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FROM AWARD-WINNING and bestselling Chinese writer Tie Ning comes a stunningly original novel that captures the spirit of a new generation of young professionals in contemporary China. The Bathing Women follows the lives of four women—Tiao, a children’s book editor; Fan, her sister, who thinks escaping to America might solve her problems; Fei,a hedonistic and self-destructive young woman; and Youyou, a chef—from childhood during the Cultural Revolution to adulthood in the new market economy. This moving novel ...
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FROM AWARD-WINNING and bestselling Chinese writer Tie Ning comes a stunningly original novel that captures the spirit of a new generation of young professionals in contemporary China. The Bathing Women follows the lives of four women—Tiao, a children’s book editor; Fan, her sister, who thinks escaping to America might solve her problems; Fei,a hedonistic and self-destructive young woman; and Youyou, a chef—from childhood during the Cultural Revolution to adulthood in the new market economy. This moving novel charts the journey of these women as they grapple with love, sibling rivalry, and, ultimately, redemption.
Beloved and renowned in China, Tie Ning’s numerous books have never before been translated into English; this publication of The Bathing Women introduces a brilliant writer of uncommon talents, vision, and compassion to American readers. Spellbinding, unforgettable, and an important chronicle of modern China, The Bathing Women is a powerful and beautiful portrait of the strength of female friendship in the face of adversity.
“Tie Ning’s unique novel about three Chinese women and their struggles with families and men in today’s fast-changing China is as gorgeous as the Cezanne painting the novel takes its title from.” —Xinran, author of Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother and The Good Women of China
“A probing and gracefully written portrait of an extended Chinese family, related by blood and mystery, in which the author explores areas of human behavior traditionally considered off-limits: the intimate and sexual lives of ordinary Chinese women.” —Hannah Pakula, author of The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
The provincial sunshine was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital. In the early spring the sunshine in both the province and the capital was precious. At this point in the season, the heating in the office buildings, apartments, and private homes was already off. During the day, the temperature inside was much colder than the temperature outside. Tiao’s bones and muscles often felt sore at this time of year. When she walked on the street, her thigh muscle would suddenly ache. The little toe on her left foot (or her right foot), inside those delicate little knuckles, delivered zigzagging pinpricks of pain. The pain was uncomfortable, but it was the kind of discomfort that makes you feel good, a kind of minor pain, coy, a half-drunk moan bathed in sunlight. Overhead, the roadside poplars had turned green. Still new, the green coiled around the waists of the light-colored buildings like mist. The city revealed its softness then, and also its unease.
Sitting in the provincial taxi, Tiao rolled down the window and stuck out her head, as if to test the temperature outside, or to invite all the sun in the sky to shine on that short-cropped head of hers. The way she stuck out her head looked a bit wild, or would even seem crude if she overdid it. But Tiao never overdid it; from a young age she was naturally good at striking poses. So the way she stuck out her head then combined a little wildness with a little elegance. The lowered window pressed at her chin, like a gleaming blade just about to slice her neck, giving her a feeling of having her head under the ax. The bloody yet satisfying scene, a bit stirring and a bit masochistic, was an indelible memory of the story of Liu Hulan, which she heard as a child. Whenever she thought about how the Nationalist bandits decapitated the fifteen-year-old Liu Hulan with an ax, she couldn’t stop gulping—with an indescribable fear and an unnameable pleasure. At that moment she would always ask herself: Why is the most frightening thing also the most alluring? She couldn’t tell whether it was the desire to become a hero that made her imagine lying under an ax, or was it that the more she feared lying under the ax, the more she wanted to lie under the ax?
She couldn’t decide.
The taxi sped along the sun-drenched avenue. The sunshine in the provinces was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital, Tiao thought.
Yet at this moment, in the midst of the provincial capital, Fuan, a city just two hundred kilometers from Beijing, the dust and fiber in the sunshine, people’s expressions and the shape of things as the sun struck them, all of it seemed a bit different from the capital for some reason. When the taxi came to a red light, Tiao started to look at the people stopped by the light. A girl wearing black platform shoes and tight-fitting black clothes had a shapely figure and pretty face, with the ends of her hair dyed blond. This reminded her of girls she’d seen in Tel Aviv, New York, and Seoul who liked to wear black. Whatever was trendy around the world was trendy here, too. Sitting splayed over her white mountain bike, the provincial girl in black anxiously raised her wrist to look at her watch as she spat. She looked at the watch and spat; she spat and then looked at her watch. Tiao supposed she must have something urgent to do and that time was important to her. But why did she spit, since she had a watch? Because she had a watch, there was no need for her to spit. Because she spat, there was no need for her to wear a watch. Because she learned the art of managing her time, she should have learned the art of controlling her spit. Because she had a watch, she shouldn’t have spit. Because she spat, she shouldn’t have a watch. Because she had a watch, she really shouldn’t have spit. Because she had spit, she really shouldn’t have a watch. Because watch . . . because spit . . . because spit . . . because watch . . . because . . . because . . . The red light had long since turned green and the girl in black had shot herself forward like an arrow, and Tiao was still going around and around with watch and spit. This obsession of hers with “if not this, it must be that” made people feel that she was going to run screaming through the street, but this sort of obsession didn’t appear to be true indignation. If she’d forced herself to quietly recite the sentence “Because there is a watch there shouldn’t be spit” fifteen more times, she definitely would have gotten confused and lost track of what it meant. Then her obsession was indeed not real indignation; it was sarcastic babble she hadn’t much stake in. The era was one during which watches and spit coexisted, particularly in the provinces.
Tiao brought her head in from the car window. The radio was playing an old song: “Atop the golden mountain in Beijing, / rays of light shine in all directions. Chairman Mao is exactly like that golden sun, / so warm, so kind, he lights up the hearts of us serfs, / as we march on the socialist path to happiness— / Hey, ba zha hei!” It was a game show from the local music station. The host asked the audience to guess the song title and the original singer. The winner would get a case of Jiabao SOD skin-care products. Audience members phoned in constantly, guessing titles and singers over and over again in Fuan-accented Mandarin, but none of them guessed right. After all, the song and the old singer who sang the song were unfamiliar to the audience of the day, so unfamiliar that even the host felt embarrassed. Tiao knew the title of the old song and the singer who sang it, which drew her into the game show, even though she had no plans to call the hotline. She just sang the song over and over in her head—only the refrain, “Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! Ba zha hei! . . . ” Twenty years ago, when she and her classmates sang that song together, they loved to sing the last line, “Ba zha hei!” It was a Tibetan folk song, sung by the liberated serfs in gratitude to Chairman Mao. “Ba zha hei!” obviously isn’t Chinese. It must be because it was not Chinese that Tiao used to repeat it with such enthusiasm, with some of that feeling of liberation, like chanting, like clever wordplay. The thought of clever wordplay made her force herself to stop repeating “Ba zha hei.” She returned to the present, to the taxi in the provincial capital of Fuan. The game show on the music station was over; the seat in the quiet taxi was covered by a patterned cotton cushion, not too clean, which resembled those shoe inserts handmade and embroidered by country girls from the north. Tiao always felt as if she were sitting on the padding over a Kang bed-stove whenever she sat in a taxi like this. Even though she had been living here for twenty years, she still compared everything to the capital. Whether psychologically or geographically, Beijing was always close to her. This would seem to have a lot to do with the fact that she was born in Beijing, and was a Beijinger. But most of the time she didn’t feel she was a Beijinger, nor did she feel she was a provincial person, a Fuaner. She felt she didn’t belong anywhere, and she often thought this with some spite, some perverse pleasure. It was almost as if she made herself rootless on purpose, as if only in rootlessness could she be free and remain apart from the city around her, allowing her to face all cities and life itself with detachment and calm. And when she thought of the word “calm,” it finally occurred to her that the person sitting in the taxi shouldn’t be so calm; she was probably going to get married.
She had never been married before—the sentence sounded a little odd, as if others who were preparing to get married had all been married many times. But she had never been married before—she still preferred to think this way. She thought about herself this way without any commendatory or derogatory connotations, though sometimes with a touch of pride, and sometimes a touch of sadness. She knew she didn’t look like someone who was approaching forty. Often her eyes would moisten suddenly and a hazy look would float over them; her body had the kind of vigor, agility, and alertness that only an unmarried, childless mature woman would have. The drawers in her office were always stuffed with snacks: preserved plums, eel jerky, fruit chocolate, etc. She was the vice president of a children’s publishing house, but none of her colleagues addressed her as President Yin. Instead, they called her by her name: Yin Xiaotiao. She looked smug a lot of the time, and she knew the person most annoyed by her smugness was her younger sister Fan. Particularly after Fan left for America, things became much clearer. For a long time, she was afraid to tell Fan about her love affairs, but the more she was afraid, the more she felt driven to tell Fan about every one of them. It was almost as though she could prove she wasn’t afraid of Fan by putting up with Fan’s criticism of what she did in her affairs. Even right now she was thinking this, with a somewhat sneaky bravado. It was as if she’d already picked up the phone, and could already imagine the troubled, inquiring expression that Fan had on the other end of the overseas line at getting the news, along with the string of her words, delivered with a nasal tinge. They, Tiao and Fan, had suffered together; they’d felt together as one. What made Fan so contemptuous of Tiao’s life? It was surely contempt—for her clothes, her hairstyle, and the men in her life. Nothing escaped Fan’s ridicule and condemnation—even the showerhead in Tiao’s bathroom. The first year Fan came back to visit, she stayed with Tiao. She complained that the water pressure in the showerhead was too weak to get her hair clean—that precious hair of hers. She complained with a straight face, showing no sign of joking at all. Tiao managed to conceal her unhappiness behind a phony smile, but she would always remember that phony smile.
Maybe she shouldn’t tell her.
The taxi brought Tiao to the Happy Millions Supermarket. She bought food enough for a week and then took the taxi home.
The heat in her apartment wasn’t on, so the rooms felt shadowy and cold. It was different from a winter chill, none of that dense stiffness filling the space; it was uncertain, bearing faint traces of loneliness. On such an evening of such a season, Tiao liked to turn on all the lights, first the hallway, then the kitchen, the study, the living room, the bedroom, and the bathroom, all the lights, ceiling light, wall light, desk light, floor light, mirror light, and bedside light . . . her hands took turns clicking the switches; only the owner of the place could be so practiced and precise. Tiao was the master of the house, and she greeted her apartment by turning the lights on. She lit her home with all these lights, but it seemed as if the lights lit themselves to welcome Tiao back. So lights illuminated every piece of furniture, and every bit of dim haziness in the shadows contributed to her sense of security and substance. She walked through every room this way until she finally came to a small corner: to that blue-gray satin brocade armchair, which seemed to be her favorite corner when she was not sleeping. Every time she came home, returning from work or a business trip, she would sit in this small armchair, staring blankly for a while, drinking a cup of hot water, and refreshing herself until both her body and mind felt rested and relaxed. She never sat on the sofa. Even when Chen Zai held her in his arms and asked to move onto the more comfortable sofa, she remained uncooperative. Then, in a desperate moment, finally feeling she couldn’t refuse anymore, she simply said, “Let’s go to bed.”
For Chen Zai, that was an unforgettable sentence because they had never gone to bed before, even though they had known each other for decades. Later, when they sometimes teased back and forth about who seduced whom first, Chen Zai would quote this sentence of Tiao’s, “Let’s go to bed.” It was so straightforward and innocent and it caught him so off guard that he almost missed the erotic implications. It made Chen Zai think again and again that this lithe woman he held in his arms was his true love, and always had been. It was also because of this sentence that they didn’t do anything that first night.
Chen Zai was not home tonight. He had gone to the south on a business trip. Tiao ate dinner, sat back in the armchair, and read a manuscript for a while. Then she took a shower and got into bed. She preferred to slip into her quilt nest early; she preferred to wait for Chen Zai’s phone call in there. She especially liked the words “slip into her quilt nest,” a little unsophisticated—poor and unworldly-sounding. She just liked the words “slip,” “quilt,” “nest.” She never got used to hotels and the way foreigners slept—the blanket tucked in at the foot of the bed, stretched tight over the mattress. Once you stuck your legs and feet into the blanket, you felt disconnected, with nothing to touch. She also didn’t like quilts made of down, or artificial cotton. The way they floated lightly over your body made you more restless. She always used quilts made of real cotton; she liked everything about a quilt nest folded with a cotton quilt, the tender, swaddled feeling of the light weight distributed over her whole body, the different temperatures that hid in the little creases of the quilt nest. When she couldn’t sleep because of the heat, she would use her feet to look for the cool spots in the soft creases under the quilt. When she needed to curl up, the quilt nest would come along with her, clinging to her body. So unlike those bedclothes pinned down by the mattress, where you wouldn’t dream of moving, but would have to yield to the tyranny, forced into an approved sleeping posture—by what right? Tiao thought. Every time she went on a business trip or traveled abroad, she would intentionally mess up those blankets. Cotton quilts always made Tiao sleep well. But unpleasant thoughts pressed in on her after she woke up in the middle of the night. When she turned on the table lamp, tottered to the bathroom to pee, and returned, when she lay back in her bed and turned off the light, at that moment she would feel the intense loneliness and boredom. She began to think about things in a confused way, and the things that people tend to think, awakening after midnight, are often unpleasant. How she hated waking up in the middle of the night! Only after she truly had Chen Zai did she lose the fear. Then she was no longer by herself.
She curled up in her quilt nest and waited for Chen Zai’s phone call. He kissed her through the phone and they talked for a long time. When Tiao hung up, she found herself still not wanting to sleep. This evening, a night when Chen Zai was far away from Fuan, she had an overwhelming desire to read the love letters locked in her bookcase. They were not from Chen Zai, and she no longer loved the man who had written her the love letters. Her desire now was not to reminisce, or to take stock. Maybe she just cherished the handwriting on the paper. Nowadays, few people would put pen to paper, especially not to write love letters.
There were sixty-eight letters altogether, and Tiao numbered every one of them in chronological order. She opened number one, a white paper whose edges had yellowed: “Comrade Yin Xiaotiao, the unexpected meeting with you in Beijing left a deep impression on me. I have a feeling that we will definitely see each other again. I’m writing to you on an airplane. I will arrive in Shanghai today and will leave for San Francisco tomorrow. I’ll seriously consider your suggestion about writing a childhood memoir—only because it was a request of yours.” The letter was signed by Fang Jing, the date was March 1982.
It was more like a note than a letter. The words, scrawled on an oversized piece of paper, seemed big and sparse. The words looked like they were staring stupidly at the reader. Strictly speaking, it was not a love letter, but the thrill that it brought to Tiao’s soul was much stronger than what those real love letters of his gave her later.
The letter’s author, Fang Jing, had been very hot in the movie business at the time. He’d written, directed, and acted in a movie called A Beautiful Life. After an endless run in theaters around the country, the movie also won quite a few major awards. It was a movie about middle-aged intellectuals who’d suffered horrendously during the Cultural Revolution but still managed to survive, optimism intact. Fang Jing played an intellectual imprisoned in a labor camp on the border. He was a violinist whose imprisonment gave him no chance to play the violin. There was an episode in the movie that showed how, after the hero endures heavy labor with an empty stomach, when he straightens up in the wheat field, catching sight of the beautiful sunset in the distance, he can’t help stretching out his arms. His right arm becomes the violin neck and he presses on it with his left hand, fingers moving around as on the strings of a violin. There was a close-up of this in the movie, the scrawny scarred arm and that strangely transformed hand. The arm as the violin and the hand playing on it broke people’s hearts. Tiao would cry every time she watched this part. She was convinced that Fang Jing wasn’t performing but reliving his own experience. The scene might seem sentimental now, but back then, at a time when people’s hearts had been repressed for so long, it could easily bring an audience to tears.
Tiao never thought she would come to know Fang Jing personally. She had recently graduated from university and, through connections, got a job as an editor in the Fuan Children’s Publishing House. Like all young people who admired celebrities, she and her classmates and colleagues enthusiastically discussed the movie A Beautiful Life, and Fang Jing himself. They read all the profiles of Fang Jing in the newspapers and magazines and traded information with each other: his background, his life experience, his family and hobbies, his current project, what movie he entered in a film festival and what new award he won there, even his height and weight; Tiao knew all the details. It was by chance that Tiao and he got to know each other. She went to Beijing to solicit manuscripts for books and ran into a college roommate. The father of this roommate worked in a filmmakers’ association, so she was very much in the know. The roommate told Tiao that the filmmakers’ association was holding a conference on Fang Jing’s work and that she could get Tiao in.
On the day of the conference, her roommate slipped Tiao into the meeting room. Tiao has forgotten now what was said in the conference; she remembers only that Fang Jing looked younger than he did in the movie and that he spoke Mandarin with a southern accent. He had a resonant voice, and when he laughed, he frequently leaned back, which made him look easygoing. She also remembered he held a wooden tobacco pipe and would wave the pipe in the air when he got excited. People thought that was natural and charming. He was surrounded by good-looking men and women. When the conference ended, the attendees swarmed forward, held out their notebooks, and asked him for autographs. Her roommate grabbed Tiao’s hand, wanting to rush forward with the crowd. Tiao rose from the chair but backed away. Her roommate had no choice but to let go of her and push forward on her own. In fact, the notebook in Tiao’s hand had been turned to a new page, a blank page ready for Fang Jing to sign his name. But she still backed away clutching the notebook, maybe because she was a bit timid, maybe because an incongruous pride inhibited her. Even though she was so insignificant compared to him, she was still unwilling to play the airhead autograph hound. She backed away, all the while regretting the lost chance. Right then, Fang Jing stretched out an apelike arm from the midst of the swirl of people and pointed at Tiao, who stood apart, saying, “Hey, you!” as he parted the crowd and walked toward Tiao.
He came up to her and grabbed her notebook without asking, and signed his famous name in it.
“Happy now?” He looked directly into Tiao’s eyes with a faintly condescending attitude.
“I guess I would say that I’m very grateful instead, Mr. Fang Jing!” Tiao felt surprised and excited. Emboldened, she started to forget herself. “But how do you know what I want is your autograph?” She tried to look directly into his eyes, too.
“Then what do you want?” He didn’t understand.
“I want . . . it’s like this, I want to solicit a manuscript for a book project—” she said, on the spur of the moment, confronting Fang with childlike seriousness, distinguishing herself from the autograph hunters.
“I think we should trade places,” Fang Jing said, fumbling in his pocket and taking out a wrinkled envelope. “Think it’s okay to ask you to sign your name for me?” He handed the envelope to Tiao. Tiao was embarrassed, but she still signed her name, and, at Fang Jing’s reminder, left her publishing house’s address and number. Then she took the opportunity to talk further about the idea for which she was soliciting manuscripts, even though she had come up with it on the spot a few minutes before. She said she had submitted a proposal and the publishing house had approved it. She intended to do a series of books featuring the childhoods of celebrities, including scientists, artists, writers, scholars, directors, and professors, aimed at elementary and middle school students. Mr. Fang Jing’s work and harsh life experiences had already attracted so much attention, if he could write a memoir about himself for children, it would definitely become popular with them, and would benefit society as well. Tiao talked quickly while feeling ashamed of her reckless fabrications. The more ashamed she was, the more in earnest she pretended to be. It was as though the more she talked, the more real it seemed. Yes, it felt quite real. How she hoped Fang Jing would turn her down while she rattled on. Then she would feel relieved, and then everything would be as if nothing had happened. It was actually true that nothing had happened. What could happen between a big celebrity and a common editor from the provinces? But Fang Jing didn’t interrupt her or turn her down; those TV journalists interrupted them, swarming over him to bring him to his interview.
Not long after the conference, Tiao received the first letter from Fang Jing, written on the airplane. She read the letter numerous times, studying, analyzing, and chipping away at the words and lines to reveal what they meant or did not mean. Why did he have to write a letter to me on an airplane? Why must he reveal so carelessly to a stranger his location in Shanghai or San Francisco? In Tiao’s mind, everything about a celebrity should be mysterious, including his whereabouts. Why would he only consider the idea seriously because it was a request of Tiao’s? Did that make sense? She turned those thoughts over and over in her mind, unable to think clearly, but unable to resist puzzling over them, either, letting a secret sweetness spread in her heart. At least her little vanity got an unexpected boost and her job would probably get off to a wonderful start as well. She’d have to take that offhand, improvised plan seriously. She would make a feasible, deliberate, and persuasive presentation to her editor in chief, trying to get the plan approved by the publishing house just because a celebrity like Fang Jing had promised to consider writing for her. Everything sounded real.
A few days later, Tiao received Fang Jing’s second letter from San Francisco.
This was number two in Tiao’s file:
You don’t mind me leaving out the word “comrade,” do you? I feel very strange. Why do I keep on writing to you—a girl who wouldn’t condescend to ask for an autograph from me? When a large group of beautiful girls leaped at me, you backed away. Please forgive me for such a silly, conceited sentence. But they have been leaping at me constantly, which I’ve enjoyed for the last two years, half reluctantly, and yet with a feeling that it was my due. Then you appear, so indifferent and so puzzling. Right now, on the West Coast of the United States, thousands of miles away, your face on that day appears before me constantly, your eyes like an abyss that no one would dare to look into, your lips mysteriously sealed. I don’t think you came to me on your own; you were sent by a divine power. When I left for America, I brought a map of China along as if compelled by a supernatural force. It was a little pretentious, as though I were showing off how much I love my country and what a fanatical patriot I am. Not until later did I realize I brought it because I wanted to carry with me on a map of China—Fuan—your city, where you live, small as a grain of rice on the map, which I constantly touch with my fingertips—that grain of rice just like . . . just like . . . I think, although we have only met once, we actually don’t live far apart, only two hundred kilometers. Maybe sometime I will go to the city where you live to visit you. Does that sound ridiculous? If it’s not convenient, you don’t have to see me. I would be happy just to stand under your window. Also, after serious consideration, I believe the topic of your proposal is very important. I’ve made up my mind to write the book for you; I can write during downtime between scenes on set.
I went to the famous Golden Gate Bridge this afternoon. When I stood beside the great bridge to look at San Francisco in the sunset, the dream city created with its man-made island, I got a clear idea about this city for the first time. If I had misgivings or prejudices about cities before, San Francisco changed my perception. It made me realize the heights human wisdom and power could reach and what a magnificent scene the human and the city create together out of their striving. I don’t know your life experience, and have no idea how much people your age know about Western cuisine. Here at Fisherman’s Wharf, they sell a very interesting dish: a big, round, crusty loaf of bread with a lid (the lid is also bread). When you open it, there is steaming-hot, thick, buttery soup inside. The bread is actually a big bowl. You have to hold the bread bowl carefully while eating. You have a bite of bread and a mouthful of soup. After you finish the soup, you eat the bowl, which goes down to your stomach. When I stood in the ocean breeze eating my fill of the bread bowl, I recalled the years I spent in the labor camp. I was thinking even if I exhausted all the creativity in me, I couldn’t have invented such a simple and unusual food. Oddly, I also thought about you. For some reason I believe you would love to eat this.
Of course, most of the time I was thinking about our country; we’re too poor. Our people have to get rich as soon as possible. Only then can we genuinely and frankly get along with any of the cities in the world, and genuinely rid ourselves of the sense of inferiority hidden in the depths of our hearts, the sense of inferiority that usually reveals itself strongly in the form of pride. It also exists in me . . . I think I’ve taken too much of your time. I’ll save many things for when we meet; I’ll tell you more later, little by little. I’ve been feeling that we will have a lot of time together, you and I.
It’s very late at night now. Outside my window, the waves of the Pacific Ocean sound like they’re right in your ears. I hope you receive and read this letter. I’ll be returning to China within the week. If it’s possible, can you please write me back? You can send the letter to the movie studio. Of course, this might well be too much to hope for on my part.
Wishing you happiness,
_____, _______, 1982
When she was a senior at a university in Beijing, her roommate in the upper bunk, the one who took her to the conference on Fang Jing’s work later, often returned to the dorm late at night. Everyone knew she was madly in love. Miss Upper Bunk was a plain girl, but love gave her eyes an unusual brightness and made her whole face radiant. One night, when she returned to the dorm on tiptoe in the dark, she didn’t climb into her upper bunk as usual. That night, Tiao in the lower bunk was also awake. From her bed, Tiao quietly watched her roommate walk into the dorm room. She saw Miss Upper Bunk take out a small round mirror from a drawer, raise the mirror toward the window, and study her own face by moonlight. The moonlight was too dim to allow her a good view of her own face, so she tiptoed to the door and gently pushed it open. A beam of yellow light from the hallway shone on her roommate’s body. She stood in the doorway and angled her head and the mirror toward the light. Tiao looked at her face; it was a beautiful face with a hint of drunken flush. She must have been content with herself at that moment. This girls’ dorm, deep in sleep then, had become rich and peaceful. Tiao was touched by the sight, and not just because of her roommate, but why else, then?
Another late night, her roommate tossed and turned in her bed after coming back. She leaned her head down to Tiao’s lower bunk and quietly woke her up. Then she climbed down and lay side by side with Tiao, and began to speak in urgent tones. She said, “Tiao, let me tell you—I have to tell you—I’m finally no longer a virgin. A man loves me, and how wonderful a thing it is you couldn’t possibly understand.” She wanted Tiao to guess who the man was, and Tiao guessed a few boys from their class. Miss Upper Bunk said condescendingly, “Them? You can’t mean them!” She said she never would have anything to do with the men on campus. She said they didn’t have brains and she admired men with avant-garde ideas and a unique insight on society, those forward-thinkers who could enlighten people. She had fallen in love with a forward-thinker and that forward-thinker liberated her mind and body, turning her from a virgin into a . . . a woman. “A woman, do you understand or not, Tiao? You have a right to enjoy this, also, and you’ve had the right for a long time, without realizing.” Her upper-bunk roommate described the experience of being with that forward-thinker. She said, “Do you know who he is? You’ll be shocked if I tell you his name.” She paused as if to let the suspense build for Tiao. Tiao was really excited by her words and couldn’t help asking, “Who is he, who is he?” Her upper-bunk roommate took a deep breath and then breathed out a few words gently as if she were afraid of frightening someone away. “The author of Zero Degree File.” The name was indeed breathed out, barely formed on the lips. To this day Tiao still clearly remembers the nervous hot breath of her roommate when she said the words: “Zero Degree File.”
Zero Degree File was a work of fiction, representative of the “Scar Literature” school, particularly popular among young people, with whom the author of course had made his reputation. At the time, people followed a novel and author with great sincerity and enthusiasm. The enthusiasm might be naïve and shallow, but it had an innocence and purity that would never come again. Tiao would certainly have envied Miss Upper Bunk had she stopped right there, but she couldn’t. She felt compelled to share her intimate happiness with others. She said, “You have to know he’s not an ordinary person but a writer, a writer overflowing with talent. Tiao, you know, only now do I truly understand what ‘overflowing’ means.” She said, “This writer, overflowing with talent, is so good to me. One night I couldn’t fall asleep and I suddenly had a craving for dried hawthorn berries, so I shook him awake and asked him to go out and buy some for me. He actually got up and biked through the entire city looking for dried hawthorn berries. A writer, overflowing with talent, went to buy me dried hawthorn berries in the middle of the night! Did you hear that, Tiao? Did you hear that? Are you still a virgin? Tiao, are you still a virgin? If you are, then you are really being cheated. Don’t you realize how late it’s getting? You’re really good for nothing until you . . . ”
Tiao didn’t know why her upper-bunk roommate had to associate dried hawthorn fruit with virginity, as if she didn’t deserve to eat dried hawthorn fruit if she were still a virgin. The statement “I’m finally no longer a virgin” jarred Tiao, and made her confused and agitated. In any case, that “finally” shouldn’t be the highest expectation that her upper-bunk roommate should have for her own youth. Maybe she exaggerated. When one era urgently wanted to replace another, everything got exaggerated, everything, from novels to virginity. But the frenzied enthusiasm of her upper-bunk roommate still affected Tiao. When her roommate chattered, she felt like an ignorant moron of a country girl, completely uncultivated, an idiot who’d fallen behind the times and whose youth was flowing away downstream with the current. It was indeed an era of thought liberation, liberation-liberation, and liberation again. The trend swept over Tiao and she felt like she were being dragged along, accused, and ridiculed by her upper-bunk roommate. Her body seemed to be filled with a new and ambiguous desire. She must do something, but even the “must do” was a kind of blind exaggeration. What should she do? She wasn’t dating; there was no man on campus worthy of her attention. Then she should look beyond the campus. One day her roommate said she was going to introduce her to someone. She said, though the guy was neither a writer nor a poet, he was pretty close to poets, an editor for a poetry magazine. She said he was fun to talk to. She said at a literary gathering he read a poem called “My Ass”: “O my ass and this ass of mine, why would I sit down beside the bourgeoisie when I sit down? Stool of the working class, I beg you, I beg you to receive my ignorant ass—even if you are a neglected stool . . . ” Tiao didn’t think it was a poem. Maybe the author was imitating those who did crazy self-denunciations in the denouncement meetings. The “poem” just reminded Tiao of her own butt, making her think about the secret, happy times when she pretended the down pillows were a sofa. She had never realized that one could talk about asses so openly in poetry; after all, very few could have the imposing manner of Chairman Mao, who wrote about asses in his poems. But she went on a date with this editor, deliberately looking for some excitement. After all, she was only a student and the man was the editor of a poetry magazine. An editor was no more than a step below a writer; barely lower than a writer, a tiny bit.
They met on a cold evening in front of the art museum and shook hands with a little stiffness. After the greeting, they began to stroll back and forth. With the thick down jackets and tightly fitting jeans both wore, from a distance they must have looked like a pair of meandering ostriches. Tiao had never gone on a date alone with a man, particularly a man so “close to poets.” As they started to walk around uncomfortably, Tiao was struck with the meaninglessness of it all: What was she doing here? Where did she want to go? Didn’t her roommate tell her that the editor was a married man when she set them up? She meant this to indicate that Tiao could relax; they could date or not, no pressure—can’t a man and woman meet alone, whether they’re on a date or not? In eras like the sixties or seventies it might have seemed absurd, but things were different now. From her roommate’s perspective, only when a single female student dated a married male editor could an era be proved open and a person be proved free. And at this moment, her theory was being put into practice with Tiao’s help. Unfortunately, neither Tiao’s body nor her mind felt free; she was very nervous. When she felt nervous she just babbled. She talked about the boys and girls in her class, the food in their cafeteria, and how their professor of modern literature walked into the classroom with a misbuttoned shirt . . . she went on and on, quickly and at random, so her conversation wasn’t at all intellectual, clever, fun, or witty. Her mind went completely blank, and her blank mind soberly reminded her again and again how ridiculous her meeting with this “ostrich” beside her was. By spouting endless nonsense, she was simply punishing herself for going on this most absurd date. She rambled on and on, full of anxiety because she had no experience in ending a meeting that should have ended before it began. She even stupidly believed that if she kept on talking without a pause, she could hasten the end of the date. Finally the editor interrupted her, and not until then did she discover how nasal his voice was. She didn’t like men with nasal voices. People who spoke that way sounded pretentious, as if they were practicing pronunciation while speaking. The editor said, “Do you plan to go back to your hometown? Your hometown is Fuan, right? Even though it’s an ancient city, it’s still provincial. I suggest you try and arrange to stay in Beijing for your graduation assignment. It’s the only cultural center. Of this I’m very sure.”
Tiao was a little bit offended by the editor’s words. What right did he have to keep saying “your town”? Her upper-bunk roommate said he’d just been transferred to Beijing from Huangtu Plateau a few years ago, and now he talked so patronizingly to Tiao as if he were some kind of master of Beijing. Where was he when she was sipping raspberry soda in the alleys of Beijing?
Images from the past were still vivid for her: all those things that happened long ago, how she suffered when she first entered the city of Fuan as a young Beijinger. She’d felt wronged as well as proud. She’d tried hard to blend into the city, and maybe she had. The way she did blend in gave her energy, and allowed her, along with several close friends, to keep her Beijing accent bravely in that ancient, xenophobic city. Beijing! Beijing had never known there were several young women like this who had tried in vain to bring her culture to a strange city. Even though Beijing had never needed and would never need their sacrifice, Tiao and her friends insisted on such devotion. But the man in front of her, this man, what had he done for Beijing? He already considered himself a Beijinger. Besides, his mention of her graduation assignment annoyed her. How could she discuss personal business like her graduation assignment with a stranger? In short, nothing felt right. She resented the attitude of her roommate and her own silliness—she very much wanted to use this word to describe herself. She felt a bit sad, for the way she had thrust herself forward without any idea of the direction she should take; she also felt a bit awakened: she suddenly realized that her youth wasn’t flowing away in the current, that what she herself treasured was still precious, and she felt lucky to be able to hold on to it. She was as good as her roommate in many ways, and if she couldn’t keep up with her in this way, she was content to “fall behind.”
As she waited for the last bus to come, her thinking became clearer and clearer. There were many people on the bus. She flashed a farewell smile at the editor, ran to catch it, and then tried with all her might to force her way onto the already packed bus. The editor had followed her, apparently not wanting to leave until he made sure she’d gotten on. She turned around and yelled at him, “Hey, can you give me a push?” He gave a push, and she got herself crammed on board. The door shut behind her with a swoosh.
Standing in the last bus, she suddenly smiled to herself. She realized “Give me a push” was actually what she most wanted to say tonight. She also realized the editor was a nice, honest man. But just as she wasn’t attracted to him, he also wasn’t at all attracted to her.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t want to write Fang Jing back; she put off writing because she didn’t know what to say. Maybe everything had happened too quickly. In any case, she couldn’t treat Fang Jing’s letter from San Francisco as a casual note. She carefully read the letter over and over, and time and again it brought her to tears. She’d never read such a good letter, and she had no reason to doubt the author’s sincerity.
So she started to write back. “Mr. Fang Jing, how are you?” she wrote. Then she would tear the letter up and start over. He was so important and she was so insignificant. She lacked confidence and was afraid of making a fool of herself—but how could she write a letter of the same quality as a celebrity like Fang Jing? It was impossible; she had neither the writing talent nor the emotional maturity his letter displayed. Just based on the letter alone, Tiao felt that she had already fallen in love with him. And she had to fall in love with him because she believed he had fallen in love with her—and it was her good fortune to be loved by him, she thought selflessly. At her age and with her lack of experience, she couldn’t immediately tell the difference between admiration and love, or know how quickly a feeling driven by vanity might get the better of her. Maybe at those times she thought about her senior-year roommate. Compared to Fang Jing, who was that writer of her roommate’s, with his “overflowing talent”? How could her love affair match Tiao’s secret life now? College life, the flare of red-hot emotion that came and went quickly.
Once again she started to write a reply to him, but finally could only come up with those few words, “Dear Mr. Fang Jing, how are you?”
She went out and found a second-run theater to watch a movie of his, to meet him on the screen. She listened to his voice, studied his features, and savored his expressions. She tried very hard to memorize his looks, but when she returned home and lay in her bed, she found she had completely forgotten. It frightened and worried her, and seemed like a bad sign. The next day she took the opportunity to watch the movie again. She stared at him on the screen, as if she had found a long-lost family member. She still couldn’t compose the letter. Then she received his phone call at her office.
He phoned at a time that everyone was in the office. The chief editor said to her, “Tiao, your uncle’s calling.” As soon as she walked to the phone and picked up the receiver, she recognized his southern-accented Mandarin. He said the following paragraph in one breath, with some formality and a tone that left her no room for contradiction: “Is this Comrade Yin Xiaotiao? This is Fang Jing. I know there are a lot of people in your office. You don’t have to say anything. Don’t call me Mr. Fang Jing. Just listen to me. I’ve returned to Beijing and haven’t received a letter or phone call from you. It’s very likely that you’re laughing at me for being foolish. But please let me finish. Don’t hang up on me and don’t be afraid of me. I don’t want to be unreasonable. I just want to see you. Listen to me—I’m at a conference at the Beijing Hotel. Can you arrange to come to Beijing to solicit manuscripts? I know editors come to Beijing all the time. You come and we’ll meet. I’ll give you my phone number for the conference. You don’t have to respond to me right away, though of course I want to have your immediate response, your positive response, very much. No, no, you should think it over first. I have a few more things I want to ramble on about, I know I don’t seem very composed, but I have somehow lost control of myself, which is very unusual for me. I would rather trust my instincts, though. Please don’t be in a hurry to refuse me. Don’t be in a hurry to refuse me. Now I’m going to give you the number. Can you write it down? Can you remember it . . . ?”
She was very bad at memorizing numbers, but she learned Fang Jing’s number by heart even though he said it only once. She went to Beijing three days later, and saw him in his room at the Beijing Hotel. When she was alone with him, she felt he seemed even taller than when she had first met him. Like so many tall people, he stooped a little. But this didn’t change his bearing, that arrogant and nonchalant attitude he was famous for. Tiao thought she must have appeared affected when she walked into his room, because Fang Jing seemed to catch an uneasiness from her. He gave her a broad smile, but the easy, witty manner of the conference was gone. He poured her a cup of tea but somehow managed to spill the hot tea, scalding Tiao’s hand as well as his own. The telephone rang endlessly—that was the way the celebrities were, always pursued by phone calls. He kept picking up the phone, lying to the callers without missing a beat: “No, I can’t do it today. Now? Impossible. I have to go see the rough cut in a minute. How about tomorrow? Tomorrow I’ll treat you at Da Sanyuan . . . ”
Sitting on the sofa listening quietly to Fang Jing’s lies, Tiao sensed an unspoken understanding grow between them, and in herself a strange new feeling, dreamlike. She was grateful for all those smooth lies, thankful that he was turning those others down for her, with lies made for her, all of them, for the sake of their reunion. She started to relax; the phone calls were precisely what she needed to give herself the time to regroup.
Fang Jing finally finished the calls and came over to Tiao. He crouched down right in front of her, face-to-face. It was a sudden movement, but the gesture was quite natural and simple, like a peasant tending crops in the field, or an adult who needs to crouch down to talk to a child, or a person who crouches down to observe a small insect like an ant or beetle. With his age and status, the crouching gave him an air of childish naughtiness. He said to Tiao, who was sitting on the sofa, “How about we go out? Those phone calls are pretty annoying.”
They left the room and went to the hotel bar. They chose a quiet corner and sipped coffee. He was holding his pipe. After a short silence, he began to speak, saying, “What do you think of me?”
She said, “I respect you very much. Like so many people, I admire your movie A Beautiful Life. Like me, a great many people hold your talent in high regard. In our editors’ office, you’re often the topic of discussion. We—”
He interrupted her and said, “Are you going to talk to me in this sort of tone all night? Are you? Tell me.”
She shook her head and then nodded. She’d wanted to restrain her excitement in this way. She already found herself liking to be with him very much.
Then he said, out of the blue, “You stood apart from the crowd at the conference, naïve but also seeming to have a mind of your own. I saw at a glance that you were the person that God sent to keep an eye on me. I can’t lie to you; I want to tell you everything. I . . . I . . . I . . . ” He puffed on his pipe. “Do you know that what I wrote you was what was on my mind? I had never written to a woman, never. But I couldn’t help it after I saw you. I am well aware of my talent and gifts, and I am also well aware that they’re far from being fully developed. I will be much more famous than I am now. The day will come. Just wait and see. I also want to talk about my attitude towards women; I simply don’t reject any women who approach me. Most women want me for my fame, maybe my money, too. Of course, some don’t want anything from me, just want to devote themselves to me. They are especially pathetic, because in many respects . . . I am actually very dirty—I hope I am not frightening you with my words.”
His words did frighten her quite a bit. All exposed things are frightening, and why would he treat her to such an exposed view of himself? She felt sorry for him because of that “dirtiness.” She’d thought what she was going to hear would be much more romantic than this. Just exactly what kind of man was he? What did he want from her? Tiao was puzzled but knew well she didn’t have the ability to take the initiative in their conversation. She was passive; she had been passive from the very start, and she could have no idea that the passivity would later produce something evil in her.
“Therefore . . . ” He took another puff of his pipe and said, “Therefore, I don’t deserve you. It looks like I’m pursuing you now, but how could I possess you? You’re a woman who can’t be possessed—by anyone. But I’ll be with you sooner or later.”
She finally spoke. She asked, “What leads you to such a conclusion?” His directness made her heart race.
But he ignored her question completely; he just continued, “You and I will be together sooner or later. But I want to tell you that even though someday I will be madly in love with you, I will still have many other women. And I will certainly not hide that from you. I’ll tell you everything: who they are, how it happened . . . I’ll let you judge me, punish me, because you’re the woman I love the most. Only you deserve me to be so frank, so truthful, and so weak. You’re my goddess, and I need a goddess. Just remember what I say. Maybe you’re too young now, but you’ll understand me, you definitely will. Ordinary people might think I’m talking like a hooligan. Well, maybe I am and maybe I’m not.”
Hearing such words from Fang Jing, Tiao didn’t want to label them the language of a hooligan. But what was it exactly? Should a married man with a successful career say those things to an innocent girl? But Tiao was lost then in the labyrinth created by his nonsense, as if under a spell. She strained to understand his philosophy and rise to the state of consciousness he had attained. A strange charisma came from the arrogance he projected and his domineering manner. The hints of coldness that occasionally strayed from his passionate eyes also drew her deeply in. She couldn’t help beginning to question herself just to keep up with his thinking: What kind of person was she? What kind of person might she become? What was her attraction to this celebrity anyway? . . .
Strangely, he did not move closer to Tiao as he talked. He leaned back instead, putting more distance between them the more he spoke. His hunger for her was not going to end in a simple, impulsive touch and physical closeness. The way he kept proper physical distance didn’t seem to be the behavior of an experienced man who was so used to being spoiled by women.
It was not until very, very late that Tiao left the Beijing Hotel. Fang Jing insisted on walking her back to her small hotel.
The evening breeze of late spring on broad Changan Avenue made Tiao feel much more relaxed. At that moment she realized how exhausting it was to be with him. It would always be exhausting, but she would be willing to be with him for many years to come.
He walked at her left side for a while and then at her right side. He said, “Tiao, I want to tell you one more thing.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“You’re a good girl,” he said.
“But you don’t really know me.”
“True, I don’t know you, but I’m confident there is nobody else who understands you better than I do.”
“You know, after all, this is a matter that has been decided by mysterious powers, but you and I have a lot of things in common. For instance, we’re both sensitive, and below our surface indifference, we both have molten passion . . . ”
“How do you know I have molten passion? And what do you mean by describing me as indifferent? Do you feel that I didn’t show you enough respect?”
“See, you’re starting an argument with me,” he said with some excitement. “Your arrogance is also coming out—no, not arrogance, it’s pride. I don’t have that sort of pride; the pride is yours alone.”
“Why is it mine alone?” She softened her tone. “If you didn’t have pride at your core, how could you be so outspoken—those words you said a little while ago at the hotel?”
He suddenly smiled with some concern. “Do you really think that’s pride? What I actually have at my core is more like insolence. Insolence, you understand?”
She couldn’t agree with him, or she couldn’t allow him to describe himself this way. Only many years later when she reflected on this did she understand that his self-analysis was really quite accurate, but she resisted him fiercely at the time. She started to tell him about all of the feelings she had for him—as she read his two letters, while she watched his movie again for fear of forgetting what he looked like. She spoke with a great deal of effort, sometimes worried she might not be expressing herself well enough with her words. When she mentioned his heavily scarred arm in the movie, she couldn’t help starting to cry. So she paused until she could hold her tears back. He didn’t want her to continue but she insisted on speaking, not to move him but to move herself. She had a vague sense that the man before her, who had suffered more than enough, deserved everything he wanted. If he were sent to a labor camp again, she would be his companion in suffering all her life, like the wives of those Decembrists in Russia, who were willing to go into exile in Siberia with their husbands. Ah, to prove her faithfulness, bravery, nobility, and detachment, she simply couldn’t help wanting to relive the era that had tormented Fang Jing. Let an era like that be the measure of her heart—but who the hell was she? Fang Jing had a wife and a daughter.
They arrived at her small hotel while she was talking. She immediately stopped speaking and held out her hand to him. He looked into her eyes while holding her hand and said, “Let me say it one more time: you’re a good girl.”
They said goodbye and he turned around. She walked through the hotel gate but immediately came back and ran into the street. She called out to stop him.
He knew what she wanted to do, he told her later.
Now he remained where he was and waited for her to come to him. She ran over, stopped in front of him, and said, “I want to kiss you.”
He opened his arms to hold her loosely, so loosely that their bodies didn’t come close. She went on tiptoes, raising her face to kiss him, then immediately let him go and ran into the hotel.
Fang Jing could never forget Tiao’s first kiss, because it was so light and subtle, like a dragonfly skimming the water. It could not actually be considered a kiss, at most it was just half a kiss, like a flying feather gently brushing his lips, an imagined snowflake melting away without a trace on a burning-hot stove. But she was so devoted and shy. It was impulsiveness caused by too much devotion, and too much shyness that caused . . . what did it cause? She just about missed his lips.
Maybe it was not only that. When Tiao ran so decisively toward Fang Jing, her heart had already started to hesitate. All by herself, she felt she had to run to this man. She responded to her own prompting in one moment, but letting her lips slip away from the unknown in the next. It was hesitation caused by fear, and caution caused by discretion.
It was the solemn and hasty half kiss, so pure and complicated, that prevented Fang Jing from returning her kiss. He didn’t dare. And when he loosely encircled her slim and supple waist with his arms, he knew his heart had been captured by this distant and intimate person.
The letters he wrote to her usually ran very long, and his handwriting was very small. He used a special type of Parker fountain pen to write, which produced extremely thin strokes, “as thin as a strand of hair,” as the saying goes. This sharp pen allowed him to write smaller and more densely packed characters, like an army of ants wriggling across the paper. He wrote the tiny words greedily, wrestling them onto the white paper. He used those tiny words to invade and torture the white sheets, leaving no breaks for paragraphs, and paying no attention to format and space. He was not writing words; he was eating paper and gnawing on paper with words. It looked as though he were driven to use those tiny black words to occupy every inch of the paper, to fill all the empty places on every sheet of white paper with those tiny black words, transforming pieces of thin paper by force into chunks of heavy dark clouds. He couldn’t help shouting at the sky: Give me a huge piece of white paper and let me finish writing the words of my entire life.
No one else wrote to her like that before or afterward. Ten years later, when she read those letters with critical detachment, the patience he took in writing pages of tiny words, the vast amount of time he spent on writing such letters, the hunger and thirst with which he fought for every inch of paper with his words and sentences, could still move her somehow. What she valued was this meticulous patience, this primitive, sincere, awkward, and real dependence and love between paper and words, whether it was written to her or some other woman.
He wrote in his letter:
Tiao, I worry about your eyes because you have to read such small writing from me. But still I write smaller and smaller, and the paper gets thinner and thinner because I have more and more to say to you. If I wrote in big characters and used thick paper, it might not be safe to send it to your publishing house. People might think it is a manuscript from an author and open it for you.
He also talked about his absurd experiences, in some of the letters.
You’re not going to be happy to read this letter, but I must write it because you’re watching me anyway even if I don’t write it. You have been watching me all the time. A few days ago, I was on location at Fang Mountain—you know what I’m talking about, the place where I shot Hibernation. I was making love to actress so and so (she is even younger than you are, and not very well known) but I felt terrible. Maybe because everything was too rushed, and she was too purposeful and too blunt. She had been chatting me up for the last few days, not that she wanted to angle for the part of the heroine in this film—the heroine had been cast long ago. She was maneuvering for the next role. She was hoping I’d give her a juicier part in my next film. Clearly, she has some experience with men. She is straightforward, not allowing a man to retreat, but my male vanity made me hope she at least had some feeling for me. Unfortunately she had none. She doesn’t even bother to flirt with me. To girls of her age, I might just be a boring, dirty old man, even though I’m not fifty years old yet. But she wanted to make love to me badly. I admit her body attracted me, but I kept my attitude toward her light, only kidding with her. Later I was turned on by my contempt for her but I didn’t understand why I was thinking about you at the time. It was because of you that I so yearned to get a kiss from her. Nothing else but her kiss, wholehearted, passionate, a kiss that risks a life, like the kind I want from you, although I have never gotten it. The only thing you granted me on that evening I can’t forget, after which I couldn’t sleep, was utmost power, the power of “not daring.”
There was nothing that I didn’t dare to do to so and so. I stopped her when she rushed to take off her clothes. I told her to kiss me and she did as I said. She pressed against my body and wrapped her arms around my neck, kissing me for a long time, often asking, “Is that enough, is that enough?” She kissed me deeply and thoroughly, her tongue going almost everywhere she could reach in my mouth, and yet she seemed distracted. I closed my eyes and imagined it was you, your lips and your passionate kisses. But it didn’t work. The more she kissed me, the more I felt it was not you. And she apparently grew impatient—it was precisely because she became impatient that I insisted on having her continue to kiss me. I held her around the waist with my hands, not allowing her to move. We two looked like we were struggling with one another. Later, everything finally went in a different direction because she snuck her hand from my neck and started to touch and fondle me. She was nervous and I could understand her nervousness. She didn’t know why I wanted her only for kissing; she must have thought it wasn’t sufficient, that the kissing alone was not going to satisfy my desire and therefore her desire was even less likely to be satisfied.
She fondled me anxiously as if to say, even though my kisses didn’t seem to satisfy you, there is something more that I’m willing to give you . . . we started to make love, but you were everywhere before my eyes—I’m so obscene, but I beg you not to throw away the letter. In the end I felt horrible. On the one hand I imagined it was you who lay under me, my beloved, but when I did, the guilt I felt was so strong that it kept me from achieving the pleasure I could have had. The guilt was so strong that I couldn’t tell who exactly lay under my body then or exactly what I was doing after all. Eventually I had to use my hand to . . . I could only get release with my own hand.
I’m willing to let you curse me ten thousand times. Only when you curse me does my empty soul find a peaceful place to go. Where can my soul rest safely? Maybe I demand too much. Why, when I kept getting those prizes I dreamed of—success, fame, national and international awards, family, children, admiration, beautiful women, money, etc.—and the rest . . . —did my anxiety only deepen?
I had a woman before I was married. She was a one-legged woman, fifteen years older than I was. She was a sadist. I took up with her because even though I was the lowest of the low I still needed women. Or you could say she took up with me. But I never guessed that she didn’t want me for the needs that a man could satisfy. She had only one leg but her physical strength was matchless. I certainly couldn’t match her, with that body of mine weakened by years of hard labor and starvation. She often tied me up late at night and pricked my arms and thighs with an awl, not deep, just enough to make me bleed. What shocked me even more was the time she lifted up the blanket when I was dead asleep, and began frantically plucking my pubic hair . . . she was crazy. She must have been crazy. But I didn’t go crazy and I think it must have had something to do with the mountains I saw every time I went out. When I stepped out of the low, small mud hut and saw the silent mountains, unchanged for more than ten thousand years, when I saw the chickens running helter-skelter in the yard and dung steaming on the dirt road, the desire to live surged in me. I developed a talent: even when she tortured me until my body was bloodstained and black and blue all over, as soon as she stopped, I could fall back asleep immediately, and without having a nightmare. But today, I have to ask myself again and again: What do you want in the end, what do you want after all?
I don’t want to pollute your eyes with the above words, but I can only ease my heart by writing to you. I have such desire to be with you, so much so that this desire has turned into fear. And moreover, I have the uncouth and unreasonable fear that you are with other men. From my own experience of men and women, I know extremely well the power you have. When we were drinking coffee at the Beijing Hotel, you probably didn’t notice two men sitting at the next table who stared at you the whole time. There was an old Englishman sitting across from our table—I’m certain he was English—that old man also stared at you constantly. You didn’t notice any of this; you were too nervous at the time. But I noticed; it didn’t take much to figure out; glimpses from the corners of my eyes were enough. I’m very sure of my judgment. You’re the kind of woman who can capture a man’s attention; there is something in you that attracts people. You have the power to make people look at you, even though you are not polished at it yet. I think you should be more aware of this: you need to learn to protect yourself. Has anyone said this to you before? I believe I’m the only one who has. You should always button up your clothing; don’t let men take advantage of you with their eyes. Don’t. Not that the men who admire you would actually do something to harm you. No, I have to admit those who stare at you have taste. They are not hooligans or perverts. And I’m more nervous exactly because of that. I don’t want them to take you away from me, though I still don’t know how you truly feel about me. I’ve said before it was very likely that I would go to your city—Fuan, that tiny grain of rice that I caressed with my fingers when I was in the States. I will figure out a way to disguise myself in the street. Someday I will do that.
Now let me talk about the book you asked me to write. I tried to write the beginning and finished fifteen hundred words. It was very difficult because I couldn’t find a direct, uncluttered tone. If the readers are kids, the writer should first get himself an open heart. My heart is open—at least to you, but not very clean. I feel very guilty and challenged by it. I plan to focus on writing the book after I finish shooting Hibernation. I’m curious to find out my potential as an author. Will you think I’m too wordy? But wordiness is a sign of aging. Do you know what else I’m thinking about? How I look forward to you getting old quickly. Only when you get so old that you can’t get any older, and I also get so old that I can’t get any older, can we be together. By that time we’ll both be so old that people won’t be able to tell what sex we are: you might be an old man and I might be an old woman. We’d lose all our teeth, but our lips would still be all right so we could still talk. The human body is so strange, the hardest things, like teeth, disappear first, but the softest things, like tongues and lips, will come along with us to the last moment of our lives . . .
One day in the fall of 1966, Tiao, as a new student in the first grade of Lamp Alley Primary School in Beijing, participated in a noisy and confusing denouncement meeting on the school’s sports field. It was an assembly that the entire faculty and student body attended, where many desks were brought together and stacked to make a tall stage. In front of the stage, students from all grades sat on their own little chairs that they brought out of the classrooms.
It was new to Tiao, who had just become an elementary school student a few days earlier. Back then she didn’t have a clear idea about what having such a meeting meant. She thought sitting this way on the field was like having class in the open air, and felt freer than having an ordinary class. During class, teachers required children to sit straight with hands behind their backs; only correct posture would help their bodies grow healthily. But today, on the sports field, their class teacher didn’t ask them to put their hands behind them; they could keep their hands wherever they wanted. Maybe, with the atmosphere so serious and subdued, the teachers couldn’t bother about the students’ sitting positions. Tiao remembered the senior students leading them in the continuous shouting of slogans. No one told them to clench their fists and raise their arms when they shouted, but somehow they all figured it out by themselves. They raised their little arms over and over and vehemently shouted those slogans, even though they had no idea what the slogans meant. As some of the slogans slowly began to make sense to her, she started to understand what they were and at whom they were directed. For instance, there was the slogan “Down with female hooligan Tang Jingjing!” As Tiao shouted, she knew Tang Jingjing was a female teacher who taught senior students math in their school. She also heard boys from other classes behind her talking: “So, Teacher Tang is a female hooligan.”
Teacher Tang was escorted to the stage by several senior girls. She had a big white sign around her neck, hanging down over her chest, with words in ink: “I am a female hooligan!” The first grade sat in the first row, so Tiao saw the words on the sign very clearly. She recognized three characters, “I am woman,” and figured out the last word must be “hooligan,” based on the slogan they’d shouted a moment before. The sentence terrified her because, in her mind, “hooligan” didn’t just mean bad people, but the worst of the worst, worse than landlords and capitalists. She was wondering how an adult could so easily admit “I am a female hooligan” in the first person. That use of the first person to declare “I am ***” made Tiao extremely uncomfortable, although she couldn’t explain why.
Sitting in the front row, Tiao also had a clear view of Tang Jingjing. Tang Jingjing was about thirty years old, fair-skinned, and thin; so thin and white that with the pointiness of both her nose and close-cropped head, she resembled a toothpick. Toothpick would be how Tiao described her after she grew up. She indeed looked like a toothpick, not a willow wand. She appeared thin and weak, but she was very tough and strong. She stuck herself into the stage like a toothpick and refused to bend or lower her head no matter how the senior girls pushed her around. Tiao at the time wouldn’t have been able to come up with the description “toothpick”; she simply had a natural sympathy for Teacher Tang, because—it was funny that Tiao didn’t know where she got the idea that the word “hooligan” only referred to men—how could a woman be a hooligan? She sympathized with Teacher Tang also because Teacher Tang was pretty. Pretty, that was the reason.
Since Teacher Tang refused to lower her head and bend her back, both on stage and off, people appeared excited and a little out of control. The senior girl students apparently didn’t know what to do, and other teachers just shouted the slogans. None of them personally seemed willing to grab their colleague’s neck and force her to lower her head. Just as the scene looked like it was about to run out of gas, a middle-aged woman in a moon-white shirt rushed onto the stage (only later did Tiao learn she was the director of the Lamp Alley Street Committee) and pointed at Teacher Tang. “Did you feel wronged because we said you were a hooligan? Then let me ask you: Are you married or not? According to the information we’ve collected, you’ve never married. Why do you have a child, then, even though you were never married? You have to confess truthfully the identity of the person with whom you had the child!” The chanting arose again: “Tang Jingjing must confess the truth! If she doesn’t confess, we revolutionary students will not stop!” Then a group of even older students jumped up to the stage; they came from a nearby middle school, all wearing red armbands, to assist their little brothers’ and sisters’ revolutionary action.
These middle schoolers were good at fighting. One of them went behind Teacher Tang and swung a leg at the back of her knee and she immediately knelt down with a thud. The audience cheered; the die-hard Teacher Tang was finally subdued by the revolutionary students. The denouncement meeting continued. Several young teachers went onto the stage to speak one by one. With great emotion they accused Teacher Tang of hiding serious corruption in her life in order to deceive her colleagues, school, and students into trusting her. Just imagine, everyone, what a terrible thing it is! A woman with such a degenerate morality and corrupt lifestyle could get into our school and become a teacher . . . The slogans arose again: “Tang Jingjing must leave Lamp Alley Primary School! We successors of the revolution demand she leave Lamp Alley Primary School!” The middle-aged woman in the moon-white shirt continued to expose Tang Jingjing’s crimes: According to her neighbors, Tang Jingjing pretended to live simply and plainly, but at home she always lived a bourgeois lifestyle—she had a cat, and treated her cat better than people. One day she even dared to kiss her cat right in the courtyard—in the name of heaven, kissing a cat!
The audience first broke into laughter at this and then switched to even angrier shouting. “Down with female hooligan Tang Jingjing!”
How insufficient it seemed just to allow Tang Jingjing to kneel there listening to people shouting while more and more of her disgusting actions were revealed. The intractable hostility on her pale, skinny face particularly made people on the stage burn with anger. A boy student with a red armband suddenly stuck out his rubber army overshoe into Tang Jingjing’s face and said, “If you can kiss a bourgeois cat, can’t you kiss a working-class shoe?” He kept his foot in Tang Jingjing’s face as he spoke. A girl ran over and pressed Tang Jingjing’s head down to force her to kiss the boy’s shoe. More dust-covered shoes were extended to force her to kiss them.
The field seethed and the stage gave way to chaos. The students in front of the stage could no longer sit still, some knocking over their chairs, some standing on them, and others pushing their way to the front in order to see more clearly. Dust flew around and choked Tiao until she coughed. She also stood up and wanted to see more clearly. But unlike some of the boys in her class, she didn’t step on her chair; she instinctively thought it was improper, something that a student shouldn’t do. But she felt so small in the midst of the crowd and could see nothing on the stage, which made her anxious. Just then a stink wafted over. Someone brought up a cup of shit, and then a voice rang out, “Tang Jingjing isn’t worthy of kissing our shoes; her mouth simply deserves to eat shit!”
“Right, right,” others chimed in. “Let her confess to the revolutionary teachers and students. If she doesn’t confess we’ll make her eat shit.”
Make her eat shit.
The emergence of shit suddenly calmed the boiling crowd, and the smell also made people hold their breath and concentrate. The shit was carried to the stage openly in a teacup, which played on the ugliest nerve hidden in the depths of the human mind. The terrorizing power of shit came onto the stage. The ones who had crowded to the front backed away, and the ones who stood on the chairs sat down. It was just like at a concert, when there’s some opening act during which the audience can raise as much clamor as they want, and only during the star’s big number will they sit straight and properly appreciate the performance. Making Tang Jingjing eat shit might well be the big number of the day’s denouncement meeting.
The shit was placed in front of Tang Jingjing, only a meter away from her. She kept that ghostly pale face of hers still. Everyone is waiting for you to confess, why don’t you just open your mouth? . . . Tiao’s heart contracted as if clutched by a hand, and she could hardly breathe. She hoped Teacher Tang would open her mouth immediately so that she didn’t have to eat shit. But many people might not have thought like Tiao, and they might not have been so eager to hear Tang Jingjing’s confession anymore. When a person is given a choice between confessing and eating shit, what others are eager to see may not be her confessing but her shit-eating.
She didn’t open her mouth, nor did she eat the shit. So a boy student ran to the middle-aged woman in the moon-white shirt and whispered something in her ear. He then returned to Tang Jingjing and spoke to the entire audience. “If Tang Jingjing refuses to confess or eat shit, we have another method. We revolutionary masses will not be frightened by her hooligan’s arrogance. We will bring her daughter to the stage and let you look at her. Let everyone take a look at her daughter. Her daughter will be the evidence that stands as proof of her hooligan activities.”
Tang Jingjing finally lost her poise. Tiao saw her quickly move two steps in a kneeling position toward the teacup. Those urgent and determined “kneeling steps,” which came like a thunderclap exploding before anyone could cover their ears, left a lifelong impression on Tiao. She moved with her “kneeling steps” to the teacup and stared at the cup for a while. Then, under the gaze of everyone, she grabbed the teacup with two hands and drank down the shit and urine in one swallow . . .
The first thing Tiao did after returning home was brush her teeth and rinse her mouth; she couldn’t resist the urge to eat all the toothpaste in the Little White Rabbit tube that only she and Fan used. Brushing her teeth made her vomit and after vomiting she continued to brush her teeth. Once she had finished brushing she continued to reach into her throat with the toothbrush. Then she began to vomit again. She vomited some food until at last only sticky sour fluid came out. She finished vomiting and brushing and then cupped her nose and mouth with her two hands—she cupped them very tightly, careful not to leave any space—and then she exhaled in big breaths—as she learned to do in kindergarten. She could smell her breath this way. Finally she could relax and she should relax; there wasn’t any taste in her mouth. She looked at herself in the mirror numerous times; she saw that her lips were white, like they’d been dyed white with the toothpaste, but they were even whiter than the toothpaste. She rubbed her lips hard with a towel until they became hot and red and almost bled, until they throbbed with pain. She locked herself in the bathroom tormenting herself for a long time.
Then she came out of the bathroom with red eyes and a heavy head. Fan came over, and she embraced Fan and kissed her. Fan kissed back and they kissed each other loudly. She then went to kiss her father, her mother, that pair of old corduroy sofas at her home, her little chair, and the ice-cold radio/tape recorder made in the Soviet Union. Believing that she must be sick, her father and mother told her to go to bed. There she saw her folded handkerchief. She opened the handkerchief, at whose center was a white, yellow-eyed cat. She stared at the white cat and swept the handkerchief to the corner of the bed, but later she reached out to get it back. She opened the handkerchief and stared at the white cat. She put her mouth on the cat’s mouth and cried.