Snow, by Xu Xiaobin
Xu Xiaobin, born in 1953 into an intellectual family in Beijing, spent nine years in the countryside and at a factory during the Cultural Revolution. She began publishing in 1981 and three of her novels have been translated into English. Xu Xiaobin has also written for PEN Atlas, Amid a Sea of Red Flags.
This story did not go where I thought it would, when I started reading. Xu Xiaobin kicks off with a slow, poetic view out onto a winter landscape, before launching into an interrogation scene that seems headed into the territory of a political thriller. From then on, it spins off into a series of overlapping times and places and love interests, telling the story of protagonist Xiuduan's struggle to be taken seriously as a writer, and all the romantic dramas, literary rivalries, and - perhaps most to the point - oppressive politics that go along with that. There's a confiding, almost gossipy tone to the narration, so that reading through feels a bit like listening to the life story of a slightly outspoken friend (one who also happens to have come of age in the China of the mid-1980s, and to be remarkably well-read).
When Xu Xiaobin first sent me this story for Read Paper Republic short story series, I was daunted by the length. However, as I read through it, I became convinced that we had to translate it. "Snow" is a powerful story. It’s also an excellent introduction to Xu and her controversial new novel Crystal Wedding: a couple of the characters in Crystal Wedding make a cameo appearance in "Snow", for example, and there are her recurring themes of sexuality, and gender inequality, and the insidious pressure on writers to toe the Party line in an oppressive state. Treat this story an hors d’oeuvre, dear reader! Or enjoy it in its own right. Note to publishers: Natascha and I decided to co-translate "Snow", for the pragmatic reason that it is quite long. We roughly split the text in half, bounced initial queries off each other, and finally joined the two parts together (I defy the reader to spot the joining point), and picked up each other’s infelicities at the revision stage. Personally, I found this an effective way of working and a rewarding experience, and I believe it benefited the translation.
Crystal Wedding by Xu Xiaobin, translated by Nicky Harman, was published by Balestier Press in March 2016.
The first heavy snowfall of the winter. A blanket of snow stretched out before her, not a tyre track, a fallen branch, a stone, or even so much as a feather to mar the view. The landscape was a snowy relief sculpture, beneath a sky the ashy grey of a Levitan oil painting. There was a profound, eerie stillness.
The stillness shattered at the ring of the phone.
‘Is this Ms. Luo? I’m calling from the Municipal Propaganda Department.’
It was a young person’s voice. Speaking Mandarin, but with the faint inflections of an out-of-town accent at the end of the words.
‘Ms. Luo, is now a good time? We’d like to hear your opinion on a matter.’
This wasn’t such a strange request. Two days before, one of the head officials of the Municipal Propaganda Department had requested a meeting with several writers, hoping they would do their bit for the advancement of the nation’s ‘soft power push.’ To be precise, the Municipal Propaganda Department wanted to commission two stage plays, on two pre-determined themes: one would be about the Shougang Steel Corporation, the other about Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighbourhood. The writers had looked at one another in dismay. No one said a word.
When the plays were first mentioned, she’d felt her heart beat faster. She wanted to suggest they base one on the classic painting, ‘The Night Revels of Han Xizai,’ which she’d been studying recently. That could have been interesting; she’d found its narrative nature and political allusions quite inspiring. Luckily, the topics were revealed before she’d had the chance to open her mouth. After that, there was nothing left for her to say – she just smiled politely and agreed in a lacklustre sort of way. At least, when it came to carving up culture, there was never any shortage of people scrambling for their slice of the cake.
There were three of them, two men, one woman. They were surprisingly young. The tall one opened his ID wallet and held it up in front of her: People’s Republic of China Ministry of State Security.
The words burned her eyes. To her, they meant only one thing, and that was fear. Wasn’t there a line somewhere in the constitution, ‘citizens have the right to live free from fear?’ Those were her first thoughts. But the blood-red characters were intimidating – a minute before they’d had nothing to do with her, and now they were burning her eyes, causing her to instinctively recoil. Her heart pounded: it was finally happening.
They asked her which tea she wanted. So there really was going to be some tea-drinking, after all. This being the case, she was going make sure they spent some money.
‘How about some Tie Guanyin oolong?’ asked the woman. She was overweight and not particularly attractive, her face riddled with acne.
‘I don’t drink Tie Guanyin.’ She shot a testing glance over to the tall officer. ‘I only drink black tea, either Lapsang Souchong or Jin Jun Mei.’
The eyes of the tall officer were an intense, unnerving shade of black. They reminded her of how she’d felt, many years before, when she was still a small child and had watched in horror as a rebel faction up-ended a cauldron of porridge over the head of her beloved nursery school headteacher. All around, people were yelling slogans, and those slogans had filled her with an indescribable sense of dread.
Now, she knew she had to keep her fear hidden. His eyes felt like x-ray beams boring right through her, but she met his gaze calmly. With some difficulty, the mouth beneath those eyes brought itself to say, ‘Fine. Bring Ms. Luo a cup of Lapsang Souchong.’
The tea was set in front of her. His tone became interrogative: ‘We’re aware you went on a trip to America some time ago. What was the purpose of this trip?’
‘The Chindia Dialogues. It’s an event run by the American Asia Society.’
She kept her words light-hearted, trying her hardest to keep chatting about nothing in particular, all the while running through a rapid-fire process of elimination in her head – who had told them? Who? One of the other writers? That didn’t seem very likely. Perhaps one of the participants in the press conference afterwards? But, no, that wasn’t possible, either.
‘During the event, I realised the Americans were biased, going all out to promote India and always putting China down. During the speeches, for example, they made it very clear that each speech was to last fifteen minutes, but after I’d been speaking for only eight minutes, the moderator passed me a note saying my time was up. There was an Indian woman writer, on the other hand, who spoke for eighteen minutes without anyone interfering at all...’
She went on and on, forcing herself to sound as staunchly nationalist as possible. She knew the kind of things they liked to hear. The woman and the short man were nodding along with her words, but the ferocity of the tall man’s gaze hadn’t diminished one bit. He looked even more fed up. It was clear that he was the one in charge. He abruptly steered the conversation onto a new topic:
‘And when you were in America, did you meet with anyone? Any old friends, for example? ...’
So finally he’d come out with it. She looked straight into his eyes and said: ‘You’re acting as though this is a criminal investigation. I refuse to answer.’
The woman gave a quick, friendly smile. ‘No need to take offense.’
The tall one got to his feet and switched to a more patient tone, but there remained that ominous glint in his eyes.
‘Fine, then we’ll just ask you directly. Do you know Lin Shen?’
For some reason, at the sound of his name, she felt her heart rate slow.
‘Yes, I know him, I’ve known him for a long time.’
‘1980. There were the student elections at Beijing University, and we used to go every day to listen to the campaign speeches.’
‘And what did you think of him back then?’
‘What did I think of him? That he was an idealist. That he was ambitious.’
She spoke bluntly.
’We were all fans of his. He was our idol, just like nowadays you’re all fans of Jay Chou and G.E.M.’
It was clear they hadn’t been expecting this kind of an answer; all three of them looked a little taken aback.
‘So how did it feel to see him again?’
The tall one frowned, drawing together his bushy eyebrows.
‘Ah, seeing him this time was a total let down! He’s gone bald, his stomach is out here… ‘ – she gestured – ‘and his whole appearance has completely changed, I had no interest in talking to him at all. Call me superficial, but...’
She tried to paint an impression of herself as a silly, frivolous woman, obsessed with looks, while covertly monitoring their reactions. She could see the expressions of the woman and the short one softening, but the tall one still fixed her with that predatory gaze.
‘Under what circumstances did the two of you meet?’
‘At a reception in New York.’ She threw in the word, reception, in English.
‘Who invited him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Was he invited by your literary agent, Hu Jian? How did you meet Hu Jian?’
‘Well, if we’re going to talk about Hu Jian, then that’s a long story, it was 2004...’
The tall officer was quite clearly not in the mood to listen to any more of her ramblings. He cut her off immediately.
‘Apart from you, who does Hu Jian represent?’
‘Huang Qiang and Ma Jin.’
Everyone on earth knew that Hu Jian represented them, so she knew she wasn’t giving away any secrets.
‘But Huang Qiang transferred to a different agency, and Hu Jian was livid. The last time I saw her she was still ranting about it, saying Huang Qiang was a sell-out who only cared about making money, and I heard that she had a huge quarrel with Huang Qiang’s new agent...’
Once again, she deliberately talked around the topic, and the tall officer seemed to have given up trying to stop her.
When she couldn’t string the story out any longer, he finally played his trump card: ‘Were you aware that Lin Shen has set up an activist group in America, called "ZYX"’?
She knew this would be the real test of her acting skills. She gave a sudden start – not too exaggerated, just enough to be believable. She opened her eyes wide and exclaimed: ‘What?! Really?!’
She glanced across at her three audience members. Two of them seemed entirely convinced; the tall one still looked as though he had his doubts.
’You didn’t know?’ He fixed her with his ice-cold stare.
‘I didn’t know. I really didn’t know.’ Her face was the picture of innocence. ‘My god, I really did not know!’
The three of them exchanged a look.
‘You mean to say that, having made his acquaintance, you knew nothing of his subsequent activities? For example, his pro-democracy campaigns, his arrest...’
The tall officer was relentless.
‘I did hear a few things,’ her mind was spinning feverishly. She knew that, at this juncture, every sentence could be held as evidence against her in court. ‘But back then... we all had our own families to worry about.’
Her eyes had the misty look of someone lost in their memories, but her heart was pounding wildly.
‘At the time of the pro-democracy protests, my baby had just turned one. I simply didn’t have the energy to pay much attention to them.’
She sounded tired and listless. This wasn’t part of the act: she was truly exhausted. She thought she saw the tall officer relax a little, ever so slightly. Just as she started to think it might all be over, however, he barked out another question: ‘Do you know where this activist group of his gets its funding?’
His eyes were like machine guns shooting bullets through her every pore. She felt like she’d been hit, and her body was disintegrating into little pieces. From her. She had taken him money, money he urgently needed. She felt herself about to crumble, as she suddenly realised who must have been the informer: it was that woman! It had to be her; it couldn’t have been anyone else.
She had received the invitation in August, asking her to take part in the Chindia Dialogues at the end of October. A fellow writer, Lu Youzhi, received his invitation at the same time. As the whole trip was funded by a Hong Kong foundation, the condition was that they stop over in Hong Kong beforehand, to give a couple of lectures.
At the Hong Kong lectures, the sponsors were impressed by her, but the male author was the more famous of the two. As a result, Lu Youzhi was always listed ahead of her, despite the fact he’d started his career much later than she had. When he was publishing his very first short story, she was already well-known in literary circles. But really only well-known, rather than particularly celebrated – one of her books had caused a big scandal, the consequences of which had reverberated for several decades. But Lu Youzhi genuinely liked her novels.
He had always believed that naturally gifted writers started on a high but burnt out quickly. The kind of writers who had to painstakingly work at their craft, on the other hand, who took things step by step – they only improved over time. It was the race between the hare and the tortoise and, to his mind, she was an undeniably talented writer, with the misfortune to have been born in the wrong place.
For her part, she also thought him an undeniably talented writer. The real deal. He may have been a little later getting started, but his novels – even those not so well-received by critics – never fell below a certain standard. And his best pieces saw him rise quickly to the top of the profession. What she most admired about him, however, was how scrupulous he was, and how indifferent to his fame. This mutual respect meant the relationship between them had always been peaceful and easy-going, and that they looked out for one another. This had been especially true during one Harvard lecture, when they had to deal with questions clearly intended to be provocative. It had felt as though her head was being dunked repeatedly under water: ‘Ms. Luo, I’d like to ask, do you find the female characters written by Chinese male writers to be convincing? What’s your view of the abnormal women in the work of Lu Youzhi?’
She saw him bow his head and she knew he would be raging on the inside – stupid fuckers!
She stayed calm and said, ‘I’ll answer your second question first. You said, "abnormal women"?’
‘To say that they’re abnormal is to say that they’re not normal. "Normal" would mean an ordinary person, an everyday person, and an everyday writer might be content to write about that – about normality – but exceptional writers write about not-normality, about abnormality. Because it’s much, much harder to write about abnormality than it is to write about normality! There are hundreds of examples of this. What about Tolstoy’s Anna, is she normal? Or Balzac’s Bette or Zweig’s Unknown Woman – they’re all abnormal, but isn’t it precisely this abnormality that makes them such enduring literary characters?’
People had started to clap.
‘As for your first question, generally speaking, women writers may have a better understanding of the inner workings of the female mind, but men are better at writing about it. For example, the women of Cao Xueqin in The Dream of the Red Chamber or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – they really plumb the depths of the female soul in their writing! Reading what goes through Anna’s mind just before she throws herself across the train tracks is deeply moving, "...I shall punish him and escape from everyone and from myself." It’s almost unbearably moving! When I first read it, it made me so emotional I felt ill. Although, of course, I was also very young at the time... But, to be very honest, to get to the point, and I am not just saying this because Lu Youzhi is here, I truly believe that he writes the best female characters of any Chinese male writer.’
There was ardent applause. She could tell without even looking that Lu Youzhi was clapping along with everyone else, his expression not revealing even a flicker of gratitude. He was just the same laidback, scatty Lu Youzhi as ever; but this was good enough for her.
She met Lu Youzhi for the first time in 1985. He had just graduated from university and been assigned a position with a major literary publication based in the south. He’d come to Beijing to solicit contributions, armed with nothing but his fresh-faced smile and those big puppy-dog eyes. He had no connections whatsoever in Beijing literary circles. Back then, the Beijing literary scene was divided into all sorts of little cliques – hers was known as ‘the Beijing Number One Salon,’ and was held at a private home, an enormous courtyard house in the centre of the city.
That was where she fell in love with Lin Shen, too.
The salon was hosted by Peng, the unreliable, troublemaker son of a wealthy businessman. Peng had never managed to hold down a job, instead passing his time eating, drinking, chasing women, and generally getting up to no good. At a certain point, his interests had drifted towards politics. He was really no better than a low-life street thug but, nevertheless, he somehow managed to be acquainted with anybody who was anybody in Beijing at the time. The heavyweights of the literature, history and philosophy worlds would all gather there at his home, stars of the economics scene coming by every so often to put in a guest performance. Once they started debating, things would get very heated, each one of them willing to fight to the death to defend their point of view. Then, come nightfall, they’d follow the scoundrelly Peng into the furthest reaches of the third courtyard, at the very back of the house.
One such night, it was so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop. There were only two people left in the vast empty reception room: one was her; the other was Lin Shen. They were still young, just into their twenties. Hormones made their faces rosy and their speech run together. Yes, they were both babbling on and on, as though afraid of what might happen if they were to pause for breath.
It was incredible when she thought back on it: how strong-willed they must have been, to resist just throwing themselves into each other’s arms. They kept on talking, words tumbling out without so much as a second thought, and yet each sentence seemed as perfectly-conceived as if it had come from a book of famous quotes.
All of a sudden, Peng came in from the rear courtyard. He caught sight of them in the corner opposite and burst out laughing, calling them a pair of hypocrites. His laugh had a sinister ring to it.
Instantly, she felt herself blushing but, luckily, the lights were too dim for him to notice. Neither could he read Lin Shen’s expression, over there in the corner with her. Outside, it had stopped raining.
‘It’s almost two am. Perhaps you two might deign to spend the night here, in my humble abode?’ Peng was watching them with a smile that was more like a grimace. Lin Shen shot her an inquiring look.
‘No, I have to go home,’ she said, firmly. Her parents were strict and there was no way she’d be permitted to stay out all night.
‘I’ll take you,’ said Lin Shen.
The mud was thick after the heavy rain, and it clogged the wheels of his bike. The narrow lane was even bumpier than she’d imagined, but she was with him, and she was brimming with an unshakeable happiness. Riding pillion on the back of a bike – in the ‘second class carriage’ – was a common thing for young people at that time. She sat behind him on her second-class seat as they rode through the darkness and, several times, they sunk so far into the mud that they toppled over. But she was so swathed in happiness, she didn’t feel the bruises; she carried on giggling, even when they fell off the bike.
Due the presence of Lin Shen, the salon rapidly expanded. Very soon, Peng’s courtyards could no longer contain all of the participants. And so, not without a certain amount of hesitation, she went to talk to Lin Shen.
‘We’re going to have to limit the number of people. There are so many of them, all sorts of people, and there’s no way of telling who we can trust.’
Lin Shen, however, was his usual, carefree self. He laughed at her, and said, ‘You really are such a little scaredy cat! Where are these bad guys, then?’
She was too angry to bring it up again. But, as subsequent events would go to show, her fears were entirely justified. Lin Shen’s smug, devil-may-care attitude would turn out to be his downfall.
Then came the day in 1985 that Lu Youzhi arrived in Beijing to solicit pieces for his magazine. Sitting around in the living room were all the biggest names of the period. Lu Youzhi, on the other hand, was just a small-time editor. He was young; he hadn’t had to go out and work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution. At the time, he was only twenty-two, a very cheery character, who looked like one of the Olympic mascots when he smiled. That evening, however, he didn’t smile – mainly because he never had the opportunity, as the other people in the room deemed him about as interesting as a spring onion.
Peng gave him a glowing introduction: ‘Young Lu here is not only an editor, you know, he’s also a writer. The story, "Quicksand Village" in the most recent edition of Tap magazine is one of his.’
His words were like stones dropping onto a cotton quilt; no one was listening to a word he said. She was the only one paying attention.
‘Quicksand Village’ was a short story, published in the well-known Tap magazine. It was only two columns long and not many people would have noticed it, but she had – more than noticed it, she had read it closely, twice. It had a very distinctive, youthful, out-of-town kind of tone to it. There was no doubt that the writer was talented.
If any of those present had know that, years later, Lu Youzhi would become a literary superstar, they certainly wouldn’t have been so cold towards this young man. Even she could feel the chill of their indifference, cutting right to her bones. It wasn’t her custom to treat helpless newcomers in this way. And so, for the first time ever, she went to pick up the rusty iron teapot, which was full of freshly-brewed jasmine tea (the kind known in Beijing as ‘gunpowder tea’).
‘Tea?’ she asked him.
They happened to be going the same route home. Lu Youzhi praised her work the whole way. She didn’t give him much of a reaction, because at that point in time everyone was praising her work – literature was enjoying a surge in popularity, and she’d received over seven hundred fan letters from her readers. Externally, she feigned indifference, while on the inside, she swelled with pride. She responded to his requests to write a piece for the magazine by saying, sure, if she found the time. Even he didn’t seem to hold out much hope, though; back then she only had eyes for the two biggest of the literary journals, considering all the others somewhat beneath her.
Six years later, one of Lu Youzhi’s novels was turned into a film by a well-known director, winning a double award at the Golden Rooster & Hundred Flower film festival, as well as several smaller awards overseas. All of a sudden, the whole country knew who he was. The young Lu Youzhi had made it, seemingly without any trouble at all. Soon enough, he had earned himself a reputation as a pioneering writer. She, on the other hand, lived through the catastrophe of Tian’anmen and played witness to the deaths of many of her closest friends. It sapped her strength. She was wracked with emotions that she struggled to express in her writing – her deep love for her friends and her resentment towards society. It was a helpless, unforgiving era; an era that ruthlessly eliminated anyone who stood in its way; an era that encouraged those willing to pander to their superiors and walk all over anyone beneath them. An era jealous of talent, that destroyed talent; that sought to turn everyone into bootlickers and lying toads.
She could not do it.
Not only that: she did the very opposite. And so, in the end, inevitably, she hit a wall, ended up with a bloody nose and a swollen face.
Not so Lu Youzhi. He swanned though, oblivious. He had the perfect happy family. If he felt like writing, he wrote a couple of lines; if he didn’t feel like writing, he went out to enjoy himself. He had a garden full of fresh flowers and fruit trees, and never had any trouble from the authorities. Several decades on, his fame far eclipsed hers.
She was relentlessly marginalised, like the character in The Glass Menagerie, pushed out from the middle of the bench to the very furthest edge, until she fell to the ground.
She felt more helpless and alone than she ever had in her life. Secretly, she plotted her counterattack. She wanted to shake up the very core of the institution, to force the whole city to shift on her account. Her body was like a building on the brink of collapse. She made a sketch, and redesigned herself – if her key works could be translated and published around the world, then perhaps that would be her lifeline out of all this.
She hadn’t seen Lu Youzhi in years. At Hong Kong airport, wearing the glasses of a middle-aged man, he looked at her closely, and said, ‘How nice.’
‘How nice.’ It was a total lie. It was like a layer of brightly coloured glaze on the outside of ceramic vase when, inside, it was fragile and cracked, ready to disintegrate at the very first touch.
When Lu Youzhi caught sight of Lin Shen at the Chindia Dialogues press conference, he whispered into her ear, ‘Are you still in touch with him?’
The press conference was packed with people. It was as though all the intellectuals in the whole of New York city were pouring into the hall at once. It was a struggle even to turn around. As she was being jostled by this stream of people, she heard the microphone mentioning her and Lu Youzhi by name; some Hong Kong big shot was up there giving a grand talk in English about the value of China’s ‘soft power push,’ that fashionable expression you suddenly needed to know or you were out, as they would say in English.
The big shot was linking her and Lu Youzhi to ‘soft power,’ singing their praises as though they were the Virgin Mary, Son, and Holy Ghost. Most of her English had gone down the drain a long time ago, but the sentences she could understand were full of such outrageous flattery that she could feel her face burn. She forced her way through the crowd and slipped out into the shopping mall next to the conference hall.
A sleeveless tulle dress was displayed grandly at the centre of one of the sales counters. It was very pretty, the fine, gauzy fabric embroidered with magenta begonias and the beaded outlines of roses. The straps and the neckline were made of a soft satin, in the same warm shade of magenta. The cloud-like tulle shimmered like some sort of fantastically coloured smoke. She was simply transfixed. An older saleslady walked over to her, smiling: ‘May I help you?’ she asked, in English.
‘I’m just looking, thank you,’ she replied, also in English. She smiled back, but inside she was thinking how much better she’d feel, if she were the owner of that dress. It was a little over 500 US dollars – cheaper than she’d thought.
She hadn’t spent much of the cash she’d brought with her. Compared to dresses of this price back home, it was clearly much better value for money. At the Shin Kong Place mall in Beijing, dresses were easily over 10000 yuan, and there was still never any shortage of buyers.
She was hesitantly opening her bag, when she heard a voice behind her. ‘I knew I’d find you here! I see you still love shopping just as much as when you were younger.’
Then there he was, in the flesh, by her side. But she didn’t feel anything at all. All those years and months had worked like a big castration knife, slowly whittling away the most beautiful, the most intense, the most precious, the most secret of her feelings. In the old days, her heart would beat wildly before he even so much as touched her. In those turbulent, youthful times, she’d even had the wild idea that she would die for him. Yes, she would have died for him.
She used to believe that love lasted a lifetime. A lifetime! She had really had no idea: a life is a long, long time.
When had things changed? Not the changes in his appearance – she might seem superficial but, in truth, the most important thing to her was what went on under the surface. How had he changed? Or was it her who’d changed?
‘I see you still love shopping just as much as when you were younger,’ he said.
Yes, this is what he said. It seemed he hadn’t forgotten, after all.
Back then, Xiuduan and Lin Shen had been like two overgrown children, spending their days mooching around the zoo and Xinjiekou district. It wasn’t window-shopping, just mooching, as there weren’t any decent shopping streets in those days. Even though his dad was a high-ranking army officer, he’d had a strict upbringing, which meant no pocket-money to speak of. She was amongst the elite students, with what was called a ‘level 2’ job, so she studied on a monthly salary of 46.5 yuan. They both enjoyed their food, but back then there was little to eat. The zoo’s Guangfeng Canteen was an exception: half-a-dozen different kinds of snacks and cigarettes were displayed in the big glass display cabinet by the door – fried curry puffs, for instance, and the kind of big cigars that hadn’t been seen in years. It was cheap too. They would lean on the counter chatting and waiting for the curry puffs to come out of the deep-fryer. You had to eat them hot, then the layers of pastry crunched between your teeth. Nothing could be wasted, any flakes that fell, they picked them up and ate them too. They were such good curry puffs! He always devoured his greedily. She would start off nibbling in a lady-like manner but she couldn’t keep it up and was soon eating the puff with both hands. They would look at each other, amused at the flakes that stuck to the other’s lips and fingers. No laughter though; they were much too busy eating the savoury, spicy puffs while they were nice and hot.
Then they discovered the cream-cake shop in Xinjiekou. The decoration was crude and the frosting was grainy but the cakes were made of real butter and cream and tasted of it. They were addictive. They dropped in frequently, and she always paid. Like a little boy, he would point to the one he fancied and she always bought it without a moment’s hesitation. Some days, she ended up with only nine cents in her purse, and had to work out if she had enough for her fare home. But the 103 trolley-bus from Xizhimen Station was only five cents.
They chatted about anything and everything. She would lean back, her hands clasped behind her neck, quite unaware that he found this attitude of hers utterly charming. The rays of afternoon sunshine filtered in through the window, and fell on the shoulders of his white shirt (the only decent article of clothing he possessed), making it look grubby.
He never took her for granted. Quite the opposite, in fact – he was warm and attentive. Once, as an experiment, she painted some tiles, bowls and pots, and he carried these fragile pieces around all the handicraft shops with her, in the hopes that they might make her fortune.
But this was only the mid-1980s. The very idea of money was frowned upon, let alone making a fortune! This was especially true for people like Lin Shen and Xiuduan, who spent every available moment in serious discussions about Kant, Nietsche, Plato and Hegel, not to mention Merimee, Stefan Zweig, and Yukio Mishima, and Erich Maria Remarque. The truth was that they weren’t really thinking of making her fortune. For her part, she was keen to know what the experts thought of her handiwork. And he was equally keen to see if she could turn this ‘private work’ into ‘social labour’; if its value could be turned into ‘use value’, in Marxist terms.
She did strike the jackpot once. She had painted an eggshell with a design from Chinese mythology, ‘Lady Chang E flies to the moon’. An art gallery took it, and paid her nineteen yuan! Ai-ya! Nineteen yuan! That was a lot of money in the mid-80s. In high spirits, they went to a Xinjiang restaurant in Erligou, and gorged on bowls of chicken, and cumin-flavoured lamb in flatbreads. Then they went to their separate homes, promising to meet that afternoon for cream-cakes in Xinjiekou.
Who would have believed that Lin Shen, the well-known ‘professional revolutionary youth’, had this other side to his nature? That morning, he’d delivered a powerful speech to a packed audience, at noon, he’d feasted with his girlfriend and, that very afternoon, he was going to fill up with cream cakes. She wanted to laugh when she saw his eyes light up at the sight of the cakes, just the same way they lit up during his lectures.
That day was when the problem started. He turned up as arranged, but not alone. He’d brought a girl along with him, introducing her casually: ‘This is Ling.’ Then he ordered the cakes just as he always did.
She ought to have been used to it. He always had flocks of devoted followers tagging along after him; most, of course, were women. But she knew quite well that she was the only one who really meant something to him.
Today was different, however: it was nothing to do with the girl herself. It was that the Xinjiekou cake shop belonged just to the two of them. He’d broken the rules of the game.
She put on an act. She was a good actress. She was friendly and attentive to Ling, they all ate their fill, and then she picked up the tab.
This happened several more times. If it wasn’t Ling, it was Fang or Juan or Li. He brought a different girl every time, all of them fairly commonplace. She knew quite well he was showing off. There was nothing unpleasant behind it, just a boyish bravado. But she didn’t like it.
She said nothing. She was still putting a good face on it, but she no longer enjoyed these occasions.
Sitting with him that day in New York, she shifted herself imperceptibly, so that there was a tiny gap between them, and when she was sure there was no one looking, swiftly passed him a totally ordinary-looking envelope. He took it just as swiftly, in those stubby, chilblained fingers that had once caused her such distress.
Was this the way the heroine and the spy had done it in the film, Lust, Caution? Sadly, Lin Shen and Xiuduan were not film stars.
In her mind’s eye, she saw his mother, a plump woman, always desperately anxious though she occasionally smiled a pleasant smile. His mother was saying quietly: ‘Xiuduan, dear, please tell it to him straight, we’re getting older, we likely haven’t many years left, he needs to be prepared for that. And tell him this money comes from family and friends, we’ve all clubbed together, to make his life a bit more comfortable.’
Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. She did not look at him; she did not dare.
Xiuduan had been a proud woman when she was young. She made up her mind to take revenge, childish though it was. He’d brought girls to their special place. She’d pay him back in his own coin. So on her birthday, when she went to Peng’s house, she took with her a man she had just been introduced to. They had only had one date but it was enough for each of them to know that the other would never be more than a friend. All the same, she took this good-looking man who would never be more than a friend with her to Peng’s hidden-away courtyard mansion. She just wanted to make a point. Why should Lin Shen be the only one to show off? Equality between the sexes! That was what she believed at the time anyway.
But equality between the sexes was a myth.
Peng later told her that Lin Shen had turned up first thing that morning and started making salads and dumplings for her birthday. He was a bit of a cack-handed cook; in those days, you couldn’t buy mayonnaise, you had to make it from scratch with egg yolks and peanut oil. So Lin Shen sat there earnestly clasping a large bowl, beating and beating the mixture with a pair of chopsticks. He must have beaten it a thousand times, and on the thousand and first stroke, Xiuduan appeared with her good-looking escort.
A whole host of friends had turned up and they were all busy making preparations, so no one took any notice. But she saw Lin Shen’s stubby fingers quiver, after which he kept his head down and went on mixing without looking at her. He loved to talk and, when uninterrupted, could talk the hind legs off a donkey, almost without pausing for breath. But that day he was oddly silent. When all the food was ready and the dumplings were cooking, he suddenly said: ‘I’ve got stuff to do at home today so I won’t stay for dinner.’ And he was gone. There was a stunned silence. The girls who’d flocked here to see him were especially taken aback. After a few moments, they all started to twitter amongst themselves. His departure put a dampener on proceedings, and although Peng was there to stand in for Lin Shen, things weren’t the same any more. Xiuduan was in pieces. The fragrant dumplings, when she tried them, had no flavor. Finally she took out her rage and humiliation on her escort, seeing him off at the earliest opportunity.
It seemed absurd when she thought back on it. Nevertheless, that one absurd occasion changed their lives. The next day he flew south from Beijing and set up a publishing enterprise. It was only when the company folded and he was reduced to begging leftovers from restaurants that he came back, many years later. And by then she was married and had a child, too.
If it was a tragedy of misjudgments that thrust them apart, it was a political movement that brought them close again. Much later, Peng wrote her a letter in which he said that Lin Shen would have given his life for her. Just before his arrest, he had stayed up all night spilling his heart out to Peng. ‘I can never love any other woman,’ he had said. ‘If we can’t be together in this life, then we’ll be spirit companions in the next.’
She wept. She thought of how things had been at the beginning. Memories were always rosier than reality. She remembered sitting opposite him in the cream-cake shop, as if they were holding a secret meeting. He looked intensely at her, and she felt as if she was looking intensely at herself. She felt herself wither under that gaze, and wished it were a knife, one that could re-fashion her as she desired. Later, she wanted to forget even his name, to excise him, as if he were a birthmark. But she never succeeded.
His trial, in 1990, was Kafka-esque. She found him the best possible lawyer. Every week, she sent books he’d requested to his mother and father, and pursued appeals with the help of their friend on the Law journal until, finally, she got him released on bail for medical treatment. Yet, in spite of everything, she still felt she owed him something.
Likely, he knew nothing of all of this, even now.
At the reception, people poured into the room and gradually they were surrounded.
She was standing there feeling completely bewildered when a woman in her forties with an oval face and large, innocent eyes, called eagerly: ‘Lin Shen!’
He greeted her with a smile, then announced to everyone: ‘Let me introduce Ms Shao Ying, from the Consulate, and …the famous author Luo Xiuduan, a very old friend of mine!’
Something seemed to snap inside her. With difficulty, she swallowed her emotion and forced a smile but she thought to herself: ‘I’ve had it now!’
Hadn’t he just whispered in her ear that the attaché from the Consulate was an informer, and she had better watch what she said? In that case, why had he introduced her like that? The ins and outs of politics left her completely bemused. She remembered Shao Ying’s words before she left that evening: ‘Lin Shen is very active politically nowadays, he’s making speeches everywhere… I’m close to his wife, so I see a lot of them.’ Those innocent eyes seemed even more guileless as she spoke. But what was behind her words?
Afterwards, he said to her: ‘I said that to protect you.’
Again she forced a smile. She blamed herself for having been slow on the uptake, but she really didn’t understand: why had he singled her out, in front of everyone, and then told her it was to protect her? Was he being politically astute? Or was it that being abroad for so long had addled his brain? She couldn’t figure it out.
Today, as she faced her interrogators, upholders of the nation’s interests, she remembered his words again. When he introduced her to Shao Ying, it had been nothing short of Judas betraying Jesus. But of course he was not Judas, he was Lin Shen. Judas had sold Jesus for silver. Lin Shen had been quite different – he was the only one, on that night of terror 25 years ago, who had stayed calm and shepherded students and leaders alike to safety, before finally being arrested himself. His fellow ‘intellectuals’, on the other hand, for all their stirring, high-sounding speeches, had fled in disarray.
She was reminded of Gorky’s Legend of Danko, where the eponymous hero tears out his heart and makes it in a torch to guide those he has saved through the darkness.
She always used to cry buckets over Danko’s bleeding heart.
It finally dawned on her that she had been living in a fairy tale. There was no Danko, no Judas, no Jesus. There was only Lin Shen, grown portly, and herself, an old woman. Neither of them had anything of value left to exchange.
She suddenly wanted to hit back.
She agreed with her interrogators that she had ceased to be vigilant, but the reason was that she had the impression that someone in the Consulate was ‘very close’ to Lin Shen.
She noticed the way her words instantly caught their complete attention.
‘Do you remember the name of the person at the Consulate?’ the tall one asked.
She shook her head. Nevertheless, from their expression, she had struck home. ‘I only remember it was a woman, and she said she was very close to Lin Shen’s wife.’ She realized as she said this that Lin Shen’s wife must have been up to her neck in it, too. Oh, Lin Shen, Lin Shen, what kind of a leader had he been, when even his own wife was an informer? How ridiculous the democracy movement had been!
She hammered her advantage home: ‘Maybe I did let my guard slip. But you know, I believe that when someone involved in politics leaves their native soil, their political life is finished. Don’t you think so?’
She spoke with passionate conviction because that was actually what she felt. And the counterattack reduced her three interlocutors to silence. The tall one exchanged a quick glance with the other two. Then the woman drew a sheet of paper out of her satchel and laid it in front of her.
In that instant, she distinctly saw something gleaming in the woman’s satchel. A pair of handcuffs.
Afterwards, she told some close friends what she had seen. They seemed to know all about such things. They shook their heads doubtfully; she wasn’t being charged with endangering national security, it was only an interrogation. But she had clearly seen those handcuffs. Her friends’ words did make the memory seem fuzzier, but then they concluded that if it had been determined during the interrogation that she had taken Lin Shen the money, then the handcuffs might well have been used on her.
Exactly what was printed on the paper, she couldn’t remember now, something to the effect that she promised not to disclose anything said within this room. They wanted her signature on it.
She smiled wryly to herself. So the rumours she’d heard were true.
She returned home, went to bed and lay motionless. She did not draw the curtains, and she could see snow falling like goose feathers outside the window. The ice made beautiful patterns on the windowpane, making her think of her childhood.
But her childhood was too far away now! She stared at the ceiling, dry-eyed. The tears would not come. Her blood pressure rose inexorably, right to the top of her head. She was overcome with terror. It was Hua Ze, the dissident exile, who had written: ‘Citizens have the right to live free from fear’. The words had a bad smell! She looked at herself in the mirror. A faint flush of colour was returning to her ashen lips. Her heart contracted, then began to pound wildly. She felt that only by biting her lips fiercely could she prevent it from leaping from her chest.
She had to leave this country, she had to! Leave this land! It was not that she was unfeeling, but this land was rotting and if she did not go, she would rot along with it.
When her hands had stopped trembling, she did something almost unthinkable – she saved the number from which they had called her into her Contacts, under ‘State Security.’
A year went by. One day when the weather was exceptionally clear and sunny, she opened her Weixin account and searched in the New Friends box for that phone number. It belonged, she discovered, to someone called Zhou Zhengquan. So that was his name, the tall one of her interrogators. Impelled by curiosity, she clicked on his profile picture, and all of a sudden she was into his account. She was astonished that he had set no privacy settings. Damn, damn! She pinched her arm, furious at her stupidity. Stupid woman! All she had wanted to do was spy on him, instead of which she had gone and revealed herself.
He immediately added her as a ‘good friend’. That gave him access to all her friends, no doubt so that he could gain further insights into the minds of the literati.
For a moment, she bitterly regretted it, until suddenly she had a brainwave. That word came to her again: ‘counterattack’. Why not indeed?
She blocked him on her friends list. That way, she could follow any of his posts but he couldn’t see her. Nowadays one could personalize these tools of modern technology, set in motion some small eavesdropping campaign, and monitor the monitors. It was an about-turn that took mere minutes.
She saw that his first-ever post was a sort of chicken soup for the soul, full of positive sentiment. There followed a few things she had read before, then there was one on the eve of the Spring Festival, then nothing for a few days in a row. Then, suddenly, nine pictures appeared, all of peonies, with a few lines: ‘Successful completion of operation 025, comrades have suffered. Bouquets.’
She was alarmed, recalling the terrible news that had come on 25th December last, ‘Someone has self-immolated in Tian’anmen Square’. That was their ‘operation 025’! And State Security and the police were hand-in-glove!
She was flabbergasted, yet also secretly delighted. She had turned the tables on them. Now it was her doing the surveillance. And the object of her surveillance was a junior officer in the weiwen, the state’s ‘stability maintenance’ operations.
The snow was falling heavily. She lay in bed looking at the beautiful frost flowers on the window. No more thoughts of her childhood. The childhood of humanity had been completely buried in a great snowstorm. She considered herself. In the past, she had always felt that this land engendered tragedy, but no longer. Instead, she felt that in this sacred land, tragedy only too easily turned into farce. Look at what she had just experienced, it was typical, blackly funny!
In the blink of an eye, one could find ones role switched, or status transformed. This was a land of sorcery, where you had to find the magic wand, armed with which one could make all the magic one wanted. She was no longer distressed. She would find that magic wand, would become a qualified sorcerer. Her lips twitched in a smile, then opened wider until she found herself laughing uncontrollably, a laugh as clamorous as the cry of a new-born infant.