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Under Fishbone Clouds: A Novel

Under Fishbone Clouds: A Novel

3.6 13
by Sam Meekings

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Under Fishbone Clouds is a universal love story, a family saga, and a journey through Chinese history, myth, and culture. Following a young Chinese couple as their love grows, and is tested, during Mao's Cultural Revolution, this elegant debut novel provides a rare and personal glimpse into the birth modern China.

When the Kitchen God is challenged by


Under Fishbone Clouds is a universal love story, a family saga, and a journey through Chinese history, myth, and culture. Following a young Chinese couple as their love grows, and is tested, during Mao's Cultural Revolution, this elegant debut novel provides a rare and personal glimpse into the birth modern China.

When the Kitchen God is challenged by the Jade Emperor to fathom the workings of the human heart, he chooses to follow the life of Jinyi and his wife Yuying, from their blossoming love until their old age, in hope of finding an answer. The Kitchen God watches as the new government strictures split their family in two, living inside their hearts as they they endure the loss of two children, homesickness, and isolation, all while keeping alive a love that survives famine, forced labor, and even death. Weaving together the story of their life with China's recent political history, as well as traditional folktales and myths, the Kitchen God illuminates the most impenetrable aspects the human condition.
Sam Meekings's remarkable debut novel showcases his luminous, poetic writing, as well as insights that belong to a writer twice his age. Part love story and part historical narrative, Under Fishbone Clouds carries the weight and beauty of a lifetime's achievement.

Editorial Reviews

Lesley Downer
The English writer Sam Meekings's accomplished first novel…is based on the lives of his Chinese wife's grandparents. An unlikely love story set against the events of the last half-century in China, it's a tale of terrible suffering that also manages to be a poetic evocation of the country and its people…while his literary conceits can sometimes be too fantastical…[Meekings's] exuberance and verve win out. He imbues Under Fishbone Clouds with a magical atmosphere that lightens what might otherwise be an unbearably harrowing tale.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Meekings explores in his accomplished debut the inner workings of a Chinese couple's marriage before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. Told from the perspective of the Kitchen God, who has been challenged by the Jade Emperor to unravel the mysteries of the human heart, the tale begins in 1946 as Jinyi and Yuying are soon to be wed. Skipping back to 1942 and 1944 to explore formative events in each one's past, the story takes the reader on a riveting trip of unrelenting trials and tribulations ranging from the loss of three sons to enforced work camps to, in the recent past, life-threatening illness. Still, through even the longest of separations and hardships, the couple's love endures, proving that the human spirit can rebound from the most dire of circumstances. Meekings is a bangup storyteller, and his easy handling of rich and varied material--rustic splendor, class warfare, profound anguish, drastic social changes--will keep readers rapt. This is a beautifully told love story as well as an absorbing study in Chinese folklore and history. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
“A powerful and mesmerizing novel, both mythic and intimate.  Sam Meekings has a maturity of insight and theme not commonly found in a young writer.  This is a masterful accomplishment of imagination, insight, and lyricism.”   —Amy Tan, New York Times bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club

“One of the great delights in life is the discovery of a new novelist of obvious talent. Sam Meekings’ debut novel, Under Fishbone Clouds is one such discovery – utterly beautiful and memorable… This is very fine storytelling that handles, with great care, life often at its most raw. Meekings presents us with the gift of a brilliant debut novel.” —Alexander McCall Smith, New York Times bestselling author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series

“Meekings’s accomplished first novel is based on the lives of his Chinese wife’s grandparents. An unlikely love story set against the events of the last half-century in China, it’s a tale of terrible suffering that also manages to be a poetic evocation of the country and its people…His exuberance and verve win out. He imbues “Under Fishbone Clouds” with a magical atmosphere.” —The New York Times

"Meekings is a bangup storyteller, and his easy handling of rich and varied material—rustic splendor, class warfare, profound anguish, drastic social changes—will keep readers rapt. This is a beautifully told love story as well as an absorbing study in Chinese folklore and history." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"As utterly engrossing as it is well penned, this is a wonderful debut about the lengths that love can take us." —Booklist, starred review

"An affecting, useful revisiting of not-so-distant events, capably handled by a skillful, empathetic storyteller." —Kirkus

“Lavishly imagined and skillfully narrated.”

The Independent (UK)

"Beautifully written, it is an enthralling debut." —Waterstones Book Quarterly

"Hails the arrival of an intriguing new talent." –Scotland Herald

“Nuanced, alert and intelligent” —Scotland on Sunday

“This intricate tale of love, folklore and one of the most turbulent and terrible times in modern history is as beautifully woven as a silk tapestry.” - The Lady

Library Journal
This debut historical novel by poet Meekings puts a human face on the hunger, sickness, brutality, and determination experienced by the Chinese people from 1946 through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to present times. Complementing the plot involving a young couple, Jinyi and his wife, Yuying, is an interwoven tale of the Kitchen God, who is challenged by the Jade Emperor to explain the human heart. It is the art of cooking dumplings that unifies the novel's themes with the message that a person can make a discovery merely by trying. Despite the grim subject matter, there are bits of humor, for example, when the hard-working Jinyi ruminates about the Summer of Love occurring on the other side of the world while he suffers the abuse of the Red Guards. The opening pages describing beautiful images of cranes parading on a tea house wall add to the magic of this story. VERDICT This is a big novel that initially requires some patience with the interwoven chapters of plot and folklore, but in the end the reward is gratifying. It may appeal to Amy Tan fans, although the author's style is more similar to Bette Bao Lord. [Library marketing.]—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
Kirkus Reviews

Epic events shape the fortunes of an unlikely married couple in a British-born, China-based author's confident debut.

Narrated by a Kitchen God, this ambitious first novel maintains an affectionate tone while recounting the vast political shifts and horrors experienced in China from 1942 to 2000, in particular by lovers Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi. Party to an arranged marriage at 16, Yuying is the education-hungry daughter of wealthy parents, her surprising husband a poor peasant boy. Yet the two quickly develop a strong attachment that will be tested by the multiple catastrophes about to descend on them. The Japanese occupation is followed by the chaos of civil war which the couple survives by moving to the countryside, losing two children in the process. Then comes the Communist takeover, with its purges, famine and Cultural Revolution. Yuying and Jinyi are both sent away for harsh re-education, leaving their children to be indoctrinated and traumatized. One commits suicide. A decade later, when Mao dies and the Gang of Four are arrested, the lost generation is allowed home and the couple returns to witness further immense changes. Interspersed with Chinese myth and legend, Meekings' saga succeeds in evoking some of the breadth of the culture as well as the profoundly painful crucible of its recent rebirth.

An affecting, useful revisiting of not-so-distant events, capably handled by a skillful, empathetic storyteller.

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt


The Year of the Dog

Beginnings are always difficult, especially when you have lived as long as I have. I could start by telling you that this is a simple story about two hearts and the way they are intertwined. But that won’t do. The Jade Emperor would not like that at all. I think I will have to go a little further back.

In a small border town huddled at the furthest reaches of a northern province, there was an old teahouse. It was winter there, thousands of years ago. And inside was the owner, his face flushed despite the frost that had turned his windows into rivers of curdled milk. He bolted the door at the end of the night and ran a wet rag through his hands. As he moved, sweat slipped between the folds of his shirt. He had been pacing between the tables since morning. Lukewarm tea sat in a squat clay cup on one of the dark wooden tables, the leaves sunk to the bottom like broken lilies given up on light.

The teahouse was situated at the end of a long, narrow street that looked as though it had been sculpted out of ice. It was one of the last buildings before the city trailed off into tracks darkened by the reach of the mountain’s misshapen shadow. Since winter began, the owner had not had enough customers to afford to keep his tattered lanterns lit. Even so, he had not become accustomed to waiting. Instead, his eyes had taken on a furtive quality, as though at any second he would be ready to reach for the taper and strike the small room into life. He sat and sipped his drink, almost dropping it when he heard the timid taps at his door.

On the other side he found an old man who appeared to be at least a head shorter than himself, although this might have been due to the way he stooped and held his body at an angle, looking like his left side was weighing his right side down. He looked to be at least double the owner’s own age. The owner ushered the man inside, anxious to keep the cold wind from sneaking in, and guided him to a chair. He turned to light two of the thinner lanterns, which hissed at him as the oil caught. The old man’s face was sunburnt and as lined as if it had been whittled from oak; his beard was like a bird’s nest flaked with ash. One of the mountain people, the owner muttered to himself as he heated some water. Definitely from the mountain – probably hadn’t even set eyes on a coin in years.

Seeing no need for the swan-necked pot perched proudly in the centre of the room, the owner filled two cups straight from the pan, adding a stingy pinch of dried leaves to each. He sat down at the same table as the old man, and both of them clasped their hands round the cups.

‘From the mountain?’ the owner asked.

The old man nodded slowly, not taking his eyes from the steam rising off the tea in front of him.

‘Bet it’s cold up there this time of year. Streams must be frozen up.’

The old man nodded again. They sat in silence for a few minutes. As the owner rose from the table, the old man spoke. ‘Do you have anything to eat?’

The owner looked back at the old man for a moment, considering the scraps in the kitchen. He was embarrassed with himself, but he asked anyway, ‘Can you pay?’

The old man traced his hands across his grubby jacket and shook his head.

‘It’s all right,’ the owner sighed. ‘I’m about to eat anyway. Just some rice.’

Soon he returned from the kitchen with two bowls. They ate. By the time they pushed the bowls away darkness had settled like dust between the tables. Yet before the owner had time to suggest setting up a makeshift bed in the back, the old man had got up from the table.

‘Thank you, but I must keep moving. I’ve still got a long way to go.’

The owner did not try to dissuade him. Old men can be stubborn.

However, instead of heading for the door, the old man tottered toward the opposite wall. He ran his hands across it, as though it was a giant page of Braille, and then fumbled in his pockets. The owner watched him with the strange impatience of those who have nothing better to do. The old man pulled out a grubby piece of cloth and unwrapped it to reveal a small lump of charcoal, which he raised to the wall. He began with a small arc, which became a beak, and from there the rest of the bird was born: a dark smudge of an eye; ruffles of soot above the brow; feathers; and, finally, long slender legs ending in water. Neither of them had any idea how long he sketched for, as the minutes had become tangled and lost in the movement of his hands. By the time his arm dropped there were five proud cranes sketched on the wall. He folded the cloth back around the stub of coal, then wiped his hands on his trousers.

The owner inched closer to inspect the parade of birds lined up on the main wall of his teahouse, unsure of what to say.

‘Cranes,’ the old man said. ‘No one seems to agree on the strange paths their flight follows, or the distances they cover. In all my studies, I have never found a common consensus on this matter. They are my thanks. For the tea, and the food.’

He bowed his head and walked to the door. The owner opened his mouth, but was still uncertain of how to speak to the stooped man.

‘Have a good journey, old uncle.’

The old man started down the street without looking back. The owner watched him leave. It seemed that it was the distance moving to meet him, rather than his slow and awkward steps, that gave him motion. The owner bolted his door for the final time that evening. On his way to bed he looked at the cranes staring down at him and shook his head. I would like to say that he dreamed of scores of graceful journeying birds, or the top of the nearby mountain that he had never ventured up, but the past is one thing, and dreams are quite another, so we will have to leave those to him.

The next afternoon three tables were full – the most since the evenings had begun stalking back into the days. One, a musician, was a regular; since the owner was in a good mood because of the increase in trade, he urged him to play. The musician gently waved his hand in front of his face. It hardly seemed worth it. The owner tilted the swan-necked pot, refilling the musician’s cup to the brim. The musician exaggerated a sigh and bent down, pulling the rectangular box up from between his feet. He took out the zheng and gently placed it on the table, running his hands across the bamboo before suspending his fingers over the silk strings that travelled across its raised bridge. It was unclear whether he paused for dramatic effect or because he was searching the corners of his memory for the beginning of a certain tune. He must have imagined himself a magician, his left hand bending the strings while his right began to pluck and swim between them, drawing up notes as if from some invisible depth.

For a few seconds as he started to play the other customers fell silent and listened, only to resume their conversations moments later, and it was a while before anyone looked at the wall. Then they saw it. Only the musician, halfway through the song and humming along as he picked, did not turn with the gasps. The charcoal cranes were moving across the wall, in time with the music. They had begun with slowly dipped and nodding heads, then the raised arch of tentative steps, and, as the tempo increased, the birds unfurled their wings. A shiver of feathers seemed to shake the whole room as the cranes started to bob and strut. The owner looked at them, scratched his head and smiled nervously. In the muddle of clapping hands, whoops and singing, the dark lines of water shifted into splashes, the wooden frames of the windows rattled to the tap of swaying beaks, and chairs and tables groaned like weary beasts as they were nudged across the floor toward the boisterous mural.

By evening the next day customers were crammed in two to a chair, with others squatting on the floor. The owner barely had room to move between the babbling crowd, so the long neck of his teapot preceded him around the room. Despite the snow piling up outside, the teahouse bristled with heat as the gathered musicians bustled and sweated, each trying to outplay each other with increasingly wild flourishes. Everyone was watching the birds dancing and darting for fish where the flaking wall met the sloping floorboards. They drove ripples across the water and sent shudders through the finely etched lilies as they shifted from leg to leg. It seemed that the birds could do anything but stop moving. The thudding music was drowned out by shouts as one launched itself upward in flight. It pushed itself higher with frantically fluttering wings, and then it began to soar: tucking its legs under its plump form as it flew across corners and looped over window frames and above doors, conquering the whole circumference of the crowded room.

The owner soon had more coins than could fit under the wonky floorboard in his small bedroom. As he drifted to sleep that night his face was lit by a broad grin, which did not disappear despite the cold winds creeping under the door to interrupt his dreams. Was it that he believed the world could be changed by a single act of kindness? With hindsight he would consider himself naïve, and curse himself for investing meaning in possibilities that usually belonged only to stories told by old ghosts like me. One thing was certain: he did not question what had happened. Why would he? His pockets were full and his arms sore from brewing, stirring and pouring. If the birds did dance as he slept, to the unschooled music of wind-rattled cups and creaking chairs, then he was happily unaware.

Months passed, and every night was the same, with locals as well as people from distant villages huddled in the now famous teahouse to watch the dancing cranes. Late one night, as he was mopping up small streams of spillages, the owner heard someone banging on his bolted door. He opened it, half expecting to see the old man returned, but instead found himself face to face with two of the city guards. They were stocky men, proud of the uniform they were always dressed in as well as the power that went with it.

‘As of today this establishment has been requisitioned by the city government,’ one of them said.

His eyes scurried over their hands, looking for an official document, then above their shoulders, searching for the local magistrate. He saw neither.

‘You have two hours to vacate the property. We’ll be waiting here.’

‘But why?’ he stammered. ‘I don’t understand. I’ve paid the taxes. I…’

His words trailed off. The guards stood silently in his doorway. He understood, and slouched, deflated, towards the backroom. Once there he took his bedsheet and lay it on the floor. Within an hour he had filled it with his things – his winter fur, a rice bowl, the precious swan-necked pot and the handful of coins he had managed to stealthily extract from under the floorboard. He bundled it up and hauled it over his shoulder. I should have been expecting this, he thought. There was no point waiting around. He did not consider fighting, bribing or pleading with the impassive guards as he slunk past them onto the street. Neither did he yet believe, as he would come to years later, that the teahouse walls were skin peeled from his back, rubbed raw beneath the weight of his possessions as he wandered further from the city, into the winter.

The governor was a pot-bellied man not much given to smiling. He appointed his gangly nephew as manager of the newly acquired teahouse, and, after dismissing the guards, sat and pushed the wooden beads of his tall abacus from end to end, attempting to solve an impossible equation in which the variables continually shifted shape to elude him. His nephew arranged for posters to be hung up around the city, depicting in bright colours the fabulous dancing cranes.

On opening night a trail of lanterns led to the freshly painted door. The gangly manager welcomed all the new patrons to the refurbished teahouse, bowing to his uncle who sat sullenly in the corner flanked by two visiting mandarins, a specially summoned court musician and a local general. Thin and tanned waiting boys poured jasmine tea, and coins began to clink. The musician played. The cranes seemed for a moment to be staring back at the expectant faces studying them. The water at their feet dimpled, and they raised themselves up, their proud necks extending and their feathers a blur as, one by one, they pushed forward and flew. From their slender throats calls burst out, spurring each other on as they ascended. The new customers cheered, and even the restrained mandarins laughed and clapped.

It was the governor who first noticed that they were shrinking. His mouth opened but he did not speak. Everyone began pushing toward the wall, and in the crush the musician dropped his instrument. The music splintered into the sound of broken strings and reproachful shouts. The cranes got smaller and smaller as they glided toward the horizon line, the brink of sight at the top of the wall. They were scribbles, then thumbprint smudges, and then they were gone. For a while nothing happened. Soon, however, the teahouse was empty except for the governor and his tearful nephew, who sat listening to the mumbles of the crowd as they filed down the street. Neither of them moved, nor gave voice to their doubts and recriminations. Outside the cold wind blew a blank poster onto the roof and whipped the door closed. They did not bother to bolt it.

Bian Yuying had been thinking about the story of the dancing cranes all morning – how so much can turn upon a single act of kindness, how so much might depend upon the whims of history. How nothing is ever as you expect it. She thought of her husband lying in the hospital, then picked up her bags and started moving again. Cranes are a symbol of fidelity, she thought; they mate for life. She could not recall how many times she had heard the story of the dancing cranes, half sung by storytellers in teahouses to the rhythm of squat drums when she was a child, then in the confines of the stone-walled bedroom where her husband had told it to their children, and later their grandchildren. Each time, the story changed a little, though this had never bothered her. It was in the differences that she located the tale’s restless heart, which, like the cranes, would not allow itself to remain still. The cranes represented karma, the delicate balancing act of the universe that rewards good acts with rewards and evil acts with punishment. Everyone gets what they deserve in the end. Yet after all she had been through, Yuying was not sure that life was ever that simple.

Her back ached from leaning against the wall for so long. She enjoyed wandering through the older, narrow streets, on her way back from the hospital. They reminded her of the house she had been born in seventy years before, the house where she was married, the house she fled from and returned to, the house where her father died, the house her mother was thrown out of after the revolution. A house of hopes and hopelessness. She always had to remind herself to turn left towards the main road, to head back to her daughter’s third-floor flat near the massage alley instead of wandering on towards the courtyards and houses guarded by stone lions, deeper into the past. Yuying soon came to the bridge over the murky river which sliced the city in two. It looked to her like the discarded skin of a huge water snake, shimmering where the light fell with the flow. She was nearly there.

Climbing the stairs was a slow and precise operation, and when Yuying first reached the apartment her hands were shuddering too much to direct the keys into the lock. Finally in, she sat down on her grandson’s bed and stared out of the window. She pulled open the wooden drawer, and, from beneath her neatly folded winter layers, extracted a small album. It fitted perfectly in her lap. Only a couple of hours to kill, and then she would return to the hospital, with a plastic box of fresh dumplings, to resume the bedside vigil. She pushed the door closed and flitted quickly through the album to the penultimate page, on which there was a black-and-white print no bigger that her palm.

Around three thousand years ago, the Shang kings turned to their dead ancestors for help at times like these. The dead, they believed, were powerful. Evidence of this was all around them – storms gathered from frothy clouds, drooping and meagre crops, victories in vicious frontier wars: all could be attributed to the unpredictable justice of the dead, moving between the seen and the unseen. To appease their ancestors, the kings offered sacrifices, slaughtering scores of convicts and slaves, and transforming fields of oxen into seas of cloying blood and wild flies. Yet this did not always solve their problems, and, when rains continued, battles stalled and queens became barren, they sought to commune more directly with the dead, to ask them how much sacrifice was enough. They turned to animal bones in order to learn how to tame the future. Their questions, for which one of the first written examples of Chinese was created, were inscribed on these oracle bones and were answered by the cracks that appeared in the bones after they had passed through fire – for everyone knows that the dead do not speak the same language as the living. These writings have survived them, and so another exchange with the dead has been achieved, though even today it’s impossible to fathom answers to their dark and blood-soaked questions.

Hou Jinyi, his cropped mass of curly black hair plied into a messy side-parting over his horsy face, scrubbed up and shaved and dressed and smiling especially for this, his first visit to a photographer, stared up at Yuying. She traced a finger over that familiar lopsided smile. She too talked to those who could no longer answer, though she did not expect a reply. This is how she wanted to remember him, not as the wrinkled thing wheezing fitfully in the busy ward. She leaned forward to study the small portrait, and slowly let her memories carry her back to where she always travelled when she was alone, to the summer of 1946.

By now you may be wondering who it is telling this story, who has been listening in on this old woman’s thoughts. So let me get the introductions out of the way. I have lived a long time amidst woks and greasy chopsticks, beside chicken feathers and plump dough ready to be fisted down into dumplings. In short, I am a god. But not the storm-bringing, death-doling type – rather a common household deity: the Kitchen God.

The truth is, however, that being immortal has its drawbacks. The almost infinite pleasures of the many heavens begin to lose their appeal after the first millennium or two, and no matter how much they try to resist, most gods find themselves creeping back down to earth whenever they get the chance. We cannot help ourselves. I am not alone in returning time and time again, although I have not as yet disguised myself as a white bull or a swan, or started whispering in the ears of would-be prophets. My powers do not stretch much further than being able to dip into people’s thoughts as easily as you might trail your fingers through the lazy flow of a river. And until lately I was doing this as much as possible. In fact, I could have been star-bathing by the bright rapids of the Milky Way or attending the most lavish of celestial soirées over the last fifty years, and yet instead I followed Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi, trying to understand what it is that enabled their love to survive the separations, the famine, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and even death.

It would be easy to say that I did this simply to win a bet I made with the Jade Emperor about the workings of the human heart. However, that would not be quite true. As soon as you glance into a person’s thoughts, you’re trapped. If I stayed with these two people for so long, it is because I once had a heart myself, although I never learnt how to keep it from destroying me. But we will come to that later – once again, I seem to be getting sidetracked. After all, this is not my story: it’s theirs.

‘Bian Chunzu – come here! Quick! I have something for you.’

She heard her father’s shout rumbling through the house. She was sixteen, and he was the only person who still called her Chunzu. Everyone else called her Yuying, the name her Japanese teacher had given her and which she had recently decided to take in place of her own. Chunzu – ‘spring bamboo’ – was too pretty, too artifical, too delicate. When I am an adult, she thought to herself, I will be a suave Japanese translator and no one will think me delicate. Her Japanese teacher was a petite woman whose every word she had hung on to for the last few years; the last time Yuying saw her, however, she had been placed in a wooden cage after the other Japanese had left, and the locals were shouting about revenge for the occupation. Yuying tried not to dwell on this image.

Her father called again, and his hoarse voice rattled through the large house. It was the type of place where echoes were still heard days after the words were first uttered, slowly winding through the cold stone corridors. She fought the urge to shout back. I am not that type of daughter, she told herself as she placed her pen in the book to save her place. By the time she would return to her bedroom, a dribble of ink would have spread from the stunted nib and blotted out an intricate point of advanced Japanese grammar. As she passed her servant outside her door she blushed, knowing that she too had heard the shout.

Yuying had once overheard the two younger servants whispering about her father’s nocturnal journeys to visit one of his many other women in the city. They had giggled as they recounted how they had heard him slipping past their rooms late at night. Now, when she could not sleep, Yuying’s imagination conjured up the sound of padded slippers gently slapping against the stone hallway, the bamboo in the courtyard rustled by the breeze his creeping form created.

As she reached her father, she pushed these thoughts from her mind and chastised herself. She loved her family more than anything she could imagine.


‘Sit down. I have found a way to grant both our wishes, Chunzu.’

She stole a glance directly at her father as she sat. He looked exhausted. Below his pug nose, his thin moustache twitched like the bristly mane of a regal dragon, and, when she dared to raise her head to look more closely, she saw that his pupils had melted to eclipse the rest of his eyes. She had no doubt as to where he had spent most of the day: the Golden Phoenix, the priciest opium lounge in the city.

‘Come on then. Take a look.’ He let his hand fall to the slim bundle of papers on the table between them. ‘I have made most of the arrangements already. The rest should be simple enough,’ he said as she slowly furrowed through the bundle to find a small grey photograph within a milk-white frame. It showed a wild-haired young man.

‘In a little under one month, this will be your husband.’

She felt her throat tighten.

‘He has agreed to let you continue your studies. You will both live here, of course, and so our family need not be broken. He will even take our name. Well?’

She tried to stop the tears slipping down her face. Her father banged his fist on the table.

‘Ungrateful daughter! Everyone told me that educating a girl was the most foolish thing a father could do, but did I listen? No, I heard only your pleas. And now I have worked so hard to find a suitable match, and you do not even give me thanks! Get your tears out now, then, but be sure your eyes are not red in one month, when we will have a joyous wedding. Do not bring shame on your family, Bian Chunzu!’

She sniffed and nodded.

‘Leave me now. Go tell your sisters.’ He waved his hand towards the door.

She stood, hesitating. For months she had looked over photos of prospective grooms, sending messages through matchmakers and her father. Yet their unusual demands had meant that the family had already turned down a large number of young men. If one finally agrees to everything, her father had reasoned, there will be nothing else to consider. She would soon be seventeen, and no one would want to marry an old woman.

‘Can I keep it?’

He said nothing, but stared across at where dust swirled in the solitary slice of sun falling in from the window. He tapped his fingers lightly on his temples.

‘Thank you, Father.’

Yuying left him studying a fly that had found a way into the room but not yet a way back out. She was never quite sure what he was thinking. She stepped over the mute’s large black dog dozing in the hallway, and tried to concentrate on the dizzying image of a swelling red wedding dress snug against her skin, suddenly transforming her into someone else. She did not dare look at the photo again, but instead held it tight against her side.

Yuying could already see her life forming, fluttering out from this photograph. Her mother, in her more bitter moments, had told her that a woman is a receptacle into which a man pours his dreams and his desires. Yuying did what she did whenever the world seemed at odds with her own hopes – made herself small, made herself a stone that rivers might rush over without uprooting. I wish I could have told her that although it is easy to make yourself stone, it is difficult to turn back. But us gods have a policy about interfering with humans, so there was not much I could do.

Let me tell you a little more about Yuying in the summer of 1946. Already others mistook her shyness for superiority. Already she had begun to bite her bottom lip when the world seemed to veer beyond her control. Already she had picked up her father’s stubbornness, and her mother’s superstition that if others talk about you too much you will become the person others think you are. Already she had learnt the one thing that would keep her alive in the years to come – that sometimes silence is a kind of love.

Yuying’s room was in the east wing with her siblings, though after she married she would move to the north wing, to the large empty room just before the mute’s chamber and the servants’ quarters, to have some space with her new husband. She shuddered at the thought. Yuying had never considered it strange that her mother slept in the east wing while her father usually stayed in his study in the central compound, next to the entrance hall and small shrine, so that he could hear people coming and going (or, as the servants whispered, sneak in and out himself more stealthily).

She stopped, hearing laughter. Inside the next room her two younger sisters, Chunlan and Chunxiang, were playing weiqi, although they had learnt to call it Go, just as the Japanese did. Each had a handful of slate and clamshell pieces, tar-black and dirty white, and were stretched out over the floorboards, leaning down to surround each others’ imaginary army. As they threw down the pieces, tactically trying to trap each in ever increasing circles and squares, Yuying could not help but picture the armies that until recently had swooped through the city, outside the schools, through the restaurants and around the park. Every little victory for one of her sisters made it harder for her to open her mouth. She hung back in the hallway to watch them play. Within an hour everyone in the house will know anyway, she thought.

By the time of Confucius, Go was considered an art form, ranked alongside painting, poetry and music. Old stories said that an ancient emperor invented it over four thousand years ago to educate his dull son. In the newly unified Japan of the seventeenth century, four Go houses were set up and subsidised by the government, schooling students in the strange and divergent probabilities of its play. Since the careful strategies implicit in the game ensure that the occurrence of two identical matches is a virtual impossibility, the game took on an intellectual aspect to complement its martial application. Scholars debated its relation to cosmology, physics, consciousness and infinity, sipping blossom tea while watching stubbornly long matches. The idea of infinitely changeable empires, conquered, reclaimed, conquered again and continually swept clean, must have appealed to the warlords of the early twentieth century, who might have recognised in the game’s shifting patterns the possibility of rewriting whole maps according to the formation of different colours. When the Japanese invaded the north of China to proclaim the state of Manchuria, how many people spotted the first throws of a handful of black pebbles?

‘Hey, little devils, come here. Guess what?’

Her sisters scrabbled to their feet and ran to her. The middle one, Chunlan, was bony and sharp, right down to her fierce eyes and her pursed lips that were always ready to sting. The younger one, Chunxiang, was tall and awkward, with a spirit-level fringe and thick black-rimmed glasses, her round face always breaking into blushes, her shoulders slouching to try and hide her height.

‘I’m getting married.’

They made twittery noises, like morning birds.

‘Who is he, Yu? Where did he come from? No, I mean, what’s he like?’

She held out the picture hesitantly. They huddled close to study it.

‘Well, he’s kind of handsome …’ Chunxiang ventured.

‘When’s it going to be?’ Chunlan asked.

‘I’m not sure. Soon. Pa has arranged it all, I think.’

‘Wow. Just imagine it, Yu. I bet we’ll have pig’s trotters, and goose eggs, and spicy pork, and well, of course, more dumplings than you’ve ever seen!’

‘Do you always have to think with your stomach, Xiang? It won’t be like that. It’ll be romantic, and we’ll be too busy looking beautiful in Ma’s best jewellery and new silk dresses to want to go too near all the food,’ Chunlan chided her sister.

‘So, you’ll be leaving, Yu?’ Chunxiang asked.

‘No. Pa said he’ll come to live here. And I can keep going to college.’

‘Well, it’s great you get to keep your precious books, but when I get married, we’ll live in a big place that’s all our own, and I’ll be the lady of the house, and everything will be different to here. We’ll visit, of course. Come and see you and your husband and your pile of papers.’ Chunlan giggled to herself.

Yuying pursed her lips. She didn’t have the energy to argue with her sister, not now. ‘I’ll be able to finish my degree, and then I’ll be able to do anything I choose,’ she said.

‘So, who is he? Is he from the city? Did a matchmaker find him?’ Chunxiang asked, cutting through the tension between her two sisters.

‘I don’t know,’ Yuying conceded. ‘He could be anyone.’

‘But he’s not. He’s your husband.’

Her sister could not know how, in the years to come, those words would catch like swallowed bugs at the back of Yuying’s throat, struggling and beating wings to draw back the dark. Her youngest sister – who would disappear into the smoke of the steelworks and iron forges that dotted the frosty plains of the furthest north – stared at her and grinned.

‘There’s so much to think about,’ Yuying said, and, though for a moment the sentence seemed serious, the three girls suddenly burst out laughing.

‘At least you know he won’t be old and ugly. Remember what happened to Meiling from down the road? Her new husband looked like he’d been hanging around since the last dynasty. If only he’d had half as many teeth left as he had bars of gold stashed away! And what about Ting from school – do you remember how her lanky husband stuttered his way through the ceremony?’ Chunlan set them laughing again.

A shadow poured through the open doorway. It sloped up into Peipei, their auntie, holding a single finger up to her lips. She was not really their auntie, though as she had nursed each one and calmed them through countless night terrors, they did not think to lose that familiar term of address.

‘Sshh. Your father is working,’ Peipei said. ‘Do something useful, like some needlework.’ Peipei still believed, despite their schooling, that the girls should not bother themselves with too much thinking. Educating girls is like washing little boys: all well and good, but they only get dirty again, she told anyone who would listen. ‘Come on, you know what your mother said.’

‘Where is Ma?’

‘She’s resting.’ All four of them knew that this was not true – they had never known their mother to be anything but busy. Peipei scowled, pulling her trio of hairy moles further down her face. She then shooed them from the room, Yuying to her Japanese and Chunlan to her etiquette essay. Chunxiang was left to sweep up the Go pebbles and pile them into the two boxes. She didn’t bother to separate the colours, and in the quickly brokered armistice the armies became inseparable.

As she passed the study, Yuying peered in through the half-open door to see her father throwing three silver coins to the floor. She knew his temper well enough to realise that she should not stay and risk being caught. Yet she longed to see what he would find out, for she was sure that he was asking about her wedding. He would count up the number of heads and tails and convert them into either a straight line or a broken line (old or young, yin or yang). When he had done this six times, he would have a hexagram with which to divine the future. He would find the corresponding hexagram in his private, battered copy of the I Ching and read from the obscure explanations first set down more than two and a half millennia ago. He would then change each of the lines in the hexagram to its opposite and read the verse that described the resulting hexagram – for there are two sides to everything, and always at least two ways to see the world. The book describes everything and nothing: it is a little universe which you must immerse yourself in to find any kind of sense from the answer it gives. Yuying carried on back to her room as her father finished tossing the coins. Who knows what he found?

Yuying opened her Japanese grammar book and discovered the ink stain, which she dabbed at with the back of her hand. The rest of the day was blotted out like this. At dinner her mother’s exhausted eyes stared for a while at the birthmark-like blotch that the ink had mapped onto Yuying’s hand, but instead of speaking she only arched a carefully tweezered eyebrow.

With the news of the wedding, everything seemed suddenly different to Yuying – the lazy Susan’s slow orbit, her sisters’ chopsticks pecking at the plates like hungry beaks scrapping in the sawdust of the yard, the servant girl’s awkward manner when bringing the dishes; even her own sluggish chewing and swallowing seemed out of place. She looked up to see her mother staring at her. Will I still be your daughter, when my husband comes? she wondered. She imagined her home turned upside down. Will you still visit me, or will it be my children everyone comes to fuss over?

Yuying watched her mother, and wondered when it was that she had been young. She looked old, older than her forty-something years. Her husband, Yuying’s father, had already reached forty before he was pestered to take a young wife from outside the city. Her cheeks sagged under the weight of her eyes. Not enough pigment left to call them anything but black, her daughter noted. They were darker even than her chopstick-knotted hair. She was shorter than her daughters, with tiny shoes and terrible looks that could stop vines growing and silence anyone in the city – even her husband, though he sometimes pretended not to notice.

Old Bian did not often eat with them, and today was no exception. More than once, in barely audible whispers, the sisters had joked that he might be a ghost, neither eating nor moving much till night welled up, though they would never have said this if they thought anyone might have heard them.

‘Listen, girls. Tomorrow you can start preparing for the wedding. The three of you can begin by sewing the pillows. Oh, Yuying, remember: a smile makes you ten years younger. It will be the happiest day of your life. Your father has found you a wonderful husband.’

‘When will we be meeting his family?’

Her mother’s tongue skirted over her front teeth, like a pianist’s hands grazing the ivory. The girls recognised the movement – she always did this when she did not know how to answer.

‘There’s no need to worry about the details. You girls just make sure you’re prepared, and your father will do the rest.’

Her puzzling dismissal clouded the table. Yuying suppressed a shudder. A few picked-through scraps sat between the four of them. She looked at her sisters looking down at their laps, and knew she must ask.

‘Ma,’ she said, ‘have you met him?’

Before her mother could reply, they were interrupted by the sound of the mute’s dog barking, signalling his return from the restaurant. The nervous servant girl jumped, and their mother quickly rose from the table. She bent down and kissed her eldest daughter, her lips like breeze-borne embers, almost branding Yuying’s cheek.

‘Of course I have. Now, best to get some rest,’ she whispered. Although her steps were small and stunted, as she rocked forward tentatively on the balls of her feet, she still gave the impression of retaining an untouchable grace. After she left, the girls wandered to their separate rooms, the youngest two no longer daring to tease Yuying.

Yuying flopped down on the hard wooden bed, which would soon be given up to her youngest sister. It was now that she should have retreated to the loft to mourn her separation from her family and curse the go-between who had arranged the union which would usually prise apart a family. She should have been singing strange laments with her sisters for the things she could not know that she would lose. She had not learnt these songs, had not yet heard the music of departure and its bittersweet arguments that bubble and blister on the tongue. All her friends had drifted into different stories, scrabbling new beginnings from little rooms. But she was going nowhere. She imagined herself aged a hundred, moving from corner to corner of that same house, sharing space with spiders' webs and her precious retinue of books, with their perfectly cracked spines and pages whose reek of must and ink rubbed off on her eager fingers. Yet, in the years to come, when the books were stoked up in the fire or buried beyond the back of the garden, she would not even shrug.

Unable to rest, Yuying got up to look once more at the photo her father had given her earlier that day. Just as she never imagined that the Japanese, present on every corner since she was a toddler, would ever leave, she could not imagine being a married woman. The world was becoming alien to her. The streets seemed empty without the Japanese soldiers, and the wild celebrations of the end of the occupation had quickly faded into more local squabbles. And now a wedding. She did not dare to consider the half-lit rooms in which her father might have found him. The photo slipped out of her fingers.

She slumped down amid the piles of copious and useless notes for which her sisters mocked her so unremittingly. The declensions and tenses and equations would be replaced by tea-making and babies as soon as her four years of college were finished. Trying to think any further than this seemed to cause the future to retreat and contract to a hazy vanishing point. She flicked through a couple of books, knowing she would not read them now. In the tinny light of dusk the brush-strokes floated from the open pages, a sea cast over by shadows. Her head thumped like a kitchen orchestra of pot-and-pan percussion.

These were the last things she remembered of that day more than half a century ago: silver streaks sneaking in under the door, snoring and moonlight and tiptoeing footsteps at the threshold of sense as the whole house slipped toward sleep.

Did she dream about the future? Don’t ask me – I’ve already told you, dreams are off-limits. Did she dream about how her heart would be forged in the furnace of her marriage, and come out welded to another, hot and heavy and inseparable? Or did she dream about me, scuttling along behind her and Hou Jinyi, trying to figure out why they kept going?

Let me tell you a secret. Even us gods have trouble predicting the future, let alone dreaming it. Look around at the city of Yuying’s birth if you want proof. Who could have guessed that the sun-starched plains attacked by plough and hoe and ox would give way to squat apartment blocks and offices littering the landscape like insatiable insects? Would anyone in Old Bian’s household have had the imagination to predict that Fushun would sprawl outwards from those few ancestral courtyard homes into skyscrapers and chimneys churning out smoke that would leave the sky the colour of scratched metal? That old men who ought to be revered and welcomed in each house, as custom dictated, might end up foraging through the bins in search of plastic bottles and cola cans which could be sold at factory doors for a handful of change?

Anyone who had said as much in the summer of 1946 would have been laughed out of the room, and their sanity called into question. So let’s leave dreams and predictions to those that want to make fools of themselves, and get back to the wedding preparations.

The newspapers of June 1946 were still filled with talk of the surrender that had been forced the year before and its aftermath, while the civil war crept back across villages, distant cities and everyone’s lips. As the preparations for the wedding become more frantic, Yuying tried to ignore the fact that the usual pre-wedding gifts of cakes, liquor, mandarin oranges or notes from the groom’s family had not appeared. Instead, as the day grew closer, she focused on her studies, scribbling away in her notebooks and deriving philosophical speculation from the shortest of essay questions, until each night’s candle had burnt down to its scaly stub. Both her sisters and her classmates took the view that she was nervous about the wedding night, but this did not explain the gnawing curiosity that wriggled inside her chest. Her father had been out of the house most of those days, like a magician trawling props behind the sheet of some cheap street theatre to produce increasingly wild tricks.

The day before the wedding, the children of friends and family were invited to climb on the marital bed, to scrabble for the dates, pomegranates, lotus seeds and peanuts that were scattered across the sheets. In this way it was believed that something of their spirit would be left behind, making the bed more receptive to the possibility of conception. Perhaps it is true, Yuying thought, that we leave something of ourselves in every place we visit, in every thing we touch. And if the world around us retains such memories, then it is in this that we survive death.

That night her sisters tiptoed to her room, each clutching an—orange – the smallest of stolen gifts to exchange for something they could not name. Scattering peel and pith over the furniture, they gossiped about classmates and shared the rumours they had overheard from the servant.

‘It’ll be strange, tomorrow, with a man in the house. I mean another man, not just father and the mute pottering around – though he doesn’t really count since he can’t speak,’ Chunlan said.

‘Don’t talk about Yaba like that! He’s our friend!’ Chunxiang said.

‘You don’t think it’s strange? That my husband is coming here, and I’m not leaving?’

Her sisters exchanged glances. No one they knew had had a similar experience. According to their father’s wishes, her husband would even be giving up his family name to take hers. This was the antithesis of centuries of formal tradition.

‘Have you seen your new room yet, or do you want it to be a surprise?’ Chunxiang asked.

‘Hey, I know,’ Chunlan spoke before her sister had a chance to answer. ‘Why don’t we go have a look now? I’m sure no one will be nearby. Father is out somewhere, and Ma is probably working. Let’s see what a real wedding chamber looks like!’

The two smaller sisters giggled and took Yuying’s hand to lead her across the house. She quietly consented, not wanting to spoil their excitement by telling them that she had already been in there to witness the blessing of the bed. She was suddenly aware of the years that separated them. Chunxiang reached out and pressed a clammy hand over each of her sisters’ mouths as they wandered through the echoing corridor.

After taking a shortcut through the little garden, past the servant’s quarters and the small room where the mute lay rasping in his sleep, they found the brightly garlanded door. When they had worked up the courage to push it open, they were surprised to find their mother sitting in Yuying’s new room, her small frame perched on the bed that had been hauled in the day before.

Yuying’s mother shooed the two younger girls from the room. A bed is a butterfly, and a couple are its wings, she explained. This is how we learn to fly. She mentioned nothing of the possibility that a butterfly’s beating body brews hurricanes. Yuying shivered when she touched it, and, for a second, thought that the next day might never come, that if she really believed this, time might stop.

Her sisters were waiting for her outside the wedding chamber. They took her hands and wandered with her back across the house to her childhood bedroom, then settled themselves to sleep on the old rugs laid loosely on the floorboards beside her bed, to share her last night as a girl. Their conspiracy of midnight whispers quickly turned to muted snores.

Yuying woke before dawn and lay for a while listening to her sisters breathing, one faintly echoing the other. She soon heard the proud birds begin to strut and call out in the central courtyard, and pulled herself out of bed. Her sisters sat up slowly as Auntie Peipei and another servant girl flitted to and from the room, carrying large pots of warm water to fill the old wooden tub in the corner.

‘Do you think if you sleep in the same bed as someone else that some of their dreams spill out and get muddled with your own?’ Chunxiang said, as she rubbed her eyes and watched her eldest sister disrobe before the tub.

The smell of pomelo and orange blossom floated between them. Yuying slipped into her reflection and disappeared. From under the water, the murmuring voices sounded like the music of a celestial zoo or a long-forgotten war. She could not keep still in the bath and pulled herself out after only a few minutes. As she dried herself, she eyed the wedding dress now laid out on the bed. A phoenix drifted across the red silk, moving toward some invisible point. Phoenixes feed on dewdrops, she remembered, and are wedded to dragons. Beneath its sharp beak and snake-scale neck, its feathers seemed to stir and rustle like leaves in the rain.

Peipei sat down behind her, and began to arrange her hair. This was where the transformation should have taken place, the long loose black strands combed out, looped and tied up tight into the inflexible marriage style. Yuying fiddled her fingers on her lap. To calm her nerves about the unusual reversals of her wedding and to show Yuying that the breaking of tradition did not have to be a cause for sorrow and worry, Peipei began to tell her a familiar story, that of the only empress of China.

Peipei’s version of the legend of Wu Zetian’s ruthlessness gave more space to the legends and old wives’ tales than the historic achievements of the empress’s reign, though she was careful to omit mention of the countless young men who were said to have shared the imperial bed. Yuying, however, was only half listening. On top of a small pine cabinet was the black-and-white photograph, face down.

Once her hair was finished, she turned to her sisters.

‘You look lovely Yu. Just like a queen. I’m so jealous …’ her youngest sister began.

‘I know you’re lying. But thanks. Are you sure it’s fine? I feel like I’ve suddenly become Ma.’

‘No, Chunxiang is right. It suits you. Stop being so nervous, you’re not doing half the scary and boring bits anyway. A couple of hours from now and we’ll all be at the banquet, eating and laughing and everyone will be looking at you swishing about in your expensive dress, so enjoy it.’ Chunlan said.

‘I will, I will. Now go, you’ve both got to get ready too.’

Yuying playfully shoved her sisters and they filed from the room. She peered out of the window and found herself unexpectedly disappointed that the courtyard was still empty. In the past, the groom’s family would have left their house at dawn to the sound of firecrackers and worn drums and marched to the bride’s house where the front door would be blocked by tearful relatives, making a show of not wanting to lose a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a sister. After performing acts of reverence before the bride’s family, the groom’s party would then have carried the bride in a small sedan carriage to her new home. In this way a bride would be torn from her childhood home and begin life in a new household, often miles from her family. Yuying knew that this would not happen to her. She would not be carried into the distance, toward servants that might spit in her food behind their master’s back, or to a husband’s spoilt siblings suddenly under her confused command, or, worst of all, to become the latest of a line of envious and warring wives. She had yet to hear any mention of the groom’s family – it was he who would slip into their family and be transformed. He had even bartered off his name for hers. For a brief second she imagined herself an empress, and her name that of dynasties, unchangeable and craved; but as she turned she stubbed her toes on the corner of the bed and these thoughts were lost among her weak curses.

Her family had gathered in the dining room – her father on his wooden chair, a thin cigarette in his tight lips, her mother seated beside him looking at her feet, and her sisters standing as demurely as they could manage. Next to them stood the balding mute, Yaba, who had cared for her since she was a baby. He looked awkward and out of place. Everyone was dressed in a high-collared silk suit or neck-to-toe dark silk dress, each displaying a web of finely stitched patterns.

‘The guests have begun to arrive. Almost all the family is here. They are waiting in the garden. You wouldn’t want to be late,’ her father said.

Her mother clasped Yuying’s hands tightly and whispered something inaudible in her ear. Outside, the sun was threatening to sauté the leaves upon the lanky trees. From the branches hung rows of red paper lanterns, which, by evening, would throw their light across the grass and plants, making them look as if they were dancing in a strange and heatless fire. At Yuying’s entrance, the murmurs of the crowd of family and friends mixed with the purr of the crickets and cicadas. This suddenly changed into an excited hush as they heard the clip-clop of lazy hooves against the rough stone cobbles of the adjacent street. A horse announced the imminent arrival of its rider with a loud snort.

Years later, Yuying would tell her grandchildren how she had been tricked by the photograph. At first she doubted that this short man, with a mess of hair resembling a muddy mop, could be the same figure as the one in the picture, and suspected her father of having simply hired someone else to sit and pose in the studio. The man in front of her was thinner, with none of the stocky exuberance that the picture hinted at. She would go as far as to ask Jinyi, once their marriage had moved from the nervous unfamiliarity of its beginnings into the knowing, casual ease that only comes with time spent close together, if it really was not some handsome friend who posed in his place. Yet, for all this, there was no mistaking the lopsided smile that frequently sneaked across his face. A photograph presents a simulacrum of real life, but it is always one we cannot fully trust, for it seeks to give life to things that are already irrevocably altered.

The mahjong tables that had been rattling with the moves of the waiting guests were silenced, the half-finished games abandoned as Hou Jinyi moved to Yuying’s side. She tried her best not to blush as the wedding began; she had never had this much attention focused on her before. She felt the phoenix wriggling across the folds of her long dress as the crowd surrounded the couple, judging how each was changed by the proximity of the other. She tried to push the fact that he was inches shorter than her from her mind, and they turned, moving under the arch through the main door into the house.

When a bride arrived at her husband’s house on the morning of her wedding, she would have expected to stay there until her death. Hou Jinyi measured his steps, trying neither to walk ahead of his new bride nor to fall behind and admit that he was ignorant of the layout of the sprawling house. Yuying, as she had been taught to do since birth, showed no emotion in her fixed expression. She too was reluctant to acknowledge the fact that they were acting out a strange reversed image of ancient customs, as if they had stepped into the other side of the mirror. In the main hall, they bowed together to an effigy of me, to heaven and earth, and to the stone tablets which contained the spirits of her ancestors. They offered prayers, which melted into the air, mingling with the smell of the roast suckling pig and the uncorked bottles of liquor lying offered and untouched on the altar before them. From the kitchen they could hear fat sizzling in hissing woks as the servants prepared for the banquet. The carefully crafted ancestors watched their every move.

Her parents were seated solemnly in a pair of high-backed wooden chairs facing the doorway. Bian Yuying and Hou Jinyi sunk to the floor in unison to kowtow to them.

‘We wish you both a future full of joy and understanding. Let your love learn from the cypress, the gingko: let these little roots spread, nourish, grow and endure against the wild. Take this name and fill it with life. Bian Jinyi, welcome to our family.’ Her father clasped his hands together as he finished speaking. Yuying and Jinyi then turned, not quite identically, and knelt before each other.

The couple rose and poured dark and sweet-smelling tea from a delicate pot into two white china cups emblazoned with paintings of blue-bearded dragons. Each one knelt to present the cup to a parent. As she served her father, Yuying slyly studied the dark crescents under his eyes – it had been years since she had been that close to him. She remembered her sister’s teasing words, and that she would have to spend her life tied to her husband’s shadow as he got older and uglier. This is how the world works, though, she assured herself; why should I resist something so natural? After serving the heads of the household they turned again, and each of them waited on older aunts and uncles in return for gifts of money folded up in small red envelopes. Eventually they came to her siblings and poured a small cup full of red tea for each of them.

Buddhist myths recount that an ancient Buddha, determined to gain enlightenment, left the city and climbed to an empty mountain plain. However, instead of meditating, he soon fell into a deep sleep on the sun-parched grass. He ended up sleeping for seven years, his snores drawing seedlings from the ground as birds nested on his gently thrumming chest. When he awoke, he was so disheartened at his lack of concentration that he ripped off his eyelids to stop himself from falling asleep again. Where they fell, the first tea bushes grew. Secular stories claim that an ancient Chinese ruler discovered how to brew tea when dark leaves blew into his boiling water. The caffeine consumption of the Asian Buddhists who first adopted tea-drinking as an integral part of the monastic day was motivated by their desire for clarity, to rid their vision of the world of their lingering dreams.

During the tea ceremony, Yuying continually stole glances at her new husband. From the familiar pattern and stitching of the long granite-blue silk robe, stiff at his neck and loosely hung about his wrists and ankles, she correctly guessed that it had been picked out, ordered and bought by her father. He lowered his head before her relatives, and never once seemed to look in her direction. Is he even interested in me, she wondered, or has he struck some kind of deal with Pa? What is it he imagines he has traded his name for? As she put down the tea-tray loaded with envelopes, she conjured up a probable past for him, but not yet a future.

Outside the guests were laughing and eating, the men on one side toasting and congratulating each other, the women giggling discreetly about topics that, if overheard, might make their husbands or fathers choke on their food. Chopsticks dived and glided above, below, around and between each other as if they were sparrows dividing a busy sky. These were the foods Yuying imagined: shark’s fin soup, crisp layers of duck rolled into wafer-thin pancakes, chickens stuffed with black rice and dates, whole fish sitting in spicy sauces slowly plucked bone-thin, green beans and whole chillies, broccoli swimming in garlic, sour soups, hot soups, spicy soups, noodle soups, lucky four-season meatballs, spring rolls, peanuts and sunflower seeds, and scores of empty plates whose previous contents were unidentifiable.

The truth was more prosaic; even for her rich family, there was no way to get those delicacies, even now that trade was no longer controlled by the Japanese. The liberating Russians had only recently left, and, although many thin prisoners had returned home after years of occupation, hunger had not yet surrendered or been bombed out. A few dishes had to suffice. But still Yuying thought of feasts. She was in the couple’s new bedroom. The bride was not allowed to eat, nor speak. Only wait. Her new husband, meanwhile, was making the rounds between the tables, receiving toasts and playing drinking games. She knew how it would progress, although at other weddings she and her sisters had always been forced to sit silently, demure and shy with their mouths hidden behind intricate paper fans. They had always been packed off in rickshaws or the shiny new automobiles of family friends before the real fun had started.

As they raised the clear liquid in the ornamental thimbles, several of the older guests already appeared red-faced and sweaty. These were her father’s associates, men whom Hou Jinyi had never met before and would never see again. Yuying pictured them from her room – those few who had been in collusion with the Japanese, now denying everything; judges, officials and warlords in hiding with their many young wives; Manchu men who lost out in the republic and headed north; shopkeepers, brothel-owners, opium importers; the few other restaurateurs in the city who were not her father’s sworn enemies; and, of course, her father’s most trusted ally, Mr Zhu, one of the richest men in the province, downing drinks and slapping backs, no doubt. She had heard it whispered that he started off as an executioner for the republic, providing quick and clean decapitations. Since everyone knew that the only cure for tuberculosis was to eat a piece of dough soaked in human blood, he soon amassed a fortune by providing that delicacy for the choking children of rich, worried parents. By the time the Japanese arrived, he had found that buying and selling secrets and allegiances was just as lucrative.

As the banquet progressed and the shouts and songs spilt in under the closed door, Yuying pressed her finger into the starched white sheets to trace words and faces into the folds. Her sharpened fingernail mimicked the slow brushstrokes used in the classroom to produce the ancient ideograms. As she drew, she tested her Japanese, stretching simple characters into ever more complicated constructions, then trawling backwards, unwriting them, and beginning again, from the same few strokes, in Chinese. She noted where they overlapped, merged, converged and parted. But this was as far as she allowed the thought to go. She would not bring to mind her childhood friends, the rattlebag of kids she used to play skipping and marbles and imaginary war games with, whose parents had now been lost in the unmentioned world of mines, railways, factories and prisons, all under new command. Those would not be suitable thoughts for her wedding day. Nor would the whispers she heard about the neighbours’ boy who, feverish from hunger in the difficult days soon after the occupation began, stole some rice from an unguarded store. People reported that, shortly after having gulped down the forbidden meal that he must have cooked quickly with dirty river water, soldiers spotted him and, when he had finished, cut his stomach open as an example to others. She practised grammar and advanced form, and wondered how soon after the wedding she could get back to college.

Soon Jinyi was wishing the older guests goodbye. Yuying smoothed the sheets down, and plumped the pillows. She was unsure what she should do with her wedding dress. She undid a button and seconds later did it back up. She knew something of what was to come, but the details were vague, blurry, and made up of instructions she had never felt interested enough to pay attention to. It must be something akin to the doubling of everything in the room, she thought to herself. Everything in there was paired, from the two pillows and two blankets on the new bed to the matching wooden chairs. The carefully drawn character for happiness was joined with its double and hung on the wall for good luck, and on the dresser stood twin candlesticks, on each of which was an etching of a solitary crane. Cranes live for a thousand years, she thought. She stood to light both candles.

‘Everyone’s gone home.’ Jinyi was hovering hesitantly at the entrance to the room, unsure of whether or not to enter. His accent was coarse, rough, slipping at the ends of words. She tried to pretend that it did not bother her. ‘I hope you’re not disappointed. I don’t know if I’m what you expected. But your father told me a lot about you, and I promise you I’ll always be proud to call myself your husband.’

She smiled, and he smiled too.

‘I brought you some food.’ He unwrapped some sweet dumplings from a handkerchief. ‘Just leftovers. I know it’s against tradition. But, well, all of this is a bit topsy-turvy anyway, so I decided it wouldn’t matter – as long as no one else sees. I just thought you might be a bit hungry.’

She laughed at him, and he laughed at himself, still propped awkwardly in the doorway.

‘So can I come in?’

The single nod was enough for Jinyi to close the door behind him. And as it would be rude to intrude upon a couple’s wedding night, we must content ourselves to wait outside the closed door. Meanwhile, the servants began their nocturnal work to ensure that no trace of the sprawling party would remain the next morning. Yuying’s sisters had fallen asleep while fantasising of their own wedding days still to come. Their mother lay in bed alone, no longer expecting to be visited by her husband. Old Bian had led out a number of friends to continue the celebrations elsewhere, to while away the rest of the unusually long summer nights of 1946 with opium, liquor and one of the many madams he was on first-name terms with. Outside the windows, bamboo rustled, as if grazed by the lingering whispers lost in the old corridors and courtyards, and slowly the house fell silent. The twin candles in the wedding chamber burnt down to waxy stubs above the delicately painted cranes that had not yet learnt how to fly.

UNDER FISHBONE CLOUDS Copyright © 2009 by Sam Meekings.

Meet the Author

SAM MEEKINGS received his undergraduate degree in Modern History and English Literature from Oxford University, and his masters degree in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University. Originally from southern England, he now lives in China with his wife and two children. Under Fishbone Clouds is his first novel.

Sam Meekings received his undergraduate degree in Modern History and English Literature from Oxford University, and his master's degree in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University. Originally from southern England, he now lives in China with his wife and two children. Under Fishbone Clouds was his first novel.

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Under Fishbone Clouds 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
want2brd More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book. It was fantastic!!! I am looking forward to reading Sam Meekings' other book, "The Book of Crows". His writing is poetic but I didn't find it pretentious or difficult to follow. I loved the intertwining of Chinese history and mythology. It took me a few weeks to get through it, but that was because I only had time to read it at bedtime when I was already exhausted, and the holidays intervened. But now that I've had a little time to myself to finish the book, I am very happy with the result!
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