The Heart, Too, Broken, by Li Xiuwen
Born in Hubei in 1975, Li Xiuwen has spent time living in Tokyo and his fiction is heavily influenced by modernist Japanese fiction. "The Heart, Too, Broken" is the title story of his debut collection.
This is a story born of “what ifs”: what if Hua Mulan, the legendary cross-dressing heroine immortalised in song, was not a dainty Disneyfied princess, but so morbidly obese that it seemed “the turbulent rivers of her innards had torn through the fat land and left a range of mountains constructed from settled cellulite”? And what if she was burning not with a desire to reveal her true identity to a studly captain, but with love for the most beautiful girl in the village? The premise is clearly intended to provoke, but “The Heart, Too, Broken” has more than enough going on under the surface to keep the reader engaged once the shock value has worn off.
This story was originally published in the autumn 2014 issue of Pathlight magazine.
Oh, can there be a dimming of lights? Can these sheets be just a little softer? Can the bacchanalia outside this house be quieted? It is already very late, but people are still clamoring for more pleasure beneath the torchlight of the threshing floor. They have even drunkenly moved the feasting tables and set them upon the fresh mounds of glistening grain. And in the midst of the revelry, some have already tipped their glasses, squandering the precious hundred-year-old vintage between the sheaves.
Lying in bed, this migraine threatens to crack my skull. Every last joint and bone in my body is submerged beneath this frigid tide. But I have borne it in silence all night. Who have I to blame for being a woman? An unwed woman at that. I know too well, that in this dynasty, there is no shortage of regulations concerning a woman’s permissible volume. Even her moaning and panting for her husband are subject to policing if her voice were to penetrate the neighbor’s wall. Though hundreds of years from now, women will contend with the agony of foot binding, our lives are not any easier.
After the crickets go silent, the lavish wedding finally grinds down to a halt, and through the window screen, I see the bride – my best friend, keeper of my childhood, Jian. She is already asleep in her seat. The wasted groom is presently standing upon a heap of wheat gleanings, hooting and hollering, unable to extract himself from the captive hold of glee. Just three days ago, our imperial army drove out the barbarians who had occupied us for three whole years. Our village was finally liberated from shame. For three years, our village stunk of death. Our women were forced to give birth to the enemy’s sons. For years now, when I walk through the patchwork of fields, I have been met with curly-haired children, each sporting prodigious noses. One look at them and I remember our soldiers splayed out on the battlefield, and our villagers who had been buried alive – those familiar faces rob me of my resolve to live on. Just as it is written in the poem “Yellow Bird” of the Book of Odes, “Heavens above, survey below, the death of the righteous, who can behold? / If there was one good man to be spared, pray tell, for hundreds will rise to replace him.” How were we supposed to survive that ordeal?
About our enemies – their foreign origin, their alien history – I know nothing. I only know that they are of a nomadic lineage, and that they are savage beyond compare. They have rituals that we cannot tolerate: they loath to bathe, they take wine and blood interchangeably. I have snuck into my father’s library countless times to dig through his historical annals, desperate to find how it was that these barbarians could devolve to such an inhuman state, but I must admit, due to the arrogance and ignorance of our own ancestors, I was shocked to find absolutely no description, no mention even, of these people. Oh, the sheer terror – to know nothing of the weaknesses of our enemies. How could we have expected to defeat them? Another point of admission (and I am not ashamed of it): for a long while now, watching our kingdom suffer such brokenness, my heart, too, was broken, incinerated to a heap of black powder, waiting to be licked up by any pedestrian wind (now I am embarrassed, for this sounds like what those poets would say – goodness, I’m really blushing now). What solution could I offer? Truthfully, to have escaped the physical humiliation of the enemies time and again is already a matter of miraculous fortune. And of course I have fantasized of slinging a three-inch blade and taking off, decapitating a dozen or two of those bastards. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a woman (can I even claim to be one?). My parents would never allow me to step over the threshold of our door without permission. Let’s not mention the other idiotic dreams I cannot afford to entertain. Later on, when I heard that our king had made off for the blossoming paradise of Jiangnan (south of the River), and that he had already reestablished a small royal court there, the flames of my wrath were enough to set this all of this kingdom’s fields ablaze.
This spring, in our enemy’s faraway homeland, there was an earthquake that killed most of the wives and children of the soldiers. And those who survived were decimated in the plague that soon followed. As such, they had to return to their country. Only a few small platoons chose to remain and keep vigil over us, and those of them that started their long journey home, whimpered and cried as they departed. The most amazing thing happened after the majority of the enemy troops left – our king, happening upon his luck, dispatched an army of five thousand to rush over to us through the thick covering of night. When the sound of their horse hooves and whinnies tore through the air of our northern homeland, the remnant enemy platoons were so mortified that they ran off without a fight. Thank God!
The wedding outside is nearing closure and the midnight stillness has come. I am lying here, rejected from the land of dream, and look out once more at the people sleeping soundly beneath the tables and atop the grain heaps. Jian (my heart is crushed when I mention this name) is now standing over her new husband, speaking gently, trying to rouse him. It isn’t just Jian who calls – that joyous, extravagant wedding chamber beckons too. But he simply turns over, muttering something indecipherable, and falls fast asleep again. Jian stands by him, brushing down her gown with her hands again and again. From a distance, I can tell that her wedding dress is covered with the chunks of vomit from drunkards all around. She is near tears, for no matter how she shakes out her dress, the puke sticks to the moonlit silk and refuses to fall to the ground. God, who did this to her? Poor Jian.
Last summer, Jian and I hid in the reed swamp for three days and three nights to escape the sex-starved enemies, but she did not sport a single trace of mud all the while. Every generation will spout out people who prize cleanliness, but I must say, I have yet to discover anyone who is as passionate about hygiene as Jian. Still, when the raid ended and the two of us climbed out of the reeds, hand in hand, her clothes were ruined suddenly, by a shit-spilling horse cart that blazed by. As soon as it happened, she retreated into the reeds, parting the tall grasses until she vanished into the lake. In the crystalline water, she washed her sparkling skin, while I watched, dazed, unsure if the girl before me was an enchanted faery – the way she lit the pool with her celestial presence. Her hardened nipples like two translucent grapes, and her abdomen leading to a grassland bathed in moonlight. What of myself? I looked down, surveyed my body, and I could only sigh. How could I be considered a woman – I was really just a tree stump, possessing a woman’s form, but have none of her contours or her lines. I had thick, rigid knuckles, and no elegance or length in my arms or legs. I seemed to have breasts, but they had long been eclipsed by the folds of lardy flesh that draped off of me. Yes, I am morbidly obese.
A few days ago, I joined a few girls on a spring outing. The old horse that I rode could not sustain my weight – it uttered the most horrific cry and collapsed beneath me. All right, all right, I won’t go further; if I disclose anymore, how would I have the face to see anyone ever again?
The lights have finally dimmed, and incredibly, the sheets on my body are comforting now, and weightless like fresh hay. But an argument has broken forth outside the house, somewhere beyond the fields. It is a drunken husband weeping at the feet of his wife. She is about to leave him for a young general, a foreign invader she fell in love and had two curly-haired, tall-nosed daughters with. She is even pregnant with their third child together. The young general has already escaped back to his own kingdom, and this wife has now resolved to travel to that distant land in search of her lover. One by one, the people who had fallen asleep are being woken up by the domestic dispute. They yawn and rise to admonish this unfaithful wife. The spit foam from their mouths fly out and bloom in the air, like dandelion seeds, drifting until they land on this adulteress’ body. Her pitiful husband stands there, uncertain where he had gone wrong. Later on, people will put this wife into a pig cage and elect to hurl her into a river thirty li away. Look at my countrymen – such a rare and hard-earned night of peace is spoiled completely. How many days of calm have we even had since the enemies left? I discover my decrepit father, a respected but near-blind elder, in the throng. He has worked up a storm of quotations from the Book of Odes to chastise the woman in the pig cage. As if to underscore his righteous indignation, he clutches at his heart with his right hand as he calls down his curses. Lying in the dark house, I feel the irritation and confusion rise in me, until suddenly, my nose begins to bleed. The air is permeated with the scent of blood and I, wracked with pain, roll off the bed and launch myself out of the house, where I find a corner and begin to vomit.
I don’t want to live – let the sky fall down now!
I see her again – my daughter Hua Mulan. She crawls out from the house, dragging her enormous body, and crouches down to vomit in a corner. But I don’t have time for her, because a borderless elation has seized my body and soul.
I am an old man with numbered days, more than aware that I may not live to see another celebration like this. For three years now, I have been tasked with feeding the enemy’s horses – I, a literary man, thrice the honoured national advisor who gazed upon the face of the crown prince. And though this night gives me great joy, I also feel waves of dizziness come upon me. My heart pains are back. But even if I were to die tonight, it would be worth it. A poet once said, no matter where you die, you die at night. I think this is a shrewd proverb. Let me die in the night. In the crescendo of voices, I walk forth, and use a passage from the Book of Odes to admonish that sobbing wife. She is clearly in dumbfounded shock as I continue my impassioned diatribe, the spittle from my mouth baptizing her. Some time later, I realize that in my passion, I have misquoted the Book of Odes. I should have used a verse from the “Book of Elegance”; that stanza would have served as a perfect teaching tool regarding her moral error. When I wanted to quote that passage, another verse from the poem “Execution of the Law” came out instead, and I said, “How to enforce the law? Without an axe, it is impossible. And how to take a wife? Without a matchmaker, dream on.” Yes, I am too excited. Fortunately, practically no one else around is literate, so no one discovered my glaring faux pas.
People put her in a pig cage, torches lit, and set out for the river thirty li from here. I join their ranks, rolling up my pants and taking a torch, exiting the village with my rowdy neighbours. The moment we leave the village, I notice that my daughter Hua Mulan has stopped vomiting and is now standing by the threshing floor, speaking with Jian. They appear to be arguing. Hua Mulan forcefully pulls at Jian’s sleeves, as Jian tries to push away her advances. Finally, Hua Mulan kneels before Jian and I won’t know what else happens between them, for I won’t go back and pull them apart. I won’t, because someone has an idea: the woman in the pig cage has been stripped naked, and now, my eyes can no longer depart from the pale body before me…
Jian! When I think of this name, an ache tears through my heart, just like it does for my daughter. Jian, the renowned beauty, is my only niece. Her hair, blacker than night, her eyes, deeper than the reservoir. Do the math – in our village alone, three young men have fought to death over her beauty. Then, don’t forget, there’s one who has stood by her side for so many years: my daughter, Hua Mulan.
Truth be told, I have known that terrible truth since they were fourteen. One day, I had just come home from visiting a friend’s when I happened upon the shocking scene: Jian, naked, crouching by the window, as my daughter Hua Mulan, naked also, hovered over her, brush in hand, painting a shoot of intricate ink bamboo on Jian’s body. Sunlight filtered through the diaphanous window screen, casting rectangular shadows all over Jian’s body – one square, two squares, three squares, ah, I must say, everything before me was too beautiful. I breathed in deeply and caught the strong aroma of sunshine in the air. The ink must have been icy cold, for I saw Jian tremor a little, causing a small drop of ink to roll down and land upon her waist. My daughter Hua Mulan hurriedly offered her tongue, and lapped the black juice into her own mouth. In the sunlight, Jian’s two small breasts looked as if they had been lathered with a layer of pine oil, and even from afar, I could smell the scent of it wafting towards me. Had I been ten years younger, I would not have been able to keep myself from dashing in and diving for Jian to take her myself. I saw Jian’s body tremble ever slightly once more, and automatically, Hua Mulan unfurled her tongue again. Because Hua Mulan was crouching on the floor, the exorbitant fat around her abdomen was scrunched up in a ridiculous pile of folds. It was almost as if the turbulent rivers of her innards had torn through the fat land and left a range of mountains constructed from settled cellulite. Upon first glance, I couldn’t find her breasts. Yes, she had too much meat dangling off her frame. I had to search and search and search, until, I found them – caught between the waves of fat rolls: they were so bland. Had I been a bit older and had worse eyesight, I would never have made this discovery. Later that day, when the sun was about to set, they finally stopped this game. Jian stood up, and I could not believe my eyes. How could it be? Hua Mulan has taken my recently completed painting “Jade Bamboo Bathed in Wind” and replicated it upon Jian’s body without the slightest mistake. The two naked girls embrace before parting. Then, they took turns dressing each other, garment by garment.
The same night, past midnight, I was woken by Hua Mulan’s crying. I threw a coat on my back and entered the bamboo garden in the yard. I saw my daughter hugging a thick bamboo shoot and sobbing. When she saw me, she manically ran towards me and wrapped herself around my neck, and said, dear father, my life – why is it full of suffering? And inexplicably, I broke down and cried with her. After the tears subsided, she wiped her eyes in one fierce motion and took to attacking the nearest bamboo plant with her bare fists. At this moment, I suddenly realized that even at this late hour, my daughter was still not donning any feminine attire. She was decked out in a black, practice uniform for martial artists. She did not look like a daughter from a prominent family. No, instead, she looked like a night-walking criminal. Her contorted body brought waves of unease within me, and I fell into deep thought, as scenes from times gone by flash into view one by one.
Scene One: That spring, I had just passed the advanced tests for the scholarly elite, and soon after, was appointed a low-class advisor to the dear King, but I wasn’t happy. I could not accept how I could have placed third out of so many and still been selected for such a low rank. And so I tried to procrastinate, refusing to report for duty at my new post for as long as I could. I stalled in the capitol city and perused the peonies at the annual festival. During those disillusioned days in the capitol, I fell into drink and wild women, living dazed and barely conscious for days through the many seductions of music and song. Just around then, news reached me from my village that my wife, who had been overdue, had gone into labour. I quickly crawled out of my wine bottle, climbed onto a fast horse and rode day and night until I reached my hometown. The moment I walked in the door, the sound of an infant’s first cry reached my ears. Ah, my daughter had come into the world! But my wife had died. They say the scare killed her – when she set eyes upon what she just gave birth to, she screamed and died of fright. I can’t blame her. We had a gargantuan baby. Anyone who gave birth to such gigantic offspring would wonder if he was some kind of monster himself. When I saw her for the first time, I watched my daughter open her crusted, dirty eyes in the crib. She then opened her mouth and smiled a terrifying smile at me – I hollered aloud and ran out of the house.
Scene Two: That summer, Hua Mulan had turned twelve. She was already aware of the many differences between the bodies of girls all around her and her own. Everyday, she would lock herself in her room to examine her body, carefully. She wanted to know where things went wrong. One day, around dusk, she was finally worn down by it all. She came to me and hugged my leg, then looked up and asked, father, why are my legs thicker than tea vessels? I look at her: standing here, she is taller than a calf, and the muscles across her body were like rippling tents. I could not answer her question, but to prove that I loved her, I called her Little Thing. Little Thing, I said, dear daughter, everything will be all right when you grow up. Please believe that someday, you will shed all this weight and become thin. After I said so, my tears splattered down, and I could not disguise the sadness I felt for her. I could only sigh and walk away, leaving her there, displaced and staring off into space. I knew she had one more question that she wanted to ask – why it was that she had never felt what her peers feel, the sensation of fresh blood gushing out of her body.
Rainy Day Epistles
Dearest Mulan, as I write to you, a thunderstorm has landed outside my window. I don’t know why, but this rain reminds me of that afternoon when we were fourteen. We took off our clothes in that cluttered library and you, you painted on me the “Jade Bamboo Bathed in Wind”. I still have no idea why you had to strip also when I was your only canvas. But we were only fourteen then. Soon after that, I understood the real reason. You thought of me as a woman, but you thought of yourself as a man. When you painted on me, it was as if an ant appeared in my bosom and began to crawl, slowly at first, but then, it began to scuttle and scurry faster, faster – until it knew all of me. I inhaled as slowly as possible, trying to stay motionless for you, but I trembled the whole time. A drop of ink fell and right on time, you stuck out your tongue. You licked across my body, and I felt so faint, as if I stepped into a mystical hallucination. It took everything in me not to moan aloud, as I kept a chokehold on the desire in me. Perhaps I imagined the silhouette of my fiancé Yusheng, and how he would stand beside me just as you did, and use that hot, moist tongue on me. It must have been more than three months since I last saw Yusheng and I was so thirsty for him. His name rolled out of my mouth again and again, I said, Yusheng, Yusheng, Yusheng… Suddenly, you rose up, frantically gripped my neck and said, say my name, come on, call for me. But I couldn’t help but summon Yusheng. I had only seen my fiancé three times, and yet, he had already captivated me.
The night before Yusheng joined the army, he snuck out from his village and met me, as promised, at the abandoned brick kiln. And that was the night Yusheng first opened his mouth for a woman. But my tongue was stretched longer, and I was hungrier. So how could I refrain from thinking of him, as you sank into a desperate lunacy, strangling me with more and more intensity, yelling, I am Yusheng, Jian, kiss me! That instant, I must have gone mad myself, for something possessed me and I fervently pressed my lips against yours. I heard a muffled groan in your throat. And just then, I saw your father. It was his grey head shifting behind the crevice of the old wooden door. He saw me, and looked absolutely lost. He shifted his feet as if to leave, but right before he did, he parted his lips and cracked a devious smile at me. This smile volleyed my soul straight out of my body…
I am a bride now, a bride who has said her vows and taken her bows. My husband Yusheng sleeps behind me on our bed. I sit in my wedding chamber, surveying my surroundings, from the exquisite red paper-cuttings of birds and beasts stuck to the rafters, to that slept-in smile on Yusheng’s face behind me. I feel, in this moment, that I am the most beautiful bride in the world. Even though we have not consummated (Yusheng has blacked out from all the drinking at the feast and not stirred since last night), but to think that we still have countless long nights ahead, what is a few more hours of waiting to me? Mulan, I wanted to tell you this – try and change, won’t you? Put on that gold-trimmed cloak and be a woman too. Find a husband, and have real sex. Actually, at the wedding ceremony last night, my eyes flew in the direction of your house too many times. I saw you through thick darkness, tossing and turning on your bed. Truthfully, this isn’t any easier on me.
Then, when I saw you puking outside your house, I wanted so much to lighten your suffering a little; I went up to pat your back as you retched, but I never foresaw what came next. You spun around and punched away my hand, then you yelled – Fuck you! Yes, I never thought that you would treat me this way. You terrified me. I turned to go, but you flew to me and captured me in your embrace, as tears and snot poured mingled down your face and you pleaded, howling – leave with me, let us elope. I was even more appalled, writhing in your grasp, I screamed for Yusheng, but he was unconscious from drink lying on a far off heap of grain. I had never felt so much terror as your complexion transformed into that of a devil’s right in front of my eyes, that all I could do was open my mouth and weep aloud. You let go and fell down to your knees in desperation – have you forgotten what we had in the past? Did that night never happen for you? And there it was, my greatest fear finally full-formed in your mouth. I retreated step by step, covering my ears with my palms, until finally, a shriek tore out of me and I fainted to the ground.
Yes, I have no further option now, no matter how unwillingly, I must bring myself to remember that night two years ago. Ever since, that night has become my greatest nightmare, and if I do not attempt to clarify everything by writing to you, then I believe the nightmare will remain my biggest nightmare for the rest of my life (why on earth would I write “nightmare” so many times? This must be evidence of the trauma I have sustained). Even if the winds of time can reduce a young woman’s face into a weathered, swollen pulp, that memory will always remain seared into the softest innards of my soul. It has its teeth in me like a poisonous viper. Yes, I can tolerate it no longer, I will wipe away my tears and look back with you together at what actually took place that night…
I remember that afternoon in October. You were in high spirits, headed to another village to attend an underground martial arts meet (what we call a Meeting of Heroes). Your most prominent qualification was that you had killed a ferocious tiger that summer. I still remember how the grateful tiger-plagued villagers prepared a carriage to bring you home with honour, but you weren’t happy. You told me, it would be a matter of pride for a man to slay a tiger, but I am a woman. Truly, without your reminder, I would have forgotten that you weren’t a man. (You know that Yusheng has been a part of the army for a long time now, and in my dreams and fantasies, I sometimes mistake you for him.) So you went, along with all those other heroes revered throughout the entire kingdom. In attendance were warriors with known records – one had beheaded thirty-eight enemies in two hours’ time, another was an assassin who had proven his marksmanship on the enemy king’s entourage. Nobody important would miss the occasion – not even the stealthy warrior who let himself into the enemy’s royal palace at night and shaved off the eyebrows of their queen. And the most immediate purpose of this conference was to establish an elite squad of fighters. You were the only woman warrior there. You stayed until sunset, after which you returned to our village, plopped down and emptied a huge clay jug of wine in one gulp. You told me it wasn’t enough, and some villagers went to the wine cellar to bring up three more jugs, filled to the brim. From dusk until past-midnight, you drank those jugs dry. In the middle of the night, a thunderstorm started, and the air chilled. I sat by the door shivering from the cold, but you didn’t seem to feel a thing. On the contrary, you took off your coat as you drank, and soy bean-sized beads of sweat disappeared as soon as they appeared on your skin. At the slightest movement, the chair beneath you would squeak horribly. A creaking sound accompanied all this, as the joints clicked in your limbs. A bracing wind blew over; then there was lightening and thunder. As if at the climax of a performance, you suddenly faced the belligerent wind and lightning and began to shout at it, the same words, repeatedly – God above, kill me! I cannot live anymore! You were not finished speaking before you ripped off all of your clothes and broke down that shaky window, leaving a cavity in the wall. You were like the most agile of apes, completely unbothered by your two-hundred-and-fifty-pound mass: you dashed through that hole and instantly landed on your feet on the grass outside your house. You decided you might as well just lie down in the mud and face up, open your mouth to the rain from on high and drink the rain in great gulps, screaming between swallows with ever increasing shrillness – God above, kill me now! Just this phrase over and again, until it became wholly lupine, a wolfish jumble that was so intolerably wretched that the village folks all hastily snuffed out their lights and pretended to be asleep. Some thought that a wolf had really come to their door. At that moment, a serpentine lick of lightening coiled down from the sky and attempted to slap your body with its tail, but you were swifter and you were more noxious – the lightening looked wounded from touching you and quickly retreated back into the sky. You twisted and turned your torso in the sludge and grass, your entire body coated with muck and mire. I could bear it no more. I came out outside, walked toward you and said – please, don’t do this anymore, I promise you, whatever you want me to do, I will do for you. Immediately, like a trout reeled up by a hook, you were on your feet and your arms were locked around me. Your hot, damp lips abruptly became a wanderer that did not know tiredness, traversing across my face. And finally, your persistence won you the greatest mistake of my life – I parted my lips and extended myself to you, gingerly sliding my tongue across your cheeks, even though rock-hard pimples pricked me, I did not pull away: my lips met yours and our tongues became tangled, inseparable. You reached out and tore off my clothes, throwing me to the ground. Then, you lowered and pressed your full weight upon me. I heard my own voice, hoarse and stifled, saying to you – come, come ruin me. After you heard these words, your fingers flew to my breast and clamped it down…
Dearest Mulan, you see, even at this final pinnacle, I cannot completely narrate what happened next. Who can I blame for being born weak of courage? After you read this letter, of course you will laugh your low, sarcastic laugh; you may even mock me for writing this superfluous thing. After all this, what have I really said? Who cares. I don’t. I am already prepared for your mockery. I am the most beautiful bride in the world.
I guess what I want to say is one thing – reform yourself. Put on that gold-trimmed, embroidered wedding gown and be a woman again. Find a husband, and have a sex life. Just as I have done.
Delirium, An Overture
The summer of 1990, in No. 1 Secondary School of Jimen, Hubei Province, there was a tenth-grade student named Li Xiuwen, who had developed a sudden keen interest in a mysterious dynasty that sprung up two thousand years ago in China. The history of this dynasty, as far as he knew, was only about a few decades long, but even in this short timeframe, people suffered enough of serial plagues and wars. Walking through our country then, despair soaked the land, and bodies were piled like hills around every corner. Even two thousand years later, we cannot but sigh and pity their hopeless state. Just like every other short-lived dynasty, this kingdom was digging its own grave on all fronts. Not the least of their problems were the dominating strength of their foreign enemy states, the backbreaking burdens of taxation, the oft-ill monarch, the signs of astrological misfortune in the night sky, too-frequent natural disasters, and the hordes of ruthless concubines in the palatial harem who nursed their dreams of becoming queen. All of this quickened the demise of this state. But even so, Li Xiuwen was infatuated with it beyond reason. This mysterious dynasty did not leave many surviving relics—so much so, he never heard about any excavations that yielded relevant artifacts. Yet, he searched in every history book possible, looking for what traces remained. He was convinced, that if even the ill-fated South Tang dynasty could leave behind the immortal verses of Li Houzhu, and Greece’s most turbulent times yielded Plato, then this kingdom, too, must have left the world some exquisite art and literature just lurking in one ancient scroll or another, waiting for discovery.
Yes, Li Xiuwen pored through historical documents, until finally, after careful inspection and research, he discovered that what he had studied in class, the poem “Ballad of Mulan”, was actually the only prominent text left behind from that very dynasty. Even though he was disappointed so little was left behind, he threw himself ardently into the study and examination of this text. This high school student had become increasingly radical towards his dream of becoming a writer. He has even lost his appetite for food and sleep. But we must also see that aside from his love for this eccentric history, Li Xiuwen was also a determined reader of Western literature. When his fellow students were holed up with the same Old Chinese classics, he was shamelessly entertaining Allen Poe, Kafka and other western writers (ah, what a fearsome high school student). These authors were ruthless towards him; their writing were world-altering clubs that beat his mind purple and blue. It only got worse when he found postmodern American writers like Hawkes, Culver, and Davenport. His voracious reading mixed with his adolescent sexual frustrations and Li’s Mulan slowly became a cross-dressing transsexual who had an alternate interpretation of her own gender. Would you believe it – his first sexual urge was not inspired by pornographic videos or erotic literature, it was reading the following from “Ballad of Mulan”: “sitting by the window, she combed her dark raincloud of hair/ facing the mirror, she dusted her cheeks with yellow flower powder”. As you can guess, this boy would eventually end Hua Mulan (and in fact, her end has already come). All right, let us study his interpretation of the ballad.
Creak creak, then creak creak,
Mulan weaving before the door.
Can’t hear the shuttle pausing;
Heard only is the daughter’s sighing.
First of all, I must point out how “Creak creak, then creak creak, Mulan weaving before the door” is a gigantic lie. When has she ever woven a single fabric? Furthermore, from a humanitarian standpoint, we would not ask a three-hundred pound woman to squeeze her way into a narrow loom. Even in our modern times, if we see the obese, see how they’re out of breath, we would sympathetically worry for them – worry about their hearts giving out, worry about their volatile blood pressure. When they can no longer make it up the final flight of stairs, which one of us wouldn’t reach out and lend them a hand? Or if a gargantuan body is caught by the elevator doors? Of course we would block the door to either pull them in or shove them out. Mulan, though she lived two thousand years ago, should not be exempt from this kind of compassion. Back then, people had yet to travel abroad, mess with stocks, or futures trading and other such competitive games; people had to be kinder than we are now, right? And when we praise the sociological glories of those bygone years, we often use adages like “Doors need not be locked at night and lost things are untouched on the road”. Not to mention, she was born entitled to thousands of acres, daughter of landowning gentry! Shall we continue down – “Can’t hear the shuttle pausing; heard only is the daughter’s sighing.” This is a little more plausible. As a woman, never weaving a day in her life is a little inexcusable. If the word spread about such lack of industriousness, it would prove a family unsophisticated and the child ill bred: Hua Mulan’s father had no choice but to force her into the tiny loom, but only when there were houseguests. So for a long while, Hua Mulan’s father reserved the special spectacle for visitors, and gradually, visitors to the House of Hua dwindled, since honestly, the guests just couldn’t stand watching poor Hua Mulan balled up and humiliated in the loom anymore.
A fast horse from the East Market,
A saddle from the West Market,
Buy a hatchet from the South Market,
And from the North, a long whip.
Typical! From the age of three, Hua Mulan has hated all things that little girls liked, from rouge for cheeks, to handkerchiefs and flowery clothes. The year she was five, a small mystery presented itself at the Hua residence – the under garments of the servant girls began to disappear. At first, everyone suspected the unmarried men as the guilty ones, and the head servant spent well over half a year before he finally discovered the truth. No surprise to us, Hua Mulan was the thief in question. As soon as she stole the underwear and negligees, she would throw these intimates into the river, and watch them float away on the currents. Yes, she didn’t like these little playthings. On the contrary, she fancied nunchuks, the javelin, and other such weapons. The scent that circulates through her room is also drastically different from any girl’s bedroom. Other young women could always provide a gentle hint of loveliness in the air, and when necessary, they would even light a stick of incense at the head of their beds to entice their visitors to sit a little longer. But Hua Mulan? Sitting in her room, you would only be encircled by a hideously pungent body odour. Okay, so say a fragrant room is too high of a standard; let us hold our breaths and just take a seat for a minute. Not so fast. When you do settle in your seat, you will naturally ascertain more absurdities: standing atop the dresser, is an unnamed idol with an emerald-tinted face and canine incisors. Leaning against the wall are two massive circular blades, each a person tall. That mess fanned out over the bed? Why, those are smaller weapons for secret contraptions aimed at intruders, and all of them have been dipped in poison. Is there anyone out there who can sit still in this kind of room? People no longer compared her to young ladies elsewhere, and in successive years, they learned to cheer and applaud her for flipping and pinning man after man to the ground at the wrestling match on the threshing floor. The only wish left for most of these people is that she would spare them from her victory song after each fight, for her voice is truly agonizingly unbearable. Every time she clears her throat and opens her mouth, children of the village would begin running in all directions for their parents like terrified ducklings. Every parent who looks at her macho figure thinks one thing and one thing only: Buy your horse, buy your saddle, get your hatchet and your long whip – do anything you want, so long as you stop terrorizing my children.
Sitting by the window, she combed her dark raincloud of hair
Facing the mirror, she dusted her cheeks with yellow flower powder
Enough bullshit, as if this ever happened!
The he-hare’s feet leap to and fro,
The she-hare’s eyes are overcast and slow,
Two hares sprint o’er the land in speed,
Who can tell my she from he?
It’s a long story, isn’t it. Yes, for quite some time, people could not tell whether Hua Mulan was a man or a woman, but when has she ever exhibited the tell-tale traits that might prove either? Even though her bravado has been praised for centuries now, and though she did slay her thousands and was received by kings, returning to her village as conquerer, her neighbours still could not quite place her gender. Most of those people do remember the day she returned to the village. The weather was agreeable, and she came into view, conversing and laughing with heavily armed captains and generals in uniform. At that moment, Jian was just on her way to sweep the tomb and make sacrifices at the grave plot, child in tow. Her late husband had fallen in one battle or another. It was inevitable, how they met again. Mulan did not say much to Jian – the warrior had become even more of a man now. She crouched down and handed a small dagger to Jian’s child as a toy. Seeing this, Jian’s tears immediately threatened to fall. Hua Mulan also reached into her chest pocket, took out a few taels of broken silver and threw it into the bamboo basket on Jian’s arm, where it landed on a stack of sacrificial paper money, the currency of the underworld. Then Mulan turned and left, while her fellow military companions craned their necks to look back at Jian, swallowed their drool lustily. An infuriated Hua Mulan scowled at those young commanders: what are you looking at, you motherfuckers? Get your asses moving. Her filthy mouth definitely made it difficult to place her gender, but sooner or later, her body would expose her for who she was. When she needed to urinate, she ordered her subordinates to turn around, then quickly ran for a patch of grass to crouch over. And though the men under her were not the most willing, they had no choice really – she was the boss. Heavens, how did she even make it, living in the army after all these years? And who among them even knew how she answered nature’s many calls.
My predictions were right, of course, the enemies were coming again. Those last couple of days, our village took on the airs of an old, fading man, and our fields became his colossal deathbed. All was quiet. In this formidable silence, everyone planned for their own end, for no one knew just how much time was left. People resigned all thoughts of escape, and waited for the spirit of death to rap on their door. Just a few days ago, word came: after a short period of recuperation, our enemies and their massive armies were going to press towards our border yet again. But unlike the last invasion, they would be unrelenting this time, having stocked up more soldiers and supplies than ever. Apart from their children and elderly who would stay in their nests, they had commissioned all their able-bodied men to fight, and the king himself would be heading the charge. This time, they proclaimed as they advanced, they were here to stay. They planned to first occupy this beautiful kingdom, and then move their children and elderly here, so that they would live and rule our lands forever. In their own lands, earthquakes are common and table salt is rare. These are the stated incentives for staking claim in greener pastures. Their king, threatened by their limited natural resources, had deemed this colonization campaign imperative. Meaning, their domestic problems could no longer be resolved unless he got on his horse and invested himself in this war.
When the village heard this news, all kinds of reactions surfaced – some resolved to break the bank, gathering all their friends to drink and make merry unto the impending doom; others beat their chests and stomped their feet in mourning, going about their days dressed in tears. Still others were more extreme: take for example, an aged father who finally decided to act upon some longstanding wishes and took his scrumptious daughter-in-law for his own consumption. Our kingdom was in utter chaos. And our ever-reliable king took his entourage and escaped his palace in utmost haste, making south to the Jiangnan again. I burned with fury, sharpening and sharpening my blades against the stone each day, waiting for when the royal train would pass our village, so I could assassinate this impotent tyrant at a moment’s notice. This was the plan until I drank too much one night and drunkenly blurted out my secret mission in my father’s audience. He swiftly knelt down and tearfully begged me not to act upon this daydream. Father is the only reason I never did it. How do I even begin to convey this angst in my gut, deeper than the ocean? Perhaps, the moment of decision has truly arrived…
One afternoon, the recruiters came to our village, and while they said that this is an enlistment opportunity, everyone knew it was a forcible draft. Knowing the extent of brutality practiced by our foes, the air over the village grew thick with the whimpers and cries of the men, each one exhibiting his own form of rodent cowardice. Unlike most of these weaklings, Jian’s husband Yusheng reenlisted and stepped into his new squadron without hesitation. I must confess, Jian found herself an honourable man. Maybe, when God orchestrated my creation, I was originally intended to be a man much like Yusheng. After some painful equivocation in the solace of my room, I finally decided it was time I made way towards that dream I had harboured for so long. When the thought crash-landed and my mind was set, I felt a strange release, which caused me to glance at the mirror. And oddly enough, my face suddenly resembled that of any other woman’s – my cheeks betrayed a shallow tint of pink. This had never happened before.
I would be lying if I told you I did not consider the consequences of this choice. For days afterwards, I contemplated it each night, unable to fall asleep even past the second watch. I knew full well the ramifications of putting on that military uniform, and that I would face a kind of testing I have never experienced before. My life would forever be conducted in the shadow of this decision.
But, wasn’t this the ideal life I so craved? For so long, hadn’t I wished to taste the simple freedoms men around me enjoy – urinating upright, burping aloud after each meal? Why shouldn’t I just shed my old self now that the opportunity is before me? Was I really going to let go of this precious shot at blessed fortune? No. Absolutely not. Years ago, when I first lost the ability to look at my body, I tried to run away from home. For three days and nights, I hid in a mountain cave fifty miles from where we lived. There, I had hoped to end my life. I finally couldn’t withstand the hunger and ran back home, yet now that I think back, wasn’t my innermost desire to exchange my old world for a new one of anonymity and new beginnings? If not, then couldn’t I have just died anywhere? Why did I bother going to that forsaken cave? I know that I must leave no matter what this time. I wanted to live a life in the open, in the explainable, knee-deep in the blood marshes of battle. A scorching wave of heat rose from the core of my body, and my entire frame shook passionately with it. I eventually calmed myself, and retrieved a long stretch of cloth. I wrapped my breasts tightly with it, so I could look more like a man (though really, did I even need to?). And when all the preparations had been made, I walked out the family door, looking straight ahead (how many people were gossiping and pointing then, God knows). I stood before the recruiters. A newfound relief tided over me, a relief I had never known.
That night, after the recruiters sent me an ill-fitting uniform (primarily because it was too small), I went to Jian’s house to say goodbye for the last time. The night was clear, the air was cool and the crickets hopped about in the grass, intoxicated. As I walked, my gut felt aflame, and the wildfire spread over my skin. Needless to say, Jian is the one on my mind, unsettling my nerves again. I began reciting under my breath, lines from an old verse:
The reeds are full and fecund, the crystalline dewdrops hang down.
The one I desire, resides by the distant riverbank.
Hiking upstream to seek her, I brave the currents.
Turn at each river bend, the torrents are deadly and the journey long.
Go downstream to seek her, I am borne by the currents.
But she is before me, ever out-of-reach, standing upon the waters.
The truth is, I already saw Jian earlier that day. She was there with her husband Yusheng at the new recruits’ orientation tent. When she saw me, she hurried to Yusheng and hid behind him. I had no choice but to pretend I didn’t see her. Yusheng pressed his handprint on a sheet of white paper and received a weapon from a superior. Maybe Jian couldn’t fully accept the approaching separation, or perhaps she was deeply concerned about her prospects without him. She suddenly burst into tears in the heart of that crowd, and stood there crying aloud, supported only by Yusheng’s shoulder. She was stroking her belly. It was only then that I noticed that gently swelling molehill of her abdomen. I felt a strong pang of heartache. I just couldn’t bear to see her perfect, pear blossom of a face to be ruined by that hot volcano of tears. I didn’t think that he would, but just as she composed herself, Yusheng violently wrapped his arms around her and began sobbing as well. He had nothing to be ashamed of. Those tears befit the departure of a warrior; he looked more like a hero in his candor.
I do not want to believe the following stereotype of the eve of a warrior’s departure: the tables are set with the wine mixed with rooster blood; a whole cooked lamb lies glazed and waiting; those who have come dance in synchrony; a soldier’s mother takes the hand of her son and vehemently says, son, you must kill as many enemies as you possibly can. And then, in the ambiance of joy and determination, echoes of perfectly timed calls are heard from the soldiers. Words like “Please rest assured, dear countrymen!” or “I’ll be back with honour and honour alone!” Experience tells us that this kind of portrayal is entirely untrustworthy – instead, we are far more inclined to believe in a farewell like the one between Jian and Yusheng. Experience also dictates that for a soldier who has a defined target to protect, generals can rest assured that he will fight to the death without wavering. Yusheng was one such soldier; he had to protect his wife and his unborn child, and they alone motivated him to sharpen his blade to an absolute crisp and impale the enemy with unrivaled abandon.
Finally, I reached Jian’s door. The lights were still on in the house, but no sound could be heard. I approached the window and suddenly, I heard an almost imperceptible wisp of a sigh and at once, I understood what was taking place inside. Blood rushed to my face and ears, and I turned to leave, but my body filled with lead, and I could not move an inch. Dizzily, I stuck out my tongue and licked at the paper in the window screen. It softened and ripped. Two nude bodies basked in dim lights entered into my vision – because Jian was pregnant, they chose a rather elaborate and exotic position (I must admit now that I used to study the many illustrations of potential lovemaking positions in my father’s study, and hence, was not too taken aback by such a physical arrangement). A spiraling vertigo hit me, as I stood there, transfixed by the wall. I had to wipe away the sweat dripping from my brow every other second. What struck me wasn’t even Jian. It was Yusheng. It was his body thrusting with all of his might. If anyone were still awake in the village at that point, I would invite him to come quickly, to come and behold Yusheng’s body. Those long limbs, the sturdy, flat stomach, and those bricklike muscles. Even though his face was already contorted from his imminent climax, I still must say that this was the most beautiful man on earth. Nobody would imagine that this beautiful man would die in another six months while he was on a covert mission. Eighteen stabs from a single knife. In that moment, they were making love for the final time. The next morning, Yusheng and I left the village to reach that distant, perennially smoky battlefield.
I can picture them even now as they were in that room. Yusheng is about to summit his final peak. This reserved man, in his parting performance, is beginning to yell aloud recklessly. Oh… Oh… I don’t think I can continue with this. I am about to moan aloud with them…
Come morning, I will leave the village and head for the battlefront, and though those glorious things spoken of me are yet to be accomplished, I no longer give a damn. Outside this house, under a blanket of tranquility, riding on the crescendo of cries on the other side of this wall, I viciously take my fingertips into my mouth, and use the wetness to touch my body, shutting my eyes tight and saying to myself over and over –
God, I do not want to live, just let the sky come crashing down!