Dragonworld, by Zhang Xinxin
Zhang Xinxin is a prolific writer, film-maker, screenwriter, arts critic and social commentator. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, she travels frequently to China. Her autobiographical essay “Self-Portrait” featured in Read Paper Republic Season 1 (21 April 2016).
Ten years ago, while filming in China, I went to Anting on the outskirts of Shanghai. With its Bierstube, Konditorei, luxury stores, and pedestrian zones, it had everything one would expect to find in a German town. Construction completed, it was waiting quietly for buyers. Walking down the empty streets was like being in a children’s story. From there we moved on to Huangshan to shoot a short film. At the foot of the mountain I saw block after block of new apartment buildings, all of them sold, but none of them lived in. In the gorgeous evening sun, the new blocks cast shadows that were long and crowded. Two ghost-towns in one day – it was absurd. That night I had a dream…
—Zhang Xinxin on the genesis of "Dragonworld"
This story was first published in Chinese with the title 《龙的食谱》 (“Recipe for Dragons”) in 《上海文学》Shanghai Literature 2011.10; and in English in The Guardian, 14 April 2012. It's an incredibly visual piece, and the energy behind the language is phenomenal (think acrobatics, tumbling, mental gymnastics...). I recently learned why – for a few years, Zhang Xinxin was working intensely, even obsessively, on a graphic novel. When she started writing again, she found the words simply flew on to the page! — Helen Wang
Zhang Xinxin's memoir "The Adventures of a Graphic Novelist" is available online in English on the Chinese Books for Young Readers blog.
"Dragonworld" will be one of four stories under discussion at an upcoming speed bookclubbing event at the Free Word Centre in London on December 12th.
Thirteen year old Zhaishao, whose soft cheeks have yet to witness their first spot, and who has yet to develop a life he can call his own, keeps all his assets on his hard drive: pirated movies, music downloads, computer games. I'm not sure when he took up residence in my brain, but when I'm feeling low I look at the world through his eyes, and all the problems of the real world dissolve into dazzling animation. Through his eyes I see his life, in a Post-Peking-Man town in the Dragon Bone Mountains. It used to be a small place surrounded by fields, but that was before the farmers downed tools and moved into the city. Later on, as outsiders arrived looking for work, the old residents became micro-landlords, and earned their living renting out the tiniest of spaces. The main industry in the town is construction … well, it was, until the day the dragons came. Exactly when they arrived, Zhaishao does not know. He finds it difficult to distinguish between life on-screen and off-screen. The only thing he knows for certain is that these dragons are not alien invaders.
Standing on the street, Zhaishao watches as a dragon flies past a window, its silver scales catching the sun like crystals. Perhaps it has escaped from the digital world on screen? Then it is gone, and grey sky fills the window again. He catches a glimpse of another dragon's front leg. The purple scales are not computer-generated, it is not plastic, and there is an iron chain clamped on the leg. His eyes follow the chain. It leads to a hand, to a group of his classmates walking along, each one with a dragon on a lead. A chill creeps over his shoulder as he feels the sudden shame of falling behind. He looks down at the street and there is a little dragon perching on his shadow's shoulder, like a bird. It looks like the dragon he saw before, the little silver one. He holds out a piece of dark chocolate. The dragon leaves the chocolate but snaps viciously at his palm, leaving two tiny rows of teethmarks.
As they come to the footbridge, his classmate whips a small hammer out of his trouser pocket, chips a piece of concrete off the pillar and pops it into the dragon's mouth. The dragon chomps with relish, spraying crumbs as it eats. The other dragons rush to snatch the crumbs from the ground, heads down, tails up, dust flying.
Dragons eating concrete? Is this a dream, wonders Zhaishao. He watches in amazement as the dragons gnaw on the pillars. A skirmish breaks out. Zhaishao beckons to the little silver dragon on his shadow. 'Come up!' Actually, he just wants to show it off to the girl who lives in the apartment block by the footbridge. She looks at him from her window like a solitary star in the sky. She's a classmate – was a classmate, until her face went pale and she stopped coming to school. He's heard she won't last the summer. From her window high up, he's just another little figure down below, but if he jumps about with a silver dragon on his shoulder she will see its scales glint. But this dragon does not want to play: it will not come up, it will not eat concrete, and when Zhaishao tries to catch it, it flies off. He notices some colour on its front leg. It seems so familiar.
The dragons are eating away at the footbridge. As the concrete disappears, all that is left are the steel sinews weaving in and out, up and down, a dense interlocking spiral structure, like a tower of prehistoric fish bones on the beach. A dragon leaps up and bangs its head against it, sending a chunk of concrete crashing down and knocking over a cart full of sand and lime that had been left underneath. The youngsters scramble away as best they can, but the dragons keep their heads down and concentrate on the morsels of concrete. All except Zhaishao's little dragon which grabs hold of his T-shirt, and hauls him out of the sand. He notices a set of coloured bands on its front leg, the same ones he has seen on the girl's wrist! Zhaishao races home and as he runs inside he sees the little silver dragon vanish into the tall block by the footbridge and a dragon shadow appear in the window high up.
The conversation at the dinner table is steeped in science. The phenomenon of people turning into dragons can be attributed to the environment, pollution, global warming and the ozone layer, intones the television in the background. A mere re-awakening of non-human DNA that has lain dormant for millions of years, says Zhaishao, repeating the word 'mutation' from a Hollywood movie. Toxic food, say his parents, without looking up from their chopsticks. They are more concerned about the roof over their heads and the floor beneath their feet, about property values, re-financing, the new lease, the price per square metre ... after each mouthful of rice they start talking about property again, and Zhaishao hears the painful cry of a wounded dragon. His thoughts turn to the little dragon girl, and as usual, he puts down his rice-bowl and chopsticks and returns to his room, to his own little world.
High up above the footbridge, her window stands out in the dark of night. It seems even brighter than before. Is it her silver body shining? He looks at the palm of his hand. If humans are bitten by dragons do they go mad? Like getting rabies? The two rows of dragon-teeth marks on his hand make a wonderful pattern. They are bleeding slightly. He smiles to himself. No one else in the world has a pattern like this on their hand.
Across the road a group of dragons is eating a building, drawn by the tantalizing smell of concrete released by the cracks in the walls. At least the block has already been condemned as dangerous – the residents are calculating the compensation! But young Zhaishao looks serious: concrete is being eaten, the dragons are invading. By the roadside people are selling weapons to deal with the dragons. Some have bought steel halters to try and catch them, but the concrete-eaters have run off in all directions. The youngsters have bought swords to go chasing after dragons. Zhaishao will join them, he will be a Dragonslayer too. (It's a disaster movie! A coming of age movie! But he is the softie of the group. To put it simply, he will never be able to destroy the little dragon girl he loves.)
On his way out to join the Dragonslayers, Zhaishao sees a pair of dragons sitting on the living room sofa. When did his parents become dragons? They had only finished their rice, but now they are moaning with hunger and pawing pitifully at their bellies: they can't bring themselves to eat their own home. Zhaishao locks the door as he leaves, and, dragging a small trolley behind him, heads off to look for some concrete.
Zhaishao looks up at the apartment blocks on either side of the road. He is shocked by what he sees. It has taken the dragons no time at all to strip the concrete from these buildings. The walls are just frames, the floors are just girders. Each building is like a 3D maze, or an iridescent Rubik's Cube. The shattered shards of fallen glass glister and mirror the transparent maze, and the random movement of people and dragons in their own little worlds creates a world of never-ending fractal animation. The reflected world on the ground is more vivid, more profound, more infinite than the life in the buildings. Then, one by one, the metal grilles at the windows appear so prominent, so dominant. Ubiquitous. Ridiculous. With the new openwork walls, can these metal bars seriously keep anyone – or anything – out?
The entire city feels like a zoo. People walk about in their metal cages, they shower, make love, watch TV, eat food, slipping seamlessly through the metal frames from one room to another. The dragons walk about in their metal cages too, doing exactly the same things. Except they eat differently: their bodies are so long that they can stand in their own place and eat the concrete in the next-door apartment. With a stretch of the neck and a twist of the body, they can scoff the concrete upstairs and downstairs too. There are so many dragons it is becoming a dragon town.
Zhaishao looks at the teeth marks on his palm. They are bleeding more than before. Why have his parents turned into dragons, but he has not? He does not understand. Had he been about to turn into a dragon when the dragon girl bit him? Is that why he hasn't changed? OMG! SHE'S SOOO AWESOME!
The old streets of the old town re-appear through the tumbledown walls of the apartment blocks: the black rooftiles, the red lattice walls, the grey bricklaid floors. It is still a small town after all, thinks Zhaishao. The most genuine thing in it is probably his own place. As long as his hard-drive is still there, his life will be fine. Oh, and he'd need his mobile phone. But he doesn't care about the rest, just as he has stopped caring about fairytales, and seeing white horses in the clouds.
Her window is immediately over the top of his computer screen. He sits in front of it all day and all night. His window is only a frame, since the dragons have eaten the rest, but hers is still intact. A lone guard watching over her window, Zhaishao drops off to sleep.
Maybe, after moving house for the first time, when he came back to look for his Toy Story Cowboy, she had also come back to look for her rag-doll. Maybe in the dark, his hand had touched hers, or by some stroke of magic, her lips had touched his, so so softly. Maybe the meeting of their souls was written in the spatial motion of the planets. I don't know, and neither does my little Zhaishao. All I know, and all he knows, is that whenever he thinks of her, his heart skips a beat, and that beyond the three-dimensional world of his computer screen there is a fourth dimension. It doesn't matter where they first met, or that she has turned into a dragon. None of that matters.
When Zhaishao wakes up, something has changed. There are dragons eating the steel structures! A second generation of dragons that eats concrete and steel! The people inside the metal structures have turned into dragons, and they are eating too. They are all eating at the same time, and as they eat the buildings diminish. The steel structure of the entire town is gradually disappearing. It is like a movie playing backwards: the buildings grow back into the ground, the mish-mash of roads re-appears, the cars crawling in traffic come to a standstill. The wheels and bolts have been eaten. The engines have been eaten …
Zhaishao starts to drift amid the dereliction, the urban landscape morphing into a metaphysical metropolis. As apartment blocks disappear, computer screens and TVs begin to proliferate, and mobile phones twinkle like stars in the sky, except they are twinkling on earth, flickering, glimmering, buzzing, humming. The people still on two legs go in and out of their temporary shells, the rich in their tall wooden towers, the ordinary folk in straw huts and the migrant workers under plastic sheeting. Some climb into the broken shells of cars, with black rubber tyres, rows of seats, a steering wheel, a board here and there, just like the make-believe games they played as children …
Outside, the world has gone quiet, except for the sound of rushing water. It is the sound of fountains, of sand sliding down dunes. The dragons have digested the concrete and excreted sand. The tall concrete buildings have been replaced by dunes of white sand. The greenery is still there, although there have never been many trees in this small town. There are little gardens in the streets, pots of flowers on balconies, seductive little oases in the desert – no need for a mirage.
As the human population diminishes, the number of dragons increases. But the first generation dragons are now dying of hunger. The wind whittles away at their bodies till their bones fall higgledy-piggledy to the ground, the larger bones stacking up like giant bricks making a white dragon bone wall.
Zhaishao watches as two new humans-turned-dragons emerge, one from a wooden building and one from a straw hut, look back at their shells and eat them. He understands immediately: a third generation of dragons is appearing.
The third-generation dragons can eat everything: plastic, glass, wood, rubbish. The town is covered in the stuff, but before long everything has been cleaned up, even the last bits of greenery.
The Dragonslayers have vowed to trace the dragons back to their source – the first human-turned-dragon, the Mutant Dragon. The final act will be an execution, elimination of the mutation. In Zhaishao's palm the bite marks ooze blood. His stigmata. His call of duty.
Zhaishao has his suspicions. All the buildings in town have been eaten. The building opposite has also been pulverised, yet that window is still there, floating in the air. It is like an illusion, yet so real, and from time to time she appears there. The humans-turned-dragons must share his suspicion for a crowd has gathered beneath the window. There is yelling and shouting. Without stopping to get dressed, Zhaishao leaps into action. He must go to her rescue.
Yes, she is the Mutant Dragon, but how did she become the first one? I am trying to work this out. Perhaps she really was sick, with an incurable disease, and had been lying in bed by the window. Turning her head on the pillow, she could see the back of his computer through the window. At night-time, when all the lights in the building had gone out, she could see this single dark square with coloured lights shimmering around the edges, like a rectangular eclipse. The girl stared and wondered how she could go to see what it was. Her father was into bionics, and used the flat as a workshop in which to seek for the elixir of immortality, that lost ancestral art. The girl simply wanted to know what was behind the lights. She dreamed of putting her feet on the ground, of getting out of bed, walking into the sunshine, and across the footbridge. She drank the potion her father had made, turned into a dragon, and floated in the air by her window. Damn the legend of Chang Er drinking the elixir of immortality and flying to the moon! How did I get caught up in this stuff? Do I really have to explain how the girl became the first dragon? Does it matter if she was the first? Does it matter what she dreams? What matters is that she is at the heart of his troubled mind.
Zhaishao has already endured the full range of impossibilities: through burning flames, across sheets of ice, past bolts of thunder, but he still has to get through the crowd of dragons. They come up to him and bite at his body, ripping and tearing at his skin with their sharp teeth. They eat his T-shirt, his pants, his slippers. He runs naked towards the little dragon girl's window. When he sees her, he reaches up to her. She stretches out her leg with the coloured bands. Their fingertips touch. As the dragon claw turns into a hand, a wild outbreak of laughter explodes behind him. He looks round and sees the Dragonslayers brandishing their swords at the dragon girl.
'She's the one!'
Zhaishao moves to protect her.
'Don't kill her! She's my girl!'
'Wake up!' they shout, thrusting their swords towards him. 'She's not real! She's an illusion! She's living in your head, you've got to get rid of her, root out this madness, then everything can go back to how it was!'
Swords slice through the air. The little dragon girl leaps into the air. There is nowhere to land. As the swords slash, my Zhaishao's heart begins to pound. He leaps up to block the swords. He sees them slice at my shoulder, my leg, my waist. And at that moment the Dragonslayers change. They roar furiously as they turn into dragons. Their swords fall from their claws. They look up in amazement, mouths gaping, as though drinking in the air in which the dragon girl is floating. His friends have become the fourth generation of dragons.
If the third generation dragons are indiscriminate omnivores of all material things, I wonder what the fourth generation dragons will eat?
Perhaps they will feed on the nonmaterial assets of the twenty-first century: on visual images, and intangible things that are conceived in the brain. This is something I had never imagined. Yes, I am tired of being surrounded by material things. Yes, I find the overconsumption in this world ridiculous. I think of myself as a materialist turned minimalist. So why shouldn't it be the same with conceptual stuff? Why, when there is so much of it around, do people still feed the need to go on producing more and more? Each brain is a hive buzzing with activity: there is an astronomical number of synapses, a Big Bang every nano-second. In the infinitely interlinking universe of my mind, I have had the craziest of thoughts. I have tried to banish them, to throw them out, to refuse any space to mental waste. How many times have I had to pluck from the wastebasket something spectacular that I could not be bothered with before? I CANNOT – I WILL NOT – make the conscious decision to eliminate creativity, because I have to live. Keeping the creative juices flowing in my brain is fundamental to my quality of life.
If the fourth generation dragons can survive on things that exist in cloud storage and 3G, I can live with that. But I will not let them take my Zhaishao, or his little dragon girl. He faces this crisis with eyes wide open, his heart beating wildly, his body constricted by something he cannot name. Then, all of a sudden, she flaps her dragon wings and flies up to the window. She looks back. I leap up, grab hold, and off we fly. I float in the lightness of air, and roll like a cloud over town. The mad wind pulls at every hair on my head, its cold breath stinging my scalp, ringing in my ears. I cling on for my life, and peer down at what is left of the town below. The earth is vast and the sky is huge. We have taken so much from the earth, but the dragons have devoured all the material things we humans have made. There is nothing left for them to eat.
Three generations of dragons are dying. The harsh wind dries their bones, piling them up into dragon-bone walls. I see the Dragonslayers tie themselves together, like a dragon-plane, running together to take off, to escape. But the sand is too deep and their dragon-plane sinks. They try again, and sink again. They cannot survive for much longer. Eventually, they will perish too, and their bones will join those of Zhaishao's parents. They're just another brick in the wall.
I feel myself falling. My dragon girl's wings are shrinking. We crash into the walls of the dragon corpse maze. The dragon bones are sharp and densely packed. They stab me like knives and arrows. My dragon girl flaps her ever-diminishing wings as she struggles to fly. But it is no good. Tears roll down my face, and drops of rain – her tears – fall on my head. She grows smaller and smaller, until she is a shadow over my head.
My foot lands on a sharp cone, which jabs into the sole of my foot. I walk along the long dragon-bone wall, a white meandering wall in the surging black waves of the sea. Like a sand-dune, the wall shifts as the black waves crash against it. The sun shines fiercely on the sand, the myriad dots of light like a fixed-frame sea spray.
Dazed, I search for yesterday, the long blur of yesterday. There, on the hard, white dragon bone islands stands my Zhaishao. The black waves surge around him. Eyes wide open, a solitary boy, a naked exile in a desolate world.