“Then how can I get work?”

“Oh, stick around a few weeks. The busybodies will find something else to get constipated about. It’ll all blow over, and the factories’ll be taking in anybody again. But right now they’re scared of the boycott, they won’t employ you.”

“But I have no money.”

The smart young man shrugged. He reached under the glass counter where he was standing, and began to rearrange the items on display there.

“Don’t you have any relatives in Hong Kong?”


“Well …,” fiddling with the display items, not looking up at all now, “… you’re in a pickle then, aren’t you? Hey, come on, get out of here. This is a smart store, not a place for kids.”


Weilin walked the streets all day in despair. That evening he went to the cheap food stalls where he had breakfasted, and bought a bowl of ungarnished rice gruel. His intention was to sleep in the park again; but he must have been lucky the first night, now the park was patrolled by policemen who roused him by shouting in his ears in Cantonese—“Hei san! Hei san!”—and laughed as he ran off in terror. He remembered the other park, up by Waterloo Heights, and trudged up there, only to discover that it was not a park at all but a barracks for the British army, fenced and guarded. He slept at last on some heaps of stinking hemp matting near the Jordan Road ferry, out of sight from the street.

A single breakfast batter-stick and glass of tea cleaned out his pocket. Numb with desperation, Weilin walked the streets of Kowloon. He knew he would have to steal, but had not the courage to do it alone. He wished Asan was with him. Asan would certainly know what to do in such a situation.

In the afternoon, exhausted, he went back to the park and dozed on the bench for an hour, but the police came again and moved him on. By the time it got dark hunger was beginning to dominate all other considerations. Weilin recalled the meal he had taken the first evening at the noodle parlor. He had paid after eating, he recalled.

He chose a similar food shop in the back streets between Nathan Road and the ferry. Not yet brazen in crime, he ordered a cheap dish—fish-egg balls with noodles and green vegetables—and ate it slowly, savoring every mouthful. Finished, he picked a moment when no-one was looking at him, and sauntered to the door. He was actually at the doorway before the waiter shouted to him. “Wai! WAI!” Weilin ran.

He had thought that in such a prosperous place they would not pursue him over a bowl of fish-egg and noodles, but this proved an error. Running down the street he heard the waiter running behind him, calling out something urgent and shrill in Cantonese. These were back streets and there were few people around. Some turned their heads to watch the chase, but nobody tried to stop him. Weilin’s impression was that he was gaining. Looking down a side street he saw the lights and bustle of Nathan Road. That was it—get into the crowds and just walk steadily. He took the next side street, ran to the end, turned into Nathan Road, and ran straight into two policemen!

They were walking side-by-side, two Chinese officers: khaki shorts and shirts, black caps and long black socks. Appearing suddenly in front of them from the side street, Weilin caught them off guard. They stopped dead, staring at him. Close behind, a shout from the waiter. Trapped, Weilin vaulted the metal railing that separated sidewalk from roadway. This was pure instinct; he was not even looking. There was a horrible squealing of brakes, followed by a thumping and crunching sound. A taxi, trying to avoid him, had skidded, and two vehicles behind had hit it. In terror, Weilin jumped back to the barrier and one of the policemen, animate now, grabbed his arm and held it.

Chapter 26

When Constabulary Duty’s To Be Done

The Excellent and Manly Game of Rugby Football

Inside the police station was a high counter made of lacquered wood. Behind the counter was a policeman. He was Chinese and did not look very old at all. His face was very southern, almost Vietnamese—bony and angular, with a little full-lipped mouth and slightly prominent eyes. His adam's apple was prominent, too, and so were his elbows, as revealed by the short sleeves of his khaki uniform shirt. His manner was very cold. Weilin was afraid of him at once. When they came in he had been writing something in a huge bound ledger-style book. The escorts told him a story in Cantonese. Listening to the story, he just went on writing.

“Giu ma’ye?” The officer, still writing, did not even look at him. Weilin, who could not understand the question, did not in fact know he was being addressed until one of the escorting officers kicked him.

“I’m sorry,” said Weilin in Mandarin. “I can’t understand Cantonese.”

Now the officer glanced at him, just for an instant. Without changing expression in any other way at all, he restated his query in thick Mandarin.

“I asked your name.”

“My name is Liang Weilin.”

“Mainland boy.” (With no terminating particle or elevation of pitch to make it a question.)




The officer favored him with a brief exophthalmic stare. The full, feminine mouth twitched in what might or might not have been a smile.

“Well, we’ll soon have you back on the commune.”

They were going to send him back! This thought had not occurred to Weilin at all until that moment. He thought of Flat All Around, the listless poverty of the production brigade, the terrible fierce winters.

“Please don’t send me back. I’m not a criminal. It’s only that I was hungry.”

The officer at the high counter had resumed writing in his ledger. “If you don’t want trouble, don’t break the law. You have family in Hong Kong?”

“No.” Weilin wanted to add: I have no family at all, anywhere. But at this moment a door opened in the passage that led back behind the counter to the right room and a foreigner emerged from the passage. He was tall, neither young nor old, and wore policeman’s uniform, except that he had long trousers. The other officers were all in the shorts and long socks. Across his top lip was a thin black mustache. The Chinese officers came to attention as the foreigner walked in—even the desk officer.

The foreigner handed a long manila folder up to the desk officer and said something to him in Cantonese. Then he turned to go out into the street. But when he saw Weilin he stopped abruptly. After looking at Weilin in stillness for a moment he asked a question in Cantonese. The desk officer told him the story.

“Swimmer, hm?” The foreigner’s Mandarin was very good, like one of the radio news readers from Beijing.


“Deep Water Bay?”

“I’m not sure.”

“How long did it take you?”

“I don’t know. Seemed like all night.”

“No family in the Colony, hm?”

“No, comrade. No family at all, anywhere.”

Comrade had slipped out, the natural reaction to a uniform. The Chinese officers all laughed. The foreigner smiled broadly, his face crinkling up in a rather pleasant way. Oddly enough, Weilin felt less afraid of the foreigner than of the Chinese officers. He thought the foreigner might be a kind man.

The foreigner seemed to consider for a minute, then addressed three or four sentences to the desk officer and walked out into the street. The desk officer made a jerking motion with his head, and Weilin’s escort, grabbing him by the elbows, hustled him down the passage the foreigner had emerged from.

At the end of the passage were concrete steps leading down. The steps led straight to a short corridor with a wooden door on each side and a metal-barred door at the end. There was a mingled smell of food, excrement and disinfectant, and a whining, rattling mechanical noise. Both the smell and the noise increased in strength as they approached the end. One of the officers unlocked the metal-barred door and went in with Weilin. It was a simple square room, fifteen feet on a side. There was an aisle down the middle of the room. On each side were metal bars enclosing four cells, two on each side of the aisle. Only one cell was occupied. The escort opened the door of the cell diagonally opposite the one occupied, and pushed Weilin inside. Then he locked the door and left. The other officer had been waiting at the entrance to the room. He too left, locking the entrance door behind him.

The cell contained a wood-frame bed with straps of some rough cloth to sleep on and a quilt that looked none too clean. Also a bucket made of galvanized metal with a half-inch of lurid green disinfectant in the bottom. Weilin lay down on the bed, pushing the quilt down to the bottom. The room was warm, though not as warm as it should have been, windowless and underground. The difference was accounted for by a ventilation system, behind a large square grille on the back wall opposite the entrance. This was the rattling noise heard from the passage outside. Though not particularly loud it had a penetrating, irregular quality that made it hard to ignore. Weilin thought he would not be able to sleep.

Now he heard the other occupant of the room calling to him in Cantonese. “Wai, wai.” He got up and went to the bars separating his cell from the adjacent one. The other person was not in that cell, but in the one across the aisle from it. However, Weilin could see him quite clearly. He was short and very dark-skinned, dressed in dirty pants and a shirt, both of which seemed too big for him. Some of the darkness of his skin might also have been due to dirt, Weilin thought.

“Can you speak Mandarin?”

“I can.” The fellow’s Mandarin was thicker than the desk officer’s by a whole order of magnitude: ngoi mcan. “What are you in for?”

“Stealing. How about you?”

“Nothing! That son of a bitch! My neighbor, fuck his mother, called the police. Said my apartment was full of stolen jewelry.”

“Really? Was it true?”

“Of course not! He just wanted to make a nuisance of himself, because my boy beat up his boy. That fucking cunt! So of course the police came. When they saw there wasn’t any jewelry they asked me for money. I only had twenty and they said it wasn’t enough. So here I am, until my old woman comes up with a hundred. Fuck their mothers! Uh-oh, watch your ass.”

This last injunction referred to the sound of steps in the passage outside. An officer appeared and unlocked the entrance door. In came a very old man in a loose old-fashioned southern-style outfit: frogged jacket with a detachable white collar, baggy pants and black slippers, skull cap. The old fellow was carrying some metal food containers. This time the officer followed him in. Kneeling, he unlocked a wooden hatch let into the bars of Weilin’s cell. The old man passed in the food containers. Then he and the officer left.

The other prisoner shouted at them, apparently in indignation. It did seem odd (Weilin thought) that they would feed only him and not the other. But he was not about to refuse food at this point. One of the containers held steamed rice, another some boiled green vegetables; and there was a lidded cup of weak green tea. Weilin ate the lot without pausing, paying no attention to the long tirade in Cantonese coming from the other cell. When he had finished he lay on the bed and at once, miraculously, fell asleep, and in a sweet, sweet dream played with Han Yuezhu in the little dell by the Chengdu Road.

“Hei san! Hei san!” The policeman’s harsh shout, right by his bed, jolted Weilin awake into cold fluorescent light. Blinking, he allowed himself to be led back upstairs, and pushed into a room leading off the upstairs passage behind the counter. This room had a window with venetian blinds and an air conditioner, not currently active. It also had a book-case loaded with imposing dark-blue tomes, and some filing cabinets, and a desk. Behind the desk sat the foreign police officer Weilin had seen earlier.

“Did they feed you?” asked the officer in Mandarin.



The officer had his elbows on the desk. He was twiddling a pencil in his hands, but did not seem inclined to write anything.

“No family in Hong Kong, hm?”

“No. No family anywhere.”

“Everybody has some family.”

“No. My parents are both dead. I’m an only child. My father’s relatives … I don’t know. We never had much to do with them. Anyway, they are in the mainland. My mother had a lot of relatives, but all in the mainland, in the far northeast.” Weilin thought it prudent not to mention Fourth Outside Uncle.

The foreigner digested this for a while. Then: “How old are you?”

Weilin was going to lie, saying fifteen, but he was a poor liar and telegraphed his intention, dropping his head.

“Really. Tell me the truth. Don’t be afraid.”

“Twelve. But almost thirteen.”

The foreign policeman nodded, then went into reflection, twirling his pencil.

“I was only hungry. I’m not a criminal.” Weilin thought he should make a case as best he could.

“I can see that,” said the foreigner quietly. At once Weilin knew this was a friend. Almost involuntarily, and feeling himself close to tears, he said: “Please help me.”

“Well, somebody’s got to help you, that’s for sure.”

Suddenly decided, the foreigner took a pad from one of the desk drawers and began writing. He wrote three or four lines, then leaned to one side and fished in a trouser pocket, pulling out some money.

“Here, take this.” He handed Weilin a bundle of ones. “Get a taxi. Ask him to take you to this address. Should be about three dollars. When you get there, walk around for a while. Stay on the street where I can see you. But try not to look like a burglar. Don’t hurry. I’ll be an hour behind you, at least.”

The foreigner came out from his desk and opened the door. He took a step into the passage and shouted something in Cantonese. Someone shouted a response. He stepped back into the room.

“Go on, now.”

Utterly baffled, Weilin stepped out. The desk clerk glanced at him as he came round the corner, then turned back to his ledger. A large clock on the wall registered precisely twelve midnight.

In the street, Weilin examined his wealth. Nine dollars! The man said it would only be three for the taxi. The streets were still very lively. Weilin walked at random for a while, coming eventually to a stretch of open-air food stalls. He treated himself to a dollar bowl of beef tripe in soup and some chicken feet. Thus refreshed he set off through the back streets again, coming out at last on the big main road. Here he hailed a cab, feeling very grand.


The address the foreign policeman had given him was in a pleasant, quiet area, away from the main part of the city. The houses were low, two or three stories, with cars parked outside, or sometimes in forecourts off the street. There was little traffic and no pedestrians at all. The main sound was the hum of air conditioners, drowned at long intervals by the thunder of a plane going in to the airport at Qide, which must have been somewhere close by.

Try not to look like a burglar. Weilin indeed felt conspicuous on the empty sidewalks. He tried to walk briskly, as if to some purpose, for the benefit of the occasional passing car, but did not dare venture too far from the place he’d been left. To the corner; then another block; half of another, to where the road began to turn; then back, and a block in the other direction. He did not feel tired at all now. His belly was agreeably full, and the nighttime air merely warm, not oppressive.

A car passed him, and turned into a driveway a few yards ahead. It was still for a while as Weilin approached. Then the car’s lights all went out together and a figure appeared alongside. It was the foreign policeman. He made a beckoning motion with his arm, then turned toward the house. Weilin went over. The policeman had opened the door. Making a brief movement of his head to indicate that Weilin should follow, he went in.

Inside was just a stairway. At the top of the stairs, another locked door. This time the policeman stood aside to let Weilin go in first.

The apartment seemed to Weilin’s eyes very large. It had carpet going all the way to the walls on every side. There were several pieces of furniture, none of which seemed to match any of the others. The most striking object was a circular target affair a foot and a half across hanging on one wall. The target was divided into twenty sectors, numbered apparently at random. The windows of the room had venetian blinds, like the policeman’s office. The room seemed hot and stuffy. It smelt faintly of food.

“Let’s get some air,” said the policeman. He walked over to the window and switched on an air conditioner. Then he went through a door into an adjacent room, and Weilin heard another air conditioner go on.

“Excuse me,” said Weilin, standing in the middle of the large room. “How is it you speak such good Mandarin?”

“It’s my job,” said the policeman. He stood opposite Weilin, arms akimbo, smiling slightly. Weilin felt the warmth again—but something else, too, something he could not place. “When you join the Hong Kong police” (the foreigner continued) “they give you a crash course in Cantonese. Spoken and written, both. Any time you hear a foreign devil speaking Cantonese, it’s either a policeman or a priest. The priests are better, generally speaking. Especially the Jesuits.” He turned away, to a door on the other side.

“But how about Mandarin?” Weilin persisted. “Isn’t Cantonese enough? I mean, everyone in Hong Kong seems to speak it. They don’t seem to bother much with Mandarin.”

“Well … wait a minute.” He went in to the other room. Weilin could see, as the light went on, it was a bathroom. Shining white tile, a mirror. As the light went on it started something else, a fan or ventilator. The policeman came out again. “Not quite true. The movies are all in Mandarin. So are the pop songs. And the written characters are the same, more or less. So, having nothing much better to do, I thought I’d learn some real Chinese.”

He was looking at Weilin again; same way, but more now of the other component, the one Weilin couldn’t place.

“First thing you should do is take a shower,” said the policeman. He nodded to the bathroom.

Weilin went in and closed the door. He took off his clothes and put them on a chair which seemed to be there for that purpose. The mirror went floor to ceiling, on the wall opposite the tub. Weilin stood in front of the mirror. He had never seen himself full length in a mirror before. He thought he was too thin, and his skin too dark. The policeman was undoubtedly right though: he needed a shower. Seeing his small, dark body against all the spotless white tile and porcelain he suddenly felt very grimy.

The shower had a large number of controls, all in shiny new metal. However, they only made water come from a faucet in the side of the tub. Nothing came out of the shower head. Weilin fiddled for a while, trying to get it right. Hot water; cold water; but only from the faucet.

He heard the door open. Acting on pure instinct he grabbed one of the towels on the floor by the tub and pulled it round him. The policeman did not come in, however, only called out: “Can you manage the shower all right?”

“I … it’s … No. The handles …”

Now the policeman came in. He showed Weilin a button that seemed not to have been there before, that routed water from the shower to the faucet. Then he got the shower going and went out. Weilin took off the towel and stepped into the shower. It was wonderfully refreshing. He let the water run over him for a while. Then he washed his hands and face, his arms and trunk, his feet, legs and bottom. He was rinsing off when he heard the policeman in the room.

“Everything all right?” called out the policeman from the other side of the shower curtain.

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine.”

“Good,” said the policeman. He pulled back the shower curtain and stepped into the tub. He was entirely naked.

Weilin was paralyzed with embarrassment. He did not know what to say. He had stepped back from the shower nozzle when the other came in. Now he stood and watched as the policeman positioned himself under the nozzle. The policeman himself was quite nonchalant, rubbing the water into his hair. He seemed much larger without his clothes. He had a good figure, smooth muscle on a big frame, though with a little starter tube of fat at the waist; and of course he was as hairy as an ape—thick black hair on his chest and limbs, with patches of it on his back. Ashamed of himself for looking, Weilin could not help but notice that his jiba was different from a Chinese person’s: it ended in a sort of cap or helmet.

“Wash my back for me.” The policeman was offering him the soap. Weilin could not look at his face for embarrassment. He took the soap. The policeman turned away, and Weilin soaped his back. The back was broad and meaty, with irregular patches of black hair. The skin itself was very white. Seeing his own skin against the policeman’s, Weilin again felt ashamed of his own darkness. We call ourselves the yellow race, he thought, but really we’re not yellow, we’re brown. Some darker than others, of course. Han Yuezhu was lighter than many fellow-countrymen, though certainly not as pale as the policeman.

“Now it’s your turn. Come on.”

There was no way to change places without brushing against each other. Making the maneuver, eyes lowered from embarrassment, Weilin noticed that the policeman’s jiba seemed much larger. Instead of hanging down flaccid it was sticking out, then drooping off on a curve like the piece of ivory in the ear lobe of the old Minority woman at the swimming pool.

Weilin put his hands up against the wall and let the policeman wash his back. It seemed to go on for a very long time, the hands moving slowly over his back and shoulders, under his arms, down his sides and hips. He wondered vaguely why the policeman was washing his hips, which he could perfectly well do himself, and had in fact already done; but by now he had entered into a mood of resignation. He knew now that something was going to happen. He had no idea what; but it would probably not be worse than sleeping in the park and going hungry, and he felt sure that what he had seen in the policeman’s face when it crinkled up that time was genuine kindness.

The policeman angled the shower head to rinse him down. Then abruptly, his voice somewhat hoarse: “All right. We’re all clean. Let’s get out.”

Weilin needed no encouragement. He stepped out and picked up the towel from the floor where he had dropped it. Thankfully, he wrapped it round himself. The apartment seemed very little cooler, in spite of the two air conditioners. The policeman had got out too, and taken a towel from a rack on the wall.

“Come on,” he said, turning to the door. “We’ll play a game.”

Weilin was relieved. He thought a game would lighten the embarrassment. “What game?” he asked, following the policeman into the main room. The policeman had gone into the other room, the one with the second air conditioner.

“The glorious game of rugger,” he called out. Weilin could hear drawers being opened and closed. He stood there in his towel in the main room. Rugger? It was a foreign word, one he had never heard before.

“I don’t know this word.”

“Glorious game. Glorious.” The policeman appeared from the other room. He was dressed in a white open-collar sport shirt with long sleeves, dark blue shorts, and long white socks with red hoops round the top. He was carrying some clothes.

“Put these on. Then we’ll play a game.”

He went back into the bedroom. Weilin toweled himself off and put on the clothes. It was the same outfit the policeman had, only smaller in size and with a shirt hooped in blue and yellow instead of plain white. As he was pulling on the socks the policeman emerged carrying a large leather ball. It was a very odd ball: not round, but elongated. The policeman was smiling now, his face crinkled in that way that made it look kind.

“All right. Let’s play.”

“How do we play?”

“You try to get the ball from me, then I try to get it from you.”

And so they played. Weilin was hesitant at first, advancing slowly on the policeman, not at all sure what was expected of him. The policeman feinted away, and dodged behind a chair.

“Come on! Come on! China versus Scotland! Where’s your sense of national pride? Ha ha ha!”

Getting into the spirit of the thing, Weilin chased him round the apartment, cornering him at last in the second room, which contained a large double bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. The policeman was trapped between the wardrobe and the bed. Faced with the necessity to attack him, Weilin hesitated. The policeman seemed very large and invulnerable. He was laughing, though, very freely and naturally, and, between laughter, shouting out something in his own language: “Rugger, rugger, sounds like bugger! Ha ha ha! Rugger, sounds like bugger, ha ha ha ha ha!” Which of course Weilin could not understand at all. Gathering his courage he grabbed for the ball and held onto it. They fell sideways onto the bed, rolling over and over, the policeman laughing all the time. Weilin started laughing too. He could not help it. He got his arms between ball and policeman, squirmed out from under the man’s weight, and took off into the main room.

This went on for fifteen minutes or so, Weilin now enjoying himself unselfconsciously. The policeman was heavy and clumsy, and delivered a few bruises, but it was clear he meant no harm. At last both players were out of breath. Also sweating: the air conditioners had not had time to do a thorough job yet, and the apartment was still warm. They ended on the floor in the main room, Weilin clutching the ball to himself, the policeman too winded to grab for it, both of them laughing freely.

“Good game, eh?” said the policeman when he had some breath.

“Yes. A lot of fun.”

“It’s late, though. We’d best go to bed.”

The policeman got up and went into the bedroom. Weilin lay on the floor, still clutching the rugger ball. He knew now that the apartment had only one bed. There was a couch in the main room, and he wondered if he was to sleep on the couch.

“Come on,” called the policeman. Weilin got up and went into the bedroom. The policeman was standing there, naked. The bedclothes had been pulled down, some towels laid out on the bed. Suddenly Weilin felt scared, though he did not know why. The policeman saw it. He smiled, the crinkly, kindly smile.

“It’s all right. Nothing to be afraid of.”

Reaching out, he took the ball Weilin was still holding. He walked round the bed and set the ball on top of the wardrobe. Then he came back, right up to Weilin, and smiled again.

“Lie down on the bed.”

Weilin could think of nothing to do but obey. He sat on the edge of the bed, then turned to lie on the big towel spread on this side of the bed. The policeman walked round to the other side and climbed up to lie on the other towel.

“It’s all right. Just another game.”

What followed did not surprise Weilin as much as—thinking it over, as he did many times in the years that followed—perhaps it should have done: except that, at the moment when matters were obviously approaching some sort of conclusion, the policeman threw back his head and roared out a great rough oath in his own language.


Chapter 27

Holly and Ivy Prompt Certain Significant Changes

Christmas Feasting Recalls a King of Ancient Times

The policeman’s name was Gordon. Weilin’s first instinct about him had been correct: he was a kind man.

Instinct notwithstanding, Weilin fully expected that first morning to be put back on the street. In fact he awoke to an empty apartment. On a small table in the kitchen was a set of keys, two hundred Hong Kong dollars in cash, and instructions for finding a breakfast, written in good Chinese characters, neat and square, if somewhat ill-proportioned and childish-looking. After checking carefully to make sure the keys did indeed open the apartment and house doors, Weilin went out into the city in his new clothes, the ones he had bought to visit Fourth Uncle in, but now with a pocket full of money and a spirit full of confidence, luxuriating in his new-found security, however temporary it might prove. In fact it proved not temporary at all, as earthly things go: he lived with Gordon three years.

Gordon’s work was organized in shifts, and he took turns at all shifts. When Weilin first arrived he was doing late night shift. Two weeks later he changed to daytime shift; then after several weeks more, to early morning shift. At first he did not spend much time at home, when not working or sleeping. There was a club, some kind of policemen’s club, which occupied most of his spare time. Weilin never went to the club, and never got a very clear idea of what went on there. Drinking, certainly; when working daytime or early morning shift Gordon came home smelling strongly of beer, though never actually drunk. Some small sports, too. There was one called darts, which Gordon occasionally practiced at home, using the peculiar target in the main room, standing several feet away and hurling little fletched missiles at it. Another was cribbage, a card game Gordon eventually taught to Weilin for their own pleasure, and which Weilin at once recognized as a grander, full-scale version of kebizhi.

Such little time as he spent at home those first weeks Gordon occupied with cooking, listening to western-style opera, reading or—very occasionally—watching TV. He was a skillful and ingenious cook, when he bothered, and could make both western and Chinese dishes with equal facility. The opera was on a large collection of long-playing discs in a cabinet beneath the hi-fi. There were certain parts Gordon liked to listen to very intently, during which he would allow no interruption, nor any noise or activity of any kind. During the other, less critical, parts he would wave his arms in time with the music, or sing along in a not unpleasing bass baritone, or explain the story to Weilin. For TV he seemed to have little inclination. The only time he watched with enthusiasm was for something called Calcutta Cup, a game—a real game—of rugger that was played every spring in London.

Gordon seemed to have an endless supply of money. The Hong Kong dollar was, at this point in the Colony’s history, trading at twenty U.S. cents. One of these dollars would get you a simple meal at a street stall, ten a shirt, twenty a hand-made shirt, a hundred a custom business suit. The ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island cost a quarter. For five dollars you could ride a taxi all the way out into the New Territories. Gordon seemed never to have less than five hundred on him, always stuffed carelessly into his trouser pocket. Four or five days after leaving the two hundred out, he left another four hundred in the same manner. Weilin, who had not yet spent a quarter of the previous amount, felt it would not be right to go on taking such large sums from him, and said so frankly that evening. Gordon said he would put money in a certain jug in one of the kitchen cabinets. Weilin could use it as he pleased, and if the pot got empty Gordon would refill it. So they went on like that; but there was never less than two hundred in the jug.

It occurred to Weilin, of course, that he was being paid for services rendered, and that this was, to put the kindest possible interpretation on it, ignoble. This irked him for a while—for some weeks. Of course, such a thing could be excused by the press of necessity, but he resolved to put his life on a proper, moral footing as soon as he saw a way to do so. Gradually this resolution dimmed. Gordon’s kindness and consideration, the indirect method of emolument, and the ease and comfort of his new life made Weilin feel that, after all, he could have done much worse.

Gordon’s games were by no means restricted to two players. On their third night together, which was a Saturday, Gordon came home very late, bringing with him another boy. The boy was Cantonese, two or three years older than Weilin and rather coarse-looking. They all got undressed and showered together, then played the rugger game, for which purpose Gordon seemed to have an inexhaustible inventory of shorts, shirts and socks in different sizes. During the game it became clear to Weilin that the boy was taking every opportunity to embrace him, be on top of him and slip his large, rough hands into Weilin’s shorts. After rugger Gordon’s idea was that they would all play the other game together. But Weilin had been disgusted and intimidated somehow by the boy—by his rough groping, by his staring, which had something slightly malevolent to it, like a small but very hungry carnivore, by his bad breath and his guttural Cantonese. Weilin began to cry. This made the boy laugh. The boy’s laughing, in turn, made Gordon angry. He shouted at the boy in Cantonese. There was an argument. The boy got dressed and left, after another argument about the handful of bank notes Gordon thrust at him, and Gordon sent Weilin to bed, switched off the light and let him fall asleep alone.

Nothing happened for two days after this. Then there was a precise repeat of the first night. Then nothing for three days. Weilin lapsed into insecurity. He felt sure that Gordon had had enough of him and that he would soon be sleeping in the park again. And then, what? It would be winter, and too cold to sleep in the park.

The next day, the Saturday following the incident with the boy, Gordon came home very late again. This time he had two girls with him. The girls were small and brown, black-haired but not Chinese. They were very merry, laughing and giggling. Gordon introduced them as Holly and Ivy, which names Weilin heard as Ali and Afei. In Mandarin li means pretty, fei means fat, and a- is a general diminutive prefix for personal names; and since Holly was slightly the prettier of the two and Ivy slightly the plumper, the names seemed to Weilin entirely apt. They were filipinas, said Gordon, but Weilin had no idea what this meant and thought it might be impolite to ask.

Holly and Ivy were fun. First they inspected the apartment, paying particular attention to the kitchen. They tried the burners on the range, the extractor fan, the blender. They opened the washing machine and turned the drum. They examined the contents of the refrigerator and freezer, giggling and pointing at bottles of ketchup, wedges of cheese, trays of lettuce. They fiddled with the stereo, hi-fi and air conditioners, gibbering all the time to each other in some language not Cantonese. At last, satisfied with the amenities, they shut themselves in the bathroom, emerging twenty minutes later stark naked.

They put on a show in the bedroom, writhing around together on the bed, kissing and fondling each other, interlinking their legs so that their private parts were touching then rubbing each other by making jigging motions with their bottoms. Weilin watched all this with interest, surprised to see that even women with women could do tongfang, in spite of lacking what had heretofore seemed an essential accessory.

Group activities followed, everybody naked, Gordon and Weilin sitting on the edge of the bed with the girls kneeling in front of them. Weilin was paired with Holly, the prettier one. He understood by now what it was that he could not do, not yet being old enough. He dearly wanted to do it, to be part of the fun; but for all Holly’s efforts still could not. He lay back on the bed at last; but instead of sinking into gloom, now he disconnected somehow from the proceedings. His mind, after some aimless wandering, settled on an image of little Han Yuezhu, in the bright flowered bathing costume they had handed out the day the foreigners came to South Lake Park. The old anger came up, and he was beating her with a bamboo wand. She screamed and screamed. The swimming outfit was shredded and she was bleeding. The blood flew from her as he beat her, tearing her pale smooth flesh, great blobs of blood flying through the air.

Suddenly Weilin felt a terrific electrical charge running through him, starting at the point where Holly was still toiling away and running very fast out along the qi channels to every part of his body, to the ends of his fingers and the tips of his toes—the most wonderful, thrilling feeling. Something was swelling, bursting, and then there was a rapturous relief. Holly was shouting something, shouting and laughing. Ivy chimed in, and Gordon uttered something in his own language that sent the girls into hysterics.

They were all very happy after that. Gordon went to the kitchen and came back with a very grand-looking bottle of wine, the top all wrapped in glittering silver foil. Under the foil was a fat cork with wire round it. When Gordon pulled off the wire the cork flew out with a bang, making Weilin jump. Some white froth spilled out of the bottle, falling on the carpet. Gordon made a remark about this and the girls collapsed in mirth again. They drank the wine from odd-shaped glasses, shallow on a long glass stem. The wine was carbonated to the furthest degree. To Weilin it seemed to consist of nothing but its violent effervescence.

Weilin felt no more insecurity after that. Everything with Gordon was very easy now. Sometimes they played the rugger game, sometimes they did not. Sometimes they just played it, without anything following. At weekends Gordon would bring girls home, most often just one girl, and they would all do tongfang together. He never again brought a boy home. Weilin always hoped that Holly and Ivy would make another appearance, but they never did. He had liked them, and thought them real fun. Gordon said they were dancers from the Philippines (showing the country to Weilin on an atlas), touring around southeast Asia—a few days here, a few days there. Impossible to locate them again, unless by chance. These weekend participants were, in fact, a feature of the first few months only. At first it was every weekend; then twice a month, then once, and at last it was just Gordon and Weilin and the rugger ball.


As time went on, in fact, Weilin saw a slow change in Gordon. As well as the falling off in weekend visitors, there was just more of Gordon around. He stayed home more, he cooked more, he spent more time listening to his opera. Though never demonstrative in the normal way of things, he sometimes said very tender words, words that made Weilin feel at once thrilled and ashamed.

Weilin’s days were all delicious freedom. He wandered the city, rode the ferry to outlying islands, climbed Victoria Peak and Diamond Hill. The throb and bustle of the place had no terrors for him now. When he was hungry he ate rice gruel or noodles from one of the street vendors. When he tired of the streets and islands he went to a movie. The movies were easy because they were all in Mandarin, with Chinese characters along the bottom for the local people to read. [Though they cannot understand each other’s speech, the Chinese all use the same written language for most purposes.]

It was in the third week that Gordon raised the subject of education. Weilin was reading a book he’d bought at Swindon’s bookstore on Nathan Road, a Chinese translation of an American book. It was a popular account of some mathematical topics—paradoxes, antinomies, geometrical wonders and fallacies. Weilin had been reading the book while Gordon prepared the evening meal—some strips of beef cooked Chinese-style in a black bean sauce, with boiled green vegetables and rice. While they were eating Gordon asked to see the book. He seemed impressed.

“This is quite advanced. Can you understand it?”

“Yes. It’s all explained very well. They make everything interesting.”

“They’d have to work hard to make it interesting to me.”

Weilin felt pleased. “I’ve always liked math.”

Gordon was thoughtful for a while. Then: “You should be in school.”

“Is it possible? But I wouldn’t understand what the teachers are saying.”

Gordon laughed. “Then you’d fit in very well. The decent schools teach mostly in English. I doubt many of the Chinese students can follow the lessons well. They depend on their books mostly, I think.”

“But I couldn’t even talk to my classmates. My Cantonese is terrible.”

“Oh, that will come quickly. A little ear training and you’ll hear the Mandarin coming through. It’s English we should do something about.”

“What can we do?”

“Send you to Blitzer. They’ll take care of you.” He laughed. “They’ll have you declaiming Shakespeare in your sleep.”

Bo-li-ce? Who is it?”

“Intensive language training. Hong Kong civil service use them, and all the big hongs. They’re very intensive, though. You’ll be scared to death. But stick with it and they’ll get the job done all right. I’ll sign you up.”

Gordon could be efficient when he chose to be. This conversation took place on a Thursday. The following Monday morning at ten o’clock Weilin presented himself at Blitzer, who had the top half of a building in Hollywood Road, in the streets leading up the hill behind Central. The office seemed supernaturally clean and grand. It was all carpeted in rich deep green. The furniture was dark wood with brass handles and fittings. All the windows had venetian blinds. Air conditioners whispered, soothing music played very faintly from somewhere, and the people coming and going all wore smart, fashionable business clothes. Weilin felt like a bumpkin. He filled in a form and handed over three hundred dollars cash for a day’s instruction, and was shown into a small windowless room ventilated from a grille in the ceiling. In the room was a desk. There was a single chair on one side of the desk. On the other was a stern-looking foreign woman. She nodded to the chair. Weilin sat.

The woman held up a card from a stack in front of her. On the card was a picture, a pleasant color drawing, of two people meeting. “Good morning,” said their speech balloons. “Good morning,” said the lady, slowly and emphatically.

This was no surprise. The common English greeting was pretty well known to Chinese people, who made a joke of it: by twisting the sounds very slightly it could be rendered as gou dai mao niang—“dog catches lady cat,” with slightly salacious connotations to a Chinese ear.

“Good morning.”

“Good MOR-ning.”

“Good morning.”


This went on for what seemed like ages, the woman’s voice getting louder all the time, stressing different sounds at each repetition. They moved on to What’s your name? where Weilin discovered that his English name was William. He supposed they had got his Chinese name from the form he had filled out and just taken the nearest English sounds.

This repetition of elementary exchanges went on for fifty minutes. There was a break, after which the woman was replaced by a man with another set of cards. Are you English? No, I’m Chinese. Are you Chinese? Yes, I’m Chinese. It continued the whole morning. In the afternoon things got worse: the first woman side by side with a new man, a fierce-looking elderly party with a tobacco-stained white mustache. More cards, the scenes depicted getting more complex. A house. A car. The railway station. The airport. A plane. After six hours of this Weilin’s brain felt like bean curd.

Next day was worse. He had forgotten half the responses from the previous day. The instructors were relentless: shouting, cajoling, bullying, prodding. Have you got a ticket? Yes, I’ve got a ticket. What’s the fare? The fare is twelve dollars.

Back at the apartment Gordon began addressing him in English. This confused things somewhat, as Gordon spoke a dialect of English quite different from the one Weilin was being clubbed through at Blitzer. The vowels, the consonants, even some of the vocabulary and grammar were all different. Still, after a week Weilin was surprised to find that he could cope with some simple sentences. After a month he was making halting conversation: and at ten weeks, when Blitzer’s entire inventory of flash cards had passed before his eyes, and fifteen thousand dollars of Gordon’s money into Blitzer’s bank account, he was watching the English channel on TV.

Gordon was delighted with him. “Ye’re a very smart lad,” he said over dinner, a day or two after Weilin finished at Blitzer. “I knew it, first time I saw ye. Ye’ll go far in this world, young William.”

“I hope so. Hope I can make a fortune and pay you back.”

“Och, nonsense, laddie. It’s recompense, after I took advantage of ye like that. The thing is to make something of yourself. D’ye have any ambition for your future life? Any profession in mind?”

Weilin shrugged. “The only thing I really like is mathematics.”

“Hm. Well, nobody ever got rich from mathematics. Though I suppose ye might do well as an accountant. But ye must go to school, William, ye must go to school. Education is everything.”

So it was arranged that after the Christmas holiday Weilin would go to school.


Christmas itself was an entire novelty to Weilin. He had never even heard of Christmas. The local Chinese did not bother about it much, their hearts being set on Lunar New Year (they never said “Spring Festival”), some weeks later; but there was a public holiday and some of the stores in lower Kowloon and Hong Kong side decorated their windows. Weilin came to recognize the Christmas god, a cheerful old foreigner in a red coat and white beard, associated somehow with fir trees, colored lights and snow. The fir trees and snow made Weilin think of the far northeast, of Flat All Around and his first terrible winter there. The kindly face of the Christmas god seemed to deny all such evil connotations, however.

Weilin might have learned more about the precise nature of the ceremonies appropriate to this god (called Old Man Christmas by the locals), but Gordon had relatives coming to visit from Scotland, and Weilin had to live elsewhere for two weeks.

Elsewhere was Chungking Mansions, a vast warren of a building down at the end of Nathan Road, a short walk from Star Ferry. A broad flight of metalled steps led up from the street, through the main entrance into a long arcade. The arcade was full of seedy stores selling clothes, toys, cheap electronics, umbrellas, briefcases, costume jewelry. There were other arcades branching off, so that you could easily get lost, at any rate for fifteen minutes or so, right there on the first floor. In the rear areas were some stores catering to the inhabitants of the Mansions: locksmiths, food stores, shoe repairs, a laundry, numerous daaipaidongs—stalls selling cheap cooked food, with a big wok heated by charcoal or calor gas and three or four folding tables set around.

Hidden away at the ends of short branch arcades were elevators to take you to the upper floors, of which there were seventeen. Some of these upper floors were purely residential. Others contained guest houses, letting out rooms by the month or week—or in a few cases (according to Gordon) by the hour. The business card he had given Weilin had the name of a guest house on it, English on one side, Chinese on the other:

Chungking Mansions, C Block, 13th Floor
Mr H.K. Wu, Prop.
Single and Double Rooms, All Air-Conditioned
With/Without Bathroom
TV Lounge, Full Kitchen Facilities

Papa Wu came to the door when Weilin rang. It was a glass door with the same name painted on it in the same two languages, and a translucent net curtain fixed to the inside. Papa Wu peered through the curtain at him, then opened the door. It led into a lounge, with a tank of tropical fish, a large TV set, and sofa chairs all round the walls. Two corridors led off from the lounge. A large plain teenage girl was sitting on one of the sofas eating boiled rice from a bowl while watching TV. She only moved her eyes to glance at Weilin when he came in, then back to the TV.

Papa Wu was jovial. “Friend of Mr Macleod, ha? Mr Macleod’s a good guy, done some favors for me. Always good to have a friend in the force. Consider yourself one of our family. Don’t be polite! You can eat here, in the main guest house with us. But your room’s in the other place.”

Papa Wu was a Shanghainese of fifty or so, with fluent Shanghai-accented Mandarin. He owned the guest house, which was in two parts. In this part Papa Wu himself lived with his wife and five children. The children were surprisingly young, or else Papa Wu looked older than his age: the youngest only nine, the eldest eighteen. They all ate together in the lounge every evening, watching TV. One of the corridors was the family quarters, the other was guest rooms.

The “other place” was across on the other side of the elevator lobby. Same glass door with same painted Chinese characters: Huashengdun Zhaodaisuo, but this time no English. The TV in the lounge was smaller, and only one corridor led back from the lounge. There was no-one in the lounge; but as Papa Wu was leading Weilin to his room, a door opened further along and a foreigner came out. He stood aside to let them pass. He was thirtyish, handsome and smartly dressed with a leather jacket, and had dark brown skin. He nodded at Papa Wu and stood aside to let them pass.

“Most of the guests here are achas,” said Papa Wu, trying keys in a door. “From India or Pakistan. Decent people, you’ll be all right. Any difficulty, just come to see me.”

The room was large and clean, and had its own tiled bathroom attached. There was a big double bed with sheets and a quilt, and an air-conditioner which of course was redundant at this time of year. The single large window looked across to the back of another building, or perhaps one of the other blocks that comprised Chungking Mansions—to an identical window from which, then and at all the hours of all the days and nights Weilin spent in Washington Guest House, issued the chattering of mahjong tiles.

Weilin got to know the achas well during his two weeks at Chungking Mansions. The first he struck up an acquaintance with was Harry. Harry was short, bald and overweight, though no more than thirty. Weilin met him the second day, going into the lounge. Harry was sitting on a sofa in the lounge with a large cardboard box at his feet. He was pulling colored plastic toys out of the box one by one—pulling one out, scrutinizing it, sometimes making clicking noises with his tongue, putting it back. Weilin sat down to watch TV, but his eyes kept straying to the toys Harry was pulling out of his box. Seeing this, Harry made a little laugh.

“It’s rubbish,” he said, “but it sells.”

All the achas seemed to be in some small business like this, buying and selling things. “Import-export” was what Harry always called it. Harry himself did business with the toy factories in the New Territories. Lal sold bags and briefcases from an alcove in one of the arcades at the Mansions’ street level. Chandu, who shared a room with Lal at the end of the corridor, was something to do with jewelry, though unlike Harry he never brought his merchandise to the guest house. Ranesh—the handsome man with the leather jacket—seemed to be concerned with textiles, import-export.

Ranesh was by far the best looking of all the achas. His skin was dark, but he had rectilinear European features, deep still eyes, a tall, well-formed physique, and a brooding intensity of manner that made Weilin think he must have endured some shattering personal tragedy; though in fact, according to Harry, it was nothing but worry about his business, which was not going very well.

Weilin liked the achas. Their manner was very free and open, and they easily admitted him into their confidences. Even Ranesh emerged from his self-absorption sufficiently to explain letters of credit to Weilin, and to pass some scathing remarks about the business climate in the Colony.

“The locals hate us achas,” said Ranesh, who by this time knew that Weilin was a recent immigrant from the mainland. “They call us ‘hairy monkeys’ in Cantonese” (which was regrettably true, though “acha” was much the commoner epithet). “They complain that if the Chinese can sell something for a dollar, the achas will start selling it for ninety-nine cents.”

“Ranesh, dear fellow, do not abuse the poor boy’s own countrymen in front of him. We must all struggle to make a living.” This was Chandu, who always took an eirenic line on every topic. “After all, why are we here? Because the business climate in our own country is quite impossible, is it not so? Just as it is in mainland China, insofar as there can be said to be any business climate at all in that most distressful country. So let us be thankful that this splendid colony is here in which for us to exercise our entrepreneurial talents. And let us be grateful to the British authorities for making these opportunities available to us.”

“British authorities—cha!” said Lal scornfully. Lal was a cynic and a pessimist, though a cheerful one. “They’ll sell us down the river without a thought, if old Mao puts the screws on. Or run for their lives, leaving us to face the People’s Liberation Army and the vengeance of the locals.”

The achas always referred to the Hong Kong Cantonese as “the locals.” They did not mix with them much, though Harry and Lal could both speak passable Cantonese. Weilin thought they looked on Chungking Mansions as something of a refuge from “the locals.” However, they did not seem to regard Weilin as a local. With his poor Cantonese and now-excellent English, and sensing that he was somehow under Papa Wu’s particular guardianship while in the Mansions, they made him an honorary acha, and took him along for meals at the cheap acha restaurants on the second floor. Weilin thought the acha food textureless and limited in range, but he liked his new friends too much to say so.

On Christmas Eve Weilin sat up with the achas in the guest house lounge, watching a special Christmas variety program on the English TV channel. The achas had got in a good supply of San Miguel beer and had a lot of food sent up from the second floor. They talked in a sentimental way about their homes in India and laughed at the jokes of the English comedians, which Weilin couldn’t understand at all. They let him taste the beer, though only a single small glassful.

At midnight Harry brought out a bottle of whisky—Scottish whisky, he said, which everyone knew was the best kind. They all drank a tiny glass of whisky, toasting each other. There was a debate about whether Weilin should be given whisky, with Harry and Ranesh in favor, Lal opposed, and Chandu making the case for universal harmony. At last it was allowed, and Weilin took one of the tiny glasses, the liquid scorching his throat and making his face red. The achas all laughed good-naturedly, and drank another toast. Weilin felt very happy. The fact of the whisky being Scottish made him think of Gordon, who he knew was also Scottish, and of his kindness and tenderness. He reflected on the comfort and ease of his new life, and the horrors of a mere few months ago. He thought of an old poem:

The King is at home, at home in his capital,

Content and happy he drinks his wine.

The poem had been taught him by Mother, sitting at the table in their apartment in Seven Kill Stele while Father played chess with Lecturer Wang Baojiang. He could remember the moment clearly—so clearly!—though it seemed as remote in time now as the King whose loving subjects had made the poem twenty-two dynasties ago—three thousand years as the crow flies. In the morning, however, Weilin found that the whisky had given him a splitting headache.

Chapter 28

The Voice of a Goddess Touches Weilin’s Heart

A Lookout Helps Further Some Business Discussions

The school was in a square functional building on Boundary Street, a mile to the south. The student body was entirely Chinese but the subjects, excepting only Chinese language and literature, were taught in English. In most cases this meant Chinglish, for most of the teachers were local Chinese; but the senior Mathematics master was a dark-skinned, silver-haired Sri Lankan, Economics and European History were in the hands of a very tall, very bony, very sarcastic gentleman from Bristol, and an elderly square-built Australian woman took English Conversation.

William found the curriculum very arduous at first. Blitzer had performed a miracle with his English speaking and listening skills, but offered very little training in the written word. Since most of the school’s textbooks were in English this was a severe handicap, mitigated to some degree by the fact of most of his classmates being in the converse situation. They had been studying from English textbooks all their brief lives, but none had had any very conscientious training in the spoken language. They had all memorized great slabs of text about the Napoleonic Wars, but none would have had much success placing an order at Macdonald’s. William, by contrast, conversed breezily with the foreign teachers but could never quite finish a homework assignment for want of time to look up all the words. Furthermore his education since the age of eight had been disrupted by all the movements, so that he started off seriously behind his coevals in everything.

In consequence of all this, William was not a good student. Indeed, it took him a year to become a merely average student. Only in mathematics did he feel himself on a secure footing. Here his poor reading skills were of little importance, as all the important facts were embodied in symbols. And here his lack of educational background mattered less, since a natural intuition for the subject allowed him to see through the problems and theorems much more quickly than his classmates. Algebra he knew well enough from his mainland schooling. Geometry was more or less new to him, but everything it stated seemed quite obvious, though it was some months before he saw the point of formal proofs. Trigonometry the class had only started one term before he arrived, so there was little catching up to do, and as with geometry the theorems so laboriously demonstrated seemed self-evident to William.

It was in trigonometry that he scored his first public triumph. The subject was taught by the Sri Lankan, whose name was Mr Kuruneru. Mr Kuruneru had a reputation for mild eccentricity, but obviously loved his subject. He was given to small, feeble jokes at which he himself laughed more than anyone else, and to frequent digressions from the main syllabus. Since these digressions were not examinable, the students took them as opportunities to doze or catch up on homework assignments.

In this style, while discoursing on the general properties of the triangle, he rambled off into a brief account of Morley’s theorem, which asserts that by trisecting the angles of any triangle at all, and marking the intersections of the trisectors in a certain fashion, a perfectly equilateral triangle can always be found. William thought this wonderful: that hidden inside any triangle, no matter how irregular, was a little jewel of perfect regularity, and that this gem had been invisible until Mr Morley discovered it. Who had put it there? he asked himself over and over again—without, of course, being able to arrive at any satisfactory answer. The triplication of triples also pleased him, bringing to mind the opening chords of the bird man opera Gordon liked so much. He hoped that Mr Kuruneru would proceed to a proof. But the master perceived that he had strayed too far from the path set for him by the Examining Board, said only that there was no proof accessible to students at this level, and returned to the Cosine Rule.

William thought the Cosine Rule already as plain as the sun in the sky. He shut out the lesson and set to scribbling. When the lesson ended he went up to Mr Kuruneru with a proof of Morley’s Theorem in twenty lines. The teacher chuckled, swept up the page with his other books, and left. That was a Thursday. The following Monday in morning recess Mr Kuruneru summoned William to an empty classroom. He was sitting at one of the student desks with William’s proof in front of him. William sat at the adjoining desk.

“This is your own effort?” asked the master.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Had you ever heard of Morley’s theorem until last Thursday?”

“No, Sir. It isn’t in the textbook.”

“No. Indeed it isn’t. The proof is considered too difficult, or perhaps too tedious, for courses below the university level. In fact it has always been cited as an example of a simple result for which there is no clear or elegant proof. You seem to have put an end to that.”

“Thank you, Sir. But actually my proof could be even shorter. If, instead of dropping perpendiculars from the vertices, you imagine a simple reflection in each of the sides …”

Mr Kuruneru listened to the simplification William had worked out while walking home from school Thursday afternoon.

“… So now the proof is down to fifteen lines. And it’s clearer.”

“Yes, yes.” The Sri Lankan was looking at him with a perplexed expression. “Remarkable, most remarkable.” Turning away, he stared at the paper for a few beats. “Most remarkable.” He cleared his throat. “Well, young William—how old are you, by the way?”

“Thirteen, Sir.”

“Remarkable. Well, when you gave me the proof I assumed that it was the usual schoolboy effort, premised on error and argued without much attention to the generally accepted rules of sublunary logic. I was surprised to find it consistent and unassailable. So surprised that I spoke to an acquaintance of mine, Professor Meld at Hong Kong University. He was kind enough to look through the most recent references in the University library. Nothing, nothing that compares with your proof. No work on the topic at all, in fact, since Duval’s, twenty years ago.” Mr Kuruneru made a little laugh. “I’m afraid that trigonometry, daunting as it may appear to our students here—most of our students, I mean—is beneath the attention of professional mathematicians. For them, the noble cosine function is merely a single point in a space of infinitely many dimensions.”

William was well accustomed to the master’s pedantic style of speaking. He nodded politely. He had, in point of fact, forgotten all about Morley’s triangle after Thursday afternoon’s efforts.

“It is always possible, of course” (Mr Kuruneru continued) “that your proof has appeared in some work on recreational mathematics, some unreferenced work. I shall write to Mr Martin Gardner in New York, who is most likely to know about such things, and who I have heard is a punctilious correspondent. In the meantime, if you have no objection, I should like to submit your proof for publication. In your name, of course.”

William, who knew nothing about the academic world, did not grasp what was being suggested. He only heard publication.

“You mean … you want me to write a book?”

Mr Kuruneru smiled. “Dear me, no. Only an article, a brief article in one of the journals. Actually I myself will write it up for you. I know how they like these things presented. But only your name will appear, I promise you.”

William saw no reason not to agree. This all happened toward the end of summer term, his first year in the school. William thought no more about it during summer vacation, and had forgotten Morley’s triangle all over again by the time the students reassembled in September.


Three weeks into the new term Mr Kuruneru called him to the staff room. Standing at the door, he handed William a yellow envelope with red and blue airmail edging.

“You are a mathematician,” said Mr Kuruneru, and beamed, and shook William’s hand. William opened the envelope at once. It was the current issue of Mathematical Monthly, from London. There was a book marker in it, a plain slip of rough-cut manila card, at a page which said:

Morley’s Triangle: A New Proof
by William Leung

They had used the Cantonese spelling of his family name, but William could not have cared less. He took the journal home that afternoon and showed it to Gordon. Gordon was thrilled.

“Och, my sweet laddie! When I saw ye in the station house that time, I knew ye were something out of the ordinary. And see here the now, I didnae know the half of it!”

Gordon was on the evening shift, leaving the apartment after dinner, coming home after midnight when William was in bed. It was now understood between them that he would try his best not to wake William when the following day was a school day. For the most part Gordon kept discipline on this point, with occasional exceptions for what he described as emergencies. On this evening his coming home woke William anyway, as often happened. But instead of slipping into bed more or less immediately, as he usually did, Gordon went to the kitchen and was silent for a long time. Too long for William, who drifted back to sleep. Last up in the morning he saw that Gordon had been reading his proof in the Mathematical Monthly, and had covered half-a dozen sheets of police stationery with drawings and scribbled notes. Gordon confessed that evening.

“Made up my mind to work through your proof, laddie. And I did, too, though it wasnae easy. Anything ye produce along those lines in future, I’ll take on trust. Now dinnae neglect your other subjects. Nobody ever got rich on mathematics.”

William was now a minor celebrity at the school. At one of the periodic assemblies the headmaster pointed him out and the whole school applauded. There were brief articles in two of the Chinese papers, and one in the South China Morning Post. The attention made William uncomfortable. He feared that one of the papers might send someone to ask questions about his circumstances, actually lived in fear and trembling of it for a while. However, the newspapers seemed satisfied with information given by the school, and no journalists approached him. Fame, like wealth, is no friend of mathematicians.


The square Australian lady had left that summer, and English Conversation was now taught by a cheerful young cockney girl named Valerie. Valerie seemed to take an immediate liking to William. When his publication became generally known she made a great fuss of him.

“What did your Mum and Dad say?” she wanted to know.

“My parents are both dead,” he told her.

“Oh! Oh, I am sorry! Oh, really … forgive me!”

“It’s all right. You didn’t know.”

“Who d’you live with then, William?”

“I have a guardian. Old family friend,” said William. This is what Gordon had told him to say.

“Really? What, here in Kowloon Tong?” (This being the name of the district.)

“M, not far. A mile or so.”

Three or four days after this, while walking home one afternoon William saw Valerie ahead of him, walking rather slowly. He greeted her as he passed. Valerie made an expression of surprise and stopped, so of course he had to stop, too.

“On your way home, are you?”


“Me too. I live just round the corner there. Would you like to take a look?”

“Just round the corner” was, in fact, several blocks, and well out of William’s way. He wished he had not been so polite, but there was no way out of it now. Valerie shared the ground floor of a house with another English girl. The other girl worked in an office on Hong Kong side. She never got home till after seven, Valerie told him, twice.

Valerie showed him round: Living room, kitchen, bedrooms, back to living room.

“It’s nice, isn’t it? Come on, sit down. Make yourself at home.”

She sat on the sofa, patting the cushion beside her to indicate that he should sit there. William sat, feeling that they were too close together. Valerie smiled at him.

William did not think Valerie very pretty. She had those characteristics that make some westerners seem, to a Chinese eye, slightly extraterrestrial: very pale gray-blue irises, rather a large nose, colorless straight hair pulled back carelessly behind her ears, making the ears too prominent. Her skin was very pale, a sort of chalky white, but clear and unblemished. Her hands and feet were too big, and she seemed to have more than the usual number of teeth. However, her figure was slim and neat, her smile—if you discounted the surplus teeth—sincere and engaging. She was sitting angled sideways, towards him. Quite suddenly she took his hand in hers, and placed it on her lap.

“You’re so cute, William. I feel … oh, I don’t know. I feel I want to cuddle you. Ooo, listen to me! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, really I shouldn’t.” She bit her lip in mock self-reproach, and put a hand over her mouth.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m really … it’s very kind of you to say such a thing.”

“Oh, go on.” She laughed. “Can I ask you something?”

“All right.”

“Something personal, I mean.”

“Depends. Try it.” (Feeling a tremor of apprehension.)

She lowered her eyes to her hands holding his, and stroked absentmindedly with her upper hand.

“Have you ever been alone with a girl? A grown-up girl, I mean.”

“No,” replied William, quite truthfully.

“D’you know what happens when a boy and a girl are alone together?”

“Well. I … I have an idea.”

“Do you? You know what a boy and a girl do when they’re alone together?”

“M, more or less.”

“Would you like to do it with me?”

Valerie was much more enthusiastic than any of the girls Gordon had brought home, though less imaginative. She writhed and moaned under him, and at the end gave him quite a painful bite on his shoulder. On account of the bite, which he knew Gordon would certainly notice, William confessed all to Gordon when he got home.

Gordon thought it a great joke. “Which end?” he wanted to know, and: “front or back?”

“The normal way, of course,” said William. “That was what she wanted.”

“And yourself. Did ye enjoy it?” They were in armchairs in the main room, Gordon grinning all over his face.

“Yes. It was very nice.”

Gordon looked thoughtful for a moment.

“Well, laddie, I’m glad. Means I havnae made a bugger out of ye. I wouldnae want that on my conscience. With your looks, ye’d be a raddled old pansy queen at thirty. But she’s a cheeky thing, a wanton young lass indeed, to be going after a lad barely fourteen. What a disgrace!” And he threw back his head and laughed long and loud.


It was at about this time that William began to like western opera. He had heard plenty of it, living these months with Gordon, and knew many of the themes and melodies, but it had not really gripped him in any way. Then, one evening, Gordon in the main room playing one of his records and William doing homework on the kitchen table, the Goddess spoke to him.

The particular item of homework was Chemistry, a subject William disliked. There was a complicated problem about the behavior of some molecules in a reaction. To solve the problem required William’s remembering an experiment the teacher had done before the class some days before. William could not remember. Instead of conscientiously taking notes, he had been doodling at a problem concerning prime numbers, which Mr Kuruneru had brought to his attention in a journal of mathematics. He sighed, chewing his pencil. It was still light outside, and he thought if he went for a walk the fresh air might jog his memory. Failing that, he thought he might telephone one of the classmates.

At this point Gordon, in the next room, turned up the hi-fi, as he did when the opera reached a part he liked. A woman began to sing. It was a light song with a straightforward and rather attractive tune; but it was the woman’s voice, the quality of her voice, that caught William’s attention. The voice was very clear and pure, yet beneath it was a kind of fierceness and wildness, an unruly quality, that made William’s skin go cold. He got up and went to the doorway that led into the main room, and stood there listening. Gordon was in his armchair, his hands steepled in front of him, his face bent down to touch the fingertips. That woman’s voice—the terrifying, marvelous voice—filled the room. It seemed to William to be coming from another world—a world which, he thought, on the whole he would prefer to know nothing about. And yet the voice captivated him completely.

“What is it?” he asked, when the song had finished.

Gordon smiled. He had got up to turn down the hi-fi again.

“Did ye like it?”

“I don’t know. It sounded so strange. Like … I don’t know. Not quite human.”

Gordon laughed, sitting down again. “Well, ye got that right, laddie. A little more than human, our Maria. Or less, some would say.”

“That’s her name, Maria?”

“Maria Callas. One of Heaven’s occasional gifts to us suffering mortals.”

“What was the song about?”

“Och, the poor girl’s just given her heart to a rascal. It’ll all end in tears. But of course, she doesnae know that yet. She’s a lonely wee thing and her daddy’s a hunchback.”

Gordon told him the whole story, which William thought very cruel and bitter. Still that one song haunted him. He always listened for Gordon to play it again, and in this way paid more attention to the other songs, so that in time he could recognize several of them. He even took out the records sometimes when Gordon was on evening shift, and found the song, and played it to himself over and over, thrilled and yet repelled every time just as the first by that woman’s pure wild voice. He was not very surprised to find that the voice had a story behind it, which Gordon told him, not that first time but on some subsequent occasion.

The Voice That Broke

Once there was a woman who loved opera. She had a beautiful voice, so she became a singer of opera, and was soon world-famous.

At first she sang operas that everyone knew. People said they had never been sung so well. Then she began to sing operas that had not been sung for a hundred years, and when people heard her, they said: What beautiful music! How can it be that we have not heard this for a hundred years? Then every singer wanted to sing those operas, and the operas became famous again, as they had been a hundred years before.

Alas, the woman loved opera too much. Although her voice was beautiful, it is never enough for a singer’s voice to possess beauty. It must also have strength and stamina—an iron constitution, as English people say. The woman’s voice was not strong enough to contain her love for the music. She strained and struggled to sing the music as she knew it should be sung, as she could hear it in her heart, but the strain was too much. Gradually her voice began to break.

Of course, she knew that her voice had broken before anyone else knew it. She developed all kinds of artful tricks to disguise the fact that her voice was breaking. She was a very gifted actress as well as a great singer, so for a time she could use her stage skills to distract from the growing problems of her voice.

At last, however, the truth could not be hidden. People began to notice that her voice was breaking. She fled to the arms of her lover, a wealthy man who cared nothing about music or singing. But because he cared nothing and she cared everything, he soon tired of her, and at last left her for a more glamorous woman, the widow of an American President. The woman retired from the world to an apartment in Paris, where she lingers on like a ghost in a life whose purpose has gone.


There were more trysts with Valerie, all through the rest of that school year. Every one happened in the same faux-accidental way: he would pass her on his way home, they would stop to talk, he would go to her apartment. The artificiality of these encounters was emphasized by the fact, which William quickly grasped, that Valerie could walk home from the school by a much shorter route, and had obviously chosen this one, and dawdled on it, for the purpose of meeting him. This went on all through their acquaintance, although (William often reflected) she must have known that he knew that she was manufacturing the encounter each time.

William actually found the arrangement very convenient. If he did not want to go with her he could turn aside when he saw her ahead of him in the street, as she never looked back for him but always waited for him to come up. In this way he regulated the encounters to little more than one a week.

Their maneuvers, once together in Valerie’s apartment, varied little all through the nine months of their affair. There would be some talk about school, about Hong Kong, about England. Then they would perform a single act of tongfang, in the commonplace position, on Valerie’s bed. Valerie seemed not to want to expand the repertoire, and William was afraid of doing so for fear he might betray more knowledge of these intimate matters than was appropriate to a boy of fourteen.

He knew Valerie was very fond of him. She often said so, lying on the bed running her hands over his body after the act.

“Lovely,” she would murmur, “lovely … lovely boy. Oooo, I wish you were five years older, our William! What times we’d have!”

In school she kept good self-control, never showing him undue favor; except that when William published again in Mathematical Monthly, halfway through the summer term, and the news was announced to the school assembly, Valerie applauded longer and louder than any of the other teachers, and beamed at him across the stage with a radiant fervor William thought the classmates packed in the hall below could not help but notice. However, if anyone thought Valerie’s enthusiasm improper, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

Valerie’s contract was for only one year, at the end of which (she told William, walking to her apartment one afternoon in June) she planned to do some sightseeing in Asia, then make her way back to England.

“Damp, poky old England,” she sighed. “I shall miss Hong Kong. I shall miss you too, Willum.” (William had tried to teach her some Cantonese, but she had got very little farther than his own given name, which she pronounced “Willum,” and the universal greeting Sikjo faan mei a?—“Have you eaten yet?”—which she rendered as “sick jaw fan may, uh?” with a blithe disregard for all seven of the Cantonese tones.)

William was secretly glad she was leaving. He liked her, and enjoyed their tongfang, but he thought Gordon could not maintain his attitude of tolerant good humor indefinitely. The longer the affair with Valerie went on, the more Gordon was bound to think there might be some serious attachment developing. There was not; but William understood enough of worldly things now to see that the suspicion of it alone might be enough to estrange him from Gordon, a thing he did not want at all.

In July of ’72, when her contract expired, Valerie begged William to see her off at the airport. The girl she shared her apartment with, who knew nothing of what had been going on between them, would be there too (Valerie said), but she would just introduce him as a favorite pupil.

At the appointed day William went to her apartment to help with her bags, and rode with Valerie and the other girl to Qide Airport, which he now called by its Cantonese name, Kai Tak. The other girl, whose name was Gillian, was a big-boned pink type out of the Old English Dairymaid mold, with a brisk motherly approach that made William think it would have been more suitable for her to be the schoolteacher and Valerie the clerk.

At the entrance to the departure area, Valerie said something to Gillian, then took William aside.

“I shall miss you, Willum. I really shall. Our little Wednesday cuddles.” (Because of the school schedule, most of their meetings had been on Wednesday afternoons.)

“I’m sorry,” said William, not quite knowing what to say. “I hope everything goes well for you in England.”

“Ooo, don’t worry about me.” Valerie laughed. “I shall be all right anywhere. But you, my sweet Willum, you should find yourself a nice girlfriend. Don’t let all those lovely stiffies go to waste.” She giggled. “I’d hate to think of you wankin’ away alone.”

“I’ll be all right,” said William. “I can find someone, don’t worry.”

“I bet you can.” Valerie laughed again, squeezing his hand, then flung her arms round him and kissed him frankly on the lips, a long wet kiss. Over her shoulder William could see Gillian, eyebrows raised and mouth part-open in query, the brain behind the eyes rapidly computing the sum total of numerous tiny and hitherto unexplained anomalies of her life with Valerie.


In August Gordon had family to stay again. This was a double-header: an elderly aunt and uncle bent on investigating the Shopper’s Paradise of the East (as Hong Kong was beginning to be promoted), and a niece from Scotland, “doing” Asia in her college vacation. William was packed off to Washington Guest House for two weeks. He had a room in the annex again and made a very idle time of it, rising late and watching TV in the lounge half the day, or sitting there catching up on schoolwork, playing solitaire or working on his small mathematical puzzles while the life of the guest house clattered and hummed around him.

It was the tourist season and all the rooms were occupied, though often at the daily rate. Young Australians and Americans passed through, some of them hippies who scorned to express themselves other than in sighs and grunts, some more earnest inquirers, courteously attentive to all around them, fearless explorers of the Mansions’ back alleys, talking among themselves of the temple rites in Bali, the beaches at Penang, the prospects of hitching a CIA flight to Luang Prabang. One, a Frenchman named Didier, astounded William by speaking to him in perfect Mandarin with only a trace of accent, and sitting in the lounge reading the local Chinese tabloids, guffawing at the exposés of the private lives of Chinese movie stars, occasionally asking William for help with one of the odd nonstandard characters used to transliterate peculiarly Cantonese expressions. Then there were the entertainers engaged by the foreigners’ hotels and nightclubs around the colony: a huge bison of a man, a full-blood Maori, with a voice of astonishing sweetness and feeling … a flamenco guitarist from Spain itself, who sat with William in the lounge telling stories from Lope de Vega while, with the tenderest love, rubbing fragrant oils into the wood of his guitar … a Korean dancer, a lovely straight-backed girl with pearly skin, who smiled at William in a way he was beginning to recognize, but who had a blazing row with Papa Wu and flounced out before shadow could turn to substance. And, of course, there were the achas, the inner cadre of Papa Wu’s clientele.

The cast of achas had changed somewhat in the year and a half since his first stay. Harry was still there, in the same room, still toting his boxes of ‘rubbish’ to and fro. Lal and Chandu had gone to fresh fields and pastures new. Ranesh was still in his room, but had suffered some disastrous turn of fortune.

“Four years ago his Dad sent him to Hong Kong with a hundred thousand dollars,” explained Harry, “and told him not to come back till he’d turned it into a million. But the poor chap is not a very good businessman. He tried, I know he did, but somehow he lost it all, so now of course he has no face to go back to his family. He has applied for a job with the Hong Kong civil service, but I really don’t know what his chances are. He has the B.A., of course, but” (a shrug) “he is acha, not a British citizen. Unless he has some influence I do not know of, I fear it is a lost cause.”

Ranesh had fallen into a listless depression. He languished in his room most of the day, emerging only to take meals at the acha restaurants on the Mansions’ lower floors, and to watch comedy programs in the evening on the English TV channel. He was not altogether without consolation, however. The room that Lal and Chandu had shared was now occupied by a new resident named Gov—pronounced to rhyme with English “stove”—and a woman named Bina, whom William supposed to be Gov’s wife. Gov was related in some way to Ranesh, said Harry. He and the woman Bina seemed to consider themselves as under therapeutic obligation to Ranesh. They would go to Ranesh’s room and spend long hours in there talking with him. Sometimes Gov would go in alone, and sometimes Bina alone. Gov and Bina were running a business of some sort (“import-export,” was Harry’s only explanation) but seemed to have no fixed hours.

William did not find Gov at all sympathetic. He looked older than the other achas. He had silver hair, though his face was quite smooth. In stature he was short—shorter than Bina, in fact—and not very well-shaped, with too much waist and not enough shoulder. William did not seem to register on his consciousness at all. He never offered any kind of greeting, never paused to pass the time of day with William in the lounge, though he often stopped to speak to Harry when he was there. William thought him cold and unfriendly, perhaps anti-Chinese.

Bina, by contrast, William thought very fascinating. She was the first acha woman he had seen up close. Her skin was a lovely honey-brown color, and her hair black and shining. She always wore saris, gorgeous flowing creations of pastel-patterned muslin enlivened sometimes with gold or sliver spangles, beneath which, when she moved, could be glimpsed her honey-brown feet in gold sandals, her toenails painted flaming red. When dressed up to go out she wore jewels in her hair, and a score of glittering bangles on each arm. The thing that was really fascinating, though, was her midriff. The way she draped her sari, it always left the midriff bare. Her midriff was the same color as her face and arms, smooth and soft-looking. The sight of the midriff always inflamed William, throwing him into a state of combined arousal and embarrassment, so that he wanted to look at it without being seen to look. Unlike Gov, Bina always noticed him. She talked down to him, but always in a friendly way, and William liked her.

One afternoon halfway through the first week William was sitting alone in the lounge trying to do a schoolwork assignment in Chinese History, a report on the rebellion of An Lushan. Bina came in, flowed past him with a smile and a greeting, and went into Ranesh’s room. William heard them talking for a while; then he got lost in his paper, and could not have sworn on oath whether they were still talking or not.

Now Gov came in from outside. He passed William without a sign, as usual, and went to his room at the far end of the corridor. Soon he came out and went to Ranesh’s room. He knocked on the door. Oddly, there was no answer. William knew both Ranesh and Bina were in there; he had seen Bina go in and had heard them talking, and had not moved from his seat since seeing these things.

Gov called out through the door: “Ranesh! Ranesh!” Then something in the acha language. He tried the door, but it was locked. He came out of the corridor into the lounge, and addressed William in English.

“Young fellow. Have you seen the gentleman who lives in Room 2? Do you know of whom I am speaking?”

On sheer instinct, joined perhaps with a mischievous desire to inconvenience Gov, whom he did not like, William replied: “Yes, I know him. He went out a little while ago. To Hong Kong side, I think he said.”

Gov stood there frowning for a moment, then he left without saying anything. A minute or two after he had gone Ranesh opened his door and poked his head out, looking down the corridor to the lounge. “Gov?” he called out. “Gov, are you there?”

“He’s gone,” said William.

Ranesh went back into the room. Immediately Bina came out. She breezed down the corridor into the lounge, and sat on the sofa next to William.

“Did Gov ask you anything?” she wanted to know. She had an entrancing fragrance about her, sandalwood and oily spices, that seemed exactly right somehow for the color of her skin and hair.

“Only about Mr Ranesh. I said he had gone to Hong Kong side.”

Bina laughed. She had a very fetching laugh, at once throaty and trilling. “You are a very clever boy,” she said.

“I hope I didn’t do anything wrong,” said William.

“Not at all, not at all. You see, Ranesh and I have some business matters we must discuss in private, just the two of us. We do not want to involve Gov in the discussions at this stage. We don’t even want him to know we are having discussions, until certain things have been worked out. He has so much to worry about, we don’t want to burden him further. You see?”

“Yes. I think so.”

Bina made her pretty laugh again. “You are a clever boy! Our little lookout! If Ranesh and I are having discussions again, you must send people away, just as you did this afternoon. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes,” said William, intoxicated by the sandalwood fragrance, trying very hard indeed not to look at her midriff. “I don’t mind.”

“Our lookout!” Sang out Bina, heading back up to her own room in a flash of gold sandals and honey-brown latissimus dorsi. “Our clever little lookout!”

Chapter 29

A Foreign Official Shows Skill in Rhetoric

The Wu Clan Takes in an Orphan

The Colony followed the English system of education, in which there were two levels of general examination: Ordinary, taken usually at age fifteen, and Advanced, taken at seventeen or eighteen. William sat for Ordinary that summer, the summer of 1973, in nine subjects. All through the month of June he was taking examinations. It was grueling, and he knew he had done badly in his weak subjects—History, Biology, English Literature. Still, he found the two math papers absurdly easy, and coped well with physics, Chinese and English Language. When it was all over, the remainder of the school’s summer term had a perfunctory air about it. The most diligent of the students started work for their Advanced courses, to be examined in two years’ time. Most, like William, goofed off.

It was on one of these bright, lackadaisical summer days that the Immortals above next turned the wheel of William’s fate. He had been goofing off altogether—playing hooky, that is—with two other classmates, riding a bus up to the amusement park in Laijigok. When he got back to the apartment he was surprised to see the street door open. Ascending the stairs, he saw that the inner door, the door of the apartment itself, was also open. Still, so easy and settled had his life been for so comparatively long, he experienced no apprehension. Only when, as he neared the top of the stairs, a policeman appeared in the apartment doorway, did he feel a mild chill of disorientation, of events out of joint. Surprised, the policeman stared at him. William stared back. It was a Chinese policeman, somebody of rank apparently—wearing an officer’s long pants instead of the constabulary shorts. There was a sound on the stairs behind. Turning, William saw a foreigner, a man of thirty or so wearing a civilian suit, black hair cropped short, starting to go bald on top.

“Hello,” said the foreigner in English. “Come visiting, have you?”

“No,” said William without thinking. “I live here.”

“Is that so?” The foreigner raised his eyebrows. “I think we’d better have a little chat.”

William never did, ever again, see the inside of Gordon’s apartment. The little chat took place at an office in Honghom, an office to which the foreigner drove him in a spotless late-model sports car that had been parked in the street outside the apartment building. William sat in the front with the foreigner; the Chinese police officer sat in the back, wordless. The building they took him to was ordinary-looking and featureless. The rooms inside it were likewise featureless: whitewashed walls, spare tube-steel tables and chairs. The room where they had the little chat did not even have a window, though it shared the coolness from the air-conditioners elsewhere. The Chinese policeman disappeared somewhere in the building, and William was alone with the foreigner.

The little chat consisted mostly of the foreigner asking William questions. The questions were insistent but not over-intrusive, and William felt he managed them quite well, using the tale he and Gordon had worked out, one warm evening in bed the previous summer. He had been staying with Gordon some months (was the story). Gordon’s father had been a policeman in Shanghai, back in the thirties. He had known William’s family. William’s family had recently smuggled him out of the mainland. He had got in touch with Gordon, and Gordon had put him up these few months while he sought some more permanent arrangement. No, he had no Hong Kong i.d. card. (In fact, he kept it in his school locker.) Yes, he had swum from the mainland. Deep Water Bay, one night in late spring. Where did he sleep? On the couch. No, he didn’t attend school. The money in his pockets? Gordon had lent it to him, while he looked for work. Hadn’t Gordon told them these things?

The foreigner smiled. “I’m afraid Mr Macleod had no time to tell us anything. He had an urgent appointment elsewhere.”

Elsewhere? Where was he, then? The word elsewhere pierced William right through, a shaft of icy fear. Was Gordon Dead? No, no, no, no. Let it not be, let it not be that he was dead.

“Oh, South America, possibly. Indonesia. Malaysia, perhaps. Perhaps Taiwan. Who can say? There are so many opportunities, for a chap who’s been augmenting his salary to the extent Mr Macleod has.”

William breathed again. Was Gordon in trouble, then?

“Oh, probably Mr Macleod isn’t suffering any particular trouble in his new country of domicile, wherever it is.” The foreigner seemed determined to mine out his little vein of sarcasm to the last troy ounce. “Probably Mr Macleod is quite comfortably accommodated in his new circumstances.”

Would he soon be coming back, then?

The foreigner laughed. “Not soon. Oh, dear me no. Not any time soon. Not if the daft sod knows what’s good for him.”

William did not altogether follow this. He grasped, however, that the foreigner was some kind, some special kind, of policeman; that this place was some kind, some special kind, of police station; and that Gordon had left the colony and would not come back. At once his mind cleared, and everything seemed very simple. The wood has been made into a boat.

The foreigner excused himself. He left the room, then came back almost at once carrying a black plastic folder. Printed in yellow letters on the cover of the folder was ICAC. William remembered having seen something on the TV news: Independent Commission against Corruption. He put on an eager, accommodating sort of expression and said: “Do you mind if I use the toilet?”

The toilet was along a corridor, past a front desk with a uniformed officer at it, and round into a corridor at the other side. The officer at the desk followed William with his eyes as he walked round. They were on the ground floor, and the toilet had a window. However, William, now only four months short of sixteen, had started to bulk up, and the window was too small for him. Of course, the officer would have known that, or else would have had him accompanied to the toilet. Irresolute, William went back. The officer at the front desk was taking a phone call. The officer’s eyes followed William coming out of the corridor—then suddenly bulged, staring down at the telephone. “Dead?” said the officer into the telephone, speaking in Cantonese. “How can it be?” So stricken was the officer’s expression, listening now to the phone, William stopped in his tracks. “Oh, Heaven,” said the officer—a young fellow, no more than twenty-five. “Is it really true?” He put down the telephone and stared blankly at William.

“He’s dead,” he said, not so much to William as through him. “Where’s the sense in it?”

“Who’s dead?”

“Li Xiaolong. Found dead in his apartment!”

Even in his desolation, William was stunned by the news. He had, of course, followed Li Xiaolong’s career very closely since their encounter on the road from Dapeng Bay three years before. Li Xiaolong had made his Chinese movies after all, and become the sensation of the Hong Kong box office. A much-loved local character, too, often wandering unannounced on to the sets of the local Chinese TV shows to joke and ham around with the performers. William had seen all three of his movies, standing on line for hours in the patient crowds when each one came out, always remembering that first kindness. Sprung steel—how could one so full of life, be dead?

The desk officer ran from his post, back into the recesses of the building, shouting in Cantonese: “Li Xiaolong is dead! Li Xiaolong is dead!”

The front door was opposite the front desk. William did not think it was locked. It wasn’t. He stepped out into suburban sunlight, closing it quietly behind him. He walked to the corner; then ran as hard as he could for as long as he could, zigzagging left, right, left, right at intersections.

William had nothing but the light summer clothes he was wearing: red T-shirt, jeans and underpants, white socks and an old pair of soft-leather casuals he had bought the year before, now beginning to pinch. Handkerchief, house keys, a few dollars and change. Mother’s red plastic hair clip, which he always carried as a mascot. In fact, he reflected as he now walked briskly away in no particular direction, he was back where he had been three years before. This thought made him feel afraid, and hollow inside.

He stopped, trying hard to think of some plan of action. Back to the apartment? Of course not—he would just get arrested again. He thought with a pang of all his things, especially his books. He had a hundred or more, in two wooden bookcases Gordon had got for him. William thought of them in their neat ranks; and of his father’s books; and of the cribbage score sheets he and Gordon had used, now tallying games up in the high hundreds. He pushed the thoughts away. To the school? It was early evening already; nobody would be there. Then what?

He considered for a moment, then turned south, into Kowloon. People were coming out into the streets, broadcasting the news: Li Xiaolong is dead!


The door of Washington Guest House was closed. Papa Wu’s youngest daughter, and his son and stepson, were all in there, eating noodles from bowls and watching TV. The youngest daughter got up and opened the door for him, keeping her eyes on the TV. Did William know that Li Xiaolong was dead?

“Yes,” said William, “I know. Is your father at home?”

Father was out. Back later. No, didn’t know when. Yes, William could wait in the lounge if he liked. Li Xiaolong dead! Who could understand it? She sat down again. William sat with them watching the TV, stills of Xiaolong’s face, clips from his movies, the furrowed brows of the announcers. One of the announcers, a young woman, began to cry—still reading her teleprompter, but the tears running down her cheeks.

There was a figure at the glass door of the guest house, an acha woman in a sari. The daughter got up again to open the door; it was Bina.

At first Bina did not recognize William sitting there. She was asking for Papa Wu, then she saw William. She frowned at first; then the frown turned to delighted surprise.

“Is it really my little lookout? What a big boy you’ve grown!”

Bina looked exactly the same: all flowing muslin and spangles, bare caramel midriff. Her smell was the same, too, as she shook hands, William standing up by this time. That strange, remote musk. Bina smiled at him, showing her small even teeth, like a monkey’s. Papa Wu’s various offspring barely glanced at her, intent on the TV.

“Such a big boy! And fine looking! How old are you now, my lookout?”

“Fifteen. Sixteen in October.”

“Well! And shall you be staying with us again?”

“I … I don’t know. I have to speak to Papa Wu.”

Something in his manner betrayed him. Bina was at once concerned. “Are you in trouble, my lookout?”

It dawned on William at this point, through a rising fog of embarrassment, that Bina couldn’t remember his name. “It’s William,” he said. “William Leung.”

“Well, William. Why don’t you tell me what’s the matter?”

Bina sat down with him at the end of the sofa away from the others, and he told her. Not about life with Gordon, of course; only that his guardian had disappeared suddenly, that some officials had taken him in, and that he’d run away from them.

“Quite right, too,” said Bina, much to his surprise. “They meant you no good, you can be sure. But now what will you do? Do you have relatives in the Colony?”

“No. Nobody.”

“Oh, dear. You’re from the Mainland, aren’t you? And I’m sure you don’t want to go back.”

At this point Papa Wu came in. “Did you hear?” he asked the room. “Li Xiaolong is dead!”

“We know!” chorused the youngsters. Then the girl nodded to William.

“Leung Wailam wants to talk to you.”

Bina jumped up before William could say anything.

“Papa Wu, Papa Wu! This poor boy is destitute!”

“What’s the problem?” asked Papa Wu, looking at William evenly, a little warily, sensing that he was about to be imposed on. Then, nodding at the young ones: “We’d better step into the other place.”

Once in the other guest house, William told him. When he spoke about Gordon vanishing, Papa Wu flickered a smile, suppressing it at once. He sat down on the couch, lit a cigarette, and sat back, crossing one leg over the other.

“Strange,” he said. “Since this anti-corruption drive started, so many of our fine English policemen have disappeared.”

“The thing is,” said Bina, “the poor boy has nowhere to live. No money either, right?”

“Yes,” said William. “Nothing, nothing at all.”

Papa Wu considered. He understood, of course, that Macleod the policeman had been playing with the flowers in the boy’s back garden. The British were all that way inclined, so people said. You had to wonder how such a race of people managed to keep their country populated, let alone produce enough surplus human beings to go off colonizing all over the world. Well, so far as Macleod and the boy were concerned, it was nobody’s business but their own. A handsome young fellow like that with no family to shelter him was probably going to be buggered sooner or later in any case. At least he had got some advantage from it. Certainly the boy had had a better life than he would have had in the mainland. Been attending a good school and done well, Papa Wu recalled from a previous conversation. Well, he could kiss good-bye to all that. Education was expensive. You could get by without it, anyway.

Papa Wu’s education had ended abruptly when he was twelve years old. This was in Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation. On that day some Japanese soldiers had come to Papa Wu’s school. They had ordered everybody into the street outside and made the teachers stand against the school wall, with their faces against the wall. Then they had machine-gunned them to death. When the teachers were all dead the Japanese soldiers, who were in a merry mood, laughing and smiling, had shooed the students away, saying: No more school now! Papa Wu had been too scared to feel anything at the time; but later, in long hours of boredom at home, he had wept to think of his teachers all dead, especially kindly Mrs Zhang, who had taught Chinese literature. Even now, forty years later, Papa Wu knew no more of Red Chamber Dream than the first five chapters, which was as far as Mrs Zhang had got with them. He could not bring himself to pick up the book and continue.

“Well,” he said at last, “you’re old enough to work. I can find you a job of some sort, probably. Won’t be much—something in a store, perhaps, or one of the hotels. It’s a shame, after you were such a good student. But …” he shrugged, “… school costs money, and you haven’t got any.”

“I don’t mind working,” said William. “But I have no place to live.”

Papa Wu exhaled long tusks of smoke. “I don’t know there’s much I can do about that. Certainly I can’t give you a room. The tourist season’s coming up. We’ll be getting all the nightclub entertainers passing through, and the students from the West. It’s the best time of year for me. But there are hostels, single men’s hostels.”

“Oh, never mind that. He can stay with me,” said Bina.

Papa Wu looked across at her for a moment, then chuckled. He shook his head in mock, or possibly actual, disapproval. “Miss Bina, I’m ashamed of you. Making such a suggestion.” He addressed William. “How old are you?”

“He is seventeen,” said Bina, before William could answer.

“Seventeen? Hm.” Papa Wu took another long drag. “Seventeen.”

“What about Mr Gov,” asked William, “your husband?” He had not liked Gov, and felt sure Gov did not like him, certainly to the point of not wanting to live in the same room with him.

Papa Wu raised his eyes to the ceiling. With his face still in that position, he took a drag on his cigarette, holding it vertical. Bina seemed embarrassed.

“Gov is not my husband,” she said, in a rather affronted tone. “I am a single lady. Gov was merely a business acquaintance. He no longer lives here.”

William did not know what to say to this. Papa Wu was still scrutinizing his ceiling.

“Oh, come on, Papa Wu,” said Bina impatiently. “He’ll be all right with me. You’ve known me long enough, haven’t you?”

Papa Wu chuckled again, looking from one of them to the other. “Oh, I know you very well, Miss Bina.”

“There’s no alternative, anyway. He has nowhere else to go.”

“That’s true, that’s true. What do you think?” (addressing William).

“I don’t mind,” said William, who in fact thought it would be rather nice to stay with Bina, amidst her fragrance of sandalwood and myrrh, so long as Gov was out of the picture.

Papa Wu considered a moment or two longer, then shrugged. “All right. But …” he wagged a finger at Bina, “… no hanky-panky! I don’t know anything! In the meantime” (speaking to William again) “I’ll see if I can set you up with something.”

Bina still had the room she had shared with Gov, right at the end of the corridor in Papa Wu’s second guest house. Unusually for Chungking Mansions, it had a window looking out not at another wall a few feet away, but at empty space, the waterfront and the harbor, and so was full of light. It also had its own bathroom attached. When they were in the room Bina locked the door and went to start a bath. Coming out of the bathroom she smiled encouragingly at William.

“We shall take a bath,” she announced. “In this hot weather, it’s good to bathe twice a day. Come! Take off your clothes. Just put them on the bed there.”

She put her sari away as she removed it. The drawers and closet were full of saris. So many saris! William had vaguely supposed she had two or three, but there were more than twenty of them—a spectrum, an alternative spectrum of pastels.

When they were both quite naked Bina headed back to the bathroom to adjust the water temperature. Her body was the same pleasant honey color all over. She was venturing on the edge of plumpness, her breasts somewhat too heavy for their size; but her body was well-formed, nonetheless, and the sight of her made William’s jiba jump up. She saw this as he stepped into the bath, where she was already settled amid clouds of cyan foam. She looked at the jiba quite frankly, and made a little trilling laugh of pleasure. “Such a big boy!”

They did tongfang in the bath, then again on the bed after they had dried themselves. William slept after that. Bina woke him with a dish of rehydrated noodles she’d cooked on a hot plate. They ate noodles together, then did more tongfang. In the morning, William barely awake, she mounted him astride and they did tongfang again.

It was like that for the whole two weeks William stayed with Bina. Her appetite for tongfang was apparently without limit. Soon William was groggy with exhaustion, but there was no relief. She was patient and ingenious, and invariably had her way. She owned some peculiar devices, battery-powered or filled with a heavy, sluggish liquid, and showed him how to use them on her. Dimly aware that something was missing in all this, William at last, hesitantly, asked her to use them on him, too. This had some revivifying effect; but his own rallying only spurred her to greater demands, and soon William was back on the verge of exhaustion, lust rising ever more reluctantly from a slow heavy sea of satiation. Dully he watched Li Xiaolong’s memorial service on the TV in Papa Wu’s lounge, the whole family there, all weeping freely, twenty thousand people in the streets of Kowloon below.

It might have been better if he had had something to do, or someplace to go. Both were denied him. William never had a clue about Bina’s financial affairs. She was involved in a business of some sort, no doubt with other achas, and kept fairly regular hours; but he never saw her spend money, and did not know where, or even if, she carried it. Certainly if she had any she did not share it with William. She fed him, at any rate when Papa Wu had omitted to, calling food up from one of the restaurants on the lower floors of the Mansions, or heating noodles on her hot plate. She clothed him, bringing back an armful of T-shirts from the market in Shanghai Street, and some underwear and white tennis shoes. She taught him to play an acha card game named “monkey business.” And she stroked, squeezed, tickled, pulled, slapped, vibrated, kissed, licked, sucked, washed, powdered and oiled his jiba and its environs with all the patient assiduity of a Japanese sand-gardener. The rest of William seemed to have no functions or duties in her mind, except as a support system for the jiba. He sat in the lounge watching TV, chatting with Harry (who refrained from any reference to William’s living arrangements, though he could hardly have avoided noticing them), playing solitaire, or taking aimless walks around Jimshajeui, the district of lower Kowloon in which the Mansions were situated.


It was reaching the stage where William had begun to think of schemes for avoiding Bina’s embraces when, one Saturday evening, Papa Wu called him into the family area. The family was eating—they seemed always to be eating—and watching a variety show on Cantonese TV. Papa Wu gave William a bowl of food—white rice with beef and green vegetables—and Mrs Wu poured him a glass of tea, and Papa Wu, without bothering to take him on one side, addressed him in Cantonese.

“There is a clansman of mine, Mr Ng Syuntoi.” [Ng is the Cantonese pronunciation of Wu. Papa Wu, having been raised in Shanghai, and having dealt with foreigners a great deal, used the northern form because he knew it was easier on their tongues.] “He lives in Aberdeen, over on the south side of Hong Kong Island. He is a poor man. Works as a stock boy at one of the godowns on the Island, I don’t know where. But he is very decent and honest. He and his wife live in one of the resettlement estates back of Aberdeen. They have a grade 2 government apartment, that’s for a family with less than three children. However, in fact they have no children. They had one, a boy, but he died. He was eleven or twelve, I think—I’m not sure. He had a hole in his heart. The doctors were afraid to operate. They said the techniques were not advanced enough for his case. They told the Ngs: wait a few years till the techniques have improved. So they waited; but while they were waiting, the boy died. That was three years ago. They haven’t had any more children, I don’t know why. Probably they fear the heart problem is inherited. Perhaps it is, I don’t know. Anyway, the long and short of it is, they’re looking to adopt. They’d prefer a younger boy, but as I said, they are poor, and they can’t be choosy.”

Papa Wu paused to light a cigarette. The others were watching TV, paying no attention to them at all.

“You mean, this guy wants to adopt me?”

Papa Wu nodded. “Maybe. Of course, you should stay with them a while first. Make sure you can get on. Then, if they like you, and you agree, they’ll adopt you.”

“Does that mean I’ll be one of the Ng clan?”

Papa Wu laughed. “I don’t know. That’s for you and them to sort out among yourselves. Anyway, tomorrow’s his day off. You should go round there and introduce yourself. Take your things. I’m sure you can stay for a few days, at the worst. And this situation here, with you and Miss Bina …” he shook his head rather emphatically, “… I really don’t like it. Not moral.”

The youngest girl seemed to prick up her ears at this point. She threw them a glance, then turned back to the TV.

“Shall I be able to continue at school? I’d really like to do Advanced Level.”

“I think so. I don’t really know. You must ask Mr Ng when you see him. I’ll give you the address. You’ll have to take the ferry, of course, and a bus. Have you got any money?”

“No. Not a dime.”

Papa Wu laughed heartily. “I thought not. Oh, well.” He fished in his pocket. “Here’s twenty. Pay me back when you can.”

Bina was not altogether happy about the news. “I don’t see why you can’t stay here with me,” she said, in an irritated tone.

Because I shall die of boredom, or general systemic collapse. William did not say this, of course. He only said: “Since Papa Wu has gone to the trouble to find this guy, I should at least give it a try.”

And so next morning, after breakfast and a brisk tongfang, William put on a clean T-shirt and his clean white tennis shoes and took ferry and bus to Aberdeen.

The Ngs’ apartment was in one of the big resettlement blocks built in the early sixties to house the refugees flooding over from the great famine in China. The block stood on a long steep hill—a mountainside, actually—a mile or so up from Aberdeen harbor. The Ngs’ apartment was on the sixth floor. With the long walk up the hill, followed by five flights of stairs—the block had no elevators—William was hot and uncomfortable when he reached the door. He had hoped to cool off for a moment or two before ringing the bell; but the front door was open behind its metal grille, and a woman in the apartment spotted him at once. She came to the grille and opened it.

“Welcome,” she said in Cantonese. “I guess you are Leung Wailam.”

“Yes.” Now there was a man present, too. He had been dozing, apparently, on the bottom of a bunk bed over in the far corner of the apartment’s only real room. An opening with a plastic shower curtain over it led from the short entrance passage to a tiny bathroom. Beyond that, the third of a line with the passageway and bathroom, was an equally tiny kitchen. Everything else was this one main room, with a balcony looking out at the rocky mountainside. The mountainside blocked out much of the light, so the apartment seemed dark even now, at eleven on a July morning, the sun high and bright. The main room was not large. The bunk bed—double bottom, single top—occupied a full quarter of it. There was a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a TV on it, and folding chairs and tables stacked against the wall by the kitchen entrance. An electric fan was going, without much effect. High up in the other far corner was a little red shrine to Guanyin, with a red light burning in front of it.

“I am Ng Syuntoi,” said the man. “Welcome to our home!”

The woman had opened a folding table and some stools. She introduced herself, using her maiden name in the rather old-fashioned Cantonese style, then beckoned the men to sit down.

Mr Ng was a short, wiry man, who might have been any age from forty to sixty. He sat opposite William at the table, while Mrs Ng went to the kitchen.

“My clansman told you our situation?”

“Yes. He told me everything, I believe.”

“Good. We are poor people, as you can see. We don’t have much to offer you.” Mr Ng waved at the apartment. “But we want a son. My clansman gave you a good character. If we can get on, and if you agree, we will take you for our son. We shall do everything we can for you. What is ours shall be yours. In return, we ask that you call us Father and Mother, and act as a son to us. Are you willing to try the relationship on this basis?”

“Shall I be able to go to school?”

Mr Ng sat back as Mrs Ng laid some food on the table: cold cuts, steamed buns, a plate of wrapped candy, and two glasses of tea. “Help yourself,” she said. “Don’t be a guest!” Her voice was light and pleasant, and the normal expression of her face seemed to be a good-natured smile.

“How far have you gone in school?” asked Mr Ng when she had stepped away.

“I did Ordinary Level last month. Nine subjects.”

Mr Ng seemed impressed. “So? Got results yet?”

“Not yet. Next month. Math is my best subject. I’ve been published in the Mathematical Monthly, twice.” He said the title first in English, then translated into Cantonese: Sou-hok-ge Yut-hon. “It’s a scholarly journal published in London,” he explained.

“So?” repeated Mr Ng. “Your English is pretty good then?”

“Yes, I’m fluent. We can continue the conversation in English, if you like,” said William in that language.

Mr Ng laughed. “Never mind. My English is good enough to understand the boss at my godown, but I wouldn’t boast of it. Come on, eat something.”

William took a piece of jellyfish, and bit into a steamed bun. Mr Ng did not seem inclined to eat. Instead, he lit a cigarette.

“For our son,” he said, while William was tackling the bun, “we shall make any sacrifices necessary. Education is the most important thing for a young person. Myself, I had no chance. In the war I had to run back into Guangdong to escape the Japanese. Then after the war I was too busy trying to make a living in Hong Kong. I lost all my chances. But my son won’t lose his. Not so long as my wife and I can work. We will set your school fees before everything except food. Without food we can’t work, and you can’t study.” He laughed. “Come on, eat more.”

“There is only one matter,” said William. He had been thinking about things, riding the bus around the Island from Star Ferry, looking out to sea from the upstairs window of the double-decker.

“Condition?” asked Mr Ng, looking at him evenly.

“I … I guess so. I mean … if you can agree.”

Mr Ng said nothing, just looked steadily at him, waiting to hear.

“Suppose I stay here with you. And we get on all right, and agree to adoption. In that event, I will do everything I can to be a good son to you. You will be my father and mother in every way. I will honor you and respect you, and do everything I can to support you. However, I can’t call you Father and Mother. Just the words—I can’t use them for you. My own father and mother are dead, but I remember them clearly. They were my dear parents. We were close, so close, and very happy together. I can never forget them, and I can never use these words ‘father’ and ‘mother’ for anyone else. But except for these words, I will consider you in every way to be my parents. These words, and one other thing. For the same reason, I want to keep my family name, Leung. I really don’t want to change my name. I mean no disrespect to you, or your family, or your clan. It will make no difference to my behavior, I promise you. But my father was my father, and my mother was my mother. We were happy together, and dear to each other, chan mat mou fong [so close there was no space between]. Then they died unjust deaths. I can’t forget that, and I can’t forget them, or dishonor them by shedding their name.”

William felt very nervous, saying this. He had worked it out on the bus, and it came out more or less as he’d rehearsed it to himself, as much as these things ever do. Still, he thought the Ngs might take it amiss.

To the contrary, both Mr Ng and also his wife, who had been standing behind him for most of William’s address, seemed deeply affected by his words. Mr Ng was still and silent for a moment, looking at William with an expression of utmost gravity. Then he turned to look at his wife. She was biting her lower lip, as if restraining some strong emotion. He nodded at her, and she nodded back. Turning, Mr Ng rose from his seat. William stood up too. Mr Ng clasped his hands in front of his chest in a bai gesture, and bowed low. William did the same. Then Mr Ng reached across the table to shake William’s hand.

“There will be no problem,” he said in a low, firm voice. “Everything just as you have requested. We shall be one family now.”

Chapter 30

One Romantic Young Lady Endures a Rebuff

Another is Broken by Despair

The Ngs were simple, kind, hard-working people. William was at home with them almost at once. Mr Ng enrolled him at the high school in Aberdeen for the coming school year, and William, somewhat tense and mentally logging the exits for a quick flight, went to the government office and got a re-issue of his i.d. card, putting the Ngs’ address on the form. There was no trouble. Mr Ng went to an attorney to start the process for legal adoption.

“When conditions allow, we’ll go across the border to my clan temple, and you can pay your respects. Just a formality, to appease my ancestors. Doesn’t mean you have to take the name.”

“Are you sure the temple’s still there?” asked William. “All the temples in my own town were smashed up in the Cultural Revolution.”

Mr Ng waved away the Cultural Revolution. “That’ll all blow over,” he said. “It’s nothing. Our family temple was closed for a while, I believe. But my clan is very strong around Foshan. They will take care of the temple, don’t worry. Next New Year, maybe we’ll go over.”

Foshan was Mr Ng’s native place, a big town in Guangdong Province.

The bunk bed arrangement was awkward, and William thought it might be embarrassing at first. The thing was structured with a double bed on the bottom, where the Ngs slept, and a single one on top, for William. So he was right over them, and could hardly have avoided knowing about it if they made tongfang while he was there. Mr Ng cleared this up the first week.

“Do you know about the private relations between men and women?” he asked William one evening, when Mrs Ng was out visiting.

William said he thought he understood the essentials well enough.

“Good. Then you will understand if I tell you this. Sunday is our day off. Sunday we lie in late. I want you to get up early on Sunday and take a walk. Around eight o’clock. Get up, take a steamed bun or a batter-stick, and go take a nice long walk. If it’s raining, take a waterproof. Walking in the rain is good for the lungs, very healthful. Close the front door behind you. If you come back and the door is still closed, go walk some more. Don’t come back in until the door is open. Understand?”

“Sure. No problem.”

William’s own state, his new state of perfect celibacy, was a relief at first, after Bina’s attentions. He did not give a single thought to those things, after the conversation with Mr Ng. Then Bina suddenly reappeared.

William was trying to find a job, to supplement the family income until school started, and he had been out in Aberdeen chasing some leads. Returning, coming along the corridor that ran the length of the sixth floor, he saw Bina at the door, ringing the bell. The Ngs were both out at work. Bina was under full canvas: one of her finest saris, magenta and chartreuse slashed with bright tangerine, all flecked with gold, and her gold hair ornaments and gold and silver bangles all the way up her forearm.

“I’ve been worried about you,” said Bina when she saw him. “Leaving so suddenly like that. Not coming back to let me know how you’re getting on.”

“I’m getting on all right,” said William. “Papa Wu could have told you that.”

“Not the same thing.” She came right up to him, took his hands in both of hers, and smiled up at him. “Not the same thing at all.”

There was a face, one of the neighbors at her kitchen window. “Let’s go for a walk,” said William. “This is not the right place.”

He led her down the stairs to the courtyard. It was full of children playing. They walked across, and started down the hill toward Aberdeen.

“You’re a bad boy,” said Bina. “I’m sure you haven’t thought of me even a little.”

“Well, I’ve been getting used to my new life,” replied William, deliberately not contradicting her.

“New life! Weren’t you happy enough with me?”

“Doing what? You were out all day long. I was just sitting there watching TV.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to be like that. I was thoughtless. I can set you up in the company I’m working with. We need more Chinese staff. You can make some money. Do something interesting.”

It dawned on William—a revelation!—that Bina was pleading with him. He stopped dead—they were halfway down the hill—and turned to face her.

“What are you saying? That I should come back?”

“Of course you should come back! What else will you do? Live in that slum the rest of your life?” She pointed back up the hill. “I can make something of you, William.” She lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry I neglected you so shamelessly before. It won’t be like that now.” Smiling up at him again, something quite new in her eyes—something yearning, and a bit scary. “It won’t be like that now.”

“Why, Bina? Why do you want me back so much? You came all this way, and … why?”

Amazingly, unexpectedly, she flung her arms round him, pressing her face down on his shoulder. “Because I love you, you stupid boy! I love you! Don’t you understand?” His nostrils were filled with her scent, the heavy exotic scent, overlaid now with some elements of perspiration—it was a very hot day.

Terrified, William pushed her away, so hard she almost fell over. He ran off down to the town, hearing her screaming behind him. “William! WILLIAM! Don’t, oh don’t! I need you, I love you! Come back, please come back!” He could hear it until he reached the town, and lost himself in the crowds.

William thought about this a lot in the days that followed. This woman, whom he had thought so worldly, so sophisticated—she was in love with him! He could not help but feel pleased with himself. Who would feel otherwise, after such a confession? William began to regret his impulsive retreat. The poor woman! Perhaps she would kill herself in despair, and her ghost come to haunt him, like something out of Strange Tales from Liao’s Studio. He began looking at himself in the mirror, the simple plastic-framed mirror that hung on the wall in the Ngs’ bathroom. Handsome—yes: his face smooth and unblemished, teeth white and more or less even, his shoulders broadening, arms and chest thickening. Well, it was understandable. Certainly he had done his best to satisfy her. Three, four times every day. Five times one day, he was sure. Perhaps only Chinese men were so virile. Perhaps Indian men couldn’t satisfy her like that. No, that couldn’t be right: Mr Ng was Chinese, and he only did it once a week. Still, it was understandable.

With his thoughts running on these lines, and the stunned enervation of the weeks with Bina now a month in the past, certain natural and instinctive forces began to reassert themselves. Soon William was at school again—a co-educational school, with a statistically predictable proportion of very pretty girls and handsome boys. The teachers were dull, William was far ahead of his classmates in the most important subjects, and he found it difficult to keep his concentration. In the third week of October, he buckled.

Papa Wu was in the lounge of Washington Guest House, alone, when William knocked on the glass door. Papa Wu got up and let him in.

“Everything all right?” he asked, with that wary about-to-be-imposed-on look.

“Oh, yes. Everything’s fine. I get on very well with the Ngs. We’re doing a formal adoption.”

“Good, good!” Papa Wu nodded vigorous, and no doubt relieved, approval.

“It’s only that …” William cleared his throat. “Miss Bina. I left something here. If I could just ask her …”

“Miss Bina?” Papa Wu threw back his head and laughed. “Forget it!”

“I’m sorry?”

“She’s gone, that’s what!”

“Gone?” (Killed herself! For love of him!) “Gone where?”

“Got married. Mr Dipoo, do you know him?”

“I … No, I don’t think so.”

“Rich guy. Imports precious stones. Got a big place up in mid-levels. Came here to walk out with her—oh, three or four times. Next thing, they were married. It was in the newspaper, Hong Kong Standard, a couple of weeks ago. So fast! And her with no dowry. For the achas that’s important, you know. The woman must bring a dowry. But I guess Mr Dipoo has so much money he doesn’t care about the dowry. Or maybe she bewitched him, like she did you. Ha ha ha! Anyway, there they are in mid-levels—married.”


“Of course, I could look in the room if you like. But I’m sure she took everything with her.”


The Ngs were not, in fact, badly off. Mr Ng earned four hundred a month at the godown, Mrs Ng half as much doing piece work, packing in a toy factory. They paid the government a hundred a month rent for their apartment, and carried no debts. Mr Ng drank a bottle of beer whenever he got the chance—average one a day, probably—and smoked rather immoderately. However, he did not gamble; not even mahjong, the principal enemy of family budgeting in Hong Kong. His wife dressed modestly and kept a frugal house. From a chance remark, William gathered that they had saved a great deal for their son’s operation, and had used only a small part of it for the funeral. There were smart new utensils and gadgets in the apartment: a patented thermos flask that poured at the press of a button; a big radio/cassette player on which Mr Ng liked to listen to Cantonese opera and American Country and Western music; an ingenious shower worked by a foot pump. For William’s sixteenth birthday in October they all went to one of the floating restaurants in Aberdeen harbor, for a meal that cost a hundred and fifty dollars, with shark fin soup and French brandy.

“It’s not just your birthday, it’s your welcome to our family,” said Mr Ng, raising his brandy glass.

For all that, William had fallen some way from the life he had been used to in Kowloon Tong. He noticed this most at school. His old school had been a good one, he vaguely knew. However, it had been the only school he knew in the Colony, so he had had no standard of comparison. It had just seemed to him to be as bright, clean, new and efficient as everything else in Hong Kong. Now he understood how lucky he had been. Not that the Aberdeen school was disgraceful in any way. It was merely dirty, crowded, under-staffed and under-funded. There were sixty to a class. The teachers were overworked and underpaid. They droned through their lessons, mostly just reading through the textbooks. Few could speak English, and none of those few could speak it well. Most, indeed, could not speak Mandarin with any facility; and there was even one, old Mr Sung the history teacher, whose very Cantonese slipped in and out of comprehensibility, he being a villager from the mainland with some exotic local dialect, which he had left behind only in middle age.

The classmates were a mixed bunch. There was a rough element, slum kids from the waterfront. There were some Hakkas from the New Territories, diligent and well-behaved but clannish. There were even a few Egg People, who lived on the boats moored in the harbor. Most, however, were from families like the Ngs: honest working people who could afford nothing better. They were diligent in their studies, and a few showed real promise. Overall, though, the standard was not what William had been used to. He was far ahead of his classmates—and of his teachers, for that matter—in both math and English, and his being a Mandarin speaker excused him from that class altogether.

His good looks and comparative academic brilliance secured him a light sort of popularity, some occasional envy, and a great many admirers among the female classmates. By the end of the first term he could confidently name five girls who he knew were in love with him, and had deep suspicions of two or three of the boys. They were an unworldly crowd, though, confined, out of school hours, to the crowded apartments of the resettlement estates or the even worse, older, private buildings in Aberdeen itself, and there were few opportunities for dalliance, even if anyone had known how to go about it. So all the yearnings and longings, all that fine romantic passion, hung suspended in the stuffy air of the classrooms and the ill-lit murk of the corridors.

William had, in any case, been deterred in some way by the business with Bina. This man-woman thing was far more complicated than he had allowed for, with much more to know. This complexity, this unpredictability, scared him. He bent himself to study, aiming to take four subjects at Advanced after two years at the school. The math would give him no problem; but the physics needed work and travel (the school shared a lab with two others), and the Advanced English included three texts from Literature, one by Mr William Shakespeare that he couldn’t make head nor tail of on a first reading.

His closest friendship at the school was with Fong. It had not (so it seemed to him at any rate, looking back on things later) it had not been his initiative that started things. Fong had taken him up, seeking him out to sit next to in class, hastening to catch up with him in the corridors. Fong looked up to him in some odd way.

“You seem so worldly,” said Fong one time. “You pretend not to be, but I can see you are. You seem to know things I won’t know till I’m forty!”

“That’s nonsense,” said William, not altogether comfortable with this line of talk. “I’m the same age as you. I live with my family in Aberdeen, that’s all.”

“Everybody says you’re a swimmer.”

“All right, I’m a swimmer. It’s not a big deal, and not a big secret. Fuk Loying’s a swimmer, too. You don’t call him worldly.”

“He’s just a peasant from a village. You’re sophisticated. Your English is so good! Half the girls are in love with you, do you know that?”

“Not half, only five of them. I know who: Ho Cheuiyip, Jang Tinfa, …”

Fong was laughing. “You should be more modest, Wailam. Or, you should take advantage of them.”

Fong was good-looking himself: tall, though a little thinner than the ideal. He had a shy smile that was very charming, and a kind of wry, irreverent humor that William liked very much. He had his own admirers among the girl classmates. There was one in particular, who used the English name Lucy, who seemed to dote on him. Many times William saw her gazing dreamily across the classroom at Fong; twice or three times she saw him seeing her, and turned away hastily with a quick pinched frown. William thought Lucy did not like him, perhaps because Fong did. However it was, Fong seemed to be quite oblivious of Lucy’s attentions, and never mentioned her.

Nothing might have happened but for the picnic at New Year. The classmates went on a picnic trip to Tapmun Island, far out in the east of the New Territories. Like most islands, Tapmun had a fishing village, two or three scanty beaches, and a great many rocks. The classmates barbecued on a hilltop, then went off in little groups exploring. William and Fong, with Lucy and one of the girls who was in love with William tagging along, climbed down to one of the beaches. It was rough and stony, with an arc of smooth flat rocks curving round to a hundred yards out, making a kind of tiny bay.

“I’m going for a swim,” said William on impulse. The others all laughed at him. “In February?” said Fong. “It’ll be freezing cold.”

“And so rough,” said William’s girl. “Look at the waves! It’s dangerous. I really don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Well, I feel like a swim.” William was already stripping off. He stripped to his underpants (the girls giggling, their hands pressed to their cheeks in mock outrage). The water was certainly colder than he had expected, but by no means freezing. William struck out for the rocks. When he reached them, he climbed up and stood on top of the flattest one to wave at the three on the shore. But there were only two; Fong had stripped and gone into the water, too. He was not such a strong swimmer as William, though, and seemed to be making no progress against the waves, which were quite high. Watching him, William began to feel alarmed. He dived back in and swam over to where Fong was flailing away ineffectually, in the wrong direction altogether now.

“Take a break,” he said to Fong. “Don’t exhaust yourself. Float on your back. Press the water down slowly with your hands, and keep your body straight. Good, good. Head back, belly up—relax! Now just back-stroke slowly, like this. Straight back, back to the shore. I’ll tell you when you can touch bottom.”

When they came out the girls were shrieking in panic, or simulated panic. William and Fong laughed to reassure them. William thought the girls had not noticed him helping Fong; but then he saw Lucy looking at him with pure hatred. Such a strange business, this man-woman thing! But William’s rescue, or his tact, had made a deep impression on Fong. From this point on there was something earnest about Fong’s attachment to him, something unconditional.

On the way back from Tapmun, Lucy fell asleep in the minibus from Taipou, her head on Fong’s shoulder. It was dark when they reached Kowloon; midnight when William got back to Aberdeen; then it was New Year, the year of the tiger.


In the summer term there was another picnic, this time to Poutoi Island. Poutoi was even more remote than Tapmun, so remote there was no ferry service. They had to hire a sampan in Aberdeen harbor and chug across several miles of open sea. Only seven classmates ventured on this trip, five boys and two girls. The two girls were attached to two of the boys; neither Lucy nor any of William’s conquests made the trip. After the barbecue everyone wandered off in different directions. William and Fong explored a small cove with a cave going back from it. At the back of the cave was a tunnel, sand almost up to the roof, through which could just be made out a neighboring cove, the booming of the waves oddly refracted through the tunnel.

They sat on dry sand by the cave entrance, out of the sun.

“It’s too bad Lucy couldn’t come,” said William.

Fong shrugged. “Lucy’s a pest. Always hanging around me.”

“Don’t you like her?”

“Not that way.”

William laughed. “Now it’s my turn to tell you to take advantage. Since she’s clearly willing.”

“You shouldn’t say that. I don’t want any of that business. Not till I’m into college, anyway. Too much distraction.”

“But you’ve played anti-aircraft, haven’t you?” asked William, using the common Cantonese expression for self-abuse.

Embarrassed, Fong looked down, and dug his fingers into the sand. “Sure. Of course. Everybody does. Not very polite to talk about it.”

“Oh, come on! If everybody does it, why not talk about it? Is talking worse than doing?”

“I guess not.” Fong hadn’t looked up. He was running the sand through his fingers, distractedly. William felt no better than half sure about Fong, and he had really wanted to be more sure than that. Yet … something in the eyes, when he could catch them. More than half sure. But the thing that he had been missing for many months, he was missing very much indeed now. Well, give it a try. He felt the breath tight in his throat.

“Have you ever done it with somebody else?”

His nightmare was, that Fong would jump to his feet, eyes blazing, and storm off to denounce him to the classmates. Get him thrown out of the school, possibly. But Fong only sat there in the bright shadow, sifting the dry white sand through his fingers.

“No,” he said after a short pause. Then, looking up now: “Have you?”

“Sure. Why not? It’s fun. No harm in it.”

“I don’t know.” Sifting sand again.

Now William felt sure. He opened his zipper. His jiba was stiff. “Look,” he said. “Oh, Fong, come on. Do it for me. I really want you to.”

Fong looked. William thought he was breathing hard.

“Do you really think it’s all right? I don’t know.” He looked over at William, and William knew everything would be fine.

“Of course. Of course it’s all right.” He took Fong’s hand and pulled it over, closing it round his jiba. The fingers were rough with sand, but this proved not to matter very much, as the thrill was so exquisite William’s juice flew out immediately.

“Do it for me. Do it for me.” Fong was thoroughly into the spirit of the thing now, fumbling with his own zipper. William reached in and felt Fong’s jiba. It was as hard as his own had been. “Oh, oh, oh,” said Fong, and fell back on the sand with his hands over his face. “Oh, oh.” William pulled out the organ and stroked it three or four times. Then he leaned over and took it in his mouth. He played on it for a while with his tongue and lips, then tasted Fong’s juice gushing hot across his tongue and palate. When it was finished he repacked and zippered up Fong, who had become quite inert, and then rearranged himself.

“Come on,” he said. “We’d best be getting back.”

Fong was just lying there, his hands over his face. “I’m so ashamed,” he said through his hands. “So ashamed.”

“Oh, for what? It’s only a bit of fun. You enjoyed it, didn’t you?”

Fong sat up. His face showed him distraught—near to tears, William thought.

“Yes. It was wonderful. But it’s wrong. You know it is. It’s against nature.”

“Oh, nonsense. Wearing clothes is against nature, isn’t it? Animals don’t wear clothes, not that I’ve noticed.”

“That’s different. Wearing clothes is customary. This—it’s not customary.”

“Who says not? What do you think Gam Wing in Red Chamber Dream is talking about, when he’s taunting Cheun Jung and Heung Lin? So Chinese people were doing it two hundred years ago. They didn’t think it was against nature.”

“I’m sure they did. You can’t judge from literature. Literature always exaggerates.”

They were sitting up on the sand, William rubbing at a small stain on his jeans.

“Don’t take it so seriously. It’s only a bit of fun. There’s no harm done. It’s not like with a girl, when you can get her pregnant. Don’t worry, you won’t get pregnant.”

To William’s immense relief, Fong laughed: not a nervous or defensive laugh, a giggle of real amusement. Then: “You planned this from the beginning, didn’t you? When we all split up after the barbecue.”

“No. It was just opportunism.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re so sly. I thought you just wanted to be friends.”

“Well, we are friends, aren’t we? Who better to make hangfong with, than your friend?” [Using the Cantonese term.] “I mean, we trust each other, don’t we?”

“Don’t call it hangfong. It’s not hangfong.”

“Well, it’s near enough. But we can do hangfong, too, if you like.”

“No, no.” Fong stood up abruptly. “No, that’s really unnatural.” He seemed disturbed and unsettled again. William wished he had not mentioned hangfong.

“All right.” He stood up. “Let’s get back.”


Now more than ever missing that thing, William planned carefully. On a blazing Sunday morning in June, he took a trip to Kowloon with Fong, to window-shop in Nathan Road. Riding over on Star Ferry, he rolled the dice. “Let’s do it again,” he said.

“Do what?”

“You know. What we did on Poutoi Island.”

“What, here?” Fong laughed. They were leaning on the rail, watching the approach to Kowloon. “You’re crazy.”

“Of course not here. But I know a place nearby where we can go.”


“In Kowloon. Nathan Road. Come on. It’s a bit of fun, that’s all.”

Fong said nothing. He said nothing coming off the ferry, and nothing walking up to Nathan Road. William turned in to Chungking Mansions. Instead of taking the elevator, he went round to the stairs at the back. This was a mistake: the stairs were filthy, garbage everywhere. It made the whole enterprise seem seedy. Still Fong said nothing, following three or four paces behind. They went up three flights to Princess Guest House. There was an old Chinese woman at the desk, her face so dark it was almost black, creased and folded like a lizard’s. Expressionless, she took the money for one hour’s rental, and handed over a key.

“Room Seven,” she said, in a thick Shandong accent.

Fong was hanging back. William went to room seven and opened the door. Fong obviously had to pluck up his courage to get past the old woman. He need not have troubled himself. The old woman had seen everything since fleeing her home village as a child, back in the warlord period sixty years previously. Everyone had had to flee because there was no water to be had. The reason there was no water was that the village well was clogged with corpses. She had had her feet bound, then unbound when it was too late to save them from deformity. She had been sold twice, the first time at age nine to a brute who had invited his drinking friends in to watch while he deflowered her. She had buried him, and two more husbands, and eight children besides, and was now content to sit here in silence all day waiting for Lord Yanwang, the Emperor of Hell, to summon her to join her ancestors in his own good time. Fong would have fired no spark of interest in her withered soul if he had been a dromedary.

William closed the door and locked it. Turning, he saw Fong standing in the middle of the room, an expression of anguish on his face.

“Oh, Wailam. I’m really not sure.”

“It’s all right. Come on, let’s take a shower together. It’ll relax you.”

William began to undress. From the corner of his eye he saw that Fong, after some hesitation, was following his example. When both were naked they stood facing each other. Fong had a pleasant body: pale and smooth, slim but well-built, marred only by a small appendix scar. His jiba was already stiff. When William saw this he knew he could not wait.

“Let’s lie on the bed,” he said, aware that his voice was not normal.

“I thought you wanted to take a shower.”

“Shower afterwards.”

Assuming Fong would need instruction, William had the whole thing choreographed in his mind. To his surprise, however, Fong took the initiative, rolling them over and then, after some tangling and untangling, ending up on top of William, both of them face down. After half a dozen strokes he climaxed, moaning and gasping hot into William’s ear. William spent himself more or less simultaneously, from ecstasy and friction with the bedclothes. They lay there together for a while, gasping.

Suddenly Fong jumped up and ran to the minuscule shower cubicle. The water started running. William got up slowly and walked over to the cubicle. It was so small, there was room only for one at a time.

“So disgraceful, so disgraceful.” Fong sounded as if he were sobbing.

“Oh, come on. You wanted to.”

“Yes. I wanted to. That’s what’s so disgraceful. Oh! Oh!”

“Hey. It’s all right.” William tried to edge into the cubicle.

“No, no, don’t come in. It’s too small, anyway.”

“All right. I only wanted to tell you, it’s all right.”

“You want to do it to me, don’t you? What I did to you, you want to do it to me.”

“No. No, I don’t. I’ve already had gouchiu. I’ve finished. I just don’t like to see you upset.”

Fong pushed his way out, leaving the water running. The tiny, windowless room was full of steam. Fong took a towel from the rail set helpfully next to the bed, and began pummeling his hair.

“You’re evil. You seduced me,” he said. Now he sounded angry, William thought. One minute angry, one minute blubbing in self-reproach, one minute squirting his juice into your bottom. What kind of guy was this? He began to regret having taken up Fong. Annoyed, he went into the shower. When he came out, Fong was dressed and lacing his shoes.

“Please, Wailam, please don’t say anything about this to anyone.”

“Of course not. It’s just between us two.”

“I’m so ashamed, so ashamed.”

“There’s no need. You enjoyed it and I enjoyed it. What’s to be ashamed for?”

“So filthy! So disgusting!”

“Not at all. We took a shower, didn’t we? I can’t see what you’re so excited about.” William thought he was not keeping the irritation out of his voice.

“I don’t know what kind of life you’ve lived. But my life isn’t like that. If my family knew—oh!” Fong stood up. He shot William a strange, bleak look, then wrestled with the door for a while before getting it open. William, still naked, backed off to be out of sight from the doorway. Fong paused in the doorway.

“I really wish I’d never met you.” And he gave William that same look: eyes wide and mobile, head at a slight angle. He left.

What a neurotic, thought William as he dressed. But worth it, well worth it, all things considered. He recycled the memory of Fong’s slim, pale body, and of the wonderful satisfaction of Fong inside him. Definitely worth it, neurotic or not.

He did not think much of it when Fong failed to show up at classes the following Monday. When on Tuesday Fong still did not show, William felt a tremor of apprehension. He asked a classmate who lived in the same resettlement block as Fong.

“No idea,” said the classmate. “He didn’t say anything to me.”

It was this same classmate who gave them the news later in the week. Fong’s dead body had been found on Poutoi Island. He had taken a boat out there on Monday afternoon, telling the boat to come back for him. Once there he had found a secluded cove, then cut his wrists and his throat. Inexpertly, it appeared, as he had eventually died from exposure, not exsanguination. The sampan had gone back for him; but when he hadn’t been there to meet it, had gone blithely back to Aberdeen. Some fishing people had found him on Wednesday morning.

William crept around for some days in a condition of cold terror. This was not conscience: he honestly did not feel he had anything to be conscience-stricken about. It was only that he feared the discovery of a note, a letter, a diary, a confession. He also feared Lucy, who had become very strange since the news: red-eyed, distracted, jumping up to leave class suddenly, taking sudden absences. She looked at him with a new look now, a look that seemed, to him, to contain elements of accusation and comprehension, and William did his utmost to avoid her altogether.

Soon this was no longer necessary. In the last week of the summer term Lucy jumped from the roof of her resettlement block. One of the low-grade Chinese tabloids, the one favored by Mr Ng, ran a picture of the girl’s dead body, her skirt up exposing her bare legs and underwear, her brains hanging loose from her burst skull. The first of these effects had been arranged by the newspaper photographer following payment of a small bribe to the police detective supervising the scene; the second was a consequence of having fallen twelve floors onto bare concrete.

“Such a terrible thing,” said Mrs Ng. “Who can understand it?”

Chapter 31

Thought Processes of a Mathematician

The Hazards of Playing the Financial Markets

Show that there exists a set A of positive integers with the following property: For any infinite set S of primes there exist two positive integers m in A and n not in A, each of which is a product of k distinct elements of S for some k greater than 1.

William stared at the question, struggling with the grammar. Clearly he was being invited to divide the positive integers into two parts, A and not-A. But what was the criterion for this division? Working on the scratch pad, he tried some possibilities. A the set of all even numbers—of course not. A some subset of the primes … No, couldn’t be made to work. Then what? He tried negating the problem’s statement for a reductio ad absurdum, but got lost in the negation logic.

He fretted with the question—it was the first of six on the paper—but could get nowhere with it. He hastened to the next. Two mirrors set at an angle to each other, a ray of light coming in at another angle, how many reflections? His spirits rose. Nothing to it but brute trigonometry! He hacked through it without pausing, but it still took twenty minutes—and a quarter of the three hours was gone! He had wasted twenty-five minutes on that first question!

Gritting his teeth, William attacked the third question. On a first reading it was as opaque as Question One; but he forced himself to read it through again, calmly and slowly, and saw at once that it was a straightforward exercise in projective geometry, disguised by a lot of superfluous conditions. The Fourth question was an ingenious puzzle in number theory that came out in four lines once you saw the trick. Five was a messy business with a cone, a sphere and a cube resting against each other, which could be short-circuited to some degree by a change of coordinate systems. Six was a geometrical trap of great elegance: the unimaginative student force-fed with calculus formulas would attack it, and eventually solve it, via a chain of integration by parts, but if you just considered it coolly for a moment, and were familiar with a certain ancient puzzle involving tessellations of the plane, it could be solved very easily by applying a series of reflections, without using calculus at all.

Delighted with himself at having seen through this last question, William set his pen down and checked the clock. Fifteen minutes to spare! Glancing round, he saw the other students still working, every one. So! He had finished ahead of them all! Resting back in his seat, he closed the question book, which was actually just a single folded sheet, and let his head fall back, so that he was looking up at the ceiling. To emphasize the effect further, he stretched his arms up vertically, cracking his knuckles, then set his hands behind his head in a posture of relaxation. Should work over his results, perhaps, and see if any could be improved. But he felt sure he had captured the essence of all the questions, and that there was little improvement to be made. He bent forward again, anyway, to review his work … and saw Question One laughing back at him, still unanswered!

Frantically William scrabbled for his pen, dropped it, picked it up, swept the question paper off the desk while straightening up, picked that up, turned it right way round, and stared sweating at Question One. Show that there exists a set A … Made up of what? Excluding what? He fumbled with figures on the scratch pad, trying things he knew were hopeless even before the pen touched the paper. Twelve minutes. Eleven. For any infinite set S of primes there exist … So, if only he could construct this set A, he could face up to anyone challenging him with a set S, defy them, vanquish them! by producing the golden antidotes m and n. Nine minutes. The chief invigilator stirred, rising cautiously from his desk to embark on a tiptoe patrol up the center aisle.

In panic and despair William suddenly, in his mind’s eye, saw Han Yuezhu. She was grim-faced, angry, accusing, and was thrusting towards him an infinite set S of primes, in the form of a large, heavy stick of dark brown bamboo. The set was right there, cut in rough symbols along the bamboo:

S = {p1, p2, p3, p4, p5, p6, … }

Yuezhu was pushing it at him, thrusting it at him, challenging him, her face twisted in hatred, modified now by the beginnings of a triumphant leer. How could he riposte? What did he have to defend himself with? Cornered, despairing, he turned—and saw a long rack, an infinitely long rack, of swords, and a label above each:

k=1    k=2    k=3    k=4 …

Of course! He had freedom of choice with k! It could be anything he wanted! No matter what set of primes she challenged him with, there would be a k to meet it! And each k must correspond to a subset of A … so A was constructed from subsets … each one keyed on what? on what? … On the k-th prime, of course!

William wrote a proof out on the scratch pad. It was messy and roundabout, but once he saw it in writing all was clear. He condensed it to a dozen elegant lines on the answer sheet  … then saw that it could even be cut down to half that, if only …


“Pens down, please, ladies and gentlemen,” said the invigilator, who was English. “At once, please, young lady,” (to a recalcitrant examinee). “Thank you.”

He gestured to his minions at the sides of the room. They advanced along the outward aisles, collecting papers. William took a last regretful glance at his solutions before the boy took them. Those superfluous lines in the proof! Another thirty seconds and he could have got rid of them. That was the kind of thing that might make all the difference. But life had taught William sufficient fatalism. Putting the examination out of his mind, He left the hall and walked over the hills to Aberdeen, taking Halton Road past the Peak.

When Mr Ng got home from work he insisted on seeing the question paper, which William had brought out with him. Mr Ng scrutinized the paper in silence for several minutes, sitting at the circular fold-up dinner table, sipping at his glass of beer.

“Ha!” he said at last.

“Ha, what?”

“Ha, I can’t find even one sentence that makes sense.”

“But you can hardly read English, Uncle.”

“I can read well enough. But this … Is it really useful?”

William laughed. “I don’t know. Maybe not.”

“Such things in the world. You live your whole life not knowing them.” Mr Ng shrugged, and looked straight at William. “Did you answer all the questions?”

“Yes. Every one.”

Mr Ng nodded, and dropped his eyes. “But you mustn’t get your hopes too high, you know. If you can go to the University, that will be wonderful. But don’t hope too much. Hope is a drug, you know. Like liquor, like opium. Feels very nice while you enjoy it. Afterwards—big hangover.” He held William’s eyes again.

William laughed. “Don’t worry, Uncle. I did my best, that’s all. Nobody can do more.”

Mr Ng sighed. “You have so much ability. I’m sorry …” he glanced across the table at William again, “… I’m sorry I haven’t the resources to give you the education you deserve. As things are, everything is up to you.”

“It’s all right, Uncle. You’ve done everything you can for me. I have no complaints.”

Old Ng considered this for a while, sipping his San Miguel beer. Then, without looking up: “You’re a good boy, Wailam.”

William wished he could do something for the Ngs. They had been so kind to him. It seemed wrong that such good people should have so little. He thought of Fourth Outside Uncle. There was a man with everything, yet he could turn away a penniless relative from his door. Human nature was really unfathomable.

This was in early December, William’s second and last year at the school in Aberdeen. He wanted to go to college, but the Ngs could not afford it. William especially wanted to go to Hong Kong University, the colony’s premier institution. His only chance was to get a scholarship; and there was precisely one full scholarship offered in mathematics, awarded by competitive examination, the examination William had just sat for.

Since the events of the summer he had withdrawn from his classmates altogether and buried himself in study. The school had no library, but William had joined the main Hong Kong public library over in Central district, on the other side of the island. You can walk right over the spine of Hong Kong island, from Aberdeen to Central, along quiet roads and tracks that avoid the Peak and offer spectacular views of the colony, the mainland, and the South China Sea. William often took this walk on a Saturday morning, over the hills and down into the clamor of Central.

The other pole of his solitary world now was the University bookstore on Pokfulam Road. The general library in Central had few books on higher math, and he had long since absorbed them all. The University bookstore had a much richer collection. He could not afford to buy them, of course—the cheapest were forty or fifty dollars—but he could browse as much as he liked, and in this way he managed to get all he needed, working out the exercises in his head, or memorizing them to take home and attack with paper and pencil.


A few days after the examination William went to the University bookstore to browse. The problem of the tessellations had stuck in his mind, and he had worked out a generalization, but needed to know more about Group Theory. However, none of the books was helpful. William’s mind wandered, and he drifted aimlessly for a while among the shelves.

There was a section, separate from the main mathematics books, of almanacs, ephemerides, statistical and nautical tables. These had a certain fascination for William. They reminded him of Abramovitz and Stegun on Father’s bookshelf, in another world long ago. Pulling down these books at random to savor the numbers all in their ranks and files, William found himself looking at some bond tables. He had no idea what a bond was, much less any inkling of rates or yields; but he at once saw the smooth regularity in the numbers, and mentally sketched a curve to fit them. The book was a compendium of business statistics, including long lists of prices of various kinds of securities and commodities on the exchanges of the world, up to the year 1969. Some of the numbers flowed regularly on simple curves, like the bond yields; others seemed to fluctuate without rhyme or reason.

The endless columns of numbers, and their odd, tantalizing patterns of behavior, caught William’s interest. He hiked round to Central and found the same book in the library’s reference section. William took the book back to a desk and scanned through the pages. The commodity and currency prices seemed to be the most irregular. Working mentally—he had no writing materials—he tried doing first and second differences, but the randomness just increased. Irritated, he tried comparing different commodities over the same time periods. This was more fruitful: there were patterns of reflection and inversion. Thoroughly captured now, William begged a pencil and some paper from the librarian, and settled down with the columns of numbers.

At dinner that evening he asked Mr Ng about commodities. He didn’t know the Chinese word, and Mr Ng didn’t know the English, so they had to look it up.

“I know,” said Mr Ng. “There’s an exchange. Like the stock exchange. Business people buy and sell those things. The exchange regulates it.”

“Can anybody do it? Buy and sell, I mean.”

“I don’t think so. You need a pot of money, anyway.”

“A broker,” said Mrs Ng. “You need a broker.”

William and Mr Ng stared at her. “Since when do you know about these things?” asked Mr Ng.

“Old Mother Lo in 621 plays the stock market. She told me all about it.”

Mr Ng stared at his wife. “Old Mother Lo? She hasn’t got two pennies to rub together.”

Mrs Ng laughed merrily, delighted with her secret. “She’s a miser. Her husband used to live in Canada, you know. He had money saved. She really shouldn’t be living in public housing at all.”

“This broker,” asked William. “Who is it? What does he do?”

“He handles the buying and selling. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to. You have to have a license. Well, he has a license. He lends you money, too. To buy the stocks. It’s called trading on margin.”

“Since you know all this stuff, it’s surprising we’re not rich,” sniffed Mr Ng.

“We never have any money,” Mrs Ng smiled back. “What would we buy with?”

“But you said the broker lends you money,” put in William.

“Mmm, yes. But still you must put up a deposit. I can find out if you like.”

They sent her off to consult with Old Mother Lo. When she was gone, Mr Ng asked: “Why do you want to know about commodities and brokers?”

“I was reading a book in the library, about commodities. The prices of different ones are related in some way. It’s complicated, but I can figure it out. If you watch what one is doing today, sometimes you can tell what another one will do tomorrow. Gold and platinum, for example. If gold goes up more than three days in a row …”

He tried to explain to Mr Ng, but could see he wasn’t doing very well. It was hard to express without using mathematics. Just as Mr Ng’s perplexity seemed to be crossing over into actual physical pain, Mrs Ng came back with Old Mother Lo.

“It’s a thousand dollars minimum,” said Old Mother Lo. “They won’t deal with you for less than that. But if you put up a thousand you can trade for ten thousand. They take a cut, of course.” She gave them a long lecture on stock trading, but seemed to know nothing about commodities.

They gave Old Mother Lo some sticky rice cakes and sent her home. “I don’t know why we’re talking about this,” said Mrs Ng when the old woman had gone. “We’re never going to have a thousand dollars.”

“Might be able to raise it,” said Mr Ng, looking at William as he spoke. “I haven’t asked my family for anything for a long time. And your people … well, there was that loan last summer. But we repaid that at New Year. Won’t hurt to ask.”

“You’re crazy!” Mrs Ng laughed at him. “Playing the stock market with borrowed money! Crazy! We’ll be in debt all our lives!”

“It’s not stocks, it’s commodities. And young Wailam here seems to know what to do.” Mr Ng had not taken his eyes off William. “Don’t you?”

“I think so. But can we really get a thousand dollars?”

“If it’s a sure thing I can get it. Is it a sure thing?”

“Maybe. I’m really not certain. I need to read some more.”

“A sure thing but not certain!” Mrs Ng reached across the table and slapped her husband playfully on the cheek. “Wake up, old turtle! We’re not business people! We’re like donkeys and oxen, born to work.”

“Let him do his research. If he says it’s a sure thing, I’ll believe him.”

And so William went into the commodities markets. Mr Ng made the rounds of the relatives, and somehow raised a thousand Hong Kong dollars—a hundred and seventy U.S. at this point in time. William was too young to have an account at the brokers, but Old Mother Lo introduced Mr Ng, and the broker took him on. William watched the price of gold, matching the patterns. On the appropriate day, he told Mr Ng to buy platinum futures. They put in the entire one thousand, on margin, and tracked the investment in Mr Ng’s daily newspaper.

“Can’t see much movement,” complained Mr Ng. “It’s inching up, but hardly enough to cover the commission.”

“Wait,” said William. “Wait.”

They waited. Gold hesitated, as William had expected it to; then sagged. Silver trailed gold. Platinum turned up, climbed, then soared.

“Get out now,” said William. “First thing in the morning.”

They had made a sixty per cent profit in a month. Mr Ng got the brokers to write out a statement for him, and brought it home, and set it on the dining table where they could all wonder at it.

“Five thousand eight hundred dollars,” said Mr Ng. “I have never had so much money in my life. Never seen so much.”

“It’s a miracle,” said Mrs Ng. “But if you won all this, somebody must have lost it.”

“I can do it any time,” said William.

His second venture, however, was less successful. He had developed a complicated rule he called the W Theory. According to this, when the price of gold had executed a symmetrical W shape on one of his time series, silver would fall and then rise. This worked, but not as well as he had hoped, and their profit this time was just four per cent. Still, Mr Ng’s confidence in him was now total.

“If we can play a few more like this, you’ll be able to go to the University after all,” said Mr Ng.

William tried a new, vastly more complicated ploy: returning to platinum, but with cross-bets on silver, gold, and three different currencies. This time he had to monitor the trades himself, as Mr Ng had been unable to grasp the strategy. Day by day William checked the listings in the South China Morning Post. The Yen and Deutschmark rose against the dollar, then parted company in just the even, symmetrical way he wanted, like the opening petals of a flower on his graph. When their curves had diverged to a pretty cornet shape, he sold silver and bought gold. When his figures summed to a certain figure, he sold Deutschmarks and gold, bought dollars and platinum. Platinum obediently rose, rose, rose—not by any means beyond his wildest dreams, but strongly, sufficiently. It would rise through to the end of the week, he knew.

Or thought he knew. On Wednesday platinum stalled; on Thursday it dropped like a stone. Mr Ng enjoyed his first margin call, or would have if he had been at home to take it. Not being at home, his positions—futures and currencies all—were liquidated.

“Big new platinum find in central Africa.” (This was the broker, when Mr Ng and William went there on Friday morning.) “The French cut a deal with the government. Mining will start soon. Demand pretty fixed, you know. Get a new supply, prices gonna drop. These things happen.”

It could have been worse. The silver trades, plus the appreciation of the Yen, had almost covered their net deficit. By the time they walked out of the broker’s office they knew that they were only four hundred dollars poorer than when they had started six weeks before, except that the thousand dollars Mr Ng had borrowed from his relatives had disappeared into the futures market along with all their winnings.

“I’m sorry,” said William, as they walked down Nathan Road to the Star Ferry. The broker was on Kowloon side. “Really sorry.”

“Guess it’s true what people say,” said Mr Ng: “The markets are really a lottery.”

“I’ll get it back,” said William. “I’ve got a new theory …”

“Using what?” Mr Ng wasn’t mad, but he wasn’t smiling, either. “We’ve lost our funds. I owe a thousand to my cousins and four hundred to the broker. Not to mention lost wages from taking the morning off work. No, let’s learn our lesson. No more markets. We are small people, working people. We shouldn’t get involved in these rich man’s games.”

“But then how can we pay back what we owe?”

“Oh, we’ll go short for a while.” Mr Ng shrugged.

“I’ll get a job after school.”

“No, you won’t.” Mr Ng stopped, and faced William. “This is not your fault, don’t feel bad. I’m the head of my family. I took the decision to invest. I had too much faith in you. No, not in you, Wailam, in your mathematics. Seeing that examination paper you brought home, I thought, wa!—a person who can understand this stuff can surely crack the stock market. But the market is a worldly thing, and mathematics is a mental thing. I didn’t think of that. You’re just a kid, you don’t know anything about the world. No-one could expect you to think of it. But me, I really should have. A new platinum mine in Africa! Who could predict it? How could your mathematics tell you that? So I didn’t think things through as I should have done. Now I am much wiser. It cost me fourteen hundred dollars, that’s all. But you know …” he grinned up at William, “… wisdom is cheap at any price.” He laughed—freely, genuinely, at himself. “So don’t worry about the fourteen hundred. We’ll get it together somehow. But no more market games!”


Back on Hong Kong side they went their ways, Mr Ng to his job in North Point, William back to Aberdeen for school. The bus went along Pokfulam Road past the University. Little hope now of studying there. That damn Question One! It was his fault, like the fiasco with commodities. He had been overconfident. If only he had gone straight back to it, in that extra couple of minutes he could have perfected his proof. After all, who was he to be so confident? A country boy from a town no-one had heard of. A vagabond, a thief, bum-boy to a foreign devil, plaything of an acha nymphomaniac.

William reached school overcome with shame and self-doubt. He had intended to slip into the last class of the morning, which was English. However, one of his classmates met him at the lab door.

“Wailam, where have you been? The Principal wanted to see you.”

So now he was to be scolded for skipping classes. Well, it was no more than he deserved. Resigned to his fate, William made his way to the Principal’s office. One of the secretaries sent him straight through. The Principal was a small, clerkish fellow named Kong. Somewhat to William’s surprise, he stood up as William entered, grinning unnaturally from behind his thick glasses.

“Well, well! Congratulations!”

Taking this as sarcasm, William momentarily wondered if Principal Kong had got wind of his speculations on the commodities exchange.

“Our star pupil! Such an honor for our school!”

Principal Kong had come out from his desk to shake William’s hand. William was baffled. This did not seem like sarcasm. Kong shook William’s hand with both of his, like an American.

“What … I’m sorry. I know I was late in today, but …”

Principal Kong raised his eyebrows and stepped back. “Did Mr Cheui not tell you? I thought he had told you. Then it is my pleasure to tell you!” He was beaming, clearly delighted about something.

“Tell me?”

“You have won the math scholarship to Hong Kong University! You placed first in the whole territory!” (Hong Kong people, speaking in Cantonese, never said “colony.”)

“Really? Oh!”

“Not only that, but you got a perfect score. One hundred per cent! The first time in twenty-seven years! It’s a sensation! Perfect score! Such an honor for our school!”

Mr Ng smiled when William told him, and nodded his satisfaction. “Sak Ngong lost his horse,” he said. “Sak Ngong lost his horse.” This idiom referred to an old story about a man named Sak Ngong—“Sai Weng” in Mandarin.

Sai Weng Lost His Horse

There was a man named Sai Weng who lived near the Wall. One day Sai Weng lost his horse. His neighbors expressed their sympathy, but Sai Weng only said: “Human beings cannot understand the play of fortune and misfortune. It is too complex. Perhaps some good will come of this.”

After a few days his horse came back, bringing with it a herd of wild horses from the grasslands of the west. Sai Weng captured and tamed the wild horses. His neighbors said: “What good fortune! With these horses, you can be considered a rich man. It must be a gift from Heaven!” Sai Weng only said: “Who can tell? Perhaps some evil will come of this.”

Sure enough, one of the horses, whose blood was still wild, threw Sai Weng’s son. The son broke a leg and became lame. When Sai Weng’s neighbors came to offer condolences, he only said: “Nobody can understand the ways of Heaven. Perhaps some good will come of this.”

Soon after that, barbarians broke through the Wall. All the young men of the district were conscripted to fight them, and all the young men were killed. Sai Weng’s son, however, was not conscripted because he was lame. So of all the people in his district, only Sai Weng had a son to care for him in old age.

At the University William was interviewed by four members of faculty in a pleasant little sitting-room overlooking the campus. They introduced themselves to him one by one, coming up out of their armchairs to shake hands, all of them addressing him in English. Three of them were Europeans, one Chinese. The Chinese, and one of the Europeans, seemed to be full Professors.

“You gave a very impressive performance, young man,” said Professor Meld, when everyone was seated again.

“Avoided all our little traps,” chuckled Lecturer Moore.

“You were the only one who made a dent on Question One,” said Lecturer Michaels. “Nobody else got anywhere with it. The pons asinorum.”

“And your change of coordinates,” said Professor Cheung. “I had not thought of it myself, until I saw your solution.”

“Thank you,” said William. “Thank you.”

Chapter 32

Excessive Purity Turns Away Affection

Weilin Finds the Tinder Box at Last

It was in towards the end of his first year at the University that William’s disappointment became acute.

The University was run on the British principle: students were required to pay their fees and were expected, though not required, to attend lectures and examinations. Nothing else was asked of them at all. This was not the best possible environment for a nineteen-year-old with underdeveloped study habits and a budding obsession with the financial markets.

There was, furthermore, an undue concentration on logical rigor in all the courses. William had been aware of this aspect of mathematics from his high school studies, but had never before felt so hindered in his advances through mathematical topics by his instructors’ insistence on pausing to construct strict proofs of even the most obvious assertions. He chafed under this puritanism, felt more keenly than ever his lack of early training, and fled to the University library, which had good historical tables covering all the major financial indices.

At the end of that first year their Analysis course culminated in Jordan’s Curve Theorem, which asserts that every simple closed curve in the plane—a circle, for example—possesses both an inside and an outside. The instructor stretched out the proof over three lectures, in the third of which William fell asleep, having spent the previous evening in the Ngs’ apartment constructing a model for the short-term movements in the prices of U.S. money-market instruments. He took a scolding from the lecturer, a good deal of cheerful joshing from his classmates, and passed his first-year exams the following week with only a middling mark.

“Don’t waste this opportunity,” preached Mr Ng on the first week of summer vacation. “I can see you’re not satisfied. Things can’t always go the way we want, you just have to stick them out.”

“It’s just that I thought things would be more practical once I got out of high school,” said William.

The second year things only got worse. In Algebra they were taught group theory, ring theory and field theory, in none of which were the objects of their attention any less abstract than rotations and permutations. In Analysis they explored Riemann surfaces, which could only be adequately visualized by regarding the heretofore-friendly Cartesian plane as a sheet of infinitely stretchable rubber, capable of being folded over on itself an infinite number of times. The lecturer in Applied Mathematics, a fierce lanky Scotchman with red hair and beard, attempted to persuade them that Newton’s laws of motion merely described lines of least distance in certain curved n-dimensional spaces. William developed a strategy for evaluating the comparative worth of stocks by taking ratios across, instead of within, the balance sheets of the underlying companies. He itched to try it out on the Hong Kong market, but had no funds.

In the British academic calendar, three semesters comprised one year. Tuition fees were payable at the beginning of each semester, which was also the time William received each portion of his scholarship. Being privately funded, the scholarship came to him as a check. He cashed this check at the University bursar’s office, paid his tuition fees for the semester at the registration office, and gave the balance to Mrs Ng, who managed the family finances.

At the beginning of spring term, in January 1977, William cashed his check but did not pay his fees. Instead he went out of the University and down into the business district. The broker recognized him, and made small jokes as he wrote up William’s deposit into Mr Ng’s account, which was still open. William then gave careful instructions for some stock purchases, after which he went back up the hill to the university, and sat in the library wondering how he would explain things to the Ngs.

William’s theory about stocks proved false, or perhaps true only over a much longer term than he had allowed for. His investments stolidly failed to earn, and in fact slumped somewhat. As the weeks went by, he grew more and more despairing. Should have stayed with commodities. Fast results—either good or bad, but fast.

Meanwhile his position at the University was becoming untenable. A certain degree of latitude was allowed in the payment of fees, but after two weeks notes from the registration office began appearing in William’s pigeonhole at the Department of Mathematics. After two more weeks a large Englishwoman from that office came seeking him, cornering him as he came out of a complex variable class.

“Is there a problem, William?” asked the woman in a kindly way. “Some family problem?”

“No,” said William. “Not at all. It has just slipped my mind. I’ll pay tomorrow.”

The next day William put on the suit and tie the Ngs had bought him when he started at the University and left the apartment, explaining to Mrs Ng that there was a function he had to attend. He rode round to the business district and walked into the lobby of Talmadge Tucker.

Talmadge Tucker was an American trading firm. William had read about them in the Hong Kong Standard financial pages. They had opened a Hong Kong office the year before, “to dip a toe” (this had been the Standard’s metaphor) “in the Asian markets.” From subsequent reading, William gathered that Talmadge Tucker had not proceeded from toe-dipping to full immersion, being more averse to risk than suited the oriental temperament; but they were highly regarded none the less, as being American and therefore not likely to disappear to Taiwan one night with the clients’ funds.

The lobby of Talmadge Tucker reminded William of Blitzer, where he had studied English an age ago. It had the same dark, grave furnishings in polished wood with shining brass accoutrements, the same cream-colored venetian blinds; but the carpet was a pleasant fawn color, not green. The desk featured a pretty Chinese receptionist talking on the telephone. William waited for her to finish.

“I want to speak to Mr Wolf,” said William in English, naming the man who had been interviewed for the Standard piece.

“Have you an appointment?”

“No. I …”

“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist, concealing her sorrow with a very high order of dramatic skill. “Mr Wolf will not see you without an appointment.”

“Won’t you ask him, please, siuje?” William asked, using Cantonese for maximum connection. “I’m from the University. Department of Mathematics. We think we’ve made a breakthrough in analyzing commodity price fluctuations. I know Mr Wolf would be most interested.” William had brought with him a thin folder, outlining his theories on commodity prices. He had spent hours typing it up on the Selectric typewriter that Mathematics shared with Psychology.

“I’m sorry …”

A door opened at the side and a foreigner came through, putting on a suit jacket. “Just going for a club sandwich, Daisy,” the man said in English.

William stepped forward. “Mr Wolf?”

The man stopped, not altogether pleased. “No, I’m Murray Seidman. And you are …?”

“My name’s William Leung, Mr Seidman. I’m a student at the University. Department of Mathematics. Mr Seidman, I’m a keen student of the financial markets, and I think I can improve on the current pricing models. By an order of magnitude, I believe.”

“Is that so?” Seidman was broad, though you would not have said fat, and somewhat taller than average. He had a round, pleasant face with blue eyes. He was bald on top of his head, but had carefully brushed some hairs across to soften the effect. Now, as he contemplated William indifferently, he was making the last of the shucking movements involved in settling into his jacket.

“Why should I be interested in this?” he said.

“Talmadge Tucker is a securities firm. You deal in commodity futures, I know you do. You’re a registered broker-dealer, acting for some of the biggest investors in America.”

The man smiled—a tight, cautious smile, but a smile for all that.

“You want me to give you a job, is that it?”

“Mr Seidman …”

Unexpectedly, the man laughed.

“You Hong Kong kids, I love you. You’re so hungry! Tell you what, young man. You can walk with me up to the sandwich shop on the corner. If you can convince me to give you a job by the time we get to the counter, you’re in. If not, I’ll buy you a sandwich. Deal?” Not waiting for an answer he turned, opened the outer door, and went through it without looking back. William scrambled to follow.


It was some days before William dared tell the Ngs, though he thought they must have noticed the change in his routine. Mr Ng took it much better than he had feared.

“I always said nobody got rich from mathematics,” said Mr Ng. “How many doors did you knock on before you got this job?”

“They were the first one I tried. I planned to go to every trading firm in Central, but I got lucky first time.”

Mr Ng sighed. “Well, I won’t say I approve. Whatever you want to do, it seems to me you’d do it better with a university degree. It would have been wiser to stick it out. However …” he shrugged, and looked across the dinner table to his wife, “… to get a job with an American firm, that’s no small thing. With no recommendation and no qualifications …” He laughed. “It shows ability and guts. Shows you’re not afraid to break down doors.”

“And the money will come in handy,” said Mrs Ng, pausing from shoveling rice into her mouth. “Seven hundred a month—wa! The Americans live like emperors!”


Mr Sheldon Wolf, though the nominal chief executive officer of Talmadge Tucker Hong Kong, was hardly ever on the premises, William soon discovered. He was a man of meetings: meetings in Tokyo, in Singapore, in Sydney, in New York. There seemed no limit to the number of meetings at which Mr Wolf ’s presence was considered indispensable. Day to day affairs were handled by Murray Seidman, and it was to Murray that William reported.

William had hoped for a trading position—buying and selling securities with the firm’s own funds, for the firm’s own inventory. This proved to have been an unrealistic aspiration. As an unknown quantity, he was assigned at first to Equity Research, performing financial analysis of local firms so that their stock could be evaluated. If, in the opinion of the analysts, the stock was undervalued, Talmadge Tucker would buy for their own account, and advise their clients to buy.

William was surprised to find that he had already taught himself much of what was required, during his development of what he called the cross-ratio theory some months before. Balance sheets and income statements quickly yielded their secrets to him. In his spare time he developed a refined version of the cross-ratio theory, and spent half his first month’s wages implementing it. He had his own account now, with Talmadge Tucker—employees were not permitted to conduct securities business with other brokers.

His shares gained slowly for six weeks. Then one of the firms involved was the subject of a glowing profile in the Chinese press, and its stock price soared. William cashed in an eighty per cent profit and took his theory to Murray.

“Interesting,” said Murray. “But a little exotic. I couldn’t commit TT to a strategy like that.”

“But look at my returns.”

Murray looked, and shrugged. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Could be a fluke. Look, William, it’s great that you’re doing all this research—in your own time, I think? I hope—and cooking up all these mathematical theories. But the methods and strategies we use here at TT have been tried and tested over decades. You can’t expect us to go out on a limb with something like this.”

They were in Murray’s office, Murray behind the desk in his black leather executive swivel chair. It was Murray’s habit, when discussing things at his desk, to straighten out paper clips and throw them over his shoulder. He had just straightened one, and now he jabbed it towards William to make his point.

“You’re a diamond in the rough, William. I can see your head is buzzing with these wild ideas—all this math and statistics. But you’re working now in a billion-dollar industry with tried and true ways of doing things. You have to learn those ways. It’s like art: you have to pay your dues, do your still lifes and your landscapes, then you can experiment with abstract painting. Otherwise people won’t take you seriously.”

Murray tossed the paper clip over his shoulder, swung forward and pushed William’s worksheets back across the desk to him.

“Don’t worry, William.” He laughed, the broad open American laugh William liked. “We’ll make a respectable financial analyst out of you.”

For all his outward caution, Murray privately thought William a genius. He had never been any good at math himself, and held the younger man’s mathematical skills in exaggerated, though well-concealed, awe. He believed what he had said, though: that William was rough, unschooled, and needed the discipline of two or three years dogged analysis—studying actual firms and their actual financial statements—before his wild theories could find any practical application. Still he understood William’s worth, and respected what he always called his hunger, and so when the training proposal came through from New York, it was William he thought of at once.

Talmadge Tucker, like most Wall Street firms, sent out recruiters to the best colleges and business schools every summer, looking for the brightest prospects to take on as analysts. After two years of back-office drudgery these youngsters would be considered for positions on the trading floor, or in management. This year, with awakening interest in Far Eastern markets, the firm decided to fill two of these positions with native speakers of Asian languages, the better to come to grips with financial statements printed up in Japanese or Chinese. They accordingly asked the Tokyo and Hong Kong offices to put forward recommendations for these two positions. Murray proposed William.

“It’ll be tough,” he told William, across the desk in his office that September. “In New York they’ll work you to death. And you’ll be working alongside high flyers, Uncle Sam’s best and brightest. Don’t go pushing your graphs and charts at them, not the first two years anyway. Just listen and learn, let them educate you.”

There was a great fuss over travel documents. It dragged on for months. William was a Hong Kong resident—technically a subject of Her Britannic Majesty, but with no right to a British passport. His citizenship was Chinese; but whether this meant that he owed allegiance to Beijing, or to Taipei, or to both, neither of them seemed willing to tell him. With Talmadge Tucker pushing, it was all sorted out at last, and in January 1978 William landed in New York, pitifully ill-equipped for the freezing air, and rode a cab to TT’s fine grand offices at Wall and Nassau.


It was Jeffrey who showed him the computer. There had been a computer at the university, of course, an ICL mainframe. The Department of Mathematics had had four teletype terminals, and the students had all had to learn FORTRAN. William had learned with everyone else and had done the required programming exercises, but it seemed to him like a trivial discipline, mechanical and uninteresting. There had been no computers at Talmadge Tucker’s Hong Kong office and William thought he had probably forgotten FORTRAN.

Jeffrey was William’s first friend in New York. He was an American, of course, a recent graduate of the Wharton school—one of the previous summer’s intake of young financial analysts, assigned with William to Fixed Income Support. Jeffrey was tall, with the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped physique of an athlete—the figure Americans call “rangy.” Though smart and hard-working, he had an amused, irreverent attitude to things, an attitude William found very engaging. He liked William at once, and took it upon himself to induct William into the little mysteries of New York office life: how to use the phones, the copier, the fax, how to fill out a medical-insurance claim or expense voucher, where to get the best sandwiches and doughnuts, the right way to eat a bagel, hail a cab, order a drink.

“This is New York, Willy boy,” Jeffrey was wont to say. “In New York you have to walk a little faster, talk a little faster, and think a whole lot faster.”

“Willy boy” was one of Jeffrey’s names for William. Others were “Professor,” “The Chink with the Chart,” and “The Graph Paper Geek”—the last two alluding to William’s endless calculations, with which his desk at the office was always cluttered.

William wondered about Jeffrey. Did more than wonder, in fact; he fantasized, with a quality of graphic immediacy he himself found shocking. But the business with Fong had left his appetites stunned and stunted. He had been celibate, if not precisely chaste, for over three years. Jeffrey was open, friendly and mildly protective, but gave no indication whatsoever of deeper interest. He had a regular girlfriend, a brisk pretty girl named Grace, who accepted William readily and easily; but William’s past experience of human affairs had left him with no conclusions at all about the exclusivity or otherwise of sexual orientation. Pushing away the fantasies as best he could, William accepted Jeffrey’s friendship gratefully, tried hard to understand his jokes, and shared with Jeffrey some of his more straightforward theories about bond pricing.

They were in Jeffrey’s apartment when Jeffrey showed him the computer. Jeffrey shared a two-bedroom on Thirty-Third Street with another guy, also one of the young analysts. The apartment was a glorious mess of skis, sweaters, jackets, tennis racquets, laundry, bedding and dirty dishes. It was from this chaos that Jeffrey extracted the computer one evening in May.

This was not a mainframe. In fact, you could hold it in one hand. It looked like nothing more than a large electric-typewriter keyboard, with attachments you could plug in to a TV to make a display. There were other attachments that could be connected to a cassette recorder, so that you could save your work on tape. Jeffrey showed him how the computer could play a game, a silly business with space aliens trying to land and a gun with which they could be destroyed.

“How about programming? Do you use FORTRAN, or what?”

Jeffrey knew nothing about programming, and had never heard of FORTRAN.

Somehow, this time, the computer hooked William. He began spending more and more time at Jeffrey’s apartment, fiddling with the odd little keyboard. There was a programming language built into the machine, he soon discovered; a simplified version of FORTRAN called BASIC. He began running some of his yield calculations through the computer, using this BASIC. At his suggestion they bought one of the new daisy-wheel printers, going halves on the expense. By the fall of that year, 1978, his interest in the machine far surpassed Jeffrey’s, and Jeffrey was beginning to grumble about never getting a chance to watch TV. William bought the computer, and Jeffrey’s share in the printer, and a TV set of his own, and set up the system in his own apartment, a tiny dark studio on Second Avenue, with a bed that folded down from the wall. He developed a way of displaying yield curves on-screen, and began to notice things he had never noticed before. Things which, as it soon turned out, nobody had ever noticed before. In October he invented the Bosco.

The Bond-Originated Securitized-Collateral Obligation met with a cool reception at Talmadge Tucker. William took it to Overstone Bruys, the manager of Fixed Income Research. Overstone Bruys frowned, then laughed.

“I can’t see our investors going for a thing like that,” he said. “Too complicated. How on earth do you calculate the yield?”

“Why, it’s just a program. We could have it print out tables. It’s only a function of four variables.”

Overstone Bruys laughed again. “William, William. Try telling the CFO of some bank in Pokeville, Alabama that you want to sell him an instrument which isn’t exactly a stock, and isn’t exactly a bond, and whose yield is a non-continuous function of four variables.”

“It is so continuous. It’s the first derivative that’s not continuous, that’s all.”

Overstone Bruys drummed on his desktop with the eraser end of a pencil, and looked again at the graphs William had printed out. They were very neatly done; William had figured out how to make the daisy-wheel place a dot anywhere in the page, to an accuracy of one-thirtieth of an inch. He liked computers now.

“Sorry, William. It’s ingenious, but I don’t see a market. Too strange.”

“That’s what they said about interest-rate swaps. Now everybody’s doing them.”

The manager nodded. “True. But a swap’s easy to understand. You’re exchanging one kind of obligation for another. With this thing the investor can’t see what he’s getting.”

“He’s getting a conservative instrument, backed ultimately by the full faith and credit of Uncle Sam, with an exceptionally stable yield curve.”

Bruys laughed again, shaking his head. “Sorry, William. Did you get those Treasury spreads for me?”

William told Jeffrey about the Bosco, though he had not yet thought to use the acronym. Jeffrey listened, grinning across at William impishly as William went through the mathematics.

“The Graph Paper Geek,” he said when William had finished. “You tried to sell this to Bruys?”

William confessed that he had.

Jeffrey laughed. “You’re crazy. This white-shoe crowd will never go for that stuff.”

“White-shoe” was a term that surfaced repeatedly in Jeffrey’s talk. It apparently referred to the old-established Wall Street firms, with their wood-paneled executive offices, their patrician Managing Directors, their conservative trading strategies. Jeffrey himself came from a lower-middle-class background, his father a school administrator in Long Island.

“It’s us against them, Willy boy,” he liked to say when he was riding this particular hobby-horse. “The white shoes versus the white trash. Or in your case, yellow trash.”

William took the Bosco to the only other manager he knew well enough, the man in charge of the government desk down on the trading floor. The result was even more negative.

“Why the hell would we mess up perfectly good securities like that? Commingling different kinds of Treasuries? I couldn’t even say if it would be legal.”

“Then let’s have Legal look at it. Legal and Regulatory both. To make sure it’s okay.”

The desk manager shrugged. “All right. Put in the request. You can use my name. But I don’t think it will fly.”

Legal and Regulatory were unenthusiastic but not negative. Legal issued a 12-page opinion asserting that, provided the proper agreements were signed and in place with the appropriate counterparties and/or investment advisors (see suggested form of agreements in Annex C), and contingent upon there having been obtained the necessary and appropriate signed trading authorizations from same (Annexes D and E, with provision for event of default), the obligations as presented did not infringe upon any aspect of current securities law, reserving only that … Regulatory wanted daily reporting of positions and segregated trading accounts, but could see no breach of rules. William took the opinions back down to the desk manager. Now, however, the man was frankly brusque.

“Maybe it’s legal, and maybe the SEC won’t jump all over us. But it’ll never get past the Trading Committee. Think of the trouble they gave us with interest-rate swaps. This is a whole lot more derivative.”

“Won’t you bring it up with them anyway? Since we’ve gone to the trouble to get opinions.”

The desk manager shrugged. “All right. Give it a try.”

But when William checked with him after the Trading Committee’s monthly meeting, the desk manager had gone from brusque to icy.

“No chance to bring it up. Sorry, kid.”

“You’re the wrong color, that’s what,” said Jeffrey, across the desks in the tiny cluttered office they shared. “Face up to it, Willy boy: you’re a slitty-eyed gook, a yellow-belly Chink. You’ll never cut the mustard with the TT crowd. They took you in to sit here in the back office reading Chinese quarterlies. You’re not supposed to go around inventing new kinds of securities. I say, Cuthbert …” (Jeffrey had adopted an exaggerated mock-British accent, the white shoes all being devout Anglophiles, apparently), “… know what that little coolie of yours had the nerve to ask me? Could we start trading some cockamamie instrument his momma back in Ping Pong Po has cooked up? Bit of a cheek, what? Ta ta old boy, knock me up in the mornin'.”

A few days before Thanksgiving Jeffrey invited William out to lunch in a restaurant. When they got there there was a third man waiting for them. He was fat, disheveled and sweating in a heavy gray coat with a black fur collar, and obviously Jewish even to William’s untrained eye—nothing at all like the sleek traders and managers at Talmadge Tucker. Jeffrey made introductions.

“Lenny Goldfarb, William Leung. Lenny does Fixed Income for Wechsel Cassidy Bruno. I told him about you.”

“Not so much told as sold,” said Goldfarb. “Jeffrey here says you’re a fucking genius.”

Jeffrey nodded. “See, Willy boy, I’ve been thinking about our position there at TT. You, like I told you, they’re never going to let you out of back office. Don’t want your chinky little face darkening up their annual reports. Me, I’m not in a much better condition. My Dad doesn’t belong to their yacht club, my grandma didn’t come over on the fucking Mayflower, and it’s going to be a long hard climb for me. But there’s other firms on the Street that have a more open attitude.” He nodded at Goldfarb.

“What d’you know about Wechsel Cassidy?” asked Goldfarb.

William shrugged. In truth, he did not know much, having little insight into the Wall Street pecking order. “I know you’re a big player,” he said. “Corporate bonds, commercial paper. Trading, underwriting. High yields.”

“Right. Big, and gonna get bigger. We need bright young kids like yourself and Jeffrey here. Not to turn cranks in the back office, clearing equity margin crap for little old ladies—to be out front trading and selling, or on the computer playing the angles. These old white-shoe firms, they don’t know what age they’re living in. Government controls are loosening up, trade barriers are coming down. Look at the high-yield markets.” He laughed. “TT aren’t even players. They don’t believe in the fucking things!”

“Thing is, Willy boy,” put in Jeffrey, “I’m going to jump ship. I think the opportunities are better at Wechsel. And the career path faster. It’s gonna be tough, they look for results right away. But I’ll be on the trading floor where I can make things happen.”

“You want me to come with you?”

“Like I said, you’re not going to get anywhere at TT. After twenty years, maybe they’ll make you a VP, so long as you promise not to scare the clients with your yellow gook face. It’s a dead end for you, Willy boy.”

This was a new way of looking at things for William. He had felt obliged to Talmadge Tucker for giving him the chance to work in New York, for giving him a job at all. His heritage, his tradition, his blood told him that his loyalty was to Murray, who had opened the door for him, and to Talmadge Tucker, whom Murray represented. On the other hand, he suspected that Jeffrey was right about his future prospects. His failure to get anywhere with the Bond-Originated Securitized-Collateral Obligation reinforced that suspicion.

“Did you tell him about my ideas for a new type of collateralized obligation?” he asked Jeffrey.

“Sure he told me.” Goldfarb nodded eagerly. “I didn’t follow the technicalities, I must admit. But that’s the kind of new thinking we’re looking for. We’ll look it over and give it a shot, if we think it’s worthwhile. But we’d like to have you join us anyway. Your pal here says you’re a real whiz at research.”

“That’s where I’d be working, in research?”

“Sure. We’d give you the run of our computers. We’re getting these new desktop models in for all the research geeks.” Goldfarb laughed. “No offense. But Jeff says you’re the geek de la geek.”

“How about my visa? I think it’s only valid if I work for TT.”

Goldfarb laughed again. “We have immigration lawyers on staff, they’ll sort it out for you. No need to worry about that. Stuff like that, you just need lawyers. We got lawyers up the fucking Wazoo. We got lawyers in the mail room. Fucking doorman’s a lawyer.”

William looked from one to the other. He thought of Murray, and what he owed him. Then he thought of the long road he’d traveled from Seven Kill Stele. Then he summoned up the not inconsiderable amount of Wall Street smarts he had absorbed these six months past.

“Make me an offer,” he shrugged.


The work environment at Wechsel Cassidy Bruno was quite different from TT’s. The desks were more often steel than mahogany, the lights garish fluorescent in place of subdued recessed spots, the carpets were scuffed and coffee-stained, and when a meeting was called it was called, the floor manager—a Marine Corps veteran—yelling down the desks MEETING! ASSHOLES AND BELLY-BUTTONS, ON THE DOUBLE! HUP TWO THREE! instead of, as at TT, circulating a memo three days in advance with the precise time and location printed up and a room booked with club sandwiches and coffee catered.

The Bond-Originated Securitized-Collateral Obligation was a tough sell, though, even here. William went over it in detail with Lenny at the end of his first week. Lenny frowned.

“Is it legal? To commingle securities like that?”

William showed him the opinion from TT’s legal department, which he had photocopied and brought with him. Lenny grimaced, turning the pages, struggling with the attorneys’ Esperanto.

“Looks all right,” he said at last. “Will anybody buy it?”

“I’ll be glad to make a presentation to the sales force. Any time.”

Lenny laughed. “We’re not too much in the way of making presentations here at WCB,” he said. “Call the fuckers up. See what they say.”

William called every sales rep in the company directory. None displayed much interest. The best reaction was from the San Francisco rep: “If it’s available, I can probably sell it.” San Francisco, thought William, putting down the phone: the Golden Mountain! [The name by which the city is known in Cantonese.] He told Lenny what the San Francisco rep had said, coloring it as best he could to make it sound like a general opinion among the sales force.

“All right,” said Lenny. “Bundle up a few of these things, total face value no more than five million, and see if the sales force can move them. Run ’em up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” (Which was a thing everyone said at that time.)

It was the San Francisco rep who christened the new security “the Bosco.” William had called him back. He called him at lunch time—start of business on the West Coast—and again in the evening of the same day. He called him the next day, and the next, and every day for a week. He called the other reps, too, though not daily, and perfected a line of patter: Perfect hedging instrument in the current interest-rate climate, and Innovative product with superior yield potential, and Full faith and credit of Uncle Sam with enhanced-yield profile. Thinking to himself: Heaven, I’m a salesman to the sales force.

The San Francisco man sold a Bosco to one of the bigger California banks. The Denver office used them in a portfolio deal with a midwestern investment advisor. Then nothing for three weeks. Then Forbes.

It was the Forbes piece that got the ball rolling. The business magazine was doing a series on derivative instruments—indexes, options, swaps—and it happened that the San Francisco rep for Wechsel Cassidy Bruno was a leading propagandist for currency swaps, then a new thing. The Forbes people interviewed him, and he started talking about the Bosco. Perfect hedging instrument in the current interest-rate climate, he said. Full faith and credit of Uncle Sam with enhanced-yield profile. This was just before Christmas. When trading picked up after New Year’s, everybody wanted Boscos in their portfolios.

All William knew at first was that his routine twelve-hour days were stretching to fourteen, sixteen hours. He was given two trading assistants to do the drudge work of trawling through the firm’s inventory for suitable combinations of securities to be packaged as Boscos. Then he got his own paralegal to keep track of the agreements. Then a programmer, quickly expanded to a project team, to develop regulatory and exposure reporting. He was promoted to Vice President, and his base salary raised to $100,000. He asked for, and instantly got, the very latest personal computer, an Apple with all the software then available.

Still he could not keep up. As well as being a convenient financial instrument for big institutional investors, the Bosco had been picked up and carried along by the zeitgeist. It was the time when financial markets were expanding, government controls loosening, business barriers coming down. The staid, gentlemanly little world of bond brokerage was being infiltrated by the Lennys and Jeffreys—smart young men and women from the suburbs, with open minds, immense appetites for work, and a quite disgraceful reluctance to defer to the way things had always been done. Innovation was in the air.

In June of that year, 1979, William gave his first newspaper interview. It was the trade press, Institutional Investor, and Lenny said he should do it, so he did it. To William’s surprise and everyone else’s Institutional Investor front-paged the story, with an evaluation of the Bosco so upbeat it might have been put out by Wechsel themselves, and a photograph of William across three columns. Suddenly everyone knew William Leung, the Golden Geek. Powerful desk managers from the trading floor came upstairs to shake hands with him. He was called in to see the Managing Directors, who stood to shake hands with him one by one, and presented him with an offer so sensational it got a column on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. A base salary in the high six figures; one million dollars “sign-on” bonus to begin a new contract; annual bonus for the current year not to be less than five million dollars. Title of Director. His own trading desk, with his own traders, dedicated to the Bosco business. A full-time support staff of paralegals, programmers, trading assistants and administrators. A new section to be established in Operations for clearance of Boscos, and a new computer system dedicated to this function. A blank check for personal computer equipment. (“When you look at what he did with that Radio Shack piece of junk,” said WCB’s Chief Information Officer, “it might not be a bad idea to give him his own mainframe.”)

The bonus paid to William in January 1980 was, in fact, $12 million, plus an assortment of stock and options worth half as much again. He banked it all, having no time to spend it—though at Lunar New Year he sent $100,000 to the Ngs in Hong Kong. He still had the studio apartment on Second Avenue, having had no time to grapple with real-estate agents and little use for an apartment anyway. He frequently slept on the large couch in his new office on the trading floor, and still owned only one suit. He was becoming a legend on the Street: the Nerd of Nassau, the Chinese whiz-kid, the Bosco billionaire. His business card—everyone with rank A.V.P. and above had cards printed up for them by the firm—became a collector’s item, trading for thirty dollars in the secondary market. Visitors to Wechsel’s trading floor would be shown the glass-walled enclave where William and his minions worked their magic, and would stand staring, hardly willing to breathe for fear their cherished glimpse of William Leung’s wrinkled shirt back might turn to mist and vanish, as in a fairy story. William did interviews in that same office for Forbes, Business Week, Fortune, Investment Banker.

William had found the magic tinder box. In March, striking the flint a second time, he invented the Mosco, constructed on the same principles as the Bosco, but with mortgage-backed securities instead of Treasury paper as the underlying bonds. Mortgage-backeds were trickier, but fundamentally just as conservative. The pricing and yield calculations were fiendish, but with a full 128K of computer power on his desktop they were eventually standardized. Wechsel made no great effort to keep the Mosco under wraps, in fact made a prefatory announcement; and when the new instrument was launched in May the markets went into a feeding frenzy. The MDs met in solemn conclave, William’s base salary crossed into seven figures, and he was given an oral guarantee of a $20 million minimum bonus payable in January 1981.

By the end of the year every bank, savings and loan, and pension fund in the country had a drawer full of Moscos. Wechsel split off a subsidiary, Wechsel Cassidy Bruno Financial Engineering, to handle the Bosco/Mosco business. For regulatory reasons—he was still a Chinese citizen—William could be only an employee of the new entity, not a principal; but WCBFE was awash in profits before the ink was dry on their letterhead stationery, and William’s salary disappeared into the stratosphere.

Now the mainstream press was taking an interest. The New York Times interviewed William for a front-page story in its business section. Newsweek ran a cover story on “The New World of Securities Trading,” highlighting derivative instruments, profiling William with a picture of him in his office, and devoting a full-page sidebar to explaining the Bosco and Mosco. Lenny persuaded William to abandon his computer for long enough to attend Wechsel’s Christmas party, held at the Waldorf Astoria. The whole room turned and applauded when William walked in.

In January William banked two bonuses—one each from WCB and WCBFE—for a total of fifty-five million dollars. When this was known in the Street, the Journal front-paged him again, and ran a stern editorial about out-of-control remunerations, trading instruments based on esoteric mathematics, and the need to show restraint in a potentially inflationary environment. Then at the end of January William found himself on the cover of Time, alongside a caption reading: “The New Breed of Financial Wizards.” He actually bought a copy—the first non-technical publication he had bought in two and a half years—and took it back to the poky studio apartment on Second Avenue to read. There was no interview; Time had requested one but William had declined. He thought the New York Times interview of some weeks previous had cut a little too deep into his background (“… escaped from Red China by swimming across the open sea … raised by family friends in Hong Kong …”) He regretted having been so frank with them and was wary of further revelations.


William was getting a lot of mail at the firm now. It had been running at ten or fifteen private letters a day since the New York Times article, rising to thirty or forty after Time put him on the cover. Most asked politely for investment advice. Some were frank begging letters. A few were from lunatics. William could not be bothered with them, and had one of the executive secretaries look through them in case there might be anything of interest. It was this person, a trim lady in late middle-age, twenty years with the firm and a byword for efficiency and discretion, who came to him three weeks after the Time cover, carrying an airmail letter.

“From Shanghai,” she said, “according to the postmark. And all in Chinese, of course. I thought you might want to look at it.”

William looked, hardly recognizing the characters of his own language at first. Then the letter began speaking to him in a voice rough—barely literate in fact—but clear.

It suddenly seemed to William that for two, two and a half, years he had been toiling alone in a diving bell at the bottom of the ocean, sifting nuggets from the sea floor mud, the outside world making itself known only by an occasional muffled clanging or thumping on the walls of his prison. Now there was this voice, loud and plain as could be, and William tasted again the memories of poverty, of desperation, of comradeship, of fear.

Chapter 33

Enterprise Blossoms in the Middle Kingdom

Big Fu is Overwhelmed by Greatness

“When I heard the machine-gun I thought for sure it was the sticks,” said Asan, lighting another cigarette. His cigarettes were State Express 555, an American brand. He lit them with a gold lighter the size of a small brick.

“I was down below, looking for good hiding places. And lucky for me I found some. I found the best one, in fact—right down on the keel, under the duckboards. Up to my ass in stinking water. Well, they came poking around but they didn’t find me. I heard the machine-gun again—I guess when they were shooting at you in the water. Then it got quiet and I chanced a look out through the window in the living quarters. I saw them sailing away. I still thought they were the sticks, so when they were far enough away I figured I was safe and went up on deck. Just as the real sticks were arriving from the other side! That’s why the pirates took off—they saw the coast guard coming up. And the stupid fucking sticks, instead of going after the pirates, boarded us! I’d gone below again, but they found me. They knew I was down there somewhere, they’d seen me come up on deck.”

Hearing Asan use the word “pirate” brought everything back, all too vividly. Oddly, William had never named the pirates in his thoughts. They had seemed to him elemental, unnamable, demon spirits from another region. But of course, they were just pirates—Occupation: Pirate. Kin to the wild but fascinating characters that had charmed him in Treasure Island as a child. Thus did William grasp for a moment the difference between literature and reality—a difference which is often revealed to bookish people too late, or never at all.

Asan looked like a million dollars. Natty western style suit, crisp white shirt, Shandong silk tie. Even here, in the bar of the Shanghai Mansions, he stood out. There were foreigners here—with China opening up now, there were foreigners everywhere—but most favored slacks and open-necked shirts. The Chinese were still in Sun Yatsen suits (which the foreigners called Mao suits, and which were, in point of fact, Lenin suits), though the kind of high-status Chinese who had access to the Shanghai Mansions were all smartly dressed, with decent leather shoes. Only William and Asan were in western-style suits. Asan had actually been wearing shades when he came in—a foreign designer brand, with a tiny label still stuck to the top corner of one lens—but these were now on the table in front of him, with his State Express cigarettes and gold lighter and Qingdao beer.

“Well, the sticks pulled me in. They could see I wasn’t a fisherman. It was no big thing, not compared with what happened to Little Fu anyway. I saw his head, the poor kid’s fucking head, rolling about right there on the deck. I lost my fucking lunch when I saw that, no kidding. After that I didn’t care what they did with me, just so long as they did it on dry land, away from those pirates.”

Asan paused to take a pull on his beer. The watch that appeared discreetly from under his shirt cuff as he reached for the glass was a gold Rolex.

“So what did they do to you?” prompted William.

“I got a year in a camp in Guangxi Province. What a dump! The work wasn’t bad, but Ai! the food. I was a bag of bones when I came out of there! Then after I’d done my time I was supposed to stay there. They said even though I’d done the time, the camp was my unit now. I was a free worker, but I had to work there, in their stinking quarry, for five bucks a week. Well, I said fuck that and headed back to the northeast.”

“Didn’t they try to stop you?”

“If they did, they didn’t try very hard. Well, of course I couldn’t afford to get a ticket all the way to the northeast. Shanghai was as far as I could get. Just like when we set out, you remember?”

He laughed at the symmetry, and took another pull at his beer.

“I remember very well,” said William. “And it seems you stayed here.”

“Yes. It wasn’t really intentional. Just happened. I thought it would be the decent thing to do, to call on Mrs Fu and tell her about her boy. Shit, why’d they have to do that?”

“I don’t know, Asan. They were very bad guys.”

“You got that right. You saw them do that? Take his head off?”

“Yes, I saw.” William thought he didn’t want to say anything to Asan about what the pirates had done to Little Fu before they killed him. He could see that even at this distance in time—it had been more than ten years ago—Asan was still genuinely upset about Little Fu.

“Those mother fuckers. Well, anyway, I went to see Mrs Fu. Her old man had died a few months before. Then I had to tell her her younger son was dead. She kind of knew, anyway. It had been a year and a half, and she’d heard nothing. But she’s a strong lady. Didn’t shed a tear, not in front of me, anyway. Her older son was still in the northeast, of course. So she was pretty lonely. She was glad to have me around, I guess. Anyway, she let me stay there. She was very kind. Because I’d been close to her son, I guess. She sort of felt having me around was like next best to having him around. And there was her religion, of course.”

“Oh, yes. She’s a Christian. I remember.”

“Yes. There’s a nest of them in Shanghai. They take turns to meet in each other’s houses. When they came to her house, of course I felt I had to take part. Wa! how they go on! Singing, chanting sutras, praying! It scared me to death. I mean, what if somebody heard them from the street? It’s against the law, to be a Christian. I told her right out, she could get arrested.”

“What did she say?”

“She said that would mean Yesu had chosen them to be martyrs. It would be a great honor, she said.”

“You have to admire their nerve.”

“Maybe. But I wasn’t going to get pulled in for counter-revolutionary activities. I’ve seen all I want to see of Reform Through Labor. So I knew I had to get out of there. Well, I’d been checking out Shanghai. It’s a lively town. Was, even then. This was, what? ’72, early ’72. I got back into the book business. Oh, there were book stashes all over Shanghai. It was easier than Flat All Around. I was going round all the units, nosing around, finding out where the Red Guards had stored the things they took. In Shanghai it wasn’t just books, it was all kinds of stuff. Paintings, porcelain, antiques, gramophone records. Shit, I had two stalls running. But Shanghai people are smart. The units realized they could cut out the middle man and sell the goods themselves. I lost my suppliers. Things were tough for a while. Then Mrs Fu got me an introduction to Old Zhang. He’s a big wheel in the Railroad Bureau. It was through him we got our tickets to the south, remember? Well, I got to thinking about how difficult it was to move around the country. Just getting a rail ticket is a killer. But there’s a big demand, you know. Aside from official business, the Cultural Revolution scattered people all over the country, so now there are more people than ever who have to travel a thousand miles to see their relatives. Most people do it through their units, of course; but there’s still a lot of folk that just want a ticket. And there are generally tickets to spare, if you don’t mind going by an indirect route. It’s just a question of connecting the buyer and the seller.”

William laughed. “So you’re China’s first travel agent.”

Asan waved this aside. “That was just the beginning. Big Fu takes care of that now. Little Fu’s brother, that is—I brought him down from the northeast. He didn’t have a residence permit, but then, neither did I. We were making so much money it didn’t matter. Now I’m working on freight. That’s the thing nowadays. This last couple of years they’ve been licensing private factories in the country districts all over. They need raw materials, and they have to move their stuff. They can’t do it through the Bureau, it takes six months of standing in line to get the fucking permits. So they come to me and I fix it. It’s very profitable.” Asan laughed gaily. “I’m a real capitalist.”

“You certainly seem to be doing well. But aren’t you afraid the wind will change?”

“So if it does, what can I do about it? Live for the moment, that’s the slogan in China nowadays. There have been many changes, Little Liang. After Lin Biao got his ticket punched in ’71, nobody cared about class struggle any more. They knew it was just a game among the leaders, with the common people as pawns. They started looking to their own advantage. You’re right, of course: if there’s another Cultural Revolution, I’ll be out of business. Well, I survived the first one, and I’ll survive the next one. At least this time I’ve got some funds squirreled away.”

“Your funds won’t help you, if the Red Guards come along.”

“Not if they’re in China, no. But if I can stash something away overseas, in America say, I’ll be more secure. I wanted to ask you about that. Do you know a way to do it?”

William laughed. “I should have known you had a proposition.”

Asan shrugged. “We have to help each other. You can’t say I didn’t help you in the past.”

“No, I can’t. All right, we’ll figure something out. It’ll be tricky, with the currency non-convertible, but there’s always a way.”

They finished their beer. Asan wanted to show William his apartment. William called the waiter over and asked for a check. The guy did a double-take, then went away. Asan was grinning.

“What? What did I do?”

“Tell you outside.”

Asan had a taxi waiting outside, an ancient black Skoda with wooden fixtures and worn leather seats. “Hired him for the whole day,” he explained to William as they got in. “He’s all right. I know him. You can say anything.”

“All right. But what did I say back there that was so funny?”

“Oh. ‘Settle the account.’ You said to the waiter, ‘settle the account.’”

“That’s funny?”

“That’s bad. Things change fast in China nowadays, Little Liang. Things change, words change. You’re out of touch.”

“Why? What’s so bad?”

“‘Settle the account’—those are loaded words in China now. You should say ‘add it up.’”

“What’s the difference?”

“A lot of people got persecuted in the sixties and seventies. You know that. Now they’ve got their authority back. They’re going after the people who persecuted them. ‘Settle accounts’ means taking revenge. Also repaying a favor. Somebody gave you a break, you know, you repay the favor—that’s settling accounts, too. But mostly it means revenge. You remember the Cultural Revolution, you know what it was like. Not too many people were getting breaks.”

Asan’s apartment was very grand, inside a new-built compound with a big iron gate. There were parquet floors, air conditioners, some fine new furniture—hi-fi in brushed-chrome cabinets, a huge Japanese TV. The rooms smelt of new paint and floor polish. The door had been opened for them by a middle-aged woman with a rough peasant face.

“Housekeeper,” explained Asan when they were at ease on the balcony. “She’s ugly, ain’t she? But she keeps the place clean and doesn’t distract me. I tried having a live-in girlfriend. Forget it! Whining, arguing, spending all your money, You Don’t Pay Attention To Me. Who needs it? I can get fresh young pussy any time I want it, why waste time over it?”

It was a warm March afternoon. From an alley outside the compound could be heard the sound of children playing. Somewhere in the middle distance some heavy machinery was working: thunk, thunk, thunk. The housekeeper had brought them iced Pepsi before retiring. On the glass-topped coffee-table were some glossy Hong Kong magazines, and Asian versions of western magazines—including the copy of Time with William on the cover, which had caused Asan to write his letter. It was an English-language publication, and of course Asan couldn’t read a word of it; but he had recognized William’s face and had someone translate the article for him.

“You should start a family,” said William. “You can’t go on living like a wayward teenager for ever.”

“Why not? I like it. It suits me. A family? Hey, sure. When I retire, maybe. Ten years from now. Someone from a decent family herself, with good connections. Connections are everything, you know, Little Liang. I tell you, there isn’t an official in Shanghai who doesn’t know me. I flatter them, kiss up to them, bring them gifts, help them out with their problems, send nice clean girls over to play Kiss The Lizard with them. And they’re all connected to the other cities: Beijing, Wuhan, Guangzhou. I travel round the country, and get an Emperor’s welcome anywhere I land up. I tell you, Little Liang, life is good.” Asan laughed easily, and flicked his cigarette over the balustrade into the courtyard below.

Inside the apartment a telephone began to ring. Asan turned his head at the sound, but made no move. He was looking thoroughly relaxed, having removed his jacket and tie on entering the apartment. And his shoes, of course: he and William had both put on soft leather slippers, and had their feet up now on recliners. William could hear the housekeeper taking the call. She came out to the balcony. “It’s Mr Hou in Chongqing,” she said.

“My main contact in the interior.” Asan got up to take the call. He was gone for some time. Sitting there on the balcony, looking out over the rooftops, William’s thoughts drifted. He had left Shanghai a pauper, returned a millionaire. What if he were to go back to Seven Kill Stele? He recalled one of the old poems:

I left home young. Now, old, I return.

The local dialect hasn’t changed …

The poem had been one of Mother’s favorites. Thinking of Mother, he thought of Father, and of all that had happened. He could see clearly the room he had known in the Professors’ block at Hibiscus Slope Teachers’ College: Mother’s character scroll on the wall, Father in his chair listening to the gramophone, the window above the bed looking out to Mount Tan. The hollow behind its screen of bamboo; Yuezhu dancing in the twilight. Now the old rage burned in his stomach. He tried to turn his thoughts away from it, but could not. Such an ache, after so many years! This phrase—settle accounts …

Asan had come out through the sliding door on to the balcony, and had been standing by the door grinning down at him in his reverie.


“How much are you worth, Little Liang?”

“Huh? Heaven, I don’t know. It’s all artificial anyway. On paper? Eighty, maybe eighty-five million.”

“So much? Really? Wa! That means you’re probably the richest person in China at this moment.”

“Mmm. If you don’t count Hong Kong, that’s probably right.”

Asan lit a cigarette and went over to the balustrade. “Makes my little enterprises look like very small turnips.”

“Don’t say that. You’ve done amazingly well, in a very tough environment. And laid a good foundation. With all your connections, I mean. If China stays open for a few years, you’ll probably end up richer than me.”

Asan had turned and was leaning with his back to the balustrade. He smiled at the possibility. “Maybe. But you know, it’s not the money. It’s the things you can do.”

“Is it? I really haven’t thought about it. Been too busy making the money. I’m not sure you’re right, anyway. In America, what you can do is strictly controlled by the law.”

Asan laughed. “Yes. That’s your disadvantage. In China, there is no law. Only connections.”


At Asan’s suggestion, they went to see Mrs Fu. She still lived in the old winding alley off Sluice Gate Road.

It was eerie to come again, after so many years, to the same door in the same wall. Seeing Asan had not been eerie because he was so transformed, from a coarse young delinquent to an individual of wealth and influence. Here, by contrast, very little had changed, except that everything seemed much smaller and dingier than William remembered. The furnishings of the reception room were just as they had been, the only exception a character scroll on the wall facing the window out into the courtyard. It was a peculiar sort of character scroll. Most character scrolls were old poems, from the Tang or Sung dynasty. Sometimes they were exhortations or maxims, from Mao or (in Hong Kong) from Mencius. This one was nothing like that. Presumably it was a sutra, a Christian sutra.

The Master of Heaven is my shepherd.

I lack nothing.

He takes me to lie down in green fields.

He leads me beside calm waters.

He restores my spirit.

He shows me the way of benevolence and truth—praise to Him!

Even if I walk through the valley of death’s shadow, I fear nothing,

For he is with me, His strong hand comforts me.

He spreads a banquet for me in front of my enemies.

He crowns me with fragrance. My bowl overflows.

I know that righteousness and justice will follow me through this world;

And then I shall live in His Hall of Peace for ever.

Mrs Fu was exactly the same, too. You couldn’t even say she looked ten years older. Same straight-backed dignity, same calm, sad face. There were other people living in the house, it seemed. A girl had opened the street door for them, a coarse young girl with a thick Zhejiang countryside accent, acting apparently as a house servant. And as they were seated talking in the reception room a very old man came in, and crossed the room without paying the slightest attention to them, tapping his way forward slowly with a stick, disappearing down the corridor that led to the bedrooms. Mrs Fu did not seem to feel obliged to explain the presence of these people, only commenting, after the old fellow had gone: “He’s blind, I’m afraid.”

“Asan tells me you have done well for yourself in America,” said Mrs Fu.

“Yes,” said William. “I have been lucky.”

“I hope you are sharing your good luck with those who are less fortunate. That’s the right way.”

“I’m afraid I really haven’t done much in that direction. I have been too busy to think of it.”

“It’s never too late.” Mrs Fu smiled at him. “The Master of Heaven is very patient.”

Big Fu came over to have dinner with them. He was indeed a big fellow, square and handsome, in whose face William could see the ghost of a shadow of Mr Fu, as he remembered him on his bed of death. He was in smart casual clothes—slacks and loafers, short-sleeved shirt in pastel blue—and sported the compulsory gold Rolex.

“We thought you had died,” he said, shaking hands. “Asan said you jumped into the sea, far from land, to escape my brother’s fate.”

“I was lucky,” said William. “I am very sorry about your brother.”

“I will consider you my brother,” said Big Fu, holding on a little too long to William’s hand, beaming a little too eagerly.

“For you I should have slain the fatted calf,” said Mrs Fu to William. “But I’m afraid I have lost the habits of luxury.”

They went in to dinner. The young peasant girl served table, sitting down with the others as Mrs Fu said grace, then rising again to fetch dishes from the kitchen. Mrs Fu herself helped the old blind man to his chair. There was another woman present, a plump woman of forty or so who smiled at everyone in a rather silly way, and giggled, putting a hand over her mouth, whenever anyone addressed her. These house guests paid no particular attention to William. They seemed to regard him as just another feature of the passing scene. Big Fu, however, was clearly overwhelmed by him.

“Such a great man!” he murmured, delicately placing some morsels into William’s bowl. “A Wall Street genius, sitting here at our table!”

The food lived down to Mrs Fu’s modesty: a single meat dish, some boiled green vegetables in a nondescript sauce, plain white rice, unspiced bean curd. The only drink on offer was weak red tea. Mrs Fu asked polite questions about Hong Kong and America. The plump woman giggled. The peasant girl aerated her sinuses from time to time, but was otherwise silent. The blind man said nothing. Big Fu gushed. Asan enjoyed his proprietorship of William for a while, then began to give signs of restlessness, perhaps regretting the visit. At last William was glad to get away.

Back in the taxi, which had been waiting outside for them the whole evening, Asan explained about the house guests.

“They’re just people she’s taken in. People she feels sorry for. She does that all the time since her old man died. I guess she’s lonely. The fat woman is some kind of retard. She suffered somehow in the Cultural Revolution, and it broke her mind. The girl is a whore. You know, these country girls come into the city without a residence permit, looking for work, and get themselves into trouble. The blind guy I don’t know anything about.”

“Well, she’s very kind, to take people in like that.”

“Huh! You don’t know the half of it. When I was living there, she used to bring beggars home. I couldn’t believe it—beggars she found sleeping on the street! She’d feed ’em, wash their clothes, give ’em a dollar or two, send ’em on their way. One of them had fleas. They got away from him, all over the house. I was scratching for a week!”

“Wasn’t she mad about that?”

“Not her! She said the fleas were a gift fromYesu, to teach us humility. Well, I blew up over that. I said, lady, I’ve been poor all my life, I don’t need any lessons in humility. People like that, you know, well-born people, they never have a clue what life’s like for the rest of us. They think they do, but they really don’t, and never can. It’s a closed door to them. If you haven’t grown up poor, your life is a dream.”

“You said that to her?”

“Not so much said as shouted. I was pissed off. Fleas! I spent my whole childhood picking fleas out of my clothes and lice out of my hair. Now, here in Shanghai, I finally get on my feet and suddenly I’m scratching again. I was mad.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t throw you out.”

“Oh, that wouldn’t be her way. She heard me out, then she said: ‘You’re right, Little Brother, we were raised in different worlds. But we are both human and we both know how to suffer. Don’t reproach me with having lived a soft life. My last ten years have not been soft, you know very well. I have suffered a lot. That suffering is my own gift to Yesu. I offer it to him gladly. But you know, it will not be enough. Yesu especially favors the poor. Even in all my suffering, I have never really been poor. So I’m at a disadvantage with Yesu. By nature he loves you more than he loves me. So I have to work especially hard to get merit with Yesu. Don’t blame me if I overdo it sometimes.’”

“Wa! What a strange philosophy!”

“Yes. That’s how they are, the Christians. I tell you, they’re a peculiar crowd. It would never do for me. Nor you, either, I’d guess, Little Liang. But they give a good example. The world needs people like that, though I’m not sure it needs too many. Did you see how she treated you?”

“What? What do you mean? She was perfectly polite.”

Asan laughed. “Yes. But that’s not what I meant. Cast your mind back eleven years, little Liang, to your previous appearance at her door. What were you?”

“Why, I was a dirty kid. A beggar, in rags.”

“Yes. And today you’re a millionaire. Like I said: at this moment in time, you’re probably the richest guy in China. Did she treat you any different?”

“I don’t think so.”

Asan nodded. “Exactly the same. Now, I ask you, how many people will show the same face to a millionaire as they will to a beggar?”

“Very few, I should think.”

“You’re damn right. She’s the only one I ever met.”


The night club was an unofficial one, something Asan knew about, in the basement of a building in the old French Concession. There was a band: middle-aged men with glasses playing saxophone, trombone, double bass. They played sentimental American tunes from the forties. In front of them was a dance floor on which two middle-aged couples were foxtrotting carefully. One of the women was wearing a skirt. At a dozen little tables scattered around the room, patrons were sitting, talking in low voices, watching the dancers and the band. Men heavily outnumbered women, and hardly any of those seated were as old as the dancers, or the band. Leather jackets were popular. So were cigarettes: William’s eyes smarted from the tobacco smoke. After the dash and buzz of New York, the scene seemed to him very melancholy. It was a source of great pride to Asan, though.

“The best in Shanghai,” he said, leading the way to an empty table against the wall at one side. “They only let in people they know. I do a lot of business in here.”

A white-jacketed waiter drifted over from the bar at the opposite side. “Anything you like,” said Asan, taking out a cigarette. “Whisky, brandy, vodka, they have everything. They can do cocktails, too.” He waved his cigarette hand breezily to indicate the scope of the night club’s facilities. “Whatever you like.”

William smiled to hear the word cocktail in Chinese. Asan had used the most direct translation: “chicken” and “tail.” “A scotch will be just fine,” he said. “With water, half and half.” Then: “Things are really changing.”

Asan ordered a brandy. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he said as the waiter ambled away. “I feel like getting my end wet tonight. How about you, Little Liang? I know where we can get nice clean girls. A virgin, even, if you want one—fresh from the countryside. You can poke all her holes, same price—even give her a beating, if you like.”

“I don’t think so.” William was watching the waiter make his way back to the bar, and thinking again what he had been thinking on and off since paying the check at Shanghai Mansions. “Remember when we tried to rob that stupid bank?” he said, to change the subject.

“Shit, yes!” Asan leaned back and laughed. “That asshole we woke up. Zenme hui shi? Zenme hui shi?” He laughed again. “Flat All Around—we’re well out of that stinking dump.”

“Did you ever go back?”

“Sure. Last year. My Ma’s still there. I want to set her up down here, but she won’t come. Oh, up there everything’s just as it was. You wouldn’t know eleven years had passed.”

Asan’s manner had changed somewhat in there. He seemed watchful, expectant. He said nothing for a few beats, letting a silence develop, bringing William out.

“This business …” William had to clear his throat and start again. “This business of settling accounts. What do people actually do? I mean, to the ones who persecuted them?”

Asan shrugged. “Depends. Most often, you know, people coming back from the countryside end up reinstated in the same work unit that sent them off to shovel pig shit for ten years. Then they’re working alongside the people who sent them. Of course, if they can get any authority they’ll make life miserable for those people. Criticize them, get them in trouble with the authorities, refuse them promotions, get them moved to crappy housing.”

The waiter appeared with their drinks. William took a mouthful of the warm, rough whisky, and wished he had ordered a beer. He would have a headache in the morning, he knew. He had ordered the whisky just to appear sophisticated to Asan. As if, with all his wealth, with his face on the cover of Time magazine, he needed to prove such things! But when once two people have established between themselves which is the superior, which the subordinate, the terms are mighty hard to change.

“Whatever they can do, they do it,” continued Asan, after sipping his own drink. “A lot of those people who were running the movements back in the sixties, they have kids in school or college. When they graduate, they get assigned to a work unit. Well, there are good work units and there are lousy ones. If I helped put a cap on you in the Cultural Revolution, and now you’re back in your job at the Education Bureau, are you going to give my kid a good assignment?” Asan laughed. “The fuck you are. Stuff like that. But there’s really no limit. Just depends who you know, and what his price is. You can have somebody killed, even. No problem! In Shanghai, a thousand bucks will do it. Or get them framed on something nasty. Counter-revolutionary agitation—fifteen years!”

William felt the liquor warm in his belly. Settling accounts. Yes, accounts should be settled, the balances cleared. He sat forward, elbows on the table, and caught Asan’s eyes with his own.

“Asan, old comrade. You said you have good connections everywhere. All over the country. Right?”

“Sure.” Asan was looking at him levelly. He knows what’s coming, thought William. This is a guy who’s bargained and dealt and negotiated himself out of the gutter. He can read faces. He knows what I’m thinking.

“If you wanted to settle an account, I guess you could do it.”

“I guess. Depends on the situation. It’s a question of finding the right person. And expense—for sure that person’s going to want something for his trouble.”

“So let’s say this: With your connections and my money, we could nail anybody. Anybody in China.”

“That’s a fair statement.” Asan was still looking straight back at him—cool, unblinking. William could not keep eye contact. He looked down at his drink.

“Asan, old comrade. I have some accounts to settle.”

Chapter 34

Pilgrimage to the White Goddess

Harmony Disturbed by Strange Events

There was a flight now direct from Shanghai to Hong Kong, an old garage-sale Boeing 707. Watching the stony hillsides of south China drift past below him, William became aware of a sort of liberation, or perhaps of decompression. The two and a half years since he had invented the Bosco had been (so it seemed to him now) a kind of altered state, a single continuous obsession with his work, daily—indeed, hourly—calculating and re-calculating, sifting through screens full of securities, checking indices and interest rates—countless tiny acts of judgment, each building on the other. Not to enrich himself particularly, although it was satisfying to think of that, but for the thing itself, the columns, pages, screens of numbers, and the order that was to be found in them, teased from them. Perhaps, too (though William himself never thought of it in this way) for his father, or for Mr Abramowitz and Mr Stegun.

Now, having broken that one heroic train of thought, he perceived the rest of the world again. Asan had reminded him of that world, and of what he might do in it. The business of settling accounts had often been in his mind during the past years, but only as an abstract idea, a fantasy. To do it!—to strike the great steel plates of the world and see the dinge!—this was a new thought. Asan was right, of course; there was no limit to what he might do, at any rate in China.

And also in Hong Kong. The main reason for his visit was to pay his debt to the Ngs—to settle his account with them. He had heard Mr Ng say more than once that he would like to have set himself up in a little business, if only a small store or a delivery service, but had never had any capital. Perhaps he had already done so, with the occasional remittances William had sent. There had been nothing about it in Mr Ng’s letters; but then, he was not an informative letter-writer. Certainly the Ngs were still living in the resettlement estate in Aberdeen, though with the funds William had sent them they could have afforded much better. Well, Mr Ng would have his business, if he did not have it already. The colony had plenty of the kind of small concern that could be bought up lock, stock and barrel without injury to its assets or market. One or two million, perhaps five million—little enough, for all their kindnesses.

And what was five million, after all? Time had said he was worth eighty million at the end of 1980, and that was the figure he had given Asan. Going over his positions, William thought this was an underestimate. The true figure seemed to be more like a hundred million, at least on paper. Even in simple cash, he thought he could put his hands on forty million. His January bonuses alone had been fifty-five—subject to the income tax, of course, but still ready cash well in seven figures. He could certainly go five million for the Ngs. Although, considering that they had no business experience at all, it might be wise to start them on a modest scale.

William had arranged to be seated by one of the starboard windows, in the hope of seeing Dapeng Bay, but the colony was still covered by its New Year mists, and he thought the flight path would have been too far east anyway. When they came out from under the cloud base it was to Diamond Hill and the sprawl of north Kowloon. William had cabled Mr Ng the listed time of his flight, not knowing that planes in mainland China at that period took off when they pleased, and only ever in perfect weather. William was thus a full twelve hours late, and was not surprised to find himself alone in the arrivals area at Hong Kong International. He phoned the Ngs to apologize, checked into the Peninsula—Hong Kong’s grandest hotel—then rode a cab alone through the tunnel to Aberdeen. Both the Ngs were in the dark little apartment when he arrived.

“Gong hei faat choi!” William called out through the door grille. It was actually almost a month late to be wishing the Ngs “Happy New Year,” but in the press of work he had omitted to send them a New Year’s card, and was feeling delinquent. Mrs Ng opened the grille for him. Each of the Ngs presented him with a hong bao—the little red envelope with the family name on it in gold, containing a bank note, which married people give to the unmarried at New Year.

“Finished your business in China?” asked Mr Ng, setting up the folding table, as Mrs Ng went to the kitchen to prepare food.

“All finished. Things changing fast there now.”

“Oh, soon be back to normal. That Cultural Revolution business—stupid!”

The Ngs showed few signs of being related to great wealth. Mrs Ng had stopped working, but Mr Ng had doggedly refused to—If I don’t work I shall begin to feel old—and William had no idea how they had spent the larger part of his remittances, which he thought must by now have totaled a quarter million U.S. dollars. If he had not known Mr Ng better he would have suspected him of succumbing to the curse of the Chinese and gambling it all away. Probably they had just put it into certificates of deposit. There was an air-conditioner now, in the window on the balcony, and a huge color TV, and a refrigerator roughly the size of the Ngs entire kitchen stood awkwardly next to the chest of drawers in the main room. Otherwise all was as before. They sat at the folding table and drank beer.

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Mr Ng, when William mooted the idea of going into business. “Something manageable, with a decent profit coming in. I’ve had the idea myself, been looking round in fact. But it’s tough starting from nothing, even when you have the capital. So we’ll be partners?”

“No. I’ve no time to run a factory. The business will be yours.”

“Hey. Then I definitely wouldn’t mind. What kind of business is it?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I wanted to come to the colony.”

Mr Ng nodded. “I wish you had come before. Three years is too long.”

“I’m sorry, Uncle. I got so absorbed in my work, the months just melted away.”

“So you have been like the man of Qi snatching the gold,” said Mrs Ng, laughing. The reference was to an ancient story from the philosopher Liezi.

Snatching the Gold

Once there was a man in the state of Qi who wanted to get some gold. Early in the morning he dressed himself well, put on his hat and went to the market. Arriving at the shop of a gold dealer, he snatched some gold and ran away.

A constable soon arrested him and said: “Wasn’t it foolish to snatch the gold when so many people were present?”

The man answered: “At the moment when I was snatching the gold I saw nobody, only the gold.”

William himself laughed. “Not quite like that. I didn’t really set out to get rich, or to be on the cover of Time. It was just … I got fascinated by numbers, by the prices of bonds. It’s not like stock or commodities, where you have to get into a deep study of the businesses you’re dealing with. It’s … abstract. Yet of course not abstract at all.”

Mr Ng was shaking his head, grinning. “Don’t tell me! It makes my head spin when you talk that jargon. We’re simple people, eh, Ma?”

“Simple we may be, but we picked a winner.”

Mr Ng frowned in strong disapproval. “Don’t boast of good luck, Ma. There are many twists and turns in this life, you can never know what they’ll be.” Then he cracked a grin, and raised his glass to William, looking him right in the eyes. “Don’t second-guess the future, just enjoy the present! ‘Today we have wine, so today let’s get drunk!’”


Settle accounts. Next morning William called first at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank to arrange some fund transfers. After that he went to see Murr